8. From Loyalty to Stupidity

Nicole jiggled her leg unconsciously, sending tremors through the rows of seats.

"Whoa, cut that out. You're making me carsick."

Nicole glanced over at Doug, seated next to her in the City Council waiting room outside the meeting chambers. She hadn't realized it, but her jittering had probably gotten him quite dizzy. One of his weird quirks, since tiny vibrations like that would mess with his inner ear. Nicole used to pester him with it when they watched movies in the past, but right now messing with Doug was far from her mind.

"Sorry," she muttered, trying to keep from squirming in her chair. "Just trying not to go stir-crazy."

"Do you want to go out and walk around for a bit?" he added. "They'll probably be in there for at least another hour."

Nicole shook her head. "I need to be here the moment they adjourn. We've got a lot to do."

"Like what? The Militia squelched the horde in Evergreen. Patrols are already doubled, and Deadwood is practically locked down. If we missed them before, there's no way we'll miss them now."

Yeah, Nicole didn't say, but it's too late for before.

While they sat impatiently in the halls, City Council was deliberating on what the hell to do about recent events. Clearly no one had bothered to check up on Evergreen in forever, otherwise this incident might have been contained much sooner, if not prevented altogether. If they had screwed up on that, then what the hell were they still doing in here? Nicole wanted to get back out west A-SAP. Who knew how many more of those things were wandering out there, on the warpath to some of her ranchers she visited regularly. The thought made her fume.

My friends are all in danger while we sit here in comfort.

Mostly, Nicole was just upset with herself. Her encounter in town kept replaying over and over in her mind. At the time, she had been so pleased with how she maintained a calm and quick aim in neutralizing infected. Everything was textbook, if such a textbook ever existed.

So why the hell had she run off?

Nicole had thought often on the battles her father fought in preserving the quarantine. Retreating to safer ground just wasn't an option for them. Every day they stayed in the fray, never moving, always on the brink of death, until it inevitably came.

She was a Jennings, and she had a duty to live up to. She should have stayed and searched for more answers before the Militia raised the city. Before it was too late to learn more. Sure, all the signs pointed to the community being recently infected, probably from a wandering horde. But there were certainly more of them out there, and eight years was more than enough time for them to stumble out yonder this way. If Nicole had been braver or stronger, she might have learned more. She should have learned more.

How could she expect to depart this life and meet father without sacrificing the way he had?

The doors to the council chambers bolted open. Peter was one of the first out, and he made eye contact with Nicole. He jerked his thumb down the hall.

As the rest of City Council moved out, Nicole and Doug stood, following Peter to a more secluded hall on the other end of City Hall.

"Well, what's happening?" Nicole finally spoke up, the pressure too much.

Peter briefly glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were alone. "The Council is going through the proper channels with Rapid City. They're the only ones with enough military might to seek out and destroy a possible horde rising out of Wyoming."

Nicole didn't like the sound of that. Proper channels. Everything had to be done by the book ever since Rapid City threatened to disband all city Militias in non-compliancy with their protocols. She knew Spearfish had suffered this fate, and right now they were probably more terrified than anything after Deadwood's general report among the northern hills. It was quite possible Rapid City was going to rebuke them for stirring up a panic.

But Peter was right. They had military assets and Nicole knew they needed more than scouting parties along the border to tell them whether a new invasion was on the rise.

Still, at least that was better than waiting around for Rapid City to give a shit.

"Doug," Peter continued, "get out of here. Go back to your family; let them know you're all right."

Doug shifted, casting a weary glance in Nicole's direction. Peter seemed to understand.

"It's all right; I'll take care of Nicole. You just get home. Now."

Doug finally nodded, turning to leave. Now they were alone.

Peter sighed. "Let's get back to your family as well."

Nicole held her tongue on the ride back. They took one of the city cars; apparently Peter had resorted to them with the rising crisis. No time to waste learning horseback riding when there was trouble to deal with. Still, she knew what was coming. He was going to make her stay put, maybe with some lame excuse that they would need intercity defense that only she could provide.

She already had her argument formulating.

Mom was waiting in the front yard, no tears thankfully, but still ready with a big hug. Nicole tried not to visibly grimace as the rest of her siblings joined in.

"Thank God," her mother finally whispered, breaking apart.

"Are you all right?" Sarah said timidly.

"Just fine," Nicole dismissed. "They never got too close," she lied. "All I did was raise the alarm."

Liz looked skeptical, but she didn't say anything. Smart girl. Little too smart for Nicole's liking. Oh well, she'd probably coax the full story out of her later. For now, she was just as interested as Nicole in keeping the rest of the family calm and comforted.

