Above All


berlin_icon.gif francois_icon.gif

Scene Title Above All
Synopsis Francois and Berlin discuss their shared past.
Date December 29, 2018

Roetgen, Germany


The bedroom is lit only with firelight that dances as wind funnels down the chimney, and the gathering of candles on the bedside table. Wooden walls, adorned only by the rounded portrait of a saint — Berlin does not remember which one, she remembers having been so bored, when her grandfather tried to teach her their names — and a low ceiling. This corner of the world is so old, she thinks, and she experiences a moment of double-vision — older.

The woman on the bed has grey in her hair, with kinks in the wave that show how she normally wears it neatly. Half of her face is purple and swollen, one eye pressed shut, the other more at peace. Berlin has been told she has not awoken since the morning.

Seated by her, Berlin takes her hand into her own, except Berlin can see how these hands she is using are not her own. They are a man's hands, with long articulate fingers, wrapping around the limp, cool hand of the woman, and there Berlin can see that all that grey hair is premature. Taking a breath, she concentrates, and knows there are more hurts than just the face. Pressure within her skull from a hard blow to the head. Ribs cracked. Bruises mottling her arms. With practice, Berlin focuses on that cranial swelling, carefully, and slowly, she can sense the way it eases, and the way exhaustion is so quick to take her.

On the other side of the bed is a little boy, anxiously watching.

Time passes. She is not sure how much. But she notices, then, the soft flutter of an eyelid — both eyelids, the swelling that had sealed one eye shut having also now diminished. Her hand twitches limply in Berlin's grasp, and fear seems to tighten her expression.

Berlin says, in a voice that is not her own, and in a more halting German than she is normally capable of, "Relax, and don't move. You're going to be alright."

But the woman does not relax, and her eyes roll and unfocus — or focus differently. It takes Berlin a moment to realise, too, that the little boy has disappeared, likely hiding — before large hands come down on her back, and drag her out of her seat, the hand of the woman slipping free of her grasp. Unfortunately, it's only really then that she realises how much she has tired herself out, legs like lead beneath her, and she only gets a glimpse of a big ruddy masculine face before a fist swings and clocks her across the jaw.

The wooden floor leaps up and hits her in the head.

"Get out of my home!" this man is yelling. "Fucking piece of shit!"

Berlin is protesting, trying to reassure, she means no harm or offense, she wants to help this man's wife, she's hurt, but nothing matters. She can smell putrid alcohol on his breath, the way it seeps sour from his skin, and she is so tired as those big hands grab her off the floor, dragging her away from the firelit room. Ahead, a dark corridor, and a darker staircase that she is unceremoniously shoved downwards with a kick that jolts up the back of one thigh.

She falls, and it's the sharp pain of the first impact that finally wakes her with a start.

Rochester: The Bunker

A mug shatters against the kitchen floor, coffee spilling across the tile before Berlin notices it's out of her hand. She comes back to herself as the coffee hits her foot and she glances down, trying to catch her breath and ease her heartbeat. She's fine, she's whole, she's here. The internal mantra takes her through a recitation of where she is, what day it is and what her name is before she can even think about cleaning up her mess.

But she does get around to it, paper towels placed to stop the coffee while she starts to pick up the larger broken pieces. One cuts into her palm, but she doesn't notice and soon drops of blood join the coffee on the floor.


From her point of view, feet clad in winter socks are approaching, poking from damp-cuffed jeans where ice has caught up and is in the process of melting in folds of denim. Shoes and coat have been recently abandoned somewhere by the front door, but Francois carries some of the cold from outside with him, flakes of ice in damp hair, pale skin pecked red in places.

Sympathy is uttered in negligent French as he moves to crouch down opposite her, his hands moving towards the routine of helping, starting to gather up more of the paper towels to help mop up the mess, before he spies the glittered crimson shining bright at the edge of her palm. "Ah, ah," he says, abandoning the towels in favour of his hands going out to take and lift her's away.

They are cold, a stark contrast to the healing warmth they had radiated in her most recent memory. "You're bleeding, demoiselle."

