A Moment To Breathe


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Scene Title A Moment to Breathe
Synopsis Immediately following Zhao's arrest, Emily Epstein goes seeking answers.
Date December 6, 2019

There is a swarm of activity spreading out across Staten Island tonight. Police lights flood the parking lot surrounding the warehouse where SESA and the NYPD just successfully launched an operation against the Ghost Shadows Triad. The air is crisp, cold, and uninviting when Emily Epstein slinks through the crowd of onlookers in acronym-emblazoned windbreakers, past black-clad military police and members of Wolfhound talking to strategic command personnel.

Toward the north side of the warehouse, coded Blue by Cesar’s operation, a convoy of 91st Military Police Battalion armored personnel carriers await person-of-interest detainees. Passing by the military police checkpoint around the vehicles is easy for someone wearing a SESA jacket and flashing a badge. Most of the convoy is full up, though they’ve split up the prisoners according to flight risk and security detail.

Wenzhou Zhao is by himself, already shackled at wrists and ankles with a chain connecting both that loops through a metal eyelet in the floor. When Emily steps up onto the lowered ramp coming out of the back of the transport, Zhao turns a dark-eyed stare up to her. His is stoic in imprisonment, but bristles like a cat in a carrier who knows it is going to the vet. He says nothing in greeting, merely frowning at her arrival in wordless indignity.

Staten Island

December 6th

9:09 pm

"There was a girl who used to live in the Safe Zone. Her name was Jacelyn Morrison. She had a family who loved her, friends who cared about her. She went by the nickname Squeaks."

Emily's eyes are unreadable as she stands on the ramp, hand against the crease of the opened transport door. Her heart is still pounding with adrenaline, her thoughts at once clear and a mystery to even herself. This was an opportunity— the only one she'd have. There hadn't been time to think her way through this, only to act.

"You took her."

Her hand stays still, only her expression tightening as she looks in the back of the truck. She keeps her tone in check, voice never raising. "Why?"

There’s a feline smugness in Zhao’s expression when Emily makes that demand for information. “Emily Epstein,” he says with a crease of his brows together, “I would have presumed you would ask after Devon Clendaniel first. This is a much more… selfless line of inquiry.” Shifting his posture so that he is more fully facing Emily, Zhao seems inclined to talk for the moment.

“I did not take Jac,” Zhao explains. “She sought me out, and she demanded that I take her to…” his brows furrow together, eyes looking past Emily out the back of the personnel carrier, then back to the young woman, “her father.”

The hardness in Emily's expression withers away into something more blank. She's not hit a point where every thought is voiced, however close a thing it might be. She hadn't asked about Devon because she hadn't known that was information he might have. But after all, why wouldn't he? If he brought Squeaks to Adam, to Praxia, who's to say what's the limit of what Zhao knew regarding all those things? The light in her eyes shifts as she retreats inward, trying to compile the mess of relations those little sentences set out. Her hand curls against the door as she comes back to the moment.

"Her father, Monroe," she echoes back, brow beginning to knit. "What the fuck is he up to? Why does he want her? This…" Emily stops herself, eyelids fluttering shut. She needs to ask better questions. "What's Umbra?"

It takes effort to not dive into questions about Devon, about the half of him that was left behind, but she bites her tongue. For now.

“I’m no scientist,” is Zhao’s quick retort. “And if I was, I wouldn’t tell you, girl.” His dark eyes narrow frustratedly. “You deserved to know the truth about your friend, but this is not child’s-play and all I see before me is a child playing at the life of an adult, with no context or understanding for the questions she is asking or the consequences of knowledge.”

Yet in spite of his protests, Zhao has kept his voice down to as to not attract attention to their conversation. He seems to have understood her clandestine approach, but also is unexpectedly cooperative with it. “You expect too much.”

"I expect enough," Emily bats back with an aggressive flare of passion. "Because that is a truth behind her, and she's a child too, but that didn't stop you from willingly dragging her into something she lacks the context for. Even if you don't know everything, you knew enough to know exactly what you were doing." Her teeth bare momentarily as she forces her voice to keep a calm she barely feels. "She has no idea what you people have gotten her into, and you didn't bother to clarify for her, did you?"

Maybe he does know, maybe he doesn't, but her frustration is evident. It tempers as she asks, not without impatience, "… How is she? Do you see her? What have they done with her mother and sister? Gillian Childs, Jolene Chevalier."

"—What about Devon?" flies from her, too, before she can stop it.

Zhao exhales a flat breath through his nose with a twitch of his brows. He leans back, just so, lips parting subtly as he reconsiders Emily’s questions. The vague wording of her command gives him some measure of leeway in unconsciously interpreting it to his personal biases, but only just so.

