Hard Up


byrne_icon.gif nicole3_icon.gif

Scene Title Hard Up
Synopsis Nicole approaches an old friend about an even older problem.
Date March 14, 2021

Bay Ridge

It’s been an incredibly difficult month and change for Nicole Miller for myriad reasons. A strong root for her problems has been her spike in paranoia. Ever since she decided to pay Noah Bennet a visit at his apartment (read: broke into the place), she’s been followed. She can’t prove it, but she knows. She knows what it looks like.

For her, it looks like spooks in unmarked SUVs and plain clothes. Just innocuous enough to make her look and feel crazy for her suspicions.

The houseboat isn’t terribly far from her own house. Nicole parks her Buick and walks the waterfront to the vessel. She boards without calling ahead to ask for permission, and pounds her fist on the door loud enough to be heard. It takes almost no effort to do. She wonders if she could knock the door right off its hinges. She doesn’t want to, but it doesn’t stop her from wondering about it.

The door opens inward to a narrow entry hallway eclipsed by Zachariah’s comparatively large frame. He’s unshaven, though otherwise clean and dressed for a day off. “Nicole,” he says, surprised. “For a minute I thought I was on the other end of a SOG battering ram.”

He doesn’t ask after her reasons for arriving, merely cocks his head toward the inside and turns to round the stairs down into his living space. The air is warm, filled with the competing scents of fresh paint and coffee.

There’s a tension wound tightly through Nicole’s frame even as she laughs at the joke. “Sorry,” she apologizes sheepishly. “Sometimes my enthusiasm gets the better of me.” At least that’s her story and she’ll be sticking to it. The silent invitation to step inside is one that’s accepted just as wordlessly. She makes sure the door is latched up behind her before she follows him down.

“I’m sorry to barge in on you like this,” she finally offers with more conviction. “I… ‘ve been debating coming over here for a while now, but I wasn’t sure if I should.” Nicole shakes her head slowly, unbuttoning her coat, but not shedding it just yet, in case he asks her to turn right back around and leave.

“Do you trust me, Zach?” This creature who stands up to big dicks in suits without fear and tells them they look like mice suddenly looks smaller and more fragile than he’s ever seen her before. Uncertainty is a look that sees people eaten alive in KC, and DC before it.

The house is surprisingly spacious, though lacking much in the way of furniture or possessions. Scattered throughout the space are signs of construction and repair. Byrne moves toward an open kitchen, taking a coffee mug from a drying cloth beside the sink and filling it with coffee.

He listens to Nicole, and appears ready to laugh about her barging in but he quickly reconsiders. He crosses the space with the mug in hand, offering it to her. “You’ve never given me a reason not to,” he says. She’s obviously here for something, and he sees no point navigating through pleasantries before digging in. “Lay it out for me.”

The corner of Nicole’s mouth twitches upward. Her weight shifts from one foot to the other as she considers her words — as though she hasn’t been thinking about them for days already. “I’ve got a tail.” It has to start with some kind of statement, and that seems as succinct one as any.

“I don’t know who they are,” she clarifies. “CIA? DoE? Someone within SESA?” Nicole brings a hand to her throbbing head, massaging her forehead. “Spooks, anyway. I’ve been among them long enough to know what it looks like, but they’re good. Plainclothes, unmarked cars… Just present, but unobtrusive enough to make me look like I’m insane when I try to point them out.”

And she’s clearly concerned that Byrne’s going to follow that trend of people who think she’s chasing windmills.

Byrne nods that he’s listening as he steps toward newly installed cabinetry next to the entryway. He opens it to reveal a monitor split into four security camera views of the length of the barge and its surroundings. It’s telling that he’s got that but not a sofa.

“Have you been documenting it? Times, locations, descriptions?” he asks. Seeming satisfied that there aren’t any cars parked at the old South Brooklyn marine terminal other than Nicole’s and his own, he turns back to her. “What stands out about them that makes you think it’s federal and not private sector?”

Grateful for something to occupy her hands, Nicole cradles the coffee carefully, wary of tightening her fingers too much and spelling calamity for both the porcelain and herself. “I have a notebook. I pay attention to what I see, then write it down once I’m out of sight. I just… God, I’m hoping my whole fucking place isn’t wired up. I’ve been over it top to bottom more than once, but…”

Nicole grimaces. It does sound insane when she lays it all out like that. “This is… I know the difference. It’s like orcas.” Her nine-year-old has informed her that an orca will slap the fins off a shark any day of the week, gosh, Mom. “Top of the food chain shit. This isn’t just a tail. These are life ruiners.

