Still So Much Life


ff_gracie_icon.gif richard5_icon.gif

Scene Title Still So Much Life
Synopsis A request to learn better self-defense sees Gracie confiding in Richard. The two share pieces of their pasts and find a mutual appreciation of the broken world around them.
Date July 4, 2021

Rest Area Westbound · I-76
Rootstown, Ohio

July 4th, 2021

They’ve been stopped for a little while now, but not for long. Just enough that everyone’s had a chance to stretch and get their camp set as the sun is starting to make its way toward the edge of the horizon. Gracie Lancaster is making her way back from further down the road, eyes on that horizon sort of absently. The gauzy dress she wears is not unlike that tableau. Sky blue fading into soft yellow that mixes into pale tangerine and ends in a coral pink at the ruffled hem. While the neckline is low (which anyone who knows her by now is accustomed to), the sleeves and the skirt are long, mitigating the effects of the breeze that sweeps through now and again.

Even with his back turned, Richard isn’t hard to distinguish, and she smiles when she spots him, making her way to him and announcing her arrival with a gentle hand on the back of his shoulder, fingers trailing as she comes around his side.

Director,” she greets with a faint note of teasing.

It’s at the edge of activity that the Director is standing, Richard dressed in a pair of old blue jeans and a black undershirt as he stands looking out over the horizon. The skyline, the trees, the colors of the sky blending together down into the summer green below. It’s still bright, though, so the sunglasses stay on.

He feels her coming before she arrives, so there’s no start when she touches his shoulder.

“Gracie,” he greets quietly but warmly enough, glancing sidelong to her, “I’m a city boy at heart, but it’s nice to get out now and then. Funny enough, the last time I was on a long ground trip like this was with Taylor’s father back home.”

“Fucking Epsteins, am I right?” Gracie flashes him a crooked grin. She leans gently into him, shoulder to shoulder. “I’ve always been a city girl, too. I mean… Apart from… Before, I mean. I was a city girl before things went to shit.”

Glancing up out of the corner of her eye, she shrugs. “Don’t get many gigs in a small town, you know?” Falling silent for a moment, she keeps her gaze on him, deciding how to say what she wants to say. “Are you…” No. “Do you… “ No. “Will you teach me to… Defend myself?” The grin makes a comeback. “It’s the wild west out there. I… I wouldn’t have turned back if I’d had a broader skill set.

“They’re good people. Epsteins. Just got to get around all those porcupine quills first,” Richard chuckles, shaking his head a little and glancing back over towards the encampment– as if he was about to say something else about Taylor, before she speaks.

Then he looks back to her, a brow lifting. “Not a bad idea,” he admits, giving her a thoughtful once-over that isn’t about her attractiveness at all, “We might have to fight somewhere along the line, I mean, hopefully not but– like you said. It’s the wild west.”

“We all kind of had to get along in the Ark, you know? And we had security.” For as well as that turned out for everyone. Gracie shakes her head. “So, uhm. You said the other me is…” Her brow furrows and she looks distracted, “Or maybe that was Elliot?” Pulling her lips into a frown, she shrugs it off. “Whoever. I hear tell that the other me is some kind of badass soldier.”

It sounds like some kind of joke to her. The kind the universe plays on someone. “I don’t think I could throw a punch without breaking my hand.” Her head tips, considering something for a moment. “Although there was Timmy Jenkins in high school. He called my best friend a lesbian and I knocked him flat on his ass.”

“She is,” Richard admits, smile tugging up a bit wider, “She’s been through a lot and come through swinging.” No need to mention just how much she’s been through or how much she’s suffered because of it. “She works with, well, Epstein senior’s outfit, Wolfhound. Hunting down racist shitbags for years…”

He looks back out over the view, “She left on a mission just before I did. Hope she’s doing alright. It’s in your blood, really– your aunt, Adrienne Lancaster? She was with a CIA outfit that Avi was too. Her, Avi Epstein, Raith Jensen, Nathalie’s mother - my aunt - Sarisa Kershner…”

“Anyway.” He looks back, “Guns might be hard because we’re a little short on bullets - so target practice is gonna need to be sparse - but I can definitely show you the basics, and definitely how to throw a punch and a few more tricks.”

