Old Wolves


avi_icon.gif francois_icon.gif

Scene Title Old Wolves
Synopsis Before the assault on Fort Irwin, Avi lays some bad news out for Francois.
Date July 13, 2018

The Bunker

It's been hard to catch a moment of peace in the Bunker the last few days. Even outside, the test whines of the Tlanuwa’s engines firing up and dying back down are a riotous sound. Somewhere in the courtyard, Scott Harkness and his son labor aboard the ship, making certain it is in top fighting form for the days to come.

Far from that courtyard, Avi Epstein lingers on the roof like a gargoyle, leaning against the slatted, covered trellis of the roof garden, replacing fresh floral scents with the stink of cheap tobacco. He looks rough, these days, rougher than ever. There's a bruise at his good eye that blisters angry red at the cheekbone and eye socket, then fades to swollen yellow everywhere else. That eye is somewhat swollen shut, hidden with his missing one behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses.

As he sucks down his cigarette, it isn't the aircraft maintenance he's paying heed to, as it is the stairwell. There's someone he wanted to meet up here, away from the listening devices, away from the immediate security, away from the noise of a paramilitary group preparing to go to war.

As Avi sucks in a lungful of smoke, he exhales conspiracy and frustration, and a few more years off his life.

In the 30s, in France, every young man smoked. As clean, bone white cylinders shaken out of neat boxes or mean twists of paper pinched closed under cover of darkness and rain, there is something deeply nostalgic about the acrid, poisonous scent. It's the little unchanging glimmers of life that have a way of recalling dustier memories, rendered in black and white, and better they than gunfire and smoke and blood drying between the creases of his fingers.

Francois kicked the habit, of course, even before he lost his ability to heal away the consequences. Not everyone thinks so, but he would like to believe he's good at avoiding the things that are bad for him.

A handsome man appears on the rooftop. It's Francois! He dresses nicely as a matter of habit — neat, fitted, never ostentatious clothing — but tonight it seems like he might even be going out at some point, one of those people who find his peace, solace, distraction beyond the walls of the Bunker, cultivating something of a civilian social life in the struggling city of Rochester the way most people make herb gardens. He smells Avi before he sees him, honing in on the trail of acrid and eternally-familiar smoke, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets and approaching.

"Bonjour monsieur," is what he of course says. More aloof than curious, but absolutely curious.

Avi's response is a tired sigh and a slow, if affable, nod in greeting. “Francois,” is grumbled, in much the way most everything he says is of late. Taking one more drag off of the cigarette, Avi holds in the lungful of smoke and then from the trellis and steps over to meet the Frenchman halfway.

“Sorry about,” Avi looks out to the yard, “the fucking noise. I didn't realize Harkness would be just revving the fucking engine for an hour.” There's resignation in his tone though, a helpless rise and fall of his shoulders, and then a look back up to Francois.

“You, ah…” Avi starts to say, but then hesitates. A frown spreads across his face and he redirects his conversational energy. “I read the reports from Geopoint. The bodies.” He looks away and doesn't look back. “We… need t’talk.”

Francois' expressions tend to only change in subtle shifts, being understated already — here, eyes harden and fix, stillness setting in as Avi moves to meet him across the rooftop. He'd anticipated business, in spite of Avi's impulse towards privacy, and this is that — but on occasion, business hedges into personal. In the aftermath of the mission, he'd make his own report, and his report had his own observations.

"I'm not sure I have answers," he says, mild and not quite apologetic, on account of not genuinely believing Avi is seeking those answers he doesn't have. "Or how to account for what we found. But I have chased trails like that before."

Avi nods, tongue against the inside of his cheek, unconsciously feeling a cut still there from where he bit down when Rue slugged him in the eye. Bobbing his head in a series of short nods, Avi brings up his cigarette and takes one last drag before throwing it to the ground and grinding it out with his heel.

