The Hunting Trip, Part I


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Also featuring:

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Scene Title The Hunting Trip, Part I
Synopsis Ace picks up Zachery for a day on the outside town. It's sure to be an adventure.
Date December 6, 2020

The disdainful look Ace is giving the truck he was told to pick up is an expression that tells stories, especially when it's done while the thing is parked by the side of his usual vehicle. A Porsche Taycan is great for city cruising in a city brim with electric vehicles… however, it is not ideal for any trip to a destination over a hundred miles away.

He sighs and lifts his hand to press two gloved fingertips to the bridge of his nose, trying to smooth out the wrinkle between his eyebrows. It's fine. This is fine.

“Cheer up, my artist,” his partner encouraged him as she sent him out the door with a peck on the cheek. “It doesn’t matter what you drive. You and Cleo will still have a good time.”

They're going hunting, after all. It'll all be worth it. But this is definitely a lesson learned for next time, and highlights a need to purchase one of those expensive portable batteries.

He tosses the keys high and lets them fall back to his palm without particular panache, positioning himself behind the driver side door so he can swing it open, placing a foot on the running rail so he can slide in his gun case first.

Cleo rides up front, at least until Zachery arrives. "I'm sorry, darling," he apologizes to the gun in advance.

Nicole and Zachery Miller Residence, Bay Ridge

The street lamps have only just shut off, the sky a dim pink and grey as a Honda truck rolls up to the facade of the Miller residence. Ace pulls the handgear into park, still standing on the brake anyway, and turns his head toward the closed front door of the home.

He counts to ten, and thinks himself very patient.

Then he lays twice on the horn, sending birds resting in a naked tree down the block scattering even though it's a brief honk from the truck. Ace seems satisfied nonetheless, slipping his foot off the pedal and grabbing hold of the gun case laid across the passenger seat. He opens his own door and steps to the ground, coming around to the back of the truck while he waits for someone to exit the house.

For all that the truck looks ready to go hunting, Ace Callahan does not. He looks more the part of an old-time mafioso out on some early-morning business. He'd look even more the part of his gun were in something like an instrument case, but alas— it's a bulky, army green carrying case for a rifle, etched with fading black stenciled letters that hint it very well may just be an Army case after all.

The door to the house does swing open, but it’s not the man Ace is here to pick up that steps out. Instead, it’s his wife, already dressed for the day in jeans and an oversized cable knit sweater that almost certainly didn’t come from her side of the closet. Nicole Miller descends the few steps to the concrete walk, favoring slightly her right side.

“Good morning, Harry.” The greeting is only slightly tepid as she pulls the door most of the way shut behind her. “Zachery’s just finishing up inside. I’m sorry he’s running late, but I’m afraid my daughter demanded chocolate chip pancakes and only her step-father’s will do.” Nicole manages a smile, but it’s clear that something’s eating at her. “Would you like some coffee? If you’ve got a travel mug, I can top it off for you. Or send you with one of our extras.”

She grins ruefully. “I can manage that much, at least.”

The door's barely even stilled before it swings open again, this time so Zachery can escape out, carrying a black backpack at his side and already fully buttoned up in a the very thing he instantly reminds Nicole of wearing on his hurried way past her: "Coat."

For as firm as the reminder is, he looks less so. The brain biopsy scar running along the top and side of his head is most notable, clearly visible amidst a mess of hair. He is unshaven and unkempt. As has been a theme and might very well eventually be on his gravestone — he's looked better. Turning to Ace, he pauses, looks him over, laughs a dry laugh, and proceeds to set the bag he's carrying against a truck tire so he can back away to head quickly back inside.

"I will be— right there. There's chocolate chips absolutely everywhere, it's a warzone," on his way back inside, he fixes Ace with a last look before turning and calling dramatically out over his shoulder, "I take back what I said, by the way, at the fish place— escape while you can!"

When it's Nicole rather than Zachery he comes to face, Ace can't mask his surprise. Especially when she's as poorly as she is. "Nicole?" he starts, attempting geniality on return, but like hers, it falls just slightly short. He blinks, and like that, a more friendly mask slides into place. "No, we'll be fine, I think. I had planned to stop…"

And then there's Zachery. If Nicole looked unwell, then what even to say of him? Ace half-opens his mouth to say something, but his hunting partner for the day whirlwinds here and then back into the house. At least for all he looked, his vigor was untouched.

