Lawless Time-Hooligans


astor_icon.gif benji_icon.gif

Scene Title Lawless Time-Hooligans
Synopsis Rabble-rousers violating not only the laws of space-time physics but the basic right to property, wreaking havoc on the beleaguered city of New York City. It is even worse than millenials.
Date April 27, 2019

NYC Safezone: Satoru Memorial Garden

Winding paths slip between wood frames filled with soil, each growing its own, unique variety, giving the garden a mosaic of greenery. The northwest corner holds plant beds dedicated to seasonal plants, each blooming in turn and providing flowers almost all year around. Centered within these beds is a tall menhir with a plaque inscription reading “Satoru: Forever Loved, Always Remembered”. The Satoru Memorial Garden was reclaimed from old parkland in Elmhurst and the residents of the Safe Zone are welcome to rent out a plot to grow whatever they choose. The eclectic nature of the garden and its gift of beauty and nourishment are all part of the dedication, whether the people partaking know it or not.

It is spring. Tulips have risen like a bed of serpents from the earth, lilacs explode from hedges and bushes, and the occasional brass section of butter-yellow daffodils sway together at any excuse. Fat bees move industriously, sequestering themselves in the palms of petals, while humans duck in their little plots of land and harvest their own bounty: spinach, peas, potatoes, carrots still the colour of earth when they come up out of it.

Benji Ryans does not have a plot here. She could probably ask Delia for an extra boost on the extensive waiting list, but hasn't. She's content, instead, to watch others work and enjoy all the green, the smell of this morning's rain dampening the more delicate aromas of blooms, but churning up the equally appealing scent of rich earth.

They're seated at one of the park benches marked throughout the skinny paths that wind between plots. Benji is not looking at her current companion, and instead focused on where one of the wandering bumblebees has managed to catch itself in the edge of her skirt. Carefully, she shakes it loose. Her clothing is comfortable, relaxed, less severe than her usual uniform of androgynous black — a woollen skirt of greys and forest browns and wide pleats, cut somewhere below the knee to reveal knit stockings, black boots, one leg kicked over the other. Her black hair is chopped just above her shoulder, curls catching in denim jacket collar. Everything she wears is ever a little old, perhaps even before it comes into her possession, and designed to hang off of her.

"You're looking well," she offers, once the insect has been cleared, making its dazed flight away. She likely is not talking to her recent rescue.

Astor is somewhat similarly swamped by a black coat that looks big on him, although less so now than before. Delia's care has been more than adequate for paneling over his bones with muscle, getting him back onto his feet and into the habit of showering at least once every other day. Into having energy. Berlin's ability had been indispensable to that end, though his inner-arms, other spaces on his body now concealed, are still arrayed with old marks that will not fade without a fairly significant cosmetic surgical effort. His cheeks have color, which is a bit of a contrast against his characteristic resting sourpuss whatever face.

A piece of pollen has landed on the toe of his tennis shoe, a solitary polka dot of yellow relief against the dull matte teal.

"Compared to what?"

would be the sound of Astor trying? Expressing an interest in her opinions. Being bad at small-talk. His irises seem to pick pigments out of the palette of the garden, looking more green than they had inside the house, when he turns them to look at her. His mother's eyes. "You look well too. But not compared to last year." He is referring to their last in person encounter, although he had not presented as incredibly sound of mind or sober at the time. He would like her to know that he had paid some attention. That he is paying attention now.

"Compared to not well," Benji offers, probably unhelpfully, before she shifts her position on the bench. Hitches a leg up, some, folding it in front of her, pivoted around to face him with an arm balanced on the curved wooden slats of the bench back. They both are marked so plainly by the people who raised them — her own eyes are her father's, ice blue, the middle of winter in any season. Benji could be Delia's cousin, with the same faded freckles across her face, the shape of her smile.

Which is there, in its milder, neutral form. Her answer doesn't have to be that unhelpful — Astor has been unwell so often in his life, even when they were little children. "Compared to unhealthy, or sad, or alone."

