Guests Of The DoE


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Scene Title Guests Of The DoE
Synopsis During a trip to Kansas City to provide a progress report to DoE leadership, Seren takes time to lunch with Wright and reveals their feelings about one of their shared situations.
Date July 14, 2021

Department of the Exterior Headquarters

Washington, KC

A weight comes off Seren's shoulders when they exit the conference room after meeting with Secretary Jones of the Department of the Exterior, along with his assistant, Sage Abernathy. They let out a long breath, and then look aside at the floating, majestic goldfish-like creature that accompanies them on the way out. "Glad that's over with," they whisper to Baird, and his rippling, multicolored fins flare in the air, amber eyes locked on their grey ones.

They press out a small smile and nod once to him. "Right you are, it is lunchtime." And as such, time to meet up with someone else who's under the misfortune of being in Kansas City for an extended period of time.

Seren notifies their escort that they're looking for Wright Tracy's office, and after some confusion and a display of genuine twinkling in eyes on Seren's part to accompany their begging, they're lead reluctantly to the conference room Wright has been basing her operations out of.

"I promised them you knew I was coming," they say apologetically when the door is swung in by their accompanying agent. Baird by their shoulder does not wait in the hallway, swimming through the air leaving a trail of sparkles behind him as he excitedly heads for Wright, fish mouth opening and closing repeatedly to convey a message only he knows. Seren winces at his enthusiasm before lifting their voice, "Figured I could pick you up here before we go grab lunch."

Wright is rousted from her boredom with a start, her phone clattering to the table when she sits up. She beams a smile at Seren in surprise, only to immediately be distracted by their daemon’s vibrant and unusual display. “Baird!” she exclaims, “you’re looking very opulent today!” Her smile returns to Seren, a being of no less magic than Baird, and she clears her throat. She then remembers to give Seren’s escort an all clear thumbs-up, dismissing them.

The conference room seems to get little use for its intended purpose. The long table has been pushed closer to a wall, and is lined with books and stacks of literature, movies, and makeup. She has long stretches of inactivity, and one such dry spell has led her to make herself up vibrantly with white and ivy green eyeshadow framed in razor-sharp eyeliner. Her business formal attire is loose, but possibly purposefully so, as she makes no effort to finish getting herself ready for a lunch appointment.

“Thank you, so much, for rescuing me from this place,” Wright says dramatically as she closes the distance to her visitors. “I think they’re mad because the TV in here is bigger than the one in the closest alternative conference room. And most of them don’t have the clearance to know why I’m here.”

"Neither do I, for that matter," Seren reminds gently, but they lean in for a hug anyway, brief but lingering all the same– touch-starved and stressed and relieved to see a familiar face that doesn't want stressful amounts of their brainpower from them. They look a little worn despite the effort they've been looped on only having been running for several weeks at this point. Makeup covers most of that well on their part, too, deliberately smoky eyes crinkling at the edges as they smile. "Outside what we both know we both know, at least. I'm not keen on getting thrown out or imprisoned for the rest of my time working in the PNW, thanks."

Baird swims in excited rings around both their heads, body lengthening slowly, fins beginning to turn to legs, ending in paws. Scales turn to fur, and on one turn around them, he sets a pale ermine head on Seren's shoulder and clings to the back of it, deciding he's ready for transport. Tiny, dark horns peek up from above his ears, his oranges from his previous form turning to grey-brown on the rest of him. It's the touch that alerts Seren to his changed form and presence, and he assures them quietly, "Opulent's a good word, but you look very dashing this way, too, I promise." They reach back to scritch at his forehead with one finger, and he wiggles his head in reply.

"You ready to go, or do we want to order in?" Seren wonders as gently as they can. "I know what you're here for could… change at any moment, and all." There's sympathy to that, and a genuine desire to not take Wright away from where she needs to be.

Wright lets go of the hug reluctantly, though she doesn't want to overstay her welcome. Seren is one of the only people Wright has no physical aversion to, which was a surprise to her and Elliot both. Her own touch starvation is ravenous but her self control is impeccable. Regardless, it wouldn't be appropriate to suggest a lingering embrace even if it would only be therapeutic in nature. "I meant opulent in the kingly sense," she assures Baird, even though he looked very silly as well.

She suppresses a little thrill that Seren appears honestly happy to see her; that's a rare thing these days. "Where is entirely your call, you're the one on the road," she says with a welcoming smile. "Would you like to eat here in comfortable seclusion even though all the rooms are bugged, or would you prefer an open air environment where strangers can hear us chat? Keep in mind I'll still have a shadow if we go out. I'm very familiar with some great, immediately local restaurants though."

A surprised laugh leaves Seren, their brow knitting together. "Well, when you phrase it like that," they answer almost teasingly, trying to buy themself a moment to consider. Their head wobbles, and they admit with a squint, "It would be nice to see a little more of the capital?" But even that sounds somewhat uncertain. They're not here for tourism, maybe they should lock themself into work. No distraction.

