Montague

Participants:

emily_icon.gif teo_icon.gif

Scene Title Montague Montage
Synopsis But soft; what light through yonder window breaks? It's the Laudani-Epstein household, where they are up at odd hours and spend a lot of time training. Teodoro gives Emily a beginner's course in being a ninja, and it takes a while.
Date April through End of May

Emily looks down at the newspapers spread across the dining room table, the tools and the parts laid out neatly atop them. Teo had asked her earlier if he could see her gun, which she'd never actually said she had, and she'd handed it off without asking too many questions. She was in the middle of the hell that was her fucking mathematics coursework and too busy to be bothered with the reason. Now, standing before the table some ten minutes after, her mouth opens and closes several times, failing to produce any words on her first few passes.

"I've never—" she finally manages to stammer out. "Done this before?"

Her eyes roam the table, a certain discomfort in the way she holds herself. The gun taken apart on the table, each individual piece able to be seen and taken, has set an unease at her for how unfamiliar she finds the whole thing. Only tepidly does she step forward to the table, fingertips resting on the edge of it. She's trying to open herself to this new thing, this surprise concept.


Laudani-Epstein Townhome

NE Sheepshead Bay

Evening, April 17, 2019


"I didn't realize there were so many pieces," she admits, and immediately wishes she hadn't. Something about seeing the gun in pieces makes her feel small. She'd gotten used to carrying it with her, its intimidating, once-unfamiliar wholeness bringing her some comfort when she otherwise felt none.

"A lot of people haven't done this before," Teo says. He means to be reassuring about it, sitting at the table with the gun parts out on display. "Even people who've gone shooting a few times." He had immediately started cleaning them once it was disassembled, which is some kind of habit— he should have stopped himself, given Emily a chance. But cleaning guns is a rather boring introduction to guns, so he's forgiving himself now, even as he places the pistol's upper back down before. "Try to think of it like…"

Teo looks across the pieces of hardware, so harmless laid out in front of them. Black and grey against the newspaper he'd spread out on top of the table, making believe that it was valuable enough to protect from scratches. (It's not. He'd taken it from rubble, slapped varnish on, pumice stone, and put in a false bottom to hide shit in.)

"It's just like learning words in a new language, or dates for History class. Just six of them. The first time you do it, it seems like a lot. By the third, it's kind of makes sense. The tenth, it's easy. That point, you're just finding out how much faster you can take it apart or put it together than last time." Teo moves the magazine with his forefinger, sliding it into parallel with the lower. "This part's safe. No big. It's not until the gun's together that you need to be careful. Not to point it at people. You're smart as fuck, Emily. You're gonna be great."

Teo's voice sounds easy in his own ears. No fear, no doubt. It's instrumental, of course; bad idea to be pausing poetically or quaking pathetically when you're teaching somebody how to handle deadly firearms. It comes easily to him, this practical pretend.

"Yeah, so people fucking tell me," Emily replies evenly, neither confident nor filled with self-doubt. She's gotten away from the latter, thanks to his attempt to simultaneously relate and break it down for her. Maybe she'll get further along, like he said, around the fifth time or so. Still, for now, she remains only an observer, eyes on the table. Until they're not, sliding up to Teo directly.

She should probably get over her aversion to touching the components, but she doesn't just yet, fingertips unmoving from their steepling over the table's surface. Either comfort or a distraction is needed. Stiffly, her shoulder shifts and moves forward first before her hand lifts. "How long ago was it someone first showed you how to do this?" she asks, leaning to slide the larger, more bodylike piece of the gun toward herself. Rather than make him answer how many years directly, dating himself, she follows up with, "How old were you?"

Emily picks up the harmless piece, cradling it between her fingertips like it's fragile. Much more fragile than she is.

Somehow, she asks a straightforward question, and it lands somewhere in the cold chamber of Teo's own questions; he pretends to look at the pieces while the queries repeat and distort in his head. Does she need to know? Yes. She picked up her gun out of a fight. The moment you start wearing a gun, you somehow, strangely, start to happen into the situations where you'll need to use it. But she hadn't had one, until that day. Sometimes, the situations happen to you, those you love.

Teo thinks a little bit of dyed-red harbor water and deer carcasses stiffening in the harbor. He thinks of all of Avi's enemies, and how Francois doesn't have friends.

And then Teodoro comes to a resolution inside himself, obscure but certain: regardless, he never wants her to be the bad thing that happens to those she loves. "I was twenty six," he says. "I was a fuckin' idiot. New to PARIAH. Used to put my gun in my pants. This close to blowing off an ass-cheek." Teo glances at her and smiles, faint, like the sliver of light left over the night after a new moon. It fades. He sits straighter. Being serious, now, even as an odd twist in his heart makes him wonder if she'll still—? "But the first time I ever got someone shot, I was seventeen. Back then, I wasn't Evolved, but my brother was. He had this — ability. It was incredible. Never seen anything like it since. You've heard about portals."

Teo moves the two nearest pieces of the pistol. The long black slide, then the slender recoil spring with the guide still plugged into it. He lays the two parallel to one another, so they form a short track, pointing from Emily to him.

"He could make one between himself and another person," Teo says. "Invisible, but matter could go straight through." It's so strange to talk about this now; regrets so old, so formative, that they'd been paved over, replaced by new ones, and those then rutted so deep it was easy to forget that there had ever been anything beneath before.

Emily doesn't return his smile, because she rarely has them when she doesn't mean for them to be there. And at this moment, she doesn't know if Teo needs that visual sign as a comfort. Haha, Teo, your joke was funny, but also serious. He's straightening, now, making it even more serious. She listens attentively, respectfully. "You mean you were unmanifested," she corrects him blandly. "Not non-Evolved." There's a difference, and she knows it. She lives it.

Okay, so listening mostly respectfully.

She feels in her gut the shift in the conversation, the heaviness that's coming — possibly already too late to retract. "If… it's not comfortable to talk about, we don't have to." It's a courtesy he's offered her and she's taken on several occasions, it wouldn't do to not offer it to him. "It—"

Her breath catches, stuck on words that are wrong. She finds an alternate arrangement that works better. "If it's going to upset you, I don't want you to feel you have to tell me. Not unless you think it's that important."

If Teo had had half her wits when he was her age, he wouldn't have this story to tell. It makes him smile again, but just briefly before he's sober again. "It's important," he says. "It's okay, it doesn't bother me that much anymore."

A beat.

"But no, I was non-Evolved, not unmanifested. Different story." (Emily Epstein, please refrain from higlighting how contrived and convoluted Teodoro's backstory is. Please. Thanks. This man pain didn't come from nowhere.) (There are too many different stories.)

"I loved Romy and he loved me. So the gate was always open." Teo drifts his forefinger over the portal made of pistol components. "I used to get into fights and half the hits would barely nick me. I liked to drink, I liked to win. But one day, after Citta di Palermo won— I don't even remember what level now, or the other team that was playing. But the other hooligan had a gun, and miles away, Romy was with his girlfriend." Teo puts his forefinger down on the table, between the slide and the spring, drawing the path of the bullet toward himself. He looks at her face, unwontedly serious, the severe line of her jaw always at odds with how delicate the rest of her face. "But that's true for any kind of weapon.

"People who fight hand-to-hand will warn you knives can slip. People who prefer knives will say bullets travel too far, ricochet, guns jam or go off by accident. Marksmen will say there's no honor in bombs, which don't discriminate." Teo folds his arms over the table, the metaphorical bullet of his finger tucked into the hollow of his elbow.

He looks at her, some knot of thought struggling to resolve itself in the back of his mind; something more sophisticated than 'it's all fucked.' Most days, Teo feels like the sad remains of the greater man than he was, but she inspires him to want to do better.

It's a good thing he says 'different story', because Emily is already about to launch into a series of interrogatives demanding an explanation for that. As far as she knew, you were either born with it, or you weren't. Maybe he'll get around to telling her the other story someday, or maybe she'll just add it to the list of odd facts she knows about him and never speaks of. Instead of openly questioning the earth-changing fact, she silently if cautiously accepts it and begins altering her worldview. Like she had done before to accept a world where this version of it wasn't the only one that existed.

In the process of that, Teo has tread closely to directly spelling out what happened.

He dances around saying it, and she's not sure which one of them is the Iron Giant in this situation, but she can clearly hear its words, sad and mournful and life-changing: Guns kill. Emily meets his gaze, searches it, and lives in that eternally brief moment where she feels that knot of tangled feelings, thinks she knows where he's coming from. She fights the urge to tell him it wasn't his fault, because then they have to live in the memory even longer, and that could only serve to hurt worse than it already does.

Nine times out of ten, when someone says something doesn't bother them anymore, it secretly does — and picking at it until the scab you thought was a healed wound pops free? Well, that was an unkindness Emily didn't wish on many.

She hears him: It doesn't matter in the end; It's all dangerous— it alI is capable of taking away something that can never be given back. Her gaze doesn't soften, but she nods. Words feel insufficient to acknowledge it, so she merely turns her gaze back down to the table with a certain gravity, studying the parts laid out.

She slides another closer, eyeballing which pieces likely slot where, and makes her own attempt at trying to rejoin the weapon back into a solid, unreadable whole. "Is there a specific order this should be done in?"


