The First Time Always Hurts


byron_icon.gif eileen2_icon.gif

Scene Title The First Time Always Hurts
Synopsis It's the moment they've both been dreading.
Date April 7, 2019

The Pine Barrens

It’s raining.

Back in the Safe Zone, the sound of water drumming on glass delays errands and sequesters even some of its most productive residents indoors. People cozy up with steeping cups of tea beneath blankets, or huddle around old cast iron radiators to listen to the radio or watch fuzzy reruns on the television, vicariously reliving their old lives.

These are luxuries not found out in the Pine Barrens, where responsibilities must be met regardless of the weather. Horse hooves churn up fresh mud and slog through deep, dense puddles that smell fragrant and loamy. There are wildflowers, too: tall, willowy, purple things called asters that Eileen tries not to think much about as she and her traveling companion cross the border that separates Providence from the next territory over.

Sometimes she wonders if she named her son after the flower — or if it was something she and Gabriel lifted from the pages of a book not-yet-read. Other times, her mind turns to the boy called Zhang Bai-Chan, or the children she imagines Eileen Ramirez might someday raise. They would learn how to sail, she thinks. Never how to sit in a saddle or ride a horse.

Right now, she meditates on none of these things; her attention rests on the squat, tangled woodland crowding in around them as the trees grow denser and the sky grows darker. It’s unusual for a patrol to find themselves this far from home, but so are the tracks she and Byron are following.

Her wool and leathers offer some protection from the elements. Even then, she still finds herself blinking away rainwater, mouth pressed into a flat but contemplative line to keep more of it from gathering in its corners. When she exhales out through her nose, her breath forms a pale plume in the crisp spring air.

Byron is armed with a rifle, strap looped over a shoulder, settled against his back while his hands wind tight and tense around leather reins. His mind is preoccupied on very little, dwindled to the interpretation of sensory input; the crunch-squish of wilderness under his horse's hooves, the weight of the gun, the sway of the beast between his legs, the cold water patting brassy blonde onto his skull and running into his eyes. He'd had the hood of his jacket up, until the constant patter of rain had created too much white noise in his ears.

There are long stretches of time when he doesn't think very much at all. Byron Wolf, he had decided, operates on stupid instinct, childish habit. Smarmy, when cornered. Follows orders, if sometimes with protest, not unlike the horse he's been given. Which is equally why he is here.

Eileen, that is, not the horse, a chestnut mare with silver dappled around her nose. Byron does not ride her like he is practiced.

"What was that?" he asks. The silence between them had felt like a spiderweb, its tension barely perceptible, and easily broken. "That you did to yourself." The reason why the sky is no longer their guardian.

It takes Eileen a moment or two longer than Byron might have anticipated to acknowledge she’s heard him. His question coincides with a steep embankment blanketed in deadfall and spindly trees that have splintered and snapped like twigs, shucked open by the same machine whose trail he and the Englishwoman are dogging.

“I can speak through them,” she says of the now-absent birds, “but my voice is small. If I want to be heard by hundreds of people, then I should have hundreds of birds.” Her chin lifts, eyes roaming the shadows cast across the slope by the bent pieces of debris. The angle is sharp, and so is the detritus.

She swings one leg over her saddle and drops down into the stirrup, reins in one hand, the other flat against the barrel of her horse’s neck. “I had only the one,” she continues, mid-dismount, “so I had to shout.”

If it’s an oversimplification, it’s at least an honest one. He can plainly see her lingering exhaustion and hear the effort her words require. Whatever facilitating their escape took out of her, she’s still in the process of replenishing it.

“I lost my voice, my birds. Even when I can hear them, they don’t listen.”

Byron kind of just stays on his horse as she evaluates the terrain, listening to her answer instead. Furrow browed concentration, a frown, all make enough sense in his face and the rain running down it, and then he's moving. Not gracefully, he grips onto the saddle and swings his leg back over, the horse shifting in complaint as his dense weight hangs off one side before his feet find the ground.

"They would have figured something out," he says, once he's down. "You'd done enough."

Killing the lights. Having eyes in the room. Arranging rendez-vous.

But it's a mild, shrugging kind of criticism, as if to muddle concern in disinterest. He takes his horse with him as he moves up to meet her at the edge of long trench gouged into the land. "Should we follow it," he says, of the current obstacle, "find a shallow spot?" There's a glance backwards, as if maybe his Plan B is to see if these horses can jump.

