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Giving Up the Ghost

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He just … disappears.

Raymond helps to bring Agnes home like an avenging angel delivering divine justice, and then he just disappears. Everyone is so relieved to see Agnes and check for themselves that she isn’t harmed that Aram is the only one who catches the movement as Raymond nods minutely at Dembe and the two men slip away into the shadows.

(Samar knows what’s happened though, because she glances at the empty spaces where they stood and shares a look with Aram that is heavy and indiscernible).

Raymond tells Dembe to stay in the city. His daughter and granddaughter are here, and after all that’s happened Raymon is still raw where family is concerned. Dembe has known him for ages, though – has stood over death with him – and recognizes a broken man when he sees one. This time, he refuses to leave Raymond to his own devices.

This time, he doesn’t let Raymond slink off into the great, wide nowhere.

Raymond sees Dembe’s resolve and relents. Whatever his friend may think, or fear, Raymond is not going away to die this time.

Even if he feels like he’s already died – twice.

Three times.

When Edward, his pilot, asks him for a destination he rattles one off without thought. He doesn’t care where they go, really, he just needs to not be here. Here, in the country where the betrayal of people he loves seems to permeate every thought.

Raymond is a man who is accustomed to carrying the weight of his existence, but this … this is the sinking of the Titanic. Tragic; inescapable now that the damage has been dealt.

When they land in Frankfurt, Germany, Raymond is almost surprised. He only has a passing memory of picking this place, but it doesn’t matter. Germany is a wonderful place to get lost.

He goes to his safe house in Munich but leaves that city after two weeks. There are too many people; the crowds mean anonymity, but they also mean that Raymond sees Lizzy in every brunette head that turns the corner; he sees a woman in short hair and glasses and thinks about Kate. His friend, his cleaner, his confidante for over twenty years … the woman who watched him circle the drain because of her duplicity.

The duplicity that she helped Lizzy achieve.

So, Raymond runs to Bavaria. He doesn’t have a safe house here, but he purchases quickly enough. There’s a beautiful village with a sightline to a castle that he enjoys looking at. Füssen, the sign reads, and Raymond practices the pronunciation out loud for days as he learns the nooks and crannies of his newest safe house. It’s quiet here; the Germans have a different view of the pace life should take, and Red does his best to learn. Long walks in the sunlight and fresh air; long lunch hours punctuated with hearty food and fresh-baked treats.

He struggles to resolve the anger, the heartbreak – the betrayal. Despite that, he has done what Kate and Lizzy would hate: he ensures that a security team checks in on Lizzy and her family every few days, albeit from as much of a distance as allowable, and he lays out protocols and instructions for every bad and worst case scenario he can fathom.

None of them involve Raymond stepping back into the picture, though.

Raymond also has his people set up a trust fund for Agnes. No one is ever to know where it originates from, and there are strict rules for its accessibility and release: in any number of medical emergencies, kidnapping for ransom scenarios, etc. The one he hopes and prays will come to pass is the college clause: scholarships on a semester-based schedule that will more than adequately provide for Agnes’s schooling and provide a monthly living allowance for as long as she’s attending school.

His name is not attached to it in any way. He lets Dembe choose the name of the scholarship to lend it legitimacy and relaxes because if no one knows it’s from him – if it can’t be connected to him – then Lizzy and Tom will have no reason to turn it away.

Raymond curses himself for the one point of hopeful weakness that he allows himself: he purchases a burner phone and has Dembe provide the number to two members of the Task Force. Raymond does not ask who, but he impresses upon his friend the absolute importance that it is neither Lizzy, nor Tom.

What happens to the number after that, where it goes, is none of Raymond’s business.

He sends Dembe away, finally, and nurses his battered heart for a while. He understands Lizzy for the most part – hates the lengths that she went to, that her belief that Raymond is the worst thing that has ever happened to her and Agnes drove her to such a level of betrayal – and knows that Lizzy’s love of her daughter would drive her to do that and more.

Raymond understands people who love so deeply that they’re driven to destruction in the pursuit of its protection.

But Kate … Kate has taken so much more of him than a piece.

