A/N: Late with no excuses. I wanted the story to go one way but the characters didn't agree & thought they knew better where they should go. Voluminous revision ensued. This is long, so get your drink of choice and settle ? Let's get right to the main. This closes out Sync- Part 4: Fury & Folly. The fifth & final part (4 chapters) is Consonance & is in process. Enjoy! Besos! xoxo
Chapter 15: Synthesis
Time is too slow for those who wait.
Too swift for those who fear.
Too long for those who grieve.
Too short for those who rejoice.
But for those who love, time is eternity.
~Dr Henry Van Dyke
After two funerals in two days, Nicole felt numb. She wished she could find a fix for that because it felt like slighting the departed. That the grief was cumulative seemed unfair and disrespectful of the individuals lost. She still hadn't reconciled that Tracy hadn't been dead before but now really was. Aaron still seemed pretty shell shocked over losing her again and Nicole thought that was the cruelest twist of all. He'd found her and what should've been a miraculous happenstance had ended in fresh and undeniable grief. Try as she might, Nicole couldn't see a greater good or better big picture reason for that. It simply sucked.
And though there'd never been any question that she'd attend Chelsea's funeral, Nicole hadn't really thought about what it would be like to sit though. The eulogy and entire service were more confirmation of what Nicole already felt beforehand. Chelsea was much loved and would be much missed. Even before her religiosity set in, she had been known as a caring, cheerful and winsome young woman. After the service, Nicole couldn't help but stare at her family from her vantage point in the back rows. She wanted to say something but knew that no words she could string together would be enough. Just looking at Chelsea's barely inconsolable fiancee was more than enough to keep Nicole at a distance and silent. It didn't seem right to intrude on their loss. She hadn't anything she could possibly say or tell them that would help. Certainly not how she was one of the last people to talk to her before she died. Or how she saw Chelsea's fixed stare while the paramedics worked to try and save her after the blackout. No. There wasn't anything she could say. And now, seeing them she didn't feel right about her own sadness over Chelsea's death. They knew her, loved her and had endless reasons that they'd miss her. Nicole's meeting her wasn't enough to appropriate the same mantle. Not by a long shot.
After the processional and everyone pretty much filtered out, she stood and gathered her things to leave and looked up to see Ed standing in the back. Surprised to see him, she wasn't sure whether to walk over and say something or not. He remedied her dilemma by walking up to her.
"Is now a good time to call in that offer of coffee? There's a Starbucks across the street." Ed asked quietly. She looked like she could use the break and the caffeine.
Nicole smiled and nodded as they slipped out. She was glad to have run into him and even more happy that he'd approached her.
"I was surprised to see you at the funeral." Nicole mentioned as they snagged a table.
"Yeah. I didn't really plan it. Last week, I found out when it was and I didn't think much about it but this morning, I don't know. I knew I had to be there. Doesn't make much sense does it?" He shook his head, still trying to make sense of it.
"After everything that's happened? Yeah, it kinda does. The stranger things get, the more normal it becomes." Nicole mused. She didn't like abnormal being the new normal. People everywhere were becoming more unpredictable and she found it unsettling.
"So what about you? We're you friends with her?"
"Um... no, not really. We met that night and she was nice. I liked her. She was happy and sure. I guess I was just looking forward to getting to know her. And I kind of got to today hearing so many people talk about her. It seems like she had a good life. Just too short."
"Short lived but much loved. There are worse things to be." Ed offered.
"I suppose. Long lived and little loved is most likely pretty miserable."
"That's not how I'd want to be described."
"Neither would I. And thanks to you, I'm a little closer to long lived and much loved. I feel like I should thank you again, but it seems that's all I keep doing."
"Well, I'm going to institute a no thanking rule from now on. You can't thank me anymore. And we're going to have coffee together like a couple of friends would and talk about whatever it is people are talking about now. Agreed?"
"Agreed. And everyone's still pretty obsessed with the latest flashforward. You'd think there was nothing else to discuss." She shrugged, thinking of her flash and feeling herself blush slightly.
"I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that you don't really want to talk about that."
"No. Not so much."
"As the opposite side of your first one, are you at least okay in your latest flash?"
"Yes. There was no water and I was with someone I know and that's all I'm saying."
"Fair enough." He was relieved to know that she'd had a better vision this time around. But he was curious about why she didn't want to talk about them. He didn't run into many people who could keep themselves from falling into that discussion but Nicole seemed completely resolved not to do so. It was intriguing.
They settled into an easy, meandering conversation.
"I was going to post my flash on Mosaic but I couldn't figure out a good way to say I think I'm going to get to you too late to save you from drowning. Also, I didn't know who you were or where we were in my flash." Ed explained as their conversation touched on Mosaic.
"Yeah, that most likely wouldn't have gone over so well. Besides, I thought you were trying to kill me, so I most likely wouldn't have believed you. And that reminds me, I need to call Detective Liefeld and let him know that I'm still alive and you're not some insane person trying to kill me, instead you're the really great guy who just did the opposite."
"A detective? If you could let him know I'm really okay, that'd be awesome. Everyone's been a little more than twitchy lately and I wouldn't want to be mistaken for some kind of threat at this point." Ed smiled but his tone held a trace of seriousness.
Of late, he had picked up one too many people who'd been assailed for things they'd possibly do in the future to be entirely cavalier about being identifiable by some sketch on some file on some officer's desk. Before the flashes he'd have said that chances of people being linked and connected in highly bizarre ways was so unlikely as not to be a concern. But not now.
"This afternoon. I promise. It's still pretty incredible when I think about what happened. I keep trying to remember every detail but I can't quite put it all together. I remember going into the water. After that, I can only clearly remember pieces before I passed out and then seeing you when I woke up."
"When you opened your eyes, I was so relieved. You were awake and breathing and I felt like everything was going to be okay. You know, for more than twelve minutes."
"But it wasn't."
He shrugged. "There was something about the first flash. The way I felt after. It was like if I didn't save you, if I failed... something else would be lost."
"You'd have missed out on the coffee and the cosmos would be out of sync and who knows what that would lead to." Nicole quipped.
"Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats, living together. Mass hysteria. Lattes are the thing holding the existence of humanity in the balance."
They shared a laugh. Nicole appreciated the applicable movie quote he'd dropped. She appreciated the laughs and effortlessness between them even more. She tried not to think about the fact that it very much reminded her of how things had been between she and Bryce.
"I know that doesn't make any sense but that's how I felt. And after everything, I thought about it and I don't know if there's some greater reason for any of this or it comes down to coffee with a new friend. What I do know, is that I'm still here and as long as I am, I have to keep doing what I do."
"And during all those months you were worried, did you ever think about quitting or maybe hiding out? Just to try to avoid the whole thing."
"Never. I love my job. And, I'm good at it. Besides, I've known for a while that you can't save everyone. But if I quit, I'd miss out on the ones I could. I'd have missed you. Working or not, I knew you were in the water and needed help. So there was no out for me if it was going to happen. And even though Chelsea died, I'm not sorry that I was there. Because just like saving you, that I couldn't do the same for her, changed my perspective on everything that's going on."
"I spent six months worried and it came down to being a waste of time. I misread what was going on and assumed a lot based on how I remembered feeling during the flash. But when it actually happened, it didn't feel the same. I was actually kinda pissed when you started to fight me."
"Seriously?" She chuckled at his admission.
"Yeah. I knew it wasn't your fault, but all I could think was that you'd seen this moment too and I remember thinking, Hell no, lady. You're not gonna win this one. And then I got a good grip on you."
