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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.

Chapter Text

New York, New York, 2014

It seems she pushed the right combination of buttons because the next time John shows up at the apartment, he isn’t alone. He’s preceded by a slight man with glasses and a limp. Something about him seems raw and undone. He’s pasty from lack of sun, and he looks at Kara like she’s something he found on the bottom of his shoe.

“Ms. Stanton, I presume.”

“I’m afraid you’ve caught me wrong-footed. I’d have baked a cake, but well.” She gestures to the spy-proofed apartment.

“I won’t apologize for your accommodations, as I’m given to understand that they’re probably better than you deserve.” He looks at Reese, and something strange happens there, some nonverbal communication, and Kara can’t tell who won. “Be that as it may, I’m sorry for your… indefinite detention.”

She tilts her head, wondering if this is a stated intent to change or an extended sentencing.

Reese is really the more interesting part of this whole arrangement. There’s the killer instinct she was missing. She hasn’t seen him so keyed up since that mission in Bahrain with that child trafficking ring. He’s practically vibrating with it, and Kara has no doubt that any sudden movements will end with a bullet between her eyes.

She puts the rest of the pieces together, plainly delighted. She didn’t think radiates fussiness was Reese’s type, but then, she didn’t think plainly good was her type either. Small wonders never cease.

Kara wonders if this man understands what Reese is, if he knows how close he’s standing to their specific brand of violence.

“Please, let’s sit,” he says, gesturing to the couch.

Kara studies his gait as he walks around it, enjoying Reese’s obvious discomfort with her scrutiny.

Congenital spinal deformity, she thinks, then amends her assessment to some kind of injury the longer she watches. There’s an ease to his movements, but it feels new. She watches the way John moves around him and decides it’s not new to him.

She sits, noting the way Reese stands so close she can feel his jacket brushing against her back.

“Stop hovering,” she murmurs. “You’re going to embarrass yourself.”

Reese says nothing, but a flick of the smaller man’s eyes toward the other chair and Reese goes, settling into it without hesitation, although his eyes never waver from her. More interesting all the time.

“Why have you come to New York, Ms. Stanton?”

“Call it a momentary lapse of judgment,” she says with a smile that’s meant to be disarming and politic.

The man looks at her, unimpressed. “You see, that’s interesting because I believe Mr. Reese said you expressed an interest in making amends.”

“Did he?”

“I was wondering how you proposed to do that, exactly. You have a great many sins to atone for.”

“Many bodies to my name, you mean.” Her smile widens, grows mean and sharp as she turns, letting her gaze settle on Reese. It’s a smile for him. “Like John.”

Neither of them flinch, and the man she’s talking to doesn’t even bat an eye.

“Yes, I’m aware of Mr. Reese’s service record, as I’m aware of yours. However, his history isn’t the one under discussion at the moment. Not so long ago, you strapped a bomb to John’s chest and uploaded a very dangerous virus into a NSA mainframe.”

She doesn’t deny it.

Her judge is precise. Distinct. His words are careful and clipped, and obviously chosen with great deliberation. Of course it makes her want to throw a spanner in the works, to see what she can rustle free, but there needs to be an order to these things—a leash for every nature, hers included. Freedom first; all things in due time.

“I thought I would let John decide what to do with me. It’s why I’ve remanded myself into his custody.” She teases a little, watching the handler this time. “Only John doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with me. I thought we might let you decide.”

The man looks at her hard. “How would you like to help us with a job, Ms. Stanton?”

“Harold—” Reese interrupts.

Harold pulls him to the side, and they confer in low voices. Kara leans her head on her hand, stares at the familiar wall, and listens.

“Mr. Reese, I don’t like it any more than you, but I’m afraid we’re running out of time. This does pose a rather—expedient solution, and unless you plan to keep Ms. Stanton locked up here permanently?”

“It worked for Root, didn’t it?”

“Root is a special case, and I hardly think keeping a highly trained ex-CIA operative in a minimum-security safe house is the best choice, do you?”

