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Within a Tight Grasp

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New York, New York, 2008

Reese leaves the safe house, and Kara gives Mark a look.

“You know he’s not ready for this.”

“Gotta push ‘em out of the nest sometime, Kara,” Mark says. “Besides, we don’t need him for this. Better to let him work off that energy. It’s going to be a long time before we’re stateside again.”

Kara files away that bit of information for future reference.

It’s a hot day. Stupidly hot, so that Kara feels like she’s back in Afghanistan with the desert sun beating down on her back. Her shirt sticks to her chest, and she wishes there were better ventilation in this room. There’s a thump and a soft, muffled groan from the bathroom. It’s not like they can open a window.

“You going to go after him?” Mark asks because Kara has got Reese’s number, but Mark has hers.

“Maybe,” she shrugs, her movements gone languid in the heat.

“You look like you could you a little R&R too,” Mark says, and Kara snorts, tucking her gun into the small of her back.

“Couldn’t we all.”

* * *

She tails Reese to a bar. It only took about a half an hour of running down leads, and Kara would give him hell about sloppy evasion tactics if she didn’t know he’d made himself easy to find on purpose. He was so predictable, always the Boy Scout.

“Of all the bars in all of New York City,” she says, and Reese’s face closes off.

She glances at the ex-girlfriend in the corner, just audible over the anonymous barroom din. There’s a certain Southern twang to her voice, and it doesn’t pique Kara’s interest as much as it goads something low and dark in her. What’s so special about you? it says.

Nothing. The odds are, it’s absolutely nothing. Boring people fall in love every day. Love is as common as dirt.

She watches Jessica out of the corner of her eye, tilting back the last of Reese’s whiskey and letting it burn down her throat. Jessica smiles at her husband, a little flash of self-deprecating good nature. Brassy hair, a long nose, strong jaw.

She’s pretty, but well. It isn’t her looks.

Reese shifts fitfully beside her, eyes stubbornly fixed on the bar, and Kara ignores him, too annoyed to find it funny. This is her doing a good deed, even if he can’t tell. Once in a while, a little gratitude would be nice.

She knocks back Peter’s drink too.

“Time to go,” she tells Reese and doesn’t wait to see if he follows. She already has a headache.

* * *

She thinks about Jessica when she’s tucked into her bed—a single this time, thank Uncle Sam and his taxpayers for small luxuries. She replays the scene at the bar thinking what’s so special about you?

What’s so special that she turns Kara’s killer into a house pet, lovelorn and too chickenshit to pull the trigger? Kara made him. She should be the only one who can unmake him.

That night, for all her training, she can’t get to sleep. It’s something about this city, she thinks. Something about the New York air, the itchiness of being on home soil but on the other side of the curtain. This is bordering on superstitious, she knows.

She pillows her arms behind her head and stares at the ceiling, listening to Reese’s steady, even breaths in the dark. He’s not sleeping either, although it’s a damn good show. She thinks about crawling into his bed and climbing on top of him. He’d let her, she knows. Probably even welcome the distraction, although it’s always so hard to tell with him.

She doesn’t. It feels too much like admitting something soft and terribly sticky. Jealousy is such a harebrained motivation, and he doesn’t need to know that about her. For tonight, he can keep his pretending, and she can keep hers.

 

Budapest, Hungary, 2006

Miller was a good time, all things considered. He knew what he was about, and he did his job until he didn’t. That’s all you could really ask in a partner. His loss was… expected. She’d been doing this long enough to read the signs. She had suspicions, for weeks, that Miller was compromised—suspicions she shared with their higher ups.

When the kill order came down, well. They take care of their own.

Reese is… different. Soft, green around the edges. It’s not that she thinks he lacks a killer instinct. It’s not her first rodeo with Delta boys. They’re the best trick shooters, if nothing else. Crack shots and fearless to boot. It’s something else.

Some straining toward justice, some inlaid desire to dot his I’s and cross his T’s. It’s going to make him unbearable, she can tell. At least until she can break him of it.

 

New York, New York, 2014

“Reese.”

“Kara.”

“You look good,” she says, because it’s true—he’s a little older and a little grayer, a little filled out around the middle, but he looks good—and because it’s the least of all possible devastations. Because she’s trying to be nice, because Jessica would want that, so sue her.

Reese’s lip curls anyway, the same disdain he’d always had for her, but closer to the surface this time. She files it away as interesting.

“Nice to see you haven’t changed,” she says, idle ribbing. Anyone could see that he has.

“Nice to see that you have.”

