A Touch Of Grey



Scene Title A Touch of Grey
Synopsis Everyone is entitled to a bad day.
Date April 6, 2019

Jackson Heights

It was months ago, now, that in a parked vehicle one Avi Epstein asked Richard Ray to try and locate one Sibyl Black for reasons that were extremely personal in nature. A lot has happened since then, but it appears that the man has found some sort of lead — because he’s asked the old Royal to come on by Raytech to talk.

Hopefully he’s not too sore about that locked in a room trick that got pulled on him awhile back. Richard had good intentions, at least.

It’s the early evening, the lights of the Safe Zone burning behind as the shadows of more ruined parts of the city loom in the distance like the bones of some great fallen beast. The brilliance of the few city blocks around Raytech bloom as the sun in the midst of this shadow, however, a promise of renewal to come. Construction zones and vehicles bearing the Yamagato logo are passed, that come day will once again be rumbling and working on their appointed tasks.

An obstacle, however, presents itself in the form of a streetlight pole that’s fallen across the street along the route that Avi’s travelling. An accident during construction, perhaps?

“Not fucking likely,” Avi says to the voice in his head trying to assuage his paranoia. His old truck shifts noisily into reverse, gears seizing, and he fights with the stick shift and clutch. Once it’s in gear, Avi gently eases onto the gas and turns to look out the back window, his rear-view mirror having just fallen right the fuck off a few months ago.

There’s an old saying: A broken watch is right at least twice a day. For all of the thousands of glances twisted back over his shoulder and the countless circuitous routes he’s taken when there are straighter lines from Point A to Point B, Avi has undoubtedly avoided at least one real attempt on his life since Colette sprung him from Liberty Island that cold night on November 8th, 2017 — and that doesn’t count the trap laid for him by the Horsemen, using his protege as bait.

It’s today, on April 6, 2019, that his luck runs out. There is simply no avoiding the other vehicle that lurches out from an adjacent side street as he’s backing up. He doesn’t get a good look at its model or make in his peripheral vision before it connects with the side of his truck, crumpling steel and shattering glass, but thinks it might be black.

Which is a weird detail for his mind to cling to as he’s flung sideways with enough force to crack his head against the window. He feels a hot flash of blood at his temple. His vision swims. Pieces of broken glass twinkle in his hair and in his lap like too-close stars.

By the time the truck comes to a stop, it’s pinned between the other vehicle and a storefront. A fire hydrant spews water into the air and splashes it across the hood.

At least Avi remembered to wear his seatbelt.

The word motherfucker is rattled off like a mantra on about a three second interval. It takes Avi longer than he'd admit to recover from the crash, another moment to realize he's still buckled in when he tries to move. Age has blunted his reaction times in ways his immediate head trauma can only be blamed partly for. As his seat belt comes undone, Avi lunges for his glove compartment, opening it up to retrieve—

— a balled up burger wrapper, eight packets of salt, three double A batteries, a flashlight in need of new batteries, and an owner’s manual.

In his mind, Avi can nearly see dotted white lines to indicate where Wilby once rested beside the burger wrapper. The gun he'd given to Huruma months ago.

Motherfucker,” comes a beat earlier and changes the rhythm. He moves to slowly fish around behind the bench seat, fingers finding purchase on an old shotgun he hasn't used in years. As he gingerly pulls it out from behind the seat he's left to wonder in a range between 1 and 6, how many shells it still has loaded in its chamber.

Avi draws in a sharp breath through his nose, sunglasses sitting crooked on his face, and he waits for the other shoe to drop.

A shadow passes over the pavement of the street, all strange swooping angles— almost like wings. Almost like a bird.

Then again, sometimes a shadow is just a shadow. If Avi is lucky, it’s neither of those things.

“Epstein!” roars a voice from outside the truck, confirming his worst fears (and suspicions): this wasn’t an accident. He can see it clearly now, the other vehicle — an unmarked van — and doors thrown open as several men in dark, drab colors emerge into the early evening light. There is something haphazard about their style of dress and their purposeful mismatching of textures that suggests they aren’t residents of the Safe Zone.

But they don’t look like they belong with the “Horsemen” either. Their eyes are a little too wild, their looks a little too unkempt to be mistaken for any of the individuals Avi and Richard met during their brief stay at the Sedro-Woolley Colony.

“You piece of Evo-fucking shit!” the voice thunders, then. “Where are your Ferrymen now?”


“Oh, boys!” Avi calls back out the shattered window. “You have no idea how relieved I am!” He keeps the shotgun held firmly in one hand, withdrawing his knife with the other. “I thought for sure I was actually in trouble!”

