Late Evening


ff_gracie_icon.gif richard5_icon.gif

Scene Title Late Evening
Synopsis In any timeline, it seems the easiest place for Richard to find a Rue is in an alley.
Date June 20, 2021

The Pelago

The laughter and music of the Siren’s Song fade out for the rushing hymn of the sea - rain and waves crashing both above and below, with the folk of the Pelago as ever caught between water and water. The floating docks sway beneath footfalls as Richard makes his way from the ship with his head down, his tall frame shrouded by the stained and fold-lined mustard yellow material of an aging poncho. His hands beneath it, tucked into the pockets of the jacket worn beneath, his gaze lifted up from the boards under his feet to gaze through the haze of precipitation to the outlines of others ahead.

His head may be down, but he’s a man hunting prey tonight.

A ladder’s rungs are slick beneath his hand as he pulls himself up to a ‘safer’ floor of the half-submerged skyscraper found next along the docks, where a partial collapse some years ago has created a vaulted area used sometimes as a market - catwalks built from recovered material zig-zagging between floors, old rooms and offices turned into homes, shops, offices. The rain is lessened here, the wind still pulling at his poncho as he walks over wooden boards laid upon a ‘street’ that was once an office hallway, the late hour having most of the doors closed and lights glowing dully through boards hammered over windows and holes.

He pauses at a space between two rooms, glancing down a hallway that once led to ‘staff bathrooms’ for the floor - his lips curving slightly in a smile as he catches sight of a spot of orange light, a cigarette’s cherry. Turning on one heel, he vanishes from the main street to head down the ‘alleyway’.

At first, that light is all he can see. For someone so attuned to the dark, it burns brighter than it would to most else. Having taken refuge from her errant pursuer and the storm alike, it’s the puff of smoke expelled that precedes the redheaded woman in icy blue lace, who almost seems to bleed into view from the shadow as he draws closer. But those steps closer reveal the stack of boxes she was partially obscured by. Slowly, his prey meanders a couple steps forward, then stays in place, hips swaying gently. Her back is to him.

That first pull is long enough to make sure the hand-rolled paper stays slowly burning, along with the botanicals inside. Gracie’s hand lowers back to her side from habitually shielding her cigarette. Lighter fluid’s been gone for a while now, so there’s no Bic to put away. Although it seems at first she doesn’t realize she’s not alone, she speaks into the dark. “Didn’t expect you to follow me.”

A sound answers her first, rather than words, a sound of faint humor escaping the man that’s been trailing her through the crumbling skyscraper-cum-arcology. He comes to a halt a few paces back away - close enough for conversation, but not close enough to be threatening.

“I make it a point to do things that aren’t expected of me,” Richard observes, the plastic of his cheap poncho rustling as he brings one shoulder up and lets it fall in a shrug, “Can’t trust the path the world sets you on. It never leads anywhere good.”

He’s silent for a moment, regarding her from behind. Not, as some might, admiring the view even in the deep shadows of the hall-alley, but with different thoughts, different feelings, behind his eyes.

“Could give some lame line about asking you for a light, or something crude about watching you leave, but– guess that’d be expected. Fact of the matter is…” He hesitates, then finishes, “I never properly introduced myself. Rude of me.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s used that line on me, no.” Slowly, and perhaps with more confidence than she deserves to have in his presence, she turns around and looks Richard up and down. She has no idea what he’s capable of, but she’s clearly sizing up the threat potential he represents.

In that way, she's like Rue.

"A classy line would be a nice change. I like pretty words."

But that might be where the similarity ends.

Gracie's mouth quirks upward to create a humorless smile. "I'm Gracie," she offers again, like this is their first introduction. Rue's response would have been far more vulgar.

"My rates are reasonable, but don't think I'll give you a discount because you didn't broker with Madame V." It's hard to say if she's really of the belief that he's a prospective client.

It may be serious, it may be a joke, but Richard takes it as the latter; one hand coming up to push the hood of the poncho back with a crinkling of the mustard-colored material, his lips curling in a crooked smile somewhere between amused and tired as he refocused on her.

“You know, there’s a part of me that wishes I was following you in hopes for a discount…”

A shake of his head, dispelling the thought. He had a responsibility here to deal with, not recreation.

He took a deep breath, exhaled it, but it didn’t relax the tension that was coiling in his shoulders any before he offered his own more complete introduction. “Director Richard Cardinal,” he offered all at once, like pulling off a bandage.

“I believe you used to work for my mother.”

The impact is shown in the way her expression freezes, holding like a picture framed, her indifference, but with slowly creeping surprise and maybe the barest hint of suspicion. Moreover, she stopped moving midway to bringing her cigarette back to her lips.

“I… didn’t. Not originally, anyway.” Gracie shakes her head. “My partner did. I was just lucky enough to tag along.” She exhales with a heaviness that would have been less conspicuous if she had taken that drag from her cig. “Once the Flood came, we worked for each other, more than anything else. Director Cardinal — your mother — just kept order, kept us cohesive, and hopeful.” There’s a brief flicker of a smile that illustrates her next thought so perfectly. “For a time.”

