I bend down and pick up the little brassy thing, finding it somehow still warmed from his hand. I close my own around it, then look at the elevator, swallowing around the tightness in my throat. I hear the rumbling echo up the shaft of the cabin landing at the bottom and for some reason, it's that sound which dumps a tub of solvent on the wonderglue stuck to my boot's soles. I turn and make a mad dash for the balcony, leaning over the railing to catch sight of where he might go. Is he just... straight up leaving? Is he abandoning my case? I... no, this... shit. Shit!
But there's no sign of him. I can clearly see the corner of the building he'd have to round in order to leave the alley the elevator dumps into, but he has yet to emerge. What gives? Is he waiting? Whatever for? Can't be for me, given what he's just said.
Still nothing. I frown and head back inside, smacking the lift's call button. I step in once it reaches me and I quickly select the ground floor, hands coming together in front of my stomach to pick at each other as I shift my weight from one foot to another in my anxiety.
The trip down seems to take forever, but it does eventually end, the doors sliding open and spilling me out into my little alley. I look around for any sign of him, but no, he's not here. Whether he made good on his escape while I was stuck to the floor, or after he heard the elevator start back up, he's gone now.
And I am left to wonder after the ghost of a man I'm not sure I know anymore.
The first strains of good old Doris singin' "Someday I'll Find You" filter down to him the moment he steps through the State House's side door.
When one is lonely, the days are long
you seem so near, but never appear
each night, I sing you a lover's song
please try to hear, my dear... my dear
He nods to John's faithful Watchmen on the way up the stairs, left hand trailing up the rounded banister as he goes. He can hear the jet inhaler depress before he crests the stairs and gets the perfect view of John lowering the canister from his mouth with a smugly satisfied smirk. He watches the ghoul deflate slightly as he lets the faint jet mist seep from between his lips, tossing the inhaler onto the table and smiling over at Nick as he enters the room.
Someday I'll find you, moonlight behind you
true to the dream I am dreaming!
As I draw near you, you'll smile a little smile,
for a little while, we shall stand, hand in hand!
"Hello, Jameson." He chuckles good-naturedly. "What's the occasion?" John's smirk is utterly insufferable, and Nick just isn't in the mood to put up with him.
"Yeah yeah, laugh it up, Hancock." He shakes his head sharply in his annoyance. "I just came by to say I'm headed out for a while. Not sure when I'll be back. Got a new case that needs solving."
I'll leave you never, love you forever,
all our past sorrow redeeming,
make it all come true, make me love you too,
someday I'll find you...
someday I'll find you again!
John frowns as the song ends, concern and confusion overcoming everything else. "What about Shana's case? You givin' up on it? I thought you two were..." He gestures vaguely in Nick's direction, not clarifying any more than that.
Nick scowls at him, sucking in a breath before he replies, "I don't know what you mean, John. As for her case, I said I'd be back. I haven't given up on it, I just... need to get out and do something else for a while. I'm gettin' rusty just hangin' around all this time."
John narrows his eyes at him. "I don't buy it, Nicky. What the hell happened, and where the hell have you been, anyway? I've had my people lookin' for you and nobody's seen ya once."
He huffs impatiently. "It really doesn't concern you, John. I only stopped by as a courtesy, not so I could get interrogated. I'll get back when I'm back. Radio Ellie if you need anything from the Agency." He turns and resolutely sets himself for the stairs without another word.
"Hold on just a fuckin' second, Nicky—Nicky!" He hears John's steps chasing after him, turns to see him towering over him at the top of the stairs. "What the fuck, Nick? Exactly how do you expect me to act when my oldest friend comes into my house and tells me some cockamamie bullshit like you just pulled? Talk to me, man. You're worryin' the shit outta me."
The side door opens and closes, neither of them paying it any mind.
"I told you, John, it's a case. I need to get movin'," he insists, foot edging to the next step down.
"Bullshit! If you're not gonna talk about it, at least let me come with you, so you have someone watching your back. I do not want a repeat of fucking 114." John's already taking the first two steps down when a small voice stops them both in their tracks.
"Let him go, John."
Nick turns to stare down at her, where she peers up at them, her expression somber, almost hard.