Overcome with a sudden wave of emotion — or maybe pain — for a moment it looks like she might be ill. It’s shaken off, swallowed down and drowned with coffee. “Someone is trying to scare me.” Nicole tips her head to one side, pleading with her eyes. “Tell me it isn’t you.”

“It isn’t me,” Byrne replies. While Vice President Dowe did send him here with the purpose of keeping tabs of SESA officials, Nicole included by name, this isn’t his handiwork. He returns to the kitchen and fills a second coffee mug, then turns to face Nicole as he leans against the sink.

“If you’re still worried about your car or house I can give them another sweep,” he says. “Otherwise our best bet is for you to set up somewhere you’re likely to pick the tail up while I stay back to spot it. If I can review your notes maybe I can spot a pattern,” Byrne looks calm and collected in the moment, and his suggestions come without pausing to rack his brain for ideas. This is where he’s most comfortable.

“I’m…” Nicole trails off, eyes a little too wide without being manic. “I’m afraid that I’ve led them here, and that they might start to follow you too. They only showed up after I visited a friend.”

Maybe it’s a tad presumptuous or outright a lie to refer to Noah fucking Bennet as a friend, and it’s definitely dubious at best to say she paid him a visit. She broke in and (gently) tossed the place, looking for signs of the mess he’d gotten her into and whether he was who he appears to be.

Now there’s people following her. What in the hell lies at the end of this rabbit hole?

“Maybe they’re too smart to bark up your tree.” Nicole lifts her mug for a drink, muttering against the rim of it, “That’d be nice.” Her hands are shaking by the time she lowers the mug again. “I stumbled into some conspiracy that runs deep. I thought at first maybe it had been stamped out in the Seventies. Obviously not, or why would anyone be following me?”

Zachariah mulls it over, glancing again at his security system. “I’ll keep an eye out, but then I always do. Hard habit to break,” he says. “Is your friend being followed too? Is it possible you only noticed the tail after that visit?”

“I’m not discounting the possibility of a conspiracy, to be clear. But if you want to confirm the start of this mess we might be able to chase some closed circuit cameras you’d have been near in the days before the visit.” He doesn’t ask what the conspiracy is. They can get to that if they need to.

“I’ve been on high alert since— Since the accident.” Nicole shakes her head. “If I’d had a tail before then, I would have known. So, it stands to reason that they were following my friend, and now they’re following me. And I…”

Nicole’s brow furrows. She also glances up to the security system, looking for any sign of the SUV she knows was following her on the way here. They’re always just on the edges of her vision, whoever they are. “Whoever it is, I think they’re inside the agency, too.” Otherwise why would Noah be avoiding her at work? They’re co-workers. Why wouldn’t they be seen working together?

Taking a deep breath, she steels herself. She’s preparing for rejection and for the sting that will bring her, but she has to try. Nicole fixes Zachariah with a serious and importuning stare. “Are you willing to go in on this with me? If… something happens, I don’t want this information to die with me.”

Zachariah gestures generally with his mug. “Been a while since I ran a proper investigation, but I’m sure to have post-its and a sharpie around here somewhere.” And the bare walls are just asking for an investigation board.

“Where do we start?”

Her head nods, relief comes with a breath. Finally, she starts to settle in. Moving to the table, she sets the coffee down, then rests her large, heavy purse on a chair before shrugging out of her jacket, draping it over the back of the seat. Unzipping the top of her bag, she pulls out a laptop. It’s older, but not ancient. The most important thing about it is that she’s disabled the Wi-Fi. It won’t connect to a network without a hardline.

“I found a Hardcard. Nineteen-eighty-fucking-five’s precursor to a flashdrive. So, it’s as long as my fucking arm, basically.” That’s not what she has with her. “Damn thing was formatted for Windows. Original flavor. Where you had to put a command into the DOS prompt to get it to come up.”


“Took me a while to track down a computer that could read it, with SESA resources.” Which has certainly left her feeling nervous as to what flags she’s raised, but nobody’s come knocking down her door yet for the information she’s had Dana run for her in the past. “But I grabbed the data off it, translated it to something much smaller. Easier to wrangle.” Grasping at a chain around her neck, she draws it gently upward until she reveals a delicate white gold locket.

