A/N: Don't own anything and will still keep shipping these two. Title from Ben Howard's "Soldiers." The rest of the notes are at the bottom of this chapter.


December 2013

A windy, chilly evening is starting to settle onto the city and Liz realizes it really wasn't that long ago she called this city home, and the building buzz of another evening in New York washes over her skin comfortably. The dress swirls around her legs as they walk towards Dembe and the town car.

Reddington opens the door for Liz while Dembe slips into the driver's seat, and while her date is walking around to the other side of the car, Dembe twists around to address the well-dressed woman in the back seat.

"You chose well, Elizabeth."

"Thanks, Dembe," she replies with a smile as Reddington ducks into the car, his body heat and the smell of his cologne announcing his presence beside her, closer than necessary.

"Please forgive the heavy handedness with the dress selection, Lizzie, but I knew I was never going to see you in Zuhair Murad otherwise," he says as he settles into the seat. Liz rests her back against the plush leather, refusing to shy away from him.

His heavy-lidded gaze as he takes in the sight of her in beside him should seem lecherous, but to Lizzie, it's anything but.

"And my god," he says, with a sort of delighted little breathless laugh on the last word that Liz believes she could easily and happily get accustomed to, "was that dress made for you. If I didn't know you and what you're capable of, I'd have to worry about you tonight."

She tries to suppress a grin as she asks him "Haven't you heard the phrase 'flattery will get you nowhere'?"

His answer is flip. "Yes, although I found it doesn't apply to crime, government, or politics and I'm involved in all three."

When a quick shift on the seat causes the dark red skirt to slide and offer up a view of her thigh, which seems to encompass the man's attention, a slow smile spreads on his lips, and Liz feels her stomach flip.

"And I think I'm exactly where I want to be right now, anyway."

He speaks the words so quietly she can't imagine Dembe can hear him. She can't remember the last time she felt like this, wanted and wanting, an ache in her chest and her stomach in knots. A tiny voice in her head wants to tell Dembe to stop the car, to just...hold everything for a moment, just for a little while, to take what's between them into her hands and discover what it really is, or might be...

But she's got a job to do, and so does he. As much as she regrets having to, Liz sits a little straighter and since the man beside her can read her so well, he does too.

"...At least, until I get to see you lift that phone off of our host tonight while I've got him laughing over some story I tell in small words with a simple-minded punchline."

She's staring at him, the quiet, passive, observant expression settling on her face as it always does when she's analyzing someone and mentally trying to remove herself from a situation, and in this case, it's to consider what she's currently feeling. He is looking forward to this, to watching her tonight. It's a new feeling, having someone know about her talent and not react negatively, or surprised.

"What is it, Lizzie?"

Of course he notices.

"My family, my Dad, they knew what I could do, taught me these things...even they never seemed happy about it. They were reluctant to teach me, but I wanted to, I...I knew I'd be good at it."

There's a pause before he answers, and a tiny facial tick - mentioning Sam seems to trigger them, she's noticed - and she knows she's given him another little piece of her past he didn't know.

"I'm in no position to judge, and you know that. This skill of yours, it's a part of who you are, but it doesn't define you. Just like your badge."

His hand slides across the seat between them, brushing along her wrist with a slight hesitancy, giving her a moment to withdraw or protest which she doesn't take, before turning over her forearm and running his fingers over the pale, smooth skin of her scar.

His voice is another caress. "Just like this."

Watching his fingers spread wide to follow the gradually separating trails of scar tissue reminds her of a question that's been bothering her since the previous weekend while she was reviewing the reports regarding the events of Christmas in 1990, of the empty safe they found hidden under the floorboards.

It's another thing that connects them.

She swallows, because her throat has come to be rather dry, before asking "Did Sam tell you about the fire?"

Of course he knows which one she's talking about. "He told me there had been some trouble, but assured me it was taken care of and you both were safe. Sam told me my help wasn't needed; he'd already contacted someone for paperwork, new identities for Nebraska."

Well, that was a version of the truth. Correcting him would be a segue they don't have time for.

"The man who came to our house that night, he had a box, this metal briefcase. It had that mark on it, the same mark on the box I found in my house."

He's pensive as he considers this information, all that it implies. "You never told me you made the connection."