"What? Why?" comes John's immediate query.
"Just trust me, John. It's better if you don't ask." She's turned to stare down at her hands, where they tightly clamp into the bottom end of the stair railing.
"Better for who, Shana? 'Cause personally, I want to know what the fuck's going on here, and it's abundantly obvious it ain't 'nothing'. So what gives?"
Every ounce of her expression hardens, and Nick is certain he's currently looking into the face her enemies see, just before she ends them. Her voice regains its old boldness, taking on a sharp edge he's only heard in hazy memories of her, from long ago. "'What gives' is that you're being ridiculously obtuse, John. Let him go. It's a private matter."
She drops her fierce stare and all her hard edges as she breaks eye contact with John; by the time she finds it with Nick, there's little left but the shadow of pain in her eyes, barely there before she turns away and moves out of both their views.
He looks back up to John, his lips pressed into a thin line.
John can't seem to decide what reaction to have. Anger, indignation, confusion, worry, all warring for real estate on his features. Finally, he settles on subdued, dumbfounded concern. "What... the hell happened, Nicky?"
Nick sighs. "Honestly, I'm not even entirely sure I know, John. But I need... space. Time to figure things out. I can't get that in Goodneighbor right now."
John considers that for a few long seconds, before finally nodding, swallowing once. "Yeah, sure. Alright. You sure I can't send someone with ya to watch your back? Don't feel right, sendin' ya out on your own like this."
Nick offers him a small smile. "I'm sure. But thanks for the thought. Seeya soon, John. Keep this place together 'til I get back, yeah?"
John cocks his head and smiles softly. "Of course, my man. She'll be here when you get back, as ever."
Nick nods and finishes his descent of the stairs. He pauses by the door, sliding his gaze to Shana, where she stands leaning against the wall, quietly watching him. "Be back soon, doll. Don't go hunting after your nephew without me, alright?"
A slight nod is all she offers, in response.
He hesitates because God damn it, there's a whole world of things he wants to say to her—he can't, he just can't say any of it, not with this... thing haunting him—but he just smiles tightly, nods and opens the door, closing it quietly behind him.
He heads straight for the gate without a single look back.
I hear quiet footfalls down the stairs and look up, meeting John's gaze as he bends down to catch sight of me.
I swallow and look down, biting my lip to try and hold back my tears with the pain. "Hey."
He moves down the last few stairs and comes to a stop in front of me, lifting a hand to cup under my cheek, but I flinch—I fucking flinch—and he hesitates, hand hovering mid-air for several seconds before he lets it drop.
I look up to see his shocked, hurt expression, worry suffusing my every bone; I rush to explain, to reassure him, "I'm sorry, that—that wasn't because of you, that—I..." I grimace, my face scrunching up in anguish as I lift the heel of my hand to grind into my brow. "Shit!"I draw a deep, unsteady breath and lower my hand, grasping his with it and trying to tug him up the stairs behind me.
It's not until his immovable form halts my retreat that I turn and take note of his now murderous countenance. His voice is dark and full of restrained fury as he quietly asks, "What did he do, Shana?"
I squeeze his hand and gently place my free one on his shoulder, resting my chin on it. "No, no... I didn't flinch because of anything he did, John. It's okay, I promise. Come with me? Please? I'll—I'll explain it all, alright? Just... come on upstairs."
He seems to calm, at that, nodding slowly. "Alright," he agrees, thickly.
I move for the stairs again, still tugging him gently behind, and this time he follows, to my great relief. I lead him up and shut the doors behind us, then bring him to the couch on the left. I sit down and with one gentle pull, he sinks down beside me. I slide a mentats tin from the table, dig out two, and hand them to him.
One ruined brow tilts upwards but soon relaxes, just before he reaches over to pluck the two tablets from my palm. He pops them in, nodding at me. "Alright, I'm here. You said you'd explain, so get to it."
So I do. I put the mentats tin back on the table and drag out a smoke which he lights, reach for an ashtray which he holds for me, and I explain everything—what happened with Nicky, an abridged version of what I can remember of my past, all of it.
By the time I finish, I've smoked the remainder of my own pack, and I've been bumming from his for an hour, now. Seems it's not quite just a 'socially acceptable activity', anymore. Well, damn. Gotta die somehow, I guess.
