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Glass shards and cement rubble grind under the heel of her boot, gritty and loud like a warning: Karen wishes this place didn’t remind her of him, but it does. Something of him lingers here -- the empty glass on a table, a length of tangled wire on a chair -- Frank could have just stepped away for a moment.

She knows it isn’t true, and it makes her heart kick hollow in her chest. He hasn’t been sighted in months, least of all by her, and her imagination is playing tricks on her if she thinks tonight is going to be any different.

The place is dark, lit only by the slanting glare of a far-off streetlight through the shattered panels of the ceiling. It looks like a bomb went off here, probably because one did. There’s an abandoned cot, blanket covered in debris but still tucked in at the bottom corners in a way that almost reminds her of him. There’s a battered old office chair tipped over in the middle of everything and covered in dark stains that she doesn’t want to look at too closely.

All Madani said is that he spent some time here, at some point. Maybe more than a little time. Maybe enough time that it’s the kind of place he might check up on. Just in case.

Karen hopes so, anyway. That’s exactly why she’s here.

Next to a bank of shattered computer screens, she lays a neatly sealed envelope with FC scrawled in her nervous handwriting, smack dab in the middle. As if he’d need to see his initials to know it’s for him -- she knows this. It feels like a horrible risk to leave him a letter at all -- what if someone thinks this means she knows where he is? The fact that she’s here at all is a horrible admission of the truth, and Karen knows this. It’s been too long since she’s seen him, months and months, and she’s beginning to think the worst.

It isn’t enough anymore to pretend not to constantly check the news for him. To pretend she isn’t obsessed with finding the smallest clue, always keeping one eye peeled. But there has been not even a single breadcrumb pointing the way to where he had gone. He is just that: gone.

They had said goodbye in that damn hotel elevator. She still dreams about it some nights. Frank’s eyes as fathomless as the pit in her stomach that grew and grew and threatened to swallow her whole, a nightmare of a rollercoaster, a cliff’s edge waiting. The space between them she could not cross. In her dreams she could not run, her limbs stuck in the air like it was thick as putty; in her dreams she could not speak, her voice a pale sound barely more than a whisper.

In her waking hours, she is equally terrified of two scenarios: one, that he has determined it will never again be safe to see her or talk to her; two, that he is no longer alive.

I need you to be alive. She no longer knows if the letter is to a ghost or to a flesh and blood man. I need a sign. I am running out of ways to lie to myself. She didn’t write his name, didn’t sign her own. Didn’t risk it, in case it gets intercepted by the wrong person. Let it sound like a letter she never intended to deliver.

Because maybe it won’t reach him, after all.

The building around her echoes, hollow and cavernous, whenever she takes a step. Frank and Micro had lived here for a very short time last year, after all. It seems as good a place as any to leave him a signal.

Maybe this place truly is abandoned, nothing but a shrine to the past, and her letter no better than a prayer.

She no longer cares. It is the only signal she can send, and she is sending it.

 

 

Karen is a problem. A beautiful fucking problem, but a problem.

Micro also knows it from thirty miles away because the whole place is still wired with his cameras, but Frank knows it better, and he knows it instantly, because she’s literally walking on the floor above his head at this very moment.

Beneath the six-foot steel panel concealing his hiding spot beneath the floor, Frank listens to Karen’s hesitant steps through the rubble disaster above him and has to take a deep breath to stop from swearing loud enough for her to hear.

Karen is a problem.

She’s a problem because he can’t stop her from being so fucking smart, and so fucking awake and alive to everything that she’s exactly the kind of person to chase down this location, looking for him.

But mostly, she’s a problem he can’t get out of his head.

She’s a problem when he can’t stop thinking about her and the way her eyes track him so intently sometimes he has to look away, or the way he remembers the warm scent of her hair from when she was crushed into his side in that damned elevator the last time he saw her.

Worse than a problem, she’s a risk: someone could use her to get to him, and he can’t afford that right now. She’s not going to get an interview out of him; she’s not even going to know he’s hidden in the floor beneath her feet. He refuses to give her anything that could be used as leverage.

But the more he listens to the footsteps on the metal decking above his head, the more he realizes that whatever has brought her here tonight is something quieter, more personal. He hears it in her footsteps, and in the way she holds still. She’s too busy looking around to hear the hollow space echoing under the floor at her feet.

She’s just inches away. He lies on his back staring up at the steel trap door, gun resting by his side, on a bare and dusty mattress in the crawlspace. It’s maybe five feet by twelve, only three or so feet deep, an oblong cavity that once held conduit piping, just big enough to hole up in for as long as this particular mission takes. But Karen’s inches away. He could open the hatch above his head and see her face. See those goddamn pretty eyes, that hair so golden he’s afraid to touch it. See that face of hers, no matter how angry and disappointed, for just one second, to let her know. To say...something. Sorry, maybe.

