A/N: Well, here's the final chapter of this roller coaster of a fic! Thank you so much to all the loyal readers who have been commenting along the way, your support means everything to me! I hope you all enjoy the conclusion of this! New projects are coming soon! Much love to everyone! :)
It's hours later before Red is calm enough to even think of seeing her again.
But their screaming match in the dark, empty street is still echoing on repeat in his mind and he feels sick to his stomach that they've left things, somehow and despite his intentions, worse than ever before. His unease and confusion and pure desperation to be on bearable terms with her once again has him standing in front of her apartment door before he's even made a conscious decision to see her. And he's knocking before he can think any better of it and oh, he hopes he isn't making a huge mistake.
(But it's not as if things can get much worse.)
When she wrenches the door open a few seconds later, all thoughts of anger and fighting simply evaporate from Red's mind in an instant, replaced with pure and instinctive concern because dear god -
Lizzie looks awful.
She's changed out of her undercover clubbing dress and into raggedy sweatpants and an oversize t-shirt, her hair sloppily tied in a ponytail and her make-up smeared from crying, almost all her foundation wiped off to reveal the still gray and yellow bruises around her right eye.
And she doesn't look happy to see him.
"What do you want?" she demands, her tone flat and emotionless.
"Elizabeth," Red says quietly, desperately. "May I please come in?"
But he knows it was the wrong thing to say when he sees the incredulous way her eyebrows raise, anger starting to spark again in her watery blue eyes, and he quickly throws a hand out just in time to stop the door slamming in his face.
(Because if she closes that door and they go back to their tense stand-off tomorrow, he doesn't think he'll be able to stand it anymore.)
"Fine," she snaps, her voice suddenly growing stronger, throwing the door so wide open that it hits the wall with a loud thud. "Go ahead, come on in, and maybe you can tell me why exactly you're still around."
She stalks into her living room, not waiting for him, and Red takes the opportunity to quickly slip inside the apartment before she changes her mind, shutting the door firmly behind him. "Lizzie, I'm here to -"
But she doesn't seem to want to listen, continuing to talk as he follows her slowly into the living room, filling with dread at the same pace she seems to be filling with rage. "Why aren't you off with Anne?" she demands.
"Lizzie -" he starts, but once again he doesn't get very far as she interrupts him again, but he's unable to feel any of his previous frustration or anger with her, instead growing steadily alarmed as he notices her hands trembling at her sides, how awfully pale she is, the poorly secured bandage on her scraped arm, and the way she's still clearly favoring her right side.
But she's not paying attention to his wandering gaze, his genuine worry, his fear, as she starts to list rhetorical questions, speaking more quickly, her voice rising into a yell, working herself up as she goes, while Red can only stand there in silence. "Why don't you just leave me alone, why did you even agree to come back, why didn't you just go!"
Her voice is a painful screech by her last words, her shaking hands balled into fists, tears leaking from her red, swollen eyes, her breathing fast and shallow as she glares at him, absolutely broken and Red realizes far too late that, oh -
Lizzie is hanging on by a thread.
(And the knowledge that she's clearly suffering from something he knows nothing about, makes him want to wrap her thin, shaking body up in his arms and never let go, because he doesn't know why she's so wretchedly unhappy -)
But before he can act on his most natural instinct, his most basic need, his deepest desire, she's suddenly whirling away from him and staggering off down the hall to her bathroom, flying inside and slamming the door between them.
Red moves instinctively after her, worried for her health, because she's so very clearly not well and he just wants to help her.
"Lizzie -" he cries, trying the locked doorknob before pressing his palms to the door and calling through the wood. "Lizzie, are you alright -"
The only answer he gets is a sharp shattering of glass and a loud thump.
Unable to wait a second longer, Red takes a step back and lands a powerful kick on the door, breaking the flimsy lock in one try and sending the door flying open. He bursts inside the small bathroom and looks in the corner to find Lizzie, sitting on the floor with her back to the tub, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees as she rocks unsteadily back and forth, her breathing harsh and unsteady and -
She's having a panic attack.
Red stumbles forward, tugging off his jacket in jerky motions and dropping to the floor, wedging himself in between Lizzie's shaking body and the sink, his back to the tub like hers, and pushes her gently forward so he can wrap his jacket around her frail shoulders. He leaves his arm around her and tugs her into his side, holding her as best as he can with them side to side, rubbing his hands across her back, her arms, wherever he can reach, trying desperately to warm her up.