"I can't even imagine," Tyler breathed. "All this time I had Dad's story as the closest thing I could picture to this plague. Now I've got you."

"Let's talk no more about this," Mom insisted. "The government has this under control, yes?"

That was directed towards Peter. It was her only ounce of comfort she could lean on, and as long as Peter could give it, then Mom would be all right with everything else. Nicole was home safely, and she would push the what-ifs far from her mind.

"We're in the process of getting Rapid City involved," Peter replied definitively. "We have all the resources to put this thing to rest."

Mom nodded, seemingly reassured. Too bad Nicole knew better. The group headed inside.

"How long are you staying this time?" said Sarah.

Nicole opened her mouth, but Peter beat her to the punch. "Indefinitely." He turned to face her directly. "Nicole, consider all scouting operations grounded."

Nicole's face contorted into frustration. "Scouting will never be reinstated, then. That's essentially what you're saying."

"Nicole…" Peter began, trying to be diplomatic.

"Listen, Peter, I know you want to look out for me, but taking me away from my job won't help anyone. And what about all of the other scouts? Are they grounded, too? And Doug and the rest of the Militia? Or are you just making me an exception?"

"Nicole," Sarah blurted, concerned.

She waved her off. "Is that it?"

Peter groaned. "Look, Nicole, you're family has already sacrificed enough for this plague."

Nicole growled. "So it is that, then! Never mind that I'm just as valuable as the Militia in early warning. They wouldn't have even found this thing if it weren't for me!"

"Even though you were under strict orders to stay within your regular patrol routes—"

"And that's another thing!" She cut over him. "I know the scattered residents in the Hills better than any of the other scouts. You expect me to just abandon them? You know how much they depend on me to get word around. I'm their only contact with Deadwood!"

"That's enough!" Peter shouted.

For a moment, Nicole was dumbfounded. She had never heard Peter raise his voice. It was uncharacteristic of him, and quite frankly, scary. She was briefly aware of the surprise registering on the rest of her family's faces.

"Nicole, you can throw words around like exception, but you have no idea what kind of fire you're playing with. Do you know why I never talk about the things I saw in California? It's because of how horrific this plague really is. I saw my entire family transformed, even after everything we did. And now here you go, willy-nilly throughout the Hills, taking unnecessary risks that would have gotten me killed in a heartbeat!"

He paused, taking a deep breath. Nicole's shell shock was starting to fade.

"Until we get some serious hardware from Rapid," he continued, "we have to play it overly cautious. We need to determine the seriousness of the situation. The Militia will tend to the rural communities in the meantime. In ways you can't."

Oh, that was it.

Nicole turned, marching through the house and out the back door. She didn't stop until she was back in her old tree, secure and shut out from the rest of the world.

Part of her understood Peter; understood his immediate need for cautiousness. But that last part…that was too much. The Militia can take care of the rural communities in ways you can't.

What was she doing out there, then? Just satisfying her own need to be a transient? Playing friendly neighborhood mailman? What the hell was she even doing as a scout?

Another part of her realized that Peter was just being Peter; overprotective and saying what he needed to, so that she wouldn't go running off. But damn it! She was still useful. And if it wasn't for her actions, they would still be in the dark about Evergreen and whatever else was lurking in the shadows west of the Hills.

Nicole wasn't sure how long she sat in her tree. The sky was starting to turn orange from evening when she heard footsteps in the field below. A moment later, her sister, Liz, was perched on a branch across from her.

"You all right?" she pressed.

Nicole shrugged. "I shouldn't be here. I should be out with the Militia, hunting these things down before they kill anyone else."

"You mean out there with Doug."

Nicole shot her a look. Liz held up her hands defensively. "Whatever. We'll get back to that case eventually. But what the hell happened out there, exactly?"

Nicole sighed. Might as well tell her now. "I was nearly ambushed. The place looked like a ghost town, and once I was right in the thick of it, they pounced. Good thing they're slow and brain dead, otherwise I would have been a goner."

Liz processed that for a moment, the two sisters sitting in silence.

"Did it shake you up pretty bad?"

Nicole snorted. "You wouldn't believe it. When the Militia showed up, I practically went to pieces with relief. Just wish I could have done more."

"You've already done enough. And for that, they have to let you back out eventually as a scout. You're a Jennings. Our father proved to Deadwood how important we are defending against this plague."

"Yeah," Nicole muttered.

Liz was right. Even Peter couldn't keep her grounded for long. And she was a Jennings. But just like her father, she had a lot left to give—a debt still pay.

Author's Note: Sadly, this is the end of Nicole's story for now. She's a character I intend to revisit in the future, as well as other characters hanging out around the Black Hills. There's quite a bit happening there.

Until then, cheers!