Don't Change



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Scene Title Don't Change
Synopsis Eileen's memories continue to return to her, out of order and out of context, though in this context neither particularly matters.
Date December 23, 2009


Rice and maize, dried, ground and reconstituted. Tsaramaso — beans in a tomato sauce. Instant coffee boiled in a tin pot to bitter, metallic perfection. Breakfast on the road is almost always the same, but Eileen has heard stories about bread made from a batter of sweetened rice flour and cooked over charcoals. They call it mofo gasy, and they sell it on the streets of Antananarivo. Or did. It's difficult for her to believe that Madagascar's capital city is the cultural bastion it once was.

She eats with her hands, not because they lack utensils — someone is down by the river gathering water to heat through and wash them in, anyway — but because it provides her with a kind of comfort, and comfort is what she needs most in the morning when she's still waking up and the line between what's real and what isn't is as blurry as her peripheral vision or the shape of the sun bleeding light from behind the clouds. Last night had been like on the boat, but looking back instead of forward, directly over her shoulder rather than focusing on an impossibly distant point on the horizon. It had been August in the dream. She knows because the air tasted like late summer and crackled with invisible energy, a thundershower looming over New York.

A place she doesn't remember. A conversation her imagination couldn't have made up.

In another life on mornings like this, the downstairs kitchen smells strongly of steeping tea, poached eggs, pork sausages and fried tomatoes — rice porridge blackened at the bottom if they're pressed for time. Eileen never smokes in the house, but the bitter aroma of tobacco still mingles with her perfume and the scent of the fresh cut roses that are sometimes sold on the street corner outside the house. These are things that Ghost could tell them if they ever asked, and although Gray and Sons isn't a long way from the duplex in Queens, the decade between now and what could have been is a long time.

Upon waking, she draws no comparison between that impossible future and what she opens her eyes to. It doesn't take a conscious effort — she and the man whose limbs hers are entwined with are different people than the ones Ghost knew, and if they live another ten years there is simply no telling whether or not they'll be welcoming the new day together, alone, or with other partners. What this Eileen smells is sweat, residual traces of that same perfume and stale smoke clinging to her skin, hair and the rumpled clothes not too far from where she lies. Although her body is hungry, her heart and head want for nothing except more breath with which to fuel it. Everything hurts.

It's early enough still that only a slow trickle of traffic bleeds down the street outside the shop. The dawn is pink rather than yesterday's orange, and fills the room with dappled light too faint to illuminate much more than vague outlines and shapes. Her pocket watch tells her that it's a quarter past five, forty-five minutes until her biological clock really starts insisting that she put something in her stomach and get moving. For now, she contents herself with listening. Rain patters against the windows, draws out the grease and oil from the cement outside and the sap from the trees in which there are sparrows chattering. No one's blaring horns. Not yet. If they were, they might distract her from Gabriel's breathing — the sound with which everything else synchs up.

He wakes up to stiff muscles, back twinging at the angle it's found itself in from sleeping as he has on the floor, bent to accommodate the soft limbs of whom he rouses with. Breathing remains steady for as long as Gabriel goes through the imperceptible rounds of waking; stops, after a while, that easy rhythm interruption for as long as a sigh to leave him. A bare shoulder rolls, blanket slipping off as an arm settles firmer against her waist, a weight of a sleeping limb, lax and heavy.

An uncomfortable morning is a typical kind of following to an uncomfortable evening, and Gabriel hasn't gotten enough sleep as much as exhaustion was quick to settle him. When he does open his eyes, the sight of the watch shop is a familiar one — maybe not from this angle, nor in this circumstance.

Eileen's profile at this range is less than familiar as well.

The subtle indications of wakefulness are abandoned at the abrupter motion of Gabriel lifting his head, as much as the rest of his body is allowed to stay as it is. A bleary look is sent towards the slatted windows and the glow of dawn between wooden board. Thunk. His skull connects back with the ground as he relaxes once more, brain roiling with memory of the previous night.