Gracie nods slowly, digesting new information, and some she’s heard before already. “Yeah. We don’t really have the luxury of extra ammunition these days, huh?” She looks a little bewildered by her other self’s trajectory through life, but takes it as much in stride as she can. “A friend of mine taught me some basics, so if I have to pick up a gun, I know how to be safe about it. That’s…” She smiles ruefully, “probably almost as important as knowing how to actually shoot it well.”

Chuckling faintly, Gracie asks, “Do you have any sweet judo moves to show me?”

“Well,” Richard’s smile strengthens a bit, an eyebrow raising high above the edge of his sunglasses as he looks at her, “I don’t know if they’re judo, I never did any formal training. Purely the school of hard knocks, you know, bar brawls. Prison yard fights. Some moves I picked up from a particularly bad-ass stripper from Vegas…”

A briefly wistful expression as he looks back skyward, silent a moment, and then he chuckles, “But yeah, I can show you a few moves. Maybe it’ll help keep you alive. You wanna learn a sword, though, you talk to Tetsuyama.”

Gracie grins. “Badass stripper from Vegas, huh? Nice.” Career goals. “Not sure I’m much the sword type. I think hand to hand is more my speed.” Her nose wrinkles. “Swords look awkward, and like too much to worry about. Balance and shit?”

There’s her own kind of wistful expression after that. “I’m hoping I can learn some archery from Chess, though.” There’s a brief bubble of throaty laughter. “God, she’s pretty. Are she and Saffron…?”

Richard laughs softly, his shoulders shaking a bit at the question. “Her and Saffron’s brother, I believe. Although there’s some weird complications there that aren’t really mine to talk about. I don’t know if they’re polyamorous or not - or if she’s into women - so you’d have to ask them yourself.”

The ginger shrugs her shoulders. Ah, well.

“Hand to hand, I can show you some moves,” he allows, then arches a brow, “You’re not exactly dressed for it, though. Not that I’m complaining about the view, but– you have something less flowy to wear? Or I guess we can work around it. Suppose you usually dress like this anyway, so…”

“This is kind of what I got,” Gracie confirms, sweeping a hand down her form. “Brought my work clothes.” Implying she maybe feels like she’s meant to be on while they travel. “This is how I’m comfortable.” But she looks down, sheepish and slightly chagrined. “I do know how to handle a rifle,” she admits. “My father taught me gun safety when I was small, and took me deer hunting from the time I was old enough to get my license. I’ve just… You know.”

Gracie looks up, blue eyes full of trepidation. “Don’t like shooting at people. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve done it before, when I was out here. But I wasn’t great at it. You sneak up on deer. You watch, and you wait, and they don’t move.” She wraps her arms around herself, gaze darting away again. “People notice you. People move. People shoot back.” Her lips press together for a moment. “Being a complete pacifist out here sometimes gets you in worse trouble than just getting killed.”

While she breathes deeply, the succession of them is just a little too quick. “I don’t like hurting people,” she insists. “But I want to be able to survive.” Gracie swallows unevenly, her throat tight and eyes threatening tears. “I got picked up by traffickers near here?” Her jaw trembles. “And I don’t ever wanna be a victim again.”

There are reasons she doesn’t like talking about herself, and the way she gets overwhelmed in moments like these is one of them. This was more than she meant to reveal, but she shrugs more to herself than anything else. Can’t take it back now.

“If you ever start liking shooting at people,” Richard says seriously, “Then that’s the time to put the gun down and never pick it back up again.”

Then I got picked up by traffickers near here strikes home, and he grimaces slightly– a flicker of anger in his eyes warring with sympathy, one hand lifting towards her before falling once more. His instinct to reach out, but not everyone wants contact like that.