And last year, too, which had not intended to be some kind of extended separation so much as it had just worked out that way. Amazing what happens when you force yourself to stop worrying about someone a fraction less than has been giving you heartache. "Or mean," she says. She's teasing now. "Or moody, or cranky, or solemnly not talking to me."

Astor's expression softens and hardens at the same time, his best effort at adopting good humor. His mouth explore a few different lines and angles before finally settling into a slightly pinched smile. "I'm not mean or sad," Astor says. "I'm just not nice. And— "

oh this is novel, new, and thus difficult to talk about. Time-traveling children of today's heroes, you'd think they'd be accustomed to discussing an unimaginable range of topics, but: not always. In fact: usually not. Not before. And

"And sometimes I'm just ignorant," Astor finishes, gruffly. "I have been ignorant." It's not the kind of thing that Benji would think to tease him about, he knows. If either of them were going to acknowledge it, it would have to be him that starts. He looks at the bushes across from them and moves his fingers around inside his coat pockets. The problem is, the him that starts anything generally doesn't know how to end it. Or even the middle, really. He is perhaps the world's least useful prophet, and he never used to mind this, particularly. He was very good at minding the wrong thing. Still is, most days. "Which wasn't just the heroin. And I can talk about sobriety.

"But I could also tell you about my learning, if you want."

Benji is patient and waiting for elaboration in the interim seconds before her expression shifts, subtly, and her attention directs her gaze down between them after having taken some enjoyment in watching her cousin try to react well to her banter. She smooths a fold in her skirt, just one external manifestation of inward fluster, like she could do the same thing to her own thoughts and feelings as she could pleats of knit.

"We can talk about anything you want to," she says, and regrets it, a little, as she says it. Mild regret, but still. It's easy to flutter away from unknowns and when it comes to certain things, it is her instinct, but she decides— maybe this isn't the time to indulge that, and makes herself add, "But I'd like to know. And I'd like to know if something's changed."

Astor had expected that his cousin would want to know, and yet he is: woefully unprepared to deal with the most expected possible outcome. It's what happens, when you can tell the future to some extent, but are very bad at people, and the injuries you have done to the people you love transcend any excuses of power or trauma. He falls into a grinding silence for a moment, his breath moving silently in and out of his sculpted features. "…


"Well," Astor manages, after a pregnant pause, "you're a woman."

(What else do you want from him!) (No he can do better than this.) His weary and habitually unkind brain needs some wrangling. He thinks abruptly and inappropriate about how nice heroin would be in this moment, but by now, that's a thought easily dismissed; check in again in nine months, it might be harder to negotiate. This soon after getting clean, it's easy to be optimistic. People almost do it for you; the fact Benji is here at all. Right now, there's still a novelty to having sober people, real life problems, unadulterated by chemicals, a glamor cast over the cumulative grind of it, the toll it will eventually take.

Glghlsh Astor clears his throat! This next part, he negotiates with the clumsiness of a person trying to be careful while being: extremely unaccustomed to taking care. "Your body and your mind don't have the same gender, and your mind is the one that matters. It was cruel and ignorant and— stupid, for me to say you weren't a woman. You're not sick or sinning. You're who you are."

The pause is long enough that Benji is coming up with things she can say instead. It's good that she can't and doesn't, even if she immediately— well, does not wish she was on heroin, but if this were a dream, she could turn into a swarm of bees and hide herself in the plenitude of flowers they're surrounded by.

She feels a lot of things, like— awkward on his behalf, and apologetic, but only at first. There have been times in her life, in her past and in the future that doesn't exist for her present, that she would give anything to change, or to be able to tell her family 'sorry' a million times for not being exactly what she thought they had expected. The kind of thing she's had to grow out from, rather than grow out of. As much will as it takes Astor to keep talking, it takes just as much will for Benji to let him.

She gentles a little more. Continues to try not to make this too easy.