There’s a shift in her posture that isn’t quite a squirm, but still betrays her discomfort. “That all changed when Mr. Kenner took over, of course.” After a small drag, the smoke is exhaled through her nose on the breath of dry laughter. “Captain Destiny says he went down with the ship. Good riddance, I say.”

Finally, Gracie looks away, eyes half lidded and gaze downcast. “So, what do you want? I’ve given you the history lesson so far.”

“May he burn in hell,” Richard agrees grimly, his expression darkening at the mention of Kenner.

He exhales a sigh after that, his head shaking to dismiss that dark thought and a hand lifting - palm forward, supplicating. “I don’t– want anything from you, don’t get me wrong. It’s the opposite, really, I–”

Clearly trying to phrase things in his head, he grimaces, one hand finally coming up and rubbing against the back of his head in sheepish frustration. “Look, this may sound incredibly stupid, but– my mother’s people are my people, and I look out for my people. So I wanted to make contact, at least, after I learned you were on the Ark. That’s all.”

“Oh, honey…” Gracie finally manages something that passes for a real smile, if only half of one. “I don’t even know who you are, except for…” She gives her head a small shake. “Who you say you are.”

The teardrop shape of her lower lip is caught between her teeth momentarily as she considers how to handle this situation. “You seem like you need someone to talk to.” One shoulder comes up in a shrug. “I won’t give you a discount, but I’ll waive my usual fee. I said I wasn’t working tonight, so that’s only fair. I’m available, if you could use the company.” And the way she looks him up and down again suggests that she does think he could use it, absent of innuendo.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Richard admits, expression twisting into a rueful half-smile of his own, glancing away briefly down the old hallway that’s become an alley, “Honestly, my life story reads like science-fiction, so I wouldn’t expect anyone to.”

He looks back to her then - hesitates - and then breathes out a chuckle, shaking his head. “As much as my first impulse is to say no– what the hell,” he flashes her a full smile, crooked, brief, “Can’t promise any of it’s fun to listen to, though.”

There’s a twinkle to Gracie’s eye when her not-client decides to take her up on her offer. “Mind if I finish my smoke?” She waves the cigarette vaguely through the space in front of her, the smoke pirouetting through the air above her slowly. “We go back to my place for the night. No exceptions. I don’t care how tricked out or swanky your crash pad is, Director.”

While it’s clearly a very firm boundary, it’s not delivered with any harsh edges, but with a lightness. Regardless of whether he’s agreeing to let her finish up what she came into the makeshift alley to do, she takes another long pull and tips her head back before blowing the smoke out.

“Be my guest,” Richard replies in good humor, motioning with his hand through the air as if to offer a buffet of choices. That hand drops back down to slap to his side, and he moves a half-step over to lean against the wall in a casual lounging position.

“And ‘Richard’ is fine,” he offers back, “Or Cardinal, I suppose. S’what I used to go by, during my ill-spent youth, and since I’m not sitting behind a desk anymore… might be apropos.”

After a moment of peaceful silence during which he’s watching that cigarette with a somewhat wistful expression, he slants his gaze a few inches over to her face to ask, “You meet Liz, when she came through?”

“Do you prefer Cardinal?” Gracie asks airily. “I think I like Richard, myself. Too bad the name Dick has been ruined. I always liked the name Dick, like Grayson.” Her brow furrows for a moment, as if putting something together.

“You mean Elisabeth.” She transitions to the next subject smoothly. “The blonde who…” Her nose wrinkles faintly as she admits, “I got hit in the head while we were escaping the Ark. Knocked me for a loop pretty bad. My memories are sketchy, but I saw her around. I just… kept my distance. She was there at Mr. Kenner’s invitation, and I know that G-U-E-S-T spelled trouble.”

“Ha. Richard’s fine,” he replies with a bit of a chuckle, “Nobody calls me Dick. Not anymore.”

Then he’s shaking his head, turning a bit to look back down the alley the way he’d come, the rattling fall of the rain still beating against the outside of the building. “Don’t blame your instincts there, they were right on the money. She’d be glad to know so many of you got out topside, though. She was… really worried that none of you managed it, before we finally got word from here.”

“I know my mother was too, but– well.” A twitch of his lips, “If you knew her at all, you know she’d never show it or say it out loud.”

Gracie nods with what seems to be a sort of detached numbness, which is expected from someone who’s lived a nightmare like that. She smokes and seems lost in thought — or maybe she’s blank and avoiding thought altogether. Whatever the case, she eventually returns to alertness and smiles faintly at Richard. “Well. For what it’s worth, I’m glad she made it out, too.”

Once more, she finds herself sizing Richard up. “Aren’t you supposed to be dead, though? Or super duper face-on-a-milk-carton missing?”

“I’ve tried being dead a few times, but apparently I’m not allowed a proper vacation, so it never seems to stick,” Richard quips, an eyebrow lifting up and his smile twitching wider at one corner.

