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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.

Chapter Text

He decides not to leave Hell’s Kitchen. At least not yet. He tells himself it’s because he hasn’t found The Scythe but when he lets himself wonder about it, all that really comes to mind is Karen Page’s fingertips pressed into his skin, the smell of her perfume against the smoke of Josie’s bar. The way it doesn’t feel like he has permission to go.

 

He starts to live for the moments he sees her in the traffic or the store. The times he waves and she waves back and something passes between them that he can’t put a name to and doesn’t want to. He worries though. Worries that this is all it will ever be. That these little things that shouldn’t keep him here but somehow do, aren’t enough. And he’s just screwing himself in the ass. Setting himself up for a fall that’ll break his bones, leave him gasping for air.

 

He doesn’t want to leave. He knows this to be true. He might have to. He knows this to be true as well.

 

She fucks him up.

 

Red doesn’t find The Scythe, his lead a dead end. It’s not a surprise and Frank realises that on some level he’s almost happy about it. Because he knows Red, and Red will do the “right” thing: hand this freak over to the cops and give himself a pat on the back for it. And while he realises that maybe to polite society that is the right thing to do, this fucker takes women’s eyes and murders them. When you put that into the equation the waters of right and wrong become more than a little muddied.

 

So he doesn’t give up any information when he’s asked. Tells Red to go home, go see his blue-eyed girl and make sure she’s safe and leave the heavy lifting to him. He’s got this.

 

And he knows even as he’s walking away that he hasn’t really been heard.

 

His own research hasn’t turned up much though. It’s not gang-related, of that he’s pretty sure. Maybe if it had been once or twice or maybe if the victims were somehow connected to the mob or the cops or something, it could be. But they’re not and it isn’t. Him and Red discuss once if it could be a religious zealot but all Red could really come up with was some far-fetched revenge theory based on the Old Testament and it really doesn’t feel that elaborate.

 

He’s pretty sure whoever it is, is nothing more than a sadist with a blue-eye fetish. Sure, it seems he picks his victims carefully and sure, it seems slightly opportunistic at the same time, but at the end of the day, it’s really not that complicated.

 

What is complicated is finding the fucker. He’s really good, really slick. Covers his tracks. The police are apparently having trouble tracking down the source of the blade. Not that sickle blades are in short supply, just that none of the retailers in the area seem to sell any that fit the description. Because this blade is small. Tiny enough to carve out an eye and barely touch the skin around it. The cops are turning their attention to online purchases, both on and off the darknet. Yes, sometimes it is good having that police radio if, for no other reason than knowing where not to waste his time.

 

He also realises that chasing the seller of the blade is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack and probably barking up the wrong tree anyway. There are just too many places to look and something about it’s uniqueness makes him wonder if it’s not custom made. And wouldn’t that be a thing? The Punisher hunting down an actual honest-to-god blacksmith this time. What a fucking joke.

 

He starts sniffing around, walking Hell’s Kitchen’s underbelly. Puts the word out that he’s looking to spend some cash on customised blades. He smashes a few faces, makes himself just memorable enough to get talked about. And in the end it pays off.

 

A twitchy kid, face ravaged by both acne and what Frank imagines is a pretty severe meth habit, comes to him one night while he's pretending to drink at a biker bar in Brooklyn. Tells him he knows a guy who knows a guy who’ll make him any fucking custom blade he wants. Switchblade to samurai sword. Ninja stars even.

 

Frank slips him a fifty, leaves with a name and an address. He considers letting Red know. He's not sure why. Maybe because he knows that Red seems to think they're in this together to a degree, that there's some free flow of information between them. But then he thinks of Karen and her pretty blue eyes and he keeps it to himself.

 

He scouts out the address. It's not far from where he lives but if possible the area is seedier. It’s nothing more than a small dank apartment, wedged between a pawn shop and a sex shop with a flashing neon sign advertising Live Girls. Except it says “Li e Girls” and that might be more appropriate on pretty much every level.

 

So he waits and he watches. He sees a lot of what he expects to see. Rough crowd going in and out, couple of low-level mobsters, one guy who he's sure is a hitman and another who comes around at least once a day to deliver pizza and always wears oversized brown puffer vest regardless of the soaring temperatures.

 

The man of the hour is young; blond hair, blue eyes - the kind of boyish good looks that appeal to a certain kind of girl and their moms. Could be in a boy band. Fucker looks the type.

 

It's late on a Friday night when he eventually emerges dressed in dark jeans and a black sweater. He's on his phone, nodding a lot and talking fast. He crosses the street, gets into an old faded Hyundai and heads off in the direction of Hell’s Kitchen.

 

The traffic is still bad despite the hour but it's not hard to follow him and when he abandons his car in a side street that no one in their right mind would leave anything in they want to keep, Frank knows he has him.

 

Drug them. Move them.

 

Take an eye.

 

Kill a girl.

 

Even so he needs to be sure. He's an asshole - a monster - but he doesn't kill innocent people. Even he's not that far gone.

 

He parks a few streets down, out of sight but close enough.

 

Boyband is on his phone again when Frank catches up. He's agitated and even though his words are indistinguishable, his tone is annoyed, terse. He heads out of the shadows towards the main drag, where despite the hour, Hell’s Kitchen is still fairly alive. Restaurants still open, some shops even, couples heading home and old men walking their dogs.

 

Eventually he stops, moves into an alcove next to a flower shop, puts away his phone and pulls out a cigarette.

 

There's a party going on across the street at one of the tapas restaurants. Couples milling about outside with cocktails, music thumping, whoops of laughter. And Boyband is watching with a kind of intensity that can only mean one thing: whoever it is that he's after is here.

 

Yeah buddy, not tonight.

 

So Frank waits and he watches and Boyband paces impatiently in his alcove.

 

And then the universe decides to show him for the second time in his life just how much of a bitch she can be.

 

It had to happen. He thinks he always knew it would. Thinks that sixth sense he has now because pain and hurt is his currency had already predicted it the day he read that this asshole took eyes. Pretty blue ones.

 

He doesn't believe in prophecy, can't see the fucking future. But he saw this. Karen Page and her big blue eyes. The ideal victim.

 

He knew it would come to this.

 

He knew .

 

She's coming through the doors of the restaurant alone. Purse slung over her shoulder, hair pulled into loose plait, long black chiffon dress with a rose pattern up the one side and it's fucking ridiculous that he notices all this before he even starts moving.

 

She fucks him up.

 

And she's walking away, waving at that asshole in the ill-fitting pants who is supposed to be her boss.

 

Boyband moves too, a slick movement out of the shadows and across the street, falling into step a couple of yards behind her. And he knows he should be angry, enraged even, knows even as the feeling of dread is ricocheting through him, that he should want to tear this guy apart with his bare hands. But he also knows he needs to keep it down. Keep himself in check. He’s no good to anyone if he loses his head, if he lets this insanity take over.

 

And this shouldn't be hard. It really shouldn't. Get them off the main drag and into the shadows and take him out before he even reaches her. Keep it together. She never even needs to know.

 

If you want God to laugh…

 

They do head into a side street and then another, into a short, dank alley and she picks up the pace and he doesn't miss the way her hand goes into her purse, stays there and he knows she's holding her .380.

 

Good girl.

 

He's gaining on Boyband who seems to have completely given himself over to whatever bloodlust lives in his veins. He’s moving fast now, seemingly not caring about his thudding of his footsteps. Hand close to his waist. Little sickle blade glinting in the moonlight.

 

And Frank's reaching out, his own knife drawn, so close. So ready to end this SOB once and for all.

 

And that's when he sees the second man, oversized brown puffer vest despite the heat, and everything makes sense. The alternating eyes, the slight lack of precision on all the right-hand side ones. Assholes are tag teaming it. And suddenly he's back at that fucking carousel and he's hearing Lisa squealing at Frank Jr and the rich sound of Maria’s laugh - the last thing he heard before that click of a hammer drowned out every sound in the world. The last thing that made sense. And he’s waking up in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of every goddamn part of him and a nurse is busy telling him that his life is gone, blown apart. And he’s looking at her like she’s fucking insane and he can’t for the life of him understand why the fuck anyone would let her work with actual wounded or sick people, because the woman is clearly off her head. And the more he’s telling her to shut up, the more he’s shouting for Maria, the more she’s trying to soothe him, but he doesn’t want her fucking hands on him.

 

And he’s watching his world crumble in front of him and then Boyband is picking up the pace and he’s watching it crumble again.

 

Karen Page dead in his arms, blue eyes gone, one taken, one taped shut. That gentle press of her fingertips never to be felt again and her lips taste of blood.

 

No.

 

No.

 

He shouts her name. He runs.

 

Later he won’t remember much about how everything went down, which is odd because even though his bloodlust runs hot, his memory of the things he’s done has always been crystal clear. So clear that sometimes he thinks of that as his punishment, his cross to bear. The face of each man he’s murdered emblazoned on his brain forever.

 

But not this time. Because when it’s over and he’s kneeling on the filthy sidewalk and Karen Page is in his arms, quivering but holding on to him as tight as she can, head pressed into his shoulder and heart beating in time with his, all he has are fragments.

 

He’s heard soldiers talk about out of body experiences, that feeling of standing next to yourself watching as you just start to work on instinct, tapping some ancient knowledge that only comes with the darkest circumstances. He thinks this is a little like that. Maybe not quite the same but close.

 

His blade stabbing through flesh. Karen falling to her knees covering her head. Blood on his hands, his clothes, arcing through the air and splashing warm and thick across his face. Launching himself across the street. Slipping on garbage. Grabbing the second man by his fucking collar as his hand closed around Karen’s arm and he flung her hard against the sidewalk. Her cry echoing off the walls. Man on the ground. Karen’s voice. His name. Screaming. And then his foot coming down. Head bursting like an overripe melon. Gore on his boots.

 

There’s more. He knows there is. Knows there’s chunks of time he’s missing but he doesn’t care. If it comes back, it comes. If it doesn’t that’s fine too. All he cares about is that she’s safe. It doesn’t matter that they’re surrounded by bodies and blood.

 

She’s saying something, mouth close to his ear but he can’t hear her over the sound of his heartbeat. He realises she’s rocking him and for a moment that seems completely at odds with the situation, that she’s comforting him and not the other way around. And then he realises he’s trembling too, that his hands are stuttering on her skin and that sobbing noise he can hear isn’t coming from her.

 

It feels like he takes a forever to reconnect, to move back into his own flesh, but it can’t be that long. Because he’s telling her they need to go, they need to get out of here and when she’s safe she can do whatever the fuck she wants. Speak to Mahoney, have him arrested. Let the whole world know that Frank Castle isn’t dead. Her call. But they need to move. Because the longer they stay here, the bigger the chance she’ll be implicated. And she’s shaking her head and saying something about how ridiculous he’s being but she’s also moving, standing up and he can see that her dress is ripped right through the red rose pattern. It seems a shame, a waste.

 

It was such a pretty dress.

 

“Come on,” she’s saying and pulling him to his feet. “Come on, you said we have to go.”

 

He did. Yes, he did.

 

And then they’re walking, heading back the way they came and he has his hand between her shoulder blades. She feels smooth and warm and he’s telling himself to stop it. That this isn't the time. That he just killed two men in front of her and he has their blood all over his hands and his clothes, but he can’t help it and his fingers are digging into her.

 

He almost lost her. Oh god , he almost lost her.

 

He doesn’t even want to imagine what that means. Can’t. Won’t .

