No Hiding


eileen3_icon.gif francois_icon.gif

Scene Title No Hiding
Synopsis The first step to getting help is admitting that you have a problem. In this case they're both drunk—and European.
Date July 22, 2019

Summer on the East coast: sticky, hot, wet. The humidity in the late July air feels so dense that it catches in Francois’ nose and throat and makes breathing a chore—like choking down syrupy medicine. Sweat plasters clothes to skin and grease-slick hair to his brow within an hour or two of showering, but maybe that’s attractive to some people.

Three Horseshoes, Williamsburg

July 22nd

9:15 pm

He’ll know soon. The bar is alive with the susurrus of low conversation straining to be heard over the jukebox nestled in the far corner, which has been doling out one-hit wonders from the 70s and early 80s for the better part of the evening. It’s all background noise—a distraction from whatever thoughts are competing for the Frenchman’s attention.

For example: there’s a man sitting in a booth by the restrooms who looks a little like Teodoro if he squints, even though his laugh doesn’t sound as full. The stranger holds a cigarette between his fingers, trailing smoke when he gesticulates.

And he gesticulates often. Like an Italian.

Which, for the record, he’s not.


The only way for Francois to know for sure is to go over and ask.

And maybe if some variables were adjusted, by too negligible a margin, he would do. The beer in front of him is depleted by two-thirds and sits bitter at the back of his mouth, but he's pretty sure that whatever he might say to charm his way into company would not be too terribly tainted. It's not a very sexy feeling, however. No part of him can relate.

Francois finishes his beer. Or tries to, but he hasn't the stomach for it tonight, and leaves behind a mouthful or two still foaming in the glass, along with a trim fan of small notes, tip included.

He does not approach the maybe-Italian. He picks up his jacket, unnecessary even at this hour, with the intent to leave.

“I don’t blame you,” says a voice several stools to Francois’ left. It belongs to a small blonde woman nursing a squat tumbler of something clear poured over ice. He’d noticed her when she came in the same way he’d noticed the various other bodies in the bar—in his periphery. She’s neither attractive nor unattractive, largely due to the fact that her hair covers the side of her face closest to the Frenchman.

He has only her hands to assess her physical appearance by: slim and long-fingered, breakable in the same way that fine porcelain often is. She’s young. British, judging by the way she rolls her vowels around in her mouth. Like the maybe-Italian in the corner reminds him of Teodoro, this absolute-Londoner has a purr that brings back old memories.

“I wouldn’t fuck anybody here either,” she says.

Soft denim jacket folds tighter in his hand as Francois stops, attention snared more by the tone of that voice directed his way than he is about the content. Something wistful and nostalgic is immediately squashed by certainty as he looks over in that direction, and even now, years later, recognising fine-boned wrists and delicately fingered hands, the particulars of her posture, in spite of artificial blonde, shielded profiles.

The content kicks in then, too, before he can summon reply, too surprised to do so quickly.

From the corner of her eye, Eileen can see his shadow angle nearer, and his jacket get set back down on the bar. She might not see it right away (unless she has other eyes at her disposal) when he lifts a hand and brings it near, keeping a very careful kind of distance — relatively speaking. That just means he is not touching her skin, but does impose himself by hooking a lock of stiff blonde with his thumb and nudging the curtain of her hair aside enough to see her face.

Francois vocalises something neutral. Throat tight, oddly, but that's all. He just has to clear it, which he does, drawing his hand back too. "That is unkind," he says, dry.

“So is cheating on your husband.”

On the page, Eileen’s words might read like the twist of a knife. Out loud, they lack any real vindictiveness. They’re an observation, much the same way she might comment on the nighttime weather. Its heat, perhaps. Maybe the static promise of a thunderstorm hanging fat and heavy in the evening air.

She swallows a mouthful of gin and soda. Ice tinkles in her glass.

When she looks at him, her eyes are blue—because of course they are. Avi warned him they would be.

“In your defense,” she adds, “an absent husband isn’t a very good husband at all.”

Francois takes a seat next to her, an arm folded on bar top. His engagement ring and wedding ring are still in place, which might be in his defense as well — you don't keep those on if you're meaningfully attempting to pick someone up. White-gold reflects low light as he waves his hand, summoning the bartender.

Foregoes the beer, this round, and skips to what she's having. He says it like that, too.

