"Make a note for me, would you?" Nicki says, and it's after that that Drake realizes he's lying down. "I need to outlaw all thickets of briar immediately after we get back to the castle."
It takes real effort for Drake to turn his head. He thinks about sitting up but really only manages to twitch an arm. The stone wall on his right is ice cold. On his left, Nicki's perched beside his hip on the bed, one of her own arms braced near his head. She half-twists her mouth in thought, and from there, Drake's eyes skate upward, across the uneven gash slashing her cheek.
"What happened to you?"
"I told you," she says and straightens. "Fields full of thorns are a terrible design idea anyway. See, this is why I try not to come east unless there's an emergency. Beasts, malicious shrubbery -- I haven't been able to check in with any of my soldiers for the last four days."
Drake asks, "Has there been an attack?”
She disappears from view, and Drake lets his head roll to one side to try to find her again. Why are his muscles fighting him? Nicki returns in the middle of his silent battle to flex his fingers completely.
"If the kingdom's in danger, I should be with the army," Drake says, feeling his heartbeat pick up, agitated.
"Godmother made this for you," Nicki cuts in. She unscrews the cap on the small vial in her hand and brings it close to Drake's lips. "Open. It'll help."
Swallowing, Drake can feel an eerie but welcomed warmth trickle through him. His fingers bend inward when he tries again.
The sensation spreads down and bounces back up, snaking through his brain last and unfreezing the memory of a disarming blow on a hilltop. He remembers feeling the heat of his blood chilled as it spilled into snow at his back.
Drake chokes a little, on the draught. He says, panicked, "Nicki --"
"The next time you want to chase fire-breathers, could you at least let an advisor know where you're going? I can't spend half of each year trying to rescue you. A king can't just be absent from her throne all the time," she says, setting the vial aside and resting a hand on his face. "And I don't even need a dragon."
"But I thought you'd like one," Drake says. He'd been trying to think of something she was missing -- anything. "I would've handled it eventually."
"You've been unconscious for six months," Nicki says and pats his leg. "Feel this yet?"
He can. The sensation seeps back into his limbs slowly, the slide of Nicki's fingers along his inseam so familiar. A thrill jolts through him, like his skin's well aware of how long it's been since he's been near her even if his brain isn't.
"Wait," he says, pushing himself upright. Nicki braces a hand at his back to help him. "Where are we now?"
She sighs, rubbing her hand up and down his spine. The warmth radiates through his shirt. She says, "To top it off, that dragon belonged to somebody else. She wasn't too happy about me slaying her pet either."
"What? Why'd you kill it?" He put in a lot of work trying to track down something that awing for her. The thing could fly. People shouldn't just kill huge, terrifying dragons that could fly.
"Look at you," Nicki says. "Look at my face. You tell me why."
"Did you have to?"
"It tried to kill you," Nicki said. "Now, come on, because we need to get you out of here before evil witch comes back. I can't slay her too. We don't need another battle of kingdoms this decade. I don't even want to conquer the east. It's too cold. You've got me out here like I enjoy things trying to rip me in half, worried about you…"
"Hold on, hold on," Drake says, reaching for her hand. He grazes his thumb along the underside of her scar. "That thing did this to you?"
"It didn't live to brag about it," Nicki says, and even with the journey weighing on her, she's still more mesmerizing than anything Drake's seen. She examines him closely for a long moment, and then asks, "Are you okay?"
"I'm sorry I scared you," Drake says. "I'm supposed to be your knight. Thank you for the help."
Nicki turns to him completely, and even sitting he's taller, but he bends for her automatically when she leans in to kiss him. "I'd do it again."
She lets him press his forehead to hers a moment before she stands up and tugs at his arm for him to follow. "Come on," she says. "Our people are waiting to celebrate your return."
"They were so sure you'd find me?"
"You wouldn't be?" she says, picking up her sword and extends her free hand for him again.
Drake's been knocking for three minutes straight. She knows because he keeps updating her. He says, "Nicki, for real? I've got a timer going now, come on. I've got get out of here too."
She sets down her flat iron and yanks open the door. Drake's still wearing his pajamas and robe. She says, "I really don't think that the couch'll mind all that much if you come as you are."
"Cute," he says, pressing something on his phone and then flipping the screen. "Look -- 3 minutes and 23 seconds. My knuckles and wrist are sore."
