"How are you feeling?"

"Happy as a seagull with a French fry."

CHAPTER ONE

Red's headache returned with a vengeance, further compounded by a hollow, sinking feeling, as the call ended.

Trust your instincts.

If the previous year reinforced anything, it was that basic philosophy – one of many that served him well for several decades. People lie through their actions, what they say. People use whatever mechanism or plurality given the set of circumstances in play to take control.

It was him. More accurately, his feelings for her were the culprit.

The emotional pull that constantly drew them back to one another and also contributed to his forgiving her every indiscretion.

Elizabeth would always be his Lizzie.

That knowledge assured she had the upper hand, an advantage.

Depositing the phone in the rear console caddy, Red lifted his eyes to Dembe and found his friend staring back at him in the mirror. What does one say in these situations, if there is truly in fact anything to say aloud?

I try to leave nothing to fate, but I'm perfectly comfortable with chaos.

That assessment made to Ilya in jest remained true up to a point.

Chaos, the not knowing what awaited him, was part of what made life as a wanted fugitive turned criminal informant with quite the immunity package such a thrill. In ways, his tenure with the task force was comparable to a second lease on childhood – a period of his life where innocence and hope were neither foreign nor distant.

Fate, on the other hand, had other plans for him.

His destination was carved.

You underestimated Elizabeth. She's on your side after all.

Red didn't subscribe to that perspective – he could ill afford to.

He was no amateur and considered himself quite proficient in psychological studies. One doesn't have to share the same physical space in order to draw conclusions. Mannerisms and posture were quite informative. For him, however, it was the combination of specific verbal cues and speech patterns that he found more reliable.

What a person says or doesn't say, how one constructs sentences, and the time in between marked by silence or deliberation offered greater intel.

Coupled with history, it wasn't hard to put the pieces together.

After all, he and Lizzie traversed this path several times already.

It constituted a pattern, if not a ritual, of theirs – however unpleasant and irksome the experience was. She would need him, and of course he'd step up without hesitation. Because that's what you do for the people that you love. The matter would turn in her favor, she'd celebrate with him for a time and then expel him from her orbit – casting aspersions and blaming him for the very position he helped her escape from. Her capacity for trusting him one moment and in the next flipping the switch entirely frustrated him to no end.

Her inquiry into his condition was a pretext.

He was certain of that.

Red clenched his right hand, willing the tremor to stop.

I don't care about who you were. I care for you are, and that's the only thing that matters.

It was all so unfair.

The more he opened himself up to her, the more danger he introduced not only to his own life, but to all participants of a war he didn't begin. If he didn't care, all would be so much easier. But that was immaterial. At the forefront were questions:

How did he come to be in this position yet again?

Why wasn't he safe in the company of those who knew him well?

How come the people he loves don't reciprocate the loyalty he exhibits to the same degree? Newton, Kate, Lizzie repeatedly, Dembe even. Each betrayal left a wound, and over time coping became more difficult.

What would it take to break the cycle?

My prescription is rest. And honesty.

He found himself unable to fight the first recommendation, his eyes growing heavier as the drive continued. A glance to his GMT Master II informed him they had roughly an hour and a half before arrival. Thoughts turning to the second dimension, he scoffed.

Honestly, he was scared.

He was scared of what was happening, scared of what could happen, and couldn't divulge either facet of that truth to anyone.

How was that for a dose of honesty?

If recent events were any indication, an alliance with Katarina would result in peril. The woman purporting to be her mother was a master manipulator, her tactics a precise duplicate of those employed by Tom and Alexander Kirk among others. Had those experiences not presented opportunities to learn and adopt a different pattern of behavior?

How could Lizzie be so gullible?

How could she extend trust to a woman she'd known for the equivalent of five minutes?

How could she align herself against him?

Answers, like progressive solutions, were scarce.

Overcome with a sudden chill, Red pulled his coat tighter across his torso and gingerly stretched out along the length of the back seat. He felt Dembe studying his every motion and concentrated on the jazz tunes emanating from the speakers, the chorus of instruments swiftly taking him under.

For so long, it was the darkness, the images conjured by his subconscious, that he feared. Chalk it up to his being exhausted from the day's events or the new medication flooding his system. Now, he welcomed it.

Only there did he feel the light.

In sleep, he tasted the reality he craved so much.

He wasn't cast as villain in his Elizabeth's eyes. He wasn't a stranger to the little girl he adored and devoted every second of every day to during the 10 month span in which her mother was comatose. His shoulders weren't weighed down by the burden of carrying other people's sins and correcting the many wrongs and injustices of the world. There was no need to keep go-bags stocked and within an easy reach or fear of any variety.

It didn't hurt to breathe.

All of those elements that held sway in the conscious realm were trivial during the dream state, so he latched onto that sense of calm.