The Last Step


etienne_icon.gif tamara_icon.gif

Scene Title The Last Step
Synopsis Tamara welcomes home a stranger.
Date March 3, 2018

Ruins of Staten Island

The Salve Regina, an aging lobster fishing boat, wide and low riding in the inky black, arrives by nightfall, sliding into the bay that separates a fat body of ocean off from the ocean with a curling claw of land that makes up the wildly overgrown Great Kills Park. An ideal place to tie off, out of view from the distant patrolling forces that never get this far. To the west, the old Eltingville Blocks lie like a graveyard in the gloom. A lighthouse shines no light at all.

This whole section of Staten Island has changed identities many times in the past decade. Sleepy suburbs and parkland turned to ruin and hives of criminal villainy and shantytown, and then steamrolled, redeveloped into government housing, prisons, checkpoints, and now it's rolled one step back, and those on the fringes of society re-appropriate the ruins of the time when the United States government attempted to civilise.

But the man on the deck of the Salve Regina is new in town.

Steering her in at a leisurely pace, Etienne Saint James is watchful of the coast. Down the way, another boat of similar stature is tied off, and the sounds of human voices occasionally drift from it as a couple of figures idle on deck, and share a bottle of liquor. They don't pay him nearly as much mind as he does them, but he goes about his business, killing the engine and prowling up onto the deck. He's a big man, in that he is tall in an average sort of way, but broad across the chest, old leather even bulkier around his frame. His long mane of hair is left loose, and a few days' worth of bristle is grown in around the chops.

Thump. Heavy rope is thrown to land on the pier, tied off at the stern of the lobster boat.

The pier, it turns out, is not quite empty. The woman who steps out onto it is shorter and slighter by far than the man she's come to meet. She's dressed practically — shoes with decent tread, jeans begun to fray around the edges, a long-sleeved shirt that seems only dark in this light, scarf shrouding hair and shoulders, concealing most of her blond hair. She carries something nestled in the crook of an arm, its contours masked by a nondescript paper bag.

One would think it unsafe for a woman to be wandering Staten Island at night, hive of villainy that it is. Yet her steps are assured, confident; her posture relaxed. Tamara could be strolling down her own home street in broad daylight for all the concern she shows — either for her surroundings or for the stranger she approaches.

Coming to a halt in the midst of the pier, Tamara gives the boat a thoughtful look, her gaze trailing over its contours from bow to stern. That sweep ultimately ends with the man who owns the boat, and the woman casts him an amiable smile. "Welcome to New York," the seer greets. She tilts her head slightly, and the smile quirks to one side. "I could ask if you were planning to stay awhile, but it'd be rather pointless."

He stops when he senses approach, guarded stillness more animal than man. Then, slowly, going back to what he was doing — which puts him in Tamara's sights anyway as he leaps from boat to pier with a solid twinned thump of his boots striking slick wood. The water as still as it is in the bay, there's no real danger of drifting, but he sinks into a crouch anyway to tie the Salve Regina off with hands that aren't as deft as they could be, given his shaggy, salt-stained, sun-weathered appearance.

"Why," he asks, in a voice that is pure gravel. Rising to his feet, he moves to meet her, the pier creaking underfoot. His accent is strange, an odd assortment of colonial histories. "Only pointless question's is ones you know the answer to."

But there is a steely edge of recognition in blue eyes, approach cautious beneath the swagger. He looks to the package tucked under her wing.

Tamara waits calmly as he tends to his boat, as he walks towards her. "Just so," she says with another smile. She gives the sailor another thoughtful look as he draws near, then steps aside, pivoting slightly in unspoken invitation for him to fall in beside her. A gust of the fitful ocean breeze tugs at the trailing end of her scarf; she catches it, tucks another loop around her arm.

"It's a nice night for a walk," Tamara continues, expanding upon that invitation. "If you'd care for some company." He can say no, and she'll walk away, leave the man to his business in solitude; that's clear in her posture, the incline of her head and the shape of her expression. Equally in evidence, however, is the expectation that he will agree.

On the heels of that offer, Tamara extends the bag she carries, fingers closed around what suggests itself as the neck of a bottle, narrow and tall, the presumed base of which is oriented towards Etienne. No words accompany the implied gift; perhaps she expects it to be an explanation all its own.

The brown paper rustles between the transfer of hands, Etienne still keeping his eyes on her as he does. For a moment, he just holds it, before he peels the paper back enough to tug the bottle out, and then looks down at what he is holding, turning it to look at the label.

It's not the most obvious choice for an impromptu gift. If she was expecting this particular man to step off of the boat, there are better cliches — rum being one of them, or a masculine bourbon, perhaps a decently dark beer. The British gin, clear and vaguely oily, is specific, and without being much of a drinker, without needing to open it now and smell it, Etienne Saint James knows that it will taste of poison and flowers.

Behind him, the wheelhouse of his boat is dark and locked, but he doesn't even glance back as he moves to follow her.

