Unlucky Duckling


avi2_icon.gif rue4_icon.gif

Scene Title Unlucky Duckling
Synopsis We don't always get what we deserve.
Date March 9, 2020

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

Rue Lancaster has heard that each and every day for the last weeks and a half. From her squad-mates, from medical professionals in Oakland when she was brought in during the siege of Praxia, from specialists here in Kansas City. They keep reminding her just how lucky she is to be alive. But here, in a hospital bed overlooking the Kansas City skyline, Rue Lancaster feels anything but.

Laid up in her hospital bed, Rue looks like she’s wearing an AEGIS body armor vest, but it’s nothing quite so dramatic. It’s the back brace she’ll need to wear for the next 4-6 months as she recuperates from injuries that should have killed her. The doctors told her precisely what the damage was, primarily muscular with bruising of six ribs at her back. Not only was she lucky to be alive, but also lucky her spine wasn’t damaged. The words “almost paralyzed” echo like static in the back of her mind.

But if Rue Lancaster is lucky to be alive, she doesn’t feel it.

Kansas City VA Medical Center
Kansas City

March 9th
10:17 am

Everything is exquisitely painful, and not because of her injuries. She has the good drugs for that. Vicodin. Morphine. Fentanyl. She doesn’t even remember which one they have her on at any given time. All she knows is that it isn’t doing anything for the real pain.

But she’s been propped up in her bed and she can stare out the window. They’ve offered her the television so many times now that she removed the goddamned batteries from the remote so they will shut the actual fuck up about the motherfucking television.

Rue doesn’t want a distraction. She wants to hurt. Because she fucking deserves to.

Tears have been rolling down her cheeks for what feels like forever at this point. It comes in waves, and she’s so numb to it at this point she doesn’t even know when she’s crying and when she isn’t. Every so often, she’ll reach up to touch her face and come away with dewy wetness on her fingertips, caused by the forked ravines that cut branching paths from eyes to jawline and chin.

The IV bag at her bedside becomes her focal point, for lack of anything better — or even worse — to look at.

It should have been me.

Over and over, that’s all she can think. Of anybody who deserved to survive when things went tits up (and someone owes her money for that bet), it’s her least of all.

She’ll have to dig James Dearing up to get the $20 he owes her. That dark thought crosses her mind, and it kills her to know he’d find it hilarious.

A courtesy-knock on her door snaps Rue out of that grim line of thinking. The sliver of Avi Epstein that becomes visible through the crack in the door afterward is more than she wanted to see of him right now. There’s a long series of difficult conversations that haven’t happened yet, none of which anyone is particularly looking forward to.

Maybe that’s why Avi looks so unhappy.

“Ain’t the morphine-fairy,” Avi says as introduction, inviting himself into the room.

“Well, fuck,” Rue responds easily, but her affect is flatter than desired.

There’s conflict in her regarding this particular reunion. For all that Rue knows he’s going to have some things to say to her that are going to make her want to die more than she already wishes she had, it’s good to see him. He made it out, too. That’s something she can at least be grateful for.

“I… I don’t know what you—” Rue closes her eyes, gritting her teeth against the false start.

Pawing at her face is an afterthought. Like she’s supposed to care about what she looks like in front of other people. Especially him, ever since that meeting at Fort Jay. She stayed loyal to him, because she always will — that’s her flaw and her cross to bear — but he’d been right not to trust her. He’d been right. Just not for the reasons either them expected.

“Just tear the bandage off. Get it over with.”

“Yeah I don’t have all day,” Avi says with a motion to Rue, “you’ve got way too many bandages for that.” Oh.

Shutting the door behind himself, Avi moves over to the window beside Rue’s bed, looking out at the city for a moment, then down to her in the bed. “If you’re expecting a lecture or something you’re not gonna get it. I talked to your doctor outside, she’s saying you’re gonna need several months of physical therapy to get, literally, back on your feet.”

For all he said he wouldn’t do it, there goes Avi tearing off proverbial bandages.

“Unless she already told you,” Avi considers. The thought hadn’t crossed his mind until just now.

“Oh yeah,” Rue rolls her eyes at his comment about the fact that she’s wrapped up like a mummy. “You’re real clever.” Humor’s always been their best offense.

His news doesn’t register any shock, but it’s met with a solemnity that suggests she may not have been fully informed. Not yet anyway. “Well, I kind of figured,” she murmurs. “Given the way every single muscle from about my earlobes down to my ass is making me wish for a fucking nerve block…”

She has more words than she expected to. She hasn’t really spoken to anyone since she was stabilized enough to come up from the haze of heavy sedation. Enough to provide acknowledgement of her situation and proof of her cognizance. Just enough to make sure the man in front of her can’t seize medical power of attorney from her.

