The House Of Cards


sf_faulkner2_icon.gif sf_nicole2_icon.gif

Scene Title The House Of Cards
Synopsis For the two people at the top of the Linderman Group, the latest cards in play at its top are the ones that finally cause the house to fall.
Date March 1, 2021

Linderman Building

8:54 am

For the first time in a long time, not that anyone could fault her for it, Nicole Miller took a sick day on the 26th. When she arrives in the office, though, come Monday, there's signs of the changed world she's suddenly found herself in. When she runs into the head of HR in the elevator on the way up the Linderman Building, she's asked how poor baby Avery is doing. She's gently reminded that she still has at least a few days left on her FMLA if things have changed and she needs to take additional time off for the baby.

It's a fucking bewildering experience, and when the HR executive steps out of the elevator, it's not a moment too soon.

She knows for sure, she needs to get to Isaac and talk with him directly. Nicole doesn't even bother heading to her own office first when the elevator dings for her floor. She heads straight for his.

Isaac's office is the same as ever — a space carved in black marble, a heavy black desk with a glorious view of the city as a backdrop, which would be fantastic to stare off into and ponder next steps if he wasn't trying to deal with the Seventh Seal of the Apocalypse just having broken — NICOLE MILLER HAS TAKEN A SICK DAY, which means he's having to do the hojillion things that she usually swats down out of his airspace.

At the moment he's typing something into a document on his computer; occasionally he frowns, checks something else on his desk, and backspaces to retype. It's slow going, it seems.

The door swings open to admit the woman in question. When he’d called the other day, she hadn’t let him get a word out. She’d simply asked, Isaac, how many children do I have? It seemed his view of reality coincided with her own… for the most part.

Nicole all but shoves the door shut behind her, leaning back against it as though she has to brace it against enemies. “A nanny showed up to my penthouse this morning. So that I could go to work.” And she is rattled. The neutral-to-genial expression she’d managed to wear all the way to this door has fallen away entirely.

“Something is entirely fucking wrong.” Which is painfully goddamn obvious, but Nicole feels a little bit better saying so anyway.

Isaac looks up at Nicole's sudden entrance and regards her for a half second. "Yes," he agrees mildly. "How's the baby, though? Still sick?" he asks, not without a measure of actual sincere concern.

Nicole finally relaxes enough to push away from the door, scrubbing her hand over her face as she makes her way to the gleaming desk, dropping heavily into a chair across from Faulkner. “I was up all night with her. I can keep the fever at bay with medicine, but only if I keep dosing her on schedule.”

Which means she’s not getting better. Nicole lifts her gaze from where it had settled on the skyline, bringing it back to him with a wordless what the fuck? “How do I even know to do all that?” She shakes her head quickly, organizing her thoughts, realizing that she isn’t sure which page she’s on versus which page he is. “What did she tell you?” She isn’t quite brave enough to say Asami’s name out loud right now, even in their own offices.

"That you have three children now. That one of them is sick." Isaac closes his document and logs out of his computer, rising to his feet; his chair makes a squeak of protest, earning a look for a moment before his gaze swings back to Nicole. "There's a joke to be made in there somewhere, but I don't think either of us has time for it. There's a lot for us to catch up on. I've got two hours floating around in my schedule; let's go," he says, striding towards the door.

Nicole nods shakily and pushes to her feet again. In no way is she in any mood to appreciate the joke he’s refrained from, or even the fact that he’s refrained from making it. How in the hell can he still be focused on schedules?

Says the perpetual workaholic. That may be lost on her now, but she’ll find it again later.

She indulges in a ritual she hasn’t had need for since she left her twenties behind. Her hands start at her hairline and travel down along the curve of her face to her chin, a deep exhale accompanying the motion. Sloughing off the stress that’s gathered in her head — because all of her nerves, her fears, her jitters are simply in her head — and replacing it with a façade of calm. By the time she’s made her approach to the door, she appears ready for any other day at the office.

Faulkner strides out, moving at an easy, confident pace. He appreciates that Nicole's not asking any questions… or maybe he's a little disappointed by that? He considers as he walks, decides his feelings fall more on the side of appreciation. There are things to be done, and time is, as ever, against them.

He offers a hint of a smile to his secretary as they pass, heading towards the elevator; he punches the button for the parking garage. "You drove in? Or should I call a car?"

It’s only when she realizes he isn’t dragging her off somewhere to talk about what the actual fuck that Nicole reacts the way Isaac may have been expecting all along. “Wait. You’re—” Breath leaves her in a heavy exhale. “Y- Yeah, I drove. I had to feel normal,” she confides in a low voice.

Getting back behind the wheel of a car after her accident had been nothing short of a personal triumph. Her commute, such as it is, has always been a time for her to reflect and prepare for the day. Now it seems more important than it ever did before.

“You’re coming over to mine?” Nicole asks, a note of confusion in her voice. Another note of cautious hope.

One and one make…

Isaac nods. "Order of operations," he says, looking over to her. "You've got a sick kid. I might be able to help with that. Then we can talk business."

He hesitates for a moment… then that professional manner he's been holding the entire time seems to crack, just a bit, revealing… a tentative smile? "Plus… I kinda want to see what these kids of yours are like," he admits softly, giving a sidelong look at Nicole and shrugging ever so slightly, actually looking a bit sheepish.

That little smile of his causes the breath to catch in her throat. She’s spent so much time reeling, Zachery railing, that she hadn’t considered anyone would look at this situation in any light that resembles positive. Nicole blinks rapidly, managing to keep the smile she offers in return a smile one. At least until they make the elevator.

The smile widens, the moisture in her eyes is more pronounced. She’s grateful most employees tend to wait to catch the next car if the pair of them are on the move together. “Her name’s Avery. The sick one.” That she reaches up to brush a finger just under her eye is because she had an itch to scratch and she definitely was not wiping away a tear.

“Her brother’s Harvey. Their big sister is Pippa. I— I can explain the twins, but I don’t know about…” The smile fades. Any pride she might feel about her children is tempered by the fact that they shouldn’t exist. “I mean, I remember—” Nicole breathes out a note of frustration. “I’ll explain in the car. But… thank you.

Avery, Harvey, Pippa. What a collection of names. He commits them to memory. Twins, too; Isaac's smile grows, just a bit. From seeing fertility specialists to three kids; what a shift.

That takes some of the wind out of Isaac's sails, too; right. Spontaneously appearing people, it seems, are much more difficult to deal with than people spontaneously disappearing. It's hard to know precisely what to think about that. Nicole's frustration is met with a nod from Isaac. "Explain in the car… or explain afterward, if you'd rather. We've got time," he says calmly. "But for what it's worth… you're welcome," he says, and again there's that small smile.

The chime of the elevator announces they've made their destination; a moment later, the door opens. "Right. Lead on," he says, gesturing for her to take the lead.

Her typical circuit would take her through the lobby to make sure she’s seen leaving by the staff, then turning to hit the stairwell to the lower level of the parking garage. Today, she’s skipped that entirely and the doors open to the cold, if well-lit concrete landscape of the underground parking structure. Fishing her keys out of her purse, Nicole leads the way to her deep sapphire hued Buick.

“Shit. One second.” A press of a button on the fob opens the trunk. A second unlocks the doors. Rather than head to the driver’s side, she slips to the front passenger side, unstrapping a booster seat from the front. “Phillipa rides up front when we’ve got the twins with us,” she explains. It gives Isaac a notion of the age difference between her sudden children.

Once the child seat is stowed in the trunk, she gestures to the car again. “The chariot awaits.” The tone is exasperated, like she’s been a mother for years and not only a couple of days. But the car is as clean as he’s come to know her to keep things. In spite of the pair of infant seats in the back seat.

When Nicole slides into the driver’s seat and deposits her purse on the floor behind the passenger seat, she takes a moment to just rest her head against the back of the seat, shutting the radio off by touch after turning the key in the ignition. “Asami drew out my power, too,” she explains in the quiet of the cabin.

Isaac waits for her to remove the child seat, watching with detached interest; once she's got the seat cleared, he opens the passenger door and settles in. Riding with Nicole is… something he's not done for a long time.

Nicole's statement sees Isaac's lips curl into a frown. "I figured as much," he says. He doesn't say anything else right away, but that frown and the way he's staring straight ahead through the windshield suggests that he has a number of different recriminations bubbling in his mind… but when he finally does speak, it's not to give voice to any of them. "And considering she called from your husband's phone, I'm assuming she got him, too," he says glumly.

