Rock the Cradle


elliot_icon.gif rue4_icon.gif

Scene Title Rock the Cradle
Synopsis With a new prospect on the horizon, Elliot decides to pay a visit to an old colleague for some additional perspective.
Date September 19, 2020

Cat's Cradle

It’s Saturday night at Cat’s Cradle and Rue Lancaster stands behind the bar, tossing a shaker of liquor into the air and letting it spin end over end before catching it and shaking it again. Normally, she does this facing the patrons, because she’s aiming for flash, attention, and bigger tips. Tonight, however, this drink is for her, and this is strictly a habitual kind of practice.

Simple syrup, rosemary, bourbon, lemon juice, and marmalade are poured into a glass, over ice. Into the shaker goes maple syrup, orange juice, and egg white. While she’s flipping the shaker through the air again, a patron at one end of the bar calls out to her.

“Rumor! Midori me!”

Rumor nearly fumbles her catch, but manages to keep it together. “Midori yourself, douchebag!” she calls over her shoulder, irritated. “It’s my night off!” And that asshole never tips.

Once the mixture is frothed, she pours it over the liquor in her glass, topping it off. All that’s needed now is a garnish. Turning around to the front of the bar, she goes to find a sprig of rosemary, the finishing touch. No point in drinking something this fancy if it doesn’t look the part!

Somebody’s already holding a sprig of rosemary out to her, without looking back at her. “You’ll think I’m joking but I just made a remarkably similar drink for Avi a few hours ago.” Elliot glances at Rumor over his shoulder as he fills a glass with soda water from the dispenser. “Well, not as remarkable as yours. That work of art puts mine to shame.”

Rue stops in mid-step, startled to find someone standing there and offering her what she’s looking for. “You can’t be back—” Avi. The wind is knocked from the young woman’s sails in an instant. She’s prepared to throw a punch as soon as the man turns, but the face is one she recognizes. One that’s unexpected.

“H- Hitch?” Wide blue eyes fix on his face, teardrop shaped mouth softening from a furious line to a soft ‘o’ of surprise. “You don’t even drink,” she states incredulously. It’s a lot like asking why are you even here?

Elliot smiles warmly, “A man can enjoy a complex non-alcoholic concoction for the sensory experience.” He picks a slice of lime from the tray and squeezes it into his glass, then turns again. “I put a vintage, locally distilled bourbon in his and he flatly refused to enjoy it.” He gestures with a hand as he speaks, scandalized. “What a waste.”

From the end of the bar, “How about you, guy, what’s it gonna take to get a drink?”

“Sorry,” Elliot calls to him, “I both do not work here and am not allowed to be behind the bar right now.”

He turns his back to the man. “Good to see you, Rue, you want to drink in front of this guy just to fuck with him or should we snag a table?”

“What the fuck?” Who turns down a vintage, locally distilled bourbon? Since when does Avi do that? Rue makes a face and leans away slightly. “Are sure it was Avi?” Wouldn’t be the first time someone was pretending to be the guy. But she knows he’s… a strange breed, let’s say. The question isn’t one she expects an answer to.

Elliot’s handling of the guy at the end of the bar earns him a snort of laughter from Rue. He doesn’t know it, but those are hard to come by these days. “That guy is such a tool. Tried to grab my ass last week and then tipped me two dollars.” With the price of inflation, that’s an insult.

“Fuck him. Let’s drink right here.” Taking her sprig of rosemary, she turns back to place it along the rim of her drink. Then lifts the glass, turns back to Elliot, and clinks their drinks together. “At least for a minute. Cheers.”

“Slainte,” he says before taking a sip of his club soda and lime. He fishes around for a salt shaker and adds a modest dash to his glass.

“If your boss comes out and sees me here you have to sling me bodily over the bar to preserve my cover. Watch the left shoulder though it was being weird earlier. I’ll try to hose the guy down with my drink as I go over.” His speech is effortless, unlike the early days of Wolfhound. Keeping quiet but otherwise invested in conversations while Wright talked for the both of them. Over time he had come out of his shell, but there’s barely a trace of that younger man in him now.

Rue breathes out an astonished “fuck.” He always has spoken her language, even if it was like pulling teeth to get him to speak at all sometimes. Hell, he taught her a lot of it. A joke about maintaining cover is something she can appreciate. It almost causes her to crack a smile. For a second or two, she forgets how to be so fucking sad. She likes this new Elliot. “Fortunately, my boss lets me pretty much do whatever I wa—”

“Hey! Sugartits.

Slowly, the redhead starts to turn her head to glare toward the end of the bar. She’s rewarded with a blown kiss for her scorn. Turning back to Elliot, Rue informs him, “I’m gonna fight him.”

As in, hold my cocktail.

“I respect that. Which side of the bar do you want me on?” he asks as he accepts her drink with his empty hand.

“Ooh. Lady’s choice,” Rue muses. “Surprise me.” With a quick lift of her brows, she pivots on the ball of her foot and starts striding down toward the end of the bar, rounding the edge of it. “Alright, fuckface, you wanna go?” Her booted foot hooks under the bottom rung of the bar stool and with a sharp yank of her leg back, she pulls it out from under him.

The guy drinking next to Fuckface is quick to recoil and put his hands up to show he wants no part of this. A woman at one of the tables calls out in encouragement. “Kick his ass, Rumor!

And she could kick a guy while he’s down, but that’s not her style. “C’mon,” she spits. “Get up.”

And he does.

Elliot follows Rue around the bar, nodding with appreciation to Fuckface’s neighbor.

The guy is just shy of six and a half feet tall, and would tower over most women. Rue’s form is deceptive, though, by design. Feminine style and posturing serve to make her look smaller than she is, but short she is not. And while he is wiry, she’s lean and toned.

“First one’s free, jackass.”

He lunges out with his fist, and she dodges in such a way that it may as well be a pirouette for all the grace and fluidity in the motion. She’s always been something to behold when she gets into a scrap. Rue catches her opponent’s wrist and twists it. Not hard enough to break the bone, but Elliot knows that’s showing restraint on her part.

“Excuse me,” Elliot says as he sidles past Rue, “Pardon me.”

Rue dances a step forward, giving Elliot the space to skirt past, but also putting her closer to Fuckface, who lashes out with his free hand to grab a fistful of her red hair.

Which is just dirty, no matter which playbook you’re going by.

Her former teammate sees her freeze a moment — not like her — which results in her being dragged forward and thrown toward a nearby table. Rue slams into it, with a clatter of cutlery to the floor and mugs of beer toppling over — fortunately only onto the table.

And all over the front of her shirt.

Before he can come back to try that trick again, Rue kicks back like a mule and drills the other fighter in the knee. With her palms braced against the surface of the table, she shoves herself back upright and whirls around again, taking the offensive. While he’s still reeling, she winds back her fist and slams him in the jaw. Once. Twice. Three times.

Each time he staggers back toward the bar until she has him pinned there. She throws another punch. Another. His hands come up to block her, but she doesn’t stop.

Elliot sets their drinks down on the bar before shooting out his hand to grasp her upper arm and intercept another hit. “I’m calling it Rue, if you hit him anymore you’ll fuck up your knuckles and he won’t remember the,” looking to and emphatically nodding at the man to accentuate the importance of his words, “Very important lesson he has learned about about losing teeth.”

He looks back to Rue, calm, a soft smile and raise of an eyebrow. You good?

An almost feral shout escapes Lancaster when her arm is snared and she whips around to see who’s stopping her before the voice registers, and the face follows. But it isn’t rage that he sees in her eyes, it’s fear. What started out as something in… more or less good fun, turned into something that flipped on the fight switch in fight or flight.

