And Learn The Rest


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Scene Title And Learn the Rest
Synopsis After watching Gracie attempt to track him down, Elliot reveals himself — and the secret knowledge he has of her — on his own terms.
Date June 30, 2021

One, two-three. One, two-three. There may not be an entire pit orchestra to fill the space with music, but the little iPod on a do-it-yourself amplifier made from a spent paper towel roll cut into thirds seems to do adequately for the bevy of cygnets that run on their tip-toes in a fast circle around the space. Boys and girls alike from toddlerhood to mid-teens giggle and wave their arms like wings in the air as they dance around the principal dancer. Swan queen just wouldn’t do it, you see. Anyone can be The Big Swan — and they all take turns! Gender roles are outdated, while alliteration is in, so Swan Sovereign it is.

Their instructor stands aside, watching with an absent smile. They’re exhausting, but this is her contribution to the Pelago. This is something good she can do to give back to a community that took her in when—

“Hey!” One of the boys speaks up, taking a breath between the call for attention and the ask, showing that the physical exercise is having the desired effect. He’ll sleep well tonight. “Why can’t we ever be mecha?”

A younger girl scoffs. “There’s no robots in ballet!”

Gracie’s so startled that she laughs. “You wanna be a mecha swan?!” She lets her incredulity show and there’s a falter in the dance. All it takes is one kid slowing or stopping and it’s an accordion wreck all the way down the line. They’re all uncertain, wondering if they’ve offended their instructor. She shakes her head. “Dude, no! Be the mecha swan!”

The little girl lets out a surprised squeak this time. Eyes turn to her, waiting for her to pitch a fit.

“But—” she begins and the tension and resignation simultaneously build. “I wanna be a robot swan!” Surprise dismantles the children’s preparations to argue amongst themselves.

“That’s the best part,” Gracie assures them. “You can all be mecha swans if you want! Mecha swan, alien swan, giant slime monster swan… That’s primal, you guys!” She claps her hands twice in quick succession, signaling that their session is coming to an end, and her little cygnets round themselves up. An older boy moves to the iPod to turn it off and begins to pack up the “equipment” in a hard-sided lunch box so sunbleached it’s difficult to tell if it was once announcing the carrier’s love for Pokémon or Power Rangers. It’s mostly still red, anyway.

With the kids haphazardly lined up in front of her, Gracie looks them over with an exaggerated consideration before nodding her head in approval. “Okay! Your assignment for our next class is to brainstorm your own character! Then, we’ll come up with a dance for them all together!” She beams, noting a break in the storm outside — even if a break in this case still means a drizzle. “Now go, go! See you soon!” Older siblings or neighbors gather up the younger children and the bevy split off into wedges to head back to their nests, leaving Gracie with her one charge.

“Did that boy find you?” Junko Rasmussen asks the de facto ballet instructor.

Gracie double-checks the cardboard is tucked snuggly into the lunch box and returns the ask casually. “What boy?”

“That boy!” Junko repeats emphatically. “Boys don’t go looking for you!” So who else could she possibly mean?

Lots of boys come looking for me,” Gracie counters gently, no shame for her side hustle. Or maybe this is the side hustle.

Junko frowns and folds her arms over her chest, leaning slightly to one side with her head tilted in what she does not yet realize is a mirror image of her mother, calling bullshit. “Not mainlander boys.”

Gracie snorts and holds up Junko’s coat for her to slide her arms into. “How would you even know what a mainlander boy looks like anyway?”

Junko huffs with indignance as Gracie additionally forces her to stick her head through the neck of a poncho, the hood of it hanging heavy over her forehead. It secretly makes her feel like Aragorn, but she’s not about to give into that little thrill now and let it distract her from her argument. “I know he’s not a mariner! Not enough—”

“—salt in his hair,” Gracie finishes with her. “I know, little swan.”

Junko gasps. “Then he did find you!”

The dancer rolls her eyes and pulls on her own coat (now sans rain poncho, due to aforementioned sassy child now swimming in it), grabbing Junko’s hand. “Yep. The prince went looking for the dragon and found the princess. Now the princess is going to find him right back.”

The Pelago

June 30, 2021

“I don’t know what to tell ya, sweetheart.” Mizuki shrugs her shoulders as she all but shoves her daughter through the door to their home, pulling the poncho over the girl’s head and offering it back out to its owner, all in the same motion. Mrs. Rasmussen isn’t known to have an ability, but being a mother is a superpower of its own sometimes. “He had a picture of you, flashed it around, and didn’t seem to know much about you, despite how very intimate that picture looked.”

Ginger brows jump toward curly hairline. “Intimate?