Instinctively, she seeks to cover the scar, cradle her wrist against her chest, and Reddington's fingers slide off her skin as she moves. "Until these last few weeks, that night was the worst I ever remembered. I can't even tell you how many times I had nightmares…" when the words stick in her throat, she shakes her head. "Seeing that mark on something in my house, my home? It terrified me and I didn't trust anyone enough to say anything."

He's deadly calm when he speaks. "The man in your house, the night of the fire, he did that to you?"

She shakes her head. She's not ready to tell him the whole story, not ready to relive it all right now. "I did it to myself, by accident. Sam said it could be a good thing though, said having that mark might keep others away, make them think I was part of something else. He said 'Sometimes blending in is a good thing, Butterball' - I never forgot that."

She's getting off topic, and she has precious time before they get to the party and it will be hours before she has a chance to talk to him alone again. Liz steadies herself with a deep breath before asking her next question. "I need you to tell me this. I need the truth. Was your wife tied to this, whatever this group is?"

Even though her hand is turned over, the man beside her doesn't move his eyes from her arm. It makes it easier to watch him as he answers her.

"Yes."

The silence presses on them both. Dembe has been driving around to ensure they arrive slightly late, and she's thankful for it. She knows if she gives Reddington this quiet, he'll continue. He'll tell her what she needs to hear.

"You're right, Lizzie, they are connected. I found files in Ellen's hotel room in Kuwait bearing that same design." His jaw is tight as he says, uncomfortably, "Who they are, what their endgame is, I'm not sure. From what I have been able to gather, these are more than your standard guns for hire."

"So Ellen was-"

His gaze flickers up to catch hers at the mention of his wife.

"Hired to insert herself into my life, yes. Just like Tom was in your's. Why they chose me back then, I'm not entirely sure, but I have to think it had something to do with pedigree and fairly predictable outcomes; I'd have to have been a complete idiot not to rise through the ranks. The Gatz Project aside, I was privy to highly sensitive information and high ranking officials my entire life.

"As for you, I can only imagine two reasons for them to be interested in you."

Liz follows his line of logic, because she's been thinking it over as well. "You, or Compton."

"Exactly."

While it's validating to know they have matching theories, it still doesn't answer many questions. "So why would Tom suddenly take a job to kill the Brigadier and blow his cover?"

"A question I've been asking myse-"

"-Raymond, Elizabeth, we're here," Dembe informs them, and she can hear a note of apology in his voice. Once he gets out of the vehicle, he takes his time crossing to their side to open the door, giving them a few more seconds alone.

"We really have to work on our timing, sweetheart," Reddington tells her before his voice rises slightly in pitch, settling into that familiar, feigned pleasantry. "Ready to dazzle them?"

She takes his hand as she slides out of the vehicle and looks around when she's only greeted by typical street noise. There's no line of guests, no paparazzi, no red carpet. A security officer is waiting, and she guides them quickly into the gilded foyer of green marble and gold, and immediately through a semi-concealed service door. They're ushered into a small room, the dimly lit space populated by aggressively large men clad in black, rented CCTV equipment, folding chairs and tables, and pizza boxes. The edge of what is very clearly a gang tattoo peeks out below the armband of the black polo doing little to restrain the muscles on one of the guards.

Not many people can say their Manhattan penthouse sits above a ballroom, but their host can. After they're asked by the burly security guard to hand over any digital devices they have and only Liz's dummy cell phone is relinquished, the guard gestures for Reddington to step forward so they can pass the handheld metal detector over him. As her date allows them to scan him and then pat him down, seemingly unperturbed by the treatment, he points out a brick in the wall above the window. '1897' is carved into it.

"This was part of the lobby at one point before renovation," he tells her. "Fascinating time in the city's history. This hotel was one of the first in the city to feature pneumatic tube mail. Tell me, dear, do you know that there isn't a single complete map of the city's underground infrastructure in existence? Sewers and aqueducts and pneumatic tubes...no one's ever compiled it, and some of it's been lost over time. A real mystery. Amazing, isn't it?"

One of the guards looks over at Liz to see her reaction to his history lesson, and she tries to school her features into something resemble blasé but polite interest. Truth be told she has no idea why he chooses any of the opportunities he does to lecture on the topics he knows, but she imagines it's a form of distraction and reassertion of control for himself.

They pass the wand over her next, but make no attempt to pat her down.

She lets out a humorless snort of a laugh as she takes Reddington's arm and they are led down a back hallway to a staff elevator flanked by guards. That's the problem with a lot of these men; they overlook women. She could very easily be carrying a carbon knife or some sort of plastic syringe somewhere on her person.

