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when our lips touch I can taste the next sixty years of my life

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It’s the soft pressure on her shoulder that startles Karen out of her thoughts.

She had been so focused while rereading the notes for her next article that she feels a bit disoriented. She blinks, her brain taking a couple of seconds to register that her favorite mug has been filled with hot coffee and deposited on her desk and that Frank is standing close to her.

“Here, sweetheart,” he says in his rasped voice. “It looks like you need it.”

She looks up at him and then smiles. He’s wearing a black tee with some jeans, with a dishtowel draped over his shoulder. He looks particularly alluring with his two days' worth of stubble and hair in disarray like he had just rolled out of bed.

“Thanks, Frank,” she says softly.

He doesn’t reply, just bends over to kiss the top of her head, giving her shoulder a squeeze, and then walks back to the kitchen.

She cradles the mug in her hands, appreciating the warmth emanating from it. She sips her coffee and hums contently; it’s exactly how she loves it. Her eyes flick at the blank page on her screen, but the sound coming from the kitchen attracts her attention.

Frank’s cooking dinner and she hadn't even noticed. Based on the amazing smells wafting her way, it’s one of her favorites dishes that he makes perfectly: spaghetti with meatballs.

Karen turns to look at him, article forgotten as she leans her whole body to watch. She smiles when he tastes the sauce before stirring it once again. It’s hard to believe the man that made the perfect coffee for her and who is now standing in her kitchen cooking her favorite meal is the same one she had met at the hospital two years ago. But he is.

Well, probably not the same man, Karen muses. Franks bears his grief differently now. Although he still gets justice done with his own hands, it’s not driven by the misery he felt for the loss of his family. It’s something else, nowadays. He still gets his hands stained with blood, but it’s always from the worst kind of criminal.

She still believes Frank’s brand of vigilantism is the most effective one, even though it’s difficult for her to admit it. She knows how most of people feel about him; that they look at him and sees only the blood he’s shed, rather than the blood he’s collected. She can’t do it though.

Karen has seen the result of The Punisher brand of justice, up close and personal and multifaceted as a reporter and a person. Better than anyone, she knows what he’s capable of doing. But she can’t look at Frank and reduce him to a list of people that didn’t deserve to live anyway. Not when she knows him.

Yes, she has seen how bloody his hands look after a night out, but those same hands are the ones that help their elderly neighbor whenever he sees her because he knows she has arthritis and it’s hard for her to go up and down the stairs. The same hands that cleaned the wound of the young woman that just moved to the apartment below Karen’s when she fell from her bike and hurt her head as Frank got inside the building. The hands who touch her with such care and tenderness. And that’s one of the first things she discovers about Frank when they get together. He relies on touches to express his affection.

Like when she drives, his hand will rest on her knee, or whenever they’re standing close, his palm will be firmly placed on her hip. If they share a couch, their thighs will be pressed together, with his arm around her shoulders while his fingers trace imaginary patterns on the skin of her shoulder.

His ankle will always lean against hers when they sit on opposite sides of a table.

To lead her into doorways and elevators, his palm will be pressed on her lower back.

When he spends the night with her, he brushes her hair before they go to bed, his fingers running through her locks softly as he hums whatever song is stuck in his head at the time.

He gives kisses as greeting; when she comes home after a long day, when she first wakes up in the morning or before she closes her eyes to sleep. He never says goodbye in words or in kisses. There’s only see you soon and a press of foreheads.

There are other kisses too. A peck on her cheek after a heated conversation where she ends up conceding to him. His lips against her temple when he gets home and she’s too engrossed in whatever article she’s writing to pay attention to him. A kiss to the tip of her nose whenever she does something he finds captivating. A kiss on her knuckles when he’s feeling particularly romantic - which happens more often than Karen would’ve expected.

If she’s completely honest, she hasn’t expected a lot of gentleness coming from him when they had decided to be together. She had seen glimpses of tenderness when he had hugged her during their reunion, when he had kissed her cheek after pleading her to drop the Kandahar case, and when they had almost kissed on the elevator after he saved her from the crazy bomber. But, she had believed those touches were fleeting moments rather than the way he acts when he wants to show his feelings. Quickly, she learns how mistaken she was.

Frank is, at his core, an affectionate man. He only had turned off that side of him during his mourning period, but now that the loss of his family doesn’t tear him apart, it’s resurfacing that piece of him. Slowly, the man she got to know and grew to love as the Punisher is regaining the bits of himself that made him Frank.

He must feel her eyes on him because he turns and sends her a curious look.

“Something wrong?”

She shakes her head, offering him a tiny smile. “Just admiring the view.”

He breaks into a grin and her heart leaps in her chest. She still can’t believe that she can get this kind of reaction out of him.

