Nicky is on the ground, choking on his own blood, and Nile knows exactly what is going to happen next.
Sure enough, Joe storms past her and levels a handgun at the man cowering in the corner. The door is in pieces behind them, the air still stinking of the explosives that had been set, waiting for the door to be breached. The man who set them is huddled in the corner, hands up above his head. “Please!” he cries out. “Please, I didn’t mean-”
“To blow us up?” Nile asks as she covers the door and tries not to look at the mess that is Nicky on the ground. She watches Joe carefully. The handgun is steady in his hand, aimed directly at the man’s head. “Kind of fucked that one up with the booby-trap.”
Nicky lets out a well-timed gurgle behind them, and Joe’s knuckles whiten on the grip. “I am going to make sure that you die very slowly,” Joe says softly. “You should not have done that.”
“I’m sorry!” the man cries. Nile didn’t think it was possible for a human body to compress down to that level but somehow this man manages it, cowering back into the corner. “Please, I’ll do anything!”
“Joe.” Andy’s voice calls through the doorway. “We need him alive.”
Joe doesn’t turn away from the man. “Does he need to have all his limbs?” he asks in that same soft voice.
“Nile, secure him. With all his limbs still attached,” Andy calls from outside. “Joe, I need you out here.”
Joe is still for a long moment, and Nile is starting to think of the best way to step in between him and the poor excuse for a smuggler in the corner without also getting shot, when Joe lowers his gun. He twists on his heel and stalks back out of the room. There’s a low murmur of voices, but Nile doesn’t pay them any attention as she pulls out some zip ties. “You gonna make this easy?” she asks, holding them out to him. “Or would you like me to call the other guy back in?”
He puts them on with shaking hands, and Nile drags him up to his feet and herds him out of the door. The dirt is sticky under her boots. Nicky is flat on his back, scrapes in the ground where Andy had dragged him a few feet away from the door. She’s knelt next to him now, in the blood and gore spattered across the ground. One hand is holding his arm in place as the flesh knits back together and reattaches his arm to his shoulder. She looks up at Nile, and then over at the man in her grasp. “Keep him away from Joe.”
“Yeah, I figured.” Nile shoves him a little further away from the scene, placing herself between him and Nicky, and watches Joe. He’s knelt on the other side of Nicky, one hand resting on his chest as Nicky struggles to draw air in through collapsed lungs. There’s another choked off gurgle, Nile watching blood spill out of his mouth as Nicky briefly struggles under Joe’s hand and then sags back down to the ground. Joe reaches out and wipes the blood away from Nicky’s chin with one hand.
“I will kill him for this,” he says, his voice low.
Andy sighs. “Obviously.” She lets go of Nicky’s arm and gently pats his shoulder. “Your lungs are reinflating. Just stay still.”
Joe grips Nicky’s other hand, bringing it up and pressing a kiss to his knuckles, not caring about the blood or the charred flesh that’s slowly knitting back together. Nicky’s head lolls to one side, and Nile can see him blink and look up at Joe from the ground. “I’m fine,” he rasps.
Joe snorts. “And I am the Pope. No, stay still,” he admonishes. “You still only have one and a half legs.”
“Could do worse,” Nicky mutters. He tries to sit up, but only makes it a few inches off the ground before his body gives up and he falls back down. Joe catches his head before it hits the dirt, lowering it back down more carefully.
“Stay still, for the love of all that is holy,” Andy says firmly. “We have our objective here. You have time, and I’m not helping you up until you have at least two full feet.”
“At least?” Nicky asks. He turns his head to the side and spits out more blood with a wince. “I didn’t know I could have more. An extra pair of hands would be very useful sometimes.”
Joe laughs. “I can think of many things we could do with that.”
“Oh my god,” the man mutters from behind Nile. “I’ve been kidnapped by crazy people.”
Nile just sighs. “You get used to it. Also, this is completely your own fault for smuggling people.”