But there’s no time for all that now.

Karen is a problem. Because he’s running out of time and he needs her gone before Russo shows up.

 

 

She glances again at the envelope where it rests on the filthy table, the paper too pristine against the dirt and grit. It’s stupid coming here, Karen realizes then, insanely stupid. Incredibly stupid idea. She might as well seal a message in a bottle and throw it in the Hudson.

Her sentimental foolishness feels like a punch in the gut and she turns to go before she can dwell on it any longer.

But not even two strides later, the slanting glare of the faraway streetlight catches on a series of white streaks of paint on the floor. It stops her dead in her tracks. There among the rubble is the faint outline of white spray paint, a halo of a circle and three marks tracing downwards. Like the ghost of a skull painted, and then lifted away.

It cracks her open. It strips her of the thin veneer of denial she had clung to like a blanket. She kneels down on the filthy floor to touch the ghostly remnants of paint, this last tangible sign of his presence.

“Frank--” she whispers.

Noise startles her then, so sudden and loud that her heart drops like a stone. A vehicle on the gravel outside, pulling into the entrance bay at a ferocious clip. Headlights begin to swing around the corner, approaching; she will be spotlit any second. Her gun is in her purse and she freezes in place with her hand on it for a split second, gauging the best place to hide.

The cavernous space echoes with a confusion of sound, the vehicle already so close that the floor beneath her even swayed a little, shaking with the bursts of engine sound rocketing off the walls.

The dark SUV pulls into the garage bay fast, making a terrible racket as its wheels crunch over and through chunks of rubble strewn across the ramp.

But she only catches a glimpse, because in that same moment, as she crouches behind a cement column, there is a sudden rush of cool air behind her like a window opening, and hands reach for her and drag her down into darkness.

 

 

With one hand over Karen’s mouth, easing the door shut above them, Frank instantly realizes his mistake. Panicked but flailing purposefully in the darkness, she clicks the safety off on her gun and in the same instant, he manages to get his other hand around her right wrist to pin it back, preventing her fingers from reaching the trigger.

“Karen, it’s me,” he whispers harshly, “it’s Frank.” She goes still beneath him, the silence around them as sudden and tense as the taut line of fear in her body.

He listens intently for noise above their heads, and now that her eyes have adjusted, she listens too. She shifts just a little, gently pulling away from under him and rearranging her limbs in the sideways heap where they had landed after his split-second decision to pull her down before Billy could spot her. When she prizes her wrists out of his grip, their eyes meet for a terrible, quiet moment. He trusts her, but something more lingers and sparks there between them. There is an ache in his chest when he looks at her, something more than the bruised ribs he’s been nursing for the last week.

He’s acutely aware of how close they are. The crawlspace measures about six feet wide and perhaps ten feet long, its far end lost in darkness except for one muted red LED glowing from his gear that casts a dull semi-illumination over everything. The steel floor panels that he had cut into for the trap door are perhaps a bare three feet above them. Cold but dry, and just the barest bit claustrophobic, now that she’s so close he can smell her.

Frank is now more grateful for his decision to drag an old twin mattress down here for the duration of his stakeout, knowing it would be some time before Russo would show up; at least it had been a safer, softer, quieter landing when he pulled her down with him. Now he and Karen practically breathe the same air. They are lying down together. On a bed in the dark.

He swallows.

Above them, a vehicle door slams and echoes dully through the cavernous space and they both swivel to look upwards. Then nothing more. Then a long pause that focuses him utterly, during which Frank mentally divides his ammunition into Kill Russo and Save Karen , before he hears light, cautious footsteps above them.

Not Russo. Someone shorter. Someone nimble and trained and cautious.

Madani .

He mouths the name to Karen and she nods tensely, still silent. Her eyes on him, sharp and wide and uncertain, tell him she is not expecting this arrival either. So either Madani is following Karen, or this is a big fucking coincidence. Frank decides he doesn’t care; he can still save both of them from Russo.

Madani picks through the rubble due north of where they lay at that moment, and all he can picture is what had happened in the place where Madani stands: the man whose brains had splattered with a soft, satisfying sound when Frank last fought his way out of this place. The time Russo and Rawlins thought they had Frank cornered here, and lost.

He isn’t so sure Billy will tolerate losing again, especially not after the game they have been playing this last year -- Billy hiding in every corner of the city and beyond, Frank doing his damndest to find him before he can inflict more of his twisted revenge.

