Solomon Zond knew he was good at a lot of things; it wasn't arrogance, he just was. Call it part talent, part obsession. If someone wanted a mountain climbed, Dorna kicked to the curb or an ancient riddle solved, he was right there.
Turned out solving his son was a little harder.
Standing in the archway of the living room, he watched lines of sprites die colorfully explosive deaths on the television screen. Nikko was sprawled across the couch, only the very top of his hair was visible.
The Space Invaders - or whatever they were called now - gave sad little beeps as they faded away. Nikko himself was completely still. If it weren't for the tapping of his thumbs on the controls, Solomon would have thought he was asleep.
Kind of wished he was.
They'd caught another job the day after The Ring Incident, as Maggie had called it. Two weeks in Siberia, mostly below ground, practically living in their sleeping bags and subsisting on coffee that Vincent swore contained almost no tar.
Nikko had seemed okay for the first week, a little distracted now Solomon thought about it, but okay. Then there'd been some kind of incident with Cal and the second week Nikko had become withdrawn; the sharpness in his humor had gained a cutting edge and it had taken a slice out of everyone.
Solomon had tried to find out what the problem was but there were readings to take and reports to make. The best version he had been able to get out of Cal was that Nikko had nearly pushed him into a chasm that they didn't even have instruments to measure the depth of.
Nikko hadn't said anything at all.
There'd been a showdown on the plane home, of course, and Solomon wasn't sure his son had spoken more than a handful of words to anyone in the couple of days since.
Okay, enough delaying, he could do this.
Solomon coughed quietly. "You okay, kiddo?"
There was a pause and then a rusty sounding, "Yeah, fine." It was followed by a soft thud as the controller dropped to the floor and then a louder thud as Nikko rolled after it, using the momentum to bring himself to his feet.
Normally that gave Solomon a fleeting yen to be sixteen again, but Nikko was moving stiffly; he looked pale and the dark smudges under his eyes couldn't be explained away by bad lighting now they were above ground again.
Slowly, Solomon was learning not to come on too strong in the Father Knows Best. He tried a smile and a shrug instead. "Your definition of fine needs some work."
Nikko eyed him for a moment, probably waiting for a sterner follow-up. When it didn't come he seemed to relax a little, tried a smile of his own. "Yeah, maybe you should take that up with my tutor."
Solomon didn't air-punch, but he did cautiously widen his smile to a grin. "And I was hoping those days were behind us."
There was another shrug and then Nikko was making an unhurried escape attempt towards the door. "Yeah, well, I know old guys like you are all about the nostalgia."
As he drew closer, Solomon stopped him gently with a hand to the shoulder. "You can talk to me Nikko, you know that."
Nikko's smile thinned, but he still looked more amused than angry. "If you try to talk to your teenager about drugs, we're throwing down."
Solomon snorted and dropped his hand. "If my teenager was doing drugs, he'd look better. Come on. You, me, a game and a bag of chips."
"Rain-check, okay? Seriously, I'm good. I'm fine." Nikko pushed on, heading towards the kitchen but swerving towards the labs at the last moment.
Solomon thought about following but walked into his office instead. The desk lamp flickered on while he was still half way across the room, revealing Vincent sat in the visitor's chair.
He didn't break his stride.
The trick to not being startled by Vincent was to assume Vincent was everywhere at all times and go from there; he wondered whether Nikko had figured that out yet.
Solomon dropped into his chair and nudged the mouse next to his keyboard. A small torrent of emails began to download into the inbox; he watched for a moment and then looked over to the other man.
There wasn't any point in preamble. "He said anything to you?"
Vincent shook his head. "Nikko talks a lot, he's almost as good as you at saying nothing."
"From you, I'm going to take that as a compliment."
The corners of Vincent's mouth curled up, he said nothing. Naturally.
Solomon leaned forward and turned the monitor off as the email count went into triple figures, that could wait. "You know what happened with him and Cal?"
"As far as I can gather, they were having a spirited exchange of views in an unfortunate location. But Cal was angry when he accused Nikko of pushing him. He said later they were too far apart, he probably tripped."
"So Cal isn't still mad at him?"
A shrug. "I don't believe he was angry for more than a couple of hours. They were swapping power bars as usual in the evening while you were making your report."
Solomon scratched that off his list. "So what is it?"
Vincent shook his head again as he stood. "I'll leave you to your work. Good night, Solomon."
