Thank you everyone. I've enjoyed this story and I appreciate every one of your comments and shows of support. This is how I leave them.
Sitting at the dining table in the hacienda, Red and Liz reviewed the information obtained from meeting with the contact. Sergei had provided them with the names of several of his source men, a lead that could potentially open up a rabbit hole of black market criminal activity and espionage leading to he arrest of arms dealers all the way up to a few blacklisters.
She couldn't stop thinking of how Red had worked Sergei. That sort of confidence only came with practice, and as an active participant in the criminal world for most of his life, Red had plenty of it. She sometimes forgot the life he led.
Dembe loomed in the doorway, filling most of its frame. As if expecting his appearance, Red met him there. After watching them converse quietly for a few moments, Red turned to look at her from across the room. "Lizzie, there's something I need to take care of. You can stay here with Luli." It wasn't a question or a suggestion but a simple pronouncement. Seemingly from nowhere, the lithe woman appeared around the corner.
"You girls don't get into to much trouble while I'm gone," he trilled lightly. He winked at Luli before he slipped out into the night.
Great, Liz thought. She could barely tolerate the woman's presence, and here she was her charge. Liz was sure the woman felt the same about her.
Luli walked languidly into the great room, folding herself into a high-back chair in Liz's line of sight. She wore an amused expression, obviously enjoying Liz's discomfort.
Liz busied herself with the notes from their meeting with Sergei and decided it was a good time to check in with Cooper. She called him on the satellite phone Red had given her and transmitted her field notes. Then, she decided to call Tom.
The line rang once, twice, three times. On the fourth ring, she ended the call. She wondered why he wouldn't answer at 8pm on a Wednesday. Maybe the teachers meeting ran late.
With all her modes of distraction exhausted, she returned to her notes. Liz read them at least three times before Luli came and sat at the table.
"You did good work today."
Liz looked up from her laptop, both surprised by her comment and annoyed by the woman's presence. "Thank you," Liz said tightly.
"You have to wonder though," Luli said silkily, "why Red just didn't use me as the contact instead of you. Why you even had to come at all." She drummed her fingers on the table, looking at Liz. "I mean you would have to wonder, of course, because most everyone else already knows."
Liz ignored her in the stretching silence, dutifully reading the same sentence for the tenth time, anything to keep from giving Luli the attention she so desperately craved. "Perhaps my knowledge of U.S. defense systems?" She tried to sound as distracted and disinterested as possible.
Luli threw back her head in a lilting laugh, and Liz could see her perfect white teeth. "No silly, I know at least as much as you." She tsked quietly. "No, it has to be something else."
Liz had had enough. She closed her laptop and matched Luli's intimidating stare. "Why don't you enlighten me then, if you know so much."
Luli pursed her lips, considering. "I'm not supposed to say," she said finally.
Liz allowed herself a satisfied smile. "What a pity. How does it feel to be Reddington's little pet? To eat when fed, to speak when commanded?"
Liz's jab must've hit a chord, because the woman's eyes flamed. "Didn't you just describe yourself?" she said acidly. "You are his pet project, after all...his little 'Lizzie'." She chewed the sinews of the last word, letting it spoil on her tongue.
Suddenly, Liz recognized the poison in Luli's darts. Jealousy.
Liz stood, challenging the woman, and Luli met her there. The two women appraised each other critically. Liz came to the conclusion that while she might not be able to flirt her way out of a paper bag, she could certainly kick this girl's ass.
"Ahem. I do hate to interrupt a good cat fight, but Luli, my dear, you will have to be leaving. The hour is late, after all." Red stood just inside the doorway, barely veiled amusement playing at the corners of his mouth.
Luli broke eye contact with Liz only when she was halfway to Red. He said something to her quietly and then kissed her cheek. She slinked away.
"So," he said cheerfully, "what have I missed?"
Liz was in no mood for his glib demeanor, and was still wound pretty tight from her tense moment with Luli. "Where were you?" For reasons that she didn't quite understand, she was bothered that he had gone somewhere without her.
"I had to take care of a few things," he said quietly. It was obvious to him that she was angry, but he didn't quite know why.
She walked steadily toward him. "What things?"
"Nothing you should know about, Lizzie." His expression was unsettling before it smoothed easily beneath the usual mask. He took off his fedora and laid it on the table.
"Why not," she said. "Dammit Red, you can't have it both ways. You can't have a partner and then work independently."
He was steadily closing the gap between them, and he regarded her curiously. "Actually, I can. My relationship with the FBI has nothing to do with my actual work," he said, his voice low. "I consider my work with the FBI as a sort of altruism, like volunteering at the local soup kitchen." He smirked.
She looked at him, her face unreadable. "What about with me," she asked quietly.
"My work doesn't concern you."
"You concern me," she shot back.
"Do I? What about Tom?"
Her face darkened at the mention of his name, but she said nothing. Instantly, he felt a twinge of regret for bringing him into the conversation. Tom Keen would be dealt with in due time. Red held her face in his hands and peered into her eyes.
"Oh Lizzie," he said quietly. "I will always tell you what I can," he said honestly. His thumb ghosted across her lips, and her eyes drifted closed. "I promise."
She slipped away from him, seeking the blessed clarity of distance rather than wilt in Raymond Reddington's sun. She eyed him coolly. "What did you and Dembe do tonight Red."
Red looked at her measuredly. She seemed intent on making a point though her reasons remained unclear. He had seen this dogged determination in her before, and he had found that it was best to humor it. He pursed his lips.
"We're hitting Manny's warehouses tonight. His whole operation, gone. Dembe needed my authorization on the final plan. The recovery of inventory and possible collateral damage."
"Collateral damage," she parroted. Does that mean human life?"
He looked at her, his eyes soft. "Possibly."
She realized then how out of place she was, how he would always have a foot in the criminal world and how she was forever the straight man.
"You didn't need me for this," she finally said. "You could have used Luli for the meeting with Sergei. So why have me come here, Red? Why have me do this at all?" She'd been walking steadily towards him as if she could draw the answers out of him.
He sighed. "I couldn't bear to go on the way things were between us. The way things were broken." He gave her a bleak little smile. "I thought the air would do you good."
She turned away from him, her arms folded tight across her body, and realized he was telling the truth. She swallowed. "Luli said I was your pet project," she said quietly. "What did she mean by that?"
Red grew very quiet. "Luli talks too much," he finally said. He was behind her now, his hands gliding along the length of her arms, and despite her tension, he felt her relax under his touch. "And what it means is that she's a jealous minx who wants what she can never have. My attention...my devotion...my heart." Each word was punctuated with a tender kiss on her shoulder, her temple, the top of her head. Liz felt the warmth of his feelings well within her and mingle with some of her own. She turned to face him.
"I can't live in your world Red." Her eyes glittered, her voice thick with emotion. She shook her head slightly. "I can't."
"I know," he said. "And I would never ask you to." His voice was tender, almost penitent. He smoothed her hair until he was framing her face with his hands. "But if we could meet somewhere in the middle..."
She huffed a little laugh. Was it any different than what they were doing now? Liz wondered how long she could walk a tightrope between light and dark, right and wrong. If Red was there to give her balance, perhaps she could do anything.
He kissed her then. Not with the ferocity of the night before, but with a sort of soft wonder and newness born of something deeper than desire. Something sacred, something real.
Liz didn't know if she could live as a citizen of two worlds, but she found herself needing to try.