Eileen noses at the nape of Gabriel's neck, brushes away his hair with her lips and breathes warmth behind his ears. It's a kind of kiss, though nothing he's accustomed to from her — she'd been almost frantic before, clutching at him with small hands and pinching skin in her nails, mouth pink and raw from the act of consumption. Apart from a few lingering marks too stubborn to fade, including a bruise, there's no indication that he's in any physical danger as she reaches up, grazes the curve of his jaw with her fingertips and turns her face against his shoulder, away from the sun.

It's August, summer, but quarter past five is still quarter past five. Dew forms beads on leaves and sets spider webs sparkling. Although there are a few months to go before the temperature drops to the point where breath condenses into fog, it's uncomfortably chilly in the shadows this time of morning.

Her pocket watch snaps shut, chain tinkling, and is set aside somewhere above their heads before her limbs are curling back under the blanket with the lethargy of a drunken tortoise pulling all four legs into its shell.

She'd like to tell him to go back to sleep. That isn't really an option here.

Within the watch shop, it's probably the only working one of its kind, and Gabriel twitches a small glance upwards before settling. He's loose against her, warm dead weight until an arm pinned under her moves. Inevitably, she's drawn up off wooden floor, or as much as is feasible, all things considered. Blanket drags, tangles and lifts hems to expose slices off bared skin to summer air laced with morning chill, and Eileen is pulled further on top of him, her frame bracketed in the circle of a loose embrace, legs coming to tangle together and hold, the soles of his feet braced upon the ground and back lying flat.

His heart beat is an even steadier pace than breathing, ever since he'd seen a woman about her power in the middle of the Pancratium crowd. Gabriel's thick fingers come to tangle up in the mane of hair, the tendrils of which tickle his throat and jaw not unpleasantly. "Time?" is a gruff and short question, feeling his senses prickle and wake up one by one regardless as to her response.

"A little after five," Eileen says, yawning soft around the words. As she adjusts atop him, the stitches holding her knife wound closed strain against pale skin and scratch against his. Dried blood flakes harmlessly off and exposes something dark and damp beneath it — fresher stuff, squeezed out from the gaps between threaded teeth and smeared across Gabriel's lower belly as she pushes herself up into a half-sitting position straddling his waist with one hand clasped at his shoulder and the other splaying fingers against concrete.

The noise she makes in the back of her throat sounds pained, as much as she tries to conceal it behind a breathy groan of exertion. Feng Daiyu gnaws at her memory. Now that she's fully awake, alert, her attention is split between the man beneath her and the room around them, inevitably drawn to its darkest corners where the sunlight cannot reach. Tension makes her muscles taut, spine rigid. It would be nice if she could relax. "How do you feel?"

"Awake. Uncomfortable." It's too early. As much as Gabriel is neither morning person nor not, neither fish nor fowl in that regard, the hour clashes with the one at which he'd fallen asleep, leaving but a bare string of hours between the two times. Awake, however. Uncomfortable, which means it will probably stay as such. Somehow, the words don't rattle out like complaints, simple assessment that he's not rush to amend. "Not as much as you," he adds, eyes wandering down towards that leaking slash at her thigh.

It itches for a moment, when blood seals up, clots, scabs over the wound in preternatural time. His fingertip wanders featherlight over the ridged, stitched wound, eyes hooded heavy.

The hand at Gabriel's shoulder moves to the hand at her thigh and hooks fingers between his. She turns it over, presses her thumb into his palm and brings it up to kiss the backs of his knuckles. Her movements are slow but confident, unafraid and somehow cautious at the same time. None of this is new to her — she can easily separate the aches and pains she knows her body is supposed to be experiencing from those that indicate something more serious than general muscular malaise following a night on the floor on her back.

"Thank you," she says, and does not specify what for. Instead, she gives his hand a squeeze, holds his wrist against her cheek to feel his pulse against her jaw and then exhales, breathing through the hurt. "There's a cafe a few blocks from here. Opens at six. They do coffee, tea. Treacle tarts. Eat something with me?"