“Friendly,” Mizuki corrects in her thick Bronx-Brooklyn accent. “But not like friendly.” Her face scrunches up a moment as she reconsiders. “I mean, maybe. Like roommates?”

Roommates?” Gracie’s wide hazel eyes peer at her friend almost cartoonishly from within the tunnel created by the neckhole of that damned poncho. Her hair pops through first, an untamed bush of fire, before the rest of her seems to come into focus. “What does that mean?”

“You know! Like two people? Single? Living together? Friends?”

That elucidates the connotation not even one bit and Gracie presses her lips together, frustrated. She gives up on trying to find a third-hand answer in a woman in a photograph. “What was his name, ‘Dora? Where do I find him?”

Now it’s Mizuki’s turn to lift her brows and chuckle. “Honey, I knew the gents weren’t your type, but I thought you at least still got names.” She only laughs harder when the other woman starts to attempt to cover over her flustered look with annoyance and anger. “Relax, relax. I’m just giving you a hard time, but I really don’t know what his game was. My kid only thinks I’m psychic.” Speaking of— She turns her head over her shoulder and shouts back to the cracked-open doorway, “Go back inside, Junebug!”

Gracie holds her hands up in surrender. “I’ll go do this the old fashioned way, then.” She pulls up her hood. She secretly loves the way it makes her feel like Stick-at-Naught Strider. “Thanks.” Head down, but eyes up, Gracie steps out into the rain.

She starts with her usual contacts. (Stop Calling Me Fucking) Long Beach — is it her, or do her eyes get greener the closer the sky gets to tearing open and raining hell upon them all? — sent her to the fishermen. Snapper made her stand there while he split open four fish, all to tell her that he hadn’t seen her ghost and send her to the markets. Trapper Keeper, who’s covering sores with a pair of oiled leather gloves now, saw him, more than once even, but couldn’t say which of the four winds he comes in from — only that the corridors he fancies he disappears down aren’t quite as dark as he seems to think they are.

None of them lead anywhere.

So Gracie leads herself to the nearest watering hole that hasn’t dried up now that it’s acknowledging the drink it’s been pouring really is just fuel, and parks. She drops into a seat, resting her arms on the bartop, folded flat in front of her, then slumps forward to rest her chin over her wrist. “The us’,” she instructs, like every bartender from the Archipelago of Manhattan to the Palisade Sill — and maybe Dephi, too — knows what she takes.

Maybe they do.

“Why are you looking for me?” asks a man two seats further down the bar from beneath a black hoodie. Hoodie Number Two’s second hoodie, less timeworn that the first. He turns his head far enough to let her see an unreadable expression on his face.

Elliot has a good guess what the us is, but doesn’t offer up the recipe. He’ll give her the owed drink recommendation once this business is sorted out.

Gracie lifts her head, a piss off, buddy at the ready for delivery when she registers the voice. She blinks owlishly and lifts one arm to leave her propped up on her elbow, her chin resting in her hand. “You came looking for me first,” might sound defensive, but she qualifies it. “I wanted to know how you decided it was me you were looking for.” Her brows lift in the facial expression’s equivalent of a shrug.

“How long have you been watching me look for you?”

Elliot scratches at the back of his head, unable to decide if he’s frustrated or resigned to this. “A while,” he admits. “I wanted to make sure you didn’t come looking, but here we are.” He sighs, resigned after all. “No sense making it any harder for you, you’d make it to Point B soon enough.”

“And there isn’t an honest answer to that question that you’re going to like,” he says, pulling down his hood so she can see his face. “But you were never in danger. It was just…” he shakes his head. Selfish. He’d rather not start this conversation with what Wright would call ‘One of your time-travel ethics diatribes’.

“There’s a lot I don’t like. I have a high threshold of tolerance for it.” Gracie smiles wryly, undeterred by Elliot’s attitude regarding her pursuit. He started it. “And I never felt like you were any danger to me.” Maybe she should, but she doesn’t know him to know that.

A drink gets set in front of her and she only briefly takes her focus from Elliot to nod her head in thanks. “What I’m full up on is being lied to. Especially if it’s somehow at my expense.” She starts to take a drink, but doesn’t get past a sip, coming up quickly to clarify, “Not —” Her tongue darts out to lick the cocktail from her lips. “— that I think that’s your game here.” She finally goes for that full first drink while she waits for him to respond.

Elliot gives Gracie an appraising look as he thinks of the best way to approach this conversation. "Do you know where the Travelers come from?" he asks.

“I know I’m not supposed to know,” Gracie says quietly, eyeing Elliot like she’s deciding if this is a set up for a trap. “But I know people who left the Ark by a different route than I did.” She doesn’t lift her hands to make the scare quotes, but her verbal inflection implies them well enough. “So, let’s suppose I have an inkling. Go on.”

