That didn’t mean she talked to her more than necessary the first hour she was there. She didn’t go that far from her, since her new apartment basically consisted of two rooms, with the couch very near the kitchenette, but she tried not to even look at her that much. She was still angry, and more than she should be at Maria, because her timing was awful. Bad enough she still didn’t know how to cope with what Matt had told her two nights ago; she did not need to have to deal with the other vigilante in her life.
Until, after she’d made stew enough for two and ordered Maria to eat, she said, “You’re upset about something. It’s not me either, is it?”
The woman was damn perceptive. Karen had learned that within the first few days of her being their client. According to the friends they’d interviewed as character witnesses there was nothing she hadn’t known. They’d chalked it up to having to take care of two children on her own for much of the time. Karen thought it went beyond that, though. There was something in her, some way of seeing things too clearly, or maybe just of feeling things too clearly, that had led her to become the avenging angel she had.
Like Matt, on occasion.
Not just like him either.
“Matt talked to me,” she said. “He explained everything about every crazy behavior and obvious lie I’ve endured from him since the beginning. If he’d only told me what was going on with him earlier, I would never have even been angry.” Then she thought about Elektra, and his behavior even to Foggy, who’d known, and amended, “Well, not nearly as angry, anyway. And he would’ve been an idiot to not realize that, given what his secret was…”
“He’s the Daredevil, isn’t he?” Maria cut her off.
It was too relieving not to have to talk around it. “You suspected?”
“Since you guys first came to me in the hospital. I don’t know if you know this, but I kind of spent a few hours arguing with him once…” She trailed off, and Karen suspected she had realized relating more circumstances surrounding that conversation might make her angry. “He always lowers his pitch as Daredevil, of course, but between that and the way he talked? I would’ve been certain if it wasn’t for his being blind. Is he really? He said something to me on the boat that made me think he’s one of those superpowered people that are popping up all over the place recently.”
“Yes to all three questions,” Karen said. It wasn’t really betraying Matt, she thought, to tell his secret to someone who pretty much knew already, and probably wasn’t going to cause him any trouble over it. Though it still made the weight that had been in her chest the past two days heavier.
Maria was at least eating her stew, and surprisingly fast; Karen wondered when she’d last eaten. “I read your article from last week. I need to thank you for not calling me Red Widow like everyone else seems to be doing right now.” That made sense. Maria had made pretty clear during her outburst in the court that she preferred the Punisher nickname she’d been given before anyone had known even that she was female, let along anything else about her. “Giving me the pretty little nickname none of the Avengers had claimed,” she’d sneered at them. Well, she’d been right there.
“So you don’t mind that I wrote as if you must be alive after all, when of course I knew you were?” She’d have kept that secret. Even if she’d never had anything to do with Maria again, she still wouldn’t have breathed it to a soul. Although she supposed Matt would’ve found out on his own sooner or later anyway.
“Everyone else came to the same conclusion. I expected them to. I admit, I would’ve liked to have avoided that being found out for a little longer. But circumstances didn’t allow for it.”
Those circumstances had been a local college football star caught raping someone on camera getting away without any prison time. When such an individual turned up murdered in the precise way he had, one could not but conclude Maria Castle had been responsible.
Karen knew what she was supposed to both say and believe, that what had happened had been horrible, and that it was horrible every single damn time it happened in their world, but that the young man still had not deserved to die. Maria was probably expecting her to say or at least think that. She had no idea why Karen couldn’t, and Karen didn’t dare tell her, not yet.
When she took another bite of her stew to avoid saying anything, Maria said, “You’ll forgive him.”
“Maybe you won’t do it tomorrow.” She was close to smiling. “Maybe you won’t do it next week, or even next month. But you’ll forgive Matt, at least in your heart. Whether you then decide to have anything more to do with him or not, well, that’s a choice you have.” She emphasized the you only slightly, but enough.