Leaning back, Avi presses his shoulder against the door toward the fire hydrant and hooks the door handle with the knife, then fires his shotgun one-handed out the opposite window. There's no real target, but Avi drops to the street and out the door with the kick of the blast, counting on the covering fire to keep the attackers at bay. Avi lands hard on his back beside the truck, water spraying everywhere.

Squarely on the ground, Avi takes aim for the first pair of feet he can see and opens fire from beneath the truck with another deafening report of the shotgun blast, knife gripped in his hand that steadies the barrel. After that second shot, Epstein ducks under the truck and slices through the fuel line, letting the gasoline that sprays out mix with the water flowing down the road.

Hey!” Avi is alive, he's back in the jungles of Madagascar, in the forests around Bannerman’s Castle. “Any of you kids like Billy Joel?” One moment he's off, the next minute he's out of his mind.

He's not sure if they'll get the We Didn't Start the Fire reference. He still shoots down at the gasoline flowing in the water toward them. He gets the joke, laughs about it too. Best not to die frowning. Or on fire.

Too bad for them.

“Oh, you’re in some fuckin’ trouble now! I don’t see any of your mutie friends here to pull your old ass out of the fire!”

They’re cocky, at least. It might be Avi’s biggest advantage here. His luck hasn’t entirely run out.


That first shotgun blast brightens the shadows with its muzzle-flash and the rough bark of its report, and the disheveled ruffians change their purposeful demeanors from ‘menacing’ to ‘moving into cover’ in a hurry.

They’re moving around the crashed vehicle in two directions, which presents Avi with a bit of a tactical issue, but then—

“The fuck did he just say— “ The words are cut off with the mighty vwoosh of fire suddenly erupting from beneath and beside the truck, trickling fire rushing down the river of water and gasoline. Shouts of alarm echo in the night, the tongues of flame casting odd shadows on the street, a shadow-play of memories for the old man.

Is one of them moving oddly, or is that just a trick of the light?

There’s no time to conclude one way or the other, before a rattling hail of small-arms fire comes down on the truck from two sides, nothing large-caliber and the shots mostly blind from the sudden light of burning gasoline.

Using the wheel well as cover, dangerously close to the gasoline spilling out of the fuel line, Avi barks into the darkness. “You dumb fucks!” Reaching under the seat, Avi fishes around for a cellophane grocery bag and drags it out. “D’you even know who you jumped!?”

Avi racks the shotgun, expelling a full shell into his lap. He fires the shotgun once into the air, they have no way to tell where he aimed it, but the noise should work. From the bag, Avi pulls a box of lightbulbs, fishing a lighter out from his pants. He runs the end of the lightbulb over the flame, listening to the sound of movement and gunshots, then pries the end of the lightbulb off once the glue has softened.

“Been fighting redneck assholes like you my whole fucking life!” Avi calls out while using a pocket knife to pry open the shell, pouring the gunpowder nearly all the way into the open light bulb. He drops the knife and the rest of the shell, then grabs a small box of screws from behind the seat, adding those in with the powder. “You?” He calls back from behind the truck, “you're just fucking speed bumps!” A strip of duct tape wraps the end of the lightbulb closed.

“Is that all you got?” Avi asks, goading, looking to the river of fire, improvised grenade held in his hand. He eyes the shotgun, maybe one shot left. “I asked you a question!

His answer comes in the form of a flashbag grenade lobbed from behind the other vehicle. It hits the pavement with a sound that’s like a gunshot in its own right, bounces once, then goes off.

For an instant, the entire world becomes a painful wash of noise and light. Avi’s ears ring. His good eye feels like it’s been forcibly turned toward the sun.

When reality comes back into focus, he’s intensely aware of the heat of the flame licking the air dangerously close to his face. The fire from the gasoline shimmering on the pavement has rapidly spread back in the direction of its source: the fuel tank.

He should probably move, except—

— he’s being attacked by clowns?

Garishly white latex twists into exaggerated features on the faces of the men that are rushing the truck from either side, masks scavenged from the ruins of some pre-war costume shop that nobody else had found worth looting perhaps.

The small arms fire has stopped— guns in their hands but not being used— baseball bats instead being brought up. Good news there at least. They don’t want to immediately kill him.

Blind in one eye and stunned, Avi takes the first bat crack across the back with a howl of pain. He drives up, slamming a shoulder into the bat wielder, fingers curled in jacket fabric, lightbulb tucked into a pocket. When that burst of adrenaline-fueled energy subsided, Avi drags the man to the ground with his substantial weight, forcing him into the flames and heat under the truck.

