For as long as Karen remembers, she's known the lofty interior of this tower's walls and its walls alone. Inside, she has her bed, her clothes, her pens and papers and books. Everything she could want, everything she asks for.
That's what she tells herself. A mantra that keeps her content, quells the restless curiosity that burns within, only broken once a year. Her birthday.
“I want to go outside with you,” she'll say.
Mother cradles her head in her petite hands and smiles almost distantly. A smile given without any leniency to be found. “It's too dangerous. The world's a violent place with everyone at war. I'm protecting you.”
“But it doesn't look dangerous.”
“Only because I've raised you in the safest place. You’re as fragile as a flower, dear; I’m doing what’s best for you.”
The safest place. Where no one else lived.
This year had been no different. Mother came for her weekly visit, presents in tow for the occasion, and left within the hour after Karen performed her healing magic. She could only watch from the window high off the ground as Mother left with her usual entourage, cane tapping out the same path as she disappeared behind trees as she always did, and Karen had sighed, dejected.
She returns afterward to taking pencil in hand and sketching the view for the millionth time, telling herself she's not angry, not resentful, not wanting. She's a good daughter. She's content.
After all, Mother hadn't been obligated to care for her. To love her, provide for her, and protect her. The elderly woman was a bright — if sometimes cold — light in a world of darkness, saving the baby abandoned during crisis that Karen had been, and it was a debt she held close to heart.
So, she told herself nothing was wrong as she sketched the treetops and wondered at what time on her birthday the lanterns near the mountains would start their ascent into the sky. They were her one lifeline to the outside world, the only one that belonged to her without Mother — in spite of Mother — and she clung to it.
The birds rustled, abandoning the trees nearest the tower. That should've been her first sign.
The scraping sound along stone should've been the second.
Karen didn't jump out of her all-consuming thoughts until the third sign — cursing.
Gruff and full of obscenities she'd only heard at muffled distance from Mother's men, Karen startles and peers over the window's edge. Her eyes widen.
A man. A very muscular, very rough-looking man she'd never seen before in her life. And he was climbing the stones headed straight up to her.
She jerks her head back before he raises his own after the latest rounds of cursing, before he can see her.
It's strangely practical, how she behaves as terror grips her limbs and yet guides her with a numbed mind. The pot in the corner. The shadow between window and wardrobe. Gathering her cascades of hair into a pile out of sight.
Swinging his legs over the side and pulling himself in, she counts.
He crumples to the floor as soon as metal meets skull.
Frank wakes up with a splitting headache and the urge to kill someone. For once, he'd be living up to his reputation.
Squinting, he takes into account the almost silky ropes cutting into his wrists before the room around him swims into focus. It's large, bathed in pinks and yellows and blues. Cheerful.
It feels like a mockery.
There's bright yellow strands of something snaking around the floor like carpet, too. He wonders about the sanity of whoever designed this. Maybe they were the same person that decided upon greeting him with violence. He was aware of how he looked and how his climbing up what he’d thought was an abandoned tower looked, but still.
In his defense, no one was supposed to live out here.
Sounds of shuffling start up behind him, then, and he groans as he straightens in the chair before a woman steps into view. Frank blinks once. And then again.
He immediately regrets climbing into this tower. He should've just kept running and chanced the pace of the guards.
She's beautiful, with her pale skin, honeyed hair disappearing well beyond her shoulders, and a white dress flowing around her tall, willowy frame like some kind of angel. The small copper pot she's tapping between hands and storming blue eyes staring daggers should ruin the illusion. But it doesn't.
It's exactly the kind that his type deserves — one that kicks his ass and doesn't look too pleased to have him.
“You dented my pot,” she says finally, breaking the silence.
Frank scoffs. “You dented my head with that pot, blondie.”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
She bows up like she's about to hit him again out of frustration. He waits for it with a challenging smirk. After a few seconds, she sighs and lowers the makeshift weapon.
He tilts his head. "Look, I don't know who you are, and I don't care. I wasn't looking for you, I was...losing someone. Untie me and I'm gone forever, alright?”
She lowers her head, stare shifting into one more intrigued. Dammit. “Who were you ‘losing'? Soldiers?”
Frank indulges her. “Of a sort.”
“Who do you fight for?”
She scoffs at him, as if he's lying, and he keeps working his wrists out of her view. Why was someone like her so good at tying rope? “Yeah, sure. Everyone's fighting for someone.”
“Do they know where you are?”
He glances to the window. “They're not here, are they?”
She bites her lip. It catches his eyes before he shakes his head, casts his clearer gaze around the room again.
She was an artist of some sort if the hundreds of sketches on the walls gave any indication. It might've meant something that he didn't recognize her style despite how much there was, how good she was, but then Frank never gave much attention to frivolous things.
He doesn't find his bag anywhere in view though and that claws at him.
When he looks back to her, she's leaned against the table behind her and set the copper pot down. He can see the shadow of a dent from here. Frank feels some worry trickle through him for the state of his head. At the moment, it didn't seem to have any problems beyond a nasty migraine throbbing, but that didn’t ease his fears.
She straightens, reaching behind to grab something. The crown dangles from her fingers suddenly, shining bright from the way the light bounces over it, and she catches sight of his clenched jaw with a curl of lips.
“You're a thief, so here's the deal. I'll let you keep this if you answer my questions.”
Frank's gaze flickers between the two displays of gold in front of him.
Crown, woman. Crown, woman.
Just what were her questions? About him?
Like hell he'd tell her anything.
That fine piece of metal and jewel collecting dust in a stuffy palace room was his ticket to a new life. One without concerns once he could cash it in. But then, it had also put the heftiest bounty of the country on his head and made all the royal guards start glancing his way for the first time in his life.
Rolling his head lazily, he shrugs. “Keep it. Don't need it.”
She looks bereft for a quick moment. Then she's setting it aside, handling it more carefully than he ever had, and puts her hands on her hips. “Fine. Answer all my questions and I let you go without telling my mother about you, or it.”
A scoff, and he's tugging obviously at the bindings, too annoyed to care about subtlety anymore.
“Thorough answers,” she presses, thinking she's got the upper hand.
“Look, lady, I'm not interested in acting like a puppet for some elite family's eccentric daughter.”
She bristles. “You don't know anything about me.”
“Yeah? I know you don't leave this place.” She winces at that, and he almost feels bad, but it's rewarding to see that confirmation, too. “It's all over these walls. Only people afford to do that are elites.”
“It's not by choice,” she bites.
He leans his head back in surprise.
“I can't leave. Okay?”
Frank reconsiders her.
Doesn't look crazy, not in the eye, and there's something vulnerable there in that confession, but she's still got her face set hard as steel, stance ready like a fighter. Odd for a rich girl, but not that out of the ordinary for a prisoner. All these amenities around her, he wonders if she realizes that’s what she is — someone caged.
He clears his throat. “Said you had questions?”
Four little words, an acquiescence, and maybe that hit is starting to get to him because she looks as if she starts to glow for a second.
She asks a thousand things about the world, a fiery ball of passion for knowledge hidden within, and damn if it doesn't stoke questions in his own mind. About her, about this tower, about her warden of a mother. Nearly everything this mother had told her about the world was wrong.
There weren't any wars ravaging this part of the world, no inner fights between cruel monarchs. There certainly wasn't an epidemic of every man and woman serving the role of thief or soldier, murderer or victim.
She turned pensive, then disturbed, until the sun was high in the sky and she'd run out of anymore curiosities. The rope's gotten the best of him, too, skin itching out of pain from the feeble attempt at escape.
“What's your name?” She asks suddenly.
She snorts. “I mean really.”
“It's what everyone calls me.”
She's got that scoff on her lips and squint to her eyes again, like she doesn't believe him. “Okay, why that name?”
He shrugs. “I turn in other thieves, and worse. Don't tolerate shitbags.” Never mind that, nevertheless, he's sort of one himself. “Doesn’t make me a lot of friends.”
