As Heads Is Tails


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Scene Title As Heads Is Tails
Synopsis In for a penny, in for a pound, Nick and Rue discuss the cards in their hands.
Date December 13, 2020

The Reach

The sound of the patio door gliding open is the first indicator that Nick is no longer alone out on the overlook. The light steps of boots on concrete after that clues him in as to who might have joined him even before he turns around.

“Sorry I kept you waiting.”

The fact that he was expecting Rue Lancaster might also have been a hint.

“Wanted to just… Needed to get my head together for a minute.” She’s got her coat pulled back on, her hat down over her head again. Her bushy hair has been tamed into a braid that looks ornate, but is probably simpler to achieve than it appears to be. For someone as practiced at such things as she is, anyway. The tail of it rests over one shoulder and she fusses with it absently as she makes her approach.

She offers him a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. The few times he’s seen her since the war, those are the only smiles she’s had for anyone. “You still smoke those Capstans or Chesterfields or whatever?”

Nick doesn’t turn at the sound of the door or her approach. Though the view is spectacular, his gaze is somewhere far more distant than the far reaches of the icy, snowy landscape in front of him. His cool blue eyes look warm in comparison to the cool pallor of the Swedish outdoors, reminiscent of tropical island waters, perhaps.

Only when she asks for the cigarettes does he move, nodding once and reaching into the inner pocket of his own coat, pulling out the white box with its red and blue striped front. He taps it to help draw one of the cigarettes out, then flips open a silver lighter, thumb deftly hitting the wheel and drawing up the flame.

“Tell me about it,” he says wryly. “So how’s your Arabic? No? Kurdish maybe?” He’s joking. Probably.

The smoke and the light are accepted with a quiet gratitude. Rue takes a moment to draw from it and blow the smoke out of the side of her mouth. It looks barely different from the cloud of vapor that signifies each breath.

Her mouth twists in an expression that matches his tone. “Accents I can handle, but I can’t fake a whole language.” She turns her head away to cough softly, just the once. She’s not used to smoking these days, but she’s committed and hoping the nicotine will at least hit her with the placebo effect of what she desires.

“‘Fraid I’m not going to be much use to you unless you need someone to sneak into or out of somewhere, or shoot something from a long distance.” Rue has skills, but the ones for gathering information and greasing palms aren’t going to do much good with a language barrier in place.

His laugh is a low one, tired and resigned all at once to a mission he probably has no real place being sent on, aside from somehow being associated with people who know more about the problem than he does. Any number of other CIA agents would be better equipped for this than he would, and he knows it.

I’m not going to be much use to me either, so no need to apologize,” he says wryly. “The sneaking I can do but sniping I’ll take you up on. If I’m honest, I’m not sure what good either of us can do that someone else can’t do better, mate. No offense, though.”

He glances over his shoulder to the glass doors leading into the den, then finally over to her. “‘But he who hath the steerage of my course, direct my sails,’” he quotes, then laughs as he pulls a cigarette from the case for himself, then tucks the pack back into his pocket.

Another strike and another flame light his own cigarette, as he takes a deep drag. His thumb snaps the lighter closed and that too is pocketed. “By he, I don’t mean God. If I believed in such things, I’d imagine it’s the other fellow.”

“None taken,” Rue says of the possible offense. “When you do a mission, you assign the best person for the job. This? Fuck, I don’t know what this is.” She turns to look at him properly while he quotes something far loftier than anything she’s ever read. Probably Moby Dick or some shit.

Doesn’t matter anyway. Rue huffs out a quiet breath of laughter and raises her brows briefly. “The road to hell and all of that.” If ever there was a time for a stiff drink, this would have to be it, wouldn’t it? “So… Are you going in on this? I can’t imagine why the fossil in there thinks we’re somehow uniquely suited for it.”

Nick lifts his shoulder and sighs, turning his back on the view behind him to lean against the wall dividing the patio from the greater outdoors. “It sounds like I’ll be assigned, so it’ll be my job. You can say fuck it, if you want to, and I wouldn’t blame you,” he says, looking up at her, before he looks to the doors again, as if Marcus or Broome might be standing there.

