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The bullet you never saw coming

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She fucks him up.

 

This isn't news. She always has. And no, it's not those tight skirts and high heels. Not those pretty blue eyes he can't help staring at, nor that long, blonde hair he's already decided he prefers loose and messy. It's her. It's the way she is with him, fearless in the face of his violence, honest to a fault. It's the way one sharp look can make him feel two feet tall and when she's disappointed in him it hits him right in the gut. Hard. Hard as a goddamn bullet. And he would know. Jesus fucking Christ he would know.

 

She fucks him up. Makes him stupid. Distracts him.

 

She has no right to do any of this. He never said it was okay. But she does it anyway. Like she can. Like it's her place. Like, once upon a time, when God or the universe or whatever the fuck higher power it is that controls these things decided it needed a Punisher, it put Karen Page in as a failsafe. An anchor in case he's ever in danger of losing himself. A kill switch for when he spins out of control.

 

It's stupid to think this way. He knows it is. But he can't help it.

 

She fucks him up.

 

She's doing it now. Sitting next to him on his couch like she has a claim on it, a right to be there. Sitting there with that pretty hair long and loose, mascara running down her cheeks and her shoulders shaking.

 

It's snowing outside, but it's warm in here, in his shitty little apartment on the wrong side of the wrong side of town. A place where you don't need ID or social security for a lease, where you pay your rent on time and you're left alone and you don't and you get your kneecaps broken.

 

Still, she's trembling and he has no idea what to do about it.

 

She hasn't said much. Spent the last twenty minutes sobbing like the world was ending. He's not sure why. Something about Murdock. Something about lies. Something about something. He doesn't much care about the reason except that it's left her like this.

 

She brought an opened bottle of Jack with her. Somehow he finds that both disconcerting and amusing. It's on the floor now and every time she moves he thinks she's going to kick it over and then he’ll have a wet floor and an apartment that smells like Josie’s Bar.

 

(There’s a part of him that thinks that could only be an improvement considering the general state of disrepair of the block.)

 

He's not sure though how much she's actually been drinking. Some at least. Maybe not a lot, but then again she's a light weight. Probably doesn't take much to get her lit.

 

But still she's sobbing and he hasn't got a clue what the fuck to do. Situations like this have been few and far between in his life for the last little while, what with him doing most of the crying he needed to worry about. And also, in general, just because there's pretty much no one in the world who considers him first port of call in situations such as these. Except apparently there is. And she’s here sobbing all over his couch and her clothes and he gets the distinct feeling he should rise to the occasion.

 

So he reaches out, hand lingering millimetres from her back.

 

Somewhere in his head, in that scrambled mush that occasionally moonlights as his brain, there’s a little voice - a wise one, no doubt - telling him not to do this. That it can only screw things up more. That sure, he gives a damn and sure, he’s not that much of an asshole that he can’t comfort her. That yes, it's terrible that she's upset like this and he'd like to smash some faces because of it, even if, as he suspects, all those faces belong to Murdock, but that touching her, actually physically laying his hands on her body isn’t a good idea. It’s not good at all.

 

Because it isn't. Because he should at least be making some attempt to extricate himself from this situation.

 

Fuck it.

 

He puts a hand between her shoulder blades, presses down gently and makes a vague rubbing motion up towards her neck and down again.

 

She freezes and he's about ready to pull his hand away, put it back in his fucking lap where he should have left it in the first place before he decided it would be a good idea to get all touchy, but then she turns her head to look at him and he doesn't. He can’t.

 

Her face is blotchy and her eyes bloodshot and glassy, tears running down her cheeks in watery black rivers and dripping off her chin. And she's drawing in loud hiccupping breaths that drown out pretty much every other sound. Not that there’s anything else worth listening to on this side of town. People screaming in the streets, sirens, babies crying. No, he’d choose to listen to Karen Page cry any damn day of the week over anything he could hear in this neck of the woods.

 

Except he wouldn’t. Because it really fucking breaks his heart to see her like this. And that’s really not fucking fair.

 

He strokes her back again, slower this time. Tells himself he can’t feel the knobs of her spine, the smooth muscles under her burgundy cardigan, the softness of her skin as his fingertips venture to the nape of her neck. Can’t feel it at all and it’s not like he’s paying attention.

 

She sniffs, blinks hard and looks away; glances around the room as if she’s only just realising where she is and maybe it comes as a shock to her that even the big bad Punisher has things like lights and furniture and a place to keep all his shit.

 

She doesn’t look for long though. Apparently his cheap ass Ikea rubbish isn’t enough to keep her mind away from her troubles and she gulps hard, closes her eyes and presses her thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose, lock of hair tumbling into her face.

 

She's beautiful. It hits him like a punch in the nuts that he's now seeing this as some kind of subjective truth rather than a mild acknowledgement of something he knows to be fact just by virtue of having two working eyes. But she is. She's so beautiful. She’s the prettiest girl in the whole world and he knows that’s ridiculous but it’s true.

 

She's also exhausted. She’s completely and utterly exhausted and he wonders how long she spent crying and making friends with Mr Daniels before she hauled ass over to his place and banged on his door like she had a right to, invited herself inside like she could.

 

Because she did. Because she didn’t even wait for him to put his gun down when he undid the latch. (Yeah he's a paranoid motherfucker and he doesn't get a lot of visitors.)

 

She didn’t say much either, other than “shoulda taken the shot Frank” and he’s not sure whether that was just her own little brand of morbid humour coming out to play or if there was something else he should worry about.

 

He runs his palm along her shoulder blade, harder this time and she lifts a hand to wipe her face and only succeeds in smudging her mascara even worse than before. It doesn't change anything though. She’s still beautiful.

 

This is bad. This is so very, very bad.

 

“Missed a spot,” he says and because he’s a fucking idiot with shit for brains he reaches out and wipes her cheek with his thumb. It comes away wet and warm, and he has to remind himself not to lick it off. That he doesn’t get to do that.

