As For My Soul


nicole_icon.gif zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title As For My Soul
Synopsis Come, let's light a fire, drink a beer, and sing a song
We'll be dead before we know it, we don't have very long
As the world outside collapses and confuses right and wrong
Date January 29, 2020


The telltale crunch of gravel beyond the walls of Zachery’s house warns of his visitor before the rap of knuckles at the door. Nicole shifts her weight from foot to foot anxiously in the winter-chilled air. This could be the biggest set-up, and she’s walking right into it. Willingly. But not without a full charge. Not without a firearm in the event that she needs the backup.

God, she hopes she doesn’t need it.

Stepping off to one side of the door, she listens for movement on the other side of it. Listening for signs of his footsteps, as well as anyone else who might be inside waiting for her. He may intend to walk away with her, but it’s possible someone else might object to that. Coming here without backup was…

Well, it’s too late to do anything about that now.

Just like the last time she was here, it's quiet. Quieter still, in fact, with the necessary equipment inside having been reduced to what can be run on stored energy rather than the noisy generator.

There is no squawking from the bird, no curtains shifting, not a single creak of wood. But there is, finally, a voice.

Not, however, from inside, but from directly above.


Zachery - considerably less red than the last time Nicole laid eyes on him - stares downward from the open window of his bedroom, failing to stifle a grin. He disappears back out of view beyond the frame, followed shortly by the sound of something that doesn't quite want to be hoisted where it needs to be before he hauls a garishly orange duffel bag up and over the windowsill, and lets it fall. "Catch!"


Nicole lifts her head and takes a step back to get a better view of the window and the man looking down at her. And then— That.

Fwoomp! and Fuck! are sounds that occur at the same moment. Zachery’s bag does fall from the window and Nicole manages to catch it, but only just. She staggers with the bag in her arms and nearly topples over onto her backside. But only nearly. Her only response to that little antic is to glare up at him accusingly as she sets the bag down on the ground next to her. She suspects there’s about to be more flung at her, and she’ll probably want her arms free.

And it's a good thing, too, because the next thing to come down is a backpack- sturdy and heavier than the duffel bag despite being half its size.

Zachery does not wait to see if it is caught, latching the window shut already.

It may take him more time to come back downstairs than he'd like, but when he opens up the front door he does, at least, look considerably further away from an early grave than he did recently. In crisp white shirt and slacks and with shoes, what luxury. And look, he's even shaved. The yet unclosed, car-wreck-surviving pea coat on top of it all looks shabby in comparison, a grey scarf with a stripe of yellow dangling loosely down from around his neck.

Burns should not have healed this quickly, and yet.

He slips outside and immediately pulls the door shut behind him, slipping his keys into a pocket of his coat. "Did you catch the drinks? There's some swanky things in there I was saving for a special occasion."

“Yeah,” Nicole grouses, shoving the backpack at Zachery. “I fuckin’ caught it.” In truth, she’s just grateful that he didn’t follow the backpack. He’s no Buttercup and she is no Fezzik. She picks up the duffel then and turns to head toward the car so she can stuff his luggage in the trunk. Maybe him, too, if there’s room. It’s a Buick, so it’s a distinct possibility.

There’s a moment where she considers why she’s so damn angry with him, which seems a frankly ridiculous contemplation. She has literally every single right to be upset with him for his role in whatever the fuck it is that he’s mixed up in. Still, he’s agreed to cooperate, and she feels like she should give him a break for that. Or maybe it’s just because she’s done terrible things before, too, and she’d want him to look the other way as well.

Of course, she didn’t fuck around with deadly biological agents.


While Nicole moves and gets to business, Zachery watches. For a moment, an inhale and a lean forward might suggest that he's about to object to her doing the heavy lifting, but no such comment leaves him.

Instead, he starts making his way to the car — but though he carries himself better than he has in months, he does so with a distinct limp, due to one leg cooperating decidedly less than the other. With a twitch of muscles tensing along his jaw, he catches slowly up to where Nicole's taken his things and comes to a stop. "Thank you."

Looking up from where she’s stashed the duffel, she frowns as she takes the backpack from Zachery — good god is she not allowing drinks in the cabin — and settles it with considerable care onto the floor of the trunk before shutting it up again. “Yeah,” Nicole murmurs. It’s as close to you’re welcome as he’s going to get for the moment.

“Door’s open,” she tells him, jutting her chin toward the passenger side door before she breaks off in the other direction so she can climb into the driver’s seat. Her key is fitted into the ignition and she cranks the vehicle to life, patiently waiting for Zachery to make his limping way to the other side of the car and into his seat. The first thing she does is shut off the radio and turn on his seat warmer.

"You're in a mood," is the first thing Zachery says upon sitting down, shifting to get comfortable before casually reaching for and clicking his seatbelt into place. Though his voice is flat and maybe suited to a somewhat precarious situation as this, something much more content lies less than hidden in the way he glances over to the driver's side, lopsided grin and all.

Regardless, there's a search across her person, his head turned more than might be needed if his left eye wasn't out of commission.

“You’re a bad guy,” Nicole reasons as she pointedly does not return his look, instead craning her neck so she can look over her shoulder and out the back window as she shifts the Buick into reverse, backing up several feet before she turns around and heads back for the road.

It seems like she might not elaborate on that further, but she does eventually speak again once they’re on the road that will take them out of town and back to the highway to the Safe Zone. “I’m going to have to arrest you. I’m going to have to… let you go to jail. Probably prison. Maybe forever. Yeah, I’m in a mood.