That has her shoulders sagging. He thinks he should've lied, instead, because now she's smiling, and there's a confidant edge to it that makes him wary. “I'm Karen.... And I'll untie you. On one condition.”
“Take me to the capital for the lanterns.”
She says it like it's simple. He almost laughs, disbelief plain to see on his face. “Why?"
He means why the lanterns, but she takes it as why him. “I've made the decision to trust you.”
“A horrible decision, really.”
Karen just folds her arms at his attempted deterrent, grinning.
He really should have just kept running.
Frank sighs and makes the deal.
Karen doesn't know what to make of him.
For all his constantly shifting eyes and that scarily accurate surmising ability, he does a long double take at the length of her hair as she scoops it up from the floor.
“Christ. Thought that was carpet,” he'd said, almost choking on the words.
He'd muttered unintelligibly under his breath and turned away, but after she'd tied up her hair decently enough and exchanged clothing for a more practical dress Karen had made herself, she shimmied her way down the rope line they’d set up and found him standing exactly where he said he would be. Leaning with back against a tree, ten feet away.
It's automatic to think he's going along with her request because she still has the crown in her hands — well, her bag — but his eyes haven't seemed to look for it, matching the nonchalance of his answer back in the tower. Like he couldn't care less for the most rich and ornate status of power she's ever seen.
She’s still got her doubts about that though she pretends to believe. If only he was easier to read.
He doesn't look like someone she should trust — purely because he doesn't look like anyone she's ever seen before. His clothes are rumpled, the best item among them being those scuffed up but sturdy-looking boots. Hair wild yet pushed back, short thick beard on his face, nose no doubt made crooked from fights.
Karen is not a complete idiot. She knows enough to see he’s no honorable knight.
Still— he was more honest with her than her own Mother.
The world wasn't all doom and gloom. Danger existed in dark corners, but one just had to stay aware of that. “Just one of your staples of life,” he'd said without much emotion, more annoyed than anything else, and that stuck with her.
Darkness didn't rule over good, not like Mother said. It was a balance. It was a risk.
She watches the sunlight stream through the treetops, foreign birds singing, unknown flowers blooming, and can't begin to temper the happiness singing through her veins. She'll return and apologize to Mother, in time.
But this year, no one is stopping her from taking that risk and seeing those lanterns.
“What are they for?” She asks him as they're holed up in a traveling tavern called the Snuggly Duckling for the night.
Tucked in a corner booth, he's nursing his ale, but she's already knocked back a fair share of her own out of excitement over trying it for the first time, and her cheeks are flushed vibrant from the effort.
They almost match her dress.
“What are what for?”
“The lanterns every year. They go up on my birthday, you know.”
A day of travel — a solid half of one, really, considering their late start and midnight stop — is enough for her life of solitude in a tower to sink into his mind, keep him from being remotely surprised at a question only children ask nowadays. “They’re for the princess.”
Karen's got her chin leaned on hand, imploring him with excitement. He doesn't feel much like talking, or rather he didn't, but she's got a way about her. A way all calm and persistent, someone deserving of being given the time of day. “She was kidnapped ‘bout twenty years ago. Stolen right from the castle, supposedly by a witch. That's how the story goes....
“Every year, they send those lanterns up on the anniversary. It was a prayer to the gods, for a while. Now thinking's that she'll recognize the royal seal on them and return. Whole country joins in.”
“That's so sad,” she croons, tears pooling in her eyes. They look like the ocean.
Josie sidles up from out of nowhere, strangely agile considering how loudly she usually strides through the place just to be heard over the volatile ruckus. She does slam a pitcher of water down on the table, however, and that’s much more expected. Half of it sloshes over the lip and onto the table.
Karen jerks back in shock, relaxing instantly when she sees it’s just Josie.
The Snuggly Duckling’s owner looks to Frank with a threat. “Why’re you making her cry?”
He bites back a huff. “I didn’t make her cry. She got upset all on her own.”
“You think they’ll find her?” Karen asks suddenly, blinking at her new friend.
Josie frowns further in confusion. “Who we talkin’ about?”
He pries the mug from her grip gently. “Think you've had enough of that, blondie.”
The iron-willed bartender looks less likely to accost him again as she considers the blonde. An emotional drunk. Of course she was. It only makes Josie pat her shoulder awkwardly out of pity, Karen managing to win over rough owner and patrons alike with her innocence and stubborn spine almost as soon as they’d walked through the door.
That, and her obnoxious amount of hair they all seemed to be fascinated by. He still didn’t understand why she fought with it and threw it around instead of just cutting it, but she was adamant.
He’d rolled his eyes and watched her learn how to braid it from a tall, lean man named Turk that Frank knows holes up in this tavern more nights than not arranging stolen goods deals under the table. Petty deals for lesser thieves and pickpockets wanting an easy disguise or dagger. Rarely had anything good, and rarely had anything that wasn’t already worn and about in need of repair.
Hidden talents, he thought to himself as he considered their braiding lesson before shaking his head.
There went his first and last attempt at intimidating her. If this didn’t dissuade her of her travel plans then nothing would short of him outright scaring her himself, and Frank simply didn’t have the heart for that.
He could resign himself to the current situation of him having to play guide for the next few days, if only begrudgingly.
“They have to find her, right?” Karen persists about the princess.
“Oh, hun,” Josie says with a sigh and turns to direct her attentions towards a rowdy arm-wrestling contest a couple tables over instead. The echo of hollers picks up around them without much notice.
Frank remembers how the guards and soldiers used to scour the length of the country, regular staples in every town and village as they searched. Years and years, they kept it up, until time wore down the strongest of wills. All but the King’s and Queen's.
Watching the men in armor had almost inspired him to join their ranks, once.
He shakes his head and finishes his drink. “Too much time. Doubt it.”
“Maybe that's why my Mother's so paranoid.” Karen buries her head in her hands with a groan, some of that long hair spilling down out of its pins and twists and onto the table. “She's gonna be so mad.”
“So why don't you go back?” It would make his life easier. Simpler. Certainly make his travel faster — and put him in the right direction, too. All he wanted was to get across the border but then she had to appear.
“I can't. Not yet. Not until I get.... Not until….”
She's slipping, passing out, and, not for the first time since their ill-fated meeting this morning, he has a way to escape and never look back.
Except that he'd made her a promise. And Frank wasn't keen on much, no love lost for the land he was born in and fellow criminals he’d made enemies out of, but a man's word still meant something to him.
Plus, she still had that crown currently hidden away God knows where she'd stashed that bag when they arrived. That crown was a deserved added bonus considering he was walking back into the lion's den for her.
That’s what he tells himself, anyway, as he moves around to pull her arm across his shoulder and help her stand. “Lean on me. Takin' you to your room.”
“You're so nice,” she slurs.
No, I'm not, not usually.
He keeps lips pressed tight with a grimace of guilt.
Karen asks a hundred questions of him every day, too full of them to resist trying for answers.
“What's that town like, John?”
“Do the King and Queen have any more kids, John?”
"Have you been to other kingdoms, John?”
“Name's not John,” he inevitably reminds after the first few.
“I'm not calling you Punisher. Until you tell me, I'm going with John. It fits you. Rude, boring John," she sing-songs in reply this time on their third day of travel.
He lets out a long breath, gives in. “Yes, I have— been to the neighboring kingdoms. Planned to retire in one with that crown of yours.” He nods to her bag.
Karen holds it out to him by the strap. “Take it.”
Eyeing it, he doesn't slow in his stride, plucking it out of her grip and settling it over his shoulder with little trouble. “This a test, blondie?”
He moves to make a retort, face twisting up with it, but the gallop of hooves sounds ahead, and something about these makes him react swiftly today. Instead of casually moving to the side, he grabs hold of her arm and sprints off the road. She bites back a yelp and follows his lead.