Maybe they've been thinking like that too much lately. Baird wiggles his way over Seren's shoulder and starts to fall down their front, leaving his summoner to scramble their arms up to catch him. Flustered, they look down at him as he lays on his back, orange-padded paws visible as he looks up at them innocently. "Baird wants to go out, if his vote counts."

An indistinct animal chitter later, Seren starts to translate and then looks down at him again with a frown. "Brunch? Baird, you just want pancakes, and they never have purple ones." The little wriggly body of him shifts so he can look properly at Wright for a second opinion on this matter.

Wright doesn't want to spoil the magic of how Baird exists, so she doesn't ask about his ability to consume breakfast foods even though she's very curious. She is taken aback by the adorableness, exposed toe beans and all, as Seren cradles him.

"There's a great classic Americana diner not too far off if you're in a breakfast-for-lunch mood," she offers. "If you're feeling a bit more adventurous I have something pancake-adjacent we could try. How are you with spicy food?" She makes her way back to the table where she sat to swipe her phone into a jacket pocket, and glances over her wares to ensure she's not missing anything else important.

"I come from a little too far north of the equator to have a great tolerance for spice," Seren jokes at their own expense, their smile a little apologetic. They continue to hold Baird like the big baby he is while waiting closer to the door, spending a moment likewise looking over the space's rearrangement. They aside in a generous supposition, "It looks like you've made it as cozy as possible to be in here, you know."

Then they think on the topic of lunch, and with a wrinkle of their nose and a frown down at Baird, they sigh hard and grudgingly cave in, "When in Rome…"

It's America, and they've lived here for over two years. But sure. 'When in Rome.'

Wright looks around at the room and shrugs. “I’m trying,” she admits, “but they won’t let me put in a pinball machine, the spoilsports. Probably just because they’d be jealous about not getting to use that either.”

“You’re from Nova Scotia, correct?” she asks. “Marthe, my wife, is also a New Scotlander who loves it when I call it that. Technically Rome in this analogy is the US, so I’m thinking I’ll treat you to comfort rather than adventure. Americana diner it is. Unless we can find a Canadacana diner instead? Someplace with nova haggis?” She stops, realizing she should probably leave room for them to respond to any one of the things she’s said, smiling awkwardly.

"Maybe they can give you an old laptop with that Space Pinball game on it," Seren suggests a touch wryly. "There are plenty of jokes about the government using…" Something puts them off their humor mid-joke, but the words come tumbling out anyway. "… old tech."

They really hope the best tech is being used on all this, actually.

"New–?" With a blink, they try to process that one, and let out a startled laugh when Wright indicates it's a joke. They let out a startled laugh, unsure how to react to that otherwise, but they begin to nod, and then when Wright tapers off awkwardly, they take the lead next. "You know, Americana's become pretty homey." Seren turns Baird over into them so they can use one hand to open the door again for them to head out, and adjusts the laptop bag over one arm that they've had mostly pivoted successfully behind them this whole time so it swings back around after their Baird mishap. "Let's go with that," they tell Wright, then head out into the hall.

In that time, Baird scrabbles his way up and around Seren's neck so he can curl around the back of it and remain perched on their shoulder. He moves instinctively when Seren looks back to Wright, the strands of silver threaded through their ear wobbling in their dangle. "Which way out of here? I'll have to stop by the front desk to…" They reach for the visitor's badge pinned to them in explanation.

Wright gracefully passes through the doorway into the larger office space beyond. "The exit is this way," she says, guiding them but not presuming to hook her arm through Seren's as they'd done with her before. "You may not be able to kidnap me before my minder catches up with us like last time, but god damn it you should try." She smiles down to Seren and Baird both.

"I don't know…"

Abruptly, Seren reaches for Wright's hand with a sparkle of mischief in their eyes, mischievously wondering, "How much time do you think a running start would buy us?"

A bit disappointed in themself, Seren reaches for a french fry, nibbling at it more to waste time than anything. They glance at the nearby booth where Wright's watcher has taken root and then look back across the table to her to glumly suppose, "We gave it our best shot." Half the fry eaten, they lower it down to Baird under the table for him to continue gnawing at. He sniffs at it nonchalantly, and ultimately takes a bite of the offering.

Remember When Diner

Washington KC

The Remember When Diner is a living time capsule of polished stainless steel, red vinyl bench cushions, and Formica table tops edged with strips of wavy aluminum. Wright looks from a functional jukebox across the row of red-topped bar stools near the malt machine to where her bodyguard sits, thoroughly unimpressed. She throws the man a set of apologetic finger guns, then sighs. She hears the clack of buttons and the soft whirring of mechanical arms, and a 45 begins to produce music for the diner's guests.

