Cardinals Of A Feather


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also with rickyr_icon.gif lilir_icon.gif aura_icon.gif

Scene Title Cardinals of a Feather
Synopsis Family is always hard.
Date July 16, 2019

One disadvantage of living in corporate housing like that provided by Raytech is that there aren’t many ways of gathering in large groups without using a community lounge, which means that if you want a private party you either deal with being extremely cramped or you risk people wandering in.

One advantage of being the CEO is that you can commandeer a conference room for the purpose of a family dinner if you’re absolutely shameless about such minor abuses of authority, which - as it happens - Richard Ezekiel Cardinal Ray is.

July 16, 2019

“Ricky, please don’t leave fingerprints on the holographic display thing,” Richard patiently instructs his son, who reluctantly ducks back out from under the table and scrambles up to sit beside Lili. She, for her part, is playing with the (appropriately access-locked) controls for the holographic display and making a digital Spot™ leap around in the middle of the display in the middle of the room.

It’s keeping them busy while they wait for the food to be served, anyway. Currently, a number of dishes and drinks are set up on the side table beside the main conference room table,

The kids are in their version of ‘Sunday best’, while the executive himself is in his business attire aside from the jacket and tie, a black shirt buttoned up to the neck and a pair of slacks. It’s not a formal event, but it’s their first time all together, however strange a grouping they all are.

Michelle Cardinal hasn't had Sunday Bests in decades. Not because her son hasn't offered, not by any stretch, but her inability to relax has become a point of contention for the family. When she shows up to the dinner in flats and slacks and her lab coat, lanyard still clipped to the right pocket, it isn't surprising. She pushes the door to the conference room open, checking something on a tablet held in one hand.

“You know,” Michelle says to absolutely no one, “we could probably cut our wastewater needs if we just paid to repair the Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant…” Her tone is a meandering mumble, one hand taking through her hair, brows furrowed. “I wonder what condition it's in…”

Aurora races in wearing a pretty skirt and top in her bare feet, scampering up onto a chair next to Lili to see what she's doing. As long as the Spot <™> isn't real, she's fine. "Hi Gramma!" is tossed off casually, since Michelle is one of her favorite people — she answers questions with lots of long words sometimes, but Aura loves that she can ask anything and get a cool answer..

Elisabeth's arrival is right on the child's heels — she's beginning to look a little more every day like the Liz he remembers, well put together and dressed in detective-casual. Although she's been nice enough to leave her firearm back in the apartment for this. She pauses near Michelle and quirks a brow. It's not a bad idea. But her blue eyes shift to Richard and she smiles faintly. "Hey there, love… I think we better feed your mother. Her brain is in overdrive again." (It never comes out, Liz is pretty damn sure it's always Mach 2 with Chel's hair on fire.)

Nathalie decidedly did not understand that this was a nicely dressed event. Either that or she doesn't actually own nice clothes which might be a factor in why she steps through the door in worn, ripped jeans and a t-shirt cut to fall off one shoulder. And sneakers. Since her idea of dressing up usually includes armor, maybe this is the better choice.

Either way, a glance at everyone else makes her feel a bit stranger about being at a family event.

She's only had one.

It didn't set a high bar.

She stands in the doorway, half in and half out like she might duck out and have Sera find her a blazer or something, awkwardly staring for a long moment before she steps in. But even then, she seems unsure of where she's meant to be during all this. She waves to Richard and to the kids, but Michelle and Liz both get a look instead. She knows them, but only through visions of a different life. Which feels a little like cheating.

Richard could guarantee, if asked, that this dinner will not end up like the Epstein family dinner. If it goes horrifically wrong it’ll go wrong in different ways!

“Hi Gramma,” Lili chimes in brightly, looking up with a tooth-gapped smile before turning to whisper to Aurora, “Wanna turn? You can make it run around!” Ricky is picking his nose while his father isn’t looking, but waves with his other hand to Michelle’s arrival.

It’s with a sigh that Richard reaches out to try and pluck the tablet from his mother’s hands. “Send me an email,” he says in dry tones, “It’s dinner. Sit down and enjoy some time with your family, mom, we can worry about wastewater expenses at the budgetary meeting next quarter.” She’s even worse than he is on the ‘obsessive’ scale, and he’s pretty bad at it.