“Are you going to give him the shovel talk, then?” Karen inquired, for lack of a better rejoinder.
“Do you want me to?”
That response was a pleasant surprise. “Thought you’d do it whether I liked it or not.” She bit back comments about how Maria kept showing up to save her without being asked only because she owed her life to her twice over because of it.
“There are places where I think you can take care of yourself,” she said. “I know I’m not your mother. I don’t think I’m even that much older than you, am I?”
“No, you’re not.” She probably just meant that literally, though. She had every reason to believe her life had aged her much more than Karen’s had. "It would be understandable, of course, if you didn't want to date him. Guy's obviously a lot for any woman to handle. Then again, Frank was the same way a lot of the time..." She drifted off; the rest was probably too painful to say.
They finished the stew, and Maria tried to stand up with a, “I should do the dishes.”
Karen grabbed her shoulder, which at least stalled her, although she resisted being pushed back down. “I would agree if you were less injured. But what you should do is rest, Maria.”
After a moment where they both stood firm, Maria gave in and sat back down. “I miss it,” she sighed.
“I know,” said Karen, and gathered the bowls and other dishes up.
She’d gotten them rinsed out and was scrubbing away when Maria said, “It was what I wanted out of life, above all else. I wanted to be that wife and mother.”
“I know,” said Karen again. “And you don’t have to worry I’ll ever think or claim otherwise. I’ve read the blogs. I don’t know if you know this, but some of them are still going at it, still trying to shape you into what they want you to be. I think the latest trend is to blame your entire behavior on being repressed for the ten years after you left the Marines. I know the truth isn’t always what suits someone’s views. I won’t be that writer.”
Maria’s lips had pressed thin during that speech. Karen wasn’t surprised. She probably took such a stance as speaking ill of her late husband, maybe even their poor children. In Karen’s experience, nothing ever made her angrier than that.
Then she took a deep breath, and said, “The thing is, I never would have stayed anyway. If I hadn’t met Frank, I would’ve gotten out and gone on to college. And that would’ve been the right decision for me too. Either way, getting out was what I was supposed to do, and not something I’d ever regret. Maybe if they’d repealed that rule keeping me to non-combat positions…but no, probably I still would’ve gotten out.
But,” she sighed. “I still missed it.”
“I’ve heard that’s normal for people who retire out of the military.”
“Perhaps,” said Maria. “But I had this itching under my hands, you know? Like I should be out there, dealing with problems bigger than Lisa’s schoolwork or Frankie’s eating habits or getting the bills paid. It wasn’t even that living the life I was living didn’t make me happy. It did. It did so much.” The grief in her voice might have been grief she’d never really expressed to anyone before. “But every time Frank wrote me about what he was doing in Afghanistan, I felt selfish, sitting in my warm kitchen, my children watching TV as I cooked us all supper. Sometimes I wondered if I should get a job, start earning my kids college money. Maybe I would’ve even done it once Frankie got older; there were definitely times we could’ve used the money. But I don’t think that would’ve made the feeling go away.”
Karen said nothing to any of this. She feared that if she’d tried, she’d give too much of herself away.
Until Maria said, “I don't know how much you want to do as a reporter. But you try to restrict what you do too much, and you’ll get hit by the same feeling, Karen. People like us don’t change. Even when we want to, we still can’t.”
Karen was frozen, back turned dangerously towards Maria as she stared at the nearly cleaned dishes in the basin. “I’m right, aren’t I?” Maria asked her. “I wondered even before we were driving around, you lying to the police, but once I saw you in that capacity, I knew. You’re no more that innocent fair maiden than I was back when I was mistaken for one all the time, and let people mistake me for one.”
When Karen still didn’t move, she asked, “Afraid I’m going to judge you?”