They might not be here to kill him. Jokes on them.

The explosion of the improvised explosive going off in the attacker’s pocket is muffled by his own body. Just a flash, bang, and a dozen small screws embedded in his chest with fragments of glass. Avi’s too far from where his shotgun fell to reach for it, so he places his bad leg at his back foot, knuckles up, and stares down the others. He's wincing as he breathes, likely from a bruised or fractured rib from the hit he took.

“Which one'f you’s Pagliacci?” Avi asks with a slur of his words, managing an infuriatingly amused smile in the face of too many attackers. If he were twenty years younger, if he had both eyes, both legs, half his scruples.

Maybe it’s the attacker rolling up behind him. Avi won’t ever know because he doesn’t see the blow to the back of the head coming. Doesn’t feel it, either. Not immediately.

Instead, as he fades in and out of consciousness, he’s aware of where the sky is in relation to the ground — until there isn’t a sky anymore. Strong arms load him into the back of the van. Voices that sound like they’re coming from the other end of a long tunnel debate what they should do with him in what Avi perceives to be a language other than English, but isn’t.

A concussion will do that.

Handcuffs fasten his arms behind his back. Another set binds his ankles together and bites at the skin under his socks. They aren’t taking any additional chances with him today, not when at least one of their number is left smoldering under the wreckage of the truck like grease at the bottom of a dirty oven.

The military police are going to have fun cleaning that up.

Even the slamming of the van doors sounds like it’s coming from a world away. The engine revs, coughs, sputters as time seems to compress. He’s not sure how his kidnappers make it past the checkpoint on the Safe Zone’s border, but they do. It’s probably safe to assume that a large amount of cash is involved, but this detail ranks low on the list of important details Avi’s addled brain struggles to compile.

When his wits eventually return, so does the pain. The blood has already gone tacky in his thinning hair.

How long has it been? Forty-five minutes? An hour?

The van rumbles all around him. It’s moving very fast, and in a straight line. He could be on any open road between New York and any other number of states.

There’s a shadow of a man sitting opposite him against the wall, but it’s not being cast by anything.

The first words out of Avi’s mouth aren’t coherent enough to understand as he comes to. What comes after is intelligible, but still isn’t really coherent either. “I… sshaid, which— one’f you’s Pagliacci?” Even as he slurs his speech, Avi’s low-function lizard brain starts to boot directly into his deep-seated training. Blurry vision assesses his restraints, tries to figure out the number of occupants in the van, strains to hear sounds of landmarks outside.

Even before he’s aware he’s conscious, Avi Epstein is falling back into old psychological ruts: plan, execute, reassess.

There’re muffled sounds from the front, but it’s walled away. He’s alone in the back, presumably helpless - as far as his kidnappers are concerned.

Well— not completely alone.

“Thank God, I was worried they’ve given you brain damage. God knows you’ve done enough to your brain without their help as it is,” the shadow whispers, a lazy and hissing sibilance that he remembers from years ago, although Richard Ray supposedly lost that ability.


…without their help… murmur the echoes.

But then, who else could it be? Samson, maybe, but it definitely has Richard’s sarcasm.

Fucking great,” Avi mumbles to himself, shifting just enough to look around at his confines with a squint of his one good eye. Funny thing about a bat to the head, it always knocks out the glass eye. Always. “I’m hallucinating assholes.”

Straightening his braced leg with a grimace, Avi shifts up onto one elbow, looking up to the closed off front of the van. “Fucking— amateur hour fucking. The fuck.” Hands behind his back, cuffs, rattling. “Mnkay… hey, Ghost of Christmas Future,” he says to his own presumed hallucination, “you see where they put the keys for this low-key bondage fantasy?”

“You’re still pissed off that I locked you and your daughter in that room together, aren’t you? Look, you know damn well I did that for your own good,” the shadow observes, and it had eyes they’d be rolling as well as that glass eye did, even as it spills off the wall and sweeps across the floor of the van. “You’re talking now, right? Then you can hate me all you want, because family’s fucking important…”

…important… whispers the darkness, even as tenebrous matter flows up the man’s elbow and arm, coiling around to the cuffs and twisting into them, matter eaten away as if it were never there.

“Now hold the fuck still.” …still…

“Fuck me running,” Avi mutters as he feels the handcuffs fall apart. He props himself up on one hand and waves his hand through Richard’s maybe-face. “That’s a slap, for later. For being a fuck. Just a general one. All-purpose.” Avi’s missing eye is squinted shut, absent its normal placeholder eye. “Okay, so if this is another fucking bonding exercise I really need to get you a fucking therapist.”