For all that Ace seems to be considering taking up Zachery's offer and driving off without him, even though he's fairly certain the other man had been referring to another topic they'd discussed that evening.

"What on earth is that child doing to you both that you're looking like this?" he finally manages with an incredulous, short laugh as he looks back to Nicole.

“I’m fine,” Nicole insists. No coat necessary for a brief foray into the outdoors to be pleasant to her husband’s friend when he’s running behind. He should be glad she put shoes on before shuffling out. “I see how it is. You’re gonna fill her full of sugar and then fuck off.” She sighs as Zachery darts back inside, but it’s with an easier smile than she wore a moment ago. There’s still fondness as she turns part of the way to watch him go.

But her attention drifts back before Zachery’s out of sight again. Nicole lets out a little huff of rueful laughter and shakes her head. If she’s offended, she doesn’t let on. “We’re just running each other ragged.” She shifts the blame away from her daughter, because for all that the lives of her caretakers have been flipped upside down, Pippa’s taken it all like a champ. Sometimes Nicole thinks she might be the mature one in the house.

“Not in the way either of us would like, I’m afraid,” she adds as an afterthought. “Is he trying to talk you out of something?” Nicole stifles a grin mostly unsuccessfully. “I hear you’ve got yourself a…” What was the word Zachery used? Hm… “Sweetheart?” That’s not it, but close enough. “We’re not all as difficult to get along with as I am. Just make sure she’s not married to her work first and foremost.” She can be candid about her own shortcomings.

Headwound or not, at least there isn't anything wrong with Zachery's ears - he's barely back out the door again when he adds, "Or married, period! Might help."

He pats his pockets down on his way back to the truck. Keys, check, phone, check — but when he's up next to Nicole again, sliding an arm around her back, he looks not at her, nor at Ace, but at the great beyond of nowhere whatsoever to say, "Shit, where'd I leave my bag."

Nicole leans into the half embrace and nudges Zachery in the ribs before pointing toward the truck’s tire — and his propped up bag — with one finger. “Right there, dear.”

Ace regards the clear tension between the two like a particularly wary cat, only his eyes moving, hand still resting on top of the case he was transferring to the truck bed. The dynamic between them is not fascinating, it sounds volatile, and he's doing his part to very carefully not fall on either side of the fence, here.

On purpose, anyway. But it's clear to him that Zachery needs a break from all this with how frazzled he seems, juggling fatherhood, partnership, and who knew what else all at the same time. So Ace simply nods.

"Throw it in the cab and we'll get going," he directs, abruptly coming back to life. The gun case is positioned lengthwise along the back of the truck so it has less space to slide should it shift during the trip.

To Nicole he offers a small, tight smile. "I've decided I'd rather her be married to me, so we'll see how that goes for us both. Wish us luck." Then he flips the tailgate of the truck closed, pulling on it to make sure it's good and locked into position. He nods to himself, finding it satisfactory, and looks back to Nicole again. "Pleasure to see you again. Best of luck on your end with the sugar demon."

“Best of luck with that.” If Nicole knew who Ace’s coquette was, she might have entirely different thoughts on the matter. One arm slides carefully around Zachery, then the other as she pulls him into an embrace. “You be careful, okay?” She presses a brief kiss to his lips. “I know you will be,” she insists before he can roll his eyes. “But don’t forget to enjoy yourself.” Her voice lifts to his hunting mate, “Make sure he does, okay?”

Troubling dynamic or not, when Zachery's attention returns to Nicole fully, it's with a flicker of gladness pulling his grin wider as he assures, "Just a trip there and back again."

Releasing him to go on his journey, the door opens before Zachery’s wife can get more than two steps away. “Wait!” Aforementioned sugar demon comes barreling down the steps, chocolate smeared around her mouth, but at least her hands are clean when she throws her arms around Zachery’s waist. “I didn’t say goodbye!” Pippa wads up Zachery’s coat in her little hands, fortunately only pressing the side of her face against it. No chocolate transfer, mercifully.

Nicole places her hands on Pippa’s shoulders to gently guide her back. “We need to let them get on the road, Pipsqueak,” she murmurs softly. “They’ll be back later.”

Ever since her mother’s accident and her step-father’s biopsy, Pippa’s been far more prone to clinging to them both. She lets go of the coat first, then reluctantly unwinds her arms from Zachery. “Come back safe.” It’s more than just a perfunctory farewell. It’s the child’s honest plea for this excursion to be one free from peril. No more injuries, please. “Love you, Z.”