Gabriel goes with the motions easily, responsive without direction, though his fingers do twitch a little in response to the press of her face to his wrist, shifting enough to settle the back of his hand against the nape of her neck. Out her periphery, the boldly patterned tattoo on his forearm makes more blurred curves on the fish-belly pale underside of his arm, his fingertips playing up through ruffled curls as he drags his gaze up to meet her eyes. Arches an eyebrow, angling up at the end in a subtle shift of a question, mouth curling in lazy amusement.

"I can buy," he states, and you know. He'd better. There's a fine suit laying just over there, rumpled as it is with awkward disrobement, expensive in its cut and tailored better to suit Feng Daiyu than Gabriel Gray, although the shape isn't too off from either.

His body shifts beneath her, a feline undulation that claims to be seeking out comfort where his back is pressed to cold floor. "We could have killed each other last night."

"We could have," Eileen agrees, extending an arm to snag the collar of Gabriel's dress shirt in her fingers. She gives it a brisk flick to shake it loose from his belt and the toe of one shoe, heedless of the dust and debris she stirs up in the process. His body, meanwhile, is met with the firm press of her hips against his, belly flat and pelvis tilted.

He might as well have reminded her that he can still see the scar tissue on her arms and the softest spot of her stomach where Nwabueze stuck her with his hunting knife — she's as intimately familiar with how her body looks in a mirror as she is with the fact that they're both living on borrowed time. It isn't a coincidence that these two things are connected, either. One is evidence of the other, and the mark on her thigh only serves to reinforce what she already knows.

She fucked up this time.

"Your earlier admonishment was quite thorough," and it's a safe bet, euphemisms aside, that she isn't talking about the sex. "It won't happen again."

"It won't," isn't quite sealing away her promise as it is adding his own to the mix. Gabriel could have stood to see her quicker. Could have set aside prior arguments in favour of being forgiving. But then, perhaps they wouldn't be here, and for that, neither need to apologise. His back curls, stomach muscles contract to lever himself out and both hands free to smooth her hair back from her face as he kisses her with a different kind of apology lack.

Gentle but lingering, calm without lacking heat, and as demanding as a cat seeking its owner's lap. "You said six?" he confirms, a hand moving to place at the lower of her back, head ducking enough to mutter the words against her throat. "That's a lot of time to kill."

She'd been about to drape the shirt around his shoulders, help maneuver his arms into its sleeves and adjust the collar, but Eileen pauses when she feels Gabriel's mouth against her throat and does not get much further than the first step. A sharp tug pulls him closer as she bows her head to rest her chin upon his brow, breath ruffling through his hair. If there's one good thing to be said for exhaustion, it's that it prevented her from laying awake and dwelling — as a result, his behaviour is a pleasant surprise rather than something to be disassembled and scrutinized by skeptical eyes.

There will be plenty of time for that later. Eileen arches her back, responding to the touch of his hand above her tailbone, bare but for the blanket and what little it covers in this position. Not that she needs it. His body radiates more than enough heat to warm her through regardless of the temperature.

"You want this," sounds like it should be a question, and maybe when she was choosing the words she intended for it to be. There's no lilt toward the end, no deliberate spike to punctuate the query. Instead, it comes out a statement. Epiphany is too strong a phrase. Quiet realization is better. "After everything. Still."

They're both stiff and sore, and last night had been filled with pauses, starts and stops, but maybe practice makes perfect. They've spent a lot of time hurting each other as it is. Gabriel's agreement to her query is little more than a graze of his voice against vocal chords, a sigh against her throat as he smooths his rough hand up her spine, letting blanket catch and fall back as he goes. Flesh, bone beneath it, blood warming it, these things are simple.

And it's too early for puzzles. "Can I keep it?"

One day, Eileen will be able to decide whether she either hates or is secretly enthralled by Gabriel's ability to manipulate her body with a gesture as simple as an upward sweep of his hand. Her shape conforms to it, molded by the slight application of pressure, and jumpstarts her pulse under his lips. Laughter is thin and breathless, more a gasp than a display of genuine amusement, tickled though she is by his reply.