“It sounds like they’ve all got it sorted, yeah? I don’t know either. They know we’re not expressive. That makes traveling easier for us, but CIA and all the other alphas and a dozen other agencies have people who can blend in easier than either of us can. Don’t think either of us can pass for local.” He shakes his head, looking back to her. “It’s not my wheelhouse, any of this. I’ve spent the past decade looking for the mundane assholes who don’t want a world full of expressives.”

Nick takes another drag of the Capstan, closing his eyes as he lets it burn for a moment before exhaling. “I only smoke when I’m not in New York,” he begins, then shakes his head. “That’s not quite true. I try only to smoke when I’m not in New York. But every time I try to quit for real, something’s trying to destroy the fabric of reality and I figure what’s the point?”

“I can’t say fuck it,” Rue grumbles, “or that fucking asshole is going to be right about my being useless.” When in doubt, get stubborn just to make someone else wrong. “Besides, you need someone who isn’t beholden to the government to help keep you level, right?” She’s kidding about that, probably. She cracks a small lopsided grin. It doesn’t last long.

Leaning her elbows down on the wall, legs stretched out behind her so she isn’t hunched for it, it’s like Rue’s watching his six while he watches hers. Maybe it’s spy instinct. Either way, she lifts her head when he looks to her. “I mean, after that briefing?” Her head jerks back lightly toward the door with a huff of breath. “What the fuck’s the point of anything ever? Let’s smoke and live it up tonight, huh?” Her brows lift with a little half shrug.

“Valid point,” Nick says, before taking another drag and slowly exhaling. “You know, I actually quit when I got to Bannerman? It was right after meeting that fucking asshole,” he says, tipping his head in toward the interior of the building. “Allegre healed me so my lungs were clean for the first time in probably a decade at that point, and besides, I certainly didn’t have any on my person when I dropped back into present day on the eighth of sodding November.”

He dashes the ash onto an ashtray he’s found somewhere and set on the wall. “Obviously it didn’t last,” he says, unnecessarily. He watches her for a moment, then shakes his head.

“Don’t do it just because he guilted you into it. He doesn’t give a shit if you’re useful or useless. Do it if you want, mate. I’ll be glad to have someone I know and trust there with me, but I’m not going to think any less of you if you don’t go, am I?” It’s a rhetorical question, the sort British folk ask, as if maybe being ‘across the pond’ has brought out a little more of his Britishisms.

“But more importantly, you shouldn’t think less of yourself. It’s a big ask, and you’re not beholden to anyone but yourself, yeah?” His brows lift. This question is not rhetorical.

Flicking her ashes over the edge of the wall to be caught by the wind just further punctuates how out of fucks Rue is tonight. “I mean, if there was ever a time to quit…” She shrugs her slim shoulders. “Also a great time to pick it back up again, huh?” Shaking her head, she gives her vacant stare to the snowy landscape. “November fucking Eighth.”

Her eyes close tightly, like it’s suddenly far too bright. Another inhale from her smoke settles her nerves. His words make a great focus, keeping her to the here and now and not allowing her to travel back to 2006. Or any November 8 she spent in New York City after that.

Is she beholden to anyone but herself? So much of what she’s done — getting tied up with the Ferry and uprooting her life to come to help them on Pollepel, documenting the war along with fighting in it, joining Wolfhound — has been because she’s been beholden to anyone in need. Rue Lancaster doesn’t do what’s right by her, she does what’s right for everyone else.

Blue eyes open again and Rue straightens up so she can meet Nick’s without forcing him to look down at her. “I’m not going to do it for him. I’ll do it for you.” There’s determination in her, rather than the earlier resignation that came from the pronouncement of the inevitable end of the world. Maybe she’s decided it’s not so inevitable. “If this plan fails and we’re all fucked, but I wasn’t there? I’ll wonder if I could have changed something by being part of it. I’d rather know I was there and we did all we could.”

Rue shrugs her shoulders. “The world’s at stake. Who am I beholden to if not that?

They’re alike that way. Rue doesn’t have the added motivation of trying to compensate for an ugly and unforgivable past like he does to fuel the flames, but Nick’s spent the last decade in a never-ceasing effort to find and punish the war criminals who inflicted so much pain and suffering on the expressive community and the nation.