An interesting choice of words. One that increases the amusement shown in Zachery's expression before his grin recedes a little.

"You came alone." After a quick twist and glance back toward the house, he settles in and continues to stare at Nicole, wringing his hands before letting them fall into his lap and leaning his back into the seat. It's not the Bone Wagon, but it'll do.

"That means nobody knows where you are," for all of the tension in his body language, none of it reaches his word. "Am I right?"

“If you think for one second that I came here without a contingency plan,” Nicole warns tersely, “you’re dead fucking wrong.” That contingency plan may only be activated in the event of her death, but it’s still something.

Again, she doesn’t look over at him. It feels like it would be giving him some sort of satisfaction. Right now, she wants him to be just as unsatisfied as she feels. “You got some kind of ambush waiting ahead up the road?”

Maybe the lack of attention is working. Zachery runs a thumb over index finger, looking finally away. Down, first, then ahead.

Who knows what lies ahead. Except maybe not that ambush. Probably. What energy was still in his voice leaves it now, the question answered with a dismissive click of his tongue. "'Bad guy'." The word is rolled around in his mind, leaving him like it may as well be in a language he doesn't speak. "What would you do, if there was an ambush? On your own, me already in here with you? You didn't even check me for weapons."

“I trust you don’t want the car to go off the road.” In truth, he’s right, and she’s suddenly feeling sick to her stomach. He could be armed and she could be in a lot of trouble now. This was sloppy. At best, she’s underestimated him. Christ, she hates what he does to her. It’s like her brain is pudding or something equally unhelpful.

“Not again, anyway.” Now, she turns her head and looks at him out of the corner of her eye. God help her, she likes it better when he’s all smug energy and unstifled grins. “I’m well aware this could be my last ride. But I’m trusting you.” We’ll see how foolish that turns out to be.

"The way you're talking, this could be my last ride too." Zachery replies, with some delay. "Not counting transport." He doesn't sound panicked, and the lack of energy in his voice isn't because he doesn't have any - it's just elsewhere. In the way he scans the horizon where he can find specks of it, and the treetops. It's more of a… comfort. As if either he knows that would be fine — or he doesn't quite believe it.

Just as he's gotten used to the seat enough to slump down into it properly, restlessness pulls his attention, once more, toward her. "Speaking of going off the road, though. You ever have sex in a car?"

Jesus Christ, Zachery.” Nicole grips the wheel tighter and keeps her gaze ahead on the road even as her cheeks flush the faintest shade of pink. Either embarrassed or angry. Maybe a little bit of both, honestly.

Nostrils flare due to a heavy exhale being pushed through her nose. “Obviously.” As if Nicole finds it more offensive that he might have supposed she had not, rather than taking offense in the question being asked at all.

Unconcerned curiosity weaves its way into Zachery's tone from where he watches, hands slipping casually into his coat pockets. "How's that work?"

“Better when it’s another woman involved instead of a man,” Nicole supplies in clipped tones. “That’s pretty universal, though.”

This is ridiculous. Entertaining this line of questioning at all is stupid. Beyond, even. But here they are, talking about the logistics of sex in the back seat of a car while she drives them back to the city.

It’s going to be a long fucking drive.

Ugh. Fucking is the wrong choice of word, considering.

“I’m not pulling over so we can fuck in the back seat, so don’t even ask.”

Information supplied brings Zachery's eyebrows up, and he just can't help but let the grin back on his face, even if he aims it ahead again. Not looking there so much as just… aiming his gaze elsewhere. This is the most comfortable he's been in what feels like about a year, and surely he knows better than to do this thing here and now.

And yet. "What if I told you I wasn't asking so much as telling."

The shudder that runs through Nicole’s frame is impossible to hide. Her grip on the steering wheel adjusts, and she swallows dryly. “I’m a human taser, Zachery. How do you think that little demand is going to work out for you?” All the same, he can tell that shudder wasn’t entirely born of revulsion.

"I don't know," comes a quick reply back from Zachery, a little louder than before, "I've been beaten, shot, stabbed, poisoned, burned - those last three very recently. I figure I can take a little bit of electrocution." Punctuating the sentence, he stretches his arms forward, shoving his hands down into his pockets and pulling the fabric taut before the slack reenters his posture.

In a tone that would better accompany a challenge, he looks to the side again and asks, "Don't you?"

“I’m not proposing a little bit,” Nicole clarifies. Her mouth has drawn into a thin line, bloodless for how tightly she presses her lips together. Maybe to bite back more curses, keep bile at bay, or to keep from betraying some deeper thoughts.

“You’re not armed,” she ventures, edges sharp as broken glass. “You aren’t going to do shit.

Zachery chuckles dryly, a breath that refused to leave as anything but that. "You haven't seen me fight," he offers, nonchalantly, "I could be good at it. I'm good with knives."

She knows that to be true, but in how many ways? "I could be carrying a remote trigger for whatever's in those bags you helped me carry. Without asking questions, trusting the liquid to be weighing it down. What if I had been anyone else?" He runs his tongue over his molars. "Don't you care about your safety, Nicole? Because I do."

Not that he sounds it, at the moment. Little bit too distracted.

The carelessness is coming back to haunt her a little more swiftly than she expected it to. Her stomach does a flip-flop and her shoulders tense up as she considers the possibilities present. He could be telling the truth. He could have an explosive in the back of the vehicle. Nicole knows he has enough disregard for his own safety to kill them both.