Harold, Root. Kara files the names away. She watches their conversation openly now, interest piqued.

“Tell me honestly, do you believe this is a matter of public safety, or is this personal? Can you work with her? The truth, John. If this isn’t an option, I’ll find another, but it seems imprudent to ignore the opportunity that has fallen into our laps.”

“She’s dangerous,” Reese says grudgingly. “But I don’t believe she’s a present danger. I can work with her if that’s what you need.”

They look her way, and she smiles. Something dark passes over Reese’s face, and they return to their discussion, this time too softly to make out. It looks heated, and Reese looks unhappy by the time they rejoin her.

Harold says, “I’ve been assured that turning you over to the authorities is a poor option, but if you hurt anyone, I will find a way around that barrier. Do you understand?”

“Perfectly,” Kara says.

“Then I would like to formally offer you that job, details to follow, contingent on your acceptance.”

“And if I refuse?”

Reese and Harold share a look, and she thinks she can guess the contents of their argument now, but Harold only says, “Then you’ll be free to return to wherever it is you came from, no questions asked. Ms. Stanton, I believe you are seeking redemption, which is why I think you’ll take my offer.”

“I accept, Harold,” Kara says.

And Harold says, “You can call me Mr. Finch.”

 

Lima, Peru, 2009

Kara knows all about Reese’s secret SIM card, the one he’s taken such pains to conceal. Frankly, it’s a little insulting that he thinks that she doesn’t. She slips it out of his pocket one night when he’s sleeping and plants it in her own phone. She scrolls through the various screens. There are no numbers saved, no calls, no messages.

Well. That can work in her favor.

She boots up her laptop with a sidelong glance at the bed and downloads a data recovery program. She plugs the phone into the computer and starts debugging it, combing through its invisible files. Still no saved numbers, but she finds a number of drafts, typed out and then deleted. None of them ever sent, as far as she can tell. She opens one that starts, I would have waited for you, but I

It ends there. She flips through the others that go

I’m sorry

I hope you’re happy

And one that just says Jessica.

She memorizes the phone number and then wipes the cell better than Reese did, destroying all the hidden files. His sloppiness is her sloppiness. She deletes the program and puts away the computer, tucking the SIM card back in Reese’s pocket.

This feeling she has—it’s nothing like pity. It’s more akin to revulsion and a kind of tooth-sharpening malice. Every time she sees his soft underbelly, she feels an overwhelming compulsion to dig her teeth into it and rip.

 

New York, New York, 2014

They offer her the continued use of the safe house, and Kara just gives Reese a look.

“Thank you, but no. I prefer my private conversations stay private, if you don’t mind.”

Harold blinks owlishly at her, and she hefts her small bag of luggage. He hands her a phone and an envelope heavy with something that feels like cash. “Keep it turned on, if you don’t mind. We’ll contact you.”

She slips both into her pocket and slips out into the city.

* * *

She’d be surprised if Reese isn’t tailing her, but she’d be surprised if he could catch her. It’s a point of professional pride, nothing more. She keeps her newly issued cell on, as requested, which means she assumes she’s being tracked and bugged.

She uses all the old surveillance detection tricks, loitering in stores, making her route circuitous and unpredictable. It isn’t hard when she’s unsure where she’s going. Somewhere to sleep at night—first thing’s first. A weapon and then a base of operations and a place to clear her head. It wouldn’t hurt to start laying the groundwork for recruiting assets either.

She catches a sight of Reese in a mirrored storefront, just a blur of black suit coat, tall and thin before it vanishes behind a crowd of brightly-dressed tourists. A drab bird among the weeds.

She turns over Reese and Harold in her mind, trying to find the places where they fit together. She needs more data, she decides, but she can already see the shape of it coming together. The way Reese is so eager to bend, the quiet command of the other. He always did like orders.

