The rain had been falling steadily for some time. A dull yellow sheen clung to every surface, streetlamps reflecting against the gleaming wet pavement. The road was mostly deserted at this time of the night, though Red still kept his head down against the rain and his movements to a minimum. Although if he made for a strange and suspicious sight to the occasional passerby with both his overdressed attire and seeming disregard for what the weather was currently doing to the state of his clothes, well, he really couldn’t be bothered at this point.
His attention was focused on the telephone booth further down the block. In the several hours since he had made his escape from the abandoned church building that Anslo had appropriated for the precise purpose of exacting his revenge on Red – or at least, the abridged version that Fitch had constrained him to - he’d spent the time idling in shady hideouts across the city to wait out the pursuit. It had been a few extremely unproductive hours.
Although Garrick was dead now and Fitch had more than likely felt he’d made his point, there were still the hired guns to consider – both Garrick’s mercenaries, and whatever team the FBI had managed to clobber together to send after him.
He can’t say he’s too keen to have either side get their hands on him again – after all, even Cooper might have decided after the losses he’d incurred that Red was too much of a liability for them to continue playing good cops. That it might be more expedient to simply lock him up and attempt to interrogate the information out of him. Not that they would get anywhere with that, but he wasn’t about to wait around for them to find out. Lizzie, he was inclined to forgive, but really, he’s had quite enough of people sticking sharp and pointy objects into him as of late.
Red slowed down his steps when he approached the phone booth. The last thing he wanted to do was put any of his people at risk again after everything that had happened, but he was running out of options at this point. The recent events had taken their toll and he found he was fast approaching his limit. It would defeat the purpose entirely for them to find him simply by virtue of having succumbed to unconsciousness in some dingy back alley.
He cast a quick glance about him before slipping inside the booth, taking precautions to knock out the single bulb that shone dimly in the interior of the booth and plunging his immediate surroundings into darkness. He hunted for several of the quarters he kept in various pockets and dug them out, dropping them one by one into the coin slot. As a rule, he usually made sure to keep a few coins on his person in the local currency, for just such occasions as these. People rarely deemed coins threatening or valuable enough to confiscate.
Bone weary and nerves still stinging from the residual drugs that remained in his system, Red slumped against the side of the telephone box as he punched in the number. He let it ring for a few seconds before hanging up. The call would go through a router box to a burner cell, and the recipient would then telephone him back from another location, the call being routed again.
Red kept a wary eye on his surroundings as he counted down the minutes waiting for the return call. Catching himself feeling admittedly more paranoid than usual, he had to acknowledge that the swift execution of Anslo’s attack had thrown him off-balance. Something had gone very wrong that day. Probably things had been amiss for quite some time now, if he were being perfectly honest with himself. With his primary focus being elsewhere these days – namely, Lizzie – he had missed a crucial detail somewhere, something that must have been right in front of him all this time.
Red pressed a palm to his temple in an effort to alleviate the dull pounding in his skull. He had to get out of the city and buy himself some time to think until he could take care of the pressing business that had led him into this mess in the first place. No matter how much he’d loath to leave Lizzie, this proximity to her was clouding his judgment. He needed distance, but first, he had to make sure Lizzie would be safe in his absence, and for that, he needed Dembe.
Red closed his eyes briefly. He had to believe that the other man had safely made it out of the firefight that had no doubt gone down between the FBI assault team and the rest of Garrick’s forces after Anslo’s team had left the compound with him. He refused to think otherwise.
The jarring ring of the telephone was startling loud and Red snatched it off the hook before it could disturb the silence with a second ring. He held the receiver to his ear and waited. The caller would speak first, that was the agreed arrangement.
“Hello?” Dembe’s voice, cautious and unsure, filtered in over the line. Relief flooded over him, and Red loosened the stranglehold grip he had on the phone. It had been much too close a call for both of them. The last few weeks – it’s just been one thing after another, and he hadn’t even had room to breathe and now Luli was gone. And Dembe had come so close. He knew that Luli’s death would hit him hard later, when he had time to let himself grieve - but right now he held fast to the fact that Dembe was there. He was okay.
“Dembe, it’s me. I was wondering if you might come pick me up. I…seem to have misplaced the cab fare.”
The pause from the other end of the line told him that his bodyguard was not amused. And okay, sometimes he really couldn’t help himself, but he needed this, the normality of it – Dembe being annoyed at him was infinitely better than the alternative he was unwilling to consider.
