Briar Branch


harlow2_icon.gif joseph_icon.gif

Scene Title Briar Branch
Synopsis True to form, Harlow and Joseph have a conversation upon an unexpected reunion that is only constructive if you look at it like this.
Date November 17, 2009

Miscellaneous Midtown Safehouse

Chalk wicks in the spirals of Harlow's fingers, comes away in translucent lines and on her jeans legs as she tries to wipe them clean. Back in her daughter's room, the girl is scrawling still, adding layers of dusty flowing color to the inchoate sunrise forming on the construction paper she was given to play with. Yes, she's sixteen years old, well-educated and intelligent, but sometimes it's the little things. Chalk and orange paper, a few minutes scratching away at crudely simplified artwork with a mother whose true nature and work a mutant child rescued from the jaws of the Department of Homeland Security and brought to a safehouse— Belinda isn't even supposed to know that word, safehouse?— can only speculate about.

And ignore, if Jean has anything to say about it, and she tends to say a lot without having to specifically resort to words. Right now, a mere six hours before the next phase of Ferrymen operations, her course and agenda are simple. She's going to wash her hands and make dinner.

Offering a low word of salutation to the Ferry operative who passes her by in the hall, she then pulls her ponytail loose, shakes her head, sends mopstring blond coils scattering before loosing untied over her shoulders. With only a faded olive tank-top as proof against New York's chill, she looks thin and oddly sallow in the chill light, scrawled out between the jutting severity of clavicles and hollow-boned swing of over-long arms.

That Joseph has to backslide into winter is a hell of an insult to injury. The Ferry haven't seen a lot of him, since Danko's transfer - medics have, a bit, and then there was Wireless, and since then, well. Who knows where Joseph is returning from when he makes his way to this particular building, the pavement slick with recent rain that currently has taken a break from falling. His moroseness will start to become the thing of legends, what songs are written about and monuments are erected for, but, you know what they say—

A day at a time. And today's not a bad day, really. The crutch at one arm acts as support to his left leg, which has nothing visibly wrong with it on account of dark denim covering bandages accordingly. The plaid of his shirt is soft and warm, hidden mostly beneath a jacket of a different coloured denim.

That was a couple of seconds ago, arriving, skirting around puddles and levering himself into the warmth of something like a home. He'd stayed here, when his leg had first been wrapped up, and he's here again for want of much better. Into the hallway and veering towards the kitchen. He could do with coffee, and going from there. He only notices who he's halting to let pass after he steps aside and gestures with his crutch, a sheepish smile freezing when he looks up.

Well, isn't this nice? inquires the Cheshire curve of Harlow's smile, a sheen of white teeth between neutrally-colored lips. It isn't malice, exactly, but the arrogance inherent to a cat presiding over the insignificant fate of a mouse between her forepaws or, at least, a facade presented as such. Harlow isn't exactly notorious for full transparency, no matter how faithful she has been, thus far, to her agreement with the Evolved underground railway. "Pastor Sumter," she greets him. "I didn't know you lived here too."

Which is probably to say that she knows he doesn't. There's something eerie about how casual gait Harlow measures across the floor toward him, how casual the jeans and wifebeater are, innocuous the chalk rainbowed on her hands. "I'm making dinner. Mac and cheese. I'm sure there's enough for three. You could use the help healing, couldn't you?" She can't even be bothered to gesture with her head; there's only a downward flick of barbed eyelashes, a gesture toward the kitchen that he had already too obviously been moving toward.

And the mouse goes very still and quivers in the cat's presence, which isn't very flattering. Joseph doesn't shake, however, and it's not exactly fear that settles at the bottom of his stomach when she, in turn, shows recognition. He remains stuck standing in the limbo of kitchen doorway and hallway, crutch coming to rest down back against the ground, one-handedly leaning on it as he watches her speak at him.

No, speaks to him. He should reply. "Great," Joseph responds, voice creaking out of his throat and reluctant jaw. "I'm fine. Thank you." Re: healing. The crutch makes sharper thumps against the tiled floor as he moves into the kitchen, and normally he'd be tugging off his jacket and making himself comfortable. Instead, he heads towards the coffee machine to check its status, his back turned to her. Not out of bravery, but because it doesn't really matter. Humanis First attacks the front just as often.