Carefully, Nicole slips her thumbnail into the seam and pops open the piece of jewelry. There are tiny photos there, of course. Two blondes. One is fairly easily recognized as her daughter Phillipa, even if she’s quite a bit bigger than the last time Byrne had occasion to glimpse her. The other side of the locket has a picture of a young woman who can’t be much younger than Nicole herself. But she shares the same blue eyes as the child opposite, has Nicole’s smile.

More importantly than those details, however, is the small object that falls out of the locket and into Nicole’s palm. A micro SD card, which is slotted into a much larger adapter, then fit into the USB port of the laptop after she’s booted it up.

“Most of this,” Nicole explains, bent over the laptop while she types in the series of passwords that will grant entry to the system and relevant folders, “is old Company records. This stuff would have come in handy… A long, long time ago. It’s just about worthless now. And the vast majority of it already exists in SESA databases at this point.” She scoffs, a wry twist of her lips. “Ten whole megabytes of bullshit.”

Despite the age of the technology, once she has granted herself access, the files load up quickly. Nicole absently lifts her purse from the seat, eyes glued to the screen as she sets it down on the floor and slides down to sit where it was. “This shit, though,” her nail taps against the screen. “Nobody’s got records of shit. Maybe redacted somewhere? But… I have my doubts.”

Nicole shakes her head and finally looks up to her friend, a tension to her brow that has nothing to do with her constant migraine. “Have you ever heard of Project MKNAOMI?”

While Nicole prepares her presentation, Byrne sets his coffee on the table and looks along the length of the living space. He crosses the room to retrieve a folding metal chair and digs around in a few boxes before returning with paper and a pen, just in case.

“Sounds related to MKUltra?” he guesses, seating himself.

“Exactly. This is a successor. The CIA wanted to weaponize us and weaponize against us. Specials, as they called us back then.” Does she even qualify under that banner anymore? That’s a philosophical question she tangles with constantly and one she’ll tangle with later. “The Company, back in the day, tried to play ball with the US government. They thought if we all worked together…” Nicole shrugs. That’s a grand experiment currently in motion.

“Thing is, the Department of Defense — predictably — saw Expressives as a potential threat. MKNAOMI was a project with three goals. They wanted an army of loyalists to fight whatever they thought the Communists were going to send over, but they also wanted a defense beyond mundane soldiers.” History shows that Nicole is not the only one who was disgusted by this. “They attempted to develop a biological weapon that would target only Expressive individuals. Something that would either negate them or kill them.”

As she scrolls through unredacted files, her mouth twists into a shape that comes with having tasted something sour. “They ran this project out of Fort Detrick, so I suppose this means they had more than just some success.” Her eyes stay on the screen while her friend follows along and takes the notes he finds necessary.

“You know, it’s funny how things work out. I helped secure the information that led us to Detrick in the war. We took a lot of strategic losses in that assault.” Helpfully, if his history on that particular siege is a little fuzzy, she adds, “It’s where they were cooking up the biological agent known as Gorgon. A lot of good people died to make sure countless more innocents wouldn’t.” That doesn’t lay her guilt to rest along with those soldiers.

“I’ve done my reading,” Byrne says, looking around the scattered boxes as though one of them might contain his library of historical literature. There certainly aren’t enough boxes in the space for that sort of thing. “It was hard won for certain.

“There are chemical negation drugs and Expressive-targeting illnesses and toxins today,” he muses. “What are we looking at here that could rile up a clandestine government faction?”

“The third thing the project attempted to accomplish was synthesize abilities.They wanted to give Expressive abilities to non-Expressive individuals.” Scrubbing a hand over her face, Nicole waves vaguely at the computer screen. “Even now, that hasn’t been truly accomplished. They’ve only really managed to rob Peter to pay Paul.”

That dark head of hers tips forward for a moment, as if to bury her face in one hand, or thunk her head down on the keyboard, or maybe it’s exhaustion. It’s hard to say, given the givens. She rights herself quickly enough. “The Company caught wind of Project MKNAOMI, they enacted something called a “Clean Slate” protocol. As you might guess, it means they wiped everything out. They either altered the memories of people involved, or systematically assassinated them. This is when they began their crusade of keeping Expressives a secret from the world.

