Cruel Intent


sf_faulkner2_icon.gif sf_nicole_icon.gif

Scene Title Cruel Intent
Synopsis Although Faulkner summons Nicole to discuss recent events, it's the past that comes to a head.
Date January 17, 2021

Solstice Condominiums, Upper East Side

The moment the word came through on her phone, Nicole Miller was up like a shot. An unusual lazy Sunday at home meant to be spent relaxing and helping her find less stress was derailed in an instant. And, quite honestly, to her relief. Time spent down is time wasted to the Executive Director, and what better purpose is there to serve than to answer a summons from her protégé-come-boss.

After a shower, she’d thrown her bag of toiletries into her purse, grabbed the charger for her cell phone, tossed in a wallet, and checked her taser. There’s a duffel bag she pulled out of the back of the closet, the contents checked and deemed acceptable. It’s dragged out of the back seat when she arrives, closing doors loudly enough to announce herself, but not double-tapping the lock on her Buick to trigger the horn.

Dressed in skinny jeans, an oversized sweater no doubt stolen from her husband’s closet, and a thick wool overcoat — all in black — she pulls up the designer shades over her eyes before knocking on the door in front of her. There’s no agitation in Nicole’s posture or expression, but there is a seriousness.

For a few moments, there is nothing. Then: the sound of a lock turning. The door opens, and Isaac Faulkner is standing there. He's dressed down at the moment — a clean, button up white shirt with black pants and leather shoes. "Nicole. Thank you for coming. Come in," he says, and he, too, sounds unusually serious.

The door swings open, and Isaac steps back to let her in; the apartment is an orderly, well-kept place that is artfully arranged to give the appearance of being lived in, when, in reality, it has seen more use in the past three days than it has the six months prior.

There’s a curt nod before Nicole steps past the threshold and makes her way inside. The first thing she does is make her way for the coffee table, setting the duffel down on it while she sets her purse aside on the couch and works free the buttons of her coat.

“That’s everything you should need,” she says with a tilt of her head to the bag on the table. “Changes of clothes, cash, false identification if you need it, burner phone, and a pistol with ammunition.” Nicole lifts her head and turns back to Isaac while she drapes her coat over the back of the sofa. “I wasn’t sure what all would be necessary, so I brought the works.”

Never let it be said that Nicole doesn’t take care of her people.

Isaac closes the door behind her, following her in.

He nods, pausing beside the table and opening the duffel bag to inspect the contents. Clothes, blandly anonymous; cash, well worn and in varying denominations; false ID, sporting an absolutely hideous photo that still somehow looks passably like him; burner phone, fully charged; pistol, anonymous and loaded.

In short, it's a perfect care package. Faulkner smiles. "Excellent," he says. Not that she doesn't already know that; no sense wasting further time on that, then. He picks up the duffel and takes it with him, settling down into a chair and putting it down on the floor beside him.

He considers for a moment, then looks back to Nicole. "Alright. Before I get to new business, let's open with matters currently under consideration. Firstly, how goes the review on the election? Any identifiable failure points or elements we failed to account for?"

"Secondly, in brief, how goes business? Any new developments?" he asks.

Nicole stiffens as Isaac delves into old business. There must be a satisfaction to be taken there. As a boy, he was privy to the way her spine would get a little straighter, her gaze a little keener, how her fingers would curl in loosely toward her palm, all in preparation for his father to dress her down for some shortfall.

Now, he’s inspiring that reaction.

His assistant shakes her head. “No. Whoever cooked things for Chesterfield knew what they were doing. I’m sending James out for more legwork. Ms Zarek will have to spare more of her people than she’s comfortable with, but so be it.”

The second question is easier to answer, but it sees her posture easing none. “The Group is running smoothly as can be hoped for with the unexpected loss of Tetsuzan. The government is breathing down our necks more than usual, but they have nothing. They’ll find nothing. Whatever she was up to…”

If Asami used their servers for the crimes she’s accused of, then all bets are off. Nicole has to believe that’s not the case. She wants, in fact, to believe in the woman’s innocence. “We’re in the clear, and I’m confident it will stay that way. Our compliance has been… appreciated.

"Has it," Isaac says mildly, the faintest touch of subdued skepticism lending a bit of bite to his words… but not directed at Nicole. "Well. There's nothing for that but to grin and bear it until they get tired of rifling through our dressers. I did have plans in place for losing Tetsuzan, at least, though admittedly not under these particular circumstances." It's a stroke of luck that he drew them up, but that doesn't mean he's not going to preen a little…

… but only a little. There's a lot to discuss today.

Like the election. "I don't think we need to make the election a priority at this point," Faulkner says, his brow furrowed. "The simple fact is, we tried our best, and we lost. I lost," he allows, grimacing.

"I won't say not to pursue it — not least because I'm curious how they did it," he allows, giving a hint of a momentary smile before becoming serious again. "But I don't want us to stretch ourselves too thin. Especially not now."

Nicole eases up a little finally, shrugging a shoulder when she realizes he isn’t about to eviscerate her for her role in his defeat. She manages a faint half-smirk. “You know government types. All balls and no brains.” Meaning that she doesn’t think they’ll get too screwed by this investigation. Not any more than they allow themselves to be, anyway.

Sitting down on the couch finally, she leans back into the cushions, rather than sit on the edge of her seat. He doesn’t seem agitated and expecting to be ambushed, so she’ll allow herself a moment to rest.

“It can backburner,” she acquiesces of the election investigation. It’s not like the results will miraculously change somehow if they just punch look harder. “We’ll keep looking.” Nicole simply cannot fathom that a grassroots campaign could have outmaneuvered her.

Dark hair cascades over one shoulder as her head tips to the side. Nearly fifteen years, and it’s almost as if Miss Nichols hasn’t aged a day sometimes. There’s still that look she has of quiet expectancy that tells him she knows something and she’s patiently waiting for him to decide to tell her on his own, his own words, his own terms, all without reproach on her part.