“You like?” He asks with a charming smile.

“What do you think?” She throws back, taking a sip of her coffee in attempt to hide her delight.

“I think you need to finish this damn article already, so we can have some fun,” he says, turning his back to her.

She groans in frustration, but doesn’t answer him. Karen knows he’s right, but won’t give him the pleasure to hear her saying it.

She likes to keep him on his toes, after all.

 


 

It’s almost ten p.m. when they step out of the restaurant, hand in hand with satisfied smiles adorning their lips.

Earlier tonight, Frank had asked her to put on a pretty dress so they could go out and have fun.

“My girl deserves a nice date,” he had said, kissing her cheek before slipping out of the bedroom so Karen could get ready.

One hour later, they were entering D’Amore Winebar & Ristorante, an Italian restaurant in Harlem to have dinner. The place was beautiful, with dim lights decorating the spacious dining room and giving it a romantic ambiance. The venue was intimate and warm, being the perfect place for a date.

She felt good to be there with Frank. They didn’t have many opportunities to dress up and play normal couple, so it was nice to get a moment like that one. She was happy to finally wear the deep pink flouncy dress with triangular cutouts at the hem and neckline she had bought on sale a long time ago. And, of course, she loved the chance to see Frank wearing dress shirt and pants. He looked so handsome in them, especially the combo he chose tonight: a purple shirt with dark grey pants.

Honestly, a good night overall for Karen.

The minute they are out of the restaurant, they hear the familiar notes of a jazz standard echoing nearby.

“Is this Louis Armstrong?” Frank asks her, trying to find the direction where the music is coming from.

“Yeah,” Karen says. “I think it’s Dream a Little Dream of Me.”

Frank’s eyes lights up and he offers a smile. “Let’s find where it’s coming from.”

His grip on her hand tightens as he pulls her along. She giggles as she tries to keep up with his large steps and she can see from the corner of her eye that his small smile from just a moment ago has blossomed into a wide grin playing on his lips.

It doesn’t take them long to find the source of the music: it’s the annual jazz festival in Marcus Garvey park. There’s a tent where the sound system is and a dance floor filled mostly with old aged couples dancing.

They keep to the edges and themselves, standing in silence and watching the couples sway between the notes and the night. She feels so content that she rests her head on Frank’s shoulder and sighs happily. He wraps his arm around her waist and stays right there with her, enjoying the pleasant atmosphere the festival provided them.

“Come on,” Frank says when the song finishes and the band strikes up a new one, extending his hand to Karen.

She blinks slightly in confusion, but presses her palm to his and lets him lead them to the dance floor. A delighted giggle escapes her lips. He turns her around and then pulls her against him.

Her face must speak of her surprise, because he says, “No need to look so surprised, sweetheart,” he says, wrapping his arm around her waist. “Told ya that I’m an old-fashioned guy. That happens to include knowing how to dance with my girl.”

Charmed by his words, Karen grins, placing her free hand on his shoulder. He tightens the grip on the hand he’d been holding and then entwines their fingers together. He puts their joined hands against his chest while leaning over to rest his temple against hers. She closes her eyes and enjoys both the song and the togetherness.

Karen had never been someone who gave a lot of importance to romanticism, especially in her relationships. Her priorities had always laid with having a strong bond based on honesty and faithfulness with her boyfriends. It didn’t help, either, that she ended up dating close friends, and had learned that in those kind of relationships – ones where she didn’t need to be convinced to stay because she was already there – that traditional romance didn’t really happen. She didn’t mind then, because she didn’t like manufactured moments, fabricated and contrived as they could be.

She didn’t mind then, but now with Frank, she knew better.

She finds it hysterically ironic that it’s Frank Castle who taught her to appreciate romance.

Frank manages to pull off quiet intimacy that feels genuine. Probably because Frank believes that actions show he cares and proves he wants her, instead of doing it for the sake of a social expectation.

So, Karen learns she loves being romanced, but only if it’s by Frank.

He’s just ridiculously good at it.

He doesn’t even try hard, there are no grand gestures - and maybe that’s the reason it works. He just slips thoughtful actions into their daily life that, while small, feel much bigger in their significance.

Like, if she’s too tired or feeling particularly stressed after a day at work, he prepares a nice bath and gives her a back rub as she sits, enjoying the hot water and a glass of wine.

Sometimes when she asks him to get take-out or go grocery shopping, he buys her flowers too. Usually he gives her white roses, but sometimes it’s also white lilies or chrysanthemums, pink tulips and sunflowers. They’re all beautiful and she loves every single one of them.

