He stops walking a bit too suddenly, as if the sound of her voice is a barrier he has no way of crossing. The usually placid expression he wears like an armor can’t quite hide the surprise of hearing it, or seeing her there when he slowly turns in her direction.
The questions die on her lips along with the skepticism that anything but chance could have made them cross paths. In this city. On this street. His shock is evident, equal to her own, and already the answers are there. Some of them, at least.
No, there is nothing wrong. No danger to make him re-enter her life and pull her to safety. He would not be rooted to the spot on the sidewalk, if there was a reason for them to flee. No, he has not followed her to New York, to the little theater where they hid away for days and days, until the contract on her life drove them out into the open.
They are simply here.
As improbable as they have always been.
“How are you?”
With anyone else she would utter the required pleasantries, with no real thought to any truth that may be there. But here the words will not come. If she could possibly tear her eyes away, she would see the very spot where a sniper almost took her life just steps from where they are now. The recognition had come only moments before he emerged from the stage entrance, when she realized her aimless wandering had led her back to the theater.
A shrug and small shake of her head is the only response as they study each other. The seconds tick by, adding up to minutes. Hours. Certainly long enough for one or two glances their way as the passersby move around them.
“How are you?”
The smallest smile when he also has no answer. Perhaps a chuckle follows, but the sounds of the city drown it out before it can reach her. God, how she wants to hear it after all this time and the need pushes her forward.
“Why?” she murmurs, coming to a stop when she can see his eyes under the brim of the fedora.
It hangs in the air around them, halting the breeze that whips through the narrow street. The months of silence after he left and the melancholy that followed in the distance that grew between them.
“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
For once his words are unguarded and their weight bears down on her. Suddenly this place where she almost died feels like a tomb. She steps around him, walking the short distance to the corner and stops. It is easier there on the busier street with the sunlight streaming down. Easier to leave the memory behind, making her hesitate and turn to meet his gaze.
They have found each other once again.
As if fate made the decision for them. If either were to believe in such things.
She smiles for the first time and beckons him with the tilt of her head, not waiting to see what his decision will be. It is a full city block before she slows and moves to look in a shop window, of what, she has no earthly idea until he stops at her side a minute or two later.
“Don’t tell me you’ve taken up cooking in the past several months.”
Her vision snaps into focus to find she’s staring at some sort of kitchen contraption she could never put a name to. “It’s been seven months.”
They are watching each other again, this time through the distortion of their reflections in the glass, both almost certain they are thinking the same thing.
Seven months and sixteen days.
Strange how it runs like an internal stopwatch, always there in the background.
“Yes, so it is.”
They continue on and it is the next block before she answers. “I have not started cooking. You should know me better than that.”
And there it is, the familiar chuckle close to her ear when he draws nearer to slip his arm through hers in that way of his. The city seems to sense it too when a breeze washes over them, lessening the heat of the day and the tension along with it. Everything slows as they ramble about without much thought to the bustle of the summer crowds or with any plan as to where they are going.
A few more blocks and she has learned this is his first time back since their last meeting in DC. A quick trip to visit with a few acquaintances while he takes in the new production at the small theater as he does every year.
“You’re not here on business then?”
“Business is slower than usual.”
She raises her eyebrows at that, but it does no good. He changes the subject to Dembe’s latest quest to climb Annapurna. “You’re joking.”
“I assure you, I am not. I’m flying to Kathmandu tonight to meet him post-ascent.”
“I’m surprised you’re not at base camp.” He looks momentarily stricken at the thought and she can’t help smiling broadly. “Wait, are you afraid of heights?”
His scowl confirms it and he walks a few paces ahead muttering something about overly thin air. It is a few more paces before the jostling pedestrians allow her to catch up and it is her turn to slip an arm through his.
“Raymond, how did I not know this?”
“I suppose because we didn’t have to cross the Himalayas on our way to Iowa.”
“That might have been easier, all things considered.”
Perhaps enough time has passed that the mention of what they endured doesn’t dampen their mood. Perhaps it is this bright clear day and these sidewalks brimming with life that keep the thoughts of what could have happened at bay. It is easier to leave it alone for the few hours they have remaining before they will part.
They manage quite well for a time and talk of nothing important until a few indirect questions here and there have confirmed his suspicions. She has transferred out of the task force and has been at Quantico, consulting with the Behavioral Science Unit the last several months.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t already know,” she says, shooting him a quick glance.