“Do you want to tell me why we’re here?” she prompts. He’s not fourteen anymore. He doesn’t need to guess if she’s seen his report card or found a magazine he’s not supposed to be reading.

Isaac chuckles quietly, then glances back to Nicole. "Have you been experiencing anything… unusual, lately?"

And just like that, she’s back to that tension, stunned into coming back to center. For all the years spent perfecting her poker face, Nicole’s never been the best at maintaining it in front of him of all people. He’s seen her vulnerable too many times. She’s let him see her that way.

“Did Zachery say something?”

He’s turned the tables. She taught him well.

Faulkner's impassive, even gaze remains on her for a second. The way she snaps into her poker face is, itself, an answer. Slowly, he nods. Not at her question, though. "No," he answers. Evenly and unambiguously.

"But I remembered the night of the election. You seemed… rattled. At first I thought it was the loss, when we were so certain that victory was all but sealed. That didn't seem quite right even then, but now…" Faulkner trails off, shaking his head; he's getting ahead of himself. "Well. What did you see?"

He’d read her the way she’d wanted him to, at least at first. Upset about the loss and rudderless in its wake. Nicole’s mistake, she thinks, had been in demanding he take her to the office when they were ready to let the evening end. “I chose you,” she says quietly, finishing a thought he’s not party to, “because you’re the only person I trust.”

Nicole turns and looks away, expression haunted. “I didn’t see anything. That’s the problem. One minute I was taking out my phone to call Chesterfield’s manager, the next you were winding down your speech. And I remembered nothing in between. I went and played back the press footage about a half a million times and there’s nothing there that suggests I blacked out.” Not until she came back to her senses, and only because she knows her own tells.

“What did you see?”

You're the only person I trust. That hits somewhere behind the well-polished mask of Isaac Faulkner's face. His expression doesn't change, but it's a good thing Nicole had looked away when she did; otherwise she might have picked up on the blankness in his eyes, the sudden hint of concentration, of perplexity — as though he'd missed a step in some great dance and was now intently listening to the music, trying to find the beat again.

He finds it; it doesn't take long. He's gotten good at working past that bit of cognitive dissonance. It rarely troubles him, anymore, save in the dark and quiet hours in the middle of the night, along with all of his other demons.

By the time Nicole looks back, Faulkner's entire attention is focused on her story, his expression sober. Her question, though, prompts his lips to curve into a small, if unhappy, smile, and in that moment, in that expression, he really does look more than a little like Daniel Linderman. "The face of my father," he replies quietly, gaze slipping off into the middle distance. "In mirrors… in photos… on the television. Wherever my face should be, there he was. Not… not like he was at the end, but… before. When he was strong, and healthy, and age be damned, it seemed like he'd live forever."

And for a second time in thirty seconds, Isaac Faulkner finds he's been suckerpunched by actual feelings. His throat works subtly, and there's a hint of moisture in his eyes… then he takes a deep breath and looks back to Nicole, mustering a strained smile. "I didn't tell you, of course. Or anyone, at the time. I didn't want you to think I'd snapped under the stress and was hallucinating," he says, and his smile becomes more natural, less forced, with every passing second.

“Oh, god. Isaac.” If he won’t show — not really — how that affects him, Nicole will do so gladly. Her eyes tear up instantly, her own smile a strained thing from the emotion she’s barely holding back. “I see him all the time in you. But… Not like you’ve just said. That must be awful.” She’s taking him at his word, that it’s as literal as he paints it to be. It’s one thing to look in the mirror and sometimes see her mother’s face looking back at her, sometimes her father’s eyes, but it’s never a perfect image. She’s always there.

“My boy…” She hasn’t called him that in a long time. “Even if you had snapped under the stress, I never would think less of you for it. But I believe you. I don’t think it’s stress at all.” Nicole reaches up and paws away a renegade tear that’s tried to make a break for her chin. “What do you think’s going on?”

For a moment, Faulkner lets himself feel comfort. For a moment. Then… he lets out a shaky breath.

"That I don't know. Not yet," Faulkner says, staring down at his hands in concentration. "But at this point… I know it's difficult to believe, but at this point I'm sure it's more than just hallucinations. Nova said she'd seen some things, too. And I suspect the Petrelli girls did as well."

He pauses, taking a moment to compose himself and order his thoughts. "Before I go any further, though, let me ask you another question."

"Does the name Justice Quinn ring any bells?"

“Zachery too.” It isn’t Nicole’s place to tell her husband’s business, but it’s Isaac. “He wants to send me to neurologists. Memory specialists. God… we were even looking into—” She looks away again, throat too tight to even speak the last possibility out loud, lest it damn her somehow. “He thought maybe someone was trying to poison me,” she continues, once she’s found her voice again, another tear wiped away. “Call me paranoid, but it didn’t seem like the most far-fetched scenario.”

Now it’s her turn to let out a juddering exhale. Nicole leans forward, her forearms resting on her knees, chin up so she can look across to where her partner in this sits. She blinks, caught off-guard by the question. “Yeah. She’s helped me look into my hit and run off and on. Why?”

Faulkner tilts his head. Miller, as well? Interesting. He frowns thoughtfully; Doctor Miller hadn't been present at the marathon, which removes that possibility. His lips curve into a frown.

His gaze sharpens once she mentions that Justice had been helping her look into the hit and run, then his eyes narrow again. Another pattern… but how would the Petrellis fit in that one? No. He can almost glimpse the barest tracery of a design running through all this, like the gleam of silver wire running through a tapestry… but every time he thinks he finds a pattern to it, some new piece of evidence confounds it. What is he missing?

But Nicole's asked him a question. He looks back to her, brow still furrowed in thought. "Indulge me for a moment, if you would. Could you look her number up for me?"