"Je suis désolé, François," Berlin says as he takes her hand. Her accent is familiar, like she could have lived in his hometown. It's always been a little close to home, but today is different. With her other hand, she gestures to the mess, as if that's what she has to apologize for. But her words sound far too serious for a spill. The memory— his memory and now hers— still fresh enough that she can feel the man's fist hitting her jaw and the sharp edges of a staircase. "I'm alright," she says with a glance to her palm. When she looks back to him, her expression dims and her shoulders sag. "I have something I have to tell you." She had never been able to figure out a good time to talk to him about any of this, and she knows that crouched around a spill on the floor and bleeding probably isn't the ideal moment, but the words come out anyway. "I should have told you a long time ago."

It is a very earnest apology for such a thing, and if her accent wasn't so accurate, Francois might correct her: a mere pardon will suffice for broken crockery, spilled milk, surface injuries self-inflicted or otherwise. It gets a glance, a touch concerned, before he ignores her assurance that she is fine as he looks over the cut for broken pieces caught in that thin seam of welling blood. Even paramilitary soldiers are susceptible to such inconveniences that ought to be treated seriously!

It's the next words that actually capture his focus, looking back to her face with concern and curiousity clear in green eyes. Like her apology, it feels too formal for the moment, but he can't blame that on a second language, he's pretty sure. "Then we can talk," he allows. "Perhaps while I find something for this hand, though."

He shifts back on his haunches, encouraging her to stand with him.

And stand she does, acquiescing to his caveat with a nod. She doesn't need bandages and the like, but she prefers them to the alternative. She leans back against a counter, hand held palm up in an effort not to drip any more blood on the floor.

"I wanted to bury this, but lately it's… not been staying buried. But I know I should have told you anyway. I just wanted to… wish it away, I guess." Her gaze turns upward, just to gather herself. Or maybe to pray for divine intervention to cause a delay.


"I have your Conduit. And Volken's, too." Two things she really should have told him, really.

Francois has rounded around the counter, his hands full of coffee-soaked papertowels and cup shards, tipping them into the waste and cleaning off his hands, by the time she says this thing. The look he gives her now is open shock, if a mild version of it, ever understated — no time, yet, for confusion or denial or. Some other feeling that he hasn't decided on, yet, like anger or fear or urgency. Just wide eyes, a hesitated word caught silently between his teeth.

Then, he turns away from her, and opens a cupboard. Here it is.

He procures the first aid kit one handed, places it down, opens it, all movements a little mechanical and distracted. It probably isn't like how Berlin imagined this going, with her hand bleeding and Francois taking his silent time processing what she just said as he searches for a plaster that is small enough and big enough. He finds one that will do, and something to sponge up the excess blood, and he rounds back towards her.

And stops, there, holding these things, before his hands silently ask for hers, so that he can administer some first aid. And then he says, "That isn't possible."

Silence may well be the hardest response. She watches him, brow furrowed as she waits for the shoe to drop.

Berlin holds her hand out to him, sighing at the words he chooses. "Believe me, I have wished it wasn't possible for a long time. I pretended it wasn't for a long time. Avi has the Institute file on the… research they did, if you need proof. Or I can tell you how long you were in South America. Or things Volken whispered to his favorites. I have them both." There's sympathy in her gaze as she looks at him and her good hand reaches out to touch his arm. "Perhaps the worst thing is that I can no longer imagine my life without it," she recites to him, his own words scrawled in a journal ages before. "It has carved into my existence in such a way that Francois Allegre doesn't exist."

She breathes out a shaky breath, because there are few words that resonate with her better than him wondering how much of himself was still him and how much was it. Them.

Her injured hand doesn't occupy his attention for long. Just a little scratch, for all of its bleeding. Francois smooths the band-aid into place with confident fingers, and then it is done, and he has no choice but to look up at her as her hand finds his arm. There is no governing his own feelings or what his expression is doing, mouth set into a small, grim line, eyes open and fixed on hers. She can see the little convex reflections of her own face in them.

He's realising, now, how little time he spends in the past. Oh, sure, he's writing a whole book about that past, has been for years, but even that has been an exercise in abstraction, like he's sealing it away in a vault to be done with it forever, piece by piece. Suddenly, standing here, as she repeats those old sentiments to him— Francois is a product of that past again, grappling with the old mysteries, frantically thinking back to the awful experimentations, the conversations, his appeals to Volken's humanity and Volken's fucking philosophy, all of that, to see if there is something hidden in it that somehow he somehow missed, that makes what Berlin is saying to him possible.

The Conduits, in one vessel. Odd, too, how he just believes her.

