Lies and What Comes After


wf_nicole_icon.gif wf_zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title Lies and What Comes After
Synopsis What can you live without?
Date August 22, 2016

The Innovator's Laboratory

It’s at least forty-five minutes past when Nicole Nichols was due back to Zachery Miller’s lab when she finally walks through the doors. The goods she’s purchased aren’t on her, because they’ve already been put away. Now, there’s nothing for her but to report in and prepare to have herself put away for the evening. When was the last time he let her have an evening to herself in a real bed? She can’t recall anymore.

“I’m back!” Nicole announces, voice clear as a bell but without the cheerfulness to make it truly chime. There’s no apology offered for her late arrival. If he’s at all interested in an explanation, Miller will ask for it. Usually, it doesn’t matter what the reason is anyway. The result is always the same.

The padded exam table with its worn restraints is eyed for a long moment. Likely it’s where she’ll be spending the rest of her evening. Her face remains an impassive mask. After four years, she may not be numb to the pain, but the inevitability of it all is no longer a creeping dread.


That’s all there is left to do, really, isn’t there?

There is no answer.

That… That is unnerving. Nicole finds the silences are worse than the lectures. The posturing. The threats. The pain. It means he’s thinking, and whatever the result of his deliberation, it often spells worse trouble for her later.

Slowly, she starts to make her way through the laboratory, listening for tell-tale sounds of machinery or more organic sounds. He could simply be in surgery, but she has her doubts on that. There was no indication left for her, and that’s unusual.

It’s a conscious thing to let her footsteps resound as she moves through to the next room. And the next. Maybe the cells, then? Nicole pauses at the mouth of the corridor and tips her face toward the ceiling, lips barely moving in a silent prayer.

Oh, please be dead.

“Doctor?” The search continues.


His voice comes from behind her, where he stands as if manifested from nothing. In truth, he knows the lab better than she does, and he can move quietly when he wants to.

He is not, then, dead. But someone yet might be — the white of his lab coat is almost fully eclipsed by splatters of crimson red, some of it blotched over several layers of already oxygenated hues of brick and garnet dried into the fabric.

A smear of bloodied knuckles across his forehead has since gone dry, suggesting he was wearing gloves that have since been discarded. He holds his gaze on her, unblinking.

If his hope was to startle her, then he certainly got his wish. Nicole jumps at the sound of his voice at her back, her shoulders hunching up and her hands balling into fists as she gasps sharply. When she turns around, it’s with a neutral expression that doesn’t manage to hold its ground for long in the face of all that blood.

She has a feeling, somehow, that it’s going to be her fault, whatever happened. Nicole takes him in with a slow sweep of her eyes up and down, scanning for sign of injury. That any of that blood may be his. It’s doubtful, but it doesn’t hurt to be thorough. “Do you require assistance, sir?”

"That would have been nice a little over half an hour ago, wouldn't it have been, Haider?" Though Zachery keeps Nicole in his sights, he turns his head ever so slightly to pose the question to a different assistant in a different room entirely.

The cracked door to one of the alternative exam rooms holds few answers in what's visible beyond, but infinitely more telling is the fact that Haider does not answer.

Especially considering the sound of his name had been hardwired to elicit a response.

He lasted 26.5 days. Longer than most.

Nicole has long gotten past the point of attachment with the others in her predicament. It’s a necessary component of her own survival. She used to listen to them. Commiserate with them. Admit that she also wanted to escape.

“Huh…” Still, her gaze drifts to the open door. “Was that his name?” She knew it, of course. Even though she doesn’t speak to the others anymore, she knows every name. Lifting her chin a bit, she meets Zachery’s gaze again. “I’m here now,” she says simply. “What would you have me do?”

No answer comes, or at least not readily. Maybe Nicole is lucky — the days death claims one of the subjects rather than a client are generally quiet ones. The blank look on his face is one she's seen before, the drained result of some twisted catharsis he's become aware of but refuses to fully process.

Then there are the rarer, less quiet times. When the sensation of a body growing cold serves to let poor impulse control habits of the past resurface until he's exhausted himself and displeased impatient clients. Even he seems unable to predict which one it's going to be at any given time.

His head still turned but his eyes still squarely on the person ahead of him, Zachery's thoughts lie halfway in between the two places. "Why were you late?"

Fortunately for her, this isn’t the point in time where she decides whether or not she’s going to lie to him. That conversation with herself happened on the walk back, so it’s without hesitation that she’s able to answer. “Agent Faulkner. I was on my way here when we almost literally ran into one another.”