Then he’s shaking his head, “Long story. Not one for the street, either, so I can tell you when we get in.”

The flippancy about death and its inability to take brings Gracie’s brows to jump toward her hairline. “Now that does sound interesting. Alright, Richard, I can wait to hear how this one goes.”

After her cigarette and a bit of a walk between buildings, they arrive at another cluster of offices with a man standing at the entrance. The sort that would have maybe worn a suit and worked for someone high profile once. Or maybe a muscle tee at the bar. The build’s the same either way. He smiles at Gracie, and she drops a kiss on his cheek as she passes by. Building security, apparently, such as it can be.

The entry hallway had the name of some once marketing firm spray painted over. It reads The Spin. There are signs tacked to the heavy and mostly-intact wood doors of the makeshift apartments with names written to indicate the current resident. Most have multiple sharing a space. The large conference rooms have no names, but plenty packed inside, visible beyond their glass walls. There’s a room near the end of one hall that must have been a supply room of some sort, based on how close the doors on either side are to it. The sign reads, simply, Gracie, written smaller beneath two names crossed out above. Rue and…

The second name is scratched out with some aggression, leaving it unable to be deciphered.

“Be it ever so humble — and this one is very humble — there’s no place called home.” The door swings open, but the redhead doesn’t step inside immediately. She eyes the room for a few seconds, looking for signs of anything out of place.

There are more similarities to be found between the variations.

With a nod, she steps in first, standing aside to allow Richard in behind her. The space was an old copy room — the discoloration from the copier is still visible on the low carpet — still smells faintly of toner, and of mildew. The size of the tiny one-roomed L-shaped apartment, with the bed on the floor just around the corner (an old tumbling mat and several less-old blankets), means it’s a cozy nest for two, and a positively luxurious sprawl for one.

It’s without personal touches. Maybe because there’s no lock or maybe because she isn’t the type for them. Her introduction to the space might mean it’s both. The tally marks on the wall don’t count.

“I should have worn a coat,” the woman laments with a smirk that says she doesn’t actually care that she didn’t. A threadbare hand towel is grabbed off the one remaining floating shelf on the wall and used to squeeze her hair into section by section. “I’d ask if I can get you anything, but I have nothing to offer, except what we came here for.”

The surroundings might be unusual, but the atmosphere is familiar; cheap apartments by whatever name or origin, a security guy at the door that wouldn’t be out of place in any of a thousand places Richard has been before.

The environment might change, but people don’t, and they always shape the environment into the same old patterns.

He raises his chin in an affable enough nod to the man at the door before following Gracie in. Only professionals would notice the slight but constant movements of his head, gaze searching doorways, hallways. Head on a swivel. This wouldn’t be the first time he was alone with a February Lancaster, but historically that hasn’t always ended well for him.

So far, he was fifty-fifty for being on good terms with her incarnations. But there was something different about this one.

Names scratched out. Tally marks, so she’s been here awhile. No personal touches– or maybe none anymore. Combined with her words, either she just wasn’t attached to the place or it held memories she’d rather not keep. No lock, but that’s no surprise given the origin of the place - something to keep in mind. No weapons visible, which is a mixed bag.

He shakes his head a little to push all the instinctive tradecraft out of the way and shifts his arms upwards to pull that poncho up and over his head, folding it up as best he can with the crinkle-crackle of plastic for later.

“Think of it like being perpetually at poolside,” he quips, “You’re even dressed for it.”

Glancing around for somewhere to sit, he continues, “So, guess I did promise you that story, huh?”

There’s an uncertain little chuckle when Richard tells her how to think of her current state, like maybe she finds it odd. Whatever the case, she doesn’t follow it up, instead tossing the towel aside quickly to pull a flat-collapsible stool from where it leans against the wall next to where she sleeps on the floor. Passing it over to him, she lets him figure out how to unfold it. It seems to be the only seat in the house, because she doesn’t move to procure another for herself, or anything like it.

“So, Ra’s al Ghul,” Gracie opens with, “tell me about your whole…” She dithers while slowly gathering up the open lace of her dress in her hands. “Deathless thing. Is this like when someone says they’re immortal because they haven’t died yet? If you made me wait for a lame line like that, I’m going to be really unimpressed.”

The poncho’s bunched-up plastic is stuffed away into a deep pocket of his jacket, and Richard reaches out to accept the stool - holding it up for a moment, tilting it to look over before giving it a shake and unfolding it with a clack-clatter.

“Oh, no, I’ve definitely died before,” he replies with a chuckle, setting the stool down before dropping down onto it, hands falling to rest on his knees, “And I don’t have any illusions of immortality.”

He brings a hand up to sweep off his shades, closing the arms with a click and hanging them at the collar of his shirt. Eyes with only the sliver of an iris look back to her, and he smiles faintly, “So, starting from supposed to be dead one– long story short, my mother had an experiment scheduled the same week I was born. Her being, well, Michelle, she made Edward bring her - and me - to attend.”

