benji_icon.gif eileen_icon.gif

Scene Title Understanding
Synopsis Benji and Eileen attempt to arrive at one.
Date November 29, 2010

Pollepel Island

Night drapes the trees outside Benji's window in shadows like black gauze and frost creeps across the pane, obscuring his view of the river and the darkened forest on the other side of the water. It is not so cold in his room that he can see his breath with every exhale, but cold enough that the woman tasked with cleaning his linens has afforded him an extra blanket to stave off shivers. Alone, he does not have the warmth of another body or bodies to keep him company in the long hours between dusk and dawn, and in this he is unique; almost everyone else on the island shares their room with at least one other person, and if it was summer rather than winter chances are the refugees would not be as complacent about their current living arrangements.

His visitor has no intent to stay. At the window, Eileen adjusts the brightness of the lantern that fills Benji's room with light and creates caged shadows in its corners that seem to paw at their bars whenever the flame flickers, which is often enough. Dimmer now, to reduce the chances of attracting attention on the shore.

Dinner sits where she set it down after the door behind her was bolted shut, and consists of a thick cabbage soup and a wedge of bread baked in the downstairs kitchen yesterday morning — stale but not unappetizing. Wrapped in a cloth napkin is a piece of fontina cheese that Benji can safely assume was not part of the evening menu. That's from Eileen, and either a peace offering, an apology or a trick, depending on whose story he chooses to believe.

He'd considered a hunger strike in order to campaign for freedom of the negation injections, but in the end, even Benji doesn't have that kind of willpower. Or he's not convinced it would work anyway. Bread is broken, used to soak up soup, sliding warm, greasy droplets down the back of his fingers when he takes bites, a mix of pragmatic non-concern for getting food on his fingers, and delicate, bird-like motions. He is also focused on getting some food down, too, while it's still steaming, but that could also readily be an excuse to not make eye contact with the woman who's invited herself in.

Not that, at this stage, he would be choosy about his company. "Have you already eaten, Miss Ruskin?" is polite, quiet enquiry. The napkin is shed from the cheese, mostly to clean his fingers, before he hesitates, then goes to pick through that in turn, just for something bitingly flavourful.

Garbed as he was just a few hours ago, in black wool and blue denim, there is something of an impression of starving artist in Benji's wardrobe and demeanor. Until one remembers that some of these clothes have been donated in the kindness of the network, and the only skill he has demonstrated is his talent for stealing tugboats and fixing engines.

There are rumours that Eileen doesn't smile, but she's smiling now. That her back is to Benji might have something to do with it; the muscles in her face are more relaxed when she knows people aren't watching, and the raven studying her wan reflection in the glass does not count, as dear as he is to her. Bran sits on the sill, fat and greasy and black, content with his full belly and a meal of animal scraps not fit for human consumption, which Eileen fed to him by hand shortly before coming up here. If she hadn't, he'd making a nuisance of himself instead of twisting jealous looks over his shoulder at the cheese when he thinks Benji isn't looking.

"No," she says. "I try to take my meals with a friend of mine when I can. We're both animals of solitary habits, and the dining room is sometimes so loud I can hardly hear my own thoughts, never mind what the people on either side and across are trying to share with me. I'd be jealous of what you have here if it wasn't so cold at night and he didn't respect my privacy as much as he values his own."

Her wardrobe and Benji's have wool in common. No denim this evening — she wears a functional dress and knit cardigan beneath her coat instead, and leather boots that muffle the sound of her footsteps. If there are any ghost sightings on the island, it's probably people's superstitions that are to blame, but her choice of footwear is also suspect, as well as her tendency to prowl the corridors at unusual hours.

"I don't mind it. The loudness of people."

Bread and cheese is nibbled, Benji comfortably crossed legged as he eats, before he returns to soup, picking up the bowl from the tray to handle better. The scrape of spoon mostly serves to underscore the silence rather than interrupt it, but he's otherwise a quiet eater. Difficult to tell when he's available to talk again, what with her back to him. "And I don't pretend to be solitary." If this is an allusion to his power denied him, it's one that's understated, hidden. Confinement is excuse enough.

Benji affords Eileen another look, a glance towards the raven following. He hesitates, then asks, "Your friend isn't the bird, is it?"