You’d done enough, he says, and Eileen’s uneasy silence suggests she doesn’t entirely disagree. “The ground is too wet,” is her quiet assessment of the current situation. “If the horses fall down there, they might not be able to climb back out again.”

She strokes the tips of her gloved fingers down the long, broad slant that is Grindstone’s nose. The skin around his nostrils looks and feels like velvet, even if she can’t fully appreciate its texture as he presses his face into her palm and grumbles in protest.

He’s tired. They’ve been at this for most of the afternoon and early evening.

“I know,” she tells the horse, “I know.”

He responds with a whicker and toothy snap. Eileen sees it coming, too late, hissing the front half of a curse through her own teeth at the same time her hand whips back. Every time she thinks she and the stallion have come to an understanding, he bites her. Every time, she’s surprised.

“We could continue on foot,” she suggests, rubbing her pinched knuckles through the soft leather of her gloves. “Just for another half mile or more.”

Byron Wolf might suggest something different, like, maybe we should go back, because Eileen looks like shit, and the horses don't look much better, and he has lakes of rain in his terrible shoes and down his ass crack and.

They tie off the horses on a winter-stripped tree, sturdy enough that even if something panics them, it's likely to bend and stay as it is. All the best for them to find the wood-chipper mauled carcasses of their beasts of burden when they return, probably. Crossing the dip in the ground isn't particularly dignified, but Byron goes first — he does this by running and jumping, landing on the other side like a big cat and his feet sinking into the churned earth, not quite clearing it.

Rather than pull himself out, he tosses his rifle up onto the opposite bank, smears muddy hands down his jeans, and then reaches over to help yank Eileen over the other side.

A leap carries her three quarters of the way across. Maybe the distance she falls short is symbolic of the trust she’s placed in him tonight, because her body offers little resistance when Byron snags her by the arm and effortlessly hefts her onto the opposite bank.

Eileen, it turns out, is very light.

She braces a hand against his chest the same way she’d flattened herself against her horse as she slid from the saddle.

“Thank you,” she says with prim sincerity, her other hand clasped at Byron’s elbow. It takes her a moment or two to fully regain her footing; she’s still straightening herself when two shots fired off from somewhere in the dark strike him square in the back.

The audible crack-crack of the gunshots is almost an afterthought. It happens so fast that Byron is already going into shock by the time the sound registers, and Eileen tastes his blood in her mouth before she realizes what it is.

Byron is — was — standing patiently with mud up and over his shoe tops, an arm up at a slightly awkward angle that she can use to steady herself along with borrowing off his own centre of gravity, and then he's shot in the back and the force of it knocks him almost entirely out of the ditch. There's no yell or cry, because the bullets impacting with his body force all air out of his lungs — the next thing Eileen hears from him is a violently laboured wheeze inwards.

Which might be encouraging. The rain and the darkness and the layers of coat he's wearing make it hard to see what just happened, but Eileen is well versed in things like distant gunfire and the sound bullets make when they impact meat and the way human bodies jerk when they go into them.

His hands clutch the wet grass. If Eileen were to reach for him now, her hands would pass through his form as easy as if he were made of light.

Byron manages to shape the next gasp out of air into a word: "Go."

Now this feels familiar.

Eileen remembers telling her loved ones to run. Remembers the sensation of plummeting blood pressure as it left her body and saturated the snow beneath. Remembers trying to breathe, but taking only fluid into her lungs. Most of all: Remembers the fear.

Byron says go. If she does, she imagines he’ll die frightened and alone, and Eileen has arrived at a point in her life — her second life — where she isn’t sure she would even wish such a thing on her enemy.

“No,” comes out rough and guttural, as much of an involuntary response as Byron’s initial inhalation. It’s wet, too, if for entirely different reasons.

“SHOW US YOUR HANDS,” a voice barks from the general direction the shots originated from, so Eileen does.

It's not as bad as it looks.

But it's still pretty bad. Byron is catching his breath back and it doesn't sound like a death rattle. Our the corner of her eye, she can see him moving, even, which means that whatever those bullets hit, they didn't sever anything so critical that he can't drag his legs out from under the ditch and up beneath him, even as he stays as mostly a still bleeding huddled mass on the floor.

She feels his hand bundle up in her coat, and then she feels something strange — or rather, feels an absence, which is in itself strange. The rain passes right through her. The wind no longer bites at the exposed edges of her skin, her face. The ground under her feet is still solid, but just a touch smoother, the bumps of pebble and twig feeling soft beneath the crush of her boots.