There is another couple waiting for the elevator as well, dressed similarly, and Reddington introduces himself only as 'Raymond' and his lovely date 'Beth' before they enter the lift. The doors open onto the ballroom's balcony, a wide and deep expanse overlooking the dance floor.

Liz has seen pictures of this ballroom - it has been the backdrop of more than one photo of a celeb on Page Six, and she half-remembers watching a documentary on the building and its upkeep one night when she couldn't sleep, years ago.

Gilded, three-story vaulted ceilings reflect back the brilliant light of the sparkling chandeliers, all resting atop white pillars inlaid with gold detailing and off-white marble pieces. Everything shines and sparkles. Satiny fabric flows down the pillars to the floor, with yellow-gold uplighting.

"Pretty nice for the preshow, don't you think?" the man at her side asks. "Only a handful of the people in this place are aware of what actually happens after."

The next hour and a half is spent shaking hands and being introduced to other guests. Liz does her best to keep a safe distance between them, to appear interested without too much interest in her date, since she's already seen Meera and Ressler more than once during their social rounds. It used to be easy to act like the plus one with an ambiguous connection to her date at the few other functions they have been to together, but she finds herself drifting towards him, feels him sway slightly towards her. More than once, she feels his arm slipping from her light grip to rest at her back. One time, she even falters mid-sentence when his thumb strokes the exposed skin of her back.

Over a glass of champagne, Liz quietly asks him to introduce her to their host. It's become obvious that Reddington is stalling, for reasons she hasn't figured out yet.

"I take you for a spin on the floor and he'll come over to introduce himself," he counters, challenges.

She stares him down as they both take long sips.

He swallows, a sort of reluctant half-smile flitting across his lips, but there's a glint of praise in his eyes. "Fine. I'd like to have a dance with you before we get down to business...if you're so inclined."

She makes him wait a moment before she answers with a smile. "I think I am."

They place their glasses on a ledge and he leads her down the steps to the dance floor. There's a guard at the bottom of the stairs, barring most from ascending them.

The band, arranged on a small stage at the front of the room, has been playing mostly what Liz would refer to as 'big band' music, although she can't properly identify the songs. The song that's playing as they start to dance has an easy enough rhythm for them to find, and she only tries to navigate for a few measures before he asks her which one of them is leading this time. She laughs and allows him to, knowing he won't lead them wrong.

"We've officially made it past the three minute mark," he informs her, "and you haven't hit anyone yet. I'd say we're getting better at this."

She allows herself to laugh at his light teasing, because she wants to and if Ressler and Meera see her, she's just playing her role for the night, correct? She's wrapped in layer upon layer of duplicity, more than usual, but tonight it does not feel so weighty.

A close-lipped smile spreads on her dance partner's face, and if she is ever asked to describe him in this moment - and her as well - it would be 'content'. She enjoys this, as dangerous as the situation is, as morally gray as her actions will have to be, she knows that she thrives. Raymond Reddington does not make her feel ashamed of this. The fact that he's encouraging illegal activity is not lost on her, but the praise for who she is and what she can do is novel, after years of hiding and years of being made to feel guilty for her decisions by her husband.

The song draws to a close too soon for her liking.

"Show time," Reddington murmurs before offering her arm and acknowledging a mountain of a man who is raising his glass while nodding in their direction from the balcony above.

"Sweetheart," Liz's date says loudly as he leads them back to the stairs, "let me introduce you to the man who made tonight possible."

Two drinks later and the thief-turned-agent feels three quick taps of Reddington's thumb between her shoulder blades when his hand slides upward while he leans in, beginning to tell a raunchy anecdote involving a monastery, an entire brothel, and a pizza delivery; his words are lazy, slightly slurred and loud, and the hand on her back comes around her shoulders, as if needing the support. When he gets to the punchline, he laughs and leans heavily into her.

It's easy to pretend to teeter sideways, grabbing onto the burly athlete beside her as her own glass of champagne slips out of her grasp and onto his trousers. It's enough of a distraction and a commotion for Liz to slip the coveted cellphone out of his pocket and into her clutch.

"I am so sorry about that!" she effuses, eyes wide. I think he's had a bit too much...Raymond," she plucks at the man's shoulder. "Raymond, why don't we get you outside for a little fresh air? Please, just bill him for the dry cleaning," she says finally, addressing their host who is promising them it's nothing, that he's fine.