Billy’s bandages now off, his skin a ruin of scar tissue, his mind gone; he likes to make people watch him. Do you see , Billy Russo hisses from his twisted mouth. Do you see what your Punisher made me . He leaves a jagged signature of entrails behind for Frank to find.

Now Micro’s old abandoned warehouse is a trap built to catch Russo, and Frank is the bait. But this is his fight alone. Karen can’t be here when Russo arrives, and neither can Madani.

He can’t look at her or he’ll see those fierce blue eyes again; he thinks for a moment that if he looks too long at her he’ll lose his resolve to make this go the way it needs to. It’s her nearness that’s killing him. So he rises up, as far as he can get, angling his shoulder against the trap door above them, preparing to press it open just enough for her escape. “You gotta go. Get to Madani and get out, fast. Madani can keep you safe. But you both gotta go now .”

No time to explain. No time for the apology Karen deserves. Thinking only, keep them safe and maybe later there will be time. If. If .

“Frank,” she says only. Her whisper is a bullet in his heart, her look a thousand times worse.

“Ma’am,” he says, the only apology he can muster. Caught by her wide dark eyes for a moment, he shifts away, focusing on the threat. “There’s no time.”

She moves closer to the opening as he prepares to shoulder it open and he tells himself it’s for the best. No soft scent of her there tormenting him in the near-darkness, no ache of words under his tongue like a stone. No target on her back, leverage primed and ready for Billy to find and use, or worse. It’s for the best.

As he listens for Madani again, Karen presses on his arm, shifting. He realizes he’s not paying enough attention, not much attention at all, because she suddenly captures it, every nerve of him: she moves her face very close to his ear, too close, close enough that he hears every liquid goddamn syllable that falls from her lips. It feels like torment. It feels like he deserves it when her quiet voice, fierce and angry, barrels into him with a vengeance. “No.” Her breath heaving, air fluttering past his neck sending a shiver down his arm. “Frank, goddamnit, I thought you were dead.”

 

 

This fucker. She’s shaking. This motherfucker who has the audacity to literally pop up out of nowhere, alive, and then it’s goodbye again, Ma’am there’s no time , without so much as an explanation?

No.

“You open that door and push me up there I will fucking scream, Frank.” She tries to make it light-hearted, a joke, but she doesn’t quite manage it, her voice thready with tension. She pulls away from him and flops down onto her back, daring him to bodily throw her out. Also, she loses her nerve, leaning so close to him like that, his familiar scent of gun oil and sweat all around her like a drug. She has missed him so fucking much, but she’s so mad the rich scent of his skin makes her nerves crackle with confusion.

Frank does not move. His eyes are in shadow as he stares at her, taking this in. A single red LED glows from a far corner of the crawlspace. If it wasn’t for that and the mattress, this space would feel like a grave, Karen realizes. He doesn’t move except to remove his shoulder from the steel plated door above them, shifting back to a kneeling position, calculating.

“I’m serious, I’ll scream,” she whispers before he can say anything. Then she kicks off her ankle boots, letting them fall quietly into the darkness beyond the bottom of the mattress, which startles a wary look from him. “Try me, see if I don’t.”

She had come to deliver a letter to a ghost. She had come here emptied out and just barely holding it together. Seeing that mark on the floor had almost crushed her with a sense of loss, wanting the one person who understands her, and knowing with sick certainty that he could be dead.

Instead, in the next second, she had been pulled underground by the man himself. She is wrung out by everything. And beneath the adrenaline and confusion, in that tangle of limbs when he pulled her into the darkness, pinned her arm down as he quieted her, there was also that electric charge of something more between them. Her heart kicks in her chest when she thinks about it too much.

“It’s not safe here, damnit. If you leave with Madani--”

“I’m not leaving with her.”

“There’s no time--” he stops mid-sentence when a small blue light pulses once from inside a pocket on the side of his pants, startling them both. He reaches down and tugs out a phone. His mouth pulls into a tight line, and she no longer sees that tense readiness for a gunfight in him.

The ceiling is so low that he has to lie down next to her to put down his gun and thumb out a reply. It feels like a victory.

“Tell him I say hi,” Karen whispers, because the space is narrow enough that they are shoulder to shoulder again and she can’t help but see the message on the screen. Way to network dummy , reads the text from Micro. Cozy in there?

This wasn’t the deal , Frank taps out. Karen can’t quite tell, but maybe he is letting her read over his shoulder on purpose.

You said alert you if Russo’s coming , David’s message reads. He’s not.

