Life can change in an instant, and there was no time to waste. Elizabeth Keen learned that lesson at a delicate age, and the knowledge served her well.
Shutting off the ignition, she withdrew the key and clung to the steering wheel. Almost a day ago, the possibility of a world without Raymond Reddington in it became real, paralyzing her with a fear she'd never before experienced. Now, she was outside another of his safe houses, a two-story property in Petersburg, deliberating her next move.
Why am I here?
What am I going to say to him?
Her being there was an impulsive decision, inspired by calling more than once and failing to receive an answer. Given how rapidly he changed locations, Red always ensured that she knew where he would be in case she needed something, and deep down she appreciated that.
Inside of her bag, strewn across the passenger seat, was a device that Red sought for his own purposes, manipulating her in the process, causing her to feel for him in ways that she shouldn't given her occupation - and his for that matter. That's what she wanted to believe, that his concern for her was a charade, as it would make it easier for her to stop feeling for him, but the problem was that, as angry as she was with him, she didn't want to not care.
It was because she cared that compelled her to make the drive.
Her situation - their situation - was ironic in that she found herself lacking a sense of power and control over Red and by proxy her life. Now that she was in a position to reclaim both, she found that she didn't want to.
Admittedly, it would make interacting with her colleagues less complicated, but she didn't want to be in control over Red as, to her, that would validate her concerns - she was expendable to him, a resource and nothing more.
That would be an easy summation, and nothing about the man was easy or simple.
Everything about me is a lie.
Speaking as a profiler, he was the perfect subject - a dream.
In the past year, he satisfied her desire to form a more complete understanding of the criminal mind and something deeper, something she couldn't quantify until the moment she leaned over his body, still and lifeless. With all the tears she'd shed over the last several hours, she had yet to close her eyes for fear of that very image appearing before her.
Then, she understood the ramifications of true emptiness and isolation.
I've rarely thought about what I once was. But I wonder, if a ray of light were to make it into the cave, would I be able to see it? Feel it? Would I gravitate to its warmth? And if I did, would I become less hideous?
While never lying to her outright, the truth from Red came in glimpses, facets.
Her knowledge of his life would perhaps never be as intimate as the reverse. Still, that didn't deter her from cataloging every interaction, every gesture and point of insight. On paper, he was a man without morality or a sense of principle. He was ruthless and cold; any relationships he formed were tenuous at best, but she knew better.
Did he have a mean streak? Yes.
But as easily as he could take a life, he could protect and reassure. The night he held her in his arms as the Anniversary Waltz filled the small work shack was forever etched in her memory. Red was the only constant in her life as she struggled to rebuild, find herself.
He made her feel safe, that she belonged.
Listening to him in the boiler room made her reexamine the end game. Each case brought him closer to what she presumed was an individual or an entity. What if, yet again, she was wrong in assessing his character? What if it was an escape, a fresh start, he desired?
How exactly did she fit into his designs?
What role did she play?
Was she the ray of light he alluded to?
Chameleon was the only classification worthy of him as he easily adapted to any set of circumstances. His actions and decisions were never rash. He was calculating and precise; the gears in his mind never stopped turning which enabled him to stay two steps ahead. His life was structured; he operated under a routine and adhered to it.
The more time you spend with someone, the more acclimated you become to one's patterns of behaviors, habits, ticks. These observations were hard to build on given how in control Red was, but there were occasions when he'd slip, the mask forgotten.
She threw him off-balance, and that in itself was an accomplishment.
When the line of conversation turned personal, his left eye would twitch - that was his one tell; this was the only reply he offered as she questioned his participation in the fire that forever altered her life and seemingly his too.
The day's events and "recollections" flashed in her mind's eye. In the end, the only clear image she had was being pulled from the closet by a man whose face was a blur. While trapped in a lucid dream state, she clung to Red's voice, his touch, the feel of his skin on hers. He buoyed her, anchored her, and in her fragments she experienced that very sensation.
Traveling to the Factory as part of a rescue coalition was an easy choice. Confronting danger was part of the job, and, while working at Red's side increased the odds exponentially, he would never intentionally put her or any member of the task force at risk.
There were lines that not even he would cross.
Was she naive or projecting? Perhaps.
Clinging to that representation, Dr. Orchard's words opened her eyes to a new chapter in his partially told story.
The people in the events may have been there but in different roles.
One by one, the puzzle pieces began to coalesce, becoming more defined and weaving together in an organized, intricate pattern. Taking a deep breath to steady her already frayed nerves, she grabbed her bag, locked the car behind her, and cautiously approached the front door.