Sitting up straight, Avi looks down to the disintegrated handcuffs, then back up to Richard. “If it’s not, who the fuck are these bozos, and where the fuck are we going, and— ” Avi pinches the bridge of his nose. “This isn’t a plot to get me to celebrate my birthday or some bullshit, is it? Because I’m pretty sure I killed at least a guy back there.”

The remnants of the ankle-cuffs tumble in oddly disjointed metal pieces to the floor of the van a few moments later.

“Yeah, it’s your birthday and those are the clowns, they’re gonna do balloon tricks later,” is the sarcastic response, “No, it’s not a bonding exercise, Christ, I think they’re Humanis, or Pure Earth, or— whatever. They’re acting more like goons than paramilitary, there’s just a bunch of them. Another van in front of this one.” …this one…

“Personally I don’t want to find out where we’re going. I think we’re getting some backup shortly, though…” …back up… The shadows swirl back up the wall into the shape of a man with a shotgun, cocking it in shadow-play in a wordless ‘get ready’.

No pressure. Not like he’s locked in a van driven by racists.

Speaking of back up, there’s the sound of a familiar motorcycle engine gathering like thunder — right on cue. Through the windows centered in the van’s back doors, Avi glimpses the support to which Richard refers. The rider has been tailing the two vans since they pulled away from the last security checkpoint at the Safe Zone’s border, but now that they’re out on the open road with no military presence for miles in either direction, it’s time for them to make their move.

The bike is Raytech-made, and as it accelerates to wing up and around the van carrying them, Richard’s suspicions are confirmed when he sees the modifications made to its body.

This might be the first time he’s been happy to see Warren in quite awhile.

His lithe frame is trimmed in leather and a helmet to protect him from roadrash in the event of a spill, but that’s assuming he’d even survive it in the first place. Most motorcycles aren’t built to move as fast as this one, but then again: Most motorcycles aren’t built by Warren Ray.

He hugs the side of the van on his way past it, much closer than is either safe or necessary, disappearing from view.

Three gunshots fired in quick succession light up the driver’s cabin. A window implodes, showering the men in front with a messy spray of glass and somebody’s brain matter as the van abruptly lists sideways and goes careening off the freeway. Neglected pavement transforms to mud, and even though the driver tries to course correct, his wheels aren’t able to find the traction they need.

The van goes fishtailing down a short embankment and collides with the rusted remains of a tank that hasn’t seen action since before the end of the war. Bad news for the men up front. The two in the back are only slightly better off, rattled but alive.

Of course, there’s still the matter of the second van, which has shrieked to a halt some two hundred feet ahead on the road above.

Avi’s world is a ringing darkness, the muffled thumps of his hands hitting the floor of the van come with the dizzying sensations of a concussion, vision blurred and unfocused as he adjusts to the darkness of the panel van’s rear. Forward movement has arrested and Avi chalks up the sensation of lateral movement as concussion-related flavor. He makes a guttural noise at the darkness, some of which he assumes is Richard, and grabs for the rear door latch.

The back doors of the van burst open as Avi comes rolling out and onto the ground on his side. Blood streaks through his thinning hair, sticks to the side of his face and disappears down below his collar. “Motherfuckers,” is all he can say, over and over again as he struggles to get up to his feet like an amateur boxer who doesn't know any better. Swaying when he does finally get his footing, Avi favors his bad leg and fumbles through his pockets.

Hey,” Avi barks at the darkness, “you got a ffffucking gun?” One hand is extended out, blood smudged across the heel of his palm.

…CHRIST. is the echoing whisper that follows Epstein as he rolls out of a crashed van and onto the road, a flitting shadow swirling in his wake down to the blacktop and after him. “How you’re still alive, Epstein…” …Epstein…

Richard Ray emerges from the darkness in a wave of darkness to greyscale to colour, reaching out to smack a pistol into the man’s hand, “…I have no idea. Going for these assholes or do we just want to get the fuck out of here?”

It’s up to the old man, apparently, as the shadowmorph’s just implicitly bowed to his expertise.

A few feet away, the driver’s side door of the van pops open with a sound like a sad, unceremonious champagne cork. A bloodied hand still groping the handle comes into view, followed by the arm and shoulder it’s attached to.

The driver spills out into the mud, a cascading tangle of ungainly limbs and broken glass. His mask, which had been in his lap at the time of the crash, squelches under his boot as he struggles to find his footing and right himself.

“Fuck,” he’s muttering wetly under his breath, “fuck.

