Home to Me


nicole_icon.gif zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title Home to Me
Synopsis How dare you love me like you've never known fear
When you've got more troubles than minutes in a year
A voice like your father's tells you "nothing good's for free"
Well, that may be, but you're walking home to me
Date February 21, 2020

Bay Ridge, Nicole's Home

The light outside the brownstone is on, illuminating the front steps when Zachery arrives home — such as it is his home in this informal arrangement of theirs. Nicole is, blessedly, not where he left her on the dining room floor. Nor is she on the living room sofa. It’s the bathtub in the master bathroom where he finds her, soaking in water that was once a hot bubble bath, but has since gone cold and just slightly milky in opacity.

Her arm drapes over the edge of the tub. Her phone isn’t far, and there’s a jar of — of all things — green olives held loosely in her hand. As he steps into view, but before she’s registered his presence, she brings the jar up and takes a drink from it, heedless of the way the little pimento-stuffed orbs shift and fall against her lips. Though she lifts one hand up out of the water, shaking the droplets off the ends of her fingers briefly so she can reach inside and pluck one up and pop it into her mouth.

There are moments when Zachery is especially glad that he is hard to sneak up on. This one - where he watches Nicole through the partially open door - is one where that gladness is strong enough to manifest on his face in a lopsided grin. The view helps.

Alas. The grin lasts all of five seconds before he forces his face into a more neutral expression, laying a hand on the door to open it properly and walk through with a deadpan comment of, "I thought you weren't supposed to put toasters in the bath."

Rude,” Nicole intones without looking over. “That doesn’t even work for me anyway.” If she’d been drunk like she wishes she was, she might have demonstrated just how that doesn’t work with her. Sober, she knows better than to display how she can discharge all that electricity into the bathwater and not even so much as twitch.

She does not offer her drink/snack out to him, instead chewing down another olive with a sour frown. “God, I fucked up.”

Another day, another lesson. Zachery, storing that information away for later, wanders further in and foots a small step stool away from the sink and closer to the bath with little plasticky noises of its legs scraping on the tiles with each nudge.

Once he's got it nearer to the foot-end of the tub, he sits down facing Nicole — and instantly finds himself glancing down with his brow knitting, his doubts about the children's stool's carrying capacity obvious. His attempt at sounding smooth is dulled both by hesitation and the fact that he's sitting so awkwardly low to the ground when he looks at her to say, "You're going to have to get a little more specific."

Nicole laughs bitterly, looking like she might be on the verge of tears. Judging from the red-rimming and puffiness of her eyes, she’s done plenty of that already. “No shit, huh?” She is one of the hottest of messes, truly.

“With Pippa,” she clarifies. “I shouldn’t have… Snapped at her? Disparaged Ben? I don’t even fucking know,” Nicole grinds out between her teeth. “But it was wrong. And she probably hates me now. Or it’ll be the foundation for when she decides to.”

"No," comes the instant rebuttal from Zachery, when Nicole's sentence ends. Instant, but casual, as he peers down the edge of the tub and plonks an elbow down on it. Droplets catch in the fabric of his shirt, darkening it. If he's worried about the tears, he's doing a good job of not showing it. "You were honest. You're going to have to prepare yourself for doing that more often."

He's also tired, drained from today's events and much more still, his resurfaced grin as lazy as the gesture that goes out toward the jar. "That's not a drink."

“Kids don’t always need honesty,” Nicole reasons. “That’s… That’s part of childhood. Being shielded from all that unpleasantness so you can figure yourself out, or whatever.” She presses her lips together and shakes her head. “Fuck, I don’t know. That… That wasn’t my childhood.” Meaning she wants to do better. “I just don’t want her to feel like I’m making her choose a side between us. I don’t want her to know how much…”

There’s a heavy sigh in lieu of completion of that thought. She shakes the jar of olives instead, letting them roll against each other with muted little thuds against the glass. “If I close my eyes, this is a very dirty martini.”

