Burning Pile


nicole_icon.gif zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title Burning Pile
Synopsis Zachery surprises Nicole for Valentine's. And what a surprise it is.
Date February 14, 2020

Bay Ridge: Nicole's Home

Zachery Miller spent most of his life pretending his extraordinary awareness of the human body was something only just outside the fringes of normality. Something no one he knew he was in possession of, but which did not, in and of itself, feel like any more than a shortcut. A trick.

But with time, not only had he opened up about it, it had become more. Certainly, recent events had seen him use what may once have felt like just a glorified party favour for obtaining some genuinely valuable information.

Now, in this moment - his arm draped over Nicole while she sleeps, his face against the back of her neck - the extra knowledge almost feels like too much.


2/14/20 6:50 am
Stop procrastinating.

The message arrives after Zachery has already gotten dressed and made his way into the kitchen about as quietly as he was able. Stealth cooking is trickier though, and the spitting of butter in a hot frying pan masks the noise his phone makes as it delivers the helpful reminder. Fortunately, its screen blinks to life on the kitchen counter all the same, and Zachery only just catches it in his peripheral vision. Holding way too many thoughts in his head and a knife to a cutting board, he leans to the side mid-slice to read the screen.


That, also, could have been quieter.

All my style
All my grace
All I tried to save my face

Not 15 minutes later, the door to the bedroom slowly creaks open for the second time this early, early morning, and Zachery elbows it aside properly with a tray held in both hands, and an expression of already having had a time of it. "Is there," he starts, peering over a collection of bowls and plates and mugs and one singular glass, "Any chance I could have you pretend to still be asleep?"

Don't mind the very colourful unicorn bandaid on his index finger. They might be meant for Pippa but they work just as well as any other.

“Well,” comes the voice from underneath the comforter, thick with the gravel of sleep, “I was going to fake it until I made it, so that’s a yes.” With a sharp inhale and a heavier exhale, the blanket is grasped and folded back to about waist level. “What d’you—”

He’s carrying a tray of breakfast.

All my guts, try to spill
All my holes, try to fill

Nicole stares in confusion for a long moment before pushing herself up slowly to sit with her back to the headboard. “…need?” Sure, she’d heard him in the kitchen, but she assumed he was cooking for himself. She does the same when she gets up that much earlier than he would, but this is only about ten minutes before her alarm anyway.

Still, it’s usually set out on the counter in a come-and-get-it fashion, not delivered like room service.

All my money been a long time spent
On my drugs, on my rent

It isn’t her instinct to assume the best, unfortunately. Nicole’s mouth pulls into a frown, her look already disappointed. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

The look she receives in response is not one of warmth, or of any yielding emotion that might immediately tell her 'no'.

On my saving philosophy
It goes, one in the bank, and the rest for me

Zachery lingers in the doorway, but then moves closer - carefully, and with the soft jingle of cutlery against ceramics every other unstable step. "If I'd planned to leave you, I wouldn't have cleaned up after myself."

He sets the tray down beside her, the weight plunging it into the comforter. There's too much food, this is immediately obvious between the oatmeal and scrambled eggs and the toast and fruit and what looks like some sort of salad. A glass of (admittedly not fresh) orange juice, a mug of coffee and a mug of steaming hot water and some loose bags of tea is probably more than what was needed, as well. None of it looks particularly pretty.

"I'm not a very good cook either, so we'll see, still, if I might not have to flee a murder scene." He straightens back up to stare down at her, and to ask almost without pause, "What is going on in that head of yours?"

It goes, all my troubles on a burning pile
All lit up and I start to smile

“What’s going on is that I’m afraid you’re about to—” The frown fades and she shakes her head. “That’s a lot of food,” she says instead, pulling the tray toward her carefully, then lifting it up to set it over her lap. Nicole narrows her gaze, corners of her mouth quirking up as she plucks up a piece of toast. “Are you trying to fatten me up so I can’t run off?”

That was terrible.

If I catch fire, then I change my aim
Throw my troubles at the pearly gates

She takes a bite off the corner of her toast, taking a moment to chew and swallow before she circles back around to his question. “I’m afraid you’re going to leave because they always do.”

Zachery stays standing, fingers curling inward as he listens. At the question, his gaze rolls briefly upward as his mouth draws into a thin line. Wellp.

My mama, lonely maid
Got her buns in the oven, and she never got laid

Then there's the matter of the other thing. The leaving thing. It brings his attention back down again, and he clicks his tongue. "I did leave you for a terrorist there, for a while."