Whenever he has time, he cooks for her. He’s learned to make her favorite dishes and how she likes her coffee. Every now and then, he drops by The Bulletin with lunch he had made for her. If she’s going to work overtime and he’s busy, he pays to deliver food at her office with a cute note. When she’s working at home, he ensures she has coffee at hand at all times.

He sings to her romantic ballads whenever she’s around as he plays guitar. It’s very corny and makes her smile every single time. She suspects that’s the reason he keeps doing it.

He buys things that remind him of her; scarves and earrings and a fountain pen – normal but always thoughtful. And then there were the gifts only he could give: a pink folding knife, a stun gun camouflaged in a lipstick tube. The true gift, though, is the look on his face as she opens them; the bonus for her is the fact that he’s right in knowing exactly what she’d like.

The pressure of lips on her cheek takes her back to the present and forces her eyes open.

Frank is leaning back, watching her with soft eyes. “Penny for your thoughts?”

She smiles, scrunching her nose. “Only a penny, Mr. Castle? I think my thoughts are worth more than that,” she teases him.

He grins at her. “How about two pennies?” He replies, bringing the hand he is holding up to his face, dropping a kiss under the bracelet that had been his latest purchase - a thin plated chain with three tiny hearts charms.

She shakes her head, and Frank raises his eyebrow at her in a silent question. Before him, she might have considered not answering, liking to keep her thoughts to herself. And she knows he’d understand if that was still the case, but it’s not anymore.

It’s Frank. It’s them.

“Just thinking about you,” she confesses.

He frowns at her, a silent ‘what about me?’ hanging between them.

“Just that you’re really good at this,” she shrugs. “The romancing thing, I mean.”

Frank ducks his head in that adorable way that makes Karen want to squeeze him. He shakes his head, a hint of red on his cheeks. He’s embarrassed and that’s just beautiful.

“I’m not,” he says. “You just had people who didn’t value you like you deserve.”

She opens her mouth ready to refute him, but closes it again, because he’s right. The few relationships she had had ended because she felt she was giving too much while never receiving much back.

“Well, I’ve got you now,” she ends up saying, a smile tugging at her lips.

“Yes, you do,” he replies softly. “And I’ve got you.”

Frank tilts his head to his right, pulling his arms away from her. And then, his big hands are cupping her face, pulling her face close to his until their foreheads are against each other. He nuzzles her nose and let their breath mingle, mouths barely touching.

She loves and hates him whenever he does this because he knows how frustrated she feels when he plays her with teasing touches that leave Karen wanting more and more.

Tonight though, it seems like he’s the impatient one, if the slow, deep kiss he gives her is any indication. It’s weighted with so many feelings that she feels lightheaded, like her knees are about to give out from under her.

Frank drops one last peck on her lips before drawing away and looking at her. His face is red with his mouth glistening from their kiss, his eyes reflecting the tenderness of the moment.

She smiles and he puts his arms around her waist. With instinct and ease, soon her own arms are wrapping around his neck. Their eyes are locked in a gaze and then he starts swaying again.

Only Frank could distract her enough to make her unaware they’d stopped dancing.

Her smile widens at him and he scrunches his nose at her. He looks so adorable that she drops a kiss on his nose and then tucks her head under his chin.

And they sway, sway, and sway.

 


 

“Shit,” Frank mutters under his breath, drawing Karen’s attention from her book. He’s chopping vegetables for dinner and, from the look of things, he must have almost chopped off one of his fingers instead.

“You alright there, Frank?” She asks, putting her book down, walking towards him.

“Nah, I’m half left,” he answers, putting his finger on his mouth.

Karen stops in her tracks and tilts her head, surprised. There’s a second of silence, before she breaks out in a wide grin.

“I’m sorry, did you just make a dad joke?” She throws her head back and laughs, in disbelief. She knows he’s a goofball, but this is on a whole new level. “You absolute dork.”

He takes off the finger from his lips to look at her.

“A dork?!” His mouth hangs open, feigning offense. “I’m not a dork!” he says, stepping out of the countertop to get closer to her.

“Yes, you are,” she insists as Frank comes close enough that their bodies brush against each other. She keeps looking at his face, trying to not let the fact Frank is wearing only a sweatpants and nothing more distract her from teasing him.

“Repeat that to my face,” he says, looking down at her with a serious face.

“You. Are. A. Dork,” she spells it out to him, trying to keep a straight face.

“Yeah?” He nods and then his hands are at her sides, pinching her most ticklish points.

“No, no, no! Frank!” She shrieks as she fumbles, trying to keep his hands away from her body. “That’s not fair!” Karen yells mid-laughter.

He keeps tickling her, following her around the room as she tries to put distance between them. She walks until she’s stumbling into the bedroom and then her legs hit the bed and Frank goes down right after her.

