The Toll


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Scene Title The Toll
Synopsis With the question of what even the hell looming over her head, Rue finally seeks to find the answer.
Date March 14, 2021

Phoenix Heights: The Burgess-Tracy Household

The stairs leading to Marthe and Wright's apartment place Rue in the middle of a hallway lined with doors, though the door she's looking for is directly in front of her. The place is clean and well maintained, one of a handful of buildings in an apartment complex built in the eighties.

There's a potent smell of cooking, many heavily spiced meals competing for attention. Laughter can be heard echoing through the hallways, and sneakers squeak on stairs above and below. The place seems full, no sign of unused apartments.

The pause on the phone when Rue suggested swinging by was brief but noticeable. Marthe didn't ask why Rue would come bearing gifts, but the question seems to linger in the air despite the inevitability of this visit. It would be odd if they didn't get along considering their places at opposite poles of the polycule. It is odd; because despite Elliot's partnership with Wright, Rue has only rarely known him to spend any time with them at all.

Rue’s stood face to face with the hulking beasts of war that could have mulched her as easily as a fallen branch in a woodchipper and it somehow feels less daunting than facing the wife of her lover’s partner. Her friend’s wife. Maybe if she didn’t have the good relationship she does with Wright, Matthe wouldn’t have entertained the notion. But here she is with a warm pan of brownies loaded with chocolate chips and colorful M&Ms.

In her premise, her pretense, she hasn’t lied. While she may not have been as upfront about her reasons for wanting to meet, Rue wouldn’t let herself outright lie about it. Something about relationships — especially ones as complicated as this one appears to be — being based on trust means she can’t just employ the sorts of tricks she’d use on anyone else.

It helps that she at least likes Marthe and she’d like that to be and remain a two-way street. Balancing the pan in one hand, she reaches up and knocks on the door.

Rue’s knock is quickly answered by the sound of a chair being dragged across linoleum, then carpet. Four thin shadows project through the narrow crack at the bottom of the door, then—shadows momentarily wobbling dramatically to the side before thumping loudly back into position—the view hole in the door darkens.

“Slide the pan under the door,” a small voice calls through the wood.

The response is a loud hum before the little voice on the other side of the door hears a scrape across the floor and then a thunk!



“Nothing to be done for it. It just won’t fit.” Rue sighs dramatically. “I guess I’ll just have to take the goods to another drop point.” There’s a little smirk that’s aimed at the peephole once the former model comes back to her full height. When she came to be more fond of Ames than terrified of/for her, she can’t say.

A weary sigh, a recalculation. “Gimme a hundred dollars—Heeeey I was gonna make a hundred dollars!” The shadows beneath the door shift wildly for a moment, the chair dragged to the side, feet shuffling around.

“No you weren’t,” an older voice says before the door, unlocked, swings into the apartment to reveal an apologetic Marthe pushing Ames behind herself into the living room. “Sorry about the troll toll,” she says, motioning for Rue to come into the kitchen. Ames’s grabby hands pointing toward the pan are rebuffed as her Mother extends a hand to accept the offering before her daughter gets any ideas. “Rates are getting out of control.”

“Troll toll!” A tiny fist pumps in the air. She gives Rue a leary eye. “You can pay me later.”

“Oh my god, Ames,” Marthe says, “Put the chair back.”

Laughter is barely restrained on the hall-side of the door and it shows in the tightness at the corners of Rue’s mouth and the slant of her brows when Marthe answers the door. She passes off the goodies with a deep breath and manages to keep herself to a single chuckle, rather than a bark of laughter, or more. “Rates are getting steep!”

A warning finger is pointed in Ames’ direction. “I’ll tell your mom about your extortion racket.” Then Rue narrows her eyes faintly and turns back to Marthe. “Wright taught her how to extort me, didn’t she?” Her tongue clicks off the back of her teeth and she shakes her head.

“No,” Ames says as she pushes the chair across the floor into the kitchen, “I do it to make Mrs. Hon give me candy.”

With a genuine smile, shaking her head at the antics they’re moving past now, the redhead asks, “How are you?” It’s a question she doesn’t pose in small talk. “We don’t get much chance to talk.” She shrugs.

