Welcome to the Playground


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Scene Title Welcome to the Playground
Synopsis Elliot goes out in search of someone he can talk to — and that's the problem.
Date June 22, 2021

Who told you what was down here?

It’s a mystery as to who provides the electricity where otherwise a system would have required a generator reliant on fuel to function. Simply grateful for the thump of bass she can feel beneath the soles of her feet and what feels like her very soul, the dancer on stage arches her back and rolls her hips in time with those beats, twirling — sometimes just around the stage, and sometimes from the pole rising up from it.

Come along if you wanted a peek

Elsewhere, Elliot Hitchens has been looking for someone…

The Pelago

“Like this,” he says, lifting something more precious than air: a memory, tangible. Not indexed, held. A polaroid of his lover, lost beyond a tide of impenetrable nothing. Separated by choice, by never really having been given a choice. By doing the right thing despite the hurt, the terror.

Even in the dark of the market stalls, the mature woman with silver threaded through her blonde hair doesn’t have to squint much when she looks the photograph over. “That’s a fresh one,” she remarks absently, turning to adjust the hang of a tanned hide on a display behind her, residing alongside a smattering of furs. “Must’ve been a hell of a find.” There’s a single huff of laughter brought on by some nostalgia, a quieter cough brought on by an old smoking habit.

“Mind you,” she offers up in a cheerful tone, “I’m in and outta these parts, but… Might’ve seen her. Just not down here too much — I’d remember those freckles.” The Davy Crockett hat is dragged off her head so she can scratch at the top of her head while she mulls over the conundrum of where to look. Suddenly, she snaps her fingers, her face lighting up with a smile that shows there’s still excitement to be found in that aging frame. “Might try…” The woman lifts a hand, forefinger pointing the way to a stairwell.

I’ve seen your face around here

One satin glove is thrown over her shoulder and into the crowd. She knows it makes it there because she hears someone crow about it. The second stays on for now. A leg hooks around the pole, which she grasps with one hand, doing a tight turn around it just once.

Come alone, tell me under the table

On one of the upper levels, another blonde — one that must be around Elliot’s age (though life around here seems to have hit some people harder than others) — holds up the photograph to the light. Green eyes look from the photo, to Elliot from their corners, back to the photo, then back to Elliot with raised brows as she’s passing it back to him. “I don’t know where or how you got that…”

“Thank goodness that knowing isn’t a prerequisite to supplying an answer,” Elliot says with an amiable smirk, “Else I’d never get anywhere in this burg.” It isn’t a provocation, just a knowing wink between discerning collectors.

The woman holds up her hands and chuckles. “Alright, don’t gotta get all…” She trails off, no real comeback supplying itself, so she shakes her head and instead jerks her thumb over her right shoulder. “There’s a place back there called Archie’s. They do a little bit of everything, but big thing is that they’ve got beds for let. Your girl doesn’t work there, I don’t think, but I’m pretty sure she’s a frequent visitor.”

What do you seek?

The dancer sits on a chair, one knee crossed over the other to provide stability to her outstretched leg as her foot bobs on the end of it, her shoe hanging off her toes. Squinting at the scuffed satin heel, she takes a moment to assess the situation before looking out to the crowd and lifting her brows in a silent ask: Can I?

Welcome to the playground

At Archie’s, a man with thinning hair that probably used to be on the redder side of brown seems tired after a midday rush, but he’s quick enough with a kind smile for a stranger. His voice sounds like old New York. Old New York. “Ah, her! Yeah, I think—”

A girl with tanned skin, just old enough to start to lose some of the chub, climbs up onto an overturned milk crate to peer over the man’s shoulder. Her glossy black hair gives her away when it brushes against his ear and neck.

“Hey now!” Archie chides with a sigh. “How is it I can never tell when you’re up to mischief?”

The girl grins wide. “Because I’m not dangerous!” She rests her chin atop the man’s head. “To you,” is the caveat, and when her honey-brown eyes slide to Elliot, that grin becomes impish. Then her attention turns back to the Polaroid for a proper and critical study. “Wow. She must like you. I can tell because she’s doing that thing.” This child is all limbs and sass as she brings one arm up to bend at the elbow, her hand mussing her straight locks, nothing like the cascade of curling autumn leaves in the photograph. The child makes the ubiquitous duck face thought to have died out with the cell phone selfie culture.

That is definitely not a mirror image.

Elliot appears impressed. “Is that what that means?” he asks. He’s well versed in body language and behavior, but it’s never too late to learn something new. He slides the photo back into his jacket pocket. “I was led to believe that it was a territorial warding behavior.”

The girl’s face scrunches up in an expression that’s some cousin to disgust and confusion both, with some offense on the side. She knows when she’s having fun poked at her, but hates it when it’s the kind of fun that goes right over her head.

Archie sighs with exasperation. “My wife, Mizuki, she might be able to help out. She—”

I’m in Gracie’s dance class,” the girl interrupts again, standing up straight before hopping off the box and coming around the makeshift counter of more crates and plywood so she can show off her moves. While she’s not ready for the Russian ballet, she’s definitely had someone who knows something about form showing her the ropes. This obviously makes her the expert on the woman Elliot’s trying to find.

Follow me

One bounce!