"Nice." She couldn't help but laugh. It was a quirky little anecdote to the incident.
"You asked. But, it just made me realize that the flashes are a hint but nothing close to a full picture and I didn't live my life on hints and hunches before. There's no reason to start now. I've always gone with what I know and what I have in the present and based on that planned for the future. Maybe the shock of the first flash sort of got me off track. But I'm kinda over it."
"So what about the second flash?"
"If anything, it's reminded me even more who I really am. I think I needed the reminder."
"You're so... well adjusted about all this." She wished Bryce were so well adjusted.
"Comes from growing up a military brat, I guess. When it comes to constant change, the pliable bend but the brittle break. And breaking wasn't an option in my family."
Nicole smiled and was about to respond as her phone chimed. She apologized and checked it just in case it was about her Mom.
"No. Don't have one." Nicole said as she saw it was Bryce calling her.
Ed nodded and recalled that the last time he'd seen her. She and Bryce didn't seem to be over. Way too much passive aggression. Whatever was going on, her tone and posture as she looked at her phone didn't really agree with her words either.
She didn't answer Bryce's call. Between their arguments, moments that reminded them how they used to be and having to work together, they'd sort of come to some unspoken agreement by attrition to be something like friends and she wasn't sure where the boundaries lay. She just knew that she didn't want to be the girl to automatically jump whenever he called. No matter how much she wanted to. She smirked just a little as he was sent to voicemail limbo. She dropped her phone back into her bag and focused on Ed.
They talked for another hour and found that they had many things in common. His growing up a military brat set off a litany of topics and remembrances. They'd found that they shared memories of some of the same places in their global treks. That they'd actually had a couple instances of time spent in certain locations that overlapped had them agreeing that under other circumstances it would be weird. By the time they parted they both felt like they'd been friends forever.
When Ed invited Nicole to go out with him to a club, she accepted readily. A night of clubbing wasn't really her thing but she was definitely up for a change and trying something different. It was just what she needed.
Quinn attended a few funerals during the week and decided she was finished with them. She was beyond feeling anything for anyone who wasn't seriously close to her and wondered if she was still burnt out from the first blackout.
She hated that the blackouts had robbed her and virtually everyone of a normal grieving process. This time around wasn't like the first blackout. People had kind of begun taking all the death as routine. Collateral damage. She wondered if it was some bizarre dehumanizing effect and she worried and wondered what it could mean in the long run. When people got used to death it was never for the good. Over the last two years she'd spent far too much time working in various war ravaged locations to be so naive. Apathy was a major societal destabilizer. Seeing the death tolls being reported like the weather was disconcerting. The numbers, though less than the first blackout were still too high to wrap the mind around. It was faceless. Abstract. That nearly the same amount of people had died six months earlier was still more than too much to process.
Due to the SoE she worked from home for the week. She had accomplished a lot and was very glad that she'd succeeded in obtaining her transfer back to LA. The blackouts had personally made her take more note of the possibility of loved ones dying and she couldn't stand the idea that she could be on the other side of the planet under such a circumstance. She didn't want to miss out on their lives or on whatever amazing things awaited her as a consequence. No matter how chaotic her schedule, she knew with each passing day that she'd made the correct decision coming back to LA. Being able to see her best friend regularly had one of the best things, in her estimation. Even if said BFF was recently given to a serious jag of boyfriend drama. If Quinn's flashforward was any indication, it was just an errant detour on the way to their destination. In the grand scheme of a friend, it was a completely tolerable segue.
"Bullshit. Crap. More crap. General nonsense." Quinn rattled off her assignations to her emails as she read down the list. She didn't bother looking up when she heard the door open.
"Still working?" Nicole asked as she came in.
"My ass off. It's seriously amazing how much is going down as a result of the most recent blackout that doesn't make it to the news. Fourth estate, my ass." She scoffed as she typed a response to one of her emails.
"I've brought Moroccan. Have you even bothered to eat today?" Nicole asked as she unpacked containers from the bags.
Observing Quinn in work mode, it was clear to Nicole why she'd done so well at RPR. When dedicated to a task, Quinn was a wholly take no prisoners kind of girl and she had a talent for getting things done.
"I had a kickass yogurt a few hours ago." She said and rifled through her bag before pulling out a file.
"So no, then."
"I do need a break. I just found out I'll be in San Francisco next week." She'd received her latest assignment to coordinate with the RPR regional director in San Francisco as the liaison between it and the LA office. It would basically mean that she would spend half her time in each city. Video conferencing was nice but RPR liked to have some things done purely in person for security reasons. Quinn had long ceased caring or wondering about how and why they chose certain things to be handled. She was still very pleased she could remain stateside instead of continuing the New Week New Continent tour she'd kept up with for the last year. Since the blackouts she'd lost her wanderlust.
"Do you know how long?" Nicole asked. She had seen reports on the news of San Francisco having riots at the same level as Los Angeles.
"A few days. Organization & liaison stuff. Apparently the guy who had the job in the San Fran office just bailed. Most likely a flash related flip out. All things considered, I'm pretty lucky. So what's going on with you?" She asked as she scooped food onto her plate.
"Work, getting ready for finals and sadly, pretty much nothing else." Nicole reported. As busy as she was she still hadn't filled up all the time she used to spend with Bryce. It was one more thing that made not missing him virtually impossible.
"I'm done with the guy drama for a while." Nicole assured between mouthfuls. If not entirely there yet, she was doing her best.
"You never told me, how was coffee with Ed?"
"It was nice. I like him."
"But nothing. He's easy to talk with and he has a great sense of humor."
"Much like someone else, if I recall correctly."
"This isn't about Bryce, so don't make it about him."
"If you say so."
"As far as the Bryce situation stands, we're just friends. Sort of."
"Whatever. You know that's not true."
"Of course it is. Even though our breakup says the total opposite, we're adults so we can be friends."
"Nope. There's no going back to being just friends for you two. But you keep telling yourself that."
"You've totally had sex with guys you're still friends with." Nicole countered.
"Yeah, but I'm not friends with the ones I was in love with."
"What about Drew?"
"Drew's different, we were friends first."
"So were Bryce and me."
"No. Not really. You can't claim that one with a few weeks, especially since those were weeks of you seriously crushing on him. And you're not me so..."
"So you can do it but I can't?" Nicole asked annoyed that Quinn didn't think she was hardcore enough to have that kind of relationship.
"I'm just saying that fundamentally, that's not who you are. You never wanted to be Bryce's Miss Right Now you wanted to be The One. And you still do. So, no. You two can't just be friends because you don't want to be just his friend. And he really doesn't want to just be yours."
"Even if that's true, and I'm not admitting it is, that's all we can be now."
"Wow. You really have whipped up quite the alternate reality."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nicole put down her fork, suddenly she wasn't so hungry anymore.
"You've spent these last couple weeks with him cornering, confronting and chasing you down, you've loved every minute of it and you're still trying to sell the whole neutral thing, like you don't care. There's denial and then there's... well, whatever you're doing." Quinn explained simply. She was all about having her BFF's back but she couldn't let the self-delusion bit slide.
"That's so not true. If anything, I've been trying to get him to leave me alone."
"You want him to chase you, admit it."
"Yeah right. If he quit tomorrow, you'd be all hurt and put out. Seriously Nikki, it's me. Tell the truth."
"Okay. Maybe a little." Nicole admitted finally and begrudgingly.