Bay Ridge Rod & Gun Club

April 30, 2019


pow-pow-pow-pow-pow

Emily marvels at how loud it is in here, so much louder than when she'd gone shooting with Devon outdoors. She'd balked at the heavy set of noise-cancelling earmuffs they'd given her at the front desk, but now she was grateful for them. She looks away from Teo and his stance, the cleanliness of it, turning down the range to look at the neat cluster of dots torn into his target. Her grasp adjusts around the gun in her hand — her own — and she squares her posture, one hand cradling the weapon's weight to steady it while the other helps her to better nose the barrel of the gun at precisely where she means to fire.

The trigger has a longer pull than she was expecting, and her aim is wildly off as a result. Her breath catches in her throat, a knot of discomfort lodged in her chest near her heart. It was the first time she'd ever fired the weapon she carries with her more frequently than not, and she hadn't known that. What if she'd ever needed it? What if she'd—?

Emily drowns out the thoughts before they drown her by recentering the weapon at the target, firing again. A dot tears through the paper. She adjusts ever so slightly, and another appears closer to the colored center of the target than before. Only then does she finally let out the breath she's been holding, the tremor in it nearly invisible. She still has three shots left to her round, but she withholds them for now, looking down at the handgun and adjusting her grip, resetting her posture so it's more how Devon had taught her and Teodoro had demonstrated.

"Lean forward a little," her companion says. "Focus on the sight."

Teo is a hand on her shoulder and a voice left of her ear. Steady, the way he remembers that Hana was for him; simple the way he remembers Deckard had kept his explanations. Less rude than Deckard, not quite as cool as Hana, though. He looks at her critically, and his own reservations keep him— kind. He knows that it's not like the movies, and likely doesn't even feel like what she's accustomed to seeing the expert marksmen among her friends have to do. For them, it's fast. Aim comes naturally to those who've shot enough, looks as seamless as breathing air or walking steps.

But when you start, it's very deliberate, slow. "You can close your left eye if you need to, for now. Get used to it. You're just trying to line them up." The tiny metal tabs on top of the gun; the single one at the tip, to center between the one by the hammer. His hand descends carefully— slowly into view, to remind her. "It's the easiest geometry you've ever met. You got it, bucaneve."

Teo had spent the whole drive over thinking about what Christian had said to him, long before the psychic clusterfuck where two Teos became three. And all three remember it: when Christian told him that bombs were for cowards. He remembers thinking that he hadn't had anything else; he had been a terrorist, with no Evolved ability, fighting a series of powerful, international enemies on behalf of a cause he didn't own. He's still thinking about it now, weighing the value of the scary stories he had told her at the dining table; wondering how unqualified he is, morally and otherwise, to be her instructor. In fact, he's so busy thinking about it that he misses entirely that he slipped back unprompted into speaking Italian, for the first time in months.

"Breathe to your belly. Pull the trigger on exhale."

Really, respiratory patterns aren't something you can always afford to accommodate in combat, Teo knows. But they're firing into carbon paper, down a long concrete tunnel. There is a mass of strange and eerie science behind it that he hasn't told her: about firing between heartbeats, that quantifiable instant of stillness when the biorhythm that keeps you alive is closest to dead, and makes you that much better at killing. It'd sound poetic, but it's basic physiology. Maybe he'll tell her someday, or maybe it'll go into the trash pile of ugly secrets that need not sully her life.

Lean? she wants to ask, but instead of murmuring that, she tries to adjust her posture as described. She does not close her eyes. Why was this easier when my eyesight was worse? Because it was shooting old bottles and from much closer, Emily. Still. she argues back with herself.

Emily can't tell if Teo's confidence in her (is it feigned or real?) is helping or hurting, she just tries to guide herself by his advice. It's firm but kind, and the last of it echoes advice she's received in the past. You can do this. she tells herself. She believes she can, anyway, so she tenses her hand around the grip. "I'm going to try again," she tells him softly, in case he might be in the process of nudging her in a course correction. After all, she's not looking at him, she's got her eye down the range.

She pulls, and the first bullet tears a neat hole into a colored portion of the target. It's nearer to the center than before, but still a ring out. Her gaze sharpens, the nose of the weapon tipping ever so slightly to the left. Another exhale, and she fires another shot. This one rides the line between circles. Emily exhales a second time after; a short, overextended tear of breath as her posture relaxes and she lowers the gun.

Brow furrowed deeply, she looks at the scatter of dots on the target down the range. One shot still left now. she reminds herself. Instead of firing, Emily chances a look over at Teo. Is it good? Bad? "Buca-what?" she asks.

She leans forward just enough, and Teo says, "Good."

She makes her target, and Teo breaks out into a wider grin. "Very good." The echo dies fast in here, and he puts his hand up to hit the switch on the wall. The paper target starts to zoom back in toward them, drawn by the mechanical rail overhead. Close enough that she can see clearly, the cluster of her shots, the holes in the paper.

She asks him what he said and Teo manages not to freeze. "It's a kind flower," he says, followed automatically by, "Sorry." He has mostly grown out of his early adulthood habit of attaching inaccurate or unasked for apologies, but it's not all gone from him yet. ('Snowdrop.' What kind of call sign would that be?) She's good with her gun, about pointing it away when he's nearer. Responsible, self-aware. He can feel the nerves in her, vibrating through her slender bones, but she can think while she's afraid; that's a skill a lot of people don't have.

Uncomfortably, Teo suspects it's a skill she'll need.

"Later, we can practice with both eyes. Peripheral vision is usually pretty handy in any situation where you have to use your gun. But we're just starting out with your dominant one. Look—" He points. "That was your first one, this was your last." The scatter is wandering across the page, but tighter in the end than the beginning, less diffuse. He's thinking about what to say to her later, but out loud all he says is:

"One more round. Ready?"

Is it a kind flower, or a kind of flower? Emily wonders but doesn't ask, as she rather likes the imagery of the first. Bucaneve, the kind flower. That was sweet. "Don't be sorry, it was only a question," she chastises him. The sternness of it breaks as the corner of her mouth lifts into a smile, making it clear she's teasing him next. "I'm just not a world-traveler like you, that's all."

She isn't thinking about callsigns, her nerves, or even hypotheticals about when she might ever need this deadly skill. In the moment, all she's thinking of are scatter of her shots in how Teo points them out. She thinks she can do better, and she'd like to prove it. Making the target is a game that isn't a game. "If I miss, I want to go again until I get it right."

Emily reaches across him to hit the switch and send the paper zooming back down the range. She goes through the careful process of lining her shot back up, minding her breathing, the alignment of the sights. The gun kicks back into her hand as she fires the last shot.

It tears another neat hole above and to the right of the bullseye, in the same tighter cluster of dots she'd just fired. It's far from a miss, but she'd been hoping she'd do better. It shows in the mild way she sets the gun down on its side.

She kills the paper man, right in in his circular heart. And Teo smiles. Something familiar about this: shooting guns and getting chastised for apologizing too often.

"Très bon."

Teo had misspoken a little, but snowdrop is a kind flower. For curing ills, and for good luck, a herald of springtime. Though there was a time too, when people were afraid of it; they once thought it brought death.


Rented Storage Unit

SE Sheepshead Bay

April 23, 2019


If Emily would have expected anything, it would not have been that training for mentalism abilities would take place in a 15 by 15 foot concrete box in a storage unit block. But here they are. In what is the least fashionable thing Emily Epstein has ever worn, she has a heart rate monitor clipped to her thumb, a soft, sanitized tab pressed to her palm to monitor temperature and sweat, and last but not least, a soft blue cap of electrodes over her head. The slender braid of cords link to the computer he has set up nearby.

And within the first two minutes of being here, it was obvious to Emily that this was not the strangest thing that had taken place in this storage unit. There is a stack of strange crates in the corner, a huge tarp flung over the other worktable, decidedly odd shapes underneath it.

"Most laypeople think that the contest of willpower against a psychic ability requires you to stand fast, take a fixed point, push back hard and unidirectional," Teo says. "But as in anything in life, including the decision of when you shoot a man. Or how to win a fist-fight. It doesn't really matter who's the stronger — soul, or who trained harder the past five years, though it helps. Down to the wire, what matters is who is better every second. That's how long you need to make a crack in an illusion, or fuck the objective in a telepath's command. You want to be flexible, not rigid. Firm, and not brittle. And this—"

Teo turns the monitor around. Emily's biorhythms jig up and down in a series of graphs, luminous in the yellow light of the room. "This is one way you learn recovery and mastery. All of this information is normally unconscious, but with practice, it's possible to gain conscious control."

Emily swallows hard, quiet and still in the seat. Her hand with the sensors on it flexes, glowing red thumb curling in briefly before she forces herself to release the tension. Even knowing this is Teo, and he's someone she's come to have some trust in, this is still intimidating. Nerve-wracking.

It shows in the elevated spikes on the jagged line monitoring her heart rate.

She takes in a deep breath that somehow doesn't shift the depth of her chest at all, all that air packing into a stiff, inflexible space. She'd been fine until the medical equipment was pulled over, something residual, something she didn't realize would be there creeping in and popping the top on her cool. It'll hit her in a moment it's the equipment triggering the anxiety more than the situation, but in the meantime, she holds onto that breath, counting the seconds until she releases it in a slow, silent exhale.