"Is that my defense," he says, failing to lift that sentence into the question it's structured to be. "I think it needs work."

He studies her, now. Her blue eyes, and the other ways she has changed. His own eyes are the same murky green they've normally been, and there is something a little harder about his features as age has ushered him along. And she can see that he is not surprised the way Teo had been surprised. "He said to me he saw you," he says. "I told him to be careful."

“You’re not wrong.” About that, anyway, or at least that’s what Eileen’s eyebrows seem to imply. She traces her thumb around the rim of her glass in an absent, practiced gesture. “For what it’s worth, he’s taking the separation about as well as you are.”

And in case that isn’t obvious, she means: Not well at all. Her eyebrows don’t have to spell it out this time. She pitches her voice down instead and lets the gravel in her tone do the work.

“He asked me what I’d have done,” she says, “if it had been Gabriel. I tried to remember, but remembering hurts. Suppose that’s the answer.”

Her glass connects with the bar top with a gentle clink. On the subject of memories: “You had a lovely wedding. I still think about it, sometimes. Not the ceremony. But the way you looked, together, and at one other. Like two great black swans, I said. And then he asked me if swans mated for life.”

Francois is a proud personality but not so much that he might foolishly object to assessments as to how well or not well he is enduring his marital problems, and he turns his focus to the surface of the bar as she speaks. Accepts his gin and soda when it's wordlessly provided, but waits until it is his turn to speak to drink from it, a neat sip designed to loosen his own tongue which is still a little tied at the novelty of Eileen Ruskin (as he knows her) remembering things like his wedding.

"He was so flustered all morning," he says. Joining in. He speaks quietly, too. "Running around the apartment to get ready and then complaining at being too warm."

This is affection, obviously, not complaint, but it carries a tone that perhaps Eileen knows too well — remembering something good, after it's come to an end. That Teo and Eileen spoke so intimately is news to him that he has thus far taken in his stride, but curiousity is gaining an edge. Unconsciously mimics her, his thumb to the edge of his glass.

He doesn't press her for the answer, if swans mate for life. Instead:

"Do you know how it is," because he's already drunk, "when you love, but there is nowhere for it to go. It hurts instead."

This is one of those times when Eileen’s memories blur together like sloppily applied watercolours left to dry at an angle that’s too steep. She’s aware of a pain that originates somewhere deep in her chest, but she isn’t sure if it still belongs to her—not fully.

She remembers the empty space her other self’s husband left behind, and the physical need she felt to fill it with someone who resembled him. Sometimes she wonders if she should thank Kazimir. What else would have stopped her?

Iago, maybe. Probably. Eileen won’t ever know the answer to that particular question, but “Byron Wolf” has made her quite all right with this.

The breath she presses out in response to Francois’ not-question has a strange texture that seems to quake. In other words: Yes, she’s familiar with the very specific sensation to which he refers.

“Do you know,” she counters, gently, “how many millions of people died apart when they should have died together. The war took that choice from them, then you won it back. Now this?”

Francois has returned his attention forwards, now, his hands framing the glass in front of him. Still attuned to her presence, like if he paid any less attention, he might talk himself into thinking, later, that she was some kind of fever dream. He's hallucinated people before. They'd never been particularly nice then, either.

Glances askance at the mention of war, a tip to his head like, really?

But he doesn't say really. Francois is reluctant to take any kind of tone with her at all, or close himself off, or deflect from her focus. It does leave him with precious little to say. Or rather: precious little that he'd say if sober. So, there's that. "You speak like you have lived through war," he says. "Like you've crawled through its mud, only to realise that the world on the other side of it is no better for its ending, really. Not right away. It takes time.

"July, 2019, and counting." He is trying to remember, the things the other Teo had said. The one that had fucked off, too. "I fucked up by him. You don't have to convince me of it."

There’s enough gin left in the bottom of her glass that when she hurls her drink into Francois’ face, it doesn’t just get into his eyes—it saturates his hair and his shirt, leaving dark spatters on denim. Ice skitters across the floor, but because glass doesn’t break, the gesture goes mostly unnoticed by anyone except the Frenchman on the receiving end of it.

And, you know. Eileen.

She’s not exempt, either. As she plunks her now-empty glass down on the counter and extracts herself from her seat at the bar, she realizes she’s not immune to the backsplash, because it’s all over her too.