The arrival then of Nathalie brings a broad smile, “Nat! Come in, ah— everyone, this is Nathalie— she’s Sarisa’s kid, mom, your cousin— Nathalie, this is my fiancee Elisabeth, this is my mother Michelle, and that’s Lili, Aurora, and Ricky— Ricky, get your finger out of your nose— my kids.”

“This isn’t about the financial cost,” Michelle says with distracted delay, bending down to scoop up Aurora mid-stride as though she were a misbehaving housecat. She holds the young woman completely upside down, one arm around her waist, eyes still focused on the tablet, “it’s about a literal water shortage. Everything in the Safe Zone is run off of groundwater wells,” she explains, swinging Aurora back and forth like a little human pendulum, bracing much of the girl’s weight against her hip. “Neither the Catskills nor the Croton aqueducts are functioning and they’re outside of Yamagato’s purview for reconstruction efforts… if we—”

Aurora is fishing through Michelle’s pockets.

“Okay, okay,” Michelle says, setting down the tablet so as to right Aurora and settle her down in one of the unoccupied chairs, then snatches what looks like a laser pointer from her. Richard recognizes it as a portable laser scalpel. Michelle tucks it back into her coat and ruffles one hand through Aurora’s hair, then offers a side-long look to Lili, then another over to Nathalie whom she regards with an even more guarded expression.

“Anyway, fine.” Michelle says, tapping the screen of her tablet and turning it off. “I suppose it can wait until tonight. I’m just — if we had to fight more than sporadic fires, I don’t think the infrastructure could hold here. I’m looking at more than just potable water, but the Safe Zone’s ability to pump— ” Michelle realizes she’s doing it again.

Exhaling a deep sigh that blows an errant lock of graying blonde hair from her face, Michelle slowly slouches down into a seat and rakes one hand through her hair. It’s been nagging at the back of Nathalie’s mind for a while now, but there’s some uncanny similarities between Michelle’s facial features and that of one Sarisa Kershner. It’s the eyes, the smile.

"It's nice to meet you, Nathalie. C'mon in," Elisabeth invites with a smile. "It's always a bit of a madhouse, sorry." Three kids all about the same age, and one is dangling in her grandmother's arms like a capuchin monkey, squealing with giggles… it's definitely energetic in here.

The audiokinetic picks up a napkin off the table and holds it out to Ricky. "Say hello and go wash your hands, son," she murmurs to him. Dropping a kiss on Lili's head while Aurora is deposited next to her sister by Michelle to play on the tablet, Elisabeth seems pretty much like this is all normal. Craziness is not unusual around this household.

Food. Food will make everyone sit in one place, at least. So with a quick kiss to Richard's cheek, she heads for the kitchen to bring out things that people can pick at to keep their hands busy. Cheese. Maybe some grapes. She can't remember what's in there, but there is stuff cuz she throws food in that fridge constantly.

"Hi," Nathalie says, coming toward the table when she's introduced. She doesn't seem to know what to do with the children, so the girls each get a handshake and Ricky gets a pat on his shoulder. Maybe after he washes his hands, he'll get a shake too. "Nice to meet you, too," she says to Liz as she takes a seat, "you have a beautiful family." That one is for both her and Richard, honestly meant but awkward all the same. Like she heard somewhere that she's supposed to compliment people at dinner parties and is mentally ticking boxes on a checklist.

Through it all, her attention shifts repeatedly back to Michelle. It's an odd thing to see her in the flesh— and to see all those similarities to her mother in the woman's face. The guarded expression isn't missed, how could it be? But it only serves as a reminder to Nat to look away now and then.

As he spots the laser scalpel, Richard gives his mother a slightly-exasperated really? look, hands spreading a bit. He doesn’t say anything out loud, but his chiding is clear despite being unspoken, head shaking as he moves back over to the table.

“You’re doing it again,” he echoes Michelle’s words wryly, “We’ll look into the water supply issue, I promise. Tomorrow. The Safe Zone isn’t going to burn down overnight or anything.” She’s definitely preoccupied, because she didn’t notice the f-word that he used when introducing Elisabeth.

After greetings and handshakes, Ricky rushes past Nathalie to wash his hands, even as Lili starts showing Aurora how the holographic display works. At least the little demo that she’s playing with, since the rest of its functions are locked out at the moment.