“Yeah,” Nicole confirms quickly, readily. “He fucking hates it. And it’s my fault. I—” She forces a quick, pained smile, shaking her head. “I can’t keep beating myself up, right? Isn’t that what I tell you?” She puts the car into reverse, eases the vehicle out of her reserved space, then heads for the exit to the surface streets.

“He becomes invisible,” she explains with a slow nod and a welp expression. “That’s fairly straight forward, at least. And she didn’t… hurt him. Not like—” Blue eyes dart a glance to the man in her passenger seat, then return to the road.

She’s a much more careful driver than she used to be.

Isaac stays stone-faced, staring ahead. "No. Beating yourself up doesn't do any good," he says quietly.

He lowers his head, rubbing at his brow with one hand. There's a lump in his throat, and his eyes are burning a bit; probably he's just tired. That's all it is; it couldn't be anything like feeling betrayed, like a sense of disappointment sharp enough to stab him square in the guts. It couldn't be that. What right does he have to feel that way?

And it doesn't matter, anyway. He can't beat himself up, and he can't howl at her, either; he needs her. He knows he can't salvage this mess on his own. He needs all the help he can get.

"And you?" he asks, his voice even.

“I have a perfect fucking memory,” Nicole responds. “I can tell you every word to the disclaimer on the bottle of fever reducer I’ve been giving Avery every six hours.” A little bubble of broken laughter escapes her. “I can recite it to you in French.” It’d be mispronounced and butchered and spliced to hell and back, but she at least remembers the spelling. “But that… isn’t it.”

But whatever else she’s about to say, it’s lost when they stop for a red light and she looks over at him properly. Nicole reaches over the center console, laying a hand over her former ward’s arm and squeezes his wrist gently. “Say it. If you let it stew, it’ll only get worse.”

"I tried to warn you," he says heavily. "Don't let her touch you. Whatever you do, don't let her touch you." He lets out a long, desperately unhappy breath… but it gradually trails off to a sigh. That's as close to I told you so as he's going to get, and apparently it was enough.

He glances over to Nicole, grimacing. "Maybe… maybe it wouldn't have mattered. Maybe she'd have just decided that she had to fix you anyway and she wouldn't have stopped until she got you, and maybe then you'd have been hurt. It's just… I just hoped you'd be able to deal with it. With her. To stop her. Instead… she's racking up a laundry list. The motorcycle chase. The fucking helicopter crash." He pauses a moment. "Me. The Petrellis. Now you."

"And then there's the… God, what do we even call them? Reality alterations? Distortion events?" He shakes his head. "This makes three — not three total, but three that we know of — and I don't think there's any denying that they're tied to what Asami's doing. And this last one was a hell of a lot bigger, too!"

Isaac shakes his head. "I don't know what's going on, Nicole, but I'm terrified of where it's going. How are we going to do anything when reality can get rewritten from one day to the next? When any plans we make today can get… scattered and shuffled like a house of cards tomorrow? And why, why, am I the only one who seems to be worried about this?"

Isaac slumps, lowering his head. "Light's green," he murmurs.

“She didn’t attack me, Isaac.” That might be a bitter pill for him to swallow. He told her so, and, yes, she walked into the lair of the beast anyway. (More accurately, she laid a trap.) But she also opened herself and invited it to happen to her. Maybe this makes her the worst of them. Because he’d begged her to be safe, and this is what she did.

“You’re not—” Her eyes come up, stare at the light a moment, then it’s as if she remembers what she’s supposed to do when she sees that color. Depress brake, press gas. “I don’t know what we do with this,” Nicole admits in her familiar rasp, tinged with emotion she’s keeping at bay. “But I don’t just recall things that I’ve read or places I’ve seen. N- Not just here, I mean.”

She slows for a stop sign. Signals. Stops. Turns right. If she’d been this type those years ago… Nicole banishes the intrusive thought. She can’t change the past. Can’t rewrite the details of her life. Can’t—

“Fuck’s sake!” Nicole cries, her shoulders having slowly creeped up toward her ears as her nerves fray more. “Watch the road! Or pull the damn car over!” She reaches across and course corrects the steering wheel before they can clip the mirror off a parked car they’re sailing past. She’s going to be the one to bear the brunt of the crash, if they should actually, so she’s naturally a little concerned about it.

Holy shit. Is he going to crash the car out of spite? Listen to how he’s talking.

Holy shit.

"It's fine," argues Zachery while letting the car they're in cruise slowly down a road with minimal intervention, which may not, in fact - strictly - be fine.

“It is not fine!” Nicole snaps back, struggling to maintain control of the wheel and keep them on the straight and narrow of the forward trajectory.

Though concern continues to knit his brow and sends a sneer onto his face, he turns back to the steering wheel and lands his hands back on it at a 9 and sloppy 2 o'clock. When he takes hold of the wheel again, her own grip relaxes. She thinks, so very, very incorrectly, that he’s going to resume responsibility of driving them down the road like a sane person. "Alright," there's that crispness from him again, "let's pull over!"

It’s only once it’s too late that she realizes what he intends to do.

Disregarding Nicole's grip on the wheel, he tightens his grip with a quiet squeak of leather, and yanks it, full force, to the side while re-engaging that gas pedal with a strained growl from the engine springing back to life.

But look, a gap between parked cars — wide enough for the hearse to fit between when it lunges suddenly and directly onto a sidewalk and then into the bricks that make up the wall of an abandoned storefront.


Nicole shrieks as the car goes up and over the curb and careening into the side of the building. Her hands come up to shield her face when perhaps they should have been bracing against the dash.

There are no airbags to cushion her as she slams forward in her seat. Fortunately, she had buckled herself in. That strap holds her in the seat and keeps her from crashing through the windshield. The scrape of metal crumpling inward against solid material happens almost simultaneously with the meaty thud of body hitting steering wheel, but neither of the car's passengers get a chance at silence before a collection of aged brickwork comes piling down onto the hood and windshield, showering the outside of the car in a mixture of grey and red dust.

Unlike the belt that held Nicole fast, there is no such restraint in place for the tree in the back of the vehicle.

Glass bursts outward from the Bone Wagon as the trunk of the tree slams through the windshield, an explosion of pine needles fills the space between Zachery and Nicole, further dividing them in a physical way that makes the chasm they’re standing on opposite sides of seem a little less metaphorical.

When the dust finally begins to settle, they’re left with the soft sounds of Nicole’s struggle not to cry.

Tears are running down her cheeks, her shoulders having slowly climbed toward her ears as she continues the careful drive toward her apartment building.

“I remember an entire life that isn’t mine,” Nicole finally tells Isaac.

Isaac turns to regard her as she starts to talk of her memories; it feels like getting that off of his chest had finally kickstarted his brain back into a more productive mode…

…just in time for Nicole's own baggage to catch up with her.

Isaac's eyes widen as he sees the tears start to stream down her face. "Hey. Hey," he says, reaching over to lay a hand lightly on her shoulder. He has no idea what it is that's affected Nicole so, but it's alarming. "Nicole. It's alright." He isn't sure what is alright at the moment, but be damned if he's not going to do his very best to sell Nicole on it. "It's alright," he repeats, more quietly.

Nicole sniffles loudly, taking one hand off the steering wheel only long enough to use the back of her sleeve to dab at her eyes. “In— In the other life, none of us have the powers we do here. Asami’s a te- technopath. And Asami isn’t even her name. Zachery can see what’s going on with living … bodies? Tell if you have an irregular heartbeat, know that you’ve got ulcers, that sort of thing.”

Explaining this much gives her a focus.

“I don’t… I didn’t… I don’t know you? In the other life.” There’s apology. There’s regret. It’s painful to her. How can she have lived a life where Isaac Faulkner wasn’t a part of it? “I still worked for Danny, but… Everything went wrong so quickly.” Nicole exhales a ragged breath. She is not okay.

“I don’t feel like myself. I feel like I’m her. Like I’ve been thrown here from where I belong and into some other person’s life. Someone who’s just like me, but different. So… different.” Nicole winces, cringes, but keeps her eyes on the road. They aren’t far now.

She reaches out and grasps Isaac’s hand tightly. “I’m scared of it,” she admits. “I’m scared of it, I’m scared of it, I’m scared of it,” she repeats in rapid succession. She hasn’t been this undone since Linderman was diagnosed with cancer and she realized they might be left alone.

Faulkner frowns, brow furrowing in concentration. A technopath? Someone who… what, mentally talks to computers? It… kind of makes sense, he supposes. As does Zachery's bodyscan thing. It's like some weird Land of Oz version of things. But when she says she doesn't know him…

Maybe I don't exist, occurs to him, an intrusive thought as sharp as a knife. Maybe it's better that way follows, like blood from a cut.