The good news is: the kidnappers closest to Richard and Avi are at least as disoriented as they are, and if either of them runs out of ammunition, there seems to be plenty they can lift off any of the men they put down. The driver makes a wobbly grab for his own pistol, snug in the waistband of his jeans.

Something similar is happening on the van’s passenger side, albeit with much more effort and less grace. The crash’s other survivor hasn’t gotten past opening the door thanks to the placement of the tank’s tread.

But that doesn’t stop him from trying. Clunk goes the door. Clunk clunk c l u n k.

Gunfire erupts back up on the road ahead. Richard can’t see Warren or his brother’s motorcycle, but it’s a safe bet that he’s the combatant the occupants of the other van are presently engaged with. He spots them easily enough: just four, sans masks, sheltered behind one side of their vehicle while Warren takes cover behind the other.

The engine is still purring. Exhaust forms a thick white plume that obscures his vision.

The loud pop of a handgun firing in close proximity is the answer Richard gets. The man who’d come out of the truck drops before he can finish fondling his gun. “Both,” Avi grouses as he starts limping over toward the passenger side of the van. “Both is good.”

His already busted leg, exacerbated by the crash, impedes his approach on the van, and Avi is forced to take approach on the driver's side due to the tank blocking the way at the passenger side. As he sweeps into view of the doorway, handgun raised, he asks of the man in the van. “Are you a federal agent?”

“You’re nuts,” Richard observes, although it’s said with a brief, toothsome grin before he’s breaking apart into shadows again, swirling over the blacktop and out of sight. Lost to the glare of broken head-lights and the darkness of the night, taking full advantage of the chaos of the situation to vanish like the shadow he’s become.

Meanwhile, at the Chateau de Crashed Van…

“F-fuck you,” clunk clunk clunk goes the door with rising urgency, part of a boot visible as the passenger kicks at it, “Your mutie-loving days are done, Epstein! You and— you and all your people are going down!”

Lots of bravado, but he doesn’t seem to be negotiating from a position of strength here.

If he’s a federal agent, he’s an extremely shitty one.

Muzzle flashes light up the night in the general direction Richard siphoned off into. One of the four kidnappers exchanging gunfire with his brother is already bleeding out on the road from a bullet to the throat, but Warren could probably use his help regardless. He has only so much ammunition, and his current position is far from ideal, but this seems like it’s by his own design.

Warren is just the distraction.

Not counting the last surviving passenger in the first van, presently staring down the barrel of Avi’s handgun, there are three enemy combatants left to go.

Avi looks at the side of his gun, then fires through the open door into the truck six times. “Just checking,” he says to the corpse inside, “last time I didn’t check first.” Wobbling and concussed, Avi turns from the van and starts limping in the direction he’d seen Richard slither off to.

Hey!” Avi bellows, sounding a little drunk but it’s likely just the head injury. “Button this shit up, wh’kind’ve amateur hour is this?”

Warren is making a sincere effort, okay? So critical.

The put down does its job, however, as Avi’s put downs often do. He side-steps around the rear of the van, emerging from the cloud of exhaust, and empties the remainder his clip into the men nearest to him.

It’s maybe a little excessive.

The first slumps against the van’s white exterior, leaving a bloodied smear in the shape of his hand. The second taggers backward, tripping over the ther corpse, and goes down hard. His head bounces against concrete, but this is the closest he comes to getting back up again.

Warren drives the toe of his boot into one of the dead men’s ribcage.

Okay, so: Definitely a little excessive.

Coils of darkness rise up into the form of a man behind the leather-clad figure that’s just taken out the would-be kidnappers, but it doesn’t seem that Richard Ray is intending on thanking Warren for his assistance, because he’s holding a broken length of sign-post that was apparently run over by the tank sometime during the war.

Maybe they’re having a family spat.

The metal pole’s brought back, and then swung heavily for the side of that motorcycle helmet, which hopefully for their rescuer’s health is padded enough to protect the skull. At least he didn’t aim for a knee.

For a second that just doesn't register on Avi. He makes a face, twisted with a jumble of emotions clouded by his concussed state. Briefly, he looks down at the gun in his hand and considers if he has to shoot one or both of them. It isn't immediately clear. Then, closing his eyes Avi just fires his gun.

In the air.

Hey!” Avi barks, limping back to the van, “I'm gonna go find my fucking eye.” His glass eye, which fell out of his head somewhere in the crash. “You two let me know when you're done with your fucking tickle-fight.” Three more steps and his bad leg buckles just a little. Avi wobbles, one arm windmills, and then he just falls over.

He doesn't get up.