The shoe goes springing up off the tip of her toes, turns end over end through the air and lands back perfectly on her toes again, a quick snap back popping it all the way back to her heel. One arm lifts in a flourish while the crowd claps.

Tell me your nightmares and fantasies

子!” The short bark of a woman precedes her emergence from behind a curtain made of beads, buttons, shells, and other bits and bobs. She holds it aside. “I called you ten minutes ago!” The pronounced Bronx-Brooklyn accent is at odds with the stereotype of the Pacific Asian beckoning the child. “早く! Unless you want a cold bath?”

The girl seems torn between the woman in the door — who is either her mother, or another close blood relative to look at them both so near — and continuing to perform pirouettes for their visitor. “엄마~”

The exasperated woman steps out from behind the curtain entirely to fold her arms in a move that is apparently super effective against the little girl. “You can stay out here as long as you like and have your bath cold, but I’m still pouring water over your head to wash it. I don’t care if you shriek like a buggin’ banshee.”

Looking to Elliot, the girl shudders like her soul just nearly left her body. “Gotta go!” she informs him before dashing past the adults and inside, to the further internals of the structure.

Archie laughs quietly and shakes his head. “Sorry about her. Junie can be a handful sometimes. Mizuki?” Archie’s wife stops, half pivoted toward the doorway again and produces a sound from the back of her throat to suffice as response to call. “This young man’s wondering about Gracie — at least, I think that’s who it is in the picture. I thought you might be better help than I am.”

Her dark head bobs and she tilts it toward the doorway. “Go on. Make sure our kid doesn’t drown herself pretending she’s a mermaid.” It’s an affectionate sort of joke, even if it’s delivered flatly, fast, and more than a touch on the morbid side.

A smile hooks one corner of her mouth upward, her brows follow. “Sure you’re lookin’ for Gracie?”

Elliot smirks knowingly as he reproduces the picture for Mizuki. Kids.

Bobbing her head in a nod, she has to concede. “That’s Gracie alright. Why’re you lookin’ for her?”

“I’ve been trying to reach her about her car’s extended warranty,” he says.

“Oh, now that’s one I haven’t heard in a while,” Mizuki laughs, a sound that must be like hope incarnate when opened wide and left unfettered. “Look, it’s just that you don’t seem much’a Gracie’s type, but… You also don’t seem t’know about Gracie’s type.” She trails off, tipping her head to one side in consideration. “An’ Gracie’s the type that can handle herself.

“Is she not into tall blondes anymore?” Elliot asks. “Just my luck.”

“Once upon a time, I heard she was into short blondes.” A resigned sigh sees an end to the deflection. “I suppose she really does take all types these days. Why not the tall ones? I haven’t seen Gracie for a couple’a days now. Means she probably hopped the Call. You can find her at the Sill. She’ll be workin’.”

Mizuki flips around a sign hanging from the counter that reads ‘Closed,’ but is appended with ‘Please Knock’ underneath in smaller writing. “Whatever your preconceptions about the girl in that picture?” She fixes Elliot with a serious look, carrying the air of a mother hen looking out for her clutch. “Leave ‘em at the docks.” Her expression softens then, warning delivered. “You good, kid?”

Sink into the wasteland underneath

As she walks through the crowd, the second glove is worked free, finger by finger, tugged until it comes loose. The acid green she leaves draped around the neck of a man at the bar, her fingers dancing over the backs of his shoulders on her way past, does not match the purple she discarded earlier.

Stay for the night, I’ll sell you a dream

“Absolutely,” Elliot says, the lie coming as easy as the smile.

“Alright,” Mizuki draws out with a dubious but good-natured look up and down over Elliot. “You take care out there. And if you find her, tell her Junko’s excited for her next lesson.” With that, she disappears behind the curtain and a door cobbled from metal sheets hammered and welded together.

Oh, welcome to the playground

On her way back up the small rise of steps to the stage, the dancer passes through a blue-tinged cloud of incense and seems to grow sluggish, staring out into the crowd with dilated pupils for a moment, but only a slightly lessened enthusiasm. She’s a showwoman. The fog haze clears and she twirls around again with renewed vigor.

The Palisades Sill

June 22, 2021

The Sill is built atop and into the 500 foot span of cliffside that is the Palisades, but it isn’t the settlement that Elliot’s here to find. Docked there is a once majestic cruise ship dubbed The Freedom of the Seas.

What brings you to the lost and found, dear?

The dancer bites her lip and works free the tie to the cloth wrapped around her waist. Teasing when the knot’s been undone, she shakes her hips, jingling a belt of metal baubles. She holds it in front of her and gyrates, turning slowly like she might grant a look at her backside, only to shift quickly and hide her back to the audience with that same cloth. Looking over her shoulder, she clicks her tongue and shakes her head.

Won’t you pull up a seat?

He doesn’t need to flash a photograph here. The mere mention of the name of who he’s looking for gives Elliot an exact location of the woman he’s here to find. Following the cloying smell of smoke, past the ladies, men, and those who defy labels who would offer to keep him company for a spell, and there’s the cabaret with its stage.

And the half-dressed figure of Rue Lancaster in the limelight, passing a length of cloth from back to front between her legs, then carelessly tossing it over her head to land on the stage behind her.