He fights that thought off, but the other thing she says.. about not feeling like herself… it makes Isaac shudder, because he can understand it. He can understand exactly what she means by that, and he doesn't like it. Not one bit. "I'm scared too," he says. "But that's all the more reason we've got to keep it together. This world is worth fighting for, and I'm not going to surrender it without a fight," he says, quiet anger in his voice as he glares out the windshield. He squeezes her hand once, in reassurance.

It never occurs to her that he wouldn’t have the vocabulary. It should. Zachery had trouble with it, too, but Asami was easier. Asami understood. Asami saw it. From a different perspective, but she remembered this other world the same way Nicole did.

“It was July Fifth. That’s the last thing I remember. Zachery and I heading to bed for the night. And then… And then Asami waking me up here.” There’s a growl of frustration. “No. That’s not— I’m me. I don’t know who this—” There’s one block to go and her breath is coming in shallow gasps. Panic is starting to hit a boil.

Her hand in Isaac’s is a lifeline. It keeps her connected to now. To this reality. This reality has him. This reality is worth fighting for. “I don’t know what’s real anymore, except for one thing.”

The automated garage door opens and Nicole pulls into the structure, finds her numbered spot from memory. Once the car’s in park, she turns to look at Isaac, the worry written into the lines of her face. Her fingers lace with his, holding fast. “I love you.”

He is still and silent for a moment… then his jaw tightens, his free hand comes up, and he leans over to pull her into a hug. Which is a little awkward in a car, maybe, but it's a sincere answer. He holds on for a long moment before he lets go.

Awkward or not, Nicole returns the hug fiercely, crying softly as she holds on to him like it means she won’t lose him if somehow all of this reverses and she goes back to the place where he isn’t. It takes a couple minutes for her to pull herself together enough to let go of his hand, but it’s what she needed.

“The twins should have been born in… late September or early October, if what I recall from elsewhere is an indication. I… I was only pregnant with them, last I remember.” Nicole looks down at her lap, suddenly ashamed. “I’m… grateful they’re here. Even though I know they shouldn’t be.” Taking a deep breath, she looks up again. “Should or shouldn’t, Avery is sick. She doesn’t deserve to— We can do something about that.”

Nicole pops the latch on her door. “So let’s get to it.”

Isaac grins, straightens his tie, and pops the latch on his own door. "Lead on. I'll be right behind you."

As Isaac rises from the car, his phone starts to buzz in his pocket. It's a quieter thing balanced out by the louder ring of Nicole's not two seconds later.

Isaac frowns, glances to Nicole. He reaches for his phone, but doesn't take the call, not yet. He knows it's work (of course it's work), but…

Eh. He hits the accept button.

"Mr. Faulkner?" It's Doris, not unexpectedly, since it's a call directly to his personal.

"I'm being asked to find where you are. There's…" Carefully, cordially, she indicates, "Someone here to see you. An Agent Darlow from the FBI?" That's a new name, not one of the faces who'd come through during the investigation last month after the fiasco with Asami started.

Nicole’s brow furrows as she pulls her phone out of her purse, watching Faulkner take his call. She answers hers, taking a few steps away to help cut down on the overlap. “Miller,” she answers simply.

… It's also Doris.

"Nicole, I'm sorry to bother. I didn't know if you were taking another day or not, but I hadn't seen a note from you yet this morning, so I assumed I'd see you shortly." With a hesitant pause, she adds after that, "Are you close by? There's some… agents who've stopped by this morning." She's being careful with her wording, like said agents might be right there.

"I stepped out of the office for a bit to grab a bite to eat; I'll be back in as quickly as traffic permits. Do offer my apologies to them; I won't be long." Inwardly Faulkner is cursing, while simultaneously calculating whether stairs or elevator would be quicker. Elevator up, stairs down. He glances to Nicole. "Thank you, Doris. Anything else?"

In Faulkner's ear, Doris confirms, "No. I'll let the agent know you'll be back within the hour?" It tapers into a question. He will be back, right?

Nicole’s eyes open wide with alarm when Isaac mentions Doris by name. Me too, that look says. “I have an appointment off site. I took my car into the shop. Please let the agents know that as soon as my oil’s been changed, I’ll make my way back to the office as swiftly as I can. But if they don’t have the time to wait…”

She doesn’t even hit the fob to lock the car. Nicole simply tilts her head toward the elevators and starts walking at a brisk pace. “Go ahead and ask them to leave their information and I’ll be happy to set aside time to meet with them.” The button to call the elevator car is pressed six times before she finally convinces herself that won’t make it move any faster. “I really appreciate you handling this, Doris. I owe you.”

Doris? How the actual extra crispy fuck? He walks towards the elevator, keeping his distance from Nicole to avoid overlap. "Within the hour, yes, that will be excellent. Thank you; I'll see you soon. Goodbye," he says, clicking the End Call button. He looks back to Nicole, his expression of perplexed concern only intensifying as he waits for her to finish her call.

Once Nicole has similarly ended her call and thrown her phone back in her purse like it’s something that might cause her harm if she keeps hold on it for too long, she turns to Isaac as the elevator dings and the doors open. “What the cinnamon toast fuck is going on?!” she demands not really of him, but of the universe, in a shrill panic.

“She can’t be on two calls at once, having two completely separate conversations. And it was her. I know Doris’ voice. She’s worked for me for—” Hurriedly, Nicole steps into the empty elevator car. Inside, she’s trembling like a leaf clinging to its branch in a storm. “What’s happening to us?”

"I don't know," Faulkner says quietly, stepping in after her. "Let's get your kid taken care of. Probably won't be able to stick around for long afterwards," he says, and there's some real regret in his voice at that; he'd hoped to spend a little time here. "Your husband's trick would come in very handy about now." To scope things out.

“Is it even safe to be here?” Nicole drags her fingers through her hair, glancing around the elevator as though someone else might be hiding inside. Impossible, of course, but she’s feeling exceptionally paranoid at the moment. “They’re looking for both of us, and Doris—”

A determination comes over her, bringing with it a sort of calm. It’s not likely to hold, but she’ll do her best. “Maybe we should pack them up and get them out of here. Find somewhere… Maybe my condo?”

Nicole pauses and scrunches up her face. “No,” she corrects herself, “I never lived there. I mean the safehouse.”

"Your call," Isaac says, affecting not to notice her slip. "You've got a little longer than I do. I can call a cab back if you want to be working on that. And… you've got the full resources of the Group behind you, too." Though moving kids elsewhere poses some additional logistical challenges. Hm.

Isaac looks up, watching the floor counter above the door slowly climb.

“Maybe… Maybe we just…” Pursing her lips, Nicole considers their options. The car has to make it all the way to the top floor after all. They have a little time for contemplation. “If it’s us they want, maybe they’re safer if we move and they stay.” Now she smooths over the mess she’s made of her hair, standing taller.

Then her gaze sweeps him up and down. There’s something she isn’t saying, but maybe he knows what it is just from the way she looks at him. “What do you think is going to happen if you go back there?” Yes, she’s given herself a longer reprieve, but eventually she’ll have to make her way back to the office, too.

Unless they just don’t.


Dorchester Towers

Miller Residence

They’ve arrived at the penthouse level. Nicole leads the way across the marbled foyer to the secure entrance, pressing a fob to the small reader on the door. She won’t be able to walk away from anything in good conscience while her child is sick.

"Ideally? A civilized conversation. Less ideally? They put more pressure on me. Worst case, they try to charge me with something… but I don't think it'll come to that," Faulkner says gravely. Then he offers a smile. "But that is then. This is now. Right now, I've got other things to worry about."

The worry is back in full force. She wants to believe it’s as simple as he’s presenting it, for all that it’s still not great, it’s a lot better than someone waiting to throw them into a dark hole where they’ll never be heard from again.

But they have the task ahead of them to complete first. When the soft click alerts her to the door unlocking, she pushes it open and gestures for Isaac to follow her inside. The wailing of one very overtired infant greets them from down the hall opposite the entry. “There’s a whole room we never even had before,” Nicole confides in a hush.

"Oh, oh, oh…" The bouncing of said tired baby comes with its own set of hushes that follow it. "There, there, now. Miss Avery, if you don't calm down, you won't have any voice left for later. How am I gonna know how much you hate tummy time if you've got no voice for it?"

Nicole's nanny, who she met for the first time this morning, seems so very used to all of this.


'Ella has Avery on one shoulder while she plays with Harvey in his crib, a plastic keyring jangling for him while he reaches up to bat at it. The baby on her shoulder would also like very much not to be crying, thank you, her little eyes squinting shut in her discomfort. She must be or must have been feverish again, her onesie pajamas worn down to her waist.