"Teo," she asks, all calm and even despite the very visible indications on the monitor she's not at all, underneath. "I'm trying to follow you, but I'm not quite there yet." There's a pause. "What am I supposed to be doing, exactly? What… What are we…?" The goal. She knows the goal. It's just the specifics on building that resistance that are for some reason fuzzy right now.

She is spiking, and Teo regards the data visualization with no small interest— and concern, too. That maybe they shouldn't do this? Maybe she doesn't need it. Maybe it's not worth it. Whatever they say about pain and gain, both those things are greatly subjective; one man's treasure, another man's trash. One man's necessary tactical skill is another woman's needless emotional ordeal.

"We get you to baseline, and teach you to keep baseline even when you're under psychic influence. Your body mediates those responses." He studies the lines ricocheting wildly up and down the screen, panicky fluctuations— he thinks she can handle it, but sometimes handling it means you don't go straight to the deep end with it. Is this the deep end? He ducks his head, his brow furrowed with worry. "If you can get to baseline," he says. "You want out, we tap out."

It's been a long time since Teodoro worked with young women, and it's an odd fit, a grating shock on his nerves, to notice he'd speak to her differently if she were a boy. It's on the tip of his tongue: let's stop.

Impulse: when Teo reaches out to grasp her hand, his fingers bridging over the pale spread of her metacarpals, his thumb over the peak of her knuckles.

Emily withdraws her hand from out under his quickly, silently insistent is support is neither needed or wanted in this case. She was used to self-mediating, and this would prove to be no different a case. She'd make it so. Rather than trying to convince him she'll be fine with her words, the thin blonde brings her hands into her lap, one hand in the other. She keeps her hand clasped tightly, eyes sliding shut as she cycles through between ignoring the rig on her head and accepting it, focusing on her breathing and measuring the distance between them.

With the pacing, the spikes start to settle to ripples. Before long, she opens her eyes, lifting back his way with a small nod. Maybe this is as close to normal as they're getting right now — the tension of the uncomfortable, unfamiliar environs impossible to entirely shake.

"Sorry," she says in a flat voice. "I don't know what that was about." Emily might have her suspicions, but they're neither here nor there. This wasn't a medical examination, she reminds those suspicions. Not any like she'd ever had before, anyway, she counters herself.

Pushing through those thoughts, Emily fixes her focus more pointedly on Teo. She's here. She's ready. When else were they going to carve time out of her schedule for this, anyway? This was one of those things where they either tried, or never got the nerve to come back to it again. "So, the tactics I know about," for easing a panic attack, at least, "involve metering your breaths, counting objects in a category, telling yourself a story to distract yourself, and imagining everyone else naked — but the last one is bullshit and worthless."

Teo is proud of her. The instant that registers, it seems presumptuous— but he is. And taking the advice he's about to give, he lets it go. So he's proud of her, as he watches her mind flicker and find its pace on the monitor; pride is a feeling, not a right.

She had told him before, about her cancer, about the long years of her own childhood she had spent waiting to discover whether or not she would live. This setting is strange enough, without that history; without the formal training in panic attacks. Teo can guess at the connection, but he doesn't say it out loud, just as he doesn't mention what he felt. Thoughts and feelings— they're yours. But to make them anybody else's business, you do need to have a right to that.

Teo puts his hands back on the table.

"The first one is good," Teo tells her. "The second might be, if you're fighting down empathic projection. And I'm not kidding when I say a lot of it is going to be automatic anyway. That's why you need the machine— without it, what we tell ourselves we feel, think, and see, often isn't. But you're not wrong; there are conscious things you can do to get started. It's always good to start with the breath, with physical sensation."

A beat of silence. Teodoro studies her face, small and pale and defiant as the glare of a diamond pitted into the stone that built her. He doesn't have to look at the monitor to tell the signals are falling back into a more relaxed rhythm, steadier. "Is that what you're doing now?"

For a moment, there's reluctance to answer in the affirmative — Emily just got somewhere stable, after all, and maybe he'd sweep her legs out from under, mentally. But she does, she nods her head stiffly. She acknowledges she can't stay balled up, slowly withdraws one hand from the other and lets the one with the sensors lie open on her lap, palm up. Her posture straightens to something comfortable but attentive, and she lifts her gaze to Teo again.

She'd like to say she understands immediately what he means when he says most of this will be automatic, but she resigns herself to waiting out the time until she knows for herself.

"So… what now?"

Teo watches her closely; closer, he suspects, than Hana had ever watched him. She's different from him, he has no doubt. Unmistakably stronger in some ways, but more vulnerable in others. Compare any two people, and this is what you'll find.

"Now," Teo says, steadily, "we bring back what you just shut down, but slow, so we can defuse it."

After that, Teodoro is careful to explain more slowly. There are a hundred different techniques; some, she had already mastered. You can picture a river carrying leaves, place the thoughts on them and watch them drift. You can place the memory inside of a tank, small enough now that it's a terrarium, a diorama, a miniaturized microcosm of what it is. You lay in the quagmire, instead of sinking yourself in the vain effort to swim. The bottom line, and the strangest, most paradoxical underlying axiom of it is the one that in a few weeks, she'll learn Teo is the least gifted with practicing in his personal life:

Don't struggle. Don't shut down. Don't run away. Don't fight back.

Surrender. And in the act of doing so, the terror, the memories, all of it, lose so much their power.

In a sense, Teo's merely talking about 'fear itself,' with all those funny old aphorisms from poetry and literature and inspirational quote decor, every single one of them infinitely easier said than done. It is the philosophical paradox where courage meets panic, where trauma meets illness. Where in religious contexts, the ability to accept that what makes one human ultimately makes you more than, because to be human is to be limited. It's some Zen Nirvana bullshit, sure. But it is also perfectly logical, as instruction for psychic defense, when you think about it: in order to push aside mental influence from an SLC-Expressive, you have to teach yourself that your emotions, your very thoughts are not more powerful than the decisions you can make in spite of them.

(It's not really enlightenment, anyway. They're sitting in a garage for hours. Practicing how to do it a second, five seconds, a whole minute at a time. It's not a lifestyle, it's a tactic; dabbling in godhood in times of war never really led anyone to inner-peace.)

(—Somewhere in the cosmos, a Buddha is smirking at them.)

This lesson takes the longest time, Teo tells her. It's the fucking hardest. He doesn't say: You're allowed to give up. Maybe you'll never need it. But she can tell from the jolt of her vitals, knifing up the digital lines, that she won't. She's been through worse.

Surrender, though, isn't in Emily Epstein's vocabulary, and it's a difficult concept to face. She's not unused to having to be mentally strong. Surrender is a word which colors perception. Surrender makes it sound as though she were giving herself permission to be mentally weak.

Really, what Teo means, is accept it and be unaffected by it, which demonstrates a great level of strength — or so she thinks, when she thinks hard on it — but it involves letting her guard down. Tearing down onion-level layers of walls and just letting herself be is foreign to her. She struggles with finding out what is too much and what is too little in that context, and no one has the answers. Not her. Not him. Teo is patient with her, repeating his Zen bullshit and always giving her the look that lets her know they can stop if she wants. It's not failure, that look implores.

But it'd be something like it, so she doesn't.


Same shit

Different day

More specifically, May 15, 2019


Emily has decided there is a difference between being at peace and making peace with something. She could be entirely wrong in that interpretation, but it's the only thing that's keeping her sane and helping her compartmentalize her way through the challenges, nearing Herculean, that Teo keeps throwing at her. Always hardest are the scenarios where all she can do is ride the moment out. Those moments where you have to surrender instead of fighting.

She's gotten better at it, for what it's worth.

Eyes opening to check what she can feel in herself, she confirms on the screen that she's stabilizing after their last exercise. She breathes in deeply, breathes out the rest of her stress on exhale. Shifting her gaze to him afterward, she studies his expression, hoping to glean an evaluation on how she's doing that he likely won't tell her out loud. They've reached the point where he normally pitches something difficult her direction, and she waits to see what that will be today. "You doing all right?" she asks, like it's not her that's being put under stress.

How cute is she. Teo manages not to smile. Man voice, serious face. Man voice, serious face. "I'm doing good, thanks for asking," says Teo. He would be a very bad drill instructor in a conventional military. He's given to understand that a great deal of that training involves homophobic insults, slights, swears. But he would be surprised pug meme to ever see someone speak to Emily in that way believing it to be practical.

They've tried other things before. He's slid into her head, spoken to her in her own brain, strictly in communication; they saw the brainwaves change on the screen when she replied, when she stopped listening to him. He's watched the world through her eyes, too, and she's learned how to blur his vision, to distract him. He's told her: he's no telepath. They're stronger than he is, with more diverse skills. But it was better practice than none.

"Okay," Teo says. "I'm gonna hit you with my ability. It's going to feel like electrocution, but that's just a neuro-electric charge. You ready?"

And then— for better or worse, Teo doesn't actually wait for her to finish her nod or to say yes, or for her eyes to slide a lock onto his stare. He does it. He reaches through the space between them, ramping up the energy in his own mind, snaps it out toward her. A psychic outlash that knocks her vision into darkness for an instant, even as she feels a pseudo-electric jolt through her limbs, the neurofeedback monitor beeping rapid-fire alarms, her breath discharging in something that nearly has her voice in it.