"How is she supposed to know who she is when you're shielding her from the world that would shape her actions?" Zachery says instead of 'You're a dirty martini,' but with the same lack of ceremony. He leans forward and leaves that same hand upturned in her direction. Snack deposit requested. "She doesn't have to choose. He did that for her."

Nicole fishes a pair of olives out of the jar and rests them in Zachery’s outstretched hand. “That’s the problem though, isn’t it? That he didn’t… He chose for us. For me.” Which may not be an implication Zachery wants to hear, given that Benjamin Ryans is his rival of sorts for Nicole’s affections. But there it is, that honesty he’s suggesting she indulge in.

“She was born during the war.” It’s an explanation he didn’t ask for, but it’s a story Nicole’s going to tell anyway. “Ben wasn’t there. He was off fighting.” If there’s any bitterness about that fact, it’s faded over time. “And as soon as I could, I left her with the Ferry and I joined him.”

She takes another drink of olive juice and makes a little face. Maybe because it’s lacking the burn of gin. “She had all her firsts without me. Without either of us. She was two before I really met her.” If forsaking her child to fight and win the war was the right thing — and on her good days, she’ll say it was — that doesn’t make it a decision less riddled with guilt. “She already thinks Ben and I are going to abandon her one day, like we did when she was a baby.” Even if Pippa’s memories are faded, the understanding is still buried deep in her brain.

“And then there’s Ben.” Nicole gestures vaguely in the air with her unladen hand, scattering droplets of water around her. “And then there’s me.” She, who sent her daughter to live elsewhere so she can pour herself into her investigation without worrying about babysitters and obligations.

Zachery lets both olives roll over his palm and into his mouth, leaning his side against the tub where he sits. Either the olives or the honesty end up being a little bitter, if the huff of a sigh that follows is any indication.

But he did ask for both. And fuck Benjamin Ryans. Because Benjamin Ryans isn't here right now, is he.

So, Zachery straightens again, absentmindedly tugging his collar away from his neck as he listens, and tries not to sneer too obviously at that name coming up and failing to a drop of water that hits him in the face with a slow blink.

"Then there's you," he echoes, the tension he's trying to keep out of his posture sharpening his words instead. "We've talked about what he did, and about what she thinks - which, honestly," he leans a little closer to the tub, "I thought geese were just two chickens in a pillowcase when I was very little, children are idiots, so…"

Tangent abandoned with what might just be some latent embarrassment drawing his attention momentarily to the ceiling before it comes back down again, he finally asks, "What are you actually going to do?"

Nicole finally really looks at Zachery, wilting a little under his sharp words and his scrutiny. Ordinarily, she appreciates the way he challenges her. Right now, she’s not up for a challenge. Too bad, though. She’s in the midst of one hell of a trial, isn’t she?

“Fuck if I know.” A little more honesty. “I think… I’ve got an op coming up. I’ll be gone for a while.” Which is the first he’s hearing of it, but she refuses to apologize for not confiding in him about matters pertaining her job, given that she can’t yet be 100% certain which side of the fence he’s landed on, regardless of what she wants to believe.

“If Ben manages to stay out of prison, I’ll be shocked.” In this case, prison might be a best case scenario. “Once I wrap that, though, if I get it right… Then I can get back to— I don’t even know what. Being a better mother?” The olive jar is finally set on the side of the tub so Nicole can slowly sink down into the bathwater. Her knees come up higher while her shoulders slink further. She doesn’t stop until she’s up to her chin. “That’s… probably not going to happen. I already fucked that up once. Or I will.”

Zachery leans away from the tub again. Its edge provides a divide between them that he's suddenly less willing to lean on, his arm dropping down on his end, resting against a leg.

But he doesn't look away, this time, his observation of Nicole in the cold water growing only more clinical in nature. The pause between his next inhalation and comment is slightly too long, two different subjects vying for attention as he eyes her.

