Showing A Mask Of Strength


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Scene Title Showing a Mask of Strength
Synopsis Chel and Elisabeth share a moment over an evening at home.
Date April 28, 2019

Raytech NYCSZ Branch Office

Residential Quarters, Elisabeth's Apartment

Despite her feeling of walking on eggshells, Elisabeth makes a distinct point of having Chel in or taking Aura to her to spend time whenever the older woman wants. Aurora has slowly warmed to Chel, watchful and wary at first just due to all the changes, and then simply accepting of the woman's place in her world — by the time they landed at Raytech, the little girl was comfortable with sitting with Chel.

Tonight, she's proudly showing off her newly acquired reading skills — a skill she's picking up very quickly despite the fact that she had been behind when she started. The Wasteland and Chel's world hadn't been exactly the best places to learn reading, though Elaine and Liz and Cassandra did their best to try to make sure she had some basics where they could.

"The puppy sits on the blue chair." Aura looks up at Chel. "Grammy, can you see word-colors?"

Elisabeth, over in the kitchen getting Aura's bedtime glass of milk ready, looks toward them. The child hasn't ever mentioned her word-colors around Chel before.

Grammy always hits Chel like a hammer. No matter how many times Aura says it, no matter how much she convinces herself that it's real, it feels like it's a dream. Being here in Elisabeth’s home, in her world, likewise feels unreal. She sits with Aura on her knee, leaning over the small girl to read along with her, at the kitchen table.

“I… no,” Chel says quietly, looking up for a moment to Elisabeth for recognition, then back down to Aura. “That's synesthesia,” Chel says quietly, “between 2 and 4 percent of the population experiences it, that's more than twice as many people in the world who have powers. Do you know how rare that makes you?” Chel presses a fingertip to Aura’s ear. “That's roughly .0002%, that's very small! Smaller than you!”

Chel looks up at Elisabeth. “Is she in any school? Friends her age?” It's something Chel had never considered before.

Bringing the milk cup and a mug of coffee in from the kitchen, Elisabeth nods easily. "She started school the beginning of April," is the reply as she sets the mug in front of Michelle. "A friend of ours runs it, and although it's a small school, I think it'll suit her well… her siblings and cousins all go there too."

Aura looks up a Chel and nods, her grin infectious. "Syn-se-stee-zha, that's right, Grammy! Yer so smart!" The little girl's praise is sincere, as if her genius grandmother has done something wonderful just by knowing what word-colors are! "I don' know nobody else who can see 'em, but they're real pretty. Well.. mostly." She wrinkles her small nose up. "Some kinda of music just looks like mud. That's not so pretty. But some people look like … sparklies or they're purple." Sage nod. "I seen one person who had a yucky sort of greeny-orange. I can't even!" The child rolls her eyes.

Elisabeth has to stifle a laugh as she joins the two at the table. Raquelle might be rubbing off on the pixie.

"But don't worry," Aurora reassures her grandmother blithely, "that's not your color. You gots a pretty green, almost like Yggy's color but brighter and with sort of pink mixed in. Like the sky lights."

It always intrigues Liz, what colors appear to the little girl. That one is unique as hell. She proffers the cup to the child. "Hey.. here's your milk, why don't you go put your pajamas on and you can color til storytime? Maybe Grammy can read, if you want."

"Primal!" The child twists on Chel's lap and hugs her around the neck with little caution for squishing her or the awkwardness of the position and then she's off toward her room, with its purple sparkly canopy bed that somehow Jared procured, taking her milk with her.

When the child can be heard chattering cheerfully to Blossom, Elisabeth just shakes her head on a smile. And then she studies Chel. "How are you holding up?" The question is soft, but it has the air of someone who actually knows what Michelle is going through. Liz has ridden this roller coaster a few times, after all.

Watching Aura trundle off to her room, Michelle seems to visibly deflate some, running a hand through her hair. “I’m not underground,” she says with a rueful laugh, “it could be considerably worse.” But it’s clear that it’s not all good either. She slouches to the side, resting an elbow on the table, staring off into the kitchen like it was another world.

