nicole_icon.gif zachery_icon.gif

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Scene Title Concern
Synopsis It manifests itself in many different ways.
Date August 31, 2019

Providence: Nicole's Farmhouse

A lot can happen within a week. This last one has been a particularly baffling one for Zachery, between unexpected houseguests, a natural (maybe?) disaster last night that he hasn't quite had the time to figure out beyond a general sense of 'what the fuck', and now, he's found himself here.

Standing at the path leading up to Nicole's house, his mud-scuffed boots and black peacoat standing out against the light of the low sun and looking like he might've skipped a night or two of sleep, he could almost be excused for just passing by. Except he wasn't, and he knows it, and something's stopped him dead in his tracks as his monocular vision scans across the visible windows. Downstairs, upstairs. Lingering, for a long while, on one particular bedroom window.

Maybe he should move along, back home. Maybe it's all okay. Maybe concerns are unnecessary, and this is not needed, and familiarity is useless and the idea of comfort doubly so.

The soles of one of his boots drags back in the dirt, a step forwards slowed by idle thought, but one toward the house either way. Because honestly, what's waiting for him back home isn't that bad. The last few days have been confounding, but they could have been worse.

They could have been Nicole's.

The front door of Nicole’s house hangs open. That in itself is not wholly unusual - she likes to let the breeze in. The smear of dried blood in the entryway, however, that’s not within the realm of ordinary by any means. Unless Nicole’s suddenly taken to butchering game?

Everything is still as Zachery crosses the threshold. There are dishes sitting in the kitchen sink, water still pooled there, plates and silverware left to soak long after the bubbles have dissipated. A test of the temperature will prove it’s gone cold as well.

The creaking of floorboards overhead rouses Nicole from where she’s curled around her daughter. The girl finally fell asleep on the cot set up in the back of the cellar. An oil lamp keeps just enough light to faintly illuminate their surroundings and keep the shadows from encroaching too much.

Zachery can sense the lifeforms even before the sound of Nicole’s voice carries to him.

“Hello?” It’s muffled, but distinct at the same time. “Hello?!” Frantic.

The girl lifts her head, eyes wide and frightened as she watches her mother pound on the locked bulkhead of the cellar again. Their pleas fell on deaf ears before. The child’s too afraid to have hope now.

“Hello!!” Nicole’s voice is ragged and thin from shouting. Her nails are broken from trying to pry her way through the door. Proverbially scratching at the walls. It’s been a little over twenty-four hours, and she’s been terrified that, in the middle of nowhere, no one would find them. Not until things became dire. Or worse.

The first call almost seems to fail to get Zachery's attention, what with said attention having been sidelined - details from multiple sources filter in slowly, like a puzzle presented purely as a challenge for him to solve. It might be a fun little game, what with the blood smear and the mystery of an abandoned house, if not for the fact that it was this particular house.

But even though there is no immediate visible response, his expression changes almost instantly to one of panic by the time the second call comes and the two vastly different forms of input are recognised to come from the same source. His eyes dart from item to item on the floor - looking for… he's not quite sure. A rug? A trap door? How are they down there?

The floorboards give another creak as he steps forward in the midst of racing thoughts, drawing in a breath to speak — but then his mouth closes again, brow knitting. He walks a slow half-circle path, then… just stands.

Some might call this paranoia. Granted, in a moment, he probably will, too.

When the footsteps don’t shift in the expected way, Nicole closes her eyes and tries to piece together why that could be. Because the person above isn’t there to rescue them? Because they’re simply there to loot an empty house?

Because they don’t know where to find the entrance to the basement.

“Back door!” Nicole cries desperately, hoping that her hunch is the correct one. “Around the back of the house!” That tracks with where the pounding on the door seems to be coming from. That loud and hollow metallic banging. “Please! Help us!”

But movement does not start up again in a way to indicate that this advice is heeded. Maybe he's changed his mind, and this is far too much for right now.

Except that when there IS movement, quiet though it might be, it's the noise of Zachery going through some cupboards, followed shortly by a shuffling around of dishes in the sink before running water splashes against stagnant once-suds.

Then, after a few more footsteps, it just goes quiet again.

Until, at least, the crisp, metallic sound of the bulkhead door lock coming undone. Zachery steps back from it as if he expects it to explode, but not before picking up what he'd put down a moment ago - watching the door with his head tilted upward in equal measure curiosity and fascination, a tall glass of water in each hand.

The bulkhead does not explode. Not even metaphorically. Instead, it’s lifted open cautiously, Nicole squinting against the daylight as the rusted metal creaks and ultimately falls open with a bang! against the concrete and dirt built up around its edges. At the bottom of the stairwell down, Pippa stands, staring up at their savior.