“It was Volken.” Avi says without any fanfare, looking up with his one good eye over the slouched frames of his sunglasses. “He… he survived somehow, and it's— fuck,” Avi scrubs a hand over his mouth. “Volken’s back, and he's… he's in Eileen Ruskin’s body.”


For a long moment, Francois doesn't say anything.

Or do anything, although he knows and suppresses the momentary impulse to lay his hands on Avi's jacket and shake him. Eyes narrowed, he stares across and into Avi's beat-to-shit face with a wintry sharpness, his immediate disbelief doing fuck all to buffer the rise of unnamed anger he feels at the very idea of what his colleague is saying.

His boot heel scuffs across the cement of the rooftop they're on, and he angles himself away, expending energy by pacing off towards the edge, the view. Finally, "I felt him die."

“I'm sure you're not the first person t’think that, too.” Epstein notes with less sarcasm in it than is his usual prescription. “Look, I watched Eileen die. I saw her torn a-fucking-part by her own birds until there was nothing left but bones. I know…” he hesitates, then just shakes his head slowly. “I know she died. But I saw her, plain as day, eyes as blue as a fucking winter sky.”

The anger in Avi at that revelation withers in him swiftly. “I talked to her brother not that long ago, he told me that Lynette Rowan had a run-in with her, and that she went full on black smoke nightmare fuel. You saw the bodies in Colorado, the footage on the tapes of the armor? That's their shit. That's the Horsemen’s gear.”

Then, and perhaps most convincingly to Avi. “What other fucking person is pretentious enough to call himself one of the four fucking Horsemen?” Slowly, he pushes his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, as punctuation to his sentence.

“I don't want to believe it, Francois. But it's real.” Avi’s jaw tenses, throat works up and down with a slow swallow. “It's a fucking nightmare.”

As Avi talks of birds tearing flesh from bone, Francois can't help but recall the radiance that had burned away the clinging corruption of the conduit from his own skeleton. How willing he had been to turn to dust himself in the process if it meant killing Kazimir Volken once and for all. It's the kind of pain-memory that you vividly feel in the moment, and his heart forgets to ache at the prospect of Eileen Ruskin being alive again, and continuing not to forgive him for what he'd done.

But then, Epstein hadn't put it that way. Of her being alive. Just seen.

Looking just past his shoulder enough to keep Avi in his periphery, the other man behind him can see the almost-laugh at evidence hanged on pretension. His hand travels up to brow, itches along the hairline, tries to will his thoughts in order.

"You saw her."

Now he looks back properly. "And what did she want?"

“This is where it gets fucky,” is Avi’s weary answer to Francois. He doesn't follow up right away, either. Instead he moves under the covered trellis and pulls up one of the wrought-iron chairs, slouching down in it and extending his bad leg out straight.

“When Eileen died, she didn't… die. I know, I know, hard to believe,” has a touch of sarcasm to it. “Her mind untethered from her body, I think. She became the birds that killed her, and the birds became her. She…” Avi looks down to his hands in his lap. “I guess eventually she found a host. Like, you know, folks do.”

Sliding his tongue against the inside of his cheek, Avi looks up to Francois. “It was a kid, not even a teenager yet. Eileen was — is — fucking confetti. Pieces of her exist, glimpses and memories, and they were transferred to this girl. I found her on coincidence, kept her safe, away from the people who’d take out Eileen’s shit choices on an innocent fucking child. Away from the people who wouldn't be able to separate the idea of the two.”

Scrubbing his hand over his mouth, Avi shakes his head from side to side and looks away from Francois. “That all went to shit,” is all he has to say about that. “Whatever the fuck this Volken-flavored ghost of Eileen is, it wanted the kid — Sibyl — and it tried to go through Nick to get her from me. I don't know where Sibyl is now. I'm— trying to figure it out.”

Holding the bruised side of his face with one hand, Avi closes his one good eye. “Hana knows. About Sibyl. She's seen the… whatever the fuck that zombie is too. She's the one leading the Horsemen. Go fucking figure.”