Three months after he arrives in Füssen, Raymond goes back to work. He needs something to do; he needs to stop thinking and go back to doing. He is a doing kind of man.

Dembe is ready when Raymond calls. He’s always ready. Raymond insists on flying to D.C. to pick him up, and he comes excruciatingly close to breaking his promise to himself to disappear. Elizabeth is here, and the draw to check on her – to watch from a distance just long enough to know if she’s okay, if she’s happy – makes him clench his jaw so hard he feels as though his teeth will shatter.

But Raymond perseveres. He allows himself the quiet luxury of strolling along the National Mall at sunset while he’s there. He waits until the sky is dark and the lights of the city twinkle and reflect in the still water, and the impulse to go to Lizzy is so strong that it makes him sick, and then Red leaves.

He is a man of discipline and control, no matter how disinclined some people seem to be to believe it.

So, Raymond comes and goes like a wraith – like a memory that is pounded into the pale concrete, or an echo that exists forever but can no longer be heard.

He is there and not there, dead, and alive; he is Schrodinger’s cat, and the thought makes him smile in a way little else has in the recent past.

Dembe waits until they are on the plane to provide some measure of comfort.

“They are safe,” Dembe says.

Raymond makes no reply.

 


 

It’s as if the concrete can reach up with rough fingers and trace a pattern half-remembered into soft flesh, because two days after they land in Marrakesh the phone rings.

By some stroke of luck, Dembe is alone when it happens. He pulls the phone from his pocket and hopes.

“Dembe?”

He wants to sigh in relief but holds himself in check. If he had to guess where she found the number, his money is on Aram. “Elizabeth,” he says in greeting.

“Is he there? I need to talk to him.”

“He is not here.” That is either a stroke of luck or misfortune, but Dembe isn’t sure which yet.

Elizabeth’s frustration bleeds through the phone. “He’s always there,” she bites out. “He just doesn’t want to talk to me. Tell him to quit being a coward and put him on the phone, Dembe.”

Now, Dembe does sigh. It’s a quiet, tired thing that Elizabeth doesn’t pick up on. “He is not here, Elizabeth. Truly.”

There’s a pause in which she seems to be deciding whether to believe him. “I need his help, Dembe.” The cutting edge is gone from her tone, but Dembe knows that the anger is still simmering just below the surface. There is so much anger in her – in them both, really, but Raymond’s anger has bled away into pain, into grief.

“Are you okay?” Dembe asks immediately. “Agnes?”

“We’re both fine,” she assures him. “It’s Tom.”

She isn’t going to like this. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but he won’t help.”

“Won’t?” she repeats. She sounds indignant, incredulous.

Life is so long, Dembe thinks. Not just his life, but Raymond’s as well, and there are so many things that Elizabeth doesn’t understand – will never understand, and while neither he nor Raymond would have it any other way, it does make everything harder.

“You wanted him gone,” Dembe reminds her. There is no anger in his tone, only truthfulness. “And now he is. You cannot have it both ways, Elizabeth. Please be careful.”

Dembe ends the call before she can respond, but he thinks that one would not have been forthcoming.

He tells Raymond later that evening when the long shadows of night have laid a hush over the world.

“There was a call.”

A heavy silence pulls at the shadows around them as Raymond tries to decide what to ask. “Are they safe?”

Dembe doesn’t know how to answer. “There is some trouble with Tom.”

Raymond is being torn in two. He can’t be sure that Elizabeth and Agnes are safe if Tom is in trouble because there’s no way to know how far that trouble will follow him. Raymond has left her to her life, just as she’d so desperately wanted, but this is different. This is their safety, and Raymond is as driven to protect them as he is to continue breathing.

“I don’t know what to do, Dembe.”

The silence stretches on. In this, at least, Dembe knows how to help.

“I will call Baz.”

 


 

Raymond meets a stunning woman in Prague. They are each alone at separate tables in a small restaurant, and for awhile he watches her through surreptitious glances. She seems … sad. Not outwardly – she smiles at the waiters and there are no tears in her eyes – but there is something about the way she sits in the small booth that puts him in mind of mourning.

God knows, he has seen enough of it to recognize it.