There's a long pause while Elliot works his way through the quandary. A lot of people here already know it seems, and he's not going to start spouting apocalyptic warnings to the locals. Probably.

So he sighs again, directing his gaze across the bar rather than down toward Gracie. "My girlfriend's name is February Marlene Lancaster," he says softly.

Gracie’s eyes slowly widen and she stares with a mixture of disbelief and realization — with a side of dissociation. The breath she holds in her chest for too long is slowly released. Only once it’s fully expelled, her chest visibly pulling inward as the tank is empty, does she glance away and seem to really think about that.

“Not a lot of people know my real name, let alone the full version,” the ginger says quietly. “And fewer people say it right.” With a slow series of nods of her head, she seems to start to accept the notion. She looks back to Elliot. Sympathy enters her expression as she pieces together what he’s told her about his previously unnamed girlfriend. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” Elliot says. “Me too.”

His head shakes back and forth slightly in his disappointment with himself. Eventually he sits back, turning his eyes back to the Wrong Rue. “I expect nothing from you,” he says. “Despite divergent circumstances, I have intimate knowledge of you which I didn’t disclose. Quite the ethical pickle.”

“I don’t think it’s much different than…” Rue Gracie shakes her head. “I’m not bothered by that, is what I mean.” The corner of her mouth curls up slightly. “I mean, I’m fine. It’s not your fault?” The curl turns to a proper grimace. “You haven’t seemed interested in trying to exploit me with what you know, so.”

Sighing softly, Gracie moves her drink and herself down the bar so she’s sitting next to Elliot, rather than with seats between them. Resting her hand out on the bar, palm up, serves as an invitation to take, if he wants. “So talk to me about her. You know I’ll understand. If I feel weird about it, I’ll ask you to knock it off. Sound good?”

Elliot stares at the offered hand, desperately wanting the contact. He can spend forever remembering what it’s like, the feeling of being with her, the not being alone. The spaces in their hands where knuckles fit in hollows, where they clasped for warmth in the pocket of his hoodie. He’d give anything to feel that, but it doesn’t matter, because, “I don’t like to be touched.”

“The offer’s open if you change your mind,” she informs him softly, without reproach or hurt feelings, and instead curls her fingers around her drink. “Is it strange that I’m honestly curious to know about her? About… the two of you?”

Elliot gives a grateful nod of acknowledgement, eyes following her hand's movement to the glass. "I suppose the curiosity is natural," he says, not thinking about how anxious the idea of another version of him existing here makes him. "What would you like to know? Other than the obvious stuff, like that she looks like you, sounds like you. Was born on leap day."

Her mouth curves into a small smile at the mention of her birthday. “I don’t know… Was she ever a dancer? Or an actress? What did she major in? What made her decide to become a soldier that doesn’t like to be called a soldier?” The questions are normal enough. They demonstrate a curiosity to see where Gracie diverges on the path from Rue. It’s much earlier than the companion-for-hire expects.

“Her respective college and dancing careers were derailed by a nuclear explosion in Manhattan,” Elliot says regretfully, “Though she still dances when the muse descends.”

“That’s actually what brought me to the city in the first place,” he adds. “The bomb, not her dance troupe. Though our paths didn’t cross for several more years. By the time everything began to go to shit we were both entwined with the Ferry: fighting back against the government’s internment of the ‘Evolved’ threat. We were both at ground zero for the start of a civil war, and our paths pushed us into a resistance group that was given legitimacy after the fact. A private military contractor called Wolfhound.”

“I, ah…” Gracie takes a moment to think of what she wants to say, or maybe how she wants to say it. “It all feels like a long time ago,” she admits softly. “Even the recent stuff. It’s kind of…” Her head tips one side and the other like an allegretto metronome. “I got my head slammed pretty good while we were doing evac from the Ark. I’ve got a lot of white noise where my memories should be.” The regret and lamentation are attempted to be drowned by her drink.

“I always wanted to be a dancer — a ballerina, specifically — but I’m not really built for conformity.” Not built for conformity could be the tagline for the Rue Lancaster model line. “Too tall for most of my partners, I was told. You get passed over for enough rolls and you start to think about taking the hint, I guess.”

“When I was a senior in high school, there was an explosion in New York, and it kind of changed the world. Put things into perspective…” People don’t talk here of the bomb the way that they do back home, but whatever must have happened here in its place was enough to shift and reshape the redhead’s foundations. “Dance seemed a little silly after that, so I decided rather than stick with the company, I would go to college instead and I majored in finance.”