“But you’ll let me live, right?” The man stares with wide eyes past Nile as Nicky sits up with a pained groan, Joe pressing his forehead to his and saying something too quiet for Nile to hear. “I mean, she said you need me alive, so you’ll let me live?”
This man is their only way through the jungle that doesn’t involve weeks of searching for the hidden compound that acts as a waypoint for smugglers moving north. Nile is sighing, already resigning herself to days moving through an environment determined to fuck them over at every step, trying to prevent Joe from killing their guide. “Sure,” she says. “You lead us to where we want to go and don’t stab us in the back at any point, and I won’t kill you.”
Three days later, a few bullets still falling out of her and the compound burning merrily behind her in the clearing, Nile watches as Joe pushes the man down onto his knees. “You said you would let me live!” the man cries out.
“She said she wouldn’t kill you,” Andy corrects. “She said nothing about stopping him.” She gestures at Joe. “You did blow up Nicky.”
“I apologised!” the man protests. He glances behind him, where Nicky is shepherding the victims over to a waiting transport. “Anyway, he got better.”
Joe crouches down so he’s on the same level as the man. “I am astounded,” he says softly, “that you do not realise the trouble you put yourself in, the moment that you threatened what is mine. If you had shot him, maybe I would be a little more lenient. He does get shot quite a lot.” He taps the barrel of his gun against the man’s jaw. “But you blew him up. You tore him apart. It was minutes before I could hear his voice again.”
“Joe,” Andy says firmly.
Joe nods, stands up, and shoots the man in the head.
“He knew our secret,” Andy says to Nile as she passes her, making sure the fire is dying down and not spreading. “And he was a part of this. There was no way we could have let him live.” A smile tugs at her lips. “You’re getting better at controlling your expression, but it still needs work.”
“No, I know that,” Nile says. She watches as Joe gets to his feet and heads towards Nicky, calling out something to him in Italian. Nile is torn between learning Italian, so that she can know what they’re saying, and feeling like it’s an intrusion on something that she’s not meant to hear. “It’s just…he’s very protective, isn’t he?”
“You’re only noticing that now?” Andy asks wryly. She follows her gaze to where Nicky is helping another person up into the back of the truck, Joe handing up a child to her waiting mother.
Nile has been thinking about it for a while. They’ve done enough missions together for her to see the way Joe turns to fury every time Nicky is hurt, the almost instinctive way that Joe covers his six right now even though they’ve cleared the area multiple times. She knows that after what happened, Joe won’t let Nicky out of his sight for days. Which means she will have to endure the weird and slightly irritating combination that is Joe-and-Nicky in whatever safehouse they end up in, until the dust settles and Andy gets fed up with them crowding up the kitchen.
“It all seems a little bit one-sided, that’s all,” Nile muses. “I’ve never seen Nicky be as…violently protective over Joe.” Andy just hums, and Nile glances over at her. “You think I’m wrong? I know I haven’t been around long, but I’ve seen Joe get killed in a bunch of messy ways and Nicky has never done…that.” She gestures at their dead guide, staring up at the sky with a neat hole in the centre of his forehead.
Andy just hums again. “Look again,” she says when Nile throws her hands up in frustration. “Watch more closely. You’ll know when you see it.”
“Well, that’s not cryptic at all,” Nile mutters as Andy heads off. She looks over to the truck. Joe moves past Nicky, brushing a hand over his waist and murmuring something in Nicky’s ear that makes him laugh out loud, and she wonders what she’s missing.
Nile watches closely for the next few days, as they hike out of the jungle and jump onto the plane that Copley has waiting for them in a small clearing to deposit them far away from the remaining angry smugglers that various agencies will fight over to mop up, but nothing seems that different from usual. Joe sticks close to Nicky on the hike out, occasionally cursing out the mosquitoes that seem to love him as Nicky cuts through the foliage with a rusty machete because apparently his sword is too precious to use for that.