Rue catches her breath, starts to remember herself and come back to the present, instead of whatever moment in her past she got trapped in, and nods her head. By the time she’s turning back to the cowering man, she’s got her game face back on. “Go drink at the Dirty Pool, you dumbfuck. I don’t wanna see you back around here again unless it’s to shove money in my hands.”

Lurching forward just the once more to show that she means business, even with Elliot’s hand still holding her back, she gets her message across. Her hands splay open in a show that she’s finished here, stepping back and around the bar with Elliot in tow.

Elliot keeps an eye on the retreating man as he picks up a clean bar towel and scoops some ice into it. He casually twists the cloth and presses it into Rue’s hand before reaching across the bar for their drinks. “You want to sit somewhere while the adrenaline wears off?”

“Yeah,” Rue breathes out shakily, holding the ice in one hand while swiping a bottle of bourbon with the other. “C’mon up.” She points to the stairwell just past the end of the bar. “I gotta change.” And she’s not gonna make him wait down here for that. Not now that Sassy’s come back out of the back room and is eyeing the mess she left him. She shrugs and Sassy just shakes his head.

Whatever goes on around here, apparently her co-workers are either used to her antics, or knows they don’t flare up without reason. The dark-haired bartender flashes her a look of concern, but doesn’t pry. He just slides past her to take up his post again and she beckons Elliot to follow her up the stairs to her apartment.

She makes sure she holds the door open for him, since he was kind enough to carry both their drinks up. The apartment itself isn’t much. A cafe table in the kitchen area, which takes up the wall to the right of the door. The living room is to the left, with wine staining the carpet just beyond the kitchen tiles. There’s a well-worn sofa facing the window. No television. A writing desk in the corner — a relic clearly swiped from The Bastion when the redecorating happened — and a chalkboard on the wall opposite with various notes scrawled in Rue’s handwriting.

A pair of silver ballet shoes hangs from their ribbons off a nail next to the board. Some things don’t change. Those were present at the Bunker in Rochester. A memory of a life given up.

“Fucking god damn it,” Rue curses, peeling out of her wet shirt just as soon as she’s set down the ice and the bourbon on the kitchen table. She’s not bothered by the display of her bra-strapped back that she’s giving to Elliot as she starts down the hallway that leads to the bedroom. “Make yourself at home or whatever. I know it’s a shithole, but.” But it’s hers.

“Please,” Elliot says, “This place is as tidy as a Better Homes and Gardens article compared to some of the places I was crashing before the war.” He sets their drinks on the table beside the bourbon. He makes a slow circuit of the space as he talks.

“You don’t have a cat, do you?” he calls back to her as he crosses the room to look out the living room window. Checking against anybody who might make the mistake of lingering around to settle a grudge. “This does seem like the type of apartment you slowly coax a feral cat into with snacks. Free range, coming and going as they please. Hates you but will use you for warmth.”

“Do I look like a fucking cat person?” Rue calls back from her bedroom. She does, probably, look like a cat person. She seems the type to have had some fluffball named Princess or Snowball or Tiger back home in Chicago growing up. But she’s been away from home for a long time now, and lived a lifestyle not conducive to owning a pet.

In this case, she’s the feral that got coaxed. The snacks are alcohol.

“What kind of visit is this?” The former Hound asks without any sort of weighed expectation or judgement to the tone. “Like, do I keep my boots on, or…?” Does she need to go hit the pavement immediately or is this a social call?

“Feel free to put on soft pants,” Elliot responds. “Truthfully, Avi came by my place out of the blue today to show me a document that was recently unearthed. Connection to my pre-Wolfhound ordeal. Stirred up some memories. Thought I’d make some housecalls myself.”

Soft pants (well, shorts), bare feet, and a tank top, then. Rue stops briefly in the bathroom to run the sink, returning with a damp washcloth, with which she’s mopping her decolletage. Don’t wanna smell like stale beer.

She glances Elliot up and down as she retrieves her cocktail from the table. As though she’s reassessing him now. In truth, she’s sizing him up as her replacement. Considering that much of what she knows came from him… Well, Rue was the replacement, and she turned out to be not such a hot one.

With a frown, she washes that particular guilt away with a drink of her cocktail. “You wanted to see me after that? Why’s that?”

"Avi offered me a job. No specifics, but I've been giving gainful employment a hard consider for a while now." He leans back against the wall, hands tucked in jacket pockets. A glimpse of the old Elliot.

"I've been out of touch and wanted a more recent perspective on the company. I've seen snippets of some of the recent turmoil. I want to make sure showing up on Monday wouldn't be a huge mistake."

He keeps his focus on Rue's eyes as he talks, engaged but not demanding. "You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. Don't have to tell me anything. If you want to talk about something else entirely I'm here for that too."

There’s a rueful (pun unintended) smirk when he confirms the suspicion that Avi’s hired Elliot back on (or is attempting to). Rue nods her head and takes in a deep breath, exhaling with a sigh. “Is it a good idea? I mean, I can’t answer that for you. I… I left back in March.”

She glances up at him and shrugs. “But you probably already know that.” While Rue isn’t sure that Avi would have told him, she is sure Elliot knows how to do a little research. Read a newspaper article once in a while. Or put pieces together from social media updates. “That’s why they need you.”

Rue meanders her way from the kitchen, around the side of the couch in the middle of the living room, and comes to join Elliot near the window. “I mean, we could’ve used you before.” As in it isn’t just because she’s gone that Elliot’s desired now. “I got real fucked up on my last Op. Just got out of the back brace a bit ago.” It’s been a long road to this point. And here she is, wasting no time getting into fights. “So, risks are there. That’s not new. But… yeah. I think if you want it, you should go for it. There’s definitely a place for you.”

He is silent for a moment, taking in Rue more fully. Posture, inflection, deflections. He nods, straightens up a bit. “Thank you,” he says. “I’m glad to see you’re up and about, by the way.” The sincerity which is normally clouded behind banter and deflections of his own. A facade which he can still quickly slide behind.

Turning his head up a bit as if the thought is only now occurring to him, “What’s the new place like? From an Intel perspective. Security, etcetera. Is Avi still crazy about getting revenge for pranks or has he softened up on that policy at all?”

"New digs were like a drafty castle, last I was there. But Huruma's done a lot with it, from what I hear. Security's been beefed up. Key cards and shit. I wouldn't feel concerned about spending time there." After all, she lived there before the upgrades. It can only have gotten better since then.

Rue's guarded expression softens after another drink. "Sorry you had to pull me off that guy."

“Not a problem. That guy was supremely punchable. I don’t want you to think I was in any way coming to his defense, but the structural stability of your hand was in danger.” He chuckles. He nods in the direction of the bar towel on the table and its slowly spreading pool of water.

“You were pretty deep in it back there, do you want to talk about it?”

"Not particularly." Rue sighs and downs the rest of her drink. "But… Not talking about it hasn't had the desired effect either." Heading back to the kitchen, she takes a moment to press ice to her knuckles, which are definitely bruising. She washed away the blood that wasn't her own already.

Bourbon is poured into her glass next. "Do you actually want to hear about it?"

“Of course. I’ve always been better at listening than talking,” he says. “Something that has served me well in my partnership with Wright, though that’s more of a two-way street now. In my experience, having someone to talk to–or even talk at–can help me get back to level in tumultuous times.”

"Yeah. Fuck it. Okay. So, you'll be the only other person who knows this shit, I guess. 'Part from Aviators. And I guess Demsky, if she remembers." Rue tilts her head to indicate that he should come join her at the table as she pulls out one of the two chairs and takes a seat. “Congratulations. You’re about to get my origin story.” Easier to sit where the liquor is than to bring it out to the living room.

“I do love a good origin story,” Elliot says as he takes the chair and leans back.