Before Frank has a chance to reply, a flurry of additional messages from David come in. Btw the audio sensors worked fine, the perimeter alarm woke me up when Karen walked in. Gosh, thanks Micro you’re the best, saved my ass once again, hey no prob Frank, I won’t tell my wife you’re to blame for me getting out of bed to check these monitors every night this week. Anyway...

You should have warned me , Frank finally replies.

Why? Comes the reply. U need a chaperone?

Karen muffles a snort of laughter and turns away to avoid Frank’s glare. Frank texts Micro back something short and no doubt profane. Finally, he shoves the phone back into the pocket at his side with unnecessary force and sighs. He shifts a little onto his side.

“He says Madani’s got another Homeland guy down the access road. They seem to be waiting for something. If you want to leave solo, it’s ain’t gonna be anytime soon.”

Damn , Karen thinks, thinking of her own car parked well beyond the entrance to the access road, around the block by a shipping depot. Homeland Security is blocking her way out.

That’s what she gets for missing Frank, Karen thinks to herself. An overdose of Frank -- stuck in danger with no way out but through. Time ticks by as they wait, listening, for what Madani is going to do next.

She shivers a little. In her light jacket, Karen had felt warm enough on the walk up the service road, but lying nearly still in the concrete crawlspace with the aftermath of adrenaline beginning to slow her blood, the cold presses in on her along with the darkness and the quiet.

Without discussing it, he pulls her into him, just enough that her back presses into his chest and the warmth of him begins to seep into her. Her breath catches in her throat a little; it’s bittersweet, to feel him so close like this. It would have been enough to just feel warm, once. Despite the dangers, Frank always kept her exquisitely safe. He is the one person with whom she feels she can truly let her guard down, and all the longing for that connection, which had driven her to write that letter, rises like a lump in her throat and prevents her from saying anything even though he is right there, right at her back, solid and real and very much alive.

“Is she by the computers?” she whispers to Frank, suddenly caught by the fear that Madani will find the letter and get suspicious.

“Nah. By the garage bays,” he says back under his breath, his words stirring the hair by her ear and sending another shiver down her spine. She pictures the little envelope, as conspicuous and out of place in the gloom as the two of them, hidden away below the floor.

Vigilance exhausts her. The strain of every unspoken thing between her and Frank tires her too, until everything pumping through her veins is sluggish and chilled and she cannot begin to think where to start, what to say. She just wants to be held. She drifts in and out of sleep for a while before she gives in to the warmth, his arm pulling her closer to his chest every time she shivers with cold.

 

 

Of course Madani stays for hours, pacing on the gravel outside. David messages Frank again after a while with an update.

Chatter on Homeland’s comms...I don’t know what Madani knows but she’s in it for the long haul tonight. Coffee and sandwiches, the whole nine yards.

Shit.

Still no sign of Russo? Frank types.    

He’s at least a day away. After a moment, another text. I’m gonna lose it if I don’t get some sleep. You should sleep too. I’ve got the grid on high-gain, it’ll ping me if someone else approaches. Just hold tight and don’t piss on Madani’s shoes.

Frank pockets the phone after signing off, moving slowly to not disturb Karen’s sleep. He stares up at the steel door above his head, listening to the nothingness of the night. There is nothing he can do. He can’t imagine sleeping.

Especially not with Karen asleep next to him. It’s every problem he does and doesn’t want to have, her body nestled against him and breathing evenly, and stuck here with him for God knows how long. Her head lies pillowed on his right bicep, the weight of her against his torso; a bright anchor in the dark, her hair shining red-gold and falling in tendrils over his black sleeve.

Even when her face calms in sleep he can see the soft hollows shadowing under her eyes and her cheekbones, places where care has worn her a little thinner in the time he’s been gone.

Has it been that long? All he can recall is how terrifyingly lucky the world felt when she was in the elevator with him, the last time he had seen her -- cradled close to him for one last second in that in-between space of the elevator that promised her safety, promised a whole reality in which she was unharmed, not a bomb fragment on her, not a bruise purpling her skin.

Soon enough Madani will leave, and he knows he will have to wake Karen, and then she’ll leave too. And then he will tell her to stay far, far away until Russo is gone. It’s for the best, he tells himself.

She sighs in her sleep, a fitful sound. He knows what he cannot have. He knows what it means to have something torn away. They both know this too well. It’s the unspoken thing between them, he thinks. Well, partly.

He just wants to memorize everything about her before she goes.

The feel of her golden hair like silk against his fingers. As smooth as everything else about her. He moves his fingers along one curl, through the strands, needing to memorize the feel of it before he loses this, too.

