Four Names


nicole_icon.gif zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title Four Names
Synopsis If you name something, it becomes real.
Date March 12, 2020

Bay Ridge

Nicole grabs a six pack of ginger ale in bottles off the shelf and hauls them into the grocery cart. She starts to move forward again, then pauses, twists back around and grabs a second pack to be safe. She catches the look from the man pushing the cart and frowns. “I’m fine,” she insists. “They’re not heavy.

Still, she lifts her hands in surrender and steps away from the shelves to walk down the center of the aisle instead of within arm’s reach of all those little impulse buys she seems so keen to make.

"I didn't say anything," Zachery replies, leisurely pushing the cart forward with a box of healthy cereal between him and it. To all the world, he looks like a disgruntled participant, but once he turns his attention back to the nutritional facts he was reading, the small bit of contentment that plays on his lips suggests, at least, amusement.

"You know, I used to think I was bad at asking for help," he offers casually, "That was, of course, before I realised it was because I was perfect and would never need any. We should get broccoli."

Perfect,” Nicole echoes, her own amusement in her tone. “Right.” She slows down her pace until she can match him shoulder to shoulder, craning her neck to read the cereal facts. Her nose wrinkles. “That must be what my problem is. I’m perfect and don’t need help from anyone.”

Her hand slips into his back pocket while a mischievous grin spreads across her face. “You’re gonna be eating that by yourself. Those flakes aren’t even frosted.”

Zachery scoffs, catching that grin in a sideways glance before letting the box fall down into the cart and continuing to walk it slowly forward. After the box tumbles to settle in between the rest of the groceries, he offers a halfhearted shrug. "I'm fully aware of the fact that they're probably going to end up in the bin, but. We're going to try, aren't we?"

He winces, nose wrinkling. "I don't like that. Do you? The 'we' thing? I've heard couples do it." His voice lowers with disdain for his own attempt at a thing. Then, again, "I don't like that."

His disdain sees Nicole sliding her hand back out of his pocket again. It’s awkward to keep pace like that anyway, so the excuse is convenient enough. “I don’t know. I kind of like it.” She shrugs in return. “I like you plus me equals we.”

It’s not like the fact that they have vastly different approaches and outlooks on life is a new realization. Nicole’s had time to get used to it, but she’s still learning when to push him to expand his personal boundaries and when to accept that he’s simply where he’s going to be.

It's not that the hand wasn't welcome. It's just that the only way he's apparently able to show it is in retrospect — brow knitting with a mh of contemplation. As for the matter of 'we'… well. "Suppose there's no escaping that, is there."

He slows his pace, attempting to steadying the cart with one hand (with no help from the inevitable dodgy front wheel) while maneuvering his other arm lightly around Nicole's back while she's still close enough. "You're stuck with me now. Just wait a few months until you're too big to get out of bed and I bring you a bowl of this vitamin-loaded cardboard," he finally cracks a grin, looking down to the cereal, "and we'll see how close you feel to me then."

The arm around her is most welcome. It does quite a bit to shake away the blues that were creeping up on her. Nicole reaches up to rest one hand on the handle of the cart to slow it to a stop so she can reach up with the other and turn his face toward her for a kiss.

“I love you,” she murmurs when they part, a pat on the cheek before she nudges the cart forward again to resume their meander. “You keep that in mind when you’re thinking about whether or not to force that cereal on me.”

Where Zachery might find Nicole's pushing of personal boundaries less than surprising by now, something that does seemingly still catch him off guard is when he pushes at hers and finds he is rewarded for it. When the cart is stopped, he looks confused more than anything else, before the kiss leaves him simply staring at her, dumbfounded.

The movement of the cart jolts him back into following along again, with a quick shake of his head. What remains of his grin is strengthened by a chuckle as he pulls up a little taller and grabs the cart with both hands again. "Go get some sugarcoated stuff, will you. We'll mix it in." Maybe.

“That’s the spirit!”

“Cardboard… Frosted Mini Wheats…” Nicole murmurs as she tucks cereal boxes away in the cupboard. “Fuck. Did I forget milk?” She looks over her shoulder to where Zachery’s tasked with putting other groceries away in the fridge. “Please tell me you remembered.”

She groans and tips her head back so she can stare at the ceiling, then goes the complete other way and stares at the floor, frustrated with herself. “This is way too early for pregnancy brain.”

Meanwhile, some heavy items get lifted into the fridge door, and patiently listed off as they go in. "Whole, skimmed, and some… vegan thing." Zachery's tone implies he will not be trying that one. "We've got powdered, somewhere, too, in a cupboard somewhere, just in case you want to give that a go, but I can't recommend doing that."

For all of his shortcomings, no one can say he doesn't do well with a plan - and a shopping list is basically just that. One hand still on the fridge door, he ponders aloud, "Is pregnancy brain just forgetfulness, then, because I've read five and a half books on the subject in the last three days and they're starting to blur together a little."

"That's pregnancy brain," Nicole confirms. "When everything starts to run together and you can't remember shit, there you are." Still, she offered a smile to him. "Thanks for remembering. I'm just… I guess I have a lot on my mind."

She starts to reach for another bag from where it's been set on the kitchen floor, then pauses. Canned goods. "Can you put that one on the counter for me, please? I don't want to pop a stitch." Gingerly, she kneads her left shoulder. "I'll be perfect again once I'm healed," she assures.

"But speaking of things on my mind… Have you thought much about…" Nicole stops herself and frowns, unsure if she should continue.

"The inevitable heat death of the universe?" The fridge door closes, and Zachery moves to do as requested — even if, after the heavy clunk of cans against countertop, he ends up standing, both hands and singular eye still on the bag.

"The clawing paranoia," he continues his guesses, voice dipping slightly lower even if the rhythm of casual conversation holds, "brought forth by leaning fully into the concept of a family structure that is infinitely more unfamiliar than the day to day of a person who has, up until extremely recently, maintained a strictly solitary lifestyle by choice?"

He aims a look back over to Nicole, one accompanying a smile she knows to be more habit than sincerity. "Or about what bees think about? You're going to have to be more specific."

The frown deepens for a moment, but she covers her own sense of discomfort and guilt by starting to unload cans from the bag, setting them out on the counter one by one, turning the labels out toward her so she can see what’s what before she starts moving them to the pantry. There’s a method to what goes where, apparently. That should come as exceptionally little surprise to him by now.

“I was going to say names, but I guess that goes part and parcel with the clawing paranoia,” as he so eloquently put it. Nicole peeks out from around the pantry door to make sure he hasn’t wandered off, already bored with her.

He might not blame her for the thought, especially since he ends up standing in silence for a few beats too long for comfort. "Names! Yes, of course. The names."

The smile slips away, and so does he - stepping back to lean a shoulder against a wall while observing Nicole tending to her system. So casual. Don't mind the hand that comes scrubbing at his jawline, the exasperation that draws his shoulders a little higher as a result of hearing his own words spoken back at him. "Not in particular," he answers finally, face lifting. "I take it you have."

“Some,” Nicole admits easily enough. If she’s pulling any faces about it, it’s hidden away when she steps into the pantry with the armful of cans. There’s the dull thud of metal on wood as she sets the first layer on the shelf, and metal on metal when she adds the second row.

“But this… This isn’t a me thing. This needs to be an us thing. They aren’t my twins, they’re our twins.” Just in case he’s forgotten that little detail. “The last thing I want to do is steamroll you here.” She steps out again, flashing a look of concern in his direction as she starts gathering up another load to put away.