“There’s those legs I keep talking about,” Elliot says too softly to be overheard. Wright hums in agreement. His suit has been carefully disheveled, shirt untucked, collar unbuttoned, cuffs turned, jacket discarded at the door. He nods in appreciation of the talent before checking to assure himself he’s not a traffic obstacle and moving to a seat at an unoccupied table.

It’s difficult to remind himself that this isn’t Rue at all. With the Asis he has the presence of one in his mind to remind him she’s separate from the other. With Rue all he has is this doppelganger and the gnawing dread that he’s never going to see the woman he loves again.

There’s some quiet murmur and chatter as Elliot passes, but the chances of it being about him are slimmer than it being about the woman on stage and those legs stretch out to either side as she holds the pole and drops into a splits, only to bounce right back up again. With a lazy turn around the pole, she seems to take in the crowd and take stock.

Everybody ‘round here’s got a price to play

Gracie steps out of her shoes one by one without having to obviously press a toe to heel, or shake them free, simply leaving them in her wake as she moves toward the end of the stage and shows more of the style that Elliot knows his Rue to take pride in. Up on her bare toes, her arms reach out in front and behind her, the smile exchanged for a stoic expression. Yearning, like she’s searching for something more. Like the swan center stage where Rue held his hand and cried silently.

The languid and fluid motions of her arms suddenly become a flurry as she turns a tight circle, and another. As she continues to twirl about the stage, she’s unhooked her top. When she makes that last fouetté, her arm whips out to her side, a perfect extension from her body and releases the strap once she’s reached the end of the motion.

The bra lands on Elliot’s table, the momentum carrying it to slide over the edge and into him.

Make me an offer

“Ahhh,” Wright says in distress, covering her eyes to no avail in an attempt to preserve the mystery. Elliot does his best impression of a person who’s never seen Rue topless before, allowing the discarded clothing to make its journey unimpeded. Surely this article of clothing is more valuable than the cover charge. He hooks a finger through a strap and places it in the clear line of sight of its owner. Feeling like he’s been issued a challenge, his eyes remain on hers, a smirk accented with one raised eyebrow.

The way she brings her eyes back to his every time she completes another revolution says that, yes, the challenge has been met. And if the way she lights up is any indication, it’s a challenge not passed very often. There’s more spring — not that he would know — more snap to her movements as she takes off her jangling belt and employs it like an instrument to the beat, until she finally flings it to the floor with the energy of a ringmaster cracking the whip.

What will it be?

Dancing backward several steps, like she might be ready to turn and exit backstage, Gracie instead suddenly surges forward in a run, propelling herself off the end of the stage in a graceful jump, to land in the aisle down the center of the room. It makes sense now why the staff make sure it’s kept clear of traffic. She lands perfectly, arms flourished above her head to hold for applause amidst the gasps of appreciation. Maybe this is a routine she does every night, or maybe she mixes it up. Elliot knows Rue followed wherever the music took her.

The song fades and she turns to one aisle for her révérence, then to the other. It’s an incongruence compared to the art she just performed, but no one seems particularly bothered by it. Least of all the ballerina clad in her bikini bottom. She gives a wave and a big smile to her crowd before turning not to the stage or toward the exit but to Elliot’s table, coming to stand across from him, where there was no chair to invite no body to obstruct his vision during the performance.

Maybe that’s not much of a surprise.

“I believe you have something of mine.” Gracie’s quick to smile. “Or… maybe it’s yours now. Do I have to bargain with you to get it back, stranger?” she asks, leaning forward to rest her forearms on the table’s surface.

Oh, what will it be?

Elliot claps politely at the final flourish, returning his hands to the table before she’s rounded on him to reclaim what’s hers. “I’m a firm believer in ‘to each according to their needs,’” he says, gesturing with one hand to her state of undress without lowering his eyes from hers. “We can consider it repayment for my earlier inability to suggest a drink to your liking at the Salty B.”

There’s a sparkle to her eye as he watches her and keeps his propriety. The dancer opens her mouth to speak, clearly something beguiling meant for the tip of her tongue, until he mentions the place they’ve met before.

Gracie straightens up quickly, a smirk of triumph on her face that’s enough to make Elliot forget for a moment that he isn’t with the one he loves. She snaps her fingers and points to his face before wagging her index. “Hood Number One!” she proclaims. “And here I thought maybe energetic gingers weren’t your style.”

Reaching out, she plucks up her bra from the table. She fastens the hooks in front of her, then turns it about her body in short tugs until it’s the right way ‘round — something his Rue doesn’t do. “Welcome to the Sill, handsome. My name’s— Well, if you’ll suggest me that drink, you can call me whatever you like tonight.”

“Hood number two, if I recall correctly,” Elliot chuckles. “Apologies for the gruff greeting. Stormy seas had me up all night.” A lie, as the waters of the Aquifer are always perfectly placid.

“I must admit I have a fondness for gingers, energetic or otherwise” he says, feeling a faint twinge of guilt for not obfuscating the particulars as he would have to spare Rue’s feelings. “I can certainly suggest a drink, assuming I have some idea of what’s available. Though, you’ll have to forgive me if I myself do not drink.”

Right,” she agrees, elongating the vowel. “Chartreuse first, then the coffee. I remember now.” Sliding her arms into place, she snaps each strap at her shoulder as if that makes them settle where they need to be properly.