Settles on: rising up on a knee enough to lean in and deliver a kiss to the side of his head, her hand gripping his coat sleeve to help lever her in, before releasing, settling back. "Thank you," she says. "For saying it." Eventually. It makes her feel a bit sad, too, for it to be made explicit how things have been, and for how long. She's not sure what it's like, to think that way about someone you grew up with, that you couldn't save. "What changed?"

Sobriety is a change, Benji understands that much. It doesn't sound like a complete answer, to her. He's been sober before. (She thinks, wearily, unkindly.)

Astor manages to be awkward without moving. Stiff as a board, albeit a board that seesaws ungainly toward her when she kisses him. He doesn't make a face, but the eye nearest to her smooch twitches in its hollow socket. He patpats her arm, on the bulky sleeve that only now—

— only now, as they're in their thirties, that he thinks to wonder if that is an indicator, a sign that she's shy about the way she's shaped underneath her choice of clothing. He loves her so much. There aren't really poems for it; no sweet soliloquies about pain beating in his breast, metaphors about different silverware from the same boxed set, or bees in their matching striped jackets and the secret language of their shared home and its unknowable mathematics. Astor got his mother's eyes, not her penchant for finding the music in ordinary conversation. He got his father's height, not his incendiary relationships. Maybe it's for the better. Great poetry and burning love seem to be rooted firmly in sad endings.

Astor almost says: Nothing yet, but you'll see.

Instead, he says, very straightforwardly, "I talked to people while I was getting high. There was a boy who told me a lot of transgenders ended up on the street, long before the war. Because their families were shitty. Another person told me about some books." Which I couldn't get, falls somewhere between the lines. Because all the money I could find, I spent on H. A beat. Astor adds, with his best attempt at dignity, "You didn't wait for me to say I was sorry."

And also, after a small bug flies over his head:



It'd be nice to feel good about something without also feeling bad about something. Learned habits, but at least Benji is aware of them. With her arm refolded on the back of the bench, she can tuck her chin onto it and watch the gardens behind them. "I had to learn things too," she says, after a moment. "We grew up in a broken world. I've been thinking about it a lot. That it's more than just whole cities or even billions of people, but the, um.

"Culture. Memories, the shared kind, not the kind I shared. So many strange strangers, growing together, cross-pollinating, uprooting. I guess what I'm saying is they stopped printing books like that around when we were born, and they're not the kind that people save when the libraries are burning. The conversations around what made a perfect person were different. I didn't know what I was even when I knew what I was."

She lifts her head again, sweeps a wave of black hair behind her ear. "I forgive you," she says, and means it. "I hope you like it better, too, this world. Enough to be in it properly. The present, I mean."

There is a weird mid-sentence phenomenon where Astor nearly thinks to interrupt her and correct her choice of words. Shouldn't 'what I was' be 'who I was?' It is. something. His mouth opens and closes, an uncharacteristic demonstration of tact, self-censorship. She can probably use whichever words she wants. That's how this works, right?

"It's," Astor says, peak expressive, "fine."

High expectations lead to crippling lows, Astor has found. (More like: any expectations lead to cravings.) (More like: Astor has a very loose grasp of realistic goals, achievements, pleasures, disappointments, and anything with less amplitude than chemical highs and crashes exists in an ambiguous murk. No doubt, in part why he hasn't looked for the family he lost in a bid to be reclaim them, or be reclaimed.) (But here: he's trying.) "Did you— ?" The pause happens mid-sentence for him like a glitch. "There's ripe strawberries over there. Come on." He pats Benji's sleeve and gets up, not as carefully now as he would have had to a week ago.

"I guess that is how Amato used to think," Astor says, turning to look over the bushes. "'The perfect person.' Even though we're all supposed to have been born with sin. The minute you believe that's true, you recognize that there was someone born without." Astor managed somehow not to internalize Catholicism, as it was. But ideology is insidious, and sometimes the less direct the form it takes, the harder it is to see for what it is.

"It's how a lot of people thought."