 

Somehow she seems to find the energy to smile wanly at him, before lowering her head back into her hands and continuing her sobbing. And he can’t anymore. Can’t sit around like some unfeeling douchebag and pretend he doesn’t know what’s going on or what he can do to make it better. So he runs his hand over her back again to her shoulder and tugs her gently towards him, slides his arm around her and lets her lets her cry into his chest. And he doesn’t think about how he can smell her perfume and her shampoo, how warm and soft she feels under his hands and how he doesn’t even care that she's wiping mascara all over his shirt.

 

And she burrows into him, hands coming up to grip his arm, head resting in the curve of his neck like it was made to be there, like someone carved him out to fit with her.

 

Yeah, she fucks him up .

 

He doesn't say anything though. Sometimes words don't help and you just have to let things like this run their course.

 

He glances out of the window. It’s getting dark and the snow is still coming down but he’s got nowhere he needs to be and even if he did his plans have now changed, so it doesn’t matter anyway. Crime lords and mobsters get a reprieve tonight. They’ll still be there tomorrow. They’ll die just as good as they would have today. They sure as shit aren't as important as her. Or this. Or whatever has turned her into this blubbering mess in his arms.

 

Eventually, and he's not sure how long it truly is because time always seems extremely nebulous when she's around, her crying tapers off. For good this time. She's still trembling and her breathing is shallow but he thinks she's cried out all the tears she has. That there's probably not anything left. For now at least. For now.

 

He shifts, loosens his grip on her ever so slightly but she doesn't move. If anything she huddles closer to him, one hand slipping down from his arm to his waist, fingers bunching into the fabric there.

 

She buries her face in his neck and he doesn't think about the press of her lips against his skin or how he can see the lace edging of her bra when he looks down.

 

He doesn't .

 

She fucks him up.

 

He doesn't ask but she tells him anyway, her breath tickling against the skin of his throat.

 

Matt’s been lying to her. Lying since the first day they met, since he walked into that interrogation room and told the cops that picked her up to uncuff her. He's the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil . Always has been. That's why he missed so much of the trial, why no one could ever find him. Because he was out running the streets, throwing himself off buildings and taking down ninjas. Because apparently he's a blind version of Chuck Norris or something.

 

And the worst part is everyone knew except her. Foggy. Claire. They all knew. And no one told her because they all wanted to protect her. Because they all think she's so goddamn fragile she couldn't take it.

 

He doesn't state the obvious. It would be too cruel and he gets the distinct impression that something else is going on here too. Something more than “Matt’s a liar” which, if he wants to be harsh, she fucking knew anyway.

 

It's then that something suddenly seems to click into place and she lifts her head to look at him.

 

Again he's struck by how beautiful she is. How her hair is a mess and her skin is stained. How he can't look away from her eyes because it doesn't feel like he's allowed to. Like it's against the rules or something, part and parcel of that fucking failsafe design.

 

He knows what she's going to ask before she does.

 

“Did you know?”

 

He doesn't lie to her. He won't.

 

She sees it before he answers and it's like her last lifeline just snapped in front of her eyes. That look that can make him feel two fucking feet tall, that disappointment that smacks through him like a gunshot.

 

That. Yeah. That .

 

She jerks away but he doesn't let go, fingers digging into the flesh of her arm and keeping her close.

 

“I saw him the night he lost Elektra on the roof,” he says. “I thought you knew.”

 

“How the fuck would I have known?” Her voice is hard but she's not pulling away and her hand is back on his waist, flat and warm and not bunching fabric anymore.

 

He shrugs. Maybe it was a stupid thing to think but he doesn't make a habit of trying to figure out Red’s dating predispositions.

 

Fact is, he tries not to think about Red all too much as a rule. The righteousness is tiring. That and the inability to see that all he's doing is poking a nest of pit vipers and not much else.

 

And the sermons. Oh fucking holy god in heaven, the sermons.

 

“What the hell is it with you fucking vigilantes?” she says. “What the fuck is wrong with you all?”

 

He has nothing to say to that. He doesn’t think there’s a right answer anyway.

 

“Everyone wants to keep me safe but no one really cares about what I want,” her voice is hard, angry even with a hint of resigned disappointment lingering just under the surface. He wonders if he’s not the only one who she makes feel two feet tall, if in this Wild West world of vigilantes and undead mobsters, that’s her superpower.

 

“Maybe Murdock did,” he doesn't know why he's saying it, why he's bothering to defend it. “Maybe that's why he told you.”

 

She looks away like she doesn’t want to hear him and it's stupid but he reaches up to tuck that strand of hair behind her ear, lingers a second too long when his fingers brush her skin. He’s touched her hair before, plunged his hands into it as he was covering her head and saving her from bullets. But this is different. Intimate. It’s soft and silky and it falls through his fingers in a slow wave.

 

She notices. Of course she notices. She might miss the big things, she might have not known about Red but she's always been able to read him like a book. Always been able to tell when he's going off the edge, when to pull him back, when to kick him out.

 

She's his failsafe and the thought is scarier than it should be.

 

Although not nearly as scary as what happens next.

 

He's not sure of the exact moment when he realises what she's about to do. Maybe it's when she lifts her head to look at him and he decides to keep his fingers in her hair. Maybe it's when he feels her hand slip under his shirt and rest against his hip. Or maybe it’s when she says his name, voice thick and low and cracked. He’s not sure about any of it. What he is sure about is that there are at least a couple of seconds between that moment and the one when she launches herself at him. At least a few. More than enough time to do something about it. To stop her, to move, to say something. He's fucking dodged bullets before, but apparently Karen Page’s mouth heading towards his own renders him mute and immobile.

 

She makes him stupid. She makes him so, so stupid.

 

Because then her lips are on his and her tongue is sliding over his skin and he's opening up to her, licking into her mouth, tasting her sugar sweet cherry lipgloss, the salt of her tears and that smokey hint of whiskey. And god, oh god , she feels so good. She feels so fucking good, better than he could have ever imagined. Not that he's actually been imagining. Because he hasn't. Because sometimes, more often than not really, it feels like his brain has been shutting out all that kind of shit, keeping this and any of the associated feelings as far the fuck away from him as it can.