Pressed against a tree a dozen feet into the dense forest, she finds herself held against his front, shielded except for the way she can still peek at over his shoulder. Which she does.
Turning his own head, they watch in unison as a troop of royal guards and their pack of royal hounds speeds past. He doesn't breath again until the sound of the hooves and barks fades around a bend. She knows — can hear his breath by being this close, even feel his lungs under her splayed hands.
It's intimate, standing like this with someone.
She's never had this feeling before with anyone. In a flash, she tries to recall if she's even hugged Mother more than a handful of times, all initiated by herself.
It gives her the strange desire to hug this stranger in front of her. Just to see what he'd do.
When he looks at her again, he startles at their proximity. Karen raises her eyebrows.
“I thought of another test.”
John disentangles them and stomps back to the road. “Not interested.”
“I have the crown,” she teases, making him whip his head to look at her where she's jogged to catch up, stolen strap spinning lazily from her fingers once more.
“You'd be a decent thief with those skills,” he replies, impressed.
She smiles. “Really?"
A quick lunge and he takes Karen by surprise, but she's more agile and recovers faster, slipping away from his grip and around his back. She bounces on the balls of her feet as she walks along the other side of the road, readying for another attempt.
“You tried to trick me!”
“Can't fault a man for tryin’.”
“Yes, you can.” She crosses the strap firmly across her body, scowling.
He flashes a smirk.
Handsome, she thinks suddenly, and it further deepens her scowl from knowing for sure this time that he’s more invested in the crown than he lets on.
Taking the back roads was meant to keep them out of trouble, and it'd been working just fine until they cut through a bustling village just a day's distance from the capital. Frank's idling at a corner when he finds himself shoved into a narrow excuse of an alley without warning.
His back scrapes against a wall, an arm across his throat.
They'd come out of nowhere, but he still curses under his breath for not staying more aware, eyes having fixated solely on the crowds ahead and a certain blonde — like a fool.
He controls his reflexes and sets a smirk on his face. “Fisk, Wesley. Long time no see.”
“Where's our crown?” Fisk asks in his typical booming voice. For added emphasis, Wesley presses Frank further against the stones.
The urge to gouge out their eyes is palpable. His gaze flickers briefly over their shoulder for Karen, who's still taking her time with the stalls. He goes for the less bloody tactic of talking. “Hidden. Safely. Can’t sell it with all this attention, can we? But you'll never find it unless you let go,” he directs to Fisk's right hand man with a slight growl.
“I let you get away stealing one of my scores before, Punisher. It's not happening again.”
“Those messes you called paintings fetched nothing. I saved you some time,” Frank taunts.
Fisk's eyes flash and Frank catches sight of Karen then, standing some yards beyond with confusion and fear etching lines into her face. He shakes his head subtly. Stay away.
She drops the wooden cups — of expensive coffee which he'd parted with quite a few coins for, a complaint for another time — and charges over. "Let go of him!"
The pair of criminals accosting him give her a dismissive glance.
Karen puts her hands on her hips then, but the action jostles the bag, shifting the flap just enough to let sun catch on gold and sapphire for a blink of an eye. She juts her chin out at their narrowing attention, unaware of its true source. "Let him go or I'll yell for the guards and make you."
Frank's eyes snap to attention, scanning the sliver of the street he can see from this angle. When had guards come? Was she bluffing? It's a feat of her abilities, honestly, that Frank stands completely unsure of what’s true and what’s not.
What he does know, however, is that the slimy look exchanged between Fisk and Wesley and the way Fisk starts a slow, snake-like advance means Karen has about five seconds before being assaulted and robbed of that crown she has so little an idea about. Frank doesn't hesitate.
A harsh fist brought up to Wesley’s throat, he follows it with a knee to the man’s crotch mid-stagger and uses the momentum to bowl Wesley into his boss, crashing them against the opposite wall.
Karen lets out a startled sound, half yelp and half cry, but recovers quickly. Her hand reaches for him at the same time his is moving for her and they run arm in arm through town. The pop-up market spills thickly into the streets, disrupting their escape into a game of bobbing and weaving. One of her elbows catches on a basket of apples. His boot knocks an awning’s support out.
They each wince, Karen calling out apologies every half a second, but their damage is nothing compared to the destruction from the pair giving chase.
At the edge of town, Karen slams into his side when he skids to a halt. “What?”
Royal guards. A troop of a dozen. Right in front of them.
A few of them finish tying up their horses at the troughs and notice first. Eyes glance between him, the Wanted Poster with a gnarly rendition of his portrait posted on a notice board next to them, and back again.
“I told you. They’re better than those two, right?” Karen asks, glancing over her shoulder and stepping closer as another cart explodes behind them and a seller yells out ignored threats, distance closing fast between thieves.
“Not when the charge is treason,” he grumbles.
The game of chicken breaks when the guards glance at each other, recognition clicking at the same time a massive pit bull with a royal collar comes charging from behind them, growling victoriously.
“Not that dog again,” Frank curses as he bolts to the right. They sprint off the road and into the brush. Acutely aware of how rapidly their chances for escape are dwindling, he glances to Karen managing to keep pace next to him. “Where did you think that crown came from?”
“I— This kingdom?! What were you thinking?”
“Makes a nice payday!”
A fallen tree blocks their path. He pulls them to the left, some of Karen’s loose hair hitting him in the face. She manages a noise of indignation amidst the racket of their panting, the thundering steps catching up behind them, and that rabid dog’s incessant barks.
There’s a royal pack of hunting and tracking dogs, but of course he’d managed to piss off one in particular. The same one from the morning he fled the capital with the crown. Almost as if it knew the severity of his crime and and was singling him out for it, as impossible as that was.
The dog’s promise of a vicious bite is almost the most fearful component of their entire situation at this point, only narrowly edged out by his contempt for a prison cell.
“You said you’d take me to the capital!” Karen reminds with a yell. “Was that a lie?”
Bursting through a clearing, Frank stumbles back just in time to take hold of Karen with both arms and spin them to keep them from careening off a cliff. Rushing water roars underneath their feet, waterfall dumping into a billowing cloud of mist.
He spares half a second to calculate their odds.
The unknown, the guards. The unknown, the guards.
Frank lets her go and holds out a hand. “You can give me the bag or not but you keep that crown, good luck explaining this to that mother of yours after they figure out you know nothing about me and take you back.” Fear twists her face. “Sorry I couldn’t keep my promise, blondie,” he adds, and means it.
He didn’t intend to involve her in his crimes, but it was better for it to end here.
Her hand ghosts over the strap. Relief trickles down his spine.
“Stop!” Several guards yell over the pack of hunting dogs, tearing his attention to where they all start emerging from the forest’s edge. He was out of time.
Before he can do anything, Karen’s hand slides into his, instead, and he doesn’t get the chance the look back her way to see just what she thinks she’s doing before she leaps and plummets them both over the edge.
Karen never learned to swim.
She could see the mountain river from her window, marveled at the way it sped and slowed with the seasons, disappearing under a layer of white during the harsher winters. Growing up with books didn’t leave her entirely ignorant — so, she asked.
“The river won’t be that far.”
“I said no, Flower!” Mother shouted the last time, uncharacteristically loud. A glint of something harsh sat in her eyes.
Karen, only ten years old then, shrank back. “I understand.”
Mother had patted her cheek after, apologized, and given a slew of reasons for why she was just being protective. Explanations about how dangerous it was. Karen never asked again, but it wasn’t because of those words. It was the look.
Now, she wishes she had kept her stubborn resolve and continued asking as she finds herself blinking wide into the abyss and tries not to panic as it suffocates her.
As soon as they hit the surface, her hold on John was ripped away, tumbling them down underneath the currents in separate directions. The bag hangs like an anchor around her neck but she can’t get rid of it. She won’t. It’s not hers to decide to part with.