The baby sees Nicole over 'Ella's shoulder when she enters the doorway, though, and quiets with a sudden hic of noise. The nanny turns her head down to the babe with a blink of surprise, then looks over her shoulder to see…

"Mrs. Miller? Gosh, I didn't even hear you come in."

Isaac Faulkner raises an eyebrow at the scene he sees when he follows Nicole in… but then, it's not all that surprising. A mutual pact between company moms to keep their kids out of trouble, perhaps… either that or 'Ella Zarek inherited her mother's shrewdness and seized the opening that Nicole presented. Possibly both of the above. Either way, he approves. He offers a slight nod to 'Ella and a faintly rueful smile, but says nothing… besides. His eyes keep drifting to the children. So these are Nicole Miller's children…

“How could you,” Nicole asks with a good-natured tone to her voice that hides the conflicting swell of panic and elation welling up from her stomach and her chest, “with that siren wailing in your ears?” Setting her purse down and striding across the room, she rubs her hands together, letting the friction of her palms make a sound that holds little Avery’s attention. “Come here,” she coos as she takes the baby from ‘Ella. “Come see Mommy.”

A hand on the baby’s back confirms her fear. “Let’s get you changed, little one.” She flashes a smile to ‘Ella, sympathy in the corners of her eyes rather than anything resembling joy. “You go ahead and keep Harvey entertained. Mr. Faulkner will assist me in getting this wiggle worm into fresh clothes.” It will give them a convenient excuse to slip out of sight together with her ailing child. “Harvey Damian,” she sing-songs to her son, “you be good for Miss Marcella.”

It’s a role she slips into easily, readily, but who the hell is she? Nicole exchanges a sheepish look with Isaac then heads for the hallway.

Faulkner gives 'Ella a bemused grin that comes with the faintest suggestion of a shrug… and then he turns and follows Nicole. All the while he's wondering just what sort of Bizarroland he's wandered into; helping Nicole change her baby is a sentence fragment that feels like it's at right angles to everything he knows. But… it's not a bad feeling. "Do I need to grab a bag or something?" he asks Nicole.

Burbling as she gets picked up, baby Avery seems agitated still, but soothed by the presence of her mother. This is as good as she's going to get, and maybe she knows it. As she transfers from one shoulder to another, the long scar down her sternum is plain to see for both her mother and their guest. She lets out a single whine of a cry and then sets to fussing with her mother's necklace, turning her tired face into Nicole's neck.

'Ella does a double take when she realizes just who's with Nicole, eyes widening for a moment before she looks more natural. "Oh, hi, Mr. Faulkner. Didn't see you there…" She flashes a quick smile before turning back to the crib, to Harvey whose head is going back and forth between groups of people. He's being left alone?

The nanny is quick to scoop him up, though, reminding him he's not forgotten. "Let's see what kind of mischief we can get into on our own, hm…?"

“No, I… I did laundry last night.” There’s a vice grip around Nicole’s heart at the sight of the scars on her baby. She lets out a heavy exhale and decides that laying Avery out on the bed will be the easier location for changing her clothing. And the door locks, which will give them a buffer between them and Miss Zarek out there.

Once they’re shut in the bedroom — which feels awkward, yes, but they should be well past the awkward phases at this point in their lives, shouldn’t they? — Nicole settles Avery down on the middle of the bed. Like Faulkner’s come to expect over the years, this space of hers is kept immaculate as well. The bed is made, any laundry needing doing is in hampers and out of sight, if it hasn’t made it to the laundry room already. The clean laundry, however, sits in a basket on the floor at the end of the bed. An array of onesies, blankets, bibs, and the like have been neatly folded, but not yet put away.

“I don’t know what this is,” Avery’s mother confides, tracing a finger over the scar as she frees her necklace from that heraclean grip. “I tried to ask my middle child what I’d told her about Avery’s illness…” Middle child? “All she told me was she’d had a surgery and that we all thought she was improving, but now she’s sick again.”

As Nicole goes through motions practiced by someone other than her, her hands are shaking. “I feel like I’m in a dream.” After peeling the rest of the onesie from her child’s overwarm frame, she shakes her head and flashes a tenuous smile to Isaac, glancing down to the basket. “Pick your favorite,” she invites him.

"Your middle child?" Isaac murmurs, looking very perplexed. But he shakes his head, frowning at Nicole's prompt. His favorite? That's nearly as bad as Nova asking for his advice on music (although he's gotten better on that).

He considers for a moment, eying the pile; Avery's a girl, sooo. "This one," he says, picking out a pink and white onesie with bunnies and handing it to Nicole. "Am I an honorary uncle or anything, you think?" He pauses, considering; schedules and timings are foremost on his mind, and he doesn't have long to linger. "Hand me Avery once you're done changing her, and I'll see what I can do."

“It’s… a long story, I guess,” Nicole responds, grimacing at her slip. “I somehow doubt she’s… here.” That would be stranger yet than everything else, wouldn’t it? “If you see a blonde woman loitering around with the bluest eyes you’ve seen, find out if she answers to the name of Ingrid.”

That’s a joke. Sort of. Not really, actually.

The outfit is taken, unfolded and shaken out once. The smile that creeps up on her is a fond one. “Don’t you think you’re more the older brother type?” she teases lightly. She’ll take this opportunity to change the subject, thank you very much. “You’re family, as far as I’m concerned. You can choose whatever shape that takes.”

As she snaps the last of the buttons into place, Nicole makes a soft sound of pain when her hair is caught by that little fist and tugged. “Oh, I forgot they do that,” she groans, carefully peeling at those tiny fingers to free herself. A hair tie is swiped off the nightstand so she can sweep her hair up and out of melee range. It reveals the healing marks around her temples. A trio of deep scrapes on each side.

Cradling her daughter to her chest for a moment, she drops a kiss to her crown before carefully offering her over to Isaac, worry and hope in her expression in equal measures.

Isaac's eyes narrow ever so slightly at those clawmarks — he knows what causes wounds like that, oh yes he does. But that, too, is a matter for later; for now he has something else to deal with, and unlike Asami, little Avery is here right now.

Carefully, Isaac takes the child in his arms, gently shifting her around to try to find a comfortable position. "Hi Avery," he says quietly, lips curling into a smile; his free hand comes up to cradle the back of baby Avery's still too-warm head. He takes a deep breath, feeling that sense of warm, comforting vitality start to pool in his hands. "Let's see what's got you so upset," he murmurs, starting to hum a soft song as he reaches out, gentle as a whisper, to seek the root of her malady. Not the scar, though, the voice of Daniel Linderman whispers at the back of his thoughts. Not the scar — that has to stay. Too many potential questions, otherwise.

It's her heart.

A trembling, tired little thing already worn from a lot of living in a very short time, not quite in the shape it needed to be to be effective. Surgery helped to right things— helped— but it didn't help heal the weakness.

Not like this does.

Avery's little blue eyes widen, arms flailing by her side once as she looks up at Isaac. Whatever she must feel is a secret, followed by a rattling cough that brings him next to note her lungs, to the sickness that settled in because she's been constantly fighting. Warmth of a more pleasant kind than the fever that's plagued her envelops the baby girl, and the next breath she takes is a clear one. The red in her face begins to fade, her temperature regulated.

Her little face breaks into a smile, bearing tiny teeth in an expression of delight. She takes a hold of one of Isaac's fingers with her whole hand.

And baby Avery laughs.

Avery smiles and it feels like Nicole hasn’t seen her do that in ten thousand years. Never mind that she’s only just met this child, her daughter. All she’s known from the girl is the misery that comes from illness. She’d watched her mother struggle and die.


Daniel hadn’t, in any world. To watch this tiny thing, this huge piece of her, go through those same struggles without the voice to express her fear, the pain, what she needs in order to feel better, safe, and loved…

Nicole presses her hands over her mouth to stifle the ragged sob that breaks from her throat. “You— You did it, didn’t you?” It isn’t that she didn’t believe that he could, she even trusted that he could, but seeing it is still a completely different matter entirely. As much as she wants to scoop them both into a tight hug, she holds in place for now, wiping at the tears on her face. There might be more to it that needs doing. She can’t—

“Your father used to do this,” Nicole whispers quietly. “He woke me up once, too.” The memory quells the tears, a shuddering sigh pushing it all down. “God, my head hurts.”

That laugh, that smile, that tiny grip of her whole hand on his one finger. Faulkner smiles too, even as weariness bleeds into him. Lost energy; what he does takes its toll, and repairing a damaged heart and restoring ravaged lungs are not easy tasks. In many ways, this has been the first major test of his ability, but he's risen to the occasion, and little Avery…

…has a shot at a long, healthy life now.