Kara finds a gun the old fashioned way, someone who knows someone who has a hot piece to sell. It’s good to see that all her old assets haven’t crumpled away in her years as a civilian. She’s wary of pulling too hard on her old web—webs carry vibrations and vibrations travel; nature abhors a vacuum, after all—but needs must. Kara imagines it causes Reese no small amount of consternation to see her working their old assets, but if he’d wanted her to do otherwise, he could have done her the favor of returning her gun.

She’s operative enough to wonder if this wasn’t part of the plan—to flush out her allies, give her some lead and see where she’d run. Again, it’s something she would do, and there’s something to the idea of once again being in the same city as someone who shares all your old tricks.

Kara comes to roost in an upscale hotel, one 1911 and a box of .45 ammo the richer, turning no heads. She’s still impeccably dressed after a month in captivity, if a little worn for the wear. She takes her room key with a smile and asks that she please not be disturbed. The man behind the desk assures her of course in placating tones. The discretion and careful anonymity of expensive hotels really can’t be beat.

If her new collaborators have an issue with her definition of penance, they can bring it up to her. Kara stretches out on the queen-sized bed, toeing her heels off where her feet hang over the foot of the mattress. In the silence, she feels like she can breathe. She feels long-stifled wings unfurling and considers the other phone, still tucked into the hidden lining of her suitcase.

* * *

She expects a few more days to let her wheels spin, but she gets a call on her new cell phone the next day.

“I trust you’ve had time to settle in, Ms. Stanton?” Finch asks. The question is perfunctory, if sincere. She thinks she can hear the rattling click of a keyboard in the background.

“I have,” Kara says, looking over at her pistol resting on the newspaper that had come up with room service. “What are my orders?”

“I’m going to send you an address. Please come by as soon as possible.”

There’s a click, and the line goes dead.

Kara cocks her gun and fits it against the small of her back, covering it with a leather jacket as she goes.

The address is for yet another safe house, this one a townhouse in Midtown. She lets herself in. The dog is a surprise, a big, loping Malinois who stands at alert, watching her with an eerie stillness until Reese comes down the hallway, dismissing him in curt Dutch.

“One of Luuk’s dogs?” Kara asks.

“We’re not sure,” Reese says, scratching behind the dog’s ears, “He was a rescue.”

Kara quirks a wry smile at the mental image of what kind of rescue that must have been. She bends down to give the dog a quick rub along his flank.

“They were terrible handlers,” Reese offers out of nowhere. “His name is Bear.”

“Hello, Bear.”

Further in the house, Kara finds Harold set up at a laptop at an unassuming kitchen table, file folders and printed papers stacked in a dozen neat piles around him, undoubtedly in some order that makes sense to him. Photos are tacked against a sunshine-yellow wall, catching Kara’s eye mostly for the sole reason that she recognizes at least five of them. She fingers the edge of one, pulling its Scotch tape free to examine it before pressing it back into place.

“Logan Armstrong,” she says.

“Also known as Ronald Moore, former pen-tester for Microsoft, lately a hacker for Decima Technologies, yes.” Harold gestures to the other pictures on the wall, “Also Julie Smith, Amir Ahuja, Derek Wong, and Lisa Ander.”

“You’re going after Decima.”

“We had hoped to, yes. You can see why your sudden emergence onto the playing field seemed a fortuitous coincidence.”

“Or a trap,” John drawls.

Harold doesn’t look up from his laptop, frowning before tapping a rapid-fire string of text. “The thought had occurred to me.”

He types for a few more minutes during which time Kara keeps silent, ignoring Reese’s looming figure and scanning the wall of photos, looking for some other unseen pattern beyond the few faces she’d been given as tech support during her association with Decima. There are pieces of red yarn connecting certain players. Some of the meanings are obvious. She’d known that Smith and Ahuja were working together on a side project, but others spanned out into patterns that meant nothing to her.

Something about the setup seems… mobile. Kara doubts it’s their usual base of operations, and she can’t fault them for that. If anything, it ratchets her assessment of Harold up a few notches.