“So, what? Almost nine years ago now, I’m at Bannerman’s Castle with the rest of the Ferry and the refugees. Flu’s broken out and a lot of people are sick. Someone’s killed our illusionist, and we’re no longer hidden in plain sight from Heller and his kill squad.” Spitting all that out at once seems easier somehow. The premise set, she crosses one long leg over the other and continues.

“Kaylee Thatcher, telepath, she’s digging through everyone’s heads, trying to figure out who’s betrayed us.” Rue’s foot starts to bounce up and down restlessly. It’s getting to the part she has to play in this tale, and it’s making her anxious. “Jens — ah, Aviator’s brother-in-law and ex-CIA dude — tells me once I’ve got a face for intelligence. My stupid early twenty-something ass takes that shit to heart and decides I need to start learning how to sneak around. So I practice it at night in the castle.

“‘Cept when the telepath comes around, I realize just how really fucking damning that looks, and I panic. I try to shove her out of my head or conceal my memories or something. Anything. I had no fucking idea what I was doing.” Rue shakes her head. “Made me look guilty as sin.” Then, she rolls her eyes at herself. “Thatcher makes her report, that I seem a bit suspish. Next night, she’s stabbed, and I’m lookin’ real good for it.”

This is mostly stuff he’s heard before, actually. It’s no secret that there are elements within the Ferrymen that believe Rue Lancaster was a government mole all along. After all, she’s not like Elliot. She hasn’t got an ability. And her aunt worked for the CIA, too. It wasn’t a stretch to assume.

“The guy who actually did it? He saw me skulking about one night. Gave me some pointers. I thought he was real fuckin’ nice. Friendly. I was an idiot. He set me up. Put the knife with one of my hoodies and buried it poorly where someone on patrol would find it.” The more she continues, the more her gaze starts to go distant. Rue pauses to take a large swallow of her bourbon.

“I wish I wasn’t catatonic for all of that,” Elliot says in the moment of silence. “By the time I woke up in triage it was already evacuation o’clock.” Even that memory of the moments after waking from weeks spent banging on the two-way mirror of his own mind is hard to fully recall. It’s too damaged by the lingering trauma of the Chokepoint and the split perspectives of both events.

The terror waiting at the edges of his ability to recall memories that used to be there. Used to be his. One. Three. One (darkness). Two. A mindquake of snapshots painted on glass and shattered, layered haphazardly over each other.

His cutting into the silence has her head lifting, bringing her back to the here and now before she can stray too far. It’s a reminder that some people had it worse than her, and it makes her feel sick with guilt. Who is she to complain about feeling small and scared when the worst that happened to her was physical violence?

The truth of it is more than that, of course, but Lancaster’s never been one to give much credit to the emotional trauma she endured.

So, Rue nods, acknowledging Elliot’s contributions, feeling like an ass even though she’s going to continue her own tale of woe. “So, I’m out helping to dig graves, anticipating the sick will soon be the dying. Nobody wants to be out there digging graves, but someone had to, you know?” She winces. It makes her sound selfless when she puts it that way. (Because it is, actually.) She doesn’t like feeling as though she’s seeking praise for doing the right thing.

“Guy I’m with, Richards, gets some signal from the castle. Calls me to turn around and just—” Rue brings her hands together in front of her in a loud clap. She knows how to hit fingers against opposite palm to really make the sound pop. “Hits me with a shovel, breaks my nose.” Which explains how the former model/actress got that particular feature. It’s mostly straight — Megan Young did a fantastic job with very little in the way of tools and equipment — but it isn’t perfect. “But he didn’t knock me out. I start fighting the way the Major had been teaching me to. Except I wasn’t good at it yet.”

Rue smirks wryly for the briefest of seconds. “Eve Mas had seen a vision of me. Warned me that death was looking for me and gave me a knife. I left it buried in his shoulder. But he was bigger than me. Stronger than me. Wasn’t trailing blood from a broken fucking face.” The redhead closes her eyes now, trying to block out the vivid flashes of memory now, but it only makes it worse.

“He grabbed my hair and wound it around his fist like three fucking times and just dragged me back to the castle like that.” Rue’s jaw trembles, her throat tight and voice strained. “That’s when Miss Ruskin called me a traitor and sentenced me to hang.”

Elliot remains silent, but blinks hard and gives the barest of nods as if to say, Jesus.

After a shaky exhale, Rue tips back the rest of her bourbon in one go and refills the glass. “So… That’s what happened, I guess. Fuckface grabbed my hair and I just… started fighting for my life.” And she’s ashamed of that, because the situation didn’t call for it. She turns her attention to the window, not really looking through it, but maybe at the reflection of her apartment in it. “I don’t tell that story to anyone. Haven’t repeated it. Not even to Aviators.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Elliot says. “That’s plainly terrible. I can’t say that I know what it was like, but I understand the reaction downstairs.”

There is no judgement in his voice or posture, relaxed in his chair as if to show that right now it’s safe. He takes a moment to drink from his forgotten soda. “Does it feel better to have said it out loud?”

Rue groans. “No, it fucking feels terrible.” And she means that. “I hate talking about myself. I hate admitting—” She swallows back a wave of emotion with more bourbon. The next time she blinks, it’s slower. Takes a little bit longer for her eyes to re-open. “I don’t like being affected by my past. I’m supposed to be better than that. Stronger than that.”

But she isn’t. She hadn’t been. If she had, maybe that last Op would have gone better.

“Ah,” Elliot smiles, “The cornerstones of Irish Medicine: ignoring the problem ‘til it goes away, and whiskey. That I can certainly understand.” He muses, “I have found that strength has its own tradeoffs. Toughness, edge retention. Other knife jokes. We were just kids when the shit started. We did what we needed to survive. To help others survive. It’s OK for us to recover from those necessities.”

He looks chagrined and stares across the room, his mind wandering momentarily, or searching for something. “I always feel the need to be helpful, even when I am neck deep in not knowing what the fuck I’m talking about. In that regard, I’m sorry. Still hammering out those bubbles. If you ever want to not talk about something again though I’m here for it.”

“Fuckin’ cheers.” Apparently, Rue will drink to that particular brand of medicine. Another bourbon down the hatch and another glass refilled. “Neither of us were kids anymore, after what happened in Cambridge.” That’s to say nothing of the tale she’s just told of what followed.

“I don’t wanna recover from it,” Rue finally admits, maybe for the first time ever. To anyone. “I want it to hone me. I want it to make me stronger. So that I can make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. No one else should have to die in the dark like I did.” Because the way she sees it — and probably most people who knew the young woman she was before the events of late 2011 — Rue Lancaster died at Bannerman’s Castle. The woman seated at this small table in this barely-decorated apartment isn’t that same girl. She has her name, has her face, but she’s not the same.

Elliot nods. “I can respect that. I’ve certainly been my share of other people. Other people’s own shares. And keeping the shit from happening to other people is why I’ll be going in on Monday. No one else should have to die in the Ark like I did.” Irony, but no mirth in it. Embarrassment.

He lets the silence draw out for a while, considering a change of topic. “Did you know Wright and family moved into Phoenix Heights? Not just around the corner, this place is huge, but local. I may swing by her place after this. Though it is late and Ames is baby.” His hands weigh the options. “Wright says howdy, by the way.”

Rue nods. He understands her better than most others, it turns out. This is… really a long overdue conversation, she realizes. She starts to smile, lips parting as she’s about to say something.

The smile falls before it really begins to build, her eyes cast down to her drink. “Right.” Or Wright? “‘Course she does. Hey back.” Again, she nods her head. “Yeah, that’s great to hear. Glad she’s found a place to settle in. That she’s got you swinging by.”

The glass is lifted, but not drank from just yet. Her teeth settle against the rim of it for a few seconds before she finally takes a sip.

