Turning Point


francois_icon.gif teo_icon.gif

Scene Title Turning Point
Synopsis Francois and Teo decide to go for a walk. A long walk.
Date April 10, 2019

Technically, the Internet

The most frustrating part about adultery, Teo has found, is that it makes it impossible to have a normal fucking conversation about anything anymore.

Teo knows he's probably doing worse on that scale than some people would, but that's what it's like; he read a book, two books, and he knows. The nature of betrayal is like— zero-gravity, an injured eye, polar reversal, an amnestic fugue. Basic assumptions so thoroughly fucked that every ordinary function based on it have to be reassessed. And in the past, his reassessments have involved flying to away from his home country forever, amputating his childhood identity, abandoning his actual— sort of— child, embracing a new role as a freedom fighter, something, something, time traveling, mind-melding.

But maybe that's just one more way in which Teo is tired of himself. His home computer is the last thing to be set up; the lab was a priority, of course. But he's home, tired, trying not to make too much noise and wake up Emily, when he finally sits down in front of a monitor. Nothing he has typewritten to Francois in the past few weeks has run an excess of one hundred words. Location updates, questions about whether Francois wants a classic razor, this shirt (pic attached), an old chessboard, a new pillow.

I finally read your acknowledgments. That was sweet. I'm sorry it took me so long to get to it. Moving was busy.

I have a roommate now. She's Avi's daughter, but it wasn't deliberate. I haven't told her you work with him and I have no intention of doing so. If you meet her at some point, that can be up to you. She's much more responsible and accomplished than I was when I was her age. She has an internship at SESA and doesn't even steal their pens. Or I'm just old, and 19-year-olds don't use pens anymore.

I've run into Elisabeth, Eileen, and the other one. Everyone has their fingers and toes, if not necessarily the correct eye color. Glad everyone is ok.

Kitchen and dining areas are completely set up. I can bring something for you to eat in Rochester if you don't have time to come over.

Teo observes that before, they hadn't been putting formal addresses and greetings or closings, of course. Like any E-mail chain that went on long enough, they got pretty informal. But Teo equivocates for only a minute or two, about adding Dear Francois or even Hello, and Love, Best, or using French. In the end, he puts it unchanged into the Reply box to the last message Francois had sent him, in middle March. He presses send. It's 5AM. It's harder for him to sleep here than it was in the mountains. Nothing to do with noise.

It's well within the hour after sending that Francois reads this email.

Not because he can't sleep, but because his alarm is set for 5: 15 AM, beginning a strict regime that you'd think would be contradicted by his nightly glasses of wine, the smoking habit he resumed in 2015 after fifty years of going without. A handful of cereal and one misc fruit collected from the commons of the Bunker followed by a pre-dawn jog in the sharp cold air, unless it is raining or snowing, in which case this is traded in for running machines in the austere underground training facilities. Either are followed by circuit training, free weights, meditative stretching. Shower, with the steam rising thick and fast. The sun will be up by the time he gets to black coffee, toast, and his laptop.

And so this entire cycle is thrown off when he finds himself at this very last step at the very beginning, the silver device balanced on his knees and filling his wide grey-walled room with blue light, rendering his bare skin an alien blue. He spends some time rereading it, untangling the parts that are thorny (Epstein's? daughter?) and even the parts that are not. Like every interaction they've been having, lately — and not-so-lately — it feels unsatisfying. Bare.

But hopeful, maybe. Incorrectly, Francois imagines Teodoro having picked up his own copy of the book, at minimum to look through the frontmatter.

He types. Writing said book made him, by necessity, a lot faster at this than he was when he first got here, although likely still not fast enough for Daphne Millbrook. But faster than he might normally been, working within a post-sleep haze where words slip easier across the screen than what would have otherwise happened — backspaces, halts, second-guesses, deleted drafts.

You should see Abby too. Weezyana (sp) says hello.

I will do the same for Eileen if she is not the Vanguard spectre we were led to believe. Be careful.

She is acknowledged too along with you and Abby (unsure if I was too obscure). I'm glad you saw it. I wasn't certain because I realized I still had your copy in my bag when I left. I am sorry I left that way. I was frustrated but I didn't mean to express it like that. Perhaps you were right about bullet points and we should try things that way? (Kidding)

I have time to come over - or would you like to come to Rochester? Coming to NYC not a problem.

I won't tell Avi.

I love you.

And he sends it before he rereads it, avoiding the compulsion to edit.

Teo goes away to do something else for an hour. Try again to sleep— occasionally, he manages to squeeze seven hours out of an evening, and never seems better to try than when you are unfun unemployed. He fails, of course. Winds up back at the computer with a slightly hardened donut, some coffee of his own, swaddled in a blanket that doesn't go past his knees, still pausing erratically every few minutes to check whether or not he woke Emily.

Oh, a reply. Teo opens it to read.



Teo notices immediately, of course, that the apology comes only after he has made this first move, and no longer needs one. He is very manly, you see, and it is the furthest thing from his character to come crawling if he actually believes one to be due. And in general, he doesn't. He was built to be the apologizer, not the apologisee. It's part of him, like the kind of pride people take in having humility, a singularly inflexible, idiotic sense of identity. At this point, you can blame two percent of that on Catholicism; the rest is some other quantity of guilt and self-loathing. He reads and rereads the apology, observes how it's packed in at the end of another paragraph, in the middle, incidental. He doesn't know what to do about it.

It's fine.

seems fine, Teo decides.

I was in a bad mood and you had to go back to the hospital.

seems fair, he thinks. Teo briefly debates adding a paragraph in front of it, so that it seems semi-random and unimportant as well, but that would be too stupid, even for him.

I'll be careful with Eileen. I think she knows better than to tell me anything that Yamagato could use against her. Or whoever they're using as a proxy for justice.

I'll come up to Rochester. What do you want to eat?

Teo stares into space for about ninety seconds solid. Eventually, at some point between feeling like his corneas are drying out and wondering if that niggle in the back of his head is his roommate having a bad dream, pulling at the edges of his powers, then a third, weird wistful notion, that maybe Francois will be too busy crashing through skylights or setting up his Wolfhound Phase 2.0 desk for another few hours, he remembers to blink. He signs off:

I love you too.

Francois sees that his phone is telling him about an email he has received, mid-manful crunch. It's a different kind of discipline he exercises, not to read it until later, close to an hour, when he has washed and eaten and cross-examined this strange pit of dread he now feels at the prospect of talking to his husband. Isn't so bullheaded as to imagine it's not of his own making, or that avoidance will help it.

Is confused, anyway, when it won't go away even after this email is fine.

Just fine.

He wonders if it took Teodoro a minute before signing off that way, and then quashes that thought like the dangerous biting insect it is. It's What do you want to eat?, oddly, that moves him. Stupid, really, but it feels as though it was plucked from six, seven, eight years ago, the kind of message or phone call he'd receive on his way back from a shift at the hospital, exhausted, but awake again at the prospect of coming home to something.

His eyes prickle. Apart from the childish frustration he'd experienced moments after Teodoro had driven away into the darkness, this is the first time he's felt like he could cry since that night. It is too vain and ridiculous and dramatic to entertain and it is refused. Access denied.

Devon Clendaniel was considered KIA as of January but washed up mysteriously a few nights before. He's one of mine.

seems pertinent, Francois thinks. Hopefully neutral.

News of Eileen also sounds pertinent, but he opts to table it for now, as if going down the rabbit hole of her new Vanguard friends is too deep, too treacherous. Later, once he finds out more on his own, is one of those instinctual decisions that barely registers as conscious thought.

But what would he want to eat, though? He decides to just type the thing he would say if he was confident everything between them was 100% fine, which Teo seems into right now:

re eating: Surprise me.

I'll let you know of any last minute changes but a lot of people are taking time away anyway so I will be available. My life is paperwork.

It's only after he hits send that it occurs to him that Teo's assessment, that Francois walked away because Teo was in a bad mood and he 'had to go back to the hospital', is profoundly incorrect. His desire to correct this compels him to open a second email before Teo can reply to this one, but only gets halfway before

saving it to Drafts. Just in case.

By the time Francois' E-mail shows up, Teo has started poking tentatively through the refrigerator and kitchen, assessing what's available. As he requires practical information from his husband's answering E-mail, he looks up immediately when his phone informs him of a new message— but a glance indicates that the first couple are just the morning barrage of spam. City Council… he doesn't know why he signed up for that. Sales on cold cuts and toilet paper, completed renovations of the tunnels under Brooklyn College. Bleh. He gets dressed.

Then Teodoro starts to plan around the drive and he immediately runs into three or four nesting issues, including: what time to get there; whether he should try to make the 10-hour round trip, placing the visit squarely at the lunch hour and perhaps almost exactly only an hour to show for it; the logistics to manage if. If. He's. …Staying the night, then?

Not for the first time, Teo wonders when Francois will realize how many of their problems cannot be fixed except by time-travel, or by accepting that a significant amount of unhappiness is fine. He would somehow, he thinks, be even less happy in Rochester. Oh, but here's the E-mail— from Francois Allegre, finally. Audibly, Emily is beginning to walk around upstairs when Teo reads his way down to the food request that is not a request at all. Teo makes an annoyed sound, but it's a mundane annoyance. He grabs his backpack, wondering how old this Devon Clendaniel is, to be dying and returning from the dead. He starts a conversation with Emily at the tops of his lungs about whether she needs anything from the corner store, but ends up halfway up the stairs to hear her tiny bird voice. OKAY, he agrees with her. Next time he'll just text. (But he didn't text, because he's going right now.)

(Or at least, he's going right after sending Francois this E-mail.)

Ok, I'll be there around 1pm.

Teo decides he will sleep at the farm, no matter what times he winds up leaving Rochester. The roads are worse going to the mountains, but less of them. His mind moves tiredly through budgeting money for gasoline, as well as time to cook and drive and speed, then he gives up, jabbing out the rest of the message as needed.

I'll bring some things you can put in the freezer too.

Should I bring something from the city for Devon? I'm assuming he washed up alive.

Because that's related to the hospital, right? Teo scrolls back up and rereads his last message to confirm himself that this isn't some weird ping-pong of non-sequiturs, and then he hits send. He marches off to the store just across the street, thinking about what freezes well. Burritos. Meat sauce. Burger patties. With the five hour drive, they'll have to eat lunch at a restaurant today, themselves, but— that's fine. (The good fine.) Teo knows that the point is that he's going, they'll see each other, and Francois will continue to struggle through the initial revelation, that having his husband nearby was not going to keep him happy. He thinks, maybe, Francois has lived with Americans too long.

That the logistics only occur to Francois after events are in motion should not be a commentary on his tactical mind. Really, he's good at his job, but that it isn't purely a given for Teo to just hold up in his own room strikes him as problematic upon reading the next email that comes through.

This time, he is working, focused now on classified reports, emails, bank statements, a far cry from having an emotion about his husband asking him what he wants for dinner. His reply is half distracted:

No need, unless you want to.

I'll meet you here at 1 pm then. I'll take you out for lunch unless you wish to settle.

He's not sure what that means, 'settle', but he's attempting to be empathetic to long drives. Maybe Teo will want to sleep it off, and pick up his own food along the way. Francois realises that his email is becoming very deferential as to what Teo wishes to do, but thinks that he has usually been that way?? About mundane things?? He'd have to check past interactions to be sure that this isn't a state change of some sort.

Then there's the matter of where Teo is sleeping. In his office space, Francois makes two slow rotations on his chair before he reaches again for the keyboard, but not to discuss about bedrooms, of which the Bunker has several free. They can do that in person.

They are doing some Star Wars matinees at the little cinema nearby.

Maybe they could try sitting next to each other in the dark without speaking for a few hours.

The E-mail bloops into Teo's phone when he is buying tortillas and some extra Ziplock bags. Holy shit, everything in this city is expensive. This is why farmers are the true heroes, even if they don't smash through skylights. But his complaints re: the economy are lukewarm at best, exchanged with his neighbor in the checkout line, because he's scanning through the message real quick.

To Teo's memory, he didn't mind Francois not minding what he wanted in the ordinary humdrum activities of life, until Francois did start to mind, increasingly, like seismic activity that's always there and no big deal until it swallows your house. He eyes the E-mail. It seems dangerously noncommittal. Impatient, the cashier asks him if that's all, a bit exasperated!! with these millennial motherfuckers in their screens while they're holding up the rest of the world, and Teo clears his throat. Apologizes. He pays up and leaves.

I think I'll be tired of sitting.

Teo is using voice to text because he has to cross the road, and is setting a good example. Look left, look right. Question the wisdom of declining to spend more hours with Francois when, on the other hand, five hours drive back— or even the three, four to the mountains straight after—

We could go on a short hike. Let's see how we feel about it.

You don't have to talk while you hike, Teo understands. It's actively discouraged if you're hiking in the course of shooting deer in the face, but even when it's not, a man can commune with nature, or something. He knows that it's nothing that they ever used to do, never mind do together, but his intermediate thought— of going to a bar— seems rife with next-level prospective dangers, when they haven't succeeded in sharing space, sober, for over forty minutes without dissolving into a shouting match of late. So.

Rochester: West Downtown, Outside the Wolfhound Bunker

Divided by the Genesee River, the western half of downtown Rochester is an industrial neighborhood that suffered some collateral losses during the civil war. Riots that began in November of 2011 burned through much of the western half of the city, gutting apartment buildings and businesses and precipitating the drive-off that left portions of Rochester abandoned. During the war, a handful of skirmishes were fought in Rochester's streets as the Mitchell administration attempted to gain a foothold against rising resistance, itself centered around Fort Drum in the west. Today, the western downtown region is a mix of pockets of revitalized businesses and repaired city blocks juxtaposed against crumbling industrial buildings and demolished homes.

That sounds nice.

And just like that, Francois has little else to say.