The room disappears.

She disappears.

But then

It's a blur, a smudge of color. Light seeping back into her eyelids, and the desk is cool under her cheek. Bucaneve, Teo is saying. Or maybe it's a recollection. Va bene, sei al sicuro. He moves a water bottle closer to her hand and stoops his head to look at her, his face calm, his pale eyes empty of pity. She did well. So well that he keeps forgetting not to speak Italian.

She remembers to blink. Or she thinks she does. Her eyes ache and make her wonder if they're open or closed at all. The feeling of her head on the desk is a point she orients herself on, and her hands find the side of it to help push herself up. Emily feels more sideways sitting upright than she had laying down, but she says nothing of it. The colors she sees lose their predominance of white, and she even sees Teo's face.

Thinks she hears Teo's voice. She's either done very well, or very poorly, because Teo only slips into Italian when he's in an excitable state, i.e.: proud, or worried.

"Fuck," she slurs. The bottle is noted as near to her, but she doesn't reach for it yet. Her gaze lifts to his, observing him helping focus come back to her. She pauses, mouth dry, but pushes on to ask, "Shit, are you okay?" Emily thinks she's given him a scare.

Unlike the last time she asked, there is no cheeky hit me, coach undertone to it.

"No, I'm not," Teo says. "I'm shaking like a fuckin' rabbit.

"Yes I am," Teo says, correcting himself with a half-smile. Joking. "I was saying—" A bunch of Italian words. But specifically, "You're okay. You're doing good." In English this time, and not the language he has supposedly abandoned! along with the rest of his old life, depressed and grieving and everything else he's supposed to be. "Are you?"

Teo's eyes don't look worried, and that is from combined two lifetimes of practice. In a different world, he could have fallen in love with her exactly then; if he were ten years younger, unmarried, less hopelessly fucked up, better deserving. But he's better these days at staying inside his designated lane, and his recent life experiences have highlighted what the costs are when you fuck that up. He gestures at the water bottle with his eyebrows and does not, in fact, hit her again.

"I'm pretty sure I'm fine," comes from Emily in little more than a murmur. Her clearing eyes allow her to catch the silent indication for her to drink, and she agrees it's for the best she get something in her. Maybe even something with electrolytes, if he had anything like that hidden around. There's a stutter, though, when her fingers twitch in the direction of the water bottle, and Emily's eyes slowly go to her hand.

She doesn't breathe.

She tries to open her hand, and it spasms in protest, her nervous system aching and distraught from the stress it was put under. The action is difficult. It hurts. Her body fights her, not like it has since…

Her vitals spike, her mental activity speaking to only one thing: panic.

In all the time they've been working at this, Emily has never cried. But now, tears immediately flood her eyes. Even as she pulls her hand to herself, working through the tension by flexing her hand quickly, repeatedly, she's terrified the spasm speaks to something more. She rocks herself in the chair, a keening note coming from her as she works through telling herself she is in fact okay and tries to

"I'm good. It's all good—" she lies, her body not listening to her brain as she tells herself to breathe and calm down. She's shaking, even though as far as she can tell, her body is otherwise listening to her, and the pain is just soreness. It's okay, it's all gonna be

"I'm fine. Teo, I'm fine, I'm—"


Laudani-Epstein Townhome

Some time later


Emily has a half-melted pint of ice cream in her lap, spoon stabbed into it a few bites deep. Teo had insisted, practically put it in her hands. The television is on, streaming a nature documentary because she didn't know what else to put on but he'd suggested she put something on. That's what teenage girls do when they're upset, right? Eat ice cream and put on their favorite show? She's been mostly silent, in the moment rather than far-off as far as he can tell, despite her obviously not paying attention to the TV.

She hasn't budged in explaining her earlier hysteria, how suddenly or how abrasively the panic attack had overwhelmed her.

She's fine, she's insisted.

"It's been years since I've had ice cream for dinner," she finally says to break the silence between them, her gaze drifting back his way. She's fine now. the look shouts. Please, god, let them talk about anything else other than her breakdown earlier.

Actually, it's a physiological technique as helpful in the military as it is in the ordinary proceedings of civilian stress coping. Cold temperatures tend to reroute a person's attention to their senses, when they're getting slowed down by terrified thoughts, worries, memories. It's the problem with being human, burdened by a brain disproportionately large compared to the body. And getting back into the body is easier with cold and sweet than just a big friendly man telling you you need to do so.

Teo didn't bother to explain it out loud. It's the kind of thing that works even when you don't explain it. And he's been talking too much today. This past week. These weeks, as long as he's been teaching her. He's tired of hearing his own voice; that was one of, if not the worst thing he'd sought to escape, in the Catskills, where there was nothing to answer him but for cold, loamy wind and the chipper salutation of goats.

But Emily talks to him now, and it's not in Teo to leave her in silence. Besides, he's calmer now too; it's no longer pretend. He's lying on the floor, adjacent to where she's seated on the couch. His arms folded under his head, his vision of her upside-down when he tips his bearded chin up to get a better look. She sounds better. "Why do you like to watch these docs?" he asks. "Lion kills are all fun and games until you see a crocodile trying to chew through big intestines. That's dark as fuck, Emily Epstein."

They'll talk about it. But maybe not today.

"David Attenborough," is what they're talking about instead, at least for the moment. "Has the voice of a lullaby. He can make anything sound peaceful, the boring sound important, and the mundane extraordinary." Emily takes another bite of the ice cream to punctuate her statement, leaving it hanging off of her tongue as she turns her attention to the documentary for the first time in several minutes. Her eyes narrow thoughtfully. Wonder if he's Evolved. she'd say, if she were feeling more lighthearted. Take a bet involving dishes or some other chore while she googles the answer on her phone.

Instead, she replaces the spoon and reaches for the PlayStation controller. "I can change it if you want?"

It fits comfortably in the curl of her hand, and her fingers curve around it without protest, thumbs arched over the button pads. It's a small thing, but it reassures her. Without waiting for his response, the show pauses and she pulls up the main menu to start scrolling. She pauses briefly at seeing the last season of River Styx is now available on the streaming service, only to scowl at it and flick her way on to better listings. Her 'wholesome' Attenborough docs would be the only BBC content watched this evening, if she had a say.

"I never told you I had MS, did I?" she asks evenly, abruptly, midscroll. It's talking about it without talking about it, in a way.

It's surprising even when perhaps it should not be, that she ends up being the one to come back to it. Teo's eyes go up in his head again, peeking at the narrow edge of her face that he can see from where he's lying. After a moment spent contemplating the likelihood that David Attenborough is Evolved, he sits his ass up. Scoots his ass backward, until his back is against the couch.

"No," Teo says. "I don't think you mentioned… Multiple Sclerosis." It takes him a moment; it's been awhile since he was exposed to the medical community, never mind someone who actually suffers from, suffered from the condition itself. The dynasty of ninjas from which he comes has generally been hale and hearty of body. People with MS generally can't dive out of moving aircraft or sprint around in heavy armor — or even, he's aware, farm. It was a hard world for people battling that particular degenerative condition long before the Second Civil War. Part of him wishes to instantly regret the training exercise.

But Teodoro knows that that would be a disservice in and of itself. Not before she tells him it was wrong, anyway.

Teo also wants to say: I'm sorry. But she speaks of it in the past tense; it would be stupid, foolish, perhaps insulting. He watches her in the dark. "I like nature documentaries," he says. "It kind of. Gives me comfort, or something, converse to the way the Bible used to scare the shit out of me. The Holy Book taught me a lot about personal responsibility, right or wrong. David Attenborough seems to promise, that no matter how bad I fuck up, or any of us fuck up, there are parts of the world that will fuckin'. Endure." Teo swings his elbows back, resting them on the couch cushions.

He is a little curious, what she'll pick next.

"I don't think David should get all the credit, for you," Teo adds, after a moment. "You have a different relationship with death than most people."

No, she hadn't mentioned it. She was nearing, she thought, a point where she was no longer defined by her past. The way he puts it, a different relationship with death, brings a furrow to her brow. He's brought himself in range for it, so she reaches down to push his head to the side in a gentle shove. "God, Teo. Being handicapped isn't death, okay?" Underneath the lighthearted jibe, there's a nerve touched. "It's not that dark. You get a whole life to live, it's just …"

Emily bites her tongue, brow furrowing at Teo. Doesn't know how to end that sentence, when it's directed at him. Sure, he probably was referring to surviving cancer rather than living with MS, but what if he wasn't? "It's still a life," she restates emphatically. She won't hear anything else, but neither does she launch into passionate insistence to her point.

She's trying to remember he meant what he said as a compliment.

The controller continues to sit loosely in her other hand, the scrolling momentarily forgotten. "Anyway—" Emily is hastily looking away, seeking to take another bite of ice cream. "Is there anything you want on?"

Bwoooomp, Teo's head swings off to the side, then rights out again, like one of those inflatable advertisement men you used to find out in front of Goodyear. A half-smile on his face, vanishing again.