Nicole's comment about how his father did this draws a sharply questioning glance from him. "Sometime, you'll have to elaborate on that. Soon. But not now," he says quietly, his gaze shifting back to baby Avery, his smile returning.

"You're a fighter, aren't you Avery?" he murmurs. "That's good. You'll go far." He glances to Nicole. "It was her heart. The surgery didn't quite fix it, but it's taken care of now. Mind grabbing the door?" he asks, looking to the door before returning his attention to doting on Avery.

“Yes,” Nicole agrees to his request. “You just… tell me when, and I’ll tell you everything I can remember.” Which is a lot, apparently. “I just—” She draws in a deep breath and wipes at her face. “Just need a moment to…” A heavy exhale and she feels like maybe she’s regained enough composure to be seen by ‘Ella again.

“Thank you,” she whispers. If what he says is true, and she knows it has to be based on what she knows of Daniel Linderman’s gift, then he saved her daughter’s life. How long would the damaged organs have last without his intervention. The very thought makes Nicole feel sick.

She pauses on the way to the door to wrap her arm around Isaac’s shoulders from behind, resting her other hand against the back of Avery’s head before pressing a kiss to her crown. “Thank you,” she says again, “thank you.” Then, she finishes her path, disengaging the lock with a quiet click and turning the knob to pull it open and allow them entry to the hall.

"Do you need to head back?" 'Ella is in the kitchen now, Harvey on one hip while she's preparing the space for breakfast. Baby chairs Nicole didn't even know she had are being produced and set up, and she settles the twin in before locking the table in front of him, booping his nose before she stands again. His head swivels from person to person, tiny head finally settling on Nicole. He reaches for her.

'Ella blinks in surprise to see Avery, and with who. "Aw," she croons softly. "Did you just need to see mommy to feel better for a bit?" Despite the baby-talk, she seems genuinely relieved. She approaches Faulkner a bit cautiously before extending her hands out. "Um, now's about the time we normally do breakfast," she explains with a touch of apology.

Faulkner nods slightly at Nicole's thanks, gives a faint smile… ah, but now the door is opening. Isaac sets his face into another of those carefully practiced smiles as he carries Avery back out; he carefully hands Avery off to 'Ella, giving a tiny wave — bye-bye! — as 'Ella takes her.

"Don't worry, I'm just about to head out," he reassures 'Ella. "I know they can be a handful at this age when it comes to breakfast — I certainly was, or so I've been told," he admits, still grinning.

"But," he says, his gaze turning to Nicole. "Since you're here, Nicole," he begins, and now he's got the air of someone getting ready to spring some dastardly trap. "Why don't you take an hour or two off? Enjoy breakfast with your kids?"

The trap sprung, his expression softens. "You've got more PTO than God, I'm fairly confident I can keep the office from burning down for that long, and it would probably make your kids happy. That's important."

Harvey reaches for his mother and something in Nicole shifts — or tries to. A gear grinds, not quite clicking into place where it ought to. Of course she loves her son, just as much as she does either of his sisters. But there’s something about this…

She’s at odds with herself. There is a part of her telling her that this is right. This is where she belongs. Where she should be. Doting on her children. Protecting them.

Protecting them? From what? Why is she suddenly so certain she needs to protect her twins?

They aren’t even hers anyway, are they?

(There’s those gears grinding.)

Nicole crosses to the occupied baby seat and brushes her hand over the top of her son’s head. “Oh, hello. I know, I’ve spent an awful lot of time with Avery lately, haven’t I? She’s needed me more, but that’s not fair to you.” She taps the tip of his little nose. “We’ll do mother-son bonding tonight. We’ll make lasagna for Daddy.” His little hand closes around her finger and she bounces it up and down lightly, as though he might be shaking her hand. “But don’t tell him, okay? It’s our secret.”

Blue eyes track up to Isaac, concern evident in them. “No, no. If you give me an hour, I’ll want to take the whole day. I already had Friday.” Carefully, she extracts her finger from Harvey’s tiny grip. “I’ve got that meeting I can’t miss.” Nicole flashes ‘Ella a smile. “Thank you for everything you do. If Avery spikes another fever, let me know. I’m keeping a log.”

It’s overwhelming now. The reality of only a few days ago doesn’t line up with the reality of today and she’s trying to fill in the blanks so it doesn’t become obvious that she has no idea what’s happened here. That she can’t even recognize her own children. The quicker she can gather her things, the better.

She can’t get out of here fast enough.

'Ella opts not to get in the middle of the two, for all that she casts furtive glances between them. "Of course, Mrs. Miller," she answers graciously. If Avery's fever came back, her mother would be first to know. She shifts the small girl settled on her side, other hand lifting to take Avery's little wrist and have her wave 'goodbye' in return to Faulkner.

"We'll have a nice, relaxing breakfast here, and then get laid down for a morning nap," she narrates for Nicole's benefit. Everything will be fine here, she means to impart with confidence. "And we'll be ready to see mommy when she's done with work later. Yes, we will."

Setting Avery down in her own high-chair, 'Ella looks back up with a smile, dropping the pretense of narrating the children in favor of providing direct assurance. "I promise to give you a ring if anything out of the ordinary happens."

Isaac sighs, giving 'Ella the faintest of shrugs. I tried, his body language seems to say.

It's a charade, of course. He'd hoped Nicole might've stayed with her kids since she had a little extra time before she was due back… but he hadn't expected it. No, the primary purpose of this was to provide a purpose for his presence here — one that doesn't involve miraculous healing.

Faulkner gives a tiny wave to Avery in return, giving a grin that is at least partially genuine before looking back to Nicole. "And I have an important meeting of my own, so…" he murmurs, smile shifting to a more serious expression as he looks to Nicole, taking a small step in the direction of the door.

If he’s concerned about plausible deniability, Nicole knows that song and dance so well she can do it in her sleep. “Well, we may as well carpool. I have some prep time before I meet with HR and Finance.” As they head for the door, she pinches the bridge of her nose, clearly not looking forward to this particular conference. “It’ll give us a chance to talk strategy before I disappear into budget hell for the next several hours.”

She doesn’t look back as the door closes behind them. She doesn’t turn around again until she’s inside the elevator and it would look bizarre if she didn’t turn around. “I’m losing my mind,” Nicole says quietly to Isaac. “I don’t know how much longer I can handle this.” The words are coming out faster and faster again, running one right after the other like boxcars.

The elevator doors shut, the car prepared to carry them to the garage level, and panic is starting to settle in again. “This isn’t me. I don’t know who I am.”

"Nicole. Slow down. Breathe," Faulkner says evenly, looking Nicole in the eyes. "You're the same person you've always been. The world has changed."

"Now. Your kid — Avery — is no longer sick, and barring reality destabilizing again, she's going to live a long and healthy life. That's one problem resolved. Off your plate. So I want you to take a moment and think — what other immediate, external problems do you have in front of you?"

Isaac reaches out and puts his hands on her shoulders, bracketing her, and doubles down on that stare, boring into her eyes. "What — exactly — are you afraid of?" It's not quite the same question she'd asked him so long ago, and this isn't quite a boxing ring… but it'll have to do.

“You mean besides my pending complete and total nervous breakdown?” Nicole asks without a hint of amusement. This isn’t sarcasm, this is honesty. “She’s not my kid though, is she? She’s some other Nicole’s kid and she doesn’t belong here, but now she is here, and what am I supposed to do?

He’s seen what she’ll do. Just minutes ago, she was every inch the devoted mother. Until the panic set in. “Oh, god.”

It isn’t until he places his hands on her shoulders that she stills, stops looking like she’s going to bolt the moment the doors open as if she were a frightened rabbit. Her eyes meet his and she starts to take fuller, deeper breaths. “Ever since Asami fixed whatever it was that kept my power locked away, I feel like I’ve been finally rousing from a long sleep.” What exactly is she afraid of?

“What if all of this is just a dream, and you’re not there when I wake up?”

It’s that.

"She is your kid," Isaac says quietly. "They are your kids. That other Nicole isn't here; you are. They can tell; if you were some impostor, they sure as hell wouldn't have been smiling for you like they did." Bullshit, but more palatable than the fears Nicole's currently wrestling with.

"You and Doctor Miller were trying awfully hard, weren't you? Fertility doctors, all of that. Well, now you've got what you wanted. You won the lottery; Asami's little forced reality shift worked in your favor, unlike everyone else so far. And as to what you're going to do… you'll do exactly what you did in there before you started overthinking it. You'll take care of those kids, and set boundaries, and raise them right." Left unspoken is the example Isaac is leaving for them.