The one that wins, ultimately, is, "… What's 'a while'?"

“Hopefully no more than a week. That’s a liberal estimate.” Meaning Nicole expects to be gone a much shorter time, but she knows better than to make promises. “If things progress according to plan, I should only be out of the city three or four days.” Accounting for travel and preparation and aftermath. But she’s not calling the shots on this, not like the old days. “I’m at the whims of the powers that be regarding how long this takes.” Still, she seems unconcerned.

Again, Zachery's response comes a few seconds delayed. This time not because he's trying to decide what to focus on, but more for the surprise that ends up bringing a wry smirk to his face.

When he does finally answer, he does not seem unconcerned. His scrutiny and tension makes way for something less pressing, and more regretful. "Here I was, fully expecting you to say three or four months."

Nicole opens her eyes and looks at Zachery sidelong. Not quite dubious, but not without scrutiny as to what he’s getting at with that statement. “Would you rather I had?” She’d like now to just sink completely into the water. To submerge her entire head and just lay there until… Well, until instinct makes her stop, realistically. It’s incredibly hard to drown oneself purposefully in a bathtub.

That smirk only widens in a twitch, accompanying a sharp exhale through his nose. "You might as well live in that bath," he counters, rather than answers, "for how small your world is. For how small you let it be."

Without pause or kindness in his tone, his head lifts and he tacks on, "What about me has given you the impression that I would?"

Her cheeks tinge pink. Nails scrape silently over the bottom of the tub as she curls her fingers into fists. He makes her feel small, but she won’t tell him so. Won’t admit to it. “I don’t know,” she blurts out, for want of having something to say in response, rather than let the silence stretch between them the way he does.

“I guess I’m just waiting for you to decide this is too much work. That I am too much work.” She isn’t looking at him anymore. In fact, she’s looking off in the opposite direction, at the tiled wall. “That this isn’t what you want.” Nicole curls her fingers tighter in an effort to keep either of her hands from drifting to her stomach and the implication of what else it might be that he doesn’t want.

"It's not," Zachery blurts out, frustration finally built to a point where it bursts through the barriers he's been trying to hold up. The fact that he thinks these words were a mistake shows instantly in a wince that has him shrinking back.

"You're not," is his second attempt, and hearing his own words prompts him to smack both hands onto his face only to drag them roughly down.

"Not like this, I mean," gets muttered against his palms, until he just gives up and slumps forward, forehead thunking on the edge of the tub. "For fuck's sake."

It’s with a strange mixture of confusion and empathy that Nicole fixes her gaze back on Zachery. Dark hair clings to her collarbone and shoulders as she slowly begins to sit up again. “I can’t figure out what you’re trying to say right now,” she admits. She can guess, and she might get it right, but she also might not.

The bandaid has fallen loose from her finger after all this time spent submerged and while she hasn’t noticed yet, it’s floating freely in the water. There’s a lot she’d like to say right now, but she owes him the courtesy of getting his thoughts in order and letting him speak before she starts in again.

Twisting uncomfortably, Zachery drags both arms back onto the tub's edge, and rests his face against his shoulder while peering at Nicole. Or through her. "I know I don't really like to talk about my family, my upbringing."

Every word that leaves him does so seems to do so a little more reluctantly. "Part of that is because they didn't really teach me very much. Fact of the matter is, they were there — obligatory breakfasts and dinners together, countless days off spent on outings with the four of us. A 'good morning' and 'good night' for every day that passed." The way he tells it, the memories leave him as cold as the water.

Just as Nicole doesn't usually talk about her dayjob, this is not a subject she's really been exposed to. The discomfort lies in more than just his current position, or in the way his eyebrows slant as he watches her face. "I think you underestimate the good you can do with the time you have with your daughter. And you underestimate yourself, period."

