Zac's eyes widen. "Nikki?"
"Yeah," he breathes into the phone, a little bit like relief.
"Zac," she says again, mirroring his exhale. "It's been too long."
Zac smiles—she's got that right. Hearing her voice again—bright, airy and instantly recognizable even after these months apart… it's like coming out into the sunshine after months indoors.
"How's it going, dollface?" The nickname slips out as naturally as it did the day he adopted it. God, has it really been so long?
"Things have been great! I've been doing all this promotion; I just got back from Italy yesterday…"
Zac sits down, slinging his feet up onto the coffee table and just listens to her, head resting on the back of the couch and a warm smile on his face.
Three hours pass by in what seems like minutes—he can't believe he's forgotten how time does that when he's talking to Nikki. They discuss about everything and nothing, and even when they fall quiet, it's comfortable, never uneasy. He's missed this more than he realized.
Missed her more than he realized.
After she hangs up, he pulls the phone away from his ear and at the screen, scrutinizing.
It says it right there: Dollface.
He gets an odd flutter in his chest when he sees it, because he could have sworn…
He really thought he'd dialed Vanessa's number.
They don't break up, exactly. It's more like Zac just isn't there any more, because he and Nikki can't stop at one three hour conversation—soon, they're texting so much that he has to upgrade his plan and his phone practically becomes attached to his ear.
It seems natural to plan a trip to New York so they can catch up and he can see the new play she's starring in. Just like it seems natural to tell Vanessa all the great things Nikki's doing—he can't believe how many projects that girl has her hands in, and he's just so happy for her that he can't imagine someone else wouldn't be. After all, since they did Hairspray, Nikki's become everything she dreamed of—her career had taken off just like he'd thought it would. He felt lucky to have been a part of that.
Vanessa doesn't quite see things that way.
"Would just you stop talking about that stupid movie, already?" She spits out one night, whirling on him, her hair a wild mass of curls around her face.
He rears back, surprised. "What? But you were talking about—"
Vanessa's glare stops him cold in his tracks. "I didn't meet a Nikki on my tour, did I?"
He tries to reach an arm out, but she's already walking off, her heels clacking on the sidewalk at a frantic and hard-clipped pace.
By the time he catches up to her, she refuses to talk about it. They even have a pretty good night, after that.
At least—the parts he was there for, when he wasn't hearing all about the standing ovation Nikki got.
Zac finds himself humming Without Love all the time; his friends start ribbing him about it.
"Don't you get tired of singing that same old shit, man?"
Zac shrugs. He didn't get sick of it once while on-set, and more and more, he wishes he were back there.
He texts the one person he knows will understand:
Then we met and you made me the man I am today.
Nikki sends back:
Never set me free.
And then he and Vanessa do break up.
Except it's not much of a break up—can it even be called that if one member of the relationship is absent for its occurrence?
It takes Zac a week to realize his calls aren't being returned, and another two to realize why.
But by then, he's already bought the tickets and, somehow, getting a refund is the last thing he wants to do right now.
He spends the flight composing a playlist. He throws in a little Elvis, some Sinatra because he knows Nikki loves the crooners, and two tracks of Snow Patrol to keep it mellow, a little melancholy-sweet.
And then he gets to Such Great Heights, and his mouth opens into a round oh.
…but it's thoughts like this that catch my troubled head when you're away and I'm missing you to death.
Rubbing his index finger on his chin, Zac suddenly and completely gets it.
When they land, he sends Vanessa a text: I'm sorry. I was an asshole. I hope someday you'll talk to me again.
Alert. She sends back: Went to NY?
Yeah, I'm here.
Alert. You should have just told me.
I was dumb.
Alert. Whatever. Call me in a few weeks when I don't hate you as much.
Thanks, V. You're the best.
Alert. Tell it to her.
Zac closes the phone with a sigh, feeling guilty and free all at the same time.
After he realizes, he thinks that seeing her will be awkward, weird, at the very least, a little uncomfortable on his end.
But, really, he should have known: this was Nikki.
She smiles at him, that full-body smile of hers that lights her up from head to toe. She's not just a starlet, not even just a star: she's light itself, and when she hugs him, he becomes light, too, and all he can think is how can I ever leave?
She makes them tea, bustling around her apartment with irrepressible energy. He slings off his sandals and sprawls out on the couch, a cream-colored loveseat that barely accommodates his lanky frame.
When she comes over, two steaming teacups in hand, he lifts his legs and she slips underneath, setting their cups down on the mahogany coffee table. She rests her arms on his knees when he lowers his legs again, and he wants to laugh, because right now—right here, with Nikki—is the most relaxed he's been since the last time he saw her.
She must see something in his face. "We're not going to that Bistro, are we?"
"I didn't really want to." She smiles, looking like she wants to say more. "I just thought, with you and Vanessa—"
"—we're not. I mean, she's not—we. Aren't. Anymore."
One of Nikki's hands goes to the base of her throat. "Oh, Zac, are you—"
"—I'm fine. It stopped, we… we stopped a long time ago."
His heart beats faster as he watches her swallow down and sees her will herself not to ask when?
"When I called you," he answers anyway, softly, putting his hand on her wrist.
She stares at nothing for a minute, and he knows that the pieces of the last few weeks—a veritable flood of texts, two-hour-plus phone conversations, the earrings he sent "just because they reminded me of you"—are all adding up into one inescapable conclusion.
And when she looks back at him, he feels the vice around his throat loosen, because he can tell that she doesn't want to escape. Neither of them does.
Zac and Nikki kiss for the first time in Duane Park. He's leaning back against a tree and her lips taste like strawberries and her fingers are linked through his, and it's movie-ending perfect, with the sun out and the fact that no one recognized them even with the transparency of their cover-ups. Their sunglasses press together as their lips do, and soon they're laughing against each other's cheeks with the silliness and rightness of it all.
