Disclaimer:I don't own the Blacklist, and it's probably a good thing that I don't.
(Fixed up some silly, minor errors.)
If Donald gave the effort to think back on his life since Reddington willingly gave himself up to the FBI and Elizabeth Keen came tumbling in after him, he might have been inclined to acknowledge that he'd gotten the crap beaten out of him a hell of a lot more than what he might have considered normal for an agent of his calibre. The injuries also had a frightening tendency to get more serious. Sustaining a couple of blows in a punch up or even blacking out were one thing, but nearly having his leg blown off made it pretty hard to ignore that his life had become a whole lot riskier.
But, just as Raymond Reddington had entered his and everyone else's lives and stirred everything up, he had slipped right back into the shadows without a tracking chip or a DNA trail to follow him by. It was a small relief to know that things had settled down while he had been out of action with his leg injuries.
Just thinking back on those first few weeks in recovery made him grimace and feel a little ill.
He'd been in surgery for hours initially, but that had just been to stabilise his system: fix ruptured arteries and ensure that the bone did not shift from its already precarious position. But that hadn't been the end of it. He'd needed skin grafts to his thigh and further surgery to insert a titanium rod through the marrow of his femur, all things he'd had relayed back to him in vivid detail that he didn't exactly appreciate. It all meant he spent a longer than anticipated stay in a hospital bed, doped up on morphine and later less addictive pain relievers. The white walls were oppressive and watching the occurrences outside his room were foreboding if not completely depressing.
He'd gone home as soon as he was able, but the following months involved daily trips back for physical therapy sessions, scans, progress checks and everything in between. Audrey took him when she was available and he appreciated the sentiment, but without the morphine running through his veins Donald didn't know how to react to her company. She was the woman he'd thought he was going to marry; someone who, despite their separation, he still had an echo of feelings for. If that hadn't been enough, she was now engaged to another man. Sometimes he had no idea what he could or could not say in front of her, so he'd put up the same stoic front he used at work to avoid any uncomfortable situations even if it did make interactions somewhat strained.
On the days where Audrey was unavailable to take him to where he needed to be, he had to manoeuvre his way through the city via taxi service and public transport. During that time, he developed an even greater distain for the people that refused to give up their seats even for the disabled, and reminded himself that once he was fighting fit again he would never ignore a person in need of a seat again. Besides all that, he'd forgotten just how grubby the trains and buses could be, and while he was by no means a man who found himself pedantic of germs, there were some things he didn't know if he could touch.
It was a long, continuous cycle, but Donald Ressler could be a patient man when he needed to be.
The vigorous therapy had helped build back the muscles that had wasted away during the few short weeks he'd been stuck in a hospital bed. If the fracture had been all he had to worry about, he might have been up on crutches earlier, but as the blast had shredded his muscles and damaged a major artery as well, the road to recovery did not yield any short cuts. He walked with a considerable limp even when his injured leg was supported and long periods standing or walking left him tired and feeling weaker than he cared to admit.
Now, some three and a half months since the incident, he'd finally been given the go ahead to lose the crutches, and return to work. He still had to use a cane, and sometimes at night he'd resort to using a single crutch to support his weight as he pottered around his apartment, but returning to work seemed to make his recovery feel more tangible instead of endless.
Walking into work on his first day back was everything he had expected, and slightly resented. After the attack, the Post Office was officially decommissioned and the whole unit was moved to another location, and as such he quickly learned the layout of the new place before he was directed to his work station. On his arrival, his colleagues stood and greeted him with 'welcome back' and 'glad to see you're doing so well' and 'how are you feeling', yet after the initial novelty wore off everyone was back to work and Donald gratefully was out of the limelight. Meera had approached with a small gift, which when unwrapped revealed itself to be a tub of decently expensive hair product. She said she figured he hadn't been able to stock up on the essentials while in recovery, her tone full of mirth and Donald tried not to be too rude. Nevertheless her humour dissipated and she left with a look bordering on concern. He really didn't like the looks of sympathy and pity he seemed to get whenever someone noticed the walking stick he rested his left side against quite heavily. The cane he'd gone and bought himself was a polished black with no adornments, and when he was in a particularly sour mood he imagined himself using it as an effective weapon if he didn't have to rely on it to keep himself standing for longer than 30 seconds. Nobody wanted to make a comment on it despite eyeing it like it was some sort of poisonous snake- he imagined if Red had been present he would have said something like 'If you're in need of a walking aid you might as well make a statement with it, but all that stick seems to say is straight-laced and boring... Actually, I've changed my mind, I think it suits you quite well Donald.'