It's not something he seems to know what to do with, returning it with a blink followed by a sharp inhale that fails to be used when he finds no reply ready in the mental chamber.

When he does find some words, they're flat, quieter, and aimed just to the side of Nicole herself. "This all feels unfamiliar, still. Slippery and unreal. How did you do this — twice?" Much less hesitant and a little sharper, he tacks on, "Don't lift your arm that high. I'll get the top row when you're done with the rest."

Nicole pauses in mid-reach, smiling ruefully. Of course he sees her movements through the pantry door. She rolls her eyes and sighs, focusing on the single layers that allow her to reach in front of her rather than above her.

“Look, it’s not like I intended to either time,” Nicole argues quietly, putting away the last of the cans she can reach easily. She moves back to the counter to set down the three remainders for him to put away. When he gets to it.

She moves to one of the chairs set up at the kitchen island, boosting herself up to sit. She’s at least been good about that, resting frequently. There’s something Nicole would like to say. He knows it by the purse of her lips, like she’s just about to form a word, but stops just short of that. Instead, she just watches him, expectant, waiting for what his thoughts are.

"You still saw it through," Zachery shares aforementioned thoughts, like they'd been discussing painting a side table rather than growing life. For a moment, his gaze darts to the floor, before he abruptly pushes away from the wall and towards the cans, as if that expectant look casts too bright a light where he was standing.

"Either way, it's not a bad thing. The unrealness. Perhaps it's because it— they seem so much a part of you, still." He picks up one of the cans, giving the label a look before putting it precisely where it needs to be, and then repeating the process with the second of the three. Except for the fact that he stares at the label a little longer. "I think names might help. If I can get over the…"

He stops, but not for long. Clearing his throat, the second can gets put away, and then the third - his tone has gone a forced unconcerned when he finishes his sentence. "You know. Fear."

Nicole’s lips stay pursed. Her eyebrows lift and she follows his movements with her eyes, but doesn’t say anything. A deep breath is drawn in through her nose and exhaled as a sigh. “Look… I’ve also not seen this through. More times than I have.” If he can’t follow that logic, she’s not going to double back for him. (Unless he asks. If she could say no to him, they wouldn’t be in this situation right now.)

“I refused to name Pippa for a long time,” Nicole admits. “I was so afraid of losing her that I barely wanted to acknowledge her. I didn’t want to get attached. I… I don’t want to do that this time. I have the luxury of caring now. We’re not on the cusp of war.” A plaintive look is given to her partner. “I want to do this right, and I don’t want to do it alone again. I…”

Nicole gets choked up and covers her mouth with one hand, as though that might do anything to mask the pain that’s clearly reflected in her eyes. She exhales a shaky breath and shakes her head.

If any of the new information is deemed worth dwelling on, it ceases to be relevant to Zachery the moment Nicole's voice shifts toward indicating any amount of distress.

He studies her face, still by the counter, jaw rolling as he considers the view with he bit of distance still between them. There's a twitch of his fingers at his sides, restless, before he stands a little taller and asks, "What's 'right', then?" There's no kindness in the rushed manner with which the question leaves him, even if a grimace and pinpoint focus betray concern much more easily. "Because I've done a lot of focusing on what I don't want, and that's cost me one family already."

“You look terrified by all of this.” When she speaks, her voice is strained, but she isn’t crying. Not yet, anyway. “Every time we start to acknowledge it, I feel like you want to run away. You want to talk about fear? I’m afraid that I’m going to be left with three kids under the age of ten.”

It’s not what she wanted to say. And after she’s said it, Nicole looks ashamed of herself for having admitted to any of it. “I don’t know what’s right. I only know what I did before wasn’t it.

A silence returns to the room, heavy and unpleasant. Zachery's gaze moves steadily elsewhere when Nicole stops speaking, drawn downward and away from her as some slack enters his posture again.

"Some day, I'm going to figure out how to get through to you about this abandonment thing." It's a tired comment. Without lifting his head back up to face her properly, he shoots her a sidelong glance. "I am terrified. But not the way you think I am."

“I’d have figured by now you’d decided it’s more me than it is you,” Nicole says of her abandonment thing, without apparent scorn or bitterness. “My track record’s not great. Every… Every major fucking relationship in my life has been a goddamn mess and left me by myself.”

Nicole stares down at her hands folded together on the countertop. “So maybe… I thought we’d start with names. If you give something a name, it becomes real.” Like Zachery, she doesn’t lift her head, but she looks up at him all the same. “And you’re not the only one who’s scared of that.”

Zachery breathes out a sigh. Again, he scrubs at his face, this time over his brow and dragged down over cheekbone. But the next breath he draws in is deeper, in preparation for a shift of focus. He lets the weight of the conversation as it has been so far pull him forward into a calm stroll forward, toward one of the other chairs. Grabbing it by the back, he sets it closer to Nicole's, facing her.

"Okay. So, time to stop being scared of losing things." He sinks down into his seat, head lifted high again, expression a careful neutral as he eyes her. "We're not leaving these seats until we've got two names, if not four, what with middles and all."

He pauses, if only for a second, canting his head in thought. "Or we need snacks. Whichever comes first."

When he sits down, Nicole swivels in her seat to face him, hands braced on the counter as she does. She lets one rest against her stomach — a conscious choice — and reaches out to take one of his hands in her other.

“I love you,” she says, because she feels like it needs saying. “And I’m scared to death of losing you. But I’m going to try to let it hold me back less.” She smiles faintly. “Does that seem reasonable to you?”

His hand in hers is a help - at the very least, to provide a unique sort of clarity to what's at stake, here. But it's not until those three words are said again that Zachery finds his shoulders dropping. There's a comfort in that phrase, even if he still doesn't quite understand why.

"Yes, it does." His answer is still clipped, but this time with decision. "It's a start. And in turn, I'll…" His words slow, and a lopsided, somewhat self-conscious grin begins to spread in spite of him trying to stop it. "I'll try and… think of… literally anyone else I've ever been close to."

Nicole squeezes his hand gently and chuckles softly. “We’ll both try our best, then. It’s settled.” She lets her thumb brush over the back of his fingers with an absentminded sort of fondness. For all the ups and downs they have, they seem to manage to right the ship just fine.

“Since you mentioned middle names,” she meanders back to the topic at hand, “I’d like to use Lynette if we have a girl. She’s my best friend and she’s the biggest reason I survived the war. I’d like to honor that.” It was the men in her life that she’d honored when she named Pippa. It’s someone else’s turn.

"Then it's settled," Zachery announces all too eagerly, "That's one down already. Three to go. See, this is easy."

And yet. He still visibly struggles to continue, brow creasing again. "You know, there… was a Harry that saved me getting stabbed to death, once, but I don't know if he's… precisely the sort of fount I want to draw from." Whether or not this is an actual option he's considering or just a way of buying time, it's hopefully better than changing the subject outright. Though he does perk up in distraction for just a moment. "Also, I should probably meet your best friend at some point, yes?"

“Why not?” Nicole smiles, some relief finally winding its way through her now that they’ve declared they’ve only got three names left to figure out. Of course, if they have two of one sex, four names isn’t likely going to cut it, but that’s a problem for another time. After snacks.