The confusion clears the more he speaks. She reads between the lines and fills in more of the blanks that constitute Zachery-before-she-met-him. “I’m just afraid I can’t do enough,” Nicole laments. “I can do better than my parents did. That bar is so low to clear as to practically not exist.” That’s a subject she doesn’t bring up either. Beyond the singular bombshell she dropped on him the day she brought him home. That, she expects, was enough that he’ll never ask her for more.

“But she deserves… Better than what I’m capable of giving.” The simplest solution is to simply do better, and Nicole hopes to whatever higher power might theoretically exist that he doesn’t just tell her that. They both know by now, she imagines, how stuck in her ways she is.

Uncomfortably, she looks away. A shiver finally runs through her body, starting at her shoulders and working its way down her spine, displacing water with quiet splashes against the side of the tub from the ripples. Nicole is again unable to look at Zachery when she admits, “Pippa’s not my only daughter.”

With the mental barriers damaged, and voluntary exposition further tearing at the remains, there seems to be little inclination from Zachery to tell her anything at all. He looks unsurprised by the words he hears next, and when she looks away — so does he. Noticing, finally, that bandaid in the water.

It's that bandaid he still has his eye on when that last sentence registers. His jaw rolls forward against his arm, before he inhales sharply and pulls himself into sitting upright again. "You're about to have… four children," he breathes with forced placidity. Just like that, the walls come back up again, eyebrows lifting and voice returning to its normal volume. "Unless — any sons I should know about, then, as well?"

Nicole shakes her head. “No. No sons.” Finally, she indulges an instinct she’s always ignored and rubs one hand over her stomach. With Pippa, she’d spent the earliest months trying to hide her pregnancy. And by the time she couldn’t any longer, trying to make that connection had felt ridiculous. Maybe she can do differently this time.

“Not unless you’ve given me one,” she amends. It’s a joke, they both know, but it falls as flat as it deserves to, so it isn’t left to try and stand up again. “It’s Ingrid. The woman who owns the flower shop, who Pippa’s been staying with.” He’d seen her briefly when they’d exchanged custody of the child. It explains why, perhaps, she wasn’t staying with either of the (known) Ryans girls.

But he’s seen her. By his estimations, Nicole would have had to have been a teenager to produce a daughter of that apparent age. A young one at that. Which might explain why she’s never mentioned the connection before.

It's a lot of information to process, and doubly so with communication happening in starts and stops like this. After a few seconds of deliberation, Zachery shoves a hand against the tub and rises to his feet, picking the stepping stool up with him. It gets set back where he found it. Maybe a little more firmly than necessary.

"You're not too much work," he decides, lingering as he stares down at her, shifting in his weight as if the fog of unease within the room has almost grown too thick. "But you are a lot of it."

There's no accusation in his voice, level as it is, no finality.

The sound of it — not a slam by any means, but a delivered message — sees Nicole flinching. “I know,” is delivered apologetically. There’s an aborted attempt to meet his gaze again. A second that sees it darting away almost as quickly as it’s established. The third is more successful.

“This can’t be what you want for yourself.” All the same, she’s not challenging him with that. Isn’t trying to tell him what he thinks, despite that’s basically exactly the wording she used. “I… This?” she gestures to herself, naked gooseflesh in the tub and all, “Is going to keep happening.”

Finally, she leans forward so she can flip the toggle on the faucet that starts the tub draining. She doesn’t move to stand just yet, expecting there’s still some advantage to letting Zachery maintain the high ground here. “I want you to want to be here. To be with me. But it’s probably never going to be easy for you.”

"Then it'll be difficult," Zachery concludes simply, showing no signs of pity or remorse for what's been said.

"I've never wanted what I could have without a struggle, anyway, so that's not a deterrent." He moves again, but not to leave. He grabs a towel, shakes it out, and steps closer again, holding it up. Still no nicer, at least not on the surface, but trying. "So - come on, up on your feet - let's struggle together."