They brush by Ressler once they pass through the French doors onto the outdoor balcony, and she drops the clutch into an empty ice bucket he has low at his side while the man with his arm around her waist continues to laugh - giggle really - and apologize to anyone they pass.

She hushes him, louder than necessary, and drags him to a quiet corner of the balcony.

"Won't he check for the phone?" she hisses at him, nerves prickling now that the act is finished.

"Definitely," he assures her, cheerfully, dropping the act. "That's why I took the opportunity to employ someone to drop a dummy on the floor during the chaos- no, don't bother wasting time asking who, it doesn't matter. Actors looking for good cash while they're waiters are a dime a dozen in a New York. Sad to say our All Star friend will find it's going to need to be plunked into some rice if he ever wants it to power up again since my drink poured all over it."

She allows herself to relax slightly, and lean gingerly with her back against the cement railing. "Then we're good."

"We're not entirely in the clear yet, are we? I mean, do you really think Donnie knows what to do on a smoke break? He's probably sweating bullets just having a pack of cigarettes on his person, let alone having to lie about needing one."

"You could be nice to him from time to time," she replies, helpfully. "Might make him want to shoot you less."

"I'm nice to you and you constantly threaten bodily harm."

"Not out loud."

He puts both of his palms on the wide railing and looks out over the hotel's view of the South Street Seaport. The December night is made even colder by the light sea breeze, but neither seems that uncomfortable because of it.

"You also never wasted years trying to hunt me down," he points out. "If it came to that, I'm confident you'd make short work of it and I wouldn't have a reason to taunt you."

She leans back a little more, and watches him watch the sea for a few minutes. He's deep in thought, and so is she to be honest, but they're both shaken out of their quietude by the horn on one of the hourly sightseeing boat tours approaching the docks.

"I could go for another spin on the dance floor, if you're up to it," she suggests lightly, and he turns his head to look at her with a warm smile; she thinks there is something a little distant about it, a little rehearsed, but it might be a trick of light.

Their host passes them at one point and assures them he understands it was all an accident. They make their way back indoors and to the floor with no issue and Liz finds she doesn't allow for as large a space between them this time.

She still can't shake the feeling that she's missing something, and their dance is not as enjoyable as she'd like it to be since she's preoccupied with looking around them, finding that Ressler is still out of the room, and Meera has given her no signal of progress of any kind.

The eerie sense of foreboding won't leave her - she wishes, sometimes, to regain that better sense of gut instinct she used to have before she fell down this rabbit hole. It comes in flashes and she wishes she could will it into more regularity.

Reddington has been silent for too long. She lets her gaze shift from one of the security guards by their host back to him to see what the problem is.

He looks at her with a quiet reserve, and something else, and she remembers another time someone looked at her like this; this was the look on her father's face during her last visit with him, as if he was trying to soak in every detail of their time together.

It was a goodbye and she's spent enough time replaying her last trip to see her father enough to recognize the wistful expression on a person's face.

Is he breaking their agreement? Why didn't he tell her what his plans were?

He went to Cooper with their target's name instead of her.

He promised to never lie to her.

"What are you planning?" she asks him quietly, oddly emotionless and calm despite knowing that whatever he is about to tell her cannot be good, and she stops moving, stepping back slightly. Another couple bumps into her but she makes no attempt to apologize or look anywhere else but Raymond Reddington.

She and her dance partner stare one another down for the length of a few thunderous heartbeats, and when he realizes she's not afraid of drawing attention from others with her stillness, he steps close, raising their still-joined hands, and places his other hand spread wide on her back, pulling her close enough that his cheek brushes along hers.

It's always a push and pull and a fight to stand their separate grounds, isn't it?

When he speaks in a hushed tone into her ear, she feels his hot breath along her neck.

"Seeing as you've spent so much time in the interrogation rooms recently, I planned to keep them from considering you had any knowledge of what is about to take place, and if that plan has any chance of working, you need to keep dancing with me right now, Lizzie, and stop staring at me like you want to stab me again."

The woman allows him to sway them both, and rests her hand on his shoulder once more, which she feels relax slightly since she's seemed to follow his orders.

She quickly slides her hand along the line of his shoulder until her fingers can dip into the back of his tuxedo jacket's collar, past the other layers there, and her freshly manicured nails can dig into the sensitive flesh it conceals.

