A Date at Eight


nicole_icon.gif zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title A Date at Eight
Synopsis Safe or dangerous?
Date May 14, 2019


Good morning. Pick one:
Safe or dangerous?
See you at 8.
- Z

It was a simple question that found itself on Nicole's phone. What followed after an answer had been given and the clock struck 8, not so much.

The location at which she was told to wait does not, perhaps, promise the best start of a romantic night out. Though still in Elmhurst, the street borders so close to the rat-infested Jackson Heights that finding any place to eat seems almost infinitely less likely than a mugging. But at least the wait isn't long, assuming Nicole did not arrive very early.

Her date rolls up right on time in a black, vintage hearse. With flames on the side, of course. What else. After it pulls to a stop next to a bit of cracked sidewalk just ahead of Nicole, Zachery pops out of the driver's side, dressed nicely - though a little darkly - in a black suit, black dress shirt, and even a perfectly done up dark purple tie to break it up with a tiny bit of colour. He ambles around to hold the passenger door open, even! Apart from the offered seat, he has two things for Nicole.

A greeting, spoken through a wide grin: "Hi." And one more question: "Do you trust me?"

Pippa deserves safe, she had told Peyton. But Nicole isn’t Pippa, and so she had sent the text back opting for dangerous. Curiosity about what he might consider to be dangerous certainly got the better of her.

When the car pulls up, Nicole takes a step back at first, like she wants to make sure the driver knows she’s not there for them. Until she sees Zachery step out. An amused smile curves her lips. Not the vehicle she expected him to drive, and yet it seems perfect for him.

She’s glad she didn’t overdress for the occasion, in a royal blue dress that brings out the color of her eyes, with a vibrant floral pattern cascading down her right side from collar to ankle. Walking forward, her smile transitions to a grin. “I probably shouldn’t,” Nicole admits freely, stopping just shy of arm’s reach. “But I’m going to anyway.”

And to display that trust, she ducks down to climb into the car, pulling her dress in to make sure it doesn’t get caught in the door before setting her purse on the floor of the frigging hearse.

The inside of the car is spacious, clean and — well, it's a hearse. Not that it's been used as one, recently. The space behind the front seats has been claimed as storage for what looks like maybe cardboard boxes? Save for two plastic, lidded tubs that stuck out near the front, a grey blanket has been thrown over the lot of it.

"Oh, I was hoping you'd say that." Pleased as punch. Zachery does not seem to lack any confidence tonight, closing the door with still splinted fingers, but a relief momentarily spikes the amount of it laced through his words.

Once he's hopped back into the car himself, he's practically beaming. This is going well. Okay. As he's settling in, leaning an arm against the steering wheel while he glances sideways, he continues calmly, "Now, this is going to sound strange," said as though that is very much a good thing, "but you're going to want to reach into the glove compartment and put the blindfold on. We're in for a bit of a ride and I want it to be a surprise."

Then, in the same breath, he adds, "Oh, yes. How are you doing?"

This is precisely the way Nicole would have wanted to be picked up back in her high school and college days. A hearse with flames on the side was absolutely punk rock enough for her. And still is, frankly. She’s secretly far more pleased than she lets on, even if she is a Serious Adult now.

“I’m doing well, thank you,” she replies as if all of this was completely normal for a date. “If you’re kidnapping me,” she warns with warm amusement in her voice, “my ex knows who I’m out with and he’s really good at finding people.” That may or may not be true. The first part, at least. The second part is absolutely true about Benjamin Ryans.

Inside the glovebox she reaches, as instructed, to procure the blindfold. There’s no hesitation before she secures it around her head, smoothing out her long hair to ensure none of it is bunched up underneath.

A chuckle that's only just ever so slightly bitter sounding leaves Zachery as he prepares to leave, changing gears and slipping his hand back onto the wheel. He does not sound any less cheery for it. "Well, I've never been very good at keeping people against their will, so I don't think you'll have to worry about that. But noted."

After the car jolts back to life but before it moves, its driver stares, just for a moment, across to his blindfolded passenger. His eyes narrow, both functional and non. He could get used to things going this smoothly.

Then, finally, they're on the move. A poorly upkept road immediately does its best to make minced meat of smooth driving, but he tries. "For what it's worth. You're looking very kidnappable."

“Why thank you,” Nicole responds, accepting the oddball compliment for what it is. She didn’t get this far in life without having a twisted sense of humor herself. Or by being a woman alone who doesn’t know how to take care of herself.

“Do I get a hint about where we’re going? Twenty questions?” There’s a hopeful note to Nicole’s voice, but in a way that suggests there’ll be no disappointment if she has to wait and see. Eventually. When the blindfold’s off.

"No. You don't." The answer comes as easily as the increase of speed that pushes Nicole a little further into her seat. Zachery's voice sinks a little lower with what sounds like some much needed concentration as he begins his well-planned route. "Don't worry, there will be time for talking yet. It is a date, after all." The reminder may just be necessary in the coming… 15 or 20 minutes.

As the journey continues, the road gets rougher. The amount of small turns increases, and the sounds of the city itself seem to change, sounds from outside quieting as the scrape of tires over rough terrain increases in volume. From below the blindfold, they may as well be going up a mountain if not for the fact that they're not going up-hill. And is that… is that water? It most definitely is. And it's rocking the car.