"We probably gave ourselves away with the mad dash, honestly," she says regretfully, remembering how nice it was to have her hand held. "Next time we'll just have to smash a window with a chair and jump to freedom. The windows probably aren't very smashable but privacy with a friend is worth a little municipal vandalism."

Seren sees fit to note, even with a lack of cheer in their voice, "Ostensibly between the music and the distance and as long as we don't shout or anything, we should be okay now. Somewhat private." Doubt winds its way into their voice as they note, "Well, so long as they've not got super-hearing."

They leave Baird with the french fry and pick up their fork to enjoy the rest of their steak and eggs, not having fallen prey to Baird's begging for a fluffier meal.

"So, to that point… you doing okay out here?" Seren wonders. "It seems positively stifling."

Wright gives the question due consideration, fork and knife hovering above a mountain of eggs and every single kind of breakfast meat. "It's kind of the worst, sometimes," she admits. "I'm alone most of the day unless I have to wrangle somebody to report to. I spend a lot of the day just staring at a wall. Or working out, hence the extreme amount of protein required to remain very muscular with a sedentary job." She gestures somewhat apologetically to her meal, which is honestly too much food.

"It's isolating, honestly, though I have had visitors," she says. "I haven't been wasting away, pining for friends the whole time. And I'll always have Elliot in the way that I can. Though every day that I do have the company of friends is an improvement over every other day." She smiles widely, present company obviously included.

To it's kind of the worst, Seren can only smile small and sympathetically. "Yeah, I've… only just started out at the project site, and I'm already kind of struggling with it. At least my days are more filled, more problems and more people I can, um…" They stab a bite of the scrambled egg before going on with a look down at their plate, "Well, directly talk to, at least. Hi to Elliot, by the way, if he's spying."

The aside done, they check on Baird's progress with the french fry he's pretty soundly demolished, gnawing on the last bit of it. A flutter of too-small wings on his back confirm he's pleased with the offering.

"I'm glad one good thing in the universe shook itself out so we could catch up while I was in town," Seren agrees with another small smile as they look back up. "I'm worried we haven't really shared any nightmares together lately, but at the same time, at least we've got that going for us." They finally take their bite and then lift their coffee up in cheers. "And Baird's only offended the sensibilities of three combined people since this latest adventure began. We're working on being cute enough to outlast skepticism, aren't we, bud?" they ask him.

Baird only peeks his head above the formica, too adorable for his own fucking good.

Wright takes time to enjoy some of her food-mountain while Seren talks, and smiles comfortingly. "I'm really glad we got the chance too," she says. "If you ever need to talk to someone outside that particular project about the things we can discuss, I'd be happy to listen. Or we can sit quietly, occasionally taking turns saying, 'Oof.' Whatever works for you."

"And you've got cute enough down," she assures them both, "but let me know if there's anyone whose delicate sensibilities need a radical realignment. You're magical and delightful and I won't hear otherwise."

"As for Elliot," she says, veering back and worried she may have been too forward, "I can get his attention if you like, but for now it's just the three of us." She gestures toward Seren and their familiar to exclude Elliot from the three mentioned. "If you'd rather have a smaller conversation, I won't share with him. Whatever makes you comfortable; I realize we haven't interacted in that way before other than in the chat so it's up to you."

Seren's brow ticks toward a furrow they try to smooth away immediately. "No, I– it's–"

More words theoretically would and should come, but they stumble, their fork hand wobbling back and forth. They're not sure how to put this into words immediately.

Because it is nice to have something that's just theirs. Something Seren doesn't have to share. But the look they give Wright shows guilt over thinking that'd be nice, especially when the missing party in question probably could use the sight of familiar faces, too. Their guilt leads them to only look back down, to stab a fry as casually as they can manage and unspear it off the speared tongs and into their mouth.

"I don't know what the right answer is," they come out and say openly once they've figured that out with certainty. It doesn't take them long at all. "All this is pretty new to me, in general." They offer up a small smile, not apologetic. It is what it is. Gingerly, they move their arm aside as Baird tries to nose his way up and see what's going on at the table level. When his nose twitches, they have to look down at him and murmur, "Don't you dare," in keen response to his silent desire. "It's just the rules, Baird. People aren't allowed to crawl on top of tables. If you want to be treated like a people, you gotta follow the people rules."

The creature settles his head despondently on the formica and sighs, looking up to Wright to seek agreement with his plight.

Wright seems to understand the indecision, smiling comfortingly. She takes a second to give Baird a look of sympathy for his tiny people plight. There's only so much she can glean from Seren's behavior without Elliot Daydreaming as she borrows his keen eye. She feels his curiosity only briefly before comes the acceptance that leads him back to whatever he's doing; his trust in her is absolute. She's left with the same hunch she's had since the last she saw Seren in person. "Let's just keep this between us for now," she offers. "That's always an option. One of our rules. One of Marthe's rules, actually."