 

 

Karen wakes and disorientation lurches in her stomach before she remembers where she is. Frank’s fingers move lightly through her hair and down her arm that rests along her side. It’s the tenderness of how he does this that makes her breath stop in her throat. She holds utterly still and quiet, not wanting to break the spell, not wanting him to stop.

Frank is so quiet behind her, the silent bulk of him at her back in the dark. If he knows she’s awake, he says nothing. She hears only his breath in a sigh, stroking again down a long lock of her hair.

She realizes she doesn’t want to know where he’s been. She doesn’t want to know why Madani is parked outside and why Micro is apparently listening to this whole building and has been for a week.

She does want to know if Frank feels the same fire dancing down his skin that she feels when he touches her. She wants to know if Frank is holding his breath, just now, because he goes even more still, and his hand strays down her upper arm, to the end of her elbow, and then slips to the curve between her ribs and her hip.

He must know she’s awake now, she thinks, her pulse loud in her ears. He must know. Otherwise, why would he risk something like this -- leaning forward, very close now, to the place where her hair has fallen aside, revealing the pale, delicate skin of her neck, to breathe her in slowly?

“Frank,” she whispers, not knowing if it’s a warning or a plea. She is caught by the heat of his mouth hovering so near, wanting to push back and feel that warmth against her skin, the stubble of his jaw against her. The idea of doing that startles a heat inside her like a live coal and she makes the smallest, quietest sound as she lets her breath out too fast.

The sweetness of it is too much to bear. Too much to lose.

She turns, just enough to see him behind her, next to her. It takes her a moment to master the tremble in her voice. “Don’t...” Don’t make me finish my sentence , she thinks, she pleads silently. Don’t make me try to say it, or I’ll break.

Karen closes her eyes for a moment. She’s only holding still by a monumental effort of will. The tremble down her muscles must be the fatigue and the long cold night; anything but desire fighting its way out despite her.

His eyes are huge in the darkness and the veil of vigilance that usually keeps part of him back, secret, seems gone in that moment. He presses his lips together and licks them wet for a second before he laughs, a single exhale of air. “Don’t...what?”

She feels the same freefall of danger that grips her in dreams sometimes. Half thrill, half terror, right in front of her. Wanting, waiting. “You know what I mean,” she swallows.

“I know exactly what you mean,” he echoes, his voice soft and respectful. He pulls back from her a little, but he doesn’t move the weight of his hand from around her waist. The hem of her corduroy jacket is pushed up a little, so his palm rests directly on her thin cotton shirt and his fingers move over the fabric, a restless little circle.

She likes it far too much. The tremble rolls through her again. She catches his fingers in her own, to stop him or to hold onto him, and instead, he tangles his fingers in hers, trapping her hand there, unwilling to let go. “Do you?”

“Do I what?” She’s forgotten already. Tangled fingers, her skin running a few degrees too warm. The way he’s looking at her like he knows everything, that feeling running between them as thick as blood. She can barely breathe she wants him so badly, and she moves toward him just a little, almost daring him to make the first move and enjoying the tease between them.

He chuckles, a noiseless sound in his throat. “You think I’m always saving you, did you ever think maybe you’re just a troublemaker?”

“Trouble’s where the truth lies.” The exact quote is miles from her mind at the moment. “Or something like that. It’s my job.” Her heart skips a little to see his eyes crinkle from up close when he grins up the ceiling, tipping his head back in amusement, and she wants to see him like that again, so the words fall out of her mouth before she can think better of it: “Besides, you like it.”

He smiles as he drawls, “Maybe,” his voice a whispery gravel. But then he turns to look at her again, and his eyes are dark with amusement. “But I’m not the only one.”

She gives him a questioning look.

“You like getting into trouble,” he says, more quiet and deliberate and damning with every word. “I think it’s because you like having someone to pull you back.” Frank tugs her back against him, the movement with just a hint of sharpness to it, spooning her a little more tightly in his arms. She catches her breath at the feel of how solid his strength is behind her, his arm firmly around her waist. “Don’t you?” His voice at her ear too near, his words too close to the truth. She clutches at his muscled forearm now around her middle, trying to slow her breathing and remember what, exactly, the smart answer would be.

“I...well--”

“You do, though,” he says, his voice a rumble of sound, deep as sin and running through her like fire. “You know how I can tell?” With the pressure of his cheek, he tips her face up to bare the side of her neck, making a space just big enough for him to dip down and bury his face in the crook of her neck again and breathe in her, and then exhale, slow, the air tickling her skin.

