kenner3_icon.gif nicole3_icon.gif

Scene Title Insight
Synopsis Along with the pitcher, it's meant to be shared.
Date September 5, 2020

Red Hook

Maybe people like them aren’t supposed to day drink, but it’s a Saturday, and Nicole Miller is still on vacation. At least for another three days. And if Labor Day Weekend isn’t the time to be sitting out on a patio in full sunshine and having brunch, then what did they even fight a war for?

Besides, it’s on Nicole’s tab this time around. Who can complain about an arrangement like that? There’s a pitcher on the table between the two of them, three-quarters of the way empty now. Since she came back in July, they’ve been taking turns driving. Today, she’s springing for a cab.

She’s in the middle of a story, gesticulating with her glass in her hand. “Which is just fucking stupid, if you ask me.” Nicole rolls her eyes, “But you know nobody does.” She’s halfway to taking another drink when her eyes get big and she exclaims, “Oh! I almost forgot!” Setting the glass down heavily, she leans forward to fish into her handbag — which hangs from the edge of the table from a hook adorned with a rhinestone-studded martini — and procures a thick white envelope.

The bundle is passed across the table to her companion.

A stack of 36 4x6" photographs.

Leafing through, they’re depictions mostly of architecture, landscapes, and anything that seems to play with saturations of color. Sunrises, sunsets, neon signs against darkened skies, the occasional cocktail artfully illuminated either by sunshine or variously colored overhead lighting… The last photo is notably taken in a darkened room. The walls are a deep shade of purple that’s nearly black in the low lighting, but it’s dotted with stars of various sizes that glow in that darkness. A & H are faintly visible against the faux constellations.

Nicole stiffens a little, as though she’d forgotten that one was included in the mix, or maybe it was slipped in by accident. She doesn’t ask for it back, however. Doesn’t make any kind of comment.

“I wanted you to see,” she says instead, blithely as you please, “that I put your wedding gift to great use, Don.”

There’s always something awkward about Kenner’s presence on these meet-ups, at least since Nicole came back from Canada. He knew a lot had happened, even if the length and breadth of it was classified frustratingly above his pay-grade these days. He sets the pictures aside, sighing a good-natured but world-weary sigh.

“Hey, so…” Kenner starts, but doesn’t know how to finish. The photographs are all but forgotten, though the last one reminded him of what he wanted to talk about. It’s like the undercurrent of unspoken tensions has finally bubbled up to the surface. “Nicole,” he says placing his hands on the table as a form of emphasis, “I know you’ve— it’s— this has all been challenging for you. Life. All of it.”

Kenner tries to smile, but it’s more of a grimace. “I’ve um,” he eyes his drink that he hasn’t touched today and looks back to her, “I’ve been worried. I know there’s— you know— positive things are important. But I just, this.” He motions around at the table. “The drinking, the casual just… Has— and I’m not trying to be nosy I just— have you— ”

Struggling with what to say, Kenner scrubs a hand over his mouth. “SESA has extremely good therapists.” Isn’t the way he wanted that to sound, or the words he wanted to use. But that’s what he got.

Back in college, Nicole got this sort of thing a lot from well-intentioned friends. She’d respond with something dismissive, like Therapy is for people who have problems, and shut down any further discussion of the fact that might actually accurately describe her. Consequently, she’d also stop hanging out with that person.

Her coping mechanisms haven’t gotten much healthier in the intervening years, but she at least has the good graces not to throw concern back in the faces of friends she intends to keep. And Don… is a friend she’s trying to keep.

Which is also why when she squares him with a look, the words out of her mouth aren’t How’s your marriage, Don?

Instead, she does let it show on her face that she doesn’t appreciate the call out, but doesn’t appear mad at him for it. “Look…” Nicole sighs and the annoyance is gone from her face in the space it takes to exhale. “I’m… Yeah, I’m sure I’ve given you cause to worry. I know I have, and…”

Nicole shrugs, laughing in spite of herself. “I don’t want to talk to a SESA therapist right now. What I really want right now? Is to have brunch and drinks with a friend and pretend that everything is normal for a few hours.” There’s pain in her eyes, even as her smile stays fixed. “I want to pretend that I shouldn’t have been thinking really hard about taking maternity leave in the next couple of weeks.”