Cal wasn't used to being the first into the lab. Which wasn't to say he was late - he wasn't usually, seriously - but he was starting to think Maggie slept there and it wasn't like Professor Zond had far to go.
He started flicking through the banks of lights and paused when he saw he hadn't been first after all. Nikko was sat at the main table, head pillowed on his crossed arms as he stared at a can of soda across the other side.
When he still hadn't moved by the time Cal finished checking on the servers, Cal laughed. "I've heard of lazy but this is a whole new level, man. Here." He slid the can over the table towards Nikko, losing the smile when the kid startled back and caught it an inch from his head.
"What the hell?"
"You were sitting there staring right at it, I figured you wanted it."
Nikko looked angry. No, he looked furious. Like he was about to come up swinging. Cal almost took a step back but the moment passed and whatever had been there drained away.
"Yeah. Thanks." Nikko stared at the can in his hand and then put it on the table beside him with the kind of precise attention Cal usually gave to ancient artefacts or pool shots.
He dropped onto the chair across from Nikko. "Talk."
Cal took in the deadpan tone and smirked. "Sure, of course you are."
Nikko straightened in his seat, stretched and then leant back heavily. "We about to have a heart to heart, Calvin?"
"No. And if you ever tell anyone we did I'll push you down a hole the first chance I get."
Cal hadn't been expecting that to work, he didn't really think the guy had pushed him - especially not once he'd realised the distance that had been between them - but Nikko winced like it was a hit and said, "So talk."
And because he hadn't been expecting it to work, he also hadn't lined up anything to say. He bought some time by reaching across for the abandoned soda, opening it and taking a drink before he replied. Breakfast of Champions. "I get it. Big find, nothing happens, it can bring you down."
Nikko frowned. "You think that's what this is?"
"What 'this'? You just said you were fine."
The frown became a scowl and Cal grinned, showing his teeth. "He shoots, he scores. So if it's not dig blues, what is it? Women? Woman?" After a moment's consideration, he went for gender equality. "Men? Man?"
Nikko rolled his eyes. "You wish. Check 'none of the above'."
"Are you seriously going to make me play guessing games?"
"I'm not making you do anything, Calvin."
The soda was gone and the clock was moving on, he still had prep work to do. Cal stood abruptly; he'd given it a shot. "You know what? You want to sit there stewing, you go right ahead."
Cal was at the door before Nikko spoke again. "What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen?"
"David Gest and Liza Minelli's wedding photos," he answered promptly.
"Funny. I meant- I mean. We've seen some pretty weird shit, right?"
Cal paused at the hesitancy in the question, that wasn't something he usually associated with Nikko. He turned around and saw the head-on-hands position had been resumed. It looked kind of pathetic and as much as he might say otherwise, loudly and in detail, that wasn't something he associated Nikko with either.
He modified his tone to something he hoped was a little more reassuring. "Sure, I guess. That what's freaking you out? Don't let it. Everything has an explanation, Nikko. We just haven't found them all yet. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is-"
A hand raised and then dropped back onto the table. "Indistinguishable from magic, I know. That's not it. Have you ever seen people who looked like they could do magic?"
Cal raised a stock answer about science and credulity and then let it die with a shrug. "No, not really. I mean, not real magic. It's tricks and practise. What did you see?"
Nikko raised his head again. "Copperfield. Good show, you should catch it."
And, whatever anyone might say, sometimes Cal knew when to stop pushing. "Right, because that's the intellectual pursuit for the ages. You want another soda?"
Nikko stared at the empty can like it was ticking. "No. Thanks."
"Get some sleep or something, you're getting depressing to look at."
Nikko smiled vaguely and waved him off. Or flipped him off. Cal wasn't looking too closely.
Professor Zond was in his office - or maybe still in his office, he was wearing yesterday's clothes and the expression of a man who'd answered one too many emails.
Cal knocked on the door and then leaned in, bracing himself against the frame. "Juliet around? Or ... Maggie, she's back tomorrow, right?"
Solomon stared at him a second too long and then laughed quietly. "Nikko, right? He's already stonewalled Juliet and Maggie's staying on longer at the conference; she says she's pretty sure Morrison wants to talk to her, he just hasn't approached yet."
Cal wasn't surprised Zond had tracked; figuring stuff out from random bits of evidence was pretty much the entire job description - definitely of Archaeologist and probably of parent. "The guy thinks the NSA is watching him through his toothbrush, he's never going to talk to us."