Nicole nods her head once, a puzzled expression on her face as she reaches behind her to extract her phone from her coat pocket. “Just a moment…” The pass code is punched in and the contacts brought up in short order. “Let’s see here. Q…”

Sitting fully upright, that puzzlement only deepens. “Okay. Maybe it’s not under her surname. J, then.” The look on her face tells Faulkner that’s another bust. “I have a message history here. Just a—”

Looking up again, she shakes her head. “Nothing. It’s like she— It’s like she’s been erased from my phone.” Which shouldn’t be possible. Nicole keeps meticulous records.

"More than that," Faulkner says darkly. "Erased from the internet. Erased from existence. Erased from memory, apparently." The words sound ludicrous, but his expression is dark and unblinking. "Nova and the Petrellis saw her on the 15th. Saw her, from their accounts, spontaneously implode. Twisted and stretched like taffy, I think were the exact words Brynn used," Faulkner states, his gaze unblinking.

He allows himself a small smile, the kind that only touches his lips. "By their accounts… no one else seemed to notice. A jogger went by and didn't bat an eye. Nova called me thereafter, told me everything. At the time I…" he huffs out an unhappy chuckle. "I didn't know what to think. But I couldn't deny that she seemed to have been… redacted. Not a trace of her. Nothing on Facebook, nothing on Twitter, not even anything on the New York DA's website. Not a scrap."

“Twisted and— What?” Nicole sets her phone aside on the cushion next to her, face down. “No. That doesn’t…” Make any sense? None of what’s happened to them has made any sense lately, has it? Why is this where she wants to draw the line? “Okay, sure. Fuck it.” One hand comes up in a gesture of surrender. “A whole damn human being just stretches into nothing. That’s just fucking perfect, isn’t it?”

Now that they’re openly talking about this, now that she isn’t sitting across from her well-intentioned husband who’s promising that she’s just overworked and in need of a medical professional, the dam is opened. “They can’t— Nobody just disappears like that. And even if they did… Scrubbed from existence?

In spite of herself, she laughs. This whole thing is ridiculous. There’s nothing else to do but laugh. “What the hell do we do with that?

"I know," Faulkner says, sounding somewhere between sympathetic and mournful; it feels like they've taken a left turn from real at this point. "Believe me. I know."

He takes a deep breath and continues anyway, though, because this story only continues to get stranger. "The way I saw it… the problem breaks down into two parts. The first is the physical portion; at the time I had no clue how to deal with that, either, because what the fuck."

Faulkner folds his hands, brow furrowing again. "That leaves the digital problem, which is somewhat more soluble… but still terrifying, because I'm pretty sure digital action on that scale requires a lot of power. A lot of access." He looks to Nicole, waiting to see if she has the same thought he does.

Nicole’s chin lifts slowly and then comes down in a definitive nod. “We need Tetsuzan.”

Not the same thought he's having, and the mention of Tetsuzan makes him suck down a harsh breath. "We need someone. I'd hoped we could tap Tetsuzan too, but that… that is not in the cards," he says, raising a hand to his chin; he doesn't notice that it's faintly trembling. After a moment, he lowers it, summoning a semblance of composure. "I'm afraid of what we'll find. Because that kind of disturbance — a hack into the New York DA's office — should get detected by the government…"

Unless they're the ones doing it.

“And if what they’ve said is true and she managed to hack them… That’s why I thought—” Nicole cuts herself off when she notices the tremor in his hand. “Hey.” Purposefully, she calls his attention back to him with a sharper tone like she would employ when he was doing his very best to do anything but listen to her.

“Isaac.” The sharpness is gone, but she’s still firm with him, meaning to hold the attention she’s demanded. “What’s wrong? Why are we here? Of all places, why are we in a safehouse? It’s not because you saw a reflection or because we can’t find Justice Quinn in a Rolodex.”

Isaac exhales slowly, looking back to Nicole. "It's not," he agrees.

"We scheduled a meetup at the Petrelli house. I wasn't really invited, but Nova wanted me there." Even now, the mention of her prompts the ghost of a smile, pride in her shining on his face like the sun through a cloud.

Then Isaac continues. "Tetsuzan showed up. I didn't get the hell out immediately. That was… a mistake. Tetsuzan seemed alright at first. Seemed like she wanted to talk." He takes a deep breath, forces himself to slow down. "She said she didn't hack the Pentagon. That she didn't open fire on anybody."

There’s a small flicker of a smile from Nicole in response to the one Isaac wears for the mention of Nova. For all that she initially distrusted his little musician, she seems to genuinely make him happy. That can’t be all bad, can it?

But it’s not all young love in this story. While he continues to tell it, she reaches for her coat again, reaching into one pocket first, then the other. “So, what?” Nicole asks flatly, unimpressed. “She says they all held hands and sang rousing songs around the campfire instead?” Now she starts rifling through her handbag. After another moment, she comes up empty-handed and sighs heavily. “Ugh, I picked the wrong time to give up smoking.” Closing her eyes briefly, she shakes her head. “What else?”

"She says they came for her first, and they weren't asking questions," Faulkner says grimly… though her sardonic commentary sees a hint of a smirk cross his face, and he outright snorts at her comment on smoking. "Yeah. I'd have taken a cigarette today," he sighs.

"She told me how she escaped. Said she flew," Faulkner says… but instead of scorn, his voice is flat. "Then she showed me."

Holding up a lighter that’s currently useless to her, Nicole makes a disgusted sound before throwing it back into the bag with more force than is strictly necessary. Or at all necessary. Really, she could just drop it in there gently and it’d be fine. “I’m supposed to be getting pregnant and I can’t even do that ri—”

The record scratches.

Nicole blinks owlishly, then her brows hike up toward her hairline. “She what? No. No.” The purse is dropped back on the floor next to the couch. “How? What?

"Yep," Faulkner says, a dead look on his face. "Flew. Summoned up fire, too. Sounds crazy, I know. I keep replaying that in my head. Trying to figure out any way she could've faked it. That it could've been a trick. But I can't come up with one."

“Well. That’s the horrifying kind of fascinating.” Nicole mutters flatly, mostly into the heel of her hand, waiting for him to continue.

