Fits and Starts


eileen2_icon.gif gabriel_icon.gif

Scene Title Fits and Starts
Synopsis Gabriel and Eileen try to make it work.
Date July 2019

Pine Barrens, New Jersey

July 6, 2019

8:32 AM

Eileen is in the passenger seat of the truck she awarded Byron, back before she knew who he was, and in her lap is a battered shoebox.

The small life that exists within it has gone still, but if she focuses enough, maybe she can tell that a heart still beats its hyperactive tempo. She got a peek of it before — a sparrow, nestled among an old t-shirt for stability. When Byron had first handed it to her, he'd said, it's not what it looks like. But what it looks like is an injured bird who isn't flying anywhere soon, silent in its current prison with holes haphazardly poked in through the lid loosely fitted over top.

Rain crawls horizontal on the other side of the window by Eileen's face, and beyond those silvery rivers is a blur of green Jersey forest. The road has not been maintained for a long time and so Byron is not driving fast, and the occasional lurch and jump of the tires navigated rippled and cracked road are rude interruptions in the otherwise smooth experience of going via vehicle and not horse. Beside her, the man behind the wheel is still the lanky blonde that has found his place amongst the Remnant ranks.

The next she time she looks, however, he has changed. He fills out his clothing a little better. The proportions of his face shift, the colour and texture and length of his hair becomes darker, coarser, including the grey streaks that had come early several years ago. More distinct than Byron Wolf, whose best quality is his ability to blend in, in a casually handsome way.

The truck rumbles as he turns off a main road, down a skinnier, overgrown path into denser forest.

Eileen prefers him like this: all bold proportions and deep shadows. His face reminds her of an easier time, when the only voice in her head was her own, and when she could find physical comfort simply by seeking it out. She could reach out and touch him now, but it would only be through the dense fabric of his clothes.

There are needs that can only be met by skin making contact with skin. She longs to bury her face against his chest and listen to the drub of his heart on the other side of his ribs — or to confide all her secrets against his open mouth between stolen kisses in the dark. It isn’t even about the sex they aren’t having, although she often thinks about that too.

She feels like she’s getting away with something as she studies his profile from the passenger’s seat, shoebox resting neatly upon her lap and her hands folded atop that. There’s no need to secure the lid, not really; the sparrow isn’t going anywhere, and Gabriel is as intentional about his driving as he is about everything else.

This is the part where one of them is supposed to make small, easy conversation. Except that Eileen doesn’t. Because conversation isn’t easy, and with all the years they’ve spent apart, it certainly wouldn’t be small.

Gabriel was never a wonderful conversationalist even when they were at their best. More than just sensuality, touch was something of a means of communication, and he feels its absence in these quiet, private moments. But he can still feel, abstractly, aware of her heart beat, and aware of her gaze on him, which he doesn't shrink under or challenge. He also doesn't say anything, not while he's driving.

If they can't tolerate their silences, they're not going to get anywhere.

But when he parks, he isn't getting out of the truck. The rain is starting to thin, and beyond where it streaks down the windows, they can see the dense trail leading into lush, rejuvenated greenery.

He kills the engine, and tips a look sideways, down at the box in her lap, and asks, "What does it feel like? When you use it." The timbre of his voice is different from the one he uses as Byron — deeper, less strained. It informs tone and cadence, too, becomes differently familiar, adopting his way of speaking as easily as his own shape and form.

“Wilting flowers,” Eileen says. “The chill that creeps into the air the first day it feels like autumn. Sometimes I dream about a place where things aren’t dead or alive. That’s where it lives. That’s where it comes from.”

She’s given it more thought than his last pupil did, but she’s also had to coexist with it longer. Whatever it is. “I’ve seen what the conduit can do,” she adds, not quite an afterthought. Clarification. “The way you used it to give instead of take. I know I can, too.”

Why she hasn’t yet is more difficult for her to articulate. Eileen follows Gabriel’s line of sight, eyes settling on the loose knit of her fingers. She isn’t wearing gloves — or the wedding band her counterpart once flashed as a threat. These days it’s just a reminder dangling on the same chain attached to her pocketwatch, which she’ll wear looped around her throat when she knows it won’t be in the way.

"I wish I could remember it better," Gabriel says, one eyebrow lifting — denoting a little humour. His eyeline drags up from the box, meeting hers. "But I don't know if it would matter. It shapes people, but people shape it back."