"Now. As for me…" he pauses, trailing off as he considers. "This other world. Does it really feel so much more real than this? That it frightens you that much?" he asks, a rare hint of uncertainty in his voice.

“I don’t know,” Nicole says. And keeps repeating over and over like a needle skipping on a record. She’s on her way to her tenth repetition when she gasps sharply and slaps a hand over her mouth to shut herself up. A terrified whimper escapes from behind the clasp of it. To keep herself from breathing too quickly again, she holds that breath in her lungs. It’s not exactly better.

Slowly, her hand lowers again, she breathes again. “Reality,” she insists tersely, “is not supposed to shift like this. Not a lot changed for you, besides what you’re watching happen to me.” It’s unfair of her to imply that Faulkner’s not affected by this turn of events, and she regrets it immediately.

The elevator car chimes to let them know they’ve reached the garage level, however, so Nicole outwardly gets her shit together, and fast. With her head held high, she leads the way back to the car. “It’s hard to explain,” is a neutral enough statement to make as they walk and she fishes out her keys. “I don’t feel a difference, necessarily. I’m just worried there is one.” That one reality is the real one, and that it might not be this one. If she had to choose, she’s not sure she could. But having her children here makes this a much more appealing option than the world rebuilding post-war, and the horrors people have and continue to face there.

The doors to her Buick unlock with a nearly cheerful chirp and she checks the backseat before opening her door to climb in. “I— I’m sorry.”

Faulkner watches Nicole silently, leaning silently back against the wall of the elevator as she hits cognitive meltdown right then and there. It's a mark of how seriously he's taking this that her barb draws no response in kind — or of any kind, really, beyond a simple nod.

It's only after she has herself together enough to make an apology for that barb that he speaks again. "You're right, of course. Reality isn't supposed to shift like this," he says quietly, and it's a mark of how grimly he's taking this that he's actually not even tempted to point out that he's been screeching about this very thing all along.

Well. He's not tempted very much, at least. But seeing Nicole go from… well, Nicole… to falling apart at the seams is enough to pretty effectively murder most of his urge to gloat.

"That's why we've got to stop her. Before she does any more of this shit," he says heavily. "Because she can't stop herself. What's done is done, but if it keeps happening…" he trails off, letting out a sharp huff of air as he settles into the passenger seat. "How long before everything goes haywire?"

He pulls the door shut, shaking his head, and looks over to Nicole. "You good to drive?"

“You really think…?” Nicole sits with her left hand wrapped around the steering wheel and her right on the key in the ignition, though she hasn’t turned it yet. She wants to argue that things didn’t start happening because of Asami. Formulating that argument is what finally kicks her out of that loop she’d found herself stuck in. The engine turns over, she puts the car in reverse and pulls out of her spot, then heads for the doors and street level.

“Think about it for a moment. The… weird shit started happening before Asami…” Nicole lets out a sigh and rolls her eyes as the garage door comes up. She can’t believe she’s saying any of this, but it’s almost becoming normal at this point.

Has been normal for a decade and a half now? Christ.

Tongue presses to the tip of one canine as Nicole considers and waits for traffic to clear so she can turn onto the street. “Asami didn’t fly before the incident that’s got the feds trying to bend us over.” It’s a further testament to how rattled she is that she skews uncouth in her metaphors. “I was losing time and Zachery was hallucinating well before then. She can’t be the catalyst.”

"I think there are two distinct strains of weird shit, and that one is significantly more threatening than the other," Isaac argues. "The hallucinations, the… losing time… that was one thing. But the scary shit — people being bloody uncreated — didn't start until right after Asami decided she was Superwoman."

Isaac raises a hand to his forehead. "Which is not to say that she's the root of the problem, but she is, at the very least, A Problem."

“You say distinct strains, but I say they’re intertwined. Not necessarily indistinguishable from one another, but inextricable.” Nicole hesitates a moment and misses her window to turn. Her knuckles go white around the steering wheel and Faulkner can see the flare of frustration in the momentary tightness at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She’s fine. And she almost says so preemptively.

Huffing out a breath if only to clear the way for a deeper one to replace the expelled air, Nicole attempts to bring herself back to center. “By that logic, if she’s a problem, then so am I. Nobody else has altered reality because of their perceptions of it.” Not that either of them have heard of anyway.

Isaac raises a hand equivocally. "I won't argue that. In part because I think you're right on that," he says, though whatever further argument he'd been planning to make is forestalled by Nicole's lapse in driving. He glances over to her, gets a good look at that tightening of her face, and doesn't bother asking if she's fine.

Her next argument sees his expression tighten in turn, though. "Nicole. There have been three incidents. You have been involved in one."

“Are you going to try and tell me it’s not a pretty fucking big incident?” To her, it certainly is. Maybe that’s a bit self-absorbed, but given the situation, maybe Nicole’s entitled to this one. A quick glance is stolen from the corner of her eye, but she lets the need to watch for another window serve as a great excuse to keep her eyes ahead and not have to see the look on his face as she realizes they’re coming at this from different angles and not meeting in the middle the way she hoped.

“You’re right, you know,” she begins without context. “I’ve been trying since September to get pregnant.” Which she did not warn him about. He was supposed to win his election and she was supposed to deserve a damn vacation. But there’s no rest for the wicked, after all. “And all three of those children?” Nicole points over her shoulder toward the apartment complex. “They’re accidents. I tried so damn hard, and the universe had to break in order for me to have kids.”

So she’s swinging from scared out of her mind to pissed the fuck off now. He can decide which he prefers. “This is fucking stupid!” There’s her window. Nicole throws one last look left before she guns the engine and takes the turn right.

Well, here we are. Isaac is aware that Nicole is not right at the moment, but he is also becoming aware that no amount of discourse is going to fix that, and if they keep going at this he's probably going to end up in another car accident (and wouldn't that be a hoot).

So he just lowers his head and rubs his brow with one hand, as if trying to stave off a headache, and remains silent. He's not even sure what Nicole is arguing anymore, other than this sucks — which is an accurate assessment of the current situation, but not in any capacity a helpful one.

The lack of outward reaction on his part is probably for the best on multiple fronts. The gears in Nicole’s head shift after only a moment of grinding. “So what do you even propose we do?” she asks after three long blocks worth of silence. “Say you’re right and the shifts in reality have… nothing to do with me in even my own situation. What if those kids had just…” One hand lifts from the steering wheel, waving through the air as though she might be able to grasp the word she’s looking for. “Appeared? What if Avery was still sick? And what if you couldn’t do what you do?”

The glance over is brief, because for once she’s seeming to manage to hit every light on the green. “What if Asami hadn’t— I’m just saying…” Her voice catches, because she remembers perfectly how angry she was in the moment she found out Asami had attacked Isaac. How worried she was for him. Forgiving her should be harder than this, shouldn’t it?

"Contain her." Those two words are carefully enunciated.

"That's all we can do. We can't reverse what's already been done." He looks over to Nicole, and his dark eyes are alight with some inner fire, but his voice is low and carefully controlled. "Let me be frank, Nicole. I don't care about these… powers — they're an edge. An opportunity, even. I don't even care that she fucking attacked me, anymore. What I care about is that Asami Tetsuzan's actions are spreading a sickness throughout the world, and it needs to be contained before it turns to sepsis."

He sighs. "Because this was a big incident, Nicole. It was a bloody enormous one… and she's not going to stop. She's going to keep attacking people, because she can't stop herself, and what if the next time it happens, it's bigger still?" he asks, something plaintive in his voice now.

Isaac leans back into his seat. "I can't just stand by, Nicole. I won't," he says tiredly.

“Contain— How are we supposed to contain her? She— did something to me, Isaac. When I—” Letting out a shaky sigh, she commits to her path, telling him, “When I let her do what she does, I had a moment of doubt. Where I thought maybe I should change my mind and tell her I didn’t want it. That I should step away. Then… I suddenly didn’t.” Nicole turns her head to look at Isaac. “I don’t think she can be contained.”

The nearer they get to the Linderman Building, the more traffic cooperates even further in their favor. It's a lucky lull between surges of activity they've hit.

Nicole shifts her attention back to the road, though her brow is starting to furrow at their continued good fortune with the lights. This… has never happened in her entire time living in New York City. What should elicit a smile instead coils a knot of suspicion that she doesn’t recognize as such just yet.