Pale fingers wrap around the edges of the tub so she can lever herself to her feet. Nicole lets him reach forward with the towel before she’s wrapping herself up in it. It’s much better than the chilly water was. With a hand braced on his shoulder for balance, she steps over the side of the tub with one foot, then the other.

With nearly half a foot of difference between them in height, she has to angle her head back at this distance to really look at him properly. “Even… Even if Ben somehow manages to come back,” Nicole begins, circling back to that particular topic, “you have nothing to worry about.” One hand comes up to his face to guide him gently down to hers, so they might kiss.

But they don't.

Though an initial dip of his head suggests he welcomes the touch, a smooth motion upward lands her wrist caught in his hand, dry fingers wrapping around still wet skin. The temptation shows clearly in the grin that begins to pull at his lips, but he stops just short of them meeting hers.

Because he's not done here, not yet.

"If I'm going to be with you," he states, tone of voice dragged down with uncompromising resolution steadying it. "If you want to be part of what I want for myself, then you need to keep telling me things. Not everything, clearly, and at your own pace, but you will be better about this." He pauses, his thumb shifting positions on her wrist as he looks her in the eyes. One, then the other. "Like you were today."

There’s a moment of panic that doesn’t show on her face, but he can sense it coursing through her based on the way her body responds to the fingers wrapped around her wrist. She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It feels a bit like being lectured by her father, and Nicole’s stomach lurches a little at that, but she quells it again as quickly as it starts. Maybe it’s just the morning sickness — which actually lasts all damn day, thanks.

“I’ve never been married,” Nicole offers for starters. “But I’ve been engaged once. It was a farce. A publicity stunt. Some tabloid or other will bring it up again eventually, so you may as well know.” No, he didn’t mean all at once or even right now, but that seems as good a thing to unburden herself with in short order as any.

“This isn’t even my second or third time being pregnant, but those two girls are the only children I have.” Nicole’s damp skin is still warm beneath his hand and her eyes show her power is coursing through her as she examines his face. “Any other dealbreakers I should cover while we’re at this?”

The offerings are met first with surprise, then with relief, a breath of a laugh leaving Zachery on his next exhale. He stands his ground, but some of the tension leaves him.

"… Not that I'm aware of. I'm really hoping not. Because I really, really want this to work out." His other hand comes up, to rest against the towel. "Here I am, trying to stand up for myself like I haven't really managed to, before, as if I'm used to it — when all I want to do is to ask you if you've eaten well today, and do you need rest, and do you mind if I took your daughter to a colleague of mine to see a unicorn, and do you need me to pick up more olives for you tomorrow."

He takes a step back, but with that hand leading her with him by the hip, "Very conflicting."

Nicole manages a smile finally, and starts to reply to his questions, when confusion settles in instead. “…Wait. A— A unicorn?” Yes, she remembers the discussion at the dinner table, but she thought that was the sort of thing he was going to need time to prepare for.

Speaking of those olives — yoink! — she leans back to grab the bottle and its cap off the edge of the tub. “Look, as long as she got to Jonah’s party in one piece, physically and psychologically, it’s alright.” That may change when she gets details, but for now, it’s okay.

Now, she lets him lead her forward. “I’m okay.” Not good or even fine, but sometimes okay just has to be enough. “I’ll go put these back in the fridge and maybe… you’ll lay down with me for a bit?” There’s a hopeful lilt to the last syllable of Nicole’s suggestion.

It's met with a hard stare, a quiet deliberation.

But he does, at least, let go of her wrist, finally, so he can push a finger lightly under her jawline, still standing close. "A whole other daughter." That's going to take a while to sink in. On the bright side, it might take some of the spotlight away from other matters that might sting more. "And Ingrid, at that."

Frustration further dulls, at the implications that settle in. There's not much of it left when he agrees, now humourlessly, "Yeah."

As she so often is, Nicole is compliant with the way Zachery guides her. She doesn’t apologize for having kept that very crucial bit of information about her elder child from him until now. She should, but she doesn’t, believing it doesn’t need saying. That the point of it need not be belabored.