He never thought of himself as much of a teacher. It's a frustrating thing to try to do, when your brain is wired in such a way to just understand complex things. They've had their moments already, over the past several weeks, but he isn't interested in giving up. "You still hear him," he says. "His voice. I learned that way, too, when I didn't know any better.

"But when I did, it was just my voice. My thoughts, my will. You need to find the part of yourself that he hasn't touched."

Is there a part of Eileen that Kazimir hasn’t touched? Her expression is doubtful, her answer cautious and unsure. “He made me who I am,” she says, “even before this, before the Vanguard — before everything. I’m only alive because he arranged for me.”

It isn’t the first time she’s spoken these thoughts aloud to Gabriel. Maybe she’d speak them to Ethan too, if she didn’t think Ethan’s bones were slowly breaking apart in a shallow grave somewhere. (She’s wrong, of course. But that’s an argument for another time.)

Still, her eyelids droop closed and she imagines the weight of their lashes holding them down. Gabriel can see them flutter in spite of her best efforts, even as she searches for what he’s told her she should be looking for. Her ears attune to the sound of the rain pattering against the roof, filling her head and the truck’s cabin with a soothing wash of white noise.

It’s a pleasant distraction.

“Did the others ever talk to you?” she wants to know.

It's not something she can come to grips with via argument and reasoned debate. Gabriel knows that enough to keep his silence, as much as he doesn't like to let it slide by. He could say that he loves her, and what he loves has nothing to do with Volken, but he's not sure it would help, to act like her soul is territory for wolves to snarl at each other over. And he can see her trying to listen. Maybe, trying to believe him.

With her bright blue eyes shut, now it's his turn to look. There is still a doll-like quality to the fan of her eyelashes against her skin, the shape of her lips, lofty cheekbones and narrow chin. It was never, really, that illusion of fragility that had drawn him in, though he'd underestimated her plenty of times before.

"No," he says. "Just Volken. I never understood how he did it. How he embodied it like he did."

He'd had a theory, with Peter Petrelli, that the act of being saved by this entity seemed to saturate its hosts with its presence, but these days, he's not sure there is any precise reason, any empirical, logical explanation. Still, he says, "I'm not sure I counted towards its lineage, really. Not in the same way."

“I can hear them—the voices. His,” and Eileen means Kazimir, “is the loudest, but it’s part of a chorus like the rest.”

She opens herself up, lowering her psychic defenses in the safety of the truck’s cabin so that Gabriel can listen for himself. It’s a low susurrus, reminiscent of leaves chattering in the trees or the distant roar of the ocean crashing against some far-off shore. He remembers a lot of the latter from his time in Maine, only this isn’t lullaby-comforting.

The sparrow in the box stirs, flexing its injured wing. Gabriel feels that, too.

“It’ll take me with it when I’m gone,” she confides in him, “that’s what scares me the most.”

He listens, quiet, hands resting on the steering wheel as that ambiance of whispers rises up a little louder than the rain pattering against the car interior. Not just because the rain is slowly starting to let up, too.

Gabriel is silent for a while, sitting in his indecision. He thinks, sometimes, their conversations used to get so tangled and fraught only when they never spoke plainly to one another, so he tries, now, as he has been. "You were with me after you were gone the first time," he says. "An imprint. A voice. Sometimes more than that — I'd look up and you'd be putting more wood into the fire, and the wood would burn there, and I couldn't remember if— "

But then he stops himself. Getting away from the point.

"Maybe," he says. "But maybe the problem is being scared of that." He looks out of the wind shield, where the rain has calmed to a scant scatter of drops at a time. "Come on," he says. "Enough excuses."

Red Hook Market, New York Safe Zone

July 10, 2019

11:02 PM

Eileen wants to be somewhere quiet. Crowds make her uneasy, and she’s grown accustomed to Gabriel’s face. Looking at Byron Wolf is still like looking at a stranger, even though she knows the identity is only a mask—temporary, interchangeable as pocket square or a well-worn pair of shoes.

But masks are worn for a reason. They serve a very specific purpose. When Gabriel is Byron, she finds him exceptionally difficult to read, and lately she’s begun to wonder if perhaps that’s part of the point.

She isn’t looking at him now. Her eyes are combing the Red Hook Market for other faces she might know. Trespassing in the Safe Zone comes at great personal risk, and although she’s done it plenty of times before, this occasion feels particularly brazen.

Eileen told Kara they were going into the city for supplies. Of course that was a lie.

“I’m not making excuses,” she insists, then wonders if that is itself an excuse. “We could hurt someone.”