"The way you keep staring at it makes me think you're about to put it over your knee and snap it in half," He turned his head to look up into the face of Elizabeth Keen, not all that surprised that she'd taken her time to wait for the initial greetings to finish before coming and greeting him herself.
When he'd been confined to a hospital bed she had come to visit him on a couple of occasions. More times than would be considered acceptable between mere acquaintances, but fewer than someone who might be a close friend. He didn't really know where their relationship stood on any particular scale, because as suspicious as he had been of her in the very beginning, when it came to Liz he found some of his well built armour began to crumble. When she did visit she kept him as up to date as she could on their progress in finding Reddington and what it was like navigating the new Post Office, trying her best to balance the seriousness of work with a tone of light-heartedness. It had kept him sane when all he had for company were the nurses, (some were particularly grouchy while others took their shifts as opportunities to flirt with him, and he quickly decided he preferred the grouchy ones more) reruns of old television sitcoms and some very strange cartoons.
He'd never said thank you for her patience and company, and in the months after his hospital release he had only seen her once when she'd offered to transport him to therapy one day. After that, he hadn't contacted her again.
Today she was smiling, looking less physically worn out than she had when they had been teamed together to play Reddington's proverbial puppets. Since the man's disappearance, he imagined Keen was able to relax and truly come to terms with what it meant to work for the FBI. Yet there was something else, something in the way she held herself that made him wonder if the past month's respite had been as restful as he knew it should have been for the profiler. There was something about the look in her eyes; a weary dullness that begged to differ. Whatever it was, it wasn't his business to ask and so he quickly put it out of his mind.
Donald tried not to think much on it as he replied roughly, "In a few months I might do just that."
Her face turned grim for a flash, but only before hiding it away with what looked to be just another false smile. He wished she hadn't reacted like that, just like everybody else, as if he had already been decommissioned from duty and with no hope for return.
"It's not permanent," he ground out, "I'm going to make sure it's not. You wouldn't last a day out there without me."
She was hardly startled by his cold, passive aggressive demeanour, having experienced it enough times while working together. Still, it had its desired effect as the sympathy left her eyes and she crossed her arms against her chest.
"I think we both know that our act is without a doubt a duet and I'm not just a support, but I'll be glad to have you back as my partner. When we catch Reddington I don't think he'd be able to assimilate quite as well with another agent either. I doubt the repertoire of insults he's created for you has been fully depleted yet," she gave him a terse look that hid the amusement trying to show on her features.
Not knowing what to say and unable to contribute anything worthy to the waning conversation, he remained silent as she softly welcomed him back before she turned to return to her office where she no doubt had more important matters to attend to. She gave him one last look over her shoulder that he didn't really understand, nor did he want think upon, before she started to leave.
"Listen, Liz... I wanted to say thank you. For taking the time out to come visit me while I was still in hospital. I appreciated it," he spoke honestly.
She smiled against her shoulder before looking him directly in the eye, "Trust me, I probably appreciated your company more than you did mine."
As she walked back to her office, Donald added yet another thing on his list of things not to think about. When he realised the list compiled only of things related to Elizabeth Keen, he decided not to think about that either.
It was a rapidly expanding list, and he hadn't even been back a full day.
Though he'd never admit it to anyone (he doesn't even need to imagine what kind of compulsory counselling the bureau would put him through if he did) but sitting behind a desk all day made him feel more claustrophobic than he had when he'd been bleeding out inside the box. In truth, he didn't remember all that much of the whole ordeal. His brain had been effective in hazing out the traumatic experience, but he still recalled flashes of searing pain and Red's efforts to save his life. Other things, like the words sailing, wine and sleep still stuck in his head, but for all the emotions Reddington's speech brought out in him, he couldn't remember the exact words anymore. He fuzzily remembered giving up the password to open the box, yet he distinctly remembered his motive for doing so. Sitting behind a desk however, he was sharply aware of how he couldn't do anything, couldn't help in any of the ways he knew how. Cooper allowed him to take on cases if they required reconnaissance that could be safely obtained from inside a surveillance van, or where interactions brooked almost no chance for altercations, but those times were few and far between, especially when one worked in a department such as the Post Office. Instead, he'd been given the thrilling task of properly filing old cases, both solved and unsolved. Donald had no doubts that it was just a copout to keep him occupied while he was unfit for fieldwork. He could imagine some clean-cut, poncy psychologist writing their thesis on how repetitive tasks could act therapeutic after events of extreme trauma.