The plane is rickety, but functional. Nile listens to Andy explaining the controls as the land falls away beneath them, and watches out of the corner of her eye as Joe pushes a water bottle into Nicky’s hands and uses another to wet a rag and start to clean the blood off of Nicky’s face. Nicky just lets him do it, and then takes the cloth from Joe and scrubs the dried blood off Joe’s neck from where a bullet caught him. Somehow, Nile doesn’t quite think that’s what Andy means.
The two of them fall asleep in the back of the plane as Andy hands the controls off to Nile, and somehow even sleep through Nile’s first fumbling attempts at not letting a plane drop straight out of the sky. When she eventually relinquishes the controls back to Andy and drops into a seat, she turns around to see Joe curled around Nicky, arms wrapped around his waist. Nicky stirs slightly, forehead scrunching in his sleep. Joe’s hand smooths down his arm without thought, and Nicky settles.
“I don’t see it,” she says to Andy. “What am I even looking for?”
Andy shrugs. “You’ll know it when you see it,” she says, which is so unhelpful that Nile gives up and decides to have a nap.
They end up in Lima, in a nondescript hotel near the Surquillo market that Joe immediately drags Nile to, Nicky following and good-naturedly fishing out the needed cash whenever Joe decides on more ingredients or delicacies that Nile has to try. “This is killing Nicky,” Joe whispers to Nile as they watch him hand over a few notes in exchange for a bag of lucuma. “He loves to haggle prices. We haven’t ever been short of money for centuries, but that is beside the point. I taught him the game of it, centuries ago. Somehow it stuck even after all these years, and it is one that he loves winning.” He winks at Nile. “But I live to torment him like this.”
Nile had woken up in the night and stumbled out to find a bottle of water, only to find Joe and Nicky tangled together on the sofa, Nicky asleep whilst Joe read a battered paperback that Nile had seen in Nicky’s duffel bag. “Sure,” Nile says. “Tormenting him is what you like to get up to in your free time.”
Joe winks at her, and takes the bag of lucuma when Nicky hands it over. “Thank you, habibi.”
“That was too much money for lucuma,” Nicky mutters, but he gives Nile a quick smile that Nile takes to mean that he knows exactly what is going on right now.
Joe spends a good hour showing Nile around the market, teaching her the names for local delicacies. Nicky follows behind them, wearing a ridiculous straw hat that Joe bought, or used Nicky’s money to buy and then stuck on his head with an admonishment about getting burnt. “He can’t tan,” Joe tells Nile as they sip on fresh fruit juices and head for another area of market, towards the pungent smell of fish that makes Nile wrinkle her nose. “He just burns, heals, and then burns again. It is a tragedy.”
Nile shakes her head. “White people,” she says with a sigh. “They’re just so fragile.”
Joe tips his head back and laughs. He links his arm with hers. “I knew that this was destiny, finding you. Come. We must find some fresh seafood for you to try, and I want to see how long it takes before Nicky starts haggling for us even when I tell him not to.”
“I can hear you, you know,” Nicky says behind them. Nile turns around and grins at him, and Nicky smiles back for a moment before his gaze flickers past them and around the rest of the market.
It feels a little like having a bodyguard, Nile thinks as they stop to get lunch at a stall selling fresh ceviche. She can’t help but notice the way Nicky’s gaze constantly skips over the crowd, how when Joe lingers at a stall he stands at his back and just watches the people moving around them. “Pickpockets,” he says when she gives him a questioning look. “Or we might have been followed by the smugglers that we upset.”
Nile instinctively glances around her. Joe shakes his head as he hands her a bowl of ceviche. “Enjoy this,” he says. “Nicolo is watching.”
“I am running out of money, is what I’m doing,” Nicky replies. “If you would just let me-”
“And deprive me of all my joy in life?” Joe asks. “You are incapable of doing that.”
“I can pay,” Nile says automatically. Her hand freezes halfway to her pocket. “Well, I would, but I have absolutely no money. Like, none whatsoever.” She pauses. “Oh my god, I have no money.”