There’s a wistful quality to her as she carries on. “I met a girl in the parking lot of the corner store from my apartment. Beautiful, like the sun would shine in her smiles. Left me entirely without words more times than I’d care to recount. Now she had a real good job, so we kind of did this back and forth thing for a while.” A breath of air is huffed out through her nose. “And soon the world would end. Put that into perspective, too. Because of her, I was fortunate enough to have a seat aboard the Ark, such as it was.”

It’s there that her gaze takes on a haunted quality as she clearly stares into her own past, confronting it to recount it. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Boston, but I could never have imagined it under all that water.” Her gaze comes back to Elliot then, like she snaps herself back into place. This place. “I thought I’d never see the sun again, but at least I had those smiles. And she never complained about how tall I was when she’d ask me to dance.”

Gracie falls silent and takes a slow drink from her glass. It makes her grimace faintly by the time she’s done, but she doesn’t let out a noise of complaint. “If you’re here, then I guess you already know about…” She shakes her head, means the last time there had been travelers from another timeline present. It’s presumptuous of her, but she glosses over the ten years she spent locked away in the Ark with the woman who smiles like sunshine. “We got out with the sub. That’s where I hit my head pretty good. My… memories are pretty fragmented from there. Then.” Now there’s a face pulled, but only at herself. “Something something trauma and repression. We got out, but I couldn’t handle what this place had become. I had to leave. So… we left. Went to Delphi and—” Her breath hitches.

The next in the series of chronological events is attempted to be washed away with more of what’s in her glass.

Elliot nods in understanding, gives Gracie space to grieve. He puzzles over what to share and what to hold on to. Some people mistake commiseration for competition, something he’s never understood. Sharing similarities always made him feel less alone.

He remembers what Rue told him, what she shared with him through the network. He felt guilty then, being unable to share many of his own memories from that time period due to the damage he and Wright did to them while figuring out how to live, connected. Being unable to share others because they’re locked up, or transmuted into locks themselves.