Raymond thinks about going over there and dropping into the other side of the booth, saying something smooth and charming, and losing himself in her company for the evening. It would be so easy; he can imagine his alias and cover story with almost no effort. But he does not move, and he doesn’t let his gaze return to her.

Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.

The universe is a bitch with a cruel sense of humor, though.

“Hello.”

Raymond lifts his gaze and finds the woman standing next to his table. She is beautiful, but the rutilant glow of the restaurant lights bathes her in red-gold shadows that highlight her elegant cheekbones. She smiles at him. Raymond is uncharacteristically slow on the uptake, but he manages to find a smile for her.

“Hello,” he answers.

The woman slides into the booth across from him. She’s dressed casually – a trendy sweater to keep off the rapidly cooling weather and jeans – and Raymond doubts that she had any idea she was going to approach until she did so.

“Forgive the intrusion,” she says in her heavily accented English, “but I saw you looking at me earlier, and you seem so sad. Are you okay?”

Raymond chortles quietly. It’s a dry sound, but it makes the corner of her mouth quirk up anyway. “Funny you should ask that because I was just thinking the same thing about you. I’m Raymond.” He trips over his name. He had intended to give her a fake name right up until the last second and then some thing had risen in his chest and pushed forth his actual name. It’s a feeling he is accustomed to but has not felt in some time: the overwhelming desire of the soul to be known, even for just a moment; the need to be seen.

I am here; see me.

The woman smiles fully, and it’s beautiful. It puts him in mind of another smile, and he pushes the memory away with vigor.

“Adéla,” she replies. “Would you care to keep me company for a while, Raymond?”

“I’m afraid I’ll be dreadful company, my dear.”

Adéla tilts her head as she studies him. She’s probably only a few years older than Elizabeth. “I hope so,” she says. “That will save me the trouble of being charming.”

This time, Raymond’s laugh is genuine. This woman is confident in a quiet way, as if it has never occurred to her to be anything but; there are laugh lines at the corners of her mouth. She could be anyone: a spy sent to gather intel on him, an assassin, a competitor. Raymond knows this, and though the harshest throes of his pain have passed, he does not find the same level of concern rising in him as he should expect. This woman poses no threat to Elizabeth, and there is no chance that Raymond will give anything about her away now, so he lets it play out.

“I am hard pressed to believe you could ever be anything else,” Raymond tells her, and Adéla gives him that beautiful smile.

And just like that, Raymond’s whole evening turns around. His companion is as interesting as she is beautiful, and for the first time in years he finds himself having conversations that come easily. When Adéla asks him if he’d like a tour of the city at night Raymond doesn’t even consider turning her down. He offers her his arm, ever the gentleman, and lets her lead him through the streets. She tells him funny stories from her childhood, and local urban legends, and for hours Raymond forgets about the horror that colors his world.

He allows himself to forget the betrayals of those he holds most dear.

Hours have passed by the time Raymond is walking Adéla to the steps of her apartment. The deepest reaches of night have given way to the first pale fingers of dawn, and Raymond has not stayed out so late for pleasure in longer than he can remember.

“You lied to me, Raymond,” she tells him as they come to a stop at the base of the stairs. “You were not dreadful at all.”

“Then clearly you did not spend enough time with me,” he replies, and he smiles but it feels brittle.

Adéla puts a warm, soft palm against his cheek. She tilts her head and studies him with such a warm gaze that Raymond must close his eyes. Her eyes are not blue, but it’s hard to look at her and not think of the resentment and rage that had always colored Elizabeth’s gaze at the end. There had been a time when Elizabeth had looked at him with affection – with happiness.

“I do not know who has told you this, or what has caused that look in your eye, but I do not believe this about you.”

Raymond can’t resist putting a hand over hers where it rests on his cheek. How nice it is to be comforted, even if he doesn’t deserve it; even if she can’t possibly fathom how horrific the truth is.

“Of course not. I am just a stranger you met at a restaurant. For all you know, you have passed this night at the right hand of the devil.”

“Perhaps,” she cedes. “But I do not believe this is so. You forget, Raymond: he may have become the devil, but he was always an angel.”

Adéla presses a sweet kiss to his other cheek, and just like that his evening of peace has come to an end. Raymond watches her walk up the stairs and then, when she has the front door open, she half-turns to look back at him.

