High-wire Art


elisabeth_icon.gif teo_icon.gif

Scene Title High-wire Art
Synopsis Elisabeth may be a jaded and careworn soul who hates the circus, but she knows how to juggle, walk tightrope, eat fire, make herself heard, and any number of other metaphorical skills that are relevant when two of your closest friends are having next-level marriage problems.
Date May 3, 2019

Raytech Corporate: Elisabeth's Apartment

Teodoro had promised to visit her. And in this particular instance, he was not a liar. Besides, Emily's been reminding him lately that uhhhh

something. Friends? Something. Friends are important. The real ones are, who would be for you, through thick and thin. She doesn't remind him intentionally, but for all Teo's an idiot in many ways, he learns things through observation and doesn't stand up his friends, when they've emerged from years of temporally displaced trauma. He texts ahead of time, gleans from her what time her daughter won't be home, but also, perhaps more strangely, said daughter's physical size, height, age. He knows some things about being friends with people who have children; he technically has a child himself, even if most days, he has no idea what to think about that.

You bring gifts. It's what you do.

He knocks, is let in. Does this again by habit, feeling keenly again how long Elisabeth had been absent: he looks her over, from the top of her head to the balance she distributes across her feet, reassuring himself she is whole, healthy. At some point, Teo will get used to it— the idea that she's here, but for now, it still feels unbelievable.

"I brought this for your girl." Teo holds up: a bag. He bought something! It's: a coat. Number one, he doesn't know about kids, or at least that's the going story. Number two, he tends to by people coats; the one he got for Abigail had been one of the most expensive purchases he made in his young life. As he lives in constant aversion to cold himself, he has a tendency to worry about the same for his friends. Which extends to their kids. Kids are people too, right? It's a nice coat. Hooded, fluffy, flared with an invisible petticoat at the waist, small bows on the shoulder, but the solid, waterproof white keeps it chic.

"And this I brought for you." Beer! Six-pack. Teo presents this, holding it aloft. (He means: this I brought for us.)

Elisabeth honestly doesn't find it strange that Teo avoids kids — she hasn't really thought a lot about it, it's just that people who don't have kids don't usually want to spend a lot of time around them! So when he arrives, she's glad to see him and surprised at the thoughtfulness of bringing Aura a lovely coat. "Oh wow… she'll love it," she grins at him, gesturing for him to come sit in the living room and get comfortable. "You didn't have to do that… but thank you." It's terribly sweet of him.

As he watches her, she still moves in the efficient manner she's always moved. The subtle differences in gait that come with time, occasional aches and pains, and the shifting of her center of gravity a bit are there but nothing serious. She's lost no limbs and somehow by the grace of dumb luck perhaps, she's managed not to get overly injured, scarred, or shot up. As she lays the coat on the small dining table in the alcove by the kitchen, Elisabeth also grabs a bowl of chips that she apparently managed to find in the market and brings them in to share while they share a beer too.

When they're finally ensconced, she pulls one foot up under herself to sit facing him on the slightly battered couch that is the main seating in the room. "So tell me how you're settling in?" The question is easy… or should be. He did say he'd just gotten a place. But she's also watchful of him, perhaps a little worried he's not as okay as he'd like her to think.

Trust Liz to know. Teo is not as okay as he wants her to think, of course— but he also is increasingly coming to realize that lying to your friends, even by omission, even about the subtle presentation of your problems, isn't really good for anybody. And it certainly doesn't make you a good friend.

"I'm doing pretty good, all things considered." This is not one of Teo's worse lies, though it could use improvement.

Teodoro wanders briefly through her home, not full-on nosy, just taking an interest, as good friends should. He notices the signs of wear on her couch, the other furniture. But it's nice; reminds him of home, where home is the Catskill Mountains, the farm home he cobbled together from salvaging deserted buildings, trade, gifts from neighbors as they slowly warmed up to the eccentric city boy who'd moved all the way out there.

"But that's a pretty fucking low bar these days," is what Teo makes himself say, afterward— like confession. It is a confession. He plunks himself down on her couch. "I don't like being in cities, these days. But it's not as shitty as I thought it'd be. You get to meet a lot more people, and I managed to forget that that isn't all bad." He grins at her, ruefully, then picks two beers out of the six-pack. His keychain is a bottle opener, because he's a bit of a high-functioning alcohol these days!! but it'll be fine. Hopefully temporary.

"How about you? I like the place." Schuck, schuck. He opens the beers one after another, holding both in his enormous Teo hands, his long fingers webbed around their necks. Then he hands her one.

The only thing in her home that isn't maybe as 'standard' as everyone else's scrounged furniture is the upright piano sitting against one wall. Someone apparently managed to find one in decent shape and salvage it, and it sits in her living room as if it's actually seeing some use. Other than that, there are things here and there that definitely indicate small girl-child lives here — tiny sneakers by the front door, some toys in a basket near the piano, a fuzzy blanket laid accross the armchair. There isn't enough stuff for it to be too messy.

Elisabeth reaches out to take the beer from him and she nods slightly to his answer. All things considered could mean a lot of things… but she's also seen Francois. "Well. I think Aurora's settling in a lot easier than I am. The nightmares aren't the same anymore, but they still suck," she comments mildly. A swallow of her beer is accompanied by a brief grin as the bottle lowers to rest on her thigh. "But this city is better than the last two we lived in. I'm… finally beginning to feel like we'll be here a while. That's an improvement, since I wanted to be here."

She hesitates and then shrugs a bit. "A lot of changes. The city. Me. Four months of twiddling my thumbs has pretty much made me crazy, so I'll be going back to work soon."

Teo immediately starts drinking his beer, because that's just where he is as a person these days. It's just one beer. Bubbles sliding down his throat. He studies her as he drinks, far from distracted by his cold beverage. His thoughts snare on the nightmares for a moment— there's something he half wants to pursue there, something he wants to say, but it slips from him because she's talking about going back to work. That could mean anything now. Teo cocks his head curiously.

"Which job are you thinking about?"

A long time ago, she had been a cop. Life with Richard had taken her elsewhere, after that. Apparently they had code names. Teo wishes he had a code name, apart from 'ghost' which seems uncomfortably morbid, and 'Einliter' which still seems just like a unit of measurement. Possibly a jug of milk. Or something else. He knows that Delilah balances work with childcare, and seems to do so effectively because her creative, self-employed nature of her endeavors make it possible. He studies Elisabeth's face, shifting his legs on the couch. "I'm figuring that out, myself." Little does he know, he will be Nancy Drew in a few months.

As she sips her own beer, she sees the metaphorical perk of his ears at nightmares, but it's a topic she'll leave on the wayside for this moment. "Well… it seems I can't escape the call of duty," she replies ruefully. "I've accepted a position with the new and improved NYPD." Her expression is a bit on the abashed side. "They asked me to take a desk job and act as SCOUT's lieutenant. I figure… if nothing else, it'll be something that lets me really feel like I'm home." As opposed to all the worlds where she was something else. "If I find I can't stomach the work anymore, I'll quit."

