A/N: As promised, I really can't stop writing about them. I just need something to tide me over until January 13th and, well, I write. It started with a conversation tidbit about canes and grouchy Ressler and the story wrote itself.
This is somewhat related to my other fic, Burn Through Hell, though it's not strictly necessary to have read that. If you haven't, just pretend that Liz knows who Audrey is.
Disclaimer: Jon Bokenkamp, you. I don't have any more witty things to say.
"I just don't understand where you go these days. Your job doesn't exist anymore." Tom's trying to implore Elizabeth to explain, to say something but she is tired of hearing the same thing over and over again.
"I told you – the bureau still exists, my role is still active in another capacity and I'm sorry but that's all I can tell you."
"What, so I can find out once again that you work somewhere that doesn't officially exist? I thought our thing was no secrets but now it seems secrets are all we have."
"Some secrets are not mine to keep and it's not about me hiding things from you – I just can't go against national security. Please understand that."
It feels like the same old tired fight they've been having for the past month, since Anslo Garrick told Tom he was going to put a bullet in his wife's head and she doesn't know what to say to convince him it was nothing. He's evolved from dropping hints to outright saying they should move and shown her picturesque houses in Nebraska, hovering around her with his constant need to keep an eye on her. She doesn't know how to make it any clearer to him what this job means to her.
He sighs exasperatedly and she knows what's coming next. "Why don't you want to understand that I'm worried about you? You're my wife, Liz, we're about to have a family and this was not supposed to be about people threatening to kill you!"
"Look, I know it's hard but I can't leave."
"Why not? What exactly is keeping you here?"
He's asked her this a thousand times and every time she says something a bit different; the job is important, she can't just quit when it gets hard, she doesn't want to let go of this opportunity to do something really good. But she can't say they're still tracking Red because he wouldn't understand, instead ask There are other agents at the bureau, why you? She can't say that because she still doesn't know.
"Tom, we've talked about this and I really can't do this right now because I'm already running late."
She turns and heads for the door but his voice stops her one more time. "Are you even considering me in all this? Or is there something more important?"
She doesn't have it in her to respond, so he continues, not really expecting an answer. "All you ever do is make excuses. There is nothing keeping you here but you keep running away as if that would solve our problems. I'm your husband, Liz, and you don't talk to me. Are you even sorry that you have to leave right now? Do you even care?"
He hasn't moved towards her but Liz can still hear the accusations in his voice and tries to keep herself from lashing out. Truthfully, she isn't sorry because she will never take the blame for wanting to do her job right but he just wouldn't understand.
"I have to go."
She escapes through the door and once she's out on the street, manages to breathe easily again. She doesn't want to fight with Tom, doesn't want things to be this complicated but there is so much outside her control, so much she can't say and she tells herself he'll have to get used to it. Most of all, she doesn't want to feel like an enemy at her own home.
But she also knows he is partly right in his questions because she doesn't always go to the federal building, just as she isn't really going there right now. And that is another reason why she doesn't explain her reasoning to him because she really can't explain it to herself either.
The guards have left Ressler's door since the immediate threat to his life seems to have dissipated with Garrick dead and nobody expects Red to come and kill him after having saved him.
He's propped up on the pillows, watching something on the TV and doesn't notice her at first which gives her the opportunity to really observe him. He looks better than the first time she saw him, immobile after hours of surgery, but there's still an unfamiliar air about him. It's strange for him to not wear a suit or have his hair combed in its usual style; the ever-present frown on his face is a mere shadow, and he looks more relaxed than ever.
Her eyes are drawn to the gauze on his leg; it's lighter than what he started out with and she wonders whether he's already tried to walk and if he even can. The doctors have promised full recovery but it's only been a little over a month and she's not sure how swiftly he can get back to work.
She lifts her gaze and is startled to find him looking at her, something resembling a smile hovering on the edges of his mouth.
"Keen." His tone is welcoming, not at all bothered and she's encouraged by this, stepping into the room fully.
"Hey. How's the leg?"
He shifts on the pillows, trying to find a comfortable position and for a second, she fights the undeniable urge to reach out and help him; instead she comes to a stand next to his bed.
"Well, I won't be getting a wooden leg, if that's what you're wondering. I can try and walk on it soon enough."
They're a lot less tense than in the beginning; she wouldn't call him a friend but something shifted between them after the whole incident and made things lighter, easier, and more welcoming. She doesn't feel the wall of hostility he's probably so used to putting up but she figures that might also be just the morphine. She's been coming to see him a few times a week since he ended up in the hospital, mostly to talk about work and Red.
"How's the office? Any leads on Red?"
Liz sighs and sits down on the chair next to his bed. "It's...interesting. The task force is unofficially back in business, even though DoD is still not quite happy with us. We don't have a black site yet so we're mostly at the federal building which doesn't bode well with the CIA, so Meera hasn't been around. But we're working on that."
"That's a shame about Agent Malik. You could use a partner."
"My partner is currently in a hospital." She smiles, hesitantly, but doesn't meet his gaze, amazed at herself for what she has said. She didn't officially have a partner – her partner was always Red, though that never seemed like a fair bargain – but everything that's happened has made her realize she was wrong about that.