“Look,” she offers instead, contrite in tone and expression, “you don’t have to, if it’s not what you want. I’ll even put you up in a hotel if you want to be… somewhere I’m not. Hell, I’ll go to the hotel if it’ll help. I just…” Nicole closes her eyes for the duration of time it takes her to shake her head.

He isn’t like other men, and part of that is infuriating just as it is something to be appreciated. “Just tell me what you need,” she pleads.

"No, I'm staying," Zachery answers first, and only when the room goes quiet again. The way he holds still, expression and all, is reticent.

It's a conscious decision born from the same thing that has him finally pull away, fingers slipping from her face as he moves to leave. Lying down sounds good right now. It'll keep him from drinking, too, unless there's bottles hidden under the bed.

On his way out, all he can think to add is, a little grimly, "When I figure out that other thing, I'll let you know."

Nicole nods in the wake of his own slow departure, trailing behind him into the bedroom, but heading for the door back out of it and into the hallway so she can make her way to the other side of the house and the kitchen.

Her head rests against the fridge door after she’s tucked the olives back into their spot on the shelf. If anything will destroy them, she realizes, it will be their secrets. “Christ,” she mutters to the empty room, “this had better go well.” She has almost a week to dwell on it.

But for now, she’s emerging again into her bedroom, slipping the towel off her body without reservation or shame so she can instead apply it to her hair, writing out the damp ends and carefully soaking up as much excess as she can. Her pillow will still suffer for it, but less.

Also without shame is Zachery, who's turned his head and watches from his spot where it looks like he's just fallen back onto the bed and hasn't moved a limb since. He lays there with his arms out at his side, fully dressed and with his feet still on the ground. Maxed out 'can't be bothered' meter reached.

"You know, Richard threatened to kill me if I hurt you." Amusement shows on the upper half of his face more than the latter. The reason this would pop up in his head now, while he looks her up and down, is maybe best left unsaid. "Maybe it was more of a promise."

“Awfully overzealous for a man who used to blackmail me,” Nicole intones without any real emotion to it either way. Like this piece of information is a curiosity, but a mild one at best. Whether she’s offended or pleased by the notion of Richard’s threat/promise to play white knight on her behalf is anybody’s guess.

The towel is dropped onto the bench at the end of the bed and a silk dressing gown in dove grey is picked up instead. Arms are pushed in, and shoulders draped, but the sash is left undone as she moves to the side of the bed where Zachery has flopped unceremoniously.

“I’m not sleeping with him.” It shouldn’t require saying, but here they are, looking for honesty from each other. It’s sort of a half-truth from her, however. No, she isn’t sleeping with Richard Ray, but she isn’t entirely sure she hasn’t slept with him in the past. If you don’t remember fucking someone, is it actually cheating?

Jury's out on that one.

With a similar lack of energy or concern, Zachery answers, "I can see that." Because, clearly, she's standing there, and not presently engaged in the act. He might be turning his head a little more than he otherwise might've required to look at her, but he doesn't need two eyes to make that joke.

Curiosity shows in the tired narrowing of real and fake eye, even if his voice stays this side of nonchalance. "I wasn't really implying that, though. Didn't realise I seemed the jealous type."

“It was the way you looked at me.” To demonstrate, she lets him watch her own gaze sweep his form up and down. “Like you might be sizing me up to decide if he might have found me attractive enough to get possessive.”

Nicole purses her lips faintly. “I don’t think you’re jealous. Not any more than is reasonable, maybe.” It’s hard to say, from where she stands, how much of Zachery’s pettiness toward Ryans is due to the fact that the two of them have a connection that can’t be severed, or because Ryans hurt her so badly.

There's a twinge of displeasure at the look, Zachery's eyebrows creeping lower. But he can't help but chuckle, a little self-consciously, dragging his arms up so he can prop his head up onto folded wrists. If not for the deep sigh that leaves him next, he might almost look relaxed.

