Without It


etienne_icon.gif sibyl4_icon.gif

Scene Title Without It
Synopsis Etienne returns Sibyl to the Staten Island Trade Commission after her encounter with Samson, Eve, and the well.
Date April 3, 2018

Ruins of Staten Island

Staten Island is famous for a lot of things. Organized crime. Drugs. Human trafficking. Its slums. No one ever talks about the wildflowers that grow in thick tangles in the spring and through the summer, erupting in unexpected, forgotten places. In the greenbelt, the air is fragrant and dense with fresh pollen, but it’s too early for bees or butterflies, only gnats and spiders weaving their early evening webs between stalks of tall dune grass.

There is a field that sits square in the middle of the woods and is surrounded on all sides by a dilapidated fence strung with rusted, drooping lengths of barbed wire. Caught by the metal, strings of ashy, white-blonde hair gleam silver in the fading light. This is how Etienne ultimately finds her, although it would be a lie to say that the trail she cut through the vegetation didn’t also play an important part.

She looks like he might be too late, at a glance. On her back, arms limp above her head, the girl’s body appears painfully still. Mud, silt, and other assorted filth plasters her hair to her face with a consistency like paper mache that’s been left to bake in the sun. At some point she lost both her boots and her fine woolen coat, leaving her in clothes that are in a similar condition to her hair, if tattered and prematurely worn through where they endured the most abuse.

Her chest rises and falls, so she must be alive.

Her hooded eyes are open and staring at the swiftly darkening sky, so she must be conscious.

When she left Alister’s compound, she carried with her the pistol she salvaged from the house by the river and a borrowed holster to hang it in. Expectedly, she has neither of those things on her now.

It's warm under the sun, but there isn't a lot of sun left. Etienne contemplates that, contemplates their surroundings, contemplates the catatonic spill of her limbs and glassiness of her eyes and the myriad of scrapes and bruises she sports as he sinks into a crouch next to her. The wind that whispers through the clearing tugs at the long hair he has trapped into the collar of his jacket, tugging it free strand by strand, otherwise quite still as he contemplates what next to do.

He leans, reaching for her lax arms, gently bringing them back down, and then seeing, with a slight tug, if she will follow to sit. She's seen men and women with this expression before, and knows that sometimes, their bodies will do as guide. Sometimes they'll be as loose as cut puppets, like the girl seems to be.

She tenses under his guiding hand but does not resist his unspoken instruction to sit. Upright, Sibyl leans forward, the weight of her upper body resting on her thighs. There’s no need for her to physically look at him; her ability, back in play, lets her know it’s Etienne before his shadow reaches her periphery.

He’ll recognize the residue of negation gas in her hair and on her skin: pungent, greasy, but otherwise harmless now that its compounds have broken down once exposed to the air. It will irritate her eyes if she reaches up to touch them, but her hands don’t seem to possess that particular inclination yet.

There’s a fluttery quality to her breathing that’s difficult to separate from the movement of the leaves in the trees, or the sound the wind makes when it gets caught in his ears. That too will fade, given enough time.

Reaching into his jacket, Etienne pulls out a flask. Lined in leather and otherwise a scratched up, cheap metal, he unscrews and flips open the lid, and then reaches to collect her hands so as to put them around it. It's surprisingly full, dense in her hands, and where one might expect the sudden pungent smell of hard liquor, there is really only the faintest of trace of it. Shockingly enough, the flask is full of fresh water.

Which has its value, out here. "Here," he says, that slightly strange, careless accent as distinct as his profile, the shadow that falls across her, heavy in these kinds of simply words. Less so in the next. "Drink."

Sibyl looks down at the flask in her hands. The edge of her thumb traces its shape. It’s hard, metallic, man-made — entirely different than the tall grass rippling around them or the dirt under their feet and wedged beneath her fingernails. She studies them next.

“It tried prying me apart,” she says, whether to Etienne, or to herself, or to someone who isn’t present. “I think I wanted it to.” She lifts the flask with both hands and drinks from it, unable to anticipate the depth of her thirst until she’s already in the process of slaking it. After tumbling into the well and losing her pistol at the bottom of it, she thought she wouldn’t want to taste water in her mouth again.

She was wrong.

She’s also greedy. Half the flask’s contents are gone by the time she lowers it again and wipes the excess from her mouth with the back of her grubby hand. Finally she looks at him, exhausted. “You don’t have an ability, do you?”