"She started talking about how there was something broken inside us, and how she could fix us. She sounded like… like some kind of fanatic." He barks a harsh laugh. "Tetsuzan! Sounding like a fanatic! It sounds ridiculous, but it made my skin crawl, Nicole. I… I thought she could still be reasoned with. I tried to get her to take things slow, to wait before she started doing anything crazy, but…"

"Her eyes. Her eyes changed color, Nicole. They were fucking glowing, and I know that seems like a cheap horror movie trick, but it was goddamn terrifying. And the look on her face was… it was like a goddamn heroin addict, right before they go for the needle. She came at me, and…"

The more he has to say, the more and more concern knits her brows together. Nicole leans forward, hanging on to Faulkner’s every word for the way it’s clearly affected him. All her protective instincts are screaming at her. Screaming like the night she woke up to a call telling her he was in the hospital. When she’d found out why. When she’d found out who.

Knuckles have gone white where her hand is curled around the arm of the sofa, ready to lever herself up and to her feet. Ready to grab her coat. Her bag. The gun. “What did she do, Isaac?” Nicole asks in a level voice. “Tell me everything that happened.”

Isaac shakes his head, taking a moment to get a grip. "It's a jumble. I tried to throw her off, but… god. She was strong. Something shattered. We ended up on the floor. There was blood, I remember. Mine. Shards of glass all over. She could've killed me."

He falls silent, then lets out a slow breath. "Then… then she just… let me go and said you're fixed now. Just like that," he pronounces flatly. He closes his eyes and stops speaking for a moment, just focusing on breathing. "I got Nova out of there, at least. I didn't let Asami get to her. The Petrellis… I told them to run. They wouldn't. Brynn or Jac either one. They wanted to hear what she had to say," he laughs bitterly.

While he’s talking, her face goes slack, blood having drained from it. He doesn’t have to see her to know she’s picturing a scenario in which things didn’t go the way they did. A scenario in which she lost him. She’s too quiet and too still for anything else.

He looks up at Nicole. "She's dangerous. Don't let her get near you."

I am the one who’s dangerous!” Nicole shouts suddenly, face flushed red with her anger. “She better better be afraid to get near me!” She’s up on her feet in an instant, crossing the short distance between them to take his chin in her hand with all the gentleness she used when he was a child, and she was about to clean some scrape or cut from a fall. “Are you hurt?” she asks, barely above a whisper. Behind the anger, there’s fear. Her hands are shaking.

Her sudden eruption sees Faulkner's eyes glaze over a bit, shock mixed with a slew of other things he can't put his finger on. "I'm… I'm fine," he manages to grate out. The feel of hands on his face is enough to make his teeth clench with an atavistic anxiety he's having to work to hold in check.

But Isaac can see her fury, and her fear behind that, and that, on top of everything else, suddenly feels like too much to bear. "I'm fine. I'm… fine," he repeats, doing his best to will himself back into shape. "I'm fine," he repeats.

Nicole drops her hand from his face to wrap her arm around his shoulders instead, her other hand settling against his hair as she embraces him protectively. It’s as much for herself as it is for him. “Do you remember what I used to tell you when you were small?” He was never really small when he came into Nicole’s care, but comparatively speaking…

“It’s okay to not be fine. You’re safe here. You’re safe with me.” Nicole’s fingers curl into the fabric of Isaac’s shirt. “I’ve got you.”

"Heh," Isaac lets out a small noise that at least sounds like a chuckle. Slowly, his hands come up and wrap around Nicole's back. For a long moment he just stays there and works on pulling himself back together… then, at last, he pulls back, a rueful look on his face. "How long has it been?" he asks quietly. "Since… I don't know." Since we got along. Since we could go more than five minutes without fighting over… something.

“I don’t know, love.” Nicole smiles sadly, fighting back tears. “Your father did an awful thing to us.” She smooths out Isaac’s hair before she’s willing to let go of him and give him his space. “He gave us everything. Every tool we needed to become strong people, ready to lead and carry on his legacy.”

There’s a clarity now. For years, she was willfully blind to it. Daniel Linderman had done so much for her in life. It’s in death that he ruined it all.

“He gave you everything, in the end. Except the freedom you needed to stretch your wings. And he left me with nothing.” Thus is the root of her pain. The animosity she’s carried for her ward all these years. “Except for the leash to hold you down to earth.”

This time when the tears stream down her face, she doesn’t try to stop them. “I was so afraid of losing everything that I worked so hard for… All the years of my life I dedicated to Danny, to you… I built this. I built this. It wasn’t just him. I worked hard.

Nicole sinks down to crouch on the floor next to Isaac’s chair, wiping her face with one hand. “I’ve spent my whole adult life with the Group. You know I’m old,” she teases with a laugh through her tears. “I was so afraid you’d dismiss me. So I held tight.” A sharp inhale. This isn’t her proudest moment. The next syllable issues forth as a stuttering hiss. “Ssssso you wouldn’t let me go.” She corrects herself. “Couldn’t let me go.”

Isaac lets out another breath; it's hard to say if it's a chuckle or a sigh. Maybe it's both. For a moment he doesn't speak; the words he's trying to find are words that very much do not want to be found. But she's trying to fix this, and he finds, suddenly, that he desperately wants this to be fixed. Be damned if he's not going to try.

"I… I was afraid of the same thing," he finally manages, his voice weak. "I knew how you felt. And… I always… was afraid that one day you'd just… decide you'd had enough of me. That you'd take what you'd built, and throw me away. That I'd be nothing, like I'd been before Dad picked me." Isaac says, sinking into his chair. Every word he utters feels like moving a mountain; his entire life feels like a fever dream. "I've been… really shitty sometimes, haven't I."

“Little bit,” Nicole admits, reaching out to rest a hand on his arm, her smile fond even if she’s still crying. “But that’s okay. We all protect ourselves in different ways.” Sometimes the fact that she went to school to better understand people pays off. It made her more patient and considerate.