“Didn’t go well. She thought she was building a window through time. Turns out she was making something much weirder. Don’t know if you heard much about Liz and the others– they weren’t from here. The Looking Glass goes sideways. Other worlds, other– possibilities. You just quoted Batman, you know what a parallel reality is.”

“And little Richard went right through in the middle of the accident.”

Hands lift, “Zoop.”

Far from looking bewildered, Gracie looks interested when Richard explains the finer points of how fucking weird his whole situation is. She only breaks eye contact long enough to pull her dress over her head, shaking it out gently until it drapes properly again. “Wow. Okay.”

Her head nods slowly, digesting that information. “So… Yeah. I… Call it a hunch I had about all that. Considering I looked at a kid, who I know for a fact got his face blown off, looking pretty fucking intact. Hard not to notice his parents.” Gracie shrugs, bending down to start trying to lay her cover up down as flat as she can on the floor next to her bed. “So, you and Ms Harrison… Same place?”

It’s not entirely possible to focus on his own story and thoughts when she’s pulling that lace dress up and over her head, although Richard certainly tries valiantly enough. She’s familiar enough to know when she’s caught that sort of attention given her profession, too.

Then he chuckles at some thought, one hand lifting to rub at his jaw and his gaze cutting across the other side of the room. “Yeah. Yeah, we are. And that– that must have been Lance, from what she told me– good kid, in any world, good kid. Think I’ve heard him on the radio, actually,” he muses, trailing off before shaking his head.

“Anyway. The other side’s Edward caught me. My mother’s alternate self died. He– kept me safe,” he dismisses, glossing things over with a vague wave of his head, “One thing led to another over the years, and…”

Realizing where he’s heading with this, he stops himself suddenly, attention snapping back to her face, “Do you really want to hear about when I died?”

If she’s bashful about the attention at all, she doesn’t show it. The dress didn’t leave much to the imagination in the first place, though there’s certainly less impediment to it now in just the bikini that’s left. “Yeah. Voice of the tower,” Gracie says of the interdimensionally-transplanted Lance. “Idiot almost stayed behind instead of…” She waves her hand dismissively. “No, no. We aren’t here to talk about my boring bullshit. I wanna hear about how you can’t seem to stay dead.”

Blue eyes rolling ceilingward, she sighs as though long-suffering with exasperation, delivering in a deadpan monotone, “Oh. Oh, baby. Don’t stop now.”

It’s like what she does, only she’s faking not wanting him to continue.

“Alright, alright, it’s just– “ Richard shakes his head, dismissing his thought, “— alright.”

A deep breath, “So I was doing a bunch of shady shit - but white-hat shit - at the time, and the government needed some people who could get shit done. They didn’t exactly have a lot of Evolved - that’s what they called those of us with powers at the time - and the Vanguard were planning something big. So I got pulled onto the mission, clear legal tallies for all if we survived, the whole deal.”

He closes his eyes, “At the end of it, there was a nuclear weapon buried in the Antarctic ice about to go off.”

The sort that would flood the world.

While he continues his tale, she stretches her arms up over her head, fingers reaching for the ceiling. If she stood on her toes, she could probably at least brush against the mildewed tiles. “That’s some Suicide Squad shit,” she murmurs under her breath as he details the op.

Rather than dropping to her sides again, she reaches her hands back behind her neck, sweeping under the slightly frizzing curls to begin untying the knot for her top. Gracie’s fingers stop their work when he gets to the end of that, freezing in place and blinking twice. Her mouth works around a reply, a question, maybe a curse, but she doesn’t manage to form words or sound.

Richard shifts; avoiding her eyes now as he pulls out the crumpled-up poncho again, a handful of plastic folded and rolled into a ball. He looks down at it in his hands, tightening them around it to compact it more.

“I can still hear the countdown, actually,” he admits quietly, “When I think about it. The speakers were still blaring it, going down from five, four, three…”


He tells himself that his hands aren’t shaking.

“I got to it when it hit zero.”

He releases the ball a bit, and it starts to expand - of course - but even as it does there’s a shadow that bleeds over it, consuming it, chasing down the reaching bits of plastic until there’s nothing left.

“Turns out that it’s a little hard to absorb a nuclear explosion. I don’t recommend trying it.”

Jokes, levity out of habit to blunt the edge of things - but his voice is soft, his thoughts lost briefly in the memories of the moment, staring at now-empty hands.



It might as well ring out in Gracie’s head the way that his voice echoes when he’s merged with the shadows. Her gaze shifts away from his eyes, but not quite from him entirely — if he doesn’t count how she clearly goes somewhere miles and years away from this moment. Two breaths are drawn in and expelled in quick succession. Her hands then come around to her face instead, shaking as she grinds the heels of her palms against her lidded eyes. The next exhale is audible and she grits her teeth before doing it one more time.

Then, she relaxes, reaching back to catch herself as she finds the wall just a little too far away than expected when she leans back to rest there. “Sorry, I—” She flashes a strained smile and gradually adjusts her stance until her lean is more sustainable. Gracie tips her head toward the poncho that isn’t there anymore. “How’d you do that?” She looks up at him properly again, picking up the thread of his story. “How’d you do that?