"Never really held on long enough to get jealous," he observes, as if he's only now realising this. "We're very opposite in that."

“Hm.” There’s no inflection behind that hum. Nicole simply stares down at him getting more comfortable, wearing a mask of impassivity now. She’s started to reassemble her armor. “Yeah, you don’t have to hold on very long at all to get a woman pregnant,” she remarks dryly and starts to turn away from the bed.


The moment Nicole turns is when Zachery's expression plummets back to neutral — with fingers curling inward just behind his head. Whoops. And still, the smarm is thick on his words when he counters, "I thought we had to get married before we started having these sort of arguments."

He kicks out a leg, gracelessly, in a low effort attempt to put it in her way. "Come on. I'll behave."

The roadblock does the trick. Or maybe it’s the promise of good behavior. Nicole stops mid-retreat, drawing her lower lip in between her teeth as she decides whether or not she’s going to break through this barricade (not literally, she doesn’t want to have to look after a broken-legged Zachery if she can help it, and she’d feel bad, thanks) or resign herself to being corralled.

“Having these kinds of arguments now is way better than waiting until after we’re married,” Nicole insists in a quiet voice, turning only her head to look over her shoulder at him again. “And I’m not arguing. I’m just… stating a fact. I’m tired of being asked how I managed to get pregnant. Like I fell on a dick in a freak accident or something.”

Okay, so it turns out that’s a raw nerve she didn’t realize she had exposed like that. “Like winding up pregnant is solely my fuck up.” And even if these twins are a happy accident, they’re still definitely an accident. Nicole and Zachery did, in fact, fuck up. The two of them together.

“I know you haven’t blamed me.” That implication isn’t left to linger in its unfairness. “I know you’re taking responsibility.” He wouldn’t have proposed otherwise, probably. Although… he did once before, before they’d gone and sown the seed, as it were.

She turns back to the wall, then tips her head toward the ceiling and closes her eyes. It’s with a pained expression that he can’t see from his vantage point, but recognizes in her carriage, the way her shoulders sag in tandem with a long exhale, that she makes an admission. “I’d like it if you were possessive.”

Many of the words spoken are difficult to respond to. For many different reasons.

Much easier is what Zachery does instead of speaking — pushing himself back up, then leaning forward when she's not looking to grab her hand, pulling her onto the bed with him with a single comment so drenched in relief that he may as well be drowning in it. "Oh, thank fuck."

It’s with an awkward gracelessness that Nicole half turns before toppling sideways onto the bed, a quiet grunt escaping her lips for all that she is entirely uninjured in the process. There’s relief in her, too. In a breathy exhale that could be mistook for laughter. A smile full of disbelief.

Her lips part around words she never quite manages to form, staring into his eyes - real and not. She tries again what she tried before, reaching for his face and guiding him back toward her.

There is no hesitance this time, no pause before she finds not only his face drawn closer, but the rest of him as well. Words are garbage, talking is bad, so much for behaving.

Maybe he does expect her to be gone for months, because the kiss he presses onto her mouth and the hands that find her skin under the open gown are extremely unwilling to let go. Amidst the inelegant, greedy push and shove of repositioning to work himself on top of her, he manages only just— "You are mine."

Maybe she’s afraid she’ll be gone forever, because the kiss he receives in return seems like she wants to memorize the feel of his lips against hers, the taste of him, and to leave that impression on him in return.

It’s an artless sort of dance they have to engage in so they can both scoot up the bed enough to find purchase for him to loom over her and crush against her the way he wants — the way they both clearly want — but it’s managed with the help of Nicole sliding her arms out of her robe again so it can be left behind to be bunched under knees and wadded up under the small of her back, before ultimately slipping free to slide off the bed with a whisper of satin on cotton.