 

He realises he's heading back to his truck. She's moved in closer and he can smell the sweetness of her perfume and, beneath that, copper. He glances at her back where his hand is and there’s a smear of blood shining black in the moonlight against her skin. It doesn’t enrage him as much as he thought it would. In fact it seems right somehow. She marked but unscathed and there’s something fitting about that.

 

They get to the truck and, even though he’s stressed and shaking, when she puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes gently, he feels - almost against his will - his rage ebbing under her hands.

 

“Breathe,” she says softly. “Breathe.”

 

And he wants to tell her to fuck right off, to get her ass in the truck, to stop worrying about him. But when he looks at her, he sees the iciness of her eyes, that steely look that tells him he has no choice.

 

Again she tells him to breathe. It’s an instruction.

 

And he does. Because she’s right and she knows him and she fucks him up but she also gets to do whatever she wants. So he takes long, slow breaths. And she keeps her hands on him, talking quietly - nonsense mainly - until his trembling has eased.

 

Calmer. Better. The world back in focus. Karen Page at his side. Touching him. Anchoring him. Soothing him.

 

His failsafe. His kill switch in the detonator.

 

He drives her home.

 

It's not that much different from the first time he did it all those months ago. He's a mess and trying to keep it together, not drive off the fucking road and she's sitting next to him, quiet and pale as a ghost.

 

But the chasm between them doesn't seem so wide this time. Or, if there is a chasm, they're both sitting on the same side of it and, when she leans over and puts her hand over his on the steering wheel, it's not even much of a decision to twine his fingers with hers and move their joined hands into her lap.

 

And again, his entire world becomes the rub of her thumb along his, the gooseflesh she draws out of his skin.

 

He doesn't want to do this anymore. He can't. Can’t be here with her like this, that night she kissed him tattooed on his fucking brain forever. It's just not sustainable. And he knows. He knows it was all him. He knows it was his fucked up head and his guilt and doubts that caused this. But he'd do anything to go back now.

 

Yes, it scares him. It scares the shit out of him. But it scares him more that this could be it. That that one small moment on the couch when they were both too fucked up to make anything remotely resembling a good decision, could be their only moment.

 

He doesn’t want that to be true. But it might be.

 

Oh god it might be.

 

She turns to him when they get to her apartment.

 

“You wanna come up?”

 

He nods.

 

He doesn't lie to her.

 

She gives him a small smile, squeezes his hand and releases him so he can park the truck. But when they go inside and get into the lift, she puts her fingers through his again and he can’t even find it in himself to wonder at it. He just holds on. There’s nothing else to be done.

 

Inside, he goes into the bathroom, strips off his shirt, washes his hands, up his arms, his face, his neck. The water runs pink and he still doesn’t know how he got so much blood on him or where it all came from. But that’s a minor detail. Completely inconsequential and he leans over the sink and gives himself a few seconds to breathe, to stare at himself in the mirror and wonder how he almost let this fucking happen. Why he didn’t find those assholes sooner and put an end to it all months ago. And he knows he’s not being logical because he was looking. He really was. But still. Still . It came too close. Far too close.

 

He rubs a hand through his hair. It’s growing out long and curly and he’s going to need to cut it at some point and, for a second, he can't believe he's here in Karen Page’s home, and she nearly died, and he's worrying about the length of his hair.

 

And then he notices her standing there in the doorway, holding a towel and what he imagines must be one of Murdock’s T-shirts.

 

He takes a moment to look at her. That pretty torn dress, the line of red roses rent from her ankles almost all the way up to her hip. The dirt on her knee where he can see it through the tear and the way her hair is barely being held together by her plait. And finally, the line of blood across her cheek, no doubt from his hands.

 

Somewhere he has it in him to wonder at this. To realise that she’s dealing with this better than she should be. It doesn’t matter that they were scum, that they were going to kill her and have killed other women just like her. She should be freaking out a lot more than she is.

 

And yeah, it’s the reason she fought for him as hard as she did, it’s the reason she was so upset about Murdock, the reason she has a .380 in her purse and he has no doubt in his mind she’ll use it. It’s really not her first rodeo. Not in any sense.

 

“Ma’am,” he whispers and not because he wants to convey any meaning, not because he’s scared to say her name, but because he genuinely has no idea what the hell else to say.

 

Because she fucks him up and she messes with his head and she doesn’t seem to have the slightest clue that she does any of these things.

 

She puts the towel and the shirt down on the toilet lid and walks towards him, plants a hand in the middle of his chest and pushes so that he sits down on the edge of the tub and she’s looming over him. And suddenly he has no fucking clue what’s coming. She could pull her gun on him and blow his brains out or she could strip and climb him like a fucking tree and neither one of those things would surprise him any more than the other.

 

She doesn't do either.

 

“Missed a spot,” she says softly and he can’t help but smile at her as she wets a face cloth, stands between his legs and leans in close to wipe at his cheek.

 

Her hands are gentle, not that he expected anything else. Karen Page might have a core of absolute steel and she fucks him up in ways he could not possibly imagine but her kindness has always been something he’s considered her defining trait. The way she burst into his life, shoved his family in his face and forced him to stop denying it, to stop pretending. The way she wanted him to fall and to break and when he did she was there waiting to help him pick up the pieces. He’s not sure he’s done breaking. He’s not sure he’s even done falling and there’s a part of him that’s okay with that, if only because he trusts she’ll still be there when he does.

 

She runs the cloth over his skin again, down to his neck and his shoulders and he draws in a sharp breath that she has to notice. She can’t not notice.

 

And he feels so fucking stupid being here. So fucking fucking stupid. Because all he can smell is her and his whole existence is the press of her fingers against his skin, her eyes that are big and wide and blue. And it’s like he’s spinning out of control around her in a whirlwind and she’s the eye of the storm, the vortex where the world is blissfully calm but at the same time the very reason things are so messed up in the first place.

 

He can't make sense of it anymore. Doesn't even have the energy to try.

 

“They were going to take my eyes weren’t they?” she’s almost casual in the way she asks it and she isn’t looking at him, instead concentrating on wiping the blood off his collarbones. He wonders if she’s really that controlled or if she’s hiding and putting on a brave face.

 

He nods. There isn’t much more to say.

 

“You saved me,” she says simply and he nods again.

 

She purses her lips, wets the cloth and runs it down his arm. He shivers.

 

“You had your .380,” he says softly, mouth dry. “You would have been fine.”

 

It’s not true. Maybe if it was just Boyband, but not two of them. There’s no way she would have been fine. They both know it. But somehow he can’t find it in himself to admit that.

 

She, however, can and she shakes her head, runs that cloth back to his cheek, up to his forehead and he knows he didn’t miss that much blood, knows there’s no way, and she’s now just cleaning him because she wants to.

 

“No, I wouldn’t,” she says. “I’d be dead three times over if it wasn’t for you.”

 

He doesn’t say anything. She’s right and they can’t lie about this anymore. They shouldn’t.

 

He swallows hard, blinks heavily as she cleans his face, as her fingertips comb through his beard.

 

“What are you going to do now?” he asks. “I left two bodies in that alley way.”

 

She pauses and he breathes deeply.

 

“I’m not going to do anything Frank,” she says. “Unless you want me to.”

 

He shakes his head. No, he doesn’t want her to do anything. Nothing other than let him sit here on the edge of this godforsaken, uncomfortable tub with her hands on his face, and her body so close to his he can feel the heat coming off her in waves. Nothing other than touch him and clean him unnecessarily and let him breathe her in. Nothing other than be alive and real and tangible and have her two pretty eyes in her head and let him - lucky bastard that he is - look at them occasionally.

 

And then suddenly she moves in and winds her arms around his neck, pulls him to her so that his cheek is against her breast and his hands rise to her waist. He closes his eyes, lets her weave her fingers through his hair, small gentle tugs against his scalp and then she’s leaning forward and pressing her lips to the top of his head and he gives up being tentative and drags her close.

 

She’s warm. So very warm. A little fire under his hands and she burns him as her palms drop to his shoulders and her fingernails trail along his back, small scratches that make him shiver and tremble despite her heat. And he should let go but he doesn't want to. He's so weary of should haves and would haves.

 

It might be the right thing to do, but he's done so many wrong things he finds he doesn't care.

 

He also doesn’t care about the sparks created by her skin touching his, the way that it’s undeniable and at the same time must be ignored. Doesn’t care that he’s somehow moving and standing but still keeping her close and pressing himself against her, one hand closing on her waist, the other sliding up her back to rest at the nape of her neck. Her skin prickles too and she shivers against him and he’s conceited enough to entertain the notion that it’s about him and the way he’s making her feel. That it’s about his hands on her and his lips against her cheek and how she must know that if she were to turn her head even a fraction of an inch he’d kiss her.

 

She doesn’t move and he tells himself that’s for the best even though he doesn’t believe it.

 

“Thank you,” she says quietly. “Thank you for saving me. For being there.”

 

Her arms tighten around him and he knows he has to do something, or say something.

 

So he brushes his lips against her cheek and says the only thing he can think of, the only words he’s seemingly allowed to say.

 

“I want to keep you safe Karen.”

 

He knows to her it sounds like a statement, maybe the hint of a request. He also knows this isn't true. That inside he's begging. That he might be standing here holding her but the truth is that he's on his fucking knees and pleading with her to say yes. To let him.

 

To let him do his job.

 

To let him get it right.

 

His anchor. His failsafe.

 

“Frank…” she says and her voice is low and husky but he can hear the grit in it. That resignation that says, louder than any words, that the chance for that passed. It passed on his couch one night months ago when her hair was a mess and her face streaked with tears. When his fingers were almost on her breast and he could feel her heat pressing down on his crotch.

 

“I’m sorry,” he pulls away, hands loosening on her and he can’t look at her.

 

He gets it. It’s wrong. She’s not his. Not even his in the loosest sense of the word. He doesn’t have a right to say that, to even want it. But he does. And he can’t help it. And that’s why everything is such a huge mess. She’s not his. She’s not .

 

He’s not hers either.

 

Except he really fucking is.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I shouldn’t have…”

 

“No,” she interrupts and he notices that she hasn’t released him, that her hands are still linked behind his neck and she’s still pressed up against his torso. She’s biting her lip and on some level he registers that she’s conflicted too. That maybe this hasn’t been as cut and dry for her as he’s allowed himself to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary.

 

“What?” he asks even though he knows he shouldn’t.

 

She looks away, her hands slipping from his shoulders slightly.

 

“It’s just…”

 

He knows. He fucking knows. It’s him and her and her and Murdock and it’s all a big fucking mess and it’s really not fair that he’s here and holding her like this, half naked in her home, in her life. It doesn’t really matter what he’s feeling and what she’s feeling. She’s Karen Page, loyal to a fucking fault and it’s inconsequential how much she fucks him up. Inconsequential that her boyfriend is literally everywhere except where he should be, inconsequential that there’s not a soul on the planet that can’t see where this is going or why.

 

She’s Karen Page. She’s loyal to a fucking fault.

 

And she fucks him up.

 

He makes a decision. The only one he can.

 

He lets her go and it feels like it’s the last time, that this is for keeps and it’ll be forever. Part of himself, his blood, his bones, stays with her though, pieces she wraps up in herself and hides away in a place he’ll never reach.

 

Like the scattered bits of him that lie in the graves of Maria and their children, he knows he’ll never get this back either.

 

He chances another look at her. He's not surprised that her eyes are glassy, tears shimmering.

 

And then he turns away because it hurts. Because it stabs and wounds, because it shaves pieces of flesh off his bones and he's the worst man on Earth and even if there's part of her that does love him like he loves her, he doesn't deserve it. And neither does she.