“Raymond? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Dembe. I just need you to come get me.” He gave the other man the location and ended the call.
Red made himself walk a block further, scouting out a spot in the shadows against the side of an old apartment building where he could keep an eye on the phone booth and still remain relatively hidden.
Putting his back to the wall and letting himself slide down until he was sitting on the damp sidewalk, he closed his eyes and waited with shallow breaths for Dembe to arrive.
Alone in the semi-darkness, Red let his thoughts drift – a dozen plans formulating and subsequently dismissed with equal disdain – exhaustion making it near impossible for him to pick. The numbness that threatened to steal over him wasn’t due to the cold, or the pain. It was a much deeper, unsettling one, as the darkness inside him threatened to rear its head, faintly thrilled at the prospect of being unleashed again.
Red leaned his head back against the wall. He had no compunctions about who he was – what he wasn’t was a good man, he knew as much. But at some point he had to decide where to draw the line.
The people in his life that he cared deeply about – Lizzie, Dembe, Luli, Sam, and precious few others – had kept him grounded, kept him from truly crossing that line. But with each loss, he felt himself closer to spiraling out of control, the dangerous kind where he no longer chose to take responsibility for his actions. He’s been down that road once and he hadn’t liked who he’d become. But with the cold anger settling deep within him, he was finding it more and more difficult to care. Monster, Lizzie had called him, and he wholeheartedly agree. Though Lizzie had no idea just what sort of nightmare a man with resources like Raymond Reddington could become, if he so chooses.
After a while, he tuned out his thoughts and just listened to the sound of the storm hitting the ground in thousands of sharp bursts. It was a loud kind of silence, like white noise, almost. A good place to think. Or not to think. Whichever one’s preference.
Moments later, the sight of an unfamiliar car rolling up to the telephone booth stirred up a brief moment of panic before he spotted the driver exiting cautiously and glancing around. It was Dembe.
Red exhaled shakily and pushed himself up from the ground, blinking water droplets out of his eye. He really must be out of it – he hadn’t even remembered to tell Dembe to ditch their usual cars, as Fitch’s people must have some means of tracking them. Dembe, being Dembe, had surmised as much from their brief conversation over the phone and taken care of matters with his usual efficiency. Still, exhaustion was no excuse for carelessness and he should have known better. Mistakes like these are what get people killed.
He headed towards the bodyguard. Dembe met him with long strides and surprised him by throwing an arm around him as soon as he was close enough, and Red couldn’t find it in him to protest despite his aching ribs being squeezed a bit too tightly for comfort.
“You have no idea how glad I am to see you,” he mumbled into the other man’s reassuringly solid chest and leaned into him for a brief moment, feeling the tension drain out of him at Dembe’s presence.
After a minute, Dembe pulled back and gripped Raymond’s shoulder, eyes scanning Red’s face intently and frowning when he didn’t like what he saw there. The rain had washed away most of the blood but Red was sure he didn’t make a pretty sight regardless.
Dembe stared at him unhappily. “What did they do?”
“Nothing worse than the usual.” Red shook his head tiredly and gestured towards the waiting car. They needed to get out of the area.
Dembe’s frown deepened even more at that, if possible, and Red knew he was going to have the story out of him sooner or later. But for the moment he was grateful that Dembe obliged him with the temporary reprieve as he slid into the car.
Dembe shut the door for him and got in the driver’s seat, though he continued to cast him worried glances through the rearview mirror.
Red leaned his head against the door. The glass felt blissfully cool against his forehead and he closed his eyes, trusting that Dembe will get them where they needed to be.
The car pulled up in front of a row of apartments in a quiet little suburban pocket just outside city centre. The low rumble of the engine was abruptly cut off, as was the bright glare of headlights. Dembe sat behind the wheel of the car and glanced briefly at the entrance of the apartment he’d brought them to, noting nothing out of the ordinary for the moment. It didn’t entirely reassure him - the way the silence leached into every corner, the absence of movement in his line of sight.
Although he hadn’t detected any activities in the surrounding area and had taken great care to make sure he wasn’t followed, after what Red had told him on the ride over he could no longer be sure these precautions were enough.
He stayed in the car for a few minutes longer, eyes alert and scanning the streets, only exiting and helping Red out from the back once he had made sure there were no immediate danger. He glanced around again as he closed the door behind him and locked the car. Unease prickled at the back of his neck, the keen sense of being watched intensifying once they’d left the sheltered interior of the vehicle, and he hurried them both inside the building.