The irony that they’re hanging out in a house with one of them is not lost on him.

He shakes his head slightly when she says she’ll do it for him. Before he can argue, the rest of her words draw a small smile with a nod. That he can agree with.

“Not for me. For the rest of the world, sure,” he says. “I’ll pack extra Capstans for you.” His grin is a quick one, there and then gone again. “You glad to stay in this dimension, or would you’ve rather’d been on the ‘away’ team?” he asks curiously, dark brows lifting.

Rue shakes her head with a half grin. “Don’t get too full of yourself there, paladin. I’ll serve on this team because it’s you.” She blows another stream of smoke out the side of her mouth, genuine amusement visible in her eyes. “That said, I don’t oil my rifle for just any CIA spook, so you’re allowed to let it go to your head a little bit.”

That question of his sees thoughtfulness creep back in. Rue tilts her head to one side and considers, eyes not leaving his. Or at least not his face. “I did, at first, want to go. Not because I thought it’d be exciting or that I’d be heroic for it or whatever, but… because I didn’t want the people I care for to have to go in my place. But…” There’s a wry twist to her mouth and a lift of one shoulder. “When you’re deciding how to fill out an op, you pick the most capable person for the job, not just the person whose heart is in the right place.”

This time she flicks her ashes into the tray, leaning around Nick a little to reach it. “If that’s not where I’m needed, then I’ll go where I am. Right now, that looks like with you. So…” Rue straightens up again, having left her smoke in the tray for now. The little ground she took with the maneuver isn’t given up, voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. “This is a lot, though, right? Is your brain kind of just screaming inside of your skull over all of this, or is that just a me thing?”

Both brows lift at her teasing that he’s full of himself, but Nick laughs when she corrects him. He looks younger when he laughs — and he’s not as old as he looks when he doesn’t. “Fair enough, mate,” he says, standing a little straighter and resting the cigarette in the ashtray as well. His hands seek the warmth of coat pockets.

Her question draws a smirk from his and he shakes his head slightly. “Honestly, nothing fucking surprises me anymore,” he says. “Well, that’s a lie. I didn’t expect to walk into a tupperware party hosted by Marcus bloody Raith and Simon fucking Broome, did I.”

Nick’s blue-eyed gaze flits to the doors again, then back to Rue. “But this quantum physics shit? After the things we’ve seen happen, after the things I’ve seen happen since Bannerman… I don’t know. Feels like Tuesday, I guess.” He lifts a shoulder, smile turning apologetic.

“Not to be repeated because I don’t need my head shrunk, but…” He looks back to her, his expression somber now, no smirks or smiles. “If the world’s going to end, I just hope I don’t come back as a cockroach to crawl around what’s left. Other than that, I’ll do my best to stop it from happening, but not worried about myself.”

The rest of it gets the appropriate huff of laughter here and eye roll there and even a right? at the proper cue. For all that she’s been through, she’s always been adjacent to the weird. Never important enough to be in the thick of it. So, she’ll be more careful what she wishes for going forward. Maybe.

It’s the last part, where he meets her confession for confession that she focuses in, nodding earnestly. “You know,” Rue murmurs, a little bit in that daze suggested by the notion of her brain screaming, “it’s funny.” One corner of her mouth twitches like she’d like to smile for that. Commit to the bit. It falls flat in short order. One hand comes to rest on his upper arm as if to give an anchor point as she leans closer yet. “I was just about to call myself a cockroach.”

Nick narrows his eyes, then shakes his head slightly, looking this time away from the house, to the frozen landscape off to his left.

“You haven’t done enough shit to be a cockroach.” His words lack levity now. It’s not a quip or some self-deprecating humor. “And by shit I don’t mean making the hard choices or doing some wetwork to some asshole who deserved it, all right? You might feel small right now, or maybe doubt your worth in this world where you and I ‘normies’ can’t hope to fight against people who would be considered gods in another time.”

Nick’s eyes come back to rest on her. “It’s not what I’m talking about, and you deserve better than that, yeah?” He reaches for his cigarette again, lifting it to his lips. “So don’t go all Kafka on me, Gregor.”