"Oh, then you must need to build up your hand's endurance. That was good exercise for you," she says, stepping back to see the mirror again. Drake leans against the door jamb, dropping his phone in the robe's pocket.
"You're going out with the Cookie Crisp Hound again?"
"His name was Malik," Nicki says, leaning forward. Her eye make-up still feels a little dull. She could use some more glitter. She finds the container with her favorite blue shimmer.
"He looks shifty. Have you checked your jewelry since he was here last week? Let me know if something's missing."
"Shut up," Nicki says, holding her make-up brush suspended in front of her. The edge of the countertop cuts into her stomach as she works. "Don't make me laugh; I'll mess this up."
"He gets sparkles?" Drake steps in closer, watching her add a line of glitter. "Seriously? This cereal box bitch gets sparkles."
"I'm not going out with Mailk, Drake."
"Why? He stole something from you, didn't he? Told you. Want me to get Wayne and Bird?"
Nicki laughs again, jerking her elbow out to catch Drake's arm. "Stop. I thought you had somewhere to go…."
"Nah, I just wanted to see what wig you wearing tonight," Drake says and makes a quick flicking motion over his own eye. "Make a little wing for mystery dude. Those are dope when you do them."
Nicki frowns at her reflection, eyes cutting to Drake and back down again. She says, "Really? Maybe it shouldn't be all theatrics on the first night out."
"No, that's -- do you, though." He shrugs. "It's hot. You look beautiful how you do it."
"I know that, but I mean, you don't want come too big and not be able to top it." There's nothing like a mind-blowing first-date impression, but it should really just be the first step on a journey of excellence, Nicki believes.
"Like you run out of ideas," Drake says and gives up on watching the mirror to look right at her. "Hey, do you pick the color of your hair based on your moods?"
"I don't know," she says. "Why?"
Drake shrugs. "I read somewhere that people do. You know, on a mood ring, pink means anxious and uncomfortable. If you're not really that into him, you could cancel."
Nicki shakes her head, smirking. "I'm fine, trust me."
"You sure? I could dial in the middle of the date, give you an excuse if you want to bail early or something," Drake says. "Could use a code word."
"Then, what, come back here and marathon True Blood with you?"
"Yo, I'm already close to the end of season two. The shit is crazy. I know Maryann is about to get got, that's all I'm saying. You might not want to miss it," Drake says. "You want me to wait for you?"
"And make you wait around for a couple hours?" Nicki says, checking over everything one final time. "I couldn't do that to you."
"I've gotta catch up on my stories, too. I have plenty."
The giggles bubble out of Nicki in startled bursts, thinking of Drake watching All My Children in his robe. When she turns her head, he's smiling. As she moves to pass him, Nicki pauses and presses a kiss to his cheek.
"What color will I get when we go out?" Drake asks, returning the kiss against the corner of her mouth.
"You're already my number one; you've seen it all," she says and reaches out to tap his phone. "Text me the good parts."
Drake twists around to watch her leave the bathroom. He says, "Cool. And I'll give that you emergency call in an hour."
"Two," Nicki says.
"Alright. Hey, you're killing it, baby!" Drake calls after her. "Take it easy on him out there."
Nicki blows a kiss back, and Drake catches it against his chest.
It's difficult to find the right kind of darkness in cities these days. Metropolitan areas are made up of lights, even down in the subway systems. Errant work lights or crevices where sunlight peaks through kept him from finding an ideal meeting spot for a long time.
For the first year, Drake spent his evenings walking through New York City with his hand out in front of him, only starting real inspections in places where he couldn't see his fingers in front of his face. Now he knows a handful of key spots in and out, freshening the anchor marks from time to time. Like tonight. He uses a switchblade to cut his hand across the center and streak blood across the wall in the dark. It's already wet with something he can't see and generally tries not to think about.
After he wraps his hand with gauze, he paces backward slowly until he taps the heel of his boot against the canister he set down. Trailing a line of gasoline from one side of the tunnel to the other is quick work. He's so used to the routine now that he sometimes does it all without a flashlight, aware of the tension building somewhere in front of him but comfortable enough not to stay on high alert.
Because he knows who it is. It's always the same.