If he dies, the information he can provide dies with him. If she dies, her daughter may as well be an orphan.

A flick of her left wrist has the blinker coming to life, signalling her vehicle’s drift to the right side of the road, and, eventually, the shoulder. She puts the car into park and stares straight ahead out of the windshield, gaze unfocused and a hundred miles away from where they are now.

“Go on, then,” she tells him numbly, waiting for his next move.

"You turned your blinker on."

Zachery straightens with a start, the sentence leaving him as though he wasn't fully aware he'd even started it. It's not a natural progression for this conversation - but from the looks of his stunned smirk as he glances back and forth between the now still scenery and Nicole's face, this doesn't strictly matter to him anymore.

"… You turned your fucking blinker on." He repeats again, hands coming up and out of his pockets for him to smack them clear across his face. "For what?" He asks against his palms, before he drags them downward and he's able to stare, in disbelief, through his fingers. "For the horses?"

But before she can answer, he hears himself say one more thing. "I love you too."

If Nicole weren’t quite as terrified and sick to her stomach as she is at the moment, that sweet sentiment may have landed better. Slowly, she forces herself to turn her head to regard him as if unafraid. “It’s a fucking habit.” The tremor in her voice is unmistakable, if brief. Her fingers unwind from their death grip around the wheel, but her hands remain splayed over the surface of the steering apparatus.

“What do you want?

Zachery's answer comes back quickly enough to be without thought. Sincerity takes over with some amount of discomfort to the slant of his eyebrows, whether he wants to show or feel it or not. Fighting it now would be too much.

"Just you. And not just- now," he catches himself, grin flaring up as his hands drop back in his lap, even if most of it ebs away again a few seconds after, "Now, too, but tomorrow, and the day after. Next Tuesday. When it's not convenient, and when I would benefit from anything but. When, logically, I should let you go, and you, me."

As if to beat an awkward silence to the punch, he tacks on, calmly but without pause, "It's clothes, and a toothbrush, and drinks. That's all it is. I was going to leave it at yours."

Incredulity slowly manages to overtake fear. Nicole lets out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “That’s— What? That’s it?” Her gaze sweeps him up and down quickly, trying to make some other quick visual assessment of him. Of the possibility that he’s carrying a weapon on him that he still might use. Especially if she doesn’t like the answer she gives him.

“Did you just fucking ask me to marry you?”

There's not an awful lot to tell by the way Zachery's is sitting - in that the coat obscures an awful lot, potentially, but also in that he's baffled by everything that's happening right now. Be it a situation created by his own hand or not. "Would that be the most insane way to start off a new chapter? Because I feel like I've done worse. I've definitely done worse. I, ah - don't have a ring, but."

Clearly this is not going to plan, if there ever was one to begin with. He holds a hand vaguely out between them as if to stem the tide of any oncoming interruption, before reaching into his coat. Pulling out from the darkness at his side - and with a jerk of repositioning followed by a sloooow reveal of metal. A handgun. Hey, he's holding it by the muzzle, at least. "It's not loaded," he hopes to get in before more potential panic, eye darting briefly away as he adds, "Or mine, technically speaking."

“Yeah,” Nicole confirms, “it would be pretty fucking insane.” Whether he’s done worse or not, she hasn’t. That’s not to say that the two times she was engaged were particularly, uh, sound, but that’s not the point right now. Surely.

One hand comes up off the wheel at the first flash of the cold metal, blue arcing between fingers in instinctual preparation for defense. There’s the faintest pop! of static electricity exchanged between them when she reaches out to grasp the proffered gun by the handle. Nothing terribly painful, just a residual.

“You’re a fucking maniac,” she tells him, in case he had any doubts about it himself. This time, she doesn’t take him at his word, but examines the gun to ensure it isn’t loaded before she decides to tuck it away in the alcove built into the driver’s side door where she keeps a collapsible umbrella and a tactical flashlight.

The edges of her nerves are frayed beyond repair it feels. She expected a debrief on the ride back. Or silence. None of this. None of this. And yet, she feels like she should have expected it somehow. “Proposing to me with a stolen gun. They’re going to love this one back at the office.”

If she makes it back to the office at this rate.

There are no doubts from Zachery. There may once have been, but not in this moment. Even if he pulls his hand back a little sharply upon the unexpected zap, throwing a look of hurt feelings and disbelief in Nicole's direction. How unreasonable of her. But if he was attached to the gun, it doesn't show.

But it isn't long before he breathes out another laugh, despite himself, gaze locked on her like it may very be impossible for anything else to draw his attention away. "Let them laugh. I've got more ideas yet. For other days."

Nicole leans forward, disbelief etched into her features as she breathes out a huff. “You’re going to prison,” she reminds him. Unless he gets Bryant Kotch as his lawyer or something. Even maybe not then. “I can’t fucking marry you. You’ve been… You’ve been working on Gorgon.

To what end, she has no idea — yet. But the very fact that he didn’t tell her means he was complicit in at least some fashion. “You’re going to stand trial for conspiracy to commit genocide. Do you not understand this?”

"What, I can't talk in prison?" Zachery shoots back, no less confidently. "Make a phone call? Say some vows? Something must have changed since last time I was there. Besides. Nobody knows you're here. Nobody knows I'm not still at home."

He leans forward, and closer, "Thirdly, a correction — working with Gorgon, not on. Genocide was never strictly mentioned. God, you're beautiful."