“Raymond,” she calls. “If you find that you need to be reminded, I have dinner at the restaurant every Tuesday.”

She disappears inside, and Raymond returns to his hotel with a warmth that has long been missing.

Life goes on, and maybe Raymond Reddington still has it in him to do the same.

 


 

This time when the phone rings, Raymond is there. The ringtone that fills the air is the same as all the other ringtones, but, somehow, he knows which phone is ringing. Dembe sees his friend go completely still, as though he is prey, and the hunter is moving in.

It has been just under two weeks since the first phone call.

Dembe answers the call. “Uh,” an uncertain voice starts. “Dembe? Uh, Mr. Zuma?”

“Aram.”

“Uh, you … you told me to call if … if anything came up.”

“Elizabeth?” Dembe asks immediately. “Agnes?”

“Fine, fine, they’re both fine. It’s, uh, it’s Tom. He was killed.”

“When?”

“Dembe,” Raymond says. His tone is tense, warning – frightened.

“Four days ago. The funeral is tomorrow. I know it’s short notice, but Agent Keen … she’s not doing well, and I thought, maybe, if Mr. Reddington …”

Aram trails off, and Dembe waits for a moment out of respect. “Thank you, Aram.” Dembe hangs up.

“What’s wrong, Dembe, what’s happened?”

“Elizabeth and Agnes are fine. Tom was killed.” Dembe waits for his friend to process the news. “The funeral is tomorrow.”

Raymond doesn’t respond. After years together, Dembe can see Raymond’s mind at work as it jumps from one idea to another, one possibility to the next; he can sense the moment his friend has decided.

“Call Edward.”

 


 

Raymond does not go to the funeral, exactly. He sends a dozen red roses to the gravesite for the service, and Dembe drives them to the cemetery but Raymond instructs him to park off in the distance. Elizabeth would call him a coward, probably, but he can’t bring himself to get out of the car. Raymond wants nothing more than to be there for her, to hold her through the grief, but he does not fool himself into thinking that she wants him here.

Elizabeth had not been the one to call, after all. They only know of Tom’s death because Aram had called out of concern for his friend.

She will not welcome his presence, and Red does not feel equal to the task of weathering Elizabeth’s storm. The anger and resentment she had directed at him last time they spoke is still fresh in his mind, and grief is a terrible magnifier. Elizabeth had called him for help with whatever Tom had gotten himself into, and Dembe had done exactly as Raymond had instructed: nothing. She will hate him for that - probably blames him for Tom’s death despite Raymond’s utter lack of involvement in whatever situation brought it about – and Raymond cannot bear it. Could not bear the anger in her eyes and the vitriol in her words.

So, they do not get out of the car. Raymond watches the formless black shapes from a distance and wonders how they’ve come to be here; silently berates himself for every decision and circumstance that has brought Elizabeth pain, no matter how hard he’s tried to prevent it.

Raymond curses Tom Keen, and mourns for Elizabeth and Agnes, and he does not get out of the car.

He gives Dembe the word to drive off before the ceremony is over. It has started to snow; Raymond doesn’t have a concrete idea of where to go, so for awhile he watches the snowflakes fall outside the window while Dembe drives aimlessly.

“Why am I here, Dembe?” He asks the question quietly. His gaze is still directed out the window, and he’s not sure that he expects an answer. It’s a question that he has been asking himself since his jet landed on the runway.

“You know why, Raymond,” Dembe responds. No judgment, no censure, just the gentle understanding of someone who knows him.

Yes, Raymond does know why. He’s here because he had to be – because Lizzy is hurting, and her pain is anathema to him. He’s here because he has only ever wanted to help her, protect her, lov … “Let’s get off the road before the weather gets worse,” he says to interrupt his train of thought.

It’s snowing in earnest by the time they get to their temporary living arrangements. They’re staying in a penthouse condo in Bethesda with stunning views of the Potomac river; the owner had decided to fly south for the winter, as it were.

A good thing, really, because when Raymond wakes up the following morning it’s to the unpleasant discovery that they might be spending more time than originally planned back in the states. At least until the runways have been cleared. The estimate is a week, Dembe tells him.