As she drinks, Etienne reaches towards her hair, gathering a pinch of it between his fingers and rubbing it between them. Lets go, brings that hand back, testing the oily texture his fingers now have as a result as if trying to conjure what happened in his mind through sense. He shakes his head without looking at her. No. He has no ability.

"Worked a ship that was takin' them out of South America, looking for new beginnings elsewhere. Fifteen years ago. Didn't have a word for them, back then. Some of the men didn't want to touch them, or eat in the same room. Superstitions."

He wipes his hand off on his leg. "Someone attack you?"

Sibyl hesitates. That’s a yes or a no question, or it should be. She has difficulty choosing a side. “There’s a woman,” is what she decides to tell Etienne, “from the mainland. Her ability makes her—” Crazy. Not the kindest descriptor, and Sibyl wants very badly to be kind. “She knows things about me I don’t want her to, and she wouldn’t leave me alone. I thought I could put her someplace she couldn’t bother me anymore until I decided what to do.”

She screws the cap back on Etienne’s flask with shaky fingers. Prolonged exposure to negation gas can cause permanent nerve damage, but it seems an unlikely scenario here. Anxiety is the more probable culprit. “It was the wrong place. Or the wrong time.”

As much as her hands are trembling, there’s some catharsis in being able to confide in someone who isn’t Epstein. She offers Etienne his flask back. “Mine remembers things from before I was born,” she adds, tentative again. She shows some reluctance, like when she’d been unwilling or unable to shoot him in the house by the river. “Not always, just around certain people. Flashes or feelings. An idea. The woman— Eve. She has other enemies. So. One of them wanted to ask me questions.”

Etienne takes the flask, doesn't open it, doesn't put it away, just fidgets a little with the catch as he listens, eyes down. "Sounds like this Eve could use more friends," he says, his voice all sandpaper and smoke, as ever.

Expression inscrutable — but empty of some things, like judgment, or anticipation — when he then asks, "Have you decided?"

About what to do, he means.

“No.” Sibyl has not developed a taste for killing, only the desire to keep a weapon close. She already feels naked without the pistol, regardless of whether she would have actually turned it on Eve. “She should know better than to come looking for me here on the island again. It’s safe.”

As safe as Staten Island can be. Not very.

“Thank you. For looking for me.”

"Consider it a favour owed," Etienne says, a little dry. "Given I tell Black about this, he really will get you a bodyguard."

And he doubts either of them want to deal with that.

He rises to his feet, looming over her all the larger for their respective positions, and not for the first time, he offers out one big paw for her to take and use to get to her feet. An easy yank will do most of the heavy lifting for her before his grip turns passive, available to be clutched to if her head starts spinning. "And he'd have someone killed for less," he adds.

He takes the cigarette from behind his ear, fishing a lighter from a pocket.

"What was it like?"

Sibyl's hand never leaves Etienne's arm. Her fingers form a steadying vice around his wrist that contains a surprising amount of strength for someone her size.

The girl's feet are less sure. She sways, connecting with his hip, then pushes back to recreate some space between them. "Like knowing everything and nothing at the same time," she says, a hollow quality to her voice. "Pressure, here." Her free hand drifts to her chest and hovers above her heart. "Breaking me apart."

Blue eyes track the movements of Etienne's fingers and the cigarette dangling from them like someone keen on discovering the pedestrian truth behind a magic trick. "I remember wanting to get it over with, to go to pieces— I don't remember coming back together again. I don't remember how I got here."

Etienne gives up the use of his arm for her steadying benefit, about as solid to grip to as one would expect, just looking at him. Waits for her to get her feet under her without swaying, and then starts to walk them both away. Judging by where the sun has settled, he's moving southwards. The suburban sprawl, the docks, but first, the greenbelt.

He doesn't have to put into words about this being why she sunk those canisters to the bottom of the bay. Why men died for it. It's a child's logic, he thinks, but then, that's what she says.

"You were something before it," he says, as he leads on. "Can't have started as pieces."

"There was a hospital." Sibyl isn't negated now. She might not remember everything, but she apparently doesn't remember nothing either. Her feet cut a path through the tall grass, stirring up small translucent insects that buzz and wink in the air. "Doctors telling me my family was gone. Loss like I'd never felt before, haven't since."