“No small wonder, given what generations of government have decided to do with us. Domestically and abroad.” Nicole looks up from the computer and to Byrne. “Alright. Here’s where things get weird.” She doesn’t wait for him to ask her to continue. “The portion of MKNAOMI devoted to researching Specials to be deployed during the Cold War was conducted in Richmond, Virginia, at a juvie facility of all places. In the late Seventies, Erica Kravid shows up at their door. She’s got multiple abilities, and she agrees to show them what she can do.”

Erica Kravid is a woman there’s no love lost over. All reports say she died in the raid on the Institute remnant at Sunstone. She was also, by all accounts, non-Expressive. Nicole lifts her brows, acknowledging that is the weird part. “She was also dying. Apparently, she thought they were her best chance of survival. What she told them was that she was from the future… From further in our future.”

Even now, Nicole is bewildered by that knowledge. “In exchange for assisting with their experiments — their focus at the time was psychic ability, ESP and the like — she wanted their help finding a cure for her neurological degradation. They, of course, did not hold up their end of the bargain. They just let her deteriorate. They eventually killed her.” That haunts her, visibly.

“Whatever Erica Kravid’s sins… She didn’t deserve what the CIA did to her in their experiments.” Trailing off, she seems to need a moment to regather her thoughts. “Uhm… Right, so those experiments were being overseen by the CIA’s ROYALS program. You may have heard of them before.” More recent history lessons.

“The man I interviewed about this told me that the agent codenamed King of Wands was overseer.” The corner of Nicole’s mouth twitches, the attempt to form words at first a futile one. “All of that shit is heavily classified and redacted, obviously, but I managed to dig up the names of the ROYALS in 1976, when this all took place. Teddy Hesser was the King of Wands, Zach.”

It takes no prodding for the importance of that name to spring to Zachariah Byrne’s mind. Cedric Hesser was the Libertarian candidate opposing Joshua Harding in the bid for the presidency.

“Well,” Byrne says, not bothering to hide his surprise, “That took a turn. You think our boy from Montana might be trying to keep the royal lineage out of the press?” He’d never personally met the former senator, though they’d been in the same room a small handful times on the campaign trail.

He’d like to act shocked about a secret government program resulting in the death of a citizen—albeit a terrible one—but he isn’t. He’d been in the room with many such terrible people in the time leading up to his abrupt discharge from the service during the early years of the war. The revelation that Kravid arrived at her final destination via time travel takes a while longer to fully set in.

Nicole shakes her head. “I don’t think he knows.” She’s subdued, a quiet thing. “I don’t think any of them know.” Which may seem sort of an odd thing to say at first, but she pulls up another document and begins to clarify. “This is the list of the ROYALS from that period. I just…” She lets out a deep breath and lets the words on the screen speak for themselves.

King of Swords: Marcus Raith
King of Cups: Rodney Dearing
King of Wands: Teddy Hesser
King of Pentacles: Markus Ryans

“Yeah,” Nicole sighs out when he’s had a chance to look over the names. “Like my ex.” One hand presses to her forehead, like she might be able to squeeze out the migraine thumping in her skull with enough pressure applied from her fingers. “Rodney Dearing was father to a deceased Wolfhound operative, James Dearing. Ol’ Rod there died in 1981 of congestive heart failure. Mark passed in 1996. Cedric’s old man bit it five years earlier from throat cancer.” One finger taps slowly on the edge of the laptop, her nail sounding a quiet click each time it connects with the plastic surface.

“Raith’s grandson I met in the Ferry — Jensen.” Yet another connection to the present and the influencers of the day, even if only one of them is left standing. “That’s fine and all, but the thing is that all records show that Marcus Raith died in the 1950s.” Finally, Nicole holds up her hands in surrender. “I have no idea what to do with that. I mean, time travel is obviously possible, so maybe that’s his ability, but…” She swallows down the lump in her throat that anxiety has created. “Did the descendents of these people end up in their positions by coincidence of fate? Or were the dominos lined up?”

The Company — and then the Institute after them — was always fond of that.

“The tarot card codenames could be fitting for a project that could be hypothetically trying to predict the future,” Byrne says. “There’s room there to assume they used Kravid’s future knowledge in order to place people they could trust where they’d need to be to make changes. But I feel fairly far out on a limb suggesting it.”

“So what we know,” he begins, putting a few things in order, “MKNAOMI is run by the Kings, one of whom is thought to have died in the fifties. Erica Kravid arrives from our future looking for help with the neurological degeneration associated with the Gemini process. They allow her to die, the Company finds out, and everybody gets wiped.