She's felt this before. Phasing. Gabriel had it too.

They emerge from the trees some fifty feet ahead, and it’s no surprise their attackers were able to get the drop on them. Byron counts eight of them: mossy-looking shadows draped in browns and olive drab. He recognizes tattered coats that once belonged to the U.S. military, but have since been repurposed into less formal uniforms pieced together from other sources, all of them scavenged.

The Remnant is not the only militia that roams the coast or the broad swaths of wilderness between what’s left of the region’s major metropolitan areas, but this is the first time Eileen has seen their competition up close.

One of them men shines a flashlight in their direction, and she angles one hand to shield her eyes from the glare. The other falls back to her side, fingers conforming to the curve of Byron’s skull where it meets the nape of his neck, even if he doesn’t need the reminder that she’s still here.

Stirring, the conduit offers: Look how he tries to protect you.

Byron senses it rising to the surface of Eileen’s consciousness, much fainter and faraway than the last time he heard its collective voice. It’s undoubtedly louder for her.

Little Bird, let us help.

The lead soldier closes in at a creep, rifle leveled with Eileen’s center of mass while another directly behind him keeps the light trained on her and Byron both.

Beyond the aching injury of bullets sunk into the meat of his back, it's the only thing he feels; her coat, knotted in his grasp, and her hand, laying down at the back of his neck. Maybe she can even feel the tremors of traumatised, twitching muscle. His other arm is folded into his side, unmoving. Senses keyed into a thing he cannot hear or see but knows is there all the same, like the pulse in her veins.

He turns aside from the flashlight as it arcs over them. It's probably not immediately obvious, the way the rain slices through them, finding no purchase. Less obvious than—

"They're armed!" barks one of the men. They're fanning out. The flashlight has fallen on Byron's rifle, laying on the earth.

In Byron's awareness, each man's consciousness lights up like the individual lamp on a Christmas tree. He has favoured methods of escape, but not with eight automatic weapons trained on them, ready to fire. And now, Eileen can feel it the same way he can feel it — the tightness in her lungs, as if she's not getting enough air. Because she isn't. It comes like a dull fire in the centre of her chest, and she can hear Byron's breathing become harder too.

They can't stay like this forever.

Eileen’s dread becomes Byron’s dread. Fear ripples through the weakened connection between them. She steadies herself with a slow, juddery breath that makes her sternum ache.

The conduit gently reminds her that this was an inevitability. She has wasted so much time and effort trying to repress its effects instead of learning to embrace them.

Now it’s going to hurt. First times often do.

“Don’t look at it,” she suggests hoarsely as she draws away from him, breaking physical contact and the protection his ability affords her in conjunction with it. Cautious but deliberate steps carry her feet forward in their muddy riding boots.

She thinks she sees Kazimir somewhere out there in the dark, past the militia’s crescent-shaped formation. Byron will too, if he does the thing she recommended he not do.

The spectre holds out his hand in an unspoken invitation. All she has to do is reach for it.

It’s impossible for either of them to know who among the men shoots first, but that ultimately doesn’t matter; when one opens fire, the others follow immediately suit. The initial volley punches clean through her chest, shredding her coat, and exits through her back.

Someone else would be dead before they hit the ground. Eileen hitches, faltering as one leg starts to go out beneath her, only she catches herself before her body sinks all the way down. A low keen of pain fills the space between Byron’s ears. That’s Eileen. Then: A sound like wind gathering at the head of a storm.

That’s not.

Byron does not realise how weak he is until her coat just slips from his clutching hand, and he rocks forwards, bracing himself against the cold, wet earth. Trying to drop his power feels a little like bringing his hand closer to open flame, even as his lungs begin to burn, and he can't draw in a breath enough to say her name.

And he's looking, past the figures with their guns, and before he can identify that sense of rising dread

a gun goes off

and for a moment, he's sure it went straight through him even as he sees it go straight through her, as he sees her body jerk under the impact, the spray of dark red spatter exiting through her back. All at once, the rain is coming down on his arched back and filling his eyes, air cold in his chest as he gasps inwards. Rage, blind, all consuming, turns his attention in the direction of the shooter, and his hands go out, and a sound like a second gunshot claps through that low rushing roar that is gathering around them. Around Eileen.

The air shivers, rain scattering into a finer mist as a wall of force slams from Byron's open hands and into the shooter, sending his crumpled body flying.

