"Look, there he is!"
Anne quickly passes Red the binoculars and he peers through them in the direction of her outstretched finger, spying a little red and brown bird perched in a nearby tree.
"Ah," Red breathes happily. "Hello, my elusive little fellow."
Anne laughs quietly, delighted with their find, and Red lowers the binoculars to look over at her.
"I knew our patience would pay off," she tells him with a smile.
"Oh, I had no doubt," Red hums, passing back the binoculars. "You're the expert of the two of us, after all."
Anne rolls her eyes at his obvious flattery. "So, Raymond," she says, turning slightly on the bench to face him more directly. "Now that we've caught sight of our little friend, I think it's time you tell me more about yourself."
"Oh yes?" Red smiles pleasantly, even while his stomach twists with nerves at her innocent request. "And what would you like to know?"
"Tell me anything," Anne says lightly, gently prodding. "I don't know much about you other than you have a complicated job and you work for a living. Oh, and you're number four on the FBI's Most Wanted list, of course."
"Number one, actually," Red corrects with a proud grin.
"Oh, that's right, excuse me," she teases. "Number one, how could I have forgotten?"
Red chuckles quietly, letting the silence and surrounding bird calls keep them company for the moment as he studies Anne. She looks right back, patient and serene, as he tries to decide what exactly he should share with her. Dembe would say nothing at all, surely, but Red disagrees. He knows that, if he asked, Anne would drop it, content to respect his privacy and simply watch the birds with him. But, despite this knowledge, he feels a strange urge to tell this kind woman how he feels, the things plaguing his soul, all his troubles and sadness.
After all, so far, she's proven to be a wonderful listener.
Anne seems to sense his indecision and tentatively breaks the silence. "Have you ever been married?" she prompts gently.
Red smiles sadly, grateful for the question, a starting point for all he could tell her. "Yes, once," he murmurs. "My wife and young daughter passed away many years ago."
Anne's naturally happy face collapses, her eyebrows furrowing in sadness, her mouth pulling down at the corners. All at once, Red feels horribly guilty for being the one responsible for such a heart-broken expression, hating himself for taking away her joy, however momentarily.
(That seems to be an awful habit of his.)
"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry," she murmurs, fervent and sincere.
"Thank you," Red says, truly grateful but keeping his tone light, wanting to let her know they needn't linger on such a sad topic. "It was a long time ago."
"If you don't mind my asking, has there been anyone since then?"
Red doesn't mind the question, clearly genuine as it is, and he only needs to consider it for a moment, the mere mention of marriage, relationships, love, bringing just one person to the forefront of his mind in an instant.
The one person who is currently somewhere in the world plotting his demise.
Red gives a heavy sigh, suddenly feeling so weighed down by the grief and baggage and turmoil that exists inside him that he can barely breathe.
"Oh, goodness," Anne says, her tone giving him a welcome distraction, something to hold onto amid the grief. "It certainly sounds like there's a story there."
Red lets out a humorless laugh. "That, my dear, is a gross understatement."
Anne simply shifts again, turning further toward him to rest her elbow on the back of the bench and prop her head on her hand, waiting patiently for him to speak.
(And he has a brief moment of self-doubt, wondering if he should, in fact, bar his soul to this innocent woman he found in the park, but all the grief that's been bottled up inside him since he killed Katarina, since he watched Lizzie fall to her knees and fall from grace, has been building pressure inside of him, desperate for an escape, and he doesn't know if he can stand it much longer.)
"Her name is Elizabeth," he murmurs finally, his gaze shifting from Anne to the little red and brown bird in its bare, leafless tree, no longer really seeing its fluffy feathers and tiny beak, instead picturing Lizzie's beautiful face in front of him.
(And even in his mind's eye, she glares at him with a frosty blue rage, hatred burning bright and furious.)
"That's a nice name," Anne says quietly.
"Yes," Red whispers, feeling the ever-present ache inside of him intensify at the mere thought of her. "She is…" His mind flounders, struggling to choose just one word to describe the complicated woman that is Lizzie.
That will do.
"She sounds like an exceptional woman," Anne says, kind and respectful. "Does she feel the same way about you?"
"No," Red murmurs, unable to keep the bone-deep sadness from his voice. "She may have at one point but…that time has passed."
"May I ask what happened?"
"It's a long, complicated story," Red sighs, glancing over at her, trying desperately to give her one last warning, one last chance to escape being sucked into the wreckage of his life.
But Anne just smiles at him. "Those are the best kind."
And Red feels a rush of gratitude for this woman, this one unnecessarily kind-hearted person in the midst of his cruel world.
(Because she can't possibly know how far he's been spiraling, how much pain he's been hiding, how much he's been needing someone to talk to.)
"Elizabeth and I…" Red begins, attempting to be vague on the details of their situation. "We've had our ups and downs. We have a shared past but we very often have our differences. We disagree about many things. And recently, I did something she considers…unforgivable."
"Oh, my. Was it very bad?"
"Yes," Red says, with no hesitation, not wishing to disguise his sins. Anne deserves the truth. Or as much of it as he can give her. "But I did it to protect her. Everything I do is to protect her. My only wish in life is to see her safe and happy."
"Well, it seems like whatever bad thing you may have done was for a good reason. That generally makes things more forgivable, at least in my experience."
Red nods slowly, tilting his head and pursing his lips while he ponders her words. "I would say the same, but Lizzie doesn't see it that way. She resents my choice to withhold things from her, things that I know would be a danger to her."
Anne hums thoughtfully. "I suppose I can understand her point of view. But you obviously care very deeply for her. Surely she can understand your motivation comes from a good place?"
Red shakes his head. "I hoped that she could but…no. In her eyes, I've gone too far. I'm irredeemable and unlovable for the things I've done. She's made that very clear."