My papa, renaissance man
Sailed away, and he never came back again

His tone is casual, but the tension in his shoulders and the way he's staring more at the tray than her is probably not.

“You did,” Nicole agrees, expression sullen at that. Suddenly, she feels like she shouldn’t have much of an appetite anymore. All the same, she takes another bite of toast and takes a moment to compose her thoughts.

“Did they contact you, then?” He’s buttering her up, she assumes. Preparing her for some sort of bad news. It never even occurs to her that there’s an occasion. “Ask you for something? Some next step, or…?” It’s a spoonful of oatmeal yet, and a sip of orange juice to wash it down.

Watching him, she finally lets the worry properly creep onto her face. “What is it?”

All my troubles on a burning pile
All lit up and I star to smile

When Zachery looks back up at her again, it's with a look of exasperation, mouth open to say something but struggling to immediately locate them.

"Christ," he manages after a few seconds, pinching the bridge of his nose and moving to sit on the foot end of the bed. "All right, so — a couple of things. I know I'm knew at this, but maybe I was wrong in assuming you'd come to expect…" He abandons that line of thinking, gesturing to the food with his eyebrows raised over a stare of thinly veiled impatience.

"This whole breakfast in bed thing, plus some roses downstairs which I feel exceedingly silly about right about now, what does this remind you of other than - and I cannot stress this enough - other than heartless betrayal? I'll give you a moment."

If I catch fire, then I'll change my aim
Throw my troubles at the pearly gates

Nicole leans forward a bit, expectant that he’s going to provide the answer. Instead, he gives her a moment to think about it and she stares back at him blankly. “So… This isn’t some kind of preemptive apology?” she surmises finally.

She continues to eat in silence, even as one polished fingernail taps restlessly against the tray while she tries to think about what this could be about. Reaching over to her nightstand to lift her phone and note the time absently, she sets it down and starts to form her mouth around her next thought.

Then is promptly derailed by realization of the date.

“Oh, shit. Is this a thing?” she asks around a mouthful of eggs. Swallowing it down quickly with a gulp of water, she fixes Zachery with a wide-eyed stare. “I’ve never been dating someone over Valentine’s before,” she admits. That this is a lovers’ holiday never even occurred to her. “I didn’t get you anything,” is further confession. “But…”

That manicured nail has ceased tapping and now hooks under the strap of her nightgown so she can slide it down her shoulder. “Ah, I’ve got a few minutes before I need to get ready for work.” She lifts her brows.

I can make it up to you?

All your woe bygones be gone

Zachery draws in a deep breath to steal an extra moment of preparation in lieu of answering any questions posed. Except. He ends up chuckling instead, albeit slightly nervously.

Still, there's something comforting about the mutual struggle, even if the two of them are struggling for different reasons. A chip in the proverbial ice.

"Hold on, I mean, yes, but —" Despite protesting, he sounds a little more relaxed now, smirking as he reaches to lay a hand on the comforter over one of her legs. "Don't get me wrong, I love this whole thing you're offering, but this conversation may turn into an apology just yet." He pauses, then adds, blinking, "… Possibly because I just called you a thing."

Nicole smirks back and sets her hands on the tray, wrapping her fingers around the edge of it in anticipation of needing to make space shortly. “Don’t worry,” she assures him. “I know you love my whole thing.” All the same, she relaxes and turns her attention back to breakfast.

I said all you troubles
You don't mean a thing

“Well, go on then. Tell me what’s up, then. If this isn’t just you being a sweetheart for Valentine’s.” Nicole encourages.

That last sentence does little to comfort Zachery, who looks increasingly like he might be regretting this whole plan, sporting a new thousand yard stare while the muscles in his jaw visibly tense up.

As if to disprove that whole 'sweetheart' thing, he idly wrings his hands and then says, floodgate style, "So, something was going to be much more real than it is right now really soon and I've known for a good while but I didn't really know how to tell you because is it really up to me - really - but since this is a very strange situation which I feel like maybe I shouldn't even have been privy to - which I didn't think I'd have to be privy to - and there was the whole situation with me not quite communicating my… you misinterpreting—?"

He stops, having hit a mental dead end of sorts. "Anyway, you're pregnant, congratulations and or I'm very sorry and I don't have a car but I can still drive you if you want to…" His shoulders come up in a reluctant shrug, eye searching her face as he forces himself into silence again.