She’s given time, not necessarily because Richard’s being considerate but because he needs time of his own to recover from even that brief touch of the memory.

It’s her disbelief - surprise - that brings his attention back up again, and he flashes her a quick smile. “Little parlor trick. There’s a fancy scientific name for it, but I can turn things into shadow and back again, including myself. Once upon a time I used it to be the best goddamn thief in New York, but– “

He shrugs, trying to play things off as unimportant, “That was a long time ago. Needless to say, I didn’t– really survive. I mean– I did, but I didn’t. It took me a long time to pull myself back together, and even once I did, I needed a healer and a power amplifier to become solid again.”

The question she might have had about what happened to the resulting explosion is staved off by his continuation. Pulling himself together sounds like a literal thing, so that suffices as an answer. Rather than ask him anything else, she pushes off from the wall and steps forward the few paces needed to be closer than just arm’s reach.

Gracie lays one pale hand along Richard’s cheek, looking down at him. Not with pity, but with understanding. “You feel guilt,” she says quietly. “But you don’t have to.”

The contact surprises him, Richard’s head lifting a bit - into the touch, and to focus on her face again with her that much closer. He starts to say something– maybe to deny it– but then he seals his lips again, twisting them into a grimace.

“Are you so sure about that– “ Lancaster he almost says, before catching himself, though she might notice the hesitation “— Gracie?”

His gaze dropped again.

“I was born here. I was supposed to be here. If I was…”

“You’d be some mama’s boy,” Gracie interrupts without any insulting intent. “Director Cardinal did so much to find you. Do you really think she’d have let you go in the first place?” A shake of her head is the answer to her own question. “You’d have been below the waves with the rest of us.”

Whether she means in the Ark or like so many others, well…

“There’s no point to it. I can’t change the past. You can’t change the past.” The free hand comes to frame the other side of his face. “All we have is what’s in front of us right now.” Gracie leans down, eyes lidding as she does.

The lingering kiss is placed on his cheek, but she doesn’t pull away after.

Richard’s lips purse at her words, but he can’t deny that she’s probably right; logically, that far back in the timeline there were too many variables, too many other possibilities.

Although to a man that sees the world guided by a plan, that logic is hard to accept. Harder still to let go of the guilt that churns in his stomach every time he thinks about it.

Plunged briefly into the depths of thoughts he normally prefers not to explore, the sudden closeness of her is a surprise.

A breath’s drawn in, and he exhales it in a sigh against her cheek. “A wise man once said, ‘The way back is closed’.”

His cheek brushes her lips, stubble’s pattern dragging along her lower, as he leans back just enough to meet her eyes, still intimately close. His own hand comes up, fingers cradling her cheek, and he manages a faint smile.

“And if you’re looking back, you might miss what’s in front of you.”

There’s a mirth to be found in her eyes when she opens them again. “That’s right,” she agrees. “Are you focused now, Richard?” Her voice is warm as her breath on his skin. “Or is there more I can do to help?”

The pad of Richard’s thumb brushes down to the corner of her lips, and his own tug up a bit in a wider curve.

“That depends,” he murmurs, low and warm, dark eyes on her own, “Because I think I’d very much like to kiss you, if you’d welcome it.”

Her lopsided mouth pulls into a smile. “Kiss me where?”

The unexpected response stirs a low laugh from him, his eyebrows lifting, “Well, I thought I’d start with your mouth, and we could negotiate from there.”

Gracie hums a pleased little note before she brings her lips to his, kissing him slowly and almost with a sort of care. The second is a little firmer, like she’s decided the first was a test run, and they could give it a proper try now.

Richard’s hand slides back from her cheek, fingers tracing along her ear’s shell before curling through red hair, pressing against her scalp in light encouragement as she leans in. He tips his head to meet hers, returning that first slow, soft kiss before meeting the second. A sigh spills over hers as his lips part, and he pushes up and against her to deepen that embrace. His other hand sliding up and over her hip, callused fingers pressed to bare skin.

The response to her call is somehow both expected and not. There’s an almost nervous little bubble of laughter that manifests as no more than another hum against the crush of their mouths. Beneath his hand, she shudders like she’s ticklish, but only the once. If it was a bother beyond the goosebumps, she probably wouldn’t have waited to come up for air until after the fourth time they meet that way. Even parted, though, she holds close and still, like someone who’s used to not being able to draw back from such moments. At least not quickly.

When she’s certain Richard isn’t going to drag her back in, Gracie slowly leans back. “Did I kiss it better?” she asks with a smirk.

It’s that little bit of nervous laughter, that smirk afterwards, that puts RIchard most at ease; his eyes are dark as ever, but little crinkle-lines at their corners speak of warm humor, a crooked smile answering hers.

“I think it was a good start,” he replies, letting her draw away, fingers sliding along her scalp and then neck in idle play across her skin, “So, tit for tat…”

Smile turns into nearly a grin, “Anywhere else you need kissing, Gracie?”