“Can you make it to Isabella before the snow becomes too treacherous?” Raymond asks.

Dembe narrows his eyes at him and protests, but Raymond insists. They have been out of the country for some time now, and Raymond knows how impatient his friend must be to see his daughter and granddaughter.

So, after some good-natured arguing, Dembe braves the roads once more and Raymond is left to his own devices.

Two days after the funeral, Raymond is sitting in an armchair and staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows with a glass of scotch next to him. A record player croons softly from somewhere behind him. It has stopped snowing, but the city that stretches on outside the window glows with the reflection of lights on the snow. It’s almost midnight. The world below him is not asleep, but it has slowed down.

The shrill trilling of a cell phone splits through the peace. Raymond starts in surprise – just a small jerking of his muscles – and frowns as he retrieves his burner phone from the table next to him.

“Dembe,” he says immediately on answering, “Is everything all right?”

The pause before the answer comes sets Raymond on edge.

“Don’t be mad at Dembe.”

His heart somersaults wildly in his chest. “Elizabeth.” It pains him to admit, even to himself, that the increase in his heartrate has as much to do with trepidation as it does excitement.

“You were at the funeral,” she says quietly.

“Yes. I am sorry for your loss, Elizabeth.”

A beat, and then: “You hated Tom.”

“The two are not mutually exclusive.”

“No,” she says on a sigh. “I guess not.” Another pause. “You disappeared, Reddington. One minute you were handing Agnes to me, and the next you were gone.”

Raymond doesn’t know what to say to that. He had disappeared with all the speed and skill that his chosen life afforded him. He had not said goodbye to anyone despite feeling as though he had shared at least some friendship with the members of the task force; he had taken all of the pain and rage of Elizabeth and Kate’s treachery and fled across the world.

“How is Agnes?” he asks.

“She’s great,” Liz answers. She sounds exhausted, but a softness enters her voice that it only ever seems to have when talking about her daughter. “She’s getting so big.”

Raymond has to literally bite his tongue to restrain himself from asking to see her. His last memory of her is her sleeping face, peaceful and unaware, as he’d handed her to Elizabeth. Small, and pink, and perfect.

“Where have you been? I called; I needed your help.”

Raymond can’t help the lance of pain that stabs his heart. He is sorry for her grief, but her words reignite the barely latent anger and pain that he has spent months trying to reconcile. It hurts to be without her, and it hurts to hear that this is what she wants to know after months apart.

“Tom needed my help,” Raymond corrects, and there is an edge to his words that won’t be softened. “I am not a rope to be pulled, Elizabeth, and I tire of this little game of tug-of-war. I gave you what you so desperately wanted: a life free of my presence.”

He rises from the armchair in agitation and paces closer to the window. He hadn’t known what he would feel upon confronting Elizabeth when he’d made plans to attend the funeral, but this anger – this pain so sharp that it threatens to choke him – is not expected.

“Reddington,” Elizabeth starts.

“Be safe, Elizabeth,” Raymond interrupts, because even angry her and Agnes’s safety is still paramount to him.

“Wait, Red …”

He hangs up before she can manage to say anything else. He moves into the bedroom to find the new, unused burner phone that he has stored in one of his travel bags. Once the phone is on, he types out a quick text message to Dembe’s burner phone to let him know that this is the number he can be contacted on now.

The other phone rings again, and Raymond knows that it’s Elizabeth. He holds down the power button until it shuts off, and then promptly destroys the phone.

Raymond doesn’t sleep that night. Dembe calls him the next afternoon to let him know that there has been a break in the weather and that flights have been given a cautionary green light to resume until further notice, and Raymond makes sure that they’re among the first to file a flight plan.

So it is that five days after Raymond and Dembe arrive in the states, they are gone once again.

 


 

Raymond has been agitated and unsettled since Tom’s funeral. They go to Cape Town, South Africa, but leave after three days; they go to Panama but leave the same day they land; they stay a week in Venezuela. Raymond has just moved them again to Guadalajara, Mexico when the burner that Raymond insists they keep, rings.

Dembe doesn’t even get to say hello.