Dembe shadowed Red closely as they made their way up the stairs. The other man was looking decidedly worse for the wear – it was starting to become more noticeable in the slightly hunched shoulders and the small waver in his steps. He stayed near enough to lend a shoulder if needed. For his part, Red refrained from commenting on Dembe’s near-hovering.
Dembe’s jaw clenched at the thought of what Fitch and Garrick must have done to him in that abandoned structure at the edge of the city. What he wouldn’t give for the chance to put a bullet into the Congressman’s head – that would solve a lot of problems for sure. Would probably create even more though. And Raymond would be angry with him. Still, he can’t deny he was tempted.
Raymond’s safety was his priority. But Fitch was a threat he couldn’t eliminate. He was no mere adversary, a blip on Red’s radar that he could tack onto the Blacklist almost as an afterthought. No, he’d made sure that they couldn’t touch him. Fitch knew how dangerous Red could be – he’d had a hand in creating him, after all.
With what Red had on Fitch and his little alliance, they were in a stalemate of sorts, but it was a paper-thin truce at best. It was like holding off the knife at the throat, one that bit into the skin and drew blood; at any moment, the angle could change and the blade would find its mark. He was determined not to let that happen, but close calls like these showed him how little control he had over the situation.
They had reached the landing on the top floor. Dembe unlocked the door and pushed it open, waving Red through ahead of him and flipping the light switch to illuminate the mostly bare room. A lone table was hastily shoved into one corner. There was an old couch in the middle of the room, frayed, sagging at the corners, and covered in an ugly floral pattern.
That one wasn’t his fault, really. He’d been much too preoccupied with other things to be concerned with the furniture that had come with the apartment. After all, he hadn’t meant for this to be more than a temporary hideout while he searched for Red.
Dembe checked the locks after he closed the door behind them, anticipating an amused remark in some form from Red on his rather poor choice of furniture, but he was met only with silence. Concerned, Dembe peered over his shoulder to find Red staring at a particular spot on the wall, where there was nothing there at all.
“Raymond?” He inquired softly.
He moved around to stand in front of him. When touching a hand to Red’s elbow elicited no further reaction from the other man, he bent down slightly so he could get a better look at the other man’s eyes. Red’s gaze was somewhat unfocused, pupils blown – it looked like whatever serum they had given him was still running its course. Raymond hadn’t said much on the ride back, had just given him a brief rundown, clinically detached and striped of details, but Dembe knew what Fitch was capable of.
Red blinked at Dembe’s sudden appearance in his line of sight and shifted his attention to him, taking in Dembe’s unasked question. “I’m fine,” he finally answered.
The skepticism must have been apparent on his face because Red amended his statement and added, “Interesting choice of décor.” His gaze slid momentarily to the couch and his lips quirked upward slightly.
Dembe managed a smile despite his worry and straightened, placing a hand on Red’s back and giving him a gentle push towards the other room. “You should go lie down, Raymond.”
His hand came away damp from the drenched coat Raymond was still wearing. “I’ll get you a change of clothes,” Dembe told him, starting to move past the other man, and half-relieved to hear Red’s footsteps following him. For a second, he’d been afraid that Red had gone back to staring at the wall.
Upon entering the bedroom, Red made his way to the tiny en-suite bathroom and shut the door behind him. Dembe went to the closet for the duffle bags he’d brought in earlier. Rummaging around, he pulled out a clean shirt and a pair of sweatpants.
Muffled sounds coming from the bathroom made him raise his head – it sound alarmingly like Red was throwing up. He glanced at the door and bit his lips, debating whether or not to go in there and check on him. But when the sound of dry heaves subsided and he heard the tap running moments later, he relaxed slightly and sat down to wait for the other man.
Guilt twisted inside him again as he recalled the events that had led them here. He had failed to protect Raymond, and that was simply unacceptable. He should have anticipated Garrick’s attack, should have been able to do something – anything. Instead, Garrick had gotten his hands on Red, took him from right under the FBI’s noses, on his watch. He’d let the man down, and now they’ve both lost Luli.
Dembe’s eyes slid to the floor as the sound of the gunshot echoed silently in his memory. He hadn’t known Luli as well as Red had, but he had liked her – it was hard not to, when you spent that much time together, bonding over the impossible task of safeguarding someone with as much reckless disregard for his own wellbeing as Raymond Reddington. He and Luli have worked together several times before, though this was their longest assignment together yet. Dembe’s chest tightened a little as he thought about the seamless partnership that they’d settled comfortably into over the past few months.