Immediately, muzzle flare lights up as two more weapons wheel around and open fire on his crouching form. He's knocked aside, but blunted and shattered bullets bounce off of his body, disappearing amongst the weeds and mud.

The flashlight’s beam gutters like a dying candle. Byron catches only fragments: billowing black energy blooming open, Eileen’s hand still outstretched. Those closest to her aren’t given the opportunity to make a run for it, but in a way that seems fitting.

They didn’t afford Byron or Eileen the same courtesy.

Wind buckles the branches in the trees and whips loose leaves and dead pine needles off the forest floor. His pounding pulse distracts him from the conduit’s banshee scream, and the screams of the militia as their flesh withers on its bones. Life flows out of their rapidly mummifying remains and into the dense column of whorling ash where Eileen should be.

She’s probably screaming, too, even if Byron can’t hear it.

Two of the men on the group’s fringe scatter. Whatever valuables Byron and Eileen might have on them, they’re no longer worth it — if they ever were.

The horses are whinnying, yanking at their reins, panicking as necrotic energy claws into the earth. Grass and weeds, withering to ash under their hooves, creeping in where Byron is kneeling. Byron Wolf, he knows, would cut and run, even while bullet holes bled crimson down his back.

Of course, that's not who he is, and never was.

He barely pays heed, now, where the stragglers have rabbited out into the darkness, and he claws his hands into the earth as he gets to his feet, still half bent at the waist. Someone taking two bullets to the back should probably not have even made it that far, but he moves a step closer, anyway.

"Eileen," is inaudible even to himself, so he tries again, a louder bark roughed out from his throat, "Eileen."

All that’s left of the militia members who stood their ground are motes of ash that drift up into the sky until they’re swallowed by the rain. Eileen turns toward the sound of last voice standing and cuts a look through the black at Byron— who isn’t really Byron at all.

The recognition he might expect is absent in her eyes. They shine like mirrors, impossibly bright beacons lifted straight out of a fairytale for bad children. She’s no longer in control; the thing that lives inside of her and likes to prowl the woods at night is.

It recognizes him. Tendrils of energy weave through the short distance between them as if following the path of least resistance, effortless as rivulets of rain tracking down Byron’s bedroom window on nights like this one. There was a time in his life when he and Eileen used to lay awake and watch them make patterns on the glass. She would trace them with her fingers or—

That’s not relevant, except that the conduit is feeling around Byron in much the same way.

He’s hurt.

It wants to help.

He shrinks back in on himself as those strange and strangely familiar tendrils of darkness stretch through the air, ink and ash. Byron's intimate knowledge of this ability falls victim to the strange way it warps within the minds of others, the way it changed itself from person to person, and changed those people in turn. It could drain him of his vitality, it could sew the open wounds in his flesh back up with the life it finds in the ground or within Eileen's own body, it could find a way in and take root.

He wants it to do none of these things.

But he doesn't run. In fact, he moves forward, keeping his focus locked on her face as he makes his unsteady way closer. It's barely conscious, when he changes — as if his own shifting ability senses his change in allegiance to his own form. Blonde hair veins with black and pushes longer out from his skull. Finer details of his face shift, his jaw narrowing, his brow broadening. His spine shortens a scant inch or two as his shoulders fill out beneath his coat.


Pale eyes go dark, and familiarity makes sense. Gabriel Gray wonders what he can do to help her, and as he is wondering, his hands go out, bare, wet with rain water, and touch the sides of her face.

Eileen exhales, and instead of forming a fine silvery mist in the cold, her breath condenses as more of the same writhing serpentine energy. It drips through the gaps between Gabriel’s fingers, coils around his wrists, and snakes its way up his arms. The dark hairs on the backs of his hands and neck stand on end, and although his veins appear to blacken beneath the surface of his skin, it does not cause his limbs to shrivel or his muscles to atrophy upon contact.

He was a good host, once. And a powerful one.

It lifts off of Eileen, moving to encompass them both instead of arbitrarily choosing between one body or the other. The conduit will decide where it wants to go, but not yet.

When her eyes focus on Gabriel’s face, they’re their serene green-gray again, and full of tears.

“Oh,” she says, her smaller hands settling on his much larger ones.

Gabriel registers in abstraction the unsettling feeling of healing muscle and flesh pushing flattened bullets out from the meat of his shoulders, where they get lost in the folds of his clothing. Skin stitches closed as strange energy draws the life from the ground, the earthworms that had risen to the surface in the deluge of rain, the roots of weeds and trees that burrow down, down.