“Thanks. They got it all from their mothers, I assure you,” he chuckles at Nathalie’s words, “They’re hyper, me and my mother are workaholics, and Liz has to deal with us all. Pity her.”

Exhaling a weary sigh, Michelle threads an errant lock of gray-streaked hair behind one ear and reclines against the back of her seat. “Sorry,” is said a bit more humbly than anything else she’s said in the past few months. “Work’s been… good. Things to focus on that can be solved, you know.” Unlike interpersonal relationships, especially the interdimensional kind. It’s strange, in a way, that of all the embarrassment of family that Michelle has now, it’s Elisabeth and Aurora that she’s the closest with.

It’s only when Michelle has realized that she’s been staring at Nathalie that she sighs again and scrubs one hand over the side of her neck. “Your… yes, of course you are.” There’s a wary look in Michelle’s eyes, averted down to the table for a moment in an awkward bit of tension. She looks at Richard, wondering why he introduced her as such, and can’t help but shake the threats of the government that were made if she ever divulged her true identity to the public.

“Your mother was a lovely person,” is the most Michelle says, but it doesn’t sound like an empty platitude. It sounds like a quick gloss over a longer story.

It sounds like Michelle knew her.

Elisabeth's reappearance from the kitchen is quick — she threw a tray of raw veggies in there this morning before she left for work and forgot that she did it. She might be a little nervous this evening as well. Depositing it on the table for people to occupy their hands with, she smiles at Nathalie's compliment. A hand drops on Michelle's shoulder briefly, a light squeeze conveying (hopefully) reassurance that things are fine, and then she settles into a chair just so that she's not running all over like a chicken with her head cut off. There's a curious look at Michelle — Sarisa isn't a topic that they've really discussed. And then she volunteers quietly to Nathalie, "I worked for your mother for a while." Pausing, she then grins a bit. "I admired her." It's perhaps a strange thing to hear her admit, but Sarisa Kershner had appreciated Elisabeth's skills and had in general been a good boss.

"C'mon in, pull up a chair. We're not exactly formal types around here." Slanting a glance at Richard, Elisabeth grins. "Although I guess we're trying to make a good impression here." Her tone is casual simply because… Nat is family, and so as far as Elisabeth's concerned, standing on ceremony is out the door.

Nathalie looks between Michelle and Liz at their assessments of Sarisa. She closes her eyes a moment before she settles on Liz first. "I understand she was… remarkable," she says as she settles a hand on the back of a chair. "I wish I could have known her." She sits, but her gaze travels back to Michelle. "I've never heard anyone say she was lovely, though," she remarks, because that is pretty new. It isn't surprise that she means to convey, but an invitation to say more. Maybe not right here, right now, but her interest in information about her mother is clear.

Her hands fold on the table as she sinks into the chair and she looks between the others with some apology in her gaze. "This is all new to me," she says with a gesture to the group around the table. "In a good way," she adds, in reassurance. "I look forward to being able to work with you, myself, Liz," she adds, work being an easier topic, her voice turns more lighthearted, "I'm just not sure having Avi around is going to give you a break from the rest of your craziness." She waves toward Richard, the kids, this whole building.

“To be fair, it’s pretty new to all of us,” Richard admits as he sinks into a chair, “Having this much family around is… “ A smile tugs up at the corner of his lips as he looks around the table, “—pretty new. I mean I had the Rays, but…” Actually having blood family around is a new experience to him.

His previous experience with one of them didn’t turn out well. Not that David was technically his father anyway.

Leaning over, Richard picks up a running Ricky coming back from washing his hands and plops him securely in his chair, chuckling, “Sarisa was— an interesting woman. A lot of layers, there, and I never got through many of them. I knew her for a shorter time than I would’ve liked. But ah, Avi’s a good friend. A stubborn self-destructive idiot but a good friend.”

Making a noise in the back of her throat, Michelle slowly levers herself out of her seat and makes her way over to where Richard is. It’s obvious, probably too much so, that she’s trying to ask him something in confidence. As she leans in, she glances briefly at Nathalie, and whispers, “Does she know who I really am?” The anxiety in Michelle’s voice is palpable, that tremor of uncertainty, the precarious balancing-act she’s been walking ever since she arrived in this timeline.