As Zachery’s stream of consciousness flows on, Nicole’s eyebrows start a leisurely hike toward her hairline. By the time he gets to the end, that final blurt, the punchline, her eyes are very wide indeed. Her mouth drops open, fortunately without any food in it, and she just stares at him for a very long moment.

All my troubles on a burning pile

She starts to laugh finally and shakes her head. “Oh, gosh, no. I’m not. I’m on the pill.”

When she remembers to take it, which is most of the time - excepting sometimes when she’s stressed.

“We use protection.”

Except when they fuck on the side of the road.

The list of denials is starting to run thin. “How in the hell do you think you would know and I wouldn’t, anyway?”

The amusement drops away abruptly when she realizes exactly how he would know more about her internal workings than she would.


All lit up and I start to smile

Now it’s Nicole’s turn to adopt that thousand yard stare off into nothing. The tray of food is lifted and set aside. Her hands come to rest over her stomach after that.

“Oh no.”

Oh yes.

If I

"They're in my fucking dreams, Nicole," Zachery shoots back immediately, exasperated, brow knitting. "You know how sometimes you've got a full bladder while you sleep and then you dream about needing to find an opportune moment to take a fucking piss?"

He doesn't wait for an answer, letting errant frustration and anxiety run away with his brain for one more sentence while his stare attempts to bore a hole into Nicole's face. "Try that on for size with a whole body you've accidentally rolled into. It makes for some dreams."

There’s a huff of breath that might have bordered on laughter. “Oh, yes. Poor you.” Her gaze comes back to focus and finds his face. “So, you made me a huge breakfast because I’m eating for two.” She eyes the food again, which she still wants to absolutely devour, while now refusing to because fuck this, and fits her upper and lower teeth together in an expression of frustration and existential agony.

“Fuck, that explains so much,” Nicole mutters. “The bloating, the nausea… I was spotting. I thought it was PMS,” feels a bit like she’s begging reality to warp to her desires. “How long have you known?”

Catch fire

Someone, somewhere, turns the volume down on Zachery's voice before he answers and asks both — "Do we really have to go into that?" Maybe he assumes the answer is yes, because he almost immediately follows it up with more possibly unwise words, gaze lifting to the ceiling. "I can't remember the exact day I filled half of your beer bottle with water in an extremely smooth move."

Probably sarcasm.

Smoother still, his tone dipping into defensive, he corrects quickly, "And technically, you're eating for three? There is the possibility that one might absorb the other in the womb like sharks do."

Clearly he has been giving this some thought.

“That’s a while,” Nicole agrees without any animosity. Because if she’s as early along as she suspects she must be, then there was still hope that the spotting would be more than spotting. Apparently that hope has become slim enough now for Zachery to feel it prudent to inform her of her status.

He can see the moment she mentally checks out after being informed she’s eating for three. After several long seconds - just long enough for him to worry that perhaps she isn’t going to snap out of it on her own - her head lifts again, eyes wide with shock. “Like sharks, huh?”

"Yes," Zachery answers, looking back to Nicole again with a study of her face that is considerably less sharp than before. His words, too, carry the weight of doubt on it all too clearly. "Like sharks."

Then I'll change my aim

Apparently that's all he really has to say on the subject. He plants both hands on the mattress and gets to his feet, standing somewhat awkwardly at the side of the bed and clearing his throat. Distance settles back into his voice all too easily at something perceived, hands balled into fists at his sides. "Anyway, this was a bad idea. Just, ah- just let me know what you'd like to do, I'll be…"

He cants his head toward the door, but only just.

Nicole watches him move to stand, a look of concern flickering there for a moment. She doesn’t even begin to touch the fact that he just suggested that telling her she’s pregnant was a bad idea. He knows it wasn’t. It’s just a difficult thing. For the both of them.

“What if I want to keep them?”

Throw my troubles at the world again

It's a question he should have expected. One that sees him linger, having gotten up to leave, yet not quite actually leaving.

"I don't know." Zachery answers belatedly, with pained sincerity, followed by a shallow exhale of frustration as if he should know. As if it is a personal failure that creases his brow again, and not just him being quietly terrified, squaring his shoulders to compensate. "Two months ago I would have gladly seen the entire world burn. It's… not my decision. Ultimately. But I think it could be nice to consider that I might… remember this day fondly."