"You will hurt someone," Byron says, voice pitched low and quiet. Forgettable in a T-shirt with a faded print across his chest, faded flannel pulled over, faded jeans, flat sneakers. He walks like his objective is to make himself smaller, with his head sunk low and shoulders curled inwards, thumbs tucked into belt loops. "If you can't control your output."

Walking with her, but not looking at her, watery blue eyes scope out their surroundings as well, making similar passes for anything or anyone familiar to him, as well as unfamiliar. Cops, agents, anyone dressed particularly nice, anyone who might raise too much hell. He acknowledges but barely sees the myriad of stalls, hawking factory-grade scarves and handbags, teas, vegetables, secondhand books.

They're not here for any of that.

"You take just a little from enough people, they won't even notice," he says. "Not really. But you'll feel it."

It’s exercises like these that makes Eileen second-guess whether or not mandatory registration was actually a wise idea. She never would have given voice to these thoughts when her allegiance was to the Ferrymen, but she’d be lying to herself and to whoever she told if she claimed Kazimir and the U.S. government wasn’t right about some things.

They pass an elderly couple haggling over the price of a quart of strawberries, and Eileen pauses to linger on the fruit stand’s periphery, as it waiting for the right moment to flag down the vendor’s attention. She’s small, unobtrusive— nobody except Byron is paying her any attention, so they miss the singular thread of energy that snakes out of her sleeve.

It helps, too, that they’ve made this excursion at night when there are only string lights to illuminate the marketplace. Here, the conduit is just another strange shadow that’s as easily dismissed as the smell of rotting produce and yesterday’s fresh fish.

The conduit teases along the underside of the fruit stand, drawn to the nearest beating heart like a plant seeks the warmth of the sun.

Part of Byron is tempted to slink back into the background and watch from afar, because that is normally what he does. He finds himself lingering, this time, moving so as to stand close to her, his hand finding a place to rest at the small of her back. There is a practical element to this— when the vendor comes by to inquire what they want, he fends them off — questions about where the produce comes from, commiserations about the heatwave, dully polite.

His thumb makes stroking arcs through the fabric of her jacket, at the borders of her perception. It says communicates the purpose of his nearness, and a little more.

Trust me is impressed through that strange tenuous empathy they share, if not in words, then in sentiment.

Trusting Gabriel is easy—it’s reflexive, like breathing, and the only thing about this that makes it feel doable. The conduit should be offended to learn he’s where she places her faith, but not while it’s still getting what it wants from this transaction; Eileen inhales, and with her breath fills the cavity of her chest at the same time the conduit begins to siphon energy from the nearest body that isn’t Gabriel.

Correction: Byron.

Because there is a difference, isn’t there? Eileen finds herself distracted. Now is exactly the wrong time for her anxiety to agonize over minutiae, and yet—

The connective tendril pulsates, impatient, and the thing that lives inside her demands more. It also demands that she stop nitpicking. A body is a body is a body. She should take whatever she needs from whoever she wants — time, energy, sex, so please. Please, little bird—

Eileen makes a sharp, sudden sound at the back of her throat.

What bond is shared between them does not mean Byron has access to the articulations of her private thoughts. He can sense a twist of anxiety and attribute it anywhere he wants, and if he had to guess, it would be about what she is attempting to do now. He wants to convey encouragement and confidence that she can wrangle that voice, make it say what she wants.

What he conveys instead, because it is a two-way street, is traitorous impatience.

Old habits. There is a unique frustration in watching anyone struggle with something that comes to you naturally, particularly when that frustration has been the precursor to a murderous compulsion that will forever lie there, dormant, for as long as his brain is configured the way it is. Encouragement comes tainted with impatience. Confidence, mitigated with the expectation of failure.

The vendor has moved on. He is close, his chin just above the crown of her head as he watches the crowd around them with the attentiveness of a guard dog, all other senses keyed into what she is doing.

You place your faith in him, the conduit observes in a voice that is neither Kazimir Volken’s nor her own, but he does not invest the same with you.

Objectively, Eileen knows this isn’t true. Or at least not fair. She pushes back, unable to put her argument into words the same way she seems unable to do this one small thing Gabriel has asked of her. Her own annoyance bubbles up to the surface, sudden, roiling, except there’s nothing sudden about anything that boils.

This has been a long time coming.

The conduit’s tether snaps. Dissolves into nothing. Eileen’s eyes shine a little less bright. Normally, the tension would sap from her shoulders next, and Gabriel would feel her relax against him.

