"Mommy, look at the duckies!"
"I see them, baby, aren't they cute?"
Liz watches, smiling proudly, as Agnes skips off to press up against the metal bars around the beautiful fountain, cooing at the ducks happily paddling there. This fountain has been a daily trip for them since they discovered it here in Paris, just a few blocks from their expensive hotel, and today is no exception. Ducks make Agnes happy and Agnes makes Liz happy.
And frankly? It's about time.
Liz has simply adored her time with her little girl, starting when she retrieved her from the Post Office and not ceasing for a single minute since then. Once they were safely aboard Red's plane with his money in tow, all snuggled up for a much-needed nap in their matching unicorn socks, Liz had turned her focus entirely to Agnes, making her safety and happiness Liz's number one priority. And only when Agnes is safely in the next room of their various hotels, snuggled up and fast asleep with her stuffed duck, does Liz begin to work.
She's been staying up late into the night, mapping out her schemes and executing her plans, using her observations and experiences with the inner workings of Red's criminal mind to help her outsmart him. Liz has been thrilled to use her long-abused profiling mind to make intricate plans consisting of extra steps, twists and turns, and roundabout ways to work things to her overall advantage.
She's never felt more independent, intelligent, and powerful.
(She's never felt more like Red's equal.)
But, despite all this, Liz has lately been losing interest with her long game of revenge. Something about the distance and time away from the endless danger of Washington and the constant reminder of what her life has become has dulled her bloodlust and anger. Being in a new city has been a breath of fresh air in more ways than one, successfully clearing her head in a way she's been hunting for years. And something about being on an entirely new continent, completely at her leisure with more money than she's ever dreamed of, her little girl safe and happy at her side?
Well, she's having a little trouble remembering what was so appealing about her mindset of perpetual anger.
(And, if she's honest with herself, she can't quite remember what she was so angry about in the first place.)
Liz has been thinking a lot about her mother while here exploring Paris with Agnes. And the more she thinks about Katarina, the more the ferocity of her feelings about her mother's death have…lessened. As much as she's always craved the love and trust of a mother, Liz is starting to suspect that her recent memories of Katarina are somewhat rose-tinted and idealized. She's remembering with more clarity the cold glances and instances of doubt, the nagging suspicions of being used, all the threats and danger of harm.
And after all, with Katarina gone, Liz can't deny that she and, more importantly, Agnes are much safer.
(And there is nothing more important than that.)
But then there's Red.
Liz maintains that he was wrong to kill Katarina, especially when she pleaded so desperately with him not to, and the fact that he still feels entitled to make important decisions for her remains a large problem between them. But she and Red have had so many experiences together, with a solid history of mutual trust and emotional closeness. Certainly many more than Katarina ever showed any interest in sharing with her.
(Because honestly, what does it say that every time Agnes discovers something new, Liz feels the urge to turn and share it, not with the mother she didn't really even know, but with Red's familiar and comfortable presence.)
In fact, there's been many instances lately, here in Paris, that Liz has found herself wishing Red was here with them, that she had somebody to share the city with, someone to delight in her enthusiasm and display his own, someone that loves her daughter almost as much as -
"Hey, Liz, the explosives guy is on the phone, do you want to talk to him?"
Someone other than Skip.
"I'll call him back," she mutters to him, as she sees Agnes leaving the ducks and skipping back over to them.
"Mommy, can we go to the zoo today?"
"Sure, baby, we can go after you finish with the duckies, how does that sound?" Liz says, happy to give Agnes anything she wants.
"Yay!" she crows, throwing her arms around Liz's waist. "Thank you, Mommy!"
Agnes then spies Skip hovering in the background, as he often is, texting at lightning speed on one of their many burner phones.
"Are you gonna go to the zoo with us, Mr. Skip?"
Skip glances up from the phone distractedly. "Uh, I don't know, kid…"
Agnes wrinkles her cute little forehead at his obvious inattentiveness. "Mr. Skip, what's your favorite animal?"
"Jeez, kid," Skip mutters. "I'm kinda busy here, okay?"
Another phone rings in Skip's pocket and he quickly turns away to answer it, not quite managing to hide an obnoxious roll of his eyes. Liz grinds her teeth, narrowing her eyes and wishing, not for the first time, she had something heavy to hurl at the back of his head.