And she’s not going to die after only making it this far. She’s not.
Karen tries to right herself in the water, flinging her limbs out in every direction to touch something, anything. It’s dark and impossible, everything moving too fast and fluid, until— a scrape.
Instinct has her ripping her hand back before she realizes her mistake and reaches back. A rock. No, dirt. An embankment. She loses it in the rushing water again. Closing her eyes, she tries singing in her head.
‘Flower gleam and glow, let your power shine.’
Blearily blinking her eyes, lungs pressing painfully against her ribcage, Karen could scream in delight as the familiar glow alights from scalp to hair ends.
The side of the river comes into view then, some of her hair catching on it, and she claws at it, kicking recklessly to move closer. She leverages her hands up over the side on a solid curve before pulling herself up. Her shoulders scream from the strain, pushing against the river’s force, but she keeps going.
Karen collapses on the grass, almost grins.
She didn’t need to know how to swim after all.
The bag and treasure within sits heavily on her chest, reminding her. She sits up with a start and scans the water.
He had to be somewhere, right? They couldn’t have been separated too far apart.
Crawling to the edge, she tosses the bag off of her as her eyes widen from the sickly panic settling in. He couldn’t be gone from this, not like this, he’d made her a promise and she’d—
A spot of white floats in the middle of blue. His shirt.
Karen scrambles to shake her hair out, tying the length of it around a tree trunk before rushing downstream and daring to lean over the edge. It takes a couple tries before she’s able to grab hold of him. The weight of him almost knocks her in, dragging her under again, but her hair catches. Gritting her teeth, she pulls with all her strength.
She manages to haul him onto land as he splutters for air.
Slowly, John coughs out every last drop from his lungs while she pats his back. It’s surreal, how much the weight of the water clings to her hair, her dress, but the adrenaline swimming within makes it all feather-light, gives her the terribly hysterical urge to laugh.
A drop falls on her hand in the grass, and when she glances down, she gasps.
A blossom of red bleeds along his shoulder, trailing a line down his arm. “Sit up,” she guides him, and, tired, John obliges.
Karen unknots her hair from the tree before kneeling by his side once more, wrapping a few strands around his shoulder. “What are you—”
“Shh.” He only barely heeds her shushing as he continues muttering underneath his breath, bewildered. She ignores him and closes her eyes. “Flower gleam and glow, let your power shine. Make the clock reverse, bring back what once was mine.
“Heal what has been hurt, change the fate’s design. Save what has been lost and bring back what once was mine, what once was mine.”
She doesn’t need her sight for this part, never has. She can feel the glow of magic settling around her, a burst of warmth in her chest before it flutters through all of her limbs and finds a conduit in her hair. When her eyes flutter open again, her golden strands slips off his shoulder to reveal smooth skin where the deep scrape of a cut should’ve been.
The only remainder of his wound lies in the ripped seams and blood matted in his shirt.
John stares at her, blank.
Her lips quirk. “Don’t freak out?”
He starts blinking rapidly. “What— How— What—”
“It’s— it’s no big deal. So my hair heals! I just found out you’re wanted for treason; we’re even.”
“This is not the same,” he chokes out, shaking his head with mouth agape, looking very much like a fish out of water.
Karen stands, miffed. “You’re welcome, you know.”
A long minute passes as she rings out of her hair of excess water before he manages to stand up on slightly unsteady feet. “Thank you.” His voice is quiet.
When she looks at him, she finds a heavy gaze. She wants to believe it’s as sincere as it seems, and considering they’d just braved death together and she saved him — technically twice — she thinks maybe she can.
“Why’d you jump?” John asks, brows lowering. “They’re gonna think you’re really working with me now, you realize that?”
To nod and say she’d thought that far ahead was a bit of a stretch, so she simply shrugs. “I could figure it out on my own, but— you made me a promise. And I don’t want to do this alone. I meant it when I said I’ve decided to trust you.”
He’s looking at her as if she might just be the crazy one. She supposes he could be right, but she doesn’t feel insane — she feels alive.
And anyway, it wasn’t as if anyone in the kingdom knew who she was. No one knew a girl raised in a tower even existed. So what if she had a treason charge now? It took twenty years for the man in front of her to find her, it could take twenty more for anyone else wandering, let alone a guard or soldier.
Karen tries to tell herself that the thought of spending another twenty years in that tower doesn’t leave her a touch ill.
She focuses on him and pushes everything else out of her thoughts, rolling her lips with soft trepidation. “You trust me too, right?”
For another long minute, all he does it stare. She shifts under the intensity of it. Slowly, something warm seeps into his brown eyes until he’s taking a step forward and holding out his hand. “It’s Frank. Frank Castle.”
Awkwardly, she shakes his hand. The first time she’s ever done this with someone, too. A formal greeting.
His eyes flicker around her as he pushes his drenched mop of hair back out of his face. “Does, uh, it just glow sometimes?”
“Oh. Yeah. When I’m happy.” Karen runs her hands over her head, a futile attempt at tamping it down. “Sorry.”
Frank waves a hand. “No, it’s. Just. Give me another minute to get used to this.”
She laughs, nervously, but then he looks at her funny and smiles. A real smile.
Handsome, she thinks for the second time, and it spreads a blush across her cheeks she can’t begin to know what to do with.
“You know where we are?”
“Then we should turn that way.”
“Well, the lanterns always go up in the East. I think we’re going South right now.”
“We’re heading Southeast.”
“Close to it,” Frank says, feeling less sure by the minute since the sun set around an hour ago and trading one dense forest for another made walking in a straight line nearly impossible. They’d kept moving past dusk to gain more distance — although whoever might decide to follow them over that cliff was just a madman — and to try drying their still damp clothes.
And her hair.
She runs her fingers through the strands then, contemplative, and he catches the tinge of sadness at the ruined braid. Frank glances back to the dozen feet trailing behind them that she isn’t holding.
“Let’s stop here,” he says. She nods readily.
They gather up twigs and fallen branches. Frank shows her how to build a fire — she sits, chin in hands, fascinated — before she’s pointing out the stars and somehow they fall into an argument about who’s more likely to have known what direction they were headed. He remembers the dozens of sketches from her tower of the night’s sky and every constellation but he rolls his eyes all the same, about to open his mouth and continue bickering when a large dog leaps out from behind a bush.
Its reverberating growl makes them both jump up, Frank holding out his arms and Karen nearly tripping from the log behind her calves.
“Easy there, buddy.”
The gray dog only growls again, acting more enraged. Water’s matted his fur, clumped it up in spots, which makes Frank’s eyes narrow. He catches sight of its collar and groans.
No one was crazy enough to follow them into the waterfall — except the most rabid dog of the kingdom that’d had it out for him since day one. As if it knew he was stealing something precious from its beloved owners. Unbelievable.
Frank weighs his options — he’s not going to hurt a dog, but he has to find some way to subdue it — while Karen takes a cautious step out.
“Hey, uh, buddy,” she says, echoing his words.
The dog’s eyes flicker to her briefly, warily.
“He’s not gonna listen to you,” Frank chides. And maybe he’s more than a bit worried the dog will stop advancing on him and go after her instead, too.
Karen ignores him. “Calm down, buddy. We’re not so bad. What’s wrong, huh?”
The dog pauses mid-growl to stare at her.
She smiles. “Yeah?”
Frank scoffs as the dog pads over to sniff her, demeanor relaxing. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
In a flash, the dog turns and bares his teeth. Frank throws his hands up again, stepping back. Karen shushes him. “No, no, he’s okay.”
The dog, now nuzzling her hand, doesn’t look convinced. He keeps up a glare. A glare.
She laughs while Frank mutters a curse. “You’re a really unique dog. What’s your name?” He lets her takes gentle hold of his collar and turn it around until the gold name-tag glistens into view. “Max. That’s a nice name.”