“I like that name,” she insists. “Harry’s nice.” She leans in, encouraging. “That’s two down.” See? Way easier than either of them thought it was going to be. “So, we’ve got little Harry and Lynette Miller. Even if we only came up with those two, they’d be good, right?”

"No no no, wait-" Zachery sputters. "Back- back to one down." His held hand withdraws a little, his free one coming up in protest as a sudden and slightly nervous laugh escapes him. "We're not doing Harry. What's that even short for? Henry?" A sneer makes it past his amusement, teeth only bared more with the next to syllables that manage to make it out— "Harold? Those sound like truly fucking wretched human beings."

Something else worms its way through his thought process, and he sucks in a breath through his teeth before admitting, reluctantly, "Harvey, now that sounds like a Miller. Whether that's a good thing, though…" From the look he aims at Nicole, that's a judgement he'll leave for her to decide.

“Harold,” Nicole confirms, a little nonplussed at Zachery’s reaction to her green lighting that particular name. Then again, when she considers his background… Any further arguments die on her tongue and she simply nods while he works his way around to—

“Harvey.” She smiles at that, her eyes lit up. “I like that. Harvey Miller?” Her gaze goes a little distant as she focuses on something beyond where they are now. “That’s a name that’ll sound great at commencement. Hell, it’ll look good on a business card. It’s classic.

"It runs the risk of being a little pretentious, early on," Zachery chimes in again, with some amount of trepidation that seems to vanish when he continues to say, "But think about it — imagine. Give the kid a smart vest and a bow tie at events, he'd steal the show. No clip-ons for him either, he learns to tie his own noose young. Like Millers do."

There might be a bit of pride in that joke, inescapably.

“Better than infantilizing later on,” Nicole reasons with a little shrug. But she’s imagining, just like he’s suggested, and judging from the smile on her face, she enjoys the notion of it a great deal. “It’s just a good life skill to have.” She means tying a tie, not a noose. While that’s a bit morbid when they’re discussing their child, she lets it slide.

Because she still finds it amusing. “Alright. Harvey for a boy. He just needs a smart middle name. I mean, I guess we could go traditional? Harvey Zachery?” Nicole frowns thoughtfully and questions herself then. “Too many Y-sounds in one name?”

The hum that doesn't quite seem to want to leave Zachery's throat without complaint suggests yes. His nose wrinkles, and he leans back with an exaggerated look of doubt pulling his grin into wryer territory. "I was actually never particularly fond of my name, either way."

Neither of them, but that's a subject for another time. Maybe to distract from that particular can of worms, he offers, thoughtlessly, "Harvey Damian Miller, then."

She nods in agreement. “I was never very fond of Nicole either. But it makes me a match set with Colette, doesn’t it?” And that she’s proud of. He may have only met her sister once or twice, but it’s clear that she means the world to Nicole. “Our parents were not terribly creative.” Or kind. Or good.

“Harvey Damian…” She tests the name out. “Harvey Damian.” This deserves very serious consideration. Nicole sits up a little straighter, her smile a little broader. “Yeah. I think that’s good.” She holds up one hand. First, middle and ring fingers up. “That’s three down.”

"That's assuming at least one boy. And please let there be at least one boy." This comment, though a joke from the sounds of it, arrives backlit by some new, minor discomfort that seems to stiffen Zachery's posture.

Still, going by the grin still on his face and the fact that he leans forward again, he looks like he's enjoying himself at least a little - and that's a lot more than could be said of him prior to sitting down. "One more from you? Any other best friends I've never met? Guardian angels? Saints you're fond of for whatever reason?"

Nicole can’t help herself. When he leans close, she leans in further, lifting up from her seat and reaching up to grab his face in her hands so she can plant a kiss on his grinning mouth before dropping back into her seat properly again.

“Saints, huh?” She laughs quietly at some hazy memory not worth sharing. “Maybe Persephone? Persephone Lynette?” Her brows furrow and Nicole looks to Zachery to talk her through it.

Whatever's causing this affection or amusement seems to go over Zachery's head, and there's a brief look of confusion, but the name snaps him out of it and right back into a chuckle.

"I'm afraid I've only got constructive criticism for that one. You and I both know I'm a big fan of the underworld, honestly, great admirer—" He pauses to wave a little, imaginary flag with a twirl of a wrist. "But. No, though. Persephone would want a dog. Persephone would wear only pink and green for seven years straight. Persephone would get upset at the gift of a car for her 16th birthday because the interior had the wrong colour. "

Nicole frowns as she considers that. Apparently, she doesn’t disagree with his assessment of the sorts of things a girl named Persephone would want and how a girl named Persephone might behave. “I was gonna call her Effie. It was gonna be cute,” she pouts.

“You’re right. She’d be all pink and frills and it just wouldn’t work out for anyone involved.” Back to the drawing board, then. “Okay, so if I want her to get ahead in life, any daughter of mine should have an ambiguous name. I hate that that’s the way it is, but… Play the game or lose at it, I guess. Saves having the resume tossed in the trash immediately.” Spoken like someone who knows.

“Morgan’s almost defaulted to feminine at this point, like Ashley,” Nicole reasons. “There’s always something that nicknames to like Fred or Tony or… But that’s not the same. You put your legal name on something and it still outs you and—” She scrunches her mouth up to one side and looks at Zachery under the furrow of her brow. “I’m overthinking this, aren’t I?”

There's an ease with which Zachery's settled in to listen, his attention squarely on Nicole's face as he watches her talk, and her expression change. It seems to keep the unrest in him at bay, for now — his grin smoothing out into something a little calmer.

"Yes, you are, but it's extremely endearing." He reaches for that furrowed brow, fingertips only just touching the side of her face while his thumb runs lightly over an eyebrow. Still looking above her eyes rather than into them, he offers, a little hesitant-sounding, "What about something… matchy. Not overly, obviously, let's not do full rhymes. We're not those people."

His monocular gaze snaps back onto her eyes, one and then the other. We're not. Right?

Nicole closes her eyes and exhales a breath of laughter, calming some herself as he touches her face. When he looks her in the eye again, it’s like she senses the weight of his gaze and opens her own eyes again. They get wide a moment before she pulls a face. “Oh, god, no. We are not those people.” Matchy matchy, maybe, but not rhymey wimey.

So, she repeats to herself, “Harvey…” Her focus drifts up toward the ceiling like there might be answers there floating above their heads. She’s calculating, considering. Her jaw sets just so and her eyes narrow faintly. “What about Avery?” Her face relaxes again as she looks back to her partner, a slow smile creeping up. “Avery Lynette? What do you think?”

She catches him just after a nod of confirmation to himself — yes, not those kind of people, good.

"Avery Lynette," Zachery repeats, letting the name hang between them a few seconds longer as he leans back, rapping fingers on the island's top in thought. He clicks his tongue, contemplation knitting his brow, no ready appreciation present on his features as he studies hers. "Sounds like… someone who'd get their way, doesn't it. Unpredictable and stubborn, like a farm animal."

He angles his head to the side just slightly, pausing on an inhale as if to eke out juuust one more moment of ambiguity, before his grin twitches a little wider. "Or like a success story. I like it."

He catches her just on the cusp of an affronted gasp. A farm animal? But he saves the day in the end and her expression smooths out into one that’s pleased. “That’s four whole names,” Nicole points out their triumph with a grin. “See? We’ve got this! We’re going to be great at this.”

Now, she won’t go so far as to say the two of them are going to raise well-adjusted children, but they can at least have respectable names and be set out on the path to success early on. That’s something.