Nicole’s lips part around one of those needy little sounds he’s so good at producing from her. Only this one doesn’t sound so little. His words have hit the mark and elicited a response he usually has to pry from her with fingers. It’s the only remotely verbal response she manages. Her mouth on his again is also plenty responsive, as is the arch of her back and the way her fingers dig into the backs of his shoulders.

What better encouragement could one ask for?

He couldn't possibly look more pleased, not bothering to hide the wide grin as he ducks just slightly downward, pushing his face up against where he'd left his fingers to linger against her jawline earlier. After a kiss is pressed into where it meets her neck, as well, he reaches a hand to his side to try and grab her wrist in order to pin it to the bed. "Do you really think I have to look at you in order to decide you're worth keeping? I forget, sometimes, that you can't feel my blood boiling when I imagine you elsewhere."

There’s the barest of tensing of muscles, a moment of struggle before instinct is overridden by consideration and she lets him capture that wrist and hold it to the mattress. Nicole tips back her head for him to better lay his trail of kisses.

“I had no idea,” she breathes out, voice thin and strained with the effort to keep it from breaking on the last syllable. In contrast, he can feel the way she burns when he tells her this. It’s more than just the flush of her cheeks. She tries to say something, but it just comes out as a quiet hum of contentment and encouragement.

"Well, you spend a few decades laying low," comes Zachery's reply, fingers pressing into her wrist before trailing back up her arm. Both his hands find the curves of her torso, palms heavy against her skin. "You learn to hide your attachments. Might take getting stabbed" he pauses to nip at her neck, only letting go to kiss a spot slightly below. Then another, on her collarbone, "And shot." And lower still.

Suddenly, his palms lift and his touch becomes a little lighter. There's a groan of self-inflicted dismay when he lifts himself just enough to peer out and over the warmth he's temporarily divorced himself from, but it's for a good cause - to watch her face when he asks with an anticipatory smirk, "But you would know about suppression, wouldn't you."

Each of his kisses is punctuated by her with a sharp exhale. Eyes half-lidded and the muscles of her throat taut, she’s very tightly wound now. Not in the way she usually is. The kind that cries out for abandon.

His curiosity about her reaction is rewarded with the way her face flushes pink to red, embarrassed and excited all at once. Her answer is to reach for him — rather, for his shirt — and start liberating him from it.

Zachery blinks in pleasant surprise, but looks all too gratified at her response, the confidence he'd been lacking before only growing with each decision made, and with each movement watched.

Staying only just within reach for her to work his shirt open, he slides his hands downward and promptly pulls her closer to himself by the hips.

Apropos not of what she might find waiting for her there - below the belt that he starts to undo with one hand as he leans his weight forward and against her again - nor of anything said after they entered the bedroom together, he murmurs closer to her ear, "I think I figured it out."

He should also be gratified by the little moan that comes along with the grasp of his hands and the drag of her hips. She pushes his shirt down off his shoulders, tugging him free of it finally when he leans in again.

In spite of herself, she smiles while she searches his face for some kind of clue about what he might be thinking — beyond what’s obviously wedged between the two of them still. Nicole sighs softly, nudging back against him. “What’s that?”

Fair's fair, his thinking is somewhat impaired at the moment. Maybe that's partially to blame for the fact that when he meets her gaze, she finds something behind impatience, something he usually thinks to hide.

"What I need. It's your face, when it lights up like that. It's home."

It's as close to a sincere smile that she's seen on him, even if his face doesn't seem used to using the muscles to make it happen. Nevertheless, it's a fondness he doesn't usually aim at her directly, saved for when she's not looking, or distracted.

Which, granted, distraction isn't far off, with the sound of the belt being pulled out through its loops following a moment later.

Oh,” Nicole breathes out, a little starry eyed at his unexpected sweetness. That he can be like that while also being like that is a beautiful kind of paradox. She reaches for his face with both hands to bring him in for another kiss. A firm one that’s slightly less needy than the ones previous, but not without the strength of her emotions.

“Then welcome home.

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