“The data about the project survives the seventies long enough to make it onto a Hardcard in the eighties, presumably in the keeping of the Company. The three not-presumed-deceased Kings die in the nineties. You find the Hardcard, visit a friend, and pick up a tail.

“Where did you find the Hardcard, and what about your visit to a friend do you think caught their attention?” he asks. “Did the two of you discuss what was on it? Did you access the files over a server that could have been compromised?”

Nicole takes a moment simply to breathe and let out an astonished and relieved, “God, you’re good.” It’s a lot that she’s dropping into Zachariah’s lap and he’s rolling with the punches far better than most. Her mouth curves upward in a little smile. “I don’t think they know I have the Hardcard,” she tells him. “I lifted it from an old Ferry haven. Near as I can tell, it was being smuggled from the Institute. But… I don’t know why it would have been taken, as outmoded and unassuming as it is. It had to have been a targeted grab, but I don’t know why the operative would’ve gone for it.”

Who could Meredith Gordon have been working with that would have sent her in for that? Or smuggled it out to her at any rate. To what end? “I don’t think my friend knows I have it, either. There’s no way my route was known. I came upon it purely by chance. I never even got to talk to them when I went looking. I sat around for hours so I could look like the goddamn Batman when they showed up, but they didn’t. I finally left empty-handed.” Nicole shakes her head. “The tail started immediately after that. They didn’t know I had anything until I made that connection. I’m still not even sure what I have.”

After a moment to consider, she reasons, “I’m not sure they know I’m aware of the involvement or identities of the ROYALS. But there’s certainly other cover-ups.” Nicole frowns, brow furrowed with self-directed upset. “I haven’t even focused on the other branch down the rabbit hole.”

Lifting her gaze, her expression clears again, the small and sincere smile returns. “But this is more than enough for us to chew on for now, I think.” She watches his eyes for signs that she’s inundated him with too much. Given him too much terrible knowledge. For assurance, though she doesn’t realize that last one.

“It’s a three-course meal,” he says, eyes still on the wall, arranging more notes he hasn’t written yet. His eyes stay there as he half-turns back toward the table, tapping his marker on the pad of sticky notes. He looks back to transcribe whatever he saw there, laying out a few of the broader arcs of what he has so far.

As he scribbles he looks up again, giving Nicole a friendly scrutiny as he writes. “Sad to waste a perfectly good opportunity to jump out shouting, ‘The night is mine’ at somebody,” he says with a smirk. He may be one of the older agents in the agency, but he was still born decades after Batman started his detective career.

He lays a few notes, out each overlapping the last, before writing and holding up another: TS/SCI. Top-Secret, Sensitive Compartmented Information. “It's too early to think about playing this card,” he says, “But I may be able to get classified intel more readily, so keep it in mind.” He doesn’t involve Dowe in the conversation, but he’s confident he could put the vice president’s political weight behind a request should this investigation delve into dangerous waters.

Nicole watches Byrne work, watches him think. She admires him for being able to take all of this and absorb it without just telling her to fuck off. She flashes him a smirk back for his Batman joke. “That’s what I’m saying. Very unfair of him to make me squander an opportunity like that.”

Then a quiet sigh. “Nobody talks to me anymore,” she admits. “It’s like I’ve been burned. So, keeping that card in your back pocket is not a bad idea.” A hapless shrug follows. There’s not much she can do to change this circumstance for now. There’s too much in front of her to divert attention to that particular problem.

Terminating windows and ejecting the USB, Nicole closes the laptop after initiating shutdown. She holds up the small drive now that she’s removed it from the port. “Do you want this?”

“Only if you need it somewhere you don’t know about,” Byrne says, eyeing but not accepting the drive. “I don’t have anything on the grid I could safely plug it into, but I know a couple holes to drop it in.” Not mysterious, or ominously deep. Concrete, iron. Secure.

He pulls another sticky note from the stack, laying it like the final card in the river on the table. He caps his marker, taps it against the table idly. “Why do you think you could garner that kind of scrutiny?” he asks. It’s wildly unlikely that he doesn’t know about the crash in Canada at this point. Departmental speculation at the very least. While he doesn’t display any sign of distrust, he does have a keen eye. Somebody who can use the reasons to see the forest for the trees.

Nicole holds Byrne’s gaze and the drive for the space of time it takes her to inhale and exhale slowly. She presses the drive into his palm. “It’s probably best if it’s not with me. Better yet if I don’t know where to find it.” What she needs to know she has either committed to memory or to paper in her own shorthand, without context.