"Can I see?" He holds out his hand toward my left, tapping the ring quickly, once, twice, then cupping his hand palm-up.
I gamely offer him the finger since I don't much feel like going through the effort of untangling my right hand from his left, the two of which have remained nearly inseparable for this entire ordeal.
He gently wriggles the gold band off, holding it up and carefully turning it, until he can see the inscription. He looks at the tiny indentations for a long minute, reading the two words over and over, before he finally lets it settle in the palm of his hand, resting his hand on his thigh. "It's a hell of a thing to swallow, darlin'. Hell, I don't know how you do it. I can barely do it, and it's not even my life. How the fuck do you even cope with something like that?"
I snort incredulously as I slide my look to him. "You think I know? I don't have a fuckin' clue what I'm doin'."
He chuckles and releases my hand to finally assume his usual position on the couch; hat off, arm slung over the back behind me. He lets his head roll back, baring his throat as he breathes deeply, sighing it out in a loud, tired groan. "I think," he says, voice strained at first, until he rights himself, peering over at me with a smirk, "we could both use a break."
I laugh a bit, nodding. "Yeah, I think you're right. Sadly, life doesn't give breaks."
He grins at me, his left hand curling over the back of the couch to palm my left shoulder, shaking it teasingly a couple times. "That's why we make our own breaks!" He slings his arm over my head, reaching out with it to the table, snagging his mentats. He settles the tin on his lap, then seems to remember himself and hands my ring back to me.
I accept it and quietly slide it back onto my finger, eyes lingering on it for a moment. I prod at my backpack on the floor by my leg, opening a flap to get at my whiskey bottle and dragging it out onto the table. I peek over at John. "Got glasses?"
He smiles, nodding toward the small table on the other side of the room, which looks to be fully stocked with several decanters, bottles, and glasses of varying types. "I like a woman who brings her own party favors."
I snort at him, a smile slipping onto my lips as I answer, "You like me anyway, John, I don't even have to bring booze. I just wanted to." I shove his knee gently, teasing as I stand and make my way over to the table, plucking two glass tumblers from the available selection.
His smile is soft and fond when I turn to see him watching me. He nods his concession. "The lady speaks the truth. So, what prompted the desire to bring me some good old fire water?"
I shrug, setting the glasses on the table, shoving a tube of ultra-jet over to make way for them. I sit back down, a slight smile playing at my lips as I look over at him. "Maybe I just needed to see you smile, because it makes me happy?"
He practically lights up at my admission, a hint of splotchy color rising to the higher planes of his cheeks, where undamaged blood vessels still cling to existence. "My smile makes you happy?" He chuckles disbelievingly and sits forward to reach for the bottle, shaking his head, mentats tin almost sliding to the floor before he catches it and sets it on the couch between us. He uncaps the whiskey and pours three fingers in each glass, then recaps the bottle, handing me one of the glasses and taking his own.
When he settles back into the couch and looks at me, it's with a fondly amused, mildly uncertain expression. "To ghoulish grins and a kind woman who somehow find happiness in them." He taps his glass to mine, then tucks back about half of his whiskey.
I huff a little laugh and take a sip of my own. "I'm serious, you know. You have a great smile. Can light up a room without even tryin', just because you have a happy moment. It's a hell of a thing to witness."
He seems to contemplate that for a moment, the color rising yet again on his cheeks, more fiercely than before. He takes another, smaller drink, then sets the glass on the table, pulling the mentats back into his lap. He tips the lid open, picking his dose out of the mass of tiny white tablets lining the tin's bottom.
He takes an extra from the bunch and holds it out to me.
I look at it, then him. He shows me his own three, then pops them in his mouth and nods at the one he offers me. I peer back down at it, contemplating his possible reasons for giving me this particular drug. "Why?"
He slowly chews, then swallows his tablets, before answering, "I want us to be on the same page, for once."
That... is a fair answer. And it's only one; realistically, it can't do too much damage. I set my glass next to his, then lean down before I can change my mind and carefully nip the tablet from his fingers. I straighten and slick the mentat back between my molars to begin the process of chewing—as I've seen him do—reclining into the couch's back and settling in a tad nervously for the ride.
