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Take Me Back to the Start

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Lizzie's fingers twitched as Red stroked the back of her hand with his thumb.

The doctors put her in a medically-induced sleep hours ago, and he wasn't leaving her side until she awoke. It took little argument for him to have his way given the circumstances and Harold intervening on his behalf.

She was warm and safe.

She was still with him.

That should have alleviated any fear he had of losing her, only it didn't. Instead, it made the possibility of that coming into fruition more real. For all of the highs, lows, and moments in-between that they shared in the past year and a half, their journey was only beginning. While he was more so a spiritual man than a religious one, he believed that beyond each close call something more- something better- was in the offering.

Between the two of them, they endured several lifetimes' worth of pain.

You deserve the best in life, Lizzie. And it will come.

Raymond Reddington never made a promise that he couldn't keep.

For nearly half of his fifty-four years on earth, he found consolation in fragments of memories, old home movies, visions of the woman his daughter would grow up to become. His life was perfect; he wanted for nothing. And then, one day, he lost everything. He didn't wish that for Lizzie or even his greatest competitors.

He prided himself on being two steps ahead, prepared for every contingency, but what he never anticipated was being so dependent on another person's existence as he was now. Consequently, how to rectify the tension between himself and the young woman laying still before him was a very difficult equation to solve.

Their relationship, if you could call it that, was fractured.

They were trapped in this cycle of her fighting with him, him baiting her in return because doing so was both easy and part of his defense mechanism, and ultimately both doing more harm to each other than good. In addition, she was hiding something, but her keeping that secret didn't concern him as much as the realization that they were fighting the same battle.

Both were at war with their hearts.

A slight pressure on his hand pulled him from his thoughts. Lizzie made a contented sound, her eyes stilling beneath her lids for a few seconds before resuming a rapid rhythm. Curiosity getting the better of him, he peered forward to examine his iPod that had been a gift from Dembe years ago.

Modern technology was never of great interest to him as he preferred the tangible experience. Reading liner notes and holding an actual manuscript or newspaper made the contents more rich. To his surprise, however, the compact, silver device became one of his most valued possessions. He often sought it out on those evenings where either sleep was difficult to come by or he desired a reprieve from his ruminations.

His friend preloaded it with songs he knew Red enjoyed as well as some contemporary selections, updating the library divided between the built-in hard drive and secondary memory card every week or so. The only drawback was having to reach for his glasses on occasion to discern the small text on the brightly lit screen.

He smiled to find that "Clair de Lune" filtered through the ear buds.

Taking a deep breath, Red sank further into the padded chair, feeling the cumulative effects of the day and the multiple nights he'd devoted to rebuilding the projector, and returned to his prior train of thought. He knew Lizzie cared for him, but he was equally content to fulfill whatever role she wanted him to. If she needed a friend, he would be that for her.

If he could persuade her to have a heart-to-heart with him, maybe then she would understand that the last thing she represented to him was a pawn. How he was going to accomplish that remained to be seen; the only certainty was that they had to sort this out and soon not for the bureau's sake, but for theirs.


Music was the first to register as Lizzie awoke. The melody was so close to her ear - ear buds, she concluded quickly. She tried to open her eyes, wanting to ascertain her location, but shut them as the effort made her uncomfortable. She steeled herself, waiting for her other senses to kick in and focused on the song.

Coldplay was one of her favorite bands.

Nobody said it was easy
It's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh, take me back to the start

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

As the song began to fade out, elements of her surroundings became more clear. A clean, sterile smell. Steady beeping, indicating a machine. Needle in her right arm and a strange warmth on the other. She was in a hospital. A montage of the preceding hours - or day depending on how long she had been unconscious - appeared in her mind's eye.

Discussions of how to stop Beck and his cult before a modified variant of the plague reached the public, Beck escaping, Samar being shot in an attempt to apprehend one of his followers, endangering herself as she went to her coworker's aide, in a moment of weakness giving voice to emotions that should've remained private.

She made a second attempt to open her eyes and succeeded.