Elliot’s eyes briefly flicker with empathy. A different track. “We agreed that it’s important for her and Marthe to have some space. To give Ames a little more solidity as she starts kindergarten at the academy.” He doesn’t seem at all upset about the shake-up to his life. It used to be so easy to fall into routines and the self-sabotaging defense of them.

“I’m still in Red Hook. I’ll admit that not having the lights flicker hourly has spoiled me. The place is certainly quieter.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Rue murmurs, shoulders sagging a little. “I haven’t had to light a candle around here for… a long time now. It’s strange at this point.” She’s never poked much at the bond Elliot and Wright share. It isn’t her damn business. (Well, she’s poked fun at it, but if Rue isn’t needling someone, they should be concerned that she doesn’t like them.)

But now she’s breaking her own rule, frowning faintly with concern. “You two doing okay, though? And Marthe?” The question of whether Ames is doing okay is sort of an unrelated one, tacit.

Elliot appears to mull it over, taking a sip of soda on the brink of fizzed out. “People can change a lot in five years. I know I certainly have. I’m never on bad terms with Wright. Her closeness to Marthe isn’t a threat to me in any regard. I respect that different people have different needs. I know Wright will always be there for me, and she knows the same of me.”

“The ever-looming spectre of our mutual foster-system baggage certainly wasn’t doing their relationship any favors. Honestly I’m surprised I didn’t tank their relationship in its infancy when Wright was recovering from her Bannerman perforations in Marthe’s aid tent in Canada. But I think we’ve found a place of constructive balance. Mostly we just try to keep the creepy, co-dependent hallway kid Shining shit to a minimum at family bar-b-ques. That takes the edge off.”

“I suppose—” Rue cuts herself off from speculating as to whether or not it was ever awkward to be in each other’s thoughts. Or whether it still is. She’s not quite drunk enough to poke her nose in that far for something that isn’t necessary to investigate. She values her privacy, so she’ll respect theirs.

Instead, she huffs a breath of laughter and fixes him with a stare that’s not quite yet gone over to bleary. She’s certainly buzzed, edged past it, but certainly not obliterated. Just on the path to it. “You ever knock boots with anyone else?” she asks, lifting one brow and suppressing a grin.

That’s really not her business, but what’s a little inappropriate humor between friends?

“I only ever knock boots with anyone else,” Elliot laughs. “Any hypothetical past knocking of Wright’s proverbial boots would have been strictly utilitarian in nature.”

Utilitarian. Mmhm.” Rue chuckles in spite of herself, almost with a giddy brand of nervousness. “Would you like to… not talk about things?” she breathes out quietly, glancing him down, then back up to his face.

Elliot grins, though he doesn't flinch from the looking-down, still relaxed and amiable. "As much as I love not talking I must tell you that I have a rule of no boot-knocking the sauced. Too much of a power imbalance and I'm not comfortable with that. Everybody needs to be on the same page, as it were." His look of quiet amusement never fades as he says this, there's no trace of judgement.

The disappointment is made known in the way that Rue’s features stay just a little too perfectly fixed in the expression she’s been wearing for just a little too long.

"However," Elliot says as he maintains eye contact with Rue, "I'm not in a hurry." He finishes off his soda and sets the glass down before reaching out, slowly sweeping the bottle of bourbon to the far edge of the table with the back of his hand.

"Can I get you a glass of water?"

“Hiiiiiiiitch,” Rue groans, tipping her head back to glare at the ceiling for a moment. “C’mon. You’ve seen me drink. This is just numb-the-pain-in-my-hand buzzed.” Her lip curls. There’s no real offense taken, but she does feel a little called out.

With a sigh, she points toward the refrigerator behind him. “I’ve got bottles of water in there. Help yourself.” Which means, yes, she is consenting to drinking some water, too. If it’ll make him feel better.

Elliot smirks as he stands and walks toward the refrigerator. He opens the door and grabs two water bottles, then lingers with the door open for a moment. He sighs.

"This just won't do," he says, placing the bottles on the table. "I'm going downstairs to steal some flavor for this water. Maybe an electrolyte or two."

He stops in the doorway to say, "While I'm down there you may have an opportunity to shower off some of that eau de barfum you picked up during the tussle." His hands bobble as if to say Yes? No?

Okay. Fair point. Rue looks sheepish suddenly. “Yeah, sure. I’ll leave the door unlocked for ya. Just let yourself back in when you’ve got what you need. If Sassy tries to give you shit, just tell him I said you can have whatever and I’m good for it.”

The redhead pushes herself to her feet and starts to meander toward the hallway. “I’ll see you in a few then, alright? Just knock on the bathroom door when you get in if I’m still in the shower, so I know you’re back.”

Elliot gives a thumb up as he exits the apartment, closing the door quietly and meandering down the stairs. The night's feckless fight picker, Problem 1, walks back and forth on the sidewalk, angrily stage whispering to two friends, neither of whom seem committed to his wounded pride. Problems 2 and 3.

Elliot smiles as he sees the bartender and points toward the garnish caddy. "Hi, I'm Elliot. I broke up Rue’s righteous ass-kicking of the unworthy. You mind if I get Rue some electrolytes for the water that she almost certainly does not actually want to drink?”

Sassy fixes Elliot with a skeptical look for a moment. “I’m pretty sure Rumor’s allergic to water unless it has brandy in it to counteract its poisonous properties.” He smirks and nods. “Whatever you gotta do, honey.”

"Also, if you could make sure no one other than you or I go upstairs I would appreciate it. Rue’s in the shower. I’m going outside to make sure an unhappy customer isn't lingering in the parking lot with ill intent."

The bartender sends a glance toward the stairwell, then back to Elliot. “Careful out there. He’s a real piece of work. That asskicking’s been a long time coming.”

Rue just had to get out of the backbrace first.

Elliot rounds the bar and weaves through the Cradle's patrons. Problem 1 shakes Problem 2’s hand off of his arm. Elliot holds the door and stands to the side as an older couple enters the bar, slipping out after them. He crosses the small parking lot to where Wright leans against her Mantis, typing into her phone. When she is finished she stands, and Elliot places his forehead against hers.


"Mountaineering," Elliot says.

"Effervescent," Wright replies.

"Topiary." Elliot leans back and turns his attention to the six and a half feet of bad ideas. The app on Wright’s phone reads ETA: 1 minute.

"Here we go." She says as Problem 1 recognizes Elliot and storms over. Problems 2 and 3 give each other a God damn it stare and follow Problem 1. Wright settles back onto her Mantis and crosses her arms.

Problem 1 is looking red, mostly from high blood pressure and rosacea, partially from smearing blood from his nose all over his sleeve. His mouth is working but no words have formed yet.

"I'm going to preempt whatever it is you feel foolish enough to have waited around here to say," Elliot says calmly. "We wouldn't be in this situation if you hadn't gone on the record with the misogyny. Not a fan of that bullshit."

Problem 1’s anger morphs to indignant confusion. Wright frowns and shakes her head dismissively, but doesn't stand. "Now, remember that I ended that fight you started, and that you are not in traction because I didn't want Rumor to injure herself. You mean," Elliot cuts a line with his hand, "Nothing to me."

As he finishes speaking a lime green Civis with Pryr paint on the door rolls up behind the group and stops. "Friends,” Elliot directs toward the others, “You have thirty seconds to put him in that taxi, or I will. Fare is on me. See that he doesn’t come back here." Wright taps the screen of her phone and turns it toward the Problems. 0:29, 0:28.

"Hey fuck you," Problem 1 says, pushing toward Elliot as his friends both frantically hold him back, "I don't gotta do shit. That bitch broke my fucking nose!"