Nicky grips her shoulder for a moment. “When the money comes through from this job, I will show you what we do with it and how we hide it.” He smiles wryly. “It is a little more difficult than just opening a bank account now that you are legally dead, but Copley should also be able to help.”
“Buy property,” Joe suggests as he slips his hand into Nicky’s pocket to pull out his wallet and pay for another fruit juice. “Nicky and I own half a dozen houses just across Europe. Every fifty years or so we sell them, to each other if we still want to keep them, or on the market if we need some cash. Houses last longer that whatever currency we are on right now.” He passes the juice to Nicky. “And then we will teach you about tax evasion.”
“You don’t pay taxes?” Nile asks, her voice rising. She pauses. “Oh my god, I’m dead. I don’t pay taxes either.”
“It is impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes,” Nicky quotes. He cracks a smile. “Unless you are us, and then it is nothing.” He sips at the juice, gaze flicking over the crowds before turning back to Nile. “Joe and I have been legally dead, for whatever definition of legal death there was then, since the Crusades. It makes it somewhat difficult to pay taxes.”
“We don’t just accumulate money,” Joe adds, possibly sensing Nile’s sudden unease. “That is pointless. All of us give money through anonymous donations to various causes. Sometimes the best way to help is to make sure that the right people have enough money and resources to do their jobs properly. We can’t be experts on everything.”
“Like what?” Nile asks. “What sort of causes?”
Nicky shrugs. “Anything you want. Don’t tell her I told you this, but Andy donates monthly to an international horse rescue society.”
“Horses?” Nile asks, arching a brow. She wouldn’t have guessed that one.
“Cars were only invented in…what, the nineteenth century?” Joe asks Nicky, who nods. He turns back to Nile. “Before that, you used your own feet or something else’s to get around. Andy was practically born in the saddle, and I was riding before I could walk.” He pats her shoulder. “We’ll teach you how to ride as well. It is useful to know.”
Nile’s brain is stuck on a loop. “Andy gives money to horse rescue charities.”
“She gets monthly emails to a burner account,” Joe says with a grin. “All about the rescue horses she has sponsored and how they’re doing. She keeps all the photos on her phone.”
“Okay, now that I seriously don’t believe,” Nile says. “You’re messing with me, right?”
Joe grins, and Nicky just shrugs. “We should get back before some of these spoil,” he says to Joe. “And before I run out of money completely.”
“She doesn’t seriously donate money to horses, right?” Nile asks as they make their way out of the market and back towards the hotel. “I mean, this is Andy we are talking about.”
Joe tips his head back and laughs as he steps out into the road. At the last moment, Nicky grabs his elbow and tugs him back. A motorbike speeds past them, the wind whipping Nile’s hair and catching the plastic bags in Nicky’s hand. There’s a shout from the person on the motorbike, indistinct and garbled but obviously annoyed as they disappear down the road.
“Careful,” Nicky admonishes, readjusting the bags on his other arm. “I like this city. And I do not want to have to break you out of a morgue again.”
Joe beams up at him, and presses a quick kiss to his cheek. “Thank you, my love.”
“You two are sickeningly adorable,” Nile says, and Joe’s smile just widens.
She checks both ways before crossing the street, darting across in between traffic. Just because she’ll heal quickly if a motorbike takes her out at the knees, doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. Nicky and Joe join her a few seconds later. Nicky’s fingers are laced with Joe’s, and there’s a fond smile on Joe’s face as he says something in Italian that Nile can’t quite translate.
The pavement is narrow on the way back to the hotel, and Nicky walks down on the side of the road between Joe and the traffic, so that he doesn’t have to let go of his hand.
Andy eyes the bags that Nicky carries as soon as they walk inside. “Yes, yes, I got you some food as well,” Joe says. He takes one of the bags off Nicky’s arm and passes it over. “Chirimoya and a few chifles.” Andy’s face lights up at that, and starts digging around in the bag.