He hated it, even considered telling his superiors that if they didn't want to give him anything considered real work, he wouldn't bother to come in every day, but it did have one small benefit. It gave him an opportunity to observe and scrutinise his colleagues in a way he'd never bothered to in the past. He'd find himself ignoring his 'workload' and instead watching people's habits and discovering the little idiosyncrasies that made up their characters. He noticed that Aram would drink exactly two and a half coffee's a day, always decaffeinated; or that Cooper would pace in circles when he was thinking hard on something, arms crossed and the index finger of his right hand tapping an even tempo against his sleeve. He knew that whenever Malik was around, she'd find a quiet corner at exactly 3:45 to call her husband and make sure her children had gotten home from school safely. Donald had no idea what any of these things meant because he'd never studied psychology let alone put any faith in it, but it unnerved him to think he was doing more profiling than Keen had since she'd found herself unexpectedly thrust into the role of Reddington's go-to girl. Her job should have been to sit behind a desk and think upon criminal's motives and patterns and develop some silly psychoanalysis behind it all. That's what profilers did. Instead, her basic level field training had become one of her greatest assets.
While all of that might have held true, since Reddington's disappearance his unofficial partner was seeing less and less of the field as well. She spent more time in her little office, only being called out when a possible lead on Reddington's whereabouts was to be investigated. All dead ends, of course; Donald had spent five long years tracking the man down and he knew from personal experience that if that man didn't want to be found, then he damn sure wouldn't be found. It meant she could leave work on a timelier basis to spend the night with her enigma of a husband.
At least, that's how it should have been.
As time drew on, Liz would spend longer hours at the black site than necessary, sometimes dragging well into the night. He had no reason to be there either, but he had nothing to go back to at his flat and sometimes, just sometimes watching her was far more interesting than anything he might have missed on T.V. The late nights weren't the only strange occurrence; she called her husband less, and Donald had the distinct feeling she might have been ignoring incoming calls from him too. He was hardly an expert on maintaining healthy relationships, but actively ignoring one's own spouse was usually a sign of trouble. From the events surrounding their crackdown on Gina Zanetakos he knew she had every right to be wary of the man she went home to every night.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Donald enquired about Elizabeth's current workload to Cooper. Harold didn't seem to think there would be any reason for her extended hours in the office, stating that her level of active participation was averaging on normal, unlike when she was first brought in. Nonetheless, having brought the issue up left Cooper strangely flustered.
"Why do you ask? You don't think she might be facing any sort of difficulties after the events with Anslo Garrick, do you?" He didn't know if the question was really concerned about Liz's psychological welfare or his own, but he quickly stamped out that idea.
"No, sir. If she is facing any difficulties at the moment, I believe they stem from her home life, as I'm sure you can imagine why," He had responded.
Cooper seemed relieved, yet the look he sent towards him was weighted with the implications of their private investigations into Tom Keen. Donald had left it at that, having had at least one possible avenue to explain her behaviour being eliminated, though in his head he already knew it was unlikely to be the case. He simply needed to get the confirmation.
"Keen, Ressler; my office now!"
Donald lifted his head in surprise. This had been the first time he had been called into Cooper's office since his talking down over disobeying direct orders, yet the familiar sound of the authoritarian command sent a tiny thrill down his spine. He spotted Liz leaving her office, and he fumbled to follow after her. Gripping his cane he used the table as a second support to raise himself up from his seat. It was getting easier these days.
Walking into his superior's office, he quickly found himself a seat and waited for Cooper to present the two of them with whatever information it was he wished to share.
"It has come to our knowledge that possible associates of Raymond Reddington have recently been spotted in Egypt, both in Port Said and Ismailia. While this is no definite lead to Reddington, it's better than anything we've had in the past month and I suggest both of you read the files," Cooper explained, reaching over his desk to hand the manila folder to Liz.
While her eyes tracked the words on the pages she spoke up, "Port Said and Ismailia are both towns that border the Suez Canal, aren't they? The canal is a major route for cargo ships transporting goods between Europe and Asia."
Donald caught on quickly, recalling snippets of news from the past year, "Maersk Shipping recently changed the routes of their ships from the Panama Canal to the Suez. From what I can recall, they had an accident with one of their containerships having suffered from localised fires since changing routes."
"Understanding what we do about Reddington's mode of business, it's likely that if he is still maintaining his dealings he would have taken the opportunity that has no doubt risen from the disruption caused by route changes," Cooper surmised.
"But sir, you know there's nothing we can do, we have no power to investigate anything outside America, especially in an area as potentially hostile as this."
He looked over at Liz and took in her concerned yet determined expression. Sharing a glance with Cooper, he understood that any past bungles were meant to stay behind closed doors, whether she was his partner or not.