"Shut the fuck up man," Problem 2 says, "This is a fucking Wolfhound bar. It’s over, let it go." Problem 3 scrabbles for the door handle and swings it open.

"You think this bitch scares me?" Problem 1 shouts, pointing at Wright.

"Again with the bitch talk," Wright says nonchalantly, phone still extended. 0:10, 0:09.

"Keith, I swear to God if you don’t get in this cab, I will punch you myself,” Problem 3 says. Keith takes a moment to continue being angry before getting into the cab, swearing all the way. Problem 3 gives an anxious wave as he gets into the passenger seat. “Sorry,” he says, “We’ll be going now.”

Wright’s timer alarm begins just as the car begins to slowly roll out of the parking lot. She silences it and slides the phone into her jacket pocket, retrieving a small toiletries pouch from another and handing it to Elliot.

“Blackbird,” Wright says.

“Fallout,” Elliot replies.

“Ranger.” She slips on a motorcycle helmet and drops the visor, and without another word rolls onto the street.

Elliot returns to the bar to find two clean glasses with lemon wedges on the rim. The bartender looks over expectantly while pouring a beer from the tap. “Keith will not be returning here,” Elliot says, “I’ll clear his tab if he has one.”

“Nah,” Sassy says, “Fuck that guy.”

Elliot chuckles and grabs the glasses, making his way back upstairs. He quietly brushes his teeth in the sink and stows the bag in his jacket. He fills the glasses with bottled water and leaves them on the table. Satisfied, he walks to the bathroom and taps out an S.O.S.

While Elliot’s been cleaning up her mess, Rue has been trying to sort her own self out. She didn’t need terribly long to scrub away the lingering traces of sticky malt beverage, but she’s stayed standing under the almost too-hot stream of water anyway. Like maybe she can sweat out her problems.

The knock on the door is her cue to finish that up before the water goes cold, however. A push of her hand against the dial built into the tiled wall shuts the cascade off, leaving only a trickle to the bathtub floor. “Be right out,” Rue calls through the door.

When she emerges a couple minutes later, it’s in a fuzzy purple bathrobe, with her ginger curls piled up on top of her head in a messy bun. Already, she looks far more together than she has since he arrived at the bar. She spots the water on the table and flashes a look to Elliot then. A nod. “Thanks.”

“Sorry it took so long,” Elliot says with a grin, seated in the chair he used earlier but leaning it back against the wall on two legs. “Feeling less sticky?”

“Considerably.” She moves to the table to claim the second chair and drag one glass of water toward herself. Rue brings it to her lips and takes a long drink. Partly because she does, in fact, need it, and partly to sate his desire for her to actually hydrate.

Maybe at least one of them can be satisfied tonight.

Elliot observes Rue critically. Hands together, shoulders arched, half a smile. He sets his chair down and squares himself to the table.

"It's OK to not want this," he says, hands framing himself up and down with a smirk. All of this. "I will survive without what would presumably be an hellacious bout of boot knockery.

"I would not judge you in any way for a change of agenda. We could hash out other plans. Talk about shit we don't want to. Not talk about the same shit. Get onto the roof and scream at satellites. Order takeout. We could do any of those things before, during, after, or in lieu of Plan A."

He leans on the table and holds his hands upright and open. Take them if you want them. "Nobody is here but us. Wright tapped out, no weird psychic twin bullshit."

“I don’t— I don’t suggest doing things I don’t want to do.” But she’s surprised to discover he’s reconsidered the offer she assumed he had turned down initially. Wouldn’t be the first time someone had told her she was probably too inebriated to make good choices, and she’d resigned herself to the notion that it wasn’t in the cards. But now it’s suddenly back on the table.

And she’s guileless for it. Elliot’s seen Rue flirt. He’s seen her be genuine about it, and he’s seen her use it as a means to manipulate people. This is something closer to the former, but without the usual edge of confidence. She does suggest doing things she doesn’t want to do, but only when she’s determined that what’s to be gained from the transaction is worth holding her nose for. This is not that.

Rue sets her water aside and reaches out to take Elliot’s hands, staring up at him with a hint of uncertainty, but not reluctance.

“Ah,” Elliot says, accepting her hands. “I’m sorry if I miscommunicated this earlier.” He looks chagrined. “Wright has told me that I have a problem with being subtle to the point of obliviousness. The dramatic booze slide-away and time-consuming water garnish retrieval was intended to communicate, ‘Why yes, in fact, I would demolish your boots. Warranty voiding,’ Not, ‘You drunk, go home.

“You live here anyway,” he says as though it just dawned on him, “So you can be as drunk as you damn well please. I’m rambling, sorry. That is a bad habit I picked up from Wright, so.

“Either way,” he emphasises, “Whatever you actually want. We can stay like this for the whole night if you just want non-sexual human contact. Though in that case I will probably go get a couple straws for the hydration. That’s just good sense.” Jokingly dismissive. Mouth quivering on the edge of a smile. His eyes leading meaningfully from hers to her drink.

Rue laughs in spite of herself, nervous. It’s an authentic thing that he knows was rare before. She’d put on a good show, played the morale booster, but rarely was properly happy. He doesn’t know yet how it’s gotten rarer still. “You are way too good for me,” she murmurs with a self-deprecating grin.

“But if you don’t shut up and kiss me, I’m gonna lose my nerve.”

“Hey,” he says softly, the meaningful eye contact he’s always held, regardless of how much he spoke. He gently grips her hands in his before letting go and standing. He rounds the table, sitting on its edge to look down at her. “You’re not getting out of drinking that water.”

“Jesus Christ,” Rue mutters, face flushing with embarrassment and reaching to grab the glass of water. She can chug that just as well as any beer, thanks. So she does, holding up one finger to say just a sec while the other hand tips the glass back and she gulps it down until it’s empty, thunked down on the table when she’s done.

Her brows lift toward her hairline. Happy now?

“Ecstatic,” he says, reaching down to take up her hand. “Would you like to walk, or should I carry you dramatically to the couch.”

Again, he draws that laughter out of her. “Fuckin’ go for it, if you think you’ve got it in you.” Her eyes sparkle with the dare. The end of her tongue plays against the tip of one canine. She’s enjoying not being the predator for once.

Elliot holds up both hands and crooks an eyebrow as if to say, Trust me? before he stands and–taking a que from Rue herself–hooks a foot under her chair and pulls it out from under her. He catches her wrists before she begins to fall and pulls her to her feet. The chair clatters noisily to the ground behind her.

Of course.

Or she’ll fall on her ass and they’ll both have bruised egos. It’ll be something they can laugh about later, so, yeah, she’s game.

It’s some combination of his coordination and her instinct that sees Rue rising to her feet with a fluid grace, even as the chair seems to disappear from under her. She knows how to use the leverage he provides. It’s just a game of trust falls.

Smooth,” she commends.

“Thank you,” he says with no modesty before pulling her off balance just enough to catch her for a proper cross-room carry. He lifts her from the floor and pivots smoothly on the balls of his feet in the direction of the couch. He takes a moment to stare deeply into her eyes before saying with total seriousness, “I’ma just drop you straight on the couch.”

The sweep results in only the quietest sounds of surprise, she’d been prepared for it after all. Her arms wrap around his shoulders and she holds his gaze like they may as well be having a staring contest. Or playing a game of chicken. “I have a bed, you know. And it does not have steel supports you might accidentally drop my tailbone onto.”

Rue angles a look over her shoulder to the couch, calculating where she’s likely to fall if he does, in fact, just drop her. “But you do you, I guess.”

Or you do me, actually.

“A bed?” Elliot asks, “That’s a bit forward considering we’re not married in the eyes of the Lord but I can drop him from the link too. Jesus wants none of this.” He pauses for a moment before spinning to grab, with some difficulty, his glass of water from the table.