Drake lights a match and drops it on the ground, a line of fire consuming the gasoline trail like a burning barrier. He stands on one side, saying, "It's just me. I'm alone," and waits for her to step out of the shadows.
"You have to stop calling me here," Nicki says.
"You could also just stop coming," Drake says and watches Nicki frown delicately.
She says, "Don't be mean."
His hand throbs beneath the bandages, a recurring symptom for the problem they've had for too long now. But he says, "You know I don't want that shit anyway."
"You should," she says. "We're expanding, I keep trying to warn you. You think this'll work forever? This tiny barrier you trust?"
"Did y'all flood the tunnels uptown?" Drake asks.
More than a hundred people were trapped down there. Most of them didn't make it out. Drake knows it's getting worse, but it's exactly why he hasn't left the east coast yet.
That Nicki doesn't look pleased about that massacre still sends a sickening feeling like hope through him. She says, "You need to leave here."
"What if I told you I could get you out too?" Drake says.
In the low light, Drake can't quite see the way her eyes are always dilated. She looks so much like she did three years ago, and then she drags her tongue across her teeth and reminds him.
"Nobody gets out."
"You can," he says. Drake nods. "I found a way."
"Drake," she says slowly, giving him a wary look from across the divide as he edges nearer. Drake moves as close as he can without accidentally breaching the line, trying to resist extending a hand to just feel her skin. He's heard that the infected aren't as cold as people assume. There's a lot of fact in folklore, but the truth is they aren't dead, they're infected. And sick people can be cured. They just need to find a way.
He says, "We've been running these tests down in the Core. There's progress, Nicki. We knew there would be, and then you wouldn't have to --"
"I'm not trapped," she interrupts, tilting her head. She looks sad. She looks sad and that has to mean something. She's still there, still her.
"Then how come this is the only time I get to see you?" he asks.
Most days it feels like a fluke that they've ended up on opposite sides. Drake and Nicki used to bond over trying to find the Dwellers together, trading rumors and following baseless clues. It seems like chance that one of the few times she followed up on something without him, she didn't come back, and he's never been bold enough to ask why she didn't call him to come along that night.
She says, "The Watch -- did they teach you that we get burned by sunlight? That we reject what we care about? We're not human?"
"You know what they tell us," Drake says, and he's seen it. Even the rare few with half-formed infections, children whose bodies did better with adapting -- even they're changed. Wayne is lucid most days, key in the strategizing, but Drake's seen him with eyes blown wide, manic and unseeing during moments when it's harder to fight instinct.
Drake doesn't want to believe what he's learned, but this is the only way he's been able to see Nicki since she left. The set of her mouth looks the same, suggesting something like sympathy, but he only ever sees her down here, and he can't ignore what that counts for too.
She says, "Most of us that you've seen are new. There's a lot you don't know."
"You're sick," he says. "I can help."
"I'm strong," she says, shaking her head. "I get power from darkness, from the energy of your fear."
"I'm not scared of you. Couldn't be."
"We stay away because it's too much at first," she says. "But I'm getting it. We're expanding and I'm learning --"
"Prove it, then," Drake says and moves closer to the line of fire.
Nicki says, "Drake, don't."
"If it's so good, and you're fine, then show me," he says, kicking at the dirt and pebbles on the ground, stifling a section of the line. That's all it takes: one break in the barrier.
Nicki bursts across instantly, pinning Drake against the wall. The stone and grime are cold at his back, bones ringing with the force of the push.
Her teeth are bared. They're still close enough that the flames help him see, catching Nicki's hair and shoulder in orange relief. He's winded by the shove but she's still breathing calmly, craning in close.
The kiss is deceptively sweet, her mouth soft and warm. Drake tries to think back to the last time, tries to place them at some house party or curled together on the old couch in her apartment. They spent a number of mornings waking up together in his bed, but none of what he sees behind his eyes feels like the true setting for the end of a habit he once assumed they'd have time to build up.
"Take me with you," Drake says. "If it's better, then I want to come."
"It's not easy," she says. Drake feels the small but distinct prick of her teeth against his skin. It's there and gone, and Nicki inhales deeply.
"You are scared," she says and darts back. Drake slumps against the wall. "Stop calling for me. Don't bring me here anymore."
"Let me help you!" Drake says. "You don't deserve having to give up everything."