After a couple of knocks, Dembe answered.
His greeting lacked its usual politeness.
This isn't getting any easier, she thought.
Dembe held the door open and effectively blocked her from crossing the threshold.
"I need to see Red, Dembe. A few minutes with him, that's all."
"Agent Keen, Raymond is - "
"Call me Liz." In their prior interactions, she made it a point to encourage him to skip the formalities and call her by her name instead of her official title.
Dembe was a man of few words; Red was the only person she could recall him talking to. At first glance, he can intimidate, but like the concierge of crime he was an example of appearances deceiving. He was a gentle giant, and she truly liked as well as respected him.
"Raymond is not well. I apologize for any inconvenience that coming here may have caused you, but today has been..." He paused, the harsh edge to his jaw line eerily familiar. "Now isn't the best time. We've all had a rather difficult day. Either he will call you when he's more himself, or I will call on his behalf."
Anticipating his movement, Lizzie lunged forward and grasped Dembe's bicep, recoiling just as quickly when he regarded her with dark eyes. The silence between them stretched before she summoned the courage to speak again.
"I know that I said some things earlier that I shouldn't have, and I'm sorry about that. But - "
"You're sorry?! That's what you have to say for yourself?"
She watched the muscular man take a series of deep breaths, attempting to collect himself.
Dembe looked away for a moment - she followed his eyes to the staircase - and turned to her again.
"Agent Keen, I'm not blind to how Raymond is perceived by the authorities or you. Words, like actions, have consequences. Once they're spoken, you can never take those words back. You can apologize, but that only helps the person issuing it, not the person on the receiving end."
Putting herself in his position, she understood where he was coming from and hoped that she would be afforded an opportunity to correct this mess that she, in part, created.
"Raymond sustained a concussion, among other injuries, and yet all he could focus on was getting to you. It took considerable work on my part for him to allow me to properly clean and stitch his head wound. We both know that he isn't the easiest of men to persuade into anything. He risks so much, more than I'd prefer, but he does so because he feels it's necessary - and I trust his judgment."
These were the most words she'd heard him string together, and she caved under their depth and passion. She couldn't stop the concern filling her when he mentioned Red and his injuries.
"I owe him my life. I support him and will always do whatever is in my power to protect him because that's what you do for the person who first showed you kindness. Raymond doesn't need me to fight his battles for him as he's more than capable, but I say all of this to you because he's my family. He's the only family I have left as I'm all that he has. Can you appreciate that?"
"I can, and I do."
"Good. We understand each other."
"What you endured at Braxton's hands, having to re-experience a trauma that's best put behind you, is unimaginable, and I'm sympathetic to that plight. Back to my original point, if your intention is to cause Raymond more discomfort, I will kindly ask you again to leave."
Relenting was out of the question.
"Please, I just can't - Dembe, this can't wait. I know that saying sorry doesn't amount to much, and to be honest I don't know what the best approach is, but I have to do something. All I know is that I don't like where Red and I are now, how disconnected we are. I'd like to talk to him and prevent things between us from getting worse than they are now."
She paused, trying to suppress the emotion in her voice.
"I...We almost lost him today, Dembe. I agree with you, about us dealing with enough hurt. Adding to that isn't what I want."
Tears pooled in each of their eyes, both acknowledging that very truth. Dembe moved aside, allowing her to enter their temporary home.
"Two points of consideration, Liz."
She smiled at his change in reference.
A positive sign.
"First, when searching for the truth, don't rely on documents because you won't find them there. While words and actions are similar, it's the latter that counts most. Second, Raymond thinks very highly of you as do I, and he does care - more than you know."
Dembe pointed to the staircase.
"Second door on the left. I'll be close if either of you need anything."
The anxiety returned as she ascended the stairs.
Growing closer to the door she was directed to which was partially open, she raised a hand as if to knock and in mid-motion stopped, dropping her open palm to her side, inhaling deeply and holding it. Everything that Dembe informed her of suddenly began to dawn on her.
What version of Red awaited her on the other side?
What was she walking into?
In either scenario, there was only one way to find out. She had a plan. The wheels were set into motion, and she had to continue. She owed that not only to herself, but also to Red. Focus renewed, she caught the sound of music drifting into the corridor.
She imagined that genre was his favorite, another piece of the Reddington puzzle. The rich melodies complimented and reflected him best.
Aside from the low tunes, she couldn't discern any other sound or movement.