Vincent's voice came from directly behind him. "How do you know he's wrong?"
Cal jumped and tried to cover by walking further into the office.
Zond looked like he was trying hard not to laugh. "Thanks for trying, Cal."
He shrugged. "Yeah, yeah, no problem. Who's up now?"
"Come with me, Nikko."
Nikko didn't look up. The table was interesting. Or it would be interesting if he could see it. Which he couldn't with his eyes shut. He imagined the table was interesting.
Yeah, he was probably going to have to sleep soon. After the last time, he really didn't want to do that.
He kept his head where it was and replied; he was pretty sure he'd still be heard despite the muffling. "Juliet. Dad. Cal. They're sending the big guns now, huh? You going to Zen me into talking?"
"Do you want me to?" The trouble with his current position, Nikko realised, was that he couldn't see Vincent's expression. Although as far as he knew Vincent only had three basic expressions and he could take a wild guess the man was wearing number two - 'poker king'. Possibly with shadings of number one - 'you amuse me, mortal'.
Wait, Vincent had asked a question. Nikko couldn't remember what it was so he took a shot in the dark and said, "No."
"So come with me, we're going to run."
Oh. Right. He raised his head and aimed for pitiful. And maybe virulently contagious. "I'm tired. And sick." He coughed a couple of times but Vincent didn't seem particularly impressed.
Not that he ever did.
"You aren't sick but you're not sleeping, which is unhealthy. Your mind is distracted; your body must take care of itself. Come running and I promise you this: you will sleep."
"I don't want to." Nikko shuddered and yawned to hide it, he realised this might have been a miscalculation when the yawn took over and almost cracked his jaw.
"But you will, one way or another. I suggest this way."
Vincent smiled - 'you amuse me, mortal' at its best. "First, because the sleep will be deep. Second because, in two minutes, Solomon will be walking in with a football and the spontaneous suggestion that you go to the park, which he's being rehearsing for the last hour."
Nikko shuddered again and pushed himself up until he was standing. "Fine. But no talking."
With a lazy throw, his gym bag was launched towards him. "You will not have breath for talking."
Nikko ran and then, Nikko slept.
Solomon had been up and running half a second after the first shattering sound and was well on his way as a concussive force shook the ground under his feet. He beat Vincent to Nikko's door, pulling it open fast.
His own father had used to tell him that his bedroom looked like a bomb had hit it, in this case there was no hyperbole. Nikko stood beside his bed - what had been his bed - at the epicentre of complete destruction. None of the furniture was intact, the posters on the walls were shredded remnants and shards of glass were embedded in the wall by the door.
Light bulb, his mind catalogued in the background, there were shards of light bulb embedded in a brick wall.
The thought was submerged as he saw Nikko start to smile.
"Jesus Christ, what happened in here? What did you -" He stopped and stepped forward, ignoring whatever was crunching under his feet.
Nikko's skin was flushed; eyes were too wide, too bright and the pupils weren't much more than dots. Solomon clenched his fists and fought the urge to grab him and look for tracks after all.
It took a moment but Nikko drew a shuddering breath. "Redecorated. You don't like it? I guess not."
Nikko turned sharply and made for the door. Solomon caught him by the shoulder again and nearly drew back at the intense cold radiating through the thin material of the t-shirt. It warmed after a second and he shook his head. "Wait-"
"No! You know what? I'm done being told where to go and what to do and when to talk. I'll be back later. Maybe."
"You will stay here and you will explain yourself, Nicholas." Nikko twisted and Solomon began to counter, moving back into the hold without thinking. And then he guessed he slipped because Nikko was two feet away and running out the door.
His intention to follow was arrested as Cal spoke. "Okay, this is weird."
Cal was crouched by a vase, frowning. "No, I mean. This vase wasn't broken, look at it. It's like it just fell apart, it looks like a find."
"And here." Vincent knelt beside the bed and pulled up the comforter, split down the middle as if diamond cut. Perfect edges, not even a hint of fraying. "He couldn't have done this."
"We need to find him. If he didn't do this, he knows what did."
Vincent glanced at the door. "I will go after him. He might -"
"Talk to you? Trust you? I thought he, I thought we..." Solomon's lips twisted.
Vincent met his gaze impassively. "It isn't me he doesn't want to disappoint, Solomon."
Solomon closed his eyes. "Find our boy." Vincent nodded and jogged after Nikko.