Gracie laughs quietly in response. “I see what you did there.” Laughing again, she looks away and shakes her head. “I should tell you to kiss my ass after a line like that.” Her nose wrinkles, her humor sounds so genuine. Not like how he remembers the other Rue sounding. There was always something a little darker lurking below her surface.

Does a little doomsday make all the difference?

The tip of her tongue slides past her lips briefly, like she’s catching the last lingering taste there. “I said I wasn’t working tonight,” she chides herself, rolling her eyes without any further complaint. “Feathers for brains.”

Looking back to Richard fully again, there’s a hint of something in her eye now. Concern? Trepidation? “Would you still want to stay the night if I said I just want to be held so I’m not quite so cold?” The possibility of his answer being less than agreeable is starting to make her visibly nervous. “I can still take my clothes off, if you like.”

She laughs, and Richard does grin, the honesty of her humor - that glimpse of joy however small, in a face he’d never truly seen it before - warming him as well as the jacket that he’s wearing does.

Maybe some things really were better here, even if they were small ones.

The uncertain question - followed by the offer - makes the smile fade a bit, though perhaps not for the reason she might think. “I’ve been a lot of things over the years, beautiful,” he says softly, reassuringly, “But I’ve never asked a woman to take her clothes off when she didn’t want to. Honestly… just keeping you warm sounds absolutely wonderful.”

But some things weren’t.

“You’re not the only one who gets cold at night, after all.”

“I didn’t think you were.” The words come out at a pace that’s a little too quick, like she had them ready to assuage any hurt feelings, but she seems to slow up after the rest of it catches up to her. She lets out a slow breath and nods, that little bit of tension that had started to wind through her relaxing again.

With a gracious incline of her head, she acknowledges the way he doesn’t press. Not just for the physical things, but to ask her what might be wrong. They’ve hinted enough at what’s wrong for one night. Instead, Gracie smiles again, the strength having returned to it. “Thank you. I am… honestly starting to feel a little clammy,” she admits with a laugh that sees her eyes squinting shut for a moment. “I need my blanket.” This time, she doesn’t wait for permission — tacit or otherwise — to step away and sit down on her mat on the floor, grabbing the patched blanket and pulling it up to her neck.

“I really should have worn a coat.” Gracie shakes her head and sighs dramatically. “The things I do for fashion.”

“In your defense,” Richard quips, pushing off against his knees and rising up to his feet, “You didn’t think that Prince Eric was going to chase you away from Valentine’s little soiree.”

He shrugs off his jacket, twisting to drop it down over the stool, and then rolls his shoulders back, stretching a little with a grimace. He’s not as young as he once was, and some years behind a desk - even with gym time - have taken their toll. He steps over, moving to drop down and sit beside her, one arm lifting up a bit in mute invitation - but not demand.

“I really didn’t follow you here looking for sex anyway, you know,” he observes quietly, “I actually did just… want to talk.”

Gracie lets out a brief peel of laughter that’s slightly husky at the edges. “That guy is so into me, and there’s not a lot I’ve been able to do about it.” She smirks faintly. “He makes it worth my while sometimes, but more often than not, I just deal with him being a bit overly familiar when he catches me away from work.”

If she’s excessively bothered by that, it doesn’t show. For her, it probably comes with the territory. She almost sounds amused, if still aggravated.

There’s a moment that passes after Richard’s sat down and made his silent offer before Gracie accepts it, scooting over a touch and leaning into it. “I know,” she assures. “I didn’t bring you back here intending to… do that anyway.” Her shoulder shrugs, felt against his body more than seen. “You needed a distraction. Something to break you out of the spiral I could see you falling into. So… That’s what I did.”

Again, she laughs, quieter this time. “It worked,” she muses. “I knew I had it in me.” There’s a joke in there somewhere. A setup for a vulgar punchline. It’s left to hang.

“No, no, we just discussed that you weren’t getting it in you,” is Richard’s prompt and laughing reply as he catches that setup and runs with it. His hand rubs over her shoulder and upper arm as she leans in against him before settling, sharing the warmth of his body with her.

“I just don’t have anyone to really talk to about this shit,” he admits, looking down to her, “There’s nobody really I can, I mean– who the hell can relate to this level of personal weirdness? I’m surprised you didn’t kick me out of here at word three.”

Gracie rolls her eyes good-naturedly when he completes the line. “I’m a very good listener.” This is said with her laughing undercurrent. “I’ve seen some things that seem to defy explanation,” she offers as a kind of assurance, shrugging her shoulders.

“I can imagine you… wouldn’t want to talk about this sort of thing with many people.” A shiver runs through her slim frame. Gracie doesn’t have the subtle feeling of toned muscle beneath her skin that Rue does. That hidden strength that serves her well when she’s looking to be underestimated. “You can talk to me whenever you want. But if I’m working, you’ll have to offer me something in return. Not because I don’t want to do it pro bono, but because I need to be… productive on Valentine’s time.”

Tipping her head to look at Richard, she asks in a soft voice, “You know Valentine, don’t you?”