Narrowing her eyes faintly in a combination of scrutiny and mirth, Gracie tips her head to one side. “Alright, Deuce. If you aren’t interested in drinking, I don’t need to. We can do whatever you want to do.” Slyly, she smiles. “May I touch you?”

“I'd prefer that you didn't for now," Elliot says, pausing to look around at the other members of the audience still gathered in the space. The delay lets him acknowledge to himself that he would very much like it if she did. "But thank you for asking first. I'd feel more comfortable somewhere with fewer eyes, wherever you'd still feel safe."

Gracie’s brows lift, surprised, but not disappointed. “I can respect that,” she tells him, tipping her head toward an anterior exit. “It’ll give me a chance to get a robe.” She leads the way down a short hallway obviously meant for crew traversal, throwing a wink over her shoulder. “Or not.

Swinging a door inward, she darts a glance right, then left, before stepping into the hall. Three doors down on the right, she stops and rests a hand on the portal. “This one’s mine.” Gracie pushes open the door and steps over the threshold, beckoning for Elliot to join her with finger crooked in a come hither gesture.

Elliot follows silently, doing his own inspection of the hallway and caring a quick glace into the audience for anybody with the misfortune to be the misplaced jealousy type. In the hallway he follows as far as the door but stops to lean against the frame, half in, half out.

"Was that the natural conclusion of your work night," he asks, crossing his arms before him, "or were you instructed to keep an eye out for anyone on my crew?" His tone is affable, he'd understand if it were the latter.

While there’s a raised eyebrow or two; a look of jealousy or longing, but no green eyed monsters seem to follow or lurk in wait in the halls. It’s just, perhaps, the proverbial spider in the parlour, wearing an amused smile. “Now, I won’t say I don’t know anything about that, because I know you’re new around here. I know there’s not enough salt in your hair for you to be a proper mariner.” The metaphorical arachnid chuckles. “But there’s nobody around here that tells me who to spend my time with. I’m curious about you because I’m curious about you.”

“You are correct in that I have spent most of my life on land,” Elliot says, relaxing into the door but not moving in or out. “Almost exclusively all of it, really, though I did do some swim training recently. This didn’t seem like the type of place one goes to without the ability to not drown on occasion.”

He looks around the room for little details of Gracie’s life, compiling evidence that she isn’t Rue. “If I may ask,” he says while his eyes are elsewhere, “What is it about me that catches your curiosity?”

Gracie’s quarters are typical of a cruise ship — meant to be utilitarian, to be slept in and encourage the occupant to want to leave and explore the rest of the ship, where money may be spent. She has one of the nicer ones. There’s a desk against the wall to Elliot’s left, where she clearly practices the arcane art of winged eyeliner in front of a lighted mirror. Along the right wall is a bench seat sofa upholstered in ocean blue fabric. There’s a patchwork quilt and a blanket of the same style draped there to make it look a bit less prosaic.

At the far side of the desk from Elliot’s lookout are a pair of shelves. Bright strips of patterned fabric adorn them. Everywhere in the otherwise dreary cabin is decorated in vibrant color in some fashion or other. There are glass bottles, beads, shells, buttons, rocks — even old board game pieces. (Sorry! is missing a member of the red team. Not sorry.) The bed is more of the same. Colorful sheets and blankets make it as vibrant as she can manage.

Overall, it seems she wants her space to be alive and in Technicolor.

“Who doesn’t get curious about a handsome stranger? Especially one who comes looking for them?” A slow smile spreads across Gracie’s face. Either she knew he’d been asking, or she just assumed, given that he showed up at her show. Maybe she just says that to all the men she lures back to her nest.

There’s art on the walls — generally the cookie cutter prints that are in every room, though these are some lovely warm spirals that give the impression of a vortex. Maybe they could have avoided the whirlpool imagery? Maybe it’s ironic.

What stands out is what isn’t stock art, as it were. There’s a charcoal form of a house serving as backdrop to the silhouette of two figures. One is a deep, dusty denim blue, frame curved in a slight lean toward another bent subject in carmine red. Eyeliner, shadow, and lipstick the mediums.

Above the bed is a canvas set over the existing wall art, framed by the glass and the back tack and the frame of what already resides there. In kohl pencils, two feminine hands reach for one another from opposing edges in a series of four. In each panel, a pale grey hand in the upper left corner; a hand drawn with dark, certain lines in the lower right. The panels read left to right, top to bottom.

First, the darker outlined hand stretches out, palm poised to meet with its paler counterpart in the middle.

Second, the progress gives the impression of falling, not simply stretching a hand across a stable space, with the pale hand holding steady while the darker one seems to falter.

Third, the darker hand is in the process of passing through the lighter hand. Even if there were purchase to be had, the mark would have been missed due to some moment of doubt or weakness.

Fourth, the corporeal hand starts to sink below the edge of the paper, doomed to fall. The fingers of the phantasmal hand curl inward in shock or perhaps resignation.

Catching him casually looking about in a way that she’s seemed to decide isn’t so casual, Gracie calls Elliot’s attention. “Hey! My tits are over here.”

“They certainly are,” Elliot smirks, eyes remaining anchored to the paintings for a moment longer returning his gaze to hers. “My apologies to the ladies. I appreciate the colorfulness of your room. Bright colors seem to weather the worst.”

