Better Off (Not) Knowing


avi2_icon.gif emily2_icon.gif

Scene Title Better Off (Not) Knowing
Synopsis Goodbye, Nat.
Date February 4, 2020

Emily stirs at the sound of her phone alarm. It's annoyingly close to her head, so she begins pawing the space directly before her on the mattress, hoping to find where she'd dropped it after falling asleep while texting Devon all without having to open her eyes to necessitate its discovery. But when she does, a squint of her eyes is required to thumb the snooze button rather than the shutoff.

It feels like seconds before the process repeats again.

And again.

And then Kettle is walking along her side, as his routine. His weight is light, but he wastes no energy in making his steps delicate on her stomach, and eventually, on her neck. The alarms meant food soon, which meant she needed to wake up by any means necessary. Time to face the day, Emily.

She opens her eyes to check her notifications, seeing an icon for a new text first. She pulls the notification bar down to expand it.

1/23/2020 4:15 am
we need to talk

The text is left untouched for days. It sits on received, not read. It's only when she accidentally clears her notifications out of habit that it gets addressed. "Shit," Emily mutters, looking down from the television with the realization she needs to reply with something. Her thumb hovers over the keyboard before her brow furrows sharply, a scoff leaving her. Talk, he says.

1/27/2020 7:32 pm
What is there to talk about?

His response is almost immediate in that he starts penning a reply right away. But that's as far as it gets. The typing comes in fits and starts, though after five minutes she sets the phone aside to finish watching her show. She checks before she makes dinner and he's still typing. She checks again after. Part of her thinks the stupid thing must be broken. It still takes an hour after that for the phone to chime again.

1/27/2020 10:29 pm

Her phone slides from her hand and flips itself over on her desk. It stays there until the next morning. The screen is as dark as it's been in months over the next few days, unable to gather her nerve to form a reply, and unable to forget about the unanswered message's existence in the meantime. Somehow, it's only by trying to work past a different emotional roadblock that she comes back to the text, it somehow seeming less daunting now that it wasn't the most current thing weighing her mind down.

2/1/2020 12:41 pm
Do you want to call me, or meet somewhere?

2/2/2020 2:26 am
whatever works best for you

Emily rises late to see the text, unsettled by its timing and the placidity of it. She rolls over to go back to sleep rather than face it, but winds up keying a reply before her conscious will let her sleep again. Even then, her dreams refuse to grant her rest.

Nite Owl Diner, Bay Ridge

February 4, 2020

3:29 pm

She'd early-outed from work almost an hour ago, somehow giving herself far too much time to get here. Three cups of coffee deep, she sits at a booth and waits quietly, unable to find any distraction in the miniature world in the palm of her hand for once. Her eyes regularly blur the words on the phone's screen and she ends up staring off at nothing anyway, unable to focus on anything in particular. The wait gnaws at her instead, bringing her discomfort nearing pain for how long she's been living with it.

Emily doesn't have hope for whatever this is. She's released hope, at this point. If this were good news, Avi would have come out with it right away. Right? It would have been we found Nat rather than his inability to come out and tell her what happened.

It's dread that clings to her at this point. But she's also resolved she'd rather know than not. So she waits, unfocused on anything at all. Her coat remains buttoned to her, though her red scarf is puddled on the booth's cushion, pinned between her side and the wall along with her purse.

Through the diner windows, Emily can see Avi outside. He’d parked a beat-up pickup truck in the dirt lot across the street and slowly crossed the road to the diner with the pace of someone uneager to reach their destination. But now he just loiters outside the diner, unaware of Emily’s presence inside or that she can see him. He’s smoking the last nub of a cigarette burned down almost to the filter. It’s an excuse not to come in. But one that doesn’t last long enough. Avi flicks the cigarette butt out onto the street and turns for the diner entrance, coming up the short steps to the door. He lingers in the small, enclosed foyer by the vending machines and newspaper racks. Then, like a bank robber working up the nerve to walk into a branch office, Avi shoulders the door open and pushes into the diner.