“Snacks now?”

The enthusiasm that comes Zachery's way is not returned with as much energy. Still, the fact that his attention is still on her and her alone might say quite a lot already.

His mind wanders, still, but only just far enough to delay his nod of an answer to her question, slow and distracted. He gets up from his chair, but beyond a squaring of his shoulders in idle stretch, doesn't move further. "I feel like it's going to keep dawning on me that we're doing this, then."

He seeks out Nicole's face again, uncertainty cutting another chuckle short — but what does make it out, sounds vaguely surprised. "And that it's good."

“It is. I promise it is.” Still, Nicole curls her fingers into her palms anxiously. What if it isn’t good? What if this is just her being delusional and taking him along for the ride? How many times has she gotten everything all wrong in the past?

But she looks at him, and instead of her heart sinking, it soars. “We should probably start thinking about wedding plans, too. I’d like to use a tent for outdoor festivities and not a dress.” There’s no way around it, she’s going to be huge.

There's nothing quite like the opportunity of a joke to distract from nerves. "Alright," Zachery replies slowly, wandering innocently over to the refrigerator again to pull it open. Because snacks need drinks, too. Humourlessly, clearly, he mutters at the contents of the fridge, "So you're wearing a tent, got it, what's next. Catering?"

“I am not,” Nicole insists, swiveling in her chair to track Zachery’s progress to the fridge. “You are not putting me through that level of humiliation.” Sure, she’d argue it’s just fine for other brides, but everyone is harder on themselves than they are on others.

“I’d be perfectly happy with pizza and beer,” she says of catering, moving forward with that because the other matter is closed, thank you. “Well, pizza and grape juice for me, I guess.” She pulls a face at that. Not being able to drink at her own wedding reception is going to be so incredibly unfair. “I’d say open bar, but I’m pretty sure my sister and her friends would drink us into the poorhouse.”

"Casual, then." The conclusion Zachery draws leaves him with a distinct air of relief. He elbows the fridge closed and turns back to Nicole to land a gallon jug of something entirely too orange down in front of her. It boasts vitamins and natural things.

The skeptically lowered brows and narrowed-eye look on Zachery's face is aimed not at the near-neon hue of the drink, but at Nicole, instead. "I think we could find some sponsors for a bar, don't you? We both know people who probably wouldn't notice that sort of money even being gone."

Nicole nods in agreement. Casual is going to be better in the long run. While she may have a vast sea of acquaintances and could have a spectacularly elaborate wedding if she really wanted to, it isn’t what she wants.

Neither is that orange concoction he’s just set in front of her. She eyes it skeptically, but is already prepared to relent. This is some way for him to have some control of the situation. Being how she has a hard time giving up control herself, she can hardly fault him.

“And who do you suppose we ask to give us such a generous gift?” Nicole lifts her brows, amused and curious.

The look is met with a somewhat strained one from Zachery, a feigned patience that sees him inhale sharply through his nose before folding his arms over his chest. "You say this as though you don't know I'm profoundly unwilling to ask anyone for what would absolutely be a favour. Which is charming, but when I say 'we', I mean, of course…"

He lets the rest of that sentence hang, leaning ever so slightly forward in expectation of hearing the rest.

"You mean me," Nicole murmurs. "Got it." She smiles ruefully. "It's fine. I can make arrangements. If you really want, I can do it all myself and just tell you when to show up…"

The smile fades some, "But that isn't what I want." Nicole points up to the cupboard with the glasses, then pulls the jug of orange drink toward her, working free the plastic ring that holds the lid on.

"I want this to be as equal a partnership as it can be," she explains, neither admonishing or chiding. For all that she is certainly the more emotional of the two of them, she didn't get this far in life without being able to shut that down and speak matter-of-factly. "I want to know your thoughts. I value your opinions."

"It is equal, though," Zachery defends rather than relents, turning to grab a single glass and setting it out in front of Nicole, staring somewhat blankly down at it for a moment. Oh right. He turns again to grab himself a glass, shutting the cupboard just slightly harder than usual, expression wrenched into something a little more uneasy. "You get what you want, and I get— you."

That doesn't feel quite right. Barely two seconds pass and he tries again, nose wrinkling with effort to figure out what should be a simple concept. "It's, ah- I don't do well in the… spotlight?" The more words leave him, the less sure of them he sounds. He only recovers partially for a final addendum of, "Actually, I have done well in the spotlight, just not… recently."

He stands, empty glass in both hands, aiming a hard stare at Nicole and sighing out what he can only hope is some sort of conclusion. "Except for sometimes, with you."

“I’m not asking you to take the spotlight,” Nicole assures gently, reaching out to take one glass, then the other, setting both out in front of her so she can fill them up. There’s care taken with the full jug, ensuring she doesn’t slosh any out too quickly, or not quickly enough and have it just dribble down the side of it and all over her nice quartz countertop.

Once that task is done, she holds one glass back out to Zachery while she recaps the bottle with her other hand. “When I worked politics, I wasn’t in the spotlight most of the time. That’s the beauty of it. I can be supportive and, if I do it right, no one ever knows I was there. No one knows I did a thing. Except the one person that needs to know that.”

Nicole takes an experimental sip from her glass. It’s not… bad, actually. “If you want the recognition from people who aren’t me, that’s great, too. I’m just saying… You have options here. All I’m asking is for you to share with me. I don’t need anyone else to mother.”

This time, Zachery listens. It just might be that the listening gears in his head require a little oiling, because he's frozen for a good few seconds after Nicole stops talking.

"I won't be that." He finally decides, resolution back in his voice. He takes the offered glass and moves back to sit again - snacks forgotten, apparently. "I just have to figure out what I will be, then. Easy. I'm adaptable. I've been many things."

“I want you to be who you want to be,” Nicole stresses. “Not who you think I want you to be. That’s… That’s no way to live. And it’s a shitty foundation for a relationship.” When did she get all this sort of wisdom? She’s not sure, but it sounds reasonable enough.

Snacks can wait. Nicole scoots her chair a little closer, shifting toward the edge of it so she can stretch out one leg to rest it on the crossbar of his chair, creating a proximity she enjoys. “And… I’m still not used to being something that’s desired,” she admits quietly. “That you say I’m enough…” One hand reaches out to rest on his knee lightly. “I don’t get it, but I believe you when you say it. And… And I feel good about it.” She glances away, slightly embarrassed. “So there, I guess.”

A response, again, is delayed. Though the physical contact does enough to remind Zachery to bring his attention back to the person he's actually sitting with, he only just looks her direction again when she looks away.

"So there." He echoes her words a little slower than the source, but with none of the uncertainty from before clinging and with amusement pulling at a corner of his mouth. "Listen," he starts again, laying a hand on the arm reached in his direction, his voice lifting along with his mood, "If a teenager managed to lecture me into changing my life around, we should manage some solid life advice between the two of us every now and then, right?"

A rhetorical question, probably, considering he pulls his drink closer and asks almost without pause, "Actually, do you know her? Emily, she works at SESA, at least last I heard. She could be one of the… three people I invite to the wedding? If I can get a hold of her." He swallows back the beginning of a laugh, casting an earnestly curious look toward Nicole. "Is that creepy? She is young. Or is it creepier that I almost suggested hers for a middle name. I'm unsure." Either way, he doesn't sound too bothered.

Nicole's brows hike up in surprise. "I had no idea you two knew each other." Though her expression doesn't change, her heart sinks. "Yes, I know Emily Epstein."