 

He picks up the T-shirt, slings it over his head, rubs his face on the towel, takes a breath.

 

She hasn't moved. Standing there with her ruined dress and her near-to-messy hair, the dirt on her knees and his bloody handprint on her back.

 

“You stay safe ma'am.”

 

His voice is cracked and she doesn't answer. She just bites down hard on her bottom lip and closes her eyes and, even in the dim bathroom, he can see she's shaking.

 

He has no idea what to do, so he touches her shoulder, squeezes it in a pathetic attempt at reassurance and walks out of her apartment and her life.

 

She fucks him up. But he tells himself that it's the last time it'll happen.

 

~~~

 

He watches the papers for the next few days. The Scythe is front page news. She doesn't write any of the stories and he wonders how she managed to sell that to her asshole boss especially considering she was responsible for all the others.

 

According to The Bulletin , the police have a vague idea of how things shook out in the alley but, judging by the description, this isn't remotely true. They also have a suspect and plan on apprehending him soon, although the banter on the police radio indicates that no one is all too worried about picking up the person who got rid of two of Hell’s Kitchen’s biggest headaches.

 

Regardless he waits for them. He's not sure why. He could move on, get the hell out of dodge. But the fact that no one has mentioned him or anyone else by name makes him wonder how real this suspect truly is or if it's just PR from an already heavily scrutinised precinct.

 

They don't come for him.

 

Someone else does however. And it makes Frank wish he could get himself arrested just to avoid it.

 

Murdock. Banging on his door one morning at 3am. Frank, dragging himself out of bed, reaching for his gun and stumbling for the latch before every neighbour he has decides to find out what and who exactly they're living next door to.

 

And he’s cursing what the actual fuck , but Murdock’s just standing there, asking if he can come inside. He needs to talk and yeah, sorry about the hour but he didn’t know when else to come.

 

And Frank wants to give him a hard time. Wants to bitch and moan about how many fucking visitors he’s getting all of a sudden and boundaries and shit, but Murdock looks so incredibly lost and forlorn that he stands aside and lets him in, locks the door behind him and offers him a beer. Because what else do you do when the fucking Devil of Hell’s Kitchen is in your living room?

 

Murdock refuses though. He’s antsy. Fidgety. And even though he can't see anything except everything he's glancing around the apartment like he can. Like he can take in the cheap Ikea crap, the whiskey stain on the floor. That impression of Karen Page on the couch.

 

Even though that's ridiculous.

 

Frank knows it is. It doesn't mean he doesn't see her there every fucking day.

 

“You wanna tell me what’s going on Red?” he asks after a while. “I mean, it’s great that you stopped by but I was kind of busy.”

 

There’s a moment that Murdock honestly looks like he has no idea why he came. Like the wheels have turned and something that seemed like a good idea when he made the decision has now shown itself to be anything but.

 

“I…” he starts and then closes his mouth, fidgets with his cane. “Karen…”

 

“Is she okay?” it’s out before he can stop it and he can’t blame Red for the sharp, slightly suspicious look he shoots at him.

 

“Yeah, she’s fine. She’s at her apartment.”

 

He tells himself that the sense of relief he feels is completely and utterly normal for the situation, that it would be the same sense of relief regardless of who the subject of the conversation was. And then he calls himself a lying cocksucker and looks back at Murdock, who is still pacing.

 

“So what about her?”

 

Again Red looks like he doesn’t know where to start or what to say. He's grinding his teeth and there's an anxiety to him that Frank's never seen before, not in all the time he's known him.  

 

“Red, you gonna have to give me somethin’ here.”

 

He sighs. He sounds entirely defeated and for a second it looks like he’s being forced to give out state secrets.

 

“Karen told me.”

 

“Told you what?” Because really there are so many things it could be. Her desperate kisses on this couch, his even more desperate confession in her bathroom. The way all that - and he has to laugh at the “all that” part because it really wasn’t much of anything - is over now. And now his life again feels like there is no joy to be had in the world. That he pushed her away because he didn’t think his heart was big enough for her and Maria to be in it. Because he thought moving on meant not loving Maria anymore and he could never see a way that could ever happen. Because it couldn’t.

 

He’s been wrong about so many things.

 

“That you saved her.”

 

Oh. Oh .

 

Yes. That.

 

Karen Page, dress torn, blood on her back and hair barely staying in its braid. Karen Page covering her head and kneeling in that filthy alley while he murdered men around her, drew their blood and bathed in it. Karen Page in his arms, telling him it was going to be okay, that they were safe and she was fine.

 

Karen Page.

 

His failsafe, his anchor.

 

But she's not his. She's not his at all.

 

And she fucks him up.

 

Murdock is saying something but he’s barely listening and he has to force himself to focus, push away that wave of longing and regret and bottle it up somewhere good and tight where he can’t find it again.

 

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

 

“I just wanted to say thank you. If you hadn’t been there…” he trails off, turns away as if he can’t stand to even say the words.

 

“You don’t need to thank me.”

 

“I do though,” he sighs, throws himself onto the couch with his head in his hands. “I was supposed to be there. It’s my job”

 

That's true. It was. And Frank knows better than anyone the consequences of not doing one's job.

 

He guesses he should say something, but honestly he has nothing. So he waits. Lets Red catch up. Process. Analyse. Or whatever the fuck it is that he’s doing.

 

“That was The Bulletin’s summer party. She asked me to come and I said yes and…” he pauses. “Well you know the rest.”

 

He does. He kind of knew all this before now too.

 

“Look Red,” and he has no idea why he’s even trying to make him feel better because this is really weird and uncomfortable and the last thing he wants is to become some kind of strange third wheel to whatever the fuck this thing is between Murdock and Karen. “It’s done. She’s fine and they’re not coming back.”

 

He pauses and it’s long and a little mean, air heavy with unsaid words. And, if Frank is honest, he wants it to be, wants Murdock to feel his criticism, let the air get thick with it. “You couldn’t have done that. You know you couldn’t.”

 

Murdock nods. It’s not guilt or embarrassment. It just is. He couldn’t have done it. Couldn’t have put them down like the rabid dogs they were and they both know it. And Karen could be dead now. And even the thought is enough to make Frank’s stomach roil, sweat stand out on his skin.

 

“You care about her don't you?” Murdock’s voice is low, sincere, but there's also something else, something a little like camaraderie.

 

Frank knows enough not to lie. Knows he has a human lie detector sitting on his couch and that the more he says the deeper entrenched he's going to find himself in this mess.

 

He shrugs. “She believed me. She helped me remember.”

 

It sounds so trite and so small for what it really was. Such an easy way to package what exists between them - the way her eyes met his across that hospital room and then again at that formica table that he was cuffed to in the prison. The way he got that first taste of her disappointment the day he threw his trial and again when he left her outside while he put Schoonover down. And no it doesn't fit and he thinks Murdock knows that, but he doesn't say anything. Instead he just sits and the silence stretches long and taut.

 

“I haven’t been very good to her,” he says eventually and he sounds almost wistful. “I love her, I do…”

 

“Red, if the next word you say is ‘but’ can we quit this now?”

 

Because he can’t do this. He really, really can’t. Can’t sit here discussing Karen Page with Matthew Murdock. Can’t sit here watching him squander what he has. It’s too much and it isn’t fair and he honestly doesn’t know how much more of this bullshit he can take. Because things were fine before. Things made sense even in their own twisted way when he finally came to grips with the fact that his life was gone. It wasn’t a nice sense, wasn’t something he was looking for or enjoying but there was a logic to it. And then a year later she walked into his life with her high heels and her pencil skirts, those blue eyes that break him in half and all of that hardened, cold rationality took a fucking nosedive. She tossed away his supports, put herself in their place and then moved away too (or, as he has to admit, he made her leave) and he’s falling again and there’s nothing and nobody to hold on to.

 

And now he’s listening to the man that seemingly has her heart qualify how he loves her, add caveats and conditions.

 

“It isn’t,” Murdock says but he doesn't say anything else and Frank knows he's lying. He doesn't even need supersonic hearing or a bloodhound’s olfactory glands to know. It's in his voice, written on his face.

 

He loves Karen. He just might not love her enough.

 

And this ranks up there in about the top ten worst conversations he's ever had.

 

“Red,” Frank puts up his hands even though Murdock can’t see them. “She’s fine. She wasn’t hurt.”

 

And he's really wishing they could just stop talking about this. He’d rather listen to a million of his sermons, argue over the best way to dispose of human garbage, fucking start another prison riot and become Fisk’s bitch. But he can’t talk about Karen Page. It hurts too much. It’s still too new. Too raw.

 

“Go do somethin’ nice for her okay? Go show her you can be there and you can turn up. That’s what she wants.”

 

And he’s really hoping that’s enough. That Murdock gets the message and leaves, that this little heart-to-heart is over and goes into the box of never-to-be-repeated bad experiences.

 

Murdock nods slowly, purses his lips as if this is advice he always knew but doesn't quite know how to digest. And then he pushes himself off the couch and grabs his cane.

 

“I can’t stop what I do Frank,” he says. “I don’t want to. Not even for her.”

 

He nods, realises Red can’t see it and mumbles something suitably incoherent.

 

“You get that don’t you?” he says as he goes to the door. “If Maria walked in here now and told you to stop, you couldn’t either.”

 

It takes every last drop of Frank’s self control not to punch him. But he doesn’t. Somehow he doesn't. It's close though. For a second it really is touch and go.

 

“If Maria walked through that door and asked me to chop my fuckin’ arm off, I’d do it Red. No questions asked.”

 

It’s true. He thinks it might be true for Karen as well. And he doesn’t feel remotely guilty about that either, regardless of the multiple reasons he should.

 

Murdock nods and it’s easy to see the distress on his face, the frown and the set of his jaw. And Frank doesn’t want to feel sorry for him but he does.

 

“You need to figure out what you want Red,” he says as he ushers him into the passage. “And then hold onto it. Use two hands.”

 

It’s pretty much the only advice he has. He wishes he’d take it himself.

 

~~~

 

He doesn’t see her after that. Not for a long time. It’s like he’s spent all his Karen Page currency and there are no more chance encounters. He doesn’t see her on her way to work, in the street or the store. He’s even stuck his head in at Josie’s a few times just to see if she’s there but she never is.

 

He doesn’t believe in fate, can’t honestly claim he even believes in God anymore, not after what happened, not after the carousel and the sound of Maria’s voice ringing in his ears. But he can’t deny there seems to be some kind of cosmic pattern to this. The universe tosses them together when he has a role to play, a job to do, and when he doesn’t, it keeps her away.

 

He knows he could find her. He could go to her apartment, could wait outside her office but he doesn’t want to do that. It feels like he would be going back on his word, intruding somehow. Like that promise he made when he put his hand on her shoulder in the bathroom didn’t mean anything.

 

He doesn’t break his promises.

 

He carries on punishing, works his way through the Yakuza and the Irish, busts open another ring of traffickers holed up at the foot of the Catskills and leaves them at the bottom of the Hudson. He gets the cops to come out and pick up the seven teenagers being held there and when he sees Karen’s editorial the next day calling for increased punishment for sex offenders and human rights violations, he knows she knows it’s him.

 

The weather starts getting colder which is a relief from the stifling Hell’s Kitchen summer and the trees turn from bright greens to spectacular browns and oranges. And he tries not to think about Lisa and how they used to rake the yard in the fall just so she could throw herself into the piles of leaves. How she would squeal with delight when Frank Jr would launch himself in on top of her, cover her from head to toe under a blanket of foliage. He tries. It seldom works. He thinks of Maria too and the pumpkin spice lattes she used to like and how he couldn’t stand them, how the first time she gave him one he spat it out all over the ground and told her that coffee wasn’t meant to taste like a fucking vegetable.