Honestly, Teo doesn't watch a lot of television. But he roves his eyes up and down the screen, obligingly. "That telenovela's pretty fun. Now they have English subs, too." He points his finger at the title. It's an older show, predates the public exposure of the Evolved, which has always been fun for him to reflect on in retrospect, waiting for the reboots. Suddenly, face-doubles, amnesia, mysterious disappearances and time-travel have considerably more basis in reality.

There's a pause. He thinks about what she just said.

"I'm sorry. I don't think being handicapped is the same as dying," Teo says. And he means it, when he apologizes, flipping the words over in his head, how it must have sounded. Sometimes, people want to shoot guns without thinking about mortality, which is… something he can allow to persist for awhile, he decides. She's been through a lot. She's been through enough. And his vigilance about Making Mistakes You'll Regret Forever seems a bit overkill, when they're sitting in front of the TV, having ice cream.

"If you're ever in the mood to talk about it," he says, "I'd wanna learn. I'd listen."

His apology sounds sincere, and so she picks the telenovela he'd pointed out, sitting on the episode selection screen while she sits with the spoon glued to her tongue. Emily considers whether or not she's in the mood to go on about it, whether she can trust herself to talk either delicately enough or brusquely enough to make it through the conversation. She decides she needs another bite, first.

"What do you want to know?" she asks softly.


A gym near the Laudani-Epstein residence

May 7, 2019


Hand-to-hand combat is always very boring to learn at first, which is something Teo believes to be good; important, in its own way. Much of it is repetition, which is the only way you can build muscle memory. And in the beginning, all of it is just: falling.

And falling.

And falling some more. Over and over again.

But it's important for her to know, important for Teo too to remind himself, he thinks. Like most other men, he has a number of bad habits involving women. Fragilizing them, building pedestals to set them on, encouraging their independence, autonomy and strength with the constant subtext that at the end of the day, though, he will make himself available to protect her. It's a hard habit to break, and one that Teodoro isn't always consistent with, but easier to practice with a combination of actual physical instructions and of course, her consent.

The thirty fourth time on the fourth day, Teo just pushes her. Are you ready? he asks, and then he punts a big hand against her chest, a shove that sends her off her feet. She's like a cat; her hands snap out, catch her, absorbing the impact against the shiny blue mat underfoot. Muscle memory.

Afterward, Teo sits next to her. Passes her a bottle. "Have you thought about why you want to do this?" he asks, finally. He has meant to ask her for a month now. More.

Son of a bitch. she thinks, if not says it when the shove downs her. Emily is tired, more tired than she would have thought, and she doesn't get back up immediately, fuming in silent frustration about how easily it happened. She thinks she's made progress (she thinks? She thinks, anyway), but it's hard to feel that way in the moment.

It'll take time, she recognises, but in the meantime, god fucking damn it.

She exhales away the kernel of intense but short-lived frustration and takes the proffered bottle. She is very careful to make sure it is a take and not anything so crass as a snatch. The question catches Emily off-guard, and she blinks several times while drawing a long drink of water from the bottle before snapping the lid shut again.

And even then she still doesn't have a readily-available answer.

"Because…" Emily starts, searching with that word. She fumbles in the moment, though the reason is definitely there. She's just got to work through the goddammit of the moment first. (Also, was this a test? Maybe it's a test.) (Or maybe he's just making conversation?)

"Yes," she answers in a bland segue. Because that was what he asked, she now realizes. "I have. And…" Emily passes the bottle from one hand to the other. "There's a few reasons," Emily explains tepidly, still not managing to get out what those are quite yet.

Teo's quiet for a long moment. Maybe he didn't hear or, or maybe he's judging her answer! No, both those things are unlikely, but Emily wouldn't be blamed for being off-track considering she's spent the past while getting knocked onto the floor. By herself, and then by a huge Italian man.

Then Teo puffs a sigh, his cheeks ballooning boyishly on his face. He tips himself backward. Flattens onto the floor, the back of his scruffy, off-blond head flattening onto the mats.

"Yeah?" Only after Teo's flopped down does he look at her sideways, his eyes very pale under the fluorescent light. He doesn't blink much, steady, no fear in them, which is perhaps its own kind of lie. He made so many mistakes, when he shouldered the responsibility of taking lives, saving them. It fucked him up. She's been through enough; she doesn't need to be fucked up anymore. But he doesn't talk about it, which perhaps suggests an intuition he's failed to actually act on. Maybe part of him knows that what he thinks isn't necessarily accurate or fair.

But it's all Teo thinks to do, for now, to look at her and give her space to answer.

Slowly expending the last of the adrenaline of sitting on the ground, Emily is slowly deflating. With all of the usual atrocity of overthought vacated, all she's left with is the sound of her breathing and the single question to consider. Why was she doing this?

She flips open the nib on the water bottle again, just as quickly snapping it shut.

"I got into an argument with my Dad just before Christmas, and it became apparent one of the reasons he stayed away from us," because there was much more than just that, she's certain, "Was because he was worried about the danger he'd bring with him if he came home. The ways 'the bad men' of the world would target those closest to him to get at him." She expels the rest of the breath she has explosively, resting her forearm on top the a-frame her legs are making. "While he's right about that possibility, it's not like people like that will give a shit if the last time we talked was two days or two years ago. Family is family.

"So… I want to learn to protect myself so I'm less of an easy target should the worst happen," Emily summarizes the first point. "When I got the call from the hospital last month about him, it was because he'd been jumped by Pure Earthers. So it's still a very real possibility."

Gaze dipping for a moment, she looks back up, off at some metaphysical point. "But that's always been there. Yeah, it feels more real again because of what happened to him, but it's not the only reason."

She's dancing around the second point because she knows leaving her it'll sound foolish. It's a strongly-held belief, one she knows is naive at best. "Another… part of it is because I want to protect Devon." Her body shifts, instinctively trying to protect herself from the judgment or the 'Now, Emily' that's sure to be coming her way, even if it's silent. "I want to help find the answers about what happened to him. But it's fucked, Teo. It's all fucked. There's—" so much to it, between regenerator men who live hundreds of years and mosaic women who stand with them and ice monsters who make medical miracle/horrors possible, but

but

"I don't want to be a liability there, either. I want to be strong enough to stand with him. To protect him. To keep him from hurting any more than he already has." Her arm has begun to slide off the side of her knee, and she finally looks over to him as the water bottle hits the ground, her grip still there even though she's not fought off the gravity of the object. There's a supplication in her expression, determination even though she wants to hide from her own admission and how foolish it sounds.

"Please don't say we should stop." Emily lets her voice lift slightly in tone as she adds, "If it makes it better, we can start over and I'll just lie and say it's only the first thing."

Teo doesn't answer for a long time, his features relaxed into a mask that looks exactly like himself, but without worry or remorse or excitement, without any thought at all. But in a second or five

his eyebrows hook downward, a line forming thoughtfully above the bridge of his nose. He twists his head without moving the rest of his body, looks at her. "Why do you think that that's the thing that'd make me change my mind?" Teodoro asks.

He tries to keep his voice from sounding as if he actually knows why, as if he's holding something just out of her reach, as if he's making her say it just because she doesn't want to, because he genuinely does not know. Because Devon is a big strong boy and she's a small civilian girl? Because she'll be looking for the trouble that already exists in the world, instead of waiting for it to find her. Because love is stupid and he's getting divorced, so she isn't allowed to have it either.

Any of them. All of them. Teo doesn't know her very well, he thinks, but he believes that about a lot of people in his life these days.

Why that thing? Emily's expression twists for a moment. "Because if you're looking for a reason, I've just given you the perfect excuse. Because you're scared of hurting me with this, or whatever else might happen because of it. Because small girls don't pick up big guns and this sounded like a good idea at first, but I keep pushing for more, and maybe the why isn't good enough."

The rest of her breath comes away from her as a vocalized note, unsteady as she looks off. "Because he's got a whole army of people looking after him already, he doesn't need me to be that for him. Because I'm enough as I am? I don't need to be GI Jane to impress him. Because 'don't do anything just for a boy, Emily.'

"Because at least as far as the part about Devon goes, I should just leave it the hell alone. One person can only wear so many hats without it eventually breaking them. The ones I've got now I already don't know what to do with them, so I shouldn't try to hide from that by …" she ends up waving a hand through the air to signify, "doing whatever it is I think I might be able to do that Wolfhound or Richard's secret illuminati hasn't already done."

Emily finally pauses for a moment. Maybe she's done? No, there's still too much rolling around in her head. It can be seen in her expression before she gets around to realizing it for herself. Her look sours.

"But at the same time, fuck it, because this on its own has been nice enough," even though that sounds really funny to say given she's spent half the day being easily pushed over. "To—to just do this and know how to better handle myself should anything shitty happen." Her brow lifts as she continues her stream of consciousness ramble, leaning heavily into: "Fuck trying to do anything world-shaking, I'm going to feel a little more confident in my own skin. I'm not going walking down the street armed only with a bad attitude; if anything, I know how to fight back to get me the chance to get away."

Just the chance. Not a guarantee.

After all, she couldn't hold her ground against someone much larger than her with just her hands. Her brow furrows as she realizes that. "I've got a better chance of disengaging at least enough to get my gun, at least." Emily finishes much more quietly. "Much more than I did before."