“Partly, just because I have the information. Partly because…” She looks down at her hands folded in front of her. “Because something happened to me, and no one will tell me what they know. I don’t know why.” Her jaw clenches. “Why I was targeted, why no one will talk to me…” Nicole looks up again, deflated some. “My allies are slim to none. I’m really glad…” A hard stare is directed at the wall, lips pursed. She vacillates easily between defeated and simmering rage on this particular topic. “Just glad for you, as always.”

Byrne takes the drive and stashes it in a pocket reflexively. He doesn’t allow the action to detract from his conversation, just nods. He looks at his notes, the wall, back to Nicole. He sets the marker down on the table. “I’m the outsider,” he offers.

He leans back in his chair, picks up his coffee. Siphons a little heat from the table and directs it to his drink without even a faint puff of steam wasted. A touch of frost on the edge of the table near his fingertips. “Easy enough to stay in the good graces of anybody who might question the other side of the exchange.” He takes a sip. Always enjoys getting the timing right, not turning warm coffee into microwaved coffee. Swill.

As for the rest of it, the confusion, the insecurity, the need for trust: “You and I go back,” he says. Doesn’t feel the need to reference how far, or how well. Comfortable in the mutual understanding.

Her own coffee suddenly remembered with a furrow of her brow, she reaches out to cradle the cup in her hands again, the lukewarm-at-best liquid being a thing she’s gotten used to by now. “We do,” she agrees, noting the frost on the edge of the table with a smile creeping onto her face for the memory of old times.

When the fourth finger of her right hand brushes over the same on the left there’s a hesitation. Judging from the tan line, she’s used to fiddling with a ring. “I’ve missed you. This.” She gives the coffee a demonstrative little rock back and forth.

Byrne smiles. Maybe something close to a smirk, though not a trace of sarcasm. A nod of understanding that doesn’t broach too close to personal. “I’m told you have another Zach in your life these days,” he says.

His eyes don’t linger on the lack of a wedding ring, he keeps some amount of distance while he gauges where she’s at. An inter-office affair would be further complicated by his instructions to report on Nicole’s behavior to the vice president of the United States. Not that he worries about romantic attachment compromising his objectivity. Never was his style. Or hers, as far as he could remember, yet here she is with a new last name.

“I did,” Nicole remarks of the other Zach. “He’s up and left me without so much as a goodbye.” Her smile becomes a strained, saddened thing. Then, she shrugs, shifting back to something more neutral. “I’ll probably serve him with papers if he ever comes back.” She holds up her empty left hand and wiggles her fingers demonstratively. “I’m having doubts he will. He warned me a few days before our wedding that he’d eventually leave. So, I guess this is what that looks like.”

A deep breath brings her back to center. “So, what about you? You get up under Dowe’s hood?” Playful, a smirk creeps into place. “C’mon,” she heads him off at the pass, “you can’t tell me she’s not your type. She is gorgeous.” Nicole’s eyebrows lift as she takes another drink of her coffee. Well?

Agent Byrne regards Nicole's marital status with polite ambivalence. Relationships change, people are messy, and marriages, statistically speaking, are difficult to maintain. He doesn't know enough about Nicole's personal life to offer comment on whether she's on a run of good luck or bad.

The latter, however, earns a long-suffering sigh and a worked eyebrow. "The vice president and I have a long working relationship," he explains. "From the OPO days. And I could not in good conscience speculate on the love life of somebody within arm's reach of the nuclear football." And he would never call what they did in their personal time a relationship, working or non. But he isn't above a wry grin.

“If you did a relation or two with Ms Dowe…” Nicole breathes out a breath through pursed lips, her tongue catching on her canine briefly afterward. “Someone like me wouldn’t be able to help but be envious.” It’s a tip of the hat that she’s sure is deserved, even if he isn’t willing to banter over it. Maybe it means he didn’t tell anyone about her.

Nicole sets her coffee aside and takes a moment to assess her new partner in this whole mess. Dull blue eyes travel the length of his body, a quick flick down, then a slow climb back up again until she’s meeting his eyes. “What do you say? Want to spend the day off like old times?”

"The old times," Byrne wonders. Not as old in comparison to his on again, off again liaisons with then-FBI-Agent Christine Dowe. Investigators with benefits. But certainly not recent.