He wags his tail. Frank scoffs again. “That’s the meanest dog under the crown, blondie.”
“I think people exaggerate. You’re not very mean, are you?” Karen coos, rubbing the pit bull’s ears. He sinks into a puddle at her feet, rolling back for a belly pet. “No, you’re not mean. I think you’re just a good dog.”
Gingerly, Frank looks away from the absurd scene unfolding next to him and scans their surroundings. No persons or horses in sight, let alone heard. No one else but the crazy dog. “Looks like he’s alone.”
“How’d you end up here, Max?”
He has a gut instinct telling him exactly what Max did, how one-track-minded the dog is, but opts to cut to the chase. Max being here means they have to keep moving after all. “They’re gonna come looking for him. Best we can do is tie him up.”
Max rolls to his feet suddenly, crouching and growling low at Frank.
“We wouldn’t,” Karen protests firmly, looking to Frank.
His jaw clenches. “We can’t let him follow us.”
“Not follow. He’ll come with us. Won’t you, Max?”
The gray dog looks between the two. Frank groans at the thought.
“We have a deal right now, Max. I’m going to see something in the capital for my birthday and I’m making this guy here take me—”
Frank rolls his head. “That’s a little bit of a simplification—”
“—so,” Karen says louder, “I need you to not, you know, alert the other guards, okay? If you can do that, you can just come with us! What do you say?”
Max sits back on his haunches, almost as if considering.
“It is my birthday once the clock strikes midnight, so. Kind of a big deal….”
Frank really wants to point out that there’s absolutely no way on Earth the dog actually understands what she’s saying. There can’t be. But there’s the way Max seems to soften that keeps him holding his tongue, small voice at the back of his head pointing out that all of this might just be a dream from a coma after she swung that pot at him.
Max scoots close after a minute and licks Karen’s outstretched hand, seemingly responding to Karen’s grin with his own.
Yeah, he thinks. This can’t be real.
“This is suicidal,” Frank comments as soon as they sit back down again, Max pressed tight to her side between the two of them, as distrustful of Frank as ever.
“No. It’s called making friends.”
“He’s going to alert the guards as soon as we see them.”
“Nope. Because we’re friends,” she sing-songs, giving a soft scratch to the gray dog.
When Frank attempts to reach down for another twig to add to the fire, Max snaps the air with its teeth. “Yeah. Friends.”
They’ve just barely reached the enormous swooping bridge leading across the bay into capital when Karen starts practically vibrating on her feet. “I can’t believe it! It’s so beautiful!”
“Haven’t seen half of it yet.”
He’s chiding her and she knows it, but there’s a soft smirk on his face when she turns back, and Max is prancing along behind her, mimicking her excitement. She squeals and runs forward.
Frank grunts from Max nipping at his heels. She catches him pushing Max away with his boot.
“Hey!” Karen says once. The two stop nudging each other with matching scowls. “My birthday, remember?”
That manages to do the trick.
He was right, though, about how much there was left to see. She practically runs across the bridge and into the cobblestone streets. Every inch bustles with people, hundreds of smiles and flowers and conversations flowing around her with overwhelming energy. She catches snippets here and there of people talking about their lost princess, catching details of the myth.
The Queen, sickly on the birthing bed. The quest for a life-saving flower. A bright-eyed girl born with unusual golden hair. A witch stealing away the future of the country in the dead of night.
It was a tale spun straight out of a book of fairytales like those she’d kept tucked under her pillow as a young child. Except without the happy ending.
Karen watches everyone flowing around her, excitement and hope lit back in their eyes for the day’s occasion. The crowds’ positivity is infectious, easily mingling and infusing with her own.
She always tried to imagine places like this from everything she’s read, everything she’s been told by Mother, but this was incredible. Twenty years of longing couldn’t prepare her for the energy of it all.
She loves it.
“Hey, blondie,” Frank calls.
She spins around.
Standing next to a fountain, he gestures to a group of children playing with their dolls. They stare at her wide-eyed, dolls and flowers falling out of their hands. Her brow furrows before she realizes they’re not just staring at her — it’s her hair.
Karen clutches it a bit more protectively to her chest instinctually before one of the girls hops off and comes running over, hands clasped in a plea. “Can we braid that? Please, please, please? Your hair’s so amazing!”
Bright eyes and dimpled smiles on chubby cheeks wait for her answers. Relaxing into a laugh, she nods.
They’re just children, she reprimands herself. Just like Turk back at the Snuggly Duckling, they didn’t understand who she was or what her hair could do, why it was so long. All they knew about it was that length. Nothing else.
Mother’s warnings were exaggerations; she was fine.
More than fine, actually, when the girls finished looping her hair around and threading a whole array of multi-colored flowers throughout. Tapping Frank’s shoulder to distract him from another stand-off with Max, she twirls. “How do I look?”
Frank blinks slow a few times. When Max whines affectionately, he manages to swallow and nod. “Perfect. I mean, good—”
With a giggle, Karen hears the strums of instruments start up somewhere behind them as a group of people start bunching up in the city center. She recognizes what they’re doing and instantly grabs hold of Frank’s hand, cutting off his stumbling words as she pulls him along. “They’re dancing!”
The people welcome them easily. Warmth blooms inside her chest.
Frank has a serious problem.
He knows exactly where she’s stashed that satchel and crown — even helped her hide it in an alleyway’s innocent stack of pots, undoubtedly completely unnoticed by all the citizens today while they partake in the well-wishing festivities, the annual attempt at spreading good into the universe so that the universe might return it with their lost princess — and he doesn’t remotely care to fetch it.
Because going back to get it would mean leaving Karen’s side.
Technically, Frank has already honored his promise. He’s brought her to the capital, it’s the day the lanterns are let loose into the sky, and nothing in their deal involved him taking her back to that tower. She’d been clear about being capable of taking care of herself when it came to that.
At any other time, working with anyone else, he would have already split. Slipped away into a shadow and lumbered off with the prize.
If only she hadn’t trusted him so easily. If only she hadn’t saved his hide and his life like that. If only she wasn’t so breathtakingly captivating as she danced in his arms and sketched color chalk designs onto the streets and beamed in delight at the square of fabric bearing the kingdom’s symbol — a sun — that he’d swiped from a stand and surprised her with.
The backdrop of it is magenta, just like her dress.
“Thank you!” Karen brushes a kiss against his cheek before he can react.
Max hits against the back of his legs hard as soon as she’s not looking. “I didn’t ask for it,” Frank grumbles.
Max just looks at him, wise and all-knowing and very, very pissed off.
“Shut up,” he says for lack of anything else.
Frank disappears briefly with an excuse of returning before it gets too late with something special. For a moment, fear strikes in her at the thought of him lying.
She doesn’t think he has at any point, once she recalls their past five days together, but that’s not necessarily reflective on what he will do. Or what he just said. Karen nods though and relies on their proclamations of trust.
It was genuine from her, and it seemed genuine from him. She had to believe that.
She found herself wishing for his word to be true nearly as much as she longed to see the lanterns as the sky started to bleed vibrant streaks of the rainbow and dusk slowly seeps through.
Wandering through the festivities with Max at her side, she’s peering at the food stalls hungrily one moment and gasping in surprise in the next as her ears pick up a familiar sound. A cane tapping.
Lifting her head, Karen spies Mother standing in an alcove unnoticed by anyone a short distance away. Her smile is twisted, similar to normal and yet different. Colder.
Guilt weighs down her bones but she approaches. Mother unclasps her hands from the cane and takes hold of Karen’s timid cheeks as soon as she’s within reach.
Max growls. Mother glances down with thinly disguised disdain. “Who’s this?”
“A— a friend. What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“Oh, Flower. My sweet child. You didn’t really think you could be that unpredictable, did you?”