The walls were royal blue. Stock portraits framed either side of the window, blinds drawn so that only a small patch of sunlight filtered across the tiled floor. There was your standard-grade medical equipment and monitors, a chair at her bedside, nothing out of the ordinary. Turning more to her left, that's when she spotted a familiar charcoal fedora on the nightstand.

Red.

He was asleep, his hand lax around hers, head pillowed near her forearm, coat draped across his shoulders. If she were to hazard a guess, Dembe was on the opposite side of the door. With her free hand, she removed the ear buds and studied Red intensely, listening to him breathe.

Why you? Who is he to you?

Lizzie had been wrong about so many things in her life that she didn't want to act on her one lingering suspicion only to achieve the same outcome. She didn't want to need anyone or be needed. She didn't want to feel anything aside from hate. It was the easiest emotion for her to channel in light of having everything to lose, a secret to protect, and control to re-establish.

Feeling anything else scared her.

But there was no escaping Red's sphere.

As much as she convinced herself that she didn't need him, or tried to, her subconscious always sought him out as demonstrated by her recent fantasy. She could picture it vividly, him walking toward her predatory-like as she shrunk against the headboard of the latest dive she checked into, holding his gaze, breathing him in as he grew closer.

Then, he paused.

Their eyes locked, and he asked: What do you really want?

She snapped awake before the dream could evolve. Only later did it occur to her that he wore one of the suits she liked best.

No one commanded a situation or space like Raymond Reddington. When he spoke, you were automatically inclined to pay attention; when he moved, you didn't dare look away. Combined with his charm and intelligence that made her sick at times, Red could have any woman he desired, and yet he chose her.

Looking at him now, vulnerable and innocent, her reasons for projecting all of her anger and insecurities onto him made less sense. Carefully, she extricated her left hand from his grasp and ran the pads of her fingers lightly on his cheek. He hadn't shaved, and she marveled at how soft and smooth his facial hair was, envisioning how great he'd look with it.

When he stirred under her touch, she pulled her hand away, waiting for him to wake on his own. He took in a deep breath and released it. She felt his long, golden eyelashes on her skin as he blinked several times.

"Lizzie - "

Sitting up slowly, Red ran a hand across his face, trying to wake himself up. He only meant to rest his eyes for a moment; apparently, he was more tired than he thought. Turning to her again, he thought she looked much better, more like his Lizzie.

"How do you feel?"

"A little stiff and sore, nothing I can't handle. I could use some water though."

Red nodded and stood, stretching his back before crossing the room. Lizzie watched in silence, swallowing thickly as he rolled his shirt sleeves up, exposing his forearms. The muscles contracted and expanded as he retrieved a paper cup from the meal tray, filling it with water from the plastic pitcher and adding ice.

Their fingers touched when he passed it to her.

Sitting down again, he loosened his tie and spared a glance at her before looking down at his watch. He was surprised that she hadn't dismissed him yet - that was a good sign.

"If there's somewhere else you have to be - "

Spoke too soon, he thought.

"I don't have anywhere else to be. I assure you, I was only checking the time." He interjected before she could say more. "I'm not...particularly fond of hospitals."

She enjoyed the moments where he divulged little bits of information about himself with her and wished he would do that more often. Things between them would be very different, not that blame rested squarely on his shoulders.

Finished with her water, she placed the cup on the nightstand and started to reach for the bed controls. The contemplative look on Red's face suggested that he desired a conversation, and she preferred not being in a prone position. Anticipating her needs, Red moved to her side, adjusting the support rail and fluffing the pillows behind her so she'd be more comfortable.

"Thank you."

He smiled, not saying a word.

Lizzie thought she'd make the first move. "How is Samar doing?"

Red arched his eyebrows.

"Fortunately for us, Beck had the presence of mind to prepare an antidote. She'll be in this place longer than you, courtesy of that gunshot wound, but she's fine and recovering well. Aram's with her." He worked his jaw, searching for the right words. "How do you feel about that?"

It was Lizzie's turn to be surprised. "How do I - What the hell kind of question is that?"

"A fair one. Agent Navabi's not someone that you're particularly fond of."

"No, she isn't one of my favorite people, but that doesn't mean she deserves to - "

"Why do you dislike her?"