He followed Nikko to the pier, saw him enter the Arcade and then stopped and crossed to a payphone.
De Molay's secretary answered on the first ring and had cleared her employer's afternoon meetings within thirty seconds.
Vincent took one last look towards the pier and then raised his hand to catch the attention of the closest cab,
De Molay's office was slightly too warm, as always. The man himself seemed small in the large chair he'd chosen to sit in, it gave him an air of fragility that Vincent knew in no way existed. His voice was smooth and controlled, gaze intent but shuttered. "Does his father know?"
"Not yet. You must tell him the truth, De Molay."
The barest trace of a pensive frown appeared. "I must do no such thing. The questions Solomon will ask: he will push and poke until he has all his answers. He's not ready for that."
Vincent half-smiled. "You're not ready for that."
De Molay gave a thin half smile in return. It fled his face quickly, in a rush to be elsewhere. "No, I am not. And neither are you, Vincent. Remember that."
Vincent looked down. "Then give them a lie, but give them something."
"A lie." De Molay nodded. "Perhaps it would be best to allow them to fabricate their own explanation; a nudge here and there. Lead them away and let them do the rest."
"Yes." Vincent kept his expression clear, voice level, but De Molay nodded as sympathetically as he might have if Vincent had protested.
"I'm sorry, my friend. I truly am. But we have come too far and lost too much. Lost too many..." De Molay's voice trailed away into the silence of the past and Vincent remained quiet and still, waiting for the expression to sharpen and the mind to focus. It didn't take long. "Where is he now?"
"The pier. He will return home when he's ready."
De Molay's hands tightened convulsively on the arms of his chair and then relaxed as composure was regained. "No, you must find him. If Dorna were to have even an inkling, were to find him on his own ... it would be catastrophic."
Vincent shook his head, sure in one thing. "They know nothing and he needs time."
The smile in return was bittersweet. "Time we no longer have. We have come too far to take risks now, my friend. Find him."
Nikko had climbed over the guardrail to the tutting of a couple of mothers who sternly told their small, sticky children never to do that, loudly prophesising that a wave would summarily appear to drag him off the end of the pier and presumably straight to Hell or something.
He looked at them vaguely and then back to the ocean that he now had an unimpeded view of. The sun was setting, burning the sky and turning the water into a darkly rolling mirror. Pretty, if you liked that kind of thing.
He slid down to sit with his legs hanging over the edge and his back against the barrier, thinking of nothing at all.
When a shadow fell over him, Nikko didn't bother looking up. Only one person cast a shadow that looked that bald. He said nothing while seconds became minutes but he knew he was never going to win the waiting game. After five minutes he grudgingly said, "So, what?"
"An impressive view." Vincent's voice was calm. Vincent's voice was always calm.
"I guess. You've seen Antarctica, you've seen everything, right?"
There was a rustle as Vincent climbed over the rail and slid down to a crouch beside him. "The world changes around you, moment to moment. Blink and you've seen nothing, everything is new."
Nikko turned his head enough that Vincent wouldn't be able to miss his smirk. "See, that's the kind of authentic BS I've been missing. Does it get you the chicks or something?"
Silence again as Vincent failed to be provoked by what Nikko had to admit was a pretty bad shot. He gave up and let himself slump back again. "I'm not going for another run."
Vincent nodded. "Good, our budget is unlikely to extend to a more extensive renovation."
He shook his head. "That wasn't - I didn't -" Vincent's gaze was unblinking and Nikko stuttered to a stop with a small "I didn't mean to do it." Which was better than a ten year old's "I didn't do it", but really only just.
So now he could add humiliation to the guilt of destruction of property and accidental attempted murder. Great.
When he tracked back Vincent was still looking at him intently and Nikko realised he'd zoned again. The man's voice was level. "I know you didn't mean to do it. You blinked and when you opened your eyes, the world had changed around you. Is that not so, Nikko?"
The ever-present tightness in Nikko's chest constricted one more time, stealing his breath and making his vision swim. There was something heavy on his arm and he instinctively tried to shake it off, until he realised it was Vincent's hand steadying him.
He reached back and took a firm hold of the rail, then jerked back to force the hand away. "Son of a bitch. What do you know?"
"That the labs have security cameras. I said nothing because it wasn't for me to say, but you cannot keep this from your father."
Nikko shook his head rapidly and made another move away. "He'll freak. He'll think I'm a freak. I am a freak."