She shrugs a little. "There's something appealing about being able to help build the squad and the department to be what it's supposed to be."

She's not hinting at him, is she? Teo drinks his beer, studying her face while she talks. He squelches the urge to look away when she talks about quitting, but only in time to drop his gaze when she talks about the other thing. The appeal, helping to build the squad, what's supposed to be. They're pleasant thoughts. Executable, he thinks, in the right hands. Elisabeth's hands are right.

"I'm glad you're gonna be taking care of us." This, Teo says with conviction. He adjusts his weight on the couch, slumping already. He reaches over to tap the neck of his beer against hers, a glass click. "If anybody fucking deserves it, it's you.

"And I could—" On cue, predictable perhaps, Teo veers back to the subject earlier. "I can help you with your nightmares, if you thought it could help. That's part of my ability." He's not as powerful or skilled at it as those for whom dream manipulation is the primary focus of their power. He's a spectator, an agent of subtle change. But he looks at her, thinks of all she's been through, and how fitful her rest remains. "Or maybe they'll stop on their own." Sometimes that's what happens. Sometimes, people heal naturally. Humans are resilient.

She flushes at his opinion that hers are the right hands, not entirely sure she agrees, but… well, building something rather than constantly tearing down someone else's attempt at 'better'? Right now especially that hold a lot of pull with her. Elisabeth figures even if she fucks up, it's not epic proportions of a fuck-up, it's just a police force. That, at least, could be fixed if she does blow it. Right? (Sure… let's go with that.)

She takes a long swallow of her beer and admits quietly, "I don't honestly think you want to be anywhere near my nightmares, handsome." Her free hand shoves back her hair and she tries to smile for him. "Didn't you see enough horror in my head the day they killed me?"

Okay, that wasn't meant to come across as facetious in any way… but it might also tell him just how bad some of what's in her head from the past years is, given that she just implied it was even worse than torture and rats.

Changing an entire police force is what many a cop starts out trying to do; Teo looks at her, a little amused but deeply affectionate, that this is some low-key shit compared to what she's been through. Compared to what they've both been through. But she's seen more, lately. Even after the time she died, and despite the deceptive quiet of the lovely home she's built for herself, Teo knows that that doesn't mean there isn't a latent cacophony up in that head of hers.

"No," Teo says, thinking about it more seriously than perhaps she needed him to. "It's different, seeing horror in the head of someone you love, versus seeing enough horror in your life. One is dreams, one is the world. The world is important because it's where we live with everybody else. Dreams are a metric of—" he taps his fingers on his beer bottle, thoughtfully. "How we live with ourselves. Sometimes it's good to have somebody in them with you, just like sometimes out here," he gestures with his beer to the quiet space around them, "we need to be alone."

This, Teo knows better than many. He spent a few years largely alone, other than the company of goats, web communiques, periodic neighbors, and increasingly strained visits from his husband.

His mouth twists into a smile. "Anyway, the shit that still bothers me—" and then Teo cuts off, oddly, realizing he didn't have a real thought formed for that. He wiggles the bottle in his hand. "Whether or not I see what it was, I know you suffered it. I can't pretend I don't know."

There's a long pause and Elisabeth observes in a low voice, "So much of what I did, both in my job and out of it back then and in trying to get home, was darkness. I considered not telling Richard anything — he didn't need my nightmares on top of his own, right? Seven years ago, I would have done just that. But second chances are rare as hell, and third ones are unheard of. It's hard to let him see so much." The confession is hard.

As they sit there, she takes up a position that isn't perhaps as common for them but feels … easy, laying her head sideways on his shoulder as he slumps. "One of the things I'm trying real hard to do is not pretend with the people who matter. If there are nights when you want to check in and keep me company, I … wouldn't object to the moral support," she admits softly. "But I fear if you see what really happened, you'll think a hell of a lot less of me."

Why the hell Richard doesn't, after learning what he has, is something she still doesn't quite understand. She only accepts that it's the truth. And even still, there is that low-level insecurity, the kind that comes with making impossible choices and being sure there were no good ones while still being completely unsure of your own certainty on that matter.

She puts her head on his shoulder, and it makes Teo's heart clench like a fist; like a hand that doesn't want to let anything in, that refuses to be the open palm. But that's not really it, is it? He just hurts for her. Also she has really soft, beautiful hair and she rests on his shoulder like a weary angel. (For all that Francois' dick has gone wandering lately, Teo was always the one with the capricious heart.)

"I fucked up during the war," Teo says. The instant after he says it, his throat wants to close up; he coughs into the opening of his beer bottle, but doesn't drink any more, for some reason. "There was one time some kids died at the waterfront because I told the ship to hold position. Some adults too. I don't have nightmares or anything, but I think about it, and it fucking sucks. I was in a couple of their heads too—"

It feels nearly random and Teo knows that it makes no sense, the stray pang of guilt that hits him— she died before, and he isn't as haunted about that one. It seems rude somehow, even though intellectually he knows that she wouldn't think that. He twists the bottle in his hand, rests his bearded jaw on her head.

Teo is glad she can't see his face.

"Shit like that happened a few times," he says, "because war is a messy bitch." It's reductive, his saying so. 'Messy bitch.' That's how you're supposed to think, he knows; you accept you cannot be perfect, you move on, confident that your intentions had been true enough, that it was better than to do nothing. "But I think that was the worst one, for some fucking reason. Anyway. I don't know what you went through, and I don't mean to compare. But I want to be there when you relive it."

The soft chuff of laughter is companionable. Elisabeth agrees, war is a messy bitch indeed. "I think … the ones that haunt me the hardest tend to be the things with kids too." They've always had that in common — Washington Irving roots, perhaps. "I took a team against the Vanguard to try to extract Gillian from their capture. We needed her.. to try to come home. There was a cage full of kids they were holding as leverage. We torched the cage," she says quietly. Not laying the blame on any one person, except perhaps herself — she was team leader. "And the mission… failed that day in spite of going to those lengths to try to achieve it."

She doesn't tell him in the spirit of comparison as to whose transgression was worse; it's more to warn him somehow. Elisabeth is still trying to figure out how to live with that choice, still fighting to find a way out of those years between Virus and Wasteland and Flood. Her only regrets in the Bright world, ironically enough the world in which she lived and raised her daughter the longest, are Gabriel's death, Eileen's suffering, and Cassandra's plight in being ripped from her home. Far simpler regrets, generally speaking.

"If you can stand to watch that, I think it's probably the worst one. Although I can't promise. Occasionally the nightmares make odd left turns and hand me a new mixed-up horror to watch," she grumbles. Dreams suck.