But that, too, passes. And for a little bit, there definitely is an upwards incline. A while later, on more level ground and after the crunch under tires subsides, the car rolls to a slooooww halt over what still quite sounds like it might be gravel.

"Jesus. Okay," Zachery finally breathes out, relief in his voice, "Alright. We're there. Don't take the blindfold off yet, though."

A car door opens, and outside air floods in from the driver's side. An alarm rings in the distance, but it is, otherwise, dead quiet. Zachery slides out of his seat and exits the car with a small shift of its weight, but clasps a hand onto the roof and sticks his head back in to ask, brightly, "Ah — pasta, beef or chicken?"

The ride is rougher than expected, and with the streets in the state of disrepair that they are, Nicole expected a rough ride. She tries to map out their location based on the turns, but she loses track after only a few blocks, uncertain if she even had it correct in the first place. The sound of water absolutely caught her off her guard, but she - likely to Zachery’s delight - doesn’t react with alarm.

When they arrive, there’s a quiet sigh of relief. At first, Nicole reaches for the blindfold, but halts part way there when she’s instructed otherwise. Her brows furrow quizzically when he asks about her dining preference. “Chicken,” she decides without uncertainty. She reaches down to the floor, feeling around until she finds her small black purse again. It’s pulled into her lap and serves as a place to rest her folded hands until she’s instructed to exit the vehicle.

Zachery answers immediately: "Excellent. Alright. Sit tight."

The door SLAMS shut. A moment later - ca-click, click - and the sound of the distant alarm comes from behind, instead. There's a soft rustle of blanket, the drag of something being moved, a quiet and laboured "Oof," and then footfalls moving away.

And then, for a minute or three, nothing.

This is about the time where Nicole begins to speculate that she might be about to be murdered. Still, all she does is glance from one side to the other behind the blindfold, as if that would focus her hearing in either direction and help her discern something that she wouldn’t otherwise pick up.

Of course, it does nothing. That’s not the kind of superpower she has, after all.

“Zaaaach?” she asks quietly at first, waiting for a response.

There is no immediate answer. There is, however, a somewhat distant "Shit!" a moment later.

And maybe a laugh?

After another spot of quiet, the footfalls return. "Okay! Okay. You've—" His words come from behind, but they're cut off when the back of the car is shut again.

The passenger door opens with a start. "You've still got it on." Zachery sounds surprised and delighted all at once, reaching for her arm to guide her out as his grin widens again. "Your continued obedience shouldn't surprise me, and yet it does. You can take it off, now. Walking will be difficult, otherwise."

Continued obedience. Nicole snorts and hooks her thumb under the blindfold to pull it up and off of her eyes, dropping it onto the car seat she previously occupied before shutting the door. “Look, I used to wrangle politicians for a living. If you think this is the weirdest thing I’ve been asked to do, you’re sorely mistaken.”

They’re a fucked up bunch. And she’s not excluding herself from that.

"Well, at least with politicians for company paving the way, I'm sure not to disappoint." Zachery quips, stepping sideways with a slow, sweeping gesture of his arm toward their final destination. Should she walk the way there.

The view from where the car stands is, well, it's ruins, there's no way around it.

But it's ruins with… candle light? The car has been parked right outside of what looks like it once may have been quite a sturdy building, with an entrance hall now ravaged to the point of where barely more than its foundation still stands. Beyond that, the ragged, sharply angled concrete corpse of something once a few stories high, now mostly collapsed. The few rooms that are still left on the ground floor have not seen use in years, and are more rubble and bent beams than not.

Except for one room. Which - it is becoming ever clearer in the waning light of the evening - has a trail of small candles leading to it, left on one side of a winding path cleared of rubble. Its ceiling is partially collapsed, but the floor is free. And what's more, the room is lit up with more candles still, stark white against the dusty backdrop of abandoned surfaces.

What's considerably less dusty is a round, mahogany wooden table in the middle of that room, visible from the path, with two chairs on either side. It's set, somewhat simply, with a set of knives and forks, and two plates of what looks like… some chicken wrapped in parma ham, roast potatoes and salad, next to a- fairly generous glass of wine. Someone may have been in a rush to fill those up.

… Over near a wall, there's also a broken wine bottle and a splash of what looks like was half of its contents spilled across the floor. They paint a splash that points directly at one of many holes in said wall. Spaced out perfectly, about two dozen, one row above the other. Rectangular, just slightly wider than they are tall, with what looks like metal rails bolted into the bottoms of them. Big and deep enough for a person to lie in.

This is either incredibly romantic or the prelude to ritual human sacrifice, and Nicole isn’t completely sure which. She smiles with that uncertainty as she picks her way carefully along the path, careful not to let the hem of her dress sweep into one of those candles.

When they arrive at their destination proper, his efforts earn an approving nod. “Alright,” she grants, “points for creativity.” Then she sees the broken bottle and the splash of wine, her gaze following up to the wall and the boxes built into it.

“Is this a fucking morgue?”

"It is not," Zachery's answer sounds from behind. He's quietly rummaging in the car again, having opened the back doors back up in her wake.

When he shuts them and trails after Nicole, he adds cheerily, "It's THE morgue. The one I used to work at. And I'm burning it to the ground once we're done here." His tone is light, airy, like that of someone making a joke.