She doesn’t miss his pointed look at her ring, quick but meant for her eyes. She doesn’t miss the quirk of his brow, the twitch of his lips. He always was so expressive, even behind that stone face of his. Micro-expressions are a bitch.

“God, how did I ever work with someone with such a shitty poker face?”

His eyes flicker. She thinks she sees the suppressed beginnings of a smile somewhere under there.

She covers her ring with her fingers, rubbing faintly at the metal like she could feel the heat of Jessica’s skin there if she tries. It’s an honest nervous habit, but it’s a gift for him, too. She’d never met a habit she couldn’t slip into or out of as easily as a little black dress. She likes this habit so she keeps it around. She liked Reese a little, once upon her time. In her own way, she liked him, so she lets him see this.

She wonders if he understands.

“Can I take your bag?” Reese asks, and Kara passes him the handle to her luggage, sinking into the warm pool of familiarity.

It’s nice to know that some things really don’t change.

They walk away from the airport terminal, toward the parking garage where something is waiting—a car, a bullet for her head. She’s showing a lot of trust right now, and she hopes Reese appreciates it.

He drives her to a safe house, taking at least two sudden U-turns that she can count and several more jaunts down quiet suburbs until he’s satisfied they’re not being followed. She could have told them that, but it’s not like he’ll believe her, so she keeps the thought to herself.

She uses the time to study him instead, looking for clues about the last three years of his life.

“New look,” she says. Expensive, well-tailored. “It suits you.”

“Sometimes it pays not to be a G-man.”

Kara scoffs. “You don’t care about the money.”

“No,” he agrees easily.

“So who’s handling you now? Or did you finally go freelance, Boy Scout?”

She’s talking too much. She can feel it in the silence that opens up around them in the minutes after the words leave her mouth. Reese lets them hang there, growing bare and strange the longer they’re exposed to the air. Maybe she’s not as comfortable with this new distance between them as she might have thought.

She and Reese were always strangers, in a certain sense. She could no more have told you his favorite color or the name of his childhood pet than he could have told you hers, but there were the other things—she could count on him in a firefight, she always did know that. There was no one better at your side. He’d drink and fuck if he had to, but he never seemed to seek either out. He liked satsumas that winter they spent in Hokkaido. He’d bring you Alka-Seltzer if you had a hangover, but only if he didn’t think you deserved what you got.

She wonders how many of those things are still true. She wonders what things are true now.

“Not freelance,” Reese says after a long, long time.

She nods and rests her head against the glass to give them both a break from each other. Her fingers twitch, and she feels naked without her pistol.

The place he drives them to is a modern high-rise, an attractive brick building with windows that gleam like mirrors in the setting sun. She follows him into an apartment that’s comfortably furnished and obviously vacant. There’s a bowl of fruit on the counter—bananas and apples and bright, shiny-skinned nectarines.

She runs her finger along the edge of the enameled bowl. “I don’t remember any of our old safe houses coming with fruit baskets.”

She looks at him, waiting, but this time his face doesn’t move.

He shows her the bathroom, bedroom, and entertainment system like she hasn’t done this more times than he has.

“Please don’t try to leave,” he says, and she notes the electronic locks on the windows. She’ll bet that’s bulletproof glass. She notes the remarkable stillness in the hall on the way in, no one in or out of an expansive New York high-rise at 6 o’clock on a Friday.

She raises an eyebrow. “Really, Reese?”

“It’s what you would have done,” he says, a faint smile on his lips.

He closes the door behind him, and a heavy-sounding lock whirs shut.

It really is. She laughs to herself in the room that’s probably bugged. “Attaboy,” she says—to Reese, to no one.

* * *

She didn’t come to New York to be a prisoner, but then, she can’t really claim it wasn’t a likely outcome.

“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t turn you over to the police,” John had said, voice slow and sleepy and dangerous on the other end of the line.

It had been work to get that phone number, and even then, she’d put off calling it. She’d called in the middle of the night, a concession to her rational fear, maybe. Or maybe it’s something else. Something darker, something worse.

“Because you know I’ll be dead inside of a week if you do. A day, if the Company doesn’t drag their feet. If you want me dead so bad, you could at least do yourself the favor of pulling the trigger yourself. I know how you’d like that.”

A pause.

“What makes you think I won’t?”

“A hunch?” Kara looks over at Jessica, sleeping soundly on the bed. She’s so open, even in sleep, limbs flung every which way, hair scrambling free from its braid to tangle in wisps across her face. At the sight of her, something habitually hard and clenched in Kara goes soft, and it’s a dangerous feeling. It makes her feel out of control, unsafe, talking on the phone with Reese while looking at Jessica like this.