“Not definitely, no. Aram always makes sure to tell Dembe how you are doing whenever he contacts him with a new blacklister. There was something about the last few messages.”
“It wasn’t the same after you left.”
And still he lets the seconds drag out, not answering the question that lies beneath. Finally he says quietly, as she keeps her face averted, “Now you are where you had always wanted to be, before the task force came calling.”
“I suppose.” The words ring with the hollowness that has carved into every part of her since Tom and the Cabal and all that followed. “Now Dembe speaking only with Aram has taken the place of you speaking only with me.”
“Things never fall back into the same order following an upheaval.”
And some pieces are never found again.
“I’m hungry,” she continues quickly, shaking off the thought of all the things in her life that are no longer what they were since Raymond interrupted it. “There are too many tourists to deal with finding a restaurant. You want to scope out a food truck instead?”
The change of subject is a welcome reprieve and they attempt to push the past away again. At times they could almost imagine the weeks and months since that last DC day aren’t stretched out between them. But they are and each feels their presence in the gaps in conversation or the cloud that passes over their faces for the briefest moment. The sun is dropping below the horizon and time is going by too quickly for either to bring it up again.
“Well, I suppose this is where I leave you.”
He’s been lost in thought and stops to get his bearings, seeing the bridge in the distance. “Don’t tell me.”
Her smile is dazzling and at least there is that memory of her to take with him.
“Afraid so. I’m staying with a friend from the academy and she happens to live in Brooklyn.”
His eyes narrow seeing her rock back and forth in obvious amusement. “Edward is around here somewhere and we’d be happy to give you a lift.”
“You have a choice to make Reddington. He can pick you up here or a mile, give or take, across the river.”
He sighs long and loud. There is only one possible choice. The call to Edward is brief, telling him where to rendezvous and the flip phone is snapped closed with determination. He will brave the bridge if it means one last hour with her. Judging by her expression, she is just a bit pleased with herself, making him sign again. He really is a lost cause.
“It’ll be covered in tourists,” he says, hoping he might talk her into the subway instead.
“The whole city is packed and I imagine the subways are just as crowded.” She laughs, knowing exactly what he is thinking and pulls him along. “Have you considered the notion that we’re also tourists taking in the sights?”
“Perish the thought.” They set off toward the base of the bridge to join the throng. “Is that what brought you to New York? The sights?”
“Just needed a change of scene for a few days.”
“I can imagine, Lizzy. Your serials are a mundane lot.”
He is rewarded with a roll of her eyes and her arm linking though his again as they continue on. They are almost to the halfway mark when she leans her shoulder into his. “I promise not to let you fall over.”
They step to the edge and he glances down at the roadway beneath them, teeming with cars, with the river on either side. “That would be greatly appreciated.”
She had thought that nothing could frighten him until that day in the hanger with Soloman. Now she knows there are many things that even Raymond Reddington fears. “If you’re not going to tell me why you left, will you at least tell me if you already knew you were going that last day in DC?”
His profile is unreadable and she is beginning to think he won’t give her even this small thing when he finally answers, “No, I didn’t know it then.”
“It wasn’t necessary.”
Something else there is no answer for. Did she really expect him to stay once she left his world to return to her own? She couldn’t see it then, but it must have weighed heavily on him.
And now it is Dembe who speaks with Aram whenever a name is added to the list. Raymond was right. Things are never the same once they are broken.
“Lizzy, did I…”
He stops and turns back toward the island they have left, studying the skyline as it begins lighting up in the early evening.
“Did you what, Raymond?”
“Did we really meet by happenstance in the midst of that?”
Not at all what he was going to ask, but she can’t help following his line of sight to the tangle of skyscrapers beyond. “New York works in mysterious ways.”
One last chuckle that she knows she’ll always remember. One last day they were given to let them somehow let go.
“Lizzy, will you do something for me?”
“I think I’m going to stay awhile. Will you go on ahead and…”
There are things that he fears. Letting her get too close. Not knowing if he can say goodbye.
So this is where they will leave it. With all the words they cannot say. With his question still lingering, pulling at her thoughts. She’ll never really know what it was and will only be able to guess at the rest. That will have to be enough and the price she will pay for the man who saved her life and asked for nothing in return.