Or is it.

"But enough about me. Have a seat. With some luck and the luxury aluminium foil -" hard habit to break even after 20 odd years "- affords us, your dinner should still be warm." A feeling of accomplishment shows on his face as easily as it paints his words and tone of voice, even when he goes on to say, "Don't mind the, uh. Accident. I brought some more." He lifts a fresh bottle from the car, held tightly by the neck. Wiggle wiggle.

Nicole turns around to fix Zachery with a dubious stare. Her gaze shifts to one side, then back to him as she considers for a moment. “Okay, this is almost too goth and less punk rock, but I’ll give it a shot.”

Besides, he’s her ride and she let him lead her all the way out here. If he’s crazy - and he might be - she’s better off, by her reckoning, to play along and see how things go. If he’s not crazy, well, they can have a polite discussion about appropriate future date venues.

“I’d rather not commit or be accessory to any arson tonight if it’s all the same to you,” she quips back, hoping that they’re both joking about this. She pulls out a chair and takes a seat at the table, smiling faintly at the fresh bottle of wine. At least there’s that.

And thank fuck for that. "You know, it's funny." Zachery sinks down onto the chair opposite Nicole, lifting the bottle up and landing it down on the tabletop with a liquiddy, glassy thunk. "Or should I say, you." And indeed, the look on his face is like he's just heard a joke. Or like he's looking directly at one, and is fascinated by it, head turned so that she's not annoyingly off to one side of his vision. Even if he's not aware of this new habit.

"You're so… conditioned. To expect the right path to be the better one. Has that been comfortable?"

But rather than wait for a reply, he barks out a laugh instead, and interrupting any attempt at an answer, adds, "Hold on, wait, waitwait, no. I should probably start with — ah." He fidgets, fishes a bottle opener from his pocket between middle and index finger, and slides that calmly onto the table too. "Nice weather, right?" Yeah? He straightens after grabbing hold of the glass of wine on his end of the table, pulling it close.

Almost definitely crazy. Both of them, probably, considering she’s sitting here right now and reaching for that glass of wine. He didn’t direct her to sit in one seat or the other, and he’s reaching for his glass, so it’s probably not poisoned in some fashion. Still, Nicole does not actually bring it up for a sip just yet, preferring to let her nails tap softly on the sides.

“We don’t have to do small talk,” she assures. “It’s boring.” Because it is. Maybe if they hadn’t fucked first, she might care about niceties more. “And you’re right. I am conditioned that way.” Even if the right path isn’t the one she’s always walked. “I can’t say if it’s been comfortable. It’s led to some shit places. But it’s also led me to this moment, so.”

Which is to say, it’s debatable.

"But," is said from the other end of the table, as Zachery fixes his gaze on Nicole's face, "one could argue this is a deviation, no? It was you who approached me, but I staked the claim." His head lolls to one side, and he gives his wine a tiny swirl to send it gently round and round. "… As it were."

He could say more. He sort of looks like he wants to, still grinning with what looks like all the self-assuredness one could possibly fit inside of a person, mouth open until… it is wordlessly closed. Maybe this last comment is too much fun not to leave hanging in the air. So instead, he takes a too big glug of wine and grabs his fork to stab at some potatoes.

Hey, he paid money for these. And they look pretty good, even if they had to sit through the journey here. And even if it's a nightshade, it's probably not poison. The wine, too, seems to be treating him just fine.

“Is that what we’re calling this?” Nicole asks, clearly amused as she holds her wine glass to her collarbone, ruminative. “You’ve claimed me?” Whether or not she agrees is up for debate, but it’s likely she doesn’t see herself as claimed. Not a woman like her.

Eyes half-lidded, she takes a sip from her glass and sets it down again next to her plate before picking up her fork in her left hand and knife in her right to cut into her chicken dinner. “Did you expect me to turn around and walk away?” she asks, genuinely curious.

For all the suit, good posture, confidence and attempts at picking just the right words, Zachery's right-handed potato stabs continue to hint at something… very unrefined.

It doesn't help that when he's questioned, that other hand comes up, splinted fingers unable to really help with the proper way one should eat. He probably should have thought that one through. Distracted, he falls into old habit instead and leaves that arm to drop and curl along the line of his plate, almost protectively. The good posture slips a little.

His expression remains as it is, amusement ever present, but he's been given… some pause. "I — " His gaze darts to the side, to a candle in the ever darkening room, before landing back on Nicole. "Not from here, no. That would be tricky. As for the claim, well. Even mountains move from underneath stakes eventually, so I imagine you'd have no trouble breaking free if you'd like."

He sounds like he's done talking. The way he's bringing his fork of too much stabbed potato up to his face makes it seem like he thinks he's done talking, too. And yet right before he manages to get his food all the way there—

"Your conditioning has left you whipped, not spineless."

CRAMchewchew. No breaking eye contact.

He pokes and he prods, not just at his plate but at her, and she knows she should be taking at least some offense to his suppositions about her, but… But. For whatever reason, she just doesn’t have it in her to be upset. Something inside her enjoys being challenged. Nicole eats her food while he speaks and searches for his words, content to listen politely even as she takes mental notes of the cracks in his own armor.