Benji rises, the heavy hem of skirt swaying low at her calves. They come from a world they poisoned the genetic pool against people like the both of them, regulated and controlled and destroyed. It was inevitable that certain institutional, government forces would finally look inwards at their own and see what could be improved. Benji tucks her hands into her jacket pockets, following Astor towards where he spied some fruit they're gonna steal, like the lawless time-hooligans that they are.

She's wondering what his question was, too. Maybe it wasn't a big deal. She also thinks this place is just fine, honestly. On her feet and watching him on his feet, she might upgrade it to good. "Do I what?" she asks.

Astor scuttles about ahead of his cousin, managing with his leggy olive-skinned fippy-haired good looks to appear as if he's not scuttling.

An older woman in a frumpy khaki skirt is posting her shears on one of the benches, peeling off her gloves and turning toward the cafe across the street that has broadly given permission for gardeners to use their restroom facilities without having to make a purchase. Not even skipping a beat, he picks up the shears, stooping then straightening again quick as a blink. Keeps his arm hanging natural. She even smiles at them and says, 'Hello' without thinking to look, moving for the path.

Strawberries. >:D

"You should stop making excuses for me based on our original timeline," Astor tells her, once the woman is out of earshot. He shifts the tool to his other hand, wrapping his fingers around the handle. "I've lived here for nine years. Two of those before the war toasted the libraries or whatever. Five since. I didn't spend that time… crusading for a different cause. I spent that time using the wrong words to talk about you, because I thought it'd teach you a lesson. Do you," right. "Do you know there are other ways people are different? With gender and sexuality. Not just the transgenders or the sod— the homosexuals. I think you do. I don't think it took you nine years."

Strawberries. There's a row of small bushes right here, coming into view. then an upright planter further down, nearly as tall as Astor is. A fountain of fruit, some of them already red, a couple defaced by bandito squirrels. Some still green, tiny, suggestive that their earlier bounty had already been harvested.

Benji folds her arms, listening, stopping herself from arguing. Maybe she had intended it this way, to exculpate Astor, to downplay his own bad behaviour. There had been a time when they were more like siblings than cousins, back when Benji being a whole two years older represented a significant tract of time. You make excuses for family, as much as you make excuses for yourself, even when you're being tough on them. Apparently, accepting apology is not tough enough.

And she feels a twinge, of the old, hurtful kind, that she thought she'd inoculated herself against. The suspicion that Astor thought there was something wrong with her, and that enough corrective language could contribute towards her salvation, even as it stung, shoved them further apart. Maybe it's easier to believe they were all just fucked up anyway.

She is staring into a garden bed as she thinks through these things. Presently, she says, "Well," and then stops, watching the strawberry heist progress, before pivoting a little nonchalantly to ensure no one has suspected them. She starts again, and says, "You should know, that word isn't a noun."

So there.

"What word isn't a noun?" asks Astor, distracted.

He is chopping strawberries, busily. He realizes very shortly that he doesn't have anywhere to put them, so he pulls his cousin closer, his fingers hooked over the edge of her smart boots. Tug tug. Once she's in range, she finds a small half a handful of strawberries stuffed into her coat pocket, as one does. On the ground, Astor encounters a half-eaten strawberry, and he gets as far as plucking it, scraping his finger over it, and is about to toss it in his mouth when he remembers suddenly that he is no longer a person experiencing homeless. He is no longer the person experiencing homelessness, even, and his assumption that he should get the gross one out of the way is incorrect on multiple levels.

He drops the berry and then puts eight of the next fruits into his own coat pockets, four each.

"Do you need to forgive me again?" Astor asks, ducking his head to peek rudely!! under the lacy green frock of the next plant, just in case there is a hidden gem within easy reach. "You sound like maybe it didn't take." It is entirely possible that Astor does not know anything about forgiveness. Much of his life, raised by a Catholic. He doesn't think forgiveness should necessarily be followed by a charity dive into irrelevant historical context, that's all.

(And Astor definitely thinks the word is a noun.)

There's a moment where Benji seriously considers pushing Astor into the bushes.

