|MJ's a little (flirty) wrote in doorslogs,|
@ 2013-10-19 02:08:00
|Entry tags:||cheshire cat, rose red|
Who: Max Main & Lin Alesi
What: naan, boss kicks, and something about a pedophilic biological father
Where: Max’s townhouse ("boss digs")
When: Recently (pre-Halloween plot)
Warnings/Rating: Swears, Amanda in galoshes.
Max didn't have time to get nervous.
The townhouse was mostly unpacked, and the training facility was ready to open, and Amanda was sitting on the living room floor, working on a puzzle in bright neon green overalls and yellow rainboots, a tiara atop her head.
In short, Max had been busy enough that worrying about meeting her maybe-brother didn't really set in until mid-morning, after she'd texted Lin the address to the historic downtown townhouse, and after she started to wonder what the General would do if he even considered this meeting might be happening. And Max had no idea what she meant to gain from it. McKendrick hadn't been able to verify the General's movements thirty years ago, and she didn't have any information that she hadn't been able to access on her own all those months ago, when the General sent her to silence the agents that could lead back to the man that was coming to visit. But she still wanted to see Lin face-to-face, and Max very seldom questioned her own motivations. She wasn't introspective. She followed her gut, and that was what had kept her alive for years in the field.
She never considered cancelling, and she never considered inviting Ella to be present. Maybe if her relationship with her sister had been different, Max would have considered sharing this particular burden. But she and Ella could barely be in a room together without killing each other. And, more importantly, she didn't trust Ella to keep their father's secret. Max adored the General, and she'd spent an entire lifetime bending herself over and over again, just in order to please him. She'd never do anything to put his life or livelihood in jeopardy; the same couldn't be said of Ella.
And so, Max just popped open a cheap, domestic beer, and she leaned against the kitchen sink and waited. She knew what to expect. She'd pulled up surveillance photos of Lin from everywhere around Las Vegas, and the security footage at Turnberry had been painfully easy to hack into. She was prepared, because a good agent was always prepared, and her new non-field agent status didn't change that.
When the knock came at the door, she moved to the entry archway, jeans and a black tanktop, her dark hair loose and her skin caramel. She leaned against the wall, all hip-jut and bones, and she let Amanda run for the door, where the security panel showed constant footage of the townhouse's perimeter. The security camera she had pointed at the driveway told her that it was Lin coming up the walk, and she nodded when Amanda asked if she could answer the door.
After all, there was nothing like a precocious, small, seven-year-old buffer.
There were several dots without connection, just there, and the map of incidents (and incidence) was incomplete, spread over time, backward into the haze of Before Ian and forward into the capital-F Future, all kinds of unfinished, but none of it stopped Lin, or his curiosity, from strolling up the bright white walkway to Max M’s townhouse with his headphones haloing his neck and the waxing crescent of a grin on his face. The summer heat settled low in the sand and the temperatures had been almost pleasant as of late, mid-to-high seventies, far too much sun, but it was better than the dry-wasting swelter of mid-year. The boy, in a surprisingly plain t-shirt that white people would call “nude” and brown slacks (his color was relegated to the tips of his nails and the rainbow spit of his headphones), knocked on the front door of the building with the given numbers and took a half-step back, per American social rules. He ran a hand through his hair as he tried to remind himself he was going to be interacting with someone who wasn’t Daniel or Sam. Fuck.
No, Lin didn’t know what it was that led Max to go so far as to invite him over, given how secretive she was about every facet of her life and how fucking in arms she got when she thought someone was trying to breach her walls or whatever, but he figured he’d find out in good time. As it was, it would be good for him to get out, and he couldn’t deny the Cat the chance to meet his brother/sister’s former vessel, could he? No, he was too fucking nice to do that.
For a moment, the creeping sensation of being watched pricked along Lin’s spine. He looked up and behind him, but no one was there.
The door opened. Lin’s smile fizzled for half a second, before his eyes dropped to the little girl in the highlighter overalls with her hand on the knob. The sail of sparks caught again and the connection was re-established.
