He has a tattoo. It’s right above his heart in dark, looping ink - lil’ bird - and she can’t keep her eyes from grazing over it as she threads her needle through the gash that sprawls beneath his collarbone. It’s simple and beautiful and surprising, and part of her really wants to ask him about it, except -
Except they aren’t speaking right now.
(Sometimes, Karen thinks she and Frank Castle just might be the same brand of stubborn).
They’re hunkered down in one of his safehouses, an arsenal shed on the outskirts of the city, and it’s been at least fifteen minutes since either of them have said a word. Nothing about this night has been within the realm of what she’d call normal, but this particular development - the one that has them both doing their best impression of a petulant five-year-old - is especially surreal.
She huffs a sigh and chances a glance upwards, but he’s being careful not to look at her, instead staring so intently at the floorboards she wonders if he’s trying to tear a hole straight through them.
She tugs at the thread a little harder than she normally would, and he jerks, hissing his pain through his teeth. “Ahh, shit.”
“So he does speak,” she mutters, staring at him with unflinching eyes.
“Don’t start, Page.” His voice is low, lethal, and she’s known him long enough to recognize his warning signs. He’s a thunderhead, about to break, and this is him telling her to run for cover, duck her head and wait out the rain.
But she won’t, not tonight.
Because if tonight’s a storm, Karen Page is the lightning.
“You lucked out here,” she says, inclining her head towards the wound she’s stitching. “A few inches lower and this would’ve ruined your tattoo.”
He’s glaring at her, legitimately glaring, and she has to bite the inside of her cheek to curb the sudden and ridiculous urge to laugh. This man sitting in front of her is the Punisher, a mass-murdering vigilante, and she should probably be more afraid of him than she is, but right now all she can see is a giant man-child giving her the stink eye.
“So how long does this silent treatment bit last?” she asks, a little more snidely than she intends.
His eyes twitch away from hers as he shifts uncomfortably in his seat, and she bites down on her cheek harder. He’s actually squirming.
“C’mon, Frank. Tonight was…” she trails off, sighs. Starts again. “Tonight was a setback, a pretty big one. You’re pissed, I get it. I am too. So talk to me. Let’s figure this out.”
His face crumples slightly, and she feels it suddenly in her gut, a deep, visceral ache that’s mirrored in his eyes. They’d worked so goddamn hard for this - days, weeks, months spent investigating, dissecting cases, poring over old files, reviewing witness testimonies, hoping hoping hoping - and they’d been so close, this time. So close to the truth, the reason his family was massacred. They had tracked down one lead, a source with connections to all of it - Schoonover, Kandahar, everything - but when they’d arrived at the rendezvous point earlier tonight, a few of the dead colonel’s thugs had been waiting for them, instead.
They had - dealt with it.
And now here they are.
A painful lump has formed in her throat, and she swallows past it. Several obvious questions tug at her - is our lead still alive? Was it all just a set-up? - but she can’t bring herself to verbalize them. She realizes, logically, that it’s unfair of her to expect Frank to open up when she’s struggling herself to express these thoughts - but fuck logic. They’ve been working together for the better part of a year now, and after all the bullshit they’ve endured, she deserves more than this.
“You can’t do this,” she says firmly, emboldened. “You can’t shut down every time we hit a dead end. It’s shitty, it sucks, but we keep going, alright? We keep digging.”
He laughs then, a harsh, disgusted sound that makes her stomach twist. “That right, Nancy Drew?”
Irritation swells in her chest but she shoves it down, ignoring his jab as she reaches around him for the medical scissors. “Done,” she says, cutting the thread and tilting her head slightly to admire her handiwork. “Actually doesn’t look too terrible. I can’t make any promises about the scar, though-”
“I’ll live,” he grunts, yanking away from her, shrugging his blood-stained undershirt back over his head, and this, absurdly, is what finally does it, finally breaks the fine veneer of calm she’s been maintaining all night - in an instant, she’s out of her chair, looming over him, and she thinks she might slap him, but then she doesn’t. Her anger is hot and bright beneath her skin, rising in her cheeks and hammering in her veins. He looks like he might say something, like he wants to say something, but she’s across the room and out the door before he can. Fuck this, she thinks as she steps into the night, pulse ringing in her ears. Fuck him.
The air is blessedly cold, moon swollen and full and high in the sky as she trudges through the thin smattering of trees that surround the safehouse. She’s not really sure what the plan is - getting as far away from the man-child as she possibly can seems to be the main goal right now - but she’s also vaguely aware that she has no coat or hat or gloves, and it’s mid-winter in upstate New York, and while her righteous anger is keeping her warm for the moment, she’s probably going to start feeling the cold soon.
“Fuck him,” she huffs.
She stops walking and turns her face upwards. This far north of the city, the night sky actually looks like night sky, dark and deep and infinite, and for half a second, she’s back home in Vermont, tracking constellations with her brother. The Little Dipper was his favorite - he would spend hours tracing it up towards Polaris, over and over and over until he could find it without even having to really look. “So I’ll never get lost,” he’d told her.