Long strides carry Tamara back down the pier towards dry land, her steps quiet and assured; she ventures into the dark, derelict, weather-battered streets of Staten bearing the same air of confidence with which she emerged. She chooses a route that winds them along the shore, avoiding the complications that might be posed by others about in the night, following the gradual curve of the bay. It isn't long before they altogether leave behind the drift of other voices, the rare glimmer of distant light, the cracked and crumbling streets — the course the seer sets takes them onto such trails as remain in the overgrown wilds that were once a park.

Tamara walks in what is to her a companionable silence, comfortable having nothing more on the air than the sounds of their steps, the soft soughing of the breeze off the ocean, the repetitive susurrus of waves lapping at the shore. She has no need to fill each beat of their progress with words, her messages have been delivered, and their destination yet awaits; for the moment, the conversational ball rests soundly in Etienne's court, inasmuch as it is in play at all.

He certainly recognises being in possession of it, but as is characteristic, chooses silence for much of the time it takes to roam along the edge of the island. Cracked pavement, packed earth, the continual hiss of night time waters on night time sands. At first, he moves as though he's stalking her, with Tamara's confident wander giving off an air of obliviousness in contrast to Etienne's solid pace behind her, a lion tracking a housecat.

Eventually, a longer stride gradually pulls his momentum until he is walking beside her. He radiates conflict, both hands gripping the bottle of liquor, now, with an anxiousness that seems out of place with all his leather and wild hair and coarse skin.


"I remember you."

The night is dark, and grows darker still as they pass beneath densely interwoven trees. For all that, Tamara unhesitatingly detours around a sprawl of bramble desperate for even a slight break in the canopy, sidesteps a sapling grown two inches thick in the middle of the abandoned trail and taller than she.

The seer looks to the side as he comes up beside her, stride never faltering — only adjusting itself to the landscape they traverse. "I thought you might," she says, where thought and might are merest politesse; there was no uncertainty in either part.

She turns her gaze forward, wry smile tugging the nearer corner of her mouth aside. "I don't," is matter of fact, neither regret nor apology flavoring the words. "Not for where we've been." One hand tucks a stray lock of hair behind the corresponding ear. She glances at him, then towards a gap in the branches, the pale tower glimpsed through it.

"But it's not my remembering that matters, where we go."

The ruin of the lighthouse puts one into mind of a broken tooth that should have long ago been extracted, a pale tower that is now, also, rotting and crumbled in places. It's surrounded by a sparse field of wild salt grass that reaches as high as Tamara's knees, and it shivers and rattles with wind. Not quite out of sight but discreetly placed, a shanty of scrap has been built against one of its sides. It might be easy for Etienne to mistake such a construction as maybe this young woman's own devising.

He looks up at it, uncomprehending when he asks; "And where's that?"

This wasn't a stop he imagined he'd be making first once his feet had found New York soil.

It isn't until they've emerged from the shrouding brush, until they've stepped out into the brisk ocean wind and trekked an arc that parallels a portion of the lighthouse's curve, that Tamara answers. She points, first, to a solitary slab of stone in the midst of the expanse of salt grass, simultaneously bereft of deliberate landscaping and of any natural-seeming outcrop around it. "There," she says, her steps tracking towards it, closing that grass-carpeted distance — all but the last few feet of it.

The seer stops, just a few paces away, and turns towards Etienne. "A last step," she remarks, "or perhaps a first."

Etienne tracks his gaze towards the slab, his expression at first curious, and then neutral, his silence swallowing Tamara's words whole without giving them too careful consideration about what they might mean. And, having come this far on a mysterious journey, it doesn't take a great deal more willing to move the rest of the way over there, coming to stand over unremarkable rock, crowned in saltgrass.

Slowly, he sinks into a crouch, setting the liquor bottle down to balance against the edge of the slab with a crinkle of brown paper and a light clink of muffled glass.

Reticent, he lays his hands on the stone, as if instinct demands he move it, or try to see what's underneath, but instead he just rests them there. Looks, then, past the bulk of his shoulder at Tara, his aura shifting into something a little aggressive as if to suggest she had want to say something to remain in his company, or leave.

The seer looks on as Etienne crosses the space, saltgrass bending and compressing under the weight of his tread. She watches as he communes with the stone, or the next best thing so far as she knows; for all her insight, Tamara is no mind-reader, though with some people the distinction might as well be academic. Not so with this one, the silence of his thoughts opaque.

The look cast her way, its demanding implication, sinks like a stone into water and leaves the surface of her demeanor unruffled. Which is not to say she doesn't oblige that demand. "You know what's here," Tamara says, blue gaze somber, touched with something that isn't precisely sympathy, that refrains from presuming anything like that degree of familiarity.

"Sometimes you turn away, take it as your answer, the last place to look. You go back to the silence and the emptiness and make them into walls that shut the world out." The ocean breeze whispers through her hair, tugging blonde strands into disarray; Tamara pushes the ones that drift across her face back behind her ears, continues speaking without interruption. "The world is less for that, but the answer's not wrong."