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Even in the back, there’s no need to stand on tip-toes to see the posted results of the auditions. Hazel eyes scan up and down, looking for the role first before the name. A much shorter girl with darker hair lets out a trumpeting cry of victory to see she’s been cast as the principal dancer. She’ll be marvelous as the dual lead. It’s easy to wear a smile and to offer congratulations. It’s difficult to bear the aching chest, longing to be a cygnet.
Another foster home vacated, another foster family burnt out. Another stern talking-to, words just a buzz between the dissociation and the sands of time. Another remember when Wright could keep your ribs from being broken, a flight of stairs, other scared children saying nothing out of the same fear of the same bully. Thighs bruised, brutalized, banned from breaking the bones of his hands on the building. Just one more time, one more push too far, one more layer on the thing that wants to break free and break bones and push a head to pavement, grind that smile free from a face already cratered by acne.
In front of the mirror, 32 fouettés are practiced.
He snaps his fingers once, twice, three times.
First comes the flash. It registers long before the sound of the blast — they reach for each other — or the realization of being thrown to the ground. There’s nothing again until the hospital. She’s there, the shorter girl with the darker hair — they reach for each other — while plastic sheets obscure the rest of the room. The tinnitus whine drowns out the sound of everything but her voice. You’re gonna be okay.
This place doesn’t matter anymore. The bright white hand of God took Manhattan and no one will be the same ever again. So little to pack, so few possessions left to him. His coat, his boots, his book. The other children huddle in silent terror, minds reeling, even the terror who lives among them himself in tears. The last person to meet his eyes before he walks into the night and is never heard from again, eyes asking him to make something make sense.
They say the girl is dead.
Into this wild abyss.
Another hospital room. They don’t allow shoes with laces here, or belts. The shorter girl with the darker hair offers her hand and promises that everything’s okay. They’ll get through it together. The pills make each day a blur. The nondescript halls feel like traversing through a fog. She says she’ll stick like glue until they find the magic words that will allow them to leave this place.
He finds himself found easy enough, hands now in a line passing packages, free from interruption or banal conversation by people who for the first time in his life give him space to breathe. First except Wright, remember her? He needs more, needs his own, and the stink of volunteers huddled in cold basements on stacks of pads and sleeping bags is too much. Even left alone there is no solitude.
They say the girl is dead.
They say don't go down that street.
The car packed full of dreams was sold weeks ago to pay the rent. And to eliminate the need to find parking, let alone pay for it. Having the roommate helps keep sanity, even if the shorter girl with the darker hair can’t contribute funds. The casting agent will call back about the registration campaign job soon, and things look favorable there. After more exercise and core strengthening, maybe the dance company will reconsider.
Moving aid supplies from here to there is mechanically indistinct from doing the same with drugs and other black market goods. There's money, but there could be so much more if everyone weren't so inept. So he enters a room he's not allowed in and begins to talk and write and explain without breaking or breathing or even looking behind to see a room of baffled, perplexed, amused, irritated adults. Doesn't know that he's alive because of the one he amused. Working for the Lindemann group gives him a sense of respectability that he knows is hollow beneath the chipping facade. But things are bad again and so much worse, and the woman who kept him alive sends him away to where his talents can be used for good. People are being persecuted because of their genetics.
In front of the mirror, 32 fouettés are practiced.
He wishes he was special too.
They met at a support group they both promptly stopped attending. The gorgeous singer with the Irish accent wants to go steady. It’s the first real relationship experience since… Well, it’s the first. On the stage, she dazzles with her powers just as much as her mundane stage presence. Though to call it mundane feels like a disservice. After so long dating, the next song is a dedication. A declaration of her thoughts in front of everyone.
Wright is here, that's Wright, Wright is in the room stop crying there are people in the room and Wright is here you're not breathing people are going to laugh at you people always laugh when this happens it's Wright and she's here and she found you and she doesn't care that you're crying she's never cared about that she only ever cared about who she can hurt to make it never happen again.
She says the girl is dead.
"Time to take that Big Breath In."
Together again, but not together, they resolve to be part of the solution. While introduced to others of like mind, someone finally believes. They work together. They experiment. They plan. They try, fail, try, fail, recalculate, recalibrate, try, fail, try again, and… succeed. Now they all know the truth.
Confidence and mentorship can change a person at the most fundamental, foundational levels. He never carries a gun but he's used his knife and found after the fact that the shaking stopped long before people assured him it would. He finds he doesn't care that he killed somebody because they deserved to die.
They no longer say the girl is dead.
"We found a way to get you inside."
With the restoration of the shorter girl with the darker hair, there’s no more roommate in the one-bedroom flat. There’s no more constant voice in the ear. No more need for the fake earpiece to cover conversations. There’s only silence. Emptiness in their home. Emptiness in the echo chambers of the heart. But there’s injustice and cries for help and for peace. There’s work to be done. It’s time to learn to defend others. To take to it, stumbling at first on the ice and stone.
There's a place in a building that shouldn't be there, there's construction and earth movers that are props upon inspection. No workers, no guards, no pavement. Just a door that shouldn't be there labeledJust a door that shouldn't be there labeledJust a door that shouldn't be there labeledJust a door that shouldn't be there labeledJust a door that shouldn't be there labeledJust a door that shouldn't be there labeledJust a door that shouldn't be there labeled
In the courtyard, 32 fouettés are practiced.
"Send him to site Zero, see if Carpenter and Zimmerman can make use of him."
The cold steel of betrayal leaves stars in the vision and blood warm on the lips, copper on the tongue. Still, there’s fight. A knife buried to the hilt. Panic. Fighting. Panic. Fighting. Fighting. Fighting. Running. Panic. Fighting. A hand winding through hair and everything disappears until the face of the woman most admired appears in view. You need to get angry. Hardened.
(i can hear you breathing) i’ve slipped out of time again leaving all of you behind and i’m free to return to the place where i already am and have always been if i just really looked and allowed myself to see—the confusion is seducing me warm, flowing wide his eyes summer hypnotize they see inside of me hot swollen skin want me take me perfect embrace black and bloody rotten and perfect the center has moved on and all that’s left is free
She says the girl is dead.
finally finally everyone seems to be asleep but me
In a prison cell, 32 fouettés are practiced.
take me into the arms of the lovers
Dark. The shock of cold. Water lapping at ankles. To the knees. Threatening to embrace about the midsection. Screams can’t be heard above the gunfire and shelling above. Sturdy iron refuses to budge. But he doesn’t forget. Looking in those eyes, it’s remarkable to realize he can be frightened, too. That much will be forgotten and remembered innumerable times.
oh i see you floating there how could i ever hope to forget always rearranging these words are a lie a mirror reflecting in a mirror of a lie a light shines still always shadows in every word beneath black eaves please don’t leave me here i could stop it maybe i could stop it (if i wanted to) but i’m not the one driving anymore i know who i am but i know who i am, right? (please don't leave me here with you)
He says the girl won’t die.
take me into the arms of the lovers
The war rages. It happens in places that aren’t there, so they can be ignored by parents. It’s good you came home. We were so worried. This is where you belong. We’ll all look after each other and put that unpleasant chapter behind you. Once all this blows over, we can even get your nose fixed and you can pose for magazines again. It’s sickening and inspires a note left, escaping through a window in the night like it’s high school all over again.
coliseum calling with its night that could last forever
breathing moments
take me
take all that's left
i am free
It says the girl is dead.
Point, shoot. Refocus. Point, shoot. Point. Shoot. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until the film rewinds. Shove it in a cylinder and the cylinder in a bag. Replace with a new one. Their eyes meet across the debris-strewn street and he sees himself through the hazel for the briefest of moments before it’s back to point, shoot. Breathe. Point, shoot. Point. Shoot. Breathe and hold. Point, shoot. Point, shoot. Point, shoot. Breathe out. The transition felt natural somehow. The film and the bullet casings tell the same story.
It's not much different to kill in a war, people still bleed at all the important places. But he has a secret, he has eyes on the outside. Always knows where his rescue is. Never needs to signal for help. Never needs to not make it out of the building. Having been separated from Wright, again, would be the last time.
The girl is dead.
He snaps his fingers once, twice, three times.
Screams echo off the curvature of a skull housing a troubled mind. Gunshots ring out from long ago. Children cry. Radios fall suddenly silent. The sheets are soaked with sweat when they’re thrown aside. Pyjamas are exchanged for workout clothes and stockinged feet move silently down the tiled hall.
Life, light, hard work to build a home, to see a face fascinated by everything she beholds, swear to do anything and everything to keep her safe. No matter what it takes, the losses, the sacrifices, the making mistakes and promises and keeping a family together by staying apart and lying.
In front of the mirror, 32 fouettés are practiced.
He touches the door knob and lets go.
In front of the mirror, 32 fouettés are practiced.
He touches the door knob and lets go.
In front of the mirror, 32 fouettés are practiced.
He touches the door knob and lets go.