But it also made her wickedly manipulative. He’s seen it so many times, how she employs that skill for the Group. For him. Probably even against him more times than he’s been aware.

“Isaac, you may not have been born a Linderman, but you are his son. I would never take this from you.” Nicole scrubs her hand over her face, sighing shakily. “I taught you to be fiercely competitive because I wanted you to be strong. I wanted you to be ambitious so someday the world would see in you what I have seen in you since you were a boy.”

Tipping her head, she gives her shoulders a shrug, expression wry. “I just never thought you’d feel like you had to compete against me. I never thought I’d compete against you. I thought we’d each be given a slice of what we helped make and we could keep doing what we do best.” This has been a battle for years, and Nicole is exhausted by it. “I don’t know what Danny was thinking. Maybe this is the outcome he was hoping for. Or maybe he figured one of us would destroy the other and to the victor would go the spoils.”

In hindsight, “I think it was cruel, whatever he intended.” Her breathing has started to calm now, at least. It feels good to have it all in the open, even if it was hard to say and harder to accept. “I hope when I have a child, they turn out like you.” Nicole’s head tips this way and that, considering. “Maybe without the bitterness,” she jokes. “But I tried to do right by you. And I didn’t always. I’m sorry, Isaac.”

"I… wondered about it sometimes," Isaac says quietly. "Whether it was a test, or, or…" he trails off, wiping at his eyes as she speaks.

Her joke, though, draws a sharp, incredulous, and involuntary squawk of a noise, followed by a handful of sobbing chuckles; he'd been completely off-guard by that. "That's… fair," he allows.

"I… didn't always do right by you, either," Isaac admits, lowering his head; his sins weigh heavy on him for a moment. "But… maybe I can do better," he says. "Maybe we can do better." Faulkner looks at her, hope in his reddened, teary eyes.

Hearing his laughter, however tearful it is, brings Nicole some comfort. It reminds her for a moment of a late night spent at the dining room table after Linderman had passed, but before his will had been read, sharing an entire pan of dessert given by some well-intentioned acquaintance, alternating laughing and crying as they recounted stories of the man’s life and their interactions with him.

The catharsis.

That’s how long it’s been.

“You know, Isaac…” Nicole reaches out and brushes a strand of his hair out of his face, for once in her life refraining from murmuring something about how it needs to be trimmed. “I know you’re his son. You’ll always be his son, even though he’s gone.” Her hand falls to his shoulder. The other hand comes up to be its mirror. “But you’re my boy.”

It’s something she’s dared never say before. When it all began, he was a chore. Worse than that, he was a stepping stone. One stumbling block on her path to bigger and better things. A block she could repurpose and use to elevate herself. Nicole isn’t sure when that changed. When the challenging and willful boy became the teenager that she would have done just about anything for.

“You’re my boy,” she reiterates firmly, fresh tears falling. “I’ll be whatever you need me to be now. Your assistant, your manager, your…” That’s a blank space Nicole leaves for him to fill in when he’s ready. Whenever that is.

Isaac doesn't protest this time, doesn't feel that aversion to contact; he's feeling too… too overwhelmed right now. He's feeling too much, he can't even muster words; there is, in fact, only one response he can give.

So he reaches out one more time and hugs Nicole; tears silently well up from his eyes, spilling onto her shoulder.

Then, finally — not without a measure of reluctance — he lets go. Leans back. Exhales. "We got… way off the beaten path there, didn't we?" he asks quietly… but the smile on his face says that he doesn't regret that one bit.

Nicole clings to Isaac tightly like if she lets go of him this whole moment of healing will reset and they’ll be right back to where they were before. Back to tension, smiles that are false more often than they aren’t, barbs that are well-veiled to anyone but them… They can’t go back to that, can they?

It’s impossible, she tells herself as she finally allows them both to ease back when she’s no longer able to quell that reluctance of his with her fierce need to stay connected. She rises for a moment, taking a step back to keep from touching his hair one more time. He’ll touch up in a mirror before he goes anywhere, Nicole.

“Oh, I think we got where we needed.” She laughs, snatching two tissues out of a box from the end table and turning to meander away before she starts blowing her nose as demurely as a lady can after that much crying. “Weren’t our best trips always the ones with the detours?”

The tissues are dropped into a bin at the end of the couch opposite from where she sat. “Admittedly, I wish this one had been a bit more like the ones where we stopped for ice cream, rather than the ones where I had to go make impassive faces at idiots with more bravado than sense while they got their fingers broken.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget she’s not just an ambitious executive administrator.

“I don’t know about you,” Nicole turns back and wags a finger in Faulkner’s direction, “but I need a drink. I know I keep gin in this bitch somewhere.” It isn’t often she lets her hair down and talks like that, but it’s been a day. She starts rummaging around in the cupboards, finding the London dry gin exactly where she expected it to be. “I’m listening,” she assures as she starts setting out glasses and ingredients.

Of course Nicole Miller believes every good safe house requires a well-equipped bar.

"This is true," Isaac agrees quietly; there's still something a bit tentative, a bit ginger in his tone, as though he, too, fears that they'll regress back to where they were. God he doesn't want that.

"Yes I could use a drink," he agrees. Definitely; he'd gotten more emotional than he'd been expecting. "Let's see… right," he says, his expression sobering as he remembers where he'd been before their… unexpected side trip. "Don't let her get near you. Please." There's an earnestness in that speaks to just how concerned he is. "I know, I know. I'm belaboring the point, but…"

He shakes his head, letting out a sharp breath and forcing himself to let it go. "I managed to get Nova away from her; she didn't pursue. I don't know if I managed to get through to her or not. Or whether it'll stick if I did. But…"

Again, he trails off, but this time the look on his face is more normal; it's an expression of contemplation. Calculating, considering angles, trying pieces to see if they fit together. "I told you that at the time I had no idea what to make of Justice Quinn being erased from the physical world. I'm not much closer now… except."