 

Until now. Until Karen Page decided she wanted his tongue down her throat.

 

And he could stop. He should stop. This is nothing but a terrible idea, one that'll just fuck both of them up more than they already are. One that'll complicate things in ways he has no idea how to deal with.

 

He's not stopping. He's not even slowing down.

 

He's kissing her like she's the only damn thing left to kiss in the whole damn world. Like he's burning and drowning all at the same time and she's the only one with the power to fix either of these things.

 

And that wise little voice is not so little anymore and practically bellowing in his head that this is a disaster that he's never going to recover from. That he needs to take whatever dignity he has left and get her off his couch and out of his apartment. Out of his life if he can. But he's ignoring it.

 

Instead he's clumsily helping her into his lap, pushing that tight skirt up her thighs so she can straddle him, press her knees into his hips and move hard and deliberate against him.

 

He's vaguely aware that she's pulled herself free of her cardigan and all she has underneath is a thin black strappy singlet that's mostly already falling off her shoulders. He pays it little heed, doesn't think he could cope with more of this same sensory overload and keep that often tenuous grip on his sanity. There's too much already: his hands on her thighs; the rough fabric of her tights under his palms; the way she's climbed inside him and orchestrated it so he's arching up against her and matching that rhythm her body has created for them.

 

And her mouth. Oh god that pretty mouth. Hot and sweet, her tongue moving roughly against his, teeth knocking together.

 

It's okay, he tells himself. It'll be okay. They’ll stop. He’ll stop. Soon.

 

Soon .

 

But her hands are in his hair, framing his face, holding him close like she’s worried that if she lets him go he’ll disappear and leave her alone. And he gets it. He does. Alone is the last thing either of them need right now. Maybe even less than they need to be doing this.

 

She's shaking again but it has nothing to do with tears and somehow he finds his hands rising from her thighs, one to the zip on the side of her skirt, the other sliding underneath her top, over the smooth skin of her belly, her ribs, thumb brushing the underside of her breast. And there’s a part of him that’s really hoping she’ll stop him. That she’ll come to her senses and put an end to this because even though he’s ignoring the voice in his head, he still knows this is a mess. That this can’t work. That he could fuck her tonight with all the love and care in the world, leave her boneless and whimpering if he can find the skill within himself to do so and tomorrow it’ll just be a bigger disaster than today. No matter what he makes of this, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how much she wants it, it’ll always end the same way.

 

He's not stopping. Oh god, he's not stopping and neither is she.

 

He realises he’s whispering into her mouth, he’s not really sure what. Her name maybe, that he wants her, that she’s beautiful. And her skin is turning to gooseflesh under his hands.

 

And then she's undoing his shirt and he's sure he hears one of the buttons pop and bounce off the floor. He doesn't care. None of that matters. All that matters is getting a proper grip on this zipper, getting her out of this nightmare of a skirt that's in the way of his hands.

 

She's not making it easy though, not even a little bit. She’s moving in that sinful staccato rhythm, fingers grappling with his shirt, far more concerned with getting him out of his clothes than out of hers. And then her lips are on his throat, tongue drawing spirals across his flesh and he's pretty much ready to give up and let her do whatever the fuck she wants. Pretty much.

 

Almost.

 

She fucks him up.

 

Later when he can think again, when he's taken out his rage and his hands are stained with the blood of a flesh trafficker he’ll think what she said was a blessing. And later than that when everything falls apart again he’ll think it's was a curse.

 

But now, as she says it, in this moment, it’s neither. It's nothing as pedestrian as blessings and curses, it's both more and less. It's the world shattering. It's bullets ripping through everything he loves. It's blood and tears and screaming and all his failures rolled up into one neat breathless sentence, words whispered between kisses pressed into his skin.

 

“I'm safe with you Frank, I'm safe.”

 

Truth is, she might not even know what she’s saying. Sweet talk and lust, small words not meant to have big meanings but it smacks through him, beats its way into his chest and turns his blood to ice.

 

She says she doesn’t understand and he doesn’t have the words to tell her as he’s pushing her off his lap, as he’s buttoning his shirt and pretending not to look at her. She’s making no attempt to cover herself, skirt still hiked high on her thighs, singlet pulled so that he can see most of her bra. She’s apologising though. Telling him she shouldn’t have done it, that she doesn’t know what she was thinking, that things just got out of hand and she sorry. She’s so, so sorry.

 

And he wants to tell her no, that’s not it. It’s not her. God, it’s not her at all. That she’s got it backwards no matter how much truth there is to her words.

 

But his voice is stuck in the back of his throat and all he can do is look away. Look away and will her to let this go, to let it be.

 

She does. Either because it’ll hurt her or hurt him or because she knows it’ll do no good. They’re not ready and there’s no use putting salt in raw wounds.

 

But she does want to leave, says it would be a bad idea to stay no matter what and he agrees so he drives her home. She could have called a cab but it’s Friday night in New York and she’d end up waiting longer than it would take to run her back to her place. She said she’d walk but he’ll be damned if he was going to let her put one foot out onto the streets on this side of town. He may be an asshole, but he’s not an idiot. And a woman was murdered not too long ago a few streets away. Fucker even took one of her eyes. He’ll fucking off himself before something like that happens to her because of him.

 

So he drives through the snowy streets and she sits at his side like a ghost, pale and quiet and when he steals glances at her he can see tears shining on her cheeks. Could be for Murdock. Could be for him. He’s not sure. He is sure though that whoever it’s for doesn’t deserve it. That Karen Page’s tears are precious and shouldn’t be spent on cocksucking vigilantes and their self-inflicted man pain.

 

(He can't help but see the irony in the fact that less than an hour ago he wanted to smash someone’s face for making her cry and now all he needs to do is look in the fucking mirror.)

 

They don’t speak and he’s grateful for that because it takes all his energy and willpower to keep his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road, to not acknowledge the taste of her in the back of his mouth, nor the smell of her on his skin.

 

She says again that she’s sorry when they draw up outside her block and he tells her it’s fine, to forget about it.