There was something about Bryce seeking her out that validated something inside her. She wasn't sure if it was petty or not and she didn't want to spend much time trying to figure it out. All that mattered was that every time he sought her out she felt something close to euphoria. It didn't matter very much that it was also tangled up with other feelings that were in conflict.
"So when are you going to move on to the next phase?"
"There isn't a next phase. We're done. This is just how it is and how it's going to be."
"Seriously?" Quinn didn't buy that in the least.
"There's no trust, so there's no fixing it."
"So have you figured out how to work counter to your flash or something?" Quinn was genuinely curious. When Nicole had explained what she saw in her most recent flash she almost sounded like she wanted it to happen or at the very least regretted that it wouldn't.
"Well, no. But the flash doesn't have to be."
"It doesn't have to be but if the last time around is any sort of indicator, you should most likely come up with a better plan than that."
"I can't plan against an unknown date."
"But you are holding out hope that the flash is at least partly accurate."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he's obviously healthy and happy in your flash, so you're still counting on that part working out, right? That's what you're going by to give yourself license to slowly tick off the days while you make him pay." Quinn explained. She wasn't judging, just calling it as she saw it.
"That's not what I'm doing."
"Oh, so you'd really do all this if you thought he was going to die... like soon?"
Nicole didn't like the way Quinn said it so casually.
"No. I mean, this isn't about that. Of course, I hope that part of my flash happens. You make it sound like I'm just wasting time."
"No, I know it's more complicated than that. But Nikki, you can't have it both ways. You wanted him to want you, ostensibly for more than Flashforward Day. And yes, you both messed it up pretty well but you still want him. And he's been doing everything for like weeks to let you know he wants you. I just... I mean, what more do you want from him? Because you're not happy. He's not happy. But you were happy together. So maybe you can work the other stuff out and just be together and be happy already
Nicole's shift had been quite the rollercoaster ride and it didn't show any signs of slowing down. She'd found she inherited the work of the other department clerical who'd simply called in and resigned. And had it not been so busy, Nicole would have had a moment to spend being properly annoyed. As it turned out, she was running in six different directions at once trying to do the work of two overworked people. She was sure she was almost at the limit of her organization and multitasking capabilities but she pressed on. When she looked up to see Bryce, she was surprised.
"You look tired." Nicole mentioned as she handed Bryce a stack of patient files. She hadn't seen him since she'd arrived for her shift hours earlier.
"I've been in surgery for ten hours. I should look tired." He replied offhandedly as he flipped through, signing and noting.
"That's all it is?" She asked, raising an eyebrow skeptically.
She'd told Quinn that one of the worst things about their current state of their relationship was not asking him how his weekly tests had gone. She figured he didn't feel like discussing it with her anymore as he never offered any information on the subject. She couldn't help but care and no matter what else happened, she still wanted him to remain well enough to begin the clinical trial on time.
He looked at her and got what she was really asking. Even if he was in the mood to talk about it, he sure as hell wasn't going to do it in the middle of the department where just anyone could walk up or overhear. And she knew that.
"Yeah, that's all. I need you to take these to Radiology. Have Mrs. Lydecker's labs come back yet?" He handed her the files, his tone frosty.
"Radiology. No problem. And no, not yet, on the labs."
"It was a rush."
"I called twice and they said they were backed up." Nicole explained as she accepted a large stack of files from a passing nurse.
"This isn't backed up, they're at a standstill. How long ago?" He was tired of the "backed up" line from the Lab. His personal tests were still sitting somewhere down there waiting to be run. Their "rush" was pushing the higher end of four days. By the time his results came back, he'd be up for another round of tests.
Nicole checked the time, surprised by how much had actually passed. "A few hours."
"Fine. I'll go explain what "Rush" means."
"I can go. I need to drop stuff in Records too. It's on my way." She offered, partly because she was worried about him and partly because he was so annoyed.
"No. I've got it." He said, about to turn and go.
"All I need, is for you to do what I asked you to do!" He cut her off abruptly. "Just... take that to Radiology. I'll take care of the rest."
Nicole nodded, surprised into silence and watched as he walked down the corridor. Whether tired or something else, he seemed to be running well enough on anger. It wasn't like him to be that way usually and that made her worry even more. When she lost sight of him she turned to go to Radiology. She was already considering whether the direct or indirect way would be best in finding out what was going on with him.
Later, Bryce found Nicole diligently working on an ongoing project in Records. A stack of paperwork and files on the desk in front of her almost hid her from view as she typed away.
"You know accessing patient information without direct cause could get you into a crapload of trouble, right?" He asked, grateful that she was the only person up here after hours.
"I don't know what you're talking about.' She tried, hoping he'd go away.
"Yes, you do." He persisted.
Part of him was glad that she cared enough to check but he was also worried that she'd jeapordize her job that way, just to check on him. Especially when she could have just asked him up front.
"Bryce, can we not do this?" She asked and tried to keep working.
"No we have to do this. You accessed my patient file. Why did you do that?"
She realized she was caught out. She'd used his login information to check and had hoped that enough time would have elapsed before he logged in himself that hers would go unnoticed.
"I... just wanted to see if you were still okay,. And make sure you were still fine for the clinical trial."
"Why didn't you just ask me?'
"I don't know. Because we're not like we're like that anymore."
"How can you say that?" It hurt to hear.
"I don't know. You don't tell me anything and I don't feel like I should ask. I just... I was worried about you. And we just wind up arguing more often than not, so I just thought that if I just looked I'd have my answers and I could either be scared, feel better or try to help... if you'd let me. I just wanted to know, either way."
"You didn't think I'd tell you the truth if you asked?"
"I couldn't be sure. When we were good, you told me everything. But before, you'd decided that going it all alone was a better way to go and you wound up on the pier... and I was just..." She couldn't finish.
"Hey. You don't have to worry about that, okay? I promise." He told her sincerely and wished he'd found a better way to tell her about that whole thing. They could have talked about it instead of it being one more unfinished conversation between them. For months he'd tried to think of a way to explain in order to avoid scaring her and making her worry but that's what happened anyway.
"You remembered how to read the results?" He asked, hoping to change the tenor of the conversation.
"I never forgot anything you ever told me." Nicole admitted. She still wondered sometimes if he'd any idea how seriously she'd taken him and their relationship.
"My tests were just taking longer than they should've and the waiting was getting to me." He explained.
"Why didn't you just ask them to run them? Isn't that a physician's perk?"
"I don't know how to explain it. I knew I needed them run asap but patients needs took priority."
"You're a patient too, you know." She understood his point but he was the patient she cared most about.
"Trust me, I know. It's not something I forget. It's most likely not the most rational thing but I wouldn't feel right pushing to get to the front of the line. Patients worry and so do their loved ones. They're all counting on the best and most efficient care possible."
"Well, you have people who love you too who are expecting you to have the best care for the best possible outcome." She said and remembered how he was in her flash and hoped for possibly the hundredth time that it was as far off as possible. The thought of him not getting better or worse, being gone, still made her stomach tie into knots.
"Are you admitting that you still love me?" He asked with a disarming smile, half kidding. Most likely way less than half.
"Don't, Bryce." She shook her head and looked away. Proximity always made it harder to keep herself from falling back into the idea of "them". It made it way harder to lie to herself or convince him of her resolve.
"Don't what?" He watched as her hopefully reminiscent expression clouded over.
"Wreck the moment. Just leave it." She didn't want to have that conversation. She knew she was all too apt to wear down and give in she let that door open even a little.