The delusion just keeps getting deeper and deeper. Fathomless. Nicole shakes her head slowly, bewildered beyond belief. “You have no concept of how utterly selfish what you’re asking for is, do you?” Let’s start there. Because there are so many things wrong with this proposal, but it’s impossible to tackle all issues simultaneously.

“You expect me to throw my life away on a marriage to you, while you’re in prison, and I’m out in the world on my own?” Not that she hasn’t done just fine on her own so far, thank you very fucking much. “Let alone the fact that marrying you would be career suicide.

Issue by issue is fine too, Zachery sinks sideways into his seat, shifting to reposition himself with a kick down into carpeted flooring. Both so he can continue to stare at her more comfortably but also because despite the fact that he's seemingly enjoying himself, this is still unquestionably a nerve wracking situation.

There's something in the way he searches her expression that might tell her as much.

"I'm not expecting anything. Hoping, maybe." His grin remains, but there's a weariness to him now. An exhaustion he's been trying his best not to give into. "I may have been telling earlier, but I'm asking now. For time. Just time."

Slowly, Nicole lowers her head until she’s resting her forehead against the steering wheel. She groans, a low and pained sound. Her head lifts a fraction and comes back down onto the center of the wheel. Once, twice, three times.

On the fourth little thump, the Buick’s horn sounds, causing her to bolt back up in her seat, startled. There’s a crackling sound that accompanies the motion. In lieu of having the wheel to beat her head on, she lifts her right fist and beats her knuckles against the center of her forehead with a moderate amount of force. Just enough to keep her present in reality. And berate herself for how fucking stupid she is for having gotten herself into this situation with this man.

"No." Zachery says, simply, straight-faced and stern, breathing sharply out through his nose where his head leans against fabric. "If there's anything I've learned, it's that punishing yourself just creates a trail for others to follow. Look elsewhere. Forward."

“That is really fuckin’ rich coming from you,” Nicole snaps venomously. Still, it causes her to cease her self-flagellation. She’s grateful for his words, even if she doesn’t realize it. It’s brought her back from the brink of tears. Though only just.

“I don’t know how I come back from this,” she confesses in a quiet voice. “I don’t know what you think is supposed to happen here. I don’t know what you want to happen. What is time going to give you?”

As can probably be expected, there's no argument as to the snap. Zachery barely even visibly reacts - watching Nicole as if she might pop out of existence should he look away for a second.

"The same thing it always has, I'm guessing," he settles on, after a few seconds of thought. "More chances. To do better." He inhales in as if in anticipation for a deep sigh, but what finds itself spoken through a smirk instead is, "Time gave me you, so. Can't be that bad."

“God,” Nicole spits out exasperatedly. “I can’t fucking believe you.” She watches him for a long moment, letting the sound of the engine and the occasional gust of wind outside be the only sound in the cabin.

“I should have called you a goddamn transport. I’m such a fucking idiot.” A click! signifies that she’s reached for the handle of the door. A second, the latch of her seatbelt. She looks down the deserted road out of habit to make sure there isn’t something about to come by and take her door off before she pops it open and climbs out of the car, moving around to the front where she sits heavily against the hood.

With her eyes off of him, Zachery closes his. His breath catches as he pulls himself straight in his seat again, more than just his leg causing him visible discomfort as he strains to gather his wits.

"This isn't the way I want it either. Once upon a time, maybe. Ten years ago. Fifteen." By the time he's outside too, making his slow way around to the other side of the hood, he's showing far fewer signs of pain beyond every other footfall being heavier than the last. "But I can fix it. I can't promise you won't have to choose between something else and— me, but you coming out here by yourself? You know better." He comes to stop in front of her, head angled, fingers restlessly curling inward at his sides as he studies her and notes— "You chose to."

“You’re right.” Nicole closes her eyes heavily and sighs just as much so. “My partner, he… He tried to tell me that what I was doing was… stupid. And he was right, too.” She opens her eyes again and looks up at Zachery slowly.

“What the fuck am I doing?” As if he has the answer. She sure as hell doesn’t anymore. Her resolution seems to crumble when she looks at that face of his. She listens to hear heart hammering in her chest. The breeze catches her dark hair, strewing it about her face and causing her to flinch, closing her eyes again as she reaches up to untangle the locks that cling to her lashes.

But. Zachery did promise answers, last time. He probably would have provided one regardless, whether or not it was required, useful, called for, or any of the above.

"Something difficult," he ventures, "something potentially worth it, in the end, maybe. Something unfamiliar." Certainty clicks into place like a lock, steadying his voice as he reaches one hand to help guide the hair away from her face, while the other cups her cheek. "Something yours."

Seeming to melt into that touch, Nicole tips her unnaturally warm cheek into his hand, eyes staying closed for the space of two deep breaths. “I want to.” It comes out barely above a whisper. She trembles beneath his touch, it has nothing to do with the chill in the air.

“But I— I can’t,” she holds so fiercely to what’s left of her reason. It’s in short supply at the moment. Which is when she goes very still against his touch and he can see the color drain from her face.

“I left you alone with the gun.”

At first, the shift seems to confuse Zachery, who stands with fingers still up on her face. Clearly not in gun-grabbing mode, then, despite the coat still darkly covering his sides.

He brushes a remaining strand of hair behind an ear- before that hand, too, is landed gently against her skin. Face, neck. Fingertips finding spine where his thumb stays just under jawline, pressing upward ever so slightly.