“Hi,” he said. “Those are some boss kicks.”
Amanda, for all her precociousness, lived in a penthouse that took up three levels of a huge New York high-rise. She had the most expensive tutors money could buy, and she had an ex-Navy Seal for a nanny. She had playmates from the highest levels of New York society, all of which had been thoroughly checked out, along with their families. She should, someday, inherit billions of dollars and a business empire, if only her adoptive brother hadn't beaten her to it. But, regardless, she had no exposure to things that were boss, and she had no idea what kicks were. "What does that mean?" she asked Lin, her expression going from bored to interested in a way that was entirely obvious. Lin, it seemed, had just become worth talking to.
"He's telling you that you have nice shoes," Max said, arms crossed over her flat stomach as she watched the pair at the door. She knew she had the advantage, having seen Lin before, and watched him unawares for the past few seconds. And a few seconds wasn't much time, but it was impossible for to ignore how much he looked like the General. In person, the resemblance was even more uncanny than it had been in photographs and surveillance footage, which seemed to augment the differences more than being face-to-face did.
"Oh," Amanda replied, looking down at her galoshes, and then looking back up at Lin. "You have some boss nails," she declared, parroting the phrase to the best of her ability.
Max smiled. "Let Lin close the door, Amanda," she said, knowing fully well that everything in New York was going to be boss once Amanda got home, and that it would drive Brandon crazy. "I'm Max," she added as Amanda complied, because she knew the resemblance between her and Ella was completely non-existent, and she wouldn't have been surprised if Lin thought she was someone else. As for the resemblance between them, she didn't expect Lin not to notice, but she wasn't about to help him along, either.
Lin’s smile existed for the little girl for a moment longer. He prepped an answer in a matter of seconds. But then a woman’s voice piped up and as the girl turned her head toward the sound, the boy allowed his eyes to follow. That must be Max, because who else would it be?—thin, almost bony, with dark, straight hair, a sharp face and sharper eyes, and skin close in shade to his own. She was less severe-looking than Lin had imagined, but he could see the hardness he felt on the journals where it laid behind black pupils. He was struck, too, in that instant, but how much like him she looked; having gone his whole life feeling so very different, the likeness was jarring to his general sense of reality. The boy blinked at the straight-baked woman, more taken aback by her than her little girl.
She didn’t look like Ella. Maybe there was something in the jawline, but… no, she looked more like she was related to Lin than the soft blonde with the softer voice. Lin would have frowned, but the girl, in her sparkling tiara, had turned back toward him, and Lin was nothing if not attentive to children. His smile resumed its wattage and he looked down at her.
He flared his nails out, as if to inspect them, after her compliment. He polished them on the cotton of his t-shirt.
“Thanks, girl. It’s super boss of you to notice,” he replied happily—to Amanda, scooting inside, over the threshold, so as not to be smacked in the face by a closing door. His gaze returned to Max. To the black of her tanktop and the general no-nonsense aura she exuded, even from across the room. He offered a spread of fingers as a wave to her. “‘Sup.” He lifted his eyebrows playfully. “Boss digs.”
"Thanks." She knew Lin was older than Luke. She knew Lin might as well be her age, because there were only a few months separating them, but Max couldn't imagine calling anything boss digs. But then she'd never been relaxed enough for slang - at least not slang done well.
Amanda excused herself after a moment, citing a boss puzzle she had to finish before her dad called, and Max nodded toward the kitchen. "I hope you like Indian," she said, the scent of curry just starting to fill the kitchen from the bag of delivery that was sitting there. "I got some vegetarian too, just in case," she added, disapproval in her tone. She wasn't sure she entirely trusted anyone who refused to eat meat, just like she didn't trust anyone who didn't embrace junk food as a necessary staple of life; that should have been a warning to stay away from Brandon, she thought belatedly.