She reaches her hand out to his cheek, still warm from the fading summer day, and swears he leans into it for the briefest moment. It makes her take a step forward. Makes her think about taking one more after that and what it would feel like to kiss him, right here on this very busy bridge with the noise of the cars below and only the faintest of stars beginning to shine overhead.
But she doesn’t.
What could she possibly tell him? She wouldn’t know where to begin and so she turns and disappears into the crowd. There are too many people in between, no way to see if he is still looking in her direction, but she looks back anyway. Searching. Knowing it is too late. She cannot find him in the crowd without retracing her steps.
With the last ounce of resolve left within her, she turns once more and keeps going forward.
“I know. Flying is the worst.”
“Uh...right,” Liz mutters to the passenger next to her before leaning her head back and closing her eyes.
She hadn’t realized she had spoken aloud. Her thoughts are a jumble and mostly centered on a certain criminal, that last day in DC and another altogether surprising one in New York. Not to mention all of the days since the one when he surrendered, strange and terrible with a rare few that were very close to wonderful. They consume her now. Like pieces of a puzzle she’s sorting through, not yet sure of the image that it will form.
It could have been left alone. Should have been left on that bridge, but it has followed her ever since. What it was that made him go. What he would have asked her before his defenses stopped the question from being spoken. To the first, she believes she finally understands. To the second, she has found she can no longer abide the not knowing.
It wasn’t clear at first. His phone call regarding his extended trip away and he might be out of communication for a time, felt wholly unconnected from what had occurred a week or so previously. Another bridge in another city. Funny how she never fully appreciated the tucked away parks and green spaces he chose for them to meet. It wasn’t until he left and there was no longer a reason for her to escape the confines of the Post Office that she felt their absence.
But that day had little to do with the FBI or her new role as consultant she had yet to claim. It all seemed to culminate at once. Signing the lease on her new apartment. Finally agreeing to meet Tom at the dock to put an end to it once and for all. An impulsive trip to the salon. For the first time since her release from jail she felt her freedom as a tangible thing. For the first time she felt somewhat like herself again.
Raymond must have sensed it too.
I missed you.
Considering what his reaction was to her blonde disguise, she wasn’t sure what it would be to the return of her dark tresses. It was still there in the softness of his voice. In the way he tucked a strand behind her ear making her glad she had kept it long. Something so small but it reminded her of all the indefinable somethings their months on the run had prevented them ever acknowledging.
Reddington, I hope this isn’t about a case. Not today.
You’re in luck, Lizzy.
She was curious about it later. Why he called to meet her at the park, where she found him somewhere along a footpath, leaning against the railing of a small bridge that spanned a creek. A place she would never have happened upon on her own. One that she wouldn’t have taken the time away from work to discover.
It seemed he simply wanted to know how she was faring. To inform her there was no lingering danger from the Cabal that his operatives could detect. She had told him of her apartment and the neighborhood. Many little nothings that have faded from her recollection except for the ease of it now that she was safe. He had felt her absence in the days since she left his safehouse. She could say the same of him. She could have said a lot of things, but that first day felt so full of the future, it was enough to leave it until the next time.
But it never came.
She understands now. It is no longer a mystery that plays at the corners of her mind. It could have been left alone. Should have let it go. Instead, she boarded a plane without even the certainty that he will be there.
“I know,” her fellow traveler says again. “At least we’re descending. Are you going to Hong Kong on business or pleasure?”
“I honestly don’t know.” With a deep breath, Liz turns to the window and wonders which it will be.
It is one of a thousand stories he has told her. A memory that she tucked away with all of the others. It wasn’t until she made the decision to find him by means other than Aram or Dembe that she began sifting through each one and recalled the way his face lit up with boyish delight in the telling of it. The autumn festival in a city he loves, with the lights filling the sky and the sidewalks teeming with tourists.
And a restaurant, of course.
There is always one tucked away in his favorite places and this was no different. It is down a particular side street, almost hidden except for those that know where to look. Lucky for her, he happened to mention it by name.
It’s hard to tell who is the most surprised. Liz, at finding him there, seated at the far end, in the midst of recounting yet another tall tale to those gathered round. Or Red, who glanced up at the opening of the door and away again before it registered who was walking toward him. He could feel everything slow and for a few delightful seconds he lets himself fall into the sight of her.
Until he hurriedly stands and says the first thing that comes to mind, “Elizabeth, to what do we owe the pleasure? I hope it’s a hankering for roast goose. Succulent doesn’t begin to describe.”
