Not Like Paley


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Scene Title Not Like Paley
Synopsis A chance encounter at Central Park turns out not to be so accidental after all.
Date March 22, 2010

Central Park

If there's one thing to be said about the people of New York City, it's that they're hardier and more resilient than the rest of the world gives them credit for, all allusions to 9/11 and what happened in November of 2006 aside. Snow is falls in thick, clumping flakes, wind is gusts east by south east and temperatures drop below freezing and yet the scenic vistas of Central Park continue to be sparsely populated by men, women and children bundled up in heavy winter overcoats, wool mittens and scarves of every material and colour conceivable.

It's so cold that warm breath manifests in the air as glittering silver vapour and it sometimes aches to breathe, but the iceskating rinks remain open, and in the conservatory garden, milky white snowdrops bloom in defiance of the worsening weather. At the lake, which has iced over closest to the shore, black ducks, mergansers and mute swans with pristine feathers and orange bills bordered in black attract small children to the water's frozen edge, bearing gifts of stale bread torn into bite-sized pieces by fingers too small to it without help from their parents.

Very rarely does Eileen have the opportunity to utilize her leisure time and visit places like Central Park on her own terms rather than those outlined by whoever she's meeting with. This is a personal trip, and when she asked Gabriel if he'd keep her company while she wandered the garden earlier and plucked a snowdrop for her hair, it was on a trepidatious whim; the only thing rarer than the Englishwoman doing something strictly for herself is her doing it with somebody else. She left him on the bench a few minutes ago to show a little girl in a sea green sweater and black knit jacket how to feed the swans without getting nipped, and has since attracted the attention of a few juveniles with darker plumage in varying shades of gray and buff. She's explaining something to the girl about why their feathers haven't turned white yet, but the better question is why all the waterbirds in the general vicinity are suddenly so well-behaved.

No one is asking.

Sitting and being is something Gabriel can do — especially in public. It's not something that happens often enough to be boring. Craig Christman's features are an ordinary kind of handsome, pale blue eyes hidden behind a pair of sportswear sunglasses that do their part against the glare that comes off ice and snow. A weatherproof jacket makes up a bulky silhouette, and he has his arms resting along the back of the bench, gloved hands casual on the ends of his wrists, and a leg up to fold across the other knee.

As much as he can feel safe and secure in another face, he also doesn't feel like himself. He's not sure how that thing masquerading as Jenny Childs can do it. Unless maybe he doesn't want to be him.

He tips his head back on the stem of his neck to observe the ashen sky instead of where Eileen socialises with the children, letting the press of avian minds fade to a dull kind of pressure against his own as he absently reaches out. He can feel them, in a way, which is completely useless, but an abstract reassurance.

It will be several more weeks before the adult swans are ready to nest, lay their eggs and hatch fluffy white cygnets made of dandelion fur with licorice drops for eyes. Whether they survive beyond their first few days is entirely dependent on whether or not winter decides to relent while they're incubating, and even then there's always a chance that the warmth provided by their parents' bodies won't be enough to bring them into the world at all.

Human children have it much easier. Nearby, a street vendor advertising bitter cocoa with globs of melted marshmallows floating in the drink fills steaming styrofoam cups and sells them for three dollars each, with is probably what one gallon of the milk used to create the concoction is probably worth. Booted feet crunch on the gravel path that rings 'round the lake and a little boy with a head of dark hair covered by a red stocking cap wheels past the bench in an even redder wagon pulled by his father, fumbling with a half-eaten hotdog that he can't quite clasp in his tiny mittened hands. It lands with a messy plop in his lap, spattering the front of his parka in ketchup, mustard and a smear of green relish.

With a low, hoarse chuckle, a man who hadn't been standing there before eases himself onto the bench beside Gabriel and lets out a long-suffering sigh as he adjusts a heavy pair of binoculars hanging from his neck by a thick leather strap. Like everyone else, he's dressed for the cold but in a dark gray sweater and jeans worn under an insulated jacket with a classical camouflage pattern, its collar turned up, and a wide-brimmed brown cap pulled down to shield his eyes much the same way Gabriel's sunglasses do. "Which one's yours?" he asks.

Head snapping back into a neutral, Gabriel's shoulders stiffen near invisibly beneath his padded jacket, the arm closest to the man sitting down obligingly folding inwards, hand tucking casually into a pocket as he glances to the left of him. Puzzled silence reigns supreme for a few short seconds before Craig Christman clears his throat and manages a stiff smile for the stranger. "That one, actually," he says, with a nod of his head towards where Eileen isn't watching him in return. "No kids."