She set her beer on the counter, and she opened the white paper bag that held the warm naan. She didn't bother setting it out, because formal just wasn't her thing (not if McKendrick wasn't making it her thing). A couple of paper plates and some genuine forks later, and she hobbled herself to the table and sat, an unthinking hand going to her hip with a grimace. "Get whatever you want to drink," she added, motioning back to the fridge and continuing the informality of the visit. "There's beer, milk, juice, soda." Nothing fancy, and nothing organic; Max was all about the staples.
She tore a piece off the naan, and she looked at him. "So, when are you going to mention the fact that I look nothing like Ella. It's generally the first thing out of everyone's mouth." Because it was, and Max didn't like ignoring the elephant in the room.
In the kitchen, the white continued. It meted out from below dark shoes and blotted walls in an offer of cleanliness that didn’t feel lived in to the boy, that felt as put upon as foundation. The becalmed sea of taupes and browns kept up the masquerade of normalcy in a blush of spring, to be sure, but Lin was an observer, he took in surroundings like some kind of freakish, relatively adult-sized sponge and allowed them access to whatever background information was on proverbial hand, he allowed coloring and adaptation. The galaxial mobile above the table was a touch, a fingerprint, on an otherwise pure slate of glass, but that was it. It wasn’t as odd as it might have been. Max herself was like her townhouse, wasn’t she? Dressed down in a tank top and jeans, plain jane with wiry muscles climbing bones, a lean strength that coiled protectively around some core Lin couldn’t see. The woman as put upon as her townhouse. She had access to fucking movie-style secret agents for protection, after fucking all.
“Thanks,” replied the boy per social contract as he ringed the kitchen with his hands in his pockets. Max, with a stiffness to her leg that was duly noted, sat. Curry hung in the air and a smile on Lin’s face as he looked around, not bothering to hide his curiosity. He eventually slowed enough to seat himself opposite her (which was the pinnacle of politeness in Lin’s world)—it was obvious, still, that though he’d physically stilled and his small body was relegated behind the berth of the table, his mind was continuing to wear grooves into the tiles, restless and quick.
He made no move toward food or drink. (He’d forgotten his own reminder about the ‘Max is not Daniel or Sam’ bit. Oh, well.) The comment about Ella earned Max a blink, then a shrug. He considered her and her previous inquiries into Lin’s own heritage, her wanting to see a photo, and the forcibly ended conversation his questions ultimately came to. The boy sucked on his bottom lip, as wide brown eyes stalled on Max’s face.
Dot, dot, dot.
“You look nothing like Ella,” he obliged with a smile, finally reaching for the warmth of naan. He held it without taking a bite.
Max's last place had been devoid of anything personal, and the only thing that kept this place from the same fate was the timing of Amanda's visit. Amanda, who was accustomed to a home in interior decorator black and white, who had snuck things into carts and bags during the entire previous week. She had pointed her finger at an orange chair for the bedroom, at colorful quilts for the bed, and at the light that hung over the kitchen table. The dashes of personality that sprung out of the sameness of the townhouse was all the little girl's doing. Max liked old buildings with personality, things that made her think of work. If ever she had nothing to do, she could pick up a hammer and nail and find something that needed refurbishing here, but the furnishings didn't concern her. In a word, she was utilitarian, just like her wardrobe.
Max was direct. She hated small talk. She smiled seldom these days, with Laura gone and McKendrick missing. Amanda made her smile, but Amanda always could make her smile; it was harder otherwise. The kid hadn't been talking to her as much as he had once, which meant he was hiding something, and she hadn't wanted to go digging; she was always afraid of what she might find with Luke. And lunch with Ella had been the kind of quiet disaster that left bodies behind without any signs of explosion. Her friends at the CIA were distant things now, thanks to Reed, and she regarded the boy (it was impossible for her to think of Lin as a man) with curiosity that she didn't bother masking. His response about Ella felt like a puzzle, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to figure it out.
Instead, she heaped some curry on her plate, and she waited. She was very good at waiting people out, a habit learned from never knowing what to say in order to be liked. Quirked brow, and a fork to her mouth, and silence. She knew this kid was a chatter; she'd talked to him on the journals enough to know he couldn't keep his mouth shut. She was counting on it just being a matter of time until he erupted like Old Faithful.