Marthe makes her way past Ames to place the brownie pan on the counter. She gets a knife out immediately and, to Ames’s surprise, cuts out and hands her daughter a treat. “Go eat this in your room without making a mess of it, if possible,” Marthe says, shooing Ames away. Ames looks aghast at the size of the snack, before dinner no less, and pads her way out of the room hunched over her treasure.

“I’m doing well,” Marthe finally responds to Rue’s question, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Can I get you something to drink? Coffee?” She cuts a few more brownies free and places them on a plate before carrying it to the table.

“Coffee is always appreciated,” Rue accepts with a nod. She smirks as she watches Ames go. “I hear Mrs. Hon is a sweetheart. I doubt Ames has to con her into much of anything.” Taking a seat at the table, she refrains from taking a brownie until her hostess will be able to partake as well.

“I’m glad to hear. I know things have been…” A pale, slender hand is waved through the air a little nebulously. “Holidays are crazy, then it’s back to school… Lots going on.” Now she’s making small talk, and it upsets her. That’s not why she’s here. It doesn’t feel fair to Marthe. “What I’m really trying to get at is that I want you to know that I’m available if you need anything, you know? You’re my friend’s wife, and I hope you and I can be friends too.”

Rue pushes out a breath that puffs out her cheeks. “Wow. Did that sound as lame out loud as it just sounded in my ears? I’m sorry. I’m not good at making friends.”

“She’s a terrible influence,” Marthe says of Mrs. Hon, watching Ames carefully as the girl makes her way around the corner. Accounts for the opening and the closing of a door. “She’s actually wonderful, we probably would have had a meltdown moving in if it weren’t for Mrs. Hon. Great cook.”

Judging from Marthe’s smile as she puts together a pot of coffee, Rue’s comment about availability at the very least deserves a polite smile. Marthe shakes her head, putting a few things in order. “It’s been an interesting couple of days,” she admits, shaking her head. Doesn’t comment on where Rue’s friend is right now.

“I appreciate that,” she adds, seeming to take her body language into account suddenly. She sighs, and gives herself a moment to fill the coffee carafe with water. “Sorry. The holidays were the start of a kind of roller coaster here. Still kind of on edge about unexpected visits.”

She pours the water into a coffee machine and measures out coffee into a filter basket. “I’m sure Wright’s told you all about that though.”

Rue grimaces. “Yeah, I… should have thought about that when I reached out kind of out of the blue there. I didn’t mean to add to the stress.” She rubs a hand across the back of her neck. “I heard the in-laws are a bit of…” She frowns and decides not to mince words. “I hear they’re assholes, and I’m sorry you’ve both had to try and deal with that.”

What might otherwise be a moment of awkwardness when Rue glances away is actually a moment spent in thought. She angles a look back to Marthe from the corner of her eye. “Do they need a flaming bag of dog crap to show up on their doorstep?”

“Nah,” Marthe says, eyes in the middle distance as she sets the coffee to brew, “They already have their groceries delivered by Pryr, any more would just confuse them.” Her mouth ticks up in a mean smile for a moment, then she seems to relax a bit. She covers a thoughtful smile with the way she reaches into a cupboard for a pair of coffee mugs.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says with a wave of her hands after she sets down the mugs. Something about her posture means the unexpected visit. Maybe this can be a time to talk about something no one else alive would understand.

“Yeah the Tracys are a fucking nightmare,” she says, “Holy fuck. I can’t even imagine…” her attention is drawn back to the hissing of the coffee machine. She leaves the thought as is.

The comment about groceries sees a surprised bark of laughter escape from Rue that she claps a hand down over her mouth to contain. “You’re wicked,” she laughs with less oomph behind it. “I love it.”

With a little sigh as she comes back down, she’s still smiling, even if it’s with more sympathy than mirth now. “Growing up with that?” Rue asks, attempting to finish the thought. “Coming out of that well adjusted is just a testament to how brilliant Wright is.” The operative word of comparatively to follow up on well-adjusted is left off. They both know already.

Marthe laughs for only a second at the idea of well-adjusted, then discards whatever she had intended to say. She turns back to the table, views Rue appraisingly. They’ve seen each other only a bare handful of times despite the six months of their mutual connection. Most of Marthe’s memories of Rue are from whatever she gleaned from Elliot and Wright during the war and the early days of Wolfhound in Rochester.