Francois comes to sit down too, dragging one of the iron wrought chairs over to settle in opposite. His attention is very clear and steady, an expression on the disappointed side of neutral that quite a few Wolfhound colleagues have come to know and tolerate, and past lovers had come to resent. Judgments being passed and processed behind receptively gentle green eyes and the prim line of his mouth.

But he doesn't cast these judgments into words, too occupied in absorbing information to better define and give structure to the amorphous anxiety growing in his chest, like the smoke in Avi's lungs. Confusion crinkles his brow, a rapid blink of incomprehension, and for a moment, in the right light, Francois strongly resembles the eighty-odd years of human existence he represents.

"Eileen is a part of this Sibyl," he says, slowly, "and yet there is— " A pause, as if he has to steel himself to say it. "There is Volken, in Eileen's guise as well."

If he didn't know any better, if he wasn't intimately acquainted with it, this sounds like some time travel horse shit.

But Avi Epstein clearly has no idea, so Francois doesn't press for confirmation, or further guesses. "Or there is just Eileen," he says, after a moment, "blue eyes or no."

“I don't even want t’think about that,” Avi admits. The possibility that it is truly just Eileen is very real to him. “That's what her brother thinks, but it— she's…” he shakes his head. “She'd never do this shit. Not to us. Not to him.” Hands folded in his lap, Avi hunches forward and slouches, staring at the floor between his feet.

“A lot of weird shit happened after the last time I ever saw that ability in action.” Avi doesn't look up, just stares at the ground. “I left Antarctica with Gabriel, got wrapped up in some shit…” he shakes his head, “just— some stupid shit. I know you obviously made it out okay and… you know, grape-vine’d that you had Volken’s ability for a while…”

Only there does Avi look up at Francois. “When you joined Wolfhound and weren't heiling Hitler or whatever, I figured you sorted that shit out and I wasn't going to press. People deserve privacy.” Until they don't, is the unspoken addendum.

What the fuck happened? Is Avi’s unvoiced question.

Francois is already there, long before Avi's unvoiced appeal. Thinking about what Eileen would never do, and thinking about what Francois would never have done. Unease has settled into his usual lax, easy posture, tipped forward with his elbows set to his knees, looking down at his hands. Where there'd been scarring riven between his fingers for so long after the Apollo mission, and where he still wears a wedding ring on the other hand, even if he takes it off sometimes.

It's this little object that he's fidgeting with now, turning it around below his knuckle. He'd probably be annoyed to know that that's his unconscious expression of discomfort.

He looks back up at Avi, guarded, reluctant.

And sighs out the next breath. "It didn't have me for long," he says, slowly. "That I carried the Conduit was a source of… difficulty." Being fluent in English, this word settles a little lamely, like he couldn't find the right ones instead due to language barrier alone. It'd be more accurate to say that he didn't want to express them to his veteran colleague. Loathing. Disgust. Shame. "And all I knew was to get rid of it forever, even if it killed me."

The drama of that statement is belied easily by his matter of fact, logical conviction. Avi must know something about death wishes. "And that drove me. But the actions I took to do that were ruthless and unkind and reckless in ways that — I do not consider like me." He hesitates over that, as if to imply that Volken's corruption were some kind scapegoat for poor behaviour. The face Teo would make. He moves on. "I attacked the man that carried the healing gift, the one I'd possessed once before I gave it away. I forced him to turn it on me by turning the killing ability on him.

"We were alone, mostly. Isolated. I thought it died there, and with it, the healing ability too."

He splays his hands, then. "And then did not think of it again for eight years, for I'd been thinking almost only of Volken for decades before. Knowing what it was like, for even a small amount of time, was enough for me."

Avi sucks in a deep breath that turns into a ragged sigh, head in one hand and fingers curling against his scalp. He tenses up and then awkwardly pushes himself up out of his seat and limp-steps around in front of Francois. “How much do we actually even fucking know about that ability? It's like a fucking virus, moving from fucking— ” he waves his hand around flippantly. “Jesus fucking Christ we were so busy trying not to die we never…” The past is the past, but Avi struggles beyond it, struggling like with his bum leg.