That last jab, however, has color rushing into her face. And stirs something in her belly. Her cutlery clatters on the plate, startled by just how brazen he continues to be. “Is that so?” It’s not the wittiest rejoinder, but she manages to avoid wincing about it. “That’s how you see me?” is at least a more honest question. To her credit, she’s also maintained eye contact.

Even by the dim candle light, it's easy to see the joy sparking on Zachery's face when the sound of cutlery on ceramic rings through the silence that abandonment has left behind.

"It is, in a way." He gestures - empty fork and all - toward Nicole's face. "Mind you, I relate. Empathise. This place," again, his fork is pointed, but this time in a lazy circular motion, "it represents that, in a way. I answer to fewer people these days, though. It's nice."

He turns his fork and attention both to his food, but casts one more glance upward to add, in an ever so slightly lower tone of voice, "Bit of control."

“Are you suggesting I need to embrace my newfound freedom? I felt I was doing that by relocating.” Which brings up the sad truth of this moment. It’s a stolen one with no promise of future moments to follow. Nicole can’t expect him to wait for her to theoretically get her shit together and return to the Safe Zone. She may be right back where she started when she returns. Alone.

Nicole appears to return her attention to her plate, if only to hide the way she swallows down that thought and the hint of sorrow it brings her. He’s such an odd duck, but this is going so well. For what it is.

Blue eyes flash up again at that last remark. She holds his gaze for a long moment before she smirks, blushing again as she cuts into her food again.

"Maybe you are. I feel like that depends on what you do when you get to where you're going." Zachery, arm pulling his plate closer in an idle movement, sounds… contemplative. A little more careful than he has been, so far. After another mouthful of wine - again, nothing even a little refined about this - he notes, "So, smalltalk aside, I'm still being fairly rude."

Time to look down for a bit. Not at all because of the subject of conversation, nope. "How's said relocation going? Have you and Pippa found a place, then? Work? Surely you're not starting from scratch."

He’s trying. For all that he seems all wrong for her on so many levels, he’s making an attempt at taking an interest in her life outside of what he glimpses when they’re together. Nicole reckons he doesn’t really care about the stability of her or her child, but she’ll take him at face value anyway.

“We’re going to look for a house in Providence tomorrow with Pippa’s father. He’ll have his own place once we get ours fixed up.” Nicole’s under no illusions that there will be a move-in ready house just waiting around for them. “I’m not sure what I’ll do for work yet. I suppose I’ll do whatever needs doing. Learn a few things from the locals.” She’s not exactly the farming type, but it seems she’s going to make an earnest effort to fit in with her new surroundings.

"… Hmh."

This is the only noise to leave Zachery for a little bit, as he leans back and away from the table, left arm falling into his lap. His expression dulls somewhat, ebbing back into more neutral territory, and with a wrinkle of his nose he looks back up again to search Nicole's face with no small degree of scrutiny.

"This might be overstepping… boundaries." The last word leaves him like he feels it should be illegal to have any."But this ex — he lose his job, too?"

His glass still has wine in it, and yet, he drops his fork to reach for the bottle nearby. Any warmth previously in his voice, feigned or not, leaves him with the addition of… "That's very convenient for him to be able to help out like that."

“Mm.” The shift in demeanor is telling. Nicole secretly delights in it, even if it’s not terribly charitable of her or toward her. “He’s retired, actually.” She lifts her brows, smiling faintly. “Do you think I’d tell you about the other man if I had one?”

The only thing Zachery has to fear from Ben Ryans is… well, if he hurts her, probably. Physically. Luckily for him, she’s not the type that wants revenge for emotional pains.

"I don't - know." Zachery answers, a little too hastily for his own liking, fingers tightening around the bottle. When he catches himself, his shoulders roll back and he scoots back to start opening the damn thing. Splinted fingers means he needs to do so by holding it between his knees, though the smirk on his face does not suggest he finds any shame in this.

It's a wary smirk, however. He's not trying to hide his annoyance, but letting it get the better of him gets neither of them anywhere.

Much more calmly, he continues, "I don't know you very well. Unless we're talking in the biblical sense. You could be going on five first dates a week, for all I know."

And in the spirit of not hiding his dismay, the bottle is opened with an added few words that slip past what sounds like a combination of hiss and chuckle both — "Providence of all places, too."

“I suppose that’s true.” Nicole only bristles faintly at the implication. While she may be sex positive, she knows most men don’t mean to imply dating around as a desired feature in a woman. “But honestly, do I seem the type?” Maybe she should have left honestly out.

While he busies himself with opening the wine, she takes a healthy drink from her own glass. “You’ve been?” To Providence.

The first question earns Nicole a look. A searching one, and for a moment it looks like the answer might be 'yes'. But some tension leaves Zachery's shoulders and face both, before his attention shifts again. Verbally, nothing is confirmed.

He should know the answer to this by now.

"It's," a shithole, his lowered voice seems to want to imply, "very jute and well water, isn't it." This may be a bit of an exaggeration. He rises from his seat with the bottle and all, casting an expectant look toward his guest's drink, and then her face. Ladies first. Refill?