She groans at his weight pressing her down into the mattress. He shifts to put his weight on his knees and elbows rather than her. They’re both panting, Frank’s face hovering over hers with a smile as they tried to catch their breath.

“God,” she says, grinning and still winded. “I hate when you do that.”

“Yeah, you look very hatin’ right now, ma’am,” is Frank’s smartass reply.

“Fuck you, Frank.”

“Sounds like an excellent idea to me!”

Karen opens her mouth, but Frank is already slanting his mouth over hers, swallowing any retort she had been about to give him.

“That was terrible,” she manages to say, the words falling away when he slides his mouth from her lips to her neck.

He hums against her, too busy to acknowledge her words and focusing instead on her body. She moans when his teeth graze her skin, one of her hands grasping the back of his head while placing the other on the bare skin his shoulder, both urging him on and once again reveling in the fact that he’s wearing only sweatpants.

He shifts, and she’s obliged to follow, even as his delicate touch pushes under her shirt and makes her giggle and writhe away from him again.

“So ticklish,” he says in a mocking tone, pressing his smile on her collarbone.

“I swear to God, I’ll kick you out of this bed if you try to tickle me again.”

He laughs out loud and pulls slightly away, his eyes finding hers.

“No more tickling for now,” he promises, bunching up the hem of her shirt in his fists and pulling it off her body, tossing it aside. Her bra follows immediately. “Only connecting the dots,” he declares, tracing an invisible line between the freckles along her chest with his tongue.

Her laughter turns into a long moan when he licks around her nipple, pulling the tip between his lips, sucking on it. He moves to the other side, playing with it as his hands caress her hips and her belly so softly that she trembles and her toes curl. Those touches bring something out of her that she can’t pin down. It’s a sensation between tickling and pleasure, that overwhelms her to the point she can only shudder and laugh.

Her reaction only propels Frank to repeat his actions over and over again, until she’s a bit of a quivering mess under his ministrations.

His lips find hers once again and he kisses her, his fingers gripping the waistband of her shorts and pulling them, and her underwear, down. She arches her body to help him slide them off, kicking her legs until they fall away.

His lips never leave hers as he opens her legs, pressing his covered crotch against her. She groans against his mouth at the rough sensation, and she momentarily pulls away when her hands slide down to the waistband of his sweatpants, pushing them down his hips as much as she can before Frank does the rest. Her hands palm his buttocks, dragging him into where she wants him pressed against her.

His fingers trail down her hip and then over her hip, dangerously and deliciously close to where she needs him most. They both groan – her at the sensation, him at how wet she is – and they get lost in the raw feeling of skin on skin.

“Yes,” she hisses, arching against him as he slides his finger up and down her inner lips, stopping at her clit to press it the way she likes most.

She clutches at his back, digging her nails into his skin when he circles her entrance, and presses the finger inside her.

“Frank, please,” she begs, eyes fluttering shut at the feeling of his finger moving inside her.

“Yeah,” he replies, panting. He pulls his finger out before grasping himself and lining up with her entrance, dropping a series of light kisses on her mouth.

Her mouth hangs open in a silent scream as he slides into her. When she forces her eyes open, he’s watching her with that intense way of his, and though they had just been laughing and acting goofy – and though she grins She grins at the sensation of Frank filling her up – she’s just this side of overwhelmed, biting her bottom lip in pleasure.

“Move,” she half-begs, half-whispers.

He does, rocking into her, settling a firm pace that has her gasping and gripping at him. It’s a heavenly feeling, even though at the moment it’s not enough to make her come, but she doesn’t care; it’s one of those stages she’s happy to float in for a while.

His pace slows down and then he’s slipping out of her. Her complaining whine dies in her throat when he flips her over, putting her on her knees.

She shivers, realizing what he’s about to do. One of his hands is gripping her waist tightly to keep her in place while the other slides down her back till it's buried in her hair.

She pushes her face into the mattress, elevating her hips to give him the perfect position to thrust into her and hit the spot that makes her body shudder whenever he brushes against it.

He doesn’t waste time, sliding into her from behind. She groans, clenching around his erection, her body jerking in reaction.

“Karen, fuck,” he grunts, his fingers digging into her skin.

Trembling from the intensity of it all, he tries to set a controlled and paced rhythm to his thrusts. But he’s just as affected, just as overwhelmed as she is, and she pushes back hard against him when he begins to lose his tempo.

She can feel the tension of her orgasm building up as he moves inside her, and the sensation makes her smile. She digs her fingers into the mattress, her body starting to spasm as she gets closer to reaching her climax. He must feel it, because he moves impossibly faster. When he changes the angle, she shivers from head to toe before going deliciously rigid from the hot sensation of her release.