Before he can say anything, she gestures across the table to him. “You don’t want to hear it. So I’m not gonna be that person to cry into my beer about how life is unfair. That’s not who either of us are.” Her mouth pulls into a frown. “Everyone in my fucking life right now is treating me like I don’t belong here anymore. And I know you know what that feels like. So, please, could you just…”

Slender shoulders sag, deflated and defeated. Like she’s expecting him to get up and leave. To be fair, Nicole assumes everyone in her life is about to get up and walk away at any given moment.

“That’s not what it is.” Kenner says in a way that isn’t going to earn him any brownie points for Nicole’s inner ostrich. “Everyone thinks you belong at SESA, but nobody thinks you’ve had time to mourn properly. You can’t quantify the hours it would take to even process what you’ve been through. Bottling it up, pushing it down, and working through it while handling an obsession of a job is only going to wind up breaking you in half.”

Kenner breathes in through his nose, “Mary and I lost our first right after we married.” He says in the smallest of voices, an admission he has made to no one outside of his immediate family, let alone talked about any time in the last thirty years. “We knew why and it was still impossible grief. You can’t do this to yourself.”

Reaching out across the table, Kenner offers a hand. “You can’t do this to yourself.”

What could be more normal than two friends sharing their grief?

Tentatively, Nicole reaches out across the table to take the offered hand, slowly tightening her grip around it. “I finally let myself believe it was real. That it was happening.” Her eyes focus on some middle distance between herself and Kenner, blinking away the threat of tears. “I don’t know what I did,” she whispers, disbelieving the situation she’s been trying so hard to ignore.

Or, if not ignore, pretend that it hadn’t been a change in the first place. Like she hadn’t spent 25 weeks growing life inside of her. If it hadn’t happened, then there was no loss.

“Who the fuck would do something like this to a person, Don?” Nicole’s hand grips his a little tighter. “If I’d done something — If something had just gone wrong —” Maybe it would have been easier to accept. This? This makes no sense. Numbly, she admits, “I keep thinking this is a bad dream, and I’m just going to wake up.” Now her eyes come back into focus on him. “When does that ever stop?”

Kenner squeezes the hand back, laying another on top of it. “It doesn’t,” he says with a juxtaposed smile of earnest warmth. “This isn’t about you, what you did.” Something Nicole said gives Kenner a small amount of pause, but he steps over the conversational landmine deftly enough. He’ll circle back to it later.

“It didn’t get better until we had Leonard,” Kenner explains, “and maybe that was a bad coping mechanism.” He smiles, just a little bittersweetly, and looks down to the table. “But it helped. I’m not saying go do what I did, but I am saying peace won’t come right away.” He doesn’t like the answer, but it’s an honest one.

“How’s Zachery?” Kenner asks. The other side of the equation of loss.

The honesty is appreciated. Between the alcohol and the intense emotion, she isn’t aware that she’s misspoke at all. Instead, she lets the corner of her mouth tick up, sympathetic for his own story.

The pretenses of a smile fade when he asks after her husband. Nicole shakes her head. “He’s not great. He feels as helpless as I do. We… I sleep on the couch most nights. We snipe at each other.” A bubble of nervous laughter makes its way past her lips. “I’m afraid he’s gonna leave me.” She can be honest, too. “We’re doing the best we can, but frankly… We both suck at it.”

“I mean that sounds like half the marriages I’ve ever known.” Kenner says idly, though he doesn’t add that most of those people shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. “You’re both going through some intense shit right now. Are you going to see the therapist I know they mandated you go see?”

Kenner’s own experiences with having his life become a paradigm shift left him with his own baggage. But right now he just has a carryon. It’s Nicole that has a full luggage collection. The least he can do is help her carry a bag or two.

“I don’t mean to sound like a nag,” Kenner adds, “but I’m going to. Nag you. Because I know nobody else will.”

“I hate that you’re right about that,” Nicole sighs. That no one else is going to nag her. Certainly not her husband, because they’re both of similar minds about therapy. Maybe her sister, if she weren’t too wrapped up in her own life to see past Nicole’s bullshit front. Lynette’s the type to wait for Nicole to come around on her own. Patient.