He's only barely picked his bag back up when - with a quiet 'oof' - Pippa's suddenly at his waist. For all the affection shown, Zachery's arms simply go up and stay there rather than indulge Pippa in her embrace. When the unreturned gesture is followed up by that farewell, his expression falls fully, well and truly stunned, frozen in place.

Mrs. Miller exchanges a look of wordless surprise with her husband. She’s never said that before.

Only then does Pippa step back and head halfway up the steps, giving herself the elevation to better see Ace where he stands at the back of the truck. The little blonde offers a bright smile and a wave. “Hi, Mister Stoltz! Be safe and have fun!”

Movement comes back to Zachery in bits, in the backpack lowered - one step taken to the side - until finally he's moving to do as he's been instructed. "Sooo, lots to address," he asides to Ace while on his way, "but nothing we actually will. Funny, that."

Ace presses his lips into a thin line that passes just barely for a smile and waves farewell to Pippa. His eyes go immediately after to Nicole. "I'll have him back after sundown," he assures bright but solemn, the tone of an eagerly-placed vow. "I'd say before then were this any other time of year. At any rate, try to not have too much fun without us." The smile he gives the missus is a sight more sincere and companionable, and then he slips around the side of the truck to haul himself into the driver's seat.

“Thank you,” Nicole responds with no lack of gratitude and sincerity on her own part. “We’ll do our best. See you tonight.” With a small wave of her own, she finally turns back to the house and ushers her astonishing child through the front door and locks up behind them.

With a loud close of the truck door, and a step on the brakes, the vehicle is negotiated back into gear. "Plenty to address," he agrees to Zachery, the music off within the cab. The radio only cheerlessly displays the current time. "Do I need to drop you off at a men's shelter rather than take you home?" Ace sounds a little too serious to be joking, but it's a question not followed up by a well-meaning look in italics, or not even a glance.

And the truck rolls away from the sidewalk.

"No," comes an answer from the passenger's seat's new occupant, shifting in his seat to slump back into a more comfortable position. Today's not a day for pretense, nor good posture, at least not right this minute. Zachery looks as exhausted as he sounds when he asks, "I've had enough sheltering in my life, thank you very much. What I need is something else. A change. Or two. Or ten."

Without pause, he turns his head to look at the man he just told they wouldn't be talking about this, and asks in a sickly cheerful tone that mismatches his unimpressed stare perfectly, "How's home, then, Harry. How's the coquette. Matching sweaters for the holidays? What name'd you write on those little… dangly present cards, or is it just initials? Met her mum yet? Is her mum a cheek kisser, or…?"

Ace's small smile he started wearing at Zachery's reinsistence regarding his need for change persists when the conversation is immediately wrung back in his direction. He regards his passenger with a momentary glance before settling his hand on top of the wheel.

Isn't he just a ball of fire today? And so early, too. With all the energy of a nervous cornered animal lashing back out. Maybe he'd get it out of his system yet.

"We're doing just lovely," Ace answers smoothly, without qualm. "Her parents are dead, so no ingratiating myself required on that front. If I'm not mistaken, you suffered that same fortune as well, didn't you?" He knows, so he sails right along. "There has, however, been an annoying advent calendar of new family members these last few weeks. Brothers and their family, a niece who I was forced to spend the holiday with on last-minute notice… it wasn't an insufferable experience, but I'm not exactly a family person to begin with. Shocker, I know."

Northbound they go, taking to the sideroads rather than the highways. He has a path he's set on, one that involves caffeine for them both, whether or not Zachery actually needs it. It's the thought that counts.

"Matching her, though— who says the holidays are required to pair well with her?" A short chortle escapes him before his air turns a touch more serious, even for all his mirth. "I did decide on how I'll be proposing. I even found a ring. Purchased it when we were in Kansas City for Thanksgiving. She has no idea."

"It's all coming together nicely," Ace murmurs, looking around the corner as they roll up to a stop. With no traffic in sight, he turns without using the blinker. "Now it's just a matter of popping the question."

Regarding Zachery out of the corner of his eye, he airs more brightly, "I've decided to take a leaf from your book, actually, and avoid dropping down on one knee altogether. I think it suits my style with her better anyway."

With Ace having taken control over the airspace in the vehicle, Zachery looks all too glad to be getting a moment to himself, elbow against the door and fingers splayed against his jaw. Is he listening? Uncertain. The outside just past the window has grasped and holds his attention — an outside steadily away from the bustle of every-day, at that.