But she doesn’t want to linger by Richard’s ear. She knows a nod or a shake of his head will do. So as she leans back, she just flashes an awkward and uncertain smile to Nathalie, then looks over to Elisabeth with a lord give me strength expression on her face. Living a lie was harder than she had ever imagined it would be.

If anyone understands what Michelle's going through, it's Elisabeth — Five years under an assumed identity was hard as hell. She shoots her soon-to-be mother-in-law a sympathetic smile. "It's okay," she assures gently. The NDA that they were all required to sign is reason for worry, certainly. She doesn't want to make light of the concern, but Richard's relationship to certain kinds of rules … well…

A grin is shot at Nathalie and Elisabeth rolls her eyes. "At this point, I have no expectations of any kind of break from the craziness that is my life, Nathalie," she replies ruefully. "I have simply come to accept that for whatever reason, I'm a magnet for weirdness." She shrugs. "Avi really can't make my life stranger than it has already been up to now." She has time-traveling versions of alternate children from 2040 in this world and spent seven years dimension-hopping. And you think a little finger-wiggle like Avi is supposed to throw me off stride?

"I'm glad to have so many familiar people to rely on, honestly. Having Wolfhound at my back makes me comfortable. Hana… saved my life." Such a tame phrase for what Hana and the consciousness of Teo did. "And I know what she expected of her people. I'm looking forward to working with you too. All of you."

Nathalie looks between Michelle and Richard, uncertainty creeping into her expression. She can't hear the conversation, but she can see the nervousness well enough. She looks away, feeling like she's intruding by watching the pair.

When she looks back to Liz, she pulls up a smile. "Hana was a good mentor. A good leader. She made her impressions on all of us there. I think you'll find us helpful. Plus, it's nice to have a space in the Safe Zone, instead of having to fly back and forth any time we needed to be here." That part's a little dry. A bonus, certainly, but probably not the top reason any of them were interested in this particular contract.

Her expression dims again when she looks over to Richard and his mother again. "If I'm— you know? I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable. I can raincheck dinner."

“No, no, you’re fine,” Richard reassures Nathalie with a shake of his head, “It’s not you, it’s— “ A look back to his mother, expression rueful, “Yes, Wolfhound has clearance for all of that, it’s fine. Everyone relax, be yourselves, there’s no need to pretend anything. I don’t have any secrets from family.”

Well, not many secrets, anyway.

“It’ll be good to have you all closer,” he admits, “Wolfhound having its base so far out was a little difficult at times trying to get to see you people.”

Michelle makes a noise in the back of her throat, wordlessly doubting Richard’s assertion about Wolfhound’s clearance. But she relents, looking down at the table and then over to Nathalie. It's clear there's something on her mind, but whatever it is she's chosen not to voice it. Much like her doubt.

“Explain Wolfhound to me again…” Michelle instead says, turning her chair to sit more properly at the table rather than sideways. “That's, an army or something, right? They were mentioned in some of the news articles I read trying to…” it's hard for her to speak freely, but she tries. “To catch up.”

"It's not an army," Elisabeth objects mildly. "It's a PMC." Yes, the distinction is sometimes exceedingly fuzzy. "The majority of them are … " Well, she was going to say 'former terrorists like me and Richard.' Instead she substitutes, "former Ferrymen and people who used to work with me and Richard against the anti-Evo types." Child-friendly explanation.

There's a far more in-depth answer, of course — but telling Michelle exactly how many times we've been exposed to time- or dimension-displaced people seems like it might overload the woman.

"We pick up contracts to scoop up fugitives from the law, but we just got this new contract with the police to serve as a sort of… on call SWAT team." Nathalie doesn't seem to mind the shift, but then with the Institute remnant cleaned up and the Humanis First leftovers handled… better to have work than not. "And we do have clearance to several… strange incidents. But even if we didn't," she says, turning to give Richard a crooked smile, "I was able to see the original home for the Looking Glass. So I had a few insights even before there was anything to have clearance for."

The side effects of having Richard as family. She's pretty sure that won't be the only time it happens.

"Personally, I think it's a little silly to try to cover it up, anyway. People these days have enough experience with weird stuff going on, I think it would have been okay."

“I mean, about a quarter of Wolfhound used to be my people, so I usually have a general idea of what you all are up to,” Richard admits shamelessly, flashing Nathalie a grin as he reaches over for his drink. He tells Michelle, “They’re good people. Their leaders are people I’ve fought beside again and again, and like I said - a good quarter of them used to work under me back when we were resistance fighters. They were… mostly hunting down the remnants of the Institute.” More hesitant there. He’d told her about ‘Ezekiel’ but it’s still a strange subject, especially for him.