She does not relax. Not at all.

“Don’t say it.”

Sunken Factory, Pine Barrens

July 22, 2019

8:55 PM

"Say what, exactly?"

Gabriel's voice, its distinct timbre sharper edged than the tone he adopts as Wolf, echoes off the curved interior of the tunnel as he pivots back towards her. Boots in between the overgrown tracks. He'll have to change shape once they get any closer, but he indulges in the relief of possessing his own shape for as long as possible. So it's very familiar, his expression, his posture, the slightly cynical tip of his head, the glint of teeth between syllables.

If it wasn't for the clothing so characteristic of his alter ego, it would be uncanny. He backtracks a step towards her. The sun is at her back, and angled in such a way that it casts an amber glow this deep into the tunnel, but soon they will have to guide themselves with flashlights. He already has his in hand.

Ignored, for now, as he focuses not on their progress, but her. "Because trust me, I don't want to repeat myself anymore than I already have."

“Fuck you.”

It’s inelegant, really—there are a hundred other things Eileen could have said, all of them more eloquent, but none as straightforward. These two syllables are the perfect summation of her feelings toward Gabriel at this precise moment in time. And although her words lack grace, there’s no absence of heat or passion in them. Her voice is raised, pitched high enough that it echoes all the way down to the other end of the tunnel.

That’s probably dangerous. She doesn’t care.

“You’ve got it all figured out,” she says. “This ability. What I ought to be doing. How I’m supposed to be doing it. If only you’d put that much effort into remembering yourself, you wouldn’t have to spend your time pretending to be other people.”

Gravel and weeds crunch together underfoot as he moves in closer, hooked in, almost, allowing anger — true feeling — to shine up beneath the surface. "I do what I have to do to survive," he says, arriving somewhere in her space, eyes narrowed to dark slits of cynical malice. "Not all of us can get away with wearing a cheap blonde wig and a set of big doe eyes.

"And maybe that's your problem. Maybe you're trying to figure out what you are so bad that you're latching onto the one constant you think matters. You know— "

Don't say it, she said. He keeps talking anyway, anger never making him loud — quieter, even, coming beneath the point of echo, ever slithery and low. "I don't even think you want to stop listening to his voice. Imagine, having to listen to your own."

She’s listening to Gabriel’s now. He knows the verbal twist of his knife is effective because it shows in the rapidly-changing expression on her face. Her jaw tenses. Nostrils flare around a sharp breath sucked inward. There’s a lump in her throat that jumps.

His words don’t just hurt. They eviscerate.

Eileen’s heart crumples in her chest. Suddenly it’s hard for her to breathe. In recent weeks, having Gabriel close has put her at ease—but in this moment, his physical proximity makes her want to shrink away from him and retreat into herself.

To her credit, she doesn’t. What she does do is angle her chin a little higher and force herself to meet his eyes.

“You’re the last person to lecture me about letting go,” she hisses back in a thin tremble, “It’s been seven years since I died, and look at you now. Look where you are.”

Shock works a bit like this — injury taken, but the brain on a delay when it comes to pain signals. Gabriel's expression loses some of its tension, a stillness blanketing over the restless energy that had inspired the last barb. They've gotten quiet, no echoes curling back at them — just the steady dripping of rain water trickling through the cracks, the oppressive, pressuring silence as Gabriel draws himself back up to his height.

And changes, as he does so, flesh rippling. Dark eyes go blue, black hair bristles into dirty blonde, jawline narrows. Byron's expression shows less injury, as if retreating safely behind conventionally handsome bone structure, sickly skin.

"Alive? Is where I am now," he says, in his characteristic half-mumble. Bright eyes flick downwards where her necklace has come loose, its weighty pocketwatch. Its ring. Body language turning to resume walking. "Can't say the same for your husband. Now that guy got a raw fuckin' deal."

Eileen does not move to follow him. Her feet remain rooted on the tracks. A memory flashes behind her eyes, hand floating up to touch the tips of her fingers to the wedding band at her throat. She remembers the taste of her own blood in her mouth, and then the taste of ash. He’d come apart in her hands like he was made of loose clay.

Sometimes it’s still difficult for her to keep track of everything that’s catalogued in her head. Even with Benji’s guidance, there are days when it’s a struggle to really know what belongs to who—or, worse, when it happened.

This particular memory feels like it was yesterday, no matter how she tries to frame it in her imagination.

“At least he wasn’t a coward,” she spits at Gabriel’s— no, at Byron’s back.