She sighs a little at the charade. “It isn’t the goose.”
There is a flurry of activity as he signals for another table to be readied and she is grateful for the reprieve. Suddenly everything she had thought to say doesn’t seem important as she studies him. “How are you?”
Another small smile is her answer. It seems they are still beyond words with one another.
“How are you?”
She senses just the hint of a challenge there. He’s pleased to see her, she is certain of it, and looks nothing short of annoyed about her reappearance. It’s all she can do not to laugh out loud, but settles on a satisfied smile. “I have no idea, except that I’m starving. Just how succulent is the goose, Raymond?”
The chatter of the restaurant hums around them. They seem to have reached a standoff as he studies her studying the room, but eventually shrugs and signals a server to place their order. She gives nothing away and he humors her inquiries about his travels and answers the question in her eyes.
“Dembe isn’t here. He’s currently paragliding in Bavaria.”
“Which, I suppose, is not your thing?”
He ignores the teasing question entirely. “Apparently I’ve become much too predictable.”
“Are you sorry that I found you?”
“I still don’t know why you found me.”
“Well, I’ve never been to Hong Kong,”
“So you flew halfway round the world for dinner?” he asks, narrowing his gaze at her.
“Among other things,” she replies, issuing an unspoken challenge of her own.
“And because I know why you left.” She gives in, not able to ignore the trace of longing in his voice. Something very near to…
They are interrupted by the goose and revert back to the polite nothings that two strangers might engage in should they inexplicably share a meal far from home.
“Are you going to tell me?” The question comes quite casually some time later when he is studying a point somewhere over her shoulder.
“Simple, really,” and she waits for his eyes to shift back to hers before continuing. “When I realized that it had to do with that last day, it became clear. Was I being followed for my protection or was it the surveillance on Tom? Though I suppose it doesn’t matter. I assumed at the time there were lingering safety measures in place until we knew for certain the Cabal would not strike back. Either way, you were later given the information that I had met Tom on his boat. How am I doing so far?”
She takes another bite of the goose which is indeed superb, watching as Raymond takes a slow measured drink without answering.
“See, as easy as that. I would like to know if you honestly thought I would go away with him but, again, does it really matter? You decided it was time to remove yourself from the equation.” Her fork lands on her plate with a finality as she leans back.
“I was never part of the equation.”
“I think that is the first untrue thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“Some things don’t add up, as they say,” he concludes, immovable. Resolute.
The impact feels like a blow. It shouldn’t. She has wished him away more times than she will ever recall. Even during the never ending saga of her illusion of a marriage and their war against the Cabal, she’s always known he would disappear one day. Only now that day has come and gone.
“I need some air.”
He finds her under a streetlight a little ways up the block, after she has blinked away the tears he only caught a glimpse of. After he downed the remainder of his drink to steady his nerves and strengthen his resolve. They don’t speak, simply walk off into the night, away from the lights and sounds of celebration. The maze of streets are familiar to him and when they arrive at the center of a bridge that spans a small river, she thinks he must have passed this way many times.
It is beautifully quiet considering the bustling city around them. They listen for a time to the water and move to the other side when they realize they have a perfect view of the full moon. A harvest moon, as ancient as the festival being celebrated in its honor. She knows then that she will always search for Polaris. She will always stop and wonder where he is when she looks to the night sky.
So many things she already wonders about. “What were you going to ask me on the bridge in New York?”
Lizzy, did I…
She doesn’t want to take this unasked question with her. When he rests his arms on the railing and leans forward, she does the same, nudging him with her elbow. “I flew halfway round the world to find out.”
His soft laugh mixes with the faint splashing beneath them and she watches the light play across the surface of the water.
And finally he tries again.
“Lizzy, did I ruin…”
The one thing he desperately wants to know and the one thing he can’t bring himself to say. It must linger in his mind. The anger in her words when she said that very thing to him, when she called him a monster. She had no idea at the time what monstrous things they would both do when the real enemy was revealed.
“No,” she says, looking at him until he meets her gaze. “No.”
She shakes her head for emphasis and he turns back to the moon or the water or both, making no reply. Nothing except his hand that reaches for hers and his thumb that tracks across her skin. Back and forth. And back again. One last time like so many others since he crossed into her world. And back again.
“Do you ever think about the past, Raymond?” she asks quietly.