She gets up, quietly, quietly, so as not to wake Jess.

Reese waits on the line. Kara times her steps to the slow, quiet draw of his breathing, twisting the doorknob so she can lower the bedroom door shut without a sound.

Her voice is stronger when she talks this time. Clearer, out in the hallway. She sits on one of the stools set at their kitchen counter. “You can do whatever you want, but I’d like to—” The words sound so ridiculous, even in her own head, that she has to force them out. “To make amends.”

Reese doesn’t say anything, and for long seconds, she’s sure he’s hung up on her. It’s more than she deserves and less than she’s earned, so she cradles the phone to her ear a while longer, listening to dead air and thinking of hanging up, going back to her life—this was a stupid idea anyway.

“JFK, 1700 hours.”

She doesn’t think she’s dreaming that his breath sounds ragged and disturbed.

She glances at the kitchen clock. She can make it if she drives to the airport tonight. She’ll even have a few hours to say goodbye. More than she deserves and less than she’s earned. If she thinks back on her flawless service record, it feels like it should be the other way around.

She hangs up on John without saying anything else. This doesn’t warrant a thank you.

She doesn’t ask how he’ll find her amid a dozen terminals. He’ll be watching the flight logs now.

She breaks down the phone, slipping the battery and SIM card into a glass of water on the counter. In another life, she would have left without saying goodbye. She’ll be back or she won’t. A goodbye won’t help either of those outcomes, but she opens the bedroom door and watches Jess, sprawled open and beautiful across their bed. There’s something so heartbreakingly delicate about her.

She’s had enough men leaving her behind without a good enough explanation. There’s no need for Kara to do it too.

She wakes Jessica with a soft touch on her shoulder. “Jessica.” Then, “Babe.”

“Nngh.”

Jessica is always slow-rising from sleep. Kara watches her face. She’s been awake for hours, and her eyes are attuned to the dark. There’s something sleepy and sweet there, something absolutely indomitable that Kara loves before it slides into the problem-solving awareness of a middle of the night waking.

“Kara?” She pushes herself up. “What’s wrong? What time is it?”

“Late,” Kara says. She settles into bed, wrapping herself around Jessica and encouraging her to settle too.

She doesn’t tell Jessica that nothing’s wrong because she resolved a long time ago not to lie to her, and she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know if anything’s wrong. She can already feel her heart slipping away, closing back up. She is good at keeping herself safe. She just doesn’t know how to do that and this too.

She pushes Jessica’s bangs back from her forehead.

“Talk to me,” Jessica says, snuggling into Kara’s side.

“I have to go away for a while,” Kara says.

She feels Jessica stiffen, pulling away to look at her face.

“What? Why? For how long?”

“I don’t know. That’s… it’s not going to be up to me. Not too long, I hope.” She gives Jessica a smile in the dark, one Jessica can feel when she puts her hands on Kara’s face.

“Why?”

Kara blows out a heavy sigh, trying to find the words. It’s not an easy question.

“My past is catching up to me. It’s catching up to me every day, and I don’t want it to catch up to you too. I need to go… deal with some things. Talk to some people.”

“Don’t,” Jessica says, catching one of Kara’s hands and pressing it between both of hers. She doesn’t know everything about Kara’s past, but she knows enough. Enough to grip Kara tight enough to bruise, fingers digging into palm. “Stay here. Stay with me.”

“The funny thing is, before I met you, I would have. You’ve made me want to make different choices.”

“Great,” Jessica says, a wet, watery sound.

“It’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing.”

The clock ticks in the silence.

“I sure know how to pick ‘em, don’t I?” Jessica says with a sad little laugh that ends on a sniffling sob.

“You sure do,” Kara says, pressing a kiss to her forehead. She glances at the clock that reads 3:02 a.m. “Get some sleep.” She kisses Jessica again. “I’ll wake you up before I go.”

Jessica doesn’t say anything, just presses a hot, wet face into the crook of Kara’s neck and grips her tight.

* * *

The New York safe house is outfitted with everything theoretically required to keep a person from going mad with boredom. Kara finds everything she needs to keep herself safe and comfortable, barring anything that could be used as an easy weapon. There are boxes of takeout in the refrigerator, neatly stacked along with pre-packaged salads and sliced vegetables and enough dry goods in the pantry to make several decent meals. There are plastic sporks individually wrapped in a drawer but no metal utensils to speak of—not even a plastic butter knife.

There is, conveniently, not a single scrap of aluminum foil in the entire house, nothing with which to turn the microwave into a bomb, and when she tries the oven and stove, she finds that the gas line has been disconnected.