Lin, entirely non-utilitarian in presentation and philosophy, let his bones settle into the scoop of the chair. He pressed heel to floor to scoot backward and open up enough room for him to rearrange himself more comfortably. His knees were pulled up, flats of heels now caught on the lip of the chair, and thighs to chest like the fold of a fan. He ate the naan plain, chewing it slowly, torn between fidgeting fingers, as he followed his thoughts backward through the preceding weeks.
Graphite scraped the canvas of mind, shit clicked home, and Lin blinked, his gaze shifting upward from the browned rim of his naan to Max’s face and her eyebrow. Belatedly, he recognized the challenge in her silence and he smiled, tipping his head to the side, matching her curiosity with his own. He extended his neck to rest his chin on his knees.
Lin’s stubbornness ought to have borne him through the night without a peep, but he choked it off with apparent, not-oft-seen self-control. The silence still expanded in the white space carefully for some time before he sighed and tore down the crystallized webbing that had draped over the room. Sharp corners were re-revealed.
“Is there a prize?” Asked the boy before looking at the table for a split second, as if only then realizing he’d done fucked up the game anyway. His smile was small and fettered, a joke on a joke on a joke. “Fuck.”
He shoulders sunk together, kissing in the middle of his back. He squinted over the last tiny bit of his naan. Lin could see the edges of his own puzzle, not nearly as boss as Amanda’s, and he thought he knew the picture it would eventually form. But he couldn’t ask the questions he wanted without causing a shutdown. He’d just have to ...be careful.
“Do you think Ella and I were switched at birth? Is that what this is about?”
Max laughed, fork mid-way to her mouth, the sound sure and strong, soldier through and through. "I figured you would say something when you were ready," she explained. Meals with the General had been quiet affairs, base to base, and only important things taking up space between breathing and chewing and swallowing.
When he asked if she thought he and Ella had been switched at birth, she grinned. "Your math skills are better than that," she said, knowing it hadn't been a real suggestion.
And, as always, Max was terrible at conversations that weren't direct. Even as a spy, she was the go in and steal things kind, and not the talk things out of you kind, much to the General's dismay. "I know you talk a lot, kid, and this conversation really can't make it back to Ella, and it really can't get splattered all over the journals”. She wasn't going to go so far as to tell him he couldn't talk to his drunken recluse (because she knew all about his drunken recluse), but she wanted him to understand that this was serious.
She still wasn't sure that this wasn't a huge mistake, and it showed plainly on her face. She knew that, if she did this, she was going to have to actually talk to the General about it, and that wasn't high on the list of things she wanted to do. Most importantly, she wasn't sure she could make Lin understand the General, because no one really understood her father. And this kid, with his nail polish and his slang that was a decade younger than he was, she wasn't sure he even had it in him to understand someone's whose entire life was his career. "What do you do for a living, kid?" she asked, though she already knew. She wasn't actually asking because she needed to know.
Dinner at the Alesi household was entirely dependent on parties present, and the resultant collaboration of personalities and anxieties. Aaron offered a dour, black-spoked presence, a pinion in the corner and often not a word. Angela was talkative, bubbling on about Erlenmeyer flasks and the constantly shifting lab setup in the garage. The two together was an equation for some smiling on Aaron’s part and a good amount of pubescent eyerolling. Add in Lin, who was more akin to the eruption of co-mingling baking soda and vinegar in a soda bottle than any actual child, who talked faster than he could think and who liked to act out entire feature-length stories with whatever food was on his plate, and things went to shit really, really quickly. Angela would continue to babble to her father. Aaron would stare. And Lin would entertain himself (and Aaron, he thought then) with the adventures of a pair of green beans named Gregor and Champ as they traversed the land of mashed potatoes and eventually, tragically, died by falling in Aaron’s water glass (much to the other boy’s displeasure).
All in all, it was a noisy, rather intimate affair with nothing much in the way of silence or respect present.