“I’m sorry,” Karen says quiet. She’d managed to forget these last few days how quickly Mother could reduce her to a child. It was dizzying, to try and call upon that stubborn strength she had in front of Frank as Mother ticks her tongue at her now, grip tightening.
“I know, dear. But we’re going home.”
She winces at herself as soon as Mother tilts her head.
“I just mean— we’re already here. All I want is to see the lanterns, Mother. That’s all I want.”
“It’s too dangerous here.”
“No, it’s not; these people are nice.”
“You have no idea what they’re capable of,” Mother insists.
“They’ve been nice to me!”
“Them, or that man with you?”
Karen stills, afraid to blink. “You— you know about him?”
Mother’s lips curl in a sneer. “Of course I know, dear. Why do you think I was waiting this long to approach you?”
“…How long have you been following me?”
Mother dismisses the question with one flourish of a hand. “What’s important is that he’s a terrible man. If this bloody kingdom wants to hang him then he’s no good for you. You’re better off at home, in the tower. It’s a miracle no one has recognized your hair yet.”
“No one even knows I exist!”
“And let’s keep it that way, shall we?”
Karen could feel her heart plummet, hot panic prickling at her skin. With a start, she tastes bile against the back of her throat.
Not that. She couldn’t go back to that. She didn’t want to. The anonymity, the lack of friends, staring at the same four walls day in and day out as she struggled to entertain herself, to spin circles in a claustrophobic tower with a repetitive and lonely future stretching out before her for the rest of her life.
It made her sick.
Karen swallows hard, trying consciously to keep her emotions off her face in front of Mother for the first time in her life. “Just let me see the lanterns, Mother. Please. I’ll go back home with you as soon as I see them.”
Mother looks at her, unconvinced and, for a sliver of a second, fearful. Max whines and tries to push between them.
“I promise,” she manages.
Mother smiles and pulls her into a close hug. “Alright, dear. I’ll be waiting. I’m trusting you now.”
Karen clings back tightly, burying her head into her mother’s shoulder. She was either about to break her mother’s heart and betray the only family she had, or she was about to sentence herself to the reality of living in that tower forever and giving up all freedom she’s just tasted.
She didn’t know which would be worse. She didn’t know what she’d do.
When Frank finds Karen again, he knows something’s wrong.
She smiles, a laugh tinkles out of her, and she follows him willingly down to the docks. But it’s off.
Her lips curve, but her eyes are haunted; the laugh is there, but light as a feather; her shoulder bumps his, but no rambling questions push forth. Frank recalls every moment of the day, every interaction they’d had and everything he’d watched her do. Nothing jumped out at him as a good reason for this.
He thought he’d left her happy. Had he really made her worry that much?
Frank frowns to himself. “Close your eyes a minute.”
“What?” Karen lifts her head from where she’d been lost in her own thoughts.
Biting her lip, her eyelids slip closed. He takes her hands and slowly walks her forward until they’re at the edge of a darker, smaller docking pad at an end of the giant port.
Blue eyes opening in a flash, a sparkle alights in them when she catches on the small boat and two unlit lanterns sitting waiting within. “Yours?”
“Ours. For now.”
Karen raises an eyebrow. “Did you steal it?”
Max clamps his teeth around Frank’s ankle, firm without piercing his boots. Karen shoos him away before Frank shakes him off.
“No one’s gonna miss it for an hour. Gives you the best view for your birthday,” he points out.
A small smirk slowly stretches across her face. It reaches her eyes this time.
He smiles back and helps her into the boat.
Max gets relegated to staying on the dock, disgruntled, but Frank is not about to deal with a dog out for his blood — or, more accurately, his arrest — while they sway in a flimsy wooden boat in the middle of the bay. Karen’s able to coach it more kindly to Max so he accepts his fate.
Frank just shakes his head.
Rowing them out until he gauges the distance roughly halfway between shores, he decides that’s far enough for all the lights to be in decent view before he sets the oars aside and looks to Karen. She’s lost again, staring into the water with a semblance of pain in her eyes.
She looks up. A mask of happiness slides over her face, so obvious he can nearly see the edges of it. “It’s almost dark, they’re gonna start soon!”
“What is it?”
“What’s wrong?” Frank asks quiet.
A flicker of wavering and then the mask is slipping off again, Karen hunching her shoulders as she turns back to the water’s edge. “…I know Mother was lying about a lot. But I can’t help worrying if she’s still right about some things. Me, my hair. What people would do if they found out what I can do with it….”
Frank leans his elbows on his knees. “Don’t think I freaked out too bad.”
“You’re different,” she rolls her eyes.
“Am I?” Karen glances up. He shrugs. “Look, I’m one of the worser people you’ll meet. Did I do anything about your weird, glowing, healing hair?”
“No. But you’re not— you’re not bad. I know you’re not.”
“And you’re a princess,” he retorts. “I’m attempting to make a positive point here and I don’t try that very often.”
She smiles small. “Thanks…. I think I’m just afraid. Afraid seeing the lights like this won’t be as amazing as I always thought and won’t be worth….”
“Worth the journey?”
“Something like that.”
Frank runs his eyes over her entire being once more, taking stock of the way trepidation curves her inward, how she’s trying to make herself look smaller than she could ever be. “Seeing the end of a wish you’ve had for a long time doesn’t mean everything’s ending. Just means you get to make a new one.”
“What if you already know what your new wish would be, but it means you have to choose between it and someone you love?”
Understanding dawns. Whatever had happened, whatever prompted her to think about, she was worried again about the tower — she was worried about her mother. “Maybe it’s not my place to say,” he starts slowly, “but family shouldn’t make you choose between them and being yourself.”
The hesitation remains. “It’s not that easy when you’re their lifeline.” The words slip out of her before Karen realizes, eyes widening. “I— I just mean—”
Frank wants to ask more question, wants to know more. How badly her mother was using her for her gift, how her mother actually treated her, why she was so plagued by these thoughts now. She didn’t deserve to be.
She hadn’t deserved to be cooped up in a tower her whole life to begin with.
He wants to ask, but holds his tongue, ducking his head to hide the abrupt protectiveness roaring to life within him. “You don’t have to explain.”
Sight catching on a daisy that’s rustled loose from her complicated hairstyle and fallen to the bottom of the boat, Frank makes a decision.
Screw plans — screw making it rich, screw retiring in another kingdom, screw disliking nearly every person he met and isolating himself as much as possible. Karen was more complicated than she looked, but he could do complicated. He likes complicated.
He picks the small daisy up and, gently, tucks it behind her ear.
“It’s a hard feeling, making choices between things you love.” He tries to offer a smile. “You’ll just know what’s right. You’re too stubborn.”
She blushes. “…What’s your wish?” Warm curiosity fills her eyes again.
He rolls it over in his head. Now, it sounds stupid. As if it suddenly isn’t enough to qualify. “Thought it was for a castle. Not too sure anymore.”
“Frank Castle wanted a castle. That’s—”
“Don’t say funny.”
“I was going to say perfect.”
The lanterns go up in the sky sooner than Karen expects.
Their reflections twinkle along the top of the pitch-black water first before appearing fully from behind the spirals of the royal castle. She watches them in awe as, one by one, glowing lights of every pastel shade join together and fill the sky, stretching far into the stars, overpowering the darkness of the landscape.
They flock together almost like birds, beautiful and yet slow, drifting on the air. Frank lights the lanterns in the boat, passing one over to her. One with pink paper and the sun on its side. Smiling, she forgets all her troubles and pushes it up with a light touch.
Both of their lanterns sway together, circling and mingling as they rise in the sky. There could be some meaning in that, if she squinted hard, but Karen doesn’t want to think right now. She doesn’t want to consider anything in her future or with Mother or what anything else means as Frank’s hand takes hers.
His thumb rubs over her palm.
Her heart jumps.
“Here,” Karen says suddenly, leaning back to reach where she’d tucked the satchel underneath her seat. She pulls it up onto her lap and takes a moment to smooth the edges of it nervously.