"Right. Whatever." He sighed, annoyed that once again she'd halted anything that felt like it could take them back to the way they were.
"So what? Now you're angry again?"
"Yeah a little bit. You do this thing where you want to talk about personal things but it's all one sided. As soon as the personal shifts to you, you're out." He couldn't stand that he'd fallen for it more than once. His belief that she'd finally come around was lessened each time.
"And you wonder why I looked up your results instead of asking? I didn't want to have to go through any of this extra stuff with you!" She knew he'd called it correctly but she had decided that she wasn't going to have the conversation no matter what he said. She wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.
"What do you want from me?" He couldn't see why she was so put out with him wanting to capitalize on good moments between them.
Nicole paused before she spoke, thinking of the best out she could come up with.
"I need help getting ready for my OChem final. It's next week."
He hadn't been expecting anything remotely like that and her answer gave him pause. "OChem final. Really?"
"You asked. I answered." She shrugged and looked away. She hoped he'd let this be the end of it.
"Okay fine, when?" He knew just what she was doing and he knew that pushing her any more would likely not work in his favor.
They called an uneasy and unspoken truce to their daily emotional extortion session. It always ended the same way. Temporarily.
Nicole looked from her reflection in the mirror to the dresses deemed unworthy and discarded laying on the bed. The three that were hers had been quick to be abandoned as options. Each was tied in one way or another to time she'd spent with Bryce. She'd worn the black one on one of their dates. The purple had been the one she'd worn to the rehearsal dinner in Monterey. And the yellow, she'd bought specifically for a date they'd made for April 30th, which never happened. She'd thought about returning that one but just couldn't bring herself to do it. Like if she did return it, she was really closing the door on that date ever happening. Not that that made any sense. The day had come and gone and so too had the relationship. Even so, she couldn't return it. But when she was getting ready for her date with Ed and tried it on, she knew she couldn't wear it either. Not now. It looked right but it just wasn't.
"Since when do you do hooker chic?" Quinn asked as Nicole worked diligently on her hair in the mirror.
"You said I could borrow any outfit I wanted. You don't think it looks okay?" Nicole stopped to pirouette for Quinn.
"Not on you." Quinn tried not to frown. It was one of her favorite little black dresses to go clubbing in. It fit like it was painted on and was still insanely comfortable.
"Nice." Nicole rolled her eyes and went back to her hair. She didn't want to hear Quinn tell her that she was just as transparent as she feared. She'd spent too much time telling herself that she wasn't.
"No. It if was you, I'd know. It's not you." Quinn explained. She left out the part that it was conspicuously her. It was all too clear that Nicole was going for anything but herself.
"So what? Sexy on you equals slutty on me?" Nicole asked a bit miffed.
"You know sexy is all about confidence and comfort. Remember that party last year when I wore it?"
"Yes. That girl tried to set your hair on fire after you were off dancing with her boyfriend too long. She was kinda pissed."
"She was kinda insecure and threatened."
"So you're saying it was the dress?"
"It wasn't so much the dress as me in the dress. That's the threat. It's like moving in your own skin. In this, you don't look confident or comfortable. You look like you're trying to be. So, no. It doesn't come together exactly right. It's just surface. It's not you. But, whatever. Wear it if you want to."
Nicole rolled her eyes again and went back to fiddling with the straps on the dress. She realized in part that Quinn was right but she didn't care. She took stock of herself in the mirror and decided that since it fit well in all the right places, she'd nothing to worry about. So what if she was most comfortable going more understated than extremely glammed up. Sometimes it was a good thing to step out of one's comfort zones.
"Why not go with a dress you'd actually buy for yourself? Or one you actually feel good in? You know, it's not like you've had some bad track record with attracting guys by being yourself. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the peasant tops, tee shirts, chinos and denim that got Bryce all hot and bothered over you. It was just you. Not you trying to be someone you're not." Quinn told her and crossed the hall back to her bedroom.
"And we both know how well that whole thing ended." Nicole countered as she slipped on her earrings and slipped off her cross. She really didn't want to talk about Bryce. And this so wasn't about him anyway.
"So your solution is to attract some other guy by not being yourself because you think that doesn't have massively ginormous fail written all over it?" Quinn called from her bedroom as she continued to pack for her trip.
"No. That's not my solution, but thanks for the vote of confidence." Nicole replied as she stood in the doorway, finally done assembling herself.
"You know, you could just skip all this nonsense and call Bryce."
"Quinn..." She didn't want to hear this from Quinn.
"I'm just saying... that's what all this is about anyway. You spend all this time and expend all this effort to try and prove that you're over him. And I have to watch and be embarrassed for you because it's so painfully clear that not only aren't you over him, you're so tangled up, you're practically strangling yourself."
"I've got to go. Thanks for the dress. You're the best and have safe trip. I promise to come by and take care of the plants and the mail." Nicole said as she hugged Quinn before grabbing her purse and heading for the door. It was always twice as hard to convince herself of what she was doing when Quinn was around to call her out with the truth.
"No problem. You're welcome." Quinn said and folded her clothes before dropping them into her suitcase. She regretted just a little that she couldn't take the dress Nicole had borrowed with her. It was her lucky dress.
Nicole grabbed her keys to Quinn's and closed the door behind her. She didn't want to be late meeting Ed. She'd told him she'd be waiting in the lobby when he arrived, so he didn't have to bother with parking. As she waited for the elevator to arrive, she couldn't help but critique her reflection in the window at the end of the corridor. A pang of uncertainty struck her as it occurred to her that it was maybe too short. And maybe the makeup was too much. It was too late to change now even if she was losing her nerve. She was tugging at the dress when the elevator doors opened.
She looked up to see Bryce before her and tried to take a more confident posture, abandoning her dress adjustment.
"Wow. Nice dress. Changed your mind about the kind of chemistry you need my help with?" He was more than a little surprised to see her in a dress like that to begin with and even more surprised to see her made up as she was. Even if it wasn't very much her, he wouldn't necessarily call it bad.
"Like I'd wear this for you. What are you doing here anyway?" She asked, feeling every bit as uncomfortable and self-conscious as Quinn had suggested earlier. She hated that she'd been so easy to read, even if it was by her best friend. Bryce being able to see through her facade bothered her most and motivated her to work at it that much harder.
"You said you needed help getting ready for your final. Tonight." He knew she was busy but he couldn't see her forgetting that. It made him wonder if this was just another way for her to show him how pissed off she was.
When she'd asked for his help, he'd agreed just as much for himself as he had for her. All that mattered was getting to spend time with her. He knew she really only needed him to check her work and let her know she was on the right track. He was pretty sure she knew it too.
"No, I know that, but I left you a message at the station that we could reschedule since you were doing a double." She explained as they stepped into the elevator.
She mentally cataloged a list of random things as they stood facing one another. The subtle hint of spearmint scented soap meant Dr. Covington's surg suite. White long sleeved tee shirt. Black jeans that she'd picked out one of the times they'd hung out in Westwood. Her OChem study guide was in his hand. She'd been looking for it for two weeks. She remembered now that she'd left it at his house. Before. His hands. She missed them. He was saying something to her.
"... so I didn't get your message."
"Well, we can reschedule." She mentioned with a shrug and told herself to stay on topic. It was way too easy for her mind to stray when he was around. Memories always got in the way and triggered desires that were simply lost causes.
"Can we?" He asked sarcastically. Her assumption that he'd do so grated a bit. Mostly because he actually would.
"Or not. It's just... I'm on my way out."
"Of course. You're really going out?"