"I would like you to keep tabs on any changes regardless if it is outside our jurisdiction. Outside observation will inhibit our chances of finding Reddington, but this occurrence may just lead to a trail we may be able to follow, properly," he concluded.
Cooper looked down at the identical copy sitting open on his desk, "And, given the grand opportunity of the current cooperation between the FBI and the CIA, perhaps Malik would be able to pull some strings if need be."
Keen didn't appear entirely convinced but quieted anyhow. As she continued to peruse the file silently, he wondered if she was hiding something from him. He hadn't really paid attention to it before, understandable since this was the first time he was present on a new lead to Reddington, but she shuttered off in a way that didn't speak of hopelessness but of something else entirely. He'd been convinced that she really didn't know why Reddington had found the greatest fondness for her, but sometimes he wasn't so sure. Such was the nature of this kind of work, but he wanted to trust Liz.
As she passed the file on to him, Donald felt assured that whatever she might have been hiding, if it was of any great magnitude her sense of duty would get the better of her and she would confront him with the truth.
With winter setting in, Donald found something else to hate about his leg- the titanium rod that stabilised his fractured femur would get cold, creating a bone-deep ache and an overall numb sensation when he woke up every day. He'd spend a good portion of his mornings going through the exercises his therapist provided to return sensation to his toes and rubbing at the muscles in his thigh, always careful to avoid the tender, scarred skin that covered the top of it. If the debilitating limp hadn't been enough to force him to recognise he wouldn't be seeing the field for a very, very long time (he refused to consider he might never regain full flexible mobility of his leg, because that just wouldn't do) then the morning aches would have sealed the reality for him.
It frustrated him when he thought about the little nuances that when pieced together left him temporarily disabled. Little things like the plastic chair that had taken up permanent residence in the shower stall, or the television he refused to have in his bedroom suddenly being propped up by his chest of drawers. Donald liked to be able to ignore the obvious when it suited him. Despite his job involving studying the signs and following the patterns to solve cases, when it came to his personal life and any of its failings he tried his hardest to ignore the markers around him that pointed it out. Just as when Audrey had left, he had buried his emotions behind his work while using his free time to scrub his apartment of every last sign of her very existence. However, injuries could not be ignored, because the pain would only go away under the influence of a painkiller, and the changes to his lifestyle were too apparent in their design as to what exactly they accommodated to.
Christmas was also around the corner, just another something to pester at his perpetually bad mood. Donald wasn't exactly a festive person, generally considering it only in the capacity of a holiday where he could drink a few more glasses of his choice alcohol and not be frowned upon for doing so. He'd put more effort into the whole thing back when he'd been with Audrey, though their last Christmas together had been strained. Before their relationship had even began, he'd been a lot younger and a lot less settled as an FBI agent, and the Christmas season was a time where he could seek refuge by travelling the distance to his parent's house. But regardless of the past, even if he had owned any decorations to bring the spirit into his home, he wouldn't have had the ability to do so anyway. His dose of Christmas cheer was ingested during the commute to work and back, and what little decorations the office had itself- which consisted of a forlorn looking Christmas tree that sat in a corner and a few sprigs of mistletoe tied up as someone's idea of a joke.
When Christmas Eve finally arrived, he felt more miserable that ever. The air outside was frigid and sheets of ice were beginning to cover the footpaths, too cold for it to snow. When he turned on the television, he flicked through the channels searching for anything not holiday related. Sure enough, there were a few movies on that had decent amounts of action and gun fighting in them, yet they didn't grab his attention like they normally would. So he turned to the stack of files on his kitchen table. Maersk had only recently changed their routes to utilize the Suez Canal, forgoing the Panama Canal in light of the sheer size of some of their ships. If Reddington was proceeding with any dealings in Egypt, which for all they knew could just as easily be a dead line, the nature of his business would make any sea faring areas around the Suez Canal prime position. Donald found it unlikely he'd be conducting much of anything considering his run in with Anslo, even if the man was dead there was without a doubt more to it.
If the FBI were to investigate through Egypt, they would be breaching too many rules to be swept under the carpet. Misconduct of that magnitude would not be allowed even in the chase of their most wanted man. After all, he had been in on such an event before, and as unkindly as it would have been looked on by Belgium, a country with far less faith in America would take it far worse.
Still, it kept his mind off other things even if it was a pointless endeavour, and so he decided that perhaps swapping b-grade action movies for a night in the office would not be so bad after all. It was likely Meera would have some contacts in the Mediterranean that might be able to offer some help, but the FBI and the CIA were never a cooperative bunch.