I roll my head along the back to turn and meet his gaze, finding it already on me, his eyes watching me with something akin to fond patience. I swallow my little dosage, arching a brow at him, a question.
He arches one right back but says nothing, just watches me.
I take a breath, about to—
But suddenly, the world shifts. No wait—it's all still in the same place, it's really me that's shifted, but it all feels so much acuter than it did moments ago.
He's lowered that brow, a smile sliding onto his lips. "There you are."
Ahh! So much silk drawn scratching over shards of glass and concrete gravel, I can feel the snagging pull of each little run in the fabric all along my skin! I shudder at the sensation, breath hitching, fingers curling tightly into the couch cushion. I realize my eyes are closed and promptly force them open, not wishing to miss any possible input that might occur next.
"Now that is interesting. You didn't tell me you react physically to sound." He pauses, tilting his head and letting his eyes drift over me as I continue to react to his voice under the over-stimulation of the drug. He smirks, then leans in, lowering his voice until I have to believe only he and I can hear it. "What do you hear, hmm? What does my voice make you feel?"
I barely choke down the whimper that mightily threatens to escape my throat, swallowing tightly around it and taking a sharp breath to attempt calming things down. I turn my eyes forward and rest my head on the couch's back, allowing my eyes to close now in hopes that it helps some. A soft hum of thought begins my answer, the vibrations it produces in my throat fascinating me with their intensity.
"I feel... what your voice has always sounded like, to me; silk drawn over glass and concrete rubble, still soft to the touch, but no longer smooth. Mmm... too slick for velvet, doesn't drag or comb, not satin, doesn't snag or press; just shifts and sighs and slides through the air like the smoke from your lungs, riding the dust onto my skin."
There's a small pause, before a soft, almost disbelieving, "That's what I sound like, to you? How I... feel?"
I nod, not wanting to interrupt any other words he might gift me.
Only two follow.
I hear the creak of the couch's springs beneath him and a gentle, warm pressure on the left of my jaw which turns my head toward him, the feeling causing me to open my eyes in surprise, just as the warmth of his lips meet my own.
The shock of his act, coupled with the massive influx of sensation that follows, leads to me gasping, lips slightly parting—eyes blowing wide, then slowly easing closed. He teases my parted lips with his tongue, not delving yet, simply tempting, tasting; almost asking permission, despite the line in the sand he's already clearly crossed.
I shake my head, bracing on the back of the couch as I push him back into it, straddling his lap and pressing my own insistent kiss to his mouth. Mine is not gentle, nor searching, as his was. Mine is searing, destructive; leaving behind nothing but frayed sensory input and shorted out synapses. It only ends after a long moment, when we're both sufficiently lightheaded to grudgingly accept that we might need air more than another moment locked together.
I stay perched on his lap, brow pressed to his as we greedily fill our lungs. It's now I realize his hands are planted firmly on my hips—kneading the flesh there greedily—while mine are anchored at the top of the couch, on either side of his head, effectively trapping him beneath me.
It's also now that I realize the mentat has worn off.
And that I frankly don't give a damn if it has.
My gaze drifts to the top of his head as I lift my own, shifting the majority of what weight I'm putting on my hands to my left one, while I lift my right and gently run it over his scalp.
He lets his head fall back as he relaxes into the touch, watching my face while I continue to stroke his skin gently.
A tiny smile stretches lips plumped by his nibbling teeth when I look down to meet his gaze, letting my hand fall back to the couch again. I nudge his brow with mine, locking eyes with him. "You're watching me."
He smirks. "I do that a lot, darlin'."
I give him a thoughtful hum. "You know, this is... incredibly unfair to you."
He returns his own pensive sound, then leans to the side and up to nip my jawline lightly, almost as a punishment and a tease in one, murmuring his ruined silk directly onto my skin, "Doesn't taste very unfair to me."