Her skin is very cold.
"Come here, Lizzie," he murmurs, his voice low and warm. "It's okay, just try to take deep breaths, let's get you warm, you can do this, Lizzie, just listen to my voice…"
He continues to murmur comforting nonsense in her ear, desperate for her to stop shaking and get some air into her panicking lungs.
(And he doesn't know if he should be thankful for the fulfillment of his selfish wish, that he finally gets to hold her close, try to provide a little comfort and security, while she's not fighting him at every turn -)
Very slowly, she begins to calm, her trembling arms loosening their death grip around her knees, the tears slowing and her breathing evening out as his murmuring comes to a stop, successfully having talked her through her awful panic attack and now content to hold her snuggly to his side.
Before he can ask her if she wants water or tissues or him to leave and never come back, she speaks, her voice weak and scratchy, but perfectly clear so close to his ear.
"Is this what it felt like?"
Red frowns, pulling back a little to look into her face, finding her eyes closed as she leans almost greedily into his warmth, confused by her posture and words. "What?"
"Is this what it felt like? When I was with Tom?"
And it takes a few more seconds to process her words, but when they make it through his slow-moving brain, the realization hits him like a freight train, almost physically bowling him over from sheer force, because oh, he's an idiot.
Lizzie's behavior since she came back, her stiff words and tense posture, her avoidance and lack of eye contact, her recklessness and vicious anger, her distaste of Anne and any single happy emotion. Everything he'd chalked up to her petty and vindictive traits of the past, what he assumed was childish anger and long-held grudges, more of the same and nothing new or different at all. Even though she'd killed Townsend and saved Anne's life and made an effort to mend bridges and start anew, Red had simply failed to see the truth.
Lizzie is jealous of Anne.
Red can only gasp for air, completely floored by the only explanation he didn't bother considering for her odd behavior because it was so obviously impossible -
"I'm sorry for how I've been," Lizzie whispers, apparently unaware of Red's life-altering realization. "I've just had no one to talk to, least of all you. I've successfully pushed everyone away without a thought to their happiness and managed to ruin my own in the process. Meanwhile, you…you've found someone."
Red just stares at her, unable to form a coherent thought as the words start to pour out of Lizzie, not in a rage-induced flow like before, but instead in a quiet truth-telling that she seems relieved to be releasing as she stares fixedly at the trash can near her right foot.
"And she's wonderful, Red, really," she murmurs, sincerity lending a little more strength to her voice. "She's sweet and pretty and she really seems to love you, and honestly I think you're perfect for each other. I think that's why I feel so angry, because I couldn't be that for you. I'm everything she's not and could never be, and that makes me hate her just a little bit."
Red feels oddly like he's about to cry.
"And I feel so horribly guilty about bringing Townsend to her doorstep, getting her shot - nearly killed - almost ruining both your lives and causing you so much suffering all because of my stupid revenge plot that I actually gave up on months ago."
Lizzie sniffs and reaches for a roll of toilet paper, tearing some off and drying her wet face, wincing as she dabs at her bruised skin.
"It's a weird combination," she mutters, almost to herself instead of him. "Genuinely feeling like you could like a person…If not for the overwhelming jealousy, combined with a ravaging guilt. It's been driving me crazy. I feel so…self-destructive. That's why I've been so careless at work. Getting hurt lets me feel…just…something else."
And Red simply can't stand any more, feeling so horrible for everything Lizzie has been quietly suffering with no one to talk to, all while he's been so absorbed in his own heartache, completely unaware of her struggles -
"But I'd rather take the suffering than cause you any more pain," she says, suddenly turning to him with a sad intensity burning in her eyes, and Red can only stare back, dumbstruck. "Because I brought it all on myself and I deserve it and I'm just so tired of you hurting you, Red."
"Lizzie," he murmurs, pulling her roughly back to him, pressing kisses to her hair, her cheek, anywhere he can, before he reaches the tender and sensitive bruised skin around her eye, and placing the softest kisses he can manage there, his heart tugging painfully at the whimper she lets out in response.
(And they've done such an excellent job at hurting each other.)