She smirks. She’s got to hand it to him, he’s thorough. Not bomb vest thorough—there are things in this house that aren’t bolted down: the pen on the nightstand, for instance; the springs in the remote control. She could microwave its batteries if she really had a mind to, but she didn’t come here to start another war.

She hasn’t eaten since she got on the plane, so she opens one of the takeout containers. Pad Thai and ginger chicken. She sniffs it approvingly, setting it in the microwave to heat. As soon as the smell hits, her stomach grumbles loudly, appetite making itself known.

She stands barefoot at the counter and eats with quick, efficient bites that civilian life hasn’t quite managed to beat out of her yet. She washes it down with water from the tap—a plastic cup, naturally—and puts the leftovers back in the fridge when she’s done.

There’s no phone or wireless router in the house—no surprise there—but what is surprising is that Reese had left her with her phone. It’s too obvious to be an oversight, and she turns the possible meanings of it over in her mind as she sinks down onto the surprisingly comfortable leather couch, flicking through mindless TV channels and resisting the urge to see if Jessica has left her any messages.

It feels too private in a space that is almost certainly being surveilled. She settles on the Home and Garden Network instead, letting the sounds of a couple nervous about a renovation project fill the space.

Reese doesn’t come back on the second day or even the third. This isn’t the kind of idleness designed to break her, but she finds that she’s distressingly lost the knack for solitude. She keeps thinking of things to tell Jessica, or else wishing for the quiet stability that comes from leaning into her, the both of them sleepy and idle. It’s Sunday, and she wonders if Jessica will make the trip down to the farmer’s market without her.

God, when did she become so sickeningly domestic?

She pulls out her phone at last, still on airplane mode from the flight and running on its last leg of battery. She still doesn’t like the thought of using it here where anyone can see, but she reasons that it’s more cruel to leave Jessica hanging, worried and alone. She tweaks the settings before she lets the phone connect to the network, turning off the bluetooth and wireless.

Her phone fills up with messages—three texts and a voicemail, all of them from Jessica. She smiles, flipping through the texts first.

Just hoping you got to where you’re going okay.

I forgot how quiet this house is without you. God, I miss you already. Love you.

I think they’re growing mutant squash. Maybe soup?

The last one comes with a picture attached, a misshapen yellow squash nearly the size of Jessica’s head, with her smiling face beside it. Kara’s face pulls up in an echoing smile, helplessly fond.

She doesn’t listen to the voicemail. She’s pretty sure hearing Jessica’s voice will crack something that needs to remain intact, some vital wall that Jessica and domesticity have made painstaking efforts to reduce over the years, brick by trembling brick.

Soup sounds amazing, she texts back. Have some for me.

She sends one more text: You might not hear from me for a few days. I love you.

It’s a calculated risk as far as privacy goes, but the odds are in her favor. If there’s one thing John’s not going to do, it’s hurt Jessica. Still, she doesn’t like the idea of him knowing about this—her. She finds her charger and plugs in her phone, turning it off for good measure.

“Do I get time off for good behavior?” she asks the empty room.

Predictably, no one answers.

* * *

Reese comes by on the fifth day, sporting a cut above his eye and a limp that you’d miss if you weren’t looking closely. Bruised rib, she thinks by the way he closes the door. Unknown injury to the left leg, bruise, laceration—pulled muscle, maybe. He’s favoring his left side, and even with the gun tucked beneath the slick line of his tailored jacket, Kara likes her odds if she did it messy. A knee to the groin and a punch to the ribs would do it.

“Don’t try anything,” Reese warns, still as stiff as ever.

“Why, Reese. I think you’re forgetting that I’m the one who suggested this little get-together in the first place.”

“To make amends, you said.” His mouth twitches. “Funny that I don’t believe you.”

“Have you finally gotten over that unfortunate soft streak, then?” She matches up to him, toe to toe, and looks into his eyes. “No,” she decides. “If you had, you’d have killed me.”

She puts her hand on his throat, fingers splayed, and pushes hard enough to feel the hard ridge of his trachea.

He grabs her hand with a sudden violence and very deliberately lowers it back to her side. “Don’t.”

“You need butterfly closures on that cut. C’mon, I think I saw some in the bathroom.”

* * *

Patching Reese up feels like old times. He sits on the lid of the toilet, and she leans against the sink, pressing an alcohol swab to the cut on his eye. He doesn’t flinch at the sting. He watches her as she works, wary as a big cat, as full of coiled menace. She thinks of his hands around her waist. Thinks of pulling the bomb vest over his shoulders, the fine work of the straps and locks.