She taps her fingertips against her arms, now crossed, as she realigns whatever she’d intended to say. “I hear you’re freelancing it these days,” she says, ignoring the fact that freelance describes Wolfhound to a T. Not mercenary she means, despite the connection to exactly that. Not cutting, not intrusive. Whatever she knows about Rue would have been gleaned from Wright, Wolfhound Thanksgiving party included.

She seems happy to drop any conversation on what Wright’s parents molded their daughter into.

“That’s a very nice way to put that I quit Wolfhound and decided to start dancing on top of bars for money instead.” Rue lays out with a shake of her head and a grin. “Not those kinds of bars, though. I, ah, made myself a bit of a nest egg after the war. I’m coasting right now. The only dancing I do right now is at the gym.” One nail taps against the tabletop absently. “I had dreams of becoming a ballerina once. Now I guess I just do what needs doing, when people think I’m the one who needs to be doing it.”

That sounds stupidly cryptic, doesn’t it? “Not a lot of people knock on my door. Mostly old friends. I get cats outta trees.”

Marthe waves her hand at the idea, incredulous, to dismiss any idea of disrespect for someone who dances on bartops. She swirls the pad of her thumb against her fingertips as the coffee makes its agonizingly slow declaration of completion, then pours one mug, then two.

She brings the mugs to the table black, sets both down and motions to a small platter containing clear glass jars of sugar and honey. “There’s full-fat milk in the fridge if you’d prefer,” she says, accenting her own mug with a spoonful of crystalized honey. The jar is old, latch worn, the product likely local. Something Elliot would know how to find.

“We need fewer people who kill and more who inspire,” she says, spoon clinking happily around the inside of her mug. “I’m just…”

She blinks slowly, almost one wink followed by another. “I think I put us on the wrong foot,” she admits. “I don’t want you to think I don’t want you around. Honestly it’s been good to see Elliot have someone.” Someone to do what is left vague. Seeing less frequently than a comment of that nature merits.

“Black’s fine,” Rue assures, content to hold her mug between her palms for the moment while the liquid inside cools. There’s a chagrined little smile. “I mean, I guess I’ve been both.” Someone who kills, and someone who inspires. “There’s an exhibit somewhere of my war photography. I guess it won awards or something. I just ignore it. If it helps someone, somehow… I don’t know.” She ended up taking up a gun in the end anyway. As much as she plays it down, she doesn’t regret either course of action.

“You don’t have anything to apologize for, okay? You don’t know me except as… Whatever hopefully horribly exaggerated stories you’ve heard from Wright and the others.” The others leaves it open to include people who aren’t Elliot. The elephant in the room. “But you are… really important to Wright, who’s been a really good friend to me. And there’s…” All this trailing off is making Rue pissed off at herself.


“There’s Elliot.” It’s stated plainly, finally. She glances down the hallway meaningfully. There’s Ames. “We’re starting to get serious. Or we’ve been serious for a while and I’ve just finally figured it out, take your pick. Point is, I’m not dumb. I’ve literally been paid to read situations. I don’t know what’s going on, but something is.” That deserves to be just dragged out into the light of day, too. “I like you, and I respect you a fu—” That hallway is glanced down again. After a thoughtful frown, she commits to the swear. “A fucktonne. So, whatever’s going on, I just don’t want to accidentally step in it. I can’t do that if I’m dancing around something blindfolded.”

Whatever calm Marthe cultivated as she became comfortable with Rue’s intrusion suddenly evaporates. Her face pales, her eyes shut, her breath huffs. She appears to count to three before her eyes open again, laser sharp on Rue’s before suddenly elsewhere. Her fingers drum against the side of her mug, she buys time by taking a sip. “You don’t…” she starts, stops.

She leans toward Rue, imposingly at first before turning her head toward the hallway as well, checking for Ames. She leans back. Doesn’t say There’s an artbook containing your photography on the bookshelf in the living room. Her hands still the spoon and the swirl it makes in her mug.

Really important?” she asks, frustrated with her own reaction as evidenced by the flicker in her eyes. By the centering breath and the lean back into her seat. The drop of her shoulders and the reevaluation of Rue. “Wright is my wife,” she states. “We’ve been married since before the war ended. I am not very important to Wright.” And it’s true, Wright would walk to the moon for Marthe if she could and it’s obvious to anyone watching.