Nicole watches him while she speaks. Waits for the moment when he decides she’s said enough and he doesn’t care any longer. “I figured you’d want me to stay on his good side, so I spoke with him for a time.”

"What do you make of him?" Zachery replies more quickly this time, turning to face Nicole fully before taking a step forward, and then another. The soles of his shoes sound different on the floor, even if the blood on them has dried.

The next step has him squaring his shoulders, idly studying Nicole's features as if in search of something. "And his false face."

“I think he’s going places,” Nicole admits easily, tilting her head to one side. As if she isn’t inwardly squirming under the scrutiny of his gaze. “He has ambition, and it will take him far.”

There’s a moment where she does debate whether or not to continue, but she presses on. “He’s a good ally to have. He’s interested in your work — not more than he should be — and he seems invested in your success. If you do well, it will reflect well on him. There’s a mutually beneficial arrangement to be had here.”

Zachery continues to observe, her words doing little to change his own face while he watches hers for any minute change.

"A good tool to have on our side, to be sure," he concedes, almost under his breath, almost too calmly. "It's interesting, though, this habit of him to pretend, at least initially, to be much more mundane." Taking the last steps necessary to close the distance, he reaches up to turn her face just so, the same way a parent might inspect their child's face for dirt upon entering the home. But it's not her cheek that he's looking at, rather than her eyes. "The heart does not lie so easily. Not without training."

Nicole has long since repressed the urge to flinch when Zachery touches her. At first politely looking away as he makes his inspection, like if she returns it in kind, he might find it distracting. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize what he’s looking for. Her eyes lock on his again. “He’s a careful one,” she offers as explanation. “The sorts of people he deals with on a daily basis aren’t like you.

While she delivers that in a way such as to suggest that what he is is something to be possibly aspired to, it isn’t what she feels in her heart.

But, she’s had that training he’s so concerned about.

“The mask is for them. You’ve seen his real face.” And so has she. And now, Faulkner has seen hers. It’s not the one she’s showing now. “He’s strategic. It’s smart. No different than the two of us at a dinner party.” As if to illustrate her point, she leans into his touch, closing her eyes. Against her better judgement.

The motion finds no willing participant in this show of theatrics, fingers curling quickly inward against her skin before his hand draws away entirely. He got what he wanted from the exchange already.

He turns, beginning to walk back toward that central, padded table in the main part of the lab. There's extra tension in his movements, but none of it makes it into his voice when he calls back, with forced enthusiasm, "What's the longest I've ever had you on standby, do you recall?"

While he waits for an answer, he begins to undo his coat in preparation to switch to a clean one. He very much intends to keep working.

Less quiet it is.

And she got him to stop touching her. They both got what they wanted for a change. She watches as he begins to move again, waiting before she begins to follow. Following too close is never advised, lest he stop suddenly and she collides with his back. He doesn’t like that.

But his question leaves her feeling so very hollow once it rings out in the space between them. That she follows him at all after that is based strictly on instinct. “Seventeen days,” she responds uneasily. It has been disorienting, to say the least. And she hadn’t been well after that. But no one else can survive that the way she can. As long as he keeps her battery charged, her body will feed on the electricity rather than her own cells.

He doesn’t need to look at her to feel the way her heart hammers away in her chest. The spike of fear that comes from that simple question. With any luck — although the only kind she ever seems to have is the bad sort — he’ll have elicited the desired reaction from her and that will have been enough to satisfy him.

Did she sink her hooks into Agent Faulkner deeply enough for him to decide it’s worth requesting her? How much time will she lose before he makes that decision? If he makes it.

Nicole is there to catch the back of Zachery’s coat as he shrugs it off his shoulders, easing it off his arms and draping it over her own, heedless of the blood that is likely to transfer to her sweater.

"Just burn it," he orders offhandedly, pulling a rolling metal cabinet nearer and yanking one of its drawers open to pluck out some disinfecting wipes.

He shifts his weight and turns to face her, blood still on his face. In a black shirt and without his pale coat cutting its usual silhouette, he blends a little better into the backdrop of the poorly lit back walls.

He also stands a little taller for the lack of weight, breathes a little easier now that he's gotten past a decision made. His regard of Nicole is not as serious now, his head lifting as something more playful makes its way into his expression, pulling at both corners of his mouth even if he keeps his teeth hidden all the way until he asks,

"What's the part of you that you like most?"