The open road highlights that down the block there are a conspicuous number of black SUVs parked in front of the Linderman Building, one even idling in an out-of-bounds area. A dark-haired woman in a suit stands by the vehicles, a phone pressed to her ear. She both stands watch over and doesn't seem to notice the movements of a pair of other suited agents who leave the rotating doors at the front of the building with an inner-officer mailbox crate repurposed to carry stacks of files, paperwork— who knew what else.

There's no lights, no sirens— just indications that whatever the FBI were after today, they must have found.

“Oh.” The note from Nicole is a flat one. The most succinct response she can think to give follows:


Nicole's testimony earns a momentary narrowing of Isaac's eyes… then he shakes his head slightly. "She can be," he says in a low voice. "How is the hard part, but… she can be. And she will be." He shakes his head. "I need you to—"

Whatever he'd been about to say is cut off at the sight of the swarm of Feds milling around the front of the building. He's not sure what the hell's going on there, but his instincts second Nicole's curse. "Get us to the garage. I'll hit my office, find out what the fuck is happening up there. You should probably stay out for awhile longer. If something goes pear-shaped I need to have someone I can trust to keep the Group running." He's evaluating his own escape contingencies in the event something goes pear-shaped.

Driving past to the parking garage happens without undue notice being placed on the passing Buick. The agent on the phone ends her call and begins to head inside again without looking their way, and then she's out of sight while they pull into the parking structure.

So their luck continues to hold in a different way. Nicole’s afraid to trust it, but she pulls into the garage with Isaac all the same. “What did you do with the bug-out bag? I can go get it, send it along with one of Zarek’s people… Muldoon maybe. Or a dead drop somewhere?” More importantly, “Where do you want me to be? Wait here or get off-site?”

The thought of leaving him here to the wolves makes her grip the wheel a little tighter, but she knows it might be their best chance to protect their dynasty. And she will be damned if she lets the Feds tear it away from them after all this time they’ve spent in power.

This is their city, and Nicole isn’t about to let the sins of Asami Tetsuzan fuck that up.

Isaac considers. "Offsite. The bag is still at the safehouse. Top shelf of the hall closet, behind the towels." He considers. "If I call, I'll talk about dinner. That'll be your gauge of the situation. Until you hear from me, though, stay clear."

He opens the door and starts to get out… then he pauses, glancing back. "Be careful," Isaac says, his expression softening for just a moment… then he gives one of those practiced smiles of his, and straightens his tie. "I'll talk to you soon."

Nicole nods her head along with his directions. She’ll remember all of it, improbably. The biggest tell to her fear is the way that her expression stays passive. Be careful, he tells her and she smiles. It’s genuine, but anxious. “You too.”

After he closes the door, she rolls down the window to call after him. “Don’t be late for dinner!”

Then she pulls out of the garage.

Isaac smiles in return; he holds that smile until she's gone. Only then does he let the smile fade. He turns for the elevator and presses the button for the top floor.

It's a long ride up, with plenty of time to think. Why were the feds here again, and in such numbers? When here in January, they'd been given every reasonable bit of access— maybe a bit more in that they briefly had access to everything Asami had had access to— and they'd turned up nothing incriminating inside the Group itself.

So why…?

Before he can begin to compose those thoughts, though, the elevator dings to indicate it'll be stopping, and when it opens, it's the agent from before. She seems surprised to see Isaac, judging by the lift of her brows— maybe even a little impressed. He came back after all. "Mr. Faulkner," she greets before stepping inside, alone. She casts a glance to the floor indicated, and lets the door close of its own accord.

After all, they were headed to the same place.

She turns to him, offering a hand. The sleeve on her suit jacket slides up to reveal a thin, silver-faced watch with the time worn on the inside of her wrist. "I've been looking forward to meeting you, I must say. Special Agent Leta Darlow, FBI."


The smile she wears comes off as friendly, maybe, to those who aren't well-versed in seeing the smirk of someone who looks like the cat who caught the canary. This was bound to be an interesting elevator ride.

So many floors to climb, and just the two of them together to wait it out.

"You were absent, and I got tired of waiting, so the warrant we came to present was served to your administrative assistant and we've already gotten to work." There's the slightest cant of her head as she apologizes guiltlessly, "I hope you don't mind."

"Ms. Darlow," Isaac says, raising an eyebrow; he takes the offered hand and shakes it with a firm, business-like grip and a pleasant smile. He's seen predators before; he'll pay respect, but he isn't about to quail. "My apologies for missing you earlier; I'm glad to hear that it hasn't upheld your work unduly. What can I do for you?"

Clasping her hands behind her back, Leta glances to the remaining floor count idly. "If you'd not mind giving me the password to your personal workstation, that'd save me some time. Beyond that, don't interfere with my agents' work, and I'm sure we'll get along just fine."

Her head wobbles for a moment before she admits, "Mostly, we're interested in your finances and those associated departments, so they'll be primarily on those floors, from which no one is to leave until we've completed our search." A beat later, she adds, "They already know that. I've asked Doris not to go anywhere either."

"She is lovely, by the way," she remarks with a look back to Isaac. "Absolute charmer."

Isaac raises an eyebrow at her request. While he's certain that even an investigation of his personal workstation wouldn't turn up anything that they'd be able to get their teeth into, the fact that she's even asking is suggestive of a direction he doesn't like.

Possibly just as she intended. Hm.

"Doris is a charmer, yes; Nicole trusts her implicitly, which is saying something," he agrees, giving a faint smile. "She excels at casting oil on troubled waters; I don't know what we'd do without her."

His smile eases into a frown as he mulls over Leta's 'requests'. "I'll have to decline giving you access to my personal workstation; there's a great deal of work and personal correspondence on there, and if you're chasing a rat in Finances almost any correspondence should be on their systems, which I trust your warrant covers," he says, doing his best to sound contrite. "However, I don't plan on interfering with your agents' work," he says amicably. "With that said…"

He pauses, looking troubled. "What is it that you're hoping to find? Do… do you think Asami's been embezzling, too?"

Leta can't help but smile, because even if Isaac's not being fully cooperative here, there's still plenty to smile about. "Oh, no," she replies demurely. "This isn't about Asami Tetsuzan. This one's been coming far, far longer than that."

Her smile cracks a hair wider even though it's thinned out while she speaks. "I've been working on this case for years. Back before Linderman passed— my condolences, by the way." Her eyes shift to the side, lids lowering in a briefly contrite gesture before she gets back to being pleased about current circumstances. "This house of cards has been a difficult one to topple, even for all its rotten roots. But the times are changed now."

It's not hard to draw the parallels she's skirting around bringing up directly. The hands managing the tower have changed.

"I've been waiting for this for a long time, Mr. Faulkner," Leta confides evenly. "The DEA finally proved themselves useful in this investigation. It's about damn time."

The elevator's floor count slowly rises higher and higher. But not fast enough to cut the conversation off here.

For just a moment, he feels the surge of fear that she's going for; it's hidden behind his masks and in the back of his eyes, but it's there. And then…

And then…

It's gone. It's strange; just a short while ago, this would have been a nightmare scenario. The Feds are coming, and they'll huff and puff and blow the house down! They'll rip apart the empire, and it'll be all Isaac's fault!

Yet now… now it fails to trigger the crippling existential terror that it once would have. Linderman's empire has endured this long; with a steady hand and some aggressive damage control, it can yet endure. On the heels of this thought, though, comes another; not for the first time, Isaac Faulkner finds himself forced to consider the possibility — unwanted and intrusive as it is — that maybe, just maybe, Asami Tetsuzan had been right. Maybe he had been broken before.

But that's something he can address later; he has more pressing concerns right now. He swallows, once, lets his eyes go a little wide — it's not hard to see that Agent Darlow is enjoying this moment, savoring it like a fine wine. "What are you talking about?" he asks, the words slipping out just a little too quickly for his usual polished speaking style.

"I'm saying…" Leta starts to go, and then she looks up, like she's reviewing the vision of the words in the air above her. She reconsiders them. "If I'm right— and I'm pretty damn sure I am— the FBI might be the least of your concerns, soon, Mr. Faulkner."

This part she doesn't take as much interest in. This is just a side effect— a cherry on top of the cake of this affair.

"The motorcade out front's going to draw eyes and interest. Your public image…?" She even flinches the approximation of a sympathetic wince on his behalf. "I can't say I envy the tank it's going to suffer."

The elevator hasn't stopped once on their ascent. And it keeps rising still. Not much longer now— but it also feels like the time between each floor grows slower… and slower…

"And if those in the good light of society start to look poorly on you, I just can't imagine what this is going to do for those other associations of yours." Leta lifts her brow in idle thought. Shame, isn't it?

With a tsk, she looks back to Isaac. "Are you sure you'd rather not fully cooperate?"