Without looking at Ace, he replies, "I had an inkling you might be the sort of person who'd have a hard time letting go of the view from up above, yes." An otherwise now idly pensive expression takes on just a pinch of amusement in the beginning of a smirk. "Then again. It is nice. Are you excited? Is that what this is? Excitement? From you?"

"Well," Ace balks. "Perhaps you've caught me in a particularly pleasant mood because we're getting to do one of my most favorite things today." He smiles without cunning at saying so. "See, you've only seen me work up close and personal. But my true love, my true talent in life is what I can do at a range."

His head lolls to the side as they roll down a quiet, unassuming street free of construction. "I used to be a sniper, you know. Back when." He regards Zachery out of the corner of his eye. "I served." Ace smirches his tongue off the roof of his mouth. "My talents were wasted abroad, though, and they were being wasted domestically once recalled from Afghanistan. So, the civil war was as good a time as any to mutiny in the most dramatic of fashions."

He's talkative today. But Zachery seemed less keen on doing so, so why not?

"They were advancing through this town in Fuckallsville, oh— I don't know— Montana?" This detail is clearly of lesser importance. "In what I figure to have been some former loggers' oasis, where the tallest building was maybe three stories. One side of it faced a valley. They had me set up on one of those buildings to look down and out, expecting shots to thin the herd gathered around a camp in the trees almost a half-mile outside town." A nostalgic gleam enters his eyes. "Mitchell's men began to move, and when the time came to open fire… well, it wasn't the loggers I opened fire on. O was there by my side that day, and she brought time itself to a grinding halt to give me the lead time I needed for everything to play off perfectly."

The truck slows as he pulls off for a tiny coffee shop drive-thru. With a lift of his brow, he queries, "How do you take your coffee?" as though he'd not at all just been discussing prior acts of treason.

Though he continues to face outward, Zachery's gaze has lost focus on what's actually there in front of him. That ball of fire is turned momentarily inward as fuel, to process what's been said, pulling old memories back up to the surface and connecting thinning threads.

He clears his throat as they approach their stop, and the excess energy remains visible in the impromptu decision to shift forward and pull a small notebook and pencil from his pocket, shoved against a knee to write in. He frowns and scribbles down some words in shorthand on a seemingly random page, muttering somewhat distractedly in the meantime, "No milk, and see how much sugar they'll fit in there, would you."

Flipping a few pages forward to a less crowded spot, he taps the pencil to the paper in thought and adds, "Considering Mitchell's men lodged a bullet in my scapula, I'm glad your aim was better than theirs. And your company, for that matter."

Ace mutters under his breath to Zachery's order, "Very plain, then…" but otherwise shrugs. His voice lifts to a better-heard register. "Well, if the intent was to make you suffer, that's a painful enough place to fire at. Shooting runners in the back was quite a style of theirs." He sighs to himself at that, trying to brush off the thought. The window is rolled down.

"A venti caramel macchiato, please," he says out of it. "And a tall coffee, black with triple sugar." A glance over to Zachery and he arches his brows. Hopefully that'll be enough.

While they roll forward to pay, Ace segues easily back to the previous conversation. "Though just to be sure it wasn't me that shot you, do you happen to recall roughly when and where that happened?"

Zachery continues scribbling, and as such, the eyebrow arch is missed, order attempt accepted. "I like to see how much sugar they'll put in there before they start to question not my sanity, but theirs. It's become a bit of a habit."

When he looks up again, sliding the notebook into a pocket of his coat, he turns his head to look at Ace again - a little further than he'd like in order to be able to, but such is the cyclops life. He swallows, stiffens somewhat where he's slouched into his seat, then takes too deep of a breath before answering, "Bold of you to assume I was running."

Then, not a beat later, shamelessly delivered: "So I was running. From gunfire already happening. Mid-2013? Near… some harbour, that's all I remember. Couldn't even tell you the city. Or coast." He gestures a hand forward, dismissively, before it get scrubbed against unshaven jaw and his gaze is aimed ahead of him again. "Honestly, a lot of that time is a bit of a blur. A lot of negotiating for shelter, very 'I'll help your wounded for food or a door that locks for the night' and 'don't shoot, I'm a medic'. The latter sentiment's a bit hard to pull off when observed through a scope."