“Can you hold this for you?” he says, awkwardly trying to pass the drink into her hands while keeping her aloft. “I’m all watered out but rumor has it you need- oh my god,” he snickers, “Please do not kill me. But yes, water in hands, perfect. Here we go.”

There’s a faint grimace at his accidental pun, and she has to hold back more laughter. She hooks one arm tighter around him and unloops the other so she can take the glass. “Rumor has it,” she waggles the glass in her hand demonstratively.

“A+,” Elliot says. He carries Rue across the room, pausing for a moment to judge the quality and springiness of the couch and hefting her in his arms as if calculating a throw. He shakes his head before continuing toward her room. “You’re tall as fuck and I’m taller, we definitly would not fit on that couch in a non-sitting orientation.” A sad shake of the head.

He rounds the bed and tilts Rue toward the night stand. “You may want to deposit the water on the table before I deposit you on the bed.”

There’s a tension that winds its way into her frame when she thinks he might be about to send her sailing toward the sofa anyway, but it sees a release when he adjusts his route and heads down the hall and to the bedroom at the end of it.

One thing she had allowed herself to splurge on after moving out of the Bastion was a mattress. The frame may be a creaky thing of metal with chipped enamel painted over, but the mattress itself is at least not an ancient thing. And it’s a queen, rather than the double she used to sleep on before. Or the cot before that. She’s moving up in the world, clearly.

With exaggerated movements, Rue stretches out her arm to set the glass of water on a coaster on the nightstand with a flourish of her wrist once it’s settled. Not unlike the sorts of motions she’d go through in those ballet routines she used to practice while other people would do ‘real’ cardio. Always the swan princess.

Elliot nods appreciatively before spinning in place and sitting down on the side of the bed, transferring Rue to his lap. He pulls his arm out from behind her knees, but keeps his other behind her back. He reaches across her lap and pulls her close. “With me so far?” he asks.

Rue slides the hand at Elliot’s back along his spine, dragging just the pads of her fingers over his skin with the lightest touch until she slides her fingers into his hair. “I’m here.” Her eyes dip to focus on the shape of his mouth for a moment before coming back up to his own blue gaze. “I’m not fragile.”

“I knew I should have thrown you on the couch,” he says, chuckling. “Now you’ve tricked me into your bedroom, and I’m at your mercy.”

“Step into my parlour,” Rue murmurs, leaning up as she closes her eyes and presses her mouth to his. Slow and steady for now. They’re still feeling this out.

Elliot kisses her softly, deliberately. Choosing where each kiss will land on her lips. He places his hand beside her jaw, tracing his fingers delicately behind her ear. He pulls back after a long moment.

“I hope it’s not too forward of me to say,” his eyes flickering back and forth across her face, “But Jesus Fuck you are so hot.”

There’s a breath of laughter from the hot woman in Elliot’s lap. “So’re you,” she fires back even as color creeps into her cheeks. There’s something about the way he doesn’t feel entitled to give his opinion that she finds disarming. There’s a completely different energy to it than when it’s being growled in her ear in the heat of the moment.

Maybe he’ll do it that way, too. A grin comes to Rue’s face. She’d like to find out. One hand finds the sash at her waist and gives it a tug until it slips free from where it was twined with its opposite end.

Elliot traces his fingertips down Rue’s neck. “Oh my,” he says, sweeping out across her collarbone, almost incidentally adjusting her robe to the side. “Did you see that this is falling open? You’ve only just put it on.”

Oops.” Rue shivers at the touch and reaches up to clasp a hand around his forearm so she can guide his hand under the fold of her robe. Then she dips in again for another kiss, this one briefer than the first, but with more heat behind it.

Elliot responds to her kiss with equal passion. Layers others on her jaw and neck. Holds her close where he is guided.

For several minutes, it carries on this way. Lips pressed to lips, necks, shoulders. Every new inch of skin to be bared. The robe slides halfway off her shoulders, a fuzzy purple pool around her waist and in his lap. They kiss until she’s shifted, up with her knees on the mattress, over him and leaning down, her hands on either side of his face as though he might try to escape the way she seems to want to devour him hungrily. His hands touch her where she needs. How she needs. The way she’s needed ever since—

Without warning, she practically rockets to her feet, dancing several steps back from where he sits on her bed in the middle of her room. Rue’s wiping her mouth with the back of her hand for lack of something better to do, trembling then and suddenly emotional. “I- I can’t. This was—” She lifts her eyes to his form briefly, then looks down at the faded teal carpet on the floor. Those blue depths reflect apology. Shame. “You deserve better than this.”

Elliot sits up, leans forward to relax his elbows on his knees. "I'm not more deserving of anything. If you want me to leave," he says, "I will. If you want to pause, I can do that too. If you want to talk about it, I'm here. Whatever you want. It doesn't have to be anything more than what you need right now.”

“I— don’t.” Rue stammers, without specifying which of those things it is that she doesn’t want. Maybe it’s all of them. Doesn’t want him to leave, doesn’t want to pause, doesn’t want to talk…

“You give me too much space to think.” Her voice is quiet, but she at least manages to keep her gaze on him. “I am less deserving of someone as nice as you.”

Elliot pauses, sighs as he considers. “Maintaining the agency of others is immensely important to me,” he says. “Things can move too fast for people to react in ways that are honest to their natures. Or can change too slowly to see, even with honest intention. I try to leave space for everyone to think.”

Nobody is who they once were, true even for himself. “That being said, I understand that there is a weight behind your words for which I have no context. I have no right to ask for it, but if you want to give it freely, I will listen. Without judgement. If this is it, know that I had a wonderful night and would enjoy your company again, at a time and place and pace of your choosing.”

“I get it, and that’s really great.” Just, apparently, a little frustrating for Rue at the moment, who was expecting things to go down differently. Not through any fault or misleading on his part. “I have wanted to do this for a while, Hitch,” Rue assures. “Like, a long while.”

Her palms find her forehead, smoothing up and back over her damp hair and stopping when her fingers collide with the knot of hair fixed atop her head. “It’s complicated. And it’s probably stupid,” Rue insists, alluding to the weight behind her words. “I just don’t feel like I deserve to be treated well right now.”

She winces at that immediately. “I didn’t— I didn’t mean to imply I thought you were going to be— That came out wrong.

Elliot smiles lightly, waves away the implication. “Wright will be insufferably pleased to know that–” he pauses, “That is to say, in the way back, I also would have been ecstatic about the prospect of this.” He gestures to the room. To them. “In fact I attempted, in my obliviously subtle way, to instigate it.”

“I believe that your reasons may be complicated. You do, however, deserve to be treated well. Even if what you want is just a distraction.” He stands, steps toward her to place his hands lightly on her arms. Tries to be meaningful, not subtle. “If you just want to escape, be kept on your toes, I can keep you on them.

“But only with your explicit permission.”

“Didn’t really have my head screwed on straight back then,” Rue admits, as a way of explaining how she may have entirely missed Elliot’s subtlety, when the two of them are supposed to be purveyors of it. “Don’t really have it screwed on straight now, I guess.” She admits to that with a breath of laughter at her own expense, a roll of her eyes.

But he reaches for her, and she doesn’t shy away, though she does look down to where one of his hands has made contact with her arm. Her breath catches. When she looks back up at him, it’s with a sort of uncertain grin. “Fuck me up.”

Elliot puts his hands on either side of her face. “This can stop at any time,” he says. He keeps his eyes locked with hers as he gives the words a moment to breathe.