 

He’s lying. She doesn’t miss that. She turns to look at him long and hard and once again, he’s two feet tall and she’s broken him in half without lifting a finger. And he fucking knows what that means. He knows . Because he’s been here before, he’s felt this before, and he never thought he’d miss it until it was gone and he knew he’d chop off his own limbs just to feel it again.

 

“We do this now?” she asks and the disappointment in her voice is almost tangible.

 

She doesn’t wait for an answer. He doesn’t think he has one to give her anyway.

 

Halfway home he’s shaking so badly he has to stop the truck, get out and stand in the snow, lean against a street light to stop his knees from buckling. He’s drawing cold, ragged breaths and there’s a minute he thinks he genuinely might throw up, that it’s more than a distinct possibility he might retch the taste of her all over the ground.

 

And he really doesn’t want to do that.

 

(I’m safe with you Frank.)

 

He closes his eyes, bites down hard on his lip until he can taste blood, forces the bile in the back of throat down into his stomach.

 

This . This wasn’t meant to happen. This wasn’t meant to be a thing. He had a plan and even if that plan was nothing more than annihilating every bad guy this side of the Rockies, it was at least coherent in some way. It made sense. But this? This doesn’t make any sense. Karen Page coming out of nowhere and forcing him to pay attention. Insinuating herself in his life like she could, like she had a right and it was hers to do with as she pleased. And him, cocksucker that he is, just letting her. Standing there watching it fucking happen and not realising that it was until it was too late and he was half-undressed and imagining the different ways he might have her before the night was through.

 

Some failsafe. Some real fucking higher grade security there. Fucking idiot universe went and put the goddamn detonator in the kill switch.

 

He takes a breath, calmer now. Slower. In and out. In and out. Keeps going until all he can taste is the cold and the snow and the bite of the New York air.

 

He’s not going to throw up. He won’t.

 

His gut is still twisted though and his hands are still shaking and he doesn’t think either of those things are going to let up anytime soon. Doesn’t think a whole lot of other things are going to let up soon either.

 

He gets back behind the wheel. Key in the ignition, foot on the gas. He checks the rearview mirror, catches sight of his reflection, his eyes black, pupils blown, skin tinged pink from the cold and lips still swollen from Karen Page’s desperate kisses.

 

He shakes his head. Forces himself to focus, to think about Maria and the children, remind himself why he’s here and what he’s doing - the fight he literally came back from the dead to finish. Nothing else matters. Nothing but making sure that no one else in the whole goddamn world ever needs to feel like he does.

 

Nothing else matters. Nothing and no one.

 

And he knows he’s lying to himself even before he’s finished the thought. Because Karen Page matters. She matters so fucking much. And try as he might to conjure that rage, to remember the hell on Earth his life was when he woke up to find his entire world had been blown apart, to taste his own bloodlust, he can’t.

 

All he can see is Karen Page’s smudged mascara and her smeared lipgloss, her hair loose and messy. Just how he likes it.

 

She fucks him up. She fucks him up so much.

 

~~~

 

He tries not to think about her too often after that, which, at first, is about as effective as going to a gunfight with a pea-shooter.

 

He stays away though. Stays about as far away from Karen Page as one man living in the same city as her can. He throws himself into his cause. Takes down the scum, leaves them at the bottom of the Hudson, the Atlantic. Gangsters and child pornographers. Rapists and traffickers. They're all the same to him. And he fights Maria’s voice out of his head. Pretends he can't imagine her disappointment at what the father of her children has become. And sometimes it's not her face he sees or her voice he hears, sometimes it's Karen's ... for all the difference it makes.

 

Things get messy, the wetwork gets wetter, bloodier, and Hell’s Kitchen gets cleaner. They called him a fascist once and he wonders one night, as he's electrocuting some rapist scum, if that's not closer to the truth than he ever imagined.

 

And sometimes, just sometimes he lets himself believe he doesn't think about her anymore. He pretends he didn't drink the rest of that bottle of Jack all by himself and what he didn't drink isn't now a giant stain on his floor. He pretends he doesn't wake up shuddering, hands stuttering as he gropes for some dreamed or imagined version of her. Pretends he doesn't know this path he's headed down, even though he's been there before.

 

A bleak winter becomes a lonely spring and slowly an unpleasant summer. He follows the papers religiously, only partly because she's on the front page more often than not now and often it's a better source of information than the damn police radio anyway. Another two women have each lost an eye, one on the left the other on the right. They don’t know why. It could be a ritual assault, it could be gang initiation, it could be a bored sociopath who migrated from animals to humans. He doesn’t much care. Sociopath, mobster, religious zealot … they all die the same way. All he has to do is find them.

 

He doesn't see her and he's okay with that. Until he does and he's not.

 

He's out. Not doing much of anything other than just not being in his apartment. It's a muggy evening and he's too hot to sleep. And she's been on his mind even if he doesn't want to admit it.

 

So he's walking it out. Walking all over the goddamn city, no real destination in mind. Just out and away, breathing in the dusk air and giving the overly enthusiastic street vendors a wide berth. Nothing to do but think and even that's negotiable.

 

Everything is. Except coffee.

 

He's coming out of a dodgy Starbucks on ninth near the flea market when he sees her.

 

She’s standing across the road next to a stall that's selling hats and scarves. And she's laughing, hands on her mouth and ponytail blowing in the warm breeze.

 

And, even though it's been months, it's another punch in the gut and it may as well have been yesterday that he was kissing her and touching her. Undressing her.

 

Lying to her.

 

She's beautiful. Standing there slim and statuesque, red sundress short and sheer flapping around her thighs. And for a second he can't move, can't do anything but stare; watch her open-mouthed like some creep hiding in the bushes outside her window.

 

And then she laughs again and he can’t help it but he follows her gaze.

 

He knows it's going to hurt before he even sees it. He deals in pain like currency, he has a sixth sense for these things. It has a certain flavour, a way of changing the air and its taste is undeniable.

 

He thought he was ready. It’s been more than six months for Christ’s sake. He thought he was ready.

 

He wasn’t.

 

It's Murdock. Of course it's Murdock. He’s standing on the other side of the stall, a navy fedora on his head and a fur trapper in his hand. He’s playing the fool, swapping the hats out, pulling faces, making her laugh.

 

Making her laugh .

 

He didn't think it could hit him that hard. Didn't think he still had it in him to feel such a complete and utter sense of loss and longing. No, it's not the same as waking up to find your whole family is gone. Nothing could ever be the same as that and he thought, in his naivete, that that meant anything less or different, anything not quite as acutely painful, wasn't worth wasting time on.

 

He was wrong. He's been wrong about a lot of things.

 

And then Murdock is walking towards her, popping a stetson on her head and drawing her close, hands on her waist, and lips meeting hers.  

 

And that hits even harder. And he's knows it's stupid and unfair, knows that regardless of how he really feels inside he was the one that pushed her away, that took her home, that stayed away for all these months. And expecting her to stay unattached, celibate, pining, is nothing short of the pinnacle of entitlement on his part. Not that he did. Not that he let his mind wander too far down the path of the things she could be doing or the people she could be seeing.

 

He guesses he just avoided it. Let himself believe that maybe she was as fucked up by his kisses as he was by hers. That she'd also filed it away somewhere that was both too close to let go of and too far to reach.

 

She fucks him up.

 

And looking at her now, the easy kisses she's planting on Murdock’s lips, the gentle press of her hands against his neck and the radiant smile, she fucks him up even more.

 

The door to Starbucks swings open behind him and a crowd of teenagers emerge, loud and obnoxious, roughhousing. He's already turning away because he can see her start to look up, searching for the source of the distraction, but he's not fast enough and their eyes meet and for a second the world stops.

 

He's heard about people having moments like this and maybe he could name one or two times in his life when things came close. That hush that descends despite the afternoon noise. The way the world feels too big and too small all at the same time. The way everything looks desaturated, lifeless, except for her - Karen Page standing tall and vibrant. Living colour against Hell’s backdrop.

 

She stares at him, eyes fixed on his like she's waiting for something, expecting something. Like he's a ghost she always knew would eventually come back to haunt her.

 

Oh god.

 

He turns. He walks away. He doesn't want to look back but when he does her eyes are still boring into him and he wishes he really was two feet tall and it was easier to hide.

 