“Archie and Mizuki were kind enough to send me your way,” he admits, “and asked me to pass on that Junko is excited for her next lesson.” He leaves out the why of it for now, comfortable with the banter.

A small smile spreads across Gracie’s face and becomes a fuller one. “Well, if Archie let you be led my way, then you must be alright.” The dancer takes a step backward, further into her space and rests her palm on her desk/vanity, leaning into it slightly.

“Gifts,” she elucidates without having to be asked and without looking toward the pictures. “I don’t know what they mean — if they mean anything. The Inspiration strikes,” with a capital I, maybe a hint of scare quotes, “and suddenly I’ve been given another work of art for my wall.”

Oh no, Elliot thinks, his face remaining politely neutral. “Inspiration,” he wagers, “calls to mind a late ship captain with a far-seeing mind’s eye.” If this is an Eve original, he feels sorry for the people it depicts.

“It does, doesn’t it?” There’s a soft chuckle for that observation. “You going to stand in the doorway all night and make people think I’m not good at my job?” she asks. “Valentine will have concerns about me.” Spoken like she doesn’t want that. How mortifying.

“I get it,” Gracie shrugs. “You came here looking for me, not for what people around here do. Elsewise, you could’ve taken annnnybody else around here.” She approaches, but not him, just the closet that’s nearer to the door. She procures a short black silk robe with a golden dragon embroidered on it. It’s seen better days. It’s not normally her style — too dark — but it’s what they had.

As she slides her arms through and pulls the garment on, cinching the gold belt around her waist, she muses. “Unless you are here for that, in which case, we’ll negotiate.”

Elliot lurches up enough to break from the pull of the door frame, smirking at her description. “To be honest, I have no idea what sort of barter ‘what people around here do’ would require,” he says. He takes a tentative step into the room, hands by habit tucked partially into his pockets.

“Though you’re correct, I did come here looking for you specifically,” he admits. “I’d be willing to haggle for your time regardless.”

“If you’re saving me from a night of conversation with some schlub at the bar who never gives a fair exchange, then that will be payment enough.” Gracie moves away from the door again, indicating with a little curl of her finger that he should shut it behind him if he’s going to take the leap of faith, and steps to a minifridge instead.

There’s a quiet sound of suction as she pops the seal, but no telltale puff of crystalline air from a marked temperature difference. “If you feel charitable sometime…” She rummages briefly and frowns, “I wouldn’t say no to a grapefruit.”

Sitting at the kitchen island, worse for wear from a night of work and drink at the Cradle, Rue taps the end of a spoon on the counter while she contemplates the citrus fruit in front of her. “It’s so pretty and pink. I used to wear a leotard this color for lessons and rehearsals,” she murmurs absently, a tired smile on her face. She turns the spoon the right way ‘round with little moves of her fingers that look like magic to people who don’t know the trick.

Then she stabs the grapefruit and recoils when the juice sprays up at her face, avoiding her eyes by virtue of her reflex to squeeze them shut when she flinches. She laughs and looks up at him, wiping her face with her fingers and licking the juice off like someone who’s phobic of using napkins. Or at least was used to having none for a long while. Blue eyes narrow faintly, crinkling at the corners with this mirth at her own folly that she shares with him.

Gracie procures mismatched bottles of clear liquid with condensation forming shortly after their introduction to the room. They are soon joined by a pair of similarly mismatched glasses. One is poured and nudged to the left. The second is poured from a bottle Elliot can now see a skull and crossbones drawn on in what is probably red Sharpie over masking tape. That one is taken up by the entertainer, held close to her chest as she offers the other to her guest, her fingers spidered around its circumference, palm under the bottom. “Thought you might like some water.”

"Haven't come across a grapefruit yet," Elliot says sadly as he closes the door. He still looks uncertain as to where in the room he should be. "I'll keep an eye out."

He accepts the glass with a nod of thanks. "Can't get enough of the stuff." Desalinated, at least. He takes a polite if small sip, still playing it safe as far as drinking anything he's handed by a stranger. Overcompensating for his familiarity with a Rue other than this one, maybe.

"So," he wonders, "if your boss happened to see me and wondered why you weren't working, what sort of activities do you usually get up to with a stranger in your destressing room? Curiosity, really; I'm told I'm not your type." He rides a fine line between professionally and knowing, amused smirk.

The laughter sounds like his Rue. Not the warm and open laughter of a woman whose life is full of light and love, but one who bears vicious scars and soul-deep pain. One who would mask so well, if only he didn’t know her. “Good ol’ ‘Dora.” Gracie shakes her head ruefully. “Ah! Uhm, Pandora. That’s just what I call Mizuki. Because even when the chips are down, she’s still got hope. Like the lady and her near-empty box.” Keeping with the Rule of Rue, there's a nickname for everybody.

It’s all a roundabout way of saying, “You’re not.” A beat. “I don’t have a type. But! As long as you’re in here, I’m working. I provide an ear and companionship.” Red hair brushes one shoulder as she tips her head to that side. “I deal in favors. Information. If you’re seeking, I’ll find.” Maybe she’s batting her lashes. Maybe it’s Maybelline. “Get the picture? You are very cute, I admit.” The two thoughts run together without a natural break.

“I’m fucking adorable,” Elliot agrees. He shrugs, no need for modesty from him at this point.