Teo has done all kinds of things just for boys. It is also embarrassing for him to think about. He joined PARIAH to redeem himself, for his brother; led Phoenix for the same. He traveled back in time from an impossibly beautiful future in order to save Jesse Alexander Knight. He gave up his farm because he knew he'd have to, he knew he'd have to come back to New York City, to understand what had gone wrong with him and Francois, even if it can't be fixed.

It's not that Teodoro is above being a hypocrite, of course. But he'd be very hard pressed to kill the girl's ninja training program just because she's in love. His eyes unfocus. Refocus.

"What I'm really worried about, with that one," Teo says eventually, "is that's a lot to put on yourself. And your relationship with Devon." He digs his elbow back and sits himself up, reaching to rake his fingers through his hair. "Any kind of idealism is like putting steel into your backbone to make it stronger. It works, but you also need to bend.

"Indoctrination makes for good soldiers — cannon fodder, killers, undercover operatives, even generals. You have to believe in something. But things aren't always clean in the real world. If you tell yourself over and over, louder and louder, that everything you do is for love, but you fuck up in the field, sometimes," he takes a breath, uncomfortable and long, his pale eyes wandering the length of the room. Then back to the girl. He thinks about Hana. He wonders for the hundredth time where she is; if she misses him, any of them; if it would hurt or help her to know they miss her too. How irrelevant that is, to the mission she was born for. Reborn for. "Sometimes the payment comes out of your love. I wouldn't want that for you.

"And everyone fucks up in the field." Teo wonders if he sounds like the type of person who has fuCKED UP IN THE field. He should; he was. He is.

And there was the rub. But she wasn't going to be out there like that, she wants to say. There weren't fights to fight like that, there wasn't a war anymore, Emily wants to shoot back. And maybe that was the case, but it didn't mean there weren't still dangerous scrabbles that happened, their reasons varied and sometimes intersecting.

So she puts aside that discomfort in favor of the other — that she was putting too much on herself. She lifts her shoulders in an odd, even twist of a shrug, jaw working with a reply that doesn't actually have words to it. There wasn't anyone but herself putting this on her, after all.

Emily finally looks back to Teo, not knowing what can even be said to that, except to be grateful for the advice. She wavers before finally acknowledging it all by saying, "It's not easy." in a vague, bland statement that could apply to anything. It's not easy to bend when she still doesn't have a firm grasp on what she's standing for, only knows what she's started to stand in. She's scared the same way she imagines her dad must be, uncertain if it'll turn out to be quicksand that swallows her up more quickly than it's gnawed away at him.

The bit about ending up sacrificing the thing you wanted to protect — love — sharpens her gaze while she considers it. "Teo," Emily says suddenly, although hesitantly. She was filled with the need to somehow fix yet another wrong she lacked the context to fully understand, much less resolve.

Her expression is careful, and her head cants delicately to the side. "I hope your whole… I hope it doesn't turn out like it did for my parents." Who, as far as can be seen, are not together.

She hopes you are able to work it out in regards to love, Teo.

But Emily doesn't know quite how to phrase that.

If Emily were literally anyone else, in any other circumstances, Teo would no doubt find a way out of this conversation. But he owes her a great deal more than that, which is a debt that is only paid to some percentage by knocking the tar out of her upon request and pressing her to repeatedly put rounds in a pistol.

"Well uh. I'm sorry I lied to you. By omission," is less an effort for Teo to excuse himself, more to clarify her likely confusion, trying to recall at what point he constructed an elaborate deception about Avi Epstein. He hadn't. "About how I knew your dad."

Teo wipes his forearm across his nose. Note: he is not aware that Avi has been slut-shaming him around to his kids on his hospital bed. He probably doesn't, strictly speaking, need to know.

And he could leave it there. He would, probably, under any other circumstances. But Teo does owe her, even aside from the deceit, discretely measured sins, Catholic guilt, specific regret, fears for her innocence. Sometimes, debt isn't about making up for the bad shit you've done. Most of the time, people owe each other simply out of decency. In that way, Emily has been inimitably important to him. And so, as Teo starts to pull himself up onto his feet, he adds, "He's always going to be in my life and I'll always be in his."

Later, Teo won't be sure why he told her that. Made it sound like a promise, something that could comfort her, when he knew it wasn't what she wanted for him; wouldn't have been good enough for her parents, either. But he thinks it's better than nothing, and he's like this, with people he cares about; won't lie. Will try not to be a coward.

Teo holds out his hand.

Of all the things he could have said. For a long moment, all she can do is look at his hand.

She's fixed on something mostly irrelevant to their current conversation. Did he know, when they first met? That she was who she was? Well yes, she immediately counters herself, thinking back. Emily had outed herself as Epstein, after all. That hard confirmation, though, that he'd been in that web of knowing/working with her father…

Had who her father was — as opposed to who she was; awkward and brave and stubborn as she might have been on their first meeting — set up, even unconsciously, the frame of their relationship? Emily knows there's plenty of evidence to the contrary, but finds herself suddenly wondering regardless.

Her gaze lingers on his offered hand for longer than it should, distance in her eyes as she fights off a wave of self-worth questioning she wasn't expecting to face today. She swallows hard, doesn't say anything, but grabs his hand and comes to her feet.

Emily appreciates the way he phrases it— how his future will be. It may not be what she would hope for him, but it was its own brand of good enough. As good as hope was, honesty was better.

And there was honesty in the weight of what he said.


Bay Ridge Rod & Gun Club

Afternoon, May 25, 2019


BANG.

She's getting better, Teo observes. Filling the middle of her papers with holes. BANG, BANG. She's getting used to uncrossing her eyes, to measuring the distance between the sight and the pins, making use of that tiny triangle of geometry to steer her shot. BANG. It should make her feel good, he thinks. To see the cluster of perforations in the center of the silhouette. It feels good when it's just paper, when it's just a game. A skill. When there's no one there bleeding or gasping on the other end. BANG. He's been counting her shots, of course, but he doesn't really have to; the instant the clip empties, the slide stop locks back, leaving the bolt open.

"Good," Teo says, because he doesn't have to say more; her handiwork represents itself. What he does say instead is, "Put your gun up.

"Let's talking about killing people."

They probably talk about it differently in actual military training, or even at Wolfhound. But Teo isn't Wolfhound. That has been a point of some significant pain in recent history, as a matter of fact.

Emily is still riding the high of how good it felt for her shots to have been that clean when Teo cuts in with his slice of grounding reality. Her brow furrows like maybe she didn't hear him exactly, but she has. She even frowns as she looks down at her gun, separating top from bottom, sliding the empty clip out. It may be overkill, but it's a layer of security in thought for her as she steps away from the range. No accidents happening here.

The prep room outside the actual range is empty of other people, with a certain quiet as most of the sounds from beyond — either civilian or gunfire — are deadened to hearing. Emily slides her headphone-earmuffs so they settle around her neck as she sets her pieces of gun down on the table, pulling her bag from her locker and teasing out the rag she'll wipe the weapon down with. “Okay,” she says finally.

There really was no way to gently segue into a conversation about so heavy a topic, as Teo already knew from all the other times he'd tried to start this discussion. Emily realizes arguing with him and insisting that she wasn't going to be in a deadly situation was pointless, maybe even untrue, so she opts to let it just happen. “What do I need to know?”

Was she avoiding? Teo expects so, but he doesn't hold it against her; he was avoiding a little, himself.

('A little.')

"You need to know when you'd shoot someone. You want to protect your boy, you need to think about what that actually looks like. In real life. You don't want to fuck that up either way, action or inaction. You know what I mean?" Can she possibly know what he means? Teo has infinite regrets, a nesting matryoshka doll jack-in-the-box macabre cartoon of a monster that lives inside his head. But he thinks he'dve better understood himself going into this life, if he had known this; if he could remember thinking back, if he could remember preemptively making peace with the errors endemic to making war. But he hadn't ever imagined. He had simply believed…

Well, Teo had believed. That he'd do just have to do the right thing when the time came. In doing the right thing, when the time came. That he'd know. He has one of the ear mufflers peeled off the left side of his head, and he looks at her now, leaning against the concrete column that forms her shooting stall. "There's easy scenarios, I mean. Relatively speaking. Adam Monroe pops up like a horror movie jump-scare and oogedy boogedies at Dev with a samurai sword. Would you shoot him?"

Emily takes in a slow breath, lets it out slowly as she considers his you know statement. She doesn't — can't — know everything behind that you know. Not the specifics, anyway. Regardless, she respects it. She knows she doesn't want to be on the other side of it — to know exactly what he was talking about.

So this was important to discuss. Critically important, no matter how uncomfortable it might become.

And the easy question has an easy answer. "Absolutely." Emily answers, before he can finish asking it. She doesn't sound dismissive, she leans into that answer very seriously. "In the head, if I can. If he's moving too quickly, wherever vital I can get a shot off at."

She looks up, looks him clear in the eye. "But that's easy on two fronts. One: he's attacking us. Two: he's an immortal regenerator."

She loses none of her seriousness, her willingness to own this conversation, but her shoulders tense as she suspects he's going to propose something much harder to judge next.

Sure. That's the game, right? Teo's eyes unfocus slightly; he doesn't verbalize agreement with her choice, but she's right. It wasn't a hard one, necessarily. It's the answer a lot of people would give, negotiating hypotheticals. He crosses his arms over the chest and lets his weight lean into the concrete pillar behind him, a cold firm line against his body.

