disclaimer: not mine
a/n: plot-wise this fic is behind the show, so Liz still doesn't know about Red's involvement in Sam's death and "Berlin" isn't in the picture yet. I intend to work these in (and other canon developments as well), but I may go about things slightly differently, so... you have been warned. :)
Their car ride is short and quiet. They sit close but not too close. Her hand rests on the seat next to his but they don't touch. She's done cataloging her major mistakes and regrets (for the second time this morning), and her eyes begin to wander. There's a newspaper in his lap - folded and forgotten. He skimmed through it earlier but if he found something worthy of their attention, he has yet to inform her about it.
At the moment, he doesn't even seem to be aware of her presence. She steals glances at him but he keeps staring out the car window, silent, distant, looking at nothing and everything. His head lightly bobs or shakes no every once in a while, as if sorting through a particularly messy pile of thoughts.
He's cataloging, too, but his lists seem longer. Much longer. He's made a second career of them.
For a fleeting moment, she feels tempted to touch him, so he would look at her, be with her, like before. She's been growing increasingly receptive to that effortless intimacy, she knows. It's addictive, and last night they were teetering on the edge of craving.
But this separate togetherness has a strange effect too. It's almost soothing.
It's his words she's still wary of. He wields them too well. I love you. She wishes he hadn't said that. She is not ready to hear words like these from anyone, especially from him. She can't unhear them either. They are like ghost voltage. He's still a question mark and she still has Tom to deal with. And a home that once again was turned into a crime scene. And the neighbors. Friends. Ellie. What is she gonna tell them? In the outside world there's no clear-cut procedure to fall back on. No wonder she let Red hide her away for the night. She didn't want to face all these people at once - strangers with familiar faces and assumptions and a flood of questions she couldn't possibly answer. They wouldn't understand anyway. They might not even believe her.
She glances at her pensive companion again. Is this how he felt too? How he still feels? Betrayed, mislabeled and isolated? Scared? Did he also find himself wanting to crawl back into the ghostly skin of a blissfully ignorant past self? Has he ever felt that desperate?
A hot wave of anxiety washes over her, then his words from last night seep into her mind: You can't help what people think. They bring a sudden, peculiar sense of relief.
Maybe he's right.
Some things you have no control over. Some things are to be endured.
And maybe that's okay.
It's a little after 8 o'clock when they arrive to the slightly run-down building of the Post Office. It's a survivor, too. It was re-purposed and filled with secrets while the outside world remained none the wiser.
Stepping out of the car, she looks around. Nothing appears to be out of the ordinary but she isn't even sure what ordinary looks like anymore. Cooper is going to be furious. Ressler and Meera will be quiet, their gaze wary and questioning. Aram will have a small, reassuring smile for her despite the circumstances. He always does and she always appreciates it.
Tom must be here already. He was scheduled to arrive 30 minutes ago, and the searing urge to get answers is rapidly drowning out everything else, making her restless. Red and Dembe are having a hushed conversation. It's all low drawl and tension. The bodyguard's eyes briefly meet hers, then he nods at whatever request his employer just made and climbs back behind the wheel.
Red pulls off his sunglasses and she can practically see him slip on a flippant persona like one would a light coat. Suddenly, anger swells inside her. When he smiles, she doesn't return it. "Shall we?" he says, gesturing to the stairs that lead up to the back entrance. She eyes him for a long moment, searching for the man who ate cheesecake at 4 in the morning. Who sat with her. Who confided in her. Who comforted her. She needs him, not this charade.
"What's going on?" she asks.
"What do you mean?"
"Don't play dumb."
Her clipped tone instantly shrinks his smile. He seems somewhat confused by the palpable change in her mood. "This is your plan, Lizzie," he says. "I'm just following it."
He hesitates. "Because you asked me to."
"So is this how it works now? You just grant all my wishes?"
"Within reason," he says. "Mostly within reason," he corrects himself with a tilt of his head, chuckling. He seems to have many private jokes with himself. And there's that expression again - that pure fondness that pulls and puzzles her.
She studies him with another why? on the tip of her tongue.
He studies her, too, with another smile shadowing his lips.
Sometimes there are no whys but right now she is in need of an explanation. "You said you love me."
He gives in - sort of. "What's the question, Lizzie?"
Bastard. "What am I supposed to do with that?"
"You don't have to say it back," he replies with a tight smile, trying to sound nonchalant, but she hears the tremor in his voice and sees his fingers twitch. He ends up patting his thigh. "Still, you could try believing it," he suggests, "but... I know you are fond of analyzing things."