I hold back a moan with great difficulty, feigning a disinterested snort and leaning back, settling my hands on his chest so I can look at him properly, with a modicum of distance—distance I must force between us, lest I ruin my chances at a sane, reasonable conversation with him. "I'm sure it doesn't. Yet." I let my gaze fall to somewhere near his right lapel. "But John, what I said before... It's still true." I look back up with an honest, but quiet smile. "I'm not going to try and pretend the attraction and... interest isn't there, but I'm not going to ignore the deathclaw in the room, either."
I lean down and steal his lips for another lingering, gently nipping moment, then slide off his lap and resume my seat on the couch, reaching into his outer coat pocket for his pack of Gray Tortoises.
He again lights the cigarette that I bring to my lips, again insists on holding my ashtray for me; the old habit still going strong, despite the time he's been left hanging in the breeze. I can feel the presence of his gaze on me, weighing, measuring, evaluating.
I smoke half the cigarette before I can think clearly enough to formulate any kind of cohesive thought. "I can't just drop him for this, John. It's... physically impossible for me. And I don't think you'd like the woman I became if I were to force it. No matter what he's..." I gesture vaguely at the outside world, "doing out there, whatever issue he has to work out, I can't just ignore what I feel for him. Even if... even if nothing ever comes of it."
He shrugs lightly, the gesture there and gone again in an instant. "Then don't."
I eye him sharply as I exhale a soft plume of smoke to the side, then stump out the last bit of the cigarette in the ashtray. "What are you suggesting, exactly?"
He sets the ashtray on the table and lets a smile play at appearing on his lips as he relaxes back and replies, "Don't drop him. Don't force it. Don't ignore it. I'm suggesting we all work toward a goal we can reach, that will be to all of our mutual benefits."
I stare at him, as the full extent of what he's suggesting becomes clear to me. "You're saying... share? I... no, John. That would never work. I'd get jealous, you'd get jealous, he'd get jealous if he even..." I sigh, leaning forward to bury my face in my hand. "This situation's already complex enough, without adding polyamory to the picture." I right myself and settle back into the couch again, looking over at him. "Add to it that I don't even know how he feels, if he'd ever actually be interested, and this conversation becomes completely hypothetical, anyway."
"If this is hypothetical, then so're your reasons for putting me off," he reminds me, turning in his seat and lifting his hands to gently frame my face, and this time, this time I manage not to flinch. "I dunno about you, but I don't live in a hypothetical world. I live in a real world, shit-filled though it might be. In that real world, there's a ghoul that really likes a woman, and a woman that really likes a ghoul, but she's afraid of herself and pining after someone else at the same time, so she won't take the first step toward her own happiness."
I watch him as he strokes my cheek with his thumb, his eyes tracking over my features slowly, cataloging everything as he goes along as if memorizing it for some reason. "I don't even know what my happiness is anymore, John. So how can I walk toward it, if I don't know which way to go?"
He lowers his hands to my right one, taking it and folding it between his two, looking at me intently. "Do you trust me?"
I frown, a little taken aback and confused. "Of course I do, you have to ask?"
He smiles softly. "Then let me help you find your way."
Looking into his eyes, it's a difficult request to even consider turning down; his eyes, so full to bursting with admiration that it's almost uncomfortable to see, yet I can't bring myself to turn away, discovering myself a glutton for that look. How I've somehow missed the signs that this exists utterly baffles me.
I find myself on the precipice of a choice I'm uncertain how to make. It's a choice I'm not even certain I can make. How does one make a choice between home and heart? Are they not one in the same? Shouldn't they be, if they aren't?
Staring into the abyss of his eyes, I find myself believing with everything I can muster that they should indeed be one in the same.
But belief does not shape reality quite so literally as I might wish, and I am not the only part of this equation.
I will need help if this is to become reality.
At this thought, I finally nod my assent. "Alright."
He grins happily, returning the nod. "Alright."
He slowly reaches for me and I go willingly as he draws me against his chest, holding me. I drape my arms about him as comfortably as I can and sigh peacefully upon finding that I rather like it when I nuzzle my brow into the side of his neck.
I smile as I realize this feels a lot like home, too.
A/N: This marks the end of Part One of the 'Howling Echoes' series. If you've enjoyed the story, and wish to continue reading, the next part of the series will be entitled 'Moon Blind', and will be coming out soon! Thanks to everyone who reads/comments. You make my world go 'round.