"Bran?" Eileen asks, and she makes his name sound like a soft gasp of laughter. The raven ruffles his feathers in response, intelligent enough to recognize when he's being spoken of. "Well, he keeps me company too sometimes, but no." The lantern tended to, she turns and folds an arm across her middle, her opposite hand coming to rest on the sill beside Bran. It's the one still in the process of healing, if she's decided to believe Gabriel and put the effort into nurturing it back to health, which she has. At a distance, with her gloves off, the differences between it and the other are so few as to be insignificant.

It's only when someone looks closer that they see the unnatural skinniness in her fingers and the exaggerated angles of her joints, pallid skin and too-dark veins running blue-black beneath a cadaver-pale surface.

"Your friend Howard," she says, "he's very loud. You'd need not to mind."

There is a glance towards her dwindled hand, as if uncertain as to whether he's seeing it correctly, and the only reaction Benji gives is a small furrow of his brows before his attention sinks back into his dinner. An equally uncertain breath of a chuckle at that comment, picking up a piece of bread before dropping it again beside bowl, that hand up to wearily rub at his forehead, sweeping fingers through slightly greasy black hair.

The thought gives him a headache.

"Has he been especially so?" There's enough strain in his voice, by now, for Eileen to probably tell that keeping up his own naturally quiet and demure demeanor is becoming difficult. Playing the supplicant to avoid attention is one thing; playing it when eyes are on you is another.

And Eileen’s are. Although her gaze is not precise, the sound of his voice gives her a target to aim for. When she chooses to advertise her blindness, it’s with her white cane rather than her mannerisms, which have become very practiced in the time she’s gone without. "He seems to be under the impression that I’m waiting for the right opportunity to march you out to some soft soil and make you start digging.

"He’s spending the night in the infirmary. There was an accident— I’m not entirely clear on the details, only that his ability was involved, but he was quite adamant about letting you go when we spoke." She lifts her hand at the sill to stroke knuckles along Bran’s throat. "He wants to leave the island as soon as he and Nora are well enough again to travel. I was hoping you might be able to dissuade him until we can be sure that isn’t a mistake."

That last part gets a cynical kind of sound — merely an exhale and a quirk of a puzzled smile — from the cynicism already simmering at the notion that Howard might care for him vs., say, the notion that Howard is a fucking drama queen. Benji sets food aside enough to rest elbows comfortable against his bent knees, fingers linking together.

"Howard is young. And angry, as so many young people tend to be. And why would you be asking my help in keeping people where you'd like them when you've demonstrated that with a raise of an eyebrow, you can get that and then some?" A head tip towards his closed and perpetually locked door makes obvious indication about what Benji is talking about. A little needless.

Abruptly, Benji's mood seems to dip along with a gaze hitting the floor, concern etching in lines across his forehead. He opens his mouth like he'd speak— is he okay?— but ultimately holds his tongue.

"This is a settlement," says Eileen, "not a prison." She steps away from the window, and in the small confines of the room does not have to travel very far to arrive at her intended destination: the edge of Benji’s bed. She hooks fingers around the wooden post to steady herself as she sits down, mindful to keep more than an arm’s length between them, both for her own safety and for the purpose of maintaining the illusion that he has any real control over his.

"When they took our safehouses and drove us toward the water, they didn’t discriminate between people like you and people like me. If the government finds out that we’re here, they’ll kill every last one of us, and that’s if we’re lucky. If we’re not, we’ll go the way of the Thompson Commune and end up locked away in airtight metal coffins instead of piled into a mass grave." A thrust of Bran’s wings carries him between sill and bed. He’s getting better at it, but almost loses his balance when he lands on Eileen’s shoulder and ends up needing to catch himself with a snap of his beak that snags her collar.

"I’ve made everyone on this island my responsibility by bringing them here. You and your friends were never meant to board the boats, but as long as you’re here, you’re one of us, and I intend to do everything in my power to keep you safe for as long as I can. What’s on your registration card is making that difficult."