“All the time. Sometimes it is all I think about.”
“I don’t want to do that anymore, but when I try and think of my future, I see your face over and over again.” Her eyes close, blocking everything out until there is nothing but this one simple truth. “Why can’t we say what we want?”
“Because what we want isn’t possible and in no way logical.”
His pain is palpable, matching her own, increasing the pressure of their hands linked together. She feels every fissure tearing at them, forcing them on either side of a chasm too wide to cross. “Tell me what you want. Just this once.”
“I don’t want to do it anymore. Any of it,” he murmurs, drawing her eyes back to his profile.
“Neither do I.”
Why there have been no new names added to the list. Why she can no longer bear to immerse herself in the minds of mindless killers. Why they are here and not where either would have imagined.
“What’s happened to us?”
“We survived, Lizzy, and now we have to live with it.”
Her small apartment in Quantico flashes through her mind, the boxes stacked round waiting to be unpacked. The task force a memory along with her badge. It already feels like another life.
“I don’t know how to do that,” she whispers on a breath that finally makes him look at her.
“It’s not so very difficult.”
“If only that were true.”
“Come on,” he replies, his voice steadier now and he lets go of her hand. “Stand up straight and look at me.”
She does as he asks and sees the resolve that has returned.
One last smile just for her.
“Now turn around and face the other way.”
One last look to fix in his memory before it is done.
“And I’ll turn this way.” He spins to face the opposite direction as the seconds start coming too quickly. “Are you turned? I can’t see you.”
She does so then until she is directed away from him, toward what kind of future she can’t fathom. There is no more time to borrow. Nothing else but the briefest touch as he leans back and she does the same.
“Now we walk and we don’t look back.”
“Just walk, Lizzy.”
The pressure of his body is gone and a moment later his footsteps are receding in the distance. She forces a step. And then another. She desperately wants never to reach the end of the bridge.
He thinks if he can only reach the edge of the water and step onto solid ground, something that won’t sweep them away. It is why he left and never returned all those months ago. Why one of them must do the logical thing.
He took the first step, but is the first to stop, never making it to the end. Perhaps he can continue on when he hears her steps fade into the distance.
There is nothing but silence.
She stops without conscious thought, her body already in motion before her mind can tell her otherwise. He is there, completely still against the darkness beyond. Only an outline, but one she would recognize anywhere with his collar turned up and the fedora tilted low.
It must be his choice. She will not call out to him.
But she holds her breath. Waiting. Sees how he straightens and rocks back on his heels just before he turns.
It must be his choice.
As they study each other before he moves in her direction.
And she does the same.
Until they are where they started, as far from where it all began as they could possibly be.
“It seems we’re terrible at goodbyes.”
“Then let’s try something new. Tell me what you want, Raymond.”
There is the flash of her smile before her arms are around him, making him take a step back to steady them in hopes of not toppling off the damn bridge. Yet they are falling just the same, unsure which side of the chasm they will land on. Too late to cross back over.
She is holding on so tight and still he pulls her closer as every rational thought gives way to need, to the ache that forms when she pulls back. Just a little. Just enough to search his eyes before kissing him, sighing when he responds and increases the pressure of his hands at the small of her back.
“Don’t let go,” she whispers.
“I couldn’t if I tried.” He is lost in the feel of her, the way her fingers brush along the soft bristle at the nape of his neck, soothing every worry. The tremble in her body beneath his touch. He wonders fleetingly how he ever walked away.
“Now are you glad that I found you?” she asks as her lips find a delightfully sensitive spot under his jaw.
“Good because I used up all my frequent flyer miles getting here.”
It is there under the surface, masked by the teasing in her voice. The thought that he could slip away again. His hands come up to cup her face and he sees the worry turn to confusion the longer he is silent.
“You deserve a bigger life, Lizzy.”
Her hands take hold of his and he lets her guide them around her body once more. “We have each other, Raymond. That’s the only life I’m concerned about.”
“You know this makes absolutely no sense. A criminal and an agent.”
“A former criminal and agent, remember?” she replies with a smile returning to her face. “Hey, I like the sound of that. I could stand just being Raymond and Elizabeth for a while.”
“Only for a while?”
Perhaps anywhere else it wouldn’t have felt as solemn, but this night, on this bridge with the moon as witness, it is nothing short of a vow.
“I’ll take forever,” he murmurs, enfolding her in his arms.
Never letting go.