Teo's heart hurts more. Unbidden, he moves suddenly, a scuff of fabric against the couch. He wraps his arm around her shoulders, tight enough to make a ring of warmth under the golden wreathe of her hair. He places a kiss on the side of Liz's head, his nose in it, snuffly, more like a dog than a man. This is why he left town, you know. Loving people is impossibly hard. And this is also why he came back.

He knows she isn't trying to compare sins, so he doesn't talk about how they're different. That she'd done it with intention; that she hadn't fucked up. The whining litany of other thoughts he entertains at night, by himself, when he goes to sleep in the city where he last failed the heaviest of his responsibilities.

But it's good to hold her, to understand a little of her pain; to have his understood in turn. There are any number of things that make no sense about the grief that they keep. Teo had lost more people to battles before, he'd gotten shot, he'd gotten burned, he'd had so much adrenaline flooding through his body that his fingers were as stupid and clumsy as a baby's. But these are the ones that have aged badly instead of fading with time; the ones that seems stupid when he talks about it, most days, that have no right to be memorialized more than the other losses. "I can stand to watch that," Teo says. It's already happened; it's a dream; it wasn't his fault.

"I'll come by in the night," he promises. "You won't even hear me."

Elisabeth hugs him tightly, closing her eyes against a brief rush of tears. This man has seen things in her mind that no one else has ever seen. He has left ethereal wisps of images in her mind that sometimes, on nights when the dreams ride her hard, she can almost remember. Of all the dream-walkers who've traipsed through her damaged brain, he's the one who has seen her break. "Just don't… be a weird little bird who molts and then … whatever the hell that was," she asks on a laugh that is just a little watery. Unbidden, that image is the one that flickered in her mind when he promised. He may not even remember that visit, who knows? She didn't, until this moment.

Pulling in a shaky breath, she pulls a little away from him — not far enough to leave the circle of his arms, just far enough to look up at him and give him a smile. "Quid pro quo?" she offers. "You seem to have some pretty deep things going on in your personal life these days too… moving back here, getting a roommate." She tips her head. "Wanna let me be here for you too?"

That does sound like Teo. He wrinkles his nose slightly. Look: he is not the most expert dreamwalker to have ever walked dreams, that would be individuals who actually have dream manipulation as their Evolved power. He's better at it now than he was a few years ago, though. That probably counts for something. That probably means he's less likely to fuck up helping her.

And now she's asking to help him, which makes his eyes veer around the room. He drinks his beer again, finishing the whole bottle, because there wasn't enough left in it to really excuse himself from the conversation. Granted, Teo already said what was, until a month ago, the hardest thing for him to say. His mistakes during the war have weighed on him; they weigh on him still; they won't stop, though it helps to have another shoulder to carry it with. But that's the thing. He has already spoken to her of the children, the dead ones, the heavy regrets of violence, which his hunch tells him means—

"You talked to Francois, didn't you?"

Teo doesn't sound mad. His voice is wry. He pokes her forehead with his nose by way of apology, before disturbing her head-rest in order to go, lean down, and get his next beer.

"A bit," she acknowledges easily. "Enough to know that you're figuring things out, which is the worst euphemism ever for trying to figure out how much to scream at one another so that all the stupid shit you've each been sitting on for however long can be dealt with." Elisabeth grins slightly. "Or whether you even want to bother dealing with it."

She watches him as he leans forward for another beer, her own still mostly full. "You don't, of course, have to tell me shit," she observes. "I'm … just offering my ears if you want them, Teo. And if you make use of them, I promise not to be a buttinski who runs back and forth between you or anything." No tattling or taking sides or otherwise playing middleman — just a sincere offer of her ear, her shoulder, and a lotta hugs. As he settles back in, she leans her head back onto his shoulder, comfortable in her seat.

"Personally, I've come to the conclusion that no one figures things out. They just… vent the anger, decide whether or not they can forgive whatever happened, and move on either together or apart, accepting that people are flawed. Trying to do better next time." Elisabeth's tone is mild.

Teo listens to this, feels the warm beats of her breath near his collarbone, the weight of her hair.

It seems like she knows.

But does she?

Does she know-know, or only think she knows?

Francois is more difficult for Teo to understand these days than he has ever been, but even with that being true, Teo knows that the infidelity is a secret that Francois would not have parted with easily. And for all that Teodoro is angry with his husband, and humiliated, he believes much of what he'd said to the Frenchman on the bridge— that Francois is not an animal that's adapted to the solitude of leadership, which he finds himself in; that he needs friends. To shame him to one of the few people who can understand the combination of trauma and responsibility is not something Teo wants to do.

It's a parodic, action hero version of a problem that struggling couples have around the world, really. In divorces, friends pick sides or else negotiate Switzerland carefully. If there's something wrong with your partner when you leave, you don't begrudge them keeping the people who will help them when you're gone.

Teo tries not think of it like he has one foot out the door already, when he says, "Can you just— uhh. What'd he say? I need to know what he told you, so I don't…"

Elisabeth's face, hidden the way it is, can't give away how much her heart hurts for both of them. "So you don't feel like you're telling secrets?" She composes her expression before looking up. "He told me that you'd both been doing your own things for a while now and that he fucked up royally," she acknowledges quietly. "I know he hurt you, and part of me would like to smack the fuck out of him for you. But I'm the last person in a position to cast stones at either of you, so… if you want to talk, I'm here. No judgements, okay?"

She grins a bit. "Feel free to rage and call him an asshole all you want. I'll even agree with you. And then if you decide he's not an asshole and you want to fix it, I'll support that too." Tipping her head, she asks teasingly, "Does that make me wishy-washy? Or just lame?"

She probably knows, Teo thinks. But he still isn't sure. Going off to be a superhero while your husband is suffering from child death-related sadness in the countryside probably counts as 'hurtful,' a 'fuckup' that incidentally Richard didn't do, and Liz was literally just talking to him about that.

"It doesn't make you either of those things, Liz. You fuckin' know that, come on," Teodoro says. Why isn't he a telepath? No, that would make his life a lot harder. "It makes you somebody in a pretty fucking difficult position." It could absolutely be about work. She's about to rejoin the NYPD; she could understand Francois' perspective very well. She probably does. And Francois would talk about that more easily, Teo is sure, than he would admit to multiple counts of marital infidelity. Teo hedges, hesitates.

Starts again. "We've both changed a lot in the past few years. He's done things I never imagined he would do. I made choices that— well, he didn't sign up for this." Me. A fucking farmer. Or even aside from that, someone who hates the city, who would rather be away, start new. How was Francois to know, that this had always been Teo's pattern? He'd run from Sicily. He'd run from the Bright Future. But he hadn't run in the time that Francois had known him, until he did. "Maybe we aren't the people who got married anymore. Maybe—" Teo's voice is slow now. Heavy. Tired. He opened his next beer, but he's forgotten to drink it. "Maybe I don't fucking love him the way he deserves to be loved.