The typing abruptly stops, and Harold turns to look at her, swiveling his whole body on the kitchen chair, and she doubts he uses stationary chairs much. “However,” he says, carrying on their earlier line of conversation as though it had never stopped. “I have tracked your recent movements and communications, and it seems you’ve had no further contact with John Greer nor any of his agents following the bombing incident on January 2012.”

“Since I strapped your boy to a bomb and tried to blow him up,” Kara says. “Just to be clear that we’re all still on the same page.”

“Yes, that is the bombing incident that I am referring to.” He blinks coolly. She waits for a follow-up comment that never comes. Harold gestures at their various piles of research. “Mr. Reese and I have already combed through this. We’d appreciate another set of eyes, if you don’t mind looking through my research and telling me if anything sticks out to you.”

“Of course.”

 

Puyallup, Washington, 2010

“Ground rule,” Kara says. “There are no heroes here. You’re not saving me, and I’m not saving you. I’m not your knight in shining armor, and you’re not my light at the end of the tunnel, got it?”

“Absolutely.” The look on Jessica’s face says it’s more than okay.

Chapter Text

Lima, Peru, 2009

The thing is, Kara had understood from the beginning that she was crossing boundaries, but those boundaries seemed tailor-made for other people. It hadn’t been a line that she’d fed Reese—they do walk in the dark. Going through a mark’s phone, doing a little catfishing—they were the least of the things she’d do for her country. It hardly made a difference to do them in order to slake her own curiosity.

She’d dialed the number without giving it much thought. Reese had been in the shower, doing whatever it was he did when they weren’t on—jacking off to his own self-righteousness, probably. She hadn’t really expected anyone to pick up.

“Hello?” a female voice crackles over the shitty international line.

“Hi, is this Jessica?”

Now the voice grows wary. “Who is this?”

“A friend of John Talbots.”

“Oh my god. John, is he…? I mean, he’s alright, isn’t he?”

“He’s fine,” Kara reassures her. “He couldn’t call you himself, but he actually asked me to check on you.”

“Oh, well that’s… I’m fine. Sorry, that’s just very—”

“Unlike him?”

“Yeah,” Jessica says. “Something like that. Sorry, you are…?”

“Kara,” she says. “Think of me as a friend.”

“Well, Kara, you can tell John that I’m just fine.”

The silence grows long and awkward, and Kara sits with the phone pressed against her ear, listening for the sound of water shutting off in the hideously old pipes. “I’ll do that,” she says finally, cutting it off before their conversation can grow ponderous.

She hangs up without bothering to say goodbye.

Afterward, she taps the phone thoughtfully against her lip, turning the conversation over in her mind. There was nothing gained, really. If anything, speaking Reese’s name over an unsecured phone line is a security risk. Still, she thinks she’d like to do it again.

 

New York, New York, 2014

“Well if this doesn’t feel like old times,” Kara says, eyeing Reese next to her.

He keeps his eyes front, fixed on his binoculars, and doesn’t deign to comment. It’s a cold day—only 47 degrees, but the windchill is hell, and Kara can feel it cutting at her fingers even through the gloves. It’s not that she’s opposed to a little physical hardship, but she’s hardly a masochist.

“We could just go inside and take them out—smash and grab. Half of them aren’t even trained, and it wouldn’t be hard to extricate Armstrong.”

It’s a well-worn argument at this point, but Kara still doesn’t understand why he insists on all this extra recon.

“Because,” Reese says with his faux patience, as slowly as talking to a child, “We don’t kill people, Kara.” He adjusts a dial on his binoculars a half click. “And we certainly don’t torture them.”

He sounds like a grade schooler proudly reciting new lessons.

“Pity,” Kara says. She chafes her hands together and sticks them beneath her armpits, watching the far east corner of the building for movement like she’s supposed to.

“Is that why you stayed in the game?” she asks a while later. “You finally found a handler that’s as soft as you are, is that it?”