His lips are there, right there, mere inches from her skin. She can feel his voice more than hear it when he speaks. Like he doesn’t care anymore if she hears; he’s talking to himself, speaking into her skin. “It’s that pretty little hitch you get in your voice sometimes,” he says and pulls her closer to him yet again. She swallows hard. Wanting to hear him say it. Wanting to know it affects him as much as it does her.

“The way you…” he runs fingertips down her neck, across her shoulder exposed through the collar of her shirt, rests his index finger against her pulse at the base of her throat, “the way you breathe when I do that.” Shivers cascade over her skin at his touch. “Just makes me wanna...make you do it again.”

Desire breaks in her like a dam and her breath finally rushes out, his name a low moan between her lips. He clamps one hand over her mouth, just like he had when he had first pulled her down into the dark that night.

“Shh, Karen. You have to be quiet. You want everyone to know we’re down here?” With his one hand over her mouth and the other holding her back against his chest, need sparks in her body, she wants to writhe right out of her clothes; she cannot keep the sinuous movement from rolling through her hips, pressing back against him.

She hears his breath go a little ragged too; he’s enjoying this. “You wanna wake Micro?” She shakes her head quickly behind his hand. When he tries to move his hand away she grasps it and presses his palm over her mouth again, her breath hot against his skin, looking into his eyes to try to tell him everything she wants. She doesn’t trust herself to stay quiet.

He chuckles very softly. His voice in her ear, “You like that?” drives her to distraction and she moves against him, wanting more, trying to get something back now, anything. He shifts, sudden and smooth, moving his other hand to pin her arms like when he had disarmed her before, and she has to bite her lip behind the pressure of his palm to stop from whining out loud with how much she likes it.

“I guess you do,” he says, his eyes trailing down the movements of her body, slow and savoring, his lids low. “And maybe I never gave you what you were looking for. Not exactly. That’s why you kept coming back. Making trouble. Looking for someone who knows where you keep your gun. Someone who knows how you use it.” He takes his hand away from her mouth, staring at her lips in a daze.

She nods helplessly. It’s Frank. It’s always been Frank. The cliff she dives off of and the hands that catch her. She surges upward to kiss him, despite his strength holding her back, and he doesn’t let go, he never lets go, he just kisses her back so hard and perfect, and his lips alone are capable of pressing her down. She falls back into softness and want, gasping open-mouthed when his teeth graze her lower lip before his kiss devours her tongue whole, sucking and delirious.

He grinds down against her with the barest bit of friction, holding back, pulling back so she cannot quite reach him. Kisses down the side of her jaw, the roughness of his hand along the skin of her throat so that when her moan vibrates inside of her, low enough not to make a sound, his answering groan is in his chin and his jaw and his tongue, making every inch of her skin his.

Karen tries to catch her breath when he pauses to run his hand down the curve of her side, pressing her jacket softly open. Whenever he bends down to kiss her, he inhales the scent of her again and groans voicelessly, a rumble deep in his chest.

“Frank, please--”

“Shh, Micro will hear you.”

“I’ll be quiet...I’ll be...good.”

He inhales sharply with a grin. He likes that. She almost writhes out of her skin with need when his hand trails up her thigh, slow and heavy, his breath moving faster as he reaches the softer skin higher up. Then one fingertip moves along the edge of her underwear under her skirt. “How good can you be?”

“I’ll be--ah!--very good.” His finger traces the wet seam of her over the cloth, maddening, and he kisses her breathless, until her hips begin to circle with desperation for more. He waits, reading her face like a text he wants to memorize, her lips parted and panting, then delves one finger inside the cotton, delicate and slow, moving up through her wetness to find the sensitive places she likes. The way he watches her makes her want to keep her eyes open, wide in the darkness, like a line of fire between them, making the pleasure impossibly more intense. When he slowly thrusts a finger into the slick tightness of her, she gasps.

“Shhh. Be good now. Be very, very good.” Each word a slow thrust into her, his eyes half-lidded with lust as hers widen. Right in her ear he breathes, “Don’t make a sound.”

He adds a second finger and presses deeper, the stretch so delicious, his fingers dripping with her wetness. She begs him for more and cants her hips to press down onto his hand hard, then harder, her breath louder, struggling to maintain silence.

He hushes her softly, watching her mouth, greedy, and dropping kisses up and down her chest. “Do you need something to keep you quiet?” He traces a finger along the plushness of her bottom lip and she darts her tongue out to lick him, then sucks his finger into her mouth with desperate suction, the taste of his skin a musk of desire and need.