Whether she likes it or not, Don’s nagging is exactly what Nicole needs. She contemplates replying with something flippant like, I’m not not not seeing the therapist they’ve mandated I see, but decides against it. “Yeah… I’m going to the minimum required amount of sessions. They talk to me about loss and grief and…” Nicole shakes her head. “None of it lands. How do I grieve something I can’t explain? Something that doesn’t feel real?”

She doesn’t expect him to have an answer for that. “I have believed in crazier shit, but I can’t accept that someone…” With her free hand, Nicole reaches for her glass and takes a long drink. She doesn’t set it down again, but holds it against her sternum, staring off with a gaze that’s miles away from where the two of them are sitting now. Her fingers lace with his.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you while you were dealing with…” The overlays. His divorce. Being demoted. He can take his pick.

“You’re not responsible for me.” Kenner quietly says. It’s his simple way of letting Nicole off the hook. “Whatever it was I saw might as well have been television. It’s about as real to me as that stupid fucking BBC show. Doesn’t make it… easy, but…” He trails off, sitting back in his chair.

“Everything else is just consequences.” Kenner decides, looking away from Nicole, out to the city beyond the patio, eyes unfocused and seeing into somewhere that only exists in memory. “There’s a lot of folks at SESA who still don’t trust me. There were only a handful of people who knew what I was doing, and with Claudia… gone…” he shakes his head and closes his eyes. “I think there’s some folks who don’t understand. Still.”

Shrugging, Kenner scrubs a hand over his head. “Anyway. It doesn’t matter. I still have my job, and after everything I did a couple years ago it’s kind of amazing that I still do. Even if it isn’t where I should be.”

Looking back to Nicole, Kenner smiles dishonestly. “But look at you, moving straight the fuck up. You know your predecessor Linda went on to become deputy director for the office of Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers? There’s a lot of upward room for growth where you are.”

“Sure, but I could’ve been more present. I could’ve insisted on being a better friend.” But she accepts the exoneration by quietly noting, “I’ll try to do better from here.” That’s the least she can offer.

Her brows lift, returning the smile sadly, sympathetically. “You aren’t where you should be. I should be working for you right now.” She’d much rather that were the case, but familiarity with Director Nazan will grow, just as it did with Choi before her. “But I’m glad I still get to work with you. You’ll always have me in your corner.” Her hand tightens around his momentarily. That will have to be enough for now.

“This is… what I’ve been angling for,” Nicole admits a little sheepishly. “I wanted Voss’ job, but since politics are what they are…” She gives a half shrug. She expects Don knows that better than most others. Then, she sits forward a little, as though a lightbulb suddenly switched on above her head. “Speaking of…”

Nicole darts a performative glance around them, as if making sure no one’s eavesdropping on a pair of federal employees about to talk politics. “Do you have any insight into what’s going on with Raymond’s campaign?” Praeger, she means, lapsing into the familiarity of a former campaign manager rather than a curious constituent.

“Things have been… My inroads have gotten harder to travel since I lost the liaison position. Most of my friends will still return my calls, but the majority of those are to tell me they don’t have anything to say.” Courtesy paid its due. Nicole looks incredulous. Why wouldn’t anyone want to talk to her, after all? It isn’t as though she could be working for a rival campaign this time.

The look Kenner gives Nicole is a tense one. He makes a face, somewhat inscrutable but also twisted with words unsaid. “First of all,” he starts with a sense of gravity, “do not fuck around with Kristopher Voss. Don’t jockey for his job, don’t get in front of whatever it is he’s doing. Man’s a solid agent, but…” Kenner trails off, shaking his head as he looks away from Nicole.

“I don’t know what’s going on with Praeger.” Kenner says after a moment of silence, exasperation heavy in his tone. “Did you know I used to get invited over to lunch whenever I was in KC? Yeah, Carol would invite me over. We’d have tea, Raymond would flit in and out of our conversations like a hyperactive butterfly. It was nice.”

Kenner lifts his hands and shrugs. “But lately? I don’t know. This was before I was even taken off my job. I mean obviously I’m a little persona non-grata these days, but even before then there was a wind changing.” Kenner looks to his left and right, then leans in. “Between you and me?” He keeps his voice low, “I… I don’t think Carol’s happy. Or well.”