If he was even inclined to do so.

“Have you told my parents?” About the only information anybody really knows about John and Kathy Lancaster is that they’re still out in Illinois somewhere, stubbornly clinging to what’s left of the Chicago metropolitan area the way that New Yorkers do to the Safe Zone, they call their daughter once a week, and she never calls them back. Rue fled the normalcy of their lifestyle years ago. “I’d rather they didn’t know.”

“You didn’t die,” Avi states plainly. “I don’t call somebody’s fucking parents unless someone dies.” Though, to be fair, neither of the Hounds who passed away recently had living parents to contact. “That’s your own business. You aren’t twelve for Christ’s sake.”

Avi leans against the wall by the door, arms crossed over his chest. He looks Rue up and down, then shakes his head. “I did file your medical leave of absence form for you. I had Francis forge your signature.” Which is a brazen thing to say in the middle of a hospital. “Your insurance only kicks in when I confirm it was a work-related injury, so I didn’t want you to…” he dithers and waves a hand, dismissing the thought.

“For what it’s worth we’re switching fucking carriers as soon as that Yamagato insurance is available.” Avi adds in a mumbled afterthought out of awkwardness.

“Well fucking thank you for that.” Not calling her parents. Not treating her like she’s twelve. Rue tries to flash a smile in gratitude, however wry it might be, but it never quite gets there. “Did Francis even look at my signature first? First cards, now this? Regular fuckin’ criminal.”

That time, she manages the twitch of lips that just qualifies as a smile.

It’s short lived. Rue’s tongue sticks out between her lips briefly to wet them, then retreats again. She sighs. “Did Hark… What did he say happened?”

“I got a report.” Avi says in a neutral, non-committal tone. “But I was hoping to get yours, when you’re ready. Which isn’t now, because you’re hopped up on pain-killers. But the jist of it was pretty clear.” Avi leans off of the wall, lifting up one hand.

“Robot,” Avi says extending his pinkie, “Dragon,” ring finger, “Robots,” middle and index, “Chen.” Thumb. “That’s what Jensen used to call a whole fistfull of problems.” He didn’t. He called it a fisting of problems, but Avi either doesn’t remember that correctly or chooses not to.

“Nobody knows what happened to Cong or Chen. The basement is buried under eight floors of debris. Recovery of any bodies in the building’ll take months. We turned Sanderson loose, gave him a head start. I knew his sister, she was a good kid. Seemed fair.” Avi comes to stand beside Rue’s bed.

For a moment, Avi is silent, but then he looks over to the window into Rue’s room and back down to her bed. “We need to talk about something.”

Rue starts to lift a hand with index finger extended to argue in her defense, that she is perfectly capable of giving a report while hopped up on painkillers, but she stops. Not just because her shoulder muscles are super angry at her in spite of those painkillers. “Yeah, okay. Later,” she relents.

Her head tips to one side just slightly. Enough to be noted as an intentional gesture. “Well, good. Maybe I can call it even with Sanderson, then.” She wouldn’t be here right now if he hadn’t been willing to haul her ass out of the Ziggurat, in spite of her best efforts to martyr herself. And even though she felt, for one moment, that she needed to live…

The further she gets away from it, the less she wishes she had.

Still, she owes Josiah, and she’ll make good on that somehow.

The mention of how long it’s going to take to retrieve bodies has Rue’s throat tightening. She wants to ask to be informed when they find Dearing, but does she deserve to know? Maybe yes, if he had no next of kin. Someone should make sure he gets a burial.

That can come later. For now, she meets Avi’s gaze and nods. “Go ahead.” He doesn’t want her statement, so he wouldn’t be here if there were something else. He’d have let her doctors handle the news of her condition. “I’m listening.”

“We need to get our stories straight,” is not what she expected to come out of Avi’s mouth. He finally moves away from the wall, coming around the foot of her bed to sit in the guest chair beside it. “I already talked to Scott and Huruma,” puts a strange twist on this.

“I need you to do me a favor, Lancaster.” Avi never breaks out the last names unless it’s business. “There was a lot of chaos in the aftermath of that Op. A lot of questions that should’ve gotten asked, didn’t. You and me are going to keep a secret, and we’re gonna take it to our fucking graves.” There is no humor in Avi’s voice when he makes that request, even though he hasn’t given the full context yet.

Sitting forward, Avi’s voice takes on a conspiratorial tone. “The Devon that Praxis had? He’s the one who died. The survivor was the one who’s been with us all this time. He has a head injury, like Ivanov, some memory loss. So he’ll need our help patching in the gaps.”