~~~

 

He's not surprised later that evening to hear a knock on his door. It's not tentative like the last time but he's so sure it's her he doesn't even bother to grab his gun or check the peephole.

 

She makes him stupid.

 

He opens up, lets her in. He should do neither of these things.

 

So she's standing there. All long legs and high heels, hair pulled back into a tight bun, surveying his apartment like it's both foreign and familiar and she doesn't quite know which feeling to trust.

 

She says his name and that feels weird too, like she should know better or something.

 

He does though. He knows better.

 

“Ma'am.”

 

Her eyes snap to his face and that disappointment she wields like a sword stabs through him.

 

This is all his own damn fault and he knows it.

 

“Haven't seen you around, Frank,” she says and he nods.

 

“Haven't really wanted to be seen.”

 

She purses her lips, looks away, gaze settling on the whiskey stain on the floor, and then briefly on the couch before flicking back to him.

 

“Saw you today though,” she says unnecessarily.

 

And it's his turn to look away. Because this is fucking ridiculous. They don't do this. This isn't them. They don't play games and avoid problems. They don't .

 

But then again they also don't kiss and touch and undress each other. They don't taste each other. They don’t need or want each other. Except they do.

 

“Yeah,” he says and he feels like an ass. “Saw you too.”

 

“Shoulda come to say hi.”

 

He looks at her, cocks his head and can’t help the small wry smile that quirks the side of his mouth. “Yeah, I wasn’t gonna do that.”

 

She gives a slow nod. She gets it, even if she doesn’t.

 

“You let your hair grow,” she says and instinctively he reaches up pulls on his beard. “Looks good. Suits you.”

 

And inside he's wishing she wouldn't do this. Wouldn't talk to him like this, like she knows him, like she gets him.

 

Another glance around. Another deep breath.

 

“So, um… Matt,” she begins.

 

“You don’t have to explain,” he says, mostly because he’s really hoping she won’t. Because he doesn’t think he can stand here and listen to her talk about this. If it’s excuses or attempts to convince herself he doesn’t want to hear it. If it’s genuine and she wants to be with Murdock he wants to hear it even less.

 

Because fuck this wasn’t supposed to happen again. There was his life before Maria and then there was Maria. There was never meant to be a life after her. There was never meant to be a second chance, a round two. He wasn’t ever supposed to feel anything close to this again. That part of his existence was over.

 

And then there was Karen Page walking into his life like she was allowed to and starting the whole sorry business all over again. Shattering those flimsy supports he was using to keep himself standing, shattering them and putting herself in their place. Leaving him shaking and breathless and looking for ways to excise her from his heart, his bones. And the more he tried, the deeper she climbed inside.

 

He can’t let this happen. Not again.

 

So no, he doesn’t want to know but she’s telling him anyway.

 

They made up, her and Matt.

 

Yeah, thanks, he got that.

 

She gives him that disappointed look but carries on.

 

She didn’t expect it, she avoided Matt for weeks after… well, after that day. And then he turned up at her apartment and they talked. They drank bad wine and…

 

Yeah, he doesn’t need details.

 

She didn’t mean for any of this to happen.

 

Sure, you know what they say about good intentions.

 

Matt, well, he's changed. They're going to give this thing a go. He said he's not going to hurt her again.

 

That supposed to mean something to him? Was he supposed to care?

 

(He knows he’s being an ass. God he knows. He has no claim on her. Doesn’t want a fucking claim on her. But he can’t ignore that she’s standing in front of him and making him feel things he shouldn’t be feeling, making him remember things he shouldn’t be remembering.)

 

So anyway, all that aside, she’s missed him. Dammit Frank, she’s missed him so much. And she knows they didn’t leave things in a good place the last time but they’re both adults. Can’t they put it behind them? They were friends once. Can’t they do it again?