“Is it weird that I feel connected to you somehow?” Gracie asks without looking up from her drink. “I don’t know how to explain it, or if I even can.” She smirks faintly, with a dry humor. “Maybe that’s something we’ve got?” Then she chuckles, shaking her head and looking up at Elliot again. “They have that song where you’re from?”

Smiling with something closer to actual amusement or contentment, she tries the lyrics on, sing-songing softly. “And I said, ‘What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’ She said, ‘I think that I remember the film.’” Her head bobs along as she gets into the steady pace of the melody. “‘And as I recall, I think we both kind of liked it.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s something we’ve got.’”

Her smile widens as she finishes out the chorus. There’s a light in her eyes that Elliot is privileged enough to see sometimes in those moments where he’s reminded Rue how to live again. How to enjoy it. That light remains, but it changes, shifts its intensity from warm white to a cooler blue, in a sense.

“You are profoundly sad,” Gracie asserts with certainty as her smile fades again. “So am I. Maybe that’s what it is."

Again, she holds out her hand. This time, it’s for her.

“Maybe it’s because you know her, and it means you know me in some way.” Another rueful grin. “There aren’t a lot of people I can say that about.” The way she goes somewhere else behind her eyes is familiar to Elliot, too. “Actually, anyone who could say they knew me before is gone…”

The song elicits a smile from Elliot, despite the fact that it will now be stuck in his head all day. He'll ask Wright to put on music later to power wash it from his mind.

He is sad, though not for the obvious reason, here in the presence of a woman who isn't his girlfriend. As she extends her hand again conflicting thoughts and impulses fragment his attention. The urge to take comfort in the physical touch of his lover. Of letting himself feel safe in this alien world. Simultaneously, the urge to cringe away from her request for the same. Of revulsion at the thought of being touched by her.

Rue is safe, isn't she? This isn't Rue. A horrifying thought: What if Rue isn't safe anymore? What if, even if they make it back to each other, he can't bring himself to let her touch him? What if circumstances have changed so much that he can't solve this problem with another murder?

His heart races as he realizes he's been staring at her hand for too long. The wrong kind of sadness is joined by the kind she expects. He lowers his head and tries to bury his hands deeper into his pockets. "I'm sorry," he says quietly. "You're not the problem but I can't."

Reluctantly, embarrassedly, ashamedly, Gracie curls her fingers slowly into her palm and draws her hand back toward herself, bringing it up to fuss with the strap at her shoulder, arm across her chest as if to protect her wounded feelings or ego.

“I get it.” Maybe. With a last twitch, her tiny grin fades. There’s a good chance she isn’t used to being rebuffed in such a fashion. “I spend so much time letting others reach out to me… I’ve kind of forgotten what that urge feels like.” She shakes her head quickly. It doesn’t matter.

Gracie’s brow creases and she seems to lift from her introspection. “What happens if you touch someone?”

Elliot feels guilty while watching familiar emotions roll across Gracie’s face and posture. He got over his revulsion when linking with other team members, but he can’t find that headspace right now. This is too weird, too personal.

“Generally I just don’t, but being touched is wildly unpleasant,” he admits. “A big rush of the ol’ post-traumatic stress. Getting caught by surprise is the worst.” He shudders just thinking about it.