“Normally I’d wait to fucking deal with this,” Avi says with a shaky voice, “but when we get back to the Safe Zone, I don’t want Emily hearing word one about this.”

Our stories straight. Rue’s brow furrows in confusion. That’s something she should be saying to Scott, shouldn’t it? (If she wanted to hide her mistakes, anyway.) And the government, due to the operation’s apparent success, have decided not to disavow them and toss them all in a deep, dark hole. So what story could they possibly need to —


Her first reaction is anger, and it shows in the tightening of her jaw, the thinning of her teardrop shaped mouth, a flash in her blue eyes. Her nostrils flare slightly with a sharp breath. Then, everything softens when he makes clear his reason for this fabrication.

“But he’s not Devon,” Rue insists quietly. “I don’t know what he is, but he isn’t Devon.” Even if she knows — she knows — he is. She saw them together, behaving identically. Speaking with the same voice. Making the same choices.

“You’re just going to bring everyone in on that conspiracy? He didn’t have the armor, didn’t have the bracelet… You know as well as I do that the more people are in on a secret, the less well it’s kept.” Not that any of the Hounds are inclined toward spilling this particular one, especially to Epstein’s daughter, but it’s a fact. “So you expect everyone who was on the Op to just… Lie about it and be okay with that?”

That’s not an accusation or a criticism, remarkably. Just a check to see if she and him are on the same page.

“They don’t have to be ok with it,” Avi says rather flatly, “they just have to do what they’re fucking told.” He slouches back in the chair beside Rue’s bed. “There was a lot going on in the aftermath, I’m only bringing it up to people who saw what happened. There’s a million reasons why he didn’t have the armor or the bracelet on afterward. We had to cut you out of yours.”

Avi sighs and sits forward, unable to stay still. “I just need you to stick to the script. Devon made it out. End of story. If anybody else questions it, you direct them to me.” Avi angles his head to the side, scratching his neck.

Which means she doesn’t have to be okay with the lie. Rue sighs heavily. “She’s going to find out, you know. Eventually. Either someone will let something slip, he’ll confess, or she’ll suspect it. This lie is not sustainable.”

And it feels an awful lot like the sort of thing that should absolve her of her guilt, which she absolutely fucking does not want. Even though that’s not at all what he’s offering her with this. There’s nothing in this lie that’s for her. “Your daughter deserves the truth.”

“Sure,” Avi says with a flick of his tongue across the inside of his mouth in a tone that means mind your own fucking business. He plants hands on the arms of the chair to lever himself back up to stand, scratching at the side of his cheek with grimy nails. “But you aren’t gonna be the one to tell her.”

Threat made, Avi looks down the length of Rue’s bed, then back up to her. “You’re on indefinite medical leave, doctors say it could be months if not more than a year before you’re fully back in shape. You could do desk work but, honestly, I’d rather you get the fucking rest.” He says, turning his back to Rue and walks to the hospital room’s window.

“When you’re ready to check back into field work, let me know. You’ll still pull in base salary and hazard pay, but you won’t get any contract bonuses until you’re cleared for field work again.” Avi crosses his arms over his chest, watching cars go by on the street outside.

“No,” Rue agrees, threat unnecessary, “I won’t.” She won’t have to. These sorts of things always have a way of coming to light, and it won’t be because she dragged it there herself.

It isn’t Avi directly that Rue looks to, but the reflection of him in the window. Watching his face as he watches the world move past. “No, Aviators.” At first, it seems like she might leave it at that. The silence stretches out between them like a chasm impossible to span. The reality of it is that she requires a moment to gather her courage. “I’m resigning.”

The threat of the sudden onslaught of fresh tears takes her by surprise. She’d reckoned with this decision for days and knew it was the right choice to make. But, she supposes, even the right thing can hurt. “I don’t deserve to be lying here, having this conversation with you. It shouldn’t be me.” Rue lets her tongue slip past her dry lips, then retreat back into her mouth. “I made the wrong call. I got them killed. Devon and—”

Her throat clamps down tight around her vocal cords, strangling the sound of his name so that it dies before it ever claws its way up to her tongue.

“Sorry I couldn’t hear you,” Avi says with two fingers behind one ear, “you said you’d be back on active duty after six months? That tracks.” Dismissing her concerns off-hand, Avi turns his back to the window and leans his hip against the sil.

“This is your first shit op,” Avi explains. “You aren’t the only person in this line of work with blood on their hands. Won’t be the last, either. Shit happens, we make choices that seem right at the time, we slip in our own blood and wind up spilling more. It’s the nature of the fucking beast, Rue.”