“Good girl,” he groans in a bare whisper, then pulls her own fingers down to her clit, moving their hands together, sliding in the wetness of her, circling. “Touch yourself,” he whispers, a velvet command. “I want to see you.” She’s already so wet and so hot she can feel her pleasure right under her skin, a bonfire of nerves. “Let me feel you.” She finds the exact right spot and circles slowly, then faster, her hips tilting at the right angle as his fingers press into her, his breath groaning quietly when a gush of wetness floods his fingers. She feels the slickness of herself. Yes . Her hips and her fingers, and his, and his breath, and everything tightens and presses, and he crooks his fingers impossibly deep inside her and she’s breathlessly close, pressing her thighs together around his wrist.

“Yes,” he says, “ yes .” A prayer, a dying plea. She rides it, pulling him closer, and she feels the pleasure peak and pull and crash up through her, white noise, his fingers slowing through the tremor and ripple of her, waves of it, one after another. She feels herself slowly coming back to earth but still pressing against his fingers and her own.

She wants more, she wants everything in that moment; she kisses him with a fierceness and when he slides his fingers out of her, she pulls those wet fingers up to her mouth, in ecstasy at the taste of herself on her own tongue. He almost loses it at that, kissing that liquid sweetness back into her as if chasing its flavor, hungry for her. She presses her hand down the tight plane of his chest, his stomach, to his pants, feeling for his belt, desperate and needy.

“Please, I’ll be good,” she breathes. “Have I been good enough? For one more thing?” she says, pulling at his clothing, her lips kiss-bitten and swollen on his.

 

 

Those words coming from her beautiful mouth, her lips that taste of her -- he dips to kiss her again, open-mouthed and sucking her lower lip into his mouth before seeking the skin under her jaw again, that perfect soft line of her throat that drives him so crazy under her hair.

He kisses a line down her chest, pulling at her buttons enough to expose the lace at the top edge of her bra that he pulls down, seeking her nipples with his tongue and sucking them between his teeth to a magnificent pink in the gloom. Every time she gasps he does it again, until he presses a hand up to her mouth again to quiet her again.

This woman, she’ll be the death of him: she likes his hand against her mouth so much she begins to pant and moan behind it, until she sucks two of his fingers into her mouth, forceful and so deep he can feel the vibration of her need through her tongue, from the soft part of her palate at the back. And he’s lost, rising up to claim her mouth with his own again.

She pulls his shirt up and works his belt open as they kiss, and then her hand works its way down to his cock, stroking the thick heft of him lightly along the shaft. She pulls him out so the tip rests heavy on the exposed skin of her stomach, too velvety to be real, and as they kiss she works her hand up and down, circling, teasing right at the spot under the head of his cock that makes him lose focus for a moment.

His head falls back against the mattress, and in the dark, her hand working him and their mouths on each other, he almost misses her reaching to her bag where it lies on the cement floor of the crawlspace, until she presses the little foil square into his hand.

He groans softly in that moment because all he wants is to taste her, to pin her hips down under his hands and savor her so quietly he can hear every little catch in her breath, so slowly she begs, but she’s already ripped the condom open and rolls it onto him with expert hands, her eyes wide and dark as she looks at him from under the long sweep of her lashes. “Please, I need to feel you inside me,” she breathes in a whisper, her forehead touching his, and he’s never one to refuse such a pretty request.

Frank pulls her over him and watches those blue eyes flutter closed as he grips the base of his cock, almost too needy to savor the moment, and positions himself at her soaked opening. The heat of her, so lush his mouth almost waters as he presses the head of his cock inside her. Holding still a moment, he memorizes her face, her closed eyes, the little roll of her hips, her skirt pushed up around her waist.

Her eyes open wide and then wider with pleasure as she pushes down onto his cock, taking her time to stretch to accommodate his girth, the heat of her surrounding him. She is mesmerizing and perfect. She slides down all the way, kissing him fiercely and grinding in a circle so that he’s grateful for the barrier between them for multiple reasons; he grips her legs, holding her still for a second as he breathes out carefully, wanting to go for a little longer despite the blood pounding in him.

He slides his palms up her soft thighs as she rises, to the infinitely tender bit where her leg meets her hip, and then she pushes down onto him again, going slow at first, mindful of the low ceiling above and the cramped, strange space they are in. Soon they’re both too needy to go so slow, and after a moment he clutches her close, half sitting up, needing to kiss her perfect breasts, and she starts fucking back onto him faster, harder. He can feel her tensing around his cock, he can’t stop himself, he grinds out in a harsh whisper Yes and yes again when another echo of her pleasure comes fluttering around him, even tighter now.

He fucks up into her, losing everything now, losing this last piece of himself to her, to those blue eyes wide and dark like a river and that skin so soft he forgets the world; there is only her. Only the heat of her, and his body in one last breathless surge, his balls drawing up tight, and then he is coming inside her, hearing her silent yes, God yes , against his shoulder, which she bites softly as she rides him through it, hard and hungry and then soft and gentle through the last of it, color high in her cheeks and across her chest like a banner.