The second door is pushed open, but this time Nicole catches it before it can crash down, letting it gently lower before she walks back down the steps to douse the lamp and gather her daughter up in her arms. A kiss is pressed to her forehead before she carries them both back up the stairs with long strides.

“Thank god,” Nicole murmurs when she’s above ground again, fixing Zachery with a bewildered and uncertain look. Whatever happened to her, she’s rattled by it. It never occurred to her, not once, that Zachery Miller would come looking for her. She’s all the more grateful that he did.

"I know you've been down there - a while," Zachery's voice comes a little more carefully than she's heard him speak before, a mismatch for his words when he finishes with — "But 'god', I am not."

He adopts a somewhat awkward, forced smile if only out of some unnecessary habit, which means that it slips away all too easily when he looks to Pippa, and finds himself asking, "Is she alright?" The question leaves him much firmer, almost like a demand.

He shifts his weight uneasily, as if he would move forward and toward her if only he wasn't holding these dumb glasses. Then without waiting for an answer, uncertainty slipping into his voice, he adds, "Let's - get you back inside. I'll make you something better than water. This was - this was stupid," he rattles on, words beating thought to the punch as he does not actually move but ends up studying Nicole's face, first, "How did you…?"

“We’re fine,” Nicole is quick to assure. His ability at least can confirm the physical. Mentally, however, is another story altogether. All the same, Pippa nods her head mutely to confirm that, yes, she is okay.

A dry swallow and Nicole offers a shaky smile both to the earlier quip and to the thought that went into bringing water. “It’s good,” she promises. If she weren’t carrying her daughter - who’s almost too heavy to do this for anymore - she’d be reaching for one of those glasses now. Her voice is strained, hoarse from all the screaming she engaged in. Hours of it, before she gave in for the night.

“Sweetie,” she begins, smoothing a hand over the blonde curls at her child’s crown, “we’re going to go inside and you’re going to take a glass of water from Mister Miller and go straight upstairs to pack your bag, okay? Just like Mommy and D—” Her voice cracks and she coughs dryly. “Just like you were taught.”

Again, Pippa nods her little head. After the explosion the day before, she has no intention of arguing. The place meant to keep her safe became a cell, and the person who was meant to keep her safe betrayed her and her mother both. At least, that’s how they both see it. Maybe time will change that perception, but for now, the silhouette of Benjamin Ryans at the top of the stairs slamming the doors shut and locking them inside is burned into their minds. It didn’t feel like a mercy.

Once inside the house again, Pippa does as she’s told, carefully cradling a glass of water in both hands as she climbs the stairs, her small footsteps all that continues to give away her presence when she disappears from sight.

“My ex,” Nicole offers as an answer to the question Zachery didn’t complete. She gratefully accepts her own glass of water and drinks half of it before coming up for air, gasping for it for several seconds, then repeating the process to empty it. “We were seeking shelter from that explosion and he just… locked us inside.” It’s not so far from the truth. Close enough that it’s an easy version of the story to tell.

Racing thoughts or no, Zachery's entrance back into the house appears, for the most part, as calm and collected as it can be. Listening, observing. He does not take Nicole and Pippa out of his sight as he follows them in, turning to look at Pippa as she takes her glass with her.

Only when she's out of sight does he look at Nicole again, shoulders squared and slow to respond when the explanation reaches him. "He…" His gaze darts to the nearest window, falling silent again as though processing the same words twice, thrice. "He just. Locked you inside."

His expression does not change, almost bored if not for the fact that his stare out the window looks a little bit like the air outside is suddenly a personal offense. Jaw muscles tighten, and he pulls abruptly to the side, making his way to a knife block on the counter and pulling several blades halfway up to try and find just the right one, each CLANKing back down against the block as they slip from his fingertips and he moves onto the next one. "Alright. Sure." A feigned casual tone - almost cheerful - does not work quite so well through gritted teeth, but that's never stopped him before.

“He wasn’t himself.” Nicole even thinks that’s too generous, too exonerating. “I don’t know what came over him.” It should probably concern her more the way that Zachery goes for the knives, but she’s just too numb from the shock of everything. She expected trouble in Providence, but not the kind that rocked her house to its foundations. Not that kind that rocked her life’s foundations.

Glowing blue eyes trace a path across the floorboards that lead to the stairwell and the ceiling over her head. The quiet sounds of a little girl lugging a suitcase out of a closet, opening drawers and carefully packing belongings away. Everything they own - anything that really matters - can fit in one or two bags.

This isn’t the life she wanted for her daughter.