 

He wonders what Karen drinks. If she’s only a straight up black and bitter kind of girl or if she too can be seduced by the caramel frappuccinos and the raspberry macchiatos. And it bothers him that he doesn’t know.

 

Halloween comes and goes and he watches kids trick-or-treating in the streets, teenagers dressed as angels and devils making out in parks and graveyards. Even Josie’s makes an attempt at the festivities and lines with the windows with fake cobwebs - or maybe they’re real. It’s Josie’s, there’s no actual way to know until you're the main course for a bunch of hungry arachnids.

 

He spends Thanksgiving alone which is kind of depressing but when the world thinks you’re a dead psychopath and you want things to stay that way, rocking up at old friends for dinner is probably not the wisest move.

 

He’s lonely though. Of course he is, and he guesses that’s just the way things will be from now on. He doesn’t have friends, can’t have them, and what family he has left he’s unwilling to draw into this nightmare life he’s created for himself.

 

It gets colder. The Christmas rush starts and a smattering of snow falls in Hell’s Kitchen. He watches people carrying trees and lights and generally going apeshit in the shops over crap that they don’t need.

 

He continues to punish. He continues to hurt.

 

And on the days he doesn't, he sits at home on his bed staring at the couch and imagining Karen still sitting on it. But she’s not crying. She’s laughing. And she’s beautiful and she’s everything he ever wanted. And when he thinks about leaving, about moving on, it’s still the imagined press of her fingertips that makes him stay. That anchor. That centre.

 

That failsafe that’s also a fucking detonator.

 

His punishment. His comeuppance.

 

He guesses the universe needs ways of righting itself. He can't live the life he does and never get hurt. And he thinks maybe whatever cosmic force runs this giant fucking shithole joint called Earth realises that bruises and scratches, gunshots and stab wounds, don't do much to him, so it needs to find subtler ways of hurting him. And it does.

 

It always does.

 

It's Christmas Eve when he sees her again. He's wandering the streets unable to stay alone in his shitty apartment while the world goes on around him. He's walking it out. He always does. It's cold, snow falling prettily on the sidewalks, not yet changing to slush. There's an aging Santa standing on the corner ringing a bell and he can see from the way he carries himself he's a vet. And that kills him inside.

 

He can hear carolers singing in one of the parks and he watches as children, dressed warmly in bright colours, noses and cheeks pink, flock towards a nativity scene in amongst the trees.

 

Everything’s gaudy and tacky in a way only Christmas can be. That strange meeting point where religion and spirituality and hundreds of years of bloodshed come together in an overwhelming and almost obscene display of red and green light and silver tinsel.

 

It's also beautiful and he tries so hard not to think of all the Christmases he had before. When there was just him and Maria and they lived in an apartment almost as shitty as the one he has now. How they'd always be late to her parents for Christmas lunch because they were too busy making love in front of the tree.

 

How after that it wasn't just them and Lisa came along and they moved into the house. How they were still late but then because of the time they spent playing with her and unwrapping presents.

 

And then his boy. Frank Jr. Always more excited by the box than what was inside. The way they’d all sit on the floor together and every now and then he'd catch Maria’s eye and she'd smile at him. And they never said it but they didn't have to.

 

We did good. We did so good.

 

But he's not doing good now. Hasn't for a long time. The closest he came was a year ago when he made the fucked up decision to kiss Karen Page and opened up a world of hurt he never intended.

 

A world she continues to needle at with alarming precision.

 

It's dark. The sun sets early these days and it's really cold. He's wearing gloves and has his hands shoved deep in his pockets, wishes he'd brought a scarf and a hat too. But he's not ready to go home. It's too lonely, especially on a day like this. The best days and also the worst.

 

So he's just walking, loathe to admit that it really is getting too cold to be outside. That he either needs to head into some dodgy coffee shop where he’ll be surrounded by people sadder than him and share in the communal melancholy or he needs to go home and put himself to bed and not wake up until this farce is over.

 

He passes an upmarket steakhouse on 12th. The windows are dark but he can see decorations and fairy lights, can hear whoops of laughter coming from inside and he turns to look.

 

It's small. Cozy. Maybe even a little 1970s cheesy with its wood-panelled walls and burnished leather seats, big crackling fireplace. There's a few couples scattered at tables on the edges but that's not where the noise is coming from.

 

There's a party, a largish one from what he can see, gathered around a long wooden table in the middle of the floor. People drinking and laughing, dressed up. Not too smart but maybe more formal than what he would expect for a steakhouse.

 

He wonders idly about it for a second. If it's a family gathering - a Christmas Eve special where everyone managed to make it - or maybe an office party but he thinks those are all done and dusted by now.

 

Maybe it's just easier to do Christmas out than at home. Less washing up or something. But there is a banner, large and white, two champagne glasses and a gaudy silver “Congratulations” scrawled across it. So the truth is he guesses it could be anything.

 

He shrugs, carries on walking. Much to his chagrin he thinks his decision has been made and he's going to go and commiserate with equally lost souls in a diner somewhere but it's so cold that he thinks he might freeze to death before he gets there.

 

And that's when he hears her voice behind him. Soft, gentle. The way she's always says his name, a little like a dream or a prayer she's not quite ready to fully commit to.

 

He turns, half thinking that he's mad, half thinking that he's so incredibly lonely that he's imagining things and this is some ghost of her in his head, some twisted wish fulfilment that means he's more fucked up than he thought.

 

But it's not.

 

She's there, standing behind him, all long legs and styled hair, wearing a short dress made of black lace, hint of a red flower pattern. And for a moment he can’t process anything except how beautiful she is. Because he’s an idiot and all he can do is gawk at her and wonder if she’s really real.

 

But she says his name again, same as before, and he remembers the way she would speak to him back when things weren’t so fucked up and falling in love with her was the furthest thing from his mind. Back when they were honest and they didn’t bullshit each other.

 

It makes his bones weak and there’s a second he thinks he might actually need to lean against something to stay standing.

 

He stutters out some words. He isn’t sure what. It could be her name. It could just be some jumbled sounds to fill the air. And she smiles.

 

“Haven’t seen you around Frank,” she says.

 

Haven’t really wanted to be seen.

 

But he has. He really has. He’s wanted to be seen and be noticed. He’s wanted to feel her cool blue gaze against his skin. Doesn’t matter why. Doesn’t matter if she’s using it to drown him or make him feel two feet tall. He’ll take either.

 

“Seen me now,” he manages to say and she tilts her head slightly, takes the time to look at him, appraise him, and he wants to pull on his beard but he doesn’t.

 

“Yeah,” she says sadly. “I have.”

 

He nods because he can’t decide if that’s disappointment or wistfulness in her voice.

 

She wraps her arms around herself and he takes a step towards her, no real plan in mind. He could give her his coat, usher her inside, take her in his arms and draw her in and warm her skin with his hands.

 

But he can’t.

 

He doesn’t get to do that. His failsafe is failing.

 

“You should go inside ma’am,” he says softly. “It’s freezin’ out here.”

 

She glances back at the restaurant, at the door, the fire inside and she shakes her head.

 

“No, I want to see you,” she blinks hard and he doesn’t think it’s from the snow that’s falling on her lashes. “Saw you walking past and I just…”

 

She trails off but she doesn’t need to say anything else. He knows what she means. Knows that how they left things feels unfair. Unfinished.

 

His lips on her cheek, her hands in his hair. Oh god. The press of her fingertips against his skin and how that’s become the only thing he really has left to hold onto that’s not monstrous.

 

He looks at her and he knows he’s the worst man in the world.

 

She looks back and she knows it too.

 

And the worst man in the world deserves no mercy.

 

And she doesn’t give him any.

 

“There’s … there’s something I wanted to tell you,” she says. “I looked for you but I didn’t want to go to your place. I said I wouldn’t.”

 

And for a second he doesn’t know what she’s talking about, forgets that pain is his currency and that the universe consistently finds new and exquisite ways of hurting him. He cocks his head, frowns at her.

 

She holds up her left hand. Her engagement ring shines like fire in the pale moonlight. All dark rubies and glittering diamonds. A seal around her slim finger. A symbol of where she belongs.

 

He doesn’t know how he didn’t notice it immediately.

 

(Go do somethin’ nice for her okay? Go show her you can be there and you can turn up.)

 

He doesn’t stagger. Of that he’s sure of. It’s a small victory but a victory nonetheless. He doesn’t fall to his knees either even though his legs feel like jelly and his gut is churning. But he feels slow, sluggish, like he’s drunk too much from that whiskey stain on his floor. Like all the sound has suddenly been removed from the world and all that’s left is white noise and it disorients him and leaves him gasping.

 

She’s not trying to explain, not offering up any thoughts or excuses. Not like she did the night she came to him after he saw her and Murdock in the streets. He wonders if it’s because she can’t or if it’s because she doesn’t feel the need to anymore. If she’s managed truly to remove him from under her skin so that it no longer matters.

 

But her eyes are shimmering and her voice is cracked, so maybe it does.

 

“He asked me three weeks ago,” she’s saying and he really doesn’t want to hear it. “Said he’d done a lot of soul searching, said he wanted this.”

 

He finds it in himself to look at her. He doesn’t need to say it. It hangs in the air between them like gunsmoke.

 

What do you want?

 

“I just … I thought you should know.”

 

“Are you happy?” he asks and he has no idea where that came from, nor the strength of his voice. Because he feels weak to his core and like a steady breeze could blow him the hell away, into the sky and out to sea, his anchor gone, lost.

 

She purses her lips, blinks again.

 

“We can make it work…”

 

“That's not what I asked.”

 

Her eyes are enormous and for a second it looks like she might tell the truth. Like she might come to him, leave the bullshit behind. Make things like they once were. Honest. Real. Raw. Even when it hurt.

 

But she doesn't.

 

“I have to go,” she says. “Matt will be here soon.”

 

She turns and he watches as the snow falls on her skin, on the nape of her neck where he rested his hand, on her back where he smeared a dead man’s blood. Her legs that once, a million years ago pressed into his hips and offered him a place in her heart, her body.

 

And he can’t. He just can’t let things end like this. Can’t let her walk out of his life again and spend the next year cursing himself for it every day.

 

“Karen,” he calls as she gets to the door and she pauses, turns to look at him. A lock of hair works its way loose and brushes against her cheek - the exact same place he put his lips and his life when he asked her to let him take care of her and keep her safe.

 

He has nothing. He has absolutely nothing. There are no words.

 

He has something.

 

“Karen, don’t do this,” he says softly, “Please don’t.”

 

And she looks at him long and hard and he can see the wetness on her cheeks turning to ice and the way she’s worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.

 

The prettiest girl in the world has a ring on her finger and tears in her eyes.

 

Her words, a punch in the gut, a knife in his heart. He’s two feet tall and she wields her disappointment like a sword.

 

“It’s already done Frank.”

 

And she looks away, takes a breath and goes back inside.

 

Chapter Text

She fucks him up.

 

She always has. No, still not the tight skirts or the high heels. Not the pretty blue eyes he wants to drown in, nor the long blonde hair he prefers loose and messy. It's her. It’s how he feels her deep in his bones, like she’s become part of him and him of her. It’s how she walked into his life, opened him up, saw all his scars and his holes and the marks left by bullets, and carved some more into him. Ones just for her. Places only she could fit. And then she left them and him, and he feels empty and cold and like everything that is him - everything that is Frank Castle - is pouring out through those flaws in his flesh. He's nothing more than a sieve.