She clears her throat awkwardly. It's rare she gets into this, but with the lock gone, she has more wiggle room and worries less about bumping into one of the lies adjacent to this truth. "Back in the day," she elaborates, "Elliot and I played fast and loose with boundaries and it made quite the mess. We've been working to establish a better foundation of trust. So in addition to the relationship rules, we have unique boundaries that we enforce for the comfort of others. Never sharing without permission, withholding memories of sensitive events, etcetera."

Seren seems to understand immediately, at least with what's been shared. "Oh, that's smart of you both to have come up with a system like that, honestly," they answer, and they draw a hand along the back of Baird's ermine head as he lets out another sigh, locked presently into his own problems rather than anyone else's. "Otherwise, I imagine it'd get hard to start… keeping all of that apart. Memories, emotions."

Their eyes narrow for a moment sympathetically. "It sounds like you and Marthe are okay after that? That's a relief, that you both were okay through figuring that out." They spear another bite of food delicately.

Wright looks down and away, eyes wide, chuckling a bit manically. "Yeah things were rough for a while," she says. She looks up with a smile to dismiss any thought of distress. "That's when I got sober. We put in a lot of hours figuring out how to make it work with the reality of the situation. The sharing prohibition, better communication and transparency with romantic partners." Years of trying to better herself and follow the rules to keep her family together. After all the hard work, Wright almost has herself convinced that her wife loves her.

"Memories are less easy to entangle," she continues, "that's usually purposeful, but emotions are a constant. So we have to be vigilant to make sure we're not sympathetically reacting to something the other is experiencing. It can alter a mood, which is important to spot and address. Mindfulness is a big help; noticing and experiencing but not clinging on to keep it. But at the same time, it's nice to feel each other's positive emotions. The little happy surprises. The tumultuousness of love." She tries not to think about the opposite spikes of emotion that come with the regular remembrance that they’re all going to die in a few months.

Seren grows more thoughtful as the food on their plate whiles itself away, the food grounding as well as providing a sense of weightlessness, as any good comfort meal might. They try to imagine that sensation– feeling someone else's feelings, as they do in the moment, or perhaps in a shared lived memory…

… wind themself inevitably into breaking a rule of their own, one they try hard to avoid for the health of their ability. To not let their imagination get away from them, namely, and to secondarily– when that isn't possible– to not feed it specific ruminations.

Nonetheless, the thought of the tumultuousness of love leads them to think that must be something shared with her rather than felt, and her bond is with Elliot, and Elliot in turn was likely to be with–

Baird's amber eyes gleam in the light as they look up toward them. It pulls Seren from the pensive, somehow ruminating quiet they've slipped into, looking down at him with the shining, active silvering of their own. "No," they answer him, only them having heard his question to begin with. "No, bud," Seren repeats, and then looks back up quickly before longer can elapse. They look distracted, though, to say the least.

"That sounds wonderful too," they admit with a rushed smile. "It takes the concept of multiplicative joy and reduced sorrows by sharing to … new meaning altogether, I would imagine." They try to go on and after they fail to come up with something more relevant to say, they offer up in a quieter voice, "I suppose the closest way I could ever relate with my ability is I've found ways to manifest not just the way I see the world sometimes, but also…"

There's a bittersweet edge to their quiet pride. "Sometimes I can help bring others' memories, the things they wish were present, forward as though they were real, too," Seren admits.

"That's so cool!" Wright says honestly, while hiding how interested she truly is. Elliot may be more right than he knows, but she'll try to dig a little deeper first.

"I've avoided asking about your ability because combo rude and not wanting to spoil the magic. Do you mean you can manifest memories in physical space, like…" she gestures to the dæmon at the table. Her voice is low enough to exclude fellow diners from the conversation in case they're the worst. "Just other people's? Can you do that with your own? Sorry, excited rambling questions barrage." She prevents further rambling by shoveling food into her mouth.

"I get surprised by what I can do even now," Seren admits, their smile a little more genuine and sheepish. "It works best when I just let it do its thing. Trying too hard to control it or make it be what I want it to be usually stresses it out." They have to lean back slightly as Baird wriggles his way down from immediate view, disappearing underneath the table to curl up beside them on the booth. "I have a rule to not use my ability, generally, for work as a result."

They dip their head a moment later in acquiescence to the question to suppose, "If other people are focused, if they have a clear image in their mind, I can help make it real. If there's something they want or yearn for…" There's no excitement in this telling, though, because– "When I was lured out by Rue's doppelganger, that's how I knew she wasn't her. I asked her to picture who she loved best, and suddenly there was a perfect stranger in the apartment with us." Seren ventures one last bite of the last of their food and sighs, "It was harder to hold that image in focus than it was when we were in Detroit, and I imagined that the person controlling Eve had gotten what they wanted, that they didn't need to hurt anyone else."