It’s not surprising to Emily that Avi is wearing sunglasses, or that he looks disheveled. His clothes have the creases in them that you get when you sleep in them. His hair is oily and matted, the way it gets when you don’t take a shower for a couple days or practice even the most basic amount of grooming. He scans the diner, spotting Emily and freezing for a moment like a deer in the headlights. Then, after curling his right hand into a fist and relaxing it a few times, he makes his way over.

When Avi sits down in the booth there’s a stink of alcohol and tobacco clinging to him. Not a “classy” bouquet like whiskey and cigars, but cheap beer and cheaper cigarettes. He slides his forefingers up under his sunglasses and rubs at his eyes, then makes sure to let them slide back down onto the bridge of his nose. “How’s school?” is the single-most deranged and detached thing he’s said to her in years.

Deranged, detached; Normal, maybe, if it weren't for everything else about him.

The more he's come into focus by getting closer, the more each little detail falls into place. Her fingertips remain poised around the half-drank cup of coffee before her, not even feeling the warmth of the drink through the ceramic. Emily doesn't have the mask sunglasses would provide her as she openly stares at him, but maybe it's unneeded, because he's barely able to look up at her anyway.

"Reality hit you, didn't it." she voices plainly, an attempt made at making the statement merely an observation rather than a callous one. It's hard, because she's not sure he drove here legally given the stench of eau de Natty coming off of him. Her mouth hardens into a line, and she glances down at the cup before her. The flat of her fingers move to the saucer beneath the cup, pushing the entire ensemble across the table at him.

“What the fuck does that mean?” Avi asks in a softer tone than would be expected from the context. He glances to his right, past the bar and to the waitress and makes a signal with one hand before returning his attention to Emily.

"It means you look like shit," his daughter explains, unerring in her study. "Something fucked you up. If you want to talk, about Nathalie, then…" Emily pulls the coffee back to herself since he seems intent on getting a cup of his own. She'll keep it, so she can pour any nervous or emotional energy she has into the press of her hands around its form.

"It's been long enough," she goes on, gaze dropping to the drink. "That maybe you realized something really is wrong, and maybe you do want to look for her now, but you're running up against all the reasons you came up with before. Money, resources, not having a clue where the fuck she went." Her thumb flicks off the lip of the cup with more force than it looks like it should, betraying the tension in her hands. "Or maybe you do."

Emily looks back up at him, glad for a moment she can't immediately see his eyes. "Just tell me she's coming home. Tell me it's bad, that it has to do with the Vanguard, or the Institute, or something worse still. That it's dangerous and painful, but that there's still hope."

She thinks she can handle knowing whatever it is, as long as there's still hope. But she's lying to herself if she thinks she sees anything but the opposite in Avi's being.

There’s a dawning look of realization on Avi’s face. Emily can’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses, but she can see the way his expression sags. The way his shoulders slack. He’d been braced for something else. The paranoid part of Avi thought that Emily already knew. That he’d been spared from having to experience this moment. His audible swallow comes after too much silence. It’s the perfect time for the waitress to arrive.

“Afternoon folks,” she says as she arrives at the table. But Avi doesn’t so much as let her come to a complete stop before he’s pushing out of the booth and nearly walking into her.

“Sorry,” Avi gruffly mumbles. It’s not clear at whom. “We shouldn’t do this here,” Avi says down to Emily, nodding toward the door. The waitress, Connie based on her nametag, looks back and forth between the two in an awkward moment, frozen with indecision whether she should stay or leave. It makes this entire thing so much worse. “Please,” Avi stresses to Emily.

There's a lot of things that can be said without saying anything at all.

News someone didn't want to have to share was one of those things Emily was excellent at identifying. She's seen it enough times in her life that it's second nature by now— it's an indicator that she should assume the worst, and be happy if it's even slightly better than that.

Except she doesn't want to admit that the worst has happened.