"You are Nicholas Zond, his son." Vincent's hand reached forward again and, seriously, what was with the touching? It wasn't like Nikko was about to take a dive of the pier. Except, he realised, he really was.
He inched himself back in contact with rail and took a breath, forced his heart rate back to something approaching normal. He was a little proud and a lot surprised that his voice was steady when he finally replied. "His son. Yeah, the last ten years have really drummed that home."
He was being unfair and so what?
Vincent's eyebrow arched. "You cannot claim he doesn't care about you in one breath and be concerned with his reaction the next."
"Thanks, Spock." Nikko blinked rapidly as the sunset hit the water and flared; if the world changed around him, he didn't notice. When the sunspots cleared he still didn't look at Vincent, kept his head down and his voice a low, rushed monotone.
Maybe if he said it fast, he wouldn't sound like he was begging. "You know what caused this, right? I mean, you have that whole man of mystery thing going on and you're never going to give the full story, I get that. But just that, just tell me you know what did this. It's the Ring, right? Or that water? Just a freaky side effect or something, and it's going away?"
Vincent approximated a smile. "I wish I could tell you."
Nikko laughed; it was better than the alternative and they'd done this part before - at least he knew the words. "You wish you could tell me because you know but you can't, or because you don't know?"
"I'm sorry." Vincent edged slightly away; apparently he was fairly confident that Nikko was capable of staying out of the water. That was encouraging.
Vincent didn't seem inclined to offer anything else and Nikko was suddenly too tired to give a damn. He let his mind drift again; thinking of nothing was easier than it used to be.
The remnants of the sun were a collection of faded streaks above black water by the time Nikko gathered himself enough to string an entire thought together. Vincent was still there; the women and their small, sticky children were long gone.
Soon the pier would be taken over with the nightlife, flashy men and women dressed to kill. Normally that was his time and place but tonight the idea made him flinch.
Vincent stirred. "Nikko?"
He spoke dully. "It's not just - man, just - moving things, like the can. It's - you saw my room. And I swear to God, the stuff I see. Things that aren't there, or are there but different. It was okay for a little while, but then Cal - I nearly ... I could hurt someone."
He turned his head enough to look at Vincent. "I'm going to hurt someone. I won't mean to. I don't think. What if someone had been in my room? Or what happens if we're camped out?"
There was a sudden understanding in the dark eyes looking back. "You don't fear your father will turn away, you fear the consequences if he doesn't."
Nikko considered protesting that he didn't fear anything, but huddling almost silently on the end of a pier for the last five hours and then following up with a stream of half confession, half panic ... well that weighed the case against him a little. He just nodded.
Vincent looked at him for a long moment, at least he wasn't laughing. Finally he said, "A deal. I will ensure you do no harm and in return you'll do two things for me."
There was nothing but a confident promise in Vincent's expression but Nikko wasn't young enough to believe everything would be okay just because someone looked sincere, hadn't been since he was six years old, staring in shock at the place his mother used to be. "You'll stop me?"
Vincent patted him kindly on the shoulder. "Without hesitation, whatever it takes."
They stared at each other for a while and finally Nikko had to smile slightly. "Pretty sure that shouldn't be a relief."
Vincent shrugged. "Comfort is where we find it."
And the weird and more than a little disturbing thing was, it may have been. Nikko wasfeeling a bit better. Well, at least not so ready to have a Carrie-sponsored nervous breakdown. He decided to go with it. "Seriously, you just have a pocket of fortune cookies or something, right?"
The man's mouth twitched but he didn't reply; Nikko began to haul himself to his feet. "So what do you want?"
"Talk to your father. And resume meditation with me; gain mastery over this."
Nikko had more than one doubt he could do either, but he stayed silent as they climbed back over the barrier, as they walked along the pier and heard the first strains of drum and bass announce that Friday night had arrived.
It wasn't until they were nearing the offices that the instinctive rush of terror subsided and Nikko thought, maybe, okay, he could try. He glanced at Vincent with as much of a smirk as he could find at short notice. "So we're calling you kicking me in the head meditation, now?"
Somewhere in the midst of his forty-third email reply, a bag of chips landed squarely on the desk and slid over the edge. Solomon reached out a hand to catch them, then he realised they weren't falling.
He stared at the bag as it hung in mid-air and then pulled his gaze away, following their trajectory to the door.
Nikko was wearing a tight smile and the over-all suggestion he'd spook and run if his father even breathed too hard. "So there's good news: it isn't drugs."