One look at his face and she knows he’d forgotten she even brought it.
“I wanted to give this to you before, but I was scared that you’d leave. The thing is… I don’t want any doubt between us. You know what I mean?”
“…Yeah. Think I do.”
He reaches for the satchel, moves it back to the boat’s floorboards.
Karen melts in relief, crooked smile on Frank’s face.
Something changes, slowly, as the lanterns’ lights dance across their faces. She can’t remember feeling this way with anyone before, either — feeling as though she’s completely exposed and understood.
But there’s something else there in the way his eyes slip to her lips and hers follow to his. Something cozy and safe as they lean closer, her hand shifting in his until fingers are threaded, pressed tight. When his look turns hooded, her eyes flutter closed.
Frank pulls back.
“Sorry. I just remembered… there’s something I’ve gotta do.”
Karen looks at him, oars in hand now, and desperately searches in her mind for what went wrong. Did she read it all falsely, conjuring up a fantasy like one of her stories?
He doesn’t meet her gaze as he rows them further away from the capital and to the embankment across the bay.
“Okay,” she says, and tries to pretend that everything’s alright.
Her heart stills like a rock and all of Mother’s words echo in her head as soon as Frank’s taking the satchel in hand and disappearing into the brush with a distracted promise to return.
He would’ve kissed her.
Not that any part of him had the right to, but he’d been unable to stop himself, hopelessly enthralled and every part of his thoughts thrumming with longing. Until— a light in the distance. A torch.
Wesley and Fisk, standing at the opposite edge of the bay, gesturing once in warning.
They’d never stop coming for him. The worst of all his betrayals come back to haunt him, the kingdom’s soldiers failing him for the first time and not managing to arrest the wanted menaces when he’d practically served them up on a silver platter of bloody noses and tied up wrists.
Slimy and smooth talking, they’d found someone’s weakness. He was sure of it.
And now here they were, out of the soldiers’ clutches. Again.
Frank didn’t even care about the crown. Not anymore. Whatever happens with Karen, whatever she decides and whatever grows or dies between them, the crown was irrelevant to it all. The trouble it brought wasn’t worth it.
A part of her didn’t believe his promise to return, and that guts him.
But that — the faltering of trust — is something that he knows he’s brought upon himself after their boat ride. He tells himself he can start making up for it as soon as he returns. Returning is a very good start, actually.
He steels the smile off his face and finds his former employer a hundred yards down the rocky beach. “Fisk, Wesley! See you lost the soldiers without a scratch. Can’t say the same; waterfalls are terribly dangerous, you believe that?”
“Crown in tow, I see. Or is that another trick — empty bag this time?” Fisk asks, lumbering closer.
Frank keeps an eye on where Wesley shifts like a snake into the shadows at his right. “It’s here.”
Withdrawing the golden crown of sapphires and diamonds, he lets the glow of the lanterns shimmer off of it with a lazy twirl.
“Let’s call this debt even with you two taking this. I’m a man of my word; I won’t trick you, turn you in, or come looking for it again. Guards can chase me for eternity, I don’t care.”
Fisk smirks hard. “What you don’t seem to understand, Punisher, is this isn’t a meeting to make a deal. We’re just taking.”
“Fine by me,” Frank says, tossing the satchel with crown now tucked inside at the larger man’s feet, practiced nonchalance in the behavior. Wesley’s disappeared behind a tree and paranoia tickles at the back of his neck.
He turns away.
Wesley’s right in front of him, exactly as he’d expected. Frank clenches his jaw.
“We’re not done with you. You see, we’re taking this crown back to our new friend, and you— well, you’re being disposed of.”
There’s a brief smarmy look of satisfaction on Wesley’s face before he lunges. Frank dodges the right-hand man, landing a kick to kidney instead and earning a gruff gasp. He’s about to run when Fisk slams a fist against his back.
Frank falls to his knees, unable to recover before Wesley stomps his head into the sand. A hot spike of pain tears through his skull, bringing with it a false sense of déjà vu before he’s groaning, blinking against the blur overtaking his vision.
“Now gentlemen, that’s hardly an efficient way to take care of someone,” an older woman with a commanding voice says from somewhere nearby.
Frank blinks rapidly, pushing against the ground and the foot planted firmly on his back, until the sound of something sharp splits the air. A knife out of its sheath. A few seconds, and the hilt of it slaps against someone’s hand.
His vision begins to clear slight. The right-hand man has it, and seems to be grinning down at him.
Before Frank can assess his options, can try to roll out of the way as the gleaming metal rushes down on him, a loud crack sounds, making him flinch. For a moment, Wesley’s feet wobble, shifting, and then he’s falling on his knees right next to Frank. He rolls out of the way and staggers back in time to see Wesley do a face-plant into the sand, a splotch of what looks to be blood at the back of his head.
He doesn’t need much-recovered vision to know that the blonde and magenta-clothed woman standing in front of him, rock raised in hand, is Karen.
With a smirk starting to tug, a headache explodes between his temples and Frank slumps against the rocks.
Karen’s first instinct was to make sure the man at her feet is still breathing.
Her second instinct was to run to Frank’s side, his name pulled with a scream from her throat as she watched the other man knock him out.
She doesn’t move any further than putting her back to Frank, however, as she moves her eyes between the scarily large bald man to her left and the now equally as terrifying woman in front of her.
“Mother,” she breathes out, a question hidden in the word.
The other woman lets out a deep breath as if this is all just an annoyance. “You were supposed to stay at the boat, dear. Isn’t that what you told the thief behind you? Really, Karen, you’re learning too many bad habits from him.”
“That’s what you have to say?” She nearly chokes on the words.
“I told you, he’s not good for you. Mother knows best—”
“You’re trying to kill him! What did he ever do to you?”
“He stole my Flower!” Mother snaps. Karen shrinks, instinctively, but with one step back she finds herself almost tripping over the feet of the man she clocked.
She swallows and squares her shoulders at the reminder. “I told you I can take care of myself. Why don’t you trust me?”
“The world is too dangerous for you, dear.” Mother steps closer, arms outstretched. “Everyone will want to use you. Why do you think your thief was here?” Her lips curl with scorn. “To make a deal. To trade for a better price. What would make him more money? A princess’s crown or powerful hair?” Mother tries take hold of her hands.
Karen shifts back, stumbling over the attempted murderer’s legs.
Her tone turns to ice. “You’re lucky he tried to make a deal with my men and not the guards.”
Sickly unease washes over her nerves, makes her feel horribly numb. Just how long had Mother followed her? What exactly did Mother do every day she left the tower with her entourage that had her knowing men like this? Real and truly dangerous criminals?
“Who are you?”
The woman standing across from her suddenly appears as a stranger, even while she sighs impatiently the same as a million times before. “Come to Mother, my Flower.”
Her mind flashes with all the lies, all the looks, all the secrecy.
Maybe she would have gone to live indefinitely back in that tower for a mother she loved and one that loved her — but that wasn’t her reality, not really. It was all another lie.
“You’re not my mother. You— You say people are going to use me because of my hair. But you use me! Every day! You lied about the world, the state of the kingdom, never let me know anything about you. I don’t…I don’t even know who you are.”
“What a cruel thing to say,” Mother chides. Her eyes flash darker when they catch on a fold of her dress. “Where did you get that?”
Karen glances down. The square of cloth with the kingdom’s sun etched sways into view now with the way she’s standing, stark against the layers of ruffled cotton and lace. She’d sewn it in while Frank went looking for a boat, receiving some help from the young girls of earlier.
“Why did you put that on?! That’s not yours to wear, I won’t allow it!”
The bloody rock almost slips from her fingertips.
The Queen saved with a magical flower, producing a uniquely blonde daughter.
Her mother, using that nickname for as long as she could remember.