"Got this there, actually." He lifts his bandaged hand, "Remember when I told you I'd lost my temper? If you meet a Yi-Min Yeh, know that 'efficient' is probably her middle name." If there's any bad blood between them, it does not show. Though… his face goes instantly blank, as a fresh realisation hits him. But mirth returns to his face with a slightly unhinged sounding chuckle that won't stay down. "Shit. She might know your name, even."

There’s a small bit of alarm that crosses Nicole’s features as Zachery finally gives a few more details about how his hand got broken. She blinks rapidly, then downs the last of her glass and holds it out for a refill. That’s a coincidence that isn’t the most reassuring thing in the world.

“Ah,” she begins with more nonchalance than she actually feels, “so you’ve discussed me.” Gotcha. As much as they’re both playing like this is very little more than… what it’s been so far, if he’s mentioning her to someone else, she expects that means she’s made something of an impact on him. Good.

"If it's any consolation, I was very, very drunk." Zachery leans forward, refilling Nicole's glass - again, too full to be considered anywhere near proper table manners. "And she plied me with beer. Taking advantage of poor, little old me."

As if those words need something to directly counteract them, he lifts the bottle to his face to drink directly from it. Who's going to stop him, really? Here? He's not sitting down yet, either. He barks out a restless sort of laugh as hazy memories of a forgotten night return to him, one by one. "I was trying to sort my life out. Taking the good things and bad thing and things I needed to work on and writing them all out like an idiot. Taping them to the—"

He turns on a heel to gesture in demonstration, spreading his arms toward the row of holes, stripped bare of the drawers that once laid within them. But his arms drop back slowly back down again before his sentence manages to reach its end, expression frozen as he swallows back an errant thought. "… Wall."

Maybe coming here was a mistake.

Not unlikely.

Nicole sits very still while Zachery explains himself, eyes following his movements while she holds the wine glass against her sternum. There’s a tense quiet that hangs between them when he finishes speaking and Nicole processes what to do with that information.

The glass is brought up to her lips to give an excuse for her silence. Then it’s set down slowly and she rises from her seat with equal deliberateness. Stepping away from the table, she rounds it slowly to approach his side of it, uncertainty in her eyes.

“I don’t think that’s an idiotic thing to do,” she says finally. “I think it makes a lot of sense.”

Ill-inclined to look away from the skeleton of what once was, Zachery stands, bottle still dangling at his side when Nicole moves closer.

Her comments gets no reply, though a half-cant of his head does at least imply that he's listening. When he does finally speak up again, it's quieter than he has been so far, though in the emptiness of this place, it carries all the same. "… There were close to three dozen things on that list. You were one of the three good ones."

What does a person say to that? Nicole is stunned, her mouth softening into a soft ‘o’ shape. Slowly, she reaches for him, sliding her hand along his forearm and down to his hand wrapped around the bottle until she’s past his fingers and taking the neck of it in her own hand, gently pulling it away from him to set on the table.

“Thank you,” is all she can think to say to that. It’s a compliment after all, isn’t it? Being told that she is a good thing. With the wine set aside, she reaches for him again, resting a hand on the side of his face and gently encouraging him to turn toward her.

The touch elicits a twitch of Zachery's shoulder, but little more. The bottle is relinquished, and he stands unmoving until the hand suddenly enters his peripheral vision. Instinct has him turn as she intends, though it takes him visible effort to tear his gaze away.

But once he's looking at her face again, he seems to have a slightly better time of composing himself. If only just enough to crack a lopsided grin again. "Look. I know I'm a little over the top. I'm not - I'm not…" Again, he struggles, but this time to find the right words. Or rather, and more likely, to fight back the ones that pop up regardless of his recent attempts to gain the upper hand when it comes to how he views himself.

"I'm not perfect," he manages, finally, finding some confidence again. "And you are, to me."

This could be a sweet moment. Except what follows is a resolute proclamation of: "But I am going to burn this place to the ground."

It was absolutely nearly a sweet moment. He can see the way his words, the declaration that she's perfect, if only to him, melt away her apprehensiveness even if it really shouldn't.

"We are not burning this place to the ground," she informs him succinctly. Nicole does not, however, mean to imply that he can't come back and do it later. When she has plausible deniability.

Disagreement never sits well with Zachery. Even more so lately, and a lean forward and squaring back of his shoulders shows that at least part of him wants to start this game of tug-o-war proper. The one-eyed stare fixed at Nicole's face hardens.

But… only for a few seconds. He seems to yield, breathing out a chuckle. "… All right. We won't." His attention stays on her, but both of his hands come halfway up in surrender. The emphasis on 'we', he figures, she is smart enough to figure out the reason for.

Nicole pats his cheek fondly, a self-assured smile spreading across her face. "Good man," she murmurs. With any luck, she'll be in Providence before he decides to make good on his threat. And she should really be more concerned about it than she is, but here they are.

"What were the other two things?"

Oh, that murmur. If he could actually, literally bristle, Zachery looks like he absolutely would. Negative? Positive? He doesn't look quite sure, either, brow knitting.

But then there's a question. "Ah, well." his tone is somewhat distant, pulling memories from both the drunk night of the event itself and the hungover morning the day after. But whatever is retrieved, it will have to wait. First, Nicole gets a questions back, eyebrows quirking back up as he tilts his head back. "Curious, are we?"

She hadn't meant it to be patronizing, or she would have called him boy. Still, she understands how it could be taken that way. She has the grace to look apologetic.