She pushes her coffee to the side, ceramic sound rippling against the grain of the hardwood. Fingers ball into a fist, not to fight but to remind herself what she can say out loud. What she can say in honesty at all.

Her face ripples with anger, with deflection, with forgetting what it is she needs—needs—to say out loud. Then her eyes close. She opens them already focused on Rue’s, then looks away, shakes shakes shakes her head.

“Elliot is in love with me,” she says, out loud, for the first time in two years.

“No, I— I just— I didn’t mean to downplay anything, I just don’t have words,” Rue stammers, trying to smooth things over while she watches the anger and restraint play out on Marthe’s face. This had been going so well, she thought, and suddenly she’s twenty-two again, trying desperately to be liked, and just sticking her foot in her mouth over and over.

But when the truth comes out, the woman across the table may as well have taken her fist and drilled it straight into Rue’s solar plexus. She falls back into her chair, stunned and gasping for breath. Hurting.

For a long moment, she’s silent, eyes ahead, but off to the side from Marthe and unfocused. Rue sags, wounded and defeated. “Every time I’ve fallen in love with someone, there’s always been someone else. I don’t know why I ever thought this would be any different.” Her head lifts again and she meets the other woman’s eyes. “I’m sorry you’ve been dealing with something so complicated.” She can only assume Elliot’s feelings are unrequited, or this would be a very different conversation, and it would have had to happen long ago. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Marthe looks regretful as soon as Rue begins trying to clean up the mess she herself just made. “No,” she says, waving a hand through the air to dispel it. “It’s not…”

She’s run out of things to fidget with, surfaces to deflect toward. She feels honestly horrible about having just released a secret and isn’t sure how to put it back in the box. But Rue needs to hear it, so the words come out.

“He’s not—” she starts, reconsiders. “Polyamory isn’t the problem. I’m absolutely fine with Wright and Elliot’s partnership.” It’s even technically true.

She can’t believe she’s agreeing with Elliot right now, but there’s plenty of time to pretend it’s her own idea and to forget the rest later. “They got lazy,” she says, eyes more calm than they’ve just been. “Sharing constantly. Even in the townhouse. The spaces that were supposed to be for my family.”

She’s upset that she can’t stop herself, but she says anyway: “Do you know they have their own secret language?

What’s meant to be a balm on her self-inflicted injuries just feels like salt, prompting Rue to shake her head quickly. She doesn’t need the assurance. She knows she’s fucked up. She rolls her shoulders one at a time, trying to ease some of the tension out of herself like it’s just a warmup before a floor routine.

“Yeah, I did.” Rue brings up one of those shoulders in a half shrug and forces herself to stay on the other participant in this conversation, rather than letting herself simply drift elsewhere. “Comes in handy when you’re in a situation where more words means more chances to be overheard and caught out.” She tries to smile sympathetically, but a twitch of her lips is as close as the expression comes to forming. “It’s a little stranger when it’s just being used in everyday life.” But she can’t say she wouldn’t do the same if she had the opportunity.

Marthe closes her eyes and shakes her head faintly in self-reproach. She doesn’t want to sabotage Elliot’s happiness. What he’s established on his own in the last two years. But his secrets can cause real harm. Have caused real harm.

She opens her eyes, resting her arm on the table. She tries to work around something she doesn’t want to say because of the implications. “That was petty,” she says apologetically. “It’s hard not to think of all the little things at once.”

Focus on the important part. “Elliot is in love with me because Wright is in love with me,” she says. Something shudders and plummets in the core of her and she allows it to go without feeling it. Bend, fall away, same as always. “And because for a long time they didn’t try to separate their emotions. With Wright’s drinking it was a lot harder for them to do it. Just feeling everything all the time.”

“With all their shorthand I felt like an outsider to my own relationship. Just living beside Wright instead of with her.” She’s making an effort to keep her tone level. An effort to not think about what Eve Mas’s festival wrought nearly a year ago. When they’d been doing so well. “So I told Wright that we needed space from Elliot if this was going to work. Established rules, starting with Elliot going away. As away as going to live in the garden apartment, anyway. And with Wright’s sobriety, obviously.”