 

He barks out a laugh. It’s hard, derisive and she doesn’t miss that but he doesn’t give a fuck. He can’t believe that someone his age, someone old enough to have had a wife and two children, someone old enough to have lost all those things, is being given the “let’s be friends” speech. On some level he recognises that the biggest problem here is him, that she’s working with the information she has and that information amounts to his rejection of her and subsequent disappearance from her life. It’s not a lot to go on. It really isn’t. But, at the same time, she’s smart. She’s really fucking smart and she does read him like a goddamn large print book. She should know.

 

And he knows it’s unfair to expect that level of mindreading from her - especially his mind - but then again she’s not being fair either.

 

She messes with his head and he doesn’t know why. Except he knows exactly why.

 

Yeah sure, he tells her, they can be besties. Do each other’s hair. He’ll stop around for some girl talk sometime.

 

She tells him he’s an ass and he doesn’t say anything to that, because it’s taken her long enough to figure that out. Maybe she really does miss the big things.

 

And all he really wants is for her to leave. Because he knows he’s being a jerk and he knows he’s being unfair and that he’s being pretty much the epitome of male entitlement. But if she stands here much longer he’s going to break down and tell her that it fucking hurts so bad to see her with Murdock. That he’s sorry and he’s a fool and he’s messed up. And god, he didn’t think he would want this - and there’s still a part of himself that feels almost physically ill at the very idea of moving on - but he does.

 

And he knows doing that is invariably worse than what he’s doing now. He knows that despite this speech she’s given him about Murdock and how things are good and she can trust him again, that lurking just below the surface is something else. Something that happened on that couch all those months ago. Something she still wants and so does he. And opening that up again, letting her know that, despite how badly she fucks him up when she’s around him, it’s still a million times better than how badly she fucks him up when she’s not, is just about the worst thing he can do to both of them.

 

So he doesn’t. He tells her he has somewhere he needs to be. It’s not even a lie. He’s following a lead on that asshole and his eyeball fetish. Regardless he can see she thinks he’s brushing her off. He guesses when you start lying to someone, anything you say is a cause for suspicion.

 

But then she says it’s okay so she’s lying too.

 

He goes with her to her car because, once again, he’ll be damned if he lets her walk these streets by herself no matter how much she messes with his head.

 

“I won’t come here again,” she says as she unlocks the door and even though it’s another punch to his already horribly bruised gut, he nods.

 

“Probably for the best,” he says and he’s not even remotely talking about the relative crime rate in the area.

 

She bites her lip, looks at him.

 

“You don’t need to be a stranger Frank.”

 

But he does.

 

For a second it looks like she might say something else. There’s something in the way she’s worrying her bottom lip with her teeth like there’s more that she needs to hit him with, another punch, another kick, another goddamn bunch of nonsense about being in each other’s lives but she looks away. She stays silent.

 

And then she gets into her car and drives off.

 

He gives himself a few minutes to stand there in the street staring at the empty space she was occupying. Another few to breathe in the night air and make sure he’s got his shaking under control.

 

And then he grits his teeth and goes to hunt monsters.

 

~~~

 

She’s true to her word. She doesn’t come back.

 

He sees her though and he wonders if it’s some cosmic joke. Because he went for months without seeing her, without running into her, without even as much as hearing her voice and then all of a sudden it feels like she’s everywhere. She’s not. He knows this is true. But it’s like the floodgates opened that day he saw her on ninth and now he sees her often: in the traffic on her way to work; in the store; walking the streets, occasionally with Murdock, moreso by herself. They don’t speak but sometimes he waves and she’ll wave back, a sad smile playing at the corner of her lips.

 

He’s not being a stranger but he’s also not being a friend. He doesn’t think this balance is tenable, starts thinking about leaving Hell’s Kitchen before it starts showing just how unsustainable it really is. He’s pretty sure there are enough bad guys to keep him occupied regardless of where he goes.

 

He’d just really like to get rid of that fucker and his eye penchant before he does. The papers have started calling them The Scythe which is a stupid fucking name even if he gets it. There’s not much news on it though. He’s still doing it. Escalating. The MO is the same: sickle blade to the one eye, tape the other open. Odd numbered victims lose the left, even numbered the right. The right is just a bit messier.

 

Women between twenty and thirty. Drugged. Only blue eyes.

 

Yeah, he knows. He fucking knows what that means. He tries not to think too much about it though because it's not going to happen.

 

He won't let it. Not this time. Not again.

 

He warns Red about it the one night when he's unlucky enough to end up fighting alongside him to take down some mobsters who've been farming their girls out to a couple of sadists down in Jersey.

 

Afterwards, he finds him sitting alone on the roof of an abandoned factory and he tells him that the eye-stealing whackjob is still out there and he might want to stay home every now and then, considering his lady fits the victim profile as if it was made for her. Red waves him off. Tells him Karen is smart. She's not going to get herself into a situation she can't get out of and he wants to break Red’s face for his wilful naivete.

 

Ain't about being smart, he tells him. Ain't about that at all.

 

Red shrugs. Says he'll find them soon. He has leads. No one else is going to lose an eye in this city.

 

And Frank shakes his head and leaves him there pontificating on the roof. He doesn't dislike Red inasmuch as he knows he's just doing what he thinks is right. He also refuses to let his own petty jealousies dictate his actions and reactions. But at the same time he gets they'll never see eye to eye. That they're forever going to be at odds, often with Karen lingering somewhere between them, regardless of what Murdock knows or doesn't know about what happened. And he’d bet Karen Page’s pretty blue eyes that he doesn’t know a damn thing.

 

Except he wouldn’t.

 

~~~

 

Those eyes though. Those eyes. The next time he sees them it's at Josie’s Bar. He’s not looking for her. He swears he’s not. He’s out walking the streets. Insomnia and just some good, old-fashioned restlessness settling deep in his bones and sending him outside into the hell that is Hell’s Kitchen. But it’s not hell. Not really. The roads are busy and bright and the people seem upbeat. It’s loud and chaotic and, while he’d like to be a bit derisive of the general good mood, he can’t help himself and finds a strange approximation of contentedness filling him up. It won’t last. It never does. But he’ll take it. For now at least.