Lin finally began to spoon rice onto the flat of a plate when Max began talking. His eyes caught hers—and he was almost startled by the likeness looking back at him, the same muddy brown with reeds of black. He sniffed, almost offended, but not really, by the insinuation that she didn’t trust him to keep his fucking mouth closed.
It wasn’t as if his entire life was detailed on the journals. Or that he told Ella much of anything. The boy considered challenging the woman, but decided to let is pass a moment. Steel clattered on ceramic.
“I’m a taphonomic and paleoecological scientist at the Desert Research Institute,” answered Lin with the rhythm of the oft-repeated phrase. He trusted Max knew what both fields entailed and didn’t bother to detail either. He lifted his eyebrows at her. “Notice how not shady, secretive, or yelly I’m being about it? Cool, isn’t it?”
He smiled innocently.
Max laughed when he sniffed. She understood why, but that didn't mean she was sorry that she'd clarified. Some things were important enough to say straight and direct, and she didn't see the point in mincing words when something was important. Maybe that was all the General too, because she was every bit her father's daughter, despite the fact that he'd always been monumentally disappointed that she hadn't been born with the family jewels. And in her line of work, being thorough mattered. This was her being thorough, or as thorough as she could be when she was doing something monumentally stupid.
"Some people don't have jobs that are unsecretive, unshady or unyelly," she said, taking a bite of her curry and letting herself savor the heavy spices for a few seconds. "Just because you want to know something, kid, it doesn't mean you have a God-given right to." Max was the kind of person who capitalized the G in God. She voted Republican and, like the large percentage of soldiers who had seen fighting, she had strong feelings about country. She wasn't sure this kid shared those feelings. No, in fact, she was pretty sure he didn't. The drunk recluse was obviously a lover, which made Lin a Democrat from go, and most organized religion wasn't going to smile on a kid like Lin. But, despite her own leanings, Max liked the live-and-let-live game. Well, as long as it wasn't about her sister being a prostitute, but she wasn't going to bring that up, either, because it had everything to do with Ella being happy, and she wasn't sure how Ella and Lin stood with one another.
In the end, she put down her fork, and she took a long swig of her beer. Enough procrastinating. "My father, like I said, is a General in the Department of Defense. He's the kind of man that lives for his work. If he lost his job, he'd probably be dead in a week, if that. He's the kind that would swallow his own gun at the shame," she said, and there was emotion in the very direct speech, as straightforward as it was.
Lin was an unrepentant, irreverent little shit of a Democrat, who tended, in general, toward humanism, rather than propping up any specific socio-political state or even anything that kind of looking like it was “moderate.” (Though, truth be told, at his core, he was definitely over 9,000% American—it only took one look at his teeth and the shit-eating grin on his face to know that.) But he heard that G. He heard that soft click of Max’s internal shift key when she spoke and he saw its reflection in the bound-book of the woman across from him.
Max struck the boy as the type of person who could be maybe ruthless (seriously, she had the face for it—they looked alike, but Lin himself appeared nothing but harmless; it was not so with Max), but who was not unduly cruel. She struck him as the type who would follow orders and give credence to them by the simple virtue of them being capital-O Orders—up to a point. He felt she had a line, somewhere. She was too intelligent, Lin thought, to not. Of course, he couldn’t be sure, but she came off as someone who wasn’t always by the book, who did things according to some internal set of values, which he could srsly respect. (Lin understood rules as a necessity for a cooperative society, but he also felt it was very important to question them, to not take them at face value or as a given, and to assess shit on one’s own. Or, more succinctly, his alignment was Chaotic Good.)
The boy was just thinking on these things when Max put her fork down with an air of purpose. He blinked at her and smiled reflexively. ...Then, appeared really fucking confused.
More connections were made with the speed of electrical impulse, as fast as it could transverse the webbing of muscle. Max’s family was army (or whatever), she respected her father, he seemed a strict sort of dude (or probs was, general and all), she liked him(?), he was not to be discussed, not with Ella, not with anyone, Max was informing Lin of these things… because... Pencil to paper, he continued to follow his thoughts a moment, happily working away at the puzzle presented. Until he froze, his expression one of full-on disbelief.