Then, a snort, “I do too. That was the original plan, but they changed their mind— concerned about some sort of dimensional-tech cold war.”

“No.” Michelle says flatly, too loudly. She only realizes how high and tight her voice is after that single word has slipped out. She looks embarrassed, clears her throat and settles back into her seat a little. “I mean, it’s… it was the right choice. Long-term thinking.” The corners of Michelle’s eyes crease and she looks as though she’s considering just leaving by the way she’s braced one hand on the arm of her chair.

She stays.

Focusing her attention on Richard, it’s clear this topic has struck a nerve with her. “If the public found out about this, the general public, we’d have people trying to make contact with other superstrings. Maybe we have to wait for the right solar conditions, maybe there’s something we missed. Less than a thousand people know about the Looking Glass, possibly less than a hundred? Imagine if 8 billion people knew.”

Shaking her head, Michelle brings a hand to her brow. “Independent researchers, think-tanks, universities. Even if the technology and research was made illegal we all know how flimsy those kinds of legalities are. No secret ever stays secret forever, but… but we don’t know what the long-term ramifications of what we did are.”

There’s the guilt, and in that Elisabeth sees Richard. Though he may share more in common with his father, physically, there’s moments where Michelle’s eyes convey the same level of crushing despair that accompanies the weight of world-changing actions Richard is often saddled with.

Dinner has taken a turn.

Elisabeth reaches out to gently grip Michelle's arm. "Hey… it's okay." She herself is … mostly in agreement with Michelle's thoughts on the matter. She doesn't like that the older woman is right, but then again… she doesn't trust that anyone who has the knowledge won't use it. Much like the development of nuclear weapons — someone is always that stupid.

Aurora looks up at her grandmother, not liking the alarm in Michelle's voice. She hesitates there, next to her sister, and seems torn about leaving their pastime. But in the end, she climbs down from the chair next to Lili to come over and climb up into Michelle's lap, patting her cheek gently. "It's okay, Gramma. Mummy'll make sure nobody gets your m'chine." She knows the words Looking Glass. That was Gramma's machine that opened magic doors! Her earnest little face peers into the hazel eyes that match hers and her daddy's. "We don't gotta leave again. No more magic doors," she solemnly promises her grandmother.

Clearing her throat a bit, Elisabeth works on changing the subject. "Nathalie, where are you actually staying now here in the Safe Zone? Is Wolfhound keeping apartments near the offices or are you just renting your own?"

"Fair enough, we don't need to be one hundred percent honest about the science. But something cleverer about who the people are, maybe. Clones. Back from the dead. Multidimensional accident. The way this is set up, it's only a matter of time before something slips. And then we know we have a government hiding things again." Nathalie lifts her shoulders there, because whatever she thinks about it, it's already done and the damage will come when it comes. "People are more comfortable when they don't know that."

She, it might be obvious, doesn't think there's much chance that a government exist without lying to its people somehow. But just that some are better at hiding it than others.

It is possible she's something of a pessimist.

Her attention shifts first to the kids first, then over to Liz when she changes the subject. Right. Family dinner. "Wolfhound has a place in Phoenix Heights. The Bastion. We stay there when we're taking a turn at being on call for the NYPD. So I have a room there. We still have The Bunker, too, so I have a room there." Really, she has rooms sort of all over, but it's just something she stumbled into.

“In the short term, sure, but in the long term….” Richard grimaces, his own expression briefly haunted, “…every Pandora’s Box gets opened sooner or later. It’s why we need to work out defenses against…”

Then the subject’s changing, and he sighs, reaching over for his drink, “Sorry. No business.” There’s guilt there too, tons of it, and worry for the future.

He takes a sip of it, then motions with the glass towards Nathalie, “I’ll have to stop over at the Bastion sometime, see how you’re all setting in, make sure the old man’s doing alright. What about you personally? Are you making time for anything other than crazy bullshit? Trust me when I tell you you don’t want to make the crazy bullshit your whole life.”

