"I hate undercover work," Booker protested. "Joe should do it."
"No," Joe said. "I don't do that, ever." Nicky knew that wasn't true. Joe had done it once, in the early 1300s. He'd spent two years infiltrating Kutlushah's army and smuggling intelligence to Damascus, and what he got for it was watching the soldiers he'd befriended and broken bread with be cut down on either side of him by the victorious Syrians. No surprise that he didn't care to repeat that "success."
"They're white supremacists," Andy said. "Of course Joe can't do it. And I can't either." Andy was Andy. Andy was no good at trying to be anyone other than Andy.
So Nicky became Nick and went to Arizona and joined a militia that their source was pretty sure was a front for human traffickers. He didn't bother with much of a cover story, waiting to see what people assumed about his accent and his comfort with assault weapons. Once they saw what he could do at the firing range, they didn't ask too many questions. When one guy assumed he was Russian, he thought that was ridiculous—he didn't sound Russian at all—but he didn't contradict it, and soon they were all calling him Nikolai. It felt like a nickname, and he hated being called a familiar name by such terrible people, but it also felt like not him, so he went with it.
There were other things, worse things, he had to roll with too. Vile words that came out of the same mouth he used to kiss his lover. Vile people he joked with and called "brother." Being "Nikolai" ate at his soul, in some ways more than the lives he'd taken. Only the mission kept him focused.
Being apart from Joe was worst of all. Every inch of his skin hungered for his beloved's caresses. One morning he woke up out of a vivid dream of the two of them making love, and he nearly got in his pickup truck and drove across town to the apartment where the three of them were holed up waiting for his signal. It would be so easy—but the only way for him to survive a mission like this, pretending to be something he hated and surrounded by people who hated him even though they didn't know it, was to play the role through and through. He took a long hot shower every night, drought be damned, and for twenty minutes, he scrubbed away the stink of these people and remembered who he was. Then he toweled off and was Nikolai again.
It took two months to get confirmation that some members of the militia had a sideline in selling people, and another two months to learn the warehouse was somewhere in town. Nicky had been dreading the prospect of learning the warehouse's location by either being assigned to guard it or being told to help kidnap people to house in it, but in the end, it was as simple as gaining the trust of the right man and getting him the right amount drunk. The guy they all called Bull Jim (for reasons Nicky never learned) was just incautious enough to spill the address along with his sixth shot of whiskey. Nicky drove a very intoxicated Bull Jim home, dropped him off with his disapproving wife, and called Andy.
The militia members guarding the warehouse knew him, and knew his truck. That bought precious seconds of surprise, which Booker and Andy used to good advantage as they stood up in the truck bed. There were no cries of alarm, only five silenced gunshots and five bodies hitting the ground. Nicky stepped over them without pause. It wasn't like Joe and the Mongols; all he'd gained from knowing these men was knowing that they deserved to die.
Once they'd secured the warehouse, Andy called Joe, and he drove the van around. The doors slid open and a team of social workers, lawyers, and medics streamed into the warehouse. Local law enforcement was worse than useless; half the militia members wore some kind of badge. These were the people who would do some real good for the victims.
Andy and Booker waved to Joe and Nicky before melting into the night. They'd find their own way back to the apartment. Joe left the keys in the van for the rescue workers and got into the passenger seat of Nicky's pickup. Nicky climbed into the driver's seat, unable to meet Joe's eyes.
He started the engine and realized his hands were shaking too hard for him to drive. He turned it back off and sat there with his hands on the steering wheel, staring through the windshield and seeing nothing.
"Nicolò," Joe said quietly.
Nicky put his head down on the steering wheel and began to cry.
Somehow Joe got them into each other's seats and drove them back. He was quiet as the pickup truck purred down the highway. Nicky babbled through his tears, nonsense about being filthy and wretched and unworthy of Joe, and he knew it was nonsense but he couldn't stop. Joe didn't try to argue or soothe. He just let Nicky get it all out.
Finally they parked in front of the apartment complex. Joe put down the windows and turned off the truck, and the sounds and smells of the cool desert night rolled in. Nicky sniffed, wiping his sleeve across his face.
"Better?" Joe asked. Hearing him speak Italian was so comforting. Nicky hadn't heard a word of Italian in months.
"Better," he said. "But I want a shower."
"I'll wash your back," Joe said. Nicky shivered all over. "If you want that," Joe added. "If you're ready."
"I'm... I don't know." Nicky shivered again. "But a shower, now, please." The shower to end all showers. The shower to wash the last of Nikolai down the drain. As long as there was anything of that evil man in him, he wouldn't be able to stand Joe's touch.
Joe texted Andy a heads-up as they got out of the car, and when they entered the apartment, they found Andy taking apart a pistol and Booker emerging from the bathroom, toweling his hair. "You look like shit," he said to Nicky. "A rough one, huh?"
"Now's not the time," Joe warned him.