His only initial reaction is a long, sharp sniff through his nose to disguise his discomfort, but finally he allows a little more room between their bodies, and she can make eye contact with him again. She can't look like she knows, but she also can't appear too comfortable dancing with him to Meera and Ressler.

"A half truth is a whole lie, Raymond," she whispers back to him, voice firm. "And you said you'd never lie to me."

His eyes had softened at the sound of his name on her lips, but there's a glint of something sharp in them now.

"When I saw photos of Tom at Angel Station, and realized that I'd seen him before, standing next to you in the photo from your wedding that Sam had sent me, I came to terms with the fact that keeping you safe like I promised my friend was going to be a bit more complicated than I'd earlier anticipated. Always telling you the truth? That was not an anticipated decision, and I've been doing my best to uphold both of those promises ever since."

She takes a deep breath, trying to stay calm, and shakes her head as she looks over at the band before speaking again. "I don't feel sorry for you. I won't feel sorry for you."

Liz can feel him stare at her for a moment. "And I don't want you to. I've made those choices, decided to hold myself to them."

His eyes, suddenly alert, flicker to something over her shoulder for a second, and then he leans in, and speaks so quietly it's almost inaudible.

"We really do need to work on our timing."

There's shouting and a commotion behind them. Liz spins around to see what is going on and finds a group clad head to toe in black, including ski masks and bulletproof vests, starting to fan out around the room. The security guards are immediately unarmed. One of the men in front raises a handgun and she immediately starts to try to push Reddington to the side for better cover.

The gunshot rings in the now silent room, and there are fear-filled screams.

Meera is holding her tray, eyeing the closest guard, but she's too far away and they're outnumbered at least five times over.

Guests are raising their arms in surrender, and a few are already starting to try to remove their jewelry to hand over with shaking hands, but they're ignored.

"No money, no lives, no politicians. We want Raymond Reddington," the one who fired the gun demands.

A few of the others on the dance floor back away from Liz and the man beside her, and just in time, because two of the men have advanced on them and are holding them at gunpoint. Liz raises her hands and puts them on her head, following their barked instructions and within seconds, her arms have been wrenched behind her back and her hands are secured there with plastic zip ties.

No one attempts to stop the group and both she and Red, similarly secured, are rushed into the elevator lobby.

She grits her teeth, seething, because she knows this all has to be something he's cooked up, since he's oddly calm and made no attempt to get her out of this - she knows him well enough to know he would in a real situation.

They both have a guard at their sides with a hand on their shoulder, guiding them down the hallway and around a corner into an area that has been spared the same glamorous decor as the area they just left. The light above is much more industrial and harsh and the walls are covered with cork boards with flyers from the Division of Labor. No one has followed them out into the hallway to see where they went.

Around another corner and they are being led into a stairwell.

"Red," she says warningly.

"It had to be done," he answers, almost apologetic.

She realizes, as they are escorted out onto the ground level, that the plastic zip tie is so loose she can slip her hands from it with little effort; she keeps her hands behind her back but removes the binding as they are marched across checkerboard tile in a dimly lit back hall, far away from the front lobby.

There's an ornate brass mail slot, old and dusty, next to a large service door. There's a padlock on the floor, battered.

It's dark beyond the door, and definitely cooler and more humid, and her eyes are only starting to adjust to the dark when the stutter and hum of a light fixture finally gives way to an actual light, which is directed to an open space to the side and above them, revealing pipes that run down along the walls to the side. It doesn't do much for lighting where they are. She can hear water echoing in the darkness ahead of them.

The door is secured behind them, and one of the guards takes the zip ties from both of them. Reddington thanks him jovially, seemingly right-at-home with this illegal little SWAT team, clearly acting under his orders.

"What the hell are you doing?" she asks him again, fully aware she's yelling.

He looks up from fixing the cuffs on his tux. "Cooper will certainly excuse my absence and maintain my immunity deal for the time being if it appears I've been kidnapped."

He'd only orchestrate a disappearance this grand if it needed to be a message to someone beyond the blacksite - he's told her more than once how easily he could slip away if he chose to. This was an announcement of a kind, wasn't it? To who?

Reddington had never replaced his tracking chip after Garrick, so it would take longer for them to even start the search, which would be aggressive since a federal agent was also kidnapped.

He takes the offered flashlight out of the hands of one of the crew; they're all in the process of pulling off their masks and securing various lights to their gear.