 

She fucks him up.

 

He’s been here before, he tells himself. He’s been here before and it was worse than this could ever be. He survived that. He will do the same with this.

 

But that little wise voice is speaking to him again and this time it’s not telling him to look after himself and beware. It’s not telling him that he shouldn’t want her or love her or touch her. It’s telling him that this isn’t a competition, that not only the worst pain means something. That there are degrees of heartache and none of them can or should be ignored.

 

It’s also warning that pain like this is cumulative. That sure, he recovered from a gunshot wound to the head and he’s in some sense as good as new, for any given definition of “good” or “new”. But this specific brand of hurt doesn’t work the same as wounds to the flesh and he should know that already. He’s an asshole who thought he knew all about torture and suffering but he didn’t know enough and maybe now it’s too late.

 

And it fucking kills him that he is who he is and he does what he does, and one sweet girl with blue eyes can destroy him. Another woman. Another woman with the power to rip his heart out, tear it apart and feed it to the fucking dogs.

 

Bring the goddamn pain. Bring it .

 

He should never have wanted this. He should have known that when he chose the life he did, his sacrifices weren’t going to be measured in blood but in loneliness. He forgot. He let himself take and he let himself be taken. And ultimately, no matter how he feels about her, he shouldn’t have allowed either one of those things to happen.

 

He looks at the whiskey stain on his floor. If he squints it’s vaguely the shape of California and to be fair that seems as good a destination as any right now. Warmth and sunlight, get down to the coast. A fresh glut of bad guys he can punish. There's nothing left for him in New York anyway ... if there ever was in the first place. He’s killed Schoonover. He’s killed a lot of other things too.

 

She said she was done that night. She wasn't. And he finds more than anything he wishes she hadn't been lying.

 

He’s aware that he’s cold, that he didn’t turn the heat on when he got in. That he’s sitting on his bed wrapped in his coat. That his bags are packed and by the door and that he still needs to strip the sheets but he can’t make himself do anything anymore.

 

He’s also aware that right now this is a fool’s errand, a child’s tantrum. He has nowhere to go. There’s nowhere he could find a place to sleep tonight if he leaves and that seems really fucking appropriate for Christmas Eve. Despite his sour mood, he can’t help but snort.

 

Still, it doesn’t solve the immediate issue. He’s stuck here at least for tonight, probably tomorrow and the day after too. And even if he’s not, he’s still stuck. Because he knows that Karen Page doesn’t just fade into non-existence the further away from her he gets. She’s not some kind of magnetic field.

 

Except she is. That, in itself, is more than half the problem.

 

He’s also given up trying to talk himself out of it. He’s tired of justifying it, tired of trying to sell himself empty platitudes about the hows and whys and convince himself that this has turned out for the best. Because he knows it hasn’t.

 

He suspects deep down, judging by the tears on her face and the look in her eyes, she knows it too.

 

He makes coffee. He doesn’t drink it and it gets cold on his bedside table. He cleans his gun and comes close to leaving it in pieces on the couch, but doesn’t. He tries to read but the words swim on the page and he can’t follow even the most basic sentence. Any other night he’d be outside hunting for blood, taking down pimps and mobsters and whatever other kind of human scum the city has produced. But not tonight. It’s Christmas Eve. Maybe staying in is his gift to the world.

 

He eventually strips into sweatpants and goes to bed. But he sleeps badly. Horribly. Waking up every hour, head aching worse each time he does like someone has taken a hammer to his skull and is chipping away at it meticulously until brain matter is exposed.

 

She's one girl. One girl . She shouldn't have this kind of hold on him. But she does.

 

It’s the worst feeling, except it isn’t.

 

The clock says 3:58 when he wakes up for the final time disoriented and sick to his stomach. The banging in his skull is worse than ever, louder and harder and reverberating through his apartment - his shitty little life on the wrong side of the wrong side of town.

 

He shakes his head, squeezes his eyes shut, waits for the noise to end. But it doesn’t. It carries on, incessant and angry, and he swears he hears someone say his name.

 

And that’s when he realises the noise is coming from outside, that someone is thudding on his door and calling to him, begging him to open up because she knows he’s in there. Because he has to fucking be in there and she’s not leaving and she doesn’t care who else she needs to wake up in this block to get inside.

 

“Open the door Frank. Open the fucking door.”

 

He’s not sure what he expects as he flicks on his dim bedside light, stumbles out of the covers and into the frigid air, not sure what’s going to greet him on the other side. Can't for the life of him imagine what's brought her back or why. What could be so damn important that she broke her promise and swallowed her pride.

 

He can hear some angry voices coming from down the corridor, people shouting at her to shut up, but she’s not stopping. If anything she’s just getting louder and more determined.

 

He doesn't bother with his gun. He's less paranoid now about visitors it would seem. All he wonders about is what fresh hell she has in store for him. What kind of crisis she has brought to him now.

 

How deep it will flay his soul.

 

He reaches for the latch, pulls at the chain and the seedy light from the corridor floods the room, turning everything sallow and ugly.

 

Except her.

 

Of course except her.

 

Because she's the prettiest girl in the world.

 

The prettiest girl in the world and she doesn’t have a ring on her finger.

 

She's not crying either. He can see she has been but she isn't now and her hair is hanging long and loose. Messy. She's still in that lace dress though, a short open leather coat over it.

 

And for a second she seems almost surprised that he's there and that he actually opened the door. Surprised and relieved and he's not sure which is more confusing.

 

She drops her hands to her sides. Blinks. Swallows.

 

He opens his mouth. He's hoping the words will choose themselves because he has no idea what he's going to say but there's nothing. Really nothing this time.

 

There's just her and him and the freezing air and yellow light between them.

 

She takes a breath, bites her lip, seems to be searching his face for something but he has no idea what. She seems also to have trouble formulating words.

 

And then it happens. Soft and slow. Simple. He guesses after everything it couldn't happen any other way.

 

“You Frank. I want you .”

 

(What do you want?)

 

And again he feels like he's falling. Like the ground has been ripped out from under him and there's absolutely nothing in the whole wide world to catch him.

 

Except there is.

 

She's moving forward, stepping through the door and into his arms which somehow opened for her of their own volition because he doesn't fucking get a say when it comes to her. And then she's holding him, palms flat on his naked shoulders, head pressed tightly into his throat and he's kicking the door shut behind her and pulling her close, hands sliding underneath her coat and onto her waist, his blood roaring in his ears.

 

For the moment he doesn't care why she's here, only that she is. That she said she wanted him and yes they can unpack that in a while - they're going to need to unpack it - but right now all he wants is to hold her and press his lips to her hair, listen to her breathe, smell her perfume and, under that, the scent of her skin. It doesn't matter what's happened, what they've done to each other. He just wants this moment because godfuckingdamnit after everything, he deserves it. And maybe it's also all there'll ever be. Maybe they don't get more than this, her cold skin pressed to his, the smell of her, the feel of her.

 

It's not enough. It's a shot in the dark that anything ever will be, but he could make it so it is.

 

She's whispering something and he has to strain to hear it over the sound of his heartbeat, the sound of hers.

 

“I’m sorry, I know I said I wouldn't come back…”

 

And she's shivering, and it's 50/50 that it's only the cold. He gathers her closer, hushes her.

 

“Don't do that,” he says. Don't pretend you don't know what this is doing to me. Don't pretend that you don't know why I'm holding on like this. That I couldn't give a fuck about a stupid promise you made months ago when we were both not our best. Don't pretend . And then I won't either.

 

“I couldn't leave things the way they were.”

 

He lifts a hand from her waist, cups the back of her head, combs his fingers through her hair and presses a kiss into her temple, keeps his lips against her and closes his eyes. No matter what happens he’s starting to think him and Karen will always have unfinished business.

 

“It's alright,” he says.

 

Because it really is, because she’s really here and yes, she's fucking him up again - fucking him up so bad he has no idea how he's going to make it through the next few seconds - but he doesn’t care. She has a right. She's allowed. Because when the universe decided the Punisher needed a failsafe it accorded her with certain privileges … one being the right to come into his life and fine tune it however the fuck she wants.

 

And she does.

 

He doesn’t get a say and the truth is he doesn’t want one.

 

He just wants to hold her in his cold, dark, shitty apartment on the wrong side of the wrong side of town, press his lips to her hair and never think about another thing as long as he lives.

 

And then she’s whispering, her mouth close to his ear, breath tickling him.

 

“You can keep me safe Frank. I want you to do that,” and he feels like his knees might buckle and he might just fall into that whiskey stain and drown but she’s not stopping. “But I want to keep you safe too. You gotta say that’s okay Frank. You have to.”

 

She fucks him up.

 

She fucks him up so badly. And he feels a shiver racing down his spine, heat blooming against his cold skin and he starting to wonder how he’s still standing. How he even dares . Because this girl, this fucking girl, is climbing inside him and breaking him down piece by piece, taking away every last defence he ever had, every lie he ever told himself. And she’s merciless.

 

“You have say it Frank,” her voice is low, strained. “It doesn’t work if you don’t.”

 

She’s right. It doesn’t. And he’s an asshole and he’s an idiot but that makes no difference at all.

 

“It’s okay,” It’s more than fucking just okay but he doesn’t have the words to tell her. “You keep me safe.”

 

Fact is she’s already doing it, he just doesn’t think she realises how much or how many times she’s saved him. But it doesn’t matter because she’s surging forward again, fighting her way out of her coat, letting it fall onto the floor and squeezing him so tightly he thinks she genuinely might crack his ribs.

 

And she’s kissing him, small soft kisses along his jaw, his throat, the lines of his collarbones. And his hand drops from her hair and back to her waist, covering her ribs and pressing hard against the material of her dress. This is such a bad idea. Such a terrible, fucked up, stupid, wonderful idea.

 

She arches then, makes a small noise in the back of her throat. And, even in the scrambled mess that he using for a brain, even though her lips pressed into his skin and the searing heat of her tongue against him feels like it’s going to drive him out of his mind, it occurs to him that there’s still something he doesn’t know. Something he has to know before he gives himself over to this.

 

He reaches behind him and takes her left hand, pulls it to his mouth, brushes his lips against her skin, over the place that hours before bore a ring that tied her to another man.

 

He opens his eyes, looks at her, hopes he doesn’t need to say the words.

 

He doesn’t. She gets it. Instantly. And even as he’s kissing her fingers, she’s speaking.

 

“He knows,” she says and he waits. There's more, he can hear it in her voice and she sighs. “I ended it. He didn’t make it there, to the restaurant.”

 

He pulls back a little, frowns.

 

“We waited,” she says. “Waited for three hours.”

 

She sounds resigned but not disappointed, not sad and he tilts his head to listen to her. It’s not that he doesn’t trust her, not that he thinks she’d come here and screw up his life, destroy him for a rebound fuck. She’s Karen Page and she’s loyal to a fucking fault and somewhere he realises that means loyal to him too. But still, he has to know.

 

“I was so angry with him,” she says. “I was so embarrassed. Everyone was there. Foggy, Marci, Claire, all the people from work, my boss.

 

“I knew it was over, I knew it. If our engagement party can’t be a priority then what can?”

 

“Karen…”

 

She rushes to continue. “But that’s not why I’m here Frank. Matt’s a mess and things weren’t working and I should have accepted that way before I agreed to marry him, way before I even let it get that far. But that’s not why I’m here. It's not. I promise you it's not.”