She’s so lost into the feeling of her orgasm that Karen only realizes that Frank came too when his body drops over hers.

It’s difficult to breathe, but the weight of Frank above her feels satisfying. She reduced Frank Castle into a senseless moaning bundle.

The small laugh she can’t contain is proud and somewhat disbelieving.

“What?” Frank asks, sounding a bit breathless as he rolls to her right and stretches his arm in a silent invitation.

“Nothing,” she says, inching towards him until her head rests in the crook of his shoulder.

“Hmmm,” he murmurs, and like before, he doesn’t pressure her to tell him. He rests his cheek over her head and hugs her against his body. She sighs happily, snuggling into his embrace with a smile on her lips.

Sex with Frank is nothing like she had expected when they first got together. And Karen has to admit to herself that she’d made a lot of assumptions about him regarding sex. How could she not? Frank is, after all, an attractive man that has an imposing demeanor and exudes virility. She couldn’t stop herself from wondering how that fierceness could translate into the bedroom. Well, the way it did wasn’t one she was expecting.

At the beginning, when they were still getting used to being together, he’d always put her on top of him, letting her control everything. It was incredibly good, but not what she really needed from him. No, what she needed is to feel him on top of her, blanketing and enveloping her in his everything.

He’s never forceful. He holds her firmly and, sometimes, presses his fingers into her skin enough to leave faint marks, but he never touches her in a way that could bring discomfort. She’s actually the one who prefers it a little dirtier – bites, scratches, hair-pulling.

Sex with Frank is about having fun; about that gentle tenderness so ingrained in him. Today notwithstanding, laughter and teasing tend to be more involved than passion and intensity. She thinks maybe it’s because they show their affection in words and in deeds. It’s not a demand or an explanation; it’s just another tool in their arsenal, and again, because it’s Frank – because it’s them – it makes them unique; one of a kind.

She likes that a lot more than she thought she would.

“I need to finish dinner,” he says, running his fingertips up and down her arms.

“No,” she whines, prolonging the ‘o’ for dramatic effect.

“If you want to eat something, you’ll have to let me go,” he says.

“Just more ten minutes, please?” Karen begs, burrowing her head into his chest.

He sighs in defeat. “Fine,” he grunts, but with a gleam in his eye that says he actually doesn’t mind all that much. Settling, once again on the mattress, his arms hold her to his chest while his fingers caress her back.

Karen closes her eyes and lets the sensation of Frank’s hands on her skin lull her into sleep.

 


 

The sound of the front door opening and closing startles Karen out of her writing. Through it, comes Frank, dressed in a grey hoodie and dark jeans, holding several grocery bags.

She smiles affectionately as she watches him, warmth spreading through her chest.

“Hey sweetheart,” he greets her, walking toward the kitchen.

Karen pushes the laptop to the side and follows, sitting on the barstool opposite to where Frank is standing.

“Hey, yourself.”

He smiles and leans over the countertop, puckering his lips in a silent request for a kiss. She pecks him on the mouth before settling back comfortably on the barstool.

“Are you free Saturday afternoon?” Frank asks as he starts to open up the bags and unload what he bought.

Karen frowns in concentration, trying to recall if she has any appointments, then nods. “I think so, why?”

“David is gonna do a barbecue and invited us,” he explains, her favorite cereal, yoghurt and lemons out of the first bag.

“Sure, that sounds great!” Karen nods with a smile.

“Okay, I’ll call him later to confirm,” Frank says, starting on the second bag.

“You should’ve confirmed already, Frank,” Karen tells him with a note of reproach. “Even if I couldn’t go, you should hang out with your friends.”

“No fucking way,” he shakes his head vehemently. “It’s hell going to those things alone.”

She shrugs non-committally. “I wouldn’t know.”

He pauses his unloading and looks at her with a slight frown. “You ever go when you were a kid?”

“No,” Karen confirms. “I was never one to know people that lived in the suburbs.”

“Well,” he says, returning his attention to the groceries, “On Saturday you’ll finally experience the hellish old American suburbian tradition of barbecuing.”

“Alright,” she agrees with a raised eyebrow. She doesn’t ask him why he wanted them to go if he found it hellish.

The Lieberman family means a lot to Frank.

She sees him turn his attention on unloading the rest of the groceries.

It’s not an unusual sight Frank doing household chores, but it still enthralls her. There’s something about him doing housework that gets her in a way that nothing else does.

Logically, Karen has always known that Frank did those things. He’s almost forty and had been a part of a family in the most traditional sense. Obviously, he’s not unfamiliar with housekeeping.