Somehow, he's the one to pick up conversation again. "I didn't think you'd be around anymore. What with your girl back in your hands, now, and Danko outta ours."

"The offer I made your people was more generous than that," Harlow answers. Behind the pastor's back, he can hear kettle and wooden spoon clunking, the macaroni box rustling its dried contents when she tests its weight in a wag of gripping fingers around its folded edge.

This one will do. Cardboard splits under a sharp, callused thumb, and then the foil bag therein crinkles and gives way to a deft pinch of fingers. "We're attacking a facility for which my boys and I captured Evolved to provide test subjects for. One of those organizations making a cure. The most promising, as far as I could tell." Because obviously, he would feel better, knowing she had been her most discriminate in choosing which atrocious pharmaceutical effort to throw her weight behind. She didn't just throw abductions around willy-nilly.

"Are you coming?"

There is no coffee, and Joseph isn't sure he has the patience to wait around for it. A hand goes up to rub at his forehead, before a box of teabags is taken down instead, the smooth open shut of cupboards are polite, if sharp sounding. Passive aggressively so. "No," is the short answer, setting his crutch against the kitchen counter and moving for the fridge without it getting in the way. Milk is selected, the date checked, going through domestic notions despite the roiling emotions feeling a bit like physical knots among his innards.

"But I'll pray for them." He doesn't say these things to set up easy targets. He just believes them. It's kind of a curse, like a name that gets you bullied in the playground.

Limping on back to where he set his mug down, Joseph patiently arranges his tea without looking at her. "Not a lot of use to things like that right now. Why are you keeping your word?" It's an abrupt departure, but the question rattles off the end of that last statement without particular mind for abrupt subject changes. His tone is neutral, concealing. "Why bother?"

Gimp that he is, Harlow wasn't inclined to disagree. The quizzical eyebrow of an insult-in-progress melts away into an expression of sepulchral stillness. Dried pasta rolls out of the bag and into the strainer she's claimed for her use, fills the bottom with a musical tick-tinkle, noise coruscating brightly through the merry little curls of discrete, segmented tubes. "It's better for everybody this way. For a little while longer. Until 'linda's… problems with control are resolved, and-or I find somewhere for us to reestablish ourselves. I'm thinking about Canada." Close, but far. She sets a very cordial pot of water onto the stovetop to boil.

"What kind of things are you of use to these days?" He isn't the only one who can do abrupt, or with dangerously sharp reference to past events. Wooden spoon swirls lazily baton-like in Harlow's hand, is snapped flat against the narrow flat of her palm when Harlow tightens his fingers. "Apart from jury duty over captured terrorists, which I understood was a rare event for the Ferrymen. I appreciated your performance." There are a dozen other meanings to that phrase; from the fact she would— and has— equally appreciate being spared to the fact that his efforts to serve justice apparently tend to run girls out of his life.


"You should've been up there with him. Tied to a chair, handcuffed and blindfolded. Listenin' to how many people want you dead and gone." These words are stated simply, with only a small amount of ire burning like dim embers in a dead hearth. There is the faintest of tremors, of course, but reined in so well it can't hardly matter. Joseph isn't one to lose control, as a general rule, as much as Harlow had seen it slipping in elated panic of escape.

Those were the days. He spills milk into his mug. "You wouldn't have had to help us if you'd taken this exact same deal when I told you. Savin' me woulda been enough. As it stands, you've got no right dealin' with the Ferry. Your little girl would be in safer hands with Homeland Security, God help her."

And now he gives up on the pretence of polite tea making, even passive aggressively polite tea making, turning to face her, spine straight.

In the meantime, the macaroni and cheese is in full swing, and there's nothing the slightest bit passive-aggressive about its slow-bubbling progress. She has her hip set against the table's edge, her axis tilted like a colt waiting in the shade, her long legs braided loosely below her and ankles crossed. Her boots alone are ugly things, black, heavy at the tips with armor underneath the scarred leather.

"Terrible mistake," she agrees, after a moment. "If only I'd thought ahead, bought into the cattle-rustlers in time to see you get shot in the back running down the highway in the remotest armpit of boondocks New York back then. Saving you would have been harder, believe it or not.

"And I'd still have to—" Her neck cranes around an awkward curve, shoulders furrowing, like she has to force the words out they're so awkward. "Sabotage Humanis First!, make sure they didn't come after me. Or you. I don't really understand what you mean," she admits, after a moment. Steam toots up from the saucepan, and she twists to pour macaroni shells into the simmering water. "Who's a danger to my little girl, now?"

