She got a pair of pre-cooked turkey legs she can easily warm up, and they taste a little funny, but Frank doesn’t care. At first they keep the conversation safe. He tells her about getting a new construction job, she tells him about the two holiday fluff pieces she’s recently been obliged to write. “I mind it less than I thought I would,” she notes. There’s tension in the air; it’s hard for Frank to not think about how much he shouldn’t be here.
The alcohol helps. Frank thinks Karen might have had a little bit of it in her even when he arrived, and he knows he did. When they’ve both downed another beer, she gets loose enough to start talking about what awful things that she’s most mad about right now. Karen’s got so much rage in her, and so much of it on behalf of other people. Most of her rants he hears out without comment, letting his own beer relax him a little.
“It never ends, you know,” she finally says. “And lately, well, maybe this is just me being…but this entire year’s been the worst ever, and yet I’m afraid of the next one being worse still.”
“Maybe,” Frank says. He thinks of Wilson Fisk, one of the two men that will, he knows, eventually drag him right back to war; it’s only a question of which and when. Also of the suspicions he has about Karen, the questions he hopes he’ll never have to ask, but probably eventually will.
And he’s drunk enough beer now he finds himself saying, “I don’t think I can even comprehend a year anymore anyway. Part of me isn’t still isn’t expecting to live long enough for it to matter…soon my family will have been dead for a year and a half. I’ll likely outlive them for that long, and then longer…”
“Can we go on like this forever?” Karen wonders, and her eyes look way too shiny. “I know I’m lucky, you know, I’m not…I just feel like I’m in some ridiculous limbo anyway, waiting for everything to stop hurting.”
“Maybe I’m the lucky one,” Frank notes. “I know in my case it’s not going to, so it’s one less thing to worry about.”
“Oh, Frank,” she sighs. “You know, I invited you here hoping to make you feel better.”
“You know that’s not why I came here, though.”
“I know.” There’s a laugh in there, but it’s hard and bitter. “But Curtis isn’t going to be happy with me anyway.”
“How much are the two of you in contact?” Frank asks, feeling just a little bit of alarm.
Karen did laugh out loud at that one. “Email every other week. You’re not going to stop people from caring about you, Frank. And just knowing you haven’t taken a turn for the worse again makes me feel much better.” She knows he won’t protest that, damn her.
Well, except that he asks, “What if you guys got hacked?”
“We refer to you as Pete, and he really only just gives me the most general details, enough to put my mind at ease, you know. So before you start making any assumptions, no, this does not excuse you from telling me how you are whenever we see each other.”
Her jesting tone doesn’t fully mask the seriousness of her words. Frank could come up with a similar response, one which would deflect without completely running away. But he doesn’t want to play those games with Karen. So he just says, “I don’t think how I am’s gonna change much,” because that’s the easiest answer.
When her head bends down, and he sees she’s struggling for control of herself, he tries, “I’m glad to be here. I honestly am.”
“Good,” Karen takes a swig of her beer, holds it for too long.
Their plates are pretty much clean by this point, and Frank gets up with a, “I’ll do the dishes.” It’s fleeing, and they both know it, but she allows it, just nodding.
Except that when he’s standing at the sink, scrubbing away at the plates, the memory comes to him vividly of one evening two years ago. Dishes for four back then, and he was in a proper kitchen, but it’s still alike enough to bring up a new surge of grief. Closing in on a year and a half, and he’s still getting those. There’s always something else to remember, something he still wants back so badly, even if he didn’t want it when he did have it. Something he’ll never have again.
Karen sees it; of course she does. “You…” she started. “You did this that often...”
“No,” Frank says, “just…” She’s come over to stand by him, too close to where Maria was standing at the time. He focuses his gaze hard on the forks.
“I could,” she starts awkwardly. “Should I…”
“It was the last time I did this in a setting like this,” he says, letting it spill, because it’s filling him so much, and he’s drunk enough, and she’s looking at him in that way. “Remember what I told you, about Frankie painting the marine on the wall?” When she nods, he says, “Maria wasn’t too happy with the way I handled that one. Kept her smile on around the kids, but the minute they’d gone to bed she wasn’t talking to me, and oh, could she burn, when she used the silence treatment. But I’d just come home and was tired and irritated, so I got kind of mad at her too. We said we were sorry when we went to bed, but I don’t know how much we really meant it.