She drops her mouth to his ear, drags fingers all the way down the front of his shirt, and encircles his waist in her arms, hands clasped at the hollow of his back. "You'll be angry with me," she tells him, voice hovering just above the threshold of a whisper. "More than you were last night. I'll make decisions you won't agree with and follow through regardless. We'll fight. Say things we don't mean. You've a right to know, if you haven't figured it out already — I'm not a very good person. You shouldn't settle."

"You forget who you're talking to." He could roll her over, tip the balance, finish the conversation that way. Instead, Gabriel tolerantly lifts his head, secures her grey-green gaze in his lazier, darker one, expression communicating little more than the time of day, certainly not what he's thinking. "I don't settle. Just don't lie to me." His hands slide down her sides, over the musical pattern of her ribs, the narrowing of her waist and then knifeish hips, his own thighs pressing up to secure her in that V of space.

His teeth graze her jaw in a nipping kind of kiss, almost absent of thought, removed from his words. "When you scrape the bottom of your patience and you realise that I'm never going to be a good person— don't lie to me when you do. I can live with the rest."

It's one of the biggest insights that Eileen's been given into Gabriel's history, and with such brevity. She rests her forehead against his, saying nothing, and closes her eyes. Memory is a fluid thing, difficult to direct and manipulate, but once it's moving it flows easily — the problem with weaving in and out of other people's lives is that she's but one thread in a greater tapestry. What knowledge she has is limited to the designs she helps to make.

He doesn't know half of what she's done since the Narrows fell. She would be worse than arrogant if she claimed to be more informed than he is. Her chest rises and falls without breaking contact with his — the only parts of her body cool to the touch are the parts that always are. Hands. Feet. Both absent of varicose veins in spite of brittle nails, white fingers and occasional dizziness on getting up too quickly, symptomatic of poor circulation. Her breath in his ear is almost hot in comparison. "I don't think I could do it," she says. "Cut you out of my life because of what you are. Maybe because of what you might someday be, but I haven't seen that in you yet."

He nods, a subtle movement that she can feel more than see, the graze of his cheek scratchy against hers, hands seeking out the softer warmth of her thighs, stomach, backs of his knuckles sliding over natural planes, curves, dips. Her hands make a cooled knot at the small of his back, body knuckles, sharper fingernails at the end of the warm circle of her arms. Gabriel is, by the way, listening. He's a natural multitasker. "Yet," he agrees, angling his head, the slope from brow to nose curving against her cheek.

Rather than tempting fate, there's relief in the way he breathes out the word. As if her acknowledgment of something one day coming to be as opposed to the denial, the decompartmentalising that is only a temporary solution. "Don't change," is unneeded instruction, and denying verbal response by capturing her into a kiss.

You can't stop change. Prior Walter will tell you that, and although Eileen has only been to the theatre a small handful of times, it's a notion she's fully behind. She's fully behind this too, though, and doesn't offer any immediate protest other than a sharp twinge accompanied by a muffled hiss pressed between her front teeth and the space between her lips — even this tapers off into something softer, more indulgent, yielding in the shuddery, tentative way only the infirm can.

At this point, they aren't just killing time. They're slaying it. In the absence of the pocket watch propped up against the nearest shelf, metal cover popped out and glass face exposed, the minutes bleed rapidly out.

Just as self-imposed solitude has its drawbacks, there are benefits too. Punctuality can be sacrificed when no one is expecting you.

Don't change.

As Eileen licks the paste from her fingers and wipes the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand not holding the bowl, it occurs to her that the man on the other side of the camp waiting for a turn at the basin where the soap is kept is in love with another woman. Again. That the other woman is her isn't as comforting as it should be, certainly isn't as comforting as the act of shoveling rice into her mouth with bent fingers.

The Gabriel of the future would appreciate the analogy her brain makes. She could cut him loose as easily as a fisherman snips through a line or uses a pair of pliers to break the hook. Fulfill a promise, let him go.

Careful not to sully its silver casing with smears of dirt or saliva, Eileen clicks shut the pocket watch that had until now been resting in her lap. It's a quarter past five again, and they'll need to move out before the sun has fully risen. Punctuality, this time, has nothing to do with it.

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