She doesn't have the heart to tell him what else she knows about his friend's condition right now. "She's on leave right now," isn't entirely a lie, "but if she's back before the wedding, I'd love for her to join us."

Her thumb rubs absently over his knee and she watches the pad of it brush over the fabric. "I'm open to it, if you'd like to honor her."

The phrasing of that last sentence has Zachery fight back a wince, a little more dramatically than is necessary, his shoulders hiked up. "God, that's… a lot — no, thank you. Besides, she hasn't even…"

He stops, and shakes his head, amusement still on his words even if recollection takes some of the sharp edges off of his words. "We're not that close." He has no choice but to conclude, down at his drink. "She was just… unexpected company in a shitstorm and we traded umbrellas for a little while. Maybe the storm's passed, now."

He lifts his glass for a drink, glugs down entirely too much, and pulls an expression just a hair short of aghast. HhGH.

Where normally she might be inclined to laugh just a little at his folly, she only manages the barest twitch of her lips for it. Her hand lifts from his knee and comes up to rub his shoulder instead.

It's a distraction she'll take. "Careful," she murmurs gently. "You need to set a good example for little Harvey Damian," she teases.

Hearing the name anew, Zachery huffs out a chuckle. "That's going to take some getting used to."

He closes his eyes for a moment, as though the fake one needs resting too, and leans ever so slightly into the hand at his shoulder before he says, "You know, it's a shame I've mostly shaken the 'bloody hells' and the 'shites' and 'bellends'. When we do, inevitably, hear a word we shouldn't at the dinner table, we'd know which one of us to blame."

Nicole laughs, caught off-guard by the topic of localized swears. This is one of the things she loves about him. His ability to get her out of her own head, break her out of her loops, cannot be overvalued. “Well, I’ve got heaps more practice censoring myself, so I’m pretty sure we’ll know who’s cocked up.” She grins and slides her hand up to rest comfortably along the curve of his neck.

“But I forgive you anyway.” She offers him an impish little grin at that.

The phrasing pulls another amused exhale from Zachery, muscles relaxing just ever so slightly. "Oh, so you're the only well-trained monkey here, now?" He shoots a glance in her direction, leaning forward to prop an elbow against the countertop so he can shove a cheekbone into his knuckles and really get a good look at her.

What's left of his accent gets a polishing, lost corners of words and ever so slightly shifted intonation dredged up from the depths. "I'm fully aware we met in a shoddily lit excuse for a pub, but I can be real fucking proper when I need to be, and I have been for most of my life. I was very polite in court, I think you'll find, and in prison, even. And at work — exemplary."

His grin widens as he drags that last word out, like he should be getting a medal for it.

Lower lip is caught between teeth, (intentionally) unsuccessfully biting back a grin as he asserts that he can be as well-trained as she. Her fingers curl around the back of his neck, lightly scraping her nails over his spine as he takes her in.

“Have I ever told you how much I love the sound of your voice?” she asks, leaning in a little bit. There’s a fondness that makes crows feet around her eyes. “You could read me the driest academic paper about your latest scientific fascination and I’d still eat it up.” Nicole’s brows lift then, head tipping to one side, “But please don’t. Only at least mildly entertaining papers, if you would be so kind.”

Zachery leaves the question unanswered beyond a brief roll of his eyes upward because of course you do. "That's good to know, actually," his words sink back to the slightly lazier version of themselves. In contrast to her movement, and her touch, he keeps still. "Especially since I'm writing one."

“Publish or perish, right?” Nicole eases back slowly, acknowledging her misstep. “Whatever I can do to support you, please tell me. Even if it’s to just give you a quiet space and time alone.”

Sheepishly, she lifts her glass to her lips for another sip of her drink, glancing away from him now. She opens her mouth to say something, but thinks better of it. “I’m not going to be able to hide this very much longer, am I?” Nicole shifts the subject away fractionally, letting it drift in such a way that he could turn it back to his academic pursuits if he chose.

There will be time for those, yet. Right now, he looks more interested in trying to bring that attention back, brows raised. "'This' being us?" He asks, a little tiredly, but otherwise sounding and looking unconcerned. "You could wait until the wedding invitations go out. That'll be fun. Put a little 'surprise' at the bottom."

He splays out his fingers at the word 'surprise' in the most minimal cheering gesture humanly possible. Only slightly more effort goes into moving his leg to bump it into the one she's got stretched closer to him. Hi.

The surprise draws a smile from her. The bump sees her turning her head back to him. Okay, he’s reclaimed her attention. “I meant…” Nicole trails off and rubs a hand over her stomach. “I’m afraid they’re going to bench me at work when they finally find out.” She’s damn lucky they didn’t find out after the last operation. She’d been fortunate enough that Lucille had helped her remain conscious until she could be alone with the paramedics to reveal her situation, without having to tell one of her peers.

It all worked out! But it won’t last forever. “I suppose if I were calling the shots, and it was someone working for me, I’d bench her too.” Nicole pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs. “I don’t like it.”

Zachery's eye trails down to the motion, then up to hers face. Ah yes, that. "So don't let them bench you," he answers, as if it's that simple.

He shifts his weight, leaning more heavily into the counter before straightening in his seat and fixing Nicole with a questioning slant of eyebrows. "Because you're not working for you." Sudden conviction draws his voice a level kind of serious. "Who do you have to convince? Is it their judgement you're worried about, or your capabilities? Because if it's the latter, I've got a pretty good view from the sidelines, and as soon as I catch wind of you going to work being any sort of detriment, I will bench you myself."

There’s a moment where Nicole is torn between indulging her melancholy or teasing him. Given the serious nature of the topic at hand, she errs on the side of the former. “Anybody with half a brain — that includes the two of us — is going to be worried every time I step into the field that something might happen to jeopardize my pregnancy.”

Nicole frowns, mouth shifted off to one side slightly. “Nobody wants to feel responsible if the worst happens. Even if it’s ultimately my own decision to keep working, to keep going out there, we’re only human. My bosses would blame themselves for not forcing me to the sidelines.”

Which causes her to admit, “I should take the desk job. Voss could use the support, and I know I’m fantastically suited for it. But fuck if I didn’t feel a rush being back out there in the thick of it. I felt alive.” Nicole shakes her head slowly. “How do I back away from that?” That’s a sincere question she’s posing to him.

"So don't back away from it." Zachery gives a shrug, even if his shoulders remain stuck upward too long for it to be anything truly casual. There's a reluctance that clips his words a little shorter, a brief glance to the side during an inhale that hints at discomfort of another sort, but he continues anyway.

"I don't know how feasible this is with the time you have left before you're well and truly a beast," he gestures calmly toward her stomach with both hands, a twinge of a smirk on his face, "but weren't you angling to move up in the world, anyway? Any sort of leadership capacity would afford you the ability to make your own plans, decide how much danger you'd like to be in."

He's not done talking about that, but he stops anyway, teeth gritting. There is a high probability, after all, that she knows what he thinks the danger percentage should be.

She watches him struggle with it, and she struggles too, drawing her lower lip between her teeth while she patiently waits for him to put words to his thoughts on the matter. “I wouldn’t be leadership, though. I’d be support to leadership. It isn’t the same thing.” Exasperated — not with him, but the situation — she waves a dismissive hand. “But it’s closer to where I was,” she grants.