"That was… less tangible, somehow. Like when I helped my friend Isaac feel like he still had his ability for a moment after he lost it." They smile again with the awkwardness of self-consciousness. "So– I don't know, it can manifest in a lot of ways."

Elliot was right. Combined with their architectural skill, Seren could be deific in the Palace; more Relevant than anyone other than Gates. Maybe more Relevant; Gates, bless him, doesn't seem as invested in how his memory palace works in relation to the Aquifer as he probably should be. The limitations on Seren's ability are interesting and will need further contemplation, but Wright leaves those thoughts to run in the background.

"That's amazing," Wright says, eyes distant as she imagines it. Her attention returns to Seren to see the self consciousness in their posture. "I stand by my earlier assumption that you are a fucking badass, Seren. I'm absolutely sure of it now. Your cleverness and compassion saved countless lives and you should be commended for that regularly." It shows in her eyes, Wright is honestly impressed by Seren.

"Also," she continues more delicately, "using it to out an imposter? Fantastic. I'm really sorry you had to go through that, truly, but it sounds like you handled it the best way possible in a dangerous situation. No wonder Rue is so vibrantly in love with you."

Seren's initial reply to Wright's compliments are to wrinkle their nose and squint forward at her, all while something that suspiciously sounds like wheezing laughter at Seren's expense wafts up from their side. The shift of topic to where it lands, though, wipes their condescension away, leaving something less any one thing in its place.

It leaves quiet at their side, save for Baird turning his head to peer up at Seren. A curious trill breaks his newfound silence.

The sound spurs them to honestly they might not have found on their own. "If I'm being honest, I've never understood it– how she's able to look past the moments that are less pleasant, that terrify her. The ones that aren't pretty, or convenient." Seren seems perfectly unaware of the small, thin branch Wright can suddenly notice along her sleeve. Should she move, it suddenly does too, spectral legs unfolding and thorax shifting for the stick creature to maintain hold on her person. "Once I started dreaming while we were on a road trip, and thankfully there wasn't anyone else on the road, because suddenly we were underwater, she told me– later, naturally– and…"

Their nose wrinkles, hands finding their way together in guilt even if it's under the table. "She's terrified of water. Nearly drowned, back during…"

For some reason, that's about as far as they get, their thoughts slipping elsewhere again. It doesn't appear to be because of anything self-conscious– just something else that's taken hold of their thoughts and they're made passenger to on the ride they take with them. "… I miss her," Seren tangents softly. A broken chuckle leaves them. "I miss the way things were before. Before California. Before she decided for us we weren't gonna work out." It's only then that they realize they've sort of wended off on an untended path of conversation and come back to sheepishly apologize, "Sorry. Is it obvious I've not had a non-work conversation in…?"

Weeks, presumably.

Wright is glad for Seren's introspection as it gives her a chance to try to discreetly offer a crispy sliver of shredded potato to her new stick friend. Baird nibbled at a French fry, maybe this one would also like a treat.

She does pay attention, and smiles reassuringly to Seren. "It's nice to have a conversation with somebody about anything other than work," she says. "Even if that really cool somebody hates well-deserved compliments, sorry."

"Nobody is all positive experiences all the time," she says, circling back. "Rue knows that. We all carried baggage out of the war with us, that's certain. I'm fairly sure she'd realize you weren't consciously acting with malicious intent. And she's like, in love with you. And terrified of fucking it up again, if my limited understanding of the pre-California situation is correct. I haven't asked about whatever went down, but she spent some time in the network so I felt some of her feelings when you came up in conversation."

The strange creature on Wright's arm separates into thirds on tilting its head back at first from the offering, but its seethrough, impossible arms unfurl from itself and stretch toward the shred offered to it. The wisps at the end of probiscus-like arms touch what's there, examining it, and ultimately retract. The stick insect then slowly begins to turn about in exploration.

"She's so afraid of fucking things up she'd rather try to get ahead of any mistakes by pre-emptively committing them, sometimes," Seren notes distractedly. "While she was gone in California, she was injured. It's also when her doppelganger stole her phone and pretended to be her. So she just…" Their features scrunch before they admit, "I don't know– decided to cut ties because she thought it was all too much."

"And then by the time she realized she'd made a mistake, she was so in her own head about it that we just…" Baird lifts his head higher again, nose sniffing the air for the scent of old wounds reopening. Ones they'd both thought were scarring at last. "After I went in for the SOD treatment, I didn't want to use it as emotional blackmail somehow, reaching out while I was in recovery. I saw her at a party by accident and she almost immediately left, and then we didn't talk until…" How to delicately put it?