You wouldn't believe it but this has probably happened before, in Francois' long life, and it is a surprise every time. The shock of ice-chilled liquid and then a very specific string as alcohol gets his eyes, and he's cursing in English as he reaches for the paper towelette that had come with his drink. And standing, now, though he doesn't remember getting up, his own drink now sitting on the bartop after being hastily set down, soda and gin splashed up from the rim.

He's not sure what he said, immediately — like maybe being this amount of sharp and petty is becoming (was already) second nature — but by the time Eileen has gotten to her feet, he has to decide if he should let her go. Normally he might. Allow the rebuke to stand. One thing he can take away from this: chances are low that she is Kazimir Volken.

But he says, "Eileen," and half-blindly reaches for his own things, while he tries to wipe his eyes with the back of his forearm. "Wait."

Francois is making to follow her out. The bartender — who did notice — says, 'hey', a little sharp, but Francois is ignoring him.

Eileen does not wait. Does not stop. By the time Francois catches up with her, she’s already out on the street and making a beeline for the mouth of the nearest alley, wig crumpled in her fist. Purposeful strides bring her alongside the dumpster that resides there, but for as swift on her feet as she is, there’s still something comical about the amount of strength required for her to heft its lid.

If she’d known how heavy it was, she’d probably have just discarded the tousled blonde mop in the gutter instead.

She squeaks it open the four inches required for her to shove it in with the rest of the trash, gone ripe in the sopping summer heat. Her natural hair hasn’t fared much better; like Francois’ own brunette curls, it sticks to where it meets her pallid skin, giving her the appearance of a rumpled, half-drowned rat reeking of hard liquor and stale perfume.

BANG goes the lid. She hammers it down again. BANG BANG BANG.

The half-jog that Francois had taken on to catch up slows and stops at the mouth of the alleyway. Thanks to Eileen's efforts, he now looks and smells the amount of drunk he is, with sugary gin soaked into the collar of his shirt and spattered down his chest, drying on his skin, and in spite of the tumult of feeling that has propelled him from there to here, he will remain agitated by this until he is properly cleaned up. But not to the point of distraction, watching her struggle with the dumpster lid, her brown hair coming disordered from its pins.

His heart hurts. She is as small and familiar and feral as he remembers her to be, and against all reason, what he wants to do most is to hug her.

But Francois has enough sense that he's not sure he could get away with it without some scratches, let alone the damaging effects of the Black Conduit, so he tugs on his jacket to disguise the worst of his mess, in slow, weary movements and tugs. "Wishing someone was alive," he says, as he does so, "while the country tears itself apart is a complicated thing. But I did anyway, all the time. I can barely believe— "

Stops himself, swallowing around his words.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way."

“You did.”

Now Eileen’s hands are still, resting flat on the dumpster’s lid so they do not tremble. She keeps her back to him, either because that’s easier for her—or because she imagines it is for him.

(Although these two things are not mutually exclusive.)

“She died,” she says, and her choice to use the third person in reference to herself absolutely boils down to a matter of ease. Her throat strains to keep from closing all the way up as she speaks, syllables hard and clipped. “Abandoned you, actually. Wasn’t there when you needed her. Left the Ferry adrift, no anchor. Captain’s supposed to go down with the ship, except it didn’t.”

At least the entirety of her anger is no longer directed squarely at Francois.

“Don’t want your apology.”

"There is a lot of unsolicited platitudes going around, I guess," is slightly inaccurate English, but there's no fixing these things when they're said out loud.

Francois rubs his palm across his face, distributing cloying damp before giving up on the task, and tucking both hands into the sleeves of his jacket. Despite his words, a little placid and sardonic from behind her, he doesn't repeat apology. Not for snide comments in — what felt like at the time — defense of himself and perhaps Teo as well; not for her untimely death; or the resentments she is imagining.

He's not sure that if he could take his soul and empty its contents out in front of them to sift through, he'd find anything like she is saying. Short of actually doing that, he is unclear on how to convince her otherwise. It sure as shit has not worked on Teo.

He takes a step deeper into the alleyway.

"I've done war a little. I know who to blame. It isn't you, ma chère. And I don't believe your third person," just for the record. "What would you have instead?"