Still unable to drive, he considered it his Christmas present to himself to hire a more expensive, comfortable and clean taxi to take him there. Sitting in the back seat, he thought it was a cruel trick for fate to play; he never thought he'd spend a Christmas holed up by himself surrounded by work.
When he arrived a few blocks away from the site, he took his time shuffling through the dangerous ice sheets that covered the pathways. The short distance made him regret his rash decision, but when he arrived he was welcomed by a warm heat. The office was empty save for a few security guards keeping a watchful eye, leaving Donald to hang his walking stick off the corner of his desk and scrounge through the files that had been steadily stacking up in the past week.
He didn't know how long he'd been sitting there before he became aware that someone was approaching. The sound of heels clicking against the hard floor alerted him to the fact that it was one of his female colleagues, and when they stopped dead he raised his head to see just who it was. Seeing Liz Keen's startled expression made him wonder if he was really all that surprised that it was her.
"I didn't think anyone else would be here," she said. She stood there, fidgeting on her feet and looking decidedly uncomfortable about being caught, half heartedly trying to hide the bottle of alcohol behind her thigh.
He waved it off, because as things stood he knew only the most pedantic or the most distressed person would wind up seeking out shelter at their place of work, even more so when it happened to be Christmas Eve. He would not begrudge her of her solace, because there was plenty of space to share in the quiet darkness of the room.
"You have as much right to be here as I do, Keen," He deflected.
"Considering the time, I would say we might be stretching just how far that right extends," She responded glibly.
The shock of recognising another human being in the post office this late at night wore off, and she changed her route from her own office to pulling up a chair next to his own. Once seated, she placed the bottle of whiskey on the space available in front of her and beckoned towards it, "Seeing as you're here too, I'm guessing you might need it just as much as I do."
They sat quietly together, unsure of what to say or what to do. He almost felt like turning back to sift through the papers again. The bottle, for all its obvious intentions remained unopened and shining amber in the light. She didn't appear to mind, as when he glanced to her he found her contemplating her wedding ring, twisting it around and around, around...
"We got into another argument. He wants me to quit and have us move up to Nebraska, like pretending these past few months have been nothing more than a bad dream. I know I should appreciate it, I would be worried if he didn't care, but every time I come home with so much as a bruise on my skin and he goes into panic mode.
"It makes sense- he's been through a traumatic experience that would leave anyone skittish, and that call from Garrick completely set him off. I've studied enough that I understand these cues and I know how to effectively analyse and sympathise with them, but then I struggle so hard to see it in the moment and we just end up having another fight over it. I couldn't take it tonight, not on Christmas Eve, so I left to cool down. I didn't really have any destination in mind, but all of our friends here are more Tom's friends than mine, and I just found myself with a bottle of booze and driving to the source of all my marital problems. What does that even say about me?"
She finished in a rush, her shoulders digging forward in a defensive manner and her hair shrouding the increasingly distressed expression on her face.
Liz had always been a bit of an emotional volcano waiting to burst, but over their short tenure as partners she had developed the necessary skills to block out and mask her instinctual responses to certain difficult situations. Despite her progression, she was still a bit of a bleeding heart. What was stranger still was that he didn't experience any feelings of discomfort when faced with her emotional outpourings, something he could hardly handle in normal circumstances.
When she'd clung to him after her kidnapping and one-on-one with the Stewmaker, he'd been stunned and a little taken aback, but he'd all taken it in his stride. The closest thing he'd had to go through with Audrey was when her pet cat had died. He may have hated the cat, but that didn't explain why something that which came so natural with Elizabeth was entirely forced and felt almost like a physical confrontation with the woman that he'd nearly pledged his life to.
And with all those thoughts swimming around in his head, Donald spoke up, "It doesn't say anything about you. Don't put yourself down Keen, you're not the only woman who has experienced marital problems over things like work arrangements before, especially after all the suspicion thrown on your husband." All the suspicion that was still surrounding her husband, but that was an investigation she was to be strictly kept out of, no matter how much he might have liked to tell her.
She sniffed loudly and lifted her head back, and Donald was silently thankful she hadn't started crying on him. Instead, she ran her thumb over the seal on the bottle of liquor in her hands.
"So, what brought you here?" She asked softly
He was left stunned for a few seconds, unsure how to comprehend her question. Next to her heartfelt confession, his own troubled thoughts were menial. The longer he stayed silent, the more she focused her attention back on him, until he could feel her dark blue eyes boring into his forehead.
