The Hunting Trip, Part III


ace_icon.gif zachery2_icon.gif

Scene Title The Hunting Trip, Part III
Synopsis Everyone got a little of what they wanted. Even if it's only a little.
Date December 6, 2020

Somewhere in the hills of Pennsylvania

The silent march out became the silent march back. Ace is in even better spirits than when they first began their trek into the woods, punctuated by occasional looks back toward the black spindle of smoke snaking its way into the sky behind them. The scent of burning doesn't carry in the air now that they've nearly made it the fifteen minute hike back to the truck, separate entirely from the rest of the hunting party.

There's nothing but the sound of their footsteps, their breath in their lungs, their hearts in their ears. The forest is quiet— perhaps because of the nearby fire and the cacophony that had risen before it, but perhaps just from the time of year.

Either way, when Ace begins to hum under his breath, it's notable.

He and Zachery crest the final, small hill back to the roadside, and the truck is mercifully still where they parked it on the lookout point. The melody to his hum breaks when he hops down onto the concrete from the dirt, and picks up again with notes slow and spaced after he glances both ways— safety first— and begins his way across the road.

It's been a hell of a there and back again, and Zachery has elected to stay quiet.

When they were on the way to there, it was uncertainty keeping most of his words at bay. On the way to back again, it was something else. Something that kept his eye trained up at Ace's back, rather than the leaves and dirt below. It keeps his steps deliberate as he crosses the road, still following by virtue of their shared means of getting back to civilisation.

His pace picks up while they cross the road, every footfall a little closer to the front of the line, head held a little higher. Holding up and glancing, ever so briefly, at his own hand, curled into a fist - at his scuffed knuckles, dried blood still clinging on in flakes.

Then, once they're on the other side, he lifts his gaze again and says clearly and without stopping his advance, "I want you to take a look at something."

The tailgate of the truck is released down as soon as Ace reaches it, the guncase at the back of it flipped open. "Well done, Cleo," he murmurs under his breath, pulling the rifle off of his shoulder to run his fingertips along the body of it reverently. He lets out a relaxed sigh.

And then he notes Zachery in his periphery, pace not slowing. His head's already beginning to turn by the time he speaks, eyes beginning to narrow.

The look in his eye… Ace arches his brow slightly in response to it, the light from the grey skies above falling oddly against his body as he waits to see just what it is he's to be looking at.

Zachery stops, still leaning into an interrupted step before he lands with both heels on steady ground again. His jaw sets, but the look on his face does not change.

He cannot afford to be this naive.

"Alright," he decides firmly, "change of plans."

After darting a quick look to his side - and with a click - he pulls the borrowed gun out from under his coat, pointing it in one quick movement not at Ace, but at the easy, static target that is one of the truck's tires, finger on the trigger. Fuck the upholstery, a tire's much more important to getting them home. "You stay."

Ace is starting to regret giving Zachery that gun.

His brow lifts slowly. His shoulders shift, his mouth parts in a laugh that's silent— the world pertaining to him suddenly void of any sound at all, not even the huff of his breath carrying. The look of surprise is visible, and he turns to regard Zachery more fully, rifle still in hand. With a slow blink, his shadow settles on the ground beneath him again, and Ace wonders incredulously, "And why is that?"

Zachery's answer is immediate, hissed out with a poorly suppressed laugh of his own, even if his words ring out colder for it. "Because if I can't break your nose, we're going to at least have a chat."

Refusing to break eye contact, he motions in the direction of the road with his free hand, though perhaps more abstractly toward the past few hours. "What was your plan here, exactly? Introducing your boss, who - I'm going to venture an outrageous fucking guess - would not take too kindly to persons with a history of documented treachery, to me?!"

Whatever gears are turning in his head now catch on something humorous, and finally his grin flares back up in full force, even if his words seem to be drawn deeper from his chest with every one of them that makes it out louder than the last. "Not qualified, inexperienced, immensely underinformed. This was a fucking joke!"

Ace runs his tongue along the back of his teeth before enunciating clearly, "My plan, Zachery…" while he lets his rifle lower, barrel tip to the ground. "Was to see how you handled yourself without having the full picture. You were right where you needed to be, with all the tools you needed to succeed, with support, even if you lacked a quintessential why."

"—Because why we were there didn't fucking matter," he insists. "The d'Sarthe Group's interests aren't your own— you're just a man in need of a change from the pitifully mundane life you're leading, and I?— a provider of opportunity to see if you would fit well in the wheelhouse of my work." His tongue clicks off his palate before he remarks with noted disappointment, "The introductions made today could have been much more favorable for you. But between insubordination and being outright suicidal, I'm struggling to know where I could even put you."