Liz smothers her anger to turn back to her daughter. "Nevermind him, Agnes," she assures her quietly. "Go finish with the duckies, okay?"
"Okay!" Agnes chirps, wasting no time in scurrying back to the fountain, clearly unperturbed by Skip's behavior.
While he has certainly been helpful since he betrayed Marvin, sided with Liz, and successfully helped her steal from Red, Liz has become increasingly disenchanted with Skip as an associate and companion. She knows she needs him on her side, at least for the time being. He's just about the only ally she has so far in this fight. But that doesn't stop the niggling familiarity of his demeanor and expressions.
(He reminds her sickeningly of Tom.)
And what she once might have seen as earnestness and skill, Liz can now only see as oily and conniving. There's a shiftiness to his eyes that she doesn't trust, a restlessness to his form, an insincerity to his smile. But she supposes those things are rather in character for him. After all, he did betray the Concierge of Crime without a second thought.
And it may very well be Liz's recent and unrelenting sense of paranoia, but she's taken to getting two hotel rooms as they travel through Paris, and always locking the conjoining door between them. Because as thrilled as she's been to finally win over one of Red's people and actually gain an ally in this war, she can't wait to ditch Skip.
He is not at all the knight in shining armor she imagined him to be.
(And it wouldn't be the first time she's made that particular mistake.)
Not to mention, he has no clue how to interact with children. That's not a capital offense, of course - many people don't - but his obvious distaste and disinterest for Agnes and her innocent questions, his apparent irritation at her presence, his overall lack of affection for Liz's perfect daughter are merely the final straw.
(And when she once again sees Skip brush off Agnes as he just did, all she can think is that Red would never, ever talk to Agnes like she doesn't matter.)
Between her negative feelings for Skip, her second thoughts about Katarina, and her near constant thoughts about Red, it's safe to say that her dramatic betrayal and departure to the city of love hasn't turned out quite like she expected.
(And honestly? Nothing has.)
Liz turns immediately at the urgency in Skip's voice, keeping Agnes in her peripherals while taking in Skip's grim expression, the burner phone clutched in his hand.
"What?" she demands, the back of her neck starting to prickle.
"They couldn't stop it in time."
"What?" she gasps, panicked and disbelieving.
He's referring to her latest meticulously planned scheme, put into action two nights ago and meant to lead the task force on a wild goose chase, culminating in the explosion of an empty building. However, it was meant to be an entirely avoidable event, that is, if Aram and the others followed the clues and stopped it, like they did with the travel drive put on the passenger plane by The Freelancer. But, apparently, things didn't go as well as last time.
"I gave them everything they needed!" she snaps. "What happened?"
Skip sighs. "They just didn't put it all together in time, Liz. It just went wrong. But Liz…"
He hesitates while Liz holds her breath, dread settling in the depths of her stomach and clawing its way up her throat at the look on his face.
"What?" she asks for the third time, not entirely sure she wants to hear the answer.
"It looks like Reddington was caught up in it," Skip says quietly, looking warily at her as the world tilts out from under her feet. "I think he was trying to stop it himself. I…I haven't had confirmation of anything, but Liz…he may be d-"
(And something seizes up inside of her and it feels like her heart is exploding in her chest and she knows in that instant that she has gravely, awfully miscalculated.
About more than one thing.)
"No!" she barks, the syllable bursting uncontrollably from her. "He can't be dead! That wasn't supposed to happen!"
She's shaking her head repeatedly, stupidly attempting to loosen Skip's words from her ears and knock them out of her head because they don't belong.
Meanwhile, Skip is frowning openly at her, looking confused.
"But Liz," he says, his voice strained with deliberate patience. "I thought this was what you wanted, why -"
"Not like this!" she interrupts, annoyed at his ignorant assumptions.
That's the problem. Not like this. She was supposed to do it herself, be there in person, look him in the eye as she killed him and -
(No, no. That doesn't work either, her heart constricts painfully at the mental image, and maybe she's been wrong this whole time about what she really wants.
It certainly wouldn't be the first time.)
But Skip doesn't need to know that.
Liz sighs, frustrated and upset and scared and spiraling. She needs to pull it together, be strong for Agnes, and figure it out. Yes. Yes, she'll figure it out. And, for that, she needs Skip.
(At least, for the time being.)
"Call the pilot. Tell him to fuel up the jet. We're leaving."