“Conversation would be lovely. Wasn’t expecting information brokerage,” he says, honestly surprised. And very useful. He wonders if Tala or Yancy, if they survived, ever came to this place. Or even Bastian, that boy would be an adult now. It makes him sick to his stomach to worry about someone who he can’t allow himself to hope survived.

“I’ve picked up a few little skills here and there. Reading cards, tea leaves, palms… The fun stuff.” She means to imply not the real stuff. “I’m not a monster, though. I know what people come here for. I can do all that with my clothes off.” There’s another breath of laughter that sounds hollow in his ears, even if the smile looks real enough.

“Come on,” Gracie bids him, holding a hand out toward him palm up. Not to take, but to curl her fingers inward twice and beckon him further. “I… think I have something for you, actually.”

Elliot approaches slowly, not sure where her beckon could lead him other than the couch across the small space. As to having something for him, he’s unsettled. He chooses a neutrally blank expression adorned only with the slightest inquisitive skew of his brow, torn between worry and interest.

Rather than move to the couch, Gracie heads further in, toward the bed with its curved bottom edge, though it isn’t her ultimate destination. “Here.” She gestures toward the dresser which serves also as a mount for the recessed flat screen television.

It hadn’t stood out at first because it’s been painted over. Paint covers the surface that would have reflected the light with its gloss. Twilight sky fading into a gradient of brick red and sandstone beige, then finally to blue. A horizontal line of charcoal begins at the right and left edges of the set but crumbles a quarter way toward the middle, recognized as road due to the smears of gold meant to stand in for cautionary yellow, lanes demarcated. Beyond those crumbled edges are two crude pylons of creamy grey with a faint sheen — maybe from an eye shadow stick? He’s seen Rue with them. There are small gaps in the grey that don’t look accidental. Negative space?

But it’s what lies between the thick pair of Roman numerals that really draws the eye.

Matte black paint — real paint, so dark that the procurer likely had to assure whoever they traded with that they aren’t Stuart Semple — has been splashed in the center to create a lightless mass. Around it — or perhaps beneath it? — is a burst of light and color. A halo of gold, and yellow liquid liner. The dying gasp of orange eye shadow.

“Every time I look at this thing, I can hear Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Gracie stares at the piece critically, like maybe she sees something else every time she looks at it, and sips on her drink.

Elliot approaches the television warily. He looks over it with increasing focus, trying to divine meaning. “Huh,” he says. “I have no idea what this is supposed to be.” A half-truth, the obvious thematic stand-outs are an eclipse or the spacetime anomaly that powered the Looking Glass. Without context, it’s meaningless. But Gracie obviously assumes it should mean more to him than it does.

“You think this is supposed to mean something to me, specifically?” he asks, stepping back. “What does it mean to you, in order to lead you to believe that?” This certainly isn’t what he was looking for when he came here.

“You know, I thought Art History was going to be the sleep-through class, but I absolutely failed it in college.” Gracie went to college? There’s a difference. “I never know what these things are. I just… I don’t know. You came here looking for me, and this is the one piece of art I was absolutely unable to just… give away. It sits here. Right here.” Her arms lift to visually frame the useless TV on either side before the one dropping back to slap lightly against her side with exasperation. “Like it’s just been waiting for the right person.”

Gracie transfers her drink from one hand to the other, then glances sidelong to Elliot at her side. “Are you my right person, Deuce?” She leans gently toward him, nudging him with her elbow before laughing. “Sorry. That was corny. I never get to use the corny lines.”

“Any amount of context would be helpful here,” Elliot says. “Am I to infer that this painting is portentous? An Eve original?” If it means nothing to him maybe one of the others has context he’s missing.

“Does it smell like Mad Eve in here?” Gracie asks with a chuckle which dies in her throat quickly as she looks down to her feet. Too soon? All the same, the room is fragranced with incense rather than pot, the famous Eau de Mas. “Sorry. I just mean… we did our chatting above decks when we did, no bartering necessary.”

Which isn’t an answer to his question in aggregate, only in part. That clarification comes with a frown as she meanders her way to the couch across the cabin from the set. She takes a seat, drawing her feet up so she can sit cross-legged there, her drink nestled in the empty space on the cushion. “I don’t know what they mean, frankly. Are they past? Present? Future? No clue. I’m assuming they’re a bit more, ah… metaphorical? Or maybe they’re just something pretty done up to try and impress me.”

Gracie curls her lip and takes a drink. “Either way, my make-up collection’s starting to protest the rough treatment. I’m wearing orange shadow as a signature.” Times are truly hard.

Elliot can’t help but look amusedly perplexed. “Do you not know who entrusted you with this…” he waves in the direction of the deface television, “ominous magnum opus? I agree that there’s a fair amount of metaphorical horse here, which is something that I probably couldn’t explain to you that people say where I’m from.” No one says that anywhere, regardless of Eve’s courtroom infamy.

All this to suppress the distance there should be in his eyes as he remembers every way Rue ever did her make-up. He’s certain some of it was competition with Wright, or that she felt the need to compete with Wright at all, which obviously she didn’t. Doesn’t.

Did. Does. Will again?

Rue Lancaster was always a fiercely competitive creature, whether that was whose knives or whose wings were the sharpest. Her insecurity and her lack of fucks to give for anything arbitrarily deemed to not be of real importance consistently vying for dominance.