Her mother that needed to be healed once a week or else she started to look irreversibly frail. Just like now. Karen can see it easily now — can’t stop noticing it — in the veiny hands, liver-spotted skin, and hungry eyes with dark circles underneath. Her mother that walked around with henchmen for purposes unknown, that managed to hide her away in a corner of the kingdom no one could find for twenty years, that became so swiftly dismissive about the lanterns.
Her birthday, set on the day the princess went missing.
“Did you lie about where I came from, too?” She dares to ask, dares to know. “You didn’t save me. You— you took me.”
A still moment. Mother’s face morphs, almost inhuman. “You have a gift, dear. It would’ve been a waste not to use it. Besides — that gift of yours was mine first.”
Karen has the awful urge right then to vomit.
Frank stirs behind her, makes the bald man advance, and Karen turns at that, raising the rock.
It all happens in a flash. In one moment, she means to give Frank a fighting chance by attacking the giant man herself, and in the next she’s shoved aside by Mother, watching helplessly as Frank’s hand finds the dagger in the sand next to him in time to cripple the man taking hold of him, only to find another blade stabbing through his stomach.
Mother’s blade. A hidden weapon from inside the cane.
It isn’t the first time Frank Castle has been stabbed. He’s been beaten, stabbed, thrown, kicked, and once even burned by others like him. Others worse than him from the toxic cesspool that was the small yet thriving criminal element in the kingdom.
It wasn’t the first, not even close, but it did feel remarkably as though it was going to be the last.
Fisk stumbles and falls into the water’s edge, gripping at himself in a similar way to how Frank clutches his hands to his own wound now. How’d they manage that — to end each other at the same time? It was practically luck on Fisk’s part, coming at the hands of his apparent boss.
Frank didn’t feel like counting that as a fair fight. By rules of fairness, he’d finally won their bet of who stood as the more competent man.
Too bad fairness didn’t exist between thieves.
He blinks blearily as his vision fills with yellow.
No, not yellow. Blonde.
Her hands tremble over his before one grips his jaw. “Finally using my name,” she says shakily.
The headache resides enough into numbness for his vision to clear. Tears etch tracks down her cheeks, make him reach out to swipe at them with the back of his hand. The only part free of blood. “Figure I gotta start sometime.”
“You’re gonna be okay, Frank, I promise.” She starts layering her hair over his wound.
For a moment, he’s deliriously happy.
And then he sees the strange woman standing at his feet.
“I’m making you better.”
Her eyes flicker up to his, tears spilling over once more, hand tightening on his face. “I won’t let you die.”
Frank shudders at the taut smirk on the strange woman’s face, prideful and about the most evil thing he’s ever seen. Everything she’d said about her mother, everything he’d heard as he’d come to, every terrible suspicion he’d had clicks into place. He shakes his head at Karen. “No. You can’t go back. You can’t give up your freedom.”
“I can’t let you die. Just let me do this,” she begs.
She presses her hair against his wound and closes her eyes to sing.
Was this what the universe had in mind for their end all along? To bring a magical woman into his path, innocent and strong with a chance at freedom, only for him to condemn the rest of her existence?
His life wasn’t worth hers. It wasn’t right.
“Karen?” He asks quiet.
She opens her eyes. “What?”
“You deserve your second wish,” he says, pulling her close with a hand at the back of her neck.
Her face flushes with a sob, leaning close.
“Hurry up, dear, he hasn’t all night,” the older woman ridicules.
Karen starts to lean back and sing. Frank’s fingers finally find the dagger he’d last wielded not two minutes ago. Before she knows it, before her mother can react with more than a look of panic overcoming bony features, he cuts a smooth line through every last strand of blonde hair at Karen’s back.
Without a sound, the long hair drops into a heap at the ground, the beginning of a glow dying from it as both the severed strands and those still cascading around her face morph into a sun-kissed red.
The older woman shouts threats and fears, clawing at her skin as they watch her become more frail with each passing second. With no warning, she explodes in a cloud of dust and ash, clothes and cane dropping into a pile of nothing.
“Frank? Frank!” Karen clutches at him then, shaking him enough for him to realize he’d started to drift off. Her hands are warm. He doesn’t know when he turned cold. “What did you do— why did you do that when I can’t heal you?!”
“You’re my new wish,” he manages, trying to smile.
“And you were mine.” Karen sobs, pressing her now-powerless hair against his wound. “Stay with me, you can’t leave me!”
The song chants from her lips, over and over, to no avail.
He gives in to the urge for sleep, strangely content.
“Heal what has been hurt, change the fates’ design. Save what has been lost and bring back what once was mine, what once was mine,” Karen more rambles than sings for the tenth time, snapping her eyes open as soon as she’s finished.
It’s not working. None of it is working.
Her power is gone, hair turned a hopeless red, and Frank won’t wake up, won’t stir, not matter how much she shakes him. The blood at his stomach starts to stick thickly to her fingers, matting through her once-lifesaving strands.
She breaks down with a sob.
A minute passes.
Light beams bright enough to blind starts shining from his skin. Karen squints at it before startling at the sight of her tears sparkling like the stars and absorbing into him, tracking curling paths of a golden glow underneath and out around them. She wipes at her tears and sits in shock.
A twinkling sounds somewhere close.
A shudder of a breath follows.
She hugs him close. “Frank!”
With a chuckle of relief against her neck, his arms wrap around her. “Should I ask?”
“I’ll tell you later. You might not believe me,” she says as she pulls back.
“No more ‘blondie’, huh?” One of his hands threads through her hair. “Think I like this better, anyway.”
They still have two other passed out and injured criminals to deal with, a boat to return, and, most importantly, a lost princess dilemma to sort out, but Karen throws all that out the window for now as she takes hold of his collar and kisses him. Frank, for his part, returns it with equal fervor.
“We should’ve done that before this mess,” he murmurs after against her lips.
She’s the one that laughs this time.
Karen looks downright divine with a crown on. It’s enough to remind Frank of the first time they met, him tied up by her hair once dozens of feet long and many shades lighter, thinking about her resembling one stubborn force of an angel. He puts that in the back of his head to try and remember to tell her later.
For now, dancing with the people and children through the cobblestone circle at the heart of the city, Frank just watches.
She’s in her element. It’s amazing, really, that no one saw the royalty in her before. The warm heart of her parents, the natural poise of a princess, the strong will of a leader.
That, and her smile.
Max knocks against the backs of his knees, then, making him press a steadying hand against the wall. Frank rolls his eyes at the pit bull.
“I bet you just knew who she was, didn’t you?”
It’s not the first time he’s asked the dog that and, just as all the times before, Max only grins at him smugly.
“Well? What are you doing here?”
Max pushes against him again once and then sinks on his haunches, watching the spectacle in front of them. Frank eyes him warily but fishes a treat out of pocket. Max takes it without much acknowledgment for who gave it to him.
An uneasy friendship was forming after all.
Karen was proud of it.
A year to the day brings another birthday, which brings another celebration. It’s a week long endeavor of renewed celebration throughout the kingdom. Next year will have Karen throwing festivities on her actual birthday for the first time in her life, and he knows she’s nervous about that, already thinking ahead, but the bond between her and her parents had been unmistakably instantaneous.
Frank might have felt envious if they hadn’t extended their wealth of love and acceptance in his direction, too, including a pardon for the crown he stole considering he brought the intended wearer of it back. Never mind that it was entirely accidental.
That part — the acceptance — he definitely didn’t deserve, but he clung to it anyway. And it’s not as if his future wife left him much choice in the matter.
Karen drops out of the crowd in front of him, then, breathless. “What are you two doing?” She asks, giving Max an appreciative ear rub. His tail hits against Frank’s boots.
She grins and extends a hand. “Wanna dance?”
“Can’t say no,” he teases.
He leads her into a spin that makes her shine with happiness in his arms and Frank knows he’s living his happiest life, too.