"I assume you mean that we should make sure nobody is watching." Starting with the more pressing issue in a way that doesn't dismiss the possibility of getting baser needs met. He drums his fingers against his notepad to bring them back to the present moment.

Nicole lifts her brows and huffs out a breath of laughter. “Well, if they are watching, they might just see a desperate woman trying to get her rocks off.” Instead of one looking for a co-conspirator.

Her tongue runs over her teeth, her eyes darting to that notebook. “But your point is taken.” Nicole gestures to Byrne to give him the floor. “You’re the expert on this. What do you have in mind?”

“Bug check of your car and home,” Byrne replies as he counts off action items on his fingers, “Try to spot your tail. Getting your rocks off isn’t a bad cover should anybody have eyes on you here, so feel free to dishevel yourself appropriately. It would be easy enough to back up that story if anybody asks how we met.”

“Also not a bad way to set up a bug check of your home,” he says, “Gives me a reason to be there.” Still no indication he intends to follow through on the physical act he’s describing as their subterfuge. If this is as big as Nicole fears, he won’t do anything to cloud his perspective of it. “As for your car we’ll have to discreetly meet somewhere I can get my kit out to sweep for them. Parking garage, something with limited lines of sight. This also gives us the opportunity for counter-surveillance. If anybody tries to tail you, I’m waiting to spot them and return the favor.

“After that,” he says, tapping out the bullet points he’s posted to his wall, “You give me the rundown in explicit detail and I join the investigation without secrets.” The last has him turn his gaze to Nicole’s to ensure they’re on the same level. “If this is as dangerous as you’re describing, I won’t be able to do this safely if you’re holding anything back.”

Nicole lifts one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I can spot the tail, but… never get an ID. They’re good, and probably watching and waiting for me to come out of here.” Which is why she lifts her hand to her chin and starts smearing her lipstick with the pad of her thumb while Byrne continues to lay out his suggestions. She nods along and eventually takes the side of her index finger to start cleaning up the dusty rose color that’s gone out-of-bounds.

It’s the last point that has her hesitating. No secrets, he says, and knows she’d be saying the exact same in his shoes. Nicole meets his eyes and nods. “Alright, Zach.” Nodding her head as she commits to this in both mind and word, she agrees again, “Alright.” It’s hard to find friends these days. It’ll be even harder if she doesn’t arm the ones she has with the information necessary to keep them safe.

She gets up from her chair and approaches him. “Here,” she says quietly. “So when you walk me to the door, it looks good.” That lipstick stained thumb smudges against the corner of Byrne’s mouth, leaving a faint brush of pink behind. “Muss up my hair. I don’t have the right angle to make it look anything but self-inflicted.”

Byrne stands to meet Nicole, accepting the camouflage stoically. He tassels her hair asymmetrically, corrects it poorly as though in haste. He pulls at his own t-shirt to twist the baris taught at the neckline and kicks off his shoes for good measure.

With her agreement to disclose everything, he lets the topic go for now. “How’s your schedule these days,” he asks as he crosses the open space to check his security monitors. “Still running errands pretty much the same or is that all unpredictable currently?”

It’s Nicole’s turn to sit still while her hair is fussed with, not averting her gaze. They’re professionals, even if their backgrounds and applications differ a fair amount. “I come and go from work steadily, but everything else is kind of as-needed. No specific day for groceries. I’ve stopped getting delivery and started doing take-out, and mixing up where I go.” She shrugs, no shame when she admits, “I tend to go to d’Sarthe-owned establishments for sit-down dinners. I figure no one’s stupid enough to kick up a fuss there.”

Taking a step back to give herself some space, Nicole bends forward and reaches behind her left thigh, fingers feeling up along the back of it and under her skirt until — “There,” she huffs under her breath as she unhooks the strap that connects the back of her stocking to her garter, causing it to start to droop. This level of disheveledness is unlike her, but it will speak to haste and carelessness. She wants her trackers to think she’s become careless. She needs to be underestimated. Straightening up, she lifts her brows briefly. “I can swing in either direction,” on predictability, she means, “but you knew that.” Okay, so there might be a double entendre there, too.

Byrne snickers a bit as he steps back to look over Nicole’s disguise. “Nailed it,” he says, employing a euphemism of his own.

“An unpredictable schedule provides more opportunities for an unexpected meeting in public,” he says. “The market, take-out, what-have-you. We don’t live so far apart that it could be seen as premeditated, so long as we don’t overdo it.” He walks toward the door and places a hand on the handle.