Ace doesn't spare Zachery a bark of laughter when he admits he was running when he was shot in the back. He lets out a sigh of contentment. Told you so.

Card exchanged for the first cup of coffee, he passes it to his passenger carefully. "This is a borrowed vehicle, try not to spill," he warns. While waiting for the card and the second drink, he supposes, "That was a bit late in my career, so you're likely not unfinished business of mine." Lucky him. "I would have thought the harbor to be somewhere in the Great Lakes, wouldn't have expected you to travel very far from the New York area, but… fascinating. You got around, didn't you?"

Ace smiles charmingly at the barista when she hands him his drink, a completely different person than Zachery knows. "Thank you, darling." Then when everything is back where it should be, they're free to go again, this time finally heading in the direction of the highway.

"It's marvelous that all of that is behind us now. The good and the bad of it. It's a whole new world after all, nearly final in the image it will take. And so we begin the climb up the rungs we find, or the ones we make when there's no easy path to our goals." He sighs luxuriously before taking a sip from his macchiato, setting it aside in a frankly fragile-looking cupholder set into the dash below the radio. "There's still molding left we can do of our own, have we the strength for it."

In stark contrast to how casually he's taken to sitting - and now sipping his coffee - Zachery has been paying attention. To the exchange, to the way Ace drives, to his every word.

And yet, there is still a moment of wordlessness between them after Ace is done speaking. Of thought, and of Zachery's slowly knitting brow before he says, suddenly and without looking away from the scenery outside the passenger seat's window, "How do you know?"

His head sinks back against the headrest, leg kicked out in front of him to shove himself back upright as he adds, "You, personally. What goal to aim for."

When Zachery poses his first question, Ace arches his brows in a silent nag for better clarification. His expression smooths when it's provided. Ah. He takes a moment to consider the angle of his reply. "It's a matter of reconciling what one is capable of and what they are actually willing to do and finding a marriage point somewhere between the two, pardon the play on words."

He thoughtfully smirches his tongue off of his cheek. "Beyond that… it's also a matter of encountering what you think might be fun, and deciding to say why not instead of bothering yourself first with the how." With a touch of curiosity that might be genuine he asks, "Does that make sense?"

"The words do," Zachery says into his coffee, wrinkling his nose after a sip. Too sweet or not sweet enough, it doesn't really matter - he takes another, longer drink, then adds with something lifting his tone, "Can't help but notice necessity isn't part of the equation."

Ace allows with an air of understanding that must be false in some way, "It has been many years since that was a motivator for me. I grew out of necessity. Once you begin down a path of prosperity, you will too." He tilts his head to the side, smiling serenely as he glances to his passenger. "Then it all becomes a matter of play."

"Give it time," he encourages. "You've already taken your first step."

A skeptical glance that only makes it halfway toward being in Ace's direction is all Zachery is willing to spare before he lets his head fall back again. He reaches to rub at his jaw, sighing into the relative quiet of the vehicle. In the somewhat unexpected moment of sharing. Compared to the energy he'd shown just earlier, he looks both more troubled and comfortable at once. As though he's between acts, and tired for it.

"I've taken a lot of those. First steps. A lot of them backwards," he answers with a sudden and humourless chuckle, eyes falling shut under furrowed brow, hand loosely around the coffee resting on his leg. "I'll be content enough, today, to know this one won't be directly into a bear trap."

The truck roars less than Ace thought it would when he accelerates down the highway's on-ramp, letting him hear and be heard with more clarity than expected. "If there is one thing I can promise you today, Miller, it's that that will not be happening to you." He grins faintly, eyes on the road finally rather than his company. He glances to the side mirror to check for any traffic he needs to fight against at this hour.

"It's a haul yet to get where we're going," he notes after merging. "Rest your eyes for a while, if you need to. I'm sure between whatever your wife's been doing to you and the chocolate demon you and she look after, you could use the siesta before our hike."

"No sleep just yet," Zachery is quick to say, opening only his right eye as he lifts the coffee for one more good glug of caffeine and sugar - though not before he adds, "Just some nothingness before the day begins in earnest."

To that, Ace has nothing to say. There's a breath of laughter that comes from him, and then the ambient silence of the rolling vehicle overwhelms even that. The sun rises higher in the sky. The radio remains silent. Nothingness abounds in the pleasant quiet of the cab.

Before long, the Safe Zone is a shrinking thing behind them, and they hook west to head for the hunting grounds.

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