At first, his hands lift minutely off of her skin, a hover, before they find rest again, cradling her jaw as his eyes meet hers, and he sees their familiar, murky shade.

He's been walking with her for some time now, and she's never looked at him like that.

So what happens next is really the only thing that can, in this narrow window of time while they are both standing here, alive, and in each others arms. His expression is borderline confused but his intent is not, as he lowers his head and kisses her mouth, almost chaste until it is insistent. This feels like a dream, like so many dreams he has had in the past eight years, and there are so many ways it can end. But they always end.

There's no real way for him to force the conduit from either of them as it snakes around, a mind of its own, and he is too conscious of it even now. He imagines his soul as a pin hole, denying all encompassing entry. It had taken him over, once, but he'd tamed it in the end.

She’s flesh and blood beneath his hands, as real as anything else he can feel: the slanting rain, the warmth radiating off her body, or the residual pain that continues to linger even after the conduit has finished making them both whole again.

Eileen kisses him back. She does not have to count the seconds, or worry about what damage her mouth might inflict other than the painfully ordinary grazing of teeth. His insistence is likewise met in kind; her fingers form claws that clasp him against her, seeking points at which she can anchor their bodies together.

She’s laughing or she’s crying, or maybe the muffled noises she’s making now are a disbelieving marriage of both. Either way, it resembles his name — his real one — reiterated over and over and over.

And over.

Eight years is a really fucking long time.

It feels as real and raw and present as the first time, standing in the Garden, only there, the Ferrymen were civilised enough to bury their dead. Blackened bones scattered amongst ash turning to mud are all that remember that there even was a conflict. Eight years is longer than they even knew one another.

In other ways, it doesn't feel as if any time has passed at all.

His instincts are irrational, like all he can think to do is wrap her up and drive them both down into the ground. It's happiness, emerging out of this moment, as surprising as a wild flower ground from a crack in the pavement, but it's quick to muddy in with other things: fear, animal caution, the stolen nature of this moment nipping at the edges of his awareness. He kisses her anyway, smoothing her hair back from her face, and then winding his arms around her.

By the time they break, Gabriel is holding her close, head down. She can feel his breath wisp through her hair, the angle of his jaw against her skull, the firmness of his hand closing in a fold of her coat.

The conduit makes its decision.

Eileen’s heart is open and inviting, at least in comparison to Gabriel’s defenses, which it lacks the will to navigate. On her next breath in, it comes rushing back, filling her lungs and the cavity of her chest, spreading itself out through the network of veins and arteries that fuels her body with blood and oxygen until its presence saturates her as thoroughly as the rainwater saturates the soil under their feet.

He knows it’s dormant again when the tension in the air dissipates, replaced by the gentle pitter-patter of precipitation on early spring leaves.

Eileen shifts, mindful to keep a layer of clothing between any exposed skin, although she does not need to adjust much.

They’re both dressed for the weather.

“I’m still here,” she tells him, in case this isn’t obvious, because her eyes are blue again.

Gabriel lifts his head as he senses that shift, the last of skin contact broken as he blinks over her, at the wilderness around. The trench they were climbing. The horses, still uneasy at the ends of their tethers. Where ash has become sludge, barely perceptible around the scattered fragments of desiccated blackened bone. A part of him whispers regret that he did not seize the opportunity to take back immortality.

It's a part of him he's been ignoring for a long time, and now is no exception.

He eases back just enough to find her face, still keeping her within the circle of his arms. Blue eyes are maybe what prompt his own troubled expression, or maybe just— all of this, the context in which they are embedded, the knowledge of his mask slipped and unsure what to say about it immediately, or what to say to her in general.

"I know," he roughs out, voice a little ill-used. Byron doesn't speak a lot, or maybe that's just the effect of the shift, putting strain on the finer things.

Exhaustion earns him a reprieve, at least for the time being.

It had been like this before, too, sharing the weight of unspoken thoughts and sentiments between them until the appropriate time and place to do so — and that isn’t here, out in the open, not when they’re wet and cold and shaken.

More importantly: They need to get back to the factory, if only so Kara can double their efforts to fortify it. Interdimensional killing machines aside, she’d been worried about the other groups living outside of the Safe Zone’s boundaries. (The U.S. government calls it that for a reason.)

Tonight was a stern reminder. If they don’t act soon, tomorrow could be too.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License