Which he is inclined to over-analyse, but what it boils down to is this abstracted moment in time where he thinks that them doing something different together is a good thing — perhaps, even, a good sign — and that he is looking forward to it, and that his own sense of dread has eased. It shouldn't, probably, but it does.

There are plenty of trails around, some he knows and some he doesn't, some less intense than others, and over the course of the few hours that Teo has to drive, he emails through a few suggestions, including queries about what Teo would like to eat when he gets in. It feels a little odd, like he is not only aware of the lurking shadow that dogs all of their interactions, but also: all the things he should be doing and caring about that could well supplant the priority of hosting his husband in Rochester.

And yet, here we are.

When Teo arrives, and they go through the ritual of greetings at the car, queries about the drive, shared unloading of gifts to be stowed away in freezers and fridges, the only thing missing is, well. Any indication that they aren't just friends, if friends with some weird energy. This is in itself not too surprising, either — they are at the headquarters of a paramilitary organisation, and Francois suspects that Teo had been nervous kissing at their own wedding in front of an audience (and only because he had too). But no, this isn't that. The indecision about how many displays of affection he can initiate is gone, because the answer is: none displays.

It's good they're getting out of the building. That he is. Francois, of course, offers to do the driving.

Thank you for driving, Teo says, and he means it. But it doesn't make up for the cheating, is what he doesn't say, even though it's true. On the upside, he would say it if he thought he had to— and that would be a bad thing. He follows Francois to his car, observes that the wounded tire has been replaced; fails to comment on it.

"Can we do some Thai?"

Teo yanks the passenger side door shut behind him and clips his seatbelt in. He slaps his hands around on the heating vents, redirecting the nearest ones to point at himself. The car had grown cold since Francois had driven it to work, and he is ever a weenie about that, when he can afford to be. "I could do some noodles." He fiddles with the slick, motorized controls next to his seat, gets the back to tilt back. It's a polished, contemporary vehicle, with suspension that talks softly— money talks, wealth whispers, what the fuck is the United States anymore? Nicer than most of the United States had ever been able to afford new, and even more of a niche cachet now. He likes it. It seems fun to drive, like his old Volkswagen Rabbit.

"I'd kill a man for some Thai." Teodoro could eat anything, probably. He has the appetite one would expect for a young man of his physique and metabolism. He shortens his neck somehow, probably not an Evolved ability, stuffing his chin down into the collar of his coat like a bird poofing up in defiance to the winter. "But if you don't know a place—"

—Francois is busy, Teo expects. Saving the world, one mundane expense report at a time, and its mudanity carefully exaggerated for the purposes of expression to his husband. Teo volunteers the alternative: "Anywhere with decent fries." He likes the skinny kind. It is kind of lame, he knows, but at least it's a familiar and harmless kind of lame.

Francois tries to assess (because this is all he is doing anymore, assessment, about the little details, the nuances, the moments he had otherwise taken for granted before everything was thrown into jeopardy not just because of his infidelity [in his opinion] but for raising the matter of their dysfunction at all to noise and fury) how he feels about the interior of his car spiking in warmth beyond how he might comfortably prefer it as he drives. Irritated, immediately, but had he before also at the same time felt fond about it? Or just irritated? Or is he just now thinking fondly of being irritated about small mundane domestic things, i.e., hindsight en rose.

He knows he'd probably complain, playfully, and doesn't.

"I think so," Francois says instead, of Thai, pulling out his phone and braking before they hit the road to tap something into his phone. It takes about 5 seconds too long, but he winds up handing it off to Teo, with a little map featured on screen, returning his hands to the wheel with the expectation of audience participation. One of the things is that Francois is not a dedicated workaholic in the way that might be expected of Wolfhound leadership. Pre-dawn early morning rising aside, he also likes to go out and eat in new places and drink in bars and wander unknown corners. Of the proper adults of bounty hunters that live within the Bunker, he is the most likely to know where a good Thai place is.

That hasn't changed. Maybe it's what's gotten him in trouble. Around them, Rochester is a different post-war vibe to New York City — it hasn't suffered close to the same destruction, and so isn't so busy to try to improve itself. There are a lot of wholly abandoned warehouse districts with streets utterly silent of people, and even once they are properly in town, there are many dark windows where shops existed before war-related economic collapse. Sites of demolition on which nothing new is yet built. Less roving military trucks, and nothing of Yamagato constructions blocking off whole streets and filling the air with the noises of industry.

He points out a few things as they go — it's not as though Teo has not visited Rochester before, but it hasn't been adequately often, and there is something new every day. The playhouse, the street where a Friday night market springs to life, a failed cabaret.

After a while: "What are you planning to do with yourself? In the city."

SATISFIED with the temperature, Teodoro looks out the windows. He nods and comments here or there at the highlights and lowlights that his husband points out to him. Yes, he would catch a matinee some time. No, he didn't eat at that Mexican place, although he thinks he got the horchata. It's family-operated. The Gonzaleses are surprisingly verbal about their opinions of the war.

Teo had thought about moving out here for about two full minutes, and had decided, rightly or wrongly, that Francois would be deeply dissatisfied with his performance as a person if he were to do so. He could— would— go days without speaking to anyone else, probably take up some job like scavenging copper out of buildings. He hadn't brought it up; has no plans to; watches the periodic pedestrian appear out of the quiet like a fly in a sterile room, the thicker swarm in cute downtown. You could say it makes no sense why Wolfhound would be based out here, except that United States military has a long history of doing worse. Airbase in Guam, Army base in Qatar; even the ones in California were, broadly speaking, in bumfuck nowhere for logistical reasons.

More inconvenience, less disappointment, Teo had figured. In retrospect, he supposes it would have been reasonable to talk before doing, but he had not felt it was his responsibility to be that reasonable at the time.

This uneasy train of thought inevitably converges with Francois' question. Time to disappoint his authorial celebrity formerly immortal international vigilante paramilitary commander tragically lonely very important husband some more, Teo observes. But as ever, being in these cities greys out the worst of the feeling. Thousands of families made and lost their homes here, in less than a single generation, and Teo's pessimism occasionally looks like perspective. "See more old friends, make some new ones. Get to know the neighborhood. Breaking news, it's a Hell of a lot more eventful than the mountains. There's always someone getting ripped off by vendors. Or a veterinarian wondering where the canine antibiotics went. I might volunteer at a tech repair place, but I think I have to get certified first."

Also, you know. Waking up queasy with guilt after a restless night of accidentally falling into other people's war dreams, drinking a lot but carefully not too much, feeling desperately, pathetically unattractive in a way for which there is no cure that both his conscience and his stomach can take, going to the gym anyway, reading books anyway, trying to forget, trying not to remember, finding some semblance of peace of mind only when he gives up, missing both his goats and his husband, knowing he gave up one for the other even though that one is fated for the kind of greatness that finds the mundanity of civilian life— not even laughable. They don't even make it halfway through to a punchline before Francois is onto something that might change the course of the United States, so— it's nothing, Teo thinks. Teo reviews the unspoken minutiae of his plans very briefly, in his head.

Nothing. I have no plans.

"But I'm being careful," Teo adds, because some of his old friends might be evil Vanguard conspirators, deranged by unknown traumas from alternate timelines? "I promise."

If Teo's authorial celebrity formerly immortal international vigilante paramilitary commander tragically lonely very important husband is disappointed, he is also an adept actor, even if all he need do is maintain a neutral expression as he stares out at the road while making interested sounds at the answer given. A glance, then, at promises to be careful.

Francois can find bait in everything, if he tries hard enough and believes in himself, but it'd be nice to at least get down a meal and get where they're going before they start to argue.

"It's okay to not have a plan," is where he lands. Shaky on the dismount, there. But he's not lying, either, just unsure if he is reassuring the correct thing. "There are a lot of possibilities, I think. No time limit, to think about what you want to do."

He wants to say something like there are people in high places who could get you a position doing whatever you like, or imply it in a more eloquent fashion, and though Francois can't consider himself among them, he can likely grant access — but perhaps that's a serious discussion for a later day, and would sound too much like recruitment. He understands something of his husband's reluctance to involve himself save for on his own terms. Not all of it, but something.

Hell, Francois would be happy if Teo said he wanted to attend Brooklyn College and do art history.

Teo tries not to smile, when his husband's knees nearly fold on landing. Just a little bounce. What you want to do, Francois says, as if they don't both know that what Teodoro wants to do is to leave.

One more fight that can keep until lunch.

Or would it be a fight? Teo has observed that Francois seems to initiate arguments with their mutual better happiness as the eventual objective. He hasn't liked it mmmmostly because Francois seemed to think that was achievable without his having to make a greater compromise than the arguments themselves. But here Teo is: compromising. For the both of them! Maybe. Teo lifts his eyes, notices how the tree reaches so far over the street, over the power lines. The community in Catskills would take care of it themselves, their own tools, saws, their work regulated by mildly xenophobic suspicions and the occasional Evolved power that no one talks about. It's idyllic until you consider things like, Dale Richey one town over definitely blew himself up trying to make meth with aged equipment, burgled fuel supply and ingredients.

Everywhere is a shithole. Intellectually, Teo knows. Compromising isn't that difficult, when you're just choosing between different flavors of unhappiness.

Refocusing, Teo thumps his boots together. "When PARIAH found me, I was working in retail. Hardware store. Do you remember that?" he asks, his tone light with the question, not insinuating, probably. He'd told Francois at some point— the mundane experience of his own recruitment into what would be, someday, one of the most notorious pro-Evolved organizations in United States history. "We had long lunch breaks, but retail isn't great. Ever. Even if you're not being talked out with stolen demolitions materials at gunpoint. I'm sure it's closed now. Maybe in the fucking ground."

Teo won't go back to that kind of work, of course; the (an) objective is to be less embarrassing, not more. He's just— remembering. He has not yet entertained the idea of Art History.

Quite seriously, Teodoro thinks about not asking any questions about Francois. In case he gets told off again. BUT INSTEad of passive-aggressively leaving it at boring stories, he asks, "How about your plan, with Wolfhound changing?"

Francois is naturally inclined to see brilliance in the people he loves, and has a high tolerance for how that brilliance manifests. Hiding out in a mountain farm (and it is hiding) seems as beneath Teo as min-wage retail. He's pretty sure that there are good and fulfilling jobs out there that don't necessitate getting shot at, even if he has not yet settled into one himself personally. Firing off suggestions like Art History don't seem quite appropriate for the moment — Teo is a grown adult man who can figure out what he wants, given time.

More time. It's slightly derailing when Teo asks that question, Francois unprepared, for whatever reason.

Right. Salient knowledge. Relevant to their shared future, and so on. "Structural change," he says. "Nothing has been formalised yet — we are all cooling are heels, some, but we are looking into more local work. There is talk of affiliating ourselves with the military police while they build out the NYPD. Private security contracts. Less killer robots to contend with, I hope."

He pulls slower into a skinny downtown street, cruising for a place to park — there are plenty of options. Not a lot of people can afford to drive, anymore. "Whatever we do," he says, "I'm finished with the frontline. Hopefully, we all are."

"Finished? Do you think you'll still like that?" asks Teo, as neutrally as possible.

Believe it or not, Teo is not actually suppressing a lot of feelings when he asks; his neutrality isn't pretend. There are as always, future arguments to be had about topics adjacent to this one (HIDING, WHAT DO YOU MEAN 'HIDING'). But in the moment, he's thinking about Francois' needs. That it's a little incongruous with what he knows of his husband, who hails from a time before this one— not the 1900s, actually, but the old legends when generals fought alongside their soldiers. Diana Prince would be a fan.

"Expense reports are good to joke about once or twice a week, and I super enjoy your jokes." Wry! As if they are currently in a phase of marriage in which joking about workplace bureaucracy is the norm. "But every week for months. Would that be… eh. Meaningful enough, for you?"

Teo still sounds mild. It helps that he is still snuggly warm and comfortable inside of this slowing vehicle, and about to get fed, while his husband alludes to a probability he may never get shot at in the line of duty ever again. The fact that he hesitates to believe that's really true is surely: Just Another argument they can defer.

Rochester: Lyell-Otis

Lyell-Otis is a diverse working-class neighborhood that is primarily industrial in character, particularly around Mt. Read Boulevard and Emerson Street. Its residential areas offer sturdy old housing stock with wood trim, front porches, and other features of historical character — ones that now all lie in various states of abandonment and disrepair. It was once a well-populated and nearly suburban neighborhood, but following the civil war and financial collapse, factories and industrial businesses pulled out of Rochester, and workers desperate for employment followed. The neighborhood still has some stubborn hold-outs, but they are a dwindling few.

The car stops.

It's not intended as punctuation — they're just here, now, in front of the narrow Thai restaurant with its dim yellow light shining out through clean glass, some optional seating areas but otherwise a long countertop that intends to hand food over in paper bags with plastic cutlery.

But the car stops and Francois doesn't say anything for a second or two, which probably makes it seem like punctuation. He doesn't want to fight, really and truly, and there are probably ways to not bristle at what Teo is asking him — maybe he is projecting, maybe he's always been projecting, maybe this is fine and his husband does still love who he is as a person, not to be dramatic — but he can feel it stick in his chest and refuse to go down.

"Really?" he allows himself. Rhetorical, short, a forced injection of humour, a skeptical look sideways.

For a long moment, Teo looks back at his husband. Longish moment. One of those conversational beats that you have to wait out in silence to realize isn't, in fact, a conversational beat. Hm. Apparently, only Francois is allowed to rehash previously disclosed information about this critical topic of their shared future. Fine. He can go indefinitely without asking any more personal questions. (Any number of answers would have been interesting. 'Yes, it's time,' 'No, I might look for something else in a few years.' 'I didn't think so, but since Devon came back to fucking life, you know, losing people, losing fights, even winning them sometimes—')

Maybe they talk about more interesting topics back at Wolfhound HQ, Teo guesses. Or maybe nobody who works there knows how to have a conversation anymore. He loves Hana dearly; both halves, every version of him loves Hana Gitelman. But he wouldn't ask her that question, either.