Sunken Factory, Eileen's Room

July 23, 2019

5:33 AM

They sleep apart, many nights, but not because he's afraid of her. Likewise, when they sleep in the same bed, it's not because he is brave.

He becomes aware that they're both awake as the first fingers of dawn are creeping in under the windows. It's at hours like these that remind him best of the several months preceding her death, their grey-tinged, intimate and quiet hours in the attic if the Dispensary. Gabriel thinks it's because of the birds — they start to rouse, right about now, twittering in the empty pre-dawn. He can sense them outside and he can sense her on the far side of the bed, and sense her sensing him.

The bed shifts and creaks as he rolls over, and gravity pulls at her towards its centre as he nears. Although her back is to him, Eileen's gut feeling is that she is sharing a bed with Gabriel, and not Byron.

Above her ear, her scalp prickles as he reaches out, touching her hair.

It’s soft, but he already knew that. She wears it longer than Eileen Gray ever did, having allowed it to grow unruly and wild in the months since Sunspot. The change is subtle enough for it to have gone mostly unnoticed by anyone else—more often than not, she wears her tangled mane twisted into a loose knot at the nape of her neck, making it difficult to judge its length at a glance.

His fingers are more discerning. Gabriel can comb them through it with a surprising lack of resistance, and they come away smelling faintly of her perfume, pine needles, and the last cigarette she smoked.

Bravery might not be what compels him to take these risks. It is, however, required.

Handling a venomous snake would be safer.

Eileen’s heart is beating faster—he’s close enough that he can feel it drubbing.

The space between them — a hand's breadth — is maintained for the purpose of allowing her to move without the concern of immediate collision. It would be easy, though, to fall back into his orbit. Easier still, for him to fall forward into hers.

Instead, he lays in place, heavy limbed, head on pillow. Breathing as deep as if still asleep. Loose tresses tickle along her shoulder as he draws her hair back in a gentle coming motion, exposing the plane of her shoulder. The fabric of her night slip is thin enough that when he touches the back of his knuckles to her back, it almost feels as though they are touching bare skin. Almost.

It might feel a little like he is asking for entry or permission, and a little like he is deciding it is granted by the time his hand settles high on her hip, applying a gentle pressure to shift around, towards him.

She allows it. Her body is receptive, malleable, but also exceptionally mindful of its position in relation to his. In spite of the words they wield against each other like weapons, Eileen doesn’t want to see him hurt— not physically.

Her eyes are a little less bright this morning, bleary from lack of sleep. He recognizes the discolouration around them, and if he were to touch her cheek he’d discover its texture is still mottled from last night’s tears.

She probably tastes like salt.

Her dominant hand curls in the empty space between them. Gaze downcast, she tries to make herself very small and reduce the danger posed by her exposed limbs.

They haven't talked about this. It's been a ghost of a discussion, haunting these hours, these moments. Gabriel has not for himself figured out the politics of expressing desire to someone who may well desire back, but is incapable of its manifestation. But if touch has a way of making someone feel less lonely, then its potential might do something like that too.

He's not sure, nor thinking very hard about it save to resist his own instinct to withdraw when she shrinks in front of him.

His fingertips skim her bared shoulder, lift away, come up to hover his hand near her face. Close enough that nerves pick up on proximity, that fine, invisible hair stands on end. When he gently closes that minute distance, palm conformed to her jaw and cheek, he does so gently enough that the transition between not-touching and touching is almost indistinguishable.

I can hold it, Eileen had told Iago once. That hasn’t changed. She leans into Gabriel’s hand, breath warming his skin where it meets her nose and mouth.

He can count on his fingers — the same ones cradling her face — the number of times they’ve connected like this since they found each other. It’s not difficult to understand why: they’re both addicts. All it takes is a little nip of real physical contact to want more, to crave it to the point of distraction.

And neither of them can afford to let their guards down here.

This is a form of relapse. Eileen knows she shouldn’t, but she kisses the inside of his palm anyway, undeterred by the fact that her heart is going to hurt more than it already does when the conduit demands she pull away.

That’s not her problem. That’s a problem for Eileen roughly thirty seconds from now.

Thirty seconds is a long time.

Try holding your breath to it, or watching the long hand of a clock, or letting it draw itself out in the middle of a conversation. The human heart beats faster than each second that ticks by. Gabriel draws his hand down to rest against her throat as he leans in and kisses her, closing his eyes and guiding himself by other senses and instincts.