“They gave me a host of options, which aren’t all that far off from what you said, Nathalie.” Michelle says into the heel of her palm as she slouches down against one arm of the seat. “But it…” she makes a noise in the back of her throat, conceding the no work talk to include her stances on interdimensional policing. Drawing in a slow breath, Michelle exhales a sigh that comes with the same flinty quality of her voice.

“I’m fine,” is her simple and nearly monosyllabic answer. Richard’s delivered it in that exact way before too.

It means he isn’t. It means she isn’t.

Riiiiiight. Because Elisabeth doesn't have major experience dealing with Cardinals and 'I'm fine.' She quirks a brow at Richard — obviously this is all his fault.

Aurora pats Michelle's cheeks with both of her little hands and pulls her gramma's face so they're nose to nose. Oh-so-solemnly, the little girl raises both of her eyebrows and peers intently into Chel's eyes. "We are safe, Gramma." Cuz it's important. "Love you."

Elisabeth rubs her forehead. Must be time for food! Getting people to shove food in their faces stops this kind of chatter, right?? She heads toward the kitchen to bring food out. "Here guys… fix plates! Nathalie, I don't know much about what you did before Wolfhound. Did you always want to be in … law enforcement?" It's as good a description as any of Wolfhound's job!

It takes Nathalie a bit too long, but she eventually picks up on the hint that it would be better to talk about literally anything else. She gives Michelle an apologetic look before she looks back over to Liz. That question has more weight to it than was likely intended, but since she doesn't want to jump from one troubling subject to another, she mentally edits her answer before she speaks. "For a while," she says with a nod, "I was lucky enough that Hana and Avi were open to letting someone young into the organization. I have no idea what I would have done without that." She glances toward Richard, since there's a lot left out of her answer. But no reason to be detailed about her motivations. There are children present, after all.

"I do carve out some time away from the craziness," she says with the hint of a smile for Richard's question, "sometimes. The lines blur, because my closest friends are— or were— Wolfhound. I try. But, you know. Work can be all encompassing."

Richard gives his mother a look, his expression rueful. He knows that tone too.

A little shake of his head, and he looks back over to Nathalie with a wry expression. “I know. All too well, I know, hell, I’m guilty of it myself pretty frequently,” he confesses, reaching out to start fixing his plate up, “I think she was with Brian and them for awhile, right, Nathalie? The Lighthouse.”

A better subject, maybe, than other matters that could be discussed.

“I swear, everyone that grew up with those people has a weirder life than I do.”

“Your mother worked for the Department of Evolved Affairs,” is something that Michelle suddenly and abruptly says after a moment of silent isolation wherein it’s not even clear she was listening to the conversations. “Sarisa.” She clarifies. Sitting forward, Michelle smooths her hand across the top of the table, looking down to the back of her hand.

“She was a good agent, started with OSI in… god, 88?” Michelle looks up to Richard as if he somehow knew the answer to that, then looks back down to the table. “She was just some angry 20-something who had to prove herself to the world. You actually look a lot like her, dark hair, blue eyes. Intense.” Michelle tilts her head to the side, brows furrowed. Then, finally, she looks around the room and realizes she’s been nervously rambling.

“We moved on didn’t we?” Michelle anxiously blurts out.

A brow quirks upward and Elisabeth grins slightly. "Yeah, you're good," she tells Michelle. "I… don't know if Sarisa's career path here was quite the same, but… she was one hell of a formidable woman to work for. A good boss… kicked my a… butt verbally without ever breaking a sweat." The memory makes her look down with a smile. "She certainly didn't have time for anyone's BS."

Looking up, though, she admits to Nathalie, "Having her at my back was … incredibly gratifying and terrifying all at once." Elisabeth wrinkles her nose, chuckling. "I never quite knew where I stood with her - she wasn't one to really talk to anyone. But she was fair with both the praise when you did good and ripping you a new behind when you screwed the pooch." It's about all she can say about Sarisa Kershner really.

Nathalie starts to nod to Richard's question before Michelle cuts in. Her gaze moves over that way, but she remains quiet through bother Michelle's comments and Elisabeth's. There's something strangely heartening— and heartbreaking— to hear that there's a resemblance between her and her mother. She's not sure how much they have in common beyond the physical, but she'll take what she can get. "Do you think— " she stops herself there, head tilting as she edits what she was about to say. "Since I found out who my mother was, I understood why she gave me up. She had this career she was charging through. She and my father had their own families, too. I would have been inconvenient. I wish I could have had the chance to yell at her about it," she says, the last words coming with a wry sort of humor.