...I did mention the bit about Lin being irreverent, right?
“Is he the kind of creep who would fuck a fifteen year old girl and leave her to fucking raise a kid on her own?”
"I never thought so," Max said plainly; she saw no point in mincing words, not when she'd initiated this conversation.
"My mother gardens." Mother. The General was never father, but Max's mother was always mother, though it was voiced with much more distance than the formal title her father received. "She looks like Ella. Blonde and soft. She would sing, too, when I was little. I don't remember it very much, because the General took me to live with him on the base when I was five, and we only came home for holidays after that. My mother, much like Ella, had no clue what to do with me. I didn't sing, and I didn't garden, even as a kid, and she didn't know what to make of a kid who didn't hug and giggle. She also never stood up for me. Ella, though, she loved Ella. But my mother still can't be in a room with me for more than five minutes without squirming." She shrugged, because she'd had thirty years to get used to her mother's neglect.
"As far as I can tell, the General never loved her, and she never loved him. I never asked why he married her, but she was elegant and graceful and refined, and she looked really good on his arm at national affairs. He needed that to climb in politics. See, his parents were both Italian, and he's dark skinned, and my mother could charm anyone with her voice and her beauty and make them not realize that the General wasn't as polished as he wanted to be." She might be a card-carrying Republican, but that didn't mean she was blind to the faults of the party or the racism that prevailed there.
"But I never thought he was the kind of man to have sex with a girl. To hire prostitutes? Of course. All men on bases do that, and there are always brothels all around an army base that cater to soldiers. But to seek out someone and seduce them? I never thought he had the patience. And I never thought he'd risk his career with someone underage," she added, the disapproval in her voice stark and evident.
Lin listened quietly (for once) as Max spoke of her childhood and her family, though her reminiscence was without rosy nostalgia. It was as everything: simple fact. The boy’s dark eyes were thoughtful and confused all at once. He went over what he knew in his head, trying to find a place it didn’t fit—couldn’t fit—where maybe a corner didn’t mesh, so he could spread his hands and say, I don’t know. I think you’re wrong. There’s no way. To have a lifelong mystery, one he had no drive to solve, answered so matter-of-factly, and for the answer to be one so… not like Albert Einstein or Freddie Mercury was, in a very childish way, disappointing.
Growing up, he had no one to look to to say, I get that from you. I know why I smile the way I do or fear what I fear. And though the boy really didn’t care to truly find out his heritage, of course he’d thought on it, on his would-be parents, on what they might have gone through, on why he was carried to term, on why he wasn’t wanted. This closed the book on that strange bubble of hope that lingered from childhood and Lin didn’t know what to do about it.
He pressed his lips together.
“Maybe you’re wrong,” was all he said, after an eternity of silence, with no spark of playfulness hiding between pupil and iris.
"I could be. I had someone who was going to retrace the General's steps that year, but things got complicated," Max said, matter of fact and only a hint of a shadow crossing her features and indicating that McKendrick had been anything more than a passing complication. "Physically, I have a hard time believing it, now that I've met you," she added, because there was no point in pretending about that, either. Max dealt in things she could see and quantify. She didn't dream or hope, not really. She saw things, and those were the things she believed, like a good soldier. Seeing Lin was like looking at a very young, slightly more ethnic version of the General, and that was just fact. It was just like Ella, who Max couldn't bring herself to believe was the General's daughter, not when her eyes told her otherwise, regardless of what her mother said on the matter.
Max pushed away what remained of her curry, and she finished her beer. "I know it's not exactly like the movies or the stories. If I'm right, you're not the son of king, kid. You're the son of an impossible to please disciplinarian, one who would take one look at your nails and disown you, even if he wasn't ashamed that he slept with an underaged girl all those years ago." And that was Max's problem with people, as a rule. She said things plainly, and she didn't soften them with smiles or little words that weren't direct. There were no I thinks or maybes in Max's language. It wasn't cruelty; it was language learned on battlefields and in combat, where extra words just didn't belong.
