Summary: Tom faces a very empty apartment after Liz's "death" and a surprise (and very awkward) visit from the one person that might actually get what he's going through. Set in 3B.
All That From Her
The sun was setting low in the sky, dropping quickly behind a building and it wouldn't be long before the street lamps flickered on to light the sidewalk. There were groceries in the back seat that needed to be taken in and half a dozen other mindless tasks he could do to find a way to pointedly ignore the fact that the hospital staff had all but kicked him out that evening. Strongly encouraged, that was the term that they'd used. They strongly encouraged him to go home and sleep in his own bed that night rather than crash out in the chair next to Agnes' little hospital crib for the fourth night in a row. She was safe. Tom knew she was safe, but that didn't mean he wanted to leave her to go back to the apartment.
That empty, cold, lonely apartment.
He'd run any errands he could think of and had watched the sun dropping in his rear view mirror for…. however long. As one of the lights positioned directly above where he'd parked on the street outside of his and Liz's apartment clicked on, Tom groaned loudly and folded forward against the steering wheel.
Five more minutes. He needed five more minutes of wallowing and then he'd get up, brave the horribly empty apartment that she had chosen, and see if he could at least fall asleep on the couch. The bed would be a nonstarter, that much he knew. Until Kaplan could get a signal to him without raising suspicions, Liz was simultaneously alive and gone forever in Tom's mind. Trying to sleep in their bed without her would only invite nightmares when the lights went off.
Tom jerked up and cursed loudly at the sharp tap against his driver's side window. He was halfway to reaching for his gun when his eyes finally focused through dried out contacts on a familiar face. Donald Ressler motioned for him to roll the window down. Tom shoved at the urge to groan and pushed the door open instead, knocking the other man back a little. Apparently he wasn't getting his five minutes.
"Thought you'd fallen asleep at the wheel for a second," Ressler said, his tone struggling to be light. Really it just came out forced and awkward.
Tom ran a hand through his dark hair to feel it stand on end before he pulled the back door open for the groceries. "Just thinking. You guys get a new lead? Cooper hasn't called."
"No, not yet. I just… you need a hand with that?"
"I've got it," Tom snapped, carefully trying to balance the grocery bags. He felt one slip and Ressler grabbed for it.
Tom swallowed the biting remark that nearly escaped, mentally resetting himself. There were too many bags to easily balance himself - the massive package of diapers taking up half the backseat - and Ressler was there, even if he still hadn't explained why. The other man might as well make himself useful.
Bags in hand they started up to the apartment in an awkward silence that lasted all the way to the door, through the door, and even as Ressler followed Tom's example by putting everything down in the kitchen.
"Where's the dog?" Ressler finally asked as Tom started to put things away. "Doesn't Liz have a dog?"
"With a friend. I don't have time to watch him as much time as I've spent at the hospital."
A quick glance showed the ginger agent shifting from one foot to the other, his own gaze sweeping the apartment as if he were looking for an excuse to keep avoiding whatever had brought him here in the first place. Tom put the last of the perishables away. "Listen, man, I'm good, but I'm not a mind reader, so why don't you say whatever it is you couldn't say over the phone and let me get back to what I'm doing?"
If he had expected the biting tone to put his - ex - wife's partner on edge, he was a little disappointed. No, not disappointed, Tom reevaluated the flickering emotions. Confused. There was something strange in Ressler's expression. Not quite pity, but there was a flash of pain there that he hadn't expected and didn't know how to take. There was no question in his mind that Ressler had some kind of feelings for Liz. That could explain the pain, but not why he'd choose to come to Tom with it. They weren't something Tom would call friends, even if every encounter they had didn't land with punches thrown anymore. He wasn't sure what the fed thought he was going to get from this.
Ressler swallowed hard and spoke slowly. "She told you about Audrey, didn't she? Liz. Liz told you about Audrey?"
Tom blinked hard. Okay. Interesting. "Yeah. Your fiancée or something like that." He thought back, his tired mind finding pieces of intel from what seemed like a lifetime ago. Audrey Bidwell. Ressler's fiancée that left him during his stint in the first Reddington task force and that had been killed by one of their Blacklister after they'd gotten back together. Liz hadn't given him details, but it had been Tom's job to know them at the time. Okay. Maybe he could see where this was going. Not what he'd expected, certainly.
"I dove into work when she died and just about lost myself doing it."
Tom bristled at that. "Is that what this is? Telling me to butt out of the investigation?"
It was Ressler's turn to look confused now. "No. No, I just… I didn't talk to anybody because nobody got it. Liz had you, Cooper wasn't exactly in a position that we could have that conversation…." He shrugged, avoiding eye contact, but growing a little more agitated. "Look, pal, I'm not going to force it on you, but I do get it. My guess is I'm the only one near you right now that really gets it."
A long moment passed and Tom drew in a breath that was surprisingly shaky. It startled him and drew Ressler's gaze again. He was tired. He'd done the whole multiple days without sleep run before to the point that he had started questioning which way was up, but he still had never felt this kind of tired. Like the weight of not knowing would crush him. He couldn't tell Ressler that. Couldn't explain the plan and the bone chilling fear that it'd gone wrong, but maybe, just maybe, Liz's partner wasn't entirely off point, even if he hated to admit it. He set his jaw, leaning heavily against the counter, the words tumbling out before he gave them permission to. "I can't sleep in my own bed," he admitted softly. "I can't… this place… Every time I walk through the door I think she'll be here."