"Yes. I really am. Look, just forget about the reschedule. I'll work my studying out on my own. It's not your problem. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have even asked." Nicole said with a shrug as the elevator doors opened. She was fighting the urge to adjust the dress again.
They stepped out and walked across the lobby. Nicole spotted Ed waiting through the glass doors and waved.
"So that's what all this is in aid of." Bryce said indicating her dress and the rest.
It sounded to Nicole like an accusation. "I don't know what makes you think I owe you any explanation."
"You're going out on a date. With him?"
"Not your business, but yes." She told him, with her chin high and a taunting tone. She turned and walked off.
Bryce paused for a moment before following behind. He half wanted to shrug her "date" off as nothing. She'd been alternating between hot and cold toward him for just over two weeks. Well maybe not between hot and cold but definitely warm and cold. But the chance that he could be mistaken, assured he wouldn't just let her walk off. Even if it was a bad idea.
Outside, Nicole walked over to Ed waiting by his car.
"Hi!" She greeted him with a bright smile.
"Hey. You look great." He smiled back, glad to see her.
"She's lovely isn't she?" Bryce interrupted, standing next to Nicole. He was getting tired of this game.
"Bryce!" Nicole couldn't tell if his tone was pissed or sarcastic. She wanted him to go away or not at the same time.
"Yeah, I know. Places to go, things to do, but I just need to borrow her for one minute. You don't mind, do you Ed?" Bryce asked, not caring at all if Ed did. He didn't bother to wait for an answer before taking Nicole's hand and turning to walk away.
Ed watched the pair walk off. Or more correctly, Bryce stalk off and Nicole take extra steps in her heels to keep up. Nicole looked back at him, holding up her hand for him to wait a minute and then disappeared inside. He still couldn't tell if it was a classic case of Nice Girl Attracted to Asshole or something far more complex. Whatever it was, it didn't look over.
"What are you doing?" Nicole asked, finally pulling her hand free, when they were back in the lobby.
"Me? What are you doing?" Bryce couldn't believe her questioning him. Worse, he couldn't reconcile the idea that she was interested in Ed. He didn't believe she could just turn off feelings she'd had for him for months in no time and move on to the paramedic. That it looked like she was trying to do just that scared him more than he wanted to admit.
"I'm going on a date! And you're embarrassing me." She told him, wholly annoyed that even though he'd exceeded the boundaries of their current relationship, she was on some level relieved he still gave a damn.
"You're embarrassing yourself. You don't need my help."
"This is ridiculous. I don't have to stand here and explain myself to you." She turned to leave.
"Choose. Right now. Me or him." Bryce said, fully realizing that ultimatums had a fifty-fifty chance of going the way the issuer wanted. And of late, his track record wasn't so great where Nicole was concerned.
"What?" She stopped and turned back toward him. She felt her heart race with nervous anticipation. Something inside didn't like where this could go.
"You heard me. It's him or it's me. Tell me now. So we can stop doing this." He was tired of whatever this was they were doing because it wasn't working out. Just the same, the threat of calling it done between he and Nicole bothered him. He wasn't so sure he could back it up if pushed.
"Bryce, it's not a competition or some kind of payback." She managed, trying to keep her voice even. She didn't like it, but that same scared feeling she felt when they'd argued on Flashforward Day in the driveway came back. The feeling of the finality of them spiraling outside of her grasp was terrible altogether.
"Whatever. You know that's not true at all." That she kept lying to herself was bad enough. That she kept trying to convince him of her sincerity, simply pissed him off.
"Besides, it's not like we're together. We're over." She countered, in a moment of either bravery or stupidity. She couldn't tell which anymore.
"We're over?" He'd had enough. He leaned in and pulled her into a kiss.
Nicole couldn't think and she didn't want to. If she could have stayed right in that moment with Bryce, she would have. It was a most vivid reminder of all that was and underscored what was being thrown away now. Or was it only deferred? Inevitable? She was just about ready to believe anything he wanted her to. All over again.
Though he didn't want to, Bryce pulled back breaking their kiss. Before Nicole could think to stop herself, she leaned forward in an effort to prolong the kiss. Broken or not, she was clearly dazed and breathless.
"Yeah, that's what I thought." He said when he saw the expression on her face.
"I... that doesn't mean anything. I have to go." She was frowning and let go of the hold she'd had on his shirt when they kissed before turning to walk away. She felt dizzy. Both annoyed that he'd kissed her and that he'd stopped, she knew the kiss meant everything. It was the first purely unguarded interaction she'd had with him in weeks.
That she was Jello-legged as she went gave Bryce no solace. He was too caught up on the fact that she was leaving. He watched her get into Ed's car and drive away. He didn't want to know how far she was going to go to make her point or make him pay. He was more worried now than pissed.
Bryce watched Nicole leave with Ed and knew he couldn't put it off any longer. No matter what he did he came up with two unacceptable results. Either he'd push Nicole further away or find that they were stuck in neutral. He was definitely at a loss with her and there was only one person who could fill in the gaps. He headed back up to Quinn's apartment.
Quinn opened the door, a look of surprise on her face and the cacophony of some song with heavy base guitar blaring behind her. Bryce was surprised she'd heard the doorbell at all.
"Nikki's not here. You just missed her." She greeted with a shrug. She wished these two would just work it out already.
"I know. I'm here to see you. I need your help. And I'm totally prepared to beg if that's what it takes." Bryce explained, completely resigned to his situation.
"Wow. Could you be more pathetic?" She shook her head in pity.
"Would I be here if I didn't know I'd reached that point?" He asked not caring at all about Quinn's dig. He hadn't the time or inclination to be embarrassed or annoyed, he just needed to know the right way to go about getting results. Pride wasn't even on his list. It was all taken up with getting Nicole back.
"Fine. Come in." Quinn said and headed for the living room. She picked up the remote and turned off the music.
"Thanks." Bryce closed the door behind him and hoped that he Quinn could help him work out what he needed to do to get Nicole back.
"No big deal. Between you and Nikki, I'm starting to feel like some sort of therapist. And I'm nowhere near that nurturing in my natural habitat. I mean, for her, I've got unlimited patience but you... well, you're not on the same list."
"I know you're her best friend and I'm the guy that broke her heart, but I just really need to know how to fix this."
"What's the problem as you see it?" Quinn asked as she slid her laptop and files into her bag. Whatever she didn't have done wasn't going to be finished tonight, of that she was sure.
"She won't talk to me. At least, not in any way that matters. And every time we're close to having a decent moment she shuts it down. It doesn't matter what I do or say. And now she's going out with... Ed. And that, doesn't make any sense!"
"So you want me to intervene with Nikki and try to get her to talk to you and let go of the hostility and whatever she's up to with Ed."
"Clearly not the answer you were expecting."
"No. Not so much."
"My best friend's brain has turned into some endless loop of you and after everything, you have the temerity to show up to ask me to help you. I'm bold but you're taking it to a whole new level. Ego much?"
"It's not like that.
"You usually get your way, don't you? Cause I'm pretty sure Nikki doesn't tell you no very often, so maybe that's part of your problem."
"Everyone likes to get their way."
"True. But how has it not occurred to you to just let this one ride out."
"I tried that. It didn't work."
"You tried. For what? Two weeks? Tops? You feel you've put in enough time now? Why does everything have to be on your timetable? Seriously, everything you've said to try and convince me to help you has been about you and what you want."
"Yes. You want me to talk to Nikki because you're ready to work it out and she's not doing what you want her to, when you want her to."