The empty glass is set in the counter with a quiet thunk. It sounds too loud in Nicole’s ears and she actually flinches at the noise of it. Crossing the kitchen with slow strides, she comes to sit on a chair that can double as a stepstool. “I’m glad you—” Breath leaves Nicole’s lungs in a defeated sigh. Her eyes squeeze shut tightly, her face twisting with her anguish. Tipping her head forward, she clutches her hands together in her lap and cries silently.

Back over by the block, Zachery continues lifting knives until he finds one that looks exactly right, pulling it free with a single-mindedness might as well carry him through an earthquake without noticing the ground shaking beneath him.

It may not be a surprise, then, when Nicole's words fall on deaf ears all the same. When he finally turns on a heel to face Nicole again, he's not even really looking at her. Too focused on running his thumb across to the keen edge of the blade to test its sharpness, ready to head back out with no plan and all the intention.

Except an unfinished sentence nags at his mind. It brings his eye to focus on her face properly again, waiting for more words to come all the way up up until he's pressed his thumb into the blade hard enough to break skin.

It stings, but not as much as the sight of her.

After he finally slides the knife back onto the counter, letting the few drops of blood that fall from the tiny cut do so freely, he resolutely makes his way next to Nicole and lowers himself down on one knee to stare up at her. Still single-minded, just on a different set of tracks, now. His voice not any warmer for it. "Where were you two going to go? Why?"

It takes a few seconds for Nicole to realize that Zachery has materialized by her side and she looks at him through the cloudiness brought on by a storm of tears. “I don’t know,” is actually truthful. Nicole has no idea where she and Pippa would have gone with Ryans and Monroe. “I was scared,” is equally sincere. “I just wanted her to be safe.”

Loosening the grip of one hand from around the other, Nicole reaches up and wipes at her face, sniffling wetly. “We need to go back to the city. It’s not safe here for her. Not anymore.” Not now that it’s clear Monroe knew exactly where to find them. At least in the walls of the Safe Zone, help is a phone call away. Sometimes even closer than that.

"Why not?" Is the immediate question that leaves Zachery in response, tone of voice unyielding even if the fact that he still doesn't have any of his facts straight is has his muscles tightening where he sits.

"Stay at mine if you want," he offers, probably without an appropriate amount of thought, "but if she's with you, she'll be fine. 'Not safe'? Have you met you?"

Even if he might be misunderstanding, this is not a joke. Nothing, it seems, keeps the grin quite off of his face like this woman crying. Maybe some day he'll figure out why, but right now he's too busy intently staring a hole right into her face until she understands.

His insistence that she can protect her daughter is touching. It’s a reassurance she needed to hear. Ryans insisting she could protect her, then locking them both away, did not feel like much of an endorsement. Nicole presses her lips together and tries to smile a little for that.

“I’d like to,” she sighs. “I’d really like to.” She’d love to fuck off and pretend she’s not on an assignment and just play house with her— whatever Zachery is to her, but Nicole never really runs away from her problems. She might take the long way around to face them, but she always has a plan to overcome her personal obstacles. She could have stayed in Canada during the war and raised her daughter. Instead, she went off to fight in it.

History might be repeating itself here a little.

One hand reaches out, warm and soft even in spite of the ragged nails and dried blood at the tips and in the nailbeds, cupping Zachery’s jaw. “I really like you,” she admits with a hint of astonishment. “I’m glad I got to see you again before we leave.” Her brows lift, entreating him, “You could come back with us. There’s room in the truck. Richard would…”

Right. She’d nearly forgotten.

“Richard’s looking for you. You would be welcomed back.”

Processing things is hard, even moreso when you're not quite grasping the whole narrative. Nevertheless, Zachery stays quiet and still, not blinking, barely even breathing until there is a hand on his face.

Then, he exhales, eyebrows slanting and doubt pulling at a corner of his mouth as he stops studying her face and finally just looks into her eyes. He's almost let his shoulders drop into something a little more relaxed when his expression hardens again, at mention of Richard. Just as her brows lift, his own come back down.

'Into a pair of handcuffs, I'm sure,' he doesn't say, but the delivery it might have had lingers on his voice when he asks, "Is that where you're going? Now? While you're upset, in no state for a long drive. With your daughter."

Concern is hard too, it turns out. So easily manifested as something all too similar to anger.

Concern looks much the same for those of the Nichols bloodline. Sometimes it’s a shouting match. Sometimes it’s a literal slap in the face. But it’s always about fear for the other’s safety. (And unhealthy coping mechanisms.)

“If I leave now, I can get there by…” Nicole’s chin dips down so she can glance at the watch on her wrist. The face is cracked and she just stares dumbly at it for a moment, forgetting to finish the thought she started.