There’s the barest hook upward of one corner of Gracie’s mouth at the mention of the amount of metaphorical horse present or not present in the painting hanging in her room. “Yeah, that sounds made the fuck up.” Her head droops forward a little. “Or,” she murmurs on a breath, “like an Eveism.”

Blue eyes lift and settle on Elliot’s form, studying him openly and unabashedly for seven solid seconds. “I don’t think you ever said why it was me you’re looking for.” Despite the call-out, there’s no accusation in it. No sense that she might tell him he knows where to find the door, or that she knows how to scream real loud. “I deal in quid pro quo. Now, I think I was here so you could see that.” She points again at the television. “You didn’t come here looking for a painting, though. You come sit next to me, tell me a bit about what you’re really after, and I’ll tell you more about where I get those paintings.”

Elliot nods, pauses for a moment, nods again. He never gave getting through this without an explanation good odds. He leans back against the wall, hands returned to pockets while he puts words in order. The ordering takes longer than he likes.

He looks to the TV without seeing it, as though he’s looking for inspiration through a window. “I’m not sure, honestly,” he says. His eyes move to Gracie, flickering over her for small details; posture, respiratory rate. Not because he feels unsafe, but because he does this with everyone he ever interacts with. Constant monitoring, constant managing of expectations.

“Back home, my girlfriend is officially MIA,” he says without feeling it yet. “Hasn’t reported in from an operation. Not a lot of people I can talk to about it here in an unofficial capacity. For an ear and companionship, I guess.”

Gracie’s gaze stays on Elliot, patient at first. She doesn’t flinch away when he moves his attention away from the external and turns it back to her. Maybe she recognizes what he’s looking for when he looks at her. Maybe she’s just used to being sized up by larger creatures, assessed for fitness, whether it’s to fight or to fuck.

Patience gives way to polite curiosity, nodding her head when he says he doesn’t know why her, like maybe she understands somehow. But she can’t, not really.

Even if her eyes do grow wide and her breath comes in a soft gasp. “That must be horrible,” Gracie murmurs, adjusting the drape of the blankets on the sofa to make something more like an inviting nest. Or that’s probably how she sees it, anyway. Maybe it’s just an inexpert mess of blankets and good intentions.

“Come sit here. You can tell me —” She pauses, looking troubled for a moment before she seems to right her ship and continue. “Say to me anything you need to. It’ll be our secret.”

Elliot is tempted, wishes he could believe her. Wishes he’s capable of trusting someone who isn’t in the network. He runs the numbers, and settles on less than DEFCON 3. Nobody knows what he can do here. Chances of her poisoning him to deliver to an overlord seem fairly low.

He drums against himself with his fingers for a moment before deciding to throw caution to the wind. As much caution as he can reasonable through windward in this scenario. Crossing the room, it takes him a moment to sit on the couch; a moment more to settle in. He’s gotten himself into this mess, what can he possibly say next? His default is opaque rhetorical meandering, which should suit him just fine here.

“I hate feeling helpless,” he says in a way that means he hates it more than everyone else, and everyone else hates it too. “But there’s nothing I can do, and we both knew that when we took our assignments,”

There’s no impatience or call to rush him faster than he’s ready to move. She hasn’t been at this trade successfully by being pushy. Instead, while he seems to decide if, how, and when he’ll make that approach, she sets her drink down on the floor and off to her right, where she isn’t terribly likely to upend it. The viewing lens is for this moment now, and she won’t have the memory marred by splashes of alcohol.

“I know the feeling,” she says to him like she really means it, and not that it’s just a platitude or some insistence that of course she knows, because she’s so understanding. The way she imparts this to him implies that she feels it just as keenly, somehow. “It’s hard to just… To be so far from all your loved ones and not know.”

Maybe that’s a story consistent with a lot of the people here, but they seem to focus on the deep, dark below when they say that. What’s lost is found by the ocean waves. Gracie’s eyes don’t lower, but seem to gaze out for an impossible stretch of miles across the mainland.

“It must be worse for you.” It’s part acquiescence, part insistence. “It sounds like you signed up for it.” The next word is stumbled on, but it never quite forms a consonant, just holds the implication that the first word spoken isn’t the one from the first draft of the speech in the way that her brows lift a little higher. “Is she a soldier?”

Gracie cants her head to one side gently and asks in a softer voice, “Are you?”

"I don't think of myself as one," Elliot says, turning to look anywhere else but the face of the woman he came here to see. "I retired but came back to work just after she left. Paths crossed, and there we were, two hopeless idiots trying to right wrongs the wrong ways. The missions came from outside our formerly shared military contractor work. Happy coincidence." No mirth in the serendipity. Their professional reconnection was the root cause of their separation.

It's hard not to sympathize with the losses of the woman next to him. He doesn't know her well enough to ask How did Chicago fare. To ask anything really. His gut clenches, this is wrong. He shouldn't be here. He sits forward as the moral lapse settles into his awareness. There's a conflict between what he knows, what he allowed himself to believe, what's true at the heart of it.

He has intimate knowledge about the details of this woman's life. Even if their paths diverged early on, she's still close enough to the real thingto his Ruethat lying like this hurts him just as keenly as all the other lies he ever told her. There isn't a Rule for this, but there should be. But what the fuck can he possibly say?