"Fair enough assessment. Although, it sounds less self-serving and more selfish when you put it that way."
"Look, I know you love her but you've just got to give her whatever time she needs to work it out for herself." Quinn advised and walked into the kitchen.
"You make it sound so simple. And what's supposed to happen while I'm giving her all this time?"
"She hooks up with someone else or she doesn't? Who knows? And what difference does it make? She gave you time to figure out your flash-chick thing. Why can't you return the favor?" Quinn asked handing one of two bottles of iced tea to Bryce and took a seat across from him on the sofa.
"It's not the same situation. All those months, Keiko was an idea. An image. Not some living, breathing, real person that I knew. She was never some sort of threat."
"Well, I can tell you for a fact, that Nikki felt just as threatened by your idea as you do about how she may feel about Ed. Keiko was no more her problem than Ed is yours. And now you know how she felt when you left her standing in your driveway while you took off behind someone else. You want my best advice? Man up and do now, what you expected her to do before. Trust her and trust that no matter what, your relationship can take it and it'll work out."
"I can't believe you just told me to man up." Bryce chuckled and appreciated her candor. "And you said you wouldn't help me."
"Well, I'm feeling generous tonight. Besides, I know Nikki still loves you."
"It just sucks having her angry with me."
"You're only half the problem. She's just as angry with herself for hurting you."
"So, I guess it is what it is. At least for now."
"Pretty much. Can I ask you something I've been dying to know?"
"Dude, what the fuck were you thinking bailing on Nikki?"
"The short answer is, I wasn't thinking that's what I was doing or how it would turn out."
"And the long answer?"
"Is that, when she told me Keiko was here, all I could remember was what I felt like when I went looking for her. That compulsion. I understood it and I just thought, that if she came here looking for me feeling like that... that leaving her alone in lockup for one more minute without trying to help her would just be... it was just unthinkable."
In his mind, he had replayed that conversation between he and Nicole so much that he knew exactly when the moment occurred that he'd stopped really listening to anything else she said. He'd been too angry at her seeming willingness to leave someone in such a vulnerable position and every reason she gave he found untenable. And when he finally began to realize what she was saying and understand how she felt, it was too late.
"Surprisingly, I can kinda understand that. And considering that I'm predisposed to dismiss any sort of answer you could come up with, that's impressive." Quinn admitted. "And don't think I don't understand the whole, flash-love thing. I get the feeling part, I just don't do mania."
She explained that in her most recent flash in the midst of other things, she was with a man she loved.
"So when you woke up, how did you know that it was love and not something else?" Bryce asked.
"Well, I do my fair of comparison shopping, so I can tell by how I felt in the flash that he wasn't a one off. We knew each other. Really well. We were laughing at some inside joke we had. Like, you know how you can whisper two words and the other person just knows and you both just start laughing? It was like that. The way he whispered in my ear and the way I rested my hand on his chest as he did. It was intimate and comfortable. It was love." Quinn explained as she recalled what she'd experienced. Most of all she liked the calm and ease she'd felt.
"But you aren't out there now looking for this guy."
"Because I don't need to go out and make it happen. I saw it, so if that's some sort of sign that it's meant to be, it'll happen organically, not as an effect of something I had to engineer or force into being, you know?"
"Yeah. That actually makes complete, rational sense." He admired her sense of balance, mostly because it was so counter to how he'd been after the first flash.
"I want to find out how it's supposed to happen. I want to have the journey, not give chase. So, whoever he is, I'm looking forward to meeting him... whenever. But I already have a life to live and whenever we cross paths, he'll be added to it maybe, not give me one or make the one I already have worth living. I'm already a whole person and I appreciate what I have. Besides, he could be married or something right now, what would I look like showing up expectantly and intruding on whatever his life is?" She explained, she couldn't even begin to imagine purposely turning her life into any more of a chaotic convolution than it already was. There were plenty of other people taking that route and the results weren't bearing out to be very pretty in the end.
"Well, desperation has never exactly been love has it?"
"No. And I have it on pretty good authority that patience is more suited." He recalled Nicole telling him that months ago when he was in Tokyo. That he hadn't really heard her then but instead understood all these months later was regretful. "So if it doesn't happen?"
"Then it doesn't happen. It's not the end of my world. Something even more amazing could happen. I already have a pretty awesome life. What am I gonna do, complain?"
"Well, not me. Millions of people have died as a result of the blackouts. If that's not lesson enough to appreciate the people in our lives that we love now, then I don't know what is. At least, that's how I make sense of all this in my mind."
"I think you're right." Bryce agreed thoughtfully and mulled Quinn's perspective.
"Well, Nikki's currently kinda cornered the market of flash stress, so I try to balance it out with a little pragmatism."
"What did she see this time? When I asked her she wouldn't say."
"If she doesn't want to tell you, I certainly won't. It's not mine to tell." Quinn explained steadfastly.
"Did you tell her yours?"
"All I told her was that she was in mine and she didn't want to know anymore. She feels like the knowledge of her own flash is more than enough, so she doesn't want to know anyone else's because she doesn't want to have to worry about what she is or isn't moving toward or away from."
"In your flash, was she happy?"
"She was very happy." Quinn said simply.
"She was happy in mine too. We were on some balcony and it was snowing."
"Snowing?" Quinn looked up surprised he'd seen something that matched hers so specifically.
"Yeah. I don't know where we were but I could hear people laughing, talking. There were glasses toasting, I think. Maybe a party or something? What?"
Quinn's expression was a mix of surprise and reticence.
"What did you see?"
"If I tell you this, you have to swear you're not going to go all stupid and use it as some justification to push Nikki to do what you want. I mean it. Seriously."
"I promise. Just please, tell me."
"Fine. In addition to the guy I told you about, I saw you and Nikki. You were just through these beveled glass doors that opened onto a balcony. It was night and the snow was falling. From where I was standing, you both looked happy."
"Do you remember anything else? Do you know when it was?"
"February 13, 2016."
"2016?" The revelation that Quinn had seen he and Nicole coupled with the date was beyond stunning.
"Yeah. That was pretty much my reaction after the fact."
"How do you know?" So far, 2014 was the farthest reported flashforward time seen.
"I know because I saw it written down. Nikki wrote a note in a card and in my flash I read it."
"You're sure she didn't write it on some other date?"
"No. It was the same day. Night, whatever. It was handed to me."
"What did it say?"
"I don't think you need to know that part."
Because it's seriously not going to help you."
"How can you possibly know that. Look, I promised already that I won't say anything to Nicole. I just want a another piece to the puzzle so there's more context to the picture. Please."
"She wrote: "Thanks Quinn for throwing us the best engagement party ever. You're the best, LYLAS, Nikki (& Bryce too) 02.13.2016." Quinn recounted with a shrug. She hoped she was doing the right thing by telling him and she wouldn't regret it later.
"Wow." He felt like he was racing to catch up. The date and not being incapacitated or dead was pretty monumental. And the rest, completed the task of rendering him just about speechless.
"Yeah. See? How's that for context?" She asked
"I don't know what to say. Wow. You must be the best secret keeper ever. How could you not tell her this?"
"Because she doesn't want to hear it. She doesn't feel like she needs to know. And don't forget, you're not going to tell her either."
"I know. I promised. Right. I'm gonna go home and... think about everything. Thanks, for helping me. Especially because you didn't have to. I promise it won't be a wasted effort." Bryce said, still stunned by the revelations of the evening.