He kisses her suddenly, but softly. Repeatedly, and with growing intensity. Slides his fingers up into her hair, down her neck and across her shoulders. Sweeps her bathrobe off of her arms and to the floor. Pushes her gently toward the wall and holds her against it with careful and intentional control of his hands. Holds her in a way that allows her to move within the bounds of his hands, but not past.

Rue takes a steadying breath. She isn’t reluctant, just so wound up in her own head that she’s making herself anxious. Worried that she won’t be able to relax and enjoy this. Worried that he won’t enjoy it. But she nods her head just once, firmly, making sure to hold his gaze and convey that, yes, in spite of those nerves, this is what she wants.

Then they’re kissing again. She shrugs out of the robe, stepping over the mound of it on the floor as he backs her up to the wall. Slowly, all those little inadequacies start to slip away. The feelings of doubt. Unworthiness. The need for this to be something other than pleasant in order for it to be allowed.

Those things will all come back to her later. For now, it’s just this. Bruised fingers lock with Elliot’s in silent encouragement of his control.

That she wakes up alone isn’t a surprise to Rue. That’s par for the course. It takes a moment as awareness slowly comes to her to even remember she had fallen asleep in the circle of Elliot’s arms around her thin frame. It’s the smell of breakfast that reminds her, and tells her that he hasn’t gone, even if he’s not still lying in the bed with her.

Coffee is the most immediate scent. Round and provocative without the acrid spikes of burnt typical to a carafe in a Wolfhound cafeteria. Garlic is second. Then something bright, tart, smooth and mellow. Razor-sharp wisps of sweet, red onion. Elliot turns off the stove and directs an egg scramble of tomato, kalamata, and spinach into two bowls and tops both off with crumbled feta. All pilfered from the bar below.

“Are you a breakfast in bed person,” Elliot says in the soft morning light of the kitchen, “Or more of a sensible, breakfast at the breakfast table sort of girl?” There is a distinct hot sound of coffee being poured into mugs.

Rue trundles out of the bedroom, dressed for now in an oversized tee shirt and a pair of boyshorts. When was the last time she ate breakfast? When was the last time she ate it without being hungover? “Table’s fine,” she murmurs, reaching out to take one of the fresh mugs of coffee before moving to sit at the table.

“You sleep okay?” She’s not quite awkward, but there is a certain air of being uncertain of what to say.

“I slept soundly, thank you.” Elliot places the bowls across the table from each other, takes a seat. “Sorry if I woke you when I snuck out of bed, I’m not sure if I successfully exfiltrated myself. I wake up at a reasonable hour whether I like it or not.”

“No, actually…” Rue lifts her brows, giving Elliot an appreciative look. “You didn’t wake me at all. I’m impressed with you and disappointed in myself.” She smiles tiredly and lifts her fork to start digging into the breakfast he’s made. “This looks amazing. You really didn’t have to do this.” But I’m glad you did is tacitly implied.

“A balanced breakfast is the foundation of any serious post-boot-knockery recovery program,” he smiles and drinks his coffee. He is relaxed and dishevelled, and he waits contentedly for Rue to eat before pickup up his own fork. There is a breeze from an opened window which doesn’t yet carry any of the previous day’s oppressive heat.

“Is that so?” Rue asks around a mostly chewed mouthful of scramble. “Maybe that’s where I’ve been fucking up.” She lifts her coffee, blowing gently on the surface before she takes an experimental sip. She sighs with a quiet contentment. “You’re spoiling me.”

“Don’t think of it as spoilage,” he says with a mischievous glint, “Think of it as a bribe to encourage the need for further recovery in the future.” He finally takes a bite of his breakfast, closing his eyes and nodding in satisfaction. “Can I get you anything else?”

The corners of Rue’s mouth turn downward with a suppressed smile, lifting her brows briefly to the notion of further recovery before averting her gaze to her bowl again. “Not that we need labels or anything,” she murmurs, “but… I prefer clear expectations.”

Looking back up while she chews another mouthful of food and swallows. “What’re you angling for here?”

“End goal?” Elliot asks, “I’m not looking that far ahead, but I think if there’s anything we learned from last night it’s that we work well together. In the unprofessional sense. I would be interested in following that thread for a while. See how it shakes out.

“If that’s not what you want, I will unconditionally respect that.” He holds up his hands. It is what it is. “If, however, you are likewise inclined,” his hands still raised but gesturing from himself to her and back. A playful raised eyebrow. “Then I would say that I also like to avoid labelling things but appreciate clear expectations.”

Rue nods her head slowly while he speaks and she eats. She’s making quick work of it. “Yeah, I get all that, and that’s… fine.” Despite the hesitation, there’s no implication that she means something to which fine is an antonym. “I just mean… Are you looking to date me, or fuck around?” She doesn’t give him any indication of which one she might prefer. The answer to that question is about what he’s looking for.

Elliot takes a moment to eat, to sip his coffee while assembling a response. “This is usually where I wrench the gears on myself, but. The idea of dating interests me. We both agree that we are very hot, which works in our favor,” he says cheekily.

“There would have to be careful consideration given to my,” he pauses, letting out a short sigh or perhaps a ragged laugh, “Special circumstances. I am definitely still working through those ramifications in regard to Wright and Marthe’s marriage. Open and honest communication is important to me, but that may be a conversation larger than what would be possible to hammer into the dimensions of this breakfast.”

A grin is slanted across the table to her breakfast companion. Yes, they are both in agreement about the other’s attractiveness, there’s no denying that. Still, Rue keeps silent, mulling over her own response.

After a long moment of silence that’s filled by the soft sounds of utensils scraping against bowls and quiet sips of coffee, Rue finally speaks up again. “Yeah, so… I, ah… I cheated in my last relationship.” She manages to meet Elliot’s eyes only briefly before looking away again. She’s out of breakfast food to occupy herself with, so she resigns herself to the fact that she’s just going to have to be obvious about her avoidance. “You should probably know that up front.”

“I justified it to myself by saying we had never talked about being exclusive. And… I had been sleeping with my partner before I got into said relationship.” There’s a distinction made here. There’s a relationship, and a partner, and they aren’t the same thing. “I just told myself that nothing had to change.” Rue cants her head to one side, deciding she may as well go all-in on this airing of her sins. “Then I started sleeping with— Well, with someone else on top of it.”

Rue takes another drink of coffee and stares down at her reflection in the dark depths of her mug. “So, I’m a piece of shit, is what I’m trying to warn you about here.”

“I can’t judge you for that. Commiserate, maybe,” Elliot says, his bowl to the side and coffee in hand. His face is not impassive, but knowing. Regretful.

“I definitely lapsed on my own moral responsibilities back in the day, regarding communication. Or,” he shrugs, “My innate difficulties with communication.”

“I,” he swallows hard, gazing away, “I missed an opportunity to communicate what I should have with someone, when I knew our time was short. When it came to a stop. From that point, it was easier to avoid communication for purely maladaptive reasons. Gamed the system there. What wasn’t said was a license to act thoughtlessly. And I said little, and said it rarely. I am not proud of those days, I did a lot of damage to people who deserved none of it. Spent a lot of the intervening time giving my bad behavior an honest appraisal.

“That said, I am not jealous by nature, never have been. Everyone has different needs and I don’t fool myself into thinking I’m capable of meeting all of someone else’s.” He sets down his coffee, empty. “If you felt an inclination to have needs met elsewhere, I would not be wounded in any way, providing the lines of communication remained open. Even just as an afterthought. I would welcome you to expect the same of me.”

If she’d had open lines of communication then, she might not be having this conversation with him now. She might still be happily in her previous relationship — or at least sorting things out there, even if presently unhappy.

Rue leans back in her chair, cradling her coffee against her chest while she thinks, considering his own situation and what it means for him and what it would mean for her if she decided to take the steps that could potentially intertwine them.