“I never raised Richard,” Chel finally says, not looking away from the kitchen. “My— whole life fell apart, was turned upside down, and then was reassembled into something someone else wanted from the moment I lost him.” She shakes her head, the crease between her brows growing deeper. “Now…” Chel can’t help but snort out a partial laugh. “Now I have an embarrassment of family, my son can’t figure out how to settle down to save his life, and…”

Chel looks away from the kitchen, over to Liz. “I’m halfway through an audiobook about the war here. It just— it feels like trading one cataclysm for another. It’s… it’s so hard to reconcile. Millions of people died, it’s…” She rests her head down into the palm of her hand, eyes closed. “I don’t know.”

Because she rarely sends Aurora away when her grandmother is here, Elisabeth shoves the pang to call the child back down a bit. "It's a huge amount to comprehend," Elisabeth agrees quietly.

She gets it.The horrible mix of grief, loss, confusion, hope, despair. So much focus on a singular goal and the stunning mix of horror and relief and guilt when you finally attain it, just not in the way you thought. Losing so much along the way. And arriving somewhere you didn't really want to be but … knowing you might never leave.

"Each time we jumped, … I went through a lot of what you're doing now. Trying to learn as much as I needed to know to be able to survive. Feeling like there was very little positive about where I landed, in most cases. The feeling of surreality. In the one world that was at peace when I was there," the one where Aurora was born, "it was in some ways even harder. It was… too quiet. Gave me too much time to think of all the things and people I missed, all the things I would never see or have again, and it was a lot of trying to reconcile just living."

Pulling in a breath and letting it out slowly, she admits, "It's terrible to know what you're going through… and know that there's nothing I can do to really help except be here, Chel." Elisabeth shrugs just a little, her blue eyes gentle. "And I am here, even if you just need someone to scream at."

There's a long pause and she adds mildly, "And if it helps any, your son is a lot more settled than you think. He's never more satisfied than when he's got fingers in a million pies." He's straight up the nosiest man Elisabeth has ever known. But it's saved their asses countless times, so who is she to bitch about it?

“That’s what worries me,” Chel says quietly, blinking a look over to Elisabeth from the middle-distance she’d been trapped in. “Richard’s so much like me, in— in ways I couldn’t have ever predicted. I’m… I’ve always been prone to obsession, to not knowing when to stop, and because of the ability I have I don’t run into roadblocks the way other people do, I plow through them, I…” Chel shakes her head, closing her eyes and turning partly away from Elisabeth, threading a lock of hair behind one ear.

“I’m afraid he’s going to make the same mistakes I did,” Chel says in one breath, as if that’s what it took to get those words out. “He told me, back when we first arrived here, about how he came back in time and… and hurt all these people.” Chel looks up to Elisabeth, brows furrowed. “We were on the exact same track. We both had our Institutes, we both developed a machine that— that ruined so many lives.” There’s a pleading quality to Chel’s tone. “Elisabeth, I’m terrified that either he or I are going to— to just repeat the past.”

She reaches out and holds Michelle's forearm, her blue eyes steady. "I can't tell you it won't happen. No one can. But I can tell you … he's learned from his alternate's mistakes. What could have been horrified him. And you've learned from yours, at a cost that I cannot even begin to comprehend." The loss of Rianna cannot help but eat at the girl's mother. Elisabeth pauses a moment and her mouth presses into a thin line, her hand tightening just briefly on the older woman's arm. A glance toward the bedroom where Aurora is chirping cheerfully while she gets ready to come back assures her they have a few minutes, and she also carefully shields the doorway so that the child can't overhear.

Tipping her head, she says softly, "You're a brilliant mind and you had an amazing idea. It went badly wrong, and worse.. you didn't think ahead to the possible abuses of the invention. You're human, Michelle. Give yourself a little bit of slack for being a parent trying to reach their child? Any of us will do the same."

Elisabeth's expression is intent. "Yes, you can both be obsessive. Yes, you are both capable of being a monster. So are we all. And yes, your intelligence will make you damn hard to stop if you're crossing lines … the difference is, here? I don't play games when it comes to getting in the way of obsessive Cardinals." She smiles a little, amused though there's a sadness to it. "I have a lot of practice derailing Redbirds."