Thok is the sound of Richard’s sign post connecting with Warren’s helmet. There’s enough momentum behind it that the person inside — because it isn’t Warren — lists sideways, but is able to regain their footing before they go down hard and join Avi on the ground.

The very padding that saved them muffles their explosive curse.

Fingers grip the gap between the helmet’s lip and the rider’s neck, peeling off their protection — if only so they can hurl it at Richard’s head.


“I’m trying to help you!” Eileen squalls in a hoarse, breathless voice that cracks from the effort of shouting. The last kidnapper takes this opportunity to scissor off into the trees while she and Richard are occupied with each other. It doesn’t even occur to him that he could still finish Avi off now that he’s lying prone, back by the other van.

But it might later.

Also: Eileen is lying. The way she anxiously swivels her attention back in Avi’s direction makes it clear that this was never about helping Richard, per se.

“No,” she roughs out, “no no no no no.”

That helmet bounces off of Richard’s shoulder - painfully - as he ducks back a bit, off-guard after the revelation of just who was behind the darkened visor. The metal pole is lowered a bit, his brow knitting.

“…Eileen? What are you— “

Questions, it seems, will have to wait until later; the shot of the gun in the air has his head swivelling towards their mutual concern, and then as the old man crumples to the ground he breaks into a run his way, letting his makeshift weapon clatter-clang to the pavement.

“Avi! God damn it,” he skids down to one knee, reaching to check the Royal’s pulse.

G’fuck’y’self,” Avi slurs at no one in particular into the gravel on the roadside, cheek pressed to dirt and his one good eye partway open. He has a considerably large gash on the back of his head, his hair is slick and darkened, and the promise bleeding trails down the back of his neck and stains the collar of his shirt. It must have been from the crash.

Shifting awkwardly, Avi blinks a few very languid flutters and then tries to focus on the sound of voices around him. His pulse is fine, but both Eileen and Richard have seen enough people take serious blows to the head to know he has a concussion. “M’fine, Avi protests, not realizing in the least that it's weird that Eileen is here. He hasn't contacted those pieces of events yet.

“We need t’move,” Avi mumbles, suddenly full of energy and trying to peel himself up off the ground with a grunt of effort. “Patrols’ll be back mn’sver… uh… the uh, just make sure the kids are…” His brows furrow together, mental pegs beginning to line up with their respective holes.


Eileen is cautious as she comes around his other side, her movements ginger but confident. For the moment, he seems untethered from his sense of place or time. She deems it an acceptable risk to stoop beside him and curl a gloved hand around his arm just below the elbow. Together, she and Richard should be able to ease him all the way back to his feet.

She isn’t worried about the conduit; several layers of clothes sit between them, and his injuries do not appear severe enough for Volken’s ability to want to take immediate advantage.

He’s not dying. That’s good.

“The children are just fine,” she reassures him gently, and in a tone with a velvet-like texture Richard has never heard from her before. (But Avi knows it very well.)

She directs a look over the top of Avi’s head, seeking out Richard’s eyes with her own. They’re still blue, although it’s almost impossible to confirm in the dark. “We need to get him to a doctor.”


“Sons of bitches worked him over hard,” Richard mutters as he checks out the older man, shoving his hands away when he tries to vaguely protest in his concussed state, “I don’t think they cracked the skull, thank God.”

As the gloved woman takes him from one side, he glances over to her and nods, sliding his own arm under his and helping him carefully upwards. “Up y’go, Pentacles. Kids are safe, but you’re right, we’ve got to move.”

The eyes that meet Eileen’s aren’t the same as the last time they met, although they’re the same that they were when they’d met before the war. Barely any iris at all, just black until the whites. He nods slightly.

“Yeah. Think we can get him on the bike?” He’ll ask why she had Warren’s bike later.

Making a frustrated sound in the back of his throat, Avi is little more than a curmudgeonly ragdoll as Richard helps him up. A three-hundred pound curmudgeonly ragdoll. “M’fine… m’fine,” Avi murmurs with a crease of his brows, “A’jus need t’get m’eye out’f the… floor… spot.” He levels an unfocused and monocular look up at Eileen.

“We gotta get t’the boat,” Avi says to her with a nod of his head toward absolutely not a boat. He’s probaby not entirely sure of what he’s saying. But he’s certainly not riding a motorcycle either.

“The van,” Eileen suggests, and she probably means the one that’s still intact and running, with only a few bullet skids glanced across its front bumper. “They left the keys in the ignition.”

Richard is stronger, with broader shoulders; she leaves Avi leaning against his capable frame to go pop open the passenger’s side door. Unlike the crumpled vehicle wedged between the tank and the road, this one has no bodies or glass that need to be cleared from the front compartment.