“He didn’t even let you spend Christmas with your family. He was that angry?”

“You misunderstand him, Elizabeth. Willfully so, perhaps.”

“What?” Her surprise bleeds through the phone.

“He is angry, but only because he is in pain. Raymond is a hard man, Elizabeth: he is violent, and powerful, and vengeful, but he is not cruel.”

“What are you saying, Dembe? Are you saying that I’m cruel?”

“I’m saying that I’m with Raymond because he’s my friend, Elizabeth. Right now, maybe his only friend.”

Elizabeth blows out a heavy breath as if she were going to argue and then lost her steam halfway through. “Is he ever coming back, Dembe?”

He considers the question. “I don’t know. Perhaps you should ask yourself if you want him to. Goodbye, Elizabeth.”

Dembe wishes he could make this easier on them both, but mostly he wishes he could make Elizabeth see what he sees when he looks at Raymond. Maybe then she would understand.

 


 

Raymond can’t stay still now, not since that conversation with Elizabeth. He uses his safehouse in Germany as a base of operations, stopping by to spend a few days or a week at a time whenever he feels particularly unsettled. There’s something about the area that soothes him. The views are stunning, and the Germans have an admirable appreciation for life, but it’s something else that ultimately keeps bringing him back.

Only months later can he admit to himself that even when the anger and pain have him in their hold, he finds himself imagining bringing Elizabeth here. Raymond looks out at the pristine, ethereal beauty of a Bavarian village and wonders if Lizzy would love it as much as he imagines she would.

Months sweep by him like pebbles caught in a current. Harold calls the burner phone sometime in the spring because the task force needs help with a particularly nasty human trafficker, and Raymond surprises almost everyone by agreeing to assist.

Everyone except Dembe, who simply gazes at him as he hangs up the phone as if there is nothing at all surprising about Raymond’s desire to help.

Aram calls the burner in the rapidly cooling warmth of autumn (and by now Raymond has surmised that these two, Harold and Aram, are the two that Dembe had given the number) because Elizabeth has gotten herself into a truly nasty situation that has resulted in a stalker. Raymond balks at that one because he wants to run headlong at this person and put a bullet between their eyes, but it is just that reaction that Elizabeth would probably despise him for, and he’s torn between wanting to protect her and wanting to respect her wish to stay away …

…. Except the culprit had made some threatening remarks about Agnes as well, and it surprises no one that Raymond has scrambled his jet and is in the air less than twelve hours later.

(On the flight across the ocean Raymond privately acknowledges the good sense behind Dembe’s decision: give the number to Harold for matters of good sense and loyalty, and to Aram for matters of the heart).

Nothing could keep Raymond away from this one, truly, but Elizabeth doesn’t need to know that. So, while he’s calling in favors and using his resources to handle this threat with quiet discernment, he’s also making sure that Elizabeth is ignorant of his presence.

“But,” Aram challenges.

“Please, Aram,” Raymond interrupts before he can say more. “Elizabeth must not know that I was here, or that I was involved in this affair in any way.”

Aram gives him that look, all soft kindness and empathy tinged with the slightest trace of fear and uncertainty, and gives in.

“Okay. Okay, Mr. Reddington.”

“Make sure the others know as well, please. Not a word.”

And bless Aram because he agrees even though his expression says that he doesn’t, that he wants to argue, and Raymond thinks that he will keep his word.

Raymond and Dembe find the stalker first because his resources and information pipeline have always been leagues above the bureau’s. The man is a low life, but he’s definitely unhinged. He doesn’t appear to have ties to anyone important – anyone that Elizabeth, and by extension, Raymond, will have to worry about – but it makes him shudder to think about what could have happened. The stalker is enough of a threat on his own.

Raymond doesn’t torture him, exactly, but the fool makes an ugly comment about “the bitch and her daughter” and the next thing Raymond knows his knuckles are bleeding and so is the other man’s mouth.

“The next time you think about making a comment like that, I want you to think about the sound of your tongue being ripped out of your mouth. Because that’s what will be waiting for you.”

Raymond has no intention of killing him, truthfully, but the bastard doesn’t know a warning when he hears one. The one bullet to the chest he gets is better than he deserves.