It’s just when you meet someone under the circumstances Karen met Frank, it’s hard to picture them doing average things like going to the grocery store and sweeping floors and cooking. And yes, she’s known for a long time that there was more to Frank than the psycho murderer everyone considered him to be, but knowing something to be true and witnessing it are two distinct situations, and it never ceases to fascinate her.

And it’s not about the fact the man who once terrorized every criminal in New York does grocery shopping. It’s the way he looks when he does it, an amazing combination of sharp focus and soft edges. That’s a good thing, Karen learns. It means that Frank found in menial tasks a way to keep his anxiety in check. He cleans the kitchen instead of shooting criminals.

He lives his life instead of taking them.

It’s an improvement in the arduous process of recovery, if you ask her.

Still, it’s an adjustment for him, but one he’s taking in stride. There’s struggles and bad days, sometimes even a bad week, but usually he’s much more balanced and that reflects in the way he takes care of himself and the places he lives.

Places because he still has his own apartment, but one he usually only goes to when he’s too caught up in his own head. Frank normally spends his time at her place, which is why he’s putting away the groceries and she’s sitting watching. He keeps the kitchen organized and cleans the apartment. He does laundry two times a week and oversees the closet arrangement to keep their clothes from mixing up.

Frank’s presence and the way he cares for her gave Karen something back that she didn’t even know she had been missing so much: a home.

Before, she saw her apartment as the location that kept her things safe and where she went to sleep at night after a long day of work. Nowadays, it’s so much more than that.

It’s where she looks forward to go at the end of a workday. It’s the warmth that comes with the sensation of a lived-in place. It’s the scent of food being cooked as she steps inside the apartment. It’s the sight of Frank’s jacket over the armchair, his guitar leaning against the bookcase, and a double sided picture frame on the stand showing a photo of Frank with his family at Central Park and one of him kissing Karen’s cheek as she grinned at the camera. It’s the feeling of his lips touching hers as his arms wrap around her, welcoming her presence after hours and hours apart.

It’s the certainty that she’s not alone anymore.

“What?” Frank’s voice brings her back from her wandering thoughts. He’s standing right next to her, scratching his beard while sending her a curious look.

Karen just smiles warmly at him, shaking her head.

“Just looking.”

He snorts, his amusement obvious, before dropping a kiss on her cheek. He says nothing, turning back to walk to the bedroom.

Her heart skips a beat.

 


 

Karen stares at the calendar on her phone screen, panic churning in the pit of her stomach. It’s good she’s sitting on her couch or she would’ve ended up on the floor because her legs wouldn’t hold her weight.

What she’s seeing can’t be right. It can’t be, because she would’ve noticed if it had been this long since she had had her last period.

Except she’s been consumed by work to the point Frank had to intervene to make her slow down before she burned herself out. She’s like a dog with bone, Frank said. Can’t see anything else until she’s done with it. And he’s right. Now that she had finished her article in the latest political scandal in New York, she had stopped enough to eat and to think about herself - to wonder if her period would come next weekend because she wants to spend a weekend away with Frank at Brighton Beach, just relaxing, enjoying his company and the sun on her skin.

She hadn’t been expecting to open the period app and find that she missed two periods and hadn’t noticed at all.

Karen takes a deep breath and throws her phone on the couch. She slumps forward, and buries her face in her hands.

“This can’t be happening,” she mutters against her palms. “It really can’t.”

She tries to keep herself calm, to think what her next step is supposed to be but the panic builds and expands and the only thought that registers in her mind is that she’s pregnant.

Trembling, she starts to feel like her lungs are constricting, and then breathing gets difficult. Her hands slide to her chest to rub it, to see if the sudden tightness she feels can ease away with the movement. But it doesn’t get better.

The panic shifts and it’s not about pregnancy anymore, it’s about not breathing and not having one clear thought to get out of the situation. Her being is reduced to the pressure in her chest and the loud way she’s trying to gulp air, so hard she begins to see stars.

That’s until she hears a rough voice and then there are hands on her face and she sees Frank looking deeply worried. She can’t make out what he says because now her mind is buzzing and blood is rushing in her ears, but he presses his hands into her, anchoring her, bringing her back.

“Breathe, Karen,” he says, nodding roughly as he maintains eye contact, trying to look encouraging.

Miraculously, she manages to do it. She has no idea how long it takes her to regain her breath, but she does. Only then does Frank slide his hands off Karen’s face and wrap them on her shoulders, bringing her against her chest as he takes a seat next to her on the couch.

There are minutes and minutes of silence between them, which is good, because her mind is both overwhelmed and empty at the moment.

He doesn’t ask, but this time, she knows she has to tell him. She pushes herself away from his chest when she feels back in control of her body and finally faces him. There’s concern and a bit of hesitancy as he looks back.