He pulls her down to him and crushes their lips together, only her, only Karen, only everything.

 

 

It must be near dawn when she next stirs awake, folded in his arms. From the shallow steadiness of his breathing, she can tell he’s awake next to her. There’s a raw place in her chest, like a sob waiting to surface, that refuses to acknowledge that she can’t stay down here with him forever.

There is not a single sound in the building above them. She smoothes down her skirt as best she can, moving quietly against him.

“Madani’s gone now,” he says quietly, no longer whispering. She can hear other things in his voice, too. The blankness he takes on at times, the distance, steadily creeping back to veil him. The Frank she got to see in the middle of the night, teasing and needy and as desperate for her as she is for him, that Frank is nowhere to be found.

“Frank, you have to promise me something,” she says, turning to look him full in the face, pulling at his arm forcefully when he won’t look at her, trying to stop him from disappearing completely. “You have to survive this thing with Russo. You have to, okay?”

“Don’t I always?” Frank replies, still not quite looking at her. She remembers how survival can be its own curse; to be made to live in the world that comes after, and to struggle against your fate like an animal in a trap, and to learn what that makes you.

Selfishly, Karen can’t let that be the whole story. She grabs him by his cheeks, stubble scratching at her palms, and turns his face towards her so he has no choice but to look her in the eye. “You come back to me, Frank Castle.” She kisses him once, light and chaste, staring deep into his eyes. “You come back to me.”

“I want to.” He’s not making a promise he can’t keep, though. His eyes drift slow across her features.

She lets go, dropping her hands. Sits up, leaning over to avoid the low ceiling, buttons her shirt to keep herself busy and blink back everything else that threatens behind her eyes.

“I don’t know how this thing will end.” He looks shaken, and she remembers how much she does not know about his life. Or he about hers, for that matter. Both of them have so many secrets kept and terrors shoved underground -- things Karen can’t name and things Frank can’t let into the light.

Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the tie between them sometimes feels like the only real thing in her life. The thought scares her. “You have to come back to me so it can mean something,” she manages.

He pulls her into a hug so sudden and fierce she loses her breath for a moment; then she holds him tightly, pressing into the scent of his skin and the familiar bulk of him, the shared weight of everything they’ve been through, of every moment before this strange little interval of darkness in between two days. One day when she was convinced he was dead. The next day when she knew he wasn’t, but she might never get him back.

“Karen, Karen,” he’s saying into her hair, his hands on her fierce and tender at the same time. “You mean fucking everything . Everything to me. How can you not know that?”

She doesn’t want to say it, but she does. “I know it’ll never be enough.” For you to stop , she doesn’t say. It echoes between them anyway.

When they break apart their embrace, he’s still holding onto her so he can look into her face, close up. There’s a lost kind of look there, like everything is trying to shift and he can’t let it do that; exactly how she had felt a lifetime ago when the floor opened up and swallowed her whole.

“I can’t let him…” he shakes his head and swallows thickly, rethinking. “You gotta believe me that it’s worth it.”

“I never stopped believing you, Frank.”

“Then let me finish this.”

She doesn’t say what she’s truly thinking. She doesn’t drag him with her up into the breaking light of day and back to her apartment, doesn’t scream the thousand desperate pleas hovering just under the surface of her skin. Stay with me . Let someone else finish it .

She rests her head on his shoulder for one last, lingering moment. Memorizes the way his hands feel on her, still tender, like he might pull her down for one last kiss. But she won’t let him do that.

She might see him again, she might not. She’ll never have this again, she knows that much: not this moment where everything was poised on the brink of something and could have stopped, could have changed, but didn’t.

Everything tips back into motion and that other life swings shut with the finality of the steel trap door hinging closed behind her in the cold, echoing room.

All over her skin and her clothes she smells his scent, rich and gunpowder-deep, as she walks to her car along the deserted gravel road, the letter untouched by Madani and in her pocket.

I need you to be alive , she had written to him. I need a sign. I am running out of ways to lie to myself. A letter never intended to be delivered; a letter that never reached him, after all. Even if she found him, finally, for all the good that it did her.

Micro will keep their secret, this she knows. Frank, of course, is his own perfect kind of secret. There’s only one thing left to do.

She burns the letter to ash with a lighter before she climbs into her car. The smudge of paper ash hot and gray on her fingertips as the last fragments curl and float into the air. The orange sparks burn and rise and linger a moment before they fade against the light of day.

 

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