This job wasn’t without its risks; they were both well aware of that, and figured the trade-off worth it. Red meant that much to both of them. But he hadn’t been prepared to lose her that way. One moment they had been having a whispered discussion over possible escape routes and the weak links in Garrick’s forces, and the next she was just – gone.
And as keenly as he felt that loss, he knew for Raymond it hit harder. He’s careful to hide his emotions, but Red’s not nearly as untouchable as he’d like his enemies to think. Garrick had discovered that today – when Red had offered himself up in exchange for each of them in turn. The other man was far too invested in the few relationships he had left to him, and Sam’s illness and the subsequent events hadn’t made things any easier.
The bathroom door creaked open and Red emerged, looking pale and drawn. He swayed lightly on his feet as he started towards the bed –weariness evident in every line of his body. Dembe quickly stood to meet him halfway and - when Red didn’t protest, wrapped an arm around him and let the other man lean against him as he helped him walk back and sit down. He passed him the dry change of clothes, and Red nodded his thanks. After making sure Red wasn’t going to pass out on him right then and there, Dembe left him to change as he made his way to the kitchen to retrieve some supplies.
When he returned, Red was pulling the shirt down and Dembe caught a brief glimpse of the livid bruising that mapped across his torso. The sight made him pause in the entryway. Completing this simple task seemed to drain him and Red sat back down on the bed, only looking up and noticing Dembe’s presence when the bodyguard was a few steps into the room.
Crossing the floor, Dembe could see that even as tired and injured as he was, there was a dangerous set to his eyes. Something eased slightly inside him with the knowledge that whatever else happens, Luli’s death would be avenged; Red would make sure of it.
He placed the first-aid kit he’d brought back on the nightstand, and turned to find Raymond watching him.
“I know I don’t say this enough,” Red told him quietly, “but, thank you.”
Dembe shook his head and handed him the bottle of water he’d brought back. “You shouldn’t be saying that, Raymond.” The crackle of plastic as the bottle changed hands was noticeably loud in the stillness of the room. He leaned back against the edge of the nightstand and watched as Red tipped his head back and took a long drink. “I didn’t – I couldn’t do anything in the Post Office, when he’d brought her up and then –”
The words stuck in his throat and Dembe glanced away with a soft exhale, concentrated on the worn floorboards before him, the way the patterns on the surface seemed to bleed into each other, overlapping grooves notched into the wood. He doesn’t know if he could stand to see the grief in Raymond’s eyes.
“Dembe, don’t.” Raymond’s hand closed around his wrist. “It’s not your fault. Garrick was…my mistake. I didn’t finish that job and he – fuck, he almost shot you too,” Red’s breath caught harshly in his throat. Dembe felt his hand tighten around his wrist a fraction before he dropped the hold.
Dembe sat down next to him. “You forget, this job is my choice too. I can’t lose you either.”
“I know, and I just – I’m sorry you have to be in that position.”
Dembe glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. “Hey,” he nudged him lightly with his arm. “You make it sound like such a chore.”
That drew a small chuckle from Red, though he had to stop quickly, wincing and pressing a hand to his side. Red shifted so he could lean back against the headboard, closing his eyes with a small sigh.
Concerned, Dembe drew forward and touched the hem of Red’s shirt, wanting to examine the damage. “Let me see.”
Red cracked an eye open, saw that Dembe was not going to back down, and relented to being doctored. He moved his hand aside and allowed Dembe to pull the shirt up.
Dembe categorized the damage, sucking in a breath at the deep bruising that was starting to spread along his ribs and wrapping around to the back. He pressed his hand lightly to the skin, prodding gently and checking for the extent of injury.
Red winced at the pressure on his ribs and shifted away marginally. “Only cracked, not broken,” Red told him with a smile that was more of a grimace, sounding as if he’d eked out a personal victory of some sort. “I think I’ll live.”
Dembe nodded his confirmation and pulled the shirt down. He reached over to get the medical kit and broke it open, letting the contents spill out and setting aside what he didn’t need. When he neared with the medicated cotton gauze, Red eyed it doubtfully but consented to let Dembe tend to the cuts on his face.