Wringing his hands, it’s clear even suggesting this is making Kenner uncomfortable. “I started noticing a shift right around the time Jason Pierce got bagged as a Humanis First operative. When that whole shit-fire started burning, the invites started coming less. By the time Praeger authorized the strike on Fort Irwin, they weren’t seeing guests anymore.”

Kenner sighs, shaking his head. “I mean think about it. Carol survived imprisonment in the Institute, survived an entire civil war, bled herself dry to make a vaccine for the most deadly virus in history, survived a term and spare change as wife to the most powerful man in America. That’s a lot to ask of somebody.”

“Jesus, no. I wanted Kristopher to move up,” Nicole clarifies. She wasn't concerned about him before. Didn't trust him for a time, but that had started to change. Now, though… Her brows knit, but she doesn't press the issue.

The gossip about the president and his wife is far more intriguing to her. “It's not just me? God, fuck. I thought —” Nicole slides her hand back to her side of the table once Kenner's withdrawn. She grips the edge as she matches his hush with her conspiratorial lean.

“His campaign says he's completely hands-off. It's like he's doing nothing to win re-election. That's… not like him.” Nicole has seen the man's drive and ambition. To know it's absent is disconcerting at best. “Do you think he's letting it slip away from him so they can get out of there without having to withdraw from the race?”

Nicole fears it's something worse. Carol had been used against her husband before. “What I wouldn't give to get in there and find out what's going on.” For all that she doesn't one hundred percent sign on with all of Praeger's policy, she believes in his desire to move the country in a positive direction.

Kenner makes a face at that wish, something between a grimace and a grin. “Yeah you probably aren’t the only one thinking that if his campaign is as off the rails as it sounds.” He looks down at the table, thoughtfully. “I don’t know if Raymond would just let go of the wheel like this when you have someone like Frederick Medina running. Raymond’s always fought, always stood up for what he believed in.”

Sighing, Kenner smooths one hand over his chin. “I don’t know.” He looks over at his long abandoned drink, then back to Nicole. “What really gets me is the predicament his entire campaign is in now. Harding coming onto the field as late as he did with as similar a platform as Raymond has? It’s going to split Praeger’s vote.”

“I mean, look at the other two people on the field. Nobody who was going to vote for Hesser or Medina were going to cast a vote for Praeger. They’re just too different. Hesser’s over on the fringe militia side of things, pushing for industrial reinvigoration. Then you have Medina on the other end using dog whistles like they’re going out of style…” Kenner makes that same damn grimace-grin face again.

“If it weren’t for Harding I’d say Praeger probably had the election as a shoe-in. Medina’s too divisive and Hesser’s too niche. People want consistency and stability, but…” Kenner trails off, throwing his hands into the air. “I don’t know.”

Shit.” Nicole lets out a heavy exhale and leans back in her seat, just looking across the table at her friend and weighing the points he’s made. “You’re right. Jesus, it’s like a play I would have made back in the day.”

It’s a Linderman move.

And she’s mad she didn’t realize it sooner. Again, the breath leaves Nicole’s lungs, this time it feels as though she’s been kicked. “You don’t think…” She laughs, a bubbling, nervous sound. “Jesus,” she repeats, and reaches up to drag her fingers through her hair. “This doesn’t make any sense. It just doesn’t add up. Unless Raymond drops out to endorse Harding…” Surely Harding can’t be naive enough to think he can muster enough votes to beat Medina while Praeger stays in the race.

“So, who’ve we still got with access? Anybody?” It’s presumptuous, perhaps, that Nicole is talking about this as though it’s a problem she needs to solve personally. “I trust Lazarro about as far as I can throw him,” she admits. Probably not for the reasons anyone would guess. If there’s one thing Nicole trusts about Vincent, it’s that he has his own agenda and damn anyone else’s. “Pak?”