"I think I would've left, if he hadn't said he wanted me to stay." It sounds absurd out loud, Teo knows, watching the subtle motions of his breath disrupt motes of dust and the domestic quiet of her home. Of course you leave if your partner doesn't want you to stay!! But it's strange. Confusing, in Teo's head, that that logic makes sense; that there exists somewhere in the multiverse, a set of fatal conditions under which that cold night in March was effectively the last one he was married.

Tipping her head, Elisabeth admits quietly, "Look… I don't know what other choices he's made beyond fucking around on you, but I'm sure there are probably others. Maybe not as egregious, I don't know." Yes, Teo, she knows exactly what Francois did. And probably, more than most, understands the why of it. But she's not defending it. "And I know you." She reaches up and pokes him lightly. "When shit got heavy and started weighing on you… you couldn't carry the weight but you didn't know how to share it either. So… you probably had a case of the 'OhMyFuckingGodFLEE's." She grimaces. "If you don't think I'm still fighting that fight in my heart over the things I did to get home?" That trails off as her blue eyes skip to look around the room.

"Maybe you don't love him the way he deserves. Maybe he doesn't love you the way you deserve. The question is… Do you love him?" It's a simple question… with a ridiculously complex answer, and she knows it. Clearly not expecting him to have the answer just yet, Elisabeth is merely doing what she's always managed to do best — distilling it down to its most basic question. "Everything else? It's icing," she murmurs. "It's fluff and details and filler. Do you want to find your way back? Or do you want to run?"

She looks up at him and tells him softly, "Part of me keeps waiting for him to look at me and see the monster. But then again… part of him has always expected me to look at him and see the monster." Is it so different?

Oh, Teo observes. So she does know. Somehow, this knowledge is not better. Humiliation bubbles up in his gut, right on cue. How would she feel, if she had to tell him that Rick—uh. Richard had cheated on her? The answer to that, of course, is that Richard wouldn't. And that is what is so different. That is never an eventuality one is prepared to share, especially not with enough mileage on the relationship; a relationship between fucking war heroes.

She does know. And Teodoro is perfectly aware that his problem is nothing special. So many great men of international history were philanderers. Everyone from Albert Einstein to Benjamin Franklin, Martin fucking Luther King. How mundane. Teo drinks more beer before answering, absent-mindedly thinking about how none of New York City's former vigilante heroes had other mundane problems like: stress diarrhea, hangnail, lost contacts. You could never be a monster, he wants to say, but that's not what she means to say. She's trying to relate to him, and he respects her too much to nudge her off onto a course of distraction, no matter how genuine he'd feel about it.

"I love him enough to stay," Teo says, leaning into her so she stops poking him!! "And he doesn't deserve to be alone. I believe that. But you're right," fine, fine, he'll— answer her, what she's actually saying. "I don't really talk to him. He wants things how they were. He said we could talk about the—-" it's still too hard to say out loud, he realizes; and suddenly he's grateful, that she tried to be tactful about it. "He said we could talk about these, uh, new problems, if I can… open up." Ugh. "And get over Wolfhound. Which I'm pretty sure means: believe in him, him staying in, even though it's fucking awful for him sometimes.

"I don't know how to explain to him how fucking hard it is to start there.

"But I don't think he's even gonna say he's sorry until I do," is hard for Teo to say, but he does grind it out with so much effort that it feels like the end product should emerge from him shining and flawless, polished to perfection. Instead, Teo's voice sounds like gravel. They've met a few times since Francois confessed to him, and there was not once an apology for that. For being rude, sure, and even that was belated. He has the single, hysterical memory of Francois acknowledging that the infidelity had been a 'mistake.' Teo recoils again from his own humiliation; switches to sounding academic about it, when he says: "It's tautology. I have to forgive him, then he's willing to work for it. I have to trust him before he's going to earn back my trust. And yes.

"He's being a cunt."

All right. Teo went a lot of sentences without swearing. That's enough.

Teo went a lot of sentences without swearing. She had been starting to worry that he was going to keep that level of distance between them — the politeness. When it cracks and he starts doing what Teos do, she is relieved. Elisabeth leans up and kisses him on the cheek. "Sounds about right — ass-backward, that is to say." Forgiveness and THEN apology is not the correct order of things. "That is definitely being a bit of a cunt." Staunch support of Teo's feelings on the matter. Does it make sense to her from both sides? Sure. Does it make it right? Hell no. But then again, who the hell actually manages their fuck-ups the 'right' way, as if such a thing exists?

Leaving aside any opinion one way or the other one what anyone should do, she simply asks him quietly, "You know… you have every right to be pissed off and not want to talk to him. Richard didn't talk to me for… weeks. Maybe even months when I betrayed him." Sighing softly, she simply leans her head on his shoulder again. "I'm sorry that things have gone so fucking sideways, Teo." Because what else can she say to him? He's been wronged in ways no one can really fix, though perhaps in time they can be forgiven.

"So, you love him. But you're not ready to talk about all this shit yet… not really. Not with him, certainly. And now you know that I'm here when you do want to talk about it, but I'm not going to just dig at it." Elisabeth pauses. "For now," she amends and looks up at him with a small smile. "Maybe when we've had a little more time to rebuild our friendship a bit more, I'll pry a little — but, you know, I've been gone a long time. I feel like my digging prerogatives might be a bit on hiatus. In the meantime… tell me what you do want. What do you want out of being here in the city again? What can I do to help you find the things you want? I can go back to the tried-and-true method of feeding you until your hardships are drowned in food," she offers.

That makes Teo smile, of course. But she's always been good at that. White teeth against his winter tan. He's been a farmer, after all; his nose and forehead have not been free of melanin for years. "I like food," he says. "Haven't had grits or seafood, anything Asian in a long time. But," and he says this with the mildest emphasis, "if you want to 'dig,' you can dig. And it's not 'digging,' it's having a fuckin' conversation. I promise I know how to do that.

"I'm not trying to— hide or protect shit from you, it's just complicated because he needs you too. And I think staying neutral is a lot easier said than done." As Teo says it, it's a rankling feeling in the back of his head— it's true. In more recent years, he's tried to present as neutral about Wolfhound, about the war, about his role in it, but the magic was beyond him. Neutral couldn't salve Francois' loneliness or pain, wouldn't sanitize the war, will never absolve him of his perceived sins. "And I didn't know that, about you and Rich. That he didn't talk to your for weeks. Do you want to tell me about it? I wasn't trying to shut you down, and I know I could learn something. It doesn't have to be tonight."

But it could be. If not, Teo knows a place that does good Shanghai noodles. "Maybe I'm the one who needs to rebuild some shit," he says. In general, Teo does not have trouble owning up to his responsibility in things. In fact, the infidelity has been quite a novel adventure in that. Normally, he can see the shape of blame so clearly, fat stains on his own metaphorical shirt, on his hands, in his soul. He does not know why this particular marital problem feels so starkly different; why that is in and of itself, so painful to think about. "It's up to you, Liz. But I'm here."