"Lizzie, I had no idea you felt this way. If I'd known…I just couldn't understand why you were acting like this. We didn't have a chance to talk - really talk - after everything, you were so hell-bent on avoiding me, I…" Red flounders, looking for words, trying to explain as she did but doing a poor job, unable to commit to one train of thought as questions start to occur to him. "Lizzie…why did you kill Townsend?"
Lizzie shakes her head, pulling back a little but taking hold of his hand still around her shoulder, gripping it like he's grounding her. "When he found out about Anne and started planning to use her against you…Well, I realized if I helped him with that, I'd just be doing everything to you that I claimed to hate you for doing to me. Ruining a relationship, endangering a loved one, lying to you, betraying you…I couldn't hide behind my claims of justified revenge anymore. I'd just be a hypocrite."
And the surprising knowledge that Lizzie has managed to do it, has thrown off her blinders and managed to see the light, come to her senses and finally, finally turned back from the path he never wanted her to start down, has Red's heart singing. She's finally saved herself and he couldn't be more proud.
(And he's so glad he never gave up on her.)
"Agnes played a part too, of course," Lizzie continues, absent-mindedly stroking his hand with her thumb and shifting a little closer to him. "I kept her hidden from Townsend, of course, he never knew about her. And she was amazing, never complained or threw a fit, but I could tell she was missing school and her friends and a…normal life. She's a child, she needs a stable, reliable home, a routine, things to count on. But she didn't have any of that…And that made me realize what an awful mother I am."
Red stiffens at that, unable to let any derogatory comment on Lizzie's mothering skills pass him by, but she just pats the hand she's still holding, wordlessly appeasing him.
"And I was just tired," she goes on, exhaling the words on a long sigh in which he can hear the pure fatigue. "I wanted to work again, do some good for once, put away the bad people in the world. I wanted to make amends with the people I'd wronged…Aram, Ressler. You."
And Lizzie looks up at him, eyes flitting over his face, and Red wonders vaguely what she sees there, before she speaks again.
"I missed you, Red."
(And Red feels tears gather in his eyes, wishing he had the words right now to tell her how much he missed her too -)
"But I was too late," Lizzie suddenly sighs, sadness and woe bleeding out of her voice.
Red frowns, swallowing with difficulty and blinking back his tears. "No, you weren't," he disagrees, picturing her shooting Townsend in Anne's kitchen. "You were just in time. You saved all of us."
But Lizzie just shakes her head sadly. "No, I mean…I was too late to have you."
Red sits, completely baffled at the idea of Lizzie wanting him the way Anne wanted him -
(But just the thought of Lizzie kissing him, backing him into walls, sheepishly admitting that sex with him is the only thing she can think about, just like Anne did, sets his heart aflame -)
But despite all the feelings coursing through him, there's one question he has left to ask her, one that he can't ignore. "Why did you save Anne?"
And Lizzie turns to look at him, frowning a little as if the answer is slightly obvious. "Because…when she was in danger…well, you looked at her the same way you used to look at me."
And Red remembers what Anne told him, lying in bed at the cabin, understanding and sincerity shining out of her eyes.
"No, Lizzie," he murmurs, reaching up to gently brush her hair out of her face. "You can love more than one person at a time…And I could never stop loving you."
(And the joy and relief he watches bloom on her bruised and battered face could sustain him for years, and he wastes no time in kissing away the few fresh tears that slip down her face.)
Reeling from the emotion swirling around them in the small bathroom, Lizzie lets out a watery huff, glancing down awkwardly. "As sweet as that sentiment is, I'm not sure Anne would -"
"Anne and I broke up, Lizzie."
Lizzie blinks, stunned as she looks up at him. "What? What do you mean?"
"I sent her away. She's in a secure place while things calm down, and I'll discreetly let her know when it's safe to resume her life. Without me."
Lizzie's brow furrows, shaking her head, confused and upset. "But I thought you two -"
"It wouldn't have worked out, Lizzie. Her life is wonderful and normal and everything I've been craving but…I'm a criminal. I gave up my normal life a long time ago. A relationship was too dangerous for her -"
"Because of me!" Lizzie gasps, aghast. "This is all my fault -"
"No, Lizzie," Red interrupts, firm and insistent. "The first time was, perhaps, but I have virtually unlimited enemies. The second time would be someone else and so would the third and then the fourth. It would never stop, and we wouldn't always be as lucky as we were this time. That's the unfortunate reality. And I knew I couldn't handle seeing her hurt again. So, we went our separate ways."