Leaning away from the window, Avi paces to the foot of her bed. “You don’t get to quit because you feel bad about yourself. Because you think it makes you a bad leader. A bad leader’s somebody who fucks up and runs from it.” He leans on the footboard of the bed, head angled to the side. “A good leader takes their druthers and learns from it.”

For lack of anything better to slam her fist again, Rue first brings it down against the mattress, which lacks any kind of dramatics beyond making her entire body angry with her. So what’s a girl to do but swing that fist sideways instead to connect with the rail alongside her bed. That at least rattles.

He might be right. He probably is. After all his years of experience, he ought to be. But it isn’t what she wants to hear right now, even if it’s what she deserves.

“Damn it, Avi!” Shit happens. Like she’d knocked an expensive vase off a shelf. “That wasn’t just shit!” Rue’s voice cracks as she shouts at him, flecks of spit erupting from her mouth. “It was Dearing!

Somewhere along the line, in the time after the war, Rue had forgotten the valuable lesson she’d learned from Bannerman’s Castle; that she should remain detached. That once she learned to care for people again, she would once again open herself up to pain.

There’s no allowance given to herself when she breaks down. First her head tips back against the pillows propping her up, her breaths coming in labored gasps, then a pathetic whine tears from her throat as she starts sobbing.

She had promised she’d keep her shit together at least in front of him. After what he’d said to her in lock-up at Fort Jay, Rue no longer felt safe being vulnerable in front of Avi. Sometimes, you don’t get a choice. She’ll blame her lack of control over her emotions on the painkillers later.

“Everybody’s just shit eventually,” is Avi’s quiet response, undeterred by Rue’s sobbing. He also, perhaps characteristically, doesn’t really do anything to comfort her.

“Everyone signed on for this job knowing that they could go at any moment. You signed on knowing it could happen. When you got Keelut you agreed that you were not only responsible for your team, but understood that you might have to put them in situations that could cost them their lives.” Avi’s voice is low, quiet, detached. He sounds more disappointed than anything.

“You’re too close to the moment.” Avi adds, leaning off of the footboard of her bed. “Take the fucking time off, and if you still want to retire in… let’s say six months from now — September — you file. But you’d be making a mistake.”

Rue’s hands both come up to her face, pads of her fingers rubbing over her eyelids squinted shut, hard enough to make black and white blooms flash in her hooded vision. She focuses on her breathing, getting herself back together enough to speak.

“I’m not going to change my mind,” she insists in a hoarse voice, dropping her hands back down to her lap and looking up at him. “But fuck you, I guess, if you wanna keep paying me until I can walk on my own.” If nothing else, she’d be grateful for the continued insurance, if she’s honest. Rue shakes her head. “But I’m not coming back.”

“I said the same thing,” Avi admits quietly, moving to the chair beside Rue’s bed again. “In a bed just like that,” he adds, motioning to where Rue lays as he sits down in the chair. “It was… 2004 or 2005, I forget which year I spent with Rachel.” He shakes his head. “After that they dragged me back to the sandbox with the Royals. We were in Afghanistan, me, your aunt, Sarisa, Jensen.”

Avi leans back in the chair, taking his sunglasses off so that he can massage the bridge of his nose with his fingers. “We had a squad of marines with us, kids. About the same age Taylor was when he went off.” There’s a distant quality in Avi’s eyes.

“We were fourteen miles north of Bakwa, middle of fucking nowhere in the mountains. We’d been hiking for two days, supposed to find a cave network. Taliban out there, hunkered down. Hiding.” Avi leans to one side, resting his elbow on the arm of the chair. “The group we were after had just taken out a convoy in Kandahar with an IED. Strictly kill mission.”

Sighing through his nose, Avi smooths his hand over his mouth. “We found the cave entrance at sunset. Sarisa perched up on a bluff in overwatch. Jensen and your aunt did perimeter to the north and south. I was hunkered down in the lowland with the babies, wiping their asses and making sure they didn’t get their asses shot off.”

Avi swallows dryly. “It was a clear night, full moon. Plenty of light. We were down low, no sight lines past the ridge. Jensen and Lancaster were halfway back from their sweep, I was sitting in the ditch with the kids, Cortez was telling some story about his mom chasing somebody out of their house with a knife or some fucked up shit.” He shakes his head, looking down at the floor.

“I wasn’t paying attention. I’d done this shit dozens of times; city, jungle, desert, whatever. I knew the ropes. Someone slipped past Sarisa, used the ridgeline as cover. Got into line of sight of the camp.” Avi scrubs a hand over his mouth. “I could’ve spotted him if I was fucking paying attention. But I was listening to some bullshit story and tripping over my own dick.”