 

And that’s why, when he sees her through Josie’s filthy windows, sitting at the bar and dressed up to the nines, going to her doesn’t seem to be the worst idea in the world.

 

Even though it probably is.

 

She's wearing a short maroon satin cocktail dress and high heels, hair pulled up into a French twist. Girl stands out like a sore thumb amongst the bikers and losers and general scum that Josie’s caters to. And she’s gazing into her beer like it's the only thing in the world keeping her sane.

 

He dodges the people at the pool tables. Squeezes past some blond asshole who seemingly can’t take his eyes off his fucking phone long enough to get out the way and sidesteps a very drunk, very busty waitress who declares loudly that she loves him, always has, always will and attempts a leap into his arms.

 

It’s just like any other Friday night.

 

He shouldn’t, but for some reason, he feels good about it as he approaches her, draws up next to her at the bar.

 

She doesn’t notice him at first, doesn’t seem to be aware of anything other than the bottle in front of her and her own dark thoughts (and he’d be willing to wager that they have something to do with a man in a red suit). So he leans over, puts on his cheesiest Brooklyn accent, asks her what a nice girl like her is doing in a place like this.

 

She swings around to face him and he doesn’t miss that her eyes are glassy and, despite her outfit, her face seems freshly, if hastily, scrubbed; free of make up. And she looks like she’s about to tell him to take a long walk off a short pier - that or punch him - and he probably wouldn’t blame her either way. And then she sees it’s him and there’s a moment when it seems like she has absolutely no idea to feel about his presence.

 

There’s surprise. Sure, he expected that. But there’s also anger and a hint of dread, embarrassment and for a second she actually looks like she might bolt. But underneath it all there’s relief. And suddenly she’s not the only one who has no idea how to feel.

 

She fucks him up.

 

She recovers quickly though, clears her throat, plasters an expression on her pretty face that borders on mild amusement and feigned disinterest.

 

“Look what the cat dragged in,” she says but it's good natured and the smile that quirks her lips is genuine. And infectious.

 

She kicks a rickety barstool his way.

 

“Sit,” she says.

 

He does.

 

He orders two beers, one for himself, another for her. The counter is sticky and caked with something he'd rather not think too much about but he leans on it anyway, turns to look at her. She looks great, smells even better.

 

“Didn’t expect to see you here Frank,” she says. “Or have you punished so many of the big fish that all that’s left are the drunk and disorderlies?”

 

“Expandin’ my horizons,” he shrugs. “Don’t wanna rule anythin’ out.”

 

Wan smile. Sad, a little lost. But a smile.

 

He touches her arm, eager to not lose her back to melancholy.

 

“You never answered my question,” he says.

 

“Oh that was a real question?”

 

“Sure,” and this is smooth and easy, smoother and easier than it should be. “What did you think? That I was trying to pick you up?”

 

“God no,” she says. “You? Never.”

 

There's a hint of something other than humour to her words, something that ventures a little too close to how to felt when her thighs clamped around his hips and his hands went up her top on the couch that night. But he can see she's trying really hard to disguise it. She doesn't want to fight. She doesn't want to go there. Neither does he.

 

“So what is it then?” he takes a swig of his beer and it tastes like it was brewed in a jailhouse toilet. “Also did no one tell you about the dress code ... or lack thereof?”

 

He glances pointedly at her dress, her heels. Can't help but check out the expanse of leg between.

 

She shrugs. “Guess I’m all dolled up with nowhere to go.”

 

“Wouldn't say that,” he says and she raises her eyebrows. “You're at Josie’s. That's somewhere. Kind of.”

 

“Is it though Frank?” she asks and he snorts because no, it really isn't.

 

She makes him laugh. He realises it with a jolt. It's not something he didn't know. It's just not something he ever really thought about. And he doesn't laugh much anymore. Not real laughing at least. Maybe some dry barks and sneers, maybe even some taunting when he has some scumbag drawn and quartered on a meathook somewhere. But not genuine laughter.

 

And he guesses that since she has it in her power to make him happy, it's no real surprise that she can fuck him up the way she does.

 

“Seriously,” he says shifting on his seat, hoping it won't break; that the woodworm this place obviously has hasn't chewed through enough of the legs to drop him on his ass tonight. “You can't tell me you wore that to come here.”

 

“Can't a girl just want to look pretty Frank?” she's teasing him but she's also hedging.

 

He tilts his beer at her.

 

“Sure. I guess,” he glances around. “I can see everyone else who got pretty to come to fuckin’ Josie’s.”

 

“Maybe I'm not everyone else.”

 

He inclines his head to her. “Maybe you're not.”

 

Another swig. Still tastes like shit. No surprises there.

 

But it's okay. She's here and he's here and it's a little bit weird but not uncomfortably so. And they're friends. Sort of. He guesses. She wants to be at least. And it's not remotely tenable but he can fake it for now.

 

He’ll wait. He knows she’ll tell him eventually. That she's delaying not because she wishes he wouldn't ask but because she's looking for the right way to say whatever it is she needs to.

 

Which means this is about Murdock. He sighs inwardly.

 

“How have you been?” she asks.

 

Okay . So they’re doing this now.

 

He shrugs. He’s been alright, can’t complain really. He considers telling her that he wants to leave Hell’s Kitchen. That he might not be around for much longer. He thinks that might be better than just disappearing into the night and he wonders if he can do actually do it, if he can walk away from her that easily. He did it once when he murdered Schoonover. He walked away from her. Left her in the woods alone and told himself he wouldn't look back. But he did look back. He kept looking back. And he wonders if he's only fooling himself that he can do it again, for keeps this time.

 

She says that she heard he was looking for The Scythe, says Ellison picked the name even though she told him it sounded like an 80s hair metal band. Apparently he thought that was more a feature than a bug.