“And it’s not always this bad,” he adds. It’s not a lot of things. “The trip here just… opened some doors I thought were closed for good.”

Gracie nods to indicate some sort of understanding. “People touch me all the time.” With an exhale pushed audibly from her lungs, her hand drifts back to rest on the bar. “Whether I really want them to or not. The idea of not wanting that… And having the power to stick to that is kind of an alien concept to me by now.”

Lowering her head, she stares down and a thousand miles away. “My girl with the sunshine smiles is gone,” admits Gracie to what was already suspected and implied. “People open up to me, but the only thing I open up is my legs. I guess for a second there… it felt good for someone to know me.” Her shoulder shrugs. “Such as you do.”

Without lifting her head, Rue’s blue eyes stare up at Elliot. They could be sitting at her kitchen island, his inamorata lamenting some way in which she falls short. Generally, in some way she believes she fails him. “What’s your favorite thing about her?” It’s a little bit like fishing for a compliment, masquerading as not quite that.

It's frustrating to see the same insecurities play out in Gracie that he sees in Rue. He doesn't feel like he has the right to do what he'd normally do when such behaviors manifest in his girlfriend. He doesn't know this woman well enough to even assume that the same types of encouragement would work. The idea of her having so little agency of her own body riles up a deep anger; Rue would knock out teeth. As long as she wasn't inviting the offender to hit her out of misplaced guilt.

"Sex work isn't an excuse to bypass consent," he says with a shake of his head. "I'm sorry you have to deal with that. I wish I could…" He shakes his head again in dismissal of his hopeless frustration. A different approach.

"My favorite thing about Rue," he says, his tone trying to convey a topic change that's going somewhere, "is probably her sense of humor. Mine is generally kind of morbid whereas hers is more playful. When she's in the spirit. We banter really well and that's top-tier requirements for me."

"Before I left she told me that, if I found the version of her in this timeline, I had permission to have sex with her. You." A hand grenade to admit to said stranger, but his posture and a sudden lightening if his voice continues, "but if there's anything I can predict with absolute certainty? It's that there's nothing in the universe that I could do that would hurt her more than to make her feel second place to another version of herself."

"So, if you want," he offers, "I can be a person who you never have to worry about only seeing you for sex. You could come to me for help dealing with anybody who doesn't understand consent, to be dealt with at whatever level of severity the offense warrants. Or just to have somebody to talk to. Because I do see you. I'm familiar with the essence of you. I can learn the rest."

Maybe it’s the difference between being a soldier who doesn’t like to call herself a soldier, and being… whatever Gracie is. Dancer. Sex worker.

Survivor. That’s one thing they have in common.

The other version of Elliot’s girlfriend smiles at him with a far softer version of that same smile he sees when he cracks wise like he just described. Like she finds the notion endearing, maybe imagining in some way how it must sound. How it must feel to have a companion again.

It’s the permissiveness of her alternate self that brings Gracie’s eyes to suddenly widen. Slightly alarmed. Slightly scandalized. “She… what?” Blushing faintly, she doesn’t glance away. Apparently her bravery manifests in different ways.

Breath held in her chest. Blue eyes blink. The thoughtfulness he puts behind his rationale for not presenting her with this blank check that she would cash. Touched, she feels sympathy, both for him and for his Rue. Feels surprise and confusion to be acknowledged in the way he does.

I do see you.

That’s when she looks away, embarrassed. A self-conscious air, hints of shame. “I’m open to that,” she says however, glancing back for the briefest of moments. “I… haven’t had a friend in a long time. I don’t talk about myself. It’s… easier with you, because you have the foundation, I guess.” Shoulders come up in a shrug. “I feel like I can talk to you. Like maybe I actually want to.”

Gracie winces, her face turning further away. “Jesus Christ on a scooter, I sound fucking stupid.”

Elliot chuckles voicelessly. There’s the Rue I know, he thinks. “You don’t need to worry about sounding weird to me. As long as you don’t mind my sounding weird to you.”

That draws a small smile from the other Rue, comforted by the acceptance of mutual weirdness.

“Sorry about the run-around,” he says, gesturing vaguely. “I’m usually sleeping on Yeah, Buoy! but I do drift about for work. World’s least-predictable handyman.”

It occurs to him that most of his running about has brought him as far as it’s likely too. “If your employer needs any bar help or security, let me know. She may remember me as the bartender who wasn’t supposed to be working the meet-and-greet on Siren’s Song.” He laughs awkwardly. “Bad habit of showing up behind bars without permission. Otherwise discrete with a steady hand for necessary violence.”