And when the photographers do catch up with them three blocks later, Zac is so filled up the brim that he just doesn't care: he even places a kiss on top of Nikki's head and lets them get it from a good angle, smile and all.
His vacation in New York extends one week, and then another, and a third: the phrase "attached at the hip" takes on a whole new meaning with them. They even sleep side by side on the loveseat, which turns out to be a futon, Nikki's head on his chest, his neck propped up on the arm so that he falls asleep to the smell of her citrus shampoo.
He watches her up on stage, enthralled. When she begins singing, he loses himself in it, and remembers early mornings when they'd be half-in their costumes, her Tracy clothes clashing with the flippy pink sandals she liked to wear on-set before warm-ups.
He thinks how great it was, seeing her every day and how great it is, now, seeing her every morning when he wakes up and every night before he goes to sleep.
She isn't the least bit surprised when he brings up apartment hunting, just asks when he'd like to go, and he realizes right then that if he didn't already love her, that right there would have done him in.
The first time they do more than (very enthusiastically) kiss with (very wandering hands and) certain articles of clothing removed is on the loveseat. They're sitting like the first day that he arrived, his legs making a bridge over her lap.
He makes a jibe about how much he likes her propensity for licking circles around her ice cream, especially when it drops down her chin. She attacks, jumping onto him in gales of laughter, pinning him to the arm of the chair, her hands gripped around his wrists.
At the same time, they realize that she's in between his legs. Her eyes widen, lips parting; he swallows, loudly, linking his ankles behind her back.
"You've got me pinned." He tosses his hair out of his eyes so he can see her more clearly, and does his best Link-inspired grin, flexing the wrists she has shackled to prove his point. "The next move is all yours."
The uncertainty edging her features melts away, and there's the vixen, the one who strutted around just this morning in nothing but a tank top and underwear, fully aware that he was watching her every move and knowing exactly why he ran into the bathroom that smelled like her strawberries and citrus and took a cold shower.
She bites her lower lip, breath catching as she shimmies between his legs, pressing her soft heat closer to him. The front of her thighs brace against the back of thighs and she unfolds down onto him like a serpent uncoiling its length: sensuous, sinuous and smooth.
Her thumbs press into the rapid heartbeat pounding his wrists as she lowers her head to hover her lips just above his, her breath warm and teasing on his skin. He breathes her in, tastes just a hint of that tea she keeps telling him he'll learn to like, spicy and a little sweet. He's on fire underneath her, ignited, because everywhere she touches him is like an admission: yes, Zac, I want this just as much as you do.
He's messed around before, but never like this. He looks into her eyes as they don't kiss, as he tightens his legs around her because he'll scream if he can't get her closer, and he sees a beginning, a middle, an end. They're about to go somewhere that they can't return from, a leap of faith that this isn't going to ruin them, that this won't destroy the unspoken bond that remains unspoken largely because they can't find words for it.
"Nikki, I'm yours," he says, and it's the truth.
She sees him, and even more, she feels him; the texture of his clothes, the beat of his pulse, the softness of his skin, the angles of him. His want for her isn't just apparent: it's impossible to dismiss.
She spent months after the movie wrapped trying to figure out how she would get over him. Time passed, but longing didn't heal; this wasn't a case of waiting for something better to come along. This was a case of finding the right thing and being forced to let it go.
She hadn't. She'd smiled through gritted teeth whenever he brought Vanessa up, lingered too long with him after the promotional performances—let him kiss her on national television. She sensed a withholding, an undercurrent of fear, and she didn't push it. She let Zac do what he needed to do.
She leans down to kiss him, now, fitting their mouths together and testing, pushing at the boundaries just a little.
He kisses her back like he was too scared to on-set or on-screen; this isn't him entertaining a crowd or trying to get the shot. This is Zac, here, now, and she's not imagining the jump in his hips underneath her or his low moan that vibrates all the way down her throat. It's messy, it's clumsy and new, and most of all, it's real. It's them. No more fear, no more doubts.
She leans back and her cheeks hurt with how wide she's smiling.
"Yeah, Zac," she says, shimmying closer to watch him squirm, "You are."
Nothing could have prepared him for this. Not the beat of the ice cold water on his overheated skin, not the nights they'd go out clubbing and he'd watch her move, try to memorize it, prepare for what she would do to him. Not even the things she'd text him while she was on break at work that flushed the tips of his ears red and made him wonder could she really…?
They've reversed so that she's got her back to the arm of the couch and he's kneeling. She's soft, but she's also so strong; her fingers knead into his back in patterns of command, and he moves—faster, slower, harder, deeper—all according to the tactile morse code her fingertips imprint on his muscle. She sings for him, low and expansive, Yeah, Zac, that's just the right—oh, yes, yes, don't stop, don't stop that, keep going, just a little more, baby—
He harmonizes, a tender counterpoint, God, Nikki, you feel so good, the way you're—Jesus, Nikki, what you do to me—does that hurt, is that good?
And they break the melody into beautiful pieces that scatter through the room like shimmers of a promise they don't need words to speak.
They don't have to declare it officially. Anyone who's ever been in love can see it in the way they just… are with each other.
At this point, they're without pretense: they couldn't lie about it, even if they tried to.
"You're mine, dollface," Zac says, slinging his arm around her waist as they exit her apartment. A cloud of accumulated contentment shields them as they make their way through the crowd to the car.
"Someone might quote you on that," Nikki laughs, the reporters hounding all around them.
"Let 'em," Zac smiles, and kisses her right into their waiting limo.