Her smile at him is gentle. "I didn't think you were shutting me down — I was just trying to give you the space you need without presuming too far," Elisabeth replies. "Being neutral can be hard, yeah… but I don't have an emotional stake in whether the two of you remain married except insofar as I want you both to be happy. Which lends itself to… I don't know. Maybe just understanding that relationships are a hell of a lot more complicated than anyone ever tells you." She shrugs. "You know me — I don't pull punches. If I think there's something I can say to help, I will. So… since you asked…"

She pauses and then says, "For us, it wasn't sex. I mean… we've always had an open relationship. It was more… he didn't think I trusted him enough, I think? The night I ran from Frontline, the night Felix and I landed on your doorstep? I had passed the possible information about Demsky and Harkness being moved — blown up my own life — for a lot of reasons that weren't very well thought out. And I didn't even talk to him about it before I did it, really. Despite the fact that in doing it, I literally blew up everything he and I had worked for. I didn't just tank my own life, I obliterated his too — he'd set up Redbird as a front. But I'd encouraged him to believe it to be more, that it could be a real life. And then I pulled the rug out from under him, and it blew not only Redbird and that life up but also screwed a lot of plans in the works to deal with the Institute. He was fucking livid, Teo. Rightfully." She shrugs a little.

"He went to ground and literally … every time I tried to talk to him, it was like a maze of broken glass all around because I didn't know what to say. I was sorry … but I also had reasons that I guess I thought were valid. In hindsight, they were all bullshit. I think the truth might just be that I was still seriously fucked up over Beach Street and I had just had a series of run-ins with an old boyfriend who I'd apparently once been nearly engaged to that I couldn't even remember thanks to that bullet, and just … in general, I was probably just seriously mentally fucked up in all ways. And even when he forgave me for my utter stupidity, it still felt hellishly tense between us for a long time. Like he didn't quite trust me the same way. Although that's possibly just my own take on that part."

Hmm. Teo blinks at her owlishly in the soft light of the living room.

That's a pretty fucking good parallel.

Even better because it doesn't match perfectly, of course. Teo thinks about it in silence. Francois and Elisabeth are so incredibly unalike; Teo and the Redbird in question, too. Francois' pride operates on a level that the woman beside Teo now seems physically incapable of. And Cardinal's operatic life and career endeavors are nothing Teodoro has ever believed he had a right to. Not beside the fact, but Liz does seem, as a consequence, far better capable of presenting herself as contrite. And Teo, of offering truce long before it's wise or practical.

So maybe it's for the better, Teo thinks to himself wryly, that Francois hasn't apologized, stands by his reasons; that Teo has had more time to rage, to try not to rage, to try and find a functional human equilibrium between shooting up his husband's car and polite apathy. They're both spending time with their own 'reasons,' bullshit or not. Maybe they both found people who would drag out these fights for as long as they needed to. That doesn't seem like a happy version of reality, but if it was too happy, it probably wouldn't be true.

But at least you said you were sorry. Teo is like five percent too grown up to say that to her. (If Francois were here, all bets would be off.)

Teo wonders if it had hurt Elisabeth, to see Richard cry. He expects that Richard was too strong to do it.

"You're doing a very good job validating my feelings," is what Teo says in the end. "Thanks, babe." Playful. He taps his finger on the glass bottle in his hand. "Did he help unfuck you up somehow, even while he was still fucked off at you?"

She shoots him a wry grin. "Years of therapy do wonders," Elisabeth retorts sardonically. Tilting her head, though, she considers his question. Her initial rejoinder — a smart-assed he didn't unfuck me up, he just *knocked* me up — is neither entirely accurate nor really the answer he's looking for, so she bites it back.

"Well… I think I'd have to say no, not really. Maybe. He's always had a rather… unique way of cutting right through my bullshit, I guess. To me it looked more or less like he… was mad as hell, got to a point where he forgave the fact that I'd once again done Teh-Fucking-Stupid (™)," a roll of her eyes punctuates that, "and then dealt with the rest of it in his own time. And I tried to let him do that…. but I gotta tell you, I really wanted him to just yell at me as much as he wanted so that we could fight, and then I could apologize and he could just get over it and be done with being upset or else tell me it was just over and walk away."

She grimaces. "That's not the way it works, especially when there's true emotion involved. Far too black and white. But him being mad at me like that made me feel sick and I cried a lot, and that was really uncomfortable." That she, who cavalierly went through life with 'no strings' — or so she thought at the time — was uncomfortable in the gray areas of actually loving someone isn't exactly news.

That's an interesting concept, but Teo doubts that Francois shares Elisabeth's innermost heart desire in this way, even if maybe there is a thread of common ground between them. If Francois wants to be screamed at, scolded, a punching bag for Teo until his emotions are spent, then that urge appears to be deeply buried in his subconscious. Nothing about the Frenchman's demeanor has yet suggested he thinks he deserves anything Teo has done, from polite lunch-time discourse to murdering his tire.

Teo is pretty sure that he could have forgiven Francois razing Phoenix to the ground, fucking the Ferrymen, hacking him off from his old life, if it had been for a righteous cause. He suspects that makes him a foolish if not unethical person.

"How long did it take?" Teo asks, finally. "For the Rich to finish venting and decide what he was gonna do with you? Do you remember?" His pale eyes shift to study her profile at an angle, the blond tops of her eyebrows, which he can just see from where he's sitting beside her. She looks troubled by the remembrance, of course, but— he thinks; better now. Or with new troubles that have wounded her heart after the old ones have scarred over. "I should probably start the countdown. At least then we'll know how long we're going to wait, even if we don't know what the fuck we're waiting for."

Tilting her head, Elisabeth considers. "Well… definitely weeks," she decides. "At least, he started talking to me again after several weeks. But like I said, it was still… awkward and uncomfortable as hell. And then Joshua tried to kill him and Walter tossed him off into 2040. He was only there for a few hours from his perspective, but Hiro then brought him back and it had been six months here." She pauses and grins a little. "I think when I burst into tears when he showed up out of the blue, the fight was pretty much over." There's a sadness to the thought though, because then she observes, "Of course… then I died. So…"

Not like there was much time there to appreciate it.

For a long moment, she's quiet. And then she scoots to look up at him. "So… are you gonna yell at him? It does kinda help," she offers mildly. "Gets all the stuff you're really pissed off about into the open, at least. And you can cuss him out creatively at high volume, too." She shrugs. "I dunno if it'll fix much, but you might feel better about getting it off your chest."

Teo hums under his breath thoughtfully, and bends the beer bottle toward his mouth again— only to realize that it's empty already? How did that happen. C'est impossible. Is he drinking too much? C'est impossible. He should keep drinking, but it seems like poor taste right now to release her in order to get another beer.