The paperwork, the proof, can come later. Back in the present, Francois realises he is standing there and malfunctioning beneath his racing mind, mute as an idiot, hands having withdrawn to clasp together, but now he starts, animated, hands going out again to carefully frame Berlin's face. Ducks his head to study her eyes, whatever is going on behind them.

"How," he asks. He is not demanding. He is amazed. "How could such a thing happen. When did this happen."

When her hand is free, Berlin takes both of her hands back, leaving Francois to process in relative privacy. She's gotten a variety of reactions from the handful of precious who have found out, but none of them were in the situation Francois is. There's regret in her eyes when he looks at them, and she looks tired. And when he touches her face, tears start to pool in them.

"I was young, living in a Ferry safehouse in Ojos Amargos. There was a woman who they took in, she'd gotten into an accident. She had a lot of abilities; whenever someone died near her, she became what they were. She had them." Berlin closes her eyes for a long moment. She hasn't spoken about Joy in years, but she never forgot her. She didn't know if Joy felt the same bond to her that she felt to Joy and as the years passed by, Berlin had started to suspect not. She still cared about her all the same, even if it turned out not to be reciprocated. "The Institute raided the safehouse and I got shot. She came to heal me and they passed from her to me." She blinks, pushing away the tears and— hopefully— the urge to cry altogether.

Meanwhile, Francois is not doing much to push back anything. It is a contrast, certainly — in the years that she has known him, he has always conducted himself in an aloof kind of fashion. Not cruel, not mean, not even cold unless angered, but ever at a distance, as if putting necessary invisible walls of professionalism between people he runs into battle with, people he has to make decisions about and for. He preferred to be an enigma, emotionally stable and thus reliably sharp, steady, trustworthy. More of an idea than a man.

And now he is holding her face and crying, defenses down. Not very much, because he is preoccupied with listening and thinking, doing the math, the geography, but there is that welling of salt water, gathered enough to cut a clear path down the side of his nose. He becomes a little more aware of himself, gives a soft, self-conscious breath of laughter. He is full of wonder and, beneath the surface of that, a complex turn of conflicting feeling.

Too many of them to manifest as more than a homogenous overwhelmedness, and he smooths back some of the hair from her face. "I thought they were gone forever," he says. It's only a confession in that Berlin is one of the few people that when he says it, she can tell there is regret, there.

With his defense down, Berlin can only reach over to wipe tears off his face with the back of a finger. And his regret, subtle as it is, gets a sad smile from Berlin. It trembles at the touch to her hair, every show of kindness chipping away at a wall she had built between herself and those around her. Francois especially. "I know," she says in a soft whisper. "I've been trying to… keep them… buried," she admits, her eyes squeezing closed for a quiet moment. "It worked for a while," she says, spreading her hands in a helpless gesture. When she was a child and the temptation and obligation to use one or the other wasn't lurking around every corner— then she could manage it.

Not now. Not anymore. And she isn't sure what she regrets more, using or not using them.

"I'm just trying to balance them now. Figuring out how to use them without becoming… a monster." She lets out a sigh, because she can't think of a less dramatic way to word it. It's a resigned sound, admitting outloud a worry she's been cradling inside her for years.

At the touch to his face, Francois wills himself into more self-control, a steeling breath inwards and his hands drawing away — but only to take hers in his, maintaining that familiarity rather than re-erecting his shields. His hands are still just a little cool from having been outside— what feels like an hour ago, now, but has only been mere minutes.

"A monster? No," he says, quietly. "No monster could hold both of these things within them, not without succumbing to its powers, its influences. Did you know, Kazimir Volken, he hadn't even the fortitude to hold someone's hand," and he squeezes hers, to emphasise, "without bringing harm upon them. No, you are— " He searches for a word, green eyes shifting aside, before returning focus. "A guardian, perhaps. I don't know."

This last part, half-laughed out. He doesn't know, because this feels like an alien thing. A heavenly thing.

Berlin looks down to their hands, because a tear slides down her cheek this time, quickly followed by another. She has arguments in might, things to prove him wrong, to insist she's not so different from those who have come before her. "You're too nice," she starts, but when she looks back to his face, she can't quite voice all those thoughts running around her head.

Because she has hope. Maybe for only this moment, but for the first time she can remember, she has hope that there's a purpose to having them. That her fate doesn't have to be as bad as she fears. "I hope you're right," she says after a long pause, "I would much rather be a guardian."