The stranger makes a throaty noise of affirmation at the back of his mouth and reaches into his jacket's interior with one hand, sans gloves, and pulls out a pocketbook with a periwinkle blue jay on the cover, its title obscured by his thumb, and an even smaller notepad with a miniature pencil caught in its thin metal rungs. He flips it open, fingers through the pages to locate the one marked 03/23/10 and settles back in his seat on the bench with his booted feet crossed lazily at the ankle.

A skeletal sketch of what looks like it might be a hawk of some kind sits perched in the upper righthand corner, a fat carp clutched in its talons. Beneath that, the words: osprey and south reservoir. When he returns Gabriel's smile, it's with a mouthful of yellowed teeth with stained enamel. "Not yet."

That smile skews back a mirror image in the curving lenses of Gabriel's sunglasses, and so the stranger doesn't witness the way he flicks his currently differently coloured eyes down towards the book being opened and observed. A short exhalation, barely a sigh or a snort but somewhere in between, unreadable before he returns his attention towards the swans getting their early meal. He lifts a hand to steal down his sunglasses, folding them over and opening his jacket to fit them inside an inner pocket.

"What about you? Which one's yours?" seems like an unlikely question from Gabriel, considering the purposeful book fanning its pages to the sky, but it seems the right thing to say.

"Mine's grown," says the stranger, who is probably too old to have a child under twenty but is also old enough that he could just as easily be here with a granddaughter or a grandson. He maneuvers the pencil from the rungs between his knuckles, runs his tongue over chapped lips and raises his arm to expel a dry, wheezing cough into his sleeve. "Anyway," he amends, "I'm not the type."

Binoculars clutched in his callused hand, he raises them to his eyes, shadowed by the brim of his cap, and looks down toward the water's edge where Eileen has coaxed a swan into nibbling the tips of her fingers to show that children that it doesn't have to hurt. "Think you could do me a favour?"

Gabriel can't help it — there's a subtle lean away from that hacking cough that shudders the older man's frame. With an Evo virus going around, one has a tendency to be paranoid, especially when you're Gabriel Gray. As the stranger studies Eileen, Gabriel studies him in turn with blue eyes exposed and plain, communicating very little other than a sort of analytical sweep, before uncomfortably glancing off towards the water's edge. "I guess that depends on what it is."

The stranger opens the accompanying book to a dog-eared page that depicts a small songbird with a thin, pointed bill, a bright yellow chest and belly with chestnut streaks, a greenish-coloured back and wings edged in gold. It's nothing that Gabriel can remember seeing in Central Park or elsewhere, but the book identifies it as a yellow warbler or — if he prefers its Latin name — dendroica petechia. "Keep an eye out?"

"You got it." The corner of Gabriel's— Craig's— mouth fishhooks up into what counts as a friendly smile, more lines at his eyes than his real body has, though there isn't too much of a visible age span between the face he wears and the mind before it. More so for the gentleman sitting next to him, who gets a chin up in a nod before Gabriel is lazily dragging his gaze back forward. The tension in his shoulders hasn't lessened, if it ever does.

As if sensing the younger man's anxiety, and in a benevolent attempt to alleviate some of the strain making a knot of the muscles in his shoulders, the stranger sets the book down on the bench to act as a barrier between them and does not close the cover when a breeze whips through the pages, blowing away the picture of the warbler and replacing it with something Gabriel does recognize: a bald eagle. Incidentally, there's one such bird perched on the other side of lake in the tallest branches of an elm, but at a distance it resembles a very large hawk instead. Like the juvenile swans now dipping their bills into plastic bags held open and stuffed with breadcrumbs, it has yet to develop the colouration it will have as an adult.

Geese flock under a stone bridge and a pair of sparrows chase one another through the throng of people gathered at the water's edge, too small and quick to attract attention in between their short, sporadic flights. No sign of the warbler, however.

"So," says the stranger in a raspy but conversational tone, "what do you do?"

It's a cold spring, and the urge to get up and join Eileen is basically outweighed by the youngsters she's surrounded by. In the same way that assurance that shapeshifting is the most adequate disguise he could hope for is countered by a permanent sense of paranoia that tightens his shoulders, leaks steel into his posture. Gabriel's fingers curl on the hand with the arm still slung over the bench back. "Me?" Tempting answers. My name's Officer Gray of the NYPD, what do you—

"I'm a watchmaker. I fix and restore timepieces. Not a lot of cash in it, more of a hobby. Like birdwatching."