"And you are fond of hiding them," she counters.
It elicits a small, bittersweet smile and she wonders for a brief second if he's as tired of hiding as she is of wondering. Perhaps he is. He did give himself up, after all.
Secrets grow heavy and tiresome, so perhaps he needs her questions as much as she needs his answers.
"See?" he says as if he could read her mind. "We do make a great team."
He means what he says, she's increasingly sure of that. What exactly he means by what he says is another matter altogether. She regards him, wanting and trying to believe him anyway. Her fingers are at her wrist again and he notices. He always does.
"Are you scared?"
She shoves her hands into her coat pockets and her eyes fix on the knot of his tie - it's much safer to study. "I am way too many things right now," she answers. It's the truth. She is a pulsing, cluttered mass of debris held in orbit by an inner void. That's what she feels in him, too, when it's just the two of them with no audience to perform for. Behind the sunglasses and under impeccable clothes, a vaguely familiar, fragmented chaos swirls. Maybe that's why she can't let go. And neither can he. Like a pair of black holes, they are spiraling together, locked in a destructive, seductive dance.
He leans closer, prompting her to peer up. "You did nothing wrong."
She holds his gaze for a long moment. "I shot my husband," she confesses quietly but out loud for the first time.
"He isn't your husb-"
"He was my husband," she snaps at him. "And then he wasn't. I loved him, and then I shot him."
Tension ripples across his features but when he speaks, his voice is even. "It wasn't wrong," he insists.
"Which part? Loving him or shooting him?" she asks.
There's a pause. He seems hesitant, then: "Do you still love him?"
"Do you still love your wife?" she shoots back, her voice cracking with hurt and frustration. All of a sudden, the fact that he has a wife - the fact she's known ever since they first met - feels incredibly, unreasonably, ridiculously insulting.
His eyes narrow and he pushes back, ignoring her question: "Do you still love Tom?"
"No!" she says, eyes flashing with anger - anger for Tom, for herself, and for the man standing in front of her. It's a lot of rage for one syllable and the intensity gives her a pause. She averts her gaze and takes a deep breath, pulling herself together. But she can't just void years' worth of feelings like an incorrect check. "It's complicated. Part of me still hasn't quite caught up to...' she trails off, waving her scarred hand, '... to whatever the hell this is."
"It will," Red assures her. "Until then, keep it simple."
"Kill whoever tries to kill you," he says. "Even if it's someone you think you know. They usually expect you to hesitate, so don't. Never hesitate again, Lizzie."
Red's jaw sets. He has nothing to add.
"Was self-defense. Simple as that."
She sighs, her temper getting back under control. "Just don't vouch for me, please."
"As you wish," he says with a small nod.
Her eyes remain locked on him. "Why did you wait?" she asks.
He doesn't seem to understand the question.
"You knew who Tom was, yet for two years you stayed away."
He is silent for a long moment. "Tom is a link to somebody I've been trying to track down for a long time, and..."
"And allowing him to play house with me promised you more intel."
"Lucky me," she remarks quietly with a hint of sad, tired sarcasm in her voice.
There's a flash of hurt but he remains silent, accepting her reproach. He isn't detached anymore. He is here now, clinging to her with grim determination, which is a seemingly inexhaustible source of both trouble and comfort.
She'd love to blame him for everything that's gone wrong in her life.
It would be easier that way.
He is infuriating.
Her attention shifts to something distant behind him and remains fixed there. Curious, he turns his head, following her gaze. It's a flock of pigeons high up above the graffiti-covered brick buildings. They are like blue and white pieces of confetti swirling against the dark backdrop of the overcast sky. Weightless. Silent. Unbound.
"Do you still have that private jet?" she asks.
He looks back at her. "You wanna flee, Lizzie?"
She doesn't answer. Her eyes briefly flicker back to the birds, then she turns and starts towards the stairs.
The old elevator's metallic humming eases their vague tension but Liz can't stand it anymore. "Any last words before they separate us?"
"You think they will?"
"I know they will."
He smiles, probably pleased that she's somewhat prepared, then seems to mull over her question. "Try not to stab anyone in the neck," he advises.
"Well, I can't make any promises."
He chuckles and she studies his profile.
The lines time and emotion have etched into his skin.
The tiny shadows his lashes cast.
The shape of his nose.