You? Harlow could be more incisored, aggressive about the query, expose teeth and a threat behind it, but she doesn't, leaves it balanced precariously between honest curiosity and cool suspicion, quietly prepared to field the probable insult behind it. Me?

Would have been harder. A furrow in Joseph's brow communicates how little he is impressed by this sentiment. Not with Felix rotting in the cell next to him. Not with Mona captured swiftly after. But he can, at least, accept the futility in arguing it — really, it served best as a line drawn between them. Or further widening it, in case there was any pretence of it fuzzying and blurring in light of Harlow's new leaf turned over.

For whatever reason. He moves to pick up the kettle, heavy and full of boiling water in his hand. There is zero temptation to swing it, and it has nothing to do with his leg. Anger turned inwards, he limps back to what he was doing. "You," he confirms, simply. "Herself, maybe. Kept by the government, raised by someone else if they got a handle on her power, someone who can look after her— "

Unlike Harlow. "— maybe she wouldn't ever have to know exactly what her momma is. Let me tell you, it hurts to know what your own kin can be capable of."

It would have been a cheap contrivance, indeed, to pretend they could be friends. For Harlow, joining the heroes' side of the war was little more than a lateral transition, really.

Which fails entirely to change the fact that she is a mother, and one who has only really become aware of it since the possibility of outliving her child swung in to such hair-raising focus. There's a flash behind her eyes. Nothing supernatural. She forgets to set the timer on the microwave, her fingers buckled white around the grain-furred shaft of the spoon handle.

There's a little more than zero temptation to swing it, maybe at his leg, anger swiveling its barbs confusedly outward or in. "You don't know what you're talking about," she points out, steady in a way not even Harlow's voice can get unless she is trying very, very hard. "You wouldn't say anything. She's only a child, and she isn't yours."

There's a little bit of silence from Joseph, now, as the kettle is set back into place and sugar is stirred into his tea, sweet like the South likes it, if hot for the New York miserable weather. Clink-clink, he taps his teaspoon against the ceramic rim with all the delicate affect of a conductor's baton. "It's your fault, his fault, that not one o' you get to tell me what I wouldn't do anymore," he says, his voice almost too quiet to be heard. But he makes sure it is, all the same, despite his chin tucked in and eyes down on his drink.

"Except, I guess," and the teaspoon makes a loud and sharp clatter when it's pitched underhand into the sink, "about some things. But tellin' a girl the truth? She don't have to be mine for me to do that. We're all God's children."

"Maybe you could do us a favor and let God tell her when He's good and ready, then," Harlow suggests, but there's no sincerity in her snide word choice and her hands go back onto the counter, closing uneasily on the edge instead of her moving forward. It might come as a shock to the reader, however small or subtle, to think that she's on the defensive now, irritated, without a knife or a gun or a vicious argument to achieve her goal and the terrain between herself and her daughter peculiarly unsteady, for all that she's done for her.

Harlow's head slants a fraction of a degree to the right, avian, more songbird than raptor. "It wouldn't help anyone."

Joseph braces a hand against the counter as well, weight inconspicuously on his right leg as he leans, other hand up to bring his tea up to sip. He studies her all the while, allows silence draw its thread taut between them, analysing the details of the woman before him as if he could detect the most minute of tremors and vibrations down said tension. If he recognises that she's on the defensive, it can be indicated by the way he says nothing for a while.

Then, he lifts his chin, and asks, "What is it you think I owe you? You tipped us off about Danko and the Ferry's already done what you want from them. I wasn't asked, and I never got a say, and I sure don't owe you my silence."

The tea is set aside, namely because he knows what territory he's about to plunge into, now that she's on the backfoot like Danko never was even strapped to a cot and dosed with morphine, and he doesn't want conspicuous shaking to make tea ripple. "You didn't just do Danko's work. How many of his men just stood guard, took orders? No, you were cruel. Needlessly cruel. There was no need for you to do what you did to me, or to Felix, and I can't guess you didn't enjoy it. Why should I care who it helps? But for the record— it helps her. It hurts less if you grow up with it. She'll find out one day, Harlow."