 

She gets like this. He's seen it before. She automatically assumes people won't believe her and she tosses her frustration out into the world as a starting point. She doesn’t need to. Not with him. They don’t lie.

 

Please God, they don’t lie.

 

“Why are you here then?”

 

He keeps his voice low because he’s worried her answer will hurt. Despite everything, he’s already tense, anticipating some kind of new pain.

 

She bites her lip again and blinks hard, eyes shimmering in the weak light.

 

“I’m here Frank because when I was waiting for Matt and everyone was there and it was the worst time and I was so hurt and so angry and everyone was trying to be so good to me and pretend this wasn't awkward as fuck, I realised that the only thing worse than him not turning up was if he did.”

 

She glances away, hands loosening on his arms and he reaches out, touches her jaw, makes her look back at him. And she does. And she’s beautiful.

 

A breath, this one also resigned.

 

“I didn’t want him to come because then I would have an excuse to end it. Because I thought I needed one. I needed a story that would let me leave. But I didn’t. Because the reasons were all there before and I ignored them. And suddenly after I saw you tonight I wanted that story, I wanted it more than anything. Because...”

 

She trails off and tries to look away again but his grip on her is firm.

 

“Why?” he asks. You gotta say it too Karen. You gotta say it or it doesn’t work.

 

“You know why Frank. You know .”

 

He doesn’t wait to hear any more. Doesn’t care.

 

He surges and she does too. And somewhere in the middle his mouth meets hers, hot and wet, teeth knocking together as she licks into him, tongue sliding along his. She still tastes of lipgloss, sweet and sugary, a sticky cherry flavour that he swallows until he can taste her underneath, real and raw and earthy. Sunshine and snow and rain. And that’s when his hands close on her hips, pressing down hard enough that she gasps into his mouth, and he backs her into the cold brick wall next to the front door. He pins her to him, one knee pressing against the skirt of her dress and pulling it tight over her thighs.

 

The truth is he’s not really sure where this is going. He hasn’t let himself entertain any of these fantasies since the day he first kissed her on the couch and she got inside him and managed to pry the lid off this particular part of his life again. He’s ignored it, forced it away and has basically done all he can to pretend that, for better or worse, the only option is to leave it alone. At the same time, even if he could formulate one, he doesn’t think he needs a plan for this. The little voice in his head is quiet and all he can hear is his heartbeat and the small sounds she’s making as she arches into him, the little moans that come out of her and into him and he feels all the way down to his toes.

 

He doesn’t need to feel guilty. He can do this. He can do anything he wants.

 

And he does.

 

Hands sliding down over her ass to her thighs, flesh cool and smooth as he tries to hike her legs over his hips. Again her dress is too tight. Again it’s a nightmare and he’s groping for the zip and again it’s sticking and impossible to get a grip on - the tiny catch slipping out of his fingers every time he does. She’s not making it easy either. Because she’s grabbing at him, nails digging into his back; rough kisses making him forget what the fuck it is that he’s doing or trying to do.

 

“Rip it Frank,” she’s saying. “Rip it.”

 

He does.

 

Later he’ll contemplate how she now has two ruined dresses because of him, how they could have taken the few seconds they needed to save this one. But that’s all for later. Because the fabric is tearing, a horrific screaming sound as it gives under his hands, a gentle cry from her as it bites into her flesh and then falls immediately forgotten to the floor. And he hears himself promising that he’ll buy her ten new dresses one day - any colours she wants - but she isn't listening. Instead she’s using the wall for leverage to move herself onto him, kicking off her shoes and wrapping her legs around his waist. And, as he presses against her, he can feel her heat through the thin scrap of lacy underwear, through the cotton of his sweatpants, and he groans into her mouth.

 

“Missed you so much,” he's saying. “Missed you so fuckin’ much.”

 

And there's so much more he wants to say too. Tell her she can't fucking do this. She can't come into his life and make him feel things and then leave again. She can’t give him back that feeling and then take it all away. She can't save him and then ruin him and then save him again. That she doesn't get to do that. She can't.

 

But she can.

 

She can do whatever the fuck she likes. Because she's his failsafe and he doesn't get a say.

 

And he knows how unfair that is but she's kissing him again, hard and gentle, firm and sweet all at the same time and every thought goes out of his head. There's only her. Only her mouth and the feel of her skin against his, the way his fingers are curling around her thighs, her hands in his hair, nails scraping against his scalp.

 

There's only her.

 

And she fucks him up.

 

She fucks him up in the best possible way.

 

Mouth still pressed to hers, he carries her to the bed, away from the cold, rough wall and somehow he also has the wherewithal to hit the switch for the heat. It's freezing and they're both shivering and the last thing he wants her to do is cover up and hide that flesh that he’s only seen so little of.

 

But, as he’s lying her down in his sheets and positioning himself into the warm space she’s created for him, running his fingers through her hair, that seems just about the furthest thing from her mind. She’s pushing herself up on one arm so that she’s half sitting and able to reach around behind her for the catch of her bra, fumbling a little as he brushes his lips against her cheek, nuzzles at her jaw, and then kisses her again.

 

He’s being clumsy, he knows this. He’d probably go as far as to say he’s sloppy but she doesn’t seem to mind because she’s being pretty damn messy herself. He gives himself a pass because it’s been so long and this all feels so new. He gives her a pass because it’s her and she can do whatever the fuck she likes.

 

She’s still groping at her bra, stopping intermittently as he’s kissing her to steady herself on the bed and then trying again.

 

“Frank,” she half whispers, half giggles as her hand comes down on the sheets for the third time and he covers it with his own. “Frank you have to let me…”

 

He grins as he twists his fingers through hers, holds her hand still. Lips against her neck, tongue tracing the lines of her throat. Licking her. Tasting her at that place where her life force pounds against his mouth, his saliva leaving glistening wet trails on her skin and a rash of gooseflesh in its wake.

 

It’s not only the cold. It can’t be.

 

She sighs, groans, hint of a dry laugh and seemingly gives up; arches into him, legs hooking over the backs of his knees and hips grinding so hard against him he thinks he might actually come there and then.

 

He gasps, pulls back far enough to escape the friction and see her face in the half light. She’s trying not to smile. Trying hard but failing. And he wonders when the tone of this changed, how it went from something tremulous and a little frightening and somehow managed to open itself to a kind of playfulness as well.

 

He can’t help it, he smiles too. His mouth quirking on one side and he has to look away, can’t find it in himself to meet her eyes, until she makes him. Until she reaches out and touches his jaw, angles him back towards her.

 

This is nuts. She doesn’t need to say it, he can see it written all over her face. He’s pretty sure it’s all over his too. Pretty sure neither of them care.

 

Her eyes though. Her eyes. Big and blue and dark with desire, pupils enormous, blown. He may have lost himself in them too many times to count, but for once he’s not drowning. They’re not making him feel two feet tall either. But they are flaying him, cutting him deep to his bones, knocking him over and spinning him sideways.

 

She says his name, soft and low like she always does and she wipes her thumb across his cheek, leans in and kisses him gently, chastely even.

 

“We doin’ this?” he asks and his voice is gravel.

 

She smiles. “We better be.”

 

He reaches behind her then, lets his fingers trail over her shoulder blades down to the clasp of her bra. He struggles a little - once again cutting himself a break because it’s been so long - but it’s really only seconds before it all comes flooding back to him and muscle memory takes over. The hooks snap and the satin loosens around her.

 

He glances at her and she nods once, short and sharp, and then he’s helping her to slide it off, tossing it somewhere on the floor.

 

He kisses her again just as gentle and chaste as she did him and then his gaze rakes over her, eyes eating her up.

 

She’s beautiful. That’s not even a question. It was never up for debate. He knew it. Has always known it. Even so, he sucks in a ragged breath. She’s all silky skin and smooth curves, pale nipples puckering in the still chilly air, flat belly fluttering with each breath. His eyes follow the dip of her waist, the swell of her hips and then finally land on the sodden black lace of her underwear.

 

He can smell her, he realises. Intoxicating and musky. Sweet. Heady.

 

He groans. He thinks he says “ma’am” and he thinks she smirks at him when he does. He gets that it’s inappropriate that somewhere in his fucked up brain he still sees her that way, but his tongue feels thick and slow in his mouth and he doesn’t have any other words. Wouldn’t know how to use them if he did.

 

His hands shake as he reaches for her and it's stupid and ridiculous and he's not a fucking teenager copping a feel in the backseat of a car. He’s not . But, as his thumb traces the soft skin of her breast, he feels like he just might be.

 

She draws a sharp breath and her flesh prickles and when she says his name he feels her voice in every part of him, rolling through him like a wave at high tide. Flooding him.

 

He shifts, hikes her thighs up, presses his cock against the cradle of her hips and he lets out a sound that he’s not sure he’s ever made before - low, guttural, something close to an animal snarl, something frightening. And yet, when he looks at her, she’s not frightened. Not even a little bit. Yes, her eyes are wide and her skin is flushed and she’s as acutely aware as he is of the desire glistening on her thighs, but she’s also fearless. She always is. And she's watching him, quietly, expectantly, head slightly cocked. She’s waiting for him, he realises. Waiting for him to catch up. Understand.

 

She’s his.

 

Oh god. His .

 

And for a second there’s literally nothing he can do. Nothing other than lean over her, his hand stuttering millimetres from her breast and let the feeling slam through him, try and comprehend its magnitude, its gravity.

 

It hurts. Later he won’t even try and deny that. It hurts so much that it feels like his heart is trying to break out through his chest, like his bones are cracking just to let it. There was never meant to be a round two, and it was never meant to be like this. It wasn’t supposed to feel this important and leave him in pieces, lost and confused. He wasn't supposed to get this feeling back. Ever.

 

And there’s a moment that he feels completely and utterly alone. Helpless and struggling for breath. Bruised and battered from all angles.

 

Punished .

 

And he has no idea how he’s going to carry on.

 

And then she catches him. She always does. She puts her hand on his chest, fingertips pressing over his heart where his blood is thick and pounding. And it feels like she's holding him together, soothing him. She moves forward, nudges his lips open with hers, kisses him sweeter and slower than she ever has. And despite the fact that they’re both more naked than not, that his cock is nothing but raw thudding heat between his legs, between hers, it feels innocent, pure even.

 

Stay with me Frank. Stay with me and I’ll keep you safe.

 

She will. He knows it's true because she promised. She said it and made him say it back. She doesn't lie to him.

 

He doesn't feel cold anymore and he's not sure if that's because the heat has kicked in or if it's her - a little fire in his bed - burning him, sloughing all the rotten bits of him off. And then her small moans, low and gentle but husky as he cups her breasts, rubs his thumbs over her nipples and leans in to kiss her throat.

 

“You fuck me up,” he grits out between his teeth. “You know that don't you Karen? You fuck me up.”

 

She arches into him as he bites down on her shoulder.

 

“Who the fuck do you think you are? Comin’ in here like this? Some blonde with a tight skirt and those fuckin’ eyes? Think those pretty blue eyes are gonna save you?”

 

He bites again and then lifts his head to look at her and she's watching him, eyes slits and lips parted, all traces of that earlier innocence gone.

 

“No,” she says and her voice is so thick and low he has to strain to hear it. “I'm kind of counting on them not to.”

 

He feels that right down to his cock and has to take a moment before he can look at her again. But she knows. Of course she knows. Because she’s his failsafe and she promised she’d look after him. And she doesn’t lie.