How was he meant to articulate to her that here he could bury himself in work and forget that he was practically a cripple, that there was a constant supply of painkillers in his pocket and a list of exercises he was meant to do to reduce the chance of a permanent limp. How, when he'd shooed off the carollers outside his apartment block that night he was distinctly reminded of his weakness, like a constant shadow that followed him everywhere he went. At work, he could forget, or at least try not to focus on it quite so much.
"I...don't feel like a cripple when I have something tangible to work on. If I keep myself occupied on trying to find Reddington there's less reminders here to tell me just how far I've got to go in recovery. Not exactly what I want to be thinking during the merry season."
For a long while, all he could feel was the weight of her stare and the strange breathlessness he felt for releasing a tirade of words that weren't in the least bit aggressive. Suddenly, she stood back up and walked in the direction of the lunch room, muttering distantly something like, "Working on Christmas Eve, what a pair of fools we are."
When she returned, she held in her hand two clean coffee mugs. Setting them down on his desk, she finally cracked open the bottle she'd been nursing all night and poured out a liberal serving into both cups before handing one over to him.
Typically, we don't drink on the job.
"Maybe we could send a letter to Batman and ask him if he'd mind us borrowing his magical leg brace that cured all his problems in the last movie," She sniped. He followed the movement of her hand as it reached over to hold the knee of his injured leg, gently squeezing it yet always mindful of the injury. It was a confronting invasion of his personal space, but he felt no desire to shove her away.
"Why not ask for the whole kit? I reckon I could pull off the batsuit," He joked back, feeling in strangely high spirits.
She faked a look of shock.
"Agent Ressler, I wouldn't get too cocky if I were you. You've been out of the field for a while now, I doubt you could tout the physique you had before. Spandex is hardly the most flattering material."
"Then perhaps you'd like to conduct a physical examination to ensure I wouldn't be offending someone's sensibilities," He suggested slyly, finding a perverse sense of excitement at how she abjectly ignored the flush rising against the skin of her neck.
"I'd rather not, but I'm sure Meera would love to volunteer in my stead," she said, quickly deflecting him with a sharp wit she seemed to be hiding.
He found the corners of his mouth lifting without him needing to force it and a strange mix between a cough and a laugh get caught in his throat. He swallowed it down with whiskey and tried to ignore how easy it was to talk to her when work wasn't involved.
Even if they were sitting in the office.
They fell into easy companionship, Liz eager to tell stories of past Christmas mishaps as a child, while Donald was more than happy to simply listen to the changing pitch of her voice. She didn't care that he didn't talk, wasn't willing to share any tales of misfortune back to her. She grew wistful the longer to regaled stories of holidays past, taken up in her own memories of her recently passed father. He didn't think she was upset though, simply taken away by her own saddened reminiscence.
It made him realise that he was well overdue in visiting his own family, who he was lucky to still have around.
She paused after telling him of the time they had bought home a synthetic tree, only to place it too close to the wall heater and having it melt all over the carpet. It had smelt foul and the carpet needed replacing, but money was scarce and the dribbles of plastic remained there for years, hidden underneath a well placed rug.
"I imagine a guy like you would be abhorred by the sight of a synthetic tree. I can see you going out into the middle of nowhere and cutting down your own tree, careful not to get pine needles on your freshly pressed suit." She teased, nudging him lightly in the shoulder.
"I'm actually not one for Christmas. Rarely even consider getting a tree.'"
"Yeah, I'm sort of the same. Tom was...is always the one who gets right into the whole holiday. He'll be out setting up the Christmas lights on the house, wrapping tinsel around the banisters. He's got all the Christmas cheer that I apparently lack in adulthood,' Liz frowned, "Though, this year is seems like neither of us is willing to put in the effort."
Donald watched her closely, noticing how her shoulders were curling forward and the look of pensive thoughtfulness found in her furrowed brow. "I think after a year like the one you just had, you're allowed to be a little lacklustre."
She lifted her head and turned to face him, gifting him with a half-hearted smile that bordered on a grimace.
"I think the same could be said for you, too."
He snorted indelicately and brought the mug back up to his lips and toasted aloud, "Here's to a pretty shit Christmas."
Liz took up her cup and lifted it to clink against his own before she too raised it to her mouth to take a healthy swallow.
And, for a fleeting moment, Donald thought to himself that maybe he was wrong. Maybe the fates he lacked so little actual faith in had guided him to the office not to seek bitter solace but to pass seamlessly into Christmas day with warm company and a few decent drinks. Spending Christmas holed up in the office didn't sound so bad after all, if he got to spend it sitting beside this woman.
If his chest ached at the thought, it was simply because the alcohol was burning on the way down.