The interruption of the waitress keeps her crestfallen expression from having time to fully manifest, quickly covered over by the way her gaze drops to her lap, hand fumbling into her purse to pull out a ten and a five to leave it on the table for her coffees. She paws the scarf off the bench of the seat in two grabs, the first unsuccessful at keeping the fabric actually in her fingers. "Sorry. Thanks for the coffee," she asides to the waitress.

She doesn't wait for Avi to lead the way. Emily storms from the restaurant, scarf still bundled in her hand. She doesn't even see whatever's ahead of her, can't make the decision to cross the street or head down the sidewalk, or pace, or—

No, right now she's just struggling to breathe as she makes her way with unsteady steps down the front walk of the Nite Owl Diner.

Avi’s hand at her shoulder feels like it’s happening to someone else. “Truck’s this way,” he says with a motion to a familiar and yet different beat-up pickup truck than the one he normally drives. It’s maybe only thirty years old. The air is bitter cold between the diner and the truck, winter has been fickle with warm and rainy spring-like days and dry, bitter cold lows between them. It feels like winter has lasted months. It feels like February has lasted an eternity.

Emily doesn’t quite remember getting in the truck, just the loud slam of the door closing. It’s still warm in here, the engine hasn’t been off long. It smells of cigarettes and gasoline in ways that are comfortingly Avi rather than chemical and alarming. He opens the driver’s side door and climbs into the truck, immediately leaning forward with one hand on the wheel and the other pushing up his glasses with one hand, fingers pinched to the bridge of his nose.

“Nat’s gone,” Avi says, like pulling off a bandaid. It hurts more that he sounds hurt about it.

Avi's not sitting two feet from her, but the words sound so distant, like they might as well be being said through a haze of water. Emily's gaze tracks from one unfocused spot to the next, ending down in her lap. Her scarf hangs uneven, unwrapped, the ends of it pooled over her thighs. Seconds tick by without a response. Maybe if she doesn't respond, the words haven't been said.

The reality isn't real until she acknowledges it. She covers a hand over the wound the bandage was hiding previously.

"What happened?" finally comes from her vacantly, throat dry.

He doesn’t answer, not right away. Avi slouches against the bench seat, rests his head back against it so he can stare up at the roof through his sunglasses. He brings his hands up over his face, under those mirrored lenses hiding his eyes, then drags them down over his mouth. “Terrorists,” he explains in a near monosyllabic response. “Kidnapped, same people who got Richard…”

That hangs in the air for a moment.

“They killed Richard,” Avi adds quietly afterward, though it sounds more bitter than he intended it to. “She said no.” His throat works up and down. “Traded places.”

What? isn't even a whisper, just the intent of one that escapes her when he starts with terrorists. Emily's head turns in alarm, brow climbing. She stays like that for a long moment, the implication of what comes after taking too long to sink in.

"What?" can only barely be heard on that second pass.

"No—" is much more audible. "No."

The reality sparks something in her. It's nameless, formless, and angry even if it doesn't know the correct direction to point itself in. "No, that—" Words don't come, but whatever was about to come from her sounded like an invective rather than denial.

Avi doesn’t say anything in response. His agreement with her sentiment is displayed in a low lift of his head off of the headrest and a nod that turns into just a bob of his head down and never back up again. All the while, Avi keeps his hands on the wheel; white-knuckle grip. “She’s gone.” He reiterates with a finality that implies no coming back, as if that is something which needs clarification in this day and age.

Then, softer, Avi murmurs “I know.” There isn’t much more for him to say after that, isn’t more he can figure for his body to do other than remain rod-rigid in his seat, gripping the steering wheel like he wants to choke the life out of it. His jaw is clenched so tight he’s going to give himself a headache, muscles strained in his neck. He has no words for this grief, no emotional valve to release it. He was never given the tools to. So it stays inside, demanding it not.