Then, she leans forward, expression serious. “Say it.” Because he’s holding back.

It doesn't take long for the switch to flip. Zachery's hands fall back into his lap, and frustration rises easily to the surface when he says, "You might have felt alive, but I don't think you realise how many places there are within a handful of inches of where you'd been stabbed where — if that's where you'd…"

Speaking from a place that actually feels like it matters is hard, and not his area of expertise, and he swallows back whatever the rest of his sentence was going to be while looking more annoyed than anything else, brow furrowing but gaze staying on Nicole's face. "You might have never felt anything at all, anymore. I still too vividly remember too many bloodless cadavers to not be able to imagine you being one of them."

Nicole nods her head slowly like she understands, solemn about it. At least until her gaze slides off toward the kitchen. Drumming her nails on the counter, it’s her dithering about whether to speak her mind now. “Would this be a bad time to say that I meant when I jumped out of the jet?”

"No, it's perfect," Zachery replies, expression fallen to a controlled neutral as he watches Nicole without blinking. "I love talking about you dying in about seven different ways within the span of half an hour."

At least his shoulders come back down, his face lifting a little. "Walk between any live landmines while you were up there, or…?"

“Not since the war,” is meant to be assuring, but… She knows it probably isn’t. Nicole has the grace to look apologetic, even if she can’t bring herself to actually look at him just yet. She scrubs a hand over her face and sighs heavily.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” she admits. “I’m good at what I do. And SESA needs people like me.” She may as well say this country or the world in place of the acronym of her employer. “I guess I’m so used to the people I love being in danger all the time that I just don’t…” Resting one elbow on the counter, Nicole leans her forehead against her palm and finally slants her gaze back in Zachery’s direction again.

Dark brows lift. “There’s no good answer to this, is there? I can take the desk job, be great at it but wildly unfulfilled, or I can take the job that makes me feel like I’m making a difference, but at the expense of your sanity. I don’t want you to resent me.”

There might not be a good answer — at least not one Zachery is able to formulate, because even though he inhales for words to happen, they don't.

A noise does, though. A thoughtful hum that leaves him on a sigh, before he shoves himself back and stands, forcing a weak grin as thoughts roll around in his head.

"I resent a great many things, but I'm not planning on adding you to that list." It's an offhand comment, much less pointed than what follows when he reaches for her arms, to urge her to stand as well. "Iiii think… that you want to make a difference. Correct?"

As he moves to stand, Nicole quickly draws her leg back to rest on her own chair's support. She stares up at him balefully from beneath the veil of her lashes until he encourages her to stand as well.

"Yes," she responds sullenly to his question. "I want to have an impact. I want to change things. For the better." One has to wonder if she convinced herself that's what she was doing when she worked for the actual mob.

But a delusion is as good as the truth when it comes to motivation, and Zachery nods. "This is alien to me," he admits, tension still threaded through every syllable, and stiffening his movements when he puts a hand on either side of Nicole's face, as if just to— hold it, as if staring into it will help him bypass frustration and find some equal footing.

"But can't you think bigger?" From the upward trend of his voice, it sounds almost less like a question and more of a plea. "Put other people in the line of fire?" This is probably a joke, even if the grin he cracks is a little late.

“I did that during the war,” Nicole insists, sadness in her eyes. She reaches up with one hand to cover one of Zachery’s, leaning into and welcoming his touch. “I’m flawed like that. I can’t ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself.” Certainly, she sent people to their deaths, but she should have been sent to her own as well.

“I don’t think anyone in my whole life has ever cared this much whether I live or die.” Her thumb brushes over the back of his knuckles. “What if… What if I stay in the field until the vest won’t fit anymore?” That’s probably a joke, but her return grin is only half-hearted.

Neither it nor the other comments do much to soften Zachery's features as he watches the changes in Nicole's expression. "Can't wait for the day I walk into a room and find you sewing an elastic band into that thing."

It's not a no though, not strictly, to what might be read between the lines. A biding of time, an extension on a decision still to be made.

The mental image catches her off-guard and Nicole actually laughs. “Can you imagine trying to sew elastic into Kevlar?” She runs her tongue over her teeth and sighs softly. Very funny, Zachery.

“I’m not ready to make a decision yet,” she admits. “But… I will promise to think about it, and to think about you when I do make that choice.” Nicole’s free hand reaches out to rest against his hip, as if to anchor him so he won’t drift away from her.

Finally, Zachery's hands slide down from her face, down her neck and then continuing over her shoulders and down to rest at her waist. It's an attempt to relax his posture, even if the tension in his muscles and the restless rap of fingers at her side does not help his case. And neither does the fact that he's no longer really looking at her, gaze lowering, unfocused.

"I hate caring," are the words that he ends up breathing out in response. "Sometimes I truly, honestly loathe it."

Still, he finds his hands slipping a little further back, and having to lean forward to accommodate the motion. It's not quite an embrace — rather an unwillingness to let go in spite of himself. Which is still a step up from the last time he had similar thoughts and trashed a clinic.

“I know,” Nicole murmurs softly in response to the thing he hates. And if he won’t embrace her on his own, she’ll make that choice for him, stepping closer and wrapping both arms around him now. Her brow furrows with consternation for the fact that she can’t take away his fears.

“You make me feel happy. You make me feel loved and cared about. You make me feel safe.” These are things Nicole thinks Zachery needs to hear. Or that he ought to, even if it isn’t what he thinks he wants. “I have a bad habit of… getting entangled with men who will or can never love me. It’s… really nice to find someone who doesn’t feel that way. For who I’m not some secret shame.”

"How the fuck is that me?" Comes Zachery's answer without pause, bewildered and confused, and his voice louder for it. "How hadn't someone literally scooped you up yet," as he says this, his arms tighten around her and he leans back enough to lift her - yoink - just barely off the ground, "and gone, 'Look! Look at her, though. Did you look? Did you really, though?'"

He shifts his weight to the side, turning her with him, to some imaginary idiot. He throws a glare over her shoulder at nothing, because frustration's gotta go somewhere. "Take another fucking gander."

I don’t fucking know,” Nicole replies, equally incredulous as him. But then he’s scooping her up and she’s laughing happily, hands braced against him to help keep her balance, even though he’s the one in control of her center of gravity at the moment.

She strokes his face gently, eyes wet with emotion. “How are you so good to me?” she asks quietly. “I don’t think I deserve it.” Which should come as little surprise to him, given how he’s lived with her nearly every single day for long enough to get a read on the fathomless depression she’s mired in, despite the brave face she puts on every day.

Grip relaxing, Zachery leans back to meet her gaze. The confrontational severity in his expression remains, drawing the lines age has awarded his face a little deeper, even if he's (arguably literally) dropped the previous charade's subject.

"It's draining to see you doing poorly," he answers, with the enunciated precision of someone who's trying to solve a mathematical issue thinking aloud. "And you're a challenge. I always did have trouble backing down from a good puzzle."

A twitch of an eyelid betrays something else, the same something that has him swallowing back most of a smirk. "Also you didn't send me to my inevitable lifelong incarceration until death. That helps."

“Hell, I’ve managed to avoid that,” Nicole quips with a nervous breath of laughter. “I figured the least I could do is extend you that same courtesy.” When she smiles again, it’s with a crease in her brow, a touch of sadness. “Though I’m afraid I’m always doing poorly,” she admits.