Ressler doesn't comment but as she turns to look at him again, there is an unfamiliar emotion swirling in his gaze, something akin to surprise and wonder, laced with hesitation, which disappears the moment he realizes she can see it.
She turns back to his other question. "We have nothing on Red. Everybody's looking for him but I guess he wouldn't have been able to do what he did for twenty years if he didn't know how to not be found. DoD has declared him number one on the blacklist, as if it were an actual thing."
"He hasn't contacted you?"
He hits the proverbial nail on the head and while she's managed to evade everyone else's similar inquiries, there's something about the tone of his voice that makes her want to tell him about Red's last phone call.
Still, she plays it off like a joke. "What, so we could have brunch? I don't think I'm too high on his list of priorities, with the whole evading the authorities thing."
He gives her an incredulous look. "I think you're at the top of his priorities, Keen. He came out of the cube for you."
She's well aware of that particular thing; it's the first time either one of them has mentioned what happened in and outside of the cube, something they've avoided for a long time. She doesn't have enough courage to say But you gave him the code because she doesn't know what that means.
Instead, she takes notice of the Christmas decorations on the window and realizes the holidays are almost here and he's alone in a hospital.
"What will you be doing for Christmas?"
He looks at her as if not understanding. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you know, friends and family."
He shakes his head. "I don't really have either. Besides, I'll be staying in the hospital for my foreseeable future."
"What about-" she almost asks about the small teddy bear on his nightstand, so uncharacteristic of him, having presumed it was from a visitor. His eyes follow her gaze and she sees the way his face softens imperceptibly.
"That's from Audrey. I really should change my emergency contact but..." He doesn't finish the sentence but she can read between the lines. He doesn't really have anyone.
Just at that moment, the doctor walks in. "Mr. Ressler, how are you doing?"
She watches the doctor take a look at his chart and his leg, assessing the situation and tries to read his face for any indication of how Ressler is really doing.
"What do you think about trying to walk today?"
And without waiting for a reply, the doctor hands him a cane and stands by expectantly.
He swings his legs over the side of the bed but Liz can see the hesitation on his face. "I can go if you want."
"It's fine." He takes the cane and very gently steps down on the floor, putting all his weight on his good leg at first. When he finds a better balance, he tries out his injured leg and slowly, very slowly takes a few steps on the floor. She sees him gripping the cane with all of his strength and there's something captivating about his careful steps, about watching him walk as if for the first time.
"That's very good, Mr. Ressler. How is your leg?"
A grimace of pain crosses his face but he keeps going. "I won't be running marathons any time soon."
"It's just the beginning. There's still a lot to account for, recovery is not easy."
Ressler nods but keeps going, his perseverance triumphing over any sensation of pain or discomfort he might be feeling. And just then, he takes one step too much, putting pressure on at the wrong angle and, with a grunt, almost falls. Liz doesn't even think as she steps forward and uses her own weight to balance him out, letting his arm fall around her shoulders. It's not a conscious decision to do this but she doesn't have time to realize what she's done before it's already happened.
He's warm and solid, she quickly notices as he tries to find his balance and one of her hands wraps around his waist and the other finds purchase on his chest.
Their eyes meet and for a second, there is too much in his gaze, things she can't begin to explain or understand, and she can't seem to look away. He seems startled at her nearness and steps back; she loses the grip she has on him and lets her hands fall away. His hand grips the cane; she sees his knuckles tightening around it, as if trying to control his hands' movements and swallows uncomfortably, not breaking her gaze.
"Careful now, Mr. Ressler." The doctor's voice is like a bucketful of cold water as she realizes she'd forgotten he was even there; judging from Ressler's face, he had too.
"There's a long way to go and you shouldn't rush it."
He only grunts in response and carefully limps back to the bed, sighing in relief as he sits down and pulls his legs back in.
The doctor continues talking but Liz can hear her phone ringing and she reluctantly answers the call, knowing what it will be about.
"Agent Keen, we have a possible lead. Your presence is required." Cooper's stern voice reminds her of her actual obligations.
"Yes, sir. I'll be right there."
She can feel Ressler looking at her as she hangs up and meets his gaze apologetically. "That was Cooper. Another lead which will probably not help us at all. I have to go, sorry."
He nods and she notices his face is once again an impenetrable mask, cool and collected. "Thanks for stopping by."
She almost makes it to the door before she twirls around and succumbs to the wild idea that's been hovering at the edges of her mind. "You know, I can be your emergency contact."
"You?" He seems surprised at her suggestion but she's determined to go through with it.
"That seems like something partners would do."
For a long moment, they just look at each other and once again, there seem to be too many emotions in his gaze - which she attributes to the morphine. But his features soften and he nods. "Okay."
His acceptance unfurls something in her chest and she offers him a small smile. "Okay."
Before she's out the door, she makes the decision to visit him on Christmas Eve. Because that's also what partners do.
A/N: This time, I'm really not sure whether they're in character. Ah, well, I can always blame it on the morphine. Do leave me your thoughts!