There’s a memory, brief and bright, of Rue and Wright each with an arm around each other, their other hands linked together around the neck of a bottle as they danced in a tripping fashion in front of a fire. Laughing loudly and with complete abandon. It was a lighter moment in the war. A time of rest and a time of celebration of a target eliminated or an attack thwarted or what the fuck ever that Rue can’t even remember anymore. It’s the moments that kept her going. This one is now thrown into a darker relief and twists her stomach with guilt.

Rue’s head bobs up and down once in a nod to show she understands. She thinks she does. Maybe she doesn’t actually. She can’t be sure. “I can imagine, but also can’t begin to. I’ve obviously never lived with them while attempting to pursue a relationship. Elliot and I were both too awkward to start anything during the war.”

This is absolutely not the time to say Wright was more my type anyway.

“Maybe if I hadn’t been… Yeah, I know. What-ifs don’t do shit for either of us right now.” It’s also not appropriate to say it must really be something to be loved by someone so much that someone else can’t help but love you, too. Rue finally brings her coffee up for a drink, for want of something to do with her hands. There’s so many things she wants to say about the way she’s hurting to know this, about how it figures, that just when she thought she’d found something that might slot into the space in her life left intentionally empty until now, she was just too presumptuous.

She can have that pity party later, on her own, with a bottle of whiskey. “What do you need from me?” Rue asks without lifting her eyes from the dark surface of her coffee at first. It’s not a petulant question, but an honest one. “How can I help this situation and make it better for you? And Wright and Ames.”

For a moment Marthe appears to not understand why Rue could possibly be offering something to the situation. Something clears up behind her eyes and she considers for a moment, looking down, where to begin. “Don’t drink around Wright, I guess,” she suggests. “I’m grateful to Elliot that he’s remaining sober with her. Obviously you’re your own adult, I don’t expect you to quit drinking just in case you come across Wright.”

She meets Rue’s eyes, takes in a more purposeful review of her. Doesn’t say Elliot has a thing for redheads. “Be good to Elliot,” she says regretfully. “He really did go through it before we met.” Before… she thinks, Before… Before what? “He deserves to be happy and he cares for you a lot. That much I know. I think he’s happier than he’s been in a long time.” As much as she can tell while rarely speaking to him.

It’s with a certain kind of numbness that Rue nods her head this time. Not drinking around Wright, well. She’s already making the effort to do it less around Elliot, and that’s when she thought it was about him and… Well, it’s still kind of about him, isn’t it? The root is only slightly different from what she expected. Like expecting a tangerine but finding a clementine. All but entirely interchangeable.

“Yeah.” She’ll be good to him. “Yeah.” Elliot’s been through the wringer. To the rest of it, her voice is much softer. “Yeah…”

Then there’s a frustrated sigh that carries an edge of a whine on it. Rue’s eyes are glassy from emotion she’s trying to deny. “How am I supposed to compete with this?” She asks, lifting her arm from where it’s been resting, tucked in front of her on the table, waving her hand to indicate Marthe. “If he looks at you and he feels even a fraction of what Wright does…” She looks away and laughs in that way that broken people do when nothing’s funny at all.

She doesn’t ask where it would leave them if the reverse thing happened. If Elliot did fall and stay hopelessly in love with her, and Wright felt any of that bleed over.

Her head shakes quickly back and forth. The whole thing has to be dismissed before either of them says anything on that subject that they can’t take back. That will hurt either of them worse than they already are. “Being linked with them doesn’t make any of it easier to comprehend. But you know that already, don’t you?”

It isn’t so much opening a can of worms as it is taking a crowbar to crate after crate on the pallet of them.

Marthe raises an eyebrow at Rue's self pity, the face she gives to uncooperative patients whose bullshit she doesn't have time for. With her eyes cast down, Rue doesn't see the expression. Doesn't see the way she pales suddenly.

"I don't…" she says quietly, I don't… I don't what? "I've never let him link me into the network. Honestly it gives me the fucking creeps." A faint shiver runs through her and she pulls her sweater tighter for a moment as though it's the cool air.

"There's something about it he talks around," she continues, "Or deflects questions about. I don't think he's outright lying but he's not being truthful. It's hard to trust a half truth."

She seems to regret saying that, and pivots. "Wright doesn't think so, and while I don't think she's lying to me about it… They've known each other their entire lives and she only ever sees the best in him."