Now Faulkner's eyes go to Nicole. "I am very skeptical when it comes to matters of coincidence; the more extreme the events, the less likely I feel coincidence to be. I don't believe that Asami finding out she has inexplicable magic powers shortly before Justice Quinn inexplicably magically implodes is likely to be coincidence," he pronounces grimly.

Each of the liquid ingredients is added to the shaker one by one. Like all good recipes, this one is measured with the heart, rather than a measuring cup. There’s frequent glances given in Isaac’s direction as he gets the metaphorical vehicle back on the road, righting their course.

The lid has just been placed over the top of the shaker when he gets to that last point. Nicole stares with the stainless steel receptacle raised about shoulder level, held between her hands. A quick inhale. “Right. So this is going to be a double, then.” She sets it all back down so she can add more gin.

"I'm not going to speculate causation, but I do think that correlation is almost certain," Faulkner says. "Particularly because of what happened afterwards."

At this point, he grimaces. "And I'm sorry I didn't call you right after the crash. I know you were probably worried sick, but… between getting jumped at Asami's and, well, being in a car crash, I… wasn't thinking as clearly as I should have been." His regret is genuine, and moreso now. "But. I'm alright, at least," he says. "How bad was the news fallout? And how was the driver? Dave's been with us for awhile now, I know."

At first, it doesn’t sink in. She continues shaking up their martinis with a thoughtful expression on her face, like everything’s finally hit her all at once and she needs a chance to process it all over again. Eventually, it catches up to her. Nicole doesn’t look up from where she pours the drinks into glasses, keeping her expression as even as she can, grateful for the excuse to open the fridge and search for olives.

She doesn’t pay the management company to turn a blind eye and not keep certain foodstuffs stocked as though someone actually lives here, damn it. An olive and a splash of juice for Isaac. Three olives for her and… No. More juice. More than that. Okay, maybe that’s enough but just a splash more? Perfect. The jar is replaced in the fridge after she eats one pimento-stuffed orb from it.

Her first instinct is to ask him if he’s calling the altercation with Tetsuzan a crash, but with what he said played back in her head, he’s definitely set them up as two separate incidents. His drink is set out on a coaster on the end table for him. Nicole wanders back over to her previous seat, but stays standing. “Well, I’m glad you’re alright, but… Dave hasn’t said a peep to me. He confirmed for me that he dropped you here, but he knows better than to try and keep an accident to himself.”

Both of Nicole’s eyebrows come up as she fixes him with a look of do you have something else you need to be telling me? “Do I need to have somebody fired? Or hired? Because there’s nothing in the press. I’d have no less than three newspapers breathing down my neck by now looking for a statement otherwise.”

Her lead-in would have been more akin to what the fuck, Isaac?! instead of here’s your things.

Isaac blinks, then goes very still. "You didn't hear about it," he says quietly, his face an impassive mask. Very deliberately, he reaches out to pick up his drink and takes a sip. "I thought you were very calm, considering. But it never occurred to me— "

He cuts himself off, but it's an effort. "We left the Petrellis' house. Dave was taking us here. The Petrellis had stayed behind with Asami for her to… fix them, but we were fine. At first."

"There was a traffic jam. It sprang up suddenly, out of nowhere. We managed to get out of it, but then… there was a moving van parked in the lane in front of us, and suddenly another van — it was fucking periwinkle, I remember — came swerving out of the other lane like… like a guided missile. Headed straight for me."

"Nova pulled me out right before the impact. I was… dazed, I guess, though thanks to her I wasn't dead. But I remember that there were no skid marks. No one hit the brakes. And after the crash… no one got out. No one was taking pictures, no one was calling on their phone or pointing or… or anything. It was silent. In Manhattan."

Nicole’s good, but she’s not that good. Never has been when it comes to matters of Isaac’s wellbeing. If she’d heard even a whisper about a crash, her composure would have been left behind in the car.

As he recounts the details of his accident, Nicole listens, while also being drawn slowly down the end of a tunnel. Or… she’s in the place she started, but now there’s a tunnel there and it just keeps getting longer and longer, and somewhere there’s Isaac on the other end, waiting for her to emerge.

Suddenly another — came swerving out of the other lane — like a guided missile. Headed straight for me. — There were no skid marks. No one hit the brakes.

Nicole tips her head and her drink back, drowning her own memories with alcohol as she so often does in moments like these. The driver who’d smashed into her hadn’t made any attempt to hit the brakes either. They didn’t stop. The surface of the drink is choppy for all that she can’t hold her hand steady. She’s terrified.

But it had been the middle of the night then. That no man’s land of time where it’s almost too late to still be called night but too early to be called morning. No one had been around to see it. What he’s describing is vastly different. It gives her a focus, brings her now to the end of that tunnel.

“That’s not possible, Is—”

How much of what they’ve discussed today was not possible? “Someone would have stopped. Someone would have said something, even just to yell at you for having the audacity to be a target.” Had someone tried to kill him?

Faulkner looks up from his reverie in time to see the way her hand shakes, the way she tosses back her drink. Shit. He takes another drink of his own, trying to drown his own regrets.

He truly does appreciate the way she catches herself before she finishes that sentence. "I know," he says glumly. "It's very nearly as impossible as someone imploding."

Faulkner sucks down a deep breath, then slowly exhales, and takes another drink. Better. "I remember… I said something before I left. I asked… 'if Asami's story is true, how long do you think it is before men with guns come for us, too? How long do you think I have before I have a tragic accident?'"

He laughs glumly. "I did not expect the world to take me literally on that," Faulkner says, shaking his head. "I was trying to get the Petrellis to think before they let her do… whatever it is she's trying to do to peoples' brains. But I don't think I succeeded. And then… this. Again, something outright insane happens."

Faulkner takes another drink. "I can't prove that there's a connection between the two. But… as I've said. I've never been much of a believer in coincidence."

“No,” Nicole agrees with a breathy laugh. She’s tired from all of this, but he’s never known her to let a thing like exhaustion cause her to back down from something important. She sinks down on the couch again. “No, you never have been. Always finding the whys and how comes about everything.” Focusing on that point of pride in him helps her come back to herself. Stills the shakes.