"Red." Raising her open palm against the wooden door, she eased it open and entered. The fireplace provided the only illumination, filling the room with a beautiful golden light. He was standing by the window, a partially filled glass in his right hand. Gauging by the bottle on the coffee table, he consumed a more than generous amount already.
As she approached him, she felt his eyes watching her reflection in the glass.
Lizzie didn't like the sound of her proper name coming from his lips but continued to move, taking the sight of him in. He wasn't wearing a vest or tie, and his dress shirt was wrinkled, not tucked in.
"I called, and when you didn't answer..." She chewed on her bottom lip, trying to find the right words. "I was worried."
He scoffed and offered no reply.
"Red, what I said to you earlier, I -"
"Don't! Don't offer an apology because we both know that you'll retract it as soon as something else in your life goes awry. A scapegoat, an asset, that's what I represent to you - and the government - which is fine. You build an immunity to labels the more you encounter them."
She couldn't really argue with his logic.
Now, standing at his right side, she winced at the discoloration along his jaw, the extensive bruising on his collarbone. The top buttons of his shirt were undone, and he wasn't wearing a white undershirt either.
Raymond sustained a concussion, among other injuries.
Thinking back on the first explosion, she thought it was the force of the blast itself that propelled her a significant distance from Red; now, she wondered if it was Red who launched himself at her, pushing her out of the metal door's path before it could hit her.
I think you're very special. The two of us have overcome so much.
No one was worth risking a loss of life.
Especially me, she concluded.
Carefully, she flattened the palm of her left hand on the small of his back and extended her right hand, reaching for the glass.
"Red, it's not fine."
"No, Red. None of this is fine."
Whenever they touched, a type of charge, a current, passed between them. She felt it when her hand brushed across his swollen knuckles, their fingertips colliding as she extricated the glass from him. The task was much easier than she predicted.
Far too easy.
"Look at me." She encouraged him.
In response, he closed his eyes and angled his head slightly away from her, giving her a perfect view of his clenched jaw.
Leaning slightly into him, she repeated her request. "Red, please. Look at me."
She held her breath, balancing all of her weight on her right foot when Red angled his body toward hers. Adjusting her position so she was in front of him, she saw the purple bruising around his left eye, but it was the defeat - the resignation - in his posture that delivered the hardest blow.
She did this to him.
Elizabeth Keen, the up-and-coming profiler with a sketchy past, had the power to penetrate master criminal Raymond Reddington's defenses and bring him to his knees.
"I didn't come here to apologize. I'm here because you and I are not fine, and I'd like to change that." She took a breath, steeling herself for his potential reaction. "I met with Dr. Orchard early this evening."
That got his attention.
Reaching past his shoulder, she deposited the glass on the solid wood mantel. "She said a few things, made some observations, that got me thinking. I may have been wrong."
"Never thought I'd see the day where you'd make that admission, Lizzie."
The small smile he offered was encouraging, as was his calling her Lizzie rather than Elizabeth, but that didn't last for long.
"Maybe if you hadn't been so quick to rush to judgment, drawing a line in the sand, we could have avoided this little moment we're having now. Wouldn't you agree?"
She deserved that.
That he had yet to indicate that her being so close was intrusive or problematic symbolized a window, an opportunity. Seeing the dim light flash in his eyes, if only for a second, she realized that his first relinquishing control to her wasn't a moment ago, but a year and a half ago.
She rested her hands lightly on his hips.
"The problem with lines in the sand is that they disappear with a breath."
He said nothing, working his jaw.
"You don't lie to me. That's your rule."
He nodded. "I have never lied and will never lie to you."
"But you conceal details from me. I know that's not the same as lying, and you believe you're protecting me which is - "
Red grasped her elbows.
"All I've done is protect you. Why can't you understand or accept that? Lizzie, I take no pleasure in revealing partial truths to you, but that's the way it has to be."
She disagreed. "Red, it's that way because you decided for me. At some point, you have to allow me to make that decision for myself, allow me to discover what I can and cannot tolerate knowing."
The value of compromise.
Red appreciated that.
"Ok. What would you like to know?"
"About the fire. Why you were there." She tensed at his response, his grasp on her tightening slightly, his eyes vacillating from green to grey and back to green again.
"1989. There isn't a single entry for that year in your dossier. There's more to your searching for the Fulcrum that night, isn't there?"
He swallowed thickly. "Yes."
"You said that the memories of a four-year-old were unreliable. Dr. Orchard seemed to agree, going on to suggest that my memories may have been tampered with."