"A few weeks," Teo says. "If I yell more."

That seems like a short timeline. For better or worse.

That doesn't sound like it will work. Teo's face is blank as he squeezes his arm around her shoulder, gently. Trying to remember. It's not as if the concept is entirely foreign; he wonders what impression Francois had given to her.

Teo says, slowly, "I fuckin'. Raised my voice. A little bit. He does his best cold bitch impression and stares at me like I'm doing a clown mime. Oh." A beat. His ears turn the faintest shade of pink, like the dusting of sugar on top of mochi. "I shot a tire on his car and left him in the Catskill Mountains. I dunno if he told you that." Not hiS MOST REASONable, admittEDLY. "We hung out a few more times. It was actually when— I was losing my shit in Rochester, that he asked me for more forgiveness. Like it was something I was carrying on me, and if I weren't being petty, I'd turn out my pockets. After I yelled at him, he said it was bullshit. Maybe some of it was. But I don't think it helped.

"You disagree?"

Elisabeth blinks at the shot-out tire. She clearly didn't know that. But the rest, she simply purses her lips and considers as she leans forward to pick up another beer. She pops the top off before handing it to him and then leans back against him again.

"I think that … you are entitled to be as pissy as you need to be for as long as you need to be pissy. It doesn't, however, sound like shouting helped." She pauses, clearly thinking about his words. "Teo, you're obviously hurt and pissed off, but…." Searching for the right words, she clearly gives up on the 'right' words and just asks outright, "is the fucking around actually the problem? Because honestly, it seems like that's really just … let me rephrase that. Because it's not just anything, it's a big deal when you've agreed to be monogamous."

She sighs. "It seems like you're pretty pissed about a lot more than that, too. Just how long have you been pissed off at him?"

Elisabeth grins ruefully. "Sorry … had a lot of years of therapy. I'm told just getting all those things verbalized makes them easier to address." Maybe not easier to fix, but hey… we're all works in progress.

Teo's smile turns wry as he thinks about this; more questions, all of them relevant to his interests. Somehow, it feels like Francois would see this as a heartening alternative, at least, right up until he found out the lurid details about what Teo was 'really' mad about. But that is the problem.

This is the one mistake that cannot be fixed, the injury that cannot be willed better. Moving to Rochester might have prevented it, but it can no way undo what happened.

So, in other words— she had a point. "I'm pretty sure it's the 'fuckin' around,'" Teo says. "But there's shit I haven't said to him. Shouted at the top of my fucking lungs or otherwise. If I'd moved to Rochester, maybe he never would have fucked around, but it's not going to undo what happened. And talking about it like it's some kind of contingent requirement for baseline decent fucking behavior actually just makes me want to shove my entire foot up his ass." He is experimenting right now; with saying all the things he hasn't. It's strange, you know, that he wants so badly for Francois to apologize, to make good of it, and also that he does not want his husband to feel worse than he does.

It's something to do with Wolfhound, maybe. That the job seems hard enough, if it's is a crucial mechanic in why Francois was so lonely, and why he needed to cheat. "I could tell him that. Dunno. Trick is I have to be cool with him yelling back, right?" It seems fair, to Teo. And also, very much like being waterboarded. BuT I NEEDED TO HAVE SEX WITH OTHER PEOPle, is what it will sound like to him, he thinks. Ad nauseum.

"Well," Elisabeth says slowly. "You know… even telling him where it started might be a good start. And … yeah, if you're gonna have a knock-down drag-out, it's pretty likely there will be shouting from both ends," she agrees with a rueful smile. "You're both kinda stubborn and shit. But … you could start slower, maybe. Write it all down, just really lay out your hurts and thoughts. You don't have to give it to him if you think it's too much. But you say you love him still… he's supposed to be your safe space, the place you can say anything, even the horrible and ugly, Teo."

She hopes that he'll think about that; that he loves his spouse enough to really cut loose and just lay it out there. That Francois loves him back enough to offer the same. But… it requires a level of trust in one another, that the other person won't just turn away in disgust when you tell them your deepest fears and most shameful secrets. And well… it's not like she has a lot of room here to tell other people what will fix their relationships — she's still becoming a babbling wreck when she opens her mouth to offer those bits of herself. Even when she offers them in the darkest parts of the night, the only place that those darkest moments can be shared because the rest of the world is ostensibly sleeping and too far away to hear you.

She sighs. "Relationships are way hard. But… I spent seven years wishing I'd said even the ugly things, the hard things. He'd always been my port in the storm, my haven from the world. He makes me feel accepted for exactly who I am. And I promised myself if I did ever get home… I would say even the hard stuff." She looks up and kisses his cheek. "You both deserve that from one another, Teo. But we both know it's hard as fuck to let someone see you so clearly… because what happens if they look at you and see the real you and don't like what they see, yeah?" She can empathize greatly with these feelings.

Teo makes a thinking sound, low in his throat. He is grateful for the beer she gets him and tries to drink this one slower so as not to seem like straight-up alcoholic, which he is definitely, he knows, veering close to these days.

Her questions are not without merit, food for thought. There have been many a time, not too long ago, even, when he thought his demonstrated cowardice, running into the farm, would sour Francois' regard of him. And there seems to be plenty of evidence that it had indeed.

But Teo has run into limits, when it comes to hiding from his husband, in spite of his shame, bitterness. When Francois is right there in front of him, it's harder to push down the truths about himself; just like here, in private it's easier to talk about the possibility he is no longer properly in love with husband; just like, with Emily, he's said the word divorce more times than he's said to Francois' face (exactly: none). So he could get past this urge to cover up his weakness, Teo thinks; he has, in those moments that he did yell a little bit, that he even— fuckin', he's never going tell her this— that he even cried. It's pathetic, stupid, didn't help, but he's done it before; he could do it again, for longer, in theory.

Problem is, that opens up another question. As ugly. Worse, maybe. Worst of all because it seems increasingly likely that it's true.

"What if I look at him," Teo says, "and I see the real him, and don't like what I fuckin' see?"

"Then I guess that's an answer too," she replies gently. Elisabeth hopes it's not the answer they find, but it's a valid fear for anyone. "But wouldn't you rather just get it out there on the table at some point and deal with it rather than letting the uncertainty eat at you?" Shoulders rise in a slow shrug.

"Then again, I've never exactly been one to deal well with uncertainty … I'd much rather do and get it done with. Maybe not the best method of dealing with relationships. Feelings are terribly messy things and don't do what you want them to," she admits. Give her two choices and she'll kick in the door. It still holds true in many ways. Maybe he should take that into consideration too.

When she turns her head and looks up at him again, there's an amused expression on her face. "You do get the irony in the fact that you're even considering relationship advice from a woman who was alone alone and celibate for seven years, yeah?"

