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Uncertain Hands

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Wendell leaves with Ray's badge clutched in his fist, his face contorted with fury. In his coat pocket, he carries a letter of resignation. Without sullying Ray's reputation among the marshals—and with the convicts free—Wendell's victory is trivial, at best.

The marshals strip the office bare. Jules finds a single paperclip in the back of a deep drawer, the only evidence that anyone has occupied the space. The others leave one by one, walking into their unknowable futures, until it's just Jules and Lloyd.

"What happens now?" Jules asks, her own badge heavy in her pocket.

Lloyd doesn't answer. He bites at the inside of his bottom lip. Probably, Jules guesses, he's thinking of what he has to come home to—a mother for whom only his failures are worth measuring.

The elevator comes. They ride down together, and like the others, go their separate ways.

***

A month passes. The marshals reassign Jules to a department staffed primarily by recruits. Every day is just like the last. Before, Jules relished this type of predictability—cherished the security in knowing how little her work could affect her life—but now it's stifling.

She comes home one evening to find Ray at her mother's kitchen table, just as she had found him two years ago when he recruited her for his task force. He's starting his own security firm, he tells her, and if she's unhappy with the marshals, he has a job for her.

Jules resigns the next morning.

She used to think losing her badge would erase all she's accomplished. Instead, it feels like a weight lifted from her chest.

***

Ray leases office space at the edge of Jules's preferred neighborhoods. It's a gesture, a promise, and it makes it easier for Jules to step away from the path she thought her life should take. "You didn't have to do this," she tells him.

"This business isn't just for me. I'm doing this for you, too. We have an opportunity to do some good here. I want us at our best."

Still, Lloyd's advice from that first week comes to mind again and again. She hasn't used it for a while—hasn't needed to—but as she and Ray settle in, she makes up her mind to do so again. It's baby steps at first: speaking to a stranger a few blocks from home; ordering breakfast from a cafe she hasn't eaten at before.

A few months later, she's seeing her far down the coast she can drive. Little by little, her world opens up.

***

Two years after the team splits, Jules drives to upstate New York. It isn't the farthest she's travelled from home, but as she winds deeper and deeper into the countryside, it becomes the farthest she's travelled from civilization.

Erica and her daughter have a little house, tucked in the mountains. There's a town nearby where Erica's daughter goes to school, but the two mostly keep to themselves. The solitude suits Erica, and by the looks of it, it suits her daughter as well.

They sit on Erica's front porch, watching as the mountains swallow the sun. Erica's daughter plays in a treehouse—constructed by Erica, no doubt, if its bunker-like qualities are any indication—only reemerging to "gather supplies." Mostly, they talk about the little girl, and Erica has a hundred stories about her. Between her daughter and these mountains, Erica has transformed.

Eventually, the conversation drifts back to work. Erica knows about Ray's security business—unsurprisingly, he'd tried to recruit her, too—but she hasn't heard anything about Shea or Lloyd. "Except for the boxes of elbow savers Shea sent a few months back."

Thinking of her own stash, gathering dust somewhere in her mother's basement, Jules laughs. "Yeah, I think he sent those as a joke. They haven't been as profitable as he hoped… but he's done well off some other ideas."

"What about Lloyd?" asks Erica, eying Jules with a scrutinizing gaze she must've learned from Lloyd himself. "You two must talk."

Jules turns away from Erica's gaze, blinking in the faded sunlight. A familiar weight settles in her gut, a confusion of emotion that comes anytime she thinks of Lloyd. She thinks she recognizes regret now, but she hasn't let herself name the rest of them. "Actually, we haven't spoken since… His mom. She died, did you know? About six months after Ray started his business. We went to the funeral, but Lloyd… I don't know. After that, we lost track."

She can feel Erica's stare, can almost hear the disbelief in it, but Erica doesn't question her. "Probably how he prefers it anyway," she says.

A little while later, Erica calls her daughter inside for dinner and bedtime, and the evening slips away.

The weight in Jules's stomach lingers until morning.

***

Jules leases an apartment twenty minutes from the office. It's a neighborhood she doesn't know well—one that neither her mother nor Ray likes—and she's probably paying too much in rent, but it's hers. It's been too long since she's felt that, that sense of ownership.

More than anything else, this makes her feel brave, and she lets herself belief that she's come as far as she needs to… until Shea shows up at her doorstep.

"Now, I know Ray pays you better than this," Shea says by way of greeting.

They exchange no pleasantries: She's learned enough about analyzing people to know by the ease of his smile and the sureness of his steps that he's happy—if his monetary success wasn't enough of a clue—and he seems to assess her own well-being based on her home. It isn't much, but she thinks Shea sees the strength of it much like she does.

He cuts to the chase quite abruptly. He hasn't heard from Lloyd in months, and none of the resources at his disposal can dig much up. "But I know you've got the skills. Like Erica said—yeah, I talked to her—there's no way you don't know where he's gone."

He isn't wrong. Jules had known when Erica asked. In the two years since the team disbanded, she hasn't lost track of him. Lloyd hasn't tried to hide, exactly. Jules just thinks he likes to leave as little of himself behind as possible.

"Yeah," Jules admits. "I know where he's at."

"So then what? Waiting for an invitation? Because it isn't coming." At Jules's shrug, Shea shakes his head. "Go," he orders.

After he leaves, Jules opens the file she's kept on Lloyd, tracking him since his mother's death. Before she can talk herself out of it, she buys a one-way flight.

***

Like Erica, Lloyd has retreated into the country. She finds him at a dusty, half-forgotten university in England. It offers little diversity, both in student body and academic choices. Mostly, it's a diversion for locals before they settle into their preordained careers—whatever they've inherited from their parents.

Somehow, Lloyd has managed to jumpstart the university's psychology department. A few of his students have even ventured away from home to continue their studies at other schools.

When a student directs Jules to his office, he's so engrossed in grading a paper that he doesn't notice her. He's much like she always imagines him. His hair is shorter, sure, and he looks a little less haunted than he used to; but he's still untidy, and even from across the room, she can see the ever-turning gears of his mind at work.

"Lloyd," she says, after some time. He stops writing—the only indication that he's heard her—but he doesn't look up. She tries again, her voice a little stronger. "Lloyd."

Still he doesn't look up. "If the others have sent you to bring me home, you're wasting your time."

Jules wants to be furious. She hadn't expected politeness—that isn't Lloyd's strength—but she'd expected… Well, she doesn't know. Pride, at least, at her accomplishments? (She has crossed an ocean.) Some sign of happiness to see her?

But Lloyd still hasn't resumed his writing. She isn't sure he's even seeing the paper in front of him anymore, and she wonders if he's had conversations like this before, with all the Juliannes who've only come in his imagination. "They haven't."

It had been with uncertainty that Jules boarded her flight, and uncertainty followed her to this tired university, and it walked with her into Lloyd's office. It's with uncertainty that she decides to venture further into the room, but with each step, uncertainty falls further behind.

For years, Jules hid from anything that terrified her. From anything that made her the least bit nervous. Anything with unknowns. Anything that couldn't fit into a box. She's pushed herself beyond that now, but Lloyd is the last thing. Now, she examines that weight in the pit of her stomach and finds far more than she could have guessed—things more complex than regret and desire.

So she removes the stack of books occupying the chair across from Lloyd's desk, and she sits. In her purse, she locates a long, thin box. Its edges have been worn, worried by her uncertain fingers on the long flight across the sea. "Lloyd," she says once more, placing the box in front of him.

Lloyd's hand shakes—all but imperceptibly—as he reaches for the box.

Inside, he finds a pencil; and finally, he meets her eye.