“I’ll show you what I can,” he says quietly, “But if anyone comes for you while you’re with us? They’ll reach out and pull back a stump.”

Gracie nods her head, pressing her lips together. “Please,” she says, bending her arm toward herself, she gestures with the curl of her fingers in towards her palm. “I am so touch starved right now.” That hand finishes coming up, scrubbing over her face briefly before dropping back to her side. A note of breathy laughter escapes her, a self-conscious thing.

There’s an attempt at a smile, one that doesn’t make it very far. “I’ve been… It’s been a while since I had someone else looking out for me,” Gracie admits. “I’ve been on my own.”

“Hey, you might have thought I was nuts when I said it back in the Pelago,” Richard observes with a hint of rueful humor, “But I meant it, Gracie. You’re my people– and I look out for my people.”

His hand sweeps back up, arm extended her way in an invitation for a hug, offering her a faint smile, “And there’s not a lot I wouldn’t do for my people.”

Gracie closes in and rests her hands on Richard’s chest, her head on his shoulder, waiting to be wrapped in his embrace. She lets out a fluttery laugh. “I never thought I’d see the day where I missed…” She trails off, the shake of her head felt against him rather than seen. “Sleeping alone so many nights has been strange.” Not that anyone truly sleeps alone — their tents are still grouped up around the camp — but he can understand where the difference lies.

“If you’re rotating out of the sleeping car, I wouldn’t be opposed to sharing my tent.” Richard can imagine that an offer like that is usually delivered with more confidence, a coy lilt and maybe a brush of fingertips down the length of an arm, but Gracie’s voice right now is a quiet thing, uncertainty laced through as though she may fear being rejected.

As she steps in, Richard wraps his arms around her; one about her waist, his other hand lifting to slide under her hair a bit and brush against the nape of her neck when she rests her head against him. He closes his eyes, head tilting a bit to rest his against hers as she talks, just holding her there against him.

As she makes that offer, he pauses– and then he chuckles very softly, murmuring, “That could be nice, honestly. And– I’m not making any assumptions, okay?” She just said sharing a tent, and he’s taking her at that. The last time she was afraid he’d be angry at her asking for nothing more, and he wants to head that off at the pass.

Gracie nods her head against his chest, still working on getting her throat to open, her airway to stop feeling so constricted with negative emotion. “No expectations,” she murmurs, like she’s assuring him on her side of things, too. They can both simply be content with each other’s companionship.

A warm body to lie next to. An opportunity to feel a little less alone in a barren and very lonely world.

The redhead lets out a quiet sigh. “Thank you.” Her voice is whisper soft. “It’s hard,” she admits non-specifically. “It’s really hard.” All of it, probably. The journey, the old wounds, going it entirely alone. She closes her eyes and allows the weight of the past to settle over her just as surely as the weight of his arms around her frame.

One hand slowly trails down his chest, a deliberate firmness to her touch as she slips it under the brace of his arm and around his ribs, coming to rest over his spine as she returns the embrace, rather than simply soak it in. “Do you ever want to just… melt into the shadows and… I don’t know. Forget about all of this?”

“I used to,” Richard admits with a heavy sigh, his eyes closed, “A long time ago. I used to be a thief, you know.”

He breathes out a chuckle, his fingertips trailing up and down the back of her neck reassuringly as he reveals, “Did a stint in Rikers and everything. I was just doing mercenary work when… well.” The hint of humor leaves his tone, his voice quieter, “A whole class of kids committed suicide. All Evolved. They were afraid of the world they were in, afraid of all the propaganda, all the rhetoric, and…”

“Anyway.” He draws in a slow breath, chest expanding against her and then sinking again as he exhales it, “It didn’t really have anything to do with me. But it really– hit me. Made me wonder what kind of a world it was that kids didn’t want to grow up in it.”

“So I decided that I’d do what I could to make a better world for them. Even if it killed me. Which it has, I guess, but the world isn’t safe for them yet. So I’m still going.”