Emily's gaze begins to roam as she tries to make sense of it, even if she's nowhere near making peace with it. Her eyes find some non-existent thing on the horizon to eye, her jaw working.

The passenger door opens without her posture shifting significantly enough to signal that was a thing she was about to do, and she slides out of the truck, door slamming behind her.

She stands there for a moment, still not looking at Avi as she walks to the front of… and then around the hood of the truck, coming back around to the driver's side. She pulls his door open, feet planted to the ground. While she looks in Avi's direction due to his proximity, she doesn't try to find his eyes, her grip on the doorhandle as whiteknuckled as his is on the steering wheel.

This would be the moment she should hug him, or make some clear gesture of sympathy for the special kind of hell his brand of grief must be.

Instead, Emily tells him, "Move over. I'm driving." To insist on the matter, she steps one foot up onto the running board and hoists herself up, waiting for him to shift seats.

There’s a solid moment where Avi just stares at her like she’s a carjacker. Just a wide-eyed and confused stare. It fades when he goes over what she said, all told it takes him close to thirty long seconds to process everything. When he does, finally, there’s an awkward and bumbling response of shakily taking his hands off the wheel, nearly getting out of the truck, then just as awkwardly shuffling across the bench seat to where Emily was sitting.

“D’you even— know how t’drive a stick?” Avi asks her, looking up and down. “D— d’you even know how t’drive?” Rational thoughts now fill a guilt and grief-riddled mind. He wonders when Emily learned to drive, how old she was, who taught her. He wonders where he was when she was growing up this time. He wonders when he’ll have to bury her next.

Because all Avi Epstein ever does is bury his children.

“Where’r we going?” Avi asks. It doesn’t matter if she knows how.

Once Avi begins the process of sliding across the bench, Emily's expression falls neutral instead of driven. She waits patiently with the look of someone who's just going through the motions instead of actively participating in the moment, though that's a look that quickly is replaced by keen observation the second she slides into the driver seat, hands neared but not quite touching the wheel as she looks the controls for the car up and down, silently wondering what the hell she's doing.

She remembers. She's taking him home, because they're done here. She's the one leading because she might snap entirely if something happened because she let him make that drive alone.

Does she know how to drive, though? "Yeah, video games," Emily replies glibly while she rests a hand on the gearshift. Fuck, why did it have to be a stick. "And I stole a car last year," comes after that just as smoothly while she sets her foot down on the brake, reaching for the keys on the dash and working them into the ignition. "More than one." She's probably lying.

She turns the key, foot on the brake. Nothing happens. Her expression blanks visibly for a moment. It takes her a second, and then her foot hastily shifts to the clutch instead. "Only one of them was a stick." This time, things go better and the engine comes to life.

You're in luck, Avi. Play your cards right, and this turns into a pre-mortem experience you can share with your daughter.

Emily, for her part, keeps moving forward with what she's doing because if she stops, she doesn't know what'll happen. If she stops, she'll start to think, and she can't go back to the thoughts she was having a few moments ago, or any of the thoughts that come after.

"We're going—" Where are they going? Emily pulls her phone from her pocket to pull open Maps, the atlas on the screen plain, the little blue dot that represents them pleasantly right outside the restaurant symbol representing the Nite Owl Diner. "Somewhere." Yes, somewhere. Her thumb hovers over the destination bar, still uncertain if she's going home or to the Bastion.

A split second later, she opts to select the address from her recent destinations and lets the phone clatter to the bench seat while the automated voice begins to instruct her to get onto the road. "I don't know," she admits, and that at least sounds honest. "We're going for a drive." Then she's looking down at her feet, one standing on the brake while the other feathers the clutch. She pulls on the gearshift as her foot begins to come off, and it doesn't all happen at the exact time she expected it to, but voila — they're in first.

"I don't have a license, but if for some reason we get pulled over, I can lie. Your BAC can't." She doesn't look at him as she sets her sights forward again, hands resting ten and three on the steering wheel. The next words come from her without thought, probably without meaning to. "… And I couldn't handle losing you too, if something worse happened." Then she's slowly letting go of the brake, cautiously waiting to see how far the truck wades out under its own power.