(Maybe he's the one who doesn't know how to have conversations anymore. Emily would probably vote that way.)

"I was. But let's just say I was kidding," Teo says, finally. "Come on, I'm starving."

Without further ado, Teodoro opens the door and gets out, shutting up the car behind him. Irritated, but still only in the way that is three parts tired, a few ounces of apathy to grease the small parts. All other marital problems are resized to scale once infidelity has been exposed, and they aren't talking about that yet. He has very little doubt the restaurant staff will be less fraught and more productive conversation, possibly even interested in farming practices and the cost of milk.

The temptation to just drive off is there.

Not in a petty attempt to abandon Teo on the road but more in the interests of dramatically entering another building with violent velocity through the front window with the nose of his car in a slightly more elegant if bombastic gesture compared to, say, striking the wall with one's forehead. Not really, but he imagines it as he tries to cut himself off from a disbelieving laugh he's not sure he could get away with. Francois gets out of the car after Teo gets out of the car, closes the door none too gently, and beep-boops it locked.

Where other problems shrink down, for Teo, in the shadow of the enormous mountain of this other fuck up, they only seem to grow for Francois. Not in scale, no, but like strangling weeds, around his ankles to make his composure stumble, and weaving through his rib cage, attempting to get at his heart.

To everyone else — including the people taking their order — Francois seems fine. But the curse that is unholy matrimony means that Teo can more or less sense whatever it is emanating from Francois beside him — hard to narrow it down from here, but take your pick. Unhappiness, anger, disappointment, guilt, injury. He orders pad thai and asks, "Did you want to eat here?" while he looks down at his wallet, flipping through dry leaves of money.

Rochester: Thai Restaurant

Teodoro glances sideways at his husband. For a man who has coped pretty well with quite a bit of violence and life-or-death responsibility, his capacity to move on from little stops in conversation with his spouse seems remarkably poor. He does not know that Francois was briefly entertaining a kamikaze headfirst into the building, otherwise he'd be congratulating the Frenchman his remarkable self-discipline or something. Without evidence of these other realities, he just thinks, Jesus.

Maybe Francois will find another random opportunity to apologize for it in a few days time, when Teo is being nice about something else.

"Sure," Teo says.

Teodoro then, of course, switches to Thai to speak with the preparers, fumbles through a few greetings, salutations, asking them where they're from. He receives the obligatory, verbal pat on the head in response— your Thai is so good! It isn't, really, but he accepts it with a laugh, tells them— in English— he can maybe get them a good deal on basil and chicken, locally grown. Next time, next time. He hurries through the conversation, of course; Francois' presence burning in the corner of his mind even in absence of his husband actually looking at him, no psychic powers required. He is obscurely glad that the staff don't seem to notice that their wedding bands and engagement rings match. (It can't possibly be a problem, that they're being mistaken— as Francois had earlier observed— for good friends.)

It's only a few minutes, probably, before Teo slides into the seat opposite Francois. "I saw there are a lot of places to hike around here," he remarks, stealing his chopsticks. Not a lot of recent reviews, but that's a surprise to no one in 2019. And the recent ones, you'll find people warning each other not to go alone, not to go in the dark. Government funding is not what it used to be, and park security was one of the first budgets to cut. "The bridges at Turning Point still look like they're intact."

"Oui," Francois confirms, hefting his open bottle of lager to sip from. "Humanis and Institute holdouts left quite a few things like that untouched."

Courteous of them, says a shrug, stabbing at his food then with chopsticks. A bad mood puts restlessness into micromovements but he has managed to exorcise it from his voice, his expression. The close confines of the restaurant means he has no desire to pick up that mangled thread of conversation, maybe even after this is done. He could swallow it down, like the bitter beverage he'd selected from the little fridge off to the side, and maybe it won't choke him to do so.

But he turns it over in his mind. If he'd still like that. If the work would remain meaningful. What the fuck kind of phrasing is that supposed to be, as if the very meaning hadn't been to finish the war properly in the first place. As if his work with Wolfhound was about finding meaning, something he could just contrive anew despite that the bounties were complete. Like landing in the Mojave Desert in collaboration with the United States military into a snakepit of hunterbots was some kind of hobby. He is definitely projecting. He is definitely not projecting and Teo owes him an apology for being insensitive.

He drinks his lager — slowly, conscious that he is the driver — and tries his best to extinguish what feels like both pride and anger, burning away merrily together.

"Turning Point is nice. Perhaps not so rigorous as what the Catskill has to offer."

"Well, even if it isn't today. We should go to this bridge, some time… Here." Teo says, jabbing at his phone, which still has the Turning Point search result in it. The fog, the vanishing point of wood planks into grey, the ragged lace of trees hemming in the right side of the screen. He expands the picture on his screen. "This one. I'll take a picture of you there. You'll look very handsome."

For better or worse, Teodoro's long-time, recurring acquaintance with horrible personal events has forced him to cultivate a remarkable skill for appreciating the small things. Debatably for the worst, as he's currently wolfing down his Thai while he talks about this, his mouth half full, and then his wrist covering his mouth, because he is really really, really enjoying the food. He ordered a Thai ice tea instead of a beer, actually, because— because you can't really get Thai ice tea in the Catskill Mountains. It tastes too sweet to his palate, after months of careful home-cooking, few readily available goodies for purchase, and no personal capacity for baking, but he leans into it easily enough. It's also nice and warm in this restaurant.

In the meantime, Teo is generally aware that Francois is not-so-slowly going insane at the other end of the table. But

but Teo just got off of a five-hour truck ride, and for all of his intellectual brilliance, this seems like another problem he doesn't have the data to solve. Definitely not within the next fifteen minutes, or however long it takes Francois to either explode, say something rhetorical or sarcastic, or find another dime to turn on. Teo has only the vaguest plan. Enough of these explosions, and he'll have the data someday. With any luck, after the analysis, he'll feel like he has more agency for resolution than he has had with the aftermath of war. "We could pick something more challenging. I don't mind." Being Out In Nature: more small things.

It is a brief respite from encroaching insanity, to notice how fast Teo is eating, to find it familiar, and then to be fond. Just a glimmer, in which Francois semi-smiles on his next sip of beer, but really.

Francois, and some of his colleagues know this about him, does anger like this, cold and quiet. When one of the younger ones think that sidestepping an order barked over comms is in their better interest, Francois' wrath has only ever manifested as firm post-mission analysis, a sparsely written email, or desk time at Gitelman's approval and command. He'd responded to Epstein's grotesque secret-keeping of the undead soul of Eileen Ruskin by asking him for a cigarette and proceeding to listen. He listens, now, more than he gives input.

It's not a tactic he has utilised often with Teodoro — there, in the safe parameters of stereotypical European passion, he could ever just say whatever the fuck he liked — but keeps his temper in check for now, while they choose hiking trails. He doesn't know if it'll over boil either. Fun, right?

He is done with his pad thai, halfway through. Agrees to a doggy bag. Pushes aside his lager.

"You are the guest," he declares. Gallant. "Choose what you would like to see. I'm going to smoke before we go." And he leaves enough money on the table for both of their meals in the same motion of standing up, leaving Teodoro to finish his lunch and his tea. The bell on the door jangles loudly with his sweeping exit.

Teo decides on Turning Point cuz why not. Pictures. Water. Bridges, which you can't find in the Catskills, whereas boulder inclines, you have aplenty. It'll be nice; as nice as any activity can be, as you're doing it to be able to say, to know, that you had tried, after what many would call a death blow was already administered to your marriage.

(Multiple death blows, if his hazy, hysterical memory of Francois' disclosure actually serves him right.)

Teo is somewhat familiar with the multiple modes that his husband's anger can take, some rarer-seen than others. He tries to be— respectful about — this one. 'Quiet,' 'cold,' sure. Most of the time, he manages to refrain from accusing Francois of being passive-aggressive, sullen, of giving him the cold shoulder; more deferrable arguments, you see. He doesn't know how it would have worked, if he had joined Wolfhound. As Francois' spouse, Teo knows that he personally tries not to exaggerate the patience required when he's avoiding escalation, and escalates to shouting at other times. He doesn't like it when the passive-aggressive, sullen cold shoulder veers into biting accusations, and mmmmost of the time, he'll shout at Francois without actually shooting anybody's car and storming out. It's not that Teo, in his anger, really does better. He just yells when he means to yell, obnoxious and swear-y, and he doesn't say anything when he prefers not to; preferring to leave it, truly.

He also mentions the eggs to the Thai restaurant proprietors, whose eyes light up.

This is one of those days, that Teo prefers to not say anything much. Try not to fight. Try to save marriage. Leave it. (Kindly ignore any dysfunction represented by that decision.)

"Turning Point," Teo says to his husband, the door clinking shut behind him. The smell of Francois' cigarette makes him want one, too, but he pushes down the urge same way he pushes down soooo many things. "I ate too much," he adds, roving toward the vehicle. "Don't want to get a stitch or yarf in your car, trying to get up those fucking hills."

Speaking of repression, Francois is working on his own similar project as he idles outside in the cold, which he prefers to the aromatic humidity of the restaurant, the dry warmth that will be his car. Smoke can calm nerves, but it doesn't feel like that's happening. More like an attempt to vacu-seal pointless anger so that it can't leak fucking everywhere, or otherwise come out into something productive. He focuses on the little things. His car needs to be cleaned. He missed a sliver of stubble at the corner of his jaw, discovered by itching knuckles. Currently, he is in no physical danger of anything, and that's pretty good.

He glances aside as Teodoro breezes out of the restaurant, says some vulgar things with his handsome face, as always. This is a familiar pattern, anyway, in which Francois discovers that just kidding he is profoundly fucking unhappy and his spouse decides the best way to deal with it is pretend it isn't and trample all over the conversation like an idiot labrador with big muddy paws.

That's a little uncharitable. Only one of them fucked other people. And don't worry, there was a time when that was cute. (The labradoring.)

He disposes of the cigarette and gets back into the car, which will smell now of fried noodles and fish sauce and nicotine. So the windows are slid down by a few inches, and Francois steers them back out onto the street, checking blind spots as he goes, and realises then he's been doing all of these actions with the same grim expression he might in the minutes before deployment. There's a moment of a visual attempt to relax, shoulders rolled and fingers stretching before recurling around the wheel.

Probably, Francois should answer the question that was posed. It's the least he can do. "You know," he says, deliberately, calmly, "I can find meaning anywhere."

Teo heroically stops himself from really mean answers. 'Like in the arms of extramarital lovers.' 'But not the Catskill Mountains.' Sure, maybe he shouldn't stop himself. It has occurred to Teo that this situation is like when Deckard broke up with him because he tolerated his organ thieving. If Teo had experienced character development, they would be filing for divorce right now, probably, instead of contemplating going the rest of his life without having sex again, or contemplating, with amused chagrin, how Francois would definitely get offended somehow if he were to point out that Francois will probably have sex again.

When you have committed to repeating bad decisions your whole life, you should commit hard.

Anyway, Francois has been stewing for the past twenty minutes on exactly what Teo thought he was stewing on, so that's nice. (That is Francois' pre-deployment look, isn't it? Wasn't Francois fucking other people mostly pre-deployment?) (This is fun.) He isn't at all sure he still wants to pursue this topic of conversation, but. Buuut. "I don't want you to have to look hard for it," the labrador says, for some reason now pawing at his own ears. He's checking if the lobes are cold. They will definitely be cold by the end of the hike. "So if Wolfhound is changing, and the other agencies are interested in you, there could be some potential. Right? You don't have to stay, you just can."

Teo is


still talking about— Francois' job. Just the job.

They're talking about a lot of things, probably — Francois, for instance, has the feeling that two different conversations are being had and he is not sure how to bridge the gap in a way that would not divide them in some other unique way. He has his eyes on the road and feels a little bit better for not being trapped in here with Teo when Teo is indeed trapped in here with him just for virtue of the fact he is driving and has universal control over what the windows are doing at any given time.

"Wolfhound is changing because Wolfhound has made the world a better place to live in," he says, still calmly, and stopping himself from checking Teodoro's expression when he says it. If he says everything in a calm way then it's not a fight. "That is what I like, or find meaningful. There is always room for improvement, we will not readily go out of business, but the scale of the operations— "

He stops, mouth pressing into a firm line.

Takes the second to consult his phone about directions.


"It will be different. I thought you would— you know. You sound skeptical, when I thought you would be pleased."

Teo is careful not to give his husband a Funny Look sideways. It's kind of understandable, right. Your spouse doesn't want you to do a dangerous job, so—


Actually, Teo doesn't know it's understandable at all. Teo has been acquainted with a couple of police officers, family of policemen, between multiple lifetimes. And 'I don't like your terrifying, dangerous job' literally never came across as no point in having law enforcement, period, police are obsolete. He's a little tempted to ignore the weird minefield of implications here, nursing the subtle insult. Between the two of them, only Francois has suggested that his spouse's preferred occupation is inferior, and now he wants to be a little bitch about the converse. What, he didn't earn enough medals? Maybe Avi and Hana are just more engaging to talk to about career prospects.

That makes sense, Teo supposes. What are you going to say to a farmer, really. For better or worse, he doesn't know how to get defensive about this insinuation, imaginary or otherwise.

"The world is always gonna need people who can shoot a gun. Better that be someone who— has the wisdom to know the difference." Teo is misquoting, and badly, he notices with an internal grimace. He glances out his window instead of looking at Francois, then back through the front again. An earnest presentation, an unblinking stare, brimming affection, fresh hope; he could do it, but then he'd be lying, so. "Someone who can do the right thing, when it's dangerous and difficult. Other battles. I'm not skeptical. I believe that, and in you."

(Maybe Teo didn't notice the part where he is supposed to be: pleased.)

(He appears to not be: pleased.)