And it's more for the sake of the plants involved that she doesn't, standing still and tolerant as she is saddled up with illicit strawberries in her pockets, arms remaining folded as if to curb that urge. "Transgender," she says, "isn't a noun.

"And you were just bitching about me giving you a pass, so I thought I'd try not doing that." She doesn't sound angry, anyway. It's true that Benji often doesn't so you have to divine anger from different nuances of cool and sharp, but in this case, the worst is probably exasperated at having this ridiculousness sprung on her and being judged on her response to it. "It's going so well," she adds, eyeroll in tone if not in eyes, which are still making sure no one's about to citizen's arrest them.

And as for forgiveness— "You're right," more seriously. "Maybe it's taking a minute."

Astor snatches loose one last strawberry from the undergrowth. He immediately stuffs it in his mouth, on furtive reflex, pops upright so quickly that he probably would have hurt himself a few months ago, trying this before Berlin healed him. She can hear his rickety knees pop anyway, audibly, in that way that definitely sounds more painful than it is. "Well, I di'nt know that," he retorts with his mouth half full. He bats her arm with the back of his hand, nudging her to beeline back past the bench they'd come from, so he can return the shears. "Wa'nt asking for a pass, was asking you a question."

Gogogogo. He scoots her back down that way, glancing down to reassure himself that none of their burgled fruit are falling on the ground.

"I'm not trying to rush you," Astor adds, contrary to their current physical activities. Most likely, he means this with regard to just forgiveness. His mouth is clear now. "What's the noun?"

Oh my god. Benji obliges, scooting along, boots trampling over the pressed garden paths, hoping he didn't smush any of the strawberries before he deposited them on her person so they're not getting their insides all over the insides of her denim pockets. Exasperation with the conversation, with the actions being taken, kindle something else, though — she is smiling, a little, by the time she senses him setting down the shears behind her.

Once he has, she winds her arm with his. "Ladies, gentlemen, and distinguished guests," she supplies, helpfully. People, Astor. The noun is people.

They're clear, by the looks of things, and she tries to think of something serious to say. What she wants to do is think about it on her own, but she also wants to reward good behaviour. Not seem ungrateful. She says, "I've missed you."

"Fine," Astor says, scuttling after her, shears behind now. "Pass on my apologies to our guests."

He manages to keep his complaints to himself. So homosexuals is okay, and lesbians, but it's transgender people! It's probably also gay people! Evolved people don't mind being referred to as 'the Evolved.' So much rules! Why do I have to care, I hate caring about things. But he does care about her, apparently, and so, he keeps his reflexive whining to inside his head, where he can be unreasonable in the course of seeing reason.

No, he gets it. Sort of. He will get it even more, when he spends more time with it, bothers to see what's around him.

She tells Astor that she's missed him, and he can't help but think, she believes him to be much more fragile than he is. The reality of how terrible he is seems like crucial information that she is missing. Or else, off-hours, when she's not killing on the job, she is a kind and gentle person to those she loves — something he's never gotten the knack for. Astor distinctly remembers biting other children for being rude to her, in that time before he grew old and bitter enough to tacitly endorse their prejudice. He also remembers she had never defected from his side, not when he had been the subject of mockery for his childhood seizing fits, nor when he faced rancor and disappointment, vomiting on anything remotely tactical because he was queasy coming down from pills.

Astor believes he would have been fine without her. But he recognizes now, as he watches her shoulders as they make their way to — somewhere where you can privately eat strawberries without the fuzz catching on, that it's not really about that. Benji's been fine without him, too. She just

she just.

shouldn't have had to be.

It is very hard to be a person, Astor notices. "I missed you too," he tells her back. It's not true, but he doesn't know what else to say. He means: I'll miss you next time, after you leave, as early as tomorrow. I can do that now; I've learned how. "Let's sit under the willow."