“So you don’t know if she does either,” Gracie reads between the lines of whether the soldier box should be ticked regarding the status of his girlfriend. “Or you assume she doesn’t.” She didn’t hear him speak for her. She smiles a little heistently, a sparkle in her eye. Rue dips her head down to capture Elliot’s lowered attention. “Hey, there. Where do you think you’re goin’, Deuce?” One slender hand is offered out between them, palm upward. An olive branch.

An anchor.

“Do you have something of hers?” Gracie holds steady, no expectation or demand. “I find almost everyone keeps something when they’re fearing the possibility of a loss.”

“I’ve always been kind of stuck in the past,” Wright says, covertly checking corners as they proceed through the castle. “Well, history. Military history, anyway. Super useful life skill. I haven’t thought much about the future at an existential level. Elliot always tries to debate time travel ethics with me. He’d set some theoretical rules for a time travel scenario and then just get way, way too bogged down. Like, if you’d been married for ten years and then got thrown eleven years back in time, to a year before you met your spouse, would it be immoral to pursue a relationship with said future/past spouse? You’d have ten years of intimate knowledge about things they hadn’t talked to you about yet. Trauma, venting, guilty secrets and shit. There’d be a huge power gap there. Also there might be two of you and you’d have to knife-fight to the death or whatever.”

“I’m sorry,” Elliot says, standing without entirely intending to as flight starts to win out in the anxiety war. “I shouldn’t have come here. I’m sorry for wasting your time.” He doesn’t look Gracie in the eye, as he can’t risk wanting to stay. One foot moves, then the other, and he’s heading out the door.

“Hey,” Gracie calls to him in Rue’s voice. Her voice, but with Rue’s inflection? Depending on how one wants to view the branches, Rue might be the one who speaks with Gracie’s voice. “Hey, no. It’s okay. Please.” She’s on her feet too, wide eyes and soft mouth, concerned for the shift. “If talking about her isn’t what you want to do anymore, that’s fine.”

Rather than chase him to the door, she retreats a step back, curling in toward herself with a clear look of guilt. “I’m sorry.”

Elliot's steps take him all the way to the door, fully intending to walk away without another word until the local Rue sounds guilty about something she didn't do. Combating that reflex is automatic now. He makes a fist and taps it against the door frame as he sighs.

"You didn't do anything wrong," he says quietly. "I did. I appreciate that you took the time to see me, but it will be better if we don't see each other again. Take care of yourself."

Then he opens the door, and leaves.

Welcome to the playground

The music from the cabaret grows louder and before long covers any sounds of her protest, upset, or pursuit. And how easy it is to imagine her giving chase, those long legs cut the distance so easily whether she’s barefoot, booted, or wearing stilettos.

Follow me

But there’s nothing. No pawing grasp or tearful requests for him to remain. This one doesn’t feel a pain of loss with his abrupt departures the way his might. There’s no furious need to chase him down and shake a promise from him that he’ll come back and talk again. The bouncer doesn’t stop Elliot on his way out, only offers a nod of acknowledgement as he passes.

Tell me your nightmares

In her cabin, Gracie opens up her make-up kit, such as it is. It won’t be long before the cold cream she acquired starts to go rancid, so she’s convinced herself to stop rationing it. A knock comes at the door carelessly left open and she turns her head sharply to see who steps through without waiting for more than her quiet hum of acknowledgement. Did he come back…?

And fantasies

“Oh!” No, not at all. “I was just thinking about you!” She beckons her client to step inside, banishing the earlier traces of regret from her face and wearing only her perfect delight to be visited by someone so dear. “I was just about to take my make-up off. Or… is this a leave it on kind of night?” she giggles.

Days Later

Above a Kitchen

With the storm comes periods of dense fog. While persistent and thick as New England clam chowder, it can’t choke out the hot pink shade of a life remembered. A CD walkman, well past its prime, adorned only with the scratches of his fingernails across the paint where scratches should be. With the apparition of a sticker of an anemone, cut to shape, ticked up at the corner. The CD walkman she used at work even though she could remember every song perfectly.

Music is meant to be heard, danced to, loved, appreciated. It makes life and hearts brighter even in sad times.

Sink into the wasteland underneath

Less visible is the new addition, left by some phantom in the night. Those who pass through may not have noted it at all — yet. A camera, a thing too new yet to show signs of the love it will receive over its useful life, settled on a tripod, held perfectly steady in the relief of charcoal over concrete. A short smear of carmine along the top edge near one corner shows the shutter button. There’s context missing for the curls of ferrous oxide that seem to form a corona within the sightless lens of this impossible monument to anachronism.

Photography is evidence of a life lived by others. Excitement and anxiety, love and loss, joy and grief. It brings to light things that may otherwise have been hidden away, for good for for ill. And it seems so rarely that it tells the tale of the life of the one behind the lens.

Stay for the night

If this place is only to hold hallow those who refuse to be forgotten, no matter how far they may be now or when, or how much they may argue their lack of importance, then this interloper seems a fitting footnote. A little flourish of chalk adds dimension to curvature.

Implying refraction.

The Freedom of the Sea

Gracie blinks through the thick haze of incense smoke wafting from her desk, to the amber waves that sway gently as she lifts her head.

Implying reflection.

I’ll sell you a dream

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