"I have literally never centred the quality of my character around my ability to shoot a gun," Francois says, flatly, allowing— no, being unable to entirely suppress brimming irritation. "Or the associated wisdom of when to."

Fuck's sake. You'd dream of maybe the most important person in your life being at least proud enough in the things you do not to hideously minimise it this way, especially when said important person has done it before themself, if without the pay cheque. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe if he knew that Teodoro considered lying about how he felt about all this, he'd congratulate him on giving him enough respect not to do so.

But he's still not listening. And later, Francois will reflect that neither is he himself listening — already offended, there is little Teo can say besides apology (imagine that) or what Francois precisely wants to hear, that would stop him from becoming quantifiably more offended.

"But you are not understanding me. We have arrested the last major players of the Civil War, as defined by the current administration. Mitchell's soldiers, Humanis First, the Institute. People who have hurt our friends — hurt you, beyond measure. I am not saying that because I want your congratulations," kind of said in a tone that implies that any positive earnest reaction would be nice, though, "but to tell you that the war is over, at least for Wolfhound. I do not expect to ever again be airdropped into an active battlefield or be in command of a team whose sole purpose is violent engagement. And I do not wish I would still be, Teo. Do you really think that I would seek out— "

Oh no. His sense of calm is slipping.

"There is a part of you that understands," Francois snips, instead. "It would be nice if you stopped pretending as though it doesn't exist."

Teo doesn't answer for a long time, submerged in engine noise. He stares through the front window. Peripherally, he is aware that half this — argument, because it is an argument now, is because they're each trying to point out how the other partner is getting exactly what he wants, when it's not— really what that person wanted. I don't have to be on the front lines anymore, Francois says; as if he won't go, if he's needed again, as if he will not be needed. You can do whatever you want and I won't argue with you, Teo says, as if he won't hate it anyway, as if Francois does not fully believe right now that this is what he wants.

It would be a bad time, the Sicilian knows, to bring up Francois' mercurial desires of recent history. His brow knits in the middle of his forehead, pale eyes grim with thought, dimly referencing books he read recently, then dismissing them in a huff. What if we agree I will leave you if you're ever injured on the line of duty? That’s worth throwing a party over.

Teo remembers arguing with Elisabeth about something like this too, dimly. Conrad, or someone, had been trying to protect her, told her to stand down, do something different, stop with PARIAH, Phoenix, just be a cop. And Teo had told her that was bullshit. Then she got shot in the head and dropped through a hole in space-time, but Teo doesn't regret it. How can you regret destiny? And really, what does self-assessing one's own quality of character have to do with it. Self-congratulation does not put a man in charge of Wolfhound operations, and the kind of person who would self-congratulate about their ability to participate in combat should not be running Wolfhound. They wouldn't have arrested the final fugitives of the Civil War, they wouldn't be the right man for the next job. Reluctant kings, what have you.


Well, Teo doesn't want to run combat anymore, but unfortunately he still conducts his marital conflicts as if he's in one, a little. Moving sideways, poking at another opening that Francois seems to have carelessly left open. "What do you center the quality of your character on, then?"

The silence does help, regardless as to why it has settled. There are times when it doesn't, when it acts as a slow turn on a pressure dial, but here — here, Francois has said some of the things he has wanted to say and that Teo has no immediate smart answer feels a little like success, even if he is far from that hopeful. He focuses on the drive instead, thinking ahead as to efficient routes, directions, what have you, without even really considering the destination which is meant to be a peaceful walk through nature and across some spooky bridges.

Francois does not enjoy argument. Anger is quick to churn into unease, but he ignores that, lest he start apologising or something out of some misguided attempting to assuage his own ill-feeling, or like there is some contractual expectation that Teo would say sorry back, like I love yous.

"I don't know," he says, when Teo speaks again. Not quickly, thinking on it for a second. Offense still bridles through his muscles, his shoulders, the small ones that set his jaw. "But it isn't war."

Teo leans his elbow onto the car door, a thump. He glances out the window, which shows him his own ghostly reflection in the glass, overlaid on passing trees. His face looks unreadable there, which he doesn't know whether that carries across to real life. He has too much of the ghost in him sometimes, he thinks. All the lying. Maybe he'll have the energy to shout later, after Francois is the one who makes a five hour drive?

"Maybe then it shouldn't shock you that people see 'qualities' in you that you don't see yourself," he says. "Which aren't 'war.'" Suddenly winning wars is a bad thing, but he doesn't let sarcasm leak into his voice. Teo feels again, this obscure pang that he should just fucking present Francois some form of delight at this here victory. More delight than his previous, dour congratulations. It seems some kind of intellectual, verbal gymnastics to try and explain why getting too invested in the idea of Francois' triumphant new chain to the desk, right this moment, seems unwise. Teo negotiates with himself. Say something. It won't be that hard, it doesn't seem to be untrue. Teo presses it in quickly, so it's again not perfect and even less well-planned:

"But I'm glad the war is over. And we're safe."

He even glances at Francois, the side of Francois' head, a facsimile of eye contact. Sincere.

This little concession plinks against steely defenses at first, Francois silently (or ~sullenly~) keeping his focus trained on his task of driving down a near-empty, straight strip of road. Then, a glance, not quite overlapping enough to find eye contact.

Some percentage of relaxation forces its way in. It would take more than that to smooth every ruffled feather, but he knows it isn't Teo's task to do so. Less now, if it has ever been. So Francois works on it himself, knowing they aren't fucking done even a little bit, but he would like to give himself less material to be bored by when he replays this in his mind later when they are separate again. He already hates that he said Wolfhound has made the world a better place to live in. Very trite. Bad writing. He's all at once not even convinced that that's true. Look how grey the sky is.

"Safer," he says.

It'd probably be useful for either of them to ask the other what they want. But that sounds vaguely frightening, because who know what that might involve.

What was the point of all this? Not praise, like he said. Francois spends a few seconds to rummage around in his own mind for The Point, and offers, "I miss— what I miss is having a life that aligns better with yours. Of sharing one together. We have been living in extremes, don't you think? And we don't have to."

Teo is irritated again, some more, because why not. Intellectually, he knows that Francois' use of 'we' and other plurals is an attempt at forming alliance. But as the spouse who was cheated on, moved to a more accessible city anyway, drove five hours to another city, and tolerated quite a bit of snitty bullshit in the past hour, it is fucking annoying. He's made several difficult decisions lately, certainly without Francois' 'permission' (because what the fuck), but he knows they were better than nothing, and here Francois is. 'We have,' 'we can.' As if Francois' 'changes' haven't consisted of: accepting Wolfhound's reorganization, and its yet untold, telling his husband about them affairs.

And— and, Francois said 'safer,' which feels like a preemptive excuse for the next time he has to go into the field, because the one Teo had already offered wasn't good enough.

Also what the fuck is up with the delayed, contingent apologies.

Fuck. Teo tries to stop counting his husband's sins. He really does. Trees, grass, road, farmhouse, trees. Grass. "Well, we should try it," he offers, in the end, peripherally aware that that's again, not as an unequivocally enthusiastic an agreement as his husband's ego would prefer. He scrubs his palms on the thighs of his jeans, restless suddenly, and Not just because he is excited to be out away from a city again. Dimly, he wishes he hadn't eaten so much. 'Aligns.' He thinks, if he gives anything else, it would have to mean he doesn't give a shit. But that could change, Teo reminds himself. That will change. (What if what he wants is self-contradictory or functionally impossible!) "You'll let me know when you find out how the restructuring is going to work."

If Francois didn't know any better, he'd say maybe they recovered this conversation, curled an argument back around into something more civilised. If Francois didn't know any better, he'd imagine that Teodoro were both willing and content to participate in rebuilding their marriage to functionality — if reserved, rightly so, given circumstances. If Francois didn't know any better.

And he doesn't, really, because Teodoro has exceptional control over his expression, his voice, the words that are coming out of his face. He makes a sound of ascent.

But he has a feeling because he's not an idiot, and despite all evidence to the contrary, they have functioned well before as both a team as well as a relationship. These words conceal something else, they erect whole structures of fortification, and Francois isn't sure as to whether he's supposed to be accepting the brick wall behind them or taking another mallet to it, somehow. That's where couples-related experience runs out. In the past, he only had to gently pry loose the bricks, if there were ever any at all. But now it is as sure and strong as it's ever been. Beat your head against that.

Trying to come up with a strategy eventually unravels, and Francois just drives, occasionally trying the radio to see what it's able to pick up.

Signs start appearing. Turning Point Park.

The weather is deep grey and mellow, and although much of the fog has burned off during the day, there's enough of it left to blur out the definitions of tree lines and fencing. The parking lot is empty of any vehicles, the concrete cracked and untended to, weeds growing thick up through narrow, weathered crevices. It doesn't look like the site of domestic conflict, but it does look untended to — the resources of the United States government are thin on the ground when it comes to landscaping.

Francois is glad to get out of the car, for one, the coin still spinning on whether they've verbalised any progress or if he would rather have just erased everything they've said up until this point just to see if Teo would allow him to take his hand.

Rochester: Turning Point Park

Teo is also relieved they've arrived. He unlocks the door and spills out of the car quite quick, then takes a breath so deep he regrets it the next instant, his abdomen pinching in protest. To be honest, things don't feel that bad between the two of them today. It's fine because it doesn't have to be fine yet. Need I remind you, that he has not shot anybody's car today. That is a manageable level of irritation?

"Is that the trail? I think that's the trail," Teo says, mercifully removing hard decisions from Francois— or at least, moving them further out of reach, by stuffing his hands in his pockets. Francois is not a coward, if he is not over-ambitious enough to snuggle for warmth. "I wonder why it was called Turning Point."

Teodoro is doing the thing again, see. Inhale the good shit, exhale the bad shit. This type of freedom explains perhaps five whole percent of why he moved into the boondocks to raise goats, but if you asked him for a number, he would definitely lie about it, pick something much bigger. He loves nature wholesomely, mm, how cold it is, delicious, ninety percent. Teo tramples over to the streaky plastic pane covering the map, examines it for about three seconds before deciding!! that's good enough. He takes a picture just in case. (Phone out, then back in pocket. Hand stay in pocket.) "What time do you have to get back?"

"Oh, I am finished with business for the day."

Francois' hands likewise go to his own pockets for warmth, the wool of his coat probably not the most comfortably breathable material for a proper hike, but his boots are good, and he too is eyeing up the map. Dirtied by time, with one corner of it being slowly colonised by lichen. "With Gitelman away, you know, there's no curfew," he adds, a little wry, like maybe they are planning on a late night jaunt of some kind, or otherwise teasing Teo's perception of the Bunker being so regimented.

He encounters, then, the question of asking Teo where he wants to stay for the night, but decides this is the kind of decision that can be made on the drive home back to base and Teo's car and frozen food. Thinking to the immediate future now that they are here to have a nice time feels a little like avoiding living in the present. Plans can wait. Maybe all of them can.

He follows, more than leads, content to absorb their surroundings and also to be able to watch Teo within it. There is a constantly moving energy to him that is easy to get swept up in — it isn't sharp or fidgety or erratic, but a predictable kind of kinesis that flips charmingly between boyish and capable. Even just the heavy heeled footfalls of steps in the forest ground, the curve of his shoulders, the way so much of him shifts when he turns to take in a sound. Maybe it is the melding of personalities within him that does it, but Francois never understood this Teodoro as anything other than the sum of his parts.

It always felt easy, to grab on, follow that momentum — especially after being rescued from the very end of his life, and set to spin in place. It feels so strange, now, to feel that way again, even when Teodoro is right there.

Teo lets his husband tease him. Foregoes harmful jokes about how he's just looking for an excuse to go back to New York, or about how engaging dat paperwork must be, if he's finally choosing to spend time with his husband rather than stay at Wolfhound. Such restraint. DO YOU SEE? Teo just kind of laughs, and then hikes.

Francois isn't wrong. He is a mobile person, and his latest match with melancholy hasn't taken that away from him because melancholy never does. He thumps exuberantly along the flat, disheveled path winding through trees, scattered residue of snowdrifts, crystallized in the process of shrinking. At one point, he stoops to pick up a tiny rock and aims it into a near-melted bank, pocks a neat dark hole into it, dead center. The lake starts to arrive into view, a grey sheen all laced with white icemelt, linear, stretching perpendicular to the skeletal reach of unclipped trees.

There it is, Teo says. But he says it in French. "Le voilà. Allez la bas."

He's rusty. Teodoro hasn't had anyone to practice speaking it with. But it's clear enough, what he is asking. Go over there! He's pointing out onto the bridge, neat sturdy construction of wood and black metal, which projects out onto the water.

Teo takes out his phone to thumb over to the camera, swinging it around to frame the best view in the lens. Listening distractedly to the progression of Francois' footsteps change from scuffing on gravel and thinly slushed dirt to the resonant drub drub drub of walking on wood slats. This shit was made well. No maintenance since the war, and it still looks good. Even the sign that says BEWARE, MAY BE SLIPPERY FROM ICE remains legible despite rust rimming the nail holes. "Hey," he says suddenly, swooping his camera away from some ducks— also immune to war— and over to find Francois' destination on the bridge. "Francois." In case Francois is confused about whether he is addressing his husband or the ducks. "Do you feel like— right now."

Hedging for an instant, then Teo asks anyway. What's the worst that can happen? Don't answer that. "Are you leaving behind 'so much' of yourself to be here? Right now, with me. I dunno what that means."

Rochester: Turning Point Bridge Walk

Here and there, little inscrutable deposits of ice form on the wet slats of the bridge, and Francois idly pauses now and then to scuff it aside with the edge of his boot, where it scatters off into black lake water — away from ducks, anyway. More of a swinging beat to the measure of his progression, hands never leaving his pockets as he considers the long, rambling lateral arc of the narrow bridge, imagining what tourist season would be like, or was like. He is only aware that he is being properly directed when Teo calls out to him, mind distracted with his vision flung far to the clouded mountainous horizon, rising beyond the fog and spiking treeline like shadows.