“And I worry what will happen once you’ve managed to solve me.” Before he can protest or argue or hit her with some sort of snappy comeback, she leans in to kiss him, fingers curling into the fabric of his clothes and into his hair.

Fully ready to provide said comeback and not at all prepared for what happens instead, Zachery comes up a little short on the reciprocation of the kiss. His muscles tense before they relax, lizard brain successfully urging him forward rather than back.

"I imagine I'll get a prize," he finally replies with a grin, his mouth near hers, because a complete elimination of retort is apparently not allowed, "Maybe a nice Nobel, for the mantelpiece?"

“Mm. I thought I was the prize,” Nicole teases, brushing her nose against his but not quite letting their lips meet again either. Two can play at that little game. “I don’t know if this is going to work,” she finally admits, further positing, “and I don’t think you do, either. But for however long it does work… I’m going to enjoy it.”

She closes her eyes and rests her forehead against his, content for the moment just to have this proximity. It feels good to be held by him. “I look very forward to being Mrs. Miller.” In case she might have sparked some doubt in him there.

Fortunately, said proximity makes for a good distraction from uncertainty. Overconfidence carries easily in Zachery's voice when he replies, "If the last six months have taught me anything, it's that I don't know what in the devil's actual hell is going on at the best of times."

His arms ease a little closer against her, the conscious decision to keep her slipping away in favour of something more instinctual. Maybe it is good to hold, also. "So," his eyebrows twitch upward, before one of his arms lifts away from her side so he can push a finger up against her jawline. "I might as well enjoy the ride."

If this is a game where giving in is losing, he'll do so gladly - bringing his lips against hers again to use any remaining agitation for something more productive. Comparatively.

And she’s content to let this productivity carry on for some minutes. When they have moments like this, it’s like none of the other bullshit matters. There’s no question of jobs, no worry about plans, no concern about making things work. It’s just the two of them and what feels right.

When she finally comes up for air, it is with reluctance and a glance at the clock in the kitchen. “I need to go pick up Pippa,” she murmurs with a sigh. “I’m sure Peyton would like the break. Riding along?”

Time does very little to pull Zachery's attention away from present activities. "Peyton's fine," he claims into one side of her neck while a hand runs up the other, free arm bracing against her back.

Delaying the inevitable just a little longer, even though he knows - when competing for time with Pippa - not to expect much. "Besides, I told myself that once you leave, I'm going back to research, and this is more fun." In the same breath, he adds, "You know how I've been doing physical therapy for my stupid leg? How far do you think I could carry you."

Nicole squirms slightly in his arms, but not out of discomfort. “You are wicked, you know that?” She swallows hard, suppressing a shiver. “Compromise?” she asks in a soft voice, all the while tipping her head so he has better access to her neck.

“Give me the forty-five seconds it’ll take me to text her that I’m running late and you can carry me wherever you please?”

Zachery just freezes — until he simply lifts his arms away from Nicole and straightens to beam at her. "You are entirely too much fun to rile up. But you should go." It's an assertion that leaves him with some amount of pain on his voice, even if there's none on his face when he breathes all the way in as if it will help him muster the restraint necessary. "Let's be responsible. Because we're perfect, remember?"

He gestures toward the door, some regret already showing through in the way a sigh leaves him. "Go on. You'll be back."

Nicole closes her eyes and has to take two deep breaths. The kind that accompany a face that implies Lord, give me strength. When she opens her eyes again, she frowns and shakes her head. “You are such an asshole sometimes.” She backs up a step and pushes the stool at the island back in, stalling.

Keys are reached for, but not found where she thought she’d left them on the island. She stares into some middle distance in the kitchen, trying to work out where she left the keys. Abruptly, she turns and heads toward the hallway and her their bedroom.

In ninety seconds time, she returns, sans keys but with her BlackBerry in hand. “It’s a sleepover now. She’s delighted to have more time with her best friend and we’re still perfect,” Nicole declares, setting her phone facedown on the counter. “We simply owe Peyton a nice bottle of wine.”

Her arms are wrapped loosely around Zachery’s shoulders now. “Why don’t you wind me up and watch me go?”

Within the ninety seconds time, Zachery's already gone ahead and found the aforementioned snacks that never got retrieved when they were supposed to be, and he's got a mouthful of some chocolate bar that got sneaked into the shopping cart earlier when Nicole returns.

"Mh," is all he manages with the raised eyebrows and rest of a bar still sticking out of his mouth, instead of the 'oh' that it was probably supposed to be. He is stunned for the 0.7 seconds it takes for him to consider, before sneaking an arm off to the side, swiping the bag of chocolate in between him and Nicole, and dipping down to swoop an arm behind her legs. He lifts her off her feet with a noise that probably translates to UP YOU GO

… and a smaller noise that probably means more along the lines of shit, I need to take better care of myself. Not that he has time to worry about that now, already on his way forward with his prize. BYE.

Nicole breaks off a corner of the chocolate bar hanging from Zachery’s mouth and pops it into hers just as he’s scooping her up as he promised to do earlier. She startles and throws her arm around him again, this time grabbing tight with a laugh. “Oh, gosh! Don’t hurt yourself!”

Still, they’d better enjoy this feat of strength while they can, because she won’t be liftable much longer from this point. She curls in toward him to make sure she doesn’t clunk feet, elbows or head against the walls as he moves toward the hallway. “I promise I’m impressed, even if you put me down right here.”

"NWwWP!" Is the very useful sound of disagreement that leaves Zachery immediately, as he works the chocolate down and adjusts his grip. It only takes a few steps to start walking a little more smoothly, leaning the extra weight forward and guiding himself and Nicole both through the doorways required — sideways, in favour of no bruised limbs, and with haste. Proper motivation's the damnedest thing.

Once in the bedroom and at the foot of the bed, though, Nicole is deposited with no elegance whatsoever, chocolate and all. THERE.

She very nearly bounces off the mattress and onto the floor for how unceremoniously she’s dropped onto the bed, but she manages to counterbalance her weight to stay where she needs to be, flopping back and laughing with her arms stretched above her head, reeeaching for a pillow she just can’t quite grasp.

But that’s okay. “Very impressed,” Nicole promises. And with sincerity, adds, “I’m glad your leg is doing better. I know you’ve been working hard.” She props herself up on her elbows in a half-seated recline now, legs dangling off the end of the bed, one swinging gently back and forth with a restless energy.

Better is right, if Zachery's slightly off-center stance and wince at the word is any indication. "You know," he finally manages, past the last bit of chocolate he's still got between his teeth before he shoves that in his mouth as well, "Richard's got me working for Yeh?"

He doesn't wait for an answer, choosing instead to take the extra step forward so he can let himself fall sideways onto the bed next to Nicole. A well deserved rest for 30 seconds of work. "So now I'm working with the woman who tortured me, and the woman who took my eye out."

He reaches both arms upward, just managing to grab hold of a pillow and pulling it downward to fling it toward Nicole's head. There you go.

Nicole blanches at that. Way to kill a mood, Miller. The pillow collides with the top of her head and she sputters, flailing a moment until she manages to grab hold of it and shove it under her head instead.

“Are you… Are you even remotely okay with that?” Nicole’s expression clouds with concern. “Do you want—” She stops just short of asking him if he wants her to talk to somebody. He’s not incapable of standing up for himself, surely. He can’t want her to fight this or any battle for him.

As if the subject's wiped the reason for even coming in here from his mind, Zachery just… stares up at the ceiling, and chuckles dryly.