Liar. Truth-teller. Traitor. Soldier. Monster. Partner. Perpetrator. Victim. He is conflict and contradiction; a kaleidoscope of labels; a hoarder of names which he sheds when they are of no use anymore. No more restraints. He defies defining. Laughs at the mere attempt, the pointlessness of it all. He won't be put in a box - not for long, anyway. No more cages. He moves freely. Exists on his own terms. Fluid, raw, focused and unapologetic. Her colleagues - like most people - mistrust and resent things they can't put in a box. It hinders understanding and thus, control. But she now knows that a certain kind of understanding can born of things unsaid, and something akin to trust can form even in the absence of factual certainty.
Theirs is a peculiar bond she cannot name or explain, only feel and allow to unfold.
She grants the opportunities.
She has control.
She has his wordlessness and his attention, and she's only beginning to grasp how empowering that is. They are undefined yet there's an unspoken understanding. A fragile intimacy with shifting boundaries that may just collapse and re-morph the second it is verbalized. With definition comes expectation. Limitation. A role to perform.
Undefinededness grants freedom. Relief. Room to breathe, to be.
It wasn't a wanted fugitive and an FBI agent who fell asleep on that couch.
His hand lightly brushes against hers and warm fingertips seek out her cold palm. The gap is filled in again with honest longing. Everything's going to be okay, the gesture promises. Probably not for a while but eventually. And right now she could settle for an eventually.
The elevator suddenly grinds to a halt and he reluctantly withdraws. It's time to play the assigned roles.
The heavy metal doors roll open, revealing a rather displeased-looking crowd on the other side. Agents Cooper and Ressler are waiting with at least ten heavily armed guards behind them.
She expected some backlash over her disappearance last night but this feels like overkill.
"Very impressive, Harold," Red remarks, looking more inconvenienced than surprised. "And completely unnecessary, as usual."
"I can explain everything, sir," Liz says.
"And you will. Both of you. In great detail," Cooper says, then nods to Ressler.
The younger agent produces a pair of handcuffs and looks at Red. "Turn around," he instructs him curtly and coldly.
Red doesn't obey.
"This really isn't necessary-" Liz tries but Ressler steps closer and she suddenly moves to block his way, effectively shielding the FBI's 4th most wanted. It's an unexpected, barely conscious act. She surprises everyone - including herself - but for now, she shrugs it off. "What's going on?" she asks, meeting Donald's eyes, hoping to gauge the situation, but Cooper's voice pulls her attention.
"Agent Keen. You are coming with me," the Assistant Director says.
"Now! Or you'll get cuffs too."
Her mind is racing, trying to come up with a possible explanation. Maybe Tom isn't here after all. Maybe he never arrived. Maybe Red went ahead with his original plan. Maybe last night was just a clever stratagem. A game to amuse himself, to have her right where he wanted her: out of the way. Placated. Distracted. And she fell for it. She almost…
She looks at him sharply. Her gaze is filled with fresh doubt and suspicion. His is cool green and unflinching. What have you done? But no answer is forthcoming.
Cooper's patience has run out. "Agent Keen. I'm not going to ask you again," he warns her.
And she wills herself to move. Red's eyes follow her but his view gets quickly and pointedly blocked by Ressler. The handcuffs jiggle sharply in his grasp. "Turn around," the younger man says. He's even more tense, his tone more hostile than usual.
Red tilts his head to take a peek at the guards who are still there and still heavily armed. His gaze slides past them and settles on Liz again. She is trailing behind Cooper with a straight back, clenched fists, and a hint of reluctance in her gait.
She feels an urge to glance back.
To make sure.
Of what, she doesn't exactly know. That he's okay? That he's not? That he's still there? That he's gone? That last night mattered? That it meant nothing?
Swept up in a tide of opposites, she turns her head and finds that she's still the focus of his gaze.
She hears Ressler warn him again but Red just keeps looking at her.
She hears guns being cocked. The tension is mounting but all she can do is stare back, hoping Red doesn't push these people to a breaking point.
His eyes suddenly leave her and he looks back at Ressler. "Oh well, if you insist," he says breezily, and with that, he finally turns around.
Ressler snaps on a cuff. It locks with cold, metallic clicks.
"I know it's an exercise in futility," Red remarks, smug but still placid and obedient, "but I'd like to point out that you're making a mistake."
"Really?" Ressler says, securing the other cuff. "I think I'm finally doing something that makes perfect sense," he adds, then grabs Red's shoulder and turns him back around.
"We live in chaotic times, Donald. You should be wary of things that make perfect sense."