But he obediently turns, a frisson of self-consciousness hiking his spine upright — for the phone lifted, and then the question poised. The corner of his mouth ticks up. He would have loved this question to come up in the moment.

He thinks about not answering, honestly. Or not answering honestly.

"Right now, here with you?" Francois echoes. Thinking. Lands on; "Oui, but in the good way. I don't mean I want to drag my shit in with me all the time." Unhelpfully, his brain throws up that slice of memory of what Teodoro was saying about bedrooms. It doesn't show on his face, but does move him to explain; "But I have dreams, sometimes. The loud kind that you can hear, je suis sûr. And I have the things I could only talk to you about, no one else, and do not. Because I feel like I am — I was — a part of the thing you went to the mountains to avoid."

That's all.

Sorry, Francois. The question did not come up in the moment. You can just imagine the furious novels your husband is writing about you in meta, constantly, every time you breathe wrong. It's a great time, all the things that Teo doesn't say. But in that particular conversation, it hadn't occurred to him to ask. Performing a polite analysis of your partner's spiritual needs isn't a thing most people do when informed of infidelity, and in this way, Teo is ordinary.

Through the lens of Teo's phone, Francois looks so tiny. Grey clouds hang oppressively above him, the bony trees reach over his hand like they're trying to snatch him away in a skeletal fist. As expected, he looks very handsome out there, a dashing figure in his not-quite-practical coat and broken-in boots, desaturated by the weather, so the contrast is sharper between his skin and his hair. Very handsome. The other people he fucked would probably think so too. Teo presses the shutter. No sound, because ninjas keep their phone on vibrate only, and the old habits aren't all gone.

The first picture looks good, in-focus, but Teo takes a few more anyway. Inevitably, you find that your hands were shaking. You regret not trying more in the moment, even though it's not a big deal, it's just a photograph, so: a poor metaphor.

"Can you lean on the rail?" Teo gestures to the left and steps a little closer, changing the angle. Rule of thirds. Pinterest went under, but that doesn't mean we forget how much we appreciate innovative dimensions to digital captures of handsome white men. But no, Teo isn't brushing aside the subject. "You want — you wanted," fine let's pretend this is in the past, "to talk to me about the job at Wolfhound? Or the Civil War, or the times before that? Which one?" He doesn't elaborate, doesn't give more guesses. He knows about those nightmares, of course. Despite the impressionistic choice of words, he knows that Francois is talking about nightmares.

Francois can lean on the rail, and does so, hand touching the cold black metal that lines the winding, three-thousand something feet of wooden slat bridge. He doesn't love this, but is self-aware just enough to know that he is probably not meant to. Something critical about Teo's line of questioning that makes him want to squirm aside and evade focus. It's a little like this — not knowing whether Teo is attempting a tasteful rule-of-three long shot composition with his phone raised aloft, or zooming in for uncomfortable lagging close up, or rendering Francois into a foreground blur and bringing other things into sharp relief.

But he's not gonna know, so.

"Oui," he says, with what is almost a shrug. He is not smiling for the picture, but don't worry, that's handsome too. He doesn't know where to settle his gaze, either — momentarily through the lens of the phone, and the past it, to what he can see of Teo's face. "Yes. The war, the work. Everything, from since you left."

Sometimes— and Teo knows this, there is going to be shit that happens in relationships where matters go unresolved, without even a tangible compromise to put it properly in the ground. Life is in this way, among the others, unending in its ambiguity and grey. For example, your hypothetical partner won't put finished drink glasses into the sink no matter how simple or straightforward this request appears to be; you will have to make peace with doing it for them.

But that's fucking drinking glasses. Not a job you have asked them to leave for years, and the direct emotional consequences of their choosing not to leave. Teo stares at the tiny figure in the screen, and takes four pictures. His hands are steady as a rock.

And then Teo puts down the phone, slips it into his pocket. He saunters over the bridge, moving toward Francois with the same leggy big-footed puppy grace that he always has, no hesitation in it. "I guess that's something we'll have to figure out," he says, with diplomacy that is made possible only by the act of filing it away. But not forever. "But I think you should also talk to other people about those things." This, he says frankly, looking the Frenchman in the eye as he draws nearer. "When I said you need more friends, I wasn't one hundred percent trying to be an asshole."

A beat. Teo acknowledges, "Maybe forty-five."

The bridge is sturdy but not inflexible, and so Francois can feel the reverberations of Teo's approach up through the soles of his feet, through the metal railing his hand is on, and he wonders if there will come a point any time soon when he can love the things his husband is saying to him as much as he loves everything else. There is a directness to the way Teo says this thing and looks at him that Francois is sure he knows he is causing some kind of injury, and so he does all he can to pretend he does not.

It is hurtful, anyway, having presented some kind of shared problem, in search of some kind of recognition, and having it bundled up, made smaller than it actually is, and given back as his own to continue to labour over. As if it were so simple as just make more friends, like he's an antisocial child at a new school.

He nods.

Because it's fine. He's going to have a desk job definitely and won't need to rely on his spouse as a source of security and comfort for the things he feels are too personal or classified to just say to anyone, and equally not have to be relied upon as a source of security and comfort about anything else, because they both will be just independently okay all the time. He's sure that is probably a hyperbolic interpretation of what Teo is saying, especially if he is taking that first part in any good faith, but at some point, Francois has short-circuited the functionality necessary for good faith interpretations.

"Maybe so," Francois says, after a protracted amount of silence where he has reduced the emotion in his voice to 5%. "But maybe you do not know what you're talking about when you say that, to say it like it is so easy. Or you do," said, with a renewed certainty, "very much so, but you think we should all just do as you do, and completely cut away," and here, even, a Europeanly expressive hand flourish to illustrate his point, the kind of little -isms he suppresses to seem more American, "parts of you that do not work as well as you would prefer. You wouldn't prefer I find friends to talk to, you would prefer I have nothing to say."

There is something there, something he will have to think on later when he is not once again plunged back into the roiling discontent that makes it feel as though every moment of peace they achieve together or even apart is about as secure as finding the edge of driftwood to cling to.

At some point between 'Or you do' and 'nothing to say,' Teo starts to lose his calm again, some more, differently than before, because— what the actual fuck. What— what?

Suddenly it's bad shit, for Teo to wish his husband had no traumatic nightmares based on career role violence to report. Suddenly, telling your husband he needs more people than his husband to help him to process, you know, highly sensitive top secret paramilitary tactical operational shit is emotional butchery and avoidance. Suddenly, this— this, Teo being here, despite everything, is his cutting Francois off. Suddenly, Teo doesn't know about having friends. Or possibly, talking to one's friends is what Teodoro Laudani has been doing all this time? That is absurd, and Francois is being a little bitch, he doesn't even talk to living dead girls who come back with blue eyes or time-traveling tales, probably, which may mean he just needs to take time not being in combat, in quiet, possibly cleaning up goat shit, to figure out that's what he needs, which is even what Francois acknowledged as a possibility before, but Teodoro at this point is too furious to remind him of that kindly.

Finally, Teo starts to look mad, too. He turns away from Francois, stares out in the water. He grasps the railing himself, momentarily forgetting the biting cold. Tightens his fingers until they hurt. He drops his head, willing the thunder from his ears. Breathe. Breeeeeeathe. Do not try to punch your entire husband into a lake.

"You're being a cunt," Teo says, finally. "You know what's fucking true? You want to be married to me, but you need to be part of Wolfhound. And I want to be married to you, and I don't fucking need anything. Hell, I don't even need you to—" oh god oh fuck stop can't stop ah well here it goes "—to stay faithful."

Mmmm. Unplanned revisit. Teo was pretty game to repress that one for another month, probably.

Maybe he can repress it for another month from here? Place bets.

"So here I am. Again." Teo throws his arms up, like he did once as an idiot child in Sicily. I'm Jesus! And someone had shot him but killed a girl instead. No gunmen here today, just a European excess of hand gestures. "Still not enough. Not patient enough with your fucking doubts, or comforting enough for your fucking pain." His arms drop. By now, the ducks have scooted panickily away. Teo's eyes are glacial. "Welcome to fucking reality. Where getting what you want and what you need don't make you happy, and none of us like to get what we deserve."

"That is such bullshit, Teodoro," sounds every ounce of ardently frustrated — and at this point, it's borderline funny, even though it deeply is not — as Francois is feeling, hands now animated as he attempts to convey himself through both the medium of voice as well as interpretive gesturing. They share a few languages and that is very likely one of them.

He is not shouting, but he is louder, now, projecting. "And it becomes neither of us to act as though my desire for the marriage I fucking signed up for is a fantasy. We've had it, and I want it back."

Somewhere, he did register that bit. The bit where Teodoro looked directly at The Affair(s), but it was so bafflingly swept aside that there is little Francois can do to process it beyond note its passing, at first, but he brings it back now. Why is it so bad to need things, all of a sudden? Why is he being cast as some egomaniac for wanting patience, comfort, ever? And here's something he's just found out: when you sleep with some strangers and tell your spouse about it, you don't expect to be told that continued fidelity is not necessary. AND ANOTHER THING—

"But you, who needs nothing. Who has it all figured out and knows how life works now. You are so good at lying to yourself you do not even know when you are."

This feeling in Teo's body ranks up with the last time he himself had a sweating, shouting, middle-of-the-night fit involving traumatic nightmares. It's been over a year now, which is good. His skull roars like a primordial engine, which is bad. If he didn't have remarkable fitness, two high-stress lives, and Sylar's essential physiological template behind him, he'd worry about having an aneurysm.

Did Teo marry a mentally deficient person? Would half-drowning him in a lake reset key cognitive functions? How many times was Francois concussed at Wolfhound? How long can Teo pretend that this is a lapse of intelligence, or actually funny? And how is he going to get back to New York City if he shoots Francois' car tire out, this time?

"I'm not fucking lying to myself."

(That is twenty nine percent true.)

"I'm 'lying' to you, because you can't fucking handle the truth, or you would have figured it out by yourself." (One hundred percent true, fOR THE RECord.)

Something very bad is happening, Teo observes, somehow at a distance from himself. Maybe he should have advocated to stay in the city limits, where concrete and aged paint and uncomfortable reminders of urban warfare offer a constant reminder of why he retreated, and thus, strategically, how to retreat into himself. His eyes are burning. It's super terrible. No— no, it's better they're here. Obviously. He doesn't need Hana or Ghost or Felix or anyone else overhearing, witnesses to this mortification, both the natural conclusion and somehow blithely irrelevant to all of his old sins. From cowardice to wrath, or the slutty indiscretions of his childhood. Oh, no. Something is definitely coming out of his eye. Ah, shit. "You can't have it back," he says, and then because there are no good options, he chooses to wipe his right eye with the heel of his hand. (It doesn't help very much.)

Teo remembers grief. The weight, the salt and bile taste. Ghost did a shit ton of crying to become what he was, only not this kind, every specter still embodied, alive, smiling from purgatory. His voice is a bitter grind; he speaks to the last visible location of the ducks on the water. "I know I fucked up too, but it's gone because of you."

Francois is not mentally deficient. He's a lot of things, of course, but he is not stupid, impaired, traumatised, or any of those things enough not to notice the timing on this particular spinning out. He sees that glint of moisture gathering in Teo's right eye and hardens his heart to it because there's not much he himself can do about it, sorry, you're on your own, but he sees it all the same. Not immune, either, to these conclusions — this last one seems to have a strange white noise effect at the front of his brain that makes coming up with a reply difficult.

But because he is as foolish as Teodoro accuses him of being, he doesn't accept this particular reality. He moves, then — avoidant of getting into Teo's personal space, but coming to stand at the same railing at least, hands alighting on the black metal like white doves.

The French tend to swear in a steady, satiny stream of profanity that has no sensible translation. Francois does not, much, but thinks it.

"You're enough," he says, finally, as if he'd been meaning to say it since Teo said the opposite, but forgot in all the noise. "More than. That is what makes me so crazy, to know you are what I want my future to be and entwine with. Because at some point, Teodoro, you did close off something from me, and I don't know what it is exactly, but you will need to figure it out, and you will also need to fucking forgive me for still doing the thing we both once believed in."

His heart hurts too, and he thinks about his cigarettes in his pocket, but his stomach turns. During this, Francois started addressing the water. He says, "And if you believe you could ever do that, we can talk of starting over. Or my latest disgraces. Or the things you need."

Because he's said all of the things on the topic of what he needs, and the idea of going over it again makes him even more nauseated than the prospect of smoking.

Teo takes the opportunity to regain his composure. This is, somehow, the preferred response; his husband turning his back, saying some calm things, allowing him some awkward semblance of privacy. And not really hearing the apocalyptic gong over their little corner of Eden, maybe, but that's fine.

Teo clears his throat, a damp, droning mucusy sound. He inhales through his nose, doggish. He says, "Sure."

It feels to Teo a little like he should have said that a few minutes earlier, when Francois had called him on some 'bullshit,' told him he didn't know when he was lying, all that. But it's oddly reassuring, that he gets to return to that fork in the path despite that display just now. Sure. He'll go work on that. Open up to his husband, who cheated on him, and then they can start over. Absurdities aside, he has been thinking about 'forgiving' Francois for working for Wolfhound, whatever that means. That does seem more manageable these days, which is why he was here at all, encouraging Francois to follow his heart if combat detail came up again, a dangerous mission outside of Wolfhound's paradigm that is just and true.

Maybe that will be enough too, one day. Either that, or Francois will have to recalibrate his understanding of what 'enough' means.

"I'll work on that. I promise." Vaguely, Teo gathers that Francois would very much like a positive prediction, if not a guarantee, right this moment. But that seems to be the wrong lie to tell, when Francois has already been impatient to return to the utopian gay romance of the past for weeks. There is no starting over. Francois' disgraces are an apparent afterthought, no good for anyone. And Teo won't need anything from his husband for awhile, he's sure.