Richard feels Gracie stiffen in his arms as he tells the tale of The 36. There’s a sharp breath sucked in that signifies her horror at something so awful. “That’s terrible,” she murmurs, the understatement of the century. Her arm wraps around him just a little tighter, her fingers curling into the fabric of his coat. “What a statement to make…”

It seems for a second that she might be intending to draw back, but instead she stays where she is, letting the drag of his fingers over her skin keep her grounded. “I guess I understand.” Eyes open, she stares off into the nothing of the horizon. “Someone has to fight for those who can’t.” She doesn’t realize it, but she’s just come to understand the motivations of the Rue Lancaster that Richard knows from his own timeline. “What an awful burden to set upon your own shoulders.”

“Exactly.” Richard gives his head a little shake, felt more than heard with her looking away but so close as she is, “And… I can rest when we’re done. Not before. I made that mistake before. Never again.” Things kept moving in the background while he told himself the world was safe, that it was time to rebuild, that the fight was over. That he could trust the Deveaux Society to do what needed to be done.

He was wrong.

“So…” He exhales a sigh, not making any move to draw away though he wouldn’t stop her if she did, “Sometimes I wish I could just… do what another iteration of me did, and just… go off and be a shadow forever. But I can’t. I couldn’t live with myself.”

Then she does pull back, enough so he can see her smile. “It is mighty fuckin’ tempting, isn’t it?” The expression is a short-lived one that twists with uncertainty as she looks away again, slowly disengaging from the comfort and safety he provides with his presence. She’s still close to him, however, as she pauses to look around at birds perched in trees, on the shelter rooftops. Her attention turns to the rustle of grass, follows the path of a squirrel as it scurries up the trunk of a tree.

“There’s still so much life here,” Gracie remarks with a quiet sense of wonder. “I thought it’d be so much more the first time I came out this way. I thought there’d be fields of green grass and wildflowers, cities reclaimed by nature. I thought the world might look a little bit more like it must have before humanity came along to spoil everything.” She shakes her head. “I was sorely disappointed then. But now…”

Another little smile comes back to her face and she takes it all in. “I see the beauty.”

“There’s a lot of beauty out here,” Richard admits, head turning to follow the same rustling of that squirrel before it disappears. “It’s not… that different in my string. There was a war. A big one. Most of the midwest, it’s like this now, just… back to nature. I drove across it once, New York to Washington State, it was a hell of a trip.”

“There’s a lot of beauty everywhere, if you know where to look,” he says, glancing to her, “It’s easy to overlook it, though.”

That small smile becomes a wider one when he looks back to her and she perhaps reads between the lines, finding a compliment there. “Thank you for showing it to me,” Gracie says in a soft voice.

Movement in her periphery catches her attention and she pauses to look over. Her eyes settle on the form of Taylor Epstein and something changes in the tension in her shoulders. It’s as though she’s somehow relieved and nervous. “I, ah…” That freckled face turns back to Richard even as her body starts to turn the other direction. An apologetic smile briefly graces her features. “I need to go talk to him. But… I’ll catch up to you at dinner, okay? We can… work out our sleeping arrangement then?” Spoken with a hopeful lilt to her voice. A reward for having to do something that makes her anxious.

“Sure.” Richard brushes a hand up to the back of her shoulder, and he leans in to brush a kiss lightly to her temple before stepping away, flashing her a grin, “Just remember the rules of dealing with Epsteins - never suggest they have emotions, never tell them anything that’ll make them mad, and always give them booze to calm them down because you’ve probably got to do the first two. Also, they burn hot, but they burn out fast.”

“We can talk tonight.”

Gracie’s eyes close, a contented smile spreading across her face for that gesture of affection and assurance from Richard. She chuckles quietly and looks up at him again. “Thanks for the advice. I’ll make sure to grab my flask.”

With a brow lift and a wink, she heads off on her way.

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