I mean Benji has a way of being friends with just the worst people. Exhibit A: recent romances with Calvin, who tried to kill the entire world don't forget, forged almost entirely through a shared kind of sense of humour just as much as brutal ideologies. She has a fake ID on which she uses Joshua Harrison's first name. Neither of them had been excessively kind to her for so much of the time she had known them. She is historically bad at trusting wholesome goodness. There must be something there.

Sitting under the willow is nice. Soft grass, not very damp at all, enough privacy to feel as though their crimes have been gotten away with. Benji tumbles strawberries into her hand, picks through them a little, feels only a little bit of guilt as she bites into the brightest, reddest one.

Maybe instead of I've missed you, she should have said what it was code for, which is, sorry for going out of contact for like a year. But it's not really all her fault! So she says, "Are you staying in the city?" Which is in itself on a little bit code for: in my room? The room she barely uses.

Did you just eat the best one! Astor's eyes say, narrowed slightly. But he picks the next best one and stuffs the whole thing in his mouth, barely remembering to peel off the green top of it between his thumb and forefinger. Some habits will be awhile breaking. His legs look gangly, too long when he sits with them folded Indian style, the hems of his trousers hiked up far enough to awkwardly expose his socks.

"Yeah," Astor says. "For now. Your room is huge. And they let me do my coffee how I want. I think Nick wishes I knew more jokes, but Delia makes really good eggs." This is probably not an exceedingly high bar to pass, but Astor says it very solemnly, with the kind of appreciation of someone who has just recently gotten back into eggs that hatch, as opposed to a rehydrated powder. With seasoning. It fails to occur to Astor that this series of comments probably comes together as hot nonsense. (Nick wishes he weren't a surly asshole every day, jokes are not required.) He wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve and studies her. It doesn't register she would be apologizing. It registers, instead, that she's never worn makeup for as long as he's known her, and that he does not know if she has anyone to talk to about how to do it, if she wanted to.

Speaking to boyfriends who have tried at one time or another to apocalypse, and whom Astor also peripherally wonders if she sort of ~takes care~ of like she cares for him, "Where's Calvin?"

"Missouri. By now, anyway."

Benji brings her knees up, arm looped around them, back curled. It's more of a comfortable posture than a defensive one, signs of tension not there — shoulders in a slouch, letting her attention wander to strawberries and scenery rather than fixing him with her eye lasers. "I wanted to, um. Take a break, I guess. Stay in New York for a while. Help Eileen." She picks at the leafy greens on one strawberry. "She lives out in the Pine Barrens now. It sounds nice there."

It's a small strawberry, so in it goes whole, uniquely sour and sweet at once. Somehow she has diverted from talking about Calvin into thinking about what she will do, which is probably something of a tell, so she says, "It's dangerous for him, to stay here very long." It's a little dangerous for her as well, but an easier risk to take. More people who will protect her.

Astor nods. That makes sense to him, in a way that is hard for him to put into words, partly because he's Astor, who doesn't put most things into words— and partly because his experience of this conversation is mediated by half-remembered details from a drug-induced haze dating some months back.

"Missouri is far away," Astor says. "Do they have cellphone service in his city?"

He does not know. Astor has been through a fair stretch of the United States, before, through, and after the war, making use of the railway systems and supply caravans. At his lowest weight, some people had thought he was merely been passing through to die; at his most lucid, he'd floundered his way out of a few gunfights, and treasures both true and narcotically suspect had in turn found their way into his hands. Astor is coarsely aware that Missouri is a good place to be, for political relevance, but he is bad at politics. And he's given to understand that while Benji's power transcends the limits of cellphone service, there are obstacles in the waking hours.

Despite Astor's own Evolved ability, it is entirely possible Benji will continue to let him think she and her magnetic beau are doing long-distance while he eats strawberries, in absence of any real dating experience himself.

(Astor doesn't blink at the mention of his mother.) (Maybe he got it from his dad.)

"I'm sure Calvin will be staying at the far borders anyway, if they do," Benji says. They have their failsafes, and even then, Benji had to talk herself out of long, too long periods of sleeping on the off-chance she was urgently needed. That would defeat the point of a break, most assuredly.