His heart still lurches, albeit less painfully now, when he tells Dembe to call the cleaners. Raymond wonders if the day will ever come when he doesn’t picture Kate’s face and imagine the inflection of her tone when she answers his call in her no-nonsense way.

Maybe the lifetime of regrets that follow him around will end him before his enemies do.

Raymond considers leaving immediately, but Edward will need several hours of rest before he can fly again and Dembe deserves to see his family.

He assures Harold that the threat has been handled and can’t resist extracting another promise from that man that word of his involvement or presence in the country will not reach Elizabeth. He lets Dembe take him to his apartment in Bethesda – the one that is truly his – and then insists that his friend go spend time with his daughter.

Raymond tries to sleep and isn’t surprised when he can’t. There is no peace to be found here, not when he knows that this is the closest he’s been to Elizabeth in months; not when the sights of the city around him call up some memory of her, or them, or their time together.

It has been months since Elizabeth’s betrayal – Kate’s betrayal – and months since Tom’s death, and months more since the last time he’d spoken with her. Raymond puts on a Miles Davis record to play quietly in the background, the soft notes reaching out to fill the shadowed corners of his darkened apartment, and truly considers selling the place for the first time in years.

Then, quite suddenly, Raymond is on high alert. There’s a sound just under the music that is out of place; he barely picks it up the first time, but it comes again, and he strains to listen.

It’s shuffling.

Slowly, quietly, Raymond rises onto stockinged feet. He crosses the room to retrieve the gun he’s left on the bookshelf, and all the while he listens. The shuffling is intermittent and doesn’t seem to be moving – it’s no closer and no farther away than the last time he heard it.

Raymond approaches the door. The light in the hallway outside the apartment is a sliver of gold that runs under the crack in his front door; there are two shadows in the gold that shift as Raymond moves closer.

He holds his breath and puts his eye to the peep hole, and then he doesn’t have a breath to hold.

Raymond verifies the safety is on the gun and then sets it down on the entryway table before pulling the door open. Elizabeth is standing on the other side: her hair is longer, and she’s dressed in a way that says she was probably in pajamas an hour ago, and she is stunning.

“Elizabeth.” He wants to ask her why she’s here, and if everything is okay, and how they’ve come to be at this seeming impasse. Instead, he asks, “How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough,” she replies, and then she is launching herself at him.

There is little time to process what’s happening, but he braces himself for the slap – expects it – even as his arms are lifting to catch her because she is going to collide into him.

Only, the slap never comes. Elizabeth crashes into him and her hands are on his face, cradling it with gentle intensity, and the next thing Raymond knows is the velvet crush of her lips. At first, he’s too stunned to process what’s happening. When his brain catches up seconds later, he pushes her away.

“What are you doing?” he demands, thunderstruck.

To his further consternation, Lizzy is crying. Just two tears that glisten on her cheeks, but as he watches another one falls. She has managed to maintain the barest hold on his face: just the ghosting pressure of her fingertips against his chin and cheeks.

“I’m sorry, Red,” she says tearfully. “I’m so sorry, for everything. I know that what I did was wrong, and you have every right to be angry with me, but I just … I just want you to know that I’m sorry, and I love you, and …”

There are a million reasons or more why he shouldn’t; a million reasons why they can’t, and it won’t work, and Raymond knows every one of them by heart. He has spent countless hours with them as if they were his closest friends.

He knows them all and gives them one more second of acknowledgement before promptly telling them to get the hell out.

Raymond kisses her with all the feeling and ardor that has been locked within him for years. He tries to be gentle, but the scope and breadth of his emotion renders him powerless. His kisses are just this side of crushing. He tries to hold it back, to temper himself, but Lizzy is meeting his intensity with that fire that is all her own.

She’s volatile, he had said once. Hard, and then soft, and then hard again.

Raymond kisses her like he might not get another chance, like this might be over with his next breath, because it might. It might, and if this is all he gets then he will not leave her with any doubt of the force of his emotion.

They are a tangle of lips and limbs as Lizzy kicks the door closed and they fumble down the hall, neither willing to let go of the other long enough to move unencumbered. The sound of their stuttering breaths punctuates the smooth tones of the record still playing.