"All this started," Seren supposes with a gesture between them and Wright, meaning one thing without realizing fully in the moment just how myriad the interpretations could be. "I'm not sure she'd have ever reached back out if she didn't feel it was her last chance, either."

"Ah, self sabotage," Wright commiserates playfully. "A tried and true maladaptive defense mechanism." She pauses as she carefully considers what about her knowledge of this situation should be shared. She doesn't share Elliot's intimate moments with Rue, but it's not like they never talk to each other about their lives. All in all, talking about this behind Rue's back seems like a smaller infraction than Elliot getting married while she was on assignment.

"According to Elliot," she starts carefully, "Rue thought that staying away from you would keep Marlene from coming back to hurt you. He pointed out that the only winner in that scenario was actually Marlene… and that you're capable of looking out for yourself, and encouraged her to try make things right with you."

"That isn't to say that the Big Oof wasn't at all a factor," she clarifies. "Obviously that affects the timetable. She didn't need the Oof to make her realize her mistake, she just needed encouragement. Elliot promised to help look for Marlene, and roped me in on that promise. I don't have direct access to memories of the conversations, so this is partially conjecture based on my conversation with Elliot following your reconnection with Rue and the altering of the composition of the polycule." She laughs awkwardly.

"We all need to be our best selves," she adds, "and I think Rue is her better self when she lets herself be loved by you."

When Wright gives name to the person who staged themself as Rue, Seren doesn't say anything. But then she does it a second time, and their expression grows quickly away from neutral toward something disturbed.

They've never known for sure what happened that night, or who that other Rue was. SESA certainly didn't share any information with them. So why…why was Wright calling the doppelganger by Rue's middle name? Why…

Seren blinks hard, trying not to think about the woman who'd manifested from their ability, pleading for Rue by name to stop what she was doing. Their eyes gleam a stronger, more vibrant silver as they look suddenly down at their plate, trying to find some distraction in a last bite of food. But then Wright names directly the situation they all find themselves sharing, and that additional point of confusion and conflict proves a heavy stone to further fuel the avalanche of discomfort welling its way up. They shut their eyes, like the compliment to themself via proxy of Rue is too much. But it's not that.

Because Rue isn't with them. Not theirs. And they've far from made peace with that. It looms, something once-comforting and curious and wonderful made sharp and–

The insect along Wright's arm suddenly lashes out in a start at her sleeve with its tiny arms; something that shouldn't truly impact her and nonetheless leaves her with a jolt from where it was at. Seren blinks their eyes open to try and force a change in mental perspective, and with those hard blinks, the stick insect is gone. A haggard look is suddenly over Seren, looking haunted– tired– from trying to control something that's notoriously difficult to. They still don't seem to have noticed what they'd done, at least not immediately.

"Please don't call it that," they whisper, looking tense. "It's… it's not–"

Shaken, they let go of their fork with a clatter and press a hand to their cheek, fingertips along the side of their nose and digging into the bridge. They continue to avoid looking up, but the grey in their eyes is practically glowing silver. "I'm sorry," they apologize into their palm, eyes closing in a hard blink to try and reset.

Wright flinches from the unexpected sensation, but even that is marvelous in a way. She doesn't dwell on it, her attention fully Seren's as they compose themself. It doesn't feel good being right about it, but it's important nonetheless. She sets down her utensils quietly, buying Seren another moment with a sip of coffee.

"I'm okay," she says softly, "But clearly you're having difficulty. Do you want to talk about it?"

"I, uh–" Seren blinks hard again and shakes their hand away in a gesture to try and clear the air. It's not particularly effective, even as they continue to avoid looking up. "No, not really, but–"

But maybe if they talk about it, it'll stop weighing them down. Stop being a bomb ready to go off at every glancing mention.

They swallow back their reservations and look aside at the condiment and napkin arrangement. It's bland and absolutely uninspired, which seems to help them in their mental reset. "I try not to think about the reality of the– of that situation. It– I didn't really sign up for it. I didn't want it. I don't–"

Their face flares with color, attempts at embarrassment either unhidden or uncontrolled. "I like having you and Elliot as friends. I don't want to have you as…" But even those words fail to come. How does one describe that? Partners of partner? It's a dynamic they recoil from rather than react to curiosity with.

"I don't know what to do with it," Seren admits in a rush before their nerve leaves them. "And I– I know Rue was dealing with a lot, so I kind of just–… And she's gone besides, but if she comes back? I-I don't know. I don't want to be the asshole, but I also just… I can't just…"

Now they look up toward Wright, apologetic in every sense. They wonder, "Does that even make any sense?"

"I think I get what you mean. Polyamory isn't for everyone," Wright assures them. "And it's different for everyone. I'm not going to try to evangelize you, though I should point out that I'm not by any means in a relationship with Rue. She's with Elliot, who is my non-romantic, non-sexual life partner. His and my relationship is pure support, but it's as real a committed relationship as any other. So regardless, I'm your friend and not your partner's partner. I mean, I'm your partner's partner's partner, but still. No connection to Rue."