Nicole starts to make her way to a chute in the wall that will drop the soiled coat into an incinerator. She’s halfway to stuffing the thing down — after having checked the pockets for anything he may not want to lose — when he asks that question.

The metal door snaps shut with part of the coat sticking out yet. She turns, tears in her eyes already. “Please,” she begs. “Please don’t. I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do. I’ve been good, haven’t I?”

There’s no sense in trying to run. He’ll just say her name and down she’ll go. There’s no good answer to what he’s posed to her. If she answers honestly, maybe that’ll be what he takes next. If she comes up with something she wants to lose least, he might decide to pick a different target.

Nicole’s eyes squeeze shut, which does nothing to stem the tide of tears. “Please,” she repeats. Over and over, she repeats it. “Please, please, please, pleasepleaseplease.”

Standing with the light overhead, Zachery seems to recover somewhat. He lifts his hand to his forehead, calmly wiping the blood that had dried there earlier.

He does nothing to assuage her fears, offering no change in his demeanor in response to her tears, pleas and questions. Except… that he inhales the well-ventilated but chemical-scented air in the lab as deeply as his chest will let him, as if it were suddenly the most refreshing thing.

"Just answer it." His voice is nice. "And bring me a new coat. I'm going to need it."

Reaching up with shaky hands, she wipes the tears from her face and scrubs at her eyes to try and clear her vision, but she’s already moving in the right direction. Hesitation will only make things worse. “I don’t know,” she answers truthfully, voice cracking as she does. “I like myself the way I am.”

Liked herself better when she had both arms.

“I suppose my heart,” she settles on as she procures a fresh jacket from a standing locker, shaking it out once to loosen the way it’s been pressed stiff. “You’re well on your way to burning that out.”

And she doesn’t mean by making her turn a blind eye to her morals. One of these days, he’s going to cause it to give out with his experiments with her electricity. She expects she’ll wind up with a pacemaker in that event. It’s not a comfort.

When she makes her way back to him and holds his coat just so for him to slide his arms into, she finds she can’t play defiant. Can’t even look at his face for fear of what she will or won’t see there. “I’m better off intact, you know,” is as close as she can get. “Colin Verse doesn’t get generous donations for his projects.”

"But there are plenty of others who would, give or take some education and guidance. I will grant you, Colin Verse would make for…" His smile loses what warmth he was cramming into it by force, morphing to a grin as he slips into his new, clean coat, his motions smooth and practiced. "… Somewhat rigid arm candy, but he still fetches drinks quite nicely without a heart. So. There will be a use for you, yet."

When he turns to level a look directly at Nicole again, he does so looking much more like his usual self. Whatever happened in her absence has been forgotten.

Her absence itself, however, has not. "You will not be late without notice again."

Nicole bites back all her arguments, clenching her jaw tight around sentiments about how he hasn’t the time, the patience, or the inclination to train someone else to do what she does. How even if he did, no one would match her. For all that he’s broken her down, there is still one field in which she maintains her pride.

But that pride is nothing in the face of her own terror. And, after all, he comes around all on his own. Even if they very likely took separate paths to come to this same point. Still, she is too wise to show relief, lest he decide it’d be good fun to pull a just kidding and drag her kicking and screaming to the operating table.

Instead, she nods, quickly and repeatedly. “Yes sir. If there is a next time, I’ll be sure to phone ahead.” She knows better than to promise there won’t be a next time. Faulkner’s breed isn’t so rare, and he isn’t the first to believe that Nicole could be the weak link in Miller’s operation.

What must not happen is for Zachery to come to understand that she could be the weak link. She lowers her head and her gaze deferentially. “Awaiting instructions.”

"Better," Zachery says approvingly, the light of excitement gradually returning to his eyes as his attention is drawn somewhere other than toward potential problems. "The cells, A5 to B7, the eleven negated subjects scheduled for the pain tolerance tests next week? Be a dear and bring me one. Dealer's choice."

A piece of her withers and dies right there before him. Nicole swallows hard and nods her head numbly, turning first back to the incineration chute to stuff the jacket the rest of the way down. Again, she nods, just to make it clear she’s heard him. “Yes, sir.”

He turns, adjusts the shoulder seams on his coat just so, and strides off to collect the tools Nicole is no longer allowed to handle. "Let's destroy some lives."

First and foremost, her own.

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