The sharp bite of the door frame on his hip bone tells him he’s misjudged the distance into the living room; moments later Lizzy huffs out a pained grunt against his mouth as her foot connects with something that Raymond thinks might be his shoe.

Reluctant, anxious for what he will find, Raymond finally draws back from her lips to study her face in the half-light. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes glitter, and it’s only when he sees her mussed hair that he realizes his hands are responsible. For a long moment they stand just like that: arms wrapped around each other, chest to chest, studying one another in the rutilant glow of lamplight.

“Lizzy,” he says, and his voice is scratchier than he expects, deeper and quieter. It’s only a word – her name, a nickname that she has always claimed to hate – and yet her face crumples at the sound of it.

“I’m okay,” she assures him, because his consternation must be visible, “It’s just … you haven’t called me that in a long time.”

“You’ve always hated it,” he reminds her. He has lost count of how many times she has tried to correct him and discourage its use.

“I used to,” she agrees. “But then I got used to it, and then it was … just yours, a nickname that only you were allowed to use.”

“Where is Agnes?” Raymond asks. His mind is admittedly having a hard time keeping up with the last few minutes, but now that it’s been given a second to process it’s doing so at full speed.

Lizzy smiles at him, and it’s so soft and affectionate that Raymond’s heart lurches. “She’s safe. She’s with Aram, and Dembe has a security detail outside his place.”

There’s a lull in the conversation and Raymond thinks this is it, this is where the spell is broken, and her softness turns to jagged edges and disgust and …

“I really am sorry, Red. So sorry, and I know that the words pale in comparison to the deed, but it’s the truth.”

Another thing occurs to Raymond then, a tiny moment that has been lost in the whirlwind until now, and his hands are framing her face again as the intensity in the room – in him – builds to dangerous levels once more.

“Say it again.”

“I’m so…”

“No,” he says with a quick, firm shake of his head. “Not the apology.”

And he waits, because he will not prompt or guide her, will not do anything to make this feel forced or manipulated. His heart has been broken too many times, too thoroughly, to risk a misunderstanding in this.

But Lizzy is sharp – he has always admired the way her mind works, how it leaps from puzzle piece to puzzle piece to make connections – and the slow smile that blooms over her face gives away the moment she understands.

“I love you.” It’s a quiet statement; a ringing benediction that chases even the darkest shadows from the corners of his ruined soul.

Raymond’s throat works, but the words die before they reach his lips. He can’t swallow, can’t breathe – time stretches away from him in an unknowable current.

And then she kisses him, an earnest press of her lips to his, and she whispers, “Breathe, Red.” Her lips form the words against his, so he can both hear and feel them.

“You … you do?” he finally manages. “Lizzy.” But he can’t manage anything else.

“Let me show you,” she whispers, and just like that the quiet peace gives way to passionate momentum.

Their kisses are less bruising now, but no less insistent – no less fervent. They are intent on one another, hands pulling at clothing in a frenzy as they attempt to get closer until fingers ghost over sensitive flesh to leave goosebumps in their wake. Lizzy has divested him of his suit vest in record time and is working on the buttons of his shirt, but he makes her stop long enough to pull the shirt over her head. There is clothing littering the floor of his apartment – her jacket and his suit vest and her shirt – yet she’s somehow still too clothed for his liking.

Then, Raymond foregoes the slick heat of her mouth to bite at her earlobe and trail kisses down the column of her throat, and there is nothing shy about the moan that Lizzy lets loose. That’s all the encouragement he needs: Raymond cups her ass with both hands and lifts, and Lizzy – beautiful, intelligent, quick on her feet – jumps into him and crosses her ankles behind his back so that he can carry her into his room.

There is nothing after that but passion, and intimacy; crooning jazz that does nothing to mask the sounds of their lovemaking, their I love you’s whispered and pressed into fevered flesh as their world is made and unmade and made again.

Until finally – finally – the first timid fingers of dawn are reaching through the window, and the only music to be heard is quiet breathing and the steady thrum of two hearts at peace.

And Raymond sleeps right through it, as soundly as he did when he was a boy, and the world is full of promise once more.