 

And after that it's easy. His mouth on her breasts, tongue working in small circles on her nipples, leaving them swollen and shining. His fingers dipping low on her thighs as he spreads her open beneath him. Her little breathless whimpers as his knuckles graze the wet fabric of her panties. And the kisses, oh god , the kisses. The way he can’t seem to go more than a few minutes without working his way back up to her mouth and when he can - when he finds the willpower to stay away a little longer - the way she hauls him back in, hands closing on his biceps, the sound of his name as she pulls him to her, twines her fingers through his hair and sends little shocks down his spine, and finally puts her mouth on his.

 

It wasn’t meant to be like this. It really, really wasn’t. But he’s so glad it is.

 

He’s not sure how long they stay like that. Not sure how long he spends with his mouth on her breasts and belly, sucking bruises into her skin, rolling her nipples between his teeth and biting down on her so that she gasps. Not sure how long it is she’s digging her nails into his back, cursing him. But eventually he finds himself lying at her side, her head pillowed on his shoulder, his palm flat on her belly, stroking hesitant circles into her skin.

 

She's kissing him, fingers twisting in his hair, tugging him closer but the tone has changed again. The expectation is back and it's only getting stronger with each revolution of his hand.

 

And when she moves her body up in a slow wave so that he's pressing against wet lace, he doesn’t want to wait any longer.

 

This is also easy. Fingers sliding slowly under the waistband of her panties, across smooth, soft skin and then parting on each side of her clit before delving deeper into that place where she's soaked and hot.

 

She stops kissing him abruptly, moaning into his mouth and he can't help it, he moans too.

 

Fuck Karen,” he says into her neck. “Fuck, you feel so good.”

 

And she does as she opens to him. She’s all smooth, tight heat; slick wetness he wants to drown himself in.

 

He curses but his words are slow and thick and he knows he's not making much sense. They’re in that place where wit and logic are minor, inconvenient details completely unworthy of attention. It doesn't matter though. She gets it. She does. She's right there in that place with him.

 

She doesn't say anything but she's burying her mouth in his throat, sucking on his skin and he knows he’ll have bruises when he wakes up. Her marks. Enough to show the world that he's hers.

 

Hers .

 

It doesn't hurt this time. It doesn't. It doesn't ever need to hurt again.

 

She shifts to her side, drapes a leg over his hip so that the angle is smoother, easier, and he slides two fingers back inside her, thumb pressing hard against the swollen nub of her clit, wetness pooling like hot syrup into his palm.

 

And she's whispering nonsense words into his neck; nonsense words interspersed with kisses and moans. She's also trembling and, for the first time tonight, he's completely confident it has nothing to do with the cold and everything to do with the way she’s pressing down on his hand, the vice-like grip she has on his wrist and the obscene way she’s rolling her hips.

 

He adds a third finger, gives her a second to get used to it, and then pushes upwards against her walls. And that’s when her teeth close on his skin, hard and deliberate and he’s almost sure she’s drawn blood. It hurts, it does; he won’t deny that. But it’s also a good kind of pain, one that sends a frisson of pleasure through him and settles like hot lead in his cock, that makes him gasp and thrust, look for friction that isn’t there.

 

And then it feels like something between them breaks, an elastic band snapping against skin, a glass shattering against stone. She's grabbing at him, groping for the tie of his sweatpants, cupping him briefly through the cotton and making him groan aloud before wrapping her hand around him, squeezing until he loses all sense of what he's doing and the entire world becomes her fingers on him and his on her.

 

She's not shy. And she's not even a little bit merciful as she tugs at him, swipes her thumb over the head, runs her hand down the shaft. She's sure of herself in a way he never anticipated, as much as he ever allowed himself to anticipate. And her skin is like flames against him, burning and dancing and turning his blood to lava in his veins.

 

“Frank, oh god Frank…”

 

Her lips against his cheek, his jaw, his shoulder, and then downwards to his collarbones, nipping him. Hand relentless around his cock. And he thinks he might actually go out of his mind. Wonders how many documented cases of madness there are with the leading cause being Karen Page’s words and whimpers. Her wetness. He can't possibly be the first. Of this he's almost sure.

 

And when she leans in close, hand moving almost frantically against him, and between kisses whispering that she wants him, needs him, it’s just too much. He might be sloppy and clumsy, he might be copping a feel like a teenager, he might still be reeling from the fact that this is actually happening but he’ll be damned if he's going to come all over himself before he's even inside her.

 

He pulls his fingers out of her, earns himself a sharp look and a disappointed moan, and grabs her wrist hard and tight until she's still and quiet.

 

If he was thinking in terms of victories and defeats he might take this as the former, small and inconsequential as it may be. But he's not and it's not. Not even close.

 

Because he doesn't miss the slightly smug look on her face, the gentle curve of her mouth and the sparkle in her eyes. She's got exactly what she wanted and they both know it and, for the first time, he sees something in her he can only describe as wicked. And maybe it shouldn't be a surprise. Maybe he's always known but then again he's been fighting so hard just to ignore it - pretend what's going on isn't in fact happening to him - that maybe he was more successful than he thought.

 

His gaze rakes over her. That messy hair, pale skin, full breasts and loose limbs. Karen Page is a problem. She's a huge, fucking beautiful problem and provided he doesn't make a total cock up of this and she wants to do it again, he's going to have to repay her. He has no idea exactly how he's ever going to be capable of that but it's a thought. A good one.

 

And then she presses her mouth against his and after that there are no more thoughts for a long time. He’s guiding her hand between her legs, nudging at her panties and pressing her fingers into her swollen flesh.

 

“Feel that,” he rasps and he’s not sure if it’s an instruction or a question. “Feel how wet you are for me Karen.”

 

She makes a little sound in the back of her throat and he’s burying his head in her neck again, working their combined fingers against her clit and then lower at her entrance, feeling her slick juices spill between their hands. And he groans, long and hard because it rolls through him like thunder.

 

And somehow, even though he’s the one doing things to her, even though he’s got her pinned and her hands aren’t on him, she’s managing to turn this around. He doesn’t know how but he does know that everything he does to her, every touch, every kiss, every word is just making him harder, more desperate for her.

 

It isn’t fair, but then these things seldom are and he's okay with that. Nothing wrong with being a little enthralled with the person you're fucking, the woman you love even though you shouldn't.

 

And then he realises she’s whimpering in his ear, lips pressed to his jaw and she’s saying his name over and over. And all he can do is pull her closer, increase the rhythm of their fingers and watch as her hips rise off the bed in a slow wave and then another and another as she shudders against him, grabs at him with her free hand, nails digging into his arms, his shoulders, his hair. And she’s crying out, loud enough that he’s sure his neighbours can hear but he doesn’t care. He’s planting kisses onto her cheeks, her chin, her forehead. He’s telling her she’s beautiful and wonderful and oh god , he wants her so much. He didn’t even know how much. And she’s here. And he’s touching her. And making her feel this way. And he doesn’t know why he’s such a lucky bastard that he gets to do that. And and and…

 

She has her mouth on his, swallowing his words. She’s trembling and whimpering and he holds her, rocking her through it, fucking her through it, one hand grasping her shoulder, the other tight over hers between her legs.

 

Oh god Frank, oh god oh god oh god.

 

He’s still the worst man in the world, but he loves her and he keeps her safe and he makes her feel like this and that has to count for something. It has to.

 

He’s not sure how long they lie there, a wreck of sweaty skin and tangled limbs, her body pressed to his, her heartbeat thrumming in his chest. It can’t be long, but time doesn’t seem to be following the normal patterns tonight and she’s warm and soft against him, breath heavy on his skin and he wonders idly if this is enough, if nothing else needs to happen right now. If that ache he’s feeling won’t be both sweeter and harder if he denies it.

 

He looks down at her. Hard nipples, flat belly, the smooth cleft between her legs now only partially covered by their hands and he knows that's not even an option. Not even a small, distant one.

 

Even if it was something he could do - and he doesn't think that's possible - one glance at her face as she starts to shift again tells him she has no intention of leaving things as they are. That the thought never entered her head.

 

But she needs a moment, he can see that in the way she’s moving, the look in her eyes. He sees something else in her eyes too. Something that looks a lot like awe, maybe even a little like love and despite himself he feels a swell of pride. He guesses if she can wield disappointment like a sword it only makes sense that she can do the same with delight. That she can take a cocksucker like him and find his few good parts and make them into something greater than their sum.

 

She adjusts next to him, pulls her hand out of her underwear, parts her fingers against the light so he can see silky threads of her glinting between them like spiderwebs caught in the morning dew. And then she’s probing at his mouth and he’s tasting her, drawing her thumb between his teeth, sucking on her fingers. She tastes like heaven, sweet and salt and everything he’s ever wanted. And he gets to do this now, run his tongue down her palm and lap her up. No longer that lost asshole that was too scared to touch her tears in this very room almost a year ago. No longer the man that nearly drowned in his own guilt the first time he kissed her.

 

No longer the man who tried to walk away from her only to come back time and time again.

 

Once her fingers are clean, he does his own. She watches him, watches him taste her and he has to stifle a laugh when her cheeks turn pink and she can't meet his eyes. He thinks there are things about Karen Page he’ll probably never fully understand, but he's not ever going to stop trying.

 

He reaches out, touches her cheek and angles her face back to his. Kisses her hard and deep and lets her taste herself on his tongue.

 

“I want you,” he says voice cracked and heavy. “I want you now.”

 

More kisses, soft and slow, his pants disappearing somewhere in the sheets, her panties following them. Another love bite sucked into her skin, and then he's on top of her again, positioning himself between her thighs.

 

He wonders what this looks like to her. Him with his scars and his rough hands looming over her. Wonders what she sees. A man, a lover, a husband, father or a monster? A destructive force that she's somehow been saddled with? A nightmare that she has to endure? He doesn't think she sees any of these things. He thinks that somehow in her eyes he's evolved into something both more and less than his various parts, both the beautiful and the ugly ones.

 

He pulls her hand to his mouth, kisses her wrist. He's told himself so many times that this is the last time he lets her get to him. The last time he makes exceptions for her. The last time she's allowed to get so close. He's failed every single time. He thinks maybe he should learn from this.

 

He’s the worst man, the worst man and she’s the prettiest girl.

 

And he doesn't hate how that makes him feel.

 

And right now she's pushing herself up on her elbows, staring at him, appraising him, gaze steady and unflinching, and she's telling him to fuck her. That she wants it - and him - and she doesn't want to wait anymore.

 

He runs his fingers up her thighs where she's sticky and then over her clit again. Presses down on her until she squirms, watches as a bead of her wetness wells on her skin, drips into his palm. He wants to put his lips to her. Drink from her. Stick his tongue inside her and taste her from the source, lap her up and fuck her with his mouth. But they have time. They have time for all that later.

 

She fucks him up.

 

He doesn't think much after that.

 

Hand around his cock, eyes squeezing shut even at that familiar pressure, arm braced on the pillow, fingers twining in the fabric.

 

And then her. Oh god, only her as she collapses back onto the bed, as he slides into her and falls with her, as her legs clamp around his waist and how there's nothing else in the world except him and her and the places their bodies are joined.

 

For a few long seconds he doesn't do anything. He's absolutely still. There's nothing but her eyes, her gentle breathing, her cunt on his cock and this warm, wet, safe place she's created for them. And he doesn't want to change even the smallest thing about that. Moving seems nothing more than selfish. An affront even. As if his own pleasure could ever be of any significance over being with her like this. As. If.

 

And then another of her chaste kisses, gentle, slow, completely at odds with the way she's clenching around him. Completely at odds with the woman who just fed herself to him, left him literally eating out of her hand. And then he's planting his elbows on either side of her head, nuzzling her jaw, scraping his whiskers against her skin, making her arch into him.