“I suppose that working at the Institute does leave one with a more open mind,” Richard admits a bit ruefully, “Not to mention the end of the world…”

The differences are noted somewhere in the back of his mind, carefully working to separate the two - the three - of them into their own individual people. His chin bobs a bit in a nod at her words, a slight smile tugging up at the corner of his lips, “Well, I don’t want you to get in any trouble, so…”

Then she looks up at him, and he looks back to her. He hesitates, and then closes his eyes, his head shaking. “Not– her. Not Valentine.”

“That’s what I meant,” she murmurs, understanding. “You know a different her.” Gracie’s little smirk returns, but without amusement at his expense. “Do you know another me?” Her brow furrows then, glancing away as her consternation is made plain. “That would be… interesting.”

“Two, actually,” admits Richard quietly, watching her face as she turns away - then turning to look across the room. “It’s funny, really, there’s this voice in my head that keeps saying ‘these are the versions of them you were supposed to meet’.”

“Most people turn out– very different from even fairly minor timeline changes, though.”

Two?” Gracie looks to Richard with surprise. “And… I’m the version of me you think you were meant to meet?” Again, she glances away as she digs into her thoughts on the matter. “I don’t know if there’s any meant or supposed to, honestly. Life… turns out how it turns out.”

She smiles without looking at him, the sorrow is plain. “I didn’t think I was supposed to be here either.” There’s a subtle emphasis on the word here, but nothing too stressed.

“Two.” Richard shakes his head a little, “And– I don’t know. I’ve seen too many patterns, too many coincidences, to not believe in something shaping the course of things. Fate, God, Gods, some Entity…”

He trails off, then looks down to her as she looks away from him, admitting quietly, “I wish I could think like that. I’d take great comfort in the idea of an uncaring reality.”

“Even if you want to believe reality cares…” Gracie shakes her head. “Beyond what you can do for the people who pull your strings… They don’t give two fucks about you. You can believe reality cares, if you want. People don’t. People with power and control don’t.

There’s silence for a few long moments, before Richard says in quiet tones, “Most of them don’t. You’re not wrong there. It’s an easy slope to go tumbling down once you get a taste of power, God knows I’ve seen it often enough…”

A brush of his fingers against her arm, “I could’ve just turned my back on everyone for that. Easy enough. Why care about anything when nobody else does?”

“I didn’t say nobody else does.” All the same, Gracie sounds defeated. “Just that the people in power don’t. But it’s bullshit what they say about power and corruption. You can wield power and not be an absolute asshole. You can wield power and not think you’re a god.”

A hand is waved nebulously through the air while she grumbles. “You ever meet a mosaic? You’d think they’re dicks, but… not all of them. But the ones who are… Yeah.” Gracie sighs. “Yeah.” Sagging against Richard a little, she admits, “I’m not sure where I’m going with that anymore.”

“I’ve met a few in my time,” Richard’s tone a hint amused for a moment despite the mood of the moment, his eyes closing briefly, “A lot of them need a swift kick in the balls, in my experience. Same as with anyone with power, though…”

He shifts to support her, admitting, “It’s why I took that other path. I took some power of my own and said ‘I fucking care’. Because someone needed to.”

“Look out for yourself. Caring is exhausting.” Gracie’s face creases with a frown. “There’s honestly so little I care about now.” She makes a soft noise in the back of her throat. “There’s not a lot left to care about, I suppose.”

Tipping her head back, she attempts to angle a look to Richard. “Tell me about your power. How does it feel when you use it? It’s fascinating.”

Richard’s hand slides up from her arm, fingers brushing along her scalp and through her hair. “So long as one person’s still breathing,” he says softly, “There’s still something worth caring about.”

Then the question, and he blinks, “Huh. You know… I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before. How it feels…”

It takes a moment of consideration before he can try and phrase it, “It’s like… mnm. I mean, depends on what I’m doing. When I’m shadow, it’s like… I can’t really feel anything but light, but light has a texture that I can’t really describe. And I can sort of see everything around me, like eyes in the back of my head.”

Gracie smiles ruefully, breathing out a short sound of laughter as Richard lays out the parameters for caring. Apparently, she isn’t swayed. At least not fully. She has different things on her mind anyway.

Her brows hike when the art of being a shadow is laid out. “That’s primal,” she says, shaking her head. “Are you like… corporeal in any way? I mean, if you went shadow and I tossed something at you, would it bounce off you? Are you just shadow wherever you want to be? Or do you have to be, like, on a surface like a wall or the floor?” This time, Gracie laughs properly. “Sorry, I just… Think it sounds so cool. I’ve obviously never done anything like that before.”

“I’m not really corporeal, at least not enough that you can throw something at me,” Richard chuckles at the question, shaking his head, “And I have to be on a surface, but I know…” A vague motion of his hand, “Other mes have learned to overcome that. Most of them had more practice than me, for various reasons. So it’s probably more a mental block than anything else. I’ve been told I don’t literally turn into shadows because darkness isn’t a real thing, scientifically, but fuck if I know what it actually is.”