"I don't dislike her. I just..." Damn the man and his heightened intuition. "I thought we were going to discuss something else. Like us."

"Aren't we?"

"God, will you stop answering with a question?"

He laughed. "Maybe if you stopped leveling accusations, making an actual exchange a moot point, I would offer more. Besides, haven't we danced around each other long enough?"

As usual, he was right. And I walked into that.

"Just tell me one thing. Is it that hard for you now, to talk to me?"

It was easy to forget that beneath the armor of perfectly-tailored suits, fine hats, and an unrivaled capacity for self-control was a human being. He felt deeply, deeper than most. Having been manipulated, used as leverage, to draw him out didn't take away from her owing him an honest answer.

Were they at odds? Yes, but that didn't make her remiss.

"No, it's not. I'm uncomfortable with you and Samar sharing a past, that whatever happened at the time led to her being 'recruited' for our tactical unit."

"Lizzie, it's not what you think - "

She held up her hands. "Red, please. There's just so much about you that I don't know, things that I'd like to know beyond how we're connected to each other. Your life, who you are. You're such a mystery. Maybe I am jealous but not of Samar, or your wife, or Madeline Pratt, or anyone else you have a history with. It's you - you're my problem."

"Me?" He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Why?"

They were getting to the crux of the matter.

"I'm a different person now, compared to a year ago. I'm not so naive about the world and how it operates. I get that everything comes with an agenda, a series of conditions. Sometimes, to achieve a greater good, you have to break the rules. Nothing is black and white, but green, and I hate knowing that. I hate being alone, searching for solid ground, and I hate you for opening my eyes to the truth."

She paused, collecting herself.

"But, as much as I hate you for that, I hate myself more for being afraid to lose you. You can disappear anytime, and then I wouldn't have anyone to - "

He shook his head vehemently and reached for her hand, taking it in his.

"Lizzie, stop. You will never lose me. Never. As long as I'm here, and I hope that's for a long time, you won't be alone. There's no need to feel threatened or replaceable because you're neither of those things. You're everything."

Lizzie blinked under the gravity of his words, hoping to stem the tears before they rose closer to the surface.

"And the girl, the one you had Aram searching for...Is she - "

"She's not Jennifer. I don't know where my daughter is. Neither does Carla, or 'Naomi'. Huxley once wrote that experience isn't what happens to a man but rather what a man does with what happens to him. I don't talk about that part of my life, when I was 'Raymond Reddington', a husband and a father, because it hurts to remember. To relive what happened."

Gesturing to her scar, he continued. "Anything else I don't address with you comes from sharing your fear. Your exact fear."

She wanted to touch his face but resisted the urge, instead squeezing his hand.

"That's one aspect, the pain, the worry. The larger part, the grieving and processing, no one can do that for you. There's no manual or right or wrong way to get through. All a person can do is listen to his - or her - instincts; do whatever you feel is necessary if it helps you deal. Just as important is remembering to turn to someone if you find yourself getting lost along the way."

She understood the subtext.

"I'm glad that you're here, Red. We're quite the team, aren't we?"

He smiled, catching the reference.

"We're a great team, my dear. And thank you."

"For what?"

"For not kicking me out."

Both laughed at that comment.

Lizzie let her head fall back against the pillows, closing her eyes briefly as the adrenaline began to subside. She felt Red watching her.

"You should get some rest."

"I will, but first there's something I need you to do for me."

He tilted his head, curious. The silence stretched as she kept alternating her gaze from Red to the door, only now spotting Dembe who had his back toward them.

"Could you hold me, for awhile? You don't have to, but I - "

"Of course I will. If you're sure..."

No more words were necessary; both knew the answer. Reaching for the controls again, she lowered the bed to its prior angle, depositing the ear buds and iPod on the nightstand, and slid over to make room for him.

Red kicked off his shoes, unfastened his vest and the top buttons of his dress shirt, exposing his white undershirt. Carefully, he climbed in next to her and wrapped his right arm around her shoulders. Lizzie curled into him easily, sighing when he pressed a feather light kiss into her hair, and rested her head on the planes of his chest.

THE END