Two butterfly bandages pinned in place with quick fingers. He doesn’t look at her face, she thinks. She wonders if it makes him angry. Wonders how badly he wants to kill her. Thinks of his gun.

“You want me to look at your leg while I’m at it?”

“No.”

She tosses the filmy paper backings in the trash, along with the wrappers and the swab dotted with Reese’s blood. She washes her hands in the sink, deliberate and thorough, letting him look.

“It feels like seeing a ghost,” he says, almost to himself.

“Yeah?”

She thinks about the ghost she keeps in her pocket, the one he really wants. She wonders if he knows yet, but she doesn’t think he’d manage to keep it to himself if he did. There’d be something to give it away, a facial tic, a twitch, a grimace. She likes to think she knows him well enough for that.

It’s strange to find herself thinking of John Reese so much, so intently, after long stretches of nothing like this. She chalks it up to her newfound captivity.

He sticks around for a while longer, not really saying much of anything. He looks in the fridge, then spends long minutes just staring out the window.

“Have you decided what to do with me yet?” Kara asks.

“Not yet.” His eyes slide over her, and she thinks ghost. “I’ll let you know.”

* * *

She wonders where he goes when he’s not here. He comes back with little injuries more often than he doesn’t, which means he’s at least working. She wonders that he lets her patch him up, wonders who else he’s trying not to let see this, because there is a pattern. He always comes to her first, fresh off the battlefield, and this, too, feels like something fresh from the past. She thinks ghost.

“Why don’t you want him to see you like this?” The small, tell-tale flinch. “Her?” Nothing, not even a flicker. “Him, then.”

“That’s none of your business, Kara.”

“Humor me, I’m bored.”

“That’s what the TV is for.”

She gives him a look.

His mouth settles into a hard line, but he lets her finish digging the bullet out of his shoulder. She thinks of how easy it would be to dig the forceps in a little too hard. She watches his face more than she needs to, the silent flicker-play of pain. She thinks of how he used to look like that right before he came.

The pincers catch on the hard little nugget of a bullet, and she pulls it free, making a small sound of satisfaction. She drops it in the sink, and they listen to it plink against the porcelain, spreading a liquid pink stain against the shell-colored basin. The sharp smell of antiseptic stings her nose.

“What would you do?” Reese asks. “If you were me.”

“John. You know I would have put a bullet in your head, and then we wouldn’t be here.”

He smiles. Laughs, a little huffing thing, the first time she’s heard it in years. “At least you’re honest.”

“Wasn’t I always?”

Silence. The buzzing hum of the yellow bathroom lights.

“You text someone,” Reese says.

“Because you didn’t take my phone away.”

“You never answer their calls.”

Kara looks away.

“You should let him patch you up,” she says finally, packing the rest of the first aid supplies away and putting the kit back under the sink.

“I’ll bring you some books,” Reese says before he leaves.

She looks forward to picking him apart by the books that he brings her.

* * *

“You can’t keep me here forever, you know.”

It’s going on a month now, and Kara is starting to get impatient.

He gives her an unreadable look. “Can’t I?”

“Well, I guess never say never. There are better ways to keep pets, though. Better pets too, come to that.”

She leans against the back of the couch, watching him. No new injuries that she can see, nothing but the layers of old ones. It’s a beautiful sunny day out the window.

The books he brought her said exactly nothing. There was one from every genre she could think of and a few she couldn’t, all of them new and crisp, all of them perfectly devoid of anything but the scent of new ink, no tales to tell of incense or perfume, coffee stains or smudged fingerprints.

It’s bullshit, is what it is. She didn’t come all the way to New York to be bored to death.

“What does your handler think of all this?”

And, oh, there. A month is a long time to spend with nothing to do, and she’s getting better at honing and judging her attacks. She’s remembering the right pain points to strike and learning some new ones besides, just like riding a bike. Jessica’s Kara seems a little farther away every day.

“He doesn’t know, does he?” She laughs, a little mean, a lot delighted. “Jesus, Reese. What’ll he think?”

“Probably that I should have killed you.”

“Mm.” She ignores the clumsy jab. “Let me meet him.”

The raw horror on his face speaks volumes, and she laughs.

“Why don’t you let him decide for himself? You know it’s not nice to keep your partner in the dark.”

There’s a second when she thinks she’s going to get a fight. Her body tenses for it, and god, she’s dying for something to do. She hit a nerve, but he lets it go. This is the Reese who was all knee shots and knockouts, not the killer she worked with. He leaves soon after, and she thinks of the voicemail waiting on her phone, Jessica’s voice captured in a perfect snow globe. It reminds her of their beginning.

She thinks of calling and saying come get me, let’s go home.