His grin returns full force as he takes one more step forward and leans in close to whisper, "So," there's a finality to his, more so than anything else he's said today. "Find it."

Breath leaves her in a shudder. There’s fear and something else that makes itself apparent to Zachery’s senses and the dilation of her pupils. She reaches up and grasps his face in her own hands, leaning in to crush her mouth to his in a desperate kiss, like it’s the only way she’ll receive oxygen.

Tears prick at the corners of her eyes as she tips her head back when she finally has to come up for air. “I hate you,” she hisses, but she doesn’t mean it. What she means is I hate myself and, perhaps, I hate what I let you do to me.

“Touch me,” she demands.

There's no one around, right? Probably. Not that it matters, at this point, since this question surfaces in Zachery's mind when he's already got both hands moved down and under clothes, his face in her neck.

"If you fry me, make them put 'Rasputin' on my gravestone," he demands right back, between greedy kisses against what warm nooks he can find. Pulling her closer while shoving himself at the hood and her in between. "Right below, my last words— 'it was worth it."

Even as she tips her face toward the sky to stare at the greyness of it and wonder how she’s gotten to this point, and to silently beg whatever powers may be that they remain alone, she parts her knees to give him more space to pin her against the humming vehicle.

One hand moves to his hair, the other to the back of his shoulder. She makes small sounds that sound like distress, but he knows so much better by now. “If you blow me away,” she counters, “just make sure they never find me.” The mystery of whatever happened to Nicole Varlane would be so much better than the reality.

Pressed against him, she can feel how Zachery breathes out another laugh. One hand still on her waist and the other slightly higher, pushing fabric up and exposing bare skin to the still crisp February breeze, he leverages both himself and her into a position where he looks like he's about to press his lips against hers again…

… but instead ends up looking like he's only just managing to resist - at least long enough to grin and say, "You know, 'Miller' is an awfully convenient name to slip into a crowd with."

Her lips to his says she agrees. Or maybe it says to shut the fuck up. Her hands start to fumble with his pants. The chill brings little dots of gooseflesh to her skin, in spite of the warmth retained beneath.

It’s a damn sight better than Varlane. Trading the name of one war criminal for another, however… Well, at least this one’s innocuous enough. Plenty of Millers in the world. What’s one more?

“Yes,” she breathes out, vaguely.

"What?" Zachery replies, also vaguely.

His hands have traveled again, one downard now, but it's involved about as much thought as the lean forward into her touch, into instinct and- comfort- and… wait.

He's not laughing this time, even if his eye finds her face again with no small amount of pleasant surprise on his own. A brittle thing, hope - to hold, but not to crush with eager but untimely anticipation lying so often in wait to help strangle the thing. Carefully, but accidentally quite loudly, he asks, "Yes?"

Everything about this is wrong. Literally every single part of it. Here, she thought she had learned how to be good. All she’s learned, apparently, is a different way of wrongdoing.

Self-directed anger flashes in her features. She grows rigid beneath him as she stares up into his face, forced to explain what she meant. “Fuck me,” she growls instead. It’s a deflection disguised as a clarification.

Anything to distract from the way her heart soars when he looks at her like that. How excited it makes her to make him happy even by some small fraction. Neither of them deserve that right now, do they?

Deflection, or distraction? Whatever it is, it's successful, and now it's his turn to press his lips to hers, letting longing strengthen his grip around her with one arm while the other is freed to press a hand against the hood for support. It's his turn to make a noise of discontentment now, more for the disruption than the pain.

That fucking foot.

But, speaking of fucking. "— Car? Or ground." It's a question posed against her lips, and even then he doesn't leave much room for an answer. Too greedy. Probably not roadside, though, considering what follows is a tug of Nicole's whole body toward the treeline side of the car while his free hand helps her achieve the purpose of her fumbling.

The car would be warmer, but require economy of movement. With one hand slid down the front of his trousers, she presses back against him hungrily, letting him lead her up off of the hood and toward the trees. The car can keep running. If she breaks to shut the damn thing off, she’s liable to lose her nerve. Or come back to her senses. One of these is worse than the other, but the net result is largely the same.

It’s only when they get to their destination that she lets him go so she can push his coat off his shoulders. It’s going down on the ground like a blanket, because fuck if she’s laying in the dirt and the frost without a barrier.

Even then, she hasn't gotten rid of him long, because it's barely been a second after the coat's hit the ground that he's basically scooping her up - considerably less than gently - and laying her down on the thin barrier between her and the dirt.

He follows her down shortly after, somewhat heavily on one knee but stable enough on the other to press his face into the side of hers while fumbling, now, for her freedom. And… to say, in a low voice, into the space between them, with multiple flavours of satisfaction combined now that his coat is off — "It's still in your car."

There’s a frustrated little whine at that. It has everything to do with how utterly stupid she was to even give him a chance at a weapon. Which— Speaking of.

Nicole reaches under her blazer, to the holster at her side (he’d had plenty of opportunity to grab at that, too, but thankfully seemed to find other things he liked to grasp at better) and draws out her gun, only to toss it back toward the car, out of reach for now.

The next thing she does is wriggle her hips until they can get her pants down far enough. There’s no need to be a completionist about this shit. If this is how it all ends, so be it. She trusts he’d be good enough to redress her, but only if he doesn’t have to work that hard at it.

“You’re a bastard,” is as close as she comes to protest when they finally connect at the hips. “Don’t hold back,” is definitely encouragement.