“He’s not soft,” Reese says, surprising her by rising to the bait. “He’s good. I wouldn’t expect you to know the difference.” He stows the binoculars in his duffel and pulls out an MP7. “Alright, time to go.”

She stands up and stretches out the crick in her neck, reaching for her piece as she goes. She really doesn’t need to be told twice.

 

Tacoma, Washington, 2009

Kara was prepared for it to be harder to find Jessica. She’d combed through the conference itinerary, taking note of keynote speeches that would likely pique Jessica’s interest: “Attitude and Practice of Standard Precautions Among Healthcare Workers” and “The Influence of Stress on Work Behavior Among Nurses.”

She wasn’t planning to find Jessica seated alone at the hotel bar, stirring her drink idly and smiling at the bartender whenever she came around asking if Jessica needed anything, but well. Waste not, want not. She looks tired, Kara thinks.

Kara takes a seat at the far end of the bar and orders a gin and tonic. She sips it slowly, taking her time until Jessica glances her way. Her heart speeds up a little with the thrill of the game, and Kara lets herself feel it, fully inhabiting her body without letting it show.

“Business or pleasure?” Kara asks from across the bar.

She asks like she doesn’t know, like she isn’t here on purpose. Like the annual NACNS conference isn’t taking place in Washington state this year, in this very hotel.

Jessica looks behind her like Kara might be talking to someone else. “Who, me?”

Kara laughs, low and pleased. “Yes, you. Business or pleasure?”

“Ah, a little bit of both, I guess,” she says, a little wistful. She seems a little embarrassed and pleased to be noticed.

Kara smiles. “A woman who enjoys her work. I like that.”

“What about you?” Jessica asks.

“Oh, pleasure. Always.”

“Always, huh?” Jessica picks up her drink and slides into the empty seat beside Kara.

A little initiative, that’s lovely. Kara always appreciates that in a person.

“Wish I could learn the trick for that.”

“I’m sure you could,” Kara says. There’s an obvious flirt there, but Kara sidesteps it. She’s never been much of a blunt object. More of a subtle knife. “Anyone can. All you need to do is let go.”

Jessica doesn’t have an answer for that, and Kara sips her G&T.

“I’m a nurse,” Jessica says after a while.

“I’m not.”

They finish their drinks in companionable silence, and Kara orders them another round. From the look on Jessica’s face, calculating and a little sly, it seems she likes a little initiative too.

Kara brushes her drink against the back of Jessica’s hand while sliding her the vodka cran because she’s subtle, but not that subtle.

* * *

She didn’t think that Jessica would invite her to her room, but then, she also didn’t know what she wanted. To lay eyes on Jessica, certainly. She has stopped believing that Jessica is a puzzle to work out, that Jessica’s tenuous hold on Reese is the reason she’s doing this. This feels personal in a way very few things have in the last several years.

Kara covers Jessica’s ring finger with her hand, feeling the bite of cool diamond below. I know, the touch says. I know you are, and I’m not afraid.

Jessica flinches when Kara touches her. It isn’t terribly obvious, probably, to most people, but it’s there in the way she pulls back when Kara touches the back of her neck. The way she tenses before going still when Kara grips her wrists and pushes them above her head.

Kara stops what she’s doing, pulling her face away from the sweet-smelling hollow beneath Jessica’s ear. “What’s up?”

“Ah, nothing. Sorry. Sorry, I’m fine.”

She tries on a smile that fits oddly on her face, and Kara frowns. She’s not the right person for this. She doesn’t have the patience for this.

Kara wraps her fingers around Jessica’s wrist again, stroking her thumb down the tender skin above her radial pulse. “You don’t like when I do this. So you want to try that again?”

“Bad memories,” Jessica says. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

Dad or boyfriend? Kara thinks but doesn’t ask. If this was an interrogation, she’d know just where to push.

“You got it,” she says, because this isn’t an interrogation, and she isn’t this woman’s mother or therapist.

She grips her by the shoulders when they kiss, careful not to push too hard.