Avi looks up to Rue. “It was a fucking disaster. Every single one of those fucking kids died. We had to leave them out there to rot in the fucking desert. Sarisa got tagged, she was bleeding bad. I honestly don’t know how we made it out of there alive.”

Closing his eyes, Avi lifts a hand to his forehead and massages there. “I think about those kids all the time. When the shooting started, when the other Taliban joined up, we were just— it was fish in a barrel. One kid jumped in front of his friend, got shot in the side of the head, but he didn’t die right away. He laid there, paralyzed, screaming.

Avi’s jaw clenches shut. “I lost control. Went to drag him out of the line of fire, should’ve got shot right in the fucking back. But Cortez took it. Right in the neck.” Blinking his eyes open and closed, Avi wipes his nose with his thumb.

“Six years later, I’m at Bannerman’s Castle.” Avi looks up to Rue, “Fulk says he wants to run a truck full of kids out into Canada. I wouldn’t’ve been there if I’d laid down and fucking died because I felt guilty about some kids I got killed a half decade before.”

Avi runs a hand through his hair. “Don’t make this about Dearing.”

The story gives her the time to continue to compose herself. Her sobbing subsides again, breathing deep and even as she does what she’s always done and shove it down into her chest. Cramming it into one of those compartmentalized boxes like an overprepared tourist about to embark on a vacation, leaning their weight on the lid of the suitcase to snap it shut.

He wouldn’t have been there to save her if he had laid down and fucking died about those kids.

“You know why it’s about Dearing,” she sighs out finally. He has to know by now, doesn’t he? “I thought he was on the take from the moment Hana picked him up. I made him my mission.” Rue scrubs a hand over her mouth in a near mirror of the way she’s seen Avi do countless times. Her twist to it is the way the pad of her thumb always drags across her lips, the bottom caught by the pad until it slips free and back to its teardrop shape.

“And I was wrong about him. He was one of us.” Maybe not with the same kinship the rest of them have, maybe not the same devotion, but he wasn’t what she initially thought he was. “Figured that out when he took that bullet for me back at Sunstone.”

Rue laughs bitterly at the irony she’s about to admit to. “He told me I was too soft for this job. I wanted to prove him wrong, so… I tried to play bad bitch.” Her gaze shifts toward the ceiling, just avoiding staring directly into the light recessed there. “I let a stray comment goad me into making a catastrophic choice. And he didn’t leave me behind for it. I transferred command and he wouldn’t leave me behind.

The breath leaves her lungs in an audible exhale, her eyes closing. “He should have been leading the pack, but instead he lingered behind to make sure I’d keep up. If I hadn’t gotten myself fucked up… He wouldn’t have had to do that. He wouldn’t have been standing where he was. He would be alive.

Now she looks to Avi again finally. “It should’ve been me. He was more level-headed, stronger, more valuab—”

“Probably.” Avi agrees.

“But we get the hand we’re dealt. Dearing was decent, but he never could’ve led a team. He didn’t deserve what he got and yeah, you are responsible for what happened. Good intentions don’t make you innocent or take the guilt away. But you know what you just pointed out to me there?”

Avi motions to Rue with one finger. “You called out every single fuck-up you made on every Op we’ve done in the last year and a half. I wish half our fucking company had that kind of clarity. The difference between you and Dearing was that you want to be better, but you took shit ways at going about it because like that big son of a bitch, you’re too proud.”

Sighing, Avi slowly stands up from the seat, losing the battle of pretending he can sit still. “Bet that pride’s a little fucking bruised now, isn’t it?” Shrugging, Avi goes back to the foot of Rue’s bed, but isn’t going to linger there this time.

“You won’t make the same mistakes twice.” Avi says with certainty. “Maybe you’ll make better choices with Wolfhound, maybe you’ll make better choices somewhere else. But the one thing I can be certain of is that you’ll learn better than I did.”

Avi takes a step away from the foot of Rue’s bed. “Whatever choice that is.”

In the days, weeks, and months to follow, Rue will replay this conversation in her mind over and over again. She’ll twist it this way and that, splice it and rearrange it to fit whatever narrative she needs it to at any given moment. Sometimes it will be a balm, and others it will be the salt in her wounds.

In this moment, the now, however, Rue is too numb to feel anything about it one way or the other. She turns her gaze back to the window and the world beyond it that refuses to stop just because she wants it to spin in reverse so she can go back and fix her mistakes.


The corner of her mouth turns up in a rueful expression. “I guess we’ll see.”

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License