Liz doesn't wait for an answer, turning away from Skip to call out to Agnes. "Agnes, come on, sweetie!"
"But Liz -" Skip protests, and she can hear the unrestrained frustration in his voice now, a dangerous tone that triggers an instinctive response in her, and she whirls back around to face him, a glare on her face and a snarl on her lips.
"Just do it!"
(And she feels a cool satisfaction at the flash of fear in his eyes and, oh, how she wishes Tom and all the damage he did would stay dead where they belong.)
Skip's jaw snaps shut at her words, anger still obvious on his face, but he gives her a terse nod and turns away, the burner phone already at his ear, starting to make arrangements. Liz stares at his back, mind whirling, because as soon the plane lands, she's going to make sure that Skip -
"Mommy? What's wrong?"
Her thoughts are interrupted by a quiet voice and a little hand tugging at her sleeve. Liz's dark thoughts vanish immediately, banished by the pure and innocent light that is her daughter, and Liz turns, crouching down to be level with her little face.
"Nothing's wrong, baby," she soothes instantly, brushing Agnes's bangs out of her eyes. She'll need another haircut soon. "But it turns out we don't have time for the zoo today, sweetie, she's sorry. We have to get on a big plane and fly somewhere. I promise we'll do the zoo another day though, okay?"
"Okay, Mommy," Agnes says, sounding a little let down but obviously trying not to show it, putting on a brave face that makes Liz's heart squeeze.
There's nothing she hates more than disappointing Agnes.
Liz pulls Agnes in for a tight hug. "Thank you, baby," Liz whispers, holding her for a peaceful, too-short moment, before pulling back, standing up, and taking her hand. "Come on, let's go get packed. And how about we play princesses on the plane?"
Liz smiles as Agnes crows with delight, skipping along easily at her side, all her zoo-related disappointments forgotten. Liz jerks her head at Skip, who's still on the phone, and he follows a few feet behind them as they leave the fountain and head back to the hotel. As they walk, Liz's mind races ahead, making plans and estimations.
They should be in the air within the hour.
But being on the jet won't help how utterly sick with worry she is and, oh, they can't land fast enough.
Because she has someone she needs to see.
Red trudges slowly across his large hotel suite, crossing the main living area from the bathroom, passing in front of the floor to ceiling window, just trying to get to the comfortable armchair on the other side of the room, but it's more difficult than it should be.
He almost got blown up today.
Red was caught up in an explosion, a scheme of Lizzie's that he supposes they were meant to stop, but he was already searching the empty building alone when the Task Force called, yelling desperately over the phone for him to get the hell out. He just about managed it too, sprinting through the halls, stumbling down the stairs, and bursting out the door as Aram counted down on speaker phone in his pocket. He was only about a foot from the door when the building finally blew, lifting him off his feet and throwing him a few yards from the sheer force of the blast.
(He's never been more thankful that Dembe had a hankering for a cheeseburger.)
Red's mostly fine, suffering a little ringing in his ears, some cuts and scrapes from shrapnel - only a few of them deep - and bruises pretty much everywhere from his heavy landing. Overall, he's lucky to be alive. If the Task Force had been moments later on the phone, if he had been one floor higher, if he had missed just one step on the stairs…
Well, he'd be dead.
He wonders vaguely how Lizzie feels about that.
Probably annoyed that he's once again managed to escape death by only a hair's breadth.
(And he tries not to think about how much that hurts him, sets him aching in a way that has nothing to do with the bumps and bruises all over his body.)
Red has just finished cleaning up, suffering through a hot shower that made all his various open wounds sting and burn, and bandaging everything that needed covering, the worst of which was a deep cut on his scalp that refused to stop bleeding. Dembe had helped him through it all, checking the hard to reach areas like his back and gently dressing the new wounds amid his old scars there, his lips pursed in a terse look of disapproval that Red could absolutely not deal with tonight. Dembe has only just left the hotel, sent on his way for more first aid supplies by Red, since they've successfully depleted their current stash in one sitting.
He'll need fresh bandages by morning.
Bypassing the tempting decanter of scotch visible but just out of reach in the kitchen, he finally reaches the blessed armchair and gingerly eases himself into it with a heavy sigh, his eyes slipping closed as sheer exhaustion presses down on him. Dembe will be annoyed at him for falling asleep in a chair instead of the perfectly good bed two rooms away, but it's simply too far. Dembe can help him when he gets back, but in the meantime, he just wants to sit here and doze in the darkness, the moonlight shining through the huge window of the suite, because he's just so tired -
The loud ringing of his burner phone rips him from the loose grips of sleep.