Nicky said nothing. He just stripped off everything he was wearing right there in the middle of the room. Joe untangled his weapons from the pile of his clothes and added them to the arsenal that Booker and Andy had already left on the dining table to be checked, cleaned, and stored. As Joe started to get undressed, Nicky went into the bathroom and turned the shower on hot enough to scald.
The water pressure was weak, but he didn't care. The heat was what he needed. He doused a bath puff with Booker's vanilla pine body wash and began to methodically scour himself from head to toe.
He heard Joe come in and shut the door. "Do you want me in with you?" Joe asked.
The tub was big enough for them to stand in together without touching. "Yeah," Nicky said. "Come in."
"Ai," Joe gasped as he stepped in. "Do you think this is hot enough?"
"No," Nicky said. He handed Joe the bath puff and turned away from him. He wanted to look at his lover's beautiful body, to drink it in with his eyes and then with his hands, but he couldn't bear to sully Joe with his gaze and his touch. "My back, please. Hard."
"Mortification of the flesh is out of style," Joe said, but he scrubbed Nicky's back hard enough to make him brace his hands on the pink-tiled wall.
"Sometimes the old ways are the best," Nicky said, grunting as Joe reached his lower back.
"If you ask me to whip you," Joe said, "I'm going to tell you no."
"What if I ask you to forgive me?" Nicky said quietly.
The scrubbing stopped. "Nicolò. Of course I forgive you." Gentle hands on his shoulders encouraged him to turn around and he finally looked Joe full in the face. There was no condemnation in his lover's eyes, only compassion. "You did what was necessary. You saved lives. Innocents. Children."
"I said... I said such things... I can't repeat them." Nicky turned and spat into the drain. "I want the shape of them out of my mouth."
"We should have sent Booker," Joe said. "You're too tender a soul."
"Booker would have been just as devastated," Nicky said. He raised a trembling hand. Joe clasped it. "At least I have you to put me back together."
Joe pulled him forward and wrapped him in a tight embrace. Nicky clutched at him, plastering their wet bodies together as though to defy all the people who would tear them apart. "Are you real?" he mumbled into Joe's shoulder. "Not just a dream?"
"I'm real," Joe said. "I'm here."
Nicky leaned into him, feeling all the places Joe was soft and firm. They stood under the water for a long minute. Finally Joe said, "Can we get out of here? Between the vile smell and the boiling water, I feel like you've done your time in Hell."
NIcky laughed and reached back to turn off the water. "Where does Booker find these disgusting soaps?" he asked. "Every time it's a different one, and every one smells worse than the one before."
They dried off and Nicky brushed his teeth with Joe's toothbrush. He'd left all his own toiletries behind in "Nikolai's" house. Tomorrow he'd get new ones.
His reddened skin calmed, tingling. Finally feeling something close to clean, he followed Joe into the front room. "Hey," Andy said, putting down the knife she was wiping clean. The rest of the weapons had been moved off the dining table. "You look a little better."
"I feel a little better," he said.
Andy called out, "Book? Debrief."
Booker came in from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel. "Can it wait?" he asked. "Dinner's ready in ten." He glanced at the clock. "Or whatever meal it is at 1 a.m."
An appetizing smell wafted after him: something savory, with the briny sweetness of seafood. Nicky was surprised to realize he was hungry. He had an aversion to breaking bread with people he planned to kill, so he'd been underfed for the last several months, relying on his immortality to keep his muscles strong. But now he didn't have to think about any of that. Now he could sit down and eat a hearty meal with his family and feel nothing but love.
"You cooked?" Joe said, sounding skeptical.
"I can cook. I let you do it because you like to and you're good at it, not because I can't. You were in there with Nicky and I was hungry, and those scallops wouldn't be any good tomorrow." Booker shrugged one shoulder. "And it was a way I could take care of him."
"Thank you," Nicky said, blinking away fresh tears.
"You earned it," Booker said. "Are we having naked dinner? I just got dressed, but if you two are gonna eat naked, I don't want to be left out."
After dinner (which they did not eat naked) and the debrief, Andy gave Nicky a quick, tight hug. "You did well," she said. "Really well."
"Thanks, boss," he said. She wasn't stinting with her praise, but it still meant a lot to him to earn it.
"You two go get some alone time," she said. "We'll put in our earplugs."
It felt good to laugh, all of them together, and it felt even better to have Joe push him into one of the bedrooms. They made love tenderly, even when they wanted to be frantic; they'd learned by now that these reunions were best when they took their time. The real Joe was a great improvement over dreams, memories, and longing: sweet, funny, generous, knowing. Nicky kept pausing just to look at Joe and marvel at how blessed they had been to find each other. He vowed to himself that he wouldn't let them be separated again for at least a few hundred years. He wanted to wake up every morning with this man by his side, and fall asleep every night to the rhythm of his breathing.
When they were satiated, Nicky held him close, nestling Joe's head into his shoulder. "I might need another shower," he said.
"Tomorrow," Joe said, yawning. "I'm not getting up."
"Then neither am I," Nicky said.
"That's right," Joe said. "You're exactly where you should be."
Nicky kissed his curls, knowing nothing could be more true.