Chapter Text

New York, New York, 2014

The day John finds out about her relationship with Jessica is quieter than Kara thought it would be. It’s not that she’s been sloppy—she has absolutely been keeping secrets, and this chief among them. It’s not, as she’d clarified to herself, that she thinks John would hurt Jessica. She doesn’t.

It’s not even really that she thinks he’d hurt her—not really, not now. Not after she’s seen beneath the hood of John and Harold’s operation, all that do-gooding wrapped in layers of self-sacrificial tape. She’s spotted at least a dozen inefficiencies in their operation, and she knows John has as well. She knows enough of Harold at this point to understand that this means he’s found at least twice that.

This isn’t about efficacy to them. As near as she can tell, it’s about a slow, grandiose suicide, but she supposes they all have their axes to grind. Theirs are none of her business.

John finds out because Kara can’t leave Jessica in the dark. They’d agreed there are no heroes in this relationship, but the corollary to that means there are no assholes either. She thinks about Jessica sleeping fitfully, lying awake on a familiar bed in a familiar dark, and the idea of such easily relieved, unwarranted suffering bothers her. Maybe she’s the one who’s going soft.

She still refuses to pick up the phone because she needs some boundaries to stay in place, but she texts—few and far between, but she does. They talk about nothing. Once, she sends Jessica a picture of herself looking worn and tired at the end of the day. It’s a picture against a backdrop of a white wall—no identifying landmarks or architectural features, no stray ticket stubs or Metro cards—with all the EXIF data overwritten.

Long day? Jessica texts back sympathetically, and Kara lets her spine melt against her overstuffed pillows.

You have no idea, she sends.

Jessica sends her a kissing face, a silly selfie with her makeup off and her hair undone, and Kara can see the edge of a print on her t-shirt—it’s one of Kara’s shirts, grey and soft, the one she spends the most time wearing whenever she’s home. I miss you, she doesn’t send. I love you.

She deletes the messages off her phone, but not before running her finger down the edge of the frame, blurring the pixels. She is growing soft in her old age.

 

John is better about it than she thought he’d be. He disappears as soon as he gets the news, his face running through a series of complicated expressions before he carefully—so carefully—sets down the book in his hand and leaves out the back door. The door slams behind him, the only sign of his temper.

Kara looks in his direction, already getting out of her chair to go after him. This was always his problem. There’s still the mission, and if John can’t put aside his personal grievances for long enough to get it done—

Harold puts his hand on her arm, a light touch that catches her attention and makes her look sharply in his direction. He shakes his head. It’s the first time he’s touched her, and he removes his hand as soon as he’s sure she’ll stay.

“I wouldn’t,” Harold says.

“You knew?”

“About your relationship with Ms. Arndt? Yes.”

“You didn’t tell him?”

He hesitates. “I thought it for the best, at the time.”

“You thought you could keep it from him,” she translates.

He gives her a look. “I thought you could.”

Kara sighs, rubbing her index finger over the biting ridges of her wedding ring. “I didn’t do it to hurt him, you know.”

“No, I didn’t expect that even you would go that far.”

She huffs out a breath. “Was that a joke?”

Harold’s lip twitches. “Maybe a little. Mostly an observation. I’m certain you love Ms. Arndt in a way that has nothing to do with your desire to push John’s buttons.”

She nods.

“How is he, really?”

“He’s often well,” Harold says without much hesitation, and Kara supposes that’s all any of them can really hope for.

 

Albany, California, 2013

The thing about soldiering and the thing about spying is that on a long enough timeline, everyone ends up either broken or dead. The trick was to do the latter before the former had a chance to catch up with you. Kara was both a soldier and a spy for a long, long time, and she had no illusions about what that had done to her head. She just didn’t see any particular reason to cry about it either.

Therapy is for people who are broken in untenable ways, and Kara is fine. She’s maybe got a few screws loose, and she’ll wake up reaching for a gun that isn’t there when she sleeps with Jessica, but she’s fine. She doesn’t wake screaming like some soldiers she’s known. She knows how to keep her vicious streak on lock, tucked away from the people who don’t deserve to be hurt by it. She isn’t dangerous to anyone that matters.