"Ready when you are, sir," says a woman with a heavy German accent. "The door will take them a bit to get through when they finally catch on to the decoy group in the helicopter."

"Fantastic work as always, Ulla," Reddington replies before continuing to speak to her in German. It's too dark to see what the woman hands him, but it's silver. "You can start out, we'll just be a minute here," Reddington replies before turning back to Liz and gesturing her over to the side.

"You better have a damn good explanation for all of this, Raymond Reddington."

"I have a lead," he says quietly so his voice won't echo, and the look of hope on his face kills any words of protest she was preparing. "It means getting in bed with some unsavory sorts for a few weeks and assuring them those rumors about my agreement with the government are false, but this…" Reddington's voice is so thick he has to swallow before he continues. "They know who has my daughter, who took her. If I help them, I might be able to circumvent any kind of standoff with Compton. I could keep both of you safe"

He's trying to keep her from being involved, and to tell her this speaks volumes. He's spent years trying to find his daughter, she knows that, and he's been willing to do anything for even the smallest of clues as to her fate. Isn't that why he came up with the blacklist in the first place?

Together, they could find out more about whoever it was that Tom works for as well.

She can see the tension in every line of his body and she exhales deeply before saying "Okay. Alright. Let's do this."

He shows no signs of moving from their spot. Liz can only just see his eyes are a little too bright, as if they're wet.

He looked like he was preparing to say goodbye before.

"No!" she shouts, understanding what he's intending to do. She reaches for his shoulders, to hold him still while she tells him she's not staying behind, to shake some sense into him, but within seconds he's grabbed her wrist, raised it over her head, and handcuffed her to a pipe.

They're eye to eye and so close she considers head-butting him, but if she has any hope of getting him to reconsider she only has a few minutes to get him to see reason.

"You son a bitch," she seethes. "Why would you bring me this far just to-"

He answers in a feigned even voice, the only sort of lie he has ever allowed between them. "Because I need a witness. Because in every scenario I prepared for, you tried to stop me."

He pauses and doesn't say 'Because I never thought you'd offer to help me,' but they both know it's what he's thinking.

She hears him swallow.

"Because believe it or not, a tiny trace of the good man I was still remains in me, and bringing you with me is not what a good man would do. That's the kind of decision you'd need to think about and not be rushed into - you deserve that. We both do."

Whatever this is between them is pressing on her chest, making her acutely aware of her own heartbreak and preventing her from breathing properly.

Liz hasn't stood at the edges of many cliffs, but she has that same sense of vertigo now.

"Be careful," she warns him, unnecessarily, exhaling heavily.

He dips his head in acknowledgement, not breaking eye contact. "You as well.

"I have a flash drive here with more names, information. You could find it in my car, or maybe one of my homes, while you're looking for me. Details are up to you."

"Too obvious," she says, shaking her head. "You can give that to me when you get back."

Another answer that surprises him, it seems. He makes no attempt to make her take the flash drive before he takes a step back, and she can't see his face well enough to read the emotion there.

"I'll see you soon, Lizzie."

He turns his flashlight on and starts in the direction of the others, just on the edge of darkness, his shoulders set. He halts only half a second later and she strains to see beyond him to whatever stopped his progress.

Reddington turns around and closes the distance between them quickly.

"Maybe I'm not as good a man as I thought I was," he mutters quickly before he has an arm around her waist and she's doing her own part to close the space between them, a hand clawing into the lapel of his jacket, thumbnail slipping again between cloth and flesh at the collar and scratching at his neck unintentionally, along the small scar she left him with when they first met.

It barely passes for a kiss; Liz is going to have swollen lips when her team finds her and she's never going to forget the feel and the sound in her head when their teeth clicked together. It's messy and needy and desperate, in a way they haven't allowed themselves to be appear, but it's there and out in the open now.

The hand on her waist dips lower, and his other one expertly finds the slit of her dress, sliding around her thigh up to her hip, fingers hot and burning.

He's only just pushed her against the wall, pressing his hips into hers, when a breathy little noise of happy surprise escapes her lips and shakes her enough to make her remember that this is the last place they should be doing this. Ignoring her own internal protest, she manages to get out his name.

"Ray-Raymond."

His forehead comes to rest against her.

"I know," he sighs, almost reluctant. "I know."

Liz could probably measure the timespan between the beginning of their kiss until now in seconds, but the damage is done and it's going to haunt both of them. Her ears are ringing like a grenade went off.