Chel nods, shallow little bobs. She’s distracted by her own thoughts, ones that won’t stop spinning no matter how hard she tries to rest. “I suppose you do,” is her mild response, though her eyes are focused on the floor and a lifetime away, too distant to have really meant that. “I think I just need time. I lost my daughter, gained a son, and…” She looks in the direction Aura had run off to. She doesn’t even need to vocalize how unexpected that development is.

“I’m just afraid. Of everything.” Chel finally looks back up to Elisabeth, then back down to the table. “I wanted nothing more than to be here. Right here, in a moment just like this. I fantasized about it for all those years after I lost Richard. For all the years I could’ve been a better mother to Rianna.” Her lips press together tightly, tears welling up in her eyes right up until she shuts them tight. “But now that I have it…” She can’t vocalize that either.

"Now that you have it… you don't have a clue how to live with it," Elisabeth supplies softly. "How not to feel guilty at the fact that you're happy, because it's cost so much. How to reconcile the conflict between the grief over what was lost with the joy at finding what you searched for for so long. You thought you'd give anything to reach the goal. The price was more than you ever imagined. And now in the aftermath, part of you wonders if it was the right thing to fight so hard." She lives those feelings. Sympathy makes her heart ache, and she squeezes gently.

"I want so much… to tell you that it goes away," Elisabeth says softly. "The fear, the isolation, the loneliness, the feeling of being just that half-step out of synch with everything. The grief…. They get a little easier, with time. But I can't tell you they completely go away." She looks down to where her hand rests on Michelle's wrist. "The hardest part is forgiving yourself for it all." Her smile's a little sad as she says, most likely, the same thing that Michelle's therapist told her at some point too. "Letting yourself believe you deserve the happiness that you fought so hard and paid so much for. It's a fight, every damn day."

There’s a shadow across Chel’s expression, something that never moves with recognition as Elisabeth takes a stab at what’s bothering her. She smiles when Liz is done, though, and pushes out from the table to stand up. She looks around the apartment, at the unfamiliarity of it all, and for a short moment seems lost in her own skin. Once she settles her attention back on Liz, Chel manages a painted smile. A smile Liz has had to make in the past for her father, when she lies, don’t worry, everything is fine.

“I should go read to the princess,” Chel says quietly as a mean of extracting herself from the moment. “Otherwise, you know how she is,” she says with what might be an honest laugh, “off with your head!” It’s a Red Queen joke.

Elisabeth studies the expression on Chel's face and shakes her head very slightly. "At some point, you're going to have to talk to someone. It's fine if it's not me, Michelle," she tells the woman quietly. She's not blind; she's definitely picked up on the fact that what she thought might be the trouble isn't. "I hate knowing we all got this far, with all the horror that came with it, but that you're hurting this badly." She sighs, frustrated with the feeling that she's missing something important… and that she can't help either of their mothers adapt in any meaningful way. Not that the latter is really a surprise to her — she couldn't really help anyone else adapt either. It was all she could do to adapt for herself and help Aura. "Avoiding it all? I promise you, it just makes it worse." Her tone is weary but she clearly has no intention of stopping Michelle from spending the time with Aurora instead of talking in here.

She forces a small smile. "She definitely has her moments of royal temperament," Elisabeth agrees softly. "Do, please, use the Royal Grandmother's influence to talk her out of baking a purple cake for the wedding. Before she poisons His Majesty her father?" That experiment went poorly. Richard gagged. Liz had no idea there'd been an extra ingredient. "Purple crayons do not make for good food coloring."

Chel lingers by Aurora’s door for a moment, watching Liz with silent and frustratingly opaque eyes. There is so much of Richard in her, the ways in which he compartmentalizes his pain, the ways in which he lets Liz assume one thing while feeling another, the ways in which the gears are always turning. But Chel smiles, because she has to. Because a parent — or grandparent — must be strong for the young ones.

“I imagine they don’t,” Chel says deferentially, before finally slipping into the child’s room…

…showing a mask of strength.

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