Eyes narrowing, Ace points out, "This was a test. You had to know that. Had to have realized it."

"Of course I fucking did!" Zachery spits out a reply, bitter and quick. But despite his enthusiasm, his next words leave him a little slower. "I just didn't…"

He looks to his side, index finger slowly slipping from the trigger of the borrowed gun, intentions slowly relinquished as the weapon's lowered — right before it comes back up again with a bounce in his hand, in the midst of a somewhat unwise and exaggerated shrug of a gesture. "The why of it never fucking matters," he settles on, arms still wide. "Even when I think I've got it figured, I don't. When I think I know what path to take — and which ones to skip, it's never just that. It's just… it's forward."

He points an expectant raise of his brows at Ace, as well as the gun, saying pointedly and as though it should have more meaning than the words alone should carry, "Ever forward, never back."

The gun, finger resting somewhere between grip and trigger, is kept aloft.

"I pushed for too much at once, possibly," Ace acknowledges absently. He could have done better to prepare Zachery— to put him in a more favorable light rather than leave him to swim only pointing in the direction of shore. "I wasn't being a particularly good friend today. I had your back, but I never stood by your side."

The nuance of that likely means little given the frustration Zachery is going through, but it's important to Ace.

When the shrug shifts aim away from the truck and onto him, he watches the gun trained on him impassively, eyes half-lidded and on the way Zachery's trigger finger curves the side of the gun rather than the trigger itself. "Let me ask you something, though. Was the forward movement you took today not exciting? Cathartic?" After a pause, Ace asks, "Or is this where our paths diverge?"

Zachery listens, but whatever gears are turning in his head appear to grind to a halt with a mix of disbelief and surprise.

"'Friend'," He finally repeats in a scoff, rather than answer the question he's been asked, fixing Ace with a hard stare. "You're like a crowbar, wedged between the door. A pigeon that keeps trapping itself in Tesco. A…" He loses his train of thought, lowering the gun and turning start to walk toward the truck while attempting to undo his holder with one hand while the one with the gun flies up again.

"Of course it was exciting!" He yells, too loudly, like all the energy for intended ill will has decided to leave him this way instead. "It's more fun than I've had in years!" And apparently all the birds are going to hear about it on this day, his words clipped but grin unmistakeable in his voice, even with his back turned. "Now get in the fucking truck before we accidentally have an actual heartfelt fucking conversation."

It looks like Zachery doesn't mean to abandon him on the side of the road after all. That their paths don't diverge just yet.

Ace places his rifle away in the case, clasping it shut with the strap still attached. He'll take care of that later. Shoving the case back in the truck bed, he slams the gate shut, footsteps silent as he floats through the side of the bed toward the front seat rather than walk all the way around. He's rematerialized by the time he reaches the front, pulling the unlocked door open.

"You know," he remarks as he keys the ignition. "You're lucky I have thick skin. Others might be wounded at that description of how poor a friend they've been."

But Ace merely grins, amused even as he owns his faults. "I am delighted to know you found yourself out there… it took fits and starts, but that look you wore after you came back to your feet." The sigh he gives is pleasant, accompanied by a shift of the truck into gear. "Was it your first time killing a man purposefully, doctor?"

Yes, he had caught that correction after all, it seems.

Already settled into the passenger's seat just as he had been before - except for the fact that he's now holding a gun in his lap - Zachery sits unmoving when those last sentences reach him, gaze steadily drifting downward.

Rather than answering, his attention is first drawn to the glovebox, pulling it upen to lay the gun in there. He clicks it shut with more force than required, fingertips left lingering on its surface while he throws a confused look out through the windshield. "Yes?" He finds the ability to speak again, if somewhat subdued. "Exactly when did…"

He brings the hand up, now, raking fingers through his hair before shaking his head at some thought process that doesn't quite seem to want to fully form. "I didn't even get to see it." Frustration is what ends up bubbling to the surface, and what audibly fuels the more clearly spoken words that follow. "It happened and I didn't even get to be there."

Pulling out onto the road and veering immediately into a U-turn, Ace steers them back eastbound again. "You'll have to bring me up to speed on your shorthand just now," he relays easily, hugging the curve of the road. "What do you mean by not there? Did you go somewhere?" His jest is light, patience seeming infinite.

He gets his fair share out of Zachery finding his words here, too.

"No," Zachery fires back, on the other end of the patience spectrum. "I, ah- where to… even start."