But it’s important to Jessica, and Jessica is important to her, and so they find themselves here, again.

“It’s just a waste of time,” Kara tries explaining patiently, again.

The herbs in the window box are starting to curl, their leaves turning brown and crisp at the edges, and Kara frowns, sticking her finger against the soil. It’s dry, and she fills a cup at the tap to pour into the dirt.

“Please just try?” Jessica says. “For me.”

“Not fair,” Kara says, but Jessica comes up behind her, looping her arms around Kara’s waist and pulling her in close. She kisses Kara’s cheek, and her loose hair brushes up against Kara’s neck. Kara leans back against her before turning to push her nose against Jessica’s skin.

“Please?”

“Fine,” Kara sighs. “I’m assuming you have someone in mind?”

 

New York, New York, 2014

Harold means well. Kara could have listened to him and mostly does, for most of the day. She waits and does what legwork there is to be done, but when John still hasn’t come back and the sun is starting to sink low in the sky, when Harold’s mouth is looking pinched and grim and she can see the tight, painful line of his spine, she goes off to find him.

She leaves her cell phone, her earwig, and everything else at the safe house she’s starting to think of as theirs. She goes looking.

She finds him eventually, skulking on top of a high-rise rooftop with his own phone switched off, battery in one pocket, cell in the other. She walks up beside him without bothering to make more noise than necessary and leans against the railing.

He doesn’t say anything, and she wonders how much of him still wants to kill her. She feels that old thrill of fear, the rush of his hands around her throat, touching it like she can feel the memory.

It’s colder in the dark. The city lights are far below them, and the wind whips around them at this height, turning her hair into tiny lashes against her face.

“You faked her death,” John says. That’s not a question, so Kara waits. “Why did you do it?”

“To save her life. Would you have rather I didn’t?”

John shakes his head.

“And Peter?”

“Actually dead.”

John nods, grim. “Good. He was hitting her, you know.”

“I know.”

John looks out into the dark, over the city he protects. Time creeps steadily on, and he looks at his hands. “You didn’t tell me.”

“It was none of your business.”

He gives her a sharp look but doesn’t contradict her.

This is a moment when she realizes that they will never be friends. She hadn’t counted on it—his friendship wasn’t what she had come to New York to find, but the reality of it feels closer in this moment than it ever has before. She’s not sure if they were ever friends, but they were something like it once.

“Is she happy?”

He looks so hungry.

“Yeah,” Kara says. The smile that steals onto her face isn’t kind, but it’s the most honest thing about her. “She’s good. Really good.”

“That’s good. I’m—glad.” 

“She’s too good for either of us, but that’s always been the difference between you and me. I don't feel bad about taking the things I don't deserve.”

John nods.

“I’m learning,” he says quietly.

Maybe he is. Kara tucks her hands into her pockets and stands by his side, letting him have his moment.

She’ll finish it. This. This one last job. She’ll finish it, and then she’ll leave, and if the world is kind, she’ll never see John Reese again. Jessica is starting to make her believe in a kind world, against all odds. Not everywhere, but some places—the warmth of their bed mid-morning, the alcove where they drink their coffee. She’s starting to believe the world is kind where you make it.

John stands close to the edge of the rooftop, and Kara doesn’t think he’d jump. He’s never tended that way—would never take a coward’s death when a hero’s death would do just as well—and he’s got Harold on the other end of the now-dead phone line, Harold waiting for him in a safe house bundled up with the heater on and a cup of tea cooling by his side.

She understands him a little bit, just for a moment. They’re two of a kind and always have been. They do this so other people don’t have to. They’re out in the cold so people like Jessica and Harold can stay warm.

She indulges him until her patience runs out, and then she holds out her hand to pull him back from the ledge.

“Come on,” she says. “We’ve got work to do.”