 

He’s not sure how he feels about the fact that her and Red talk about him. Objectively he knew it was happening. Obviously it was. But it makes him awkward in a way he can’t really define. Like he’s both more and less than Karen Page’s dirty little secret and he’s not sure where he feels more comfortable.

 

None of it feels good though.

 

“You still got your gun?” he asks and she looks pointedly at her purse.

 

“I know Frank. Blue-eyed women between 20 and 30. I wrote the damn story.”

 

He nods. “Just want to make sure you’re safe.”

 

Yeah, wrong thing to say. He realises it too late and when he finds the courage to meet her eyes, they’re glassy again. No tears. Not yet. But he’s seen her like this before and he knows what it means. They’re either coming or they’ve already been and there still isn’t anyone on Earth worthy of them.

 

“I am safe Frank,” she says and then suddenly relents a little. “But it’s sweet of you to worry.”

 

She’s silent for a moment, looking away and picking at a serviette that’s stuck to the counter, biting her lip and frowning and he cocks his head, wants to ask her what’s up but something tells him not to, to let this happen. And it does.

 

She reaches out and touches his hand with her fingertips. “Thank you.”

 

Later he’ll ponder the meaning of her words. Wonder why it meant so damn much to her that he was worried, that he cared. He’ll never truly find out, but he can infer, read between the lines. He’s an asshole, but he’s not stupid.

 

But not now. Because now all he can concentrate on is the gentle press of her skin on his own, the way her thumb is rubbing over his knuckles and eventually how he turns his hand and parts his fingers so she can slide her own between them.

 

This is, as always, a very bad idea.

 

“What happened Karen?” and his voice is thick and deep, mouth dry and he takes another swig of his beer. “Why are you here?”

 

“It’s silly,” she says shaking her head and god, oh god a piece of hair comes loose and he has to clench his free hand into a fist so tight that his nails break his skin, just so that he doesn’t touch her. That he doesn’t create a situation where she ends up in his lap with her mouth on his.

 

He looks down at their linked hands and wonders how much of that damage has already been done.

 

She, however, barely seems to notice.

 

“Matt wanted to try this new place in Midtown. You know the type. Flashy, swanky…”

 

“Twenty dollars for tap water…” he offers and she smiles, nods.

 

“He got us a table, pulled strings, I don’t know,” she pushes the hair out of her eyes and even though it’s for the best it feels like a lost opportunity. “Told me he’d meet me there.”

 

He knows where this is going. It’s not hard to see. Not like he hasn’t wondered about it even if he doesn’t care to admit it.

 

He lets her speak.

 

“So there I am,” she says. “With my knock off Jimmy Choos and my zirconias and I can’t read one word on the menu because it's in some French dialect that is probably spoken by three people and everything looks like it costs more than my rent. And I’m waiting and I’m calling Matt over and over and I’m just getting voicemail.”

 

He rubs his thumb along her palm and she blinks hard and looks away, takes a sip of beer.

 

“And the waiter keeps asking me if I want to order so I end up with the cheapest glass of white wine, and everyone is looking at me because I don’t belong there and I look so stupid... ”

 

“Hey,” he says, abandoning his beer so he can use both his hands to hold hers. “Ain’t no one lookin’ at you because you look stupid. No one.”

 

She makes a dry sound in the back of her throat like she doesn’t really believe him. “I waited for him for an hour. An hour Frank. No phone call. Nothing. Just me and my fake shoes and my fake diamonds and my fake boyfriend.”

 

That hits harder than he expects. That articulation. He didn't think she'd say it. That she'd admit something which is no doubt one of her darkest thoughts. He wonders how many drinks she's had. How raw she really is.

 

“I’m so pathetic,” she says, rubbing at her eyes. “I didn’t even want to go. I don’t even like places like that and now I’m crying because it didn't work out.”

 

He frowns.

 

“Don't do that,” he says and he runs his thumb along her wrist and for a second he can feel her pulse, strong, bold beneath his skin. “This ain't about no fancy ass restaurant and you know it. They serve bullshit here. Don't mean you gotta eat it.”

 

Lie to me, don't lie to yourself.

 

She nods slowly, looks down at their linked hands as if she's only just seeing them. He thinks she’ll pull away but she doesn't.

 

“It's just I knew this going in,” she says. “I knew how bad it was just working with him. How he's never there, how he's always running off…”

 

She stops, looks at him and, again, it's like he's not allowed to look away.

 

“What is it with you fucking vigilantes?”

 

He rubs her wrist. “Depends on the vigilante.”

 

That seems to stop her, jolt her even and he realises he’s overstepped the mark. Also that he’s really being so fucking unfair and it’s a fucking joke when men complain that women send out mixed signals. Because even he can see that he’s not making any sense, hasn’t made sense since the moment he stopped kissing her and pushed her off his lap all those months ago. He knows she gives him a pass on certain things, that she gets how messed up he is and how his dead wife and children direct most of the decisions he makes, including the many that got him to this spot, but it’s still not fair.

 

And they both know it.

 

“No Frank,” she says pulling her hands out of his. “I don’t think it does.”

 

She’s not angry, not even slightly. Just resigned. World weary. He wonders if she’s ever considered running away. If somewhere between him and Murdock and all the shit that’s gone down, she’s ever just wanted to leave it all the fuck behind. Start fresh. Have a life where she gets to be normal. He knows the answer. It isn't a hard question.

 

“Do you want me to go look for him?” he asks. “Make sure he’s okay.”

 

Yes, he’s a fucking idiot. He knows.

 

She shakes her head and he realises this is by no means the first time something like this has happened.

 

“No,” she says. “He’ll be fine. He always is.”

 

He nods. “Anythin’ else I can get you? Anythin’ I can do?”

 

Another glance up at him, the smallest glint in her eyes and it’s gone before it’s even there and then she reaches out, touches his jaw, his cheek. And her hand is smooth and warm and he has to remind himself not to turn his head, not to kiss it. It might not feel like it but there are boundaries here and they’re high and thick.

 

And then she snaps her hand back, catches herself.

 

“Will you stay with me Frank?” she asks. “Just a little while?”


He stays.