Lizzie studies his face for a long moment, unsure and searching for the truth, and Red tries his best to placate her.
"It would have happened eventually, Lizzie," he murmurs. "It's okay. I don't blame you and neither does she."
At his heartfelt words, Lizzie finally nods, tears welling up in her eyes again. "I'm sorry, Red. I really am."
Red just nods and tugs her back into his side, rubbing her arm and pressing a kiss to the top of her head, feeling lighter than he has in months. He feels more than hears Lizzie sigh heavily next to him, settling in and laying her head on his shoulder.
His heart sings.
Looking around the bathroom for the first time, Red sees two toothbrushes and a broken holder on the other side of the room, evidently the source of the shattering noise that propelled him in to help Lizzie. Red frowns, something suddenly occurring to him, along with a fair amount of shame that he hadn't thought of it before now, regardless of how…distracted they were.
"Lizzie? Where's Agnes?"
Lizzie doesn't seem alarmed at the question. "She's with someone I trust. I didn't know how long I would be undercover tonight so I arranged for a sitter, of sorts. Aram."
Red's eyebrows rise despite himself, surprised that - after everything - Aram would agree to do Lizzie any favors at all -
Lizzie seems to sense his disbelief. "I said someone I trust, not someone who trusts me. Aram certainly doesn't hold any grudges against Agnes for what happened. But I'm a different story."
Even though he can't see her face, pressed to his side as she is, her voice sounds so deflated and utterly sad, and he wants so desperately to see her happy again.
"I don't have any friends anymore," she whispers.
(And Red now knows just how correct he was earlier, Lizzie has been hanging on by a thread and, now that they've made it through the worst of it together, he wants nothing more than to help put her back together again.)
But that's a battle they can start fighting tomorrow because it's late, or rather early, as Red tilts his wrist, glancing at his watch to see it's three in the morning. He can feel his own eyelids starting to ache as Lizzie's body grows heavier against his side, and he's about to suggest getting up off the cold, hard bathroom floor and seeing about some sleep when she speaks again, unexpected but very welcome.
"Do you think we can try again? One more time? Slowly?" she asks, her words slow and her voice sleepy, but the question sincere.
Red smiles to himself, loving the sound of the words. "Yes, I think so. The right way this time."
Lizzie hums happily underneath his arm and joy, warm and soothing, spreads throughout him, overpowering any soreness and fatigue in his body.
(Because maybe now they can work to stop vacillating so violently between declaring their love and bottling up their anger, saving each other's lives and trying to one up each other, intense love and burning hate. Maybe now they can do better.
After all, when they work for it? They make a great team.)
And just the thought of Anne's prediction, that this time Lizzie could be ready to love him, ready to commit to something real, ready to have a relationship like the one he and Anne enjoyed, has his heart racing in anticipation.
He can't wait to try again.
"When should we start?" he murmurs, joy and levity audible in his voice, unable to wait to ask her.
Lizzie lets out a breathy little laugh that sounds so lovely to him, laughter and happiness evident in her tired voice. "Tomorrow," she murmurs, followed by a long yawn. "How about paperwork?"
Red barks a laugh at her unexpected response. "Paperwork?"
"Yes, paperwork," says Lizzie, snuggling more into his side and resting her hand on his knee, making his heart thrill. "Something nice and simple. Slow, remember?"
Red smiles and nods, her hair tickling his chin. "That sounds wonderful."
"And maybe…" continues Lizzie, her voice suddenly tentative. "Maybe after work…you could come over for dinner. Agnes has been having trouble with her math homework. We could watch a movie when she goes to bed. Something…normal."
And normal with Lizzie sounds…perfect. Because neither of them are. But that's what makes them so perfectly suited for each other. Red can't live a traditional life like Anne's or Lizzie's first marriage, and Lizzie and Agnes can't live in the criminal world like him…
"Well, I think Agnes is in luck," Red murmurs, taking Lizzie's hand on his knee and holding on tight. "I don't like to boast but… I am excellent at fractions."
But maybe together…
They can find a middle ground.