“Okay.” She pronounces finally. “I will… give this a shot with you. And if I’m too much of a hot fuckin’ mess, you just tell me so and we break it off, no hard feelings. But if you ghost on me,” she warns, “then I will be hurt. I’d rather hear it from you than piece it together on my own. That sound fair to you?”

“A perfectly reasonable request,” Elliot says. He breathes deeply, carefully. “We’ve reached a point where I feel morally obligated to tell you something that is known to very few people. Count-on-one-hand few.” He pauses. Here we go.

“Wright and I have been continuously, telepathically linked since Bannerman’s. We are unable to break the link. We are not always sharing, not always sensing. But we are always in a position where we could be. It has led to behaviors that have placed a lot of stress on Wright’s marriage, hence the relocation. Physical distance.

“If you want privacy from that, you just have to tell me. There are situations where I will assume it beforehand, such as last night. Now. But it isn’t possible for me to guarantee that my interactions with you will be completely free of her. It isn’t possible for me to avoid sharing emotion through the link. Empathy overflow can occur.”

“I will understand if this takes a while to sink in. I’m sorry that, for safety reasons, I did not bring it up until right now.” He lets the weight of that sit in the room between them.

Rue stares at Elliot over the top of her coffee, just listening and absorbing what she can. Her chin lifts slowly in the prelude to a nod that never quite manifests. Finally, she lets out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding, a whoosh of air from her lungs that puffs out her cheeks.

“Wow. Wow.” Rue glances away and lets out another heavy exhale. “Wow.”

Her eyes are big by the time she’s looking at him again. “So, that’s a lot,” she states plainly, a slightly manic edge to her tone. Because it is a little wild. “But I… Yeah. I’m willing to give it a go. I would like to think I can handle it.”

Rolling her tongue over the front of her teeth, she finally brings her chin down to complete that bob of her head. “Alright, so. What’s your expectation of me in this situation? How can I… I don’t know, best accommodate? I assume there’s some kind of best practice to follow or something?”

“It is indeed a whole fuckin’ lot,” he says. “The relative hotnesses of our,” he motions to indicate yours and mine, “Messes are wild. I have been working to contain the forest fire that is my own mess hotness for a long time. Making good progress, I think. So here I extend your escape clause back to you, if I’m too much of a mess. I would only ask that you not pass on this information.

“It is my best practice to try to identify and bow out of situations which are private,” he motions to himself, and over his shoulder, to the distance, “to reduce any unintended influence. I can’t send thoughts through the link. Just emotional, sensory, or memory data. So, our primary means of communicating is talking out loud, or by signing when tactical. I developed a sense for communicating a request to share back or forth when I’m currently not sharing. A way to pull attention without just stepping through and looking.

“So I will tell you if that happens, if Wright is calling, as it were. You can always ask me if I’m sharing. You can always ask me to stop. Nobody likes the asshole at the grocery store stumbling through the isles screaming out a conversation over speakerphone. Not that you would be able to hear Wright speaking to me. It’s your classic one-sided, talking-to-an-invisible-friend, crazy guy experience.”

“On the plus side, if you ever need to get a message from Phoenix Heights to Red Hook, I’m way more reliable than the Ghost Network.” This is too much to take in. “Is there anything you want to know now?”

“Oh, wow. Prob’ly lots?” Rue laughs a little helplessly, shaking her head. “I always thought you and Wright were like… a thing. But I guess this makes way more sense.” Given what he said last night about not knocking boots with her. “Your secret’s safe with me. I… used to have an invisible friend.” She pauses a beat and thinks to clarify, “Literally.”

He’s maybe heard those stories.

“I’m used to walking around, talking to someone no one else can see, and generally hoping people don’t think I’m just a fucking crazy person.” Rue smiles sympathetically. “I’m not going to judge you there. Not… even a little bit. — Unless you do start doing the loud speaker-phone-in-the-grocery-store conversation. Then I’m gonna judge you a little.” One hand is held up as she adds, “Harshly.”

She cracks a proper grin then. “Look. I’m not gonna pretend that I can really understand it? Not right now. Maybe… Maybe someday? Not all at once. But… I accept it for what it is. And I’m… willing to work with it.” Even though it is definitely a lot. “Does Wright know we’re having this conversation right now? I mean, I know you said this is just us right now, but… did she know you were going to have this conversation with me potentially?”

“I gave her the cliff notes while you were in the shower and then dropped the connection. And she knew beforehand that I was coming here. She’s been encouraging me to get laid, for, in her words, fuck’s sake. I can tap her attention if you want to talk to her.”

“And this conversation,” yours and mine, “Was a prerequisite we established last year for any potential future entanglements. A body’s got needs but that doesn’t provide a license for withholding important information about privacy.”

He pauses. “Which is honestly hilarious when you consider that my bread and butter is the theft and transfer of privileged and protected information.”

That brings on another bout of laughter from the former spy. Less nervous this time, more genuinely amused. “Look, the reason we were good at what we did is because we knew where the line was. You start crossing that line, you start treating everyone like a mission, a potential mark, an enemy?” Rue shakes her head. “You may as well go live in a fucking cave at that point. You gotta be able to trust people and be trusted in return, right? Otherwise it just doesn’t fucking work. No one fucking believes you anymore.”

Rue closes her eyes, sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth in an expression acknowledging her own ridiculousness. “I’m rambling.” She waves it away. “So, I’d be happy to talk with Wright if that’s what it takes to help put her mind at ease, too? But I’d… honestly feel more comfortable doing it in person. For now at least. Baby steps?”

She squints faintly, like she’s trying to figure out if it does actually work that way or not. “But if she’d wanna stop by sometime, or we could meet for coffee… Whatever. Whatever works best for her. If you wanna be there, too…” Rue shrugs. “Whatever.” She’s got to stop repeating that word. “Whatever you all need.” Damn it. There it is again.

Elliot is visibly relieved. It’s all about trust. “Whatever and whenever you are comfortable with. Wright’s very accommodating. Though, you should be aware that everything she tells you about me is a bald-faced lie. Terrible character witness.” Dry humor, but his mouth turns up to smile in fits and starts.

“Wow,” he realizes, “I just jumped right into that whole deal instead of, I don’t know, asking for your phone number. Normal, ‘do you want to go out with me’ shit. Christ, how have I even survived? Do you need more coffee? I think I need more coffee.”

“I’m pretty sure you’d seen me naked before last night,” Rue points out. “We let that normal ship sail a long ass time ago.” Normal, as far as she’s concerned, is vastly overrated. It’s something for other people to have, and for her to avoid at all costs.

The mug is held out toward Elliot to indicate that, yes, more coffee would be fantastic. Once he’s taken it, she gets up from the table and grabs a pad of paper and a pencil, scribbling something down on the first available sheet, tearing it away, then tearing it again, this time in half.

Both halves are set down on Elliot’s side of the table when she returns. “My number. One for you, one for Wright. You both have carte blanche to reach out whenever you need. Or to come knocking on my door. Whatever suits.”

“That’s fair,” Elliot says as he fills their mugs again and returns them to the table, pausing to retrieve and stow the notes. “And, turn about being fair play,” He writes down two numbers and addresses on a single piece of paper and leaves it attached to the pad. “In case you ever want to get away from the bar. You’re welcome to call or stop by if you need anything, or just want to say hi. Or make out, if you’re into that sort of thing.”

Laughing quietly, Rue confirms, “Yeah. I’m into that sort of thing.” Falling quiet, she takes the time to simply enjoy her coffee and the company for a moment. “You know, I’m… glad you stopped by, Hitch.”

“Me too,” he grins. He seems more relaxed now than at any other point Rue can remember. He sips his coffee and leans his head back against the wall, eyes half closed. “What a turn of events.”

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