 

He's not going to last. He knew this even before he started kissing her, before he was even sure this was where the night was going to go. He thinks he probably knew this the day she first kissed him and opened up this line of thought in his brain. He thinks of how once upon a time he pushed her skirt up her thighs and how now her dress is in tatters on his floor. How she felt when he held her in her bathroom and the way her hands pressed into his skin at Josie’s.

 

She’s become his lifeline in his darkest hours and, against all odds, he's become one in hers.

 

He’s killed for her. He’ll do it again. And this is only the beginning and his head can't take anymore.

 

He starts to move, rolls his hips against hers. It's not even really a conscious decision, more like some old, ancient instinct possessing him, taking over and letting him lose himself inside her.

 

He's not gentle and she doesn't want him to be. If anything she's urging him on, dragging him closer. Deeper. Fingernails raking hard over his shoulders, drawing blood. Teeth at his throat again. She's not biting yet but the threat is there and he lets out a groan as she lifts her legs higher, angles herself upwards.

 

“Fuck me Frank.”

 

He does.

 

Hands tangled in her hair, hips moving slow and hard; deep thrusts that push shallow cries out of her mouth. He wants her to feel it. Wants her to feel every single ounce of the hurt and desperation and confusion she’s caused him, every second of the guilt and the shame, every moment of longing, of torture. And most of all he wants her to feel the truth of it. Wants her to know how little that all matters, how sorry he is and how he’ll do anything, anything at all , if she’ll just stay, if she’ll just give him a place in her heart and keep him as safe as he’ll keep her. He wants her to feel how much he fucking adores her. How much he loves her. Because he does.

 

He’s merciless. To her, to them, most of all to himself. But then again, so was she.

 

There are no excuses anymore. None.

 

Faster now, her breathless little whimpers turning to full-bodied moans, and then sharp keening sounds. She’s begging him to fuck her, to come for her and he clamps a hand over her mouth, holds her still, holds her quiet and jerks against her as that clench between her legs turns to a flutter and then a spasm.

 

And then she’s arching and stretching, squirming against him, tendons in her neck standing out like cords under her skin and legs tightening around his middle like she wants to break him. Break him in half like she hasn’t already done it.

 

He watches her come a second time. Watches how she closes her eyes, turns her face away from him, a silent howl against his hand, fingers digging into him so hard he’s pretty sure she’s bruised him, scratched him. Taken his flesh. And then suddenly he’s coming too, a thick wave that seems to start at his extremities, suck his blood and his bones and everything in its wake to his core, hold it there and then crash out of him and into her in a surge of white-hot heat. It strips him inside and out. Karen Page taking a knife to him and flaying him a second time, keeping all the bits she wants and tossing the rest of him away.

 

It leaves him gasping, grabbing clumsily at her, a dry sob erupting from the back of his throat as he crumbles and lies exhausted with his head on her breast.

 

And she holds him. Holds him tight. And, as if by some magic, she makes that safe place for them even safer. Warmer. Opens herself up to him and lets him use that to soothe his wounds.

 

Whispering. A little promise into the night air. She’s not going to leave him. She's going to keep him safe.

 

It might one day be a lie, but for now he takes it as God’s most honest truth.

 

~~~

 

They don’t talk about it.

 

Not then at least. Tangled in the sheets, he lies next to her on his belly, spent and aching, arms around a pillow. Content just to watch her in the shadows.

 

She’s on her side, propped up on one elbow and she’s running her fingers up and down his back in a slow caress that he wishes would never end. She’s gentle, hands warm and smooth, and he can feel the welts from where she scratched him aching beautifully at each pass. She saw them, he knows she did, and she didn’t apologise. She didn’t apologise for his throat either even though it’s throbbing like a raw wound. And he thinks that somehow that makes him love her more.

 

“You said you told yourself a story,” he says eventually.

 

She nods.

 

“Told myself a lot of stories,” she trails her fingertips down his spine, up again and his skin prickles. “Some of them were even true.”

 

“He know about this?”

 

She smirks. “Yeah, I sent him a text the minute we were done.”

 

He rolls his eyes.

 

“He’s Matt,” she says simply. “I didn’t tell him, but he knows.”

 

“Guess I’ll have to let him kick my ass the next time I see him.”

 

She huffs. “He’ll be okay. He didn’t want this. Not really.”

 

“You sure about that?”

 

She nods again, traces the line of his one shoulder blade, then the other. He shivers.

 

“He was telling himself a story too.”

 

He purses his lips, frowns.

 

“You tellin’ yourself a story now?”

 

“I don’t think so,” her knuckles graze his side, his hip, and he tries not to grind his pelvis into the sheets. “Are you?”

 

“Not anymore.”

 

She smiles and looks away, carries on touching him and he thinks he sees her blinking tears out of her eyes.

 

“More than anything Matt wants to be good.”

 

And there it is again. That something else. That other reason she was so upset the first time she ever came here. The one that has less to do with Murdock and a lot more to do with why she keeps a gun in her purse and why he’s still surprised she didn’t take the shot when he came to her apartment.

 

“He is good.”

 

She smiles. “Just not for me.”

 

He has nothing to say to that, so he stays quiet, loses himself in the feel of her hands on him, the smell of her - them - that still lingers in the warm air.

 

Eventually, even that gets too much and he rolls to his side, leans up and kisses her. He runs a hand from her breast to her hip and then settles on his back, arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling. It’s early, the morning light not yet trying to break through the gloom, snow falling outside.

 

She doesn’t miss a beat though and her hand comes back down on his chest, drawing abstract patterns into his flesh.

 

“I’m glad you’re here,” he says softly. “I didn’t want to be here without you.”

 

She inclines her head towards the bags near the door. “I don’t want to be here without you either.”

 

“Come here,” he holds out his arm and she shifts closer to him, rests her head on his chest and he kisses her hairline, holds her tight.

 

He’s tired but the last thing he wants to do is sleep and he thinks the same could be said of her. Doesn’t want to take the risk that he’ll wake up to find her gone.

 

“You alright?” she asks after a while, hand circling low on his belly.

 

“Yeah.”

 

She’s biting her lip and he can see she wants to ask something, that there's something chewing at her but she doesn't know how to formulate it into words she's willing to let him hear. He thinks he knows what it is though.

 

“Was this the first time since…” she trails off.

 

“Yeah.”

 

It doesn’t hurt as much as he thought. She never hurts him as much as he thinks she will.

 

Until she does.

 

But he’s not going to break. He’s done that. Done it so many times. Done it enough.

 

“You sure you’re okay?”

 

He’s about to say something about how he didn’t expect this and how he never saw it coming, how much she fucks him up, but he realises he’s said it all already. It’s not really worth repeating, so instead he smirks at her, runs his hand from the small of her back to her ass, squeezes.

 

“Yeah, I’m sure. I got a leggy blonde in my bed and there’s no one I need to go kill right now. What's not okay about that?”

 

She snorts, presses her lips to his cheek and her fingers brush his cock. It's probably an accident, a mistake, but he hisses and she does it again. Slower, harder, more deliberate this time.

 

He glances at her out of the corner of his eye, mock warning that’s more than half real but he doesn’t say anything, let’s her carry on with what she’s doing. And she does. Another heavy, controlled tug on him.

 

It’s a challenge, and yes, he could make a bad joke about rising to it, but he won’t. He can have this. He can enjoy it. Let her make him as hard as a goddamned diamond all over again, touch him and taste him and let him spill inside her.

 

She’s already doing it, smooth strokes, sharp little twist of the wrist when he least expects it, and he groans into her hair.

 

“You, Karen Page, are gonna make a mess with that,” he tries to sound nonchalant, disinterested. He thinks he might even pull it off.

 

“I know what I'm doing,” she says mildly.

 

“Yeah I know you know. That’s the problem.”

 

“Come on Frank,” mock petulance now, hint of a pout even, and then another long, heavy stroke that makes him thrust into her hand.

 

“It is …”

 

“Frank,” she sighs, pursing her lips, letting her fingers dance across his flesh. “It’s not complicated. It’s not shiny, ain’t got a fancy grip...”

 

He rolls his eyes, is about to grab her wrist when she stops abruptly, looks at him as if she’s just had an epiphany.

 

“Wait, is this a hand cannon? Are you the asshole too scared to use it?”

 

And he can’t help it. He laughs, shakes his head.

 

“No?” she asks giggling as he rolls to his side, grabs at her hip and then her wrist.

 

“No. But there is someone in this bed who’s bein’ an asshole.”

 

Both her wrists in his hands now, thin and delicate and her pulse pounds against his thumb.

 

“Yeah, the guy with the hand cannon.”

 

He wants to tell her she has the goofiest fucking grin on her face and that her jokes are terrible but he doesn't. Instead he runs his tongue across her shoulder, lets his beard tickle her until she squirms.

 

“You are out of your fuckin’ mind Karen Page,” he says. “Out of your fuckin’ mind.”

 

And she must be. She has to be, because she’s naked in his bed and she’s staying because she said she would and she wants to keep him safe. And if that isn’t insane, then the fact that she’s letting him flip her over onto her back, pin her down and scrape his teeth along her neck must surely be. He’s the Punisher, he’s the worst man in the world and here she is, giggling into his mouth, wrapping her legs around him, pulling him closer and breathing in his ear that she wants him, wants him now, wants him forever. And even that’s not enough to frighten him.

 

This has never been fair and he doesn't think it will ever be.

 

~~~

 

She fucks him up.

 

Still not news. Still not those tight skirts or the high heels, the long blonde hair he prefers loose and messy.

 

Still her. Still her fearlessness and her honesty. Her loyalty.

 

And now something else too.

 

He watches her from the bed. She’s fresh out of his shower towelling her hair dry, naked except for one of his faded black T-shirts that rides high on her thighs. She has nothing to wear, she says. Her dress is a ruined heap of lace on the floor.

 

He says it’s fine, because it really is. She gets to do whatever she likes. He doesn’t have a say.

 

And even if he did the only thing better than Karen Page in his shitty little apartment on the wrong side of the wrong side of town, is Karen Page in his shitty little apartment on the wrong side of the wrong side of town with nothing to wear.

 

He wouldn’t want it any other way and he tells her exactly why.

 

She doesn’t play coy. She drops the towel, climbs onto the bed, straddles him.

 

He swallows. And he can still taste her in his mouth from earlier.

 

She’s his failsafe. His detonator in the kill switch.

 

She runs her fingers through his hair and he’s so glad he never got it cut.

 

Hands on her thighs. Cheesy Brooklyn accent. “What's a nice girl like you doin’ in a place like this?”

 

She cocks her head and the weak sunlight coming through the window glitters in her hair. “That a real question?”

 

“Nah,” he says. “I'm just tryin’ to pick you up.”

 

She laughs and it's so easy to laugh with her.

 

“You’re an idiot,” she says.

 

She’s right. He is. An idiot and the worst man in the world. And he’s okay with both.

 

He reaches up, slides a hand around the back of her head. And he has to know, even though he doesn’t want to.

 

Fuck it.

 

“Why do you want to be with me?” he asks. “Why do you think life with one vigilante will be better than another?”

 

It's too much for now. He knows it. Knows he shouldn't be asking but he's brave enough to do it and he might not ever be again.

 

She makes him stupid.

 

A sad smile, and she reaches up, takes his hand, threads their fingers together, kisses his knuckles. “Depends on the vigilante.”

 

He nods. It does. For now at least.

 

“I think I love you,” she says and he pulls her close.

 

He has everything.

 

“Stay,” he whispers.


She does.