Rue lets out an involuntary breath of laughter, stunned. “I’d have thought for all the sharing, they’d have talked you into it at some point, just so you could see.” Her brow furrows and she frowns, perturbed. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to…”

She’ll just keep fucking all of this up, reading all the wrong signals. God, she’s good at that when feelings come into the mix. “What do you think he’s half lying about?” If one is telling a half truth, then the other half must be a lie.

Marthe is silent while she searches for an explanation. All of the little hints, the things slightly off, the comments and deflections. Ten years of intuition distilled into a theory. Stepping around what she knows, carefully not remembering.

“I just..” she starts, stops, sighs and shrugs. “It’s hard to explain. I just get the feeling that..” she sighs, meets Rue’s eyes. “That his ability isn’t what he says it is.”

Rue nods her head slowly. She doesn’t have Marthe’s wealth of experience, only the fits and starts of what she’s witnessed in the past, experienced for herself, what she observes when Elliot forgets she’s around to see him. “Yeah. But I don’t know what else it would be, so I…”

She doesn’t ask not because she doesn’t have a better theory, but because she’s kept her own secrets from him — crucial secrets — and the idea of asking him to share one of his own, when she was reticent? Rue doesn’t like the hollow echo of shame in her chest that comes with that.

“I don’t think it’s anything… Bad.” Yet there’s still an edge of uptalk on that final word. It’s almost as much assertion as it is question. “He’s… We’ve linked before. I wanted to understand it, understand him. And he can’t just root around in my head, you know? He only sees what I call up and let him see.” She takes another drink of her coffee. “I don’t know.”

Marthe shrugs with a hand before picking up her mug to drink. It’s hard to describe a feeling to someone else. It’s hard to describe to herself. The only way she could share it properly is the thing they’re talking about, and that isn’t likely to happen.

“You don’t think it’s strange, how much he’s changed since you met him?” she asks. It’s been ten years for her, just after what Wright would call Bannerman’s Community Garden going to seed. Marthe can clearly recall the quiet young man who rarely spoke in her presence. Who’d snap his fingers when he was frustrated and thought no one was looking: once, twice, three times. Who’d get so angry when words wouldn’t come and people started guessing what he meant to fill the silence.

Rue shrugs her shoulders slowly. “So he changed a lot in ten years. I did, too. He worked on himself.” If she sounds defensive, it’s because she’s thinking about it now and she doesn’t like what conclusions her investigative mind is drawing. The clues she’s been willfully ignoring since he came into her life again. “We had to learn to communicate. We would have died if we didn’t.”

Around the coffee mug, Rue’s knuckles have gone white. Does any of this change who Elliot is to her? Does it matter how he got to where he is now? The answer is unfortunately yes. “He regresses sometimes when he’s really upset.”

Marthe looks down, having to admit to herself that she has seen his old behaviors on occasion. “That wasn’t fair of me,” she says. “I’m not a neurologist or a therapist, I have no idea what he’s gone through to be where he is now. And Wright says he started gaining control over his anxiety and his speech disorder before he went into the Ark.”

She sighs, presses her fingertips to her brow. “Sorry, A whole lot of things came to mind all at once. I shouldn’t have gone on the offensive,” she says. He’s important to Wright, he deserves better, she thinks, Even if I’ll never love him. Even if… If…

“You’re looking for answers,” Rue says gently, starting to calm a bit herself. “You want to protect Wright. This is… It’s all understandable.” But she knows she won’t let it go now. Now, she’s going to be watching Elliot for signs of things that don’t add up. She hates it.

This would be easier if she knew what she wanted from this now. Rue fills the empty space with another drink of coffee. Her eyes drift absently toward the brewer on the counter, wondering if she’ll get away with a second cup if she exhausts this one too quickly.

Taking in a deep breath. “Whatever his ability might be, there’s one thing that can be trusted more than anything else when it comes to Elliot: He would never intentionally harm Wright.” To leave intentionally in that sentence is inviting an argument about how it could still happen, but omitting it is setting up an argument for just how naive are you and while Rue is keen on neither at the moment, her wording is the most honest. Battle picked.