“Better?” Frank asks in his rough voice.

Karen nods, but doesn’t say anything, because even though he deserves an explanation, she doesn’t have the words yet.

“Karen,” he calls for her softly, reaching for her hand. “What’s going on?”

She swallows hard and averts her eyes from his face to where their hands are touching.

She needs to talk it out, organize her thoughts and then figure out the next step. That’s what she does every single time she tackles a difficult problem.

But Frank is the person to whom she talks out her doubts. How could she use him as her soundboard when he’ll be affected so deeply by what she has to say? She has no idea how he even feels about kids now; he wouldn’t think she’s trying to replace Maria or his kids, would he? Does he even want a home, a family, like the one he used to have? How does he even feel about kids after losing his own children? If she could bet, she’d say not particularly thrilled with the idea. Not much different from her own reaction, if she’s honest.

She sighs and squeezes her eyes shut, asking the unanswerable question of “why” again.

“Karen?” He calls her once again, putting his finger under her chin to tip her head back to look at him. “You can tell me anything. I’m your partner always, alright?”

She sees in his eyes he’s speaking the truth, but it doesn’t reassure her as it should. Instead, she thinks about limits and lines in the sand, and how she’s left them all behind.

“Trust me, Karen,” and the way he says those words touches something inside her that, before she can stop herself and think, she simply blurts out: “I never wanted to be a mother.”

There’s confusion in his eyes and then she’s leaning back, pulling away. She can’t say what she needs to say, can’t open up to him with his proximity and touch so agonizingly close, because what can be used to heal can also hurt. She needs space between them and feel like she has more control than she actually holds.

“I grew up in a religious house where they believed women’s main roles are having children and pleasing her husband,” Karen continues, making an effort not to avert her eyes from Frank. “I never bought that crap and when I was out of my parents’ house, I decided to carve a life that was different from my parents’. So, I never considered being a mother.”

Frank narrows his eyes in confusion before understanding makes them widen and gleam. “You’re pregnant.”

“I might be,” she amends immediately. Frank stiffens and takes a deep breath, and then there are so many emotions crossing Frank’s face for Karen register.

“Y-you had the attack because…” He doesn’t manage to finish the sentence, a serious expression settling on his face.

“It scares me, alright?” She admits, the back of her eyes burning from unshed tears. “It’s terrifying. I’m no material for a mother, never have been and I—”

“Karen,” he interrupts, “You’d be a…”

She shakes her head. “I seriously don’t need this right now,” she tells him, getting up to leave.

However, she stops when a single hand brushes her elbow in a plea for her to stay.

“What do you need, Karen?” He asks with a note of despair in his voice, his eyes reflecting his distress.

“A friend to listen,” she confesses, a tear falling from her eye.

“I’ll be what you need. Just don’t go. Talk to me. Stay. I’m here.”

She looks at him unblinkingly, taking in his expression and bites her lips. There’s an edge to him, but he’s holding in his feelings for her. The only thing he offers in the moment is his hand, and she looks between it and him. Finally, she lets her fingertips brush against his, and he guides her delicately to the couch, careful to keep his physical distance even as his heart is easily readable on his face.

“That’s not a role I ever saw myself playing,” she ends up saying. “I’m not supposed to be a mother. That’s not who I am.”

Frank seems to be itching to say something, but she’s grateful he’s holding his tongue. He’s giving what she told him she needed and Karen is utterly grateful for that.

“It’s not just because I never thought about having kids, it’s just—” she pauses briefly, trying to find the words to explain her feelings. “When we got together, you told me I was your partner in everything, in some ways that Maria couldn’t have been because she never got involved in the type of things I do, remember?”

Frank only nods, his Adam’s apple moving up and down.

“That’s all I ever wanted from a relationship,” she tells him. “To know you trust me to let me see all the parts of yourself, to not lie to me or omit something because it’s bad. I never wanted to step on the roles of Wife and Mother of Your Children. That’s Maria’s, not mine.”

Frank is frowning and he opens his mouth to speak, but Karen shakes her head and returns her eyes to where her hands now lie folded in her lap.

“I’m the Partner and I’m the After and I’m fine with it because I never wanted anything other than what we have and now…” The words die in her throat because she doesn’t dare to voice her fear of changing the status quo of their relationship.

Tentatively, she glances at Frank and his expression tells her that Karen doesn’t need to say it because he heard it anyway. His reaction, however, is the one that surprises her. He looks hurt; wounded, almost. She doesn’t know what to do about that; he’s never really looked at her quite like that before.

“You really know how to bring out the pain in me, sweetheart.” He lets out a humorless laugh.