"Do I want what?" He asks, tone casual. "For that not to be the case? I'd love that very much. Do I think it's realistic for me to have any say in the matter?" He turns his head — Nicole being on his left meaning he has to turn it a little more than usual, for reasons discussed. "Absolutely not. So why would I…"

He stops speaking, as well as breathing, as if any movement at all might distract from the words he's trying to find. His gaze trails slowly back up to the ceiling, expression clearing. "It's fine," he breathes, finally, before asking a little more tersely, "Did I just fuck myself over twice?"

“It’s not fine,” Nicole insists in a somewhat clipped manner. “I meant do you want me to do something about it? I can talk to Richard…” She winces immediately, certain that as soon as the words have left her mouth that they were the wrong ones to say, but she doesn’t take them back or rescind her offer.

Rolling over on her side, she rests her hand on the center of his chest, idly brushing her fingers over the front of his shirt. “Fuck yourself over how, in this case? You’re going to have to be way more specific.”

"You're doing nothing of the sort." This is the easier of the two answers Zachery offers, a disconnected sort of calm.

The second question comes only after he's lifted both his hands to scrub them roughly over his face, adding, resigned, "I just run my mouth too much, that's all. It's fixable. It's all fixable."

“That’s almost optimistic of you, dear.” Nicole nudges him gently between two ribs with a knuckle. Not enough to hurt, but just to be a small nuisance. “I am frankly concerned about you working with— Seriously, the person who took your eye is a co-worker?” That’s a story she’s never asked before. The injury happened before she met him, and it just never occurred to her to ask about it, because it’s not her business.

Is it her business now? She isn’t sure. It isn’t as though he’s asked about the bullet hole in her shoulder (the one she doesn’t have the healing knife wound in), so she can’t use that as a justification. Despite Zachery’s wishes, Nicole may be having a talk with Richard anyway. A stern one. About what’s going to happen if her fiance loses any further pieces of himself.

The nudge at his ribs brings Zachery back into the present again, though not in the most ideal of ways. When he turns his head again, it's with half of a sneer aimed at Nicole — forgetting himself just for a moment, he reflexively grabs hold of her wrist, even if loosely.

He struggles with his thoughts as he looks at her, sneer eased away, and his words are slow as a result. "I know it might sound odd, and she is mad, but I might have been…" He pauses, until something that sounds suspiciously like hatred colours his conclusion, "Worse."

Without pause, he reminds, "You gave up your night for this."

The hand of that captured wrist loosens and her fingers splay out as if to say no harm is meant. A gesture of surrender. She doesn’t shrink away, however. The sneer leaves her undeterred. “Do I even want to know?” Nicole asks, expression serious. The concern is only betrayed in the emphasized word.

“I gave up my night to spend time with you. Whatever form that takes.”

Zachery eyes Nicole with equal amounts of impatience and curiosity - the same way one might do so when waiting for a punchline. When one doesn't come, much less so one that's at the expense of him, he deflates back against the bed.

Punchline never delivered, there's still the other matter. "I gave her the wrong idea, and she was right to accept it. Devi — she… she thought she was in danger, and I, ah-…"

He stops, finally pulling himself inward and then up until he's sitting on the edge of the bed and staring down at his hands in his lap. "You and I both know I can get a little…" The next word is hard-won - for once, his self-inflicted thought derailment isn't accompanied by the usual telltale signs of frustration or fear, but born from something more carefully measured. "Much."

Nicole isn’t quite sure what to do with that information. But she keeps her expression neutral so as not to give away the back and forth swing of her emotions about what he’s told her. “You… made her feel like she was in danger, so she cut out your eye.” She wants so badly to believe it was a grossly disproportionate reaction on her part, but she’s been on the receiving end of Zachery being a little much.

There’s no haste to Nicole drawing her hand back toward herself. She pushes herself up to sit on the edge of the bed next to him, uncertain of what to do next. “Yeah,” she says finally, realizing that she hadn’t yet said anything. “Did you do anything to her?” Before or after, doesn’t matter.

"Nothing worse, I thought, than what she'd done to herself," Zachery answers, with a small shake of his head. "I found her in an alley, at night, drunk and…" he gestures vaguely with one hand, "and she passed out, so I… carried her home. It was - nearby." A wry grin appears and then quickly vanishes again, because of course it having been nearby was a good enough reason to do this thing.

"When I got home," he continues, emotion steadily draining from his voice, "I finally figured I'd made a mistake. That she'd be angry. But I didn't just want go back outside and have someone see me, just out of prison, carrying a body for… who knows what reason, right, or have her kill me in my sleep, so I took her jacket, and her gun, and put them out by the front door, and…"

He falls silent, gaze lifting to scan the floor as though he's looking for something else that's missing in the story that can help cushion what comes next. Alas, no such luck. "And taped her to a fucking chair in my bathroom," leaves him coldly, "and went to bed."

Nicole lets out the deep breath that she'd been holding very slowly. "Okay. So, I think you understand how that started well intentioned and went off the rails." She closes her eyes and lowers her chin down toward her chest. "So, she thought you'd kidnapped her, and she fought back, and you lost an eye."

This is not how she expected the story of how he lost his eye to play out. "Fuck!" she spits out, lifting her head again to fix him with an incredulous look. "I always figured it was a war wound!" She'd kind of been happier still believing that, but they'd promised fewer secrets. That goes for him too.

The exclamation brings Zachery's attention back to Nicole like she may as well have punched him, judging by the confusion that's plastered on his face as he stares at her.

But then it fades, his grin returning, even if surprise still draws it slightly more to one side than the other. "It's worse, actually," he admits, now suppressing a laugh, "She didn't even really have to fight. She pounced me when I was cutting her free, like an angry badger. I'm still half convinced she might have had one in the family at some point. Maybe a great grandparent with a secret, you know how it goes."

“Oh my god,” Nicole groans, burying her face in her hands for a long moment. She sucks in a breath audibly between her teeth and lets it out again as another anguished groan. Why is he like this?

Only after she quietly screams into her palms does she lift her head from them again and reach out instead to wrap an arm around his shoulders. “You are. You are just something,” she sighs. “But… But you’re my something.”

Every sound that leaves Nicole only seems to serve to ease Zachery's breathing, to help him sit a little taller as he watches her put every ridiculous notion about this little event in a new light.

"A war wound," he repeats in an echo, the words registering a little late, another laugh escaping him as he turns his gaze up to the ceiling. He'll have to tell her later about how he spent most of the war inside, patching up other people's wounds but protected by the Ferrymen like he was a baby bird. "You have so much to learn about me, still." It's a statement that he might mean to be playful mockery, but leaves just on the edge of rueful. "And we're getting married."

"Shit." His attention snaps back to Nicole, his expression frozen on what's left of his grin while a realisation clicks fully into place for the umpteenth time. When it does, he pulls a knee back onto the bed and turns under her arm, throwing both of his own around her before letting his weight fall against hers. "We're getting married."

“We can’t all be public figures,” Nicole responds with her own ruefulness, regarding the inequality between what he knows about her and what she knows about him. At least each of these little revelations probably serves to prove that she isn’t abusing her federal office to run background checks on her fiance.

Then he’s putting his arms around her and toppling her back down onto the bed and she lets out a brief squeak of surprise before her head hits the pillow again, culminating in laughter. “We sure are.” Nicole cups Zachery’s face and presses a kiss to his mouth. “For better or for worse, as they say.”

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