There's nothing on the stranger's forearm or ticking in the pocket of his jacket that Gabriel can hear, but he doesn't have the ears that he used to — not since Arthur Petrelli. He pauses, lowering the binoculars as he drops his hand to scratch blunt nails across the back of his opposite wrist. His fingers are long and worn, skin like weather-beaten leather smother to the touch than their rough appearance suggests, and Gabriel's intuition tells him that he's talking to a man whose life's work relied on his hands. "You must be familiar with the watchmaker analogy, then."

Vapor indicates a chuckle more than the sound itself, which barely scrapes audible along his throat. The older man gets a cynical kind of glance, before Gabriel offers, "'Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature.'" Another glance, a look up and down and then a quick sort of smile that doesn't show much as show mirth as it does just show teeth. "Never heard of it."

The stranger hefts his binoculars again and picks a point at the opposite side of the lake on which to focus, somewhere past a brass statue of a heron that would shimmer gold in brighter light but has been reduced to a matte finish by the overcast sky and the sun's inability to penetrate the clouds with its beams. When he takes off his cap with his free hand, it's to shake the snow that's gathered on its brim since he sat down and wipe some of the sweat beading on his bald head with a handkerchief that he procured from one of his pockets when Gabriel wasn't looking.

He dabs at his scalp, uses one of the handkerchief's corners to wipe his mouth, and then shoves it down the back of his pants for safekeeping until he needs it again. "And what about you?" he asks. "You a man of God like Paley or a man of science?"

A soft snort, and Gabriel tucks his chin inwards, brow tensing at that concept before he mutters, "Not like Paley."

Which isn't exactly answering the question, but it's not like he owes the man sitting on the bench anything of the kind, right. "Paley was an idiot and harmed his own argument more than helped it. An intelligent designer does not make things flawed, and there are flaws everywhere. Nothing is perfect, nothing is like clockwork, except clockwork. If God can be proven through his analogy, then it stands to reason that God's a bastard. What do you know about watchmakers, anyway?"

"My brother's a watchmaker," the stranger replies, mild, though there's something about the tone of his voice when he says it that reeks of quiet resentment and dislike. "Owns a business in Baltimore. Shitty little place, a real rat-hole." He uses his thumb to adjust the binoculars' focus, the crow's feet around his eyes growing much more pronounced when he spies something of interest across the water and scratches it down on his notepad, handwriting illegible. "I expect yours is probably a bit more upscale," he adds, a casual afterthought tacked onto his earlier statement like a sloppy punctuation mark. "That's a nice coat. Brooklyn?"

When Gabriel glances again at him, it's down towards the open book as opposed to directly at the stranger, as if listening for something rather than trying to see something. There's another pause, about as frosty as the lake edges and just as vague, before Gabriel splits an almost sheepish smile across his face, one that makes an effort at getting to his eyes but falls short. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name," he says, once he drags his attention upwards once more.

A shrill squeal of laughter sounds from the lake, followed by a plaintive, trumpeting swan bark, a thunderous clap of wings and splashing water. Elsewhere, a bicycle bell chimes twice and the breeze rattles through the branches of the birch trees that flank the bench, filling the air with vibrations that creak and groan. There's so much to listen to, whether Gabriel wants to hear it or not, and even sitting beside him on the bench, the stranger's voice is very low.

"Samson," he says as a plump yellow bird with a green-tinted back alights on the back of the bench and gives a full body shake, spraying the collar of the stranger's jacket with droplets of water sloughed off its brightly-coloured feathers. It regards Gabriel with impish black eyes and a sharp stare, looking down its narrow beak at him the same way it might scrutinize something it's seeing for the first time.

It knows he's different. Chances are the man with the binoculars does too.

"Nice to meet you." Blue eyes shift from the other man's face towards the little bird summoned down from the sky either by chance or something else entirely. A glance to Eileen's not-totally-distant figure is perhaps not slow enough to betray itself, and he tilts his head to the avian critter staring beady eyes up at Gabriel. "There's your bird."

Bringing his gloved hands down against the edge of the bench, he levers himself up, taller, stocky frame casting a long shadow even if he huddles his shoulders inwards against the chill in the air. His heel scuffs concrete and grass when a step is taken to leave the stranger be, meander down to where Eileen is showing the proper way to feed swans without getting attacked, and show the man his back.

When Samson turns his head to look, the warbler is startled into flight and with a flick of its wings disappears. Down at the water, Eileen is pushing herself back to her feet, one gloved hand braced against her thigh for support as she simultaneously rises from her crouch and opens her muscles in a yawning feline stretch that takes several seconds to complete but is over by the time she catches sight of Gabriel's approaching figure.