(Awfully, brutally clear. She has told him in a thousand different ways that she can never feel anything akin to affection for him ever again, no matter how unshakable his love for her remains. It's a quiet agony.)
"Raymond," Anne says, her suddenly stern tone pulling him once again from his lovesick pining to look at her. "You are absolutely not unlovable, no matter what you've done. Everyone is worthy of love, and you are no exception. If she can't understand that, then she's a fool."
Red smiles sadly at her. "I appreciate you saying that, Anne, thank you. But…I think Lizzie may be right."
"I don't think she is," Anne says, her tone firm and sure.
Red just smiles sadly, his gaze drifting away from her serious expression and over her shoulder. "Have you ever heard something so many times that, even if you don't want to think that it's true…you start to believe it anyway?"
(Because Lizzie has done such an excellent job cementing his worst fears about himself, making sure he knows what an irredeemable creature he is, not deserving of a shred of compassion or humanity, and honestly how can he be angry with her for that? He's suspected it for much longer than she's known him, and Lizzie's opinion is the only thing that matters.)
Anne is openly frowning at him now, clearly disapproving of his self-deprecating mindset, the beliefs that are so deeply ingrained in his being that he couldn't possibly shake them now if he tried.
The ringing of his phone interrupts whatever she was about to say. Red pulls his phone from his coat pocket to squint at the screen.
"Ah…it's Elizabeth," he explains to Anne's still frowning face. "Would you excuse me for a moment?"
He tugs a glove off to press the tiny button, trying in vain to steel himself for another miserable talk with her, before bringing the phone up to his ear.
"Elizabeth," he greets, with as much fake joy in his voice as he can muster. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Oh, I wouldn't be calling it a pleasure if I were you."
He sighs. Another gloating call then. He's so tired of her desperately trying to wind him up. She should have learned by now that he never takes her bait.
"And why's that, Elizabeth?"
"Because hell is about to rain down on you. I've made sure of it."
"Have you now?"
"Yes," Lizzie says, a gleeful malice distorting her voice. "And it's nothing less than you deserve."
"So you've said. Repeatedly."
"And I'll say it again. You're a monster, I don't know how you can live with yourself, you're -"
But all of sudden his cell phone is snatched from his hand, Lizzie's voice disappearing from his ear, her abusive, berating words no longer reverberating in his head and taking root in his heart to eat away at his small vestige of pure, untouched love for her.
Red whips around to look at Anne, who he just now realizes was close enough to him on the bench to hear their entire conversation.
And she's now holding his cell phone to her ear.
Speaking directly to Lizzie.
"Is this Elizabeth?"
Red can't quite make out the tinny words of Lizzie's response, but Anne's next words make it clear what her question was.
"I'm a friend of Raymond's. And I'm going to tell you something I think you need to hear."
Red can hear muffled yelling from the other end of the phone, likely Lizzie questioning who exactly Anne thinks she is to hijack their phone call - making him rather glad he can't make out any specific words - but Anne doesn't stop to listen.
She talks right over her.
"I haven't known my friend Raymond for very long, but the thing that immediately stood out to me about him was his kindness. He is a selfless, genuine person who didn't hesitate to reach out and connect with me, all because he saw me bird-watching in the park. He carries around both great sadness and a great capacity for caring and he's as worthy of love as anyone I've ever met, if not more so."
Anne pauses, meeting his eyes as she lets her words sink in for a moment, before she takes a breath and continues, her voice softer now.
"But the other thing I know about Raymond? He loves you, Elizabeth. Whether you choose to believe it or not is another matter but, personally? I can't believe that you don't see it. It's all over his face the moment he says your name. I think it's more likely that you just don't care."
Anne pauses again to glance at their red and brown bird, looking pleasantly thoughtful while Red can do nothing but stare at her, completely frozen in awe.
"Now, I've never met you, so I really shouldn't judge, but I can't help but think that makes you a very cruel person. Because when you love someone as much as Raymond loves you? You'll do anything for them. Even bad things. Even if it makes them hate you. Even if they don't love you back. Because that's what love is."
Without warning, Anne turns to smile sadly at Red.
And Anne hangs up the phone, closing it gently with no goodbye to Lizzie, and calmly holding it out to Red. "I'm sorry about that," she murmurs to him. "I just couldn't seem to help myself."
Red just blinks at her, reaching out numbly to take the phone and slowly replacing it in his pocket. "That's…that's all right. I'm…not sure what to say. Other than…thank you."
"You're welcome," she says easily, smiling as if it was nothing at all.
(And he supposes she has no way of knowing that it's been decades since someone stood up for him instead of trying to kill him, spoke well of him instead of fearing the very mention of his name, think him worthy of affection instead of a loveless, evil criminal -)
"I think I may have made her angry though," Anne says regretfully, and Red can't contain an incredulous laugh.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," he chuckles wryly. "Elizabeth is usually nothing but angry these days."
Anne laughs lightly along with him, though sadness and pity are still very present in her pretty face, and Red realizes with complete shock that she feels sorry for him.
(And there's warmth spreading from his toes all the way up to gather around his heart, because he forgot what it feels like when someone cares -)
"Well," Anne says, light-hearted and teasing but with a seriousness in her eyes that Red doesn't doubt for a second. "The next time your Lizzie wants to give you any trouble? You send her straight to me."
And, with a final nod, she puts the binoculars back up to her face.
Red's gaze lingers on her, an awed smile still ghosting his face, both completely thrown and very grateful for this patient bird-watcher, this lovely woman.
His new friend.
"Maybe I will," he murmurs, ignoring the twinge of unease twisting deep inside him and turning back to the singing birds.