Christmas passed uneventfully, and New Year's with it. If someone asked for his opinion on the fireworks to bring in the New Year he'd only have been able to tell them he had slept right through it. It didn't stop him from making his resolutions for the coming year though. The list was simple and to the point, and most importantly easily obtainable.
Finish therapy and return to field duty.
Dispose of walking stick in the most gruesome way possible.
Don't think of Elizabeth Keen.
Work towards regaining communication with Raymond Reddington.
Definitely don't think of Elizabeth Keen in that way.
Simple. Easy to follow. Donald had to scoff at himself as he picked at his breakfast. The things on his list only happened to get exceedingly more difficult and it had been barely a week and a half since he greeted Christmas by her side. It really shouldn't have been that hard, shouldn't have even been on the list to begin with.
But a resolution wasn't worth it if it didn't require some working towards, right?
He wondered how many times he could tell himself that before it was even less convincing than it was now.
Determined to get something done during his holiday break, he got ready for the day like any other and prepared to leave the house. He was running low on groceries, partially due to lack of mobility but also a lack of motivation to do anything. It was only a short walk to the local stores, something he had come to appreciate greatly in his months of reduced mobility. As he walked through the isles, gripping the handle of the trolley firm, his thoughts strayed. He saw the cereal and wondered if she ate healthy in the morning, he saw the meats and wondered what her favourite poultry was.
God, he was acting like an adolescent boy.
He growled at himself and dealt with his shopping as quickly as possible, stacking up on a few more bottles of liquor and beer than he really needed. Not that he was going to drink it all, he wasn't that far gone.
When he got home and placed everything where it needed to be, it became obvious just how mundane his life had become. The apartment that he'd always considered a comfortable home now felt quiet and cold. Had he really spent so long by himself that he no longer noticed the difference? When had the warmth that Audrey exuded truly left? Had it been instantaneous, but he'd been too shocked to notice, or had it been a gradual process as he became less of a man and more of a working machine?
Donald wondered why injury had made him such a morbid thinking man.
Like any other day, he filled his afternoon with television and reading, yet none of it could distract him the way he knew it could. When night hit he was glad for it, because he could excuse himself to sleep and forget that he had wasted away another day, but also a day closer to returning to work once more.
Just as he began to meander his way down the hall to his bedroom, there was a knock on the door. He glanced at the clock, seeing it read 10:30. When he went to open the door, bewildered by who could be knocking at such a late hour, he never would have expected to be greeted with the tear stained woman of his thoughts.
She stood there, looking utterly bedraggled by the heaving winds outside. Her arms wrapped around her middle, and he knew that the raw pinkness to her cheeks and eyes had nothing to do with the cold weather. He was amazed she even remembered his address, but to see her like this on his very door step...
"I-I didn't know where to go. He was so angry and I was so angry but I can't tell him anything anymore," She rushed out, eyes never really focusing on anything, "I don't know if I can trust him anymore and even if I could h-he wouldn't understand. But you do, you know everything."
He anticipated that she needed a hug, a few consoling words, a place to stay for the night. He did not anticipate her hands clutching his shirt or her face being far too close to his own without any good reason.
It was like he was watching the world through a glass of jelly. Nothing seemed completely solid, completely real. It wasn't real. Under normal circumstances, he would never even have to imagine Liz's full trust and adoring love for her husband, it would have been written right across her face. Her cheeks would not be tearstained and her thick eyelashes would not have clung together from moisture. He wouldn't have had to even think about fighting off an emotionally distressed and confused woman because he'd never even be in that very situation.
And so, just as her lips brushed his, his hands gripped her arms and pushed her back.
"Liz, you're upset. You're not thinking right," he told her, swallowing down on the thoughts that ached to let her have her way.
She had a husband, and it certainly wasn't him.
For a few moments, she dazedly tried to pull him closer, her fists curled into the material of his shirt. When it finally registered that her attempts were fruitless, it was like watching the fog clear from her eyes. She startled and pushed herself from him, muttering a string of apologies that showed just how muddled she really was at the moment.
Despite how much she struggled to get away, Donald held fast onto her, determined to make a point before he let her go.
"Keen, look at me... Keen- Liz. Lizzie. Stop for a second, just stop," He pressured, his grip tightening a fraction to catch her attention.
Fearful blue eyes looked up at him.
"Liz. You love your husband. I know you do," He reasoned with her, "But you're hurt, and confused right now. Whatever that was can't happen, not because it's wrong but because I know we'd both regret it."
His brow furrowed, "I also want you to know that if you need a place to stay tonight, you're still welcome to stay here."