"Which is why my friend believes you'll be making me dig my own grave," Benji notes. "If you would like a story of horrific abuse at the hands of the government, you need only show him kindness and ask. For someone to be here and with possible allegiance with such an entity…"

The bed shifts and creaks beneath them as Benji shifts away from her by a few inches, legs folded, not quite tight enough for his knees to brush his chin, but close enough, defensive. Legs tip to the side a little, hands planted on the mattress. "I've already told your friends my story," he points out, in his whisper-murmur tone. "What would you like?"

"I’d like for you to tell me what your job as an informant entailed, and to believe me when I tell you that I sympathize with your situation and will support you at the next council meeting." On Eileen’s shoulder, Bran picks at his feathers, adjusting the way they sit until satisfied with the oily appearance of his plumage, or at least as satisfied as he can be with the amount of weight he’s put on since his injury. Birds can be vain, too.

"I’d also like," Eileen adds, "to know what your ability is capable of. I’m sorry for the Adynomine — with your gift, it’s a necessary precaution." She tolerates Bran’s beak near her ear as he uses its edge to come through her hair now that he’s finished with his feathers. If she smells the flesh on the raven’s breath, she doesn’t mind the reek. "Please try to understand."

Understated people can be difficult to read. One might imagine that the paler quality of Benji's blue is less murky and thus communicates more, but in practice, less so — cloudy, obscuring shyness, and maybe some regret. Roaming his fingertips up to his temple, his hairline, is more about unconscious hiding than curing an itch. "I understand," he admits, after several seconds of prolonged pause. "So it's unfortunate for me to have—

"To have to tell you that I'd rather not go into it." A subtle rock of his body communicates nervous fidget, making the mattress shift just a little, springs creak. "And I can only trust that won't get me shot in the head or exiled, but it wouldn't be the first mistake I've made all this week."

"And your contact in Harlem?" asks Eileen. "Are they associated with the Department of Evolved Affairs as well?" There’s a definite shift in her demeanor: a hardening of her face and voice, ice shivering through her tone, though it remains soft, conversational for all that this is just a gentler kind of interrogation than what Raith and Ryans put him through.

She didn’t like that last answer. Makes no attempt to pretend otherwise. Bran is suddenly watching Benji through the veil of Eileen’s hair, his eyes unblinking. A hiss leaks out, its origin somewhere at the back of his throat.

No is just audible, almost quieter than the raven's vocalisation — breathed out on the tail of a voiceless chuckle, an uneasy smile spreading as Benji fidgets absently with the cuff of denim pant leg. It seems like a genuine reaction — a little startled, surprised at the idea that his 'contact' in Harlem is any such thing. "I wasn't lying, when I said that I wanted to go back to see friends," he adds, his voice cautious, words placed down slowly.

A fleeting glance up to check her expression, before it wanders away to his sitting dinner. Chin lifting, Benji sets about again tearing off bread, pairing it with cheese to consume, careful not to spill breadcrumbs on sheets. "It'd be stupid to go back to work if I came here to get away from it," he adds, around his food and between bites.

Eileen rises from the bed, and Bran braces himself against her neck to keep his perch, one wing spread open across her narrow shoulder for additional balance. Her hair falls in loose ringlets, its texture and consistency similar to Benji’s under the right light; she’ll eat, but after she’s taken a shower and scrubbed the grit out from beneath her fingernails, which are not clipped as short as they should be for the lifestyle she’s chosen.

"I hope that they’re well," she says at the door, and she raps her knuckles against it to let the Ferry operative on the other side know that she’s finished. "It would be unfortunate if the Department came looking for you there, and rest assured: Praeger’s people will."

The door creaks open enough to admit the Englishwoman’s slender frame into the hall, coat pulled tight around her with fabric bunched in the knit of her white fingers. "Sleep peacefully, Benjamin.

"I’ll visit with you again soon."

A draw of an inhale implies that Benji might not allow her the last word, or offer reassurance about how his friends can take care of themselves, or at the very least, that he told them nothing. But goodness. He's done with this too. A glance back through Bran's beady eyes will show her a sullen man of twenty-something watching the wall rather than her departure.

And she'll be well down the hall enough that only the Ferry guard outside will hear the clatter of cutlery and dishes scattered across the floor after the tray is flipped in unseen show of frustration.

If Eileen's parting words were meant to be reassuring, they didn't quite get there.

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