Red briefly considers throwing the damn thing across the room so he can get some rest but he stops himself at the thought that it might be Dembe calling from the store, so he reaches his hand into his pocket blindly, not bothering to open his eyes to check the caller ID before putting it wearily up to his face.
Red's eyes snap open at the unexpected voice in his ear.
(And he's not nearly sharp enough for the verbal sparring that's about to commence and he thinks about just hanging up before he decides her voice is too beautiful to ignore.)
He straightens up in his chair, wincing a little at the soreness coursing through him from the movement.
"Despite your best efforts, yes, I am. Though a little worse for wear, I must say."
"Red," she breathes, and her voice is brimming with some long-forgotten emotion he can't quite identify. "No, it wasn't supposed to happen like that. No one was supposed to be in the building, least of all you."
Red frowns, her tone still nagging at something in the back of his brain.
"I must confess, Elizabeth, I'm a little confused," he says dryly, trying to keep his confusion out of his voice. "I thought the only thing you wanted these days was for me to be dead."
There's a long pause on the other end of the line - so long that he might think she hung up if he couldn't hear her breathing - a pause in which he suddenly identifies the emotion he hears in her voice in the same instant that she speaks again, her voice a tremulous whisper.
"I'm not sure what I want anymore."
(Oh, she was worried about him.)
And dear god, Red almost texts Dembe to ask him to purchase him a neck brace for the whiplash Lizzie is giving him, because what on earth -
(But there's a part of him - an admittedly large part - that thrills at her whispered words, a little, pathetic kindling of hope taking light within him, that nearly cries out with joy because perhaps their story isn't over yet after all -)
"Are you alright?" she asks when he doesn't respond, her voice a little more steady and guarded then before.
Red runs a hand over his tender scalp, trying desperately to rally himself.
"Uh, I'm fine," he murmurs to her. "A little beat up, but just some scrapes and bruises. I've had worse, certainly."
He hears Lizzie sigh through the phone and his mouth quirks a little at her evident exasperation, suddenly feeling more in sync with her than he has in a long, long time.
"May I ask where you are?" he questions tentatively after a brief pause.
"No," she says simply, and he lets out a breathy chuckle. "We were in Paris for a while. Exploring. Agnes loved it."
Red smiles at the thought of Agnes.
"How is she?"
"She's amazing," Lizzie murmurs, and Red can hear the sheer adoration in her voice. "Her current obsession is all things animals, particularly ducks. And she…she asks about you sometimes."
Red freezes, his eyebrows rising on his forehead.
"Yeah," Lizzie sighs. "She wonders why you didn't come with us. She wants to show you her favorite fountain. I couldn't figure out how to explain things to her…"
Sitting here in his airchair - likely on the other side of the world from the both of them - Red's throat tightens, his eyes filling with tears at the very thought of precious Agnes wanting to show him anything, and his fingers clench around the phone with the sheer force of his grief because it doesn't have to be this way -
"I have to go," she interrupts quickly, and Red thinks he hears a suspicious sniff that is not his own.
"Lizzie, please -"
"I'll call again soon, okay? Keep your phone on."
Red squeezes his eyes shut, heart-sick and desperate but knowing he can't push her faster than she's willing to go.
(He learned that lesson a long time ago.)
"All right," he relents, a bitter taste in his mouth. "Be safe, Elizabeth."
"I will," she murmurs. "And get some rest, Red."
Red scoffs a little to himself because little does she know there's nothing he'd like more -
"You look tired."
And Red is up and striding to the window before the dial tone sounds in his ear, no longer feeling the pain of his many injuries as he stares out into the night, feeling equal parts reluctant wariness and pure elation that Lizzie is somewhere nearby, Agnes surely with her, at a safe distance out in the darkness.
Sighing, Red slowly closes his phone and slides it into his pocket, before reaching up to rest his palm longingly on the glass. As much as the knowledge comforts the ragged edges of his heart, it's not fair that Lizzie is so close, and yet completely invisible to him.
As he turns regretfully from the window and heads to his bedroom, craving the blissful escape of sleep, there's only one thought echoing within him.
Because despite everything?
Red wishes he could see her too.