"You're welcome. Just please, I'm begging you, don't fuck it up. And just give her a little leeway if she looks like she will." Quinn implored, hoping that if one of them could hold it together just long enough the other would catch up.
Nicole's night out with Ed flew by in a whirlwind. The clubs he took her too were packed, loud and just the thing she wanted in a distraction from everything else going on. She had been fascinated by it all, even though she had not been sure she had exactly had fun. By the time they wound up in the middle of a Silly String flash mob, Nicole didn't think twice at all if participation was ill advised. She grabbed two cans and jumped right into the fray next to Ed. When they were picked up in a police sweep, she was more surprised than anything. The SoE was still in effect and the authorities were not very keen on large groups of people assembling. A Silly String flash mob was pretty benign but since the last blackout, there had been too many instances of protests turned riot out of nowhere, so neither the police nor National Guard were taking any chances.
Let go after their background checks were done and came back clean, Nicole and Ed met up outside the police station as the sun began rising.
"Some night, huh?" Ed asked with a smile.
"Oh yeah. I think I've finally got all the silly string out of my hair." Nicole said. She was tired but still thrilled by the novelty of the night. Quinn would hardly believe it.
"I guess I should get you home."
Nicole smiled and felt giddy as they walked up the street. She wanted to prolong the feeling.
As soon as she kissed him she knew it was off. There wasn't anything wrong with the kiss as far as the mechanics went. But the chemistry... it wasn't right. So clear that she couldn't even lie to herself, it came down to the simplest thing ever. No matter how much she wanted it not to be so, she couldn't deny it and she'd never be able to get past it. As great as Ed was, as much as they had in common, as fated as she'd wanted it to be, one simple fact remained in that kiss. He didn't feel right. He didn't taste right. She'd been hoping for his kiss to replace Bryce's but only came up with a searing reminder of the very thing.
"I'm sorry. This isn't right." Nicole said as she pulled back almost spilling her coffee all over the front seat of Ed's car.
She remembered what it was like to be on the receiving end of what she'd perceived as a kiss that was about someone else. She hadn't liked it one bit and here she was foisting the very same on someone else. But what she'd done was worse. Bryce's kiss all those months before had been about her but her kissing Ed wasn't even remotely about Ed. It was all about Bryce. That she always seemed to find a way to talk about Bryce with Ed was bad enough, now she'd compounded that problem.
"It's okay. We're good." Ed told her. He hadn't exactly seen the kiss coming.
"I just... shouldn't even be here. Not like this. I'm just embarrassing myself." She admitted. All she wanted to do was go home take off Quinn's dress and take a shower.
"Don't be embarrassed. I like you, as a friend, so it's all good. You've just got some relationship stuff going on that you need to work out." He assured, not wanting her to be upset.
"Is it that obvious?" Nicole was way past embarrassed.
"It's pretty obvious. Even without all that when I came to pick you up, it was pretty clear. Look, I don't know him, but I can personally attest to the fact that every time I've run into him, you've been the topic and he's been pretty consistent with making an ass of himself."
"Yeah, about that and before... he's not like that most of the time. He's usually really nice to everyone. I expected him to, of course, be nice to you because you saved me but I guess that's too much to ask."
"Yeah, it's kind of a lot." Ed told her.
He still didn't know exactly what went down between them the night before but whatever it was when Nicole had come back outside, she was clearly distracted.
"You're defending him?" Nicole was more than surprised.
"Not so much defending as, I just get it. Call it a guy thing."
"A guy thing?"
"No man really wants to be in any situation where he feels like someone else came in and took care of the woman he loves when it should have been him."
"That's ridiculous." She maintained though the thought of Bryce still loving her tugged at her heart.
"Like I said, it's a guy thing. Besides, how ridiculous can it be when you said yourself that you were mad at him for not being with you that night?"
"That's entirely different."
"How? You can be mad at him for that but he can't be mad at himself for the same thing?"
Nicole couldn't answer because she hadn't thought about that. She'd been so caught up in her own feelings, it didn't even occur to her that Bryce's recent actions had anything to do with his having sincere regret.
Ed got the complicated relationship thing and knew firsthand that sometimes making a complete fool of yourself was not only unavoidable but also the thing you needed to do to get to whatever the next step on the path was.
"It doesn't matter. Not anymore. It's too late." Nicole shook her head.
"I don't know. For months I seriously believed I'd reached you too late to save you because I couldn't see the whole picture. But here you are, fresh off a short stint at One Police Plaza after showing off pretty decent skills in Silly String War 2010.
"So you're saying I'm meant for more than Silly String combat?"
"Possibly. Maybe it'll work out or maybe it won't but if you're not ready to move on, maybe there's a reason."
"It sounds so simple when you say it."
"Observer's prerogative. And my fair share of complicated ex-girlfriend stuff."
So many things were so topsy turvy but a couple were becoming more clear no matter how much she worried or tried to deny them. She knew without a doubt that she was ready for her OChem final. She was done worrying about it. And she knew that even with she and Bryce ending up more or less estranged, her feelings for him hadn't changed, no matter how she'd tried to force it. No matter what had happened. Her heart had either never taken the messages from her brain or simply wrote them off entirely as being from an entity that simply didn't know what the hell it was doing. That Quinn, Bryce and now Ed had all been aware of this before she could admit it should have bothered her but she was way past that.
"This was certainly one of the strangest nights I've ever had but good. Thanks. For everything." Nicole said as Ed stopped in front of her house.
"No problem. I had a good time. Next time we go out, you get to pick where we end up. I have a feeling we'll run a lower chance of ending the night with police involvement."
"Sounds like a good plan." Nicole laughed as she got out of the car. She still hardly believed she'd actually sat in a holding cell.
"Good luck with your finals."
Her reply dissolved in her mind when she saw Bryce pull up. It occurred to her she might need a bit of luck on more than just her finals.
"Are you good?" Ed asked as her expression changed.
"Yeah, it's totally fine. I'll see you later." She assured him with a smile and waved as he drove away.
She met Bryce halfway. She couldn't read his expression but she felt guilty just the same.
"It's not what it looks like." She began to explain even though she knew she shouldn't feel like she needed to.
"You don't owe me an explanation. And I don't really want to know anyway, so... I was on my way to work and just came to drop off your study guide. Thought you might need it." He explained and handed over the book. He had resolved to act on Quinn's advice, but had hoped for an easier first run. He noticed she wasn't wearing her cross and reminded himself that whatever the reason, he didn't want to know.
"Thanks." She accepted the book, grateful to have something to hide behind and folded her arms across her chest.
"Sure. And I'm sorry about last night. You were right and I shouldn't have acted like that. You're free to do whatever you want to do and it's not my business. So, I'm going to finally do what you've been asking me to do and leave you alone about us."
"Oh. Well, thank you... I guess?" She wasn't sure how to respond.
"Okay. I should probably go so..." He turned to leave.
She hesitated and knew she had to finally say what she knew to be true. The very real possibility that he'd walk away for good was worse than the admission.
"Bryce, wait. I wanted to just say that... you were right, too. You've been right and I just didn't want to admit it."
"So now what?" He asked truly surprised by what she'd said but careful not to get his hopes up too high. He wondered what prompted her change.
"I don't know. I can't really do this right now. And I don't mean that like before. It's just I have finals."
"Right. Today and tomorrow."
"Exactly, so maybe we can talk about it next week?" She asked hopefully.
"Whatever you want." He wanted to say more, get her to commit to a day they'd have the talk, but didn't want to risk ruining what he considered to be progress. "Good luck on your Chem final."