“I know,” Marthe says distractedly. “I know.” His self-control isn’t in question; she’s met few people as meticulous. He always has a plan, is always calculating. Managing people's expectations in a way they rarely notice. Managing their perception of him. Little distractions to hide the way his eyes lose focus for a moment before he sees through the eyes of her wife.

"Is he good to you?" she asks without looking over.

The question catches Rue off guard for a moment. She blinks several times, then the corner of her mouth quirks up. “Yeah… Yeah, he’s really good to me. He… I, uh. I was in a really bad place when he reached out to me after all those years.” Anxiously, she bounces one leg in her seat. “He wouldn’t let me stay there. He pulled me back up and helped me keep my head above water.”

Pressing her lips together now, Rue can’t help but look ashamed. She feels ashamed that she needed the help. That she let herself become so far gone. That sometimes she still just wants to crawl back into that hole and be left alone. That sometimes she tries to push Elliot — and Seren — away so she can wallow in her own misery.

“Honestly, I don’t deserve him.”

Another reminder to Marthe, Elliot has changed for the better in more ways than one. He is conscious of his past bad behavior, and is trying very hard to make up for it. He’s respected every rule she made. Assuming she can trust—no. Wright wouldn’t do that. She trusts Wright, doesn’t doubt her commitment. Their family’s space remains theirs alone.

It’s also clear Rue’s footing isn’t solid. Marthe sighs quietly, sympathetically. Everyone’s been through it. She doesn’t know much about Rue’s recent life outside of Elliot’s orbit, other than what Wright has said in conversation. But she knows Rue was on Pollepel Island too. Another survivor. Another Hound, and compatriot of the woman Marthe grew to love.

“Don’t,” Marthe says, simultaneously brook no bullshit and don’t go through that rabbit hole. “Everybody deserves a hand up and out. Everybody gets a second chance.”

Then, deflecting with humor, “Don’t give Elliot credit for your own self-improvement. You need to do that for you, not for your boyfriend.” Not specifying Elliot, just in general.

It’d be easy to focus on herself and deflect the comment. To let her guilt do the driving and for Rue to insist that she hates every time someone tries to tell her she does deserve something good — someone as good as Elliot, even if that’s not what Marthe will invoke here.

Rue Lancaster is rarely one to back down from a direct challenge, however. “So where does that leave you? Does Elliot get a second chance to prove he‘s not going to fall into that trap, or what?”

Marthe’s face returns to neutral before there’s a complex roulette of expressions, none of them fully formed on their way to vaguely dissatisfied and embarrassed. She works her jaw to say something, her eyes elsewhere, but doesn’t produce any words.

She takes in a deep breath that feels like the beginning of a sob, but manages to only whisper, “Please don’t make me lie to you anymore. You have to know what this is doing to me.” Eyes already shut clench even further. No, no. No. Never again. And like that, it’s gone.

Because Rue’s situation isn’t anything like her own. Elliot didn’t… she thinks, Didn’t… Frustration as suddenly she can’t even describe what she’s so mad about, why she’s so cold with him despite his every effort to satisfy her demands, to make penance. All she can do is stretch out the silence and nod while she chews on the thought.

“Touche,” she says, eyes finally returning to Rue’s. “I’ll think about it.” Not truthfully, that’s too much to ask. But as far as she’ll ever be able to really think about it. She takes a large sip from her coffee and sets the mug aside with a measure of finality. The little ways to let someone know a conversation is drawing to a close without having to explicitly say it.

There’s more she could say. A stronger rebuttal. But this… It isn’t her fight. Rue reaches up and rubs at one corner of her eye carefully with the pad of her finger. It looks like taking care of an itch or maybe removing some bit of dust, but her finger comes away wet. A secret she’ll be keeping to herself. “That’s all I can ask.”

After one more drink, she sets her coffee aside with a resolute nod. Alright. She’ll take the hint. “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I promise the next time will be more pleasant. I’ll even comment on the weather.” Rue offers a half-hearted smile. “Enjoy the brownies. Make sure you and Wright get some too.” She tips her head back toward the door. “Keep your seat. I can see myself out.”

Marthe can't think of anything to say in reply that doesn't sound either sarcastic or biting, so she settles for a nod of agreement before Rue shows herself out.

She sits in silence for a moment, pushing down the feelers of things deep beneath the water. Centering herself with long breaths.

"Ames, it's rude to spy on people when they're having a conversation."

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