And then the next day it poured. Rain all day. So we couldn’t do our picnic by the carousel that day, and even though Maria insisted we’d just do it a day late, the kids were both unhappy.” He has to pause for a moment there, but it’s not the first time he’s demanded of the universe why they couldn’t have been rained out of their last picnic instead. “And me, I’m afraid I wasn’t much better than them about it. I just…I wasn’t good that day.” It’s harder to explain to Karen than it was to Curtis, or the other veterans, how he got when he first came home. Though from the way she’s nodding, he thinks she’s done enough research to realize what he’s talking about.
“And God bless her, even though she was still angry at me, Maria still shielded me from the brunt of their wrath. Took it all on herself and had a miserable day. I wasn’t a complete idiot; by dinnertime I was aware she’d been through enough. I stayed a little angry, maybe, up until the moment I walked into the kitchen and saw her just standing over the sink, like it was too much…so I said I’d take over and washed everything while she just leaned against the counter and watched. I wasn’t sure she’d stopped being mad completely, but she was just so tired, the way she was struggling to support her weight on her arms just screamed it.” Her face and posture are his clearest memories from the kitchen, ones that brings feelings of pain and tenderness still, and in fact more of both than they did even at the time.
Everything’s clean; he’s putting the last of the things on the dishrack. “So when I was done, the two of us just sort of looked at each other, and I asked her, ‘Am I forgiven?’ And she half-smiled and said, ‘Probably, if you cuddle with me for the rest of the evening.’” Even now he chuckles; Karen smiles. “Well, when my old lady gave me that obvious a tip, I usually took it. We sat down on the couch and turned on the TV, where they were showing this cooking contest, it was some ridiculous shit. And eventually Lisa dragged Frankie out and they both apologized to their mother, though she had to prod him into it…”
He has to stop talking, then, at that memory. The kids didn’t stay with their parents long, but there was a few minutes of the four of them sitting together, watching someone prepare some way too fancy food dish, with Frankie twice demanding who’d want to eat that. Maria finally looked better then, and when they were once again alone, she kissed him softly, and they cuddled more in earnest. There was a feeling of utter peace and contentment that also joined them on the sofa that night, one Frank’s not sure he ever got again after that.
“I’m sorry,” Karen says, her voice too thin. “I shouldn’t have…”
“No, don’t be.” Because much as remembering hurts, it also feels good, in some strange way, like pulling out a piece of shrapnel.
He sees then she’s shivering, and she’s shed a couple of tears. It’s instinct, then, to pull her into his arms, which causes her to finally break down the way she’s probably been needing to the entire evening.
It promptly hits him with another memory, of Maria when her mother died, and oh God, does it hurt. But Frank doesn’t want to let go. He shouldn’t even be the one doing this, he thinks. Not when he’s someone who can neither take all Karen has to offer, nor give her all she deserves. But if she needs to be held tonight, and there’s no one else to do it, damned if he isn’t going to give her that.
When she doesn’t stop quickly, he even goes all the way with it, steering them onto her couch and turning the TV on. He’s in no mood to watch sappy Christmas specials, but he finds a Christmas-themed concert playing on PBS, which is fairly harmless. Karen’s quieted a little, so the main sound in the room is the music. Neither of them look at the screen, though; she keeps her head down, pressed into his chest.
He, meanwhile, glares at the photo she has by the TV, of the two assholes who’ve abandoned her, and when one of them’s even still alive. He’s gotten the impression Nelson isn’t in town much right now, that he’s deliberately taking cases that take him upstate and away from his own grief. Running out on the huge-ass family Frank knows he has around here too. But Karen’s never brought either man up, and he won’t if she won’t. Especially with the suspicion he has about Murdock that’s stronger than ever, another thing he never wants to ask her about.
Eventually she’s done crying, murmuring, “Your shirt’s soaked. And now you have to walk home in the cold.”
Home. Not an appropriate word to use for his latest apartment. Or any of the one’s he’s slept in since burning what’ll probably be the last home he ever has. He doesn’t want to go anywhere right now.
“Can I borrow your couch?” he asks. He scolds himself for a moment later, because he shouldn’t impose on her like that. But he’d much rather sleep here, where he won’t be alone, and hell, where he knows that no matter what danger Karen’s attracted to herself lately, he’ll make sure no one will be able to come in and hurt her tonight. Besides, it means she won’t spend all of tomorrow alone either, even if he’ll probably leave right after breakfast.
But she replies, “You’re welcome to sleep on it whenever you don’t want to be alone, at least until further notice.”
He thinks he might, at least a few times. With all the dangerous shit Karen has a habit of getting mixed up in, it would probably be a favor to her anyway.