“Joe says you’re going to teach me how to ride,” Nile says as she opens up the small fridge and starts putting away the more perishable items. “Which seems a little pointless, with you know…cars. And planes. And helicopters.”
“Oh no, here we go,” Nicky mutters to Joe. Joe laughs, and pulls Nicky in for a kiss as Andy takes a breath and then launches into a detailed explanation of all the benefits of working with horses. Nile listens in as best as she can whilst she watches Joe and Nicky move easily around each other. She’s still not quite sure what she’s looking for, but she can’t help but long, just ever so briefly, for that easy familiarity around them that seems to come with centuries together.
Nile thinks that out of all of them, she has probably adjusted to Andy’s mortality the easiest. Nicky and Joe have had centuries of knowing her as unkillable, as being able to walk off any injury. Nile only knew her for a couple of days before that wasn’t true anymore.
Andy still leads them, of course, and none of them suggest it should be otherwise. But sometimes, like now, it just makes everything a little bit harder.
Andy is asleep. The heart monitor beeps reassuringly next to the bed, and Nile has had to explain to Joe and Nicky three times now what some of the numbers up on the screen mean. What an average human’s recovery time from being stabbed is, even for someone as extraordinary as Andy. She’s done bedside vigils before. Nicky and Joe have had far less practice.
Joe is pacing. Nicky is sat in one of the hard hospital chairs, one of Andy’s hands clasped between his on the edge of the bed, his fingers carefully curled around the cannula taped to the back of her hand. His head is bowed, and Nile thinks his lips might be moving in some sort of silent prayer.
The door slides open with a quiet whoosh. Nile is watching Nicky, and so she sees as he looks up, his eyes widen and he jumps to his feet. He all but runs across the hospital room, and Nile watches as Nicky barrels into Joe, wraps his arms around him and hauls him away from the door that Copley has just walked through.
“You piece of shit,” Joe snarls, bucking against Nicky’s grip. “You motherfucker. I knew we should never have trusted you. I’m going to fucking kill you for this.”
“Joe!” Nicky says sharply. He spins them around, pushing Joe back with a shove to his shoulder. Nile almost flinches, where she’s stood next to Andy’s bed. The touches between Joe and Nicky are normally soft, sometimes heated in the way that Nile knows would progress to clothes on the floor if they were alone, often thoughtless in their casual intimacy. But she’s never seen this. She’s never seen Nicky shove Joe back with both hands on his shoulders, his face set in stone as Joe spits and snarls at him.
Copley holds his hands up, hovering in the doorway. “I didn’t know,” he says, his voice rough. “I swear, I didn’t know. The information I gave you was correct at the time, I promise. I didn’t know.”
“You- you motherfucker!” Joe spits. “She got stabbed because of you!”
“Joe!” Nicky pushes him back yet again. Every time Joe tries to move around him, Nicky steps with him and blocks his way. “You’re pissed off and not thinking straight. Stop it. Hurting him isn’t going to help anyone.”
“Fuck you, Nicolo,” Joe says. He tries to dodge around Nicky again, and when Nicky appears in the way he growls and swipes his arm out of the way, grabbing him and spinning him to one side. Nicky overbalances with the shove, stumbling back up against the wall and knocking over a tray of instruments. He grabs Joe around the waist and slings him around, away from Copley again.
“Jesus,” Nile mutters. She glances over at Andy, sleeping peacefully through all of this, and then over at Copley, who is just standing there, apparently intent on waiting to see whether Joe calms down or gets through Nicky’s defences first.
“I’m sorry,” Copley says, and Joe spits something at him in Arabic. Nile doesn’t have to know the language to know that whatever he said shouldn’t be repeated in any sort of company. “I didn’t know,” he says again.
“You’re really just digging yourself a deeper hole here,” Nile says. She can’t deny the urge to hit Copley around the head a few times, though that’s probably a little shy of what Joe is thinking, but she also knows that it really isn’t going to do anything but make it all worse. Copley arches a brow at her, but says nothing.