Teo wipes his nose on his wrist. Putting his hands back in his pockets. His face feels half-dry already, the weather like this. "Let's finish the loop."

Francois considers saying: let's just go back. They've barely left the shore.

He doesn't. He also doesn't fight more, even though Teo's simple reply feels like more of the same lying, the same deferring the problem, but Francois lacks the desire to pursue it much further. It feels deeply shitty, to be the cause of your lover's tears, and on a little delay, that splinter of guilt finally wriggles its way past now slackened defenses and gets embedded deep, where he knows it's not going anywhere. It's going to get sharper, and fester with more poison than only his behaviour just now, but for the mistakes he's made, the decisions before those mistakes.

Teo is Catholic. Maybe he should prescribe something Catholicish, as the Catholics are renowned experts in the art of guilt, and of redemption. Maybe if Francois says fifty I love yous, like Hail Marys, and makes sure he means every one, something will shift.

He notes that the ducks are coming back.

Maybe he will spontaneously gain a superpower, Hiro's time travel, and he can already be back in the Bunker with a fully charged glass of wine and no one to argue with, and no one to belittle his feeling extremely sorry for himself. When this doesn't happen, Teo can note the thumps of Francois languid stride coming up behind him.

If you ask Teodoro Laudani, who is an equally qualified time-traveler, no lovers have shed tears today. As it should be. He is slowing now and then when the bridge turns, looking at the different vantage point that the bend offers, of the treeline, the shape of shore, clouds. Patch of blue showing through there.

It does occur to him that Rochester isn't so bad. Teo observes that he could have made more of an effort. Enough walks like this, who knows, maybe Francois would have kept his penis in his pants. Oh there's a swan. There was a swan on the Swinging Bridge Reservoir last summer, alone, probably because his husband swan cheated on him with important reasons about work. That swan should be here with his husband swan. Hmm. Teo takes a picture of the sad, isolated husband swan in Rochester.

He suspects that Francois' delay, behind him, is due to Francois freaking out some more. He should probably say something, Teo knows. But there's no perfect thing to say, despite that Francois has clearly demonstrated that he believes there is.

"I am proud of you," Teo says suddenly, apropos of nothing besides the swan, which he is now leaving behind. He neither stops nor turns back, but he does glance over his shoulder so as to enhance the impression that this is an informal, informative conversation, with no devastatingly emotional stakes where grown men cry. "Part of it is, I'm from Sicily. We don't trust the government because of the history with the mafioso, the corruption. In the 80s, when I was growing up, that was real bad. Parents would tell their kids, 'You should run for office when you grow up, change shit from the inside.' But they'd all think the kids are just gonna end up covered in shit, and it'll change them from the outside. And kids can tell, you know? So they don't try. I didn't try. I came here instead, and I was a terrorist. Far from the government as you can get. And Ghost, in his future, is an object lesson in transmuting into human shit, corrupted from the outside. But—

"I trust you in the government," that's a quick add-on. 'In the government.' But a seamless transition. "And I'm proud of you."

Teo isn't sure if it's an olive branch, or clarification, or a set of historically fortified excuses, or still avoiding some important, painful points (definitely still avoiding some important, painful points), or even if it's new. But it's not something he's said before, out loud. And it feels less resentful, less personal, like letting earth lie fallow instead of fighting the weeds.

Man with butterfly meme: is this forgiveness?

Francois is trying to work it out, keeping at his pace several steps behind Teo — not because he is committed to dragging his heels, but because he is listening and sees no cause to bound up next to Teo to do so. Forgiveness is probably not what this is, but it's something, even if he can't help but turn it over in figurative hands, test it for sharp edges, be uncertain about what he's supposed to do with it now. Accept it for what it is, is what he winds up committing to, gaze low enough to watch his scuffed boots avoid icy patches on the damp wooden slats.

Kicks up the pace by a subtle amount. In a minute or so, maybe they'll even be walking side by side. "Thank you," he says, after some amount of thoughtful seconds have ticked by, and he's sure it won't sound stiff. It sounds a little more like thank you for saying so, because his pride feels a little like a startled cat currently hiding up a tree, not done licking its wounds. "And I understand, about that. Really."

He could speak to Wolfhound's agency, what it is and is not beholden to, but decides to leave it be. Teodoro isn't stupid, after all, and there are enough counterarguments to such a claim that Francois would not even disagree.

Instead, he says, "You fought when no one gave us permission, or mandates, or pay checques. Honestly, that is what I know best — the work with Wolfhound is strange for it. But only possible, you know, because of the fighting that came before it." A beat, and he adds, "I would never want it for you again. I'm glad you knew, when you were finished with it."

"I know. You don't, uh." Teodoro Laudani knows that this isn't 'forgiveness.' In part because 'forgiveness,' as Francois was asking for, requires a comprehensive suite of matching behaviors: the ability to listen to job-related complaints without suggesting he quit, the capacity to patch his wounds and soothe his physical suffering without making a face, to affirm for Francois always that it's worth it, even if— apparently now, even Hana has chosen something different. Forgiveness would mean endorsement. Emotional availability, solace without 'I told you so,' unequivocal support.

Well, minimal equivocation, maybe. Nobody's ever 'no equivocation.'

Teo knows that he isn't there yet, and to be caught in the lie would lead to more. …adultery, or something? Who even knows. Studies have found that combat veterans are seventy percent more likely to lose their marriages than civilians. Ergo, with any luck, Francois' new chapter in desk duty will render these core conflicts completely obsolete.

(That would require way too much luck.)

"I know that," Teo repeats, circling back, trying not to sound like that's a rejection, possibly failing. "I know it's true, the spirit is the same." And it's come up before, if never as explicitly as this; Wolfhound does Phoenix's work, in spirit. It's good to say out loud, he recognizes; it's been some time since they 'talked' about it in any depth, and most of that depth had been just yelling. "It's the differences that I've had trouble with, but I will work on it. That's what I will work on." He's elaborating, see; so that Francois doesn't think he was just bullshitting earlier, when he said 'I'll work on that.' Kindly ignore that Teo is having trouble with a lot more than that, but theoretically, he's working on those things too.

But maybe Teo won't be able to do it, in the end. And so, the meme man is left to watch his butterfly disappear into the middle distance, except meme man is now walking right next to his butterfly, stuck apace of one another. Awkward. Probably should have stayed trailing behind.

Unbelievably, Francois laughs.

Not very much, granted! That kind of breathy non-laugh that rides out on the next breath outward and dies there. The cut of his smile is kind of angled off. It doesn't bear much differentiation from a scoff, so Teo could be forgiven for mistaking it as one. What Francois says after is, "I know, I was just— "

He nudges more ice deposits aside with a delayed swing of his next step.

"I'm glad," he says, first. Not to be ungrateful for the effort being performed and promised, effort he may or may not deserve, that he would do well to acknowledge and be glad for. "I guess I am trying to say things out loud too. That I am proud of you as well."

The things that have stopped being givens, apparently, when once they were. He is walking alongside Teo now, which IN HIS OPINION is much less awkward than trailing behind like a sad old stray, even if he kind of fits the bill, in the opinions of some. Maybe, also, Francois should offer the things he will work on, but that does feel awkward — he has already suggested a shift in his professional duties, and to not sleep with anyone else.

There's probably more. It seems likely. Maybe Teodoro will tell him so, sometime.

Teo glances sideways at his husband, at some point around the laugh. It lasts through to Francois saying actual words with his mouth. His face stays neutral, which is not positive, but doesn't exactly look negative. It's definitely more negative than it looks, actually. Teo is aware that Francois is proud of him, as is the entire United States government, public outlook, et cetera; the product of winning a righteous war, emphasis on winning.

But Teo knows that his husband isn't proud of how he'd been farming. Despite that there is a radio show where diseases related to food shortage are graphically depicted, news about it still overlapping with news of arrests and Evolved politics, and Emily has white rings of panic in her eyes when they check out any amount of fresh produce at the store. Despite that Teo is prETTY sure there were worse ways he could have handled whatever was— is— wrong with him. Despite that Teo didn't fuck anyone else, even though his husband wasn't exactly being supportive. He should probably say something about that.

But he doesn't want to!! Because he already accidentally cried in front of his husband, who just repeated his list of demands quite recently, and he's now trying to focus on meeting them. Teodoro doesn't want to, and no one can make him!!!!!

And in the interest of positivity: Francois does now seem to be done picking at him for a minute, so.

"Merci," is what Teo says, in the end. "By the way, do you get fanmail?"

Francois did say he was glad that Teo knew when he was finished, too. That was why he said anything about pride to begin with. A tentative olive branch that he can kind of tell has fallen from his grasp and left somewhere several feet back from where they are walking now. He might not have been charitable about farming, might have resented the distance, the statement it made, the isolated homestead of which he had no say, but he never wanted Teo to continue what he hated.

But it's fine.

Because: sometimes, his command of the English language and stilted formality leads to misinterpretation, but also sometimes, when you cheat on your husband, the things you say have less meaning or importance and the other things you say take on more meaning and importance than you intended, blooming like weeds through the cracks, between the long pauses and the short answers and the pivoting of conversation. Francois glances aside at Teo, momentarily and visibly bothered, before he breathes in.

Breathes out. Sure, okay.

"Fanmail?" he says. Indulging this. "For what, the book?"

For those viewers keeping score at home (as we should be), Teo is now officially, explicitly proud of Francois' ongoing commitment to fighting for justice even at huge and debilitating personal expense. Whereas Francois is proud of Teo having made the decision to quit, while resenting everything that came afterward. And so: Teo is definitely still winning.

Maybe there's a medal at the end.

"Yeah, the book," Teo answers. There's a beat, where he's wondering?? what else Francois has done lately that he could or should be receiving fanmail for, but again, for the millionth time, he doesn't want to ask questions. It carries too much risk. "You have fans now. I ran into at least one of them. Well," he revises, "Mr. Mikhailov has fans. Academic enthusiasts who're interested in his work. There was a Chinese woman, in particular. She was pretty." Don't fuck her, maybe. But look, Teo hasn't regressed far enough to say anything like that out loud; he isn't reversing in order to back over the fallen olive branch some feet behind them, flatten it into the bridge boards, grind his little heel in. "I told her she should E-mail your editor.

"But I was just guessing. Do you want to hear from your readers?" Truly, Teo has always had a very limited experience with celebrity, multiple identities. He— Ghost— would lie for missions, and even the baby Teo necessarily kept a few fake identifications, sneaking around, fighting for justice before he left for Sicily. But those were episodic adventures, and he left behind no monuments for people to inquire with. "I know that wasn't the point originally. But it's out there now."

"It is."

Out there. For the first time since they first met today, in the context of conversing, Francois is able to (VERY CAUTIOUSLY) steer his mind away from the ongoing conflict they share, the analysing of subtextual breathing sounds and eyebrow shapes, his own measured and/or livewire responses to those sounds and shapes — and think about the topic Teo has presented. Of the publication, of readers, or a. Fan? That doesn't sound real, one eyebrow lifting to register his doubt.

He tucks his hands into his pockets, idling with keys and cigarette pack between long fingers. "I did not think about conversations that come after it, or about it," he admits. "I imagine for the most part, it will be lost in the crowd. The editor forwarded a few items to me, mostly from other authors of this kind, and mostly the kinds of requests I cannot answer — for more detail, you know, but I've given all the detail I care to.

"But I would hear from readers, yes, I suppose. It depends on what they wish to share. How did you come by a 'fan'?"

Teo can tell that the other man is mulling it over, turning inward now, and it feels pretty nice, to not have his every twitch and blink analyzed for offending intentions or indications of offense. For all that he is definitely, embarrassingly, woefully unprepared to talk about some of the shit going on, Teo is also fairly sincere in his pursuit of other shit. Like: hiking, cooking for his spouse. Previously: farming. Currently: discussing Francois' book.

There's always shit to do while the earth lies fallow.

"I was drinking at a bar," Teo says. "Somewhere in the Safe Zone, maybe Red Hook. She had a copy of your book, and we got to talking." Complaining, Teo means. Sometimes while the earth is lying fallow, he will be off irritably chopping wood, practicing marksmanship on a row of beer bottles, or helping his neighbors scour a hill for a theoretical methhead horse thief, not quite knowing what the plan is to do with him once they've found him, followed by relief, afterward, that they hadn't found anyone. Anger doesn't disappear, not even in the fresh rural air. "That's when I read your dedication."

Hence the E-mail this morning. That started all of this. Teo shuffles his hands around in his pockets, starting to feel a little cold again. Inconveniently, when his anger does disappear, the fresh rural air tends to get to him. "Her name is Yi-Min. She read Wolves of Valhalla too, and thought it didn't hold a fucking candle." There's a note of congratulations there, unfaded by the complexity of Francois' circumstances. "She said she'd like to see the journals."

"A reader of specific interests." Which is mildly curious, but not overly so — Francois has lapses of paranoia to the point that it used to be a point of contention in their relationship, you know, back when they could have fights about who loved who the mostest, and it happens again now. Suspicion alighting like a moth on a dark window, contemplating the brightness on the other side, ultimately fluttering away. Lots of people read about the Vanguard, and why shouldn't one of them randomly run into someone like Teodoro Laudani? "That is too bad, then."

About the journals, he means. Teo likely knows this, but Francois adds, "I wish I had them all, still. But even if I did, you know, they're very personal," is meant to be funny, as if he didn't just publish his intimate autobiography that relied on them heavily, even quoted them, and as if their wandering through the hands of strangers didn't lead to his rescue from his death in 1994.

The war, again. It has a way of crunching through all the little relics of the past. Francois remembers a house full of belongings, even new journals — what else do you get a writer for Christmas, besides a pen to go with it — and how they are no more, scattered, looted, disintegrated. He always took his wedding ring with him into battle, just as identifying as a dog tag.