A nod upward signifies Gracie’s recognition of the scenario he described, a smirk playing on her lips. “I heard a little something about that. I cut and ran from that party pretty quickly, unfortunately. Some guys just can’t get the idea of off work while at work, and I don’t suffer that bullshit. I’ll walk away.”

Rue would make someone else limp away.

“I’m not really one for violence,” Gracie continues. “I’m not opposed to it, just not even a little adept at it.” Her eyes narrow faintly, flirtatious in the most familiar of ways. “It’s nice to know I have someone who’ll shore up that shortfall for me.”

“Happy to help,” Elliot laughs. He looks away, running over the commitment he just made in his mind. There’s other groundwork to be laid here and no point wasting time getting around to laying it.

“Our group is going to make a cross-continental journey to Alaska,” he says, trying to remain warm in tone but feeling the weight of the why. “Within the next few weeks, I believe. You and yours should consider joining the convoy. There’s talk of building a more permanent and stable community in Anchorage, and we’re heading there either way.”

Elbow on the bar, head propped on her hand, Gracie’s brows jump at the extended offer (or suggestion). “Is that so?” she asks with mild surprise. He’s seen a similar look on Audrey Hepburn’s face in one of those movies Rue likes to watch, but pretends she doesn’t like to watch. (“Gracious.”)

“Well, it’s just I, Me, Mine.” The song lyrics referenced with a small smirk playing on her lips. “Or just I, Me, I guess. There is no Mine.” The smirk fades, segues into a shrug. “There’s really not much rooting me here. And I remember how to survive a Chicago winter.” There’s a pause where she lifts her gaze toward the ceiling, considering, lips skewing to one side. “Probably.”

Those blue eyes settle on Elliot, searching for some sign that this is a bluff or a joke or anything of a disingenuous sort. “Okay,” she agrees, lifting her head from her palm again to nod with a solemnity befitting the big decision she’s currently making on the fly. “But you’re not going to Anchorage,” she observes astutely. “Where and why?”

Elliot looks momentarily confused, then shrugs away any real concern. "I've heard it called Anchor," he says, "and assumed Anchorage because locals have a particularly terrible habit of only using one half of a word. An offense for which I feel like I've been extremely magnanimous for not persecuting with a sharp stick."

The confusion is mirrored, Gracie’s stare blank momentarily. Then she cracks a grin. “I mean, at least we don’t call this place The Isle of Manhatt.” Laughing softly, she spends a few seconds looking fond. That sort of way Rue looks when she thinks Elliot can’t see her. “You remind me of life before.” In a way that’s likely self-explanatory. “I can definitely tell what she sees in you. You’ve got a wit.”

Elliot chuckles in light embarrassment at the compliment. "It's definitely not our end goal," he clarifies. "That'll be in more northern, inhospitable climes no doubt. It's a way off regardless. A lot of open roads and trackless wilds between now and then." No reason to pivot straight to doomsaying yet, so he leaves that out. No certainty doom is going to make it all the way out here anyway.

“Yeah…” Gracie agrees. “It’ll be nice not making that trek alone this time.” Taking a deep breath, she straightens up, shoulders back, eyes diverted. “Didn’t know where else to go but back here, honestly. I tried to find something else, but…” She sighs. “That didn’t work out well.”

Elliot smiles sadly; no reason to reopen that wound again. It's been so long since he was last alone that he can't imagine what it would be like to make such an undertaking on his own. Never alone but lonely nonetheless. More lonely still, he'll carry Wright's loneliness for her as well so she never has to. Always give and take; always the footing for the other's shortfall.

"It will be nice," he agrees. "Not going it alone. I'm glad for the company."

Gracie hums amenably. “I don’t know what route you’re planning to take, but I can probably tell the caravan what areas to avoid. Raiders are sonuvafucks.”

There’s Rue again.

"Raiders," Elliot scoffs. "Jesus. Glad to know such fucksons came together in the spirit of community to shoulder the burden together."

On a more serious note he withdraws to consider for a moment. "If you have intel on the mainland I'm sure we'd all benefit from what you know. If you'd be comfortable meeting with the rest of the team I'd be happy to make the introduction."

Consideration lasts only for the duration of time it takes to draw a breath. “Of course. If I can help keep other people from… that.” Trailing off, Gracie rubs at one shoulder absently. “Yeah. I’m down for that.” She smiles, a perfunctory thing. “Just tell me where and when.”

"I'll let you know shortly," Elliot says, shifting his posture and checking the route to the exit. No time like the present.

“That sounds like a plan to me.” Gracie leans back and smirks. “Since you aren’t going to shake my hand, I hope you’ll settle for this instead.”

It’s a wink. She’s asking him to settle for a wink.

"I'll take it," he laughs.

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