She licks her lips, and almost brushes his in the process. "No handcuffs next time."

"Let's leave that on the table for future negotiations," he replies.

She kisses him, close-lipped and firm, and pushes gently on his shoulder to start him on his way.

It isn't that long until part of the task force gets the door open and finds her there, and she only hopes that the shared moment of weakness didn't ruin Reddington's escape.

She tells the others part of the truth - men ambushed the party and dragged them out, and they left her behind but took Reddington with them. She tells them a few lies - she didn't see any faces and Reddington didn't know them.

There's no sign of Nicky Owen in his cell phone, but they have enough to tie the athlete-host and several others to the prostitution ring and a laundry list of drug charges, and they make several arrests, finding a fugitive or two amongst the guests.

Busy hours pass after, reviewing CCTV feeds from the building and interviewing the staff at the event. A group follows the tunnel and finds that after they pry the heavy metal door open, it leads to a boiler room in a building a few blocks away, but all the security cameras from the street were blocked by construction or traffic.

At one point Liz changes into work clothes in the private office bathroom and pulls the discovered flash drive out of the waistband of her underwear, cheeks burning as she does. She realized he'd left it on her while she was waiting but there was no way to retrieve it until now, and it gets slipped into her trouser pocket so she can review it later, in private. The dress is zipped carefully back into its garment bag, which travels back to her hotel room in the early hours of morning.

In a few hours, they'll head back to the Post Office to regroup and start the hunt for whoever kidnapped Raymond Reddington.

The door chirps as her card swipe is accepted, but she already senses the room is empty, the air chilled and stale. The hotel has been under surveillance since the abduction.

There is a stuffed dog waiting for her on her bed.

It's just about half the size of Hudson, with fur the same color and texture. She picks it up and finds that it smells of all too familiar cologne; instinctively, she lets the garment bag slip to the bed, as she curls her arms around its plush body and that is how she finds the note rolled up around the toy's ribbon collar.

Harmless and doesn't bark at strangers like it should - seemed as good a guard dog as the real thing.

Take care Elizabeth Scott.

Yours,

Raymond Reddington

Elizabeth sinks onto the edge of the bed and puts the note and the dog beside her. She needs to focus, needs to prepare for the days or weeks or months ahead, the pretend chase for his captors that will take place.

She knows he's thought this one though, so there will be some sort of sightings or clues that make their way back to the FBI to let them know he's still alive out there. He'd be risking his immunity otherwise.

Would he even need it if he finds his daughter?

She unzips the bag to fix the shoulder straps of the dress since fabric had pooled in the bottom of the bag earlier. Liz slides her fingers over the fabric.

There are six beads on each of the mesh side panels of her dress, sewn slightly spaced out but in a waving line. Six dark purple-red beads that dug into her hips when Raymond Reddington held her and pulled her against him and let her feel what she did to him, solid and primal and undeniable.

Liz runs her fingers over the beads and feels a bubble of laughter build in her chest that escapes the confines of her mouth. The immediate intake of breath that follows is more of a sob, just one, as she feels her shoulders drop and she surveys the silent, empty New York hotel room, not unlike the silent empty DC hotel room waiting for her.

She tours four apartments in the next week and picks the one that allows her to move in the soonest, and in the few hours she's not looking for a man who doesn't want to be found unpacks her items with a sense of determination, as if each of the newly purchased items is pinning her to the place, to her job, to her life. At least for now.

Her important belongings remain in the house that is not a house outside of Bethesda.

She's learned when you live through enough disasters, you learn the value of things - their true weight - and how to take precautions.


Fun facts:

Erik Weisz (or Weiss - there's several different spellings attributed to him) is better known to the world as Harry Houdini.

Saint Nicolas Owens is the patron saint of escapologists and illusionists. He was known for constructing priest holes - places to hide Catholic priests who were being sought, sometimes relying on optical illusions to conceal the priest holes - during Queen Elizabeth I's reign, and successfully planning an escape from the Tower of London. There's also stories of him being arrested and tortured but not giving away any information to the Queen's men.

Liz's Zuhair Murad dress is actually a deep navy blue in the 2013-2014 Fall Winter collection, but come on, we all know red is definitely her color. :)

New York's underground infrastructure really does not have a complete map like Red said. There's some incredible stuff down there. Efforts to expand subway tunnels and other excavation have revealed all kinds of things that were lost or never documented. The magazine Wired has run a couple pieces about it.