She paused. "He'll do anything to hide it, and he'll do everything to deny it. In case you were considering a phone call." Which she would facilitate, if he wanted to talk to the General, but she wanted him to know what he was getting in to.
“Your dad can’t look like me. The world couldn’t handle it,” joked Lin with all his heart, because it was how he dealt with things, okay?—even if today he kept his eyes downcast. He smiled and fiddled with the lip of his plate, alternating the tips of his fingers over and under the ceramic white. The day-glo crescents he’d painted along the moons of nails felt especially conspicuous, especially damning, a strange sensation to resurface years after high school, years after he’d left the type of people who thought like this “General” in the fucking dust and in their tiny, no-brain town. He curled them into the meat of his palm until the evidence of transgression disappeared and turned his brown eyes to Max.
He tried to imagine the man she was creating from a potpourri of parental odds and ends. He imagined himself, older, maybe with a mustache and not quite so skinny, in what, to Lin’s mind, were general-approp clothes, his chest decorated with pretty medals and metals, but his face decorated with nothing, with no smile and no keen shine of curiosity to the blacks of his eyes. He tried to conjure up an amalgamation of a mother—a girl, small, with straight black hair, though everything else was hazy, the result of years of wondering.
“I wanted to be a queen’s son more than a king’s, to be fair.” Lin forced air through his nose, a perfunctory recognition of his wit. Aware that Max was not one to mince words, he continued. “Are you like him?”
She didn't mind his joking. Max minded things like platitudes, statements that didn't mean anything, that just took up space. You didn't make it through your first year in the Army if you minded joking. Soldiers cut up, because they could die at any second, and dealing with that included lots of sex, lots of beer, and lots of laughter. She'd spent all of her early Army years in Middle Eastern war zones; she bantered with the best of them. She got it, and she didn't mind. "Well, he is taller than you," she said, a deadpan tease that made her brown eyes warmer.
She left it at that, and she gave him his time, watching as he played with the lip of his plate. It reminded her of Gus, strangely enough. Gus, who looked like a kicked puppy twenty-three hours of the day, and who constantly looked down whenever strangers were around, or when he was afraid or angry.
Finally, after the silence, she stood and lurched to the top drawer at the long kitchen counter, and she pulled out a picture she'd tucked there just hours earlier. It was old, the photograph, and the man in it was in his early thirties and wearing Army greens. The little girl sitting on his lap was small, long brown braids and a very severe expression on her tiny face. She slid the photograph across to him, assuming she'd given him enough warning to prepare him for the striking similarity. "I'm supposed to be like him," she said. "I never quite managed it, but I gave it my all, and I'm close." She sat back in her chair. "Sorry for ruining the fairytale, kid."
Lin wasn’t upset. He was, in part, concerned for the girl—Esther Song—who, at fifteen, had a child, he felt bad for her, he was belatedly disgusted by a man he didn’t know (or by his actions, which were hard to separate from the person for the boy). But he wasn’t upset. He had never held fast to biology when it came to where he was from. He was just… processing the sudden pasting together of, well, what most might call a family, even if only linked by the pairing of chromosomes and one night. (Though that hardly constituted a family, he thought. Family wasn’t about that shit, names on a piece of glorified government paper (or not, in Lin’s case), but about shit like being forced to grow up together and learning to endure other humans, even when you didn’t like them all that much, because they fed you and housed you and loved you.) He had to think about it all, about the General, Esther, about his mom and dad, and Aaron and Angela, about Max, and Ella, too. Then there was Amanda. There was Beth.
It was a lot to take in over naan on a plate, with a dry mouth, in the whitewashed kitchen of a woman who moved and looked like the half-reflection you catch in mirrors at the end of long hallways in creepy-ass hotels, the one that stares back and kind of unnerves you, all Uncanny Valley and shit.