Among the little fruits that Astor pocketed for her, she probably has the second best one. Heroicly, it's offered to him on her palm. "I'll be sure to tell him you were worried for him," she says. Dry. You don't need genetic predisposition or learned behaviours from your parents to be dry, but maybe Nick can take some credit, for once, for more than just her palette. There is no clarification around whether or not they are long distance — she's barely confirmed they were romantically involved to begin with, although for most people, it seems to be taken as a given, and they weren't even prophets.

"We keep in touch," she says, instead. "If you'd like, you could come with me. To the Pine Barrens."

Hm. Astor accepts the next berry from his cousin and chomps messily through it. He also decides now to share his own treasures, pulling the round red shapes out of his pocket, spreading them out, so she can choose the best of his too. He knows how to share prOBably. (More habits fallen badly out of use, and intersecting only clumsily with his urge to do better.)

"I should go with you," Astor says, after a moment. It sounds like there is a slight stress on 'should.' "Do you have a car? I hate the bus."

Who says that beggars cannot be choosers. Also Astor probably managed to finagle his way around having to beg at all, most days, thanks to a supernatural privilege squandered on the basest of urges, his own traditions of ability management. He wipes the juice off on his pant leg, then throws the radial burst of strawberry leaves into the bushes nearby. He is unfortunately not very good at aiming, or hand-eye coordination, or other regular things, which his ability fails to compensate for; the rubbish rolls to a stop on the bit of bare earth outside the hedge. He frowns at it.

And then at his cousin again. "Do you want to know, if I get worried about Calvin?" Astor asks, not as belligerently as he could have once. He studies her as if trying to solve for the mysteries of her heart with a cellphone calculator.

These would be better with cream, Benji decides. Or warm, melted chocolate, allowed to set, to crack beneath teeth. Sweetness and bitterness to offset the sharp ripeness of the fruit. This is what she is thinking about, a little, even after he asks her that question, studying the diversity of strawberry shapes in front of her.

She provides the only answer there is: a yes, of course, in the form of a quiet nod.

"There's a car," she assures, more presently, picking her next berry. "If we don't want to take a boat. And walk."

No one's told her about the continued problem of killer robots, yet.

But she pushes the logistics aside, narrowing her eyes across at her cousin. There are so many times that he is almost a normal person, and then oddities, like missed steps in the dark, where you remember the ways in which he isn't quite. "Did you know?" is asked, carefully, free of anything that could be like an accusation, although she isn't sure how she's going to feel if he says yes. "That she would come back."

The question feels heavy in the air, and Astor looks at the young woman beside him. Not for the first time and no doubt, not for the last, he wonders what it is about normal people who experience normal time as it should be, that makes them ask questions that they cannot abide the answers to. Something about the existence of substantial uncertainty drives them to discount equally substantial certainty.

"Sometimes I don't know what I know," is what Astor says, finally. It sounds like it could be a drug thing, but it's not the way that Astor would talk about his drug thing, and he doesn't let it rest beside them in the grass for long before he adds, "But I'm working on something else." This does not sound like it could be a drug thing.

It's not the way Astor talks about anything. The number of times he's said the word 'work,' oriented to himself, in the past ten years, Benji would require no hands to count.

He squints at her, as if her face is too bright, and pops another berry. It does not occur to him, with his badly damaged and neglected palate, that there is a combination of anything that would be better with strawberries. Beggars sometimes do not know what their choices are, not even when they're tuned into countless timelines. "I'm going to help some people like us. And some people like them." This is also foreign. Maybe she should check his temperature, call Berlin. His off-green eyes go up into the trees, even though there is even more light up there, and it is more uncomfortable. "Will you help me?"

Translation: Can you stop asking me about my mom. I'm already stressed about that.

Benji does not feel like her question was answered, exactly — an answer that is gestured to, words falling over it like a white sheet, shape just visible without the details. She doesn't pursue it further, anyway. It's not a useful enough question.