Teo scoffs, playful now— and only partly because he's trying to compartmentalize the Hell out of his humiliating personal pain. But seriously, "If I was single in any of those timelines, you and me, we were gonna go around." He thumbs through her hair, flicks a pale lock backward over her shoulder. Considers his own parallel universe alter-ego. Of course, he knows a few already, but most of those timelines stayed with him developmentally through his twenties. What if the divergence had happened earlier?

"Too bad I was probably fucked off on a mountain or something else while you were picking up every other person we've ever known to be a real hero."

It seems likely, to Teodoro. But she is kind, brave, and beautiful, and he would have made a pass at her in any world, whether or not they were bros. Whether or not he was fucked up; whether or not she was. There's an OOC sex spider chart to prove it in the most mundane and unflattering sense, and even aside from that— well, he loves her. If open relationships were a viable answer to this problem, he might even be solving it right now. Unfortunately, life's equations rarely work out like that. Absently, he hopes they do, though, for the other Teo. And Delilah. "When I get to telling him shit, I'm always more worried about him than I am about me."

Which is utterly fucking ridiculous. But also: second nature to Teo.

"But I take your point," Teo says finally. "Multiple fucking points. Thanks, Liz."

"Why Teodoro Laudani!" Elisabeth bats her eyelashes at him teasingly. "It's literally taken you 10 years and 5 timelines to hit on me! I'm… unsure whether to be insulted or flattered." Her grin at him is unrepentant for the tease. It really is too bad that revenge sex rarely fixes anything. The subtle cues of flirtation lack any real intent to do more than flirt, though, even were he of a mind. It's a change from years past — back then, she only really flirted with men she intended to bed if they were of a like mind. Here, today, she's simply enjoying the fun of it.

But the comment about heroes sobers her some. He's told her he's done Things That Haunt Him… but haven't we all? "Florence Nightingale had a quote that has stuck with me through a lot of things. 'I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.'" She observes quietly, "If you only think of the rest of us as heroes, I think perhaps you sell yourself terribly short."

When he says what he does about telling Francois shit? She can't help shaking her head with a small wrinkle of her nose. "I hope it helps at all. For whatever it's worth? The times that I fuck it up the most are when I'm more worried about hurting the other person… because usually it means I don't just say what needs saying, I dance around it and hem and haw and it just comes out all wrong." She grimaces at that and then shrugs. "But seriously… if something I just said helps, you're welcome. If you don't think it will, don't feel bad about just tossing it out the window and ignoring me. I'm no expert on this shit."

She grins. "But I love you to pieces, Teo. So ya know. There's that."

Teo turns down the corners of his mouth, a frown! that's more playful than not. I didn't want to fuck up our friendship sounds like a thin excuse, so he doesn't say it out loud. But it's true. His dick has gotten him in trouble more times than not, and long before his current marital crises, he'd loved and lost Jesse, Hana, Sonny, a dozen other names bound by narratives that he does not fully understand, even today. Sometimes he suspects he was always a coward; other times, that he simply never loved his people enough.

And of course: he has not been certain of late, whether he loves Francois enough. It's fine; he doesn't take it personally, that she's not pinning him down and ravishing him now, or expecting him to do the opposite.

Teo's fingers surrender her hair in favor of pinching her ear — the only objection he's shown today. "Even if I don't follow along exactly what you did, you helped," he says. "Even if I a hundred percent fucking torpedo this shit with Francois, then I never speak to him again, you helped. Any bad shit that happens wasn't because of you; if we're too broken to fix, we were broken before you showed up. But anything good that turns out 's gonna be your credit." Teo's smiling again, wry; his eyes are clear when he looks at her. He likes that she believes he has some hero in him still. "I know it sounds like cheating, but it isn't.

"You're the new radical introduced to the equation. Without you, we already solved to x. Which was adultery and putting bullet holes in each others' cars. You get me? Change is good."

Well then! Elisabeth's smile is the real one, the one that lights up her guarded blue eyes and makes her look … younger, more like the woman he 'remembers' from the other Teo's thoughts. "Bullet holes in each others' cars is definitely bad news," she agrees on a chuckle.

Content to sit here with him, she pulls in a long breath and asks, "Tell me something you like. Tell me… I dunno, about your farm or your apartment or… what you might want to do in the city? I've missed so much of everyone's lives, I feel like Rip van Winkle."

It seems pretty negative Nancy to just burst out with i HATE THE CITy, so Teo manages to restrain himself, looking thoughtful as he considers. He admittedly hates the city less than he did a month ago, and credit goes to a half a dozen different people, Liz included. Also the Rauls, Emilys of the world, whose fresh tracks over New York City make the old, ugly paths seen less permanent, scarred into his former home. It's just a city. No need to be poetic about it.

Besides, she just smiled. Like, really smiled. What friend or hypothetical alternate universe lover would he be, if he didn't try to promote another?

"Grits, seafood, and Asian cuisine," Teo says, again, finally. Returning to the old. "You should meet my roommate too, she's just nineteen, but she's pretty fucking cool. If I'd been that cool when I was her age," and Teo smiles at her too, lopsided, game. "The farm, I don't know. I think you might be bored if I talked about that." It's a half-thought, an unfinished impression in the back of his mind, how deep the silence had gotten between himself and Francois got, because… because Teo had been happy out there, after a fashion, and his talking about it had met a blackening void of something that seems it was, ultimately, resentment.

It registers the next instant, that Teo is actually surprised she did ask about the farm at all.

The thought of Teo with a 19-year-old roommate who is 'cool' brings another of the smiles to her face — she always thought Teo was pretty cool, but what's she know about cool?

"If you want grits, we should go see Raquelle. Or Abby. I doubt there's anyplace semi-resembling a restaurant that does them. Maybe the new Nite Owl?" Elisabeth thinks about that, but she hadn't been looking for that on the menu, so didn't notice. What with her life the past years, she's not much of a picky eater anymore, so… "If you don't mind, I'm still avoiding seafood." Months of nothing but seafood has made it a little less appealing. "And I may not exactly follow anything you tell me about the farm," she admits on a laugh — she is, after all, a born and bred New Yorker to her marrow — "But listening to you talk about something you enjoy is not boring, Teo."

Teo smiles at that, the line about seafood. Curious, but not uncompassionate either. Flood timeline, right. Maybe one day, dimension-hopping and time-traveling will be a part of his life again, but he rather hopes not. Nothing about this seems enviable. He's gotten old, or something. Two lifetimes and perpetration angst depression will do that to you. Hm, but she raises a good memory.

"I want to eat at the Nite Owl just for the Nite Owl," Teo says. "Thanks. I forgot. Holy shit," that's him clocking the realization just now, "it's still standing? I'm going to have to take a fucking selfie. And I'd love for you to be there."