"I moved not long after Audrey died. Same reason," Ressler said quietly.
"Yeah, but then I'd have to box all her things up." A mirthless chuckle escaped him and he closed his eyes and dug the heels of his hands in to try to relieve some of the pressure. "I'm not good at waiting. I need to do something. Fix it." The other man tilted his head a little and Tom shrugged. "Okay, maybe not fix it, but something. Take down the people that did this to her."
"Yeah, I get that." Ressler moved to take a careful seat on one of the bar stools. "It's the quiet moments when you have to face it. There's nothing left to do but face it."
Tom's gaze snapped to Ressler, that particular truth sounding so obvious when someone else voiced it. He wasn't good at that though. He could track someone else's reasoning and predict which way they'd turn, but his own? He'd spent so many years behind so many masks he was only now starting to figure out who he really was. Liz helped with that. Liz helped him see it a little clearer. Doing that without her terrified him, and Ressler was right. In those quiet moments all he had was himself. That was an unsettling thought.
"You mind if I ask you something?"
Tom quirked an eyebrow. "This is where you're asking permission?"
The tiniest of smiles tugged at the corner of Ressler's mouth. "You stuck with the name you first gave her. Why?"
"Why are you asking?"
"Curiosity, I guess. I've wondered before. Did she even know your real name?"
"Then why? Afraid we'll dig something up?"
"My guess is the only thing you'd dig up under my name would be a couple of old foster care records and a death certificate." He turned, grabbing the kettle from the stove more out of a need to move than the desire for tea. "My former employer didn't like people sniffing around."
"So why Tom?"
He didn't answer right away, his mind working through all of the possible ramifications and just how much he trusted Donald Ressler as he popped the top from the kettle and shoved it under the faucet in the sink. Liz trusted him. Liz had even relied on him to some degree. That had to count for something. He turned and the burner clicked sluggishly before the flame caught. Tom set the newly filled kettle down and squeezed his eyes closed. "Because it was the first time I….felt like I was home," he finally managed. "Because Jacob was a name some person that found me gave and it was all I had, but it was just a placeholder between jobs. Being Tom…. is more than just the job. It was the first time I let myself want more."
"All that from a name, huh?" Ressler snorted, but there wasn't any malice in his tone.
The kettle whistled and Tom reached for it. "All that from her," he corrected. "When you can slip in and out of names, they don't mean much until they do. Liz met me as Tom, so it just…. I don't know, felt right, I guess. She was always better at putting it into words."
"You guys talked about it?"
"Yeah." He grabbed two mugs and dropped the tea bags into them, pouring the steaming water after them. "I know you think she doesn't - didn't - know me, but most days I think Liz knew me better than I know myself."
"From what you've told her."
Tom shoved the mug Ressler's way. "Why are you here again?"
For what it was worth, he looked a little sheepish. "Right. Sorry."
"They don't exactly encourage a lot of introspection where I grew up."
Tom shot a surprised look at him over the lip of his mug.
Ressler shrugged. "Reddington told us right before he and I went to Germany to get you."
Okay. That made sense. He didn't like the fact that the Task Force might or might not have information about him he wasn't aware of, but at least it made sense. "Yeah… they had a different kind of focus. You're always supposed to put a little of yourself into the role to ground it, but Liz made it easy to… be myself, I guess. Figure out who that was. Or is. I guess I'm on my own for that."
"Well, at least you've got a good reason to figure that out."
"Yeah," Tom breathed, and again he couldn't m help but feel like he should be doing something. If not tracking down the people that had attacked their wedding, at least he should be with their daughter. Agnes needed to know he was there. That they hadn't abandoned her.
"I didn't have that with Audrey. She was just…. gone. I got her back to lose her all over again."
Tom risked a look at the other man, feeling a strange tug of what must have been empathy for him. Years later he clearly still missed her. He got it. If Liz was… if the worst happened he knew he'd never be the same. He'd felt it every time one of them walked away, but death had a more permanent effect on a person's hope.
Ressler took a long gulp from his mug and frowned a little at it. "The man that was ultimately responsible for her death is gone and it didn't do a damn thing to make me feel better."
"So you are telling me to back off the case?"
"No, just…. set your expectations."
Silence sat heavily between them for a long moment before Tom turned, opened one of the top cabinet doors, and grabbed a whisky bottle from it. Ressler made a small, amused sound as Tom poured a generous helping into either mug with the tea.
Ressler lifted his. "We're going to get the bastard that killed her."
"Yeah," Tom answered lowly. "I know we will."
Even if Liz's partner didn't know it yet, everything depended on just that.
Notes: I think this idea developed from a conversation started in our Tom Keen discord channel (if you'd like to join, give me a shout and I can get you the link), but it's hard to pinpoint because it took forever to write :') Honestly, I just needed some awkward Tessler bonding and Tom missing Liz. I've thought about Liz missing Tom way too much lately.