She’s done the bedside vigils before, suppressing the urge to go yell at the idiot who got her friend hurt because it will do nothing but make the situation worse. She won’t get disciplined for punching Copley right in the face, like she once would have, but that still doesn’t mean it will help.
Joe is glaring daggers at Copley, but he’s stopped trying to push past Nicky at least. Nicky has one hand resting on his chest, arm outstretched. “Stop it,” he says, stepping sideways when Joe shifts to block his line to Copley. “Joe. Calm down.”
“Nicolo,” Joe says sharply. “Get out of my way.”
Nicky just shakes his head. “She will be fine, yes?” he asks Copley over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off Joe.
“She has the best doctors in London looking after her,” Copley answers. “All of the signs look good. She should wake up in the next few hours, and then it’s a month or so of rest before she can get back to…what you all do.”
“That is not a yes,” Joe says.
“And I’m not in the habit of making false promises when I don’t have all the answers,” Copley replies evenly. His composure cracks and he flinches back when Joe makes a lunge for him again, Nicky quickly stepping between them and pushing Joe back.
“Stop behaving like a child, and calm down,” he snaps, and Nile winces. She half thinks that Joe might take a swing at Nicky, just to get him out of the way, and she leans forwards slightly on the balls of her feet. The heart monitor beeps steadily on behind her.
Joe’s hands are fists at his side. “Don’t push it, Nicolo,” he says, his voice low.
“Yeah, because I am the one causing trouble,” Nicky replies, and Nile reflexively winces. “We are all exhausted,” he says, one hand still on Joe’s chest. “And you are doing no good here. There’s somewhere to get food in here, yes?” he asks Copley over his shoulder.
“There’s a canteen two floors up.”
Nicky nods. “Joe. You are going to go and get us all something to eat. We are no good to Andy like this. Copley, when Joe gets back you are going to explain to us exactly what went wrong and why it did so that it does not happen again.” Joe goes to say something, and Nicky gives him a look that somehow shuts him up. “Go,” he says firmly. “Walk it off.”
Joe throws his hands up and glares at Copley, but walks out of the door when Nicky gives him another look. Copley lets out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Nicky.”
Nicky scoffs. “I didn’t do it for you.” He crouches down and starts picking up the scattered instruments across the floor. Nile gets up and joins him, kneeling down to retrieve something that’s rolled under the bed. “Thanks,” Nicky mutters as she hands it over.
“You good?” Nile asks, her voice low.
Nicky glances up at her. “Of course,” he says, and he sounds surprised that she asked.
Nile glances at the now closed door, at Copley sinking hesitantly into a chair in the corner. “I’ve never seen you…fight with Joe like that. You sure you’re good?”
Nicky actually laughs. “Joe has been by my side for a millennium. So, I know that right now he is angry because he is scared for Andy, he is tired, and he is hungry. And if I stood back and let him take his anger out on Copley, then he would regret it later.” He shrugs, picking up the toppled tray and setting his handful of instruments on it. “It is easier for everyone if I am…in the line of fire, in a sense. And I don’t mind.”
“You don’t?” Nile asks.
Nicky shrugs. “He is my heart. I would not see him do something that he would hate himself for later. And he could never hurt me. Not in any way that matters.” He picks the tray up and puts it back onto the shelf, and Nile doesn’t quite have the heart to tell him that just knocking the tray over broke sterilisation and it’s all pretty much useless right now. Nicky glances over at Copley. “Hopefully, I will not have to do that again,” he says, raising his voice pointedly. “I do not appreciate having to put myself between my love and a man that I do not think I trust yet. Do not make me do that again.”
“I just walked in here,” Copley says, but he holds up his hands when Nicky just looks at him. “I know, I know,” he says. “Don’t antagonise you, or Joe. I learned that one fairly quickly, thank you.”
“What am I, chopped liver?” Nile asks, and Nicky stares at her.
“What does liver have to do with any of this?”