There's a glance at that gun, unmistakably, but only for as long as it takes to leave his peripheral vision. Then, there's better sights.

"You did say - bad guy." He wastes no time holding still, because who's got time for that, pulling her still ever closer in with a hand slid under the small of her back before running cold fingers along her stomach and gradually downward. He pushes himself up just far enough away so she can see his expression. More smug than she's ever seen it, naturally. "Let's see how deep that hatred of yours runs."

Nicole tenses beneath his touch, then rises up to meet it. Her breath comes in short gasps already, anticipation seeming to make every single nerve ending hyperaware. Rather than provide more verbal reinforcement, she curls her fingers against the jacket below her and bites her lower lip hard.

Her blue eyes blaze up at him, challenging. This is a dangerous game, and she’s not sure there’s any way to play to win.

"Or…" Listen, you call someone a bastard, maybe they start leaning into it rather than — leaning into it. Zachery lowers himself back down, and ever so slightly forward but not quite enough, to whisper with borderline gleefulness— "You could just admit the obvious."

“That I’m going to wreck my entire life for you?” Nicole doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction of reaching for him, of begging. There’s a moment where he can see uncertainty break through the veil of desire, but it’s brief. Whatever sense tried to return to her was pushed down just as soon as it surfaced.

"Only insofar as—" Fancy. Words. Slowing with more handsy actions happening on Zachery's part, though a narrowing of mismatched eyes shows that's not quite what he meant. "Insofar as what needstobewrecked." Impatience wins out in the end, and Nicole is spared more jabs in favour of the one. "We'll get you there yet."

It’s a bit of a cold war in that way. One party just has to hope to outlast the other. She had a feeling that his impatience would get the better of him. All the same, he’s the one who’s rewarded with the contorting of her features in something like surprise. The quiet gasp of yes.

Of getting there, she moans softly, “God, I hope so.”

Whether or not distance makes the heart grow fonder, it certainly has its ways of motivating either way. One figurative destination reached leads to another, more literal one to be decided on. One that may or may not be as fun to get to - but just all good things come to an end, so do wrongdoings.

The second month of the year's chill returns with a vengeance after heartbeats start to slow once more, and it isn't long before - after the retrieval of a gun - Nicole and Zachery resort to returning to their seats and journey both.

"Suddenly those seat warmers seem a lot less like an unnecessary luxury," Zachery notes, suddenly much more cheerfully for a reason surely entirely beyond anyone's understanding. With a twig still sticking out from the wool of his collar, he leans forward and cants his head as he clicks and pulls open the glove compartment to peek inside. "I'm going to need that gun back, also. To return it."

Nicole was slower to recompose herself than her partner in this endeavor. Sluggish in steps to return to the vehicle, scooping up her own gun as she goes. She tosses her blazer into the back seat rather than redon it. She settles into the driver’s seat, but doesn’t click the buckle into place immediately. What she does do is reach into the door and hand back the unloaded gun without a word of protest. He could probably even load it for all she cares at the moment.

What she hasn’t done is put her own gun back. She leaves one hand wrapped around the grip, the weight of it settled on her lap. Her earlier enthusiasm for their little tryst has drained away entirely. There’s no traces of satisfaction or delight. (Which is not to say that it wasn’t plenty enjoyable, just that Nicole has complicated feelings.) Her gaze is unfocused, approximated somewhere in the vicinity of the digital clock display on the dash.

It's not an entirely unfamiliar sight, even if Zachery might only steal glances rather than want to look at it directly. At her directly. He hadn't necessarily counted on getting the stolen gun back so easily, though, and hesitates before putting it back at his side.

He pushes the glove compartment shut again, finding nothing more of interest — at least not compared to the gun still out in the open.

He blinks, waiting until a response takes too long for his liking, then asks, "What's keeping you?" His impatience has gone, but something pressing still lurks in his tone. "What's gnawing at your door, waiting to get through?"

Her eyes track in his direction, but only slightly, and still without intent to actually look at anything, beyond whatever spectres of her poor decisions are haunting her. “What the fuck is wrong with me?” Nicole doesn’t expect an answer to that question. While the answer is long and complicated, it’s still fairly obvious.

Little by little, her gaze follows along the line of his arm, shoulder, neck, and to his face. It takes another full second before she’s actually present in that gaze again. Her lips part as if about to speak, but nothing comes.

"Gnawing at your own door, then."

Though he sits still and his face is one of calculative keenness, his hands give way to a tremble - only just long enough to see, before he moves them across a pant leg and brings both of them to rest on either side of one knee. "You're driving yourself mad, is what it looks like from the outside. Does that sound about right? Fuck."

That last word is meant not as a followup, but as a new thing all together. Something that has him look toward the trunk, as if he can't quite help it.

“Yeah,” Nicole confirms, a tremor in her own voice. She lifts the gun off her lap, as if testing its weight in her hand for a moment before she actually turns her head to give it her attention. It’s not hard to tell she’s considering giving the interior a crimson paint job.

Instead, she slowly shifts her gaze back to him, still looking so impossibly numb after the frenzy that was just a few minutes ago. “Maybe… you better drive.”


Though his eye is slow to return to Nicole, it loses focus on whatever it was looking for long before it does. When his attention finds her face again, it's a little sharper for it.