"Shouldn't I be?" Nicole asks with lifted brows. "We're finding out about each other. I naturally want to know more."

"One was, simply, 'still alive'," serves as Zachery's answer to her question. He is serious, even if his face would suggest otherwise. Like the very thought of it continues to surprise and entertain him. "And the last… 'new connections', after a long time of complacency and… well."

As he falls silent, his expression falters again. "It's been a fucking lonely few years, if I'm honest, and I'm working to fix that." This is not the whole truth, but he is, technically, not lying.

"I'm sorry to hear that," she says sincerely. There's a time where are wouldn't have included alive in a list of positives. "I'm glad I met you." Nicole takes another step closer, her heels scraping in the debris-strewn floor.

"It's hard to leave the ghosts of the past there." In the past. "But I'd like to help you try. If you'll have me." There's a little conspiratorial gleam in her eye, like they're sharing a joke.

The discomfort Zachery is feeling amidst all of this… sharing of feelings is palpable, and today, it's his turn to feel surprise welling up at the fact that Nicole has not, in fact, turned and fled. Granted - again - it would be hard to do so, here.

Her step closer is comforting though, and finally he reaches back, slowly, to place a bent finger gently under her chin, and thumb over it. to lift her face just so. "Oh, I'll have you." Of this, he is apparently sure. "Whether I keep you…" This is a different matter, though any doubts are shaken off immediately in favour of a change of subject.

He has an announcement to make, as he stares into Nicole's eyes. "Once you're settled in, I would like to meet Pippa."

Nicole set him up and Zachery did not disappoint. She grins, blushing faintly at the touch of his hand, if not the innuendo. "I hope you do." Have her or keep her.

His request sends her brows jumping to her hairline. "Seriously?" she asks, giving him the opportunity for an out, to say it was just a joke.

"Are you afraid I'll take her to, I don't know, a graveyard?" A rhetorical question, probably. Zachery's hand relaxes, fingers absently trailing slow lines toward the back of her neck.

"I can't promise success. But I can promise to at least try to…?" Be…? Something? Nope. He doesn't have the end to that sentence, apparently, looking somewhat expectantly at Nicole. Maybe she stole it while he wasn't looking.

"…Behave?" Nicole teases. She shakes her head and reaches to rest her arms over his shoulders. "We'll arrange something soon. But tonight is for us."

And definitely not for arson. Zachery.

Nicole leans in closer, nudging her nose against his gently. "I… I'm not sure what…" She sighs, unsure of exactly what she wants to say. "I'm glad you decided I'm worth the effort," she decides on.

'Behave', that's the one. Zachery can't help but laugh, even if it's in the shape of barely more than a sharp exhale. Yeah.

At the nose against his, he seems - unsure. Unfamiliar, perhaps. Not opposed. His other hand lifts, somewhat unwieldy in his attempt to lean it against her hip. "Your opinion of yourself needs work if you think some candles, a car ride and some take-out is all you're worth."

Hmh. He looks briefly to the side. "Though I may have taken a sledgehammer to some walls a few nights ago, to make sure the car would fit through. Let me tell you, they are heavy."

Nicole chuckles, her breath warm against his skin. Her skin is warm beneath his hand as well. "I meant worth stepping out of your comfort zone," she clarifies.

"Ooh, a sledgehammer. Very manly." She's teasing again, but only a little.

"Oh." Zachery grins, shoulders relaxing under her arms. "Well, what can I say. There's a lot of unexplored territory, and it beckons. Also, I assure you, there's not anything more manly than someone trying to swing a mallet with a third of his fingers not up to the task. Even more when the weight of it presses against broken bones."

He pulls her a little closer, maybe slightly awkwardly possessive in his lean against her. "But green as I am, I'm still a little more used to trespassing than I am to… these conversations. This stage of…"

Again, no end is found for that one either.

"I'm not good at this either," she admits. Good enough at it to produce a child with a father she's still on speaking terms with, maybe. Nicole obliges his possessive grasp with a subtle forward roll of her hips.

"I appreciate the effort you went to." Even if she suspects he'd have liked to smash down the walls for his own benefit rather than this date's. "Now, are you going to kiss me, or what?"

"Oh, is that what we're doing?" Zachery sing-songs, facetious tone and all. See how oblivious he is!

The hand against her hip slides a little further back, so that even with broken fingers, he's got his whole forearm pressed against her ribcage. The other hand rests against her neck, still. Even if Nicole's comment did not result in what she might have hoped, she's not going anywhere either. But. He speaks slowly, "I have one more question. Keep in mind I can feel your heart beat. I can feel your everything."

Back is the cheer from before, bright on his face, so near to hers. How he wishes he had both eyes to look at her a little better, but he'll take the angle he can get.

"What are you, really?"

The proximity is accepted in lieu of the thing she really wants, for now. The reminder that he knows how her body reacts makes her flush pink again, and her heart beats a little faster.

Nicole takes a moment to consider the question posed to her, and its implications. "Expressive." They don't say Evolved anymore. "A single mother. Lonely." All true things. "Glad to have found you." So's that one, if her steady heartbeat is anything to go by. "Excited every time you suggest I give up control. But you knew that already, didn't you?"