His eye searches the road ahead, and though he hesitates to find the right words, the fog seems to lift from him all at once when he says, ever quicker, with growing conviction. "Before July, I could… read bodies. It was effortless - it was how I knew Nicole was pregnant before even she did, how I slacked off at the morgue without mistakes in my work, and much of how I learned to interact with people. Every day, at work, tells, little and otherwise. You."

He turns his head to look at Ace, now, pesky blind spot swept onto the back seat as he scrutinises his driver. "In prison, adrenaline spiking when you were working your job, for good and bad - like a signature. Everyone has them. Pain sparking like lightning, heartbeats like music, with rises and falls and—" He pauses for a breathy chuckle that fights its way out without it marking a change in his expression.

Frustration clings on, stubbornly. "Now, I miss it. For the first time, now, I really fucking miss it."

Eyes not leaving the road, Ace nonetheless demonstrates his surprise and interest in the explanation through unmasked changes in his expression. Fascinating. And then Zachery goes on to identify his own markers, making him wonder— glad suddenly this can't be used against him any longer.

Even if the way Zachery describes what he lost brings a sympathetic ache in his soul. He names the experiences he's now missing so beautifully.

"Now it makes sense," Ace intones, also mourning the lack of that sensation. "I cannot begin to fathom just how much more exciting that would have made things. Watching prey panic like rabbits, merely seeing what their reactions are is intoxicating enough…"

He lets his head loll slightly to the side, looking briefly at Zachery out of the corner of his eye. "But you managed well enough, I think." The critical roam of his gaze catches sight again of the blood on Zachery's forehead heading into his hair. "Enough to need to touch up before we insert you back into polite society."

Ace presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth as he looks back up to the road, his next words more careful. "What else happened while we were out there? Apart from your frustrations and your complete disregard for manners… something else seemed to happen once we hit the valley."

It might be that lack of being able to identify those markers that has Zachery's gaze glued to Ace for the moment. Even slouched back as he is, his posture is deliberate, visual signs of tension kept at bay save for the fact that one of his hands curls slowly into a fist again.

For all of his careful studying, he gives no acknowledgement of hearing what's been said, through hints at agreement or otherwise. Only once he is prompted with a question does he answer, flatly, "I didn't know there was going to be a test on the subject."

But that's a poor deflection, and he knows it. So after a quick clear of his throat, he adds, "I had a foreign object removed from my brain a month ago. It's been causing things to slip through the cracks - even if temporarily. I forgot, for a moment. Between that, and feeling cornered as I was, I tunnel visioned."

A grin pulls at the corners of his mouth, even if a little absently - he doesn't allow it much real estate as he turns his attention back to the road. "But it almost didn't matter, did it. I was going to get it done either way."

If nothing else, this definitely explains the scar and balding spot a touch better. "Christ, Zachery," Ace balks. "Hell of a side effect…"

While true, Zachery's gusto nearly did suffice on its own, the driver considers the situation with a small sigh. "I suppose having whatever was stuck in there removed and still not having your ability returned to you is salt in your wounds. A picture is beginning to paint itself regarding all that pent-up energy." The observation is made thoughtfully, lacking overt disappointment even if he might harbor concerns over Zachery forgetting what they were doing in the middle of action.

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.”

"I still don't know what to do with you, even so," Ace admits. "While you didn't quite fail your audition, it's difficult to know where I could put you." He clips his tongue off his cheek thoughtfully. "As far as building trust you can handle yourself discreetly and independently went…"


With little hesitation, Zachery takes over the dead air presented, and fills it with anger, loud and cold. "I'm not looking to be useful to you! Nor anyone else. I wasn't prepared to kill a man!"

He breathes sharply out through his nose, swallowing down some amount of remaining unease as his eye snaps back onto Ace. "This is why I asked about goals. I don't have them anymore— if I'd walked out there and been shot, that would have been it, and I think I would have been just fine." This is said with nothing but certainty.

"What would you or d'Sarthe even offer me? Money?" He sneers. "Security? I was magically fucking taken in my sleep, just as I was learning to trust that maybe life was going to be bearable for once. Safety is a fucking farce! So what is it," he demands, focus sharp, "if not revenge?"

Ace takes time before he replies, maybe to imply he's doing more than brushing off Zachery's feelings on the matter. "Everyone is useful to someone. You have a job with Raytech because you provide use to them— fill a purpose of theirs even if it's less clear to you. Whoever whisked you away, you had some purpose to them, too."