She's seen other worlds where she definitely wasn't, but maybe this could be the world where she figures her role out.

Maybe Francois is being too nice, for an uncharitable definition of 'nice'. Trying to burn away her secret fears and anxieties with his own hope that a mistake of his was undone. Maybe that's selfish, actually. He's not about to take back what he said, but he does attempt to hit the brakes on his own assumptions, his own— it's not jealousy. Maybe later, if he starts thinking about it too deeply, it might be whittled down into something so simple as petty as jealousy, but what it is now is a fierce kind of projection.

He keeps her hands, warming around hers. "I can't imagine what it would be like," he says, slower. Less laughing. An offering of understanding, in the form of a complete lack of it. "To have them both. I had one for so long and the other for such a short amount of time, and the marks they made on me while they were in my possession— "

Francois tries to think, on how to articulate it, looking aside, giving up, addressing her again; "They were very different."

"They feel very similar to me," Berlin notes, letting out a sigh. "Especially when they're out of control. Just the effect is different. And I like myself better when I'm healing." That is a key difference for her. "Even if it wipes me out, I'd rather do that than use the black."

The memories— she never can tell which side they come from, but all of them leave her exactly as disoriented as each other.

She turns her hands over to take hold of his, not bothered by the lingering cold as she looks across at him. "Tell me how they felt for you? I feel like I'm stumbling along in the dark."

Francois hesitates over what to say, and in that moment, becomes conscious of where they are. And who they are, to each other, to some extent, although that seems like a strange context — like maybe they should have met at another place and time, beyond the constructions of Wolfhound and wars, but where and when that is, Francois has no idea. He thinks if inviting her to speak in some austere office space, and instead says—

"Come. Let's go for a walk."

The snow has stopped coming down, leaving behind a layer that is at peak softness and whiteness. It makes the day brighter than usual. There are very few people, apart from they, getting out amongst it — particularly at this end of town. It is a kind of privacy, and also gave them a few minutes to collect themselves along with the necessary protective layers for the wintry air.

There are soft indentations where Francois had already walked, though they diverge from that path soon enough. He seems to have an idea of where to go. To their left, the cold river flows, carrying fistfuls of ice with it.

"I hated the cold for a while," he says. Comfortable, in spite of these words, in a nice coat, nice gloves, a flat clap pulled over his head, watching his feet against where the ice grows thick beneath fluffier snow. "I grew up in southern France, you know, mediterranean weather. The war dragged me to the worst winter I'd ever known. Took a little time to know that the cold is only as bad as what you lack in defense of it. But you can imagine that being tasked with a mission to Antarctica after a Russian winter was not to my taste, fast forward several decades."

He curls his hands in his pockets. He knows she has questions, but can't quite find a way to answer them authentically without finding his own way to the answers. "That is where Volken's ability saved me. To this day, I don't know why it did."

Berlin walks along beside him, letting him pick their path as they leave new tracks in the snow. When he speaks, she chuckles. "I understand. I lived in Mexico as a kid. Ended up here. And I don't envy you a trip to Russia or Antarctica. This is more than enough." The war dragged her, as well. A different war, in a different way. She turns ahead, sliding her hands into her pockets. For better defense.

"That's what it does. And clearly you have an affinity for them. I don't know if that's fate or chance," she says with a light shrug. "We're all glad it did, though. Right?" She hopes he is, anyway. Although, she knows he's had a long life already, she wouldn't mind it being longer still.

"Oh, you know." Take or leave it.

Just kidding, obviously, Francois is great to have in the world. Right now, for instance, he knows there is a cafe nearby still open for the holidays that does a very good honey latte that he is going to buy for Berlin, in exchange for the coffee that was gathered up into paper towels and rinsed down the sink. He has contributions to make, even without any superpowers.

He casts a half-smile at her, before sinking his attention back to the path ahead. "I wasn't very grateful at the time. Dramatically, I think I would have preferred to perish in the ice than suffer such great irony," and the register of his diction is absolutely of the same dark humoured kind, not taking himself seriously. "All I wanted was to destroy it, with the knowledge that— that it could destroy me, and innocent people. The actions I took were like me but also not like me. On one hand, bringing what I thought was a great evil to an end was all I had lived to do, for a long time. On the other— "

The memory still doesn't sit right with him, and he takes a moment to figure how to phrase it in a way that doesn't sound like a total shucking of responsibility. "On the other, I think I was so horrified by being in possession of it that I let it blind me."