Perhaps what's clearest in those statements is that said retreat is not the seer's preferred branching.

"Sometimes you refuse," she adds, not forcing him to try and parse out implications… or express impatience. "You keep searching. Whether you find anything…" She breathes out a near-sigh. "…that goes out farther than I can easily see."

There is a gentling to Etienne's posture, resigned, like submitting to a dose of chemical you didn't particularly want. That guarding crouch rolls backwards into a sit in the dirt as Tamara speaks familiar things, grace and poise and danger unravelling from his muscles as he feels that familiarity, a cold wind rushing between his bones, a hopelessness. A part of him wants only to lay down, into the soil, give flesh to the invisible feeding things that would reduce him to bone.

He reaches, then, into his jacket. One might expect a cigarette, or a weapon with a sudden turn of mood, but Tamara already knows what's there by the time it's brought out into moonlight. Smooth burnished gold reflects it, recently polished if aged from its original lustre, ticking quietly. Elgin railroad. 1920’s.

"I was gonna give it back to her," he says. His voice is different, now, a subtle change. "If I could." He lets the watch slip between his fingers, snag on its chain caught at the knuckle. It dangles. "Should I start digging?"

Soft steps bring the seer forward through the grass until she can kneel at the periphery of Etienne's space, companionable rather than encroaching. She watches the watch for a moment, head faintly canted, expression contemplative; it's clear she has the impulse to reach out and touch it, equally clear she chooses otherwise.

"I think," Tamara replies softly, gently, her gaze lifting to meet his, "you should keep it." She blinks once, then looks out past him, eyes darkening as they turn upon an indistinct distance. "It's too small, too far, for the details not to break things, but…" A smile then, refocused upon her companion, faint as the starlight above them. "You can always bury it later."

A breath, followed by something that isn't, quite, a promise. "And you may yet find a better fate for it."

"They used to divine the future in paint and prophecy. Not laters and maybes."

But here he is, closing his hand back around the pocket watch, and sedately slipping it back into his pocket. Here he is, sitting at her grave for the first time since he'd abandoned her bones to the elements further north, and none of it makes any sense. Etienne relaxes against his own raised knees, reaching to take back the bottle he'd set down and grasping it around its metal cap. The seal breaks with an easy twist.

He imagines that afterwards, they drank to her memory. He imagines that when they did, they were drinking to a lot of people's memories. Now, he hefts the bottle a little, catching that familiar scent, and tilts a look to Tamara.

The hostility has bled out of his muscles. There are whole shards of glass where his blood is meant to be moving through his heart and in the space where his lungs are meant to fill with air, but after all these years, that much is normal. So he offers the bottle back to drink from with a querying tip.

"They still do," Tamara affirms amicably from her place amidst the grass, watching him tuck the watch away. "I could give you prophecy," she says, casting him a look that's somber beneath half-facetious query: do you want me to?. "Symbols and shadows all veiled in fog. It's easier."

Blue eyes drop to the bottle proffered, catching on the starlight glinting back from its rim. For all that she has not the slightest hesitation in accepting that offer, there's deliberation in the smooth reach of her hand, the close of fingers around its width, the gentle tug that lifts it free of his grasp. Calculation in the touch of glass to lips, the precise degree to which its length is tipped, the slight measure of spirits the seer ultimately imbibes.

"Easier isn't always best," Tamara observes, gaze level upon her companion. She extends the bottle in return. "Sometimes, it's the very opposite thing."

She extends the bottle out, and the man who takes it has shifted into something else. Blunter features, darker hair and darker eyes, hair cut closer to his scalp than the wilder mane it was before. His clothes are the same, and he still smells like smoke and ocean, but a wall has come down, but it's probably true that Gabriel Gray was who Tamara was looking at all along.

He brings the gin bottle up to his mouth. They used to drink this particular liquor, sometimes straight, sometimes after fruit has imparted its sugars into it over days in mason jars, and almost always in chilled glass. A hint of frost coats the glass as he drinks from it, and his sip is less measured than Tamara's, liquid gathered at the corners of his mouth enough to spill, which he cleans up with the palm of his hand.

"You got me this far," Gabriel says, finally, gaze resting heavy on the stone marker. One eyebrow raises, some tribute to humour. "I can take it from here."

Where Gabriel's gaze is shadow and frost, what Tamara offers back is warmth and light — restrained in deference to the night and their somber surroundings, yet plainly evident in the curve of her smile and crinkle of skin around blue eyes.

"Yes," the seer affirms with confidence, certainty, satisfaction. Her gaze also goes to the marker, but while her expression takes on a sense of pensive empathy, that underlying approbation persists.

Around them, beyond them, possibilities fade into the darkness, swathes of potential pruned wholesale by the weight of a single resolution. Unknown to he whose choice drives that pruning, the branch that remains all but gleams in prescient awareness, rich with potential no other path might have approached.

A last step… or perhaps a first.

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