Nile stares right back at him. “It’s an expression?” she asks. Nicky just pulls a face that means he still has no idea what she means, and she resists the urge to drop her head into her hands. “Oh my god,” she mutters. “I’m surrounded by boomers. Worse. I bet you don’t even know what a boomer is.” Copley snorts from the corner, and both Nile and Nicky look over at him until he shuts up and goes back to trying not to make eye contact with anyone in the room. Andy sleeps peacefully on without hearing any of this, because of course she does.
“Has Joe gotten lost?” Nile asks about fifteen minutes later, when there’s still no sign of him.
“That, or he’s still walking it off,” Nicky says, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes. “He is probably getting tea.”
“You sound very sure of that,” Nile says.
Nicky shrugs, eyes still closed. The heart monitor beeps steadily. “If he has calmed down, and I am forgiven for stopping him from punching Copley in the face, then he will bring tea.” He sounds very blasé about it all, and Nile eventually gives up on trying to understand it. Not right now, not when Andy is still asleep in that hospital bed.
The door creaks open. Joe comes through, precariously juggling several sandwiches and two cups of tea. He gives Copley a glare and doesn’t offer him any of the food, but looks less inclined to hit him, so Nile supposes it’s a win.
“Thank you, love,” Nicky murmurs as he takes one of the cups of tea.
“They only had earl grey,” Joe offers apologetically. “And no lemon to put in it. I had to make it British.” He sits down in the chair next to Nicky, briefly reaching out to put a hand on Andy’s forearm where it rests on the bed. “I will look for better when we next need food.”
“I’ll have someone go out and fetch whatever you want,” Copley says, which is possibly the first intelligent thing he’s said since he walked in here. “I’m assuming that you will all refuse to leave until Andy is also well enough to be discharged?”
Nile snorts. “Pretty much, yeah.” She glances around the room, at the hard plastic chairs that seem to be a rule of any hospital room anywhere. “You might want to get some extra beds in here.”
To his credit, Copley just nods. “I’ll see it done.” He looks down at the files in his hands. “Do I have a guarantee that I won’t get hit if I go through this intel with you?”
“Let’s see what it is, and then I’ll give you an answer,” Joe says evenly.
“Joe,” Nicky murmurs, and Joe subsides. Nile looks at the file Copley is drumming his fingers on in his lap, and Copley seems to take that as his cue.
Nearly an hour later, even Joe has to admit that the intelligence failure isn’t Copley’s fault. “Sometimes it just goes wrong,” Nicky says quietly, resting his hand on Andy’s on the bed for a moment. Joe squeezes his shoulder, and Nile, sat on the other side of the bed, reaches over to smooth out the corner of the blanket over Andy’s side.
Copley gets to his feet. He looks haggard, has probably been awake almost as long as all of them, but he just tucks the file under his arm and clears his throat. “I’ll find some cots, or spare beds,” he says. “This is a hospital, I’m sure there are some around here.”
Joe nudges Nicky’s calf with his foot, and Nicky gets to his feet. “I’ll come with you,” he says, setting his tea aside, long since gone cold. He gives Andy’s sleeping form one last look, and then follows Copley out of the door.
Nile waits until she’s certain that they’ve left before she turns to Joe. “You know, if you still want to punch Copley, I’ll hold him for you.”
Joe huffs a laugh. “You have no idea how tempting that is, Nile. But I think I’ll pass. Nicky would be terribly disappointed with me, and you should see the look he gives me when he is disappointed.” He presses one hand to his chest with an exaggerated look. “I cannot take it, Nile. It breaks my heart every time.”
Nile snorts, despite herself. “What’s with the tea?” she finds herself asking. Joe’s smile grows small and soft, and Nile wonders if she’s wandering into forbidden territory, but it’s too late now. “Nicky seemed sure that if you brought back tea for him, it was some sort of sign that you’d forgiven him for stopping you from hitting Copley.”