“Can you drive?” she asks Richard. “I used to be—” Her breath hitches, faltering. “She was—”

No, that’s not right either. Unsure how to explain (or even if she should), she settles on: “I can start treating his concussion on the way. Clean his wound. You don’t have to take me across the border, only— I need to know he’s going to be all right.”

“I’ll get you a new goddamn eye, Pentacles,” Richard mutters as he helps carry the man over to the van, “We can probably even make one that fucking works. Or at least stays the fuck in. Maybe Warren can give it a laser, I bet you’d love a laser eyeball, right?”

It’s nonsense conversation but he’s trying to give the old spook something to focus on so he doesn’t pass out.

Once the door’s open, he starts to help-slash-stuff Avi into the back of the van, “Sure, I can drive. Intel said you were dead anyway, I don’t think it’s legal for dead people to drive— c’mon, get on the boat, old man.”

Avi is of no help as Richard tries to get him into the back of the van. He stumbles and staggers, slinging his considerable weight around like a drunken moose, all wobbly limbs and lidded eyes. Eileen can't help but recall the last time they'd been this close together — not counting the altercation at the boat graveyard.

Avi’s expression becomes a challenging sneer. “Pinehearst thinks it's fucking clever, but it isn't. We’ve had people in their fucking ranks for years. You want to fuck off from this planet and be someone else’s problem?” Epstein raises his brows. “Be my fucking guest. They're rebuilding it in Colorado, just west of Boulder over the Rockies. Big facility called Geopoint. They're hiding it in a basement lab.”

She can smell the cold, damp air of the apartment.

Epstein’s eyes narrow, the thought of getting rid of Eileen and killing two birds with one stone feels almost too good to be true. “They've got an advanced security team. Personnel specs are on the laptop,” he nods into one of the darkened rooms. “If you're gonna go play Alice you'll need the environmental suits they've got otherwise you'll end up crispy fried duck. Don't ask me how that works. They've got environmentally-sealed containment crates too if you want to bring your collection of tacky as fuck fur coats.

She can remember a boiling sense of resentment and hatred, conflicting with palpable emotions of an entirely different man.

Twisting his wrist against the cuff, Avi watches Eileen with a slow look up and down her. “How else can I help you get the fuck off my planet?”

She remembers his hate for her.

As with all things that are too good to be true, this one also is.

She remembers basking in it.

Eileen follows Epstein’s visual sweep of her body, up and then down and then up again, although her attention isn’t focused on where he’s looking — only his face.

She remembers her doubt.

Her expression is conflicted, mouth thinned out into a flat, unhappy line that’s at odds with her usual decisive nature. She’d argued for clemency at the highly publicized trials that had both Ramirez and Lang fighting for their lives from the oppressive confines of the courtroom’s witness stand. That she should try to spare Epstein in a similar fashion is a desire that’s dictated the entire course of this conversation, such as it is.

She remembers her choice.

And yet—

Avi slouches down halfway into the back of the Van, leaving Richard to effectively push him in like a corpse in a rolled up carpet. They're at least thirty minutes from the nearest hospital, and that's going off of pre-war estimates. Richard can't recall the last time he had to find a hospital in New York outside of the Safe Zone, knows that there isn't even cellular reception out here this far from the city. Not with the intentional cutting of infrastructure during the war. Not with the way the country is now in its wake.

“No,” she says, succinctly, not without remorse, “I think that’s everything. Thank you.”

Eileen didn't call for an ambulance that day.

She opens her hand, allowing the slip of paper to flutter to the carpet at Epstein’s feet. “You’re a good father, Avi. When she’s old and gray, I hope your daughter has the opportunity to reflect on what she’s lost.”

There was no need.

Eileen’s fingers splay wide. She does not apologize with her words — or with her eyes, which are gleaming an abrupt, pristine blue.

The dead don't need doctors.

Be still.

Eileen presses out a long, slow, unsteady breath.

She can’t deny that there’s a part of this Avi, the one ragdolling in Richard’s arms, that’s capable of the actions committed by his doppelganger. He’s dangerous, even now — like an old dog whose teeth have rotted but still bites.

The only difference is that he’s her old dog.

On her next breath in, she taps into other memories. The strength she drew from his presence in the war room at Bannerman’s Castle. His steadfast support. Quiet, uneasy conversations in the privacy of darkened corridors. He’d been her confidante, once.