Later, Eileen will justify what she’s about to do by claiming — if only to Gabriel — that Francois’ disbelief poses the greatest threat to her position. And, she will say, to Providence. She’ll deny that it had anything to do with her own resentment, self-loathing, or the very problematic habit she has of pushing away people who would be healthy for her.

(Again, not mutually exclusive.)

She turns her head until her left eye is a shaft of bright, pale blue light studying Francois from behind the peak of her gently-sloped shoulder. The rest of her body follows, turning until she’s facing him with both arms loose at her sides.

A street lamp flickers. Crackles. Abruptly burns out.

Eileen gathers the resulting shadows to her like a great feathery cloak that ripples and roils with familiar black energy.

Geh nach Hause, Francois.

It's hard to completely 180 a sense of conviction — it helps to have enough liquor in one's system that feeling is made more mercurial than it normally is. Black shadows swell and thicken, pushing back the meagre light struggling into the alleway from street lamps, light pollution, moonshine. Francois reaches for the gun he does not have at side, having long fallen out of the habit of wandering the Safe Zone with a sidearm.

Even less usefully, he reaches out for that old trigger, the well of healing ability that once lived within him. Of course, there is nothing.

His expression has changed, fear cut clean through in the dart down and up of green eyes, the hard press of his mouth. The way his boots scrape on the pavement as he steps back the distance he'd gained is loud, to his ears, and his certainty that his friend was back, the one he wished to hold, seems to struggle against the lurch of nausea that roils through his gut, old treacheries brought to the surface.

"Eileen," he says. She runs with the Vanguard. He knew this already. Why else, if this is the first time they have met since her return, in which he finds himself in some empty corner. The harsh sounding German on her lips. The street is at his back, inviting him to run out into it. He doesn't. But she can probably see the temptation in him to do so, even as he says, "I saw you. You can't hide in there."

And yet hide is exactly what she does. On her next inhale, the conduit expands to swallow her body whole. Its mass grows, inflating into something larger and more defined as a pair of raven’s wings billow out and open, spanning across the entire width of the alley. Next: a head, big and sleek and black, with a long beak-shaped protrusion from which hundreds of simultaneous whispers spill.

Francois has heard all their voices before; for a short time, they occupied his own head.

He recognizes Eilean beneath Kazimir’s coarse German growl—or maybe that’s his father, Vladimir. Madeline Rouen is praying, he thinks. Or pleading with her killers not to burn her alive.

Their essence crowds the narrow alley, growing louder and louder until it’s impossible for Francois to differentiate between them.

It is an impressive work of shadow puppetry by Eileen, who has been practicing—although he has no way of knowing who or what is in control as it begins to blow toward him.

It doesn't look like control to him. It looks chaotic, like it is larger than not only himself but also the slip of a woman who has disappeared into the shadows. Francois backs up another step, and then another.

In a different life — or a different century — he knows he would have likely knelt and prayed. This feels embarrassing to know, now.

Not that this is great, paralysed terror stiff in his limbs.

But it is not an impulse that exists, anymore, just as the healing power is no longer encoded into his genes. Leaves and scraps of trash skitter out from the forward motion of that strange bird-like mass of whispering shadow, and he can imagine if not actually feel that coarse, prickling sensation of necrotic energy, not just on his skin, but in his lungs on the next breath in. Illusion, of course. Old memories. Except back then, he could always come back from the worst damage inflicted upon him. The soft wind that flows from the flurry of shadow is cold on his skin, in the humid evening.

He flees. Maybe it will be what she remembers most of this encounter, that he cedes territory in long steps backwards enough until his heel catches on the uneven ground where it meets the sidewalk and he slips, catches his balance only just before he is gone from her sight and senses. What he will remember is the way, one block down, he threw up beer and gin and bile into some rotten city corner, for too many reasons to list.

A sparrow will see him home. Small, dusty brown, unremarkable. Ordinary eyes. That is to say: black ones.

When Eileen does emerge from the alley some time later, it’s as herself. The only shadow clinging to her is the one that’s dogged her heels since she the day she was born. She’d prefer not to remember anything about this evening, and maybe a few months ago she could drink herself into oblivion and arrange exactly that.

But things have changed, even if she’s just put on a grand show to try to cement the idea in Francois’ head that they haven’t.

At the rendezvous point half a mile away, when Byron Wolf gives her that look, the most she’s going to say is the old platitude isn’t true.

It turns out blondes don’t have more fun.

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