“After Mister Secretary is done with us,” Avi affirms, “you, me, and Hana are going to have a serious talk about what the fuck is going on. Because this is… if this is the Vanguard all over again, and three out of four yahoos I saw says it is, that's exactly what we’re here to prevent.”

Avi’s brows lower, lips pressed flatly and sternly together. “I've… got Lancaster looking for leads on Gabriel Gray. If anyone can figure out Eileen it's him. He used to have this bullshit ability, too. We might need to— fuck, is Beauchamp still alive?” He squints and looks to the side. “We might need to consolidate everything we know. Because obviously just shooting in the dark is only hitting each other.”

You know, there's a whole fucking lot of we that Francois isn't sure he appreciates, like he's been dragged into something that gets more guilt on him than he was prepared to take responsibility for. Blamed for fuck ups outside of his control. He thinks about snarling: what about the people who loved her? Were you hiding her away from them too?

Francois doesn't do that.

He has manners.

And there is something still volatile within the cracked countenance of Avi Epstein that drives Francois towards gentle handling, more out of empathy than anything else, so he grits his teeth and listens to all this we, and the network of people becoming involved when there had previously been none. He raises an eyebrow at mention of Gabriel Gray, and then— almost laughs. Is Beauchamp still alive?

"Give me a cigarette," he says, instead of literally anything else to further the conversation being dropped at his feet like a dead rat.

Avi raises one brow, then looks down to the ground as he fishes a crushed cigarette pack out from his back pocket and shakes a mostly intact one out with just a little kink in the middle. He turns it around in thick fingers and offers it filter-first to Francois, then pulls out a lighter from his shirt pocket and flicks the flint wheel, burning a tall yellow flame for the Frenchman to lean into.

Avi’s one-eyed stare over the frames of his sunglasses is an intent one, brows furrowed and lips downturned at the corners in a frown. He breathes in deep, that scent of cheap tobacco and butane, familiar and comforting as much as it is a slow killer. But few people in Wolfhound expect a slow death, or to live long enough for their past to catch back up with them.

That usually only happens when the past runs on four legs, like a wolf.

Horrible habit, this.

But the smoke that feels as though it is curling within the dense meat of Francois' lungs seems to bring with it its famous soothing quality, leaning back up and away from Avi's light to expel the excess through a sigh. He might agree with Epstein that to quit smoking is something of an optimistic stance, for their line of work, but then he might add that optimism is something of a necessity. Look where optimism has gotten us so far.

"Beauchamp is alive," he confirms, measured. "Empty of the gift, of course. I don't know what she has— what I have that has not been put on record over and over again since the war ended, but oui, we need to align ourselves. But I will say that the Vanguard took many forms, and I do not believe there is an Eileen in any universe that would see it through to what it it became, and how it died. Even with the allies she has chosen. Even if she is only the icy layer between the world and Volken's depths."

A big if. He will have to see for himself.

When he isn't rushing into certain doom in the desert. Speaking of which— "One thing at a time, ah?" he suggests, now tipping Avi a wry smile — that probably works on people less jaded and heterosexual than Avi — as he flicks ash aside.

There's a blank stare from Avi, tucking his lighter back in his shirt pocket. “I guess,” he mumbles to himself, looking out to the Rochester horizon. “I mean it’ll be moot if a robot chews us up and spits us out in a couple weeks, right?” Drawing in a slow breath, Avi slouches back in his chair and holds the acrid sting of the smoke, slowly letting it blow from his nostrils.

“Once we’re done with Mayes,” Avi concedes, “maybe you'n I can do a little looking into wherever it is Bizarro Eileen’s crawled off to.” Inspecting his cigarette with his one good eye, Avi looks over to Francois one more time, then to the horizon.

“I fucking hate this world sometimes.”

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