"Hey, can I see that for a moment?" A feigned casual tone hits a little heavy on the nonchalance, while he lifts one hand from his knee to be extended out toward her, and the gun, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to do. What's possibly not so normal is the visible tension necessary in keeping his splayed fingers from shaking. His voice, though, remains calm, even chipper, when he says, "So, small problem - I can't feel much of anything in my right foot through a pain that won't go away unless I drink. Which, while tempting—" Tempting enough to have him grit his teeth before he relaxes his jaw again, "Is - no. So this may be a bit of a wild ride number two."

His questing hand is rewarded with the prize. The metal is cold in his palm, though warmer where she’s been holding it. Nicole seems relieved when it’s left her grasp. What’s the difference if he has the gun or she does? “It’s fine,” she promises about the drive. “I’ll… I can do it.” Finally, she reaches to pull her seatbelt into place.

Still, she doesn’t move to put the car in drive. She finds herself looking back over to him again. Part of her expects to see the barrel of the gun staring back at her, but only a very small part. If he was going to hurt her, he would have done it by now, most likely. He could have strangled her off the side of the road. She’s not even sure she would have fought back.

She does not find the barrel of the gun in sight - Zachery's made quick work, already, of slipping it into a pocket for safekeeping. Likely just for this ride, if he's got any sense left at all.

She finds, instead, her passenger staring back. "You can," he confirms, of her ability to drive, voice lowering slowly back into an area of obvious concern. "Here's a question for you." He forces a wry smile, some of which finds its way into his eyes - so to speak. "Would you feel more… secure if I were behind bars and you never heard from me again?"

The question, something she actually has to think about, starts to bring her back out of whatever fog she’d been lost in. It’s as though reality returns to her by degrees, given life by the lungful of oxygen she inhales and slowly exhales.

“Secure’s not the word I’d use.” For all that she’s been positively idiotic in this retrieval, she’s never really, truly convinced that he’s about to hurt her. Especially not after… whatever that was. Not that, the other thing. The earlier thing.

“It’s not supposed to be about what I want,” Nicole reasons in a soft voice. “It’s supposed to be about what’s right.” Something about justice, or whatever. “I haven’t… told anyone else you’re involved,” she confides. It’s a stupid move, but let’s not buck the trend we’ve got going so far. “Not even my partner.” She didn’t want Noah playing cowboy and black bagging Zachery, honestly.

“Maybe I’m hoping that means no one will find out.

Whatever answer Zachery was expecting when he asked the question, he wasn't expecting the tail end of it to go there. He sits forward a little in his seat, his shoulders drawing forward without thought while his smile fades into nothing. "But it got to you somehow. So who did find out?"

He wants to leave it at that. But information's flowing, apparently, and what if the floodgates close back up. "And what, exactly, have you been told about me?"

“Bad news moves like fire,” is Nicole’s non-answer to his question of who told her about his dirty deeds. “I might be able to keep it quiet. But it depends on what you can give me.” And if she decides whether or not he deserves to duck whatever charges should be coming his way.

Turning her attention to the road again, she looks over her left shoulder before hitting her blinker and pulling out onto the road. Yes, she expects to get shit for that, too. Once she’s got the car back up to speed, she snorts. “Should’ve known you were drunk. No one in their right mind asks me to marry them.”

Where the rumour mill's home is located isn't hard to guess. After all, the source of his pain had to have leaked the information out elsewhere.

There's more to say on that subject, but it requires some thinking. Maybe that's what distracts him from commenting on the blinker, and he sinks back in his seat to stare somewhat blankly ahead. While other thoughts yet bubble, half formed, one skips the queue and has him comment, idly, "If it's any consolation, I haven't had a lot, and I've wanted to ask it sober more than a few times before. Though — then there's the question of whether any state I've got left in my repertoire still qualifies as a 'right mind'."

He steals a glance at her face, eyebrows raised.

“Would’ve been nice if you asked me before I knew about all this shit.”

For as flatly as it’s delivered, it’s honest. Of course, she would have been a hell of a lot more furious if he’d done it and then she’d found out the kind of mess he’s wrapped up in. As it stands, she lifts one hand off the wheel and reaches over to rest her warm palm against his knee.

She probably owes him some kind of apology for the scare she gave him a minute ago, but one thing she’s not good at is apologizing for her moods. So it’s left to be swept under the rug. Ignored as though the whole incident never even happened.

“Maybe if we manage to get back to the Safe Zone in one piece, you can try it again.”

"I'll ask as many times as it takes for you to tell me to stop," Zachery starts, gaze lowering to the hand on his knee. "Which may be soon."

His hand does not find hers smoothly, though he does land fingertips on knuckles. Tracing downward where metacarpals meet below the skin and tendons. After swallowing hard, he finally asks, flatly, "Were you told of Shedda Dinu?"

“I’m aware,” is her response, devoid of much in the way of emotion, in spite of the way her fingers curl against him. She glances in the rearview mirror, which is as close as she gets to actually looking at him. “But why don’t you tell me your perspective?”

For as much as he tries to control his voice, something cracks in response to that question. His hand on hers relaxes, and he opens his mouth to say something but manages only several noises of confusion in a single breath. "Ah-h-h? Wh… that's- all you've…?"

If he could possibly sink into his seat even more while his brain reboots, he'd become one with it. It's not for anything negative — the relief in his voice is palpable when he looks briefly to the road and says, "Keep your hands steady on the wheel."

Without warning, he snaps out of his pancake-like posture and sits forward, clamps a hand onto Nicole's headrest and then climbs halfway over to kiss her, lest he gets a hand to the face. Hi. Gotta, sorry not sorry.