"Doesn't make it any less fun to hear you say it." This, Zachery replies in regards to her last comment.

Even now, even with this proximity and the words floating around and the promise of more, still, he… just can't help himself. The wall that had distracted him earlier gets one more hard look, even if it doesn't linger. Even as he does this, his hand leaves her neck to slide onto her arm, trying to guide her fingers toward his as he moves sideways - as if in the slowest of dances to music neither of them can hear.

When his attention comes back to her face a mere few seconds later, impatience is clear on his features. At least watching Nicole blush is, apparently, a great mood lifter.

"… You know what." His tone sits just on this side of calm, threatening to tip the scale "Call me old-fashioned, but I kind of like 'Evolved', actually. Suits you more."

And with that, finally, he moves in for the kiss.

“I’m sure not.” Which is absolutely why she said it. Her gaze follows his to the wall and she resists the urge to turn his head away from it. He needs to deal with things in his own way. Far be it from Nicole to suggest she know a better way to cope.

The guidance is accepted and she laces her fingers with his readily, but she seems to realize she’s on the verge of a misstep, even if she’s not sure which direction is the wrong one.

There’s no protesting the terminology or the move he makes. The kiss is a relief and it’s returned with a hungry enthusiasm. Her hand tightens around his, the other coming up to slide into the hair at the back of his neck. Nicole wants this — wants him — even if she suspects she shouldn’t.

Many would argue it's unwise. Hell, he might argue it's unwise if he didn't have other plans.

Zachery, too, is enthusiastic in his affections - but… something is different about him this time, compared to when they've met up previously. More calculated. Before, he might have been just as willing to desperately seek out physical engagement, like he'd be willing to drown in it, but there's a sense of something else this time.

More taking than giving, delighting in the fact that she feels drawn to him despite the suspicions. Observation, and… leading. Quite literally, in the sense that he's still moving her gently back toward the ravaged hallway, even if it is not strictly in a straight line.

But also, after he shifts his weight against her to plant kisses just behind her jawline, leading of another type: "… Burn it with me."

It's far too confident to be pleading. Surely it's not a dare. Surely.

The kiss prompts a sigh, a tilt of her head to accommodate lips on skin. He’s got her in his thrall, if only so far. Her hand tenses in his and her body goes a little rigid. “I— can’t.” It sounds almost regretful. Like she doesn’t want to be a square who doesn’t commit arson.

Nicole pulls away just far enough to get a good look at his face. While he may not be pleading, she is. For him to respect that this is a line she cannot cross. Will not cross. “What do you get out of it anyway? It’s already a shell of what it was…” There’s a lack of conviction in the questioning. She understands the symbolism behind burning the place to the ground, even if she doesn’t agree as to the necessity of it.

The pull back is met with a small amount of surprise, which sends Zachery's eyebrows upward. But deterred, he is not.

"A shell is still too much." He says this almost like she should know that. His grin, too, grows a little colder, drawing away from the top half of his face. "I didn't even have a say in it, it happened while I was — this place — " He stops, his voice raised just slightly above a level he's comfortable with in the here and now. His gaze lowers along neckline, to shoulder, and back up to Nicole's face.

When he manages to collect himself again, he speaks a little more calmly. "It was the beginning of the end. It's only fair I get to finish it."

Conflicting feelings war inside Nicole chest and deeper in her stomach. This is when she should walk away and demand that he take her home. Or she continues on toward civilization without him, on foot. But she doesn’t.

“The Safe Zone isn’t equipped to fight a fire this far out. It could catch and… And be disastrous.” Nicole tries applying her logic, even though she suspects strongly that it will fall on deaf ears. He wants her to loosen up. Be less straight-laced. This… This is not the person he wants her to be.

"Then let it CATCH!" Zachery immediately argues, at the top of his lungs and without even a moment's thought. His voice bounces easily off of the emptiness around them, as his hand slips from hers and his arms pull back toward himself in order to allow a step back, his shoulders squared back in misplaced outrage.

She might be right about his opinion of her. There is, however, a difference between wanting and needing.

For all his anger, it's not directed at her, not really, and it takes mere seconds for him to aim his gaze off to the side. At literally anything else.

Quieter, still through gritted teeth, though no less sincere for it, he adds quickly, "… I'm sorry. You're right." Here, too, there is… vague surprise threaded into his tone. As if maybe he's just now realising that this was a possibility all along.

Nicole shrinks back at the shouting. When he steps back, she takes a step herself. The alarm bells are going off in her head, and she’s doing what she always does: ignoring them.

When he apologizes and seems to concede her point, she lifts her chin slightly from where it had tucked in toward her chest. She hadn’t quite been wincing, but she was close to it. Still, she eyes him warily, like he might snap again at any moment.

“It’s… It’s not worth the risk,” Nicole asserts, but without the confidence he might expect from her. “In the end, even if it burns, even if it’s somehow the only thing that burns… It will still be there.” She taps the side of her head with two fingers. “Believe me. I know. There are places that have been scorched off the face of the earth that still haunt me.” Although it’s the people that really cause her to lose sleep at night.

Zachery stands, fingers twitching where they're not caught in other consequences of his temper, and pulls off to the side to slowly begin to pace. His movements are practised in a way that makes it clear that this is more habit than choice. There are some small candles in the way - they hit the ground, snuffed out, with a tiny splash of hot wax over the dusty floor.