She leans against Etienne just enough to remain upright as they move through the undergrowth. The shadows have begun to do strange things to the trees. "They said they found me under the rubble, in Eltingville. A building collapsed and crushed everyone else in it. Sometimes I try to think about the sound of it coming down, or the explosion that was supposed to blow it apart, but there's a sort of— void."

He huffs an exhale. Huh. Etienne stands corrected.

Soon enough, they come up upon chain link fencing that delineates territory that has long since overgrown itself. Cigarette between teeth, he plucks his free hand against it, tipping back to measure the height, a glance this way and that that only spies the fence disappearing into dense forest. One can imagine he'd just vault over it like a big lumbering tiger. Instead, he nudges her leftwards, where the weight of a haggard tree is bending the fence outwards a little, making climbing easier going.

"Maybe you should try it, sometime," he suggests, as they go. "See what you're made of, without it."

Etienne sounds as non-committal about unasked for advice as he does about most things, breaking contact then to start on the climb up and over the fence, using the tree as leverage. He turns, offers out a hand for her to use and follow. Metal creaks beneath the weight.

Sibyl crests the fence under Etienne’s careful guidance. Her coat snags on the wire, leaving behind a torn tuft of wool as she tugs it free. She’s light-footed and comes down on the other side with a fawn’s delicate care and deliberation, the doe to his tiger.

A moth alights on her coat, a smudge of gray on navy blue. The girl tucks her chin into her collarbone for a better look, then shoos it on its way with a gentle breath blown past pursed lips. It flutters off, vanishing into the ferns where the field meets the woodland.

The vegetation here is denser, darker. The air cooler. “What if I’m not anything without it?” she counters, not just for the sake of arguing. Etienne detects real fear beneath her quiet bluster. “What if it’s all that I am?”

Etienne looks down and aside at her, bright eyes thoughtful in his otherwise unchanging expression, as if giving real consideration to the possibility as presented. He makes a sound at the back of his throat, rough and ambiguous, and moves on ahead. He trusts Sibyl to have her feet under her, now, concentrating on finding a clear enough path for them both to make their journey less slow going.

"Then that's the sort of thing you'd want to be sure about," he says, a touch of irony as he raises his voice enough to be heard.

There are some questions Sibyl suspects she would not like the answer to if she received it. This is one of them. Small birds, flushed from their hiding places by the pair’s trek through the trees, zip between branches and into the bushes with a crackle of their wings and shrill, lyrical cries of alarm. A twig snaps underfoot.

One of their feet. Nothing to worry about.

Disagreement, however, is written all over Sibyl’s sullen face.

“The man who used to look after me knew what I was,” she says, because maybe there are other ways that don’t involve negation drugs or the willful suppression of her ability, whether that’s what she is or simply an extension of it. She hopes so, anyway. “I asked him once and he wouldn’t say. Only looked at me, like—”

There’s a pause, as though Sibyl is trying to summon the appropriate analogy, but that’s a lie. She’s had the appropriate analogy for years — this is just the first time she’s had the opportunity to share it out loud with someone else. “He looked at me like somebody who’s afraid of deep water looks at the ocean.”

From Sibyl's vantage point, she could almost feel as though she is following someone who is only incidentally leading. That he is slow enough to keep up with her easily could be on purpose, or it could be the dense foliage, the slightly upwards climb as they crest the geography where the island rises up from water level where its greenest. He doesn't glance back, but does listen.

"Maybe he was afraid of losing you," he says, like someone who maybe knows that feeling, of people and secrets, or maybe he just knows — appropriately — about oceans. They don't forgive easily. "Sounds like he already has."

“Yes,” Sibyl admits, not without some remorse. “He’s with the wolf-dogs now.” She lapses into silence, allowing rustling grass and leaves to fill the gap in their conversation in place of her voice.

The sun finishes its descent and plunges Staten Island into night. Spring peepers — little brown chorus frogs with flashing amber eyes — fill the air with the chirping song they’re named for, hundreds of thousands of them, interspersed with the occasional fox’s scream. It’s only frightening if you don’t know what it is.

Both Sibyl and Etienne do. She finds herself longing for fireflies and the warm ocean breezes that accompany summer. Other things, too.

It’s not long before the dim glow of the Rookery appears in the distance, flickering in the otherwise dark spaces between the trees. They’ll have to cut through it, skirting along rain-slick alleyways crowded with trash, past the nighttime market its musky, inviting smells, none of which are particularly appetizing to her even though she hasn’t eaten since breakfast.


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