"I don't need luck. I had a great tutor all semester." She smiled.
Nicole's Organic Chemistry and Developmental Psychology finals fell back to back on the last day of finals. Because of the global blackout, the university had pushed back the schedule by just over a week. This was resulting in leaving only a week's interval between the current session closing and the Summer session beginning. Even with all that had happened they were still trying to maintain as close to normal a schedule as possible. Nicole tried not to think about the Calculus or Psych classes she'd signed up for months before. She needed to concentrate on the task at hand. That the proctor for the OChem exam was particularly pissy and adamant to verify that no one entered the room with their mobile phone or any other electronic devices was a minor annoyance. Nicole noticed exactly which of her classmates weren't in attendance and said a quick prayer that they were safe and faring well. She'd hoped they'd just dropped out for a while and would get themselves together enough to rejoin life later, just like she had many months before. All things considered, she knew that her flashforward experience this time around was a luxury. She appreciated it wholly, even if she wasn't embracing it. She'd even gained something of an appreciation for her first flash after talking to Ed. She liked his balanced outlook and perspective on the flashes.
Once the proctor was satisfied that everyone seated for the exam was more or less trustworthy, the exams were passed out and commenced. Nicole took a deep breath and read over the questions, while she flipped the pages. She began working and couldn't help but think about Bryce having had confidence that she could do it all along and helping her along the way. No matter how things had ended up between them, she would always be grateful to him in that regard. He'd believed in her when she wasn't so sure.
When both her finals were complete she walked to the bus stop to head home. She missed her car. It was still in the shop awaiting parts that were on backorder. She knew she could use Quinn's car while she was away but she hadn't time before her finals to stop by. She felt drained and a little loopy from having her mind bent and folded in different directions. She didn't even care that she couldn't recall one question asked or answer she'd given on either exam. She considered blank better than worry as she retrieved her messages.
She listened to two messages Paige had left her and deleted them. Par for the course Paige. A demand to call her back ASAP and questioning where she was. Add in her usual tone of derision and Nicole wasn't inclined to call her back immediately. She still couldn't understand why Paige refused to leave messages that actually had content. She never said what she wanted. Nicole mused momentarily that if she'd just saved all Paige's messages it would likely come down to about four variations. At most. Nicole tossed her phone into her bag. Even with all the restrictions of the SoE, she figured she'd have just enough time to go home to see her Mom before heading to work. She'd promised that after her finals she'd come home and play a hand of cards. It never occurred to her that her mother would make other plans.
Nicole watched the firefighters working and hardly believed what she was witnessing. The flames shot through the roof of the house and lapped against the blue of the sky while black smoke billowed. After explaining to an officer who she was she turned to see Paige approaching.
"Where have you been?"
"I had finals." Nicole told her, sure it was going to be an answer lacking in Paige's estimation. She did wish now that she'd called her back though.
"Where's Mom? What's happened?"
"Mom? Oh, she's fine! Gleeful and practically raving as they took her off. She set the house on fire, she could have been injured or killed and all she could talk about was you!"
"What about Judy?" Nicole asked instead of bothering to respond to her sister's comments.
"Thankfully, she's fine. She came out to get the mail, Mom locked her out and lit the place."
"She was fine this morning before I left."
"I seriously doubt that."
"Fine for her, Paige!" Nicole yelled back.
She knew it would result in an argument but she didn't care. She was tired of being the one between the them to always work harder to get along. It was the wrong time and place but then, there never was a good time for long overdue confrontations.
"You know what, I don't have to argue with you about this. I'm the one with the Power of Attorney not you. You don't get a vote. Not this time." Paige dismissed Nicole completely.
"Why don't you just go? Mom's not here and I don't need you here. I'll call you and let you know what the Fire Marshall says about the house." Paige said before turning and walking away.
Still livid, Nicole walked off in the opposite direction. She took out her phone and called Gatewood Hospital. It may have been the closest mental hospital but it certainly wasn't the place best suited for her mother. She hated that place and that Paige would let anyone take her there for even one minute infuriated Nicole even more. She couldn't get her out she just wanted to see her. Before she made the call, she knew it was a futile endeavor.
"Yes, I know. I understand. Thank you." After twenty minutes on the phone speaking with the doctors at the hospital, Nicole felt no better about the situation. Her phone jingled disturbing her train of thought.
"Nikki, hey! So glad you picked up! Can you do me a favor? When you stop in at my place, there's a file I left on my desk. Can you fax the papers to me?" Quinn asked quickly.
"Um, sure. Of course, I can do that. What's the number?" Nicole asked as she pulled a pen and small notebook from her handbag. Nicole wrote as Quinn rattled off the number.
"Thanks. You're a life saver, I can't even tell you. How were your finals?"
"My finals? They were good." It seemed like they'd happened a long time ago, not earlier in the day.
"Are you okay?" Quinn was sure Nicole didn't sound like her usual self.
"It's been kind of a strange day. My Mom burned like, half the house down." Nicole explained to Quinn and reaffirmed for herself.
"She what? Oh my god, Nikki! Is she okay?"
"She's not hurt but they took her to Gatewood."
"Seriously?" Quinn knew what that meant.
"Yeah. Can we talk later? I have to go or I'm going to be late for work."
"Wait? You're going to work?"
"My Mom's already at Gatewood and when I called they said she can't see anyone for 72 hours anyway. And Paige is taking care of the stuff with the house. She doesn't want my help and both of us here together is just making things worse so I might as well go someplace I can help."
"Friggin Paige." Was all Quinn said. It was well and long known that Quinn wasn't a fan.
She told Nicole to skip the fax, she'd work around it and they hung up. She didn't think Nicole being alone after all the chaos was such a great idea and contemplated calling Bryce. She noticed her boss's secretary wave to get her attention and knew she didn't have time to call. She needed to get back to her meeting.
Nicole arrived at work and walked through the doors quickly, her mind running through everything that had happened and what she should do next. She didn't care about what Paige had said or what she thought of her. It was what it was and Nicole hadn't any inclination to try and change it. Usually. But her mother being sent to Gatewood, even for a seventy-two hour hold, was the absolute worst thing. They'd been down this road before and it always ended the same way. That her mother had set the house on fire this time just started them off further down the road than before. And there was no way Paige was going to listen to her input even if she was right. No amount of last minute ass kissing was going to coax Paige either, she didn't work that way. That their home being half burned down wasn't Nicole's biggest problem provided her no solace. It was one more thing gone sideways and she wasn't sure how to right it again.
She reached the end of a corridor and realized that she hadn't been thinking at all about where she was going. She wiped the tears from her eyes and headed for the stairwell. She was supposed to be beginning her shift but couldn't show up at the station like this. The hospital was still working at capacity and everyone was doing more than their share. She couldn't just bail. Especially since there wasn't anything she could do in the immediate for her mother. And she really didn't want to explain what was wrong. She just needed a little time to sort herself out. And a minute to get a handle on where to begin.
Bryce was getting ready to go home after finishing his back to back shifts. He had missed not seeing Nicole earlier but knew she'd had her OChem final to contend with. He was sure she'd done just fine and wished they were past the much anticipated conversation because he would have liked to take her out to celebrate the end of such an arduous semester. He knew her idea of celebration would be just the two of them sharing her favorite pizza from Giordano's and red velvet cupcakes from Delilah's. The chime of his phone called for his attention.
"Hey, Quinn. What's up?" Surprised she was calling, he continued to toss things into his bag.
"Nikki seriously needs your help." Quinn began.