He looks to his left and so she looks to hers, chuckling quietly as he tries to explain to her all the ways in which she hasn’t earned that kind of title. Clearly, she disagrees, but she doesn’t interrupt, and she’s not condescending about her amusement. It’s honestly touching that he wants to reassure her.

It’s nice, actually.

Again, when he returns his attention to her, she comes back to him. Rue smiles. “That went right over my head, honey. I was a model, remember? We’re not known for our booksmarts.” She wards off the insistence that she’s plenty smart with a wrinkle of her nose and a wink. There’s many other areas in which her intelligence excels.

“I meant,” Rue corrects gently, “that I seem to be exceptionally hard to kill. There are so many ways I was supposed to bite it, and I haven’t. So… I’m a cockroach.” Shrugging, she leans in to retrieve her own cigarette again, letting her hand drop from Nick’s arm. “I know I’m a speck of dust in a giant’s eye, and that’s okay.”

But what he’s said sinks in a bit deeper to her and suddenly her brows furrow. “Look here.” Now she sets her hand on the side of his face, trying to convey her own sense of seriousness in the way she knows how to. “Whatever you did in the past, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, but I’m saying you’re moving past it. You’re doing good. And you have been the entire time I’ve known you.”

In the grand scheme, it hasn’t been that long, but the time between 22 and 33 is not insignificant either. Rue’s changed vastly over that amount of time. It’s impossible for Nick not to have done the same. “So don’t be so quick to… I don’t have any literary references for not selling yourself short.”

Nick’s eyes roll when she protests she was a model, but he doesn’t correct her. He nods to her assertion she’s hard to kill — that was one aspect of his word choice for himself.

“I literally used to think I was expressive and that was my ability — not being able to die,” he says quietly, eyes turning back right toward the door, then back to her face. “That little trip to the past was just one example, though probably the most extreme. I’m not suicidal, but trust me when I say I’m not that afraid of death anymore. I’m more afraid of being the only one left.”

His hand comes up to his face to find hers, wrapping around her fingers, then pressing a kiss to her knuckles, like he might do if they were meeting for the first time at a fancy party in times past. “I can’t think of any either. Eeyore is about the only thing that comes to mind. You know. ‘Thank you for noticing me; nobody does.’” His Eeyore impression, lower and slower than his usual timbre and cadence, is fairly spot on for the Disney version of the character.

Letting go of her hand, Nick shakes his head again. “No need to weigh my soul out. I know where I stand there. No matter how much good I do, it’ll never stack up to the bad, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try anyway.”

His fingers reach for the pocket with the cigarettes, starting to pull the pack out before instead, simply resting his hands back in the warmth within. “Why the break from Wolfhound?” he asks curiously.

“I used to think I was expressive, too. I thought I was doomed to see dead people. It’s… kind of…” Rue struggles to find the right words. “I wasn’t afraid of being the last one standing, but I was afraid of just being surrounded by it, right? Just reminded of how… I don’t know. Maybe that I’d be next. And here I am, still standing, not expressive.” There’s a huff of wry laughter. “Not afraid to die, but still unable to manage it.”

The kiss to her knuckles sees her expression softening. The mention of Eeyore brings another smile. “Yeah, exactly. That’s one I can understand. You just gotta lay it out for me like I’m five,” she jokes.

The little bit of mirth she’d indulged in drains from her face and her eyes, her posture sags, making her look smaller than she is — and she matches Nick for height when accounting for the thickness of the soles of her boots. Rue looks down and to the side, taking a drag from her cigarette that burns a little more than the ones before it, signifying it’s time to put it out.

It’s held between her fingers for now while she exhales the smoke toward the patio floor beneath them. “Both our souls weigh heavy, Nick,” she tells him in a voice that isn’t quiet, but is somber enough to feel like it should be. “I got my whole team killed in my last op, so… I didn’t think I was very fit to continue to lead, and I’m too stubborn to go back to following.”

There’s shame and trepidation when she shifts her gaze back to him without lifting her head in kind. “Still want me on your six?”

He reaches into his pocket to pull out the pack of Capstans, resting it on the wall for her to pick up if she wants another. His fingers twitch a little on the return to his pocket because he wants another, too. He really does try to limit how many he smokes at a time, even away from New York.