"Adam's power is nullified," Teo says, at last.

Much harder? For some people, even that would be enough. Too much. "He isn't immortal," Teo says simply, studying her face. "He's coming at your boy with a sharp edge. Do you shoot him?" This is one of the more unpleasant conversations they've had, Teo knows, and he's not even trying to be unpleasant about it. Which seems to be a condition of his experience in life, generally. Self-righteous killer that he has been, himself. But she's agreed; she wants to protect a boy being hunted by murderers far better legendary than himself; she won't abuse power she's given.

Teodoro shows his respect in many strange ways. Sometimes he lies, sometimes he won't. Other times, blundering closer to the truth, as one can, even if only hypothetical.

"He hurt Devon before, he hurt who knows how many others." Emily sounds no less dissuaded.

In her head, she goes over the hypotheticals. What if she could simply stop him? What if they could neutralize him, gain information out of him? What if—

It would be nice to live in a hypothetical world where she reacted that fast, that smartly. But she can't bring herself to lie even by optimism. She has to go with the truth, as best she knows it.

"If someone is coming at us with the intention to kill us, there's no negotiating with that." Anyone, her tone implies. Not just Adam Monroe. "It's life or death. I choose mine. I choose his. I shoot."

For all Emily's confidence in so saying, she's paused in cleaning the gun down, her gaze on Teo's. It's not a comfortable admission. She knows, with clarity, what she would do in that moment. She's known for some time.

But only now has she begun thinking about the after.

Emily feels the weight of her decision shift, become more real when she makes that consideration, and her gaze falls as it rests over her neck and shoulders. She swipes the rag down the body of the gun, fingers pressing into the grooves of its innards. For all the familiarity she's earned with it, it feels foreign to her then. "When…" she starts, not sure where she's going at first. "When I stole this gun," certainly isn't what she expected to be talking about. "I didn't know what I was doing. He had me by the arm so hard I thought my wrist would snap. But he didn't have the other, and I slipped it out of his holster and told him to back off."

The dark, heavy, cool autumn of the memory presses on the corner of her vision, and she keeps her hands moving to avoid it from sinking in entirely. "I had it, and then she came up behind me. 'So now you've got a gun,' she said. 'What are you going to do with it, Epstein?'"

Her grasp fumbles and with a subtle note of exasperation, she lays the gunpiece back down on the table. "I don't know whose life she saved that night — his or mine. I don't think he'd have backed down. I don't know if I'd have had the courage to make the long pull then. I was scared and brave and stupid, but," and Emily's voice catches. She can't put her finger on it, exactly, what comes after. There's something specific, but it eludes her — describing whatever it was that's changed about her.

"Since then, I've had a lot of time to think about that question." is all she can manage to come up with. "All the different answers to it aside the one that I gave."

Teo doesn't smile at first, but he does in a delayed instant. Smile, small but true.

Not because it's good or just. While it might be both those things, to choose your your own life over that of someone who would harm you. Teo smiles because it's the answer that he wants for her. It means she's more likely to survive this city, the sort of life that tends to find you when you live here, and have the friends who she's begun to claim. She's made other choices leading up to having to make this one. She chose Devon. She chose family. She chose to stay in an apartment with a lunatic from Italy. It's right, that she should choose herself, too.

"Say there's a burglar one night," Teo begins again, though he knows that he could ask differently, and perhaps he should. He could leave it open-ended. She's thought about it. She's made decisions. But he's curious to know. "You got his gun off him, but he can breathe fire, and he'd meant to kill you before. You know that. He's at fifteen feet now, and he promises he'll fuck off. He says he won't come back because he'll know better; he tells you he knows you're gonna call the police.

"What do you do?"

It's still a hard question, no matter how you couch it. And it takes her by surprise to realize she'd answer it differently now than she would have before Christmas. Even at 15 feet, she'd have been less certain of his intentions, of any movements he might make, and her ability to react to them. Some things stay the same, though.

"I keep him turned away from me to give myself the best chance of knowing if he means to go back on his word — with his ability or otherwise." Emily says carefully before she pauses again. It feels all too easy to say she'd let him go, so she walks herself through the whole hypothetical: she discovers someone in the house, she struggles with them, gets their gun. She was scared, acting on impulse to disarm them, arm herself. In her mind, she tells him to leave, and he does — until he turns back and belches flame over the facade of the house in spite as he goes.

Her brow twitches as her mind goes there.

"I tell him to get the fuck out," she resumes. "I follow him out to make sure he goes, keeping the gun on him. I don't trust him entirely, but I hope for the best— hope I don't need to shoot."

Teo's face is inscrutable for a long moment, the glint of affection changing in his pale eye. Not that he likes her any less, of course, but it's a sobering scenario. And he appreciates that she's giving it real thought.

"But you realize that there's no such thing as 'police' anymore, and he starts to turn around," Teo says. He smiles lopsidedly, but there's no mirth it. It's a smile like the round edge of a bowie will smile in half light. But he doesn't say this as a continued hypothetical. It wasn't a trick question, not really. 'Police' could have — should have meant 'SESA.' The hypothetical stranger is very hypothetical. In life, she might have caught it. In life, it either wouldn't have mattered or she would have made another decision that isn't nested in clumsy theory and wordplay.

Teo gestures briefly, a lilt of one long, callused hand. End scenario. Don't worry about it.

Because there's a new one, reverse-engineered this time. Teo looks at her unreadably. "If you saw someone holding your old man at gunpoint, what'd make you pull the trigger versus give them a chance to drop it? Assuming you're holding a weapon, and you got the drop on them."

Emily's still in the middle of starting to argue back about the nuance of 'police’, from everything to the existence of the MPs to the impending homecoming of the NYPD. It's the excuse she'd use for why his question throws her so off-guard, certainly. Because she freezes, doing little more than blinking at the hypothetical.

There's a flash of are you serious? that twists quickly into serious consideration of his question, her gaze wandering off, unfocused. Shit. Are you fucking kidding me?

Shit.

Okay, back up. In the hypothetical, she had the drop on this person. She's not helpless. It makes her feel like she is, though, because she can't predict what that other person is going to do. Emily blinks when her hand brushes the gun again, eyes focusing in on it with a furrow of her brow.

“I don't know,” she answers first, trying to buy herself a moment of time before she comes up with an actual response. “I don't know— it depends why. Do I think there's a chance I can talk them down? Can I do that without making myself a target instead?”

The thing that really seems to be bothering her, though, is: “What's to keep them from shooting anyway, whether or not I pull the trigger?” Her voice has slowed. “Teo, I'm not … I don't know.” Is her father helpless, or would a distraction help pave the way for him to make a counter of some kind? “Fuck,” she murmurs, her indecision seeming to bother her as much as the hypothetical.

Teo watches her. (He does that a lot lately.) (Creepy.) He wonders if this is really going to help, but he thinks so; better to know things could get hard, than to assume they would never. Better to know it's not easy, than to believe that you will always rest easy after. "Any of those things could be true," he says. "If those are the questions that are important to you, they're the right ones to consider."

There is a weird, fractioned instant where that's almost going to be it; there's nothing more to add. An open-ended question for her to answer in her own time, with her own experience. But then Teo decides to say it anyway:

"I killed a couple of Loyalists who gave me a chance like that."

Teo's eyes drop slightly, unfocusing, not evasive. Thinking. "When it was still early in the war. The good guys, not trained to deal with the Evolved, who didn't have nullification gas on hand. They were abiding by the rules of engagement. I gave up my gun, I had hands on the ground. Pretty standard assumption to believe that I was going to be a hostage at that point. And obviously that's the assumption I exploited. Only took a second. I did to him what I did to you the other day." It'd felt like being tasered. She remembered. He'd just looked at her; he wouldn't have even needed to, really. "Some point, it's about finding a way to forgive yourself for fucking up on what you didn't know. Or should've known better. You still get to wake up tomorrow, and whether or not you had to kill someone to do that, that's the decision you make."

Somewhere out there, the cosmos fire a shot over Emily's head — daring her to ask him how she's supposed to do that. When the reality is of course, obviously, she knows better.

At some point, Emily remembers to breathe, her gaze still fixed on him in shock. She relistens, rehears— goes over what he's said in a way that makes sense for her: she treats it as another hypothetical. "That's…"

She shakes her head, blanching. "Teo, you had no way of knowing they'd not just shoot you ten minutes from then. The guys who scraped you off the ground might have been honorable, but what about the assholes they'd have brought you back to?"

Maybe that was the point he was trying to make, but somehow it's lost on Emily in that moment. Instead, she hears … she doesn't know what, but it sounds like guilt. Like maybe he doesn't believe in he's saying. Like what he did wasn't good enough.

It… it feels like where she's been before. Struggling to decide if the right call was made, knowing it had a life-and-death impact.

"You do the best you can. There's no way to know. And when it was your life or theirs, you chose yours, and it wasn't for the wrong reason. You took the opportunity you had, because it was the only one you had." Emily swallows, because her mouth is dry suddenly. "Maybe you never get to the point you forgive yourself. Forgiveness is a tall fucking order. But you can at least accept what you did, and move forward from it."