Red sensed the direction this was heading. "As far as I would go to keep you safe, Lizzie, violating your mind is out of the question."
She waved her hand, dismissing the topic. "I don't know why I brought the treatment up. I don't want to know the particulars, if in fact I was treated and just don't remember. There are..." She chewed her lip again, searching for words. "There are other details that matter more."
"I remember running to the closet, clutching my bunny, screaming as smoke filled the small space. Then, someone - a man - pulled me out, took me by the hand, and lifted me in his arms, shielding me from the flames. Just before we escaped, I remember us falling. A portion of the ceiling may have collapsed, and foolishly I extended my arm away, resulting in my scar."
The whole time, Lizzie's eyes never left Red's face.
"There was something...familiar about him."
She searched for any change in his expression and found none, except for the moisture collecting in his eyes. The conclusion, the answer to the one question burning on her mind, became more and more clear.
"It was you. Wasn't it? You pulled me from the closet."
Lizzie was unsure of what to feel, how she was supposed to feel. She wasn't aware that she was crying until she felt Red's hands framing her face, brushing away her tears.
"All this time, you continued to let me believe it was my father who saved me when it was you. You didn't want to take the one memory I had of him away from me."
He does care - more than you know.
She melted into his arms, breathing him in.
"You saved me. You keep saving me, Red. Why? Why didn't you just tell me?"
Red tilted her chin upwards so he was looking into her eyes, wanting to ensure that he had her full attention. She wanted more than an answer about the fire. She wanted a story - his story - and she would have it.
"At the time, I was a little younger than you are now with a promising Naval Intelligence career ahead of me. The money was good. My family was healthy, and I could provide for them. Our life, our family of three, was everything to me. A few years in, I was approached by Fitch. He detailed plans for starting a new special ops unit, and according to him my name was on the top of the list. Being considered was an honor, and the opportunity seemed too good to turn down. We were doing the reputable thing. We were protecting our country. I trusted my superiors, members of the unit who were older and more experienced too willingly, and that mistake has haunted me for the past 25 years. I was naive, blinded by ambition, and it cost me."
He trailed off, working his jaw again.
Lizzie leaned further into his touch, encouraging him to continue.
"Our work was off the books, similar to your task force. For all that we accomplished, one target - one man - continued to elude us. That man was your father, Lizzie. He was a former agent who defected, and with your mother he operated one of the most powerful criminal empires. Their having a child was never documented. The Fulcrum fell into their possession, and we couldn't allow for that. That night, we were sent to recover the Fulcrum before your parents could expose it to terrorist organizations or before their rivals could learn of its existence."
The group believes I have it. It's one of the reasons I'm still alive.
"So, this Fulcrum...If the contents were exposed, the balance of power would be off-set. Officials would be exposed, some imprisoned. Secrets would become a matter of public record. In the wrong hands, the enemies would know of our black sites, our operatives and their aliases, mission schematics."
"That's the gist of it."
Red chose his next words carefully.
"Your parents were to be captured and taken into custody, killed only as a last resort. A simple operation. I should've known better given the years it took for us to track your father. The situation...escalated. A rival faction deployed a team of mercenaries to our location. Looking back, I suspect the Chinese delegation had some involvement, an agenda of their own."
"They worked with Fitch. I never thought too highly of them."
She nodded, accepting his explanation. "What happened next?"
"Two from my unit were killed. I'm not sure exactly when the fire began. By the time the gunfire cleared, it was hard to see and even tougher to breathe. I saw your father on the living room floor and went to his side, but there was nothing I could do for him. He was already gone."
"And my mother?"
"There was no sign of her. I'm so sorry, Lizzie. We were clearing the house, about to leave, and that's when I heard you screaming from above me. At that moment, all I could think of was my own daughter, and I went back in."
"Red, you didn't even know me. Why would you do that? Why would you risk so much?"
"Lizzie, there are many things I can look past and forgive. Endangering an innocent child doesn't qualify. As quickly as I could, I ran up the stairs and through the corridor, following the sound of your screams. "
"The people that I remember..."
"A cross between the mercenaries and my colleagues insisting that I leave, let the house burn. I found you in the closet. You were so scared and crying. I told you that everything would be okay, that you would be safe if you came with me."
"Is that still true now? Am I safe?"
"I have regrets, things that I wish I could take back, but pulling you out before the flames got a hold of you isn't one of them. The Fulcrum may be the reason you and I ever came into contact with each other, but that's not why I'm here - why we're here."