“Pardon the question and please know that I don’t think you’re losing your mind any more than I think I am, but…” Nicole eyes Faulkner, proceeding with caution. “Do you think it was a hallucination?”

Faulkner lets out a slow exhalation. "That's… a fair question," he admits grudgingly. "I appreciate that you waited as long as you did to ask it. The answer is no, though. For one thing…" he trails off, considering his words. "When I was seeing Dad in the mirror and onscreen… there was a clear delineation between that and reality. This one thing was odd, and that was all. What happened on the way here was… everything. And…"

He pauses to consider. Had that been what Asami had been calling broken? Not that there was something flawed, but that that flaw had been limited, and now it's not? That's horrifying. And it makes him consider, for a moment, that it actually might have been a hallucination. But…


"And hallucinations aren't usually shared. Nova was with me. She saw it too." And she hadn't had Asami get her claws into her brain, either.

Slowly, Nicole nods to acknowledge what she’s being told. Her eyes aren’t on him, but on some unfixed point off to one side of her, mulling over it all. “And your Nova remembers Justice Quinn as well,” she murmurs. That dark head cants from one side, then to the other before coming back to center so she can help herself to more of her martini.

“After the accident…” Still without looking at him, her brow creases thoughtfully. There’s a simple question to be pursued next: “How did you get here, Isaac?”

"We walked," Isaac says dryly. "Nova wasn't really keen on another car ride just then, and to be honest I can't really blame her. We passed inspection so long as no one looked too closely… and thankfully, no one did."

Pass inspection, he says. Nicole narrows her eyes faintly. A mental note is made to call the driver, but that can and will wait. “You said you and Tetsuzan got into quite a tussle. But…” She has to resist the urge to get to her feet and start turning his head this way and that, looking him over again for signs of injury. “You don’t hold yourself like you’re even hurt.”

She’s seen him after she lands a good punch, after all. Her head tilts again, expression turning to worry. “I know I taught you to walk it off, but not like this.”

"Yeah. She wasn't trying to kill me, thankfully, but I don't think it would've mattered to her if she had, and it was still… pretty bad," Isaac mutters distractedly, his brow furrowing. "There was blood… Nova cleaned me up on the way back, before the car crash, but — "

He breaks off, brow furrowing. How had he managed to 'pass inspection'? Nova had cleaned the worst of the blood off of him, thankfully, but his shirt had been frightful, and even if his jacket had been dark enough to hide the bloodstains, it had been torn enough to stand out anyway. He glances back to Nicole. "There was nothing in the news? Nothing about the car wreck? No sightings in the gossip papers, no radio call-ins?"

“Not a damn thing,” Nicole confirms in an even tone of voice, turning her gaze back fully on Faulkner. “You know there’s no way I would have been that calm at the door with a bug out bag if I’d heard anything like that coming through. Also, my phone would be exploding by now.”

The amount of damage control Nicole should be running based on the things that Faulkner has told her… “That accounts for the blood. You should still have injuries, Isaac. I can call one of the staff doctors.” The ones she pays not to ask questions when she calls. “Or— Or Zachery…” Who can she trust better than her own husband?

Yes, that's true. She'd have been raising hell, and probably getting texts, and getting fired up with each one, and yelling at him about some twelve step program to repair the damage, and it'd have been an effective twelve step program but god damn it.

He starts to protest the doctor, but cuts himself off, that look of concentration on his face again. "I think… a doctor might be a good idea. I'm pretty sure I'll get a clean bill of health… as far as surface injuries, anyway. But I want to look deeper. Brainscans, blood work, everything."

Faulkner's expression hardens. "Asami did something to me, Nicole, and I want to know what it was. I survived the attack because of whatever it is she did… and then, immediately after, the car crash. Almost like…" he trails off, shaking his head. His thoughts are going too far afield.

"Call whoever you need to call that you can 100% trust; Zachery might be the best choice for this, you're right," he says, nodding. "We'll need absolute discretion; I don't even want to be seen in the building. Whatever it takes to get that." Faulkner pauses, considering. "I have another request for him, as well; if you could have him contact me? We could do before and after tests," he muses, then nods, and Nicole can see the wheels turning. "After that, we may need to consult with Kaydence. I have an idea, but I want more information before we start on implementation."

Faulkner falls silent for a moment, fingers drumming on the arm of his chair. "But there's still the Asami problem. We need to get her squared away. Before she comes after anyone else." There is absolutely no doubt in his voice that that possibility is a when, not an if. "Have our media outfits offer a premium for footage. The paparazzi have always been an annoyance, but now maybe we can use them as an asset."

He considers for a moment. "Maybe a tip line, with a reward for information leading to Asami's arrest?" Faulkner asks, tilting his head as he looks to Nicole. "Too much?"

“I know I taught you that you catch more flies with a hollowed out carcass, but I think honey may be our better option here. We don’t want Tetsuzan spooked. If she rabbits, that’s it. We lose our chance to find her and find answers.” Nicole frowns. “I’m surprised she hasn’t fled the city already. If it were you or I, there’d be a Maldivian beach involved.”

Of course Nicole would plan an exodus to somewhere with beaches and a lack of extradition treaties with the United States. Why suffer in exile?

“You leave her to me. In the meantime, I’ll call Zachery. Would you like me to send him here? Or do you want a ride to my place to wait for him there?” Going back to the office is almost certain not going to be an option. “If you’re not in immediate danger,” there’s an upturned note to that last syllable, making it a question even as she finishes her thought, “I’d prefer not to pull him away from his work prematurely and risk arousing suspicion about anything being amiss.”

Nicole goes quiet for a moment, sighing softly before admitting, “He’s already having me see plenty of doctors for brain scans right now. Fitting you into that equation will be no issue.” It isn’t as though Isaac’s caught wind of that through the press or the rumor network of the tabloids. Not even a peep at the office.