“Most of the people you judge, you kill, Mrs. Castle.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” she said. Karen found it easy to believe her, and she relaxed and turned around. Her expression was actually gentle. “I probably wouldn’t judge you even if I knew what happened, and in any case, I’m not going to ask. I’ve seen enough in the past half a year to guess at your general history, but I don’t really care much about the details. I don’t know if I really care about any of it, really. I know who you are now.”
That was pretty unlike her general mantra. Then again, none of her known victims had been female. Not that she’d never kill a woman; there were some women, like that Madame Gao Matt had talked about, whom Karen was sure Maria would happily take a shot at if given the chance. Her general targets, street gang members and rapists and similar, tended overwhelmingly to be male anyway. But Karen sometimes wondered if the feeling of safety she had had around Maria for most of the time she’d known her would’ve been there had she been male, especially since then her history would probably be identical to those of her many gang-related victims.
“I suppose if I say I should go you’ll tell me I shouldn’t,” she said, when Karen was done with the dishes.
“Certainly not for a few hours. If you really insist on leaving in the middle of the night, at least take a nap first.”
“Fine,” Maria’s had half taken her coat off so Karen could tend to her, and now she shrugged it off the rest of the way. “I’m not sleeping in your bed, though. If I can’t go over to the sink, I’ll stay right here. Hey, the colors this couch is, I don’t think any of the blood I’ve gotten on it will be spotted by anyone not looking for it. I really should stay here just for that.”
“I’ll hang up your coat and find my spare blanket.” Maria handed the coat over, and Karen took it to her tiny coat stand to hang it up next to her own. It really was very large; she wondered if it had been her husband’s originally. As she hung it, she also spotted, peeking out of one of the inner pockets, the little critter she’d sent into the stairs all those weeks ago. It was pressed up against a folded piece of paper that Karen was dead certain was one of Lisa’s drawings. Karen wondered when she’d been back to her old home.
She hadn’t expected Maria to start her nap immediately. In fact, she’d already been mentally going through her small DVD collection trying to decide which one to suggest they watch. But it was likely Maria hadn’t slept in a while anyway, and when Karen came back to the couch with the blanket, she was clearly out. She’d half-curled up against the side, with one arm dangling off. Her hair was starting to grow back to the length it had been roughly around in most of the photographs Karen had seen in the house, and it was slung at a weird angle at one side. Her face was exposed, and it was surprisingly unbruised. If one ignored her various bandages, the Punisher at rest still looked like the soccer mom she’d once been.
Karen spotted a glimpse of gold hanging around her neck, and a moment later recognized a locket she’d spotted in her jewelry box. It had been opened, and lying by it had been a folded up piece of paper, obviously its normal contents. The paper had contained, handwritten, a few lines from a poem, about the best of dark and bright meeting in her eyes, and under it, For my heart, from Frank.
(“Your own man!” Karen had heard her scream at Schoonover when he’d made the mistake of taunting her about her family. “You murdered your own man! And our children! You had Frank tell Frankie in one of his emails you were going to make him an honorary marine! You called Lisa beautiful, and she beamed for two days, because you were such an important man to her father!” She’d made a mistake, trying to tell Maria not to kill him because then she would never know just what had happened with her husband in Kandahar. She’d never want to know.)
Maria didn’t stir when she draped the blanket over her. Karen stepped out of her shoes, tiptoed over to her laptop, and took it into her bedroom. She had some work it was probably a good idea to do now anyway.
It was a few hours later that she awoke from a nap of her own, her face smushed into her keyboard. Once again on tiptoe, she carefully opened her bedroom door. The couch was empty. Walking over to it, she saw the blanket neatly folded up, the wooden floor around it freshly cleaned, and a note on top of it that simply said, Thanks.
She took hold of it, thought she ought to destroy it when someone might recognize the handwriting, and then thought she probably would keep it. She could make room in a drawer, hide it in the back. The way her life was going, it might not be the last secret item she’d put in it.
But for now, Karen kept it in her hands, as she walked to the closed window, looked out into the night, and wondered where her dark sister was now, and if and when she would next see her.