"Okay." This word leaves him calmly, though likely in the same way his breathing has calmed. He knows to keep it that way, even if he does not seem to be able to fight back the curling in and out of his fingers.

"I missed one." He turns his head sideways, mid-stride, catching sight of Nicole past the acrylic in his eye socket. "On the list of things, I missed one."

The pacing has Nicole backing away another step. She recognizes the agitation and knows it could be prelude to an outburst. She hazards a glance back to the table, taking a quick stock of what she might be able to use to defend herself if he snaps.

She hopes desperately it doesn't come to that.

Freezing in place when his attention falls on her again, Nicole takes a moment for a steadying inhale, the exhale coming out in a shudder. "What's that?"

"Selfishness!" Zachery's exclamation comes with the return of a grin that pulls to one side a little more than the other. His realisation is a victory, and he'll revel in it, however small it might be. "In the 'bad' category. I've been selfish, and - I hadn't realised, but of course, I've had to be. Before. But now — …"

He comes to a halt, straightening, suddenly noticing Nicole's apprehension. His first instinct is to draw closer, hands reaching toward her shoulders. But something stops him short of reaching his destination, and just… sort of hovers nearby. Unsure. Observing with more than just his eye, which searches his date's face all the same.

There’s no withdrawing or shrinking away when he moves toward her. Whipped, he’d said, but not spineless. Nicole watches his movements with her faintly luminescent blue gaze and seems to relax, finally. She can’t help the smirk that tugs at one corner of her mouth. Of course he’s selfish. She has a type.

“Are you okay?” she asks quietly, reaching out with one hand, granting permission for him to draw closer.

A normal question. And yet, it seems to stun the person across from her. It's not a question he is used to hearing. He can't recall the last time he did.

His arms drop to his sides, amusement turns… a little wry, even if it does stay.

"I don't… think that I am. But I will be." His attention flits between her hand and her face, before he steps forward. "Are you? With this?"

Honestly? “I’m not sure.” Nicole shakes her head, but doesn’t withdraw her hand. She moves forward to close the last of the distance between them and takes his uninjured hand in hers. “I think… I think there’s a lot you need to work through. But I’m not opposed to helping you if you’re willing to give it a shot.”

She’s not going to fix him. He’s going to fix himself, and she’ll support him. Or so she tells herself.

Not quite relaxed yet, she’s still a little uncertain even as she laces her fingers with his again. “What do you think?”

"I've started work already. We can… " Zachery starts, but stops himself, an idle chuckle escaping him in an exhale. "Pippa can come later, too. I promise, I do actually want to meet her — weirdly." He is conflicted about this, and hearing himself say it only wrinkles his nose. But it is the truth. And so he will not take it back.

The hand in his own gets a look. The tangle of fingers. Which he then doesn't seem to be able to look away from. "I don't suppose, maybe, you know a good therapist. Though I'm assuming, with time, the bossman at Raytech will come to suggest one for me, if he doesn't fire me first."

He probably shouldn't be grinning at this, but he sure is.

“As a matter of fact,” Nicole begins with a smile, finally seeming to feel the possibility of danger has passed. “I do. My sister sees a great doctor in the Safe Zone. I think you should give him a call.”

Richard is likely to suggest Benchmark, which Nicole should be as well, but something about sending him to her best friend for therapy feels awkward. That’s selfish of her, so they have something in common.

“If you promise me you won’t burn this place down, I’ll let you meet Pippa.”

The look on Zachery's face - eyebrows crumpling toward each other and mouth opening to pfffhhh out a breath - is one of regret. And niggling doubts.

But there IS one thing he's sure of, now. "Yeah, no. That's over. Behind me. See, step one, done." His free hand lifts up by his side. "Progress. Working through it. No problem." He'S GOT THIS.

… Though he does feel the need to add, through a laugh that surely only sounds a little nervous because of the circumstances, "And if this thing between us doesn't work out, well. You've got a sister." He looks back up to her, finally, eyebrows raising. Eh?

Nicole can’t help but huff out a breath of laughter. “Unfortunately for you, she’s very gay.” And her girlfriends could kick his ass, but she’ll leave that part off.

“Come on. Dinner’s gone cold. Let’s clean this mess up and get out of here. Maybe… back to my place?” She smiles and gives his hand a squeeze, encouraging.

… Her place? Oh.

Yes this sounds good. He perks up a little taller, ready to drop the subject and everything else to start moving again. The squeeze of his hand is returned, as he holds on a little tighter. "Leave it. Let's go." It's not like he has a kitchen cabinet to return this stuff to. Nor the space for the table and chairs.

Anticipatory of a counter-argument, he adds without pause, "Give me this one thing. Give yourself this one thing. Who's going to care, the rats? Let them have it. Let them have this whole god damn place."

A small grin creeps up on Nicole’s face at this little conspiracy between them to leave the evidence of their dinner date behind. “Alright,” she allows. “We’ll leave it for the scavengers. But!” Still holding his hand, she spins on the ball of one foot to reach for the table again. She grasps the wine bottle by the neck and pulls it to her chest.

That playful grin is still in full force as she explains, “The rats won’t appreciate this like we will.”

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