She seemed terribly conflicted, it was written right across her face as she rocked uncertainly on her feet. She knew she had made a mess of it, but Donald could tell she was wondering just how far she could push it now that she'd overstepped the boundaries of their relationship.
Taking pity on her, Donald limped back to open the entry for her. She took a moment, but slowly started to make her way into his apartment. Hysteria worn off, she looked utterly exhausted standing there.
"You can take the bed, you'll be more comfortable," He suggested as he hobbled off to his linens cupboard.
"Don't be stupid."
Shaking herself from her stupor, she walked with determination to where he was currently occupied pulling out a few spare blankets and a pillow. She took them from his arm and moved towards his couch, creating a makeshift bed with great efficiency.
He wondered if she'd been doing that a lot lately.
Determined not to let his mind wander, especially after the mishap outside his front door, he distracted himself by giving her instructions to where she could find the bathroom should she need it, and also to his bedroom in case she required anything else.
In the silence that followed, she looked towards him with a soft expression that silently asked for forgiveness. He didn't think there was anything to forgive.
Once she was settled on the couch, he returned to his own bed. It was unsurprising that sleep continued to evade him. Not when he had to consciously divert his own thoughts from going down a path they were not allowed to go down. Unfortunately, one cannot control their dreams quite so easily, so when he finally did drop off that night he was plagued with images of feminine hands tracing their way down his body, their neutral nail polish so unlike the striking colours he associated with Audrey. He dreamt of a woman's body against his own for him to delight in, of modest breasts and perfect hips, or blue eyes shades darker than his own and brown hair tangled between his fingers. He dreamt of gasping breath and glistening skin, and of things he never dared imagine in the waking world.
Because she had a husband, and it certainly wasn't him.
They didn't speak of the events that occurred that night, having come to a silent understanding that there would be no judgement for any actions taken. Emotional stress did things to a person.
It was like business as usual for both of them, with no holidays to run from and enough work to occupy them. Any emotions he saw from her were concerned with the cases she was working on, dilemmas simple and never personal. It was like stepping into the past when they had only just met and didn't have the trust to confide anything in each other beyond the point of business. It certainly helped to distract him from his wandering thoughts, yet at the same time he felt slightly bereft. It wasn't heartache, wasn't anything compared to the pain he felt when he truly lost Audrey, but it was still a sense of loss.
In the past couple of days he noticed something he knew he shouldn't have even been searching for. He hadn't been in to her office to confirm it, but from the short glances he got when she moved around the main room he knew she wasn't wearing her wedding ring any longer. Had her relationship truly deteriorated that far? He'd bared the brunt of her emotional distress, certainly, but every married couple had their rough patches and moments of stray thoughts. Perhaps their situation was too unique, too irreparable. But he also knew it wasn't any of his concern, no matter what had transpired in the past month.
He heard the door to her office open with a loud thwack, and raised his head to inspect the ruckus himself. In that time she had already crossed half the room as she briskly made her way towards him, raising a sense of urgency within himself.
"Reddington just made contact, requesting to meet with me," She explained, "And he's wants you to be there too. I'll explain everything once we're on our way."
The air left his lungs and he rose to his feet, gripping onto the side of the desk.
"Then let's get out there and catch ourselves a blacklister," He said. Liz had already grabbed the keys to the FBI issued car from his desk and turned around, leaving him to follow in her when he was prepared to leave.
Shrugging on his coat, he checked to make sure he didn't leave anything necessary behind and followed after her. In those last few moments, it felt like the energy had returned to his limbs and he no longer needed to worry about his relationship with Elizabeth Keen. Life was finally returning to normal, and Donald couldn't wait to chase after it.
When the two agents had left the office, Aram lifted his head from the algorithms running on his monitor to look over at the recently vacated desk. To his astonishment, a sleek looking walking stick remained hanging off the corner of the desk, undisturbed since it had been placed there in the morning.
With a sigh of relief, Aram returned to drinking his decaf in peace.
A/N: When I set out to write this, my only goal was to have it reach 8000 words. I accomplished that, though I don't know how successful I was. It's like 8000 words of stuff that didn't really get anywhere. I feel that I might have made Ressler more emotionally acute and contemplative that he's portrayed in the show, but having helped my mum recover from an ankle break and seeing the recovery process for her, I know what a serious injury can do to a person's psyche. Hopefully it wasn't too out of character, but I wanted to get this out before the show returned and I knew if I kept editing I wouldn't get anywhere with it.
If you sat through all that, I thank you for reading what were really just the ramblings of an unemployed university student.