“It’s a hard thing, to lead and to lose teammates,” he says quietly. “But someone has to lead, and sometimes no matter what you do, bad things happen.”

His head turns as the movement of a small dark bird in the pale sky catches his attention to his left, and he watches until its arc takes it out of sight, somewhere behind the building they stand on. Nick turns back to her, smile a little wry at the segue he didn’t intend.

“You were Ferry long enough to know we can’t always save everybody, no matter how much we want to. No matter how much we wish it’d been us instead, yeah?”

His shoulder lifts. “Honestly I’d rather have someone on my team who knows what it’s like to lose than someone who’s never lost. Besides, we’ll just make sure you’re not the boss.” His smile tips up impishly at that.

It’s as Rue’s shifted her weight to lean forward and put out her stub in the tray before it can burn to her fingers that she catches sight of the bird and falls still herself, watching and seeing a significance that must be similar to what Nick sees. Her fingers curl around the pack before she straightens up and brings her eyes back to him.

“Yeah…” Another place where she should have died at least twice over. Back then, she was glad to survive. Things have changed so much since then. Then, she nods, accepting what he’s said about it making her someone he does want to work with, rather than the other way around. She has to suppose tragedy has a way of bringing people together in unexpected ways. Not just the dessert bars in the church basement sort of way.

“Listen, I…” Initially, the redhead begins to demure. Thinking better of it, she lifts her head with a bit more confidence. “I’m still a little bit overwhelmed by all of this and kind of don’t want to think anymore.” Rue sifts the carton of cigarettes back and forth once in front of them. “So, why don’t we smoke another one of these—” The smokes are pulled out of reach before he can think about partaking. “After you come up to my room and show me you’re the boss.”

Nick’s eyes follow the carton, then slowly come up to her eyes.

A soft “Ah,” escapes his lips as he looks away, to his left again. His brow furrows, and one hand comes up to rake through his hair, before he looks back to her, his expression apologetic.

“I’m proper flattered, but there are a lot of reasons that would be a bad idea,” he says sotto voce, glancing down, then back up to her, left brow lifted. “One of them being I wouldn’t want either of us to have worse nightmares for the rest of our lives than we already do,” he says with a quick and fond smile for the implied cause of bad dreams. “I wouldn’t be a good teammate if you knew I betray the people who trust me, after all.”

Nick reaches into his pocket to extract the silver lighter, holding it out on his palm for Rue to take. His gaze drops to the lighter, then back up to her face. “Keep the cigarettes. You can give me the lighter once you’re out.”

The moment the rejection starts to come, Rue wrinkles her nose and shakes her head, like he doesn’t need to finish that thought. There’s no interruption given anyway. It’s the last thing he says, about betraying people who trust him, that’s the worst suckerpunch of all. It’s only then that her face falls, the good humor diminished in her expression. There’s certainly nothing further than skin-deep.

“No.” The cigarettes are passed back easily. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t need the fix so much as the company that comes with it.” Narrow shoulders come up in a shrug. “You feel like pretending I didn’t make an ass of myself just now and spending more time with me? Offer me another sometime.”

Rue takes one step back, then a second. One corner of her mouth quirks up ruefully — pun unintended. “You’re a better person than I am. Guess this is why you’re the Saint, and I’m a vicious Rumor.” Any attempts to try and counter her self-assessment are waved off. “I’m going to head up, see about getting a shower and try to sleep this off. We’ll catch up later.”

“Hey,” he says, reaching to catch her hand before she can disappear into the house, tugging her to turn toward him.

“The world is possibly fucking ending. Any attempt to connect with a person and feel human is normal and not anything to be embarrassed about. You get me?” Nick’s expression lacks any hint of humor. “Don’t make this about me being good or you being bad, Rue. I won’t argue the first part because I’m not about to give you the heaps of evidence that’ll prove I’m not a saint. I don’t want to lose your friendship and I might do, if you knew all there was to know. But I will fight you…”

Here his smile returns, tipping up his mouth into a small smirk, “…not physically, you’d probably kick my ass, mind you, but I’ll fight you over this self-deprecating bullshit.” It’s said fondly. He knows what it’s like to be where she is, after all.