He flashes a grin down to her, “It is pretty cool, really. Before I went straight, made me a damn good burglar, too. One of the best.”

"Other yous…" Gracie repeats softly. "Knowing there's possibility means you might break past that block, right?" A sly grin starts to speak across her face. "I can see that being very helpful. I don't know what would help me with my profession," she laughs. "Super flexibility?"

“Hah.” Richard breathes out a chuckle, “Well, if we’re fantasizing I can think of a lot of things, but– “ One brow lifts, his smile genuine, “Honestly, I’ve never met a Lancaster that needed an ability to do whatever they put their mind to. Heh– “

A vague motion of his free hand, “Do you know what your aunt did? Adrianne?”

There’s a huff of laughter regarding fantasizing that’s left to sit otherwise untouched. “Is that so,” she asks instead, curious about this notion of him knowing multiple Lancasters, and the implication he confirms with mention of her aunt.

“Adie?” Gracie shakes her head slowly. “Gosh. I haven’t thought about her in a long time.” There’s a small smile, but it’s a melancholy thing. “I remember she would jump out of planes and stuff. I figured out when I was old enough to put the pieces together that she was probably some kind of government.”

Brow skewing with her confusion, Gracie angles her narrowed gaze up at her companion for the evening. “Why? You knew her?” There’s a pause and what appears to be a brief glimmer of hope. “Know her?” It’s subtle, but it confirms for Richard what he may have already expected about Adrianne Lancaster’s fate.

“I mean, not this her, obviously– “ Richard makes another gesture, then drops his hand down to rest on his thigh, “—but most of her career was before the divergence, I’m pretty sure. She was CIA, part of a special unit, the Royals. Codename was the Queen of Wands. She used to run around, destabilize governments, do all that secret agent stuff…”

He chuckles a little, “My aunt, Sarisa Kershner, was one of the other Royals. Avi Epstein. Marcus Raith. The latest generation of them, anyway– there were different Royals before them, even. Probably have been since the CIA started.”

Gracie nods her head slowly, the past tense understood, the knowledge deepening her sorrow. The rest of it, however, confirms whatever suspicions she had. “That’s a lot more hardcore than I expected, but… I’m not surprised. Auntie was badass.

With a wry smirk, she muses on the notion. “I’m incredibly boring and weak in comparison.”

“Is that so?” Richard’s lips twitch in a bit of amusement as he looks back at her, “You’re a survivor. There’s nothing weak about that. You’ve been through hell and you’re still walking on the other side. And if you were boring I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.”

“I’ve got a feeling you’d be a pretty good shot, too, given some practice. Aptitude’s genetic, even if practice is more important long-term.”

There’s a scoff in response to the complimentary assessment of her improbably continued existence. “I don’t know that I appreciate the fact that I’m still standing,” Gracie admits. “I’d rather not have had to walk through hell… But maybe it beats the alternative.”

A hum of laughter and a shake of her head comes with the mention of being a good shot, her face screwing up with dubiousness. “I don’t know about that. Besides, bullets are at a premium. Pellets, too.” With a grin, she shakes her head. “I’m okay not learning that particular skill. I’m a dancer. I take my clothes off. I teach kids to dance. Ballet, not burlesque. But when they’re old enough and if they make that choice, I’ll teach them that, too.”

“All in all, probably a healthier skill set than a gun anyway,” Richard admits with a shake of his head, “The world needs more art; less bullets.”

A playful nudge of shoulder to shoulder, “And it is art. Not just the ballet, but the burlesque too. At least done right– I’ve seen plenty of strippers who couldn’t actually dance or move, and the difference is night and day.”

“Ah!” Gracie smirks teasingly. “A connoisseur!” Then with a sigh, she starts to shift down onto her little cot. “I don’t know if I can be terribly useful to you, but I’m still willing to listen when you need. Any time.”

“You’d surprise yourself, I think,” Richard says, shifting as she does to let her settle, arm sliding from around her and a chuckle tumbling past his lips, “But listening, honestly, is more useful than bullets most of the time anyway…”

“You make it sound like spy work,” Gracie remarks, amused. Then, yawns. “Still. I’m glad to be of service. Clothes on or off.” Turning in toward him, she lays her head where his shoulder meets his neck. “Thanks,” she murmurs sleepily, “for being cool about this.”

“Isn’t it?”

A sly smile from Richard, an eyebrow lifting as he looks to her – and then he’s shifting to settle back beside her, lifting an arm to drape over as she rests against him, murmuring against her hair, “Hey, like I said. I watch after my people. And however weird you think my requirements there are…”

“I’m the one who gets to decide who they are.”

“Touché.” Gracie grants, lifting one hand in surrender. “Alright then. I’m one of your people. For as weird as it sounds if we both say it like that.” There’s a nudge to his ribs before she bids him, “Goodnight, Richard.”

Richard breathes out a quiet laugh at her surrender - or maybe something else, because she can hear the smile in his voice as he settles in with her, murmuring a response.

“Goodnight, Gracie.”

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