Yes, that’s where I’m going, in other words. “Please…” She closes her eyes and leans in, nose nearly brushing his as footsteps on the stairwell, and the thump of the suitcase being dragged behind, pull her back into an upright sitting position. Nicole stares up at the ceiling as she wipes her thumbs under her eyes, trying to banish any remaining mascara that might have gone astray from her tears before Pippa comes into view.

“Mommy?” Pippa stands at the bottom of the stairs with her suitcase - a bright blue thing scattered with cheery yellow stars - and an expression that’s a little too blank for a child to be wearing. “I drank all the water,” she promises. She said she had to take a glass, so that meant she needed to drink it.

Nicole nods her head with a smile that doesn’t make it to her eyes. “Good. We needed water. And we’ll make sure we fill up the jug for the ride to the city.” Having allowed herself her moment to break, Nicole is putting the pieces back together now, because it’s what she has to do. She just needs to keep moving.

Maybe the moving's something Zachery recognises, too, because while there is a wince as she moves away, something about the current state of affairs - both Nicole and Pippa's voices, the small chaos of it all - has him crack a pained sort of smirk that's gone by the time he gets back to his feet again. Moving quietly toward the door in the background of what's happening. Letting it, without involvement.

But he doesn't quite leave. Lingering, cut hand already on the opened door, he waits for a spot of silence to glance between both mother and child and inhales as far as his lungs will let him. All this to ask, finally, with conflict in his voice like glass shards he wishes he could go around rather than through, and a furrowed brow that does a poor job of matching the faux calm and collected posture he's trying to hold, "Are you going to be gone for good, then?"

A practical question, at least.

“Stay down here while I get my bag,” Nicole tells the girl, pushing to her feet and starting toward the stairwell. She hesitates and looks back to Zachery. “Keep an eye on her? Please?” There’s a nervous glance cast out the back window toward the woods. Nothing moves. Nothing makes its way out of the treeline toward her house. Her family. “I’ll be right back,” she promises before turning back toward the stairs and making her way up swiftly to her room.

Pippa looks down at the floor for a moment, then drags her bag toward the chair her mother previously occupied, climbing up to take the seat for herself. Once she’s settled, she looks up at Zachery. She has her mother’s eyes, although hers don’t glow. “My dad locked us in the cellar,” she says quietly, even though he didn’t ask. She needs to process it herself. “He left with a man. I heard them yelling upstairs before Mom came to get me.”

Pink and white sandals scuff together, dangling off the seat and above the floor. Pippa watches her feet swing as she talks. “I guess he did that when I was born, too. Does this mean there’s another war?”

Nicole's request does not get an answer from Zachery. Who continues to linger at that door, near that blood stain, for a good while.

But he does move. Eventually. Closer to Pippa, watching her the whole time he, like she's an animal he's not quite sure how to approach without spooking her. Rarely have they been alone for long, and never has he felt completely at ease when it happened.

Today, considering what's still rushing through his mind, is no different in that aspect. He figures she knows, in the way that children often do, without registering the nuance or reason. "I think," he starts slowly, tiredly, averting his eye to a nearby doorpost and thunking his back against it before sliiiding all the way down onto the floor and lifting his face to level a look of scrutiny in her direction. "If or when there is another war, you will know."

He lowers his voice, just a smidge. "And it will probably not be because of some stupid fuck your father decided to have a row with."

Pippa lifts her head sharply when she hears the swear word, taken aback by it. But it means she’s paying attention, and it’s snapped her out of her own thoughts a bit. She giggles nervously, because she knows he’s not supposed to say that word, and she is definitely not supposed to repeat it. Even if Mommy says it sometimes when she doesn’t think she can hear.

“Yeah,” she decides finally, that he’s right about that. “Mom says there were a lot of bombs during the war, though.” And there was a bomb yesterday, you see. So, there is some evidence to support the idea that there may be a war. Ultimately, she’s not arguing with him, but pointing out a fact in the way that children like to do. “She was real scared after Dad left. She looks less scared now.”

Thanks to Zachery, being the implication.

Zachery sits, again, quietly. For a moment, Pippa's giggle seems to snap him out of something too, but not in any way that brings him any sort of mirth.

Suddenly, sitting on the floor with his arms sort of limply hanging at his sides, staring at this small human nearby, he feels more out of place than he has in a long time. There's not really anything he seems to find in response to her words, except… the motivation to get back up.

"How about a sandwich?" He muses aloud, frowning as a realisation hits him as immediately accepted truth. "I'll make you some. Then, I'm driving you."

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