Maybe they'll figure out how to throw up a Phoenix gang sign. Maybe they'll even have some extra hands along to do it. Maybe Teo won't even have to drink three beers with his meal. "I don't think there's too much to follow with farming. Well, I mean I'm not going to bullshit for two hours about ammonia in the soil." Though he can. He just wouldn't. "Mostly, it was just pretty fuckin' cool to be able to… grow stuff, you know? Instead of," Teo gestures with his beer.

Her chuckle is sincere. "The Nite Owl has been opened elsewhere, new building. Colette and Abby and I ate there. Talk about a blast from the past," she admits. Elisabeth leans her head back onto his shoulder because … she can. It's a luxury.

"Being a singer was pretty fucking cool," she tells him with just a hint of wist. It wasn't all bad. "Richard teases a little that I should do it now that I'm here but… I dunno. Not yet. Not now." It still feels like donning a mask right now.

Abigail and Colette are two people Teodoro has carefully been avoiding, due to the fact that honesty with them about the state of his most intimate details would be a whole clusterfuck. For all that he is angry with Francois, pessimistic about their future, he can't do that to him, expose his mistake to his closest friends, subordinates. Teo already questions the wisdom of having told Eileen, though that ship has sailed. Whatever. It's just one more regret.

He's glad that it Elisabeth has not been cut off from her peers, though. He glances down at her head on his shoulder, her fringy eyelashes. From this angle, she'd almost look asleep. Peaceful. Not like she's worried about asks, like she's given up singing.

"Richard could be right," Teo says. "I don't know jack shit about singing, but I'm pretty sure colloquial wisdom says uh. Art is self-expression?" There's an edge of humor in his voice, pretending art is so foreign. It's not. He was a decent student, once he got to higher ed; he took a couple of art classes, learned some things. "Sometimes the mask you choose is more honest than trying to say words." A beat. The last thing they'd said about the Situation with Richard had not been particularly positive or optimistic, so… "I'm glad you and him are good now. Even if it took too much time to unfuck. You deserve it."

It's a thought she has considered — that the life she chose to build in Arthur's world was, in some ways, more "her" than the one she had lived here. Elisabeth smiles slightly. "Music is… too honest," she admits quietly. "No one knew me there, they had no way to know how much of me there was in it."

And here… that's too much of herself out in the open.

She looks up at him and her smile widens, lighting up her features again. "We're … very much good," Elisabeth agrees. She's not sure it's the right time, they've been discussing his relationship falling apart, but she also feels like to not tell him in this moment when the opening presents itself so simply would be lying somehow. And now that the parents and certain others have been quietly told, it's probably okay. "We're making it official," she tells him a little sheepishly. "Rings and everything."

Teo listens. His eyes get bigger in his head, and his beer stops on its abortive journey to his mouth before he can take another pull. He is not enough of an asshole to begrudge her her own happiness, even if the timing with the injuries to his own relationship isn't great. That's not her fault, and there is nothing in this conversation, the patience that she demonstrated listening to him carry on about his problems, the time she took to share her own. He doesn't think that taking pleasure in growing things, or even taking pleasure in music ought always to be dismissed as falsehoods and deception, but he does understand that it's not always the right time for that.

Not when you're making time for —

"Holy shit."

Teo is good at words and friendship. "Holy shit," he repeats. "Congratulations. Did I miss a fuckin' ring?" He cranes his head to look at her hands, his pale eyes darting over the pale peaks of her knuckles, her fingernails curiously. "It's about fucking time, Liz."

She has to laugh. "Jesus fuckin' Christ," Elisabeth replies on a giggle. "Is that going to be everyone's response?" She's genuinely amused at the thought. She shows off her hands. "No ring. We… didn't really talk about a ring," she admits. "I'm having a hard enough time wrapping my head around the fact that it's even something that's happening. I mean…" She sighs. "My parents' marriage was incredible, but seriously, Teo. I have no memory of ever even wanting that kind of commitment from anyone, and then suddenly… I had seven years alone to realize it really is him. And that no matter where I've been or what's happened, it's been him for a long time. It's enough to kind of boggle my brain, you know," she points out.

But she leans her head on him again and her smile is a bit easier. "I guess we'll have to figure out the ring thing. I dunno." She pauses and then wrinkles her nose. "I'm not exactly much of a jewels girl… I don't think. But maybe I'll just tell him to surprise me one way or the other. There'll be bands. But the rest? Honestly, it's just… a piece of paper. It doesn't change what's there, it's still open. But… there's a weight to it that makes me feel… grounded. Like I'm not going to be ripped away again."

It is, of course, a complete illusion. She could be ripped away again at any second. But sometimes the illusion is enough to settle the insecure part that continues to worry.

'Just a piece of paper.' 'Unbelievable.' 'Yet seven years in making;' more than. 'It doesn't change,' 'still open.' But of course, 'grounding.' Teo understands that paradoxes are endemic to something like this level of commitment, when you thought you knew yourself well enough to understand the feelings one would expect, and yet. The heart wants what it wants.

In his free time, when he is alone again, Teo will get to wonder when you know when the heart stops wanting what it used to. Elisabeth's story seems to hold that truth more than anything. Is Francois to him what Richard obviously is to her, or will he be a gone chapter to be referred to with power and grief, but gone, years from now, like her college-age fiancee was before? Maybe it would have been nice if she could have told she'd never loved the other boy, but maybe. Maybe

maybe that wouldn't comfort much for Teodoro, who has already fallen in and out of love enough times to recognize the cracks threading through the ice.

But not for her, and Teo stubbornly brings his attention back. He's always been good at using his self-pity to fuel his projects and concerns for other people. "You know," he says, "if you don't put together a reasonable wedding registry, I'm gonna fuck up and buy you something completely obnoxious."

Elisabeth groans. "Oh God. A what??" She looks up at him, horrified. "Jesus Christ." No. No, no, no. This is already out of control! "I swear to God, if I didn't think my father, Devon, my mother, Richard's mother, and …. Like 500 other people!! … wouldn't kill me where I stand if we eloped, I would seriously just show up at the courthouse one day and have done with this." She covers both of her eyes with the heels of her hands. This is why we can't have nice things!! "This is gonna be a fucking circus," she mourns.

"Everybody loves the fucking circus," Teo proclaims, finally finishing his beer. Ggglglgh. Kindly forget that the animals who work at the circus probably love it least, and that is the horror scene playing out inside of Liz's head. He will ignore that. I mean not ignore-ignore, just not feed into it. He's Sicilian, you know; even at his most reclusive, there was always a part of him that liked parties, would find it easier than most to slip back into one. He has a hard time being himself these days, but celebration is just far enough from that for the ritual to take over, and just familiar enough that Teo doesn't feel like he's lying.

(Also, alcohol helps.)

"I think you got your head in the right place," Teo says, thinking briefly of his own marriage, then shutting it out. "You focus on what's important, then everything else is just a story. Because you already know the ending. And it's a happy one."

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