“No one’s ever prepared to be a parent,” Nicole informs him. “It seems that none of my children are destined to be planned for.” In another world, Ingrid was almost certainly intentional. In this world, there’s no way Nicole could have planned for a daughter from the future to step into her life.

“If you want to be a part of this, I’d like very much to… face it with you.”

It goes, all my troubles on a burning pile

At least this time around, she isn’t facing down the knowledge that the president was about to write an executive order to have her (and people like her) sterilized. While there’s still alarm bells and a strong instinct to run, Nicole doesn’t feel a need to indulge it.

"… You're taking this incredibly well." Internal alarm bells on his side or not, Zachery takes a step forward rather than back. "Which is good, mostly because I may have already spent quite a lot of money on things you're going to need in the coming months, and you're going to be really sick of me reminding you to take care of yourself in incredibly specific ways."

What looks to be relief has him crack a rare smile, chin lifting as he gestures for her to move. "Get up. The toast will keep."

All lit up, and I start to smile

“I’m screaming internally,” Nicole tells Zachery very seriously of how she’s actually taking all of this. “But this is not my first accidental pregnancy rodeo.” She draws in a sharp breath, and lets out a breath of laughter with a manic edge to it. “One second. Turns out I could use a good external scream, too.”

Reaching over for the pillow he previously had his head upon, she pushes it up to her face and shrieks into it, albeit muffled. The neighbors won’t be calling the cops. For a moment, her shoulders just rise and fall with the deep inhales and exhales she’s taking. Then, she suddenly rather aggressively fluffs that pillow by squishing the ends inward, then tugging them apart again. If she had much more strength, she’d probably actually tear the thing in half. But then there would be feathers everywhere and she’d be even more put out.

Setting down the pillow very gently, smoothing out its surface with a serene expression as though that entire outburst didn’t happen, Nicole lifts her head again and tosses the covers aside, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and dropping down onto the rug beneath her feet.

If I catch fire, then I'll take my turn

Again, she laughs. “Fuck.

All the while, Zachery watches silently. The longer he stays quiet, the more charmed he looks to be, smile turning into a grin that better suits his face. For once, he doesn't try to fight back a look of endearment and gladness both.

It takes her laughing to get him moving again, and he reaches both hands to scrub them over his face before saying — "Alright, so, bear with me a moment, I'm… going for a bit of a Valentine's Day bingo card situation here. I'm hoping we can get it filled out before 8, clearly, so we have the rest of the day for potential ridicule and, you know, eating chocolate covered strawberries or whatever it is couples do."

His gaze darts off to the side for a second, then he laughs too, prompted by an idea that has him reaching into a pocket before pulling out something small and bright that's immediately palmed away. "So! Uh. Shit. Well."

Despite looking like a weight has been lifting off of him somewhere in the last few minutes, rather than standing taller, he drops gradually down onto one knee. "I still don't have a ring," he tells her flatly, "but I do have this."

The utter ridiculousness of offering up a spare, unused unicorn bandaid on his palm isn't much helping him swallow back the grin as he looks up and past it, into Nicole's face. "Come on. One more time. You know you want to."

She looks just as endeared with him as he starts to lay out his notions for how the day is going to go. “Before eight, huh? You know I have to be to work by nine, right?” Nicole chuckles and drags a hand through her hair. “Valentine’s Day is not recognized as a national holiday by the United States government. I still have to show up to the office. I have meetings. I have—”

To burn and burn

He gets down on one knee and suddenly Nicole can’t breathe. She knows what’s coming, but it still knocks her completely off her guard when he speaks the words. But he grins up at her, and her heart soars just a little bit.

“Do you need help applying a bandaid?” she asks him, amusement creeping into her expression despite the look of innocence she’s attempting to maintain. “I don’t think I understand what you’re asking for here.” All the same, Nicole reaches out one hand toward him, smile widening.

"Yes, actually, you know what," Zachery answers from down below, real and fake eye narrowing as he stares upward into Nicole's face with his grin staying. "I studied medicine for a decade and so much longer still but I could never quite master the art of undoing that tiny little bit of sticky paper and also fuck you, will you marry me?"

Giggles are unsuccessfully held at bay as Zachery indicates that he has just one failing as a medical professional. Nicole’s grin is very broad indeed when he finally says the four words she was coaxing from him.

This is a terrible idea.

“We are terrible for each other,” she tells him, smile undiminished, even if she does let the barest hint of misgiving grant it some color. “But tell me your heart doesn’t race for a burning building.”

They both know it does.

And burn and burn

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