"Now," she says, "correct me if I'm wrong, but Rue did bring this to you as what it is, and you agreed to try, yes? Keeping in mind that is okay to give it a shot and then decide it isn't what you want. But you did sign on for it, unless I'm missing something?" She doesn't sound accusatory, or like she's pulling for anybody else in this situation. If anything, her tone conveys a serious desire to get the facts straight. Because being pulled into a polyamorous relationship unwillingly is not a laughing matter.

"I mean," Seren starts, their voice dropping, shoulders curling in with it as they lean back in their seat. They can see Baird curled down low, eyes owlishly wide and ears flattened back against his head as he waits to see how this conversation either defuses or explodes. It brings them to bounce their heel in the air in silence, never letting it tap away against the ground. "She…"

"She was up front, about– that she and Elliot still– but I just…"

"I wanted her back in my life. I wanted to reclaim that thing we lost, for however short a time it ended up being. Because– she's gone now. And I just– if I didn't bring it up, I could just…"

Well, they could imagine. That it was still only the two of them. That Rue wasn't going home to someone else.

"I wanted her to have the last bit of time before everything went to shit be something nice. And…" Their eyes drift away, features wincing together. "Fuck, maybe I just wanted something nice for me, too, given everything." They press their tongue into their cheek and lay one hand across Baird's back to try and settle him down. "But if somehow everything ends up okay, it's something we have to figure out. Because…"

Sheepish, their brows pull together. Their other hand starts to peel away from where it's folded across their abdomen, but the arm quickly lashes down again. "I-I don't think I can do it. And that's not fair to any of us, to… for me to lie and say it's fine, or to make her choose, or for Elliot to feel anything other than what's between her and him."

But even saying that out loud looks like it's carved a chunk out of them, the arm across their abdomen protecting an open wound.

Wright looks honestly pained for Seren. She sits back in thought for a moment, looking away. "I don't envy any of you the position you're in," she says before looking back to Seren. She sighs as she considers how absolute Elliot's trust really is before continuing. "But I don't think you're going to have to force her to choose between you and Elliot. Pretty sure my partner preemptively fell on that sword for you." Not even just because he's never coming home.

"To your benefit," she clarifies.

Seren blanches, the rocky train of thought coming to an ungraceful, tripping stop. They blink once. Baird turns his head toward Wright from where he sits, hardly visible.

"What?" they ask, sounding as though the news took the wind out of them.

"Okay," Wright says, placing her palms on the table while she goes into overdrive trying to limit damage here. "So, you know how there's an 'immediate family only' benefit to the project you're working on?"

She can't help but pause to let that register, though her hesitance to continue is more complex than that. "Elliot got married before he deployed," she says with surprising anxiety. "After Rue deployed. To his ex girlfriend, who he does actually love. Not just throwing her an ‘immediate family only benefits’ bone. He's hopeful that Rue will come to understand and accept it, but he's more hopeful about that than I am." Hope might be keeping the Switchboard door looked, but it sure as shit isn't going to make Rue less punchy and vengeful.

"Oh my god," Seren says, at first only surprised– and then they wince in sympathetic pain for this new shade to their semi-shared situation.

They know Rue, too. Their bets lie where Wright's do. They look away with a grimace and then down to Baird like he'll know better what to say. "I…" But he only stares up, still uncertain. "I wish it wasn't so complicated." They sigh out, and with it goes their anxiety…

But with an air of 'for now' to the parties looking on. There's no longer this immediate thing to worry on, perhaps, but fallout in the future to get nervous about then.

"I wonder how Rue would even feel about any of that. I mean… chances are what they are that we won't even find that out…" A new month and lack of contact had been entered into, after all. The flame of Seren's hope wanes low. "But in the meantime, I guess– no matter what the reality of it is, I just don't feel comfortable being called a part of that." The word that Seren keeps avoiding. "Even if it's just me being in denial about it."

Wright can only sigh sympathetically; the situation with Rue is grim and the longer she's missing in action the worse the fear gets. There's nothing she can do to bring Rue home, but she can be here for Seren. "I understand," she says, sliding her breakfast mountain to the side of the table. "And I'll support your decision."

She isn't sure if Seren is interested in physical reassurances but she lays her forearm on the table just in case, there but not encroaching. "Whatever comes of it," she assures, "I plan to remain your friend. Elliot will too, even if it doesn't shake out in his favor, I'm sure. You making Rue happy will make him happy. He really isn't the jealous type."

With rueful humor, Seren points out, "That kind of outlook is required to make all that work, isn't it?" They reach forward for a fry and pop it away, grinning for a moment before they dip back into thought. "I'm… glad for him. If you can tell him congratulations for me later, I'd appreciate it."