Joe lets out a soft laugh. “Ah. Nicky would say that, wouldn’t he?” He tips his head back against the wall, watching Nile with a smile. “It is hard to say when our first argument truly was, once we became lovers,” he says. “The Crusades were steeped in hatred. At first, I believed that it was a test of faith. That this man who would not die when I struck him down, who wore the cross and fought under that banner, was sent from above to test me.” He shakes his head, obviously not seeing Nile or the hospital room around him as he stares off into a middle distance only he can see. “I was so wrong.”
“You’ve never really explained it all,” Nile says.
“It is a long story, because it took us a long time to find each other, to find common ground and begin building what we have now.” Joe blinks, and comes back into himself a little. “Anyway. The tea. In the twelfth century, I believe, after Andy and Quynh had found us, Nicky and I argued. What it was over doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that I left my Nicolo, angry at him, at how little we seemed to be able to do, and a long list of other things I have long since forgotten.” Joe’s smile dims, becoming tinged with something else. “I left,” he says simply. “And because I was not there, because Andy and Quynh had left at the beginning to give us space, Nicolo was alone when they came for him.”
Nile sucks in a breath, and Joe nods. “It is another long story,” he says quietly, looking over at Andy. “And it does not bear repeating now. But when I found him, when I had him in my arms again and we were safe, when I had cleaned the blood from him and he was sleeping, I made tea. Just to keep my hands busy. I burnt the first pot, and so I made another, and another until Nicolo woke and he let me serve him tea.” He shrugs. “Ever since then, if I believe I have angered my Nicolo, then I will make him tea. If he accepts it, then I know that all is forgiven.”
“Oh,” Nile says softly. She blinks. “Apology tea. I like it.”
Joe huffs a laugh. “It is a silly thing, but we are old, and we have space for silly things.” He takes a sip of the cold tea in his hands, and wrinkles his nose. “But next time, I will find better tea than this. One that Nicky actually likes.”
Nile blinks again. “Nicky doesn’t like tea?”
Joe shrugs. “He has liked maybe…a few dozen in total, over the centuries? And some of them have not existed for a long time.” He huffs a laugh. “But I am hopeful. All these new inventions these days, maybe someone will finally invent a tea that Nicky truly enjoys.”
“Does he know that you know that he doesn’t like tea?” Nile asks. “Or is he pretending to like it for you?”
Joe takes a moment to parse through that sentence, and then laughs again. “He knows everything about me,” he just says. Something must pass over Nile’s face, something that echoes the pang deep in her chest at remembering her dad laughing the same way at something her mother said, because Joe’s laughter trails off and his smile softens. “I know it isn’t the same yet,” he says, leaning forwards slightly and watching her with a slight crease between his brows. “And I know that you miss your family. But Nicky would truly be disappointed in me if I did not take the opportunity to remind you that we are here. If you need us.”
Nile stares at him. “Are you propositioning me?”
Joe bursts out laughing. “Because that’s very nice and all,” Nile says over the sounds of Joe howling with laughter, “but I really don’t think I want to get that involved.”
Joe stares at the ceiling, wheezing. His shoulders are still shaking when Nicky and Copley come back into the room, dragging two hospital beds behind them. “Joe?” Nicky asks immediately, abandoning his bed and turning to take in the whole room before crossing to Joe.
Joe waves one hand vaguely in Nicky’s direction, Nicky catching it easily. “Nothing,” he gets out. “All good.” He looks up at Nicky, squeezing his hand as Copley drags the beds into the room in the background. Nicky doesn’t say anything, just drops into the chair next to him as Joe continues to chuckle, shaking his head and grinning at Nile. Nile can’t help but grin back.
Nicky always wakes up first.
They don’t always all sleep in the same room. When whatever hotel or safehouse they are in allows it, Nicky and Joe will often claim their own room, and sometimes disappear straight after dinner and don’t come out until morning. Nile has learned to put headphones on when that happens, or disappear with Andy into town for a few hours. But when