Red took her right hand in his and opened her palm, stroking her scar. "Looking at you gives all of my mistakes and the risks meaning, and that's something I can't turn away from. It's a feeling I've denied myself all of these years, and I want that to change too. Lizzie, I saved you because you're worth it."
When you love someone, you have no control. That's what love is, being powerless.
"I - " She chewed her lip again. "Red, I have it. I have the Fulcrum."
Of course he knew. "We don't have to talk about it tonight."
This was so much to take in.
Time to process everything, however, wasn't a luxury that either of them had.
Freeing her hand, she toyed with one of the buttons on his shirt. Red's expression was equally skeptical and anxious; he made no move to stop what she was doing. To put off the inevitable any longer was pointless.
Tell me my profile.
"You never abandoned your family, did you?"
She didn't expect him to say anything; he didn't need to.
She was stupid to think he was capable of that.
"Because you saved me, because you wanted out, they were taken from you. You did the right thing, the reputable thing. And you were punished. You knew too much. They took what mattered most from you and framed you in an effort to keep you quiet."
Working on the final button, she loosened it and reached upward, pushing the shirt away from his shoulders and allowing it to fall to the floor.
She wasn't just looking at him.
For the first time, she was seeing him.
He was in good physical condition, not that she expected otherwise - the man wore a suit well. She marveled at his broad shoulders, muscular arms, and sculpted torso; he was soft around the middle, but that didn't make his frame any less strong. He had the right amount of chest hair, and even his tattoos were stunning.
On his right upper arm was a tribal cross boasting a red rose in the center with what appeared to be a cascading tear drop. Glancing downward, his forearm appeared to have a passage or quotation of some kind, but she couldn't make it out.
Inside of his left wrist was a trio of initials, 'CJR'. 'C' represented his wife Carla, 'J' for his daughter Jennifer, and 'R' for his last name.
Most beautiful of all was the anchor directly over his heart. It was varying shades of blue, light at the top and then darkening as the design extended, featured red shading, and the rope around the anchor itself was gold.
She flattened her palm over the design, absorbing his heartbeat.
Their eyes locked.
And she spoke again.
"We both lost something that night, but we gained something as well. A symbol that we were there, that we survived. The year you disappeared, you weren't hiding. You were...recovering. Weren't you?"
Again, he said nothing.
The heightened pulse beneath her fingertips answered for him.
For the second time tonight, she anticipated a retreat and maneuvered to prevent that from happening. On his face was sheer panic; he trembled as she held him and barely maintained eye contact with her. He'd been with a share of women through the years, she was certain; she couldn't imagine a man going for two decades without some activity.
Was his reaction toward them this strong, or was it confined to only her?
"Red, you don't have to hide from me."
"I never wanted you to see. No one should have to see."
His voice was barely above a whisper.
This time, it was her taking his face into her hands.
"I tried to push you away and failed. I'm happy about that. You have nothing to be ashamed of or punish yourself for. More importantly, you're not hideous - not in my eyes or anyone else who knows you. Truly knows you."
"I'm not a good man."
"Yes, you are. You just don't realize it yet. Outside of Dembe, Mr. Kaplan, and Luli, you haven't seen that goodness within you reflected in another person's eyes. I see you, Red. I see who you are, and I'm proud of you."
Red looked at her, serious.
He grabbed her hands and lowered them so they were at his waist.
"Are you sure, Lizzie?"
She didn't give it a second thought. "I am."
Slowly, he acquiesced and turned.
Lizzie gasped at the topographic canvas before her, an illustration of his journey, the events that forever linked them, and his commitment to her. The scarring was horrific. Lines traversed in angles and directions she didn't know existed, creating a web. His skin was varying shades of pink, beige, and white.
Have you ever had a selfless moment in your entire life?
She felt the tears rise again, imagining the degree of pain he had to have been in as he carried her through the house and then drove her to Sam, the pain that effectively kept him off the grid for the better part of a year and to this day had to resurface in some capacity.
Wrapping her arms around him, she rested her cheek on his left shoulder blade. Red's breathing hitched at the sudden contact, but after awhile he relaxed, covering her arms with his.
"Does it hurt?"
"At the moment, no. On occasion, I experience spasms, and sleep is always a problem. Par for the course, I suppose."
Feeling a new rush of empathy for him, Lizzie peppered the marred flesh with kisses, wanting nothing more than to be able to take his pain away, making a promise to herself that she would be there for him as he was for her.