At last believing that nothing else strange is going to be happening, Baird slowly peeks his head above the table and looks toward Wright. She is a figure of awe to be respected for getting Seren to talk rather than have their negative thoughts spill from them one way or another.

There's just a hint of black left in his fur on his little head, and it greys away into white quickly.

"Thank you, by the way," Seren is sure to say with a smile, in no small part due to silent pushing from Baird. "I wasn't expecting anybody to be understanding."

"I'll let Elliot know you send your regards," Wright says, absolutely not prepared to set up the basis for that conversation with him. "And I'm very happy to help take some of the weight off of a stressful situation. I'm glad we got this chance to talk." Happy to lead the conversation to a place she could confirm her hunch and act on it. Less interpersonal stress is an important factor in the long game of asking Seren for help.

"Are you in town for the night, or are you getting right back on a plane?" she asks. "I'm holed up in the Marriott, so if you'd like to hang out more I can make time." She stops herself from saying girls' night out because it would be inaccurate. "Friends' night out?"

Seren's brows arch high at the unexpected invitation. "Yeah," they answer quickly, the word choked out in surprise. The back of one hand comes to their mouth, covering it until they take a sip of their drink. "I'm in town until tomorrow. We weren't sure if the DoE leadership was going to have a lot of questions or input on the plan, but they were surprisingly…"

They try to find a polite word for it, can't even bring themself to smile. Something had been slightly off there they can't put their finger on. "They were just very accepting. Trusted us to do our best work. I'd have thought the government might want more of a hand in the design, but it gives me and Miss– ah, Marlowe-san–" Seren is trying ever so hard to be polite in the proper context. "Room to keep moving forward unimpeded. The uncomplication of that time is certainly appreciated."

Distractedly, Seren asks as they go for a last bite of food, "What time are you off, technically?" They know it's more complicated than that. "I've got this right nice suite I'm in since it's just for the night. We could even do my place, such as it is. Raytech might forgive me if I get slightly into the mini fridge while down here."

"It certainly is nice how laid back the work environment is," Wright agrees, her expression not exactly matching her chipper tone. "I mean I'm on call all the time, but otherwise I'm mostly left to my own devices. I'll probably be free before dinner, and I'll always have a sidekick handy to deliver reports to if it's necessary to do that."

"So you're staying at the Raytech campus then?" she asks. "The Marriott has its charms but the room is a prison. They won't let me steal furniture." She gives Baird a warm smile as his showier complexion returns.

"Do they have soda in the mini fridge?" she asks as a reminder of her sobriety.

"Oh, there's no Raytech campus here," Seren corrects, but grins and admits with an outward shrug of one hand. "They're just… covering the stay. It's at a Hilton nearby." At their side, Baird crows in a very tiny voice, sounding like a newborn pup's first howl. "Baird thinks it's cost enough."

"I'm positive they've got soda of some kind," they assure. "But there's time enough between now and dinner I'll find out for sure, and put some in so you'll never know I lied by ignorance." The chuckle is followed by a thoughtful sigh, staring off for a moment. "Gives me a while to get some work done, too. Get caught up on emails, and…" Seren waves a hand idly. "All that."

Wright smiles gratefully. "You're good people, Seren," she says. She turns to Baird, not wanting to exclude him. "You're a good people too, Baird. I'm looking forward to tonight already." She grabs a slice of bacon from her discarded plate, happy to have engineered the conversation into a place that hopefully does the least damage and thinking Elliot would be proud of her efforts.

Seren returns the smile warmly when Wright acknowledges Baird as a people at all. They look down at him proudly, and he croons again, tiny paws tapping on his summoner's thigh. They ruffle their hand over his head again in amusement for the tiny drama he engages in, but it is indeed all he has, isn't it?

"I'll see about having pizza already there when you land in," they promise, and then look to signal a waiter that they're ready to wrap up their order. Seren levers one hip up to pull out their wallet, a momentary pang in their expression from old injury continuing to provide occasional discomfort to them. It's there and gone so quickly as to be unnatural, the speed of their recovery. They smile as they pull out their company card. "But feel free to text if there's anything else that sounds good."

"Pizza always sounds good," Wright says cheerfully. She watches Seren's twinge of momentary discomfort, but doesn't mention it. This doesn't feel like the correct place to bring up Eve's misbegotten rave. That she saw Seren dying after having already died and then it not having been that bad. They're a lot alike in that. "I'm not picky, so whatever kind you're in the mood for is an excellent choice."

Baird's ears perk up at that broad menu of opportunities such an answer implies. He looks excitedly over to Seren, who regards him with a skeptical eye.

"We'll try and keep it to socially-accepted combinations of flavors," Seren promises Wright directly, then turns to the waiter on approach to begin the affairs of paying the bill.

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