The last of her martini is downed and the glass set aside so she can scrub her hands over her face, careful to avoid her make-up. “And what do you mean after tests? After what?” Nicole’s hands fold together in front of her mouth, first fingers steepled together, a look of concern leveled at Faulkner.

Faulkner regards Nicole for a long moment, two points becoming blindingly clear. First, that Nicole doesn't realize, even now, what a threat Asami poses.

The second is that there's precious little he can do about it.

He wants to argue… but Nicole doesn't understand. Doesn't get it, and probably won't ever get it without seeing Asami face to face… which is something that Isaac sincerely hopes never comes to pass. Again it comes back to this, as it always and ever has. Their visions are too different. So again, Isaac asks himself that question. What would Daniel Linderman do?

Faulkner thinks on that for a moment, then lets out a slow breath. "Very well. I'll trust your judgement on this," he says heavily… and even though Daniel Linderman is now five years gone, it's hard not to see his shadow in Isaac's expression, in his tone of voice as he speaks those words. "But take care not to underestimate her; we don't yet know the limits of what she can do, and again, under no circumstances let her touch you. Humor me on this," he says, his voice deadly serious.

Then his tone softens. "Please," he adds, very quietly.

He holds Nicole's gaze for a moment, then exhales slowly. "Beyond that… no, I'm not in any immediate danger; tonight would be fine. It would likely be better, in fact. I have a small matter of business to attend to today, and if I'm being honest I'm still exhausted. As to the after tests…" Faulkner begins, only to trail off. "Tonight," he sighs, sagging into his chair. "Tonight I'll explain everything."

Little by little, Nicole’s hands lower to her lap, her brows furrowed. His words land exactly how he wants them to. She hears what he has to say how he needs her to hear it, if not with the proper gravity. “God,” she marvels, a note of grief in her tone, “but you do sound like him.”

Letting out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding, Nicole looks down briefly to where her hands have landed, now folded together in her lap. The spectre of Daniel Linderman still looms over them both. Perhaps even larger and with a darker and deeper shadow now in death than he ever could have managed in life.

“A skinny, doe-eyed thing like me hasn’t lasted as long as I have in this kind of family business and politics by being naive, Isaac,” Nicole reminds him with a smile that’s tight only due to mental and emotional exhaustion, rather than any lack of sincerity held within it. “But I haven’t survived it by being rash, either. I’ll be cautious, but I’m not letting her intimidate me.” At least she isn’t on the edge of a rant about all the ways she’d be just fine with seeing Asami neutralized. “I’ll be careful. For both our sakes.”

“I’ll have Zachery contact you after he’s done with work. You two can decide where’s best to meet. Keep me in the loop, in case I need to run any kind of interference.” There’s a small huff of wry laughter from that. She doesn’t anticipate any trouble of that variety, but it’s always good to be aware and stay ahead of it whenever possible. “If you spot her again, tell me when and where. Deal?”

"I know you haven't," Isaac answers quietly, returning Nicole's tired smile with one of his own.

He nods as she lays out the details. "Yes, that's fine — excellent, in fact; we may be calling you to join us later on, as well. And yes — believe me, if I see Asami, I'll get word to you as soon as I'm out of fireball range." Does he have doubts? Perhaps… but he's done what he can do; the only thing left now is to trust her to handle this.

Well. That and take a nice long drink. Shame to let a good martini go to waste.

Levering herself to her feet, Mrs. Miller gathers up her glass and heads toward the sink to wash it up, remove the evidence of her intrusion into this space, should anyone come looking around. A glance over her shoulder has her gauging whether or not she should mix up another round for him. In the end, she smirks faintly, rinses out her glass and dries it with the dish towel before putting it back up in the cupboard where it belongs. He’s more than capable of mixing a martini. It doesn’t require fire.

With that task accomplished, she makes her way over again to the couch to reclaim her coat and pull it on. “If anything urgent comes up, call me.” She wants to offer to stay there, camped in the living room with a gun so Isaac can get some rest without feeling like he has to look over his shoulder. But if that’s what he wanted, he’d have asked for it.

“Or… even if it’s not urgent. Whatever you need.” Nicole smiles fondly. Gathering up her purse from the floor, she lets the handles rest in the crook of her arm before she walks over to where Faulkner sits. “Humor me just one more time today,” she requests. Reaching out, she smooths a hand over his hair slowly, eyes closed as she pictures a boy much younger than the grown man seated in that armchair. She contents herself with this, rather than the embrace she wants so badly to indulge.

But they both have a lot on their minds and a lot to think about. Plans to set in motion. “I’ll talk to you again soon.” Reluctantly, Nicole heads for the door.

Isaac's lips curl into a faintly rueful grin as Nicole smooths his hair. "Yeah. You'll hear from me soon," he promises, levering himself to his feet to see Nicole out; he finishes his own martini and deposits the glass on the counter as he passes by; he'll wash it up shortly. "Take care," he says, and he actually means it.

Nicole fixes him with one last lingering look to convey her concern, but — with a lift of her chin — also her confidence. He can and has looked after himself just fine without her well-meaning interference. This will be no different. “You too.”

She slips out the door, walks back to her car, and closes the door loudly enough to be heard through the front windows, so he knows she made it. The engine turns over, and the sound of it eventually fades as she makes her way toward her next destination.

For a moment after she's gone, he lets himself look back over everything that's played out over the years; what fills him in that moment is a deep and abiding weariness. Daniel Linderman had given him the world, but the terms and conditions of that are going to make an old man of him. It was cruel, Nicole had said, and in this moment, here and now, Isaac agrees. Maybe he can straighten things out yet… or maybe his reign will end as it began. In a mess.

He has plans of his own he has to attend to, after all, including arranging a lunch, a ride, and security; it might not be the smartest to pop his head out of hiding, but he has to take a risk at some point, and this is a better reason than most. Also he'll need to wake Nova, and then maybe snatch an hour's catnap…

…after he washes his glass, anyway. The Devil's in the details, after all.

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