He is also imagining Teo reading his dedication in some bar in Red Hook while a stranger looks on. That wasn't how that was meant to go, either.

Remembers his clumsy, half-asleep apology. Winces a little.

"I would have to lie," he adds, thinking out loud. "Perhaps that is why I didn't consider much in the way of further correspondences. But I will look out for it." Because Teo set it up, if nothing else, and might take some amusement at the news of this Yi-Min taking his advice.

That would, indeed, be entertaining for Teo. Carnivore who abandoned his jungle in favor of desolate farmsteads and drinking in isolation. He would enjoy the concept that his disconsolate wandering had some relevance. (Little does he know.) "I told her my name was Ted," he says. It goes without saying: I don't know if she believed me. It is a coincidence, but people do stranger things than read in bars, these days, but he'd had his spike of paranoia, too. "Better not to mention me, if she ends up writing to you."

Not for the first time, Teodoro wonders what it must be like. To write a book you want other people to read; to finish a war that most people believe to be over. It's not that he can't imagine the acts themselves. Waking on time, considering the stakes, registering weapons and hitting deadlines that exist either in public eye, with actual advertising, or otherwise a schedule that exists so privately that it might be actual treason to share them. That, he can imagine. It's only hard for him to imagine wanting to. Teodoro would never have left behind a journal, by which he might have been saved by time-travelers. He would have just died, lost to the 1990s.

That's probably how Teo number four went down. In 1994, he would have been— what. Ten, eleven-years-old. Too young to have hurt anybody yet.

"What's Mr. Mikhailov like?" Teodoro asks. "Did you even make up an age for him? She thought he might not be straight, by the way." Referring to that dedication again, inevitably. We are still kindly skirting the disgruntled bitching leveled upon the book at that time. "You have some conscientious, modern readers."

"He is an old man," Francois says, not answering the question too seriously just yet. Squint, and you could mistake them for being a happily married couple, save for the scant inches of distance between them, bent elbows and off-beat footfalls. "Of ambiguous sexuality, I suppose. Not decrepit, by any means, but more inclined than he used to be, to long stretches of afternoon in which to write someone's life story. He retires in a single-roomed cottage on the shores of the Oka River and sends his transcripts to American publishers, avoiding the censors, political complication. Also fly fishing."

A shrug, then, short and sharp, as if to excuse Teo from indulging him as he adds, "I do not have much of a deflecting identity. Just a name, an alias with a cold trail.

"Do you think it is a fiction I should work on?"

Distracted, in the midst of that, to take a hand from his pocket and point — a heron, landing on the cool waters nearest the shore, bright white and long legged, with its S-shaped configuration of neck and head and beak.

Not for the first time, Teo wonders at his husband's reluctance to spend any time with his own interiority. That he will do something like, write a fake-real memoir about his own supervillain-hunting adventures and publish it, when the relevant genocidal organizations is still survived by its individual members, and not think about what it means. That he'll fight wars long after the fighting has left the streets and entered into office space, without considering what that change means, or why he doesn't want to see the change at all.

Teo would ask, but all roads seem to lead back to the sad reality of his own emotional unavailability.

"Only if you want to talk to your readers. There are all kinds of people out there looking at your pages. Non-Evolved who wished they had powers while they were growing up, who thought life was boring until we suddenly had a fucking war. Evolved who think Volken was a made-up bogeyman. Non-Evolved who wonder if he was right." Teo remembers the chapters that detailed Francois' torture. He has enough faith in humanity— lack thereof— to be sure that there are those who would insist that account still means nothing, could have been fabricated, and whatnot. But Teo's power gives him access to senses, without pain or emotion, and he knows how different that is from a true, lived experience; he knows that people are ultimately emotional creatures. And that Francois' book will change hearts and minds. Maybe not a lot of them, maybe not like Harry Potter. But some.

"Any of them could write to you." Teo smiles briefly, then turns his head to track the heron. He hasn't touched his husband in weeks. Not since he was told about— you know. Not so much as a hand on Francois' shoulder or an accidental trodden toe; they haven't stood close enough together to allow accidents, see. And he has no urge to touch Francois now. "But you don't have to entertain them, I guess."

It's probably bad. Teo is looking forward to a break, actually. Leaving Rochester in a few hours, some time to himself, or at least time that isn't to Francois. But i's just not that bad, maybe. Maybe, in a sense, this is actually an improvement.

It should be noted that the word 'torture' is not often the one Francois chooses. It had been a difficult but certainly necessary chapter to write, and difficult in more ways than only trauma — he had never put pen to paper about their specifics in the aftermath and memory starts to do strange things under conditions of deprivation, and so he felt a little like this fictional Filip Mikhailov, burdened with imagination and too little in the way of concrete evidence. And how little he wanted the whole thing to be a spectacle.

It is among the more spare chapters. Factual, as much as it could be. More speculative of Volken's state of mind than Allegre's. Fair towards the others that suffered nearby, that he was made to heal. During the editing process, he almost took it out completely, but knew the book would collapse in the middle from its own shaky foundations if he did.

He is thinking about the book more than his marriage right now, enough that he isn't burningly aware of their dysfunction in the way he has been. "Maybe just the ones I won't disappoint," Francois cedes. Or, perhaps, he will always at least a little bit be thinking about his marriage. "With easily answered questions."

And he doesn't want Teo to leave Rochester. Or even this bridge. There is still something like 2500 feet of it left to walk, and if they tried hard enough, maybe they could solve their problems by the time they hit the end.

"They say SLC-Expressive, now," he says, mock admonishment for PC terminology for Teo's 'Evolved'. "Back in my day, we only said gifted."

"SLC-Expressive," complains Teo. "That's so hard to say. I'm not being self-loathing. 'SLC-Expressive.' You're talking just like the fuckin' kids, now. Watch for trolls. I'm not talking about the bridge." Which would probably have to be six or seven miles long to make appreciable headway, and its troll would have to be equipped with an advanced degree in psychotherapy. Maybe? Teo isn't that actively miserable right now, mind you. Mayyybeeee, in a sense, this is actually an improvement.

(To solve your problems, you have to spend that distance or duration actually: solving your problems.)

"But 'Evolved' is a dumb word," Teo acknowledges, turning away from the heron. "I wasn't born with mine either. And I'm stuck with it." He shoves his shoulders up on either side of him, half shrugging, half huddling in on himself, feeling his beard scrunch against the collar of his sweater. More questions he would ask, if he weren't determined to avoid more rancor; at this point, he's two for two with setting off his husband through inquiries of any real emotional significance. Later, he'll ask about snacks and E-mails and whether or not Avi arranged for Emily's healing and education. You know, light stuff. But later. "You should decide which word Mr. Mikhailov uses.

"And it probably says something about why he wrote. For a guy like that, writing someone else's memoir? It's going to be one extreme or the other." Talking about fictional people and their circumstances is fun. It means, among other things, that you're not solving your own problems. "Either it's academic, or he has skin in the game." Teo is definitely projecting. Ghost is a very academic, and unfeeling sort of assassin, meticulous in his technique and indifferent to the content; the other Teo, however, physically left the country the moment they had replacement players who were more competent than him, due to their academic assassin education. This Teo thinks he is more the latter, himself.

Teo surmises, "You could probably find a way to lie without lying. But I'm sure somebody's going to ask."

This is fun, right? Talking about Francois' fictional biographer, the conversation skimming across the surface like a pebble on a lake; the word 'lie' makes its ripples, for example, without yet sinking. See how far it can go, before it loses momentum, disappears into the darkness. Maybe the length of this bridge, the walk back, the drive, the deathbed, not to be dramatic.

"I don't think it has to be complicated. Academics find the one thing no one has yet written about it, and they write about it, even the amateurs. I think that is why some of the reviews are so dismissive."

Another kick of ice into water, the same kind of soccer-like side swing. His form is not as good as Teo's.

"Didn't you choose it?" The query comes kind of suddenly, like a pop up ad, Francois' head lifting from his gaze downwards as he says it. "When you took on this, ah. Form." Body just sounds too creepy. "I never asked for many details, je sais, but I think you could have been your— " Francois takes his hands out of his pockets to do the air quotes. "'Normal' self," hands return, after demonstrating the thing he picks up from the youth of Wolfhound, "had you chosen to. But you chose to be exceptional."

Teo glances sideways at his husband, his pale eyes thoughtful, not really seeing his husband when he looks at him, which is definitely better than seeing someone who makes you want to cry. "I thought the spook's power was pretty fuckin' useful," he says. "That's what I remember, anyway. Maybe I remember wrong." Teodoro levels his gaze back onto the bridge ahead, its vanishing point into the black crinoline of treeline. "There was going to be a war; we all could feel it, even back then.

"But I think— apart from that." Teodoro's switching, with effort, away from the downhill schism of his past choices, particularly where the war is involved. Trying to remember what was more important, or at least as important as the path that took him to— whatever this is, now; trying, also, to be charitable about his husband's generosity with the word 'exceptional.' "After I got mixed up with Sylar's uh. Intervention, I was already something else. There was the man from the other future, and there was the man from then-present. And then there was me. So, to 'stay normal,'" he doesn't air-quote, but there's the briefest, fleeting, belated, boyish tug of a grin on one corner of his mouth, to say that he had liked that. "To go back, I think would have required for me to die, in a way. Would've been those two who were left, not me.

"And I'm not Peter fucking Pan, I guess. To die would be too fucking great an adventure for me. Always." Teo smiles again, briefly.

But it goes away, because Teo remembers more of the depressing fucking thoughts he's been courting lately, in that moment. Not the least of which is: that Francois is mortal now, in every appreciable sense. And Teodoro knows that he himself isn't necessarily. He the fine afternoon that he recited his wedding vows: 'til death do us part, that he had meant it. Rejecting the ghost's destiny, his vampire Hell of eternal wandering the timeline. He'd foreseen an unlikely hope, an eventuality that he and Francois would survive the sprint and make it into the marathon, weather years together until chaos merged into tedium and then into making new, growing grey and old. Whether Francois would ever guess, even if they never spoke of it, Teo thought then he would choose to stay in his body until it turned into a corpse, be buried beside his husband, matching stones.

These days, Teodoro has better excuses to be too afraid to die, he thinks. So his smile collapses into neutral, framed by his beard. He looks ahead. "But you just meant my powers, right?" he asks. Switching again. "You're exceptional too," is not insincere, but polite. Like holding the door open, asking enough questions on a first date. It's just a power. It's just SLC-Expressed genetics.

"It is all tangled up together," Francois allows, as to what he was asking for. He's listening. It's familiar, trodden ground, and it's been a long time since he'd felt any kind of anxiety about the state of Teo's psychological makeup, the splitting, the resolution. It all sounded like nonsense at the time, and it had been work, to force himself to piece it all together, to understand that the man he had fallen in love with was made up of two, when he seemed so whole, and self-possessed, and attractive. Back then, he'd only ever known one Teo, and isn't everyone a strange, fucked up slurry of their innocent selves, and the experiences they endured against their will?

It is not so simple as that, he knows that now. Francois laughs, a little, at this latest piece of polite flattery, and does a thing — a step inwards, closer, nudging elbow to elbow.

It's not that calculated.

They have been friends for as long as they've been romantically entwined, give or take a few weeks of preliminary meetcuteing. The line gets muddy. Maybe that's why they've barely behaved like friends, either.

Francois regrets it immediately, too, the nudging. Unsure what the fucking rules are around this kind of thing. He just talks, to stave off his own neurosis circling the drain of his sanity, and says, "I was so angry at you." Cool, good choice. "For five minutes, anyway. I accepted I'd never really understand it, and why it was necessary. As long as you came out of it the way I remembered, and perhaps at better ease." A little like writing a book, maybe, and the absurdity of that is amusing, but he would like to not circle every conversation back to himself.

"The Ghost haunts the Bunker, still. I never see the other."

Teo is bumped at an odd angle, chummy and cute, but it's idiotically funny: he doesn't know what to do. Your husband feels miserable and alone, unsupported, so he fucks other people, tells you, and now his companionship is unpleasant, support hard to surrender, and misery, it seems, isn't lighter when halved between two. He laughs without making much of a sound, then he continues on his original course of movement, from which he had only swayed, no real deviation.

Teo's glad if not quite grateful, that Francois releases the topic of conversation. How they began, how much happier they were despite how bad things stood. That kind of anger— and Teo can see it more clearly now, ten years in the rearview— seems easier? He isn't sure. Maybe in ten years, they'll have new problems that reduce these ones to anecdotes. It'll feel like they had only been angry for five minutes. That's a nice thought. Maybe Francois deserves a husband who'd keep fighting. What kind of anecdote is this going to make? 'I kicked ice around and he just stood there and took pictures of ducks. Not how I remembered. Not at ease.'

Not ducks. Swans. Teo should have zoomed in. Maybe they have teeth? "He's still in Sicily," Teo says. "Not SLC-Expressive. I guess he still has skin in the game." That old chestnut. Little brother's dead girlfriend, something. "Have you talked to Ghost recently?" is—

a slightly more active, invested question, actually. Teo picks it out of the cold air quite nonchalantly, as if he had not put some light overtures of murder on his counterpart recently. Careful not to linger, to leave no emphasis. "I'm sure he'll move on if the work is changing." He doesn't want to talk that much about himself either. Him selves. They'll get through this without either of them having to talk about themselvessss?

"I try to avoid it," Francois says, a little wry. His intolerance for the Ghost has eroded from exposure over the course of several years, but it's not all the way gone. Old grudges and very real and present irritations that only serve to exacerbate them lend said intolerance some resilience. He never likes the way the Ghost picks at things, and picks at Teo. He tries not to talk to Teo very much about this, but speaking to either of them, even the so-called 'nice' one, are practices in cognitive estrangement. Speaking to mirrors of your lover, mirrors that do not love you back in the same way and that you, in turn, can't quite love either. It's like cheating.