She had imagined being angry at her birth parents, for years she would never imagine forgiving either one of them. Now that she knows who they are, now she can't imagine holding it against them.

"Now I just hope I can be someone she would be proud of, one day."

At the sudden interjection by his mother, Richard looks up with an eyebrow’s slight lift - and a faint smile, fork digging into his dinner as he takes a bite while she talks. Swallowing, he tips his head in a nod to the others. “She was CIA, here,” he offers, mostly for Michelle’s benefit, “Special Operations. She was… competitive. Everything was a contest to her, I think.”

He breathes out a chuckle, “We butted heads a lot in terms of strategy, she kept trying to pull me in but I stayed a step out. Maybe…” The smile fades a bit, “Well, maybe if I’d embraced it things might’ve gone differently. Maybe not. I don’t know.”

The fork’s pointed towards Nathalie, then, and he declares, “The only thing she would’ve wanted is for you to be your own person, and damn the expectations of others. That’s what would’ve made her proud.”

Michelle grows quiet, right around when Nathalie starts talking about being given up. She reaches up and threads a lock of her hair behind one ear, looks over at Richard’s children, has forgotten that this was supposed to be a dinner. Fidgeting uncomfortably, she fishes inside of her jacket for her phone, turning the screen on with a brush of her thumb.

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Making a noise in the back of her throat, Michelle slowly stands up. “Something’s come up,” she says with a waver of her voice. “Ah— filtration system at the hydroponics isn’t working and if we can’t— ” she can’t even muster up the energy to commit enough to a well-designed lie. “I need to handle it. Someone else might get it wrong.”

Michelle's been through so damn much, and when she stands Elisabeth goes still. She doesn't want their home to become someplace the older woman stresses about coming to for any reason. A brief flicker of a look at Richard, her worry for his mother conveyed in that glance, but she smiles slightly and offers as a way of easing Michelle's departure, "Shit. Well, that was a useless bet, Richard." She smiles slightly. "I bet him ten bucks that I'd be the one to get called out mid-dinner, and he said it'd be him. Neither one of us bet on the hydroponics." Her tone treats the call away as a perfectly normal part of a family meal. (Considering everything? It probably is.)

Nathalie doesn't say anything to Richard's thoughts, instead she stares at him for a long moment before she nods. Family dinner is no place to have an emotional outburst— this is her take away from the one other one she's ever been to.

Although, curiously, it still features someone ducking out early. At first, she tilts her head as Michelle starts to make her exit, but she stands shortly after. "Michelle," she says, trying to keep her here for just a moment longer, "I know your Sarisa and the one from this time aren't exactly the same, but would it be alright if we talked about her again?" And just in case Michelle thinks Nathalie means to follow her out and continue right this second, she adds, "Another time?"

“Oh?” Richard looks up from where he’d briefly reached over to prevent Ricky from accidentally spilling his water all over himself, brow knitting a bit in confusion as he looks to Michelle. Then the lie hits, and it’s clearly a lie, and his brow clears even as his expression falls a bit before he tries to cover it up. “Oh. Well, if they need you there, of course…”

A faint smile’s forced back to his lips, and he forces some cheer to his tone as he straightens up, “Thanks— thanks for coming to dinner with us for a little while at least, mom.”

Nearly about to walk out without a proper goodbye, Michelle freezes at the door when what Richard said finally hits her brain. She looks back at him, then at the table, to the kids and the adults and it overwhelms her. The smile Michelle wears is thin, Elisabeth remembers her own mother making it when she was younger and times were hard, but explaining that to an eleven year-old would be too much of a burden. So you say things like, “Of course, Nathalie. I think that's wonderful.”

But then the sadness sets in, because you're lying to people you care about. Michelle's smile diminishes only just as she looks from Nathalie to Richard. “This— was nice.” It isn't a lie, but it was a challenge. “I love you,” is the first real time she's said that outside of panic or guilt or depression. Then, to Aurora, stronger than she put on airs for anyone else. “You too, Bean.” The other children are harder for her to talk to, harder for her to grapple with.

Because like this dinner, like Nathalie’s story, they all remind her of why she left the room, shutting the doors softly behind her. Because at the end of the day

She feels like a failure.

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