“We’ll have to pick a time to run into each other somewhere,” he says, door still unopened. “That’ll be our excuse to go to your place for a bug sweep.”

Nicole manages a grin for the old friend she knows well enough for jokes that border on risque. She nods her head agreeably to the scenario he lays out. “Alright then. Next Sunday at the farmer’s market. I’ll roll up about 9:15 and we’ll wander until our paths cross.”

The purse is gathered up from the floor next to the chair. She makes sure she gets everything put away where it belongs, the zipper shut to hide the contents. No laptop poking out to be spotted on her way back to her car, or the way into her house later. “There. Now, why don’t we put on a show for those cameras, huh?”

“If we jump from one side of the barge to the other in tandem we may be able to get it rocking,” he says with a laugh, “But I don’t think I have that in me. But let’s keep it PG-13. There are kids in this neighborhood.” On this barge in a nearly unused marina. He gets into character either way, slouching languidly as he opens the door for Nicole.

That prompts some genuine laughter as he does the chivalrous post-coital gentlemanly thing at the door, which she strategically angles herself to be seen through. “You’re funny,” she tells him, biting her lip as she shakes her head at this incorrigibleness of his.

Placing a hand on Byrne’s shoulder, Nicole leans up and into his body with a familiarity that she hasn't forgotten. Lips barely move against his ear as she murmurs to him on her way out the door, stepping immediately out onto the dock and starting the walk backward toward her car without waiting for any kind of response or rebuttal. Only a lazy salute before she turns around and leaves him to mull over that parting word. It’s not nothing, and it’s not sweet.

“Give them hell if they kill me.”


Geographic Region Redacted

A phone rings on a desk in a dimly-lit, windowless office.

A lone man seated behind the desk reaches out and takes the phone off the hook. “Raith,” he says into the receiver, leaning into the light from the solitary lamp on his desk.

«It's Duvall. Miller met with Zachariah Byrne,» a voice on the other end of the phone declares. Marcus Raith exhales a sigh through his nose in response and slouches back against his seat, stretching the phone cord taut.

duvall_icon.gif marcus_icon.gif

“Go on.”

«Lot of street noise, I had a hard time picking sound up through the walls. They were talking for a while, then things took a recreational turn.»

Marcus makes a soft noise in the back of his throat and looks over to a bulletin board on the bare concrete wall lined with newspaper clippings. “Recreational?” He presses the issue.

«Intimate. You know Miller.»

“Right,” Marcus says with a weary sigh. “Did she go home afterward?”


“And her husband?”

«Still MIA, he’s dropped completely off the radar. I can’t get a good bead on his location either.»

“Alright.” Marcus says with a scrub of one hand over his mouth. “We’re going to have to come at this from another direction. Keep the psyop pressure on, if she falls over dead from a stroke we can wash our hands clean of everything.”

«Of course. Is there anything else, Sir?»

“What about Bennet?” Marcus asks, squinting at something on his bulletin board. There’s a long moment of silence on the other end of the line.

«He hasn’t done a god damned thing, Sir. It’s been three square meals a day and house chores. I can’t tell if he made me and is pretending everything is fine or he’s just gotten rusty.» There’s tension in his voice as he says this.

Marcus laughs, a harsh and bitter thing. “Noah Bennet isn’t rusty, he’s just still a step ahead of us. If either he or Miller even so much as smell a whiff more like our target, you take them both out and we’ll figure out the aftermath.”

«Of course, Sir.» The man on the other end of the line says. «The last thing we need is them sharing any more notes.»

Marcus nods to himself. “Watch your back, Agent Duvall, and keep your head down.”

«Yes, sir.»

Marcus sets the receiver down and immediately rises up from his seat to approach the old bulletin board on the other side of his office. His jaw sets tight as he looks over the newspaper clippings, many of which are from the 1980s and 1990s. His fingers graze over a map of the United States marked with red pins, to a photograph of the Company founders on the rooftop of the Deveaux Building, Arthur Petrelli’s blurry face circled in red wax pen.

Then, tracing his fingers across the board past photos of Caspar Abraham both young and old, Martin Pines as a young soldier and later an old man, to pictures of Matthew Parkman Jr taken in black and white against a concrete block wall backdrop.

Finally, Marcus lands on the photograph at the center of the board. His jaw tightens, neck muscles tense, and he looks into the eyes of his target.

And Samson Gray stares back, unblinking.

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