Karen shakes her head, opening her mouth, but it’s his time to speak. “I thought you knew how much I love you, but I guess I was wrong. So, I’m gonna be pretty clear this time.” He cups her cheeks between his hands and look at her with a certainty that chills her down to her bones.

“I love you with every inch of my heart and it hurts, Karen.” He tightens his hold on her face slightly, his trembling hands making her pulse quicken at the passion in his voice. “It hurts just as bad back when my old lady did it. I can’t have you doubting my love when it’s the only thing in this fucked up world that keeps me together.”

Her breath hitches, her eyes widening at his words. There’s a lump forming at the back of her throat and her eyes are burning once again.

“My love for you doesn’t come with conditions attached. There’s nothing that would make me turn my back on you. Absolutely nothing but you asking me to go away.”

“I wouldn’t ever do that,” she manages to say and the way he looks at her shifts. It’s soft now, his eyes overflowing with affection.

“Remember what I told you when we talked about us getting together?”

“You said if we were to be together, you’d hold onto me. You’d use both hands and never let it go.” She says it like he said it yesterday, and maybe he did, just not out loud.

“That was true back then, and it’s still true now,” Frank gives her a tiny smile. “It’ll be true for however much I live. Whatever happens, it’s you and me always, okay?”

Karen swallows down, her eyes welling up once again before she nods. “Okay.”

“Okay,” he repeats, mirroring her move.

They take some time to breathe each other in, to reaffirm and recommit and reconnect. Then he asks quietly, “Better?”

“Yes,” she smiles. “Thank you.”

“Then I’m gonna make a run to the drugstore and buy a couple of pregnancy tests and then we'll deal with whatever the result is, alright?”

“Alright,” Karen agrees, wiping her damp face with the back of her hand.

“Be back soon,” he promises, dropping a kiss on her temple before grabbing his keys and wallet and walking toward the door. She hears the sound of it closing and then she’s on her couch all alone with her thoughts once again.

The terror was still there, the uncertainty and the worry, but the fact that Frank had let her speak so freely, had focused on giving her what she needed and made her feelings his priority instead of drowning in his own, helps.

Karen has been aware that, in his own way, Frank loved her. When they got together, she had known him enough to recognize that a promise of not letting go was a sign of real feelings. But somehow, today his love feels different to her.

Even with the momentous changes possibly heading their way, the way the weight a possible pregnancy is pressing heavily on her, there’s a lightness inside her that wasn’t there before. Because she’d thought Frank was there to stay, but now she knows, beyond doubt that she had been his choice. And once Frank Castle makes a choice, that’s it.

Because they’ve been through so much, that the initial lukewarm caring feelings he’d held toward her had grown within the things they’ve seen and done together, and frankly, she’d have to be stupid not to see that.

So why the doubt and disbelief?

She recognized her feelings for him early, way back then. There was something there, something deep and all-consuming – something more than she thought he’d ever feel for her.

But this, now, it tells her that he’s loved her all along, and that might just be the biggest revelation today.

Karen sighs and decides to wait for Frank in the bedroom. She sits on the edge of the mattress, taking off her heels, puts her hair up in a loose bun and takes off her skirt, lying on the bed only in her underwear and the button up she wore earlier at work.

She stares at the ceiling, trying to not focus her thoughts in any significant direction. It didn’t take long until the front door opens again.

“Karen?”

“Bedroom,” she yells back, already rising from the bed.

He stops at the threshold, his eyes traveling up and down her body. She chuckles at his reaction, breaking him of his perusal.

“Here,” he says, thrusting into her hands two different tests. “Just need to pee in the cup, stick the test in and then wait for five minutes.”

Karen blinks at him.

“What?” He asks in confusion.

“I know how it works, Frank.”

“Just checking,” he replies, putting his hands up.

She rolls her eyes and turns her back to him to go to the bathroom next door.

Four minutes later she’s walking out of the bathroom with the tests in hand.

Frank is sitting at the feet of the bed, his eyes fixed on the floor. Silently, she joins him, putting the blue and white plastic pieces behind them.

“Thank you,” she whispers in the space between them.

He turns to look at her, a crease between his eyebrows in a silent question.

“For being my friend,” she pauses, considering her words. “My best friend.”

He smiles at her, his whole body now turned to hers and then his forehead is pressing against hers, his hands at the back of her neck.

“You’re my best friend too,” he says is a low tone.

She cups his cheeks between her hands, her thumbs tracing the shape of his lips. She glances at him and he’s staring adoringly at her.

“You really do love me, don’t you?” She says quietly, the weight of her words settling inside her heart in a way that had never happened before.

He doesn’t say anything, just pulls her closer and seals their lips together.

They kiss and kiss and kiss, forgetting for a moment the possibility of the future that lies on the bed, a couple of inches away from them.