Pity; she'd caught herself. Isaac raises both eyebrows as he considers Darlow's change of tact. He takes a breath. "I won't say cooperation is off the table," he says, shrugging. "However. You have seen fit to bombard me with a great many sticks in very short order; I've yet to even review the warrant you presented to my administrative assistant."

Faulkner looks up to the floor counter, which is moving interminably slowly, then back to Leta. "My floor is coming up, Ms. Darlow. As much as I must admit that it… actually has not been entirely unpleasant talking with you," he admits, shrugging, "soon I'll have warrants to review and statements to make in an effort to mitigate the damage you have so shrewdly done to my public image with your opening salvo. Not to mention the ongoing investigation into Tetsuzan, who I am trying very hard indeed to track down before she commits any further high crimes or misdemeanors."

"So: have you anything further?"

Isaac Faulkner wouldn't have gotten this far in business or as far as he did in politics without a solid spine and a good poker face. Special Agent Leta Darlow can respect the calm he's conducting himself with here.

"For now? No, sir," she responds with languid calm. "But I imagine we'll chat soon."

Finally, the door dings again and slides open. Leta lays her arm over the door before gesturing out. Beyond, half a dozen agents are visible just from the elevator alone. "After you."


Nicole makes it several blocks from the brief dead zone of the parking garage before her phone finally dings to let her know she's missed a call, and there's an accompanying voicemail. Fishing her phone into her hand, she's still driving, and it takes a doubletake to trust she's not seeing things.

1 Missed Call

Truth be told, she'd been wondering. Ever since those children — her children — appeared, Nicole had wondered if her sister could be here too. She'd been too afraid to check her contacts, but she knew Colette's number by heart. It had been punched in on the keypad more times than she can recall.

Figuratively speaking. Nicole remembers everything.

She'd never pressed send.

Now, here it is, staring her in the face. The one she loves more than anything — so much that she risked losing Pippa while she was pregnant with her — is here, in this place.

Nicole pulls snug up to the curb, heedless of whether or not this is an actual parking spot, and calls her sister back. When the line connects, she doesn't wait for a greeting before she asks with a deceptive nonchalance she doesn't remotely feel. "Hey, Sissy. What's up?"

Except it's gone to voicemail. "Cinnamon toast fuck me in the—" Nicole aborts the call and her hybrid Mommy Vocabulary expletive. She dials into her own voicemail to find out what her inexplicable sister called for instead.

A voice politely tells Nicole, "You have one new message. First message…"

There's the sound of broken, pained laughter from Colette— her Colette— that seizes her own heart.

"Of course you're n— you know what, this is fff— this is better— this is…" A mere blip of a moment later, she audibly sucks in a breath that crackles the line and says:

"I'm finally f-fucking done with you, Nicole." In just getting out the words, she lets out another choke of laughter that tenses her voice when she continues. "I put in a restraining order, so you can't ever come near me again, so you can't ever hurt me again. Y— You're not going t' get another opportunity to come back and make things right and talk me back over one day and then completely fucking break me down the next. And I honestly don't know why I didn't think of it sooner. It took seeing a fucking therapist t…"

She tapers off as her voice breaks, fighting tears all over again. "Y'know, it's really…" Colette struggles with picking back up her train of thought before forcing out, "Good bye, Nickels."

The recording tapers off in a scrape of static before it can be disconnected fully, leaving a heavy silence before the audible tap that ends the call is finally captured.

Nicole's automated voicemail assistant helpfully tells her, "To replay this message, press 1. To save this message, press 7. To delete this message, press 9. For message details…"

Nicole’s breath is stolen from her the moment she hears the distress in her sister’s voice. Her eyes grow wide when she realizes she is the cause of Colette’s pain. She’d told her husband that she couldn’t reconcile the fact that her father was so different between the two realities. How could she handle the fact that he’d been a monster to her in that other life, but was so wonderfully supportive here? She visits him regularly, spends holidays with him. And her mother. In another life, her mother stood by and just let it all happen.

In this world… In this life…

Is Nicole the monster?

The emotion plays out on Nicole’s face. First shock, then disbelief, confusion, anger, sorrow.


Unseeing, she stares straight ahead while tears flow freely down her face. How? How? She would never — could never do that to Colette. To anyone, but especially not her baby sister. What could have—

Nicole shuts the car off, folds her arms over the steering wheel and just lays her forehead against them to sob. She knows what she’s done, even if it’s not what she remembers. This is what she deserves.

The unraveling of her life.

She can’t sit there forever, as much as she’d like to just stay where she’s at until she wastes away and crumbles to nothing. With that not being a practical option, she turns her head so the side of it is against her forearm and she can stare through her tear blurred vision at the glove box.

While blowing her brains out would be a suitably dramatic way to go out, it still leaves all those other little problems unsolved, and if she isn’t around, how will anything get fixed? As much as she cares for Isaac, as much as he’s learned, he’s still not as capable as she is.

This empire they’ve come to control and to grow can’t be brought down now. Not after the way they’ve fought for it all. Not after how much they fought each other for the right to rule. What remains is the question of where to regroup. Wiping her face, Nicole looks first to the driver side mirror, to the reflection in miniature of the building that bears neither of their names.

It can be rebuilt.

Colette’s angry words echo in her head. Family can’t be rebuilt.

Home isn’t far. She could go back. Should go back. Damn him for convincing her that packing up the kids was an overreaction. They couldn’t find her here, and she didn’t give an ETA, but they know she has a sick daughter. The Feds know she’ll return home sooner or later. If they aren’t already at her penthouse, they will be before long. The kindest thing to do would be to be there when they arrive. Spare the poor teenager the panic of being confronted by the FBI.

This would have been easier if it was just her and Zachery still.

Nicole puts the car in drive and pulls back out onto the road after checking that mirror again. Zachery would be smart enough to lawyer up. Maybe mention the fact that they have the no work at home rule. They’ll certainly search the place, but they won’t find anything. And she’s kept everything as separate from her husband as she can. Unless Zachery decides to flip on her…

Jesus. What if he does? What if he turns her over? Tells them he — no, tells them that she can find Asami?

She drives past the turn that would most directly take her home. The only one she can truly trust now is Isaac Faulkner; she just has to stick to the plan. Even if Zachery stands by her to the last, he’ll never be prepared to go as far as she’ll go. Isaac will.

To protect her. To protect her family. To protect their legacy.

But then her phone rings.

Come on try a little, nothing is forever

It's 'Ella.

There’s got to be something better than in the middle

Glancing at her phone on the dash mount (frequently), she lets it nearly go to voicemail before finally swiping to answer.

Me and Cinderella put it all toge—

“Miller,” she responds neutrally, like she may not have had a chance to see who was calling.

"Mrs. Miller?" 'Ella sounds fretful. Not on the verge of panicked— she's too well-put together for that, a professional— but definitely concerned.

Maybe worse, actually.

"Mrs. Miller—"

Were they at her home already? Is this just like the call she received earlier?

"Mrs. Miller, you said to call you if anything changed, and—"

No, this one's different.

"S-she was doing just fine, and—"

The phone nearly falls, and then gets picked up and put back to 'Ella's ear. "I-I called an ambulance. They've just come and got her. They're taking her to…"


The door to Isaac's office is, not unexpectedly, already open. The desk outside his office is empty, the computer darkened. Likely, the tower is gone, just as Doris is.

They've taken what they wanted from his office already, too. The decoration they were kind enough to leave be, but wires lay astray across the top of his fine desk, drawers hang dreadfully open. One is almost shamefully turned out and left over on the top of its surface. Chances are the metal runner on the bottom of it's left a scratch on the surface for how it was discarded.

The office isn't empty of people, but the ones who await him aren't federal agents.

It's two members of the Board, one old enough Isaac had surely thought he'd pass well before his old man did, and the other— shrewd. Younger, but ten years his senior still. The latter has sharp, dark eyes, and adjusts his suitjacket as he regards Isaac's entrance out of the corner of them.

The older turns to him, shifts his cane, and rests both hands over the top of it with a troubled expression. "Isaac…" he says with a tinge of regret.

This is a man he's known for the better part of his life. In passing, before he gave his counsel after Linderman's death. He had offered more than just his condolences— he had also granted his support.

But now he says, "We need to talk about your future here at the Group."

And for Isaac, it's hard not to suddenly imagine that house of cards Leta was talking about. One so fastidiously and carefully maintained— not the one belonging to the Group itself— but the one of his own life.

For Nicole, the way her life feels as though it's crashing down around her is a collapse just as precise, just as heavy.

The supports, pulled out from the bottom—

And everything that happens now: a long, slow fall.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License