Ifff the word cheating hadn't recently become super loaded, but the point still stands. Like reading minds, or seeing the future. Getting insights from a carbon copy of your husband, insights you mostly never ask for.

Anyway, right now, on the bridge, Teo succeeds in not drawing Francois' scrutiny, although he may turn all of this over in his head a little later. And it is 'later' that his mind turns to, picking his gaze up to observe the sky. Clouds can't quite conceal the way the afternoon is slowly dimming, though there will be plenty of sunlight left over.

Oh well. He says, "What do you wish to do, when we get back?"

In Teo's own replays, hours later, he will regret how elaborately he had lied. He will wonder if he should have said— something, then he will remember how humiliating his tears had been, think better of it, and wonder if that, too, is telling. Telling of something distinctly fucking bad, no doubt. Also, he feels guilty for having entertained the thought, no matter how briefly, not long ago, that Francois had fucked the other him; Francois' answer feels like confirmation he hadn't. Unless he's a better liar than—

And that is the origin of: not wanting to think about things at all.

"I think I should head to the Catskills before it gets dark," Teo says. He spins this in the same easy tone that he had said the other thing. Oh ya know mirror me, that dickhead. Oh ya know, girls who like to read your book. Oh ya know, I have tired of your company, dear husband, and neither you nor I know what is the chief reason for that, and if there was none, that would be equally overwhelming. "I have some more shit to move, and the Coxes were hoping I could run some surplus down to New York City tomorrow morning." None of this is false, but Teo pretending not to foresee Francois' kind of freaking out a little.

But maybe Francois will just freak out on the inside. More excuses will help, other plans to pad the impact. "But we could grab some coffee on my way out. That would be good for the drive. And I want to know what your favorite coffee place is. The chocolate one closed down, right?" There was a chocolate one, last year. Big on the mochas and desserts, but their fundamentals had been good, too. Francois had observed, at one of his penultimate visits to the mountains, that foot traffic had dwindled.

Really, it's not necessary — the echoes of you can't have it back are still rolling off the hillsides in Francois' interiority that Teo thinks he needs to spend more time with, and it will be a relief when this is over. Not because he does not desperately crave his husband's company, it's because he also craves his husband's affection, his forgiveness, his honesty, and he's not going to get any of that. The padding being placed around him is almost irritating.

Like false hope. Never mind, actually, maybe he is freaking out on the inside, because that can happen, even if you already know something, when it is confirmed. Francois is looking forwards, intermittently down, sometimes at the water.

"My favourite now is a matter of atmosphere," he says, apologetically. "And no disposables. But their black coffee is good — I can dig up a thermos for you, if you don't have one."

Pat pat padding.

"I'll see about a trip to New York City, soon. Perhaps by then you will have some favourites."

Despite knowing that his husband may be freaking out on the inside, his lack of freaking out on the outside is more reassuring to Teo than it should be. The Sicilian glances over, briefly considering: being glad. Seems premature.

"I don't have a thermos," Teo decides to say, finally. He does actually, but it's dirty and it fell down somewhere in the back of his truck, so it makes more sense to offer this as an olive branch— twig of a branch? Possibly a single solitary olive, not yet ripe. Proferred on an upturned palm. "Merci." Right. He had been trying to practice his French, earlier. Before the argument that didn't happen, the tears that weren't shed. Maybe if Teo practices enough, he will be able to unlive everything else that has gotten so fucked up about this marriage.

He thinks about offering to make up the couch for Francois. For some reason, the concept fails to execute as Teo thinks about it. Something about crossing this bridge when they come to it.

For now, they have a bridge that's ending.

It's uneventful, the transfer of their resonant steps from wood to the insulated scuff of shoes back onto pavement, frosted dirt. Symbolism does not render theory into momentous events, at least not as often as momentous events tend to render theories into symbols. There was a time when Teodoro dreamed often enough about rising phoenixes and butchered roosters, lambent in their different shades of red. Dog-eared journals and the terrifying acknowledgment of blue eyes. Not so long ago, he had dreamed about rolling up Rochester like it was a rug, fitting his hands under the layer of topsoil and the easy-peel foundations of empty buildings. Carrying it home. These days, when Teo manages to dream, he dreams about being with Francois. The mind rarely settles for dreaming of anything real, anything you actually have.

"Let me know when you want to come down. It'll be good to have you. We could also meet in Binghamton some time," Teo surmises, absently. "It's nice to drive through, and the new owner of Dillingers can't stop boasting about how the place survived the war." There are probably less stupid marketing techniques, but it feels a bit soon. Crass.

Here's another thing about cheating on your spouse, lover, whatever: it's not just one mistake. There has to be some form of mental predisposition. There is a betrayal that happens before anything happens. The happening, in itself, is hardly one misstep, but a series of many at in which both participants have the option to stop before they reach the next. At a certain point, the accumulation of fuck ups overwhelms, but the threshold in itself is ill-defined. Where does one put the line? Interest, or flirtation, or first kisses, or penetration, or a secret kept and left to simmer, become toxic?

It's probably not rocket science, honestly. Black and white, to most, like letters of the law.

Don't fuck other people.

But Francois is likening it, a little, the long bridge they've left behind, because at some point between the first step onto icy wooden slats and the last step onto soft black earth and crunching gravel, there has been a mistake, and probably not just one mistake. A series of many, an accumulation that overwhelms. They know about alternate dimensions now, and the splitting possibilities with each iteration of argument, inflection, look aside seems brimming with possibility, and yet they've entered this future. A quasi-grey timeline of two people only barely managing to stand each other's company.

Here they are, returning to the car, making pleasant conversation, "there is a German bakery that opened a week ago, only opens in the mornings — I'll try to remember to bring something when I drive down", and everything feels a little worse than it was instead of a little better, and Francois doesn't know why.

Except that he didn't get to say anything like I love you or I am sorry, which seem like pretty potent remarks, usually. How is it he can never find a place for either?

Back at the empty parking lot, Francois sinks behind Teo to angle off towards his side of the car, and as he watches Teo head in that direction. he thinks very seriously about tossing the other man his keys, inviting him to go back to base himself, and head home after. He'll be fine, he'll get another car after he spends a little time out here, you know, it's been so long since he's explored. And it's really only the knowledge that Teo has several hours of driving already ahead of him that stops Francois from doing so. The selfish thing, disguised as the selfless thing, or some combination of the two things.

Without too much of a delay, Francois moves to his side of the car. And gets in, with all the enthusiasm of someone installing their body inside of a confessional.

He reverses neatly out of the parking lot, and they turn back onto the equally empty road. Lined with trees, roadkill, fencing that has been oppressed by weather conditions and complete neglect. There is one patch of road that is scattered with foresty debris, and Francois had theorised that a tree had collapsed, and someone/s had dragged it aside, out of the way. Which is a sign of something nice, maybe.

They arrive back at the Bunker, the sky dark.

In the early days, when they would face down the prospect of a whole day, maybe two whole days, of being apart, they would say goodbye like an enthusiastic reunion. Arms around each other — Teo suddenly tipping backwards until Francois' heels clear the floor, and he breathlessly gets laughed at and called vecchio, complaints ensue, about about old age and spines, old injuries and rib cages — and then a kiss, probably, without too much worry about who was looking. They did manage to get less closety, when it counted.

Now, as Francois exits the car, he isn't sure what he should do. He does wander around, closer, and thinks—

The last couple of times they went separate ways, it was because they were fighting. Maybe they should have fought in the car, made this easier. What do you mean you will work on that?

Or something.

Given them something to talk about, and a reason to see each other soon rather than later.

"You'll be okay?" he asks. "Driving up there, at this hour."

Rochester: West Downtown, Outside the Wolfhound Bunker

Divided by the Genesee River, the western half of downtown Rochester is an industrial neighborhood that suffered some collateral losses during the civil war. Riots that began in November of 2011 burned through much of the western half of the city, gutting apartment buildings and businesses and precipitating the drive-off that left portions of Rochester abandoned. During the war, a handful of skirmishes were fought in Rochester's streets as the Mitchell administration attempted to gain a foothold against rising resistance, itself centered around Fort Drum in the west. Today, the western downtown region is a mix of pockets of revitalized businesses and repaired city blocks juxtaposed against crumbling industrial buildings and demolished homes.

The car ride isn't too bad, if you ask Teo. It's not too bad, if your standards for happiness are just, not actively, consciously miserable. He changes the radio session. He rubs his ears, a forefinger and thumb around each lobe. He complains about the weather. He forgets that he cried in the middle of a city park, long enough for it to be an irritating shock when he remembers again. He watches the trees go by, and remembers falling asleep once or twice, with Francois behind the wheel, when they moved things, or sometimes they moved people, went places. Francois is a good driver, and the car speaks in a low voice when he's behind the wheel.

Somehow, it's still hard to imagine sleeping in Francois' company again.

Teo gets himself a thermos full of coffee, and wisely, uses the restroom from the Bunker before he starts to drink it. When he had dropped off the food earlier today, he had thought it hadn't changed much since last he had visited. Upon revisit, he confirms it's true. A monument to the great pack that roams its halls, seemingly immutable, polished concrete and tasteful furniture that is probably, generally, bulletproof if you have to flip it over onto its side and take cover. Nice bathroom, too.

And now they're in the parking lot. The sky is nearly black now. It's a dubious gift of war, that the lights of cities are smaller now and the stars are easier to see from the ground. Teo makes no wishes. He does smoke a cigarette, finally giving into that urge. It's been a few days since his last one, and the other dubious gift of war is that the reduction in smog pollution means you have respiratory hit points to spare. Maybe he's procrastinating a little, of having to leave. Maybe he's procrastinating at having to kiss Francois good-bye.

Reality sets in: Teo isn't going to kiss Francois good-bye.

Another obligation unfulfilled, which is definitely not how you want to think about kissing your husband, but probably better than wondering what other person your husband is going to kiss next, because you didn't kiss him, because you're fighting now, and fighting was inevitable after the first kisses strayed. It feels like an inevitable circle, closing in on itself to a smoky finish, like a good lyric. It feels like something Teo shouldn't have to explain, but he thinks Francois' handsome face looks politely sad. Teo feels almost sorry for him. Almost, but not quite sorry enough to gouge the words out of himself, give them a proper fight to end on, subject matter for the next E-mail and its conveniently timed apologies.

Second best, Teo knows, would be to pronounce forgiveness. Maybe even that there's been nothing to forgive for quite some time. He was working on it in the car, actually. I hate your job, not you. And even then, 'hate' seems like a strong word.

"I should've moved here four years ago," he admits.

Third best, Teo thinks, exhaling smoke like a dragon. Fucking difficult enough. Removing his grip from his pride one cramping finger at a time. (What pride! Here he is, planning concessions to his hero husband, who had to fuck multiple other people before deciding that his original partner was the one he wanted.) (Maybe, if Teo had moved here, that would have just— ?) (— No. He isn't doing this.) (Maybe on the drive home.) "I'm sorry. It's a cool little town, like you said. You were right." He's not too proud to acknowledge it, that there was a time when that would have headed off their problem, and the decision would have represented. something. Better understanding, deeper appreciation, the triumph of shared principle over temporary— whatever's wrong with him. Maybe, if he'd made that decision, there wouldn't have been anything wrong with him. Is that how this works?

It's pretty inconvenient, that Teo can lay any number of moral defects at Francois' feet, but he's pretty sure that he himself is the one who is defective in every other way. He hasn't even jerked off in a couple days. And suspects he won't be for another few days, with the rate at which his incidental glances at Francois' shirt buttons are intercepted by picturing the small stones of some woman's fingernails opening them. Male lovers, sufficiently drunk, would probably not bother taking it off Francois at all.

Teo recalls, with a blanche of weird guilt up the back of his neck, that he'd tried to fuck Francois clothes on and wine served the other month, himself.

"Je te verrai dans l'autre ville," Teo says. French. Again, to make it gentler. "Je penserai a vous. Don't work too hard. The next novel about your life will be by me, and I don't know how to sell death by a thousand papercuts." He smiles, makes it pretty, or at least, what used to feel pretty— the mechanical motions and physical memory in his face still work, immune to the emotional certainty of being unattractive. Then he opens his truck door and puts the cigarette out in the little ashtray clamped to the defunct CD player. Teodoro steps up, climbs in. The words stick in his throat. Je t'aime. Je t'aime beaucoup. Je t'aime jusqu'à la mort. They would not be outright lies, just. fucked, anymore.

There's no French for 'I love you to death,' but that would be the real ending to his book; the most true.

Instead, Teo swallows it with coffee and shuts the truck door.

Francois continues to look politely sad. He thinks so, anyway. He hopes so. It's what he is willing his face to do. There's something about Teo's admission that feels a little like a gun going off and he has to put effort towards not emoting. Pride is something he is still gripping onto, white-knuckled, straining tendons, and he isn't about to let go now even as Teo. Does. By some small measure.

But in a way, it means more than he can actually put into words, even if it hurts, so Francois doesn't say anything, not even anything in French, and instead stands there like a stupid idiot with his ribs apparently curling inwards with sharp edges towards the meat of his heart. He wants to exclaim: yes, of course you should have, everything would have been different. Or maybe ask: why didn't you? Why couldn't you? Why haven't you? Or maybe say something like: I should have begged you to, told you I needed you, we could have figured something out from there.

Or even: it's okay, this is my fuck up only, despite all the arguing I've done to the contrary.

But none of those happen, and Teo's car door closes.

As the vehicle pulls away, Francois wanders after it a few steps, like he might give it a friendly knock across the trunk in a familiar kind of gesture, but he keeps his hands in his coat pockets. Teo is at a decent distance by the time Francois' eyes are stinging, but brings up a hand, splays it, white palm in a wave at the indistinct blur that is the back of the truck.

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