"It would have been an epic send off," Berlin says, her smile turning crooked. Dark humor seems fitting. Or, at least, she doesn't mind it. "But I'm glad, anyway." She doesn't take him too seriously there, either, but just enough to feel the need to reassure him.

And then she takes him all too seriously.

"I've been trying to bury them. Both of them. Just lock them away and ignore the voices and memories as much as I could. That's how I survived them, growing up." As if she isn't still in the middle of growing up. "I think they don't want to be ignored anymore. Or else I'm letting them out despite myself. I never know what's me and what's them anymore."

"May I ask— ?"

Francois is a little reluctant, to ask. Because it might sound self-interested, biased, unhelpful — satiating his own curiousity when he is rather sure he should be the one attempting to find advice for her. He hopes he'll still be able to.

But it begs the question—

"Why do you suppress the healing gift? And by that I do not mean to say— " Quick to clarify, before she can answer. "— that it is not a frightening kind of influence, for what it is. Anything that seems as though it has its own agenda, being in possession of you, is something to question. I questioned it many times. What I mean is, you speak of it as though it serves equally to make you feel monstrous."

The question slows her pace. Berlin looks over at him, her expression dimming. She tries to smile, though, so he knows she's not taking it the wrong way. "Both of them make me feel like… I decide who lives and who dies. Like it's my right to do that. How they live, how they die. And I was always scared— am scared— of what happens when people find out. When other people feel like it's up to me to decide who lives and who dies." She's already experienced a sampling of reactions, each one reflecting one of her fears. Too much praise, too much pressure. "When I lost control of them, they felt almost the same. Violent and dangerous."

Nat picks up her pace again to come up to his side again. "It scares me. The things I can do. All of it."

Francois, ahead, has lapsed into a thoughtful silence, one that continues up until she steps back up to match him again. Once she is there, she might see — the lines at his eyes, the near-smile, which seem all a little inappropriate, probably, given the conversation. He sniffs, bringing his hand up to rub at his nose, attempting to relieve it of the itch of cold, and in doing so, half-muffles a near laugh that has steam wisp thicker from his mouth.

"It does that," he says, to explain himself. "Make you feel that way."

It is clear, perhaps in reflection, that he does not believe it is the case, that it signifies such holy responsibility. "Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death," he says, and his diction has shifted — reciting something. "If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life — this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty.

"Above all, I must not play at God." He glances to her, familiar cadence returning. "I was a doctor before I was a soldier, or a. Whatever it is I became, after the war." She will know which war he means. "I played at it again, several years ago. I was equipped with the memories and skills of a modern surgeon, because I thought that that was what I wanted to do — to heal again. Somewhere in there, someone memorised the Hippocratic Oath, I suppose. I've always had a fondness. It is one of the oldest contracts considered still sacred, but has been rewritten, adjusted, modernised since then, and still through translation carrying its essence all the way from ancient Greece to a New York City emergency room."

He tips his head, indicating she follow — across the street, careful over thick ice, finding the relative safety of softer snow on the opposite curb. The cafe is open but doors closed against the cold, and Francois does not immediately beckon her inside, shifting instead to stand with her. "I won't pretend as though you do not have dominion over who lives and dies," he says. "Although always you must remember you are a human being, before anything, of human society, with a duty to remain within it. That is what Volken never could remember. That is what I always tried to be."

Relative success only. He suffered and struggled among them, at the very least. "But a responsibility requires a code. A knowledge of what you absolutely will never do, even though you can.

"And it will change," he adds. A little apologetically. "Especially if you live a very long time."

The hint of a smile furrows Berlin's brow. Confusion gives way to embarrassment, like she admitted something she shouldn't have. She doesn't interrupt, though, she just hunkers down in her coat and follows. And listens.

Outside the cafe, she tilts her head, silent but thoughtful. It's a new way to look at it, a point of view she hadn't considered before.

"I'll have to come up with one, then. Put it into actual words." Rather than collecting a series of regrets. She reaches over to take his hand with a grateful squeeze. "Mille mercis, François," she says with a warm smile. Until now, this conversation has come with a layer of shame— something she had to admit to and be accepted in spite of— but for once she feels better for someone knowing.

And to know that he's the only person who would understand that.

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