"If you want to quit finding yourself being used against your will, it's past time you found ways to commoditize yourself and lean into it. If all you truly feel you have to offer is that you're a man without anything to lose," a stance which Ace woefully misread when Zachery said he'd be just fine if he was killed out there, "then you write it into your elevator pitch, you own it."

He tilts his head back to Zachery briefly. "If you want revenge on whoever fucked you over, with details that could be arranged. But as for what I thought you would get out of this; you'd told me previously you were tired of trying to come up with your own plans only for someone else to impose theirs. That you were willing to relinquish a little control and just… go with the flow."

Brows arching, Ace demures, "So I thought you'd enjoy a little direction. Stepping stones being placed out before you. I'm not a charity artist— of course I executed it in a way that would tangentially benefit me."

As one does.

Amusement threads its way back into Zachery's expression - first, at the misinterpreted words, then at the notion of Ace's benefit.

His chin dips and he, too, attempts a spot of quiet as he mulls over the words said - but only manages a few ticks before impatience takes over. "And how did that work out for you?" He asks as his head comes back up. "Do you think you'll be invited to Sunday supper, then? Get a pat on the shoulder from dad? Or is it a toast from Gideon you're after?"

"I mean," Ace interjects immediately, a little too sharp to be perfectly gamely. "I'm still debating accelerating through the next curve and seeing what happens to you after the truck goes through the railing." He flicks a look to Zachery briefly, shrugging. "So you tell me."

One might infer it's not working out as he hoped.

"Or better, tell me what you think happens now, once we make our way back to town."

"I think my wife would destroy you," Zachery answers in deadpan, continuing to study his driver's face and pointedly ignoring the conversational detour sign. "But."

He breathes out a slow sigh. Then, turning his head to look at the road, at the railing quickly drawing nearer, he fishes his wedding ring out of his pocket. "I go home," he decides, sliding the ring back where it belongs, twisting it between careful fingertips so it sits just right before continuing, "I make up a story. I help make dinner. Probably forget the salt again. And then, eventually, we revisit this."

His eyelids fall again. Railing ahead or no, he's in the passenger seat, and there's nothing he can do about it now. The blood's already on his hands, and he lets his head hit headrest again. "And you serve me up some more catharsis pie. And I do better."

It's a far more even-keeled reply than Ace had expected to hear. The truck hugs the next curve through the hills before slowing for a stop sign he ultimately rolls through once seeing there's no one oncoming. A grin still plays involuntarily over him at the thought of tangoing with Nicole, helping her investigate her husband's murder with every condolence on display…

But Zachery has opted for a more sane, or at least, self-preserving path with a dash of fun sprinkled in for good measure.

"An event like this one was a rare opportunity, most likely. Unless the remaining marauders return to their camp site cinders and cry revenge, I can't conceive we'll cross paths with this catch again." After a suitable beat passes, Ace lifts his brows. "But who knows, maybe they will be foolish enough to hold up more trucks that pass through their area."

He sounds ambivalent on it because both options have their merit, but he'd also prefer the burning warning they left behind to be sufficient.

"So we'll just have to see what else arises, see if there's any more planned work on the horizon versus something that just pops up." He flashes a bit of fang in a smile. "Believe it or not, a good number of my days lately are perfectly mundane. Though…" A quiet tut passes him before he muses, "There was a kidnapping, potentially. To see what happens when blood from someone like you goes into someone… well, not."

With the truck still rolling forward rather than down, Zachery might as well have already fallen asleep again.

That is, if not for the fidgeting, absentmindedly, at a seam of his coat - the beginnings of a thing trying to fight back against the calm. But at that last notion, his hand drops back against the seat. "Go on."

Ace hadn't meant to hook him quite so soon. But he's nothing if not adaptable.

"The window for that might have passed. O had mentioned wanting to observe such a reaction… but now that the government has their nose in her research, that wouldn't do, now would it? If said kidnappee escaped; reported what they saw of her." His eyes lilt across the road rather than look at Zachery directly, but he's sure the other can imagine the very intent way he'd be observing were they not confined to the rolling can. "Not that this has deterred me, exactly."

"No, not if you were to want to examine the same scientific curiosity."

They might not have hurtled down a cliff literally, but that doesn't, apparently, mean Zachery isn't intent on doing it some other way.

His eyes open again, even if the one that actually works doesn't seem to focus on anything in particular. He stills to think, but enthusiasm is what ends up twisting a corner of his mouth upward, and pulling his words from him in the end. "A month ago, I would have called you a maniac. But…"

The rap of fingertips against his coat now is deliberate. Anticipatory. "I could very much do with a new project. I might even have the place for it, give or take a few small improvements." Only now does he, too, let his gaze wander closer to the middle of the road, "It wouldn't do to endanger your coquette, would it."