“Are you okay?” Concern flickers as Nicole glances over. When he tells her to steady the wheel, she’s quick to make sure she has both hands in place, scanning the road ahead for signs of an obstacle. When she sees none, she half expects him to be pointing the gun at her when she turns her attention back his way.

Instead, she’s surprised by the sudden display of affection. The car swerves to the left, but only briefly. And it isn’t as though there’s anyone else on the damn road anyway. “What the fuck was that for?” she asks, once she’s righted the ship and shoved his face away from hers.

One might think he'd have learned from getting his neck sliced open, but Zachery lands heavily back in his seat without his seatbelt. Maybe he's too busy staring at Nicole to remember, all grin and no sensibility.

"I don't— rightly know," he forces the words out, so he doesn't just sit there, dumbfounded. "Treating me… like a person?" It's a guess, but it's the best he's got. In the same airy tone, he adds, "Clearly, Yeh should have just invited you over to talk to me, rather than bleed me like a venom-stuck pig."

There’s no attempt made to mask how uncomfortable she is with the knowledge that he was tortured. Especially by someone she counts among her friends. There’s a look of guilt, fleeting, that crosses her features as well. Misplaced, of course. She didn’t know anything about it until after the fact, but still. In some way, Nicole feels like she failed him.

“Look, I…” Nicole frowns, staring out at the road ahead while she tries to decide how she wants to say what she wants to say. “If you somehow manage to avoid prison and you give me a ring that’s not stolen…”


"I didn't even answer your question," Zachery laughs out, apparently either not as heavily invested in these negative emotions or having shelved them effectively enough to where he can aim his sights elsewhere.

He doesn't quite settle down, remaining overly alert past the small, telltale signs of pain and starts of borderline mania both. "What if my perspective was that I joined because I really really badly wanted to destroy the world as we knew it?"

That answer is precisely why she had given him the opportunity to avoid the question. It’s the sort of thing she’d be much happier not hearing while she’s attempting to operate a motorized vehicle. “Then that would be a problem for me,” Nicole responds evenly, hoping against hope that he’s just being his usual sarcastic bullheaded self.

Speed limits be damned, she spurs the car on faster. This drive is going to be way too fucking long. “Is that why you said those things to me before you crashed the Bone Wagon?”


"Yes-" Zachery answers, driven by instinct, before within the same heartbeat also putting both hands up and saying, "No, not technically. I had suspicions, I thought, maybe with how things were going- I thought maybe- I…"

He can't find the rest of the words, and another laugh leaves him, but this time it's as if its only purpose is to empty his lungs of air gone stale already. The relief is still there, but it's bitter and cold. "I was ill-informed, is the truth of it." And though it might not be the whole truth, there's no lie in his statement. "I was ill-informed from the start. Promised a set path where there was none. Another beautiful picture of honeyed words and blood-stained certainty that I painted myself right into."

He sits back, at last. "I gave them all up. I'm not sure if they know, or will, but you should."

Gave them all up. To vigilante justice, Nicole surmises. In the hands of Richard Ray, well… There are worse vigilantes out there. At least he’s one she can reason with. Leverage against. That’s a bridge she can cross later. Hell, she can even let someone else handle it. She’s doing the hard part now, isn’t she?

Well, we’ll see.

“Tell me,” she entreats in a flat tone, “for the sake of argument, what did you think you were going to get out of all this?”

If there was ever any pride to be found in any of this, Zachery isn't showing signs of it. The road provides a poor distraction from the feelings of conflict his last answer brought him, but he'll stare at it anyway.

He was promised independence. It felt like a nebulous concept for a reward and does so even now. But there was earlier than that. A time when this whole mess didn't feel like trickery yet, and the memories hurt more for it. He sits in silence, as still as the rough road allows but for the fact that he's squeezing the fingers of one hand in his lap as though he might have a better time thinking of an answer should they break.

"Answers, maybe." He still doesn't sound sure, and the tension of residual frustration threads itself through the rest of his answer, like they don't quite want to travel past the back of his throat. "Truth be told, it hasn't taken much in the past, to rope me in. Desperation makes for… easy marks. Pawns."

Nicole nods solemnly, like she understands. “Makes for the best recruits.” She’s not talking about SESA. “It’s hard, when you just want… Stability. Respect. Recognition.” She glances at him briefly, then reaches back over the rest her hand over his, as if realizing he might be thinking about causing himself harm. One good turn, as the saying goes.

“I wish I’d met you before all that. Maybe things would have been different.”

"They still can be." Zachery breathes, before he's even noticed the hand on his. When he does look down, and stills his too-tight grasp, he adds, "… I think."

And then, a second later, staring downward and as if all of the sobering up in the world hits him all at once, he asks flatly of himself, "Shit, what am I doing." Nicole has seen this look before, a look of some absence when he lifts his eye to the dashboard but not beyond. Something clawing at his mind trying to earn its place as more than just preoccupation, if only he would let the feeling through.

At least, this time, it's accompanied by words. "Where are we going?"

She recognizes the look because she was wearing it not much earlier. He’d dragged her back to reality, and so she intends to do the same for him. Nicole’s fingers tighten around his in a gentle squeeze. “You’re right.” Things can be different. There’s still a chance, however slim it may be.

His question isn’t answered immediately, though. She has to consider that for a moment. Her initial intent had been to take him straight to Fort Jay for interviews. Now? Nicole sighs, resigned.


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