It’s hard to tell if Avi’s been listening. His head is listed toward the window, and with his sunglasses on it’s hard to tell if his eyes are even open anymore. It’s only after hitting a couple of potholes that he chimes in with, “I’m plenty sober,” which is a complete and utter lie. “But if you’re trying to hit every single fucking crack in the road, you’re an excellent driver.”

He always gets like this. Emily recognizes his patterns now that she’s an adult. As a child they were bewildering and hurtful, now they’re just stale and predictable. Avi feels terrible about something, so he is as big of a prick as possible to everyone around him, which in Emily’s clairvoyance she knows will spiral into guilt about how poorly he treated everyone, followed by avoidance so he doesn’t have to apologize, followed by binge drinking, followed by burying himself in his work until the affected party gets so worried they reach out and the cycle can start all over again. It’s nauseating the clarity in which she can see this moment in the long shadow of Nathalie’s death.

“D’you know where— ” Avi starts to say, followed by, “Just um, hit the uh… get on I-278 going north,” he says in a casual mumble, “then take the exit for I-87. Follow the signs for Yonkers and Tarrytown.” Then, glancing over to Emily he adds, “once you hit route 9, just stay on it.”

Being aware it's just how he is does nothing to deaden the blow in the moment. It might be something she's used to under better circumstances, but these aren't those times. When Avi glances over to his daughter, he sees the whites of her knuckles as she grips the steering wheel, the sting of tears at the corner of her eyes that she stubbornly blinks through.

"Thanks for the ringing endorsement." The forced cheer to that somehow only emphasises the flatness of the statement. Emily looks left to check for oncoming traffic before turning right to set them in the direction of the highway, moments before a grind of gears occurs as her coordination is less than stellar in the shift between first and second. A half-formed invective leaves her, the spike in her nerves visible in how her hand shakes when she puts it back to the steering wheel.

The phone at least pipes through directions matching Avi's after a certain point, sparing her the need to decide whether to trust him or go with the app's suggested route.

"What're you going to do now?" she asks only after they've made it a road running alongside the interstate, pointed and seemingly calm. "What's next now that we know?"

“We could drink together I suppose,” Avi says as if distracted. “There isn’t really a next.” He props his elbow up against the closed window on the door, then rests his head against the heel of his palm. “We feel like shit for a long time, then we forget she ever existed, and we feel like shit for different reasons, then we just forget to feel like shit most days.”

Avi would have experience in this pattern, he’s mourned enough friends. But he’s also buried one of his children already. This, now, offers Emily a window into how he handled her brother’s death all those years ago.

“But there really is no next,” Avi says bitterly. “The world doesn’t give a shit. We either keep living in it, or we don’t. Nothing fucking matters.”

He's drunk. For this reason alone, maybe expecting a rational, helpful response was foolish on her part. But it's still enough that her head turns away from the road ahead, brow knitting. Disappointment and something stronger even than that is visible in the flicker of her eyes before Emily shakes her head and looks forward again.

"Not with that fucking attitude it doesn't," comes from her, sourcing from a place seeped in spite rather than anything resembling hope. In this moment, she doesn't have a better response than that. There's no processing. It's just misplaced anger and a sudden stream of brain-to-mouth.

"The world might not give a shit," because it most certainly doesn't, "but unless you never gave a shit at all, you find a next, Dad."

“Oh don’t give me that line of shit,” Avi grouses like a teenager, wrenching his eyes shut and clunking his head against the window once. “For fuck’s sake Emily, don’t you think I’ve tried?” It’s the first time she’s ever contradicted him in that way and not earned an escalation of anger. This is, somehow, the most productive response he’s ever given to an argumentative statement. “I tried when shit got rocky with your mother,” not your fucking mother. “I fucked that straight up and wound up with a daughter I never knew about.” His voice cracks when he admits that.