"No, it wouldn't. Not at all." Ace is calm, elbow on the doorframe, fingers of his left hand draped somewhere over ten-thirty on the wheel to keep it from kicking too far one direction or the other. "But I do like finding ways to keep myself entertained, and I'm such a sucker for a good cause."

Is he?

He doesn't smile now.

"What's this place you'd like to recommend? Is it in the SZ, Staten, elsewhere…?" His inquiry is almost mechanical, eyes not leaving the road technically, for all they flick left and right to look at a mental map.

"Sheepshead." Zachery takes a deep breath, leaning forward in his seat as he draws from his own memories. "It might not be perfect, but I lived there a little while, and I know plenty of people around there who wouldn't be missed— unless…"

He lands a hand flat on the dashboard, interrupting himself. "Unless we'd be better off doing this off the grid entirely. In which case—" He looks to his side properly, words leaving him a little faster, a little lighter. "I know four walls and most of a ceiling we might be able to repurpose - should we do this cleverly - before we destroy them and the evidence in one fell swoop. The catch is - it's in Harlem." Which, for whatever reason, is apparently delightful, and the expectant stare leveled at Ace comes with no small amount of excitement expressed in raised brows and wide grin.

"Harlem?" Ace's echo back is less than kind, his brow knitting together. He lets the word hang there on its own for a while. He doesn't shake his head, but he points out, "There's a wall and a fuckton of horrors between anywhere and Harlem. Getting you to and from would be a problem. I would have no issue, of course, but you… and whoever we get our hands on…"

Now he shakes his head. "Mm. Not unless you're not planning on a return trip either, that's not a safe bet. No… how much do you trust this site of yours in Sheepshead?"

Whether or not Ace trusts them is another question. He glances again to Zachery at his side. "And who do you trust to help you with keeping watch? Interpreting results?"

In a flash, Zachery's face falls back to something more familiar. Still keen, but eyeing Ace as though his system's in the middle of a reboot caused by some dismayed disappointment.

"… Trust?" The way the word leaves him, it may as well be the first time he's said it aloud. "I'm a little short on trust, I'm afraid." His hand slips from the dashboard, and he sinks back into his seat properly, dismissing the matter with a click of his tongue. "Besides, the only person I can think of would sooner set me on fire before she'd go along with something I was involved in."

He pauses, blinks, then flatly adds, "Unless she thought it was her idea."

Ace cants his head to the side. He doesn't have unlimited insight into Zachery's being, has no idea who he could be referring to. What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas, so to speak. "Is this an opportunity where my intervention could be of use, perhaps?"

"Either way, continue," he bids as they accelerate back onto the highway.

"You should talk to Yeh," Zachery answers. "I work for her, regrettably." He does not sound particularly bothered by this at the moment, some distraction suddenly guiding his attention downward so he can pull his coat open and run a hand along his side, where a small amount of blood's leaked through the wool.

There were guns, earlier. He'd walked into crossfire. He should, by all accounts, be hurt. But even as he checks himself, meticulously, his mouth keeps going— "She's efficient, keeps a secret, and will work with us if she thinks it's for some nebulous greater good. She absolutely hates me— so I can't wait to think what she'd make of you."

A laugh leaves him, abruptly, relieved but a long shot from something one might describe as warm. It floods into a whole new sentence before it's over. "Let's not go home. Not yet. Let's go somewhere. To celebrate. A drink or two."

A bizarre compulsion nearly takes hold of Ace at the suggestion. Saying they'd gone for a drink after the hunt and Zachery had left early to catch a ride back alone was how he had planned to explain away the expat's disappearance had he gone through with disposing him. The desire to perhaps follow through after all is a strange one.

A resisted one. He needed to sate himself on the blood drawn earlier, before he gets himself into trouble.

"She sounds like a gem," Ace opines with open sarcasm, opting to operate with bias in Zachery's favor, at least optically. "You'll have to feed me lines to give her regarding greater good, preferably. I'm always terrible at those."

His thumb drums the steering wheel. "Where to? The shithole in Sheepshead?"

Zachery considers this, brow knitting as he takes a deep breath and… comes to the conclusion he is somehow — miraculously not hurt. He looks up to stare out at what foliage the mild winter has left behind on the roadside, eye tracking slowly up to the horizon as he processes the last words said somewhat late.

The Dirty Pool Pub. A familiar place where the tap never runs dry, and where he can be guaranteed Ace won't want to stay long. He nods, his grin returned to him. "Perfect."

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