She curls an arm around a bent knee, dragging denim sleeve over her knuckles to trap in the warmth, and submits to the direction of conversation that Astor steers her without protest. Much protest. The downturn at the corner of her mouth could be a protest, eyes lowered on their ill-gotten fruit haul and deciding she is finished with it, so that Astor has some to take back with him. With the edges of thumb and finger, she daintily ensures her face is clean of crime.

"Yes," she says, easily, in a way that might not have been easy a year ago — especially when she has absolutely no idea what he's talking about. Honestly, sometimes Astor is at his best when you don't. "What people?"

"I don't really know their names yet," Astor says, opening his hands to take the remaining strawberries. There are not so many now, and they won't survive the next day or so, most likely. He will probably share with his current hosts, assuming they do not find the entire enterprise suspect, or at least allow him to get away with it. He makes a basket with the front of his shirt. "But there's a kid at the Red Hook counseling center. The one… it's called." A stilted pause. "Benchmark."

If Astor had been attending for actual therapeutic purposes, he did not do a very good job. This is probably less surprising than the alternative would have been.

"He," there's a pause; in the spirit of being better, Astor corrects himself, "they saw people getting kidnapped. And now they don't talk anymore."

Astor is referring to traumatic mutism, but his ability generally fails to translate to an expanded vocabulary or specific types of knowledge, and he is also very bad at research. "You could get information out of them." He is also bad at Captain American motivational speech-making, asking politely, describing a complicated matter in a logical order with anchor points, making proposals sound less creepy, and expressing gratitude. But he is making his shirt basket right now, which is effective. "I think." He is also not particularly good at sounding confident, despite the matter-of-fact and dour way this conversation is going.

He stops looking at tree boughs and refocuses on her. "Could you?" Would, he means. Would you?

With a little more information, Benji can appreciate: this is different. She isn't sure what she expected, exactly, when this first began, her agreement to help both heartfelt in that she always wants to (even when she can't, or especially when she can't) as well as a kind of improvisational yes and to determine what he is even talking about. So there is surprise, now, on a delay, reflecting in eyes coloured like glaciers.

Astor wants to be a hero. Who knew.

"Mhm," she says. Could, and would, and will. She thinks a little to the last time she dreamed in order to find someone, and the flood of bright crimson she'd woken up to on her bedsheets and pillow, but rationalises— the target is right there, and not across the country.

It should be fine. "It would be helpful to have a name. Do you have one?"

Astor's face is blank for a moment, not mysteriously. The look is identical to the one he had last year, when she had carefully asked him if he remembered what day it was. The anniversary of his parents' murder, of course. Granted, he had been high, but that had been a poor excuse, not the least of all to Benji, who had obviously been trying to be gentle with him for exactly that reason.

He had been too high to remember.

Small wonder they needed some time apart.

Astor's face lights up. "Nico." There. He remembered one whole name. He really is a hero. (Close enough.) "I think they live at the facility, if you want to get eyes on them first." Not that that would be creepy, or anything, driving by a therapeutic residency program in order to watch a child.

The least creepy individual ever, Astor starts to stand upright now. Not tentatively, obviously not waiting for permission. His gangly fingers are pinched onto the hem of his shirt, determined to preserve his harvest. It's important to remember that he is a superhero now, and is owed some of nature's treats. (This shirt is really going to need washing tomorrow. Delia will be on him about that.) "Do you need anything else?"

She doesn't, strangely. Need anything else. It's an odd sense of completion when so many of her interactions with her cousin have left Benji feeling, variously, sad, nostalgic, frustrated, powerless, with the impression that Astor could do something to stop her from feeling as such but not knowing what that is.

So she stands up. Not very gracefully. Elegance without any physical coordination has been a staple since as long as Astor remembers, but she manages not to step on the edge of her skirt, gathered out of the way of her boots, other hand making good use of gripping Astor's arm for stability.

"Don't let Delia catch you with those," she says, as to what else she needs. She lets him go. "You've made me complicit."

Then, she moves, leading the way out.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License