The picture dragged Lin out of the bone cradle of his skull. He picked it up from the table and studied it with the acute eye of a scientist. The dude did fucking look like him, only whiter and scary. (Well, now he knew what he’d look like as a whiter, scarier dude who fucked little girls. Hooray.) The boy looked at baby Max, her braids and the sharp little face, and he finally smiled a little. He noted the lack of Ella, of said soft, blond mother.
“He’d look better if he smiled,” Lin informed his… sister… thing, flashing her a cat’s grin as an example. He placed the photograph on the tabletop, but kept it with his thumb and the curved knuckle of his index finger on a corner. He continued to trace the face so like his with his eyes. “If Amanda eventually ended up a lesbian in a polyamorous triad, you wouldn’t disown her. Is that the difference?”
He turned the photo over.
Max's concept of family was as practical as everything else. You helped them when they needed it, and they helped you, and it really didn't matter if you liked each other. That had all tipped with Ella, though, because Ella didn't play the game by the same rules, and Max didn't actually understand Ella's rules, when it was all said and done. Family wasn't about people you liked, not really, and it had nothing to do with blood. Brandon, off in New York, was family, and so was Luke. But Amanda, Amanda was special. Max had a terrible time learning to be a mother, but she knew that how she was with Amanda was how normal parents were. It made her smile, her brown gaze dragging up as Lin turned the photo over.
"Unfortunately, he never smiles," she said, her own smile persisting.
Upstairs, Amanda ran around, her tiny feet sounding like a herd of buffalo on the old floors, and Max glanced up and shook her head slightly with a fond chuckle. "And I let her run around like there's a bunch of wildlife upstairs. Listen, kid, the General taught me how to load and unload a gun when I was five, because he needed someone to follow his footsteps. What I wanted never mattered. I tried to fail every single admittance test for the military, and he got me in anyway." She looked up again. "I want Amanda to do whatever she wants to do with her life. I know Ella thinks I'm judgemental, and I am, but it's because I want her to be smart and happy, even if it doesn't translate into Ella-talk."
She gave him a smirk. "But I want to go on record as saying that I think polyamorous triads sound redundant and messy." Her voice lowered. "And you lucked out with your people," she added, because that was obvious. Whatever Lin's adoptive family had done, stifling him hadn't been part of it, and that much was evident.
She nodded toward the entryway. "Go on. Think it all over. You know where I am, if you want to talk about it some more."
Lin looked up at the ceiling as Santa, or Amanda, landed his(/her) team of huge-ass reindeer in the bedroom upstairs (which surely still counted as wildlife. Or were they domesticated since they were kind of sentient? A question for the ages). His smile reflected Max’s, or stood on the same spectrum of color, shifting from something lingering to something amused as seconds passed and as she continued to speak, her eyes on his. He nodded at her assertion of wanting Amanda to be smart and happy, he frowned at the mention of re-loading a gun. Mostly, he sat back in his chair and pressed his spine against the chair. He tipped it, just so, onto its back two feet and held onto the table as he thought.
He didn’t know exactly what to make with someone who seemed at peace, in some way, with the fact that so little of her life had been decided by her, nor how to reconcile all of this new information with the old, to mold it to the stripling parapets of memory.
She was probably right. He had lucked out. He tapped colored keratin on the tabletop.
It was Max’s nod toward the door that had him pushing his chair back after it slammed all four feet onto tiles. He stood, hovering for half a second, his hands splitting like pretty butterfly wings peeled with cruelty from small body and they slipped into pockets softly..
“Legit,” said Lin with a blink of a smile. He shuffled backward toward the door, looking very much like a child. His headphones were still noosed around his throat. He didn’t seem to notice. “Next time I’ll bring my nail polish and give Amanda some hella boss nails, if she’s into it.”
He paused with one foot over the threshold. He was not his so-called father. Nothing like him, it didn’t seem like. The boy half-stepped back. He grinned, just as he dragged the door closed behind him.
“Check ya, sis.”
Then he was gone.