She remembers, too, what came after. His shadow when it filled the door of Saint Margaret’s, and his arms scooping her up to deposit her in the back of his truck. Their attic: antique piano and dusty keys, vinyl record collection, goose down comforter, and an endless rotation of books for her to read.

Once, she’d crawled into his bed. Once—

Turning his head just so, Avi regards Sibyl with half his face lit by moonlight. “You deserve to live your life, not… somebody else’s shit. And, I know how that sounds, keeping you here and being the way I am. I'm just…” he sighs again. “I'm selfish too, I guess. I just don't think I could handle losing…” he looks down to his lap, “anyone else.”

Eileen climbs into the van after Richard, pulling the door shut behind her. She leaves her handgun on the seat so both her hands are free to ease him down so his body is laid across the seats with his head elevated in her lap.

“You can’t keep me here forever,” sounds sullen, and like it should be a threat, but her tone lacks malice or any kind of heat. It’s simply a statement of fact. Her breath fogs the window a few inches away from her face. “And if I go away, it doesn’t mean I’m lost.” She uses the tip of her finger to trace a shape in the gathered condensation. It vaguely resembles a helix. “You’re a good man who’s done bad things. I know all about the people who disappeared from your life. The ones who left and the ones who— died. That’s not me.”

That’s not me.

“I’m here, Avi,” she says, cradling his head to better support his neck. She picks pieces of loose glass out of his hair and wipes away the drying blood that’s gathered in his ear. “Richard and I taking you back to Emily now, but I’m here. I’m here, and I love you. I’m sorry I never said it before— when I was whole.”

Once the doors of the van are secured with the heavy clang of a prison door, Richard steps back around the other side of it to climb into the driver’s seat. The keys are still in the ignition, thankfully, the engine rumbling and sputtering beneath the hood soon enough. Not a healthy vehicle, but good enough to drive.

He’s driven worse, in worse places, before. At least they’re not in Argentina.

The van rocks back and forth as he pulls a three-point-turn to turn around from the direction they were headed - and whatever fate the bigots had planned for the old man - and then starts back on down the pock-marked pavement of the road. The two in the back, he alone up front, hands settled on the wheel.

One hand reaches over, turning the knob on the radio to try and tune into WSZR. Dimly, from a distance, the music breaks in past the static. A chuckle stirs on his breath as he hears the lyrics, and soon his voice is raised with them as he drives through the nigh-post-apocalyptic wasteland towards the far-off hospital.

I see you've got your list out, say your piece and get out

Guess I get the gist of it, but it's alright

Sorry that you feel that way, the only thing there is to say

Every silver lining's got a touch of grey…

Avi is unresponsive, flat on his back and his one eye only partway lidded. He stares up at the ceiling of the van, head lolling softly from left to right with each movement of the vehicle. His chest slowly rises and falls with each breath, smudged spots of blood staining the metal floor of the van where his head hangs. Most of it’s on Eileen’s hands, clinging to her fingers.

I will get by

I will get by

I will get by

I will survive

It takes Eileen a moment to notice Avi’s settled his one good eye on her, a distant and unfocused look without so much as a move of his head. He swallows, noisily, breathing out before he’s finished with a wet gasp. The van jostles hard, hitting a pothole in the demolished road. Avi’s head moves against Eileen’s hands, and his eye starts to close, then flutters back open as if he were struggling.

It's a lesson to me

The Ables and the Bakers and the C's

The ABC's we all must face

Try to keep a little grace

The sudden clap of one of his hands on her arms is startling. Dried blood flakes off against her sleeve, but Avi manages a firm squeeze of her forearm. It is both a subtle and as firm a reassurance as he can muster in his state, wavering on the border of consciousness. Or perhaps at this point, life. Avi’s eye starts to flutter shut again, then weakly opens with an unfocused stare. Eileen can’t be sure he heard her at all.

It's a lesson to me

The Deltas and the East and the Freeze

The ABC's we all think of

And try to wean a little love

His hand slips away from her forearm, eye falls shut, and a deep breath escapes him. Avi is still in her arms, palms upturned to the ceiling and body heavy in her arms. The blood on her hands drips down into rivulets into the bed of the van, following the grooves in the floor in long red bars. The van hits another pothole, and Avi’s head wobbles lifelessly from side to side.

I know the rent is in arrears, the dog has not been fed in years

It's even worse than it appears, but it's alright

Cow is giving kerosene, kid can't read at seventeen

The words he knows are all obscene, but it's alright

For the first time in all the years Eileen has known Avi, in one identity or another, in one way or another, he actually seems at peace.

I will get by

He seems still.

I will get by

I fucking hate this song,” he slurs out.

I will get by

I will survive.

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