But Avi isn’t done driving down memory lane of his sins.

“I tried after Taylor,” is the most Avi can describe of that moment in his life, “I— I wanted to try with you. With the CIA, with— the desert. Fucking— everything. Apollo’s Arrow, my fucking eye, motherfucking Sylar.” Avi slams the flat of his hand against the side of the door. “Every single fucking next was worse than the fucking last.” She only has context for half of what he said, but it’s enough.

“You’ve gotta take a right at the next set of lights to get on 278,” Avi adds, as if they were planning a trip out to the country to see grandma. They aren’t. Emily doesn’t even know her grandmother’s name.

Not on her paternal side, anyway.

Emily shakes her head at Avi, his reasons, his tiredness, her voice running cold. "If you're done with trying, then why don't you just eat a fucking bullet and get it over with?"

A second passes. Then another.

Through the angry fog comes a piercing clarity, visible in the widening of her eyes. "Wai—" But even that doesn't come. "N— fuck, no—" With desperation, she looks to him again in a bid to take the words back, terrified of them. "No, don't ever— I don't know what I'd do if y…"

Hell, she doesn't know what she's doing now.

Realizing her eyes have left the road, but realizing how important it is to make sure she didn't somehow plant a thought that should never have been spoken, ability or no ability, her head snaps forward and then back several times before Emily just slams on the brakes and stops them in the middle of the ramp to the interstate. Her phone flies off the bench, hitting the dash before ending up on the floorboard. As the car jerks to a stop, Emily slams the heel of her hand against the side of the steering wheel.

"Fuck!" she screams at the top of her lungs in the enclosed cabin.

From the floor, her phone politely reminds them to take the on-ramp for I-278.

Breathing's hard. "I…" But she doesn't trust herself to say anything at all now, frame shuddering with too many emotions to name. She beats the steering wheel repeatedly with her fist. "Fuck, fuck, fuck—"

Avi is dead silent, unmoving from his seat beside her, wholly unaware of the peril that narrowly slipped past him and equally unaware of the urge that was implanted in the back of his mind. He exhales a sigh through his nose, leaning away from the window after a moment. There’s minimal car traffic in the Safe Zone, no cars wait behind them to make their move.

“Yeah,” is Avi’s response to all of this. “Yeah.” He looks over his shoulder, back to the road behind them, then down to the GPS on Emily’s phone. Quietly, he reaches down and just turns the phone off. Then, awkwardly, lays a hand on Emily’s shoulder.

“Maybe it ain’t time for a drive,” Avi says quietly.

At the touch to her shoulder, Emily's hand releases some of its gathered tension. Her features twist in silent anguish before sliding away to nothing at all, something hollowed and tired taking its place by the time she lifts her head from the steering wheel.

"No, we have to get you home." she protests dimly. The argument that he's not sober enough to drive has already been made and past and her opinion is unchanging on it, it seems.

"I'm sorry," Emily adds a moment later, gaze straight ahead. "… For all of it."

That she's this stubborn. That they're sharing this grief. That he didn't see what had happened sooner, didn't treat it with the gravity it deserved. That he has to let go of another child, one he just found. That she said what she did, just as much in this moment as every other time she's blown up on him in her life. That for just a brief moment, she meant it.

This, that, the other thing— everything ever. All of it.

“I don’t have a home,” Avi says quietly. It is the single-most vulnerable thing he has ever said to her. Avi lets his hand move from her shoulder, down to fold with the other at his lap. “There’s a bar in Ferrymen’s Bay…” he says quietly, “Skinners. Real piece of shit.”

Avi looks over at Emily, his expression still a placid mask. “Nat liked it. Only bar that served salads.” He smiles, reflexively, at that and it hurts. “Let’s go to Skinners… get you caught up with me,” he adds, looking away from her.

“Then we can throw bottles at geese.”

“Nat fucking hated geese.”

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