“Jac is fine, last I saw her, but she and I have not seen one-another since I left her there.” Zhao explains in a quiet, smooth voice. “Those others, they came to Praxia of their own volition, and chose to stay of their own accord. The same can’t be said of Mr. Clendaniel… though his situation is not the same. He was… spare parts.”

Zhao’s eyes narrow subtle, his chin lifting up as he regards Emily. “He thinks of you, talks about you, from time to time. I do not see him often, but I know your name is on his lips.” Zhao leans forward, his voice as smooth as a cat’s purr. “Does that trouble you?”

Spare parts, he says.

Emily tries to fight down a reaction to what he says, but it's impossible for a twist of pain to not be visible even as she muscles her outward expression nearer to neutral. It doesn't help that her eyes still speak her anger for her, unmoving from him. "Does your current situation trouble you?" she asks rhetorically.

It's only now she starts to think of using her voice as a weapon, trying to gather her scattering thoughts back into a cohesive, persuasive point. Calling on it consciously is a harder thing, but she tries. "You didn't answer me," Emily tries to remind him. "If you think I deserve to know about her, then tell me what they did to her." Did it work? Does her voice have the right weight? In the moment, she's not sure. "What did they do to her? Umbra, Gemini— whatever you call it."

The reason, though, Emily. Why is it so important you know?

"Is it all Monroe's fault? Is he just using her?"

“I don't know,” is Zhao’s flat response to Emily’s demand. “It isn't my role to know those things. Whatever happens in the ziggurat stays unspoken. I am not permitted to stay there long. Your friend… her fate is her own.” Zhao has nothing to say about how he considers his own predicament, but judging from the comfort in which he addresses Emily, he doesn't appear too concerned.

“Adam did not want for her,” Zhao says simply, “or he would have asked. He knew, he has known for two years now. But he wanted her to live her own life. She was safe enough, making her own choices.” Zhao allows his shoulders to rise in a shrug and then fall. “She went to him, even when I warned her against it. Because there would be no going back.” Zhao’s brows furrow. “She chose him, not you.”

In the moment, it’s hard to not feel as though that is the truth, even if it’s only the truth as Zhao sees it. Emily breathes out, her being deflating. She slides her foot back, deciding abruptly there’s nothing else he can tell her that she might want to hear. A step is taken down from the back of the truck.

But she holds, turning her head back to him as she recalls a final question. Her indecision in asking plays out in the flicker of her gaze, but she ultimately gives voice to it. If nothing else, Zhao seems to have a respect for familial ties, blood ones over all. “One last thing,” Emily begins warily. “Do you know a Gerard Gerken?” Her mouth flattens before she explains, “His son is looking for him. Isn’t even sure if he’s alive.”

Zhao’s eyes narrow subtly, regarding Emily with a wordless look that implies a certain level of surprise. He tempers it back to that neutrally smug expression he'd had when she first came into the carrier. “Gerard Gerken is alive,” is the only answer he gives, and the look he levels past Emily tells her everything she needs to know about why his answer was so short.

Miss Epstein,” is the sharp address given at the entrance at the back of the personnel carrier. Major Matthew Olson stands silhouetted by the headlights of the carrier behind them, hands on his hips and chin up. “This space is off-limits.” Olson’s reprimand isn't so much suspicious as it is territorial. He doesn't care why she's here, he just cares that she is.

The sound of her name brings Emily to turn, words already on her lips. An excuse. An apology. Just one minute, she wants to tell him— It’s important. Surely he’d understand.

And maybe that’s the problem: Maybe he would.

Her jaw works closed, shoulders sloping down as she fights quiet the beginning of a phrase, not wanting to risk even that. She breaks the intense look she’d thrown Olson’s way, her eyes lowering. Her hand slides heavily off the doorway and she keeps her head down while she walks down the ramp. “Sorry,” she finally musters as she walks past the Major, looking over her shoulder without breaking stride. Her brow furrows as she gets a last glance at Zhao.

The temptation to turn back to Olson while she passes him is strong, strengthened by that glance she steals. I just need one minute. The words are right there— and so is the danger in speaking them.

Somehow, she keeps walking.

She keeps going until the carrier is out of sight behind her, feet charting a course back to the SESA-dominated side of the warehouse. It’s after what feels like too long that she finally takes a moment to breathe, air expelled in a noisy cloud of frustration. Emily comes to stop, head tilting up to look at the sky and let the breeze blow her bangs about her face. She breathes in, and tries to will away the tension of the near-miss with another, longer sigh. Her head drops to bring her back to the moment, and she turns on her heel to start searching for a face in particular in the crowd of officials.

If nothing else, she needed to find Lance and tell him what she’d learned.

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