Disagreement comes in a thinning of Harlow's mouth, blood retracted with the compression of skin and miniscule muscles. If this feeling had a noise, it would be an abrading rasp, frictive, threat of burning somewhere in the welting accumulation of damage.

She could probably argue about— what orders she was under, the cover she had to perform, but the words do not come to mind as summoned. Instead, she lifts the wooden spoon over the saucepan's rim, nudges its flattened head down to stir the piecemeal contents. Dig out one piece of pasta to test with her teeth, though there's a beat's pause of hesitation first, her expression flattening. "She doesn't have to.

"I'm here in this safehouse because she needs me. I changed Humanis First!'s game because she needs me. Homeland Security can't be trusted, and nor can her ability. Even you know that, whenever you aren't contorting logic around at the convenience of your hate." Steam steals away with a huff of breath over the pasta piece. She tucks it into her mouth, tries its texture with molars.

"I know that." The concession is made with blithe passing by of the h-word. It's noting Joseph could deny even if it was worth denying, and he takes a deeper sip of tea, as if the tepid liquid would do something to cool it. "But I know you too." In that, he remembers a woman who drugged hin with psychoactives, taunted him about his sister's rape, and led him to believe he could be free when he wasn't. Joseph stares down at the drink in his hands.

They all warned him about the crash, and like hell would he do it in front of Harlow, or any of them, or anyone at all, God being an exception. Joseph takes a breath. "You could ask me not to."

Overcooked. It's dumped into the strainer anyway, dumped back out in the same mirthless flush of movement, powdered cheese caked in with a wriggle of the packet gripped between forefinger and thumb. The saucepan whole taken to the table, handle in hand. This has turned into a gruesome caricature, a postcard snapshot of a domestic kitchen scenario that this surely is not. The mac clonks onto the table. Smells cheesy. This is cheesy. Yet there is nothing else like this in the world, or shouldn't be.

She prods its contents with a sticky, viscous squelch, streaks yellow dilute across the curved black wall. "Power-plays, Pastor Sumter?" she asks, with one brow lifted, and it's almost as if Jean 'Harlow' Aniston is trying to make a joke. "How very forward. Before I do, it might make you feel better about it to know that I don't consider myself a very good mother."

"It don't." Just so we're clear. Tea is quickly cooling in his hand and hilariously, Joseph has been here before. Blonde woman with softer curves than Harlow making dinner while they negotiate brittle words and jabs and unkindness in the battle space of the kitchen. Maybe the acoustics make it good for arguing, Joseph doesn't know, but it was always the kitchen. And there was always love.

Right now, swap that out for hatred that makes him feel sick and it's almost the same. "If a power play is what you understand, then that's what it is. Otherwise, I just want to be asked like you consider my answer to be worth anythin'." He starts to lift up his tea to sip, but pauses to add, "Instead o' tellin' me what I should and can do, like I ain't human."

Long hands fall onto Harlow's lap. She's inches from saying it. You don't think I'm human, but she doesn't, halted awkwardly on the precipice of realization, suspicion, or the swirling cloy of 'this stuff is too sentimental for my comprehension.' Emotions tend to muddle into each other. Squishy blendable things.

It seems unlikely he would want to be treated as a human being by a real monster.

"Please don't tell Belinda about—" Humanis First!, the torture, the girl in the bucket, the drugs, the abductions, Danko, "me?" Six words. Not the hardest she's ever told, not even a lie for all that, not even the sincerity is untrue. No pride to swallow, no humility in the asking, despite the hate loud in Joseph's face and the fact that he had never been worth hers. Yet this changes something. Something small. A closer glimpse at something she has spent the last three years very, very deliberately avoiding to look directly at.

Black gaze flicks downwards, assessing. It would be nice if it, too, changed something for Joseph. Tea is a pale muddy colour, unpleasant, but a comfort of warmth against where his knuckles press against the curved sides from fingers looped around a slightly too small handle, and it's this he stares at as if it would tell him his fortune. Interpret the muddling emotions until they can become something as neutral as lukewarm milk and water.

His hand goes out to pick up the crutch from its lean, push his arm through the loop and grip the handle. "Okay," Joseph consents, with a glance back at her. No smile, no olive branch. He'll drink this, and then sleep, and judge whether or not it's worth leaving.

But either way, he's vacating the room, at the swaying limping rhythm of injured leg and crutch, leaving Harlow to her dinner and motherhood.

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