She's doing that thing, where she's talking to someone else but talking to herself at the same time. But at the same time, she implores him with her gaze to know he isn't a bad person for boldly facing what she'd been shying away from.

That she'd probably have to shoot the person targeting her father.

She just… hoped for better than that. For herself, for him, for everyone. Regardless of if it was naive, or misplaced, or that she fucking knew better.

Teo is surprised. It is embarrassingly easy to surprise Teo with kindness, and he has met so many good and otherwise extraordinary people in his life. He scratches the back of his head and listens to her, foundering somewhat in the derailment of his own intentions. Where did this come from. Apart from, obviously, that he's been sad sacking around an apartment for awhile and that is Concerning for normal human beings.

"Hey, hey," Teo says. He puts out one big hand, the one that incidentally sports the white-gold herringbone of his ring, the band beside it. He grasps Emily's little shoulder, and for once does not think about how bird-boned and fragile she seems under the callused shape of his fingers, how he might accidentally crush her edges or spoil her heart just by being there. "I know. Really, I promise, I know. If the USAA OR USM had captured me, any of those times, they would have tried to make me talk. Maybe would've succeeded. I couldn'tve let that happen. That… wasn't an impossible choice, for me.

"It just wasn't — honorable. Or fair. I'm okay with that shit," says the least reliable source of information in the world, "I promise." Teo stoops down slightly, just enough to stare unblinking into her eyes. Willing her to believe him. About himself. About her. What is dishonorable and unfair was rarely actually 'impossible,' it was only strategic.

Even with the reassuring hand on her shoulder intended to sweep away doubts, Emily continues to stare up at Teo with a wary skepticism. She simply shakes her head, though it’s a slight action. He’s not okay with it. She doesn’t believe that, not really.

But neither does she have to call him out on it.

“Okay,” she says, and maybe it’s a lie she’ll let stand. But then she decides she can’t. “But it’s okay if you’re not, too.”

The words are softly delivered, but no less unbreakable in the belief behind them. She looks right back at him. It really is okay.

Emily doesn’t want that to weigh him or them down in that moment, so she looks away, but she lifts a hand to place it on top of his, squeezing firmly to indicate her continued support before she goes about putting her gun back together, component by component. The pieces click back into place in silence, practice ensuring the act is completed with ease. She leaves the clip aside, finally looking up to Teo when everything’s back in one piece again.

Mm. Teo can usually tell when a pretty girl doesn't believe him. Number one, they aren't very subtle about it; he's been told off by enough Elisabeth Harrisons and Abigail Beauchamps and Eileen Ruskins to see the signs. He half-smiles, even as he pulls the case up from where it had been tucked down under the shooting window. Opens it up, so that she can seat her weapon back inside, component by component. He glances around the empty gallery, performs the quickest astral check — no one nearby, no one watching.

"You know one I'm not okay with," Teodoro says. He means to make her feel better.

"There was one time during the war, I made them delay sail on an outgoing refugee boat to Canada. So we could get a couple more Evolved kids into it. They were running late, because the marines had gotten them. The Ferryman operative led them to the rendezvous because one of the kids was a powerful mentalist." He shrugs his shoulders, looking down, then up, then back at Emily's face, which has been scarred by a different kind of invisible trauma. Maybe there are healing powers for this one, too. "He made her come, against protocol. Marines showed up less than a minute after, killed or captured the whole boat. The transport operative died too. That one was my call. I made the wrong one."

When he talks about it, Teo's voice is as steady as a good knife balanced on a finger. He expects her to offer comfort. He wonders if she could make him believe it. Maybe this is the curative for old regrets. An innocent young woman exculpates you of blame and you feel better, forever.

Emily has run out of ways to try and talk herself through these scenarios, used up every last tenuous thread of possible relatability by the time he shares what he's not okay with. She doesn't have an experience like that she's ever gone through. With luck, she never will. Odds are she never will.

It doesn't stop her from hurting on his behalf, silent and powerful, until with a flicker other gaze as she looks away and back, it's mostly gone.

She doesn't know what to say at first, but she tries anyway. She takes in a sudden breath to try and kick start the effort, but there's still a pause before the words take effect. "When you made the call…"

Her gaze goes distant, trying to recall what he told her only moments ago even though it feels already like an eternity. "You asked the questions of yourself that were important to you. You asked yourself if you could save them all. It was important to try." Blue eyes remain unfocused, not looking up at him, not exactly. "In therapy, they say stupid shit like 'you have to make peace with the things you can't control', like how you couldn't have known—" And she has to pause to avoid blaming the kid, scared for his life, just wanting to make it to safety, "that they'd been compromised."

She stands for a moment in silence before simply shaking her head, collapsing the lock down on the case. Perhaps she doesn’t have any compelling advice. Perhaps she’s been sullied by the lack of comfort found in any advice given to her for some time.

… But not all of it’s been bad.

“I find that to be very hard. It's unfair the way life punishes people who do their very fucking best, punishes them for trying, makes them feel like the worst scum on the earth for caring enough to take a risk and hope things turn out better for it." Her voice lowers, a roughness to it as she continues to speak rather than think. "It's hard to not just want to just run away from it when it lashes you in the face. It's hard to accept you did your fucking best and it still wasn't good enough, whether the cards were just stacked against you or you made the wrong call at just the right moment."

For no particular reason, Emily feels compelled to add, "It's harder even still to find someone who might give a shit the same way you do, or have been through the same that you've been through."

She realizes she doesn't know where she's going and her breath hitches again. Glancing up, she holds him at the corner of her gaze. "You went through the very worst parts of being human, and you still have a heart, Teo. If you had been okay with that one, been able to write it off… I think that would be more telling than it killing you that it happened.” Her brow furrows as she slides the case off the table, the rag between her fingers and the handle.

It is an inevitable circumstance that she seems to think too well of Teo. For a girl who is so angry, she has a tendency to see good in people who haven't sinned against her mortally, and that

that's why he's worried, probably. Teodoro is — was — a creature of rigid morality. Too rigid. He broke instead of bending. He looks at her and wonders if she'll be that way, too. When it's time. There's always a when, actually; the if is merely a question of how bad it will be, and he can hope that the war was good for something. That it'll be awhile before something like that needs doing again.

(Christ. It'd be such a waste, otherwise.) (Which is a refreshing change from thinking: it is such a waste.)

Teo smiles at her brief, but with teeth. Then he's dropping one long arm around her neck, pulling her along. They're friends now, and Teo always tussles with his friends. "You're going to meet plenty of people who fought in the war and didn't fold like they ate bad sushi later," he tells her. "But I appreciate you saying that. And I think you're right. Maybe one day I can tell you how it ended." He suspects she thinks he's blowing her off, but he isn't; it's just that these kinds of things, this kind of kindness, takes time for him to process. (He has spent a long time with his own unkindness.)

(And it was: such a kindness, that she took the time, the are. And kindness, Teo has never been good at ignoring, much as he's an elaborate, masochistic glutton for punishment as well.) "Right now," he says, "I'm fucking starving."

What Teo doesn't say is: You can see why dead soldiers don't so much keep me up at night. He has tactless clones to say bullshit like that. And maybe he prefers this: for her to think well of him, to see some good.

As soon as he catches her around the shoulder and neck with his arms, Emily's eyes sharpen, brow furrowing at him. She stumbles along with him, careful with the case being dragged along with her, and overall balks at his attempt to end the conversation as light as possible. She doesn't do well with hugs, and this goes beyond that. God forbid that Joe hear about this and think he could get away with something like this, maybe even muss her hair in the process.

She mutters at it until she wriggles her head out from under his arm, ducking back only to grab her bag and shut the locker before padding her next few steps with fleeted feet so she can catch back up with him.

"Speaking of bad sushi," she grouses, "Wherever it is you got the fish from last week — don't shop there anymore. When I went to cook it the other night, it didn't look right. It's why I ended up making chicken instead."

His half-promise to finish the story in the future means he's not grown apprehensive after sharing what he did. To her, that's the important part— that he doesn't shut down on her, or on himself. All she can hope for is that in the future, he'll gradually come to think better of himself somewhere along the way … so when he finishes the story, he doesn't rattle it off like a crime being read at a sentencing.

"Let me treat you for once," Emily insists, walking side by side. Unlike him, she is not physically affectionate. How others might loop their arms together while they walk, her closeness with him is more visible in how she matches his pace, and in the near-constant half-turn of her head in his direction. "To say grazie for everything?"

"That's very emasculating," Teo says, benignly. "But I consent."

His arm wasn't difficult to get out of. Teo lets it fall back to his side afterward. He'll probably try again another day, unthinkingly, too preoccupied with his own internal soap opera of feelings/philosophy to mind the discomfort that she evinces, relatively subtly. But he'll stop someday, if they get to that. (His masculinity joke is a poor one, actually. Machismo is his ready excuse for many bad habits.)

Teo's an odd sight beside her. He looks toward her less often than she looks toward him, despite that the angle of his shoulders, the quick attention of his replies, are indicative of his regard and his unfailing interest. He's not as Sicilian as he used to be, an island of a man now, who enjoys the good fortune of friendship with a girl who's very good at building bridges. "I'm gonna do Rocky Road," he says. It's not a metaphor for anything.


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