He isn't thinking of this in terms of addiction and relapse. Relapse feels like the cottage in Maine. Like the sudden stop of the rope. Like cold, like hard, like numbness. It would be the easier thing, so often, to do nothing.

He kisses her, and pushes forward that sense of longing.

Eileen doesn’t remember the last time she had sex. It might have been in a different New York City, one with tall, immaculately-kept buildings and pristine, unbroken windows. Maybe she peeled Gabriel out of his uniform or he ripped open her nurse’s scrubs.

It could have been in a damp, dark corridor beneath Bannerman’s Castle when they thought anyone who might come looking for them would be asleep.

At some point it occurs to Eileen that there’s a possibility the answer is both. Or neither.

Not that it matters. She’s so focused on how firm his mouth is that she doesn’t notice her control start to slip, although Gabriel certainly will. When she catches his lower lip between her teeth, it hurts in a way it isn’t supposed to.

It hurts in a familiar way, too, and Gabriel lifts his head back, his hand up, taking in a short gasp of air. He runs his tongue against the inside of his bottom lip but doesn't taste blood, or withering.

That was a shorter moment than anticipated, but he doesn't look angry, or afraid, or sad. In the pre-dawn light, diffused blue through the window, he just appears to take a moment to think before moving again. Over her. His hand rests on the other side, against the mattress, muscles tense and joints locked against touching her while still reclaiming nearness.

"Do you have it?" he inquires, voice husky with sleep. "Locked down."

“Trying,” Eileen roughs out, and that’s the truth. The effort makes her body hard and her chest heave. Her veins blacken and bulge beneath her skin. When she swallows, it’s a desperate bid to choke it back down— but that doesn’t work.

She’s aching for something. The conduit, so intimately attuned to its host’s desires and biological rhythms, yearns too.

“You’re making it worse.”

Gabriel raises an eyebrow at her.

Stabilises himself, weight riding in one shoulder so he can best lift his other hand. Splays it against her ribcage, where her heart is drumming through bone and muscle, fabric crumpled and fine beneath his palm. She can feel the pressure of eye contact relax as he takes in the sight of dark veins showing up against the surface of her skin. Ink in milk.

It's a force of nature you're not supposed to fuck around with.

But here he is.

"Then make it better," he suggests. No concrete advice, no breathing exercises, abstract conceptualisation, or wish making. He never had this problem in particular and knows — knows better now, after all this time — that it's something she has to figure out in her own mind. And he'd like to think that Volken might be taking a hike right about now. His hand smooths up to her chest, head ducking down, his breath warm and fleeting against the skin at her collarbone.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she pleads without pushing him away. Her words are lost somewhere in his hair, or the curve of his ear.

I can hold it.

She closes her eyes and, not for the first time, searches for the part of her Kazimir hasn’t touched. The part of her that Gabriel is touching now.

So they go in fits and starts, coming together, then breaking apart. The only thing that makes it remotely bearable is how similar in philosophy it is to the way they used to relate to one another.

Hours together, weeks apart. Days together, months apart. Months together, years apart.

What’s a few more minutes?

Pine Barrens, New Jersey

July 6, 2019

8:40 AM

The rain has lessened and gets caught up in the canopy overheard, and so every now and then, a streak of cold water slices down, snaking in jacket collars, damp in hair, splashing off the ends of noses. It patters in sporadic strikes against the cardboard box in Eileen's hands, water leaking a little into ruptured air holes.

Movement and noise compel the bird to stay still and quiet, but it can smell and sense the forest beyond.

Gabriel reaches above his head to grip a low branch, leaning there. He's not someone who naturally believes the best in people, but at the edges of her empathic senses, she feels nothing but a sort of practiced calm. He can't promise that she will succeed, today, but he can promise he will be right here whether or not she does.

That’s enough.

Eileen slips her fingers under the edge of the lid and coaxes the box open. The bird’s head lifts, beak scissoring open. If it makes a sound, neither of them can hear it.

It’s injured. You don’t need a conduit to see that. The sparrow retreats into itself the same way Eileen likes to fold up when she’s in the safety of Gabriel’s arms.

It’s going to be okay.

Eileen closes her eyes. She searches for the part of her Kazimir hasn’t touched. Her hand not sheltering the box against her breast reaches out and splays against the trunk of the tree Gabriel is anchored to. Late summer leaves ripple in an unseen breeze, fat and green and full of life.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she says to the bird. Not to Gabriel.

She takes a breath—

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