In the end, it hadn’t mattered. She’d lost him anyway.
She jumps, so lost in her thoughts she apparently hadn’t heard the snap of twigs and leaves signaling the man-child’s approach. “Go away,” she snaps.
“You’re really gonna freeze to death because you’re pissed at me?”
She snorts. “Wow, you suck at apologies.”
He’s quiet for a long time, so long she’s tempted to turn to see if he’s even still there, but then -
“She liked birds,” he says.
She glances over her shoulder, confused. “What?”
“Maria, she-” Another pause. “She liked birds.”
What the hell? she thinks, turning slowly. His face is half-obscured with shadow from the nearby trees, but his eyes are burning, burning through the darkness, and she swears she can feel it in the air, that subtle shift that seems to happen whenever his Punisher facade starts to crack and Frank Castle starts to bleed through. A shiver ripples through her, entirely unrelated to the bitter air nipping at her skin.
“She was into all this hippie stuff,” he’s saying, and his voice is raw, all emotion, the way it always is when he talks about his family. “Got into it right before I left. She used to say the craziest shit, like how she wanted to come back as a…as a bird in her next life, yeah? Said she wanted to know what it felt like to-” his mouth tilts into a soft smile - “to kiss the sky, whatever the hell that meant.”
She’s still confused, but he’s managing not to be an ass right now, and he’s talking - he’s put together more sentences in the last thirty seconds than he has in the past few days combined. So she listens.
“I’d tease her about it,” he continues. “Joke around with her. Started callin’ her my little bird, and that kinda became our thing. So I got this done.” He jerks his chin towards his chest, his tattoo. “Guess I was thinkin’ it might feel like she was…I don’t know, like she was over there with me. Like something straight out of a damn Hallmark card, but I don’t care, right? I’m hers, and that’s all that matters.”
She continues to listen, but now her throat feels like it’s made of sandpaper.
“Then I get on the plane. And the whole flight over, it’s nothin’ but clear skies, nothin’ but blue, and it just feels like I could reach out and touch the horizon if I wanted to, y’know? And shit, I just started crackin’ up, bustin’ my gut right there in my seat, because I finally got it. I finally got it, and that’s when everything kinda started to sink in, see, all of it. I just remember thinkin’, I need to get off this plane. I need to get off this plane, need to go home and hug my kids, kiss my wife, just-” his voice fractures, and he ducks his head, takes a shuddering breath. “She’d just turned eight. Lisa. Eight years old. And she just, she grew up so fast, y’know, she…and Junior, he’d be…he’d be almost six now, shit-”
She steps towards him. “Frank-”
“They had everything,” he says, barely above a whisper. “Everything, their whole lives in front of ‘em, and it’s all gone now. I couldn’t…I couldn’t protect them, and they’re dead, Lisa and Junior and Maria…they’re dead because of me, Page. They’re dead and it’s my fuckin’ fault and I can’t seem to make it right.”
“Don’t do that,” she says. She’s close now, close enough to touch him, and she wants to. She really wants to, but she hesitates, uncertain if she should be the one to step over that line first -
“I’m sorry.” His eyes meet hers as the words leave his lips. “I’m sorry…I’m-”
And she doesn’t know how it happens, but somehow, her hands are in his hair, fingers grazing against his scalp, and his face is buried in the crook of her neck, and he’s sobbing, real, true sobs that rack his entire frame and leave him shuddering against her. She’s holding him up, and he’s clutching at her, like he’s afraid, like she’s the thing that’s anchoring him, keeping him on solid ground, and then -
His lips are on hers.
This is wrong, she starts to think, but then he’s backing her up against a tree, pressing the full length of his body against hers, and her mind goes blank. Nothing is real, nothing beyond the warmth of his mouth, the tang of salt on his lips, that low, rumbling sound he’s making in his throat. She snakes her arms around his neck and arches her hips slightly, and he pushes back, thrusting his tongue past her lips. Heat sparks in the space between her legs.
They’re on the precipice of something here, something something something, and on a basal, instinctual level, she knows this has gone too far already, knows this is dangerous. But - fuck, she wants this. She wants him. Her fingers twist in his hair, and his teeth snag on her lower lip, and one of his hands slides lower, slips up and under her skirt -
Her world blurs. She gasps into his mouth, and then his lips are capturing hers again, fast and desperate and wet, wet with tears -
Suddenly, she remembers why he was crying - Lisa Maria Frank, Jr. - and it’s too much, it’s too much.
She breaks away, gulps for air, and his own breath stings against her cheek, jagged and hot.
“Frank-” she rasps.
“I know,” he sighs. “I know.”
She turns her face towards his, and their foreheads brush. His eyes are fever-bright, pupils blown wide, and in this moment, she can’t help but thinking there’s something so beautifully tragic about all of this. Him, her. This.
“You really do suck at apologies,” she whispers, smiling weakly.
His mouth twitches. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll work on it.”
Use two hands, and never let go, he’d told her once.
Eventually, they’ll disentangle, make the walk back to the safehouse, but for now -
She closes her eyes, and pretends.