“Maybe.” Kenner offers to mention of Jane. “Lazarro’s basically been a non-entity for over a year now, he hardly ever leaves his office. Look, there’s a bigger picture thing going on here, and I think it has to do with why Zimmerman lost her temper and practically suplexed me in my office before I was moved to undercover assignments…”

Shifting in his seat, Kenner looks away from the table, then slowly back to Nicole. “Something is going on, Nicole. There’s a fire burning somewhere, and a lot of folks have been doing a real good job of making sure we can’t see the smoke or feel the flames…” he gets that conspiratorial tone again, “but something’s going on. Something big, and I’ve been getting a feeling like the adults shut the door to keep all the kids out of the room while they discuss bills. You know?”

“Yeah,” Nicole agrees with a slow, emphatic nod of her head. “Yeah, me too.” So the avenues she’d like to pursue are all but shut off. Just means she’ll have to find some beaten paths, or forge new roads entirely. She’s faced bigger challenges, surely.

“So what’re we going to do about it?” she asks with a spark in her eyes and a grin kept small by virtue of her own restraint. Again, a thought pops into her head and her eyes widen a bit before she’s dropping her shoulders and leaning in again. “You ever work much with the Department of the Exterior?”

Kenner squints, at first in scrutiny and then in uncertainty. “That's the NASA replacement, yeah? I remember when Raymond was putting that together. No, I don't know a lot about them. I mean maybe they had some eyes on that shuttle that went up?” Kenner shakes his head. “You'd have better luck asking Voss. He transferred from there.”

“He what?”

Nicole’s brows jump. How did she not know or remember that? Well, probably because it hadn’t seemed important at the time. Big deal, right? From space to Expressive affairs? But that information casts Voss suddenly in a whole new light.

“Why don’t you trust him?” Nicole narrows her eyes in an unconscious mirror of Don’s own previous expression.

Kenner makes a sour face. “I never said I don't trust him. I said don't get in his way. Voss has a track record of ending people’s careers if they try and obstruct him. Voss was hand picked by Zimmerman after the whole Sunspot thing happened. Before that he was tracking down stolen NASA rocket parts or whatever they do at the OEI.”

“Voss wasn't a paper pusher.” Kenner explains. “He was a field agent for the DoE. The Office of External Investigations. The way I hear it after the war a lot of NASA’s tech was being field stripped by salvagers, so these guys went around finding and reclaiming stuff. Everyone remembers that he was Ex-CIA Cointel, but there's that gap between when he came back to the US after the end of the war and when he took my job. That's when he was in the DoE.”

Sitting back in his chair, Kenner squints one eye partly closed. “As for what we’re gonna go?” He circles back to that old question. “Nicole, we’re gonna finish our drinks, go to our therapy sessions, and keep our jobs is what we’re going to do. Leave the meddling to the kids.”

Nicole cants her head to one side in a show of concession. Fair enough, he didn’t say there was a lack of trust. But the reminder about Voss’ record sees her respect for him grow slightly. She’d rather be known as a ruiner of careers than a half-cocked breaker of noses, if she had her way.

At least the nose she (nearly) broke was Noah Bennet’s. Not a lot of people willing to cross her after that.

The rest of it, however, it tempers her some. It’s no less intriguing, and it gives her a lot to ruminate on — she’ll do some discreet digging later — but it creates a new sense of caution in her. Suddenly, she feels like maybe she got off luckier than she initially thought, managing to negotiate herself to a month of vacation.

When Kenner lays out his plan for what their next move is, Nicole leans back in her seat in a leisurely recline, crossing one leg over the other as she rests an elbow against the back of her chair and picks up her drink with the opposite hand. “You calling me old, Don?” she asks with a glint of good humor in her eyes and an easy smile.

“Congratulations.” Kenner says as he picks up his long-forgotten glass, lifting it in mock toast before knocking back a sip. “You’ve got a year and change before society thinks you’re a crone.” Then, in a mumble and with a sly smile he adds, “the grace period is significantly longer for men. I’m still young.”

Startled by the jab, but simultaneously disarmed and delighted by the sharpness of it, Nicole laughs. A throaty, genuine, head-tipped-back kind of laughter. “Then I guess I’m lucky you’re willing to be seen with a cougar like me.” She leans forward to clink her glass to his after his sip. “Cheers, you fox.

In the end, Nicole got her wish. For just a little while, everything is normal.

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