"No, you don't," Nicki says, kneeling in front of him, frowning again. She touches his face, gentler now. "I'm handling what I went looking for. You shouldn't have to."
The air between them feels thinner by the second. As Nicki looms closer, Drake closes his eyes. He breathes, "Then let me have you," and waits for her, waits half a minute before he looks again and sees that she's gone.
"The paint job on your limousine should be finished by noon, the new online fashion station is ready for final review, and everybody's waiting for your next announcement," Drake says. "Are you still leaning towards being a chef?"
"You don't think it's too close to when I owned the bake shop, do you?" Nicki asks. People won't be as excited if they feel like she's retracing steps.
"I thought we were doing it high-end this round instead of quaint? That'll make it feel different."
"That's true," she says. "I'll get it nailed down in time. Oh, and can you check in on the progress at the beach house? We're still doing the Malibu charity before any new projects start anyway."
Nicki watches him leave, and then sits back in her chair to review her to-do list for the morning. She really does need to pick her next career announcement. It's just difficult to break new ground once you've been a doctor, a lawyer, a Silicon Valley upstart, a fashion editor, and so on. Maybe she should throw out what she's been working on and take on being an architect.
Her intercom beeps and suddenly Nicki hears, "Ms. Minaj, your 10 o'clock is in."
Oh, right. Part of the career switch is about inviting more collaboration.
According to her advisors, it isn't enough to be the most envied mogul in several industries if that eventually just makes people believe she's too self-involved to play nice with others. Public perception matters as much as hard work.
Nicki would beg to differ if she ever decided to waste her time begging for anything. Instead, she's taking their backhanded wisdom as a challenge.
It would be more fun if every meeting she's taken so far hadn't turned out to be some playboy wannabe with more hair product than ideas.
Today's pitch doesn't buck the trend either. Nicki misses his name, because she can't hear it over how loud his Zebra print shirt is. Zebra Blouse thinks what Barbie Industries needs to update its profile is to prove to people that the right man can tame her heart. He thinks he's the right man.
She can't imagine him at her side at all. Plus, his portfolio somehow smells like Axe body spray.
"Did you spritz these papers with something?" she asks.
"I believe in giving everything I do a unique, personal flare," he says.
She hopes his personal flare doesn't stick to the fabric on her office chairs too much.
After he goes, leaving a trail of cheap musk in his wake, Drake comes back in to help her record all of her thoughts. It turns out that it doesn't take a whole lot of time to parse. Her main thought is: "This isn't going to happen, is it?"
"There are still other people to see."
"Barbie isn't limping along," she says. "And I'm not interviewing for a husband. What they did with this brand forever ago has nothing to do with me. Ken Corp hasn't been associated with this franchise in decades, but that's what these guys keep thinking I'm trying to revive. It's not a whirlwind romance and business union anymore."
"They don't get it," Drake says. "They're expecting to come in and run things when you really just need an accessory to what's already working."
"That's not," she starts and considers her words. "It's still supposed to be a partnership."
"There's always Roman. You could launch a co-sponsored line with him."
"Oh, no way." Nicki shakes her head, frowning the longer she thinks about allowing Roman access to anything important. "He's better reaping the benefits and sleeping with celebrities."
After a beat, Drake shrugs and says, "Not to overstep, but if you don't even trust your twin to help get a whole new brand strategy off the ground, then maybe you want to consider putting this on the backburner for a while."
"I trust people," Nicki says, but this is a big merger. At least it's supposed to be. It's not her fault if so few people understand her vision. "Look at us. This works. I trust you on a daily basis."
"You pay me to make this a good relationship," Drake says, but when he Nicki pins him with a stare, he lets a grin slowly take over and concedes. "It was a joke."
She knows that. They've been working together since before she took over the brand, before the multiple career goals were achieved and she owned several pink cars, back when she was still just paying her dues and helping out with executing promotional pushes. She trusts Drake, because he's still the same person that drove an hour out of town when her old beater broke down on the way back from a premiere event for the company once. He knows the ins and outs of the business strategies as well as she does, because he's been her right hand since she took over.
"Nicki," he says. She blinks, coming away from her thoughts. "Did you hear me?"
"Do you need to push your one o'clock meeting back? It's the pitch with Carter Bryant --"
"Cancel it," Nicki says. "I've already picked."