Finishing, Dembe’s eyes fell to where they had taken out the tracking chip. He reached out to touch the area right above the deep cut, his thumb against the juncture of neck and throat, gently pressuring Red to tip his head away so he could examine the injury.
Red protested half-heartedly at this, and attempted to wave off his attentions, “I’m fine, Dembe. Really.”
"It’s not fine,” Dembe muttered, looking over the wound which had been crudely stitched – jagged black lines embedded into the skin.
He cleaned the area with practiced efficiency, apologizing when Red let out a hiss of a pain as the sting of the antiseptic collided harshly with nerves sharpened by the drugs.
Dembe picked up the roll of bandages, measured out a length and carefully taped it in place. Red’s skin felt too hot to the touch, the pulse point at his neck jumping wildly under Dembe’s fingers. He was running a fever, but Dembe didn’t dare give him anything that could cause potential complications with whatever they had injected him with.
Standing up, he touched a hand to Red’s shoulder. “You should lie down, Raymond,” he said. “You need to get some rest.”
When it looked like Red was about to argue again, as was his habit whenever he felt much too vulnerable and overexposed, Dembe tilted his head to the side and leveled him with a glare. After all these years he’d watched Red do this exact same thing, usually to great effect, he felt he had the art of silent admonishment down to a science, and he certainly wasn’t above using Red’s own tricks on him.
After a minute, Red ascertained that Dembe was most likely going to win this argument and, with a resigned roll of his eyes, eased himself underneath the covers. Dembe smiled to himself, knowing that Red was letting him get away with the underhanded manipulation, but pleased that the other man had decided to be so unexpectedly reasonable for once.
Dembe shut off the lamp as Red’s eyes drifted shut. Pale light continued to filter in from outside the windows. Wanting to stay and keep an eye on him for the night, he took a seat on the floor so he could lean against the nightstand, feeling more at ease once his back’s no longer to the door.
He shifted a leg up and rested his arm across a knee. His other hand drifted down to the semi-automatic at his side, and he absently curled his fingers around the grip. The weight of the gun was a reassuring presence under the circumstances.
Dembe scanned and catalogued the room out of habit – eyes alighting briefly in turn on the window, the door and the room beyond, back to Red. A familiar routine.
He regarded the other man. When Garrick’s men had stormed the compound, he had realized there was a very good chance he might not make it out of there alive. It was true, as he’d told Raymond, that he didn’t have any regrets about that. Putting his life on the line for the other man – he would do that a hundred times over.
Years ago, Red had helped him out of an impossible situation, when he’d been alone and afraid, on the run from the kind of people that made it onto Red’s list on a regular basis. What Red had done for him then had earned his loyalty for life, and he’d only wanted to be able to do the same for Raymond someday. It was exhausting sometimes, just watching the other man operate – never sleeping in the same place more than a few nights in a row, always with a gun within arm’s reach.
He often wondered how the other man held up. The occasional cracks in composure that he caught glimpses of disappear as soon as they’ve surfaced, as if he’d only imagined the lapse. He’s seen, also, the length Red was willing to go at times, driven by his past and the need for information, for one more piece of the puzzle that eluded him even now. It chilled him, how truly, terrifyingly ruthless Red could become when he was pushed. The things they call him – traitor, monster, and worse – Red wore the titles unflinchingly, accepted them as his due.
But Dembe’s never forgotten the young naval officer with the kind eyes, who had cared enough to go out of his way to help some kid he hadn’t even known at the time, but who had needed him – had needed someone. He didn’t doubt that this man still remained at his core – some version of him, at least – and he wasn’t going to let Raymond forget who he was either.
The other man’s breathing had evened out, and Dembe thought him asleep, or nearly, when Red suddenly stirred, eyes flashing open, startled as if he’d forgotten something. He searched out Dembe’s form in the darkness. “Lizzie?” He asked the bodyguard, voice tight with concern.
“Lizzie’s fine, Raymond. Mr. Kaplan’s with her,” Dembe told him, a little amused. They’ve been over this already, but Red had a singled-minded focus when it comes to Elizabeth Keen. Even half-conscious and with drugs and fever still clouding most coherent thoughts, Agent Keen’s safety is still of utmost importance to him, as always. “Clayton’s team is on standby as well, don’t worry. Just try and get some sleep. I’ll keep watch.”
Reassured, Red’s eyes drifted shut again. He didn’t say anything else, but the tired smile that crossed his features, unguarded and trusting – that was all the thanks Dembe needed.