Dusting crumbs from the front of her charcoal overcoat, she moves to meet him halfway with a softly spoken word of farewell in French to the girl with the sea green sweater, and offers him a small smile. Her first instinct is to ask if everything is all right because something tells her it's not, but before she can open her mouth to greet him, she's interrupted by an abrupt shuffle of feet from behind him.

"Wait," says Samson at Gabriel's ear, and a large hand claps down on his shoulder. Another offers him the birding book. "Take this. Please."

If the words had indeed flown from Eileen's mouth, strung in that question, Gabriel isn't even sure he'd say. Nerves, he guesses. It's been a while since he's been outside-outside, you know? And other excuses. Electrical tension seems to zigzag down his spine, freezing it when that hand comes down on his shoulder, blue eyes flaring some kind of warning that his teeth clamp back on. Despite all of this, despite paranoia and the unsettling notion of a watchshop in Brooklyn he kind of wants to check in on—

He takes the book. And his other hand splays fingers low, asking Eileen to hold up a sec. Craig's face contorts a little around a puzzled kind of wariness, laddered lines in his forehead and an uncertain twinge at the corner of his mouth. "Why do you want me to have this?"

Eileen hangs back several meters away, close enough to hear the sound of Craig Christman's voice coming from Craig Christman's mouth, but not so close that she can identify the words. There are books for that, too. Lipreading. She doesn't know how.

"You need it," is Samson's succinct reply as he removes his hand from Gabriel's shoulder and takes a step away from him as soon as he's sure the book isn't about to be thrust back at his chest. His hands find the pockets of his jacket. "Or at least more than I do."

Unfortunately for Eileen, Craig Christman's back is turned to her. Gabriel's head is ducked as he fans open the pages, barely seeing them as he shakes his head. "And what do you know about what I need?" he asks, a harsher tone in his voice even as it remains quieter, teeth pearly behind the pull of his top lip. Icy eyes dart between Samson's. "You don't even know my name."

"I have a kind of intuitive aptitude for these things," Samson says, an audible challenge in his words. Another step back, booted feet crunching over brittle ice, and the binoculars swing around his neck when he steers his gaze past Gabriel to where Eileen is standing in solemn silence, both his silver brows quirked upward in a fashion that is disconcertingly familiar to the man standing in front of him. Sometimes he sees it in the bathroom mirror. "Better get on," he advises. "Don't want your little lady asking too many questions. That'd be a shame."

And, in case those watching at home are curious— there's nothing. Not the shred of intuition that creates a thread between he and the girl behind him— and she can feel anxiety, confusion thrum through it now— nor the hivemind telepathy of his distant clones. Just vacant nothing save for what is uncanny and uneasy, and some kind of predator's recognition of another. Questions of territory come into play and Gabriel isn't back off, returning to his little lady or otherwise. Craig's gaze is too mild, too watery blue, weak — if Gabriel had his own face, hawkish black would be squarely focused on Samson instead.

He's forgotten the book, holding it though he is. "I have questions," he hears himself point out, numbly.

"I don't have answers," Samson fires back, lowering his brows and flattening the chapped line of his mouth. The breeze blows some of the snow off his cap, causes some of it to stick to the gray scruff that lines his strong jaw and the hair on the back of his ungloved hands, which peek from the pockets of his jacket beneath the wrist. It ripples that, too, and creates a sound like canvas.

Hazel eyes meet blue and hold Gabriel's gaze, one corner of his mouth tilted up into an expression that straddles the division between amusement and impatience. If there's a comparison to be drawn here between predators and the territory they hold, it isn't yet obvious what each man corresponds to.

A squark of laughter from the lake's edge has Gabriel almost twitching a glance over his shoulder. There are kids here, kids, like there were kids in the Lighthouse when he was ready to slice open the skull of beloved Jenny Childs, and so they are probably not the reason that Gabriel stands stock still and indecisive. A speculative look up and down follows a thin smile, and a promise; "You will." The step he takes back is jarring, pivots on a heel.

Expression like thunder by the time he's turned back to Eileen, showing Samson his back for the second time, birding book still clutched in his hand and pressed to his side as he moves.

Eileen's hand finds Gabriel's arm and gently touches fingertips to his elbow, questioning. She does not verbalize what her green eyes or painted mouth are asking him, pale cheeks flushed pink from the cold with a fine dusting of silver snowflakes in her hair and lashes. He'll tell her if he wants to; if he doesn't, then she can press back at the Dispensary when they're no longer out in the open where children are probably the least of their worries.

At Gabriel's back, he hears no retreating footsteps, no boots grinding against gravel as Samson retreats, but he can sense it just the same: the old man is gone.

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