"Who? This last guy?" Drake says, obviously doing his best not to show completely against that idea he is.
Nicki shakes her head. "No. Have we talked about looks for your own packaging before? Something our art department could draw from. Also, I was thinking architecture instead of the food industry for the next big career venture. Or maybe something large-scale but necessary, like city-planning."
"Wait, you want me to be your partner?" Drake says. "I don't know about that. We're talking about being a public co-chair for this thing."
"You said it yourself: I don't trust anybody else," she says. She moves over to where he's standing and puts her hands on his shoulder, making him look her in the eye. "Barbie needs a new Ken."
"I could call Zebra guy back in here -- "
"God, his whole persona was aggressive, right?" Nicki says. "No, look, I don't want to do this with anybody else. You know when I make up my mind, that's it. It can't be anybody else."
Drake looks back at her but doesn't answer, an odd expression playing across his mouth as he looks at her. "Are you saying you need me?"
"Is that a shock to you?" Nicki says. "Maybe I do. So say yes to me."
"Say 'pretty please.'"
"Forget it. Mind changed." She turns around, but Drake sponges her back just as quickly, giving in.
He says, "Okay. Okay, yes, I'm in. Of course I'm in for you."
Nicki hugs him. And even as he lifts her in his arms some, squeezing her tight, she feels relived at being able to picture them side-by-side at the announcement, on the billboards, in boxes.
When he looks at the caller ID, Drake answers the call instead of ignoring it like the others today. He presses the phone to his ear and says, "I rang you something like 10 hours ago."
"You and about 50 other people," Nicki says. "It's not my fault; this was a working birthday."
"I saw your tweets about the shoot and stuff," he says, and she's already laughing before he even has a chance to call her out on anything. "Working is getting it with Madonna, huh?"
Nicki says, "No, that's just a reward for the hard work and a happy birthday wish rolled into one."
"When do I get the video?"
"I'm thinking I'll keep that one to myself for a minute," Nicki says. Her voice gets lost in the swell of background noise for a moment, bass distorting everything in Drake's ear.
He asks, "You're not still working right now, are you?"
"Not right now. I finally got to little thing for me. Trying to get in a few seconds bit of celebration, but I'm tired," Nick says. "That's why I'm calling right now. You should come get me."
Drake stands up straighter and looks around, starts to calculate the travel time, but, "I'm heading to Africa though. You want to me double back on a different flight?"
"Mm-mm, I need something faster."
"We didn't fly private."
"You don't have a spaceship yet?" Nicki asks, voice coming through clearer suddenly, everything in the back swallowed by silence. She sounds closer too.
Drake imagines her standing in a hallway, or maybe she's stepped outside, huddled in on herself to keep their conversation theirs. He says, "Still working on the blueprint."
"You're killing me, man," Nicki says. "I need to make an exit. I'm severely lacking in time to think this week, and that's really all I want out here for my birthday."
"Alright, our vacation starts two minutes ago."
Nicki says, "Quit playing," but she seems amused.
"I'll put a rush on the ship, and we'll take it over to whichever planet you want. Just let me know."
"You're teasing, but in a perfect world, I really would be on my way to Saturn or somewhere," Nicki says.
Drake says, "With me too, though."
"Forever with you."
The lull after she speaks gives him time to picture it. He imagines them as overeager explorers determined to conquer the rest of the universe because they did it all on Earth already.
Nicki says, "You're performing in Africa, right?"
"Yeah." He's working, but sometimes the travel for obligations still feel like mini vacations in themselves. "I'll bring you something back. What do you want?"
"Surprise me," she says, the second word so soft that assumes it more than hears it. If it's almost noon for him, then it's the middle of the night for her, technically past birthday hours.
Drake says, "You should duck out and go get some sleep. Want me to call you later?"
"No, I'll call you when I get myself together," Nicki says and sighs. "Night. Or afternoon, since you're way ahead of me right now."
"Love you. Happy birthday, Nick."
He hears her kiss the receiver and wish him well one more time. Drake hangs up and takes some time to grab food before his next leg of travel. He gets a burger and asks his server for a pen, sketching intermittently through his meal.
When he's finished and just about ready to pay, Drake picks up his phone again to snap a picture. He sends the shot of his drawing to Nicki, typing out "just say when…" to accompany the doodle of a space shuttle.