His hand drops from hers and he crosses his arms, lifting a brow. “We’ll spend more time together. I may or may not let you have any more cigarettes. They’re bad for your health, you know.”

Nick tips his head in the direction of the doors. “Shower, sleep. Let me know if you want company. I’ll show you how to play Durak.”

The tug is met with an easy spin toward him, like it’s a step in one of her dances. Her blue eyes catch his and hold there, her own shame unguarded from him now as he does exactly the thing she tried to keep him from doing. There’s no disappointment or ire for him for that, though. She’d be doing the same thing in his shoes.

“There’s nothing you could tell me that would make me stop being your friend,” Rue insists firmly. “Nothing I can conceive of. So, keep your past where it belongs and accept that we are where we are, and only what we do from here will change any of it.” That doesn’t need a response, because she isn’t accepting any counterarguments. “You don’t have to be willing to or wanting to smoke with me to spend time with me.” On that much, she agrees. “Be a shame if we both suddenly couldn’t run for shit because we’d had too many cigs.”

She still feels bad. Terrible. Horrible. But he doesn’t think she should, and he doesn’t think poorly of her for the mistakes she’s made, so she can find her smile for him again. Her arms slip under his and around his back as she brings herself in for a hug. She only holds there for a couple seconds when she’d like to go longer, but drops a kiss on his cheek before she withdraws.

“Thanks, Nick.”

When she hugs him, his arms come up around her, and he reaches for her hand as she steps back, swinging it lightly between them in a friendly way before letting it go.

“You probably know the more common meanings of rue, the flower.” It’s a strange non sequitur, but Nick likes his symbols and literary allusions, so a connection follows.

“I told you me and Lee, we used to read fairytales and the like. We had some old book with all the mythological and fantasy creatures in it that we’d pour over for ages, hiding in a closet with a flashlight. You know what a basilisk is, yeah? They had one in Harry Potter, the first book?” His brows lift in query. “In the old lore, they could make plantlife wilt and die, crack stones, do all sorts of damage.”

Nick smiles, looking out to the treeline, then back to her. “Except for rue. It had no effect on rue, for rue is stronger, heartier, than it seems.”

“You know… I didn’t know any of that, actually. I…” She laughs. “I guess I get fixated enough on the fact that Rue’s just a nickname I gave myself to stop the schoolyard teasing that I never actually bothered to look into any of the fun stuff. There’s not a whole lot of fun facts about February as a first name, so you’d think I’d have wanted something a bit more interesting, huh?”

The banter is a cover from the way her eyes have gotten misty. She’s been strong because she’s had to learn to be in order to become the sort of person who could enact change in the days before the war. She stayed that way because she didn’t want to lay down and die. Didn’t want to meet the fate she saw in dreams.

She didn’t want to see those who committed atrocities not answer for them. Sometimes it was like her parents couldn’t be more disappointed. Our Daughter, the War Photographer, had been a point of pride for them in the way that Our Daughter, the Freedom Fighter/Mercenary never will be. And when inspired and surrounded by people who seem infinitely better at the role she plays at… All that leads to a simple notion.

“Thank you.” Rue brings her attention back to Nick after having fixed it on the horizon to consider. “Even if you could just be saying that,” and it’s not an accusation of the sort, “I needed to hear it.”

He smiles and lifts a shoulder in a tacit ‘you’re welcome.’

“It’s a lot prettier and more interesting than comparing yourself to a cockroach, anyway, but still holds some of the same truth. Hard to kill. Resilient. And rue’s a lot prettier to look at, so it fits on all counts, yeah?”

Nick turns toward the door. “I think that fireplace is calling. As pretty as that is,” he says, tipping his head in direction of the landscape beyond the balcony, “I’d rather be warm. Come on, and I’ll show you how to play Durak and make all the babushkas cry when you beat them easily.”

Rue will blame the blush to her cheeks on the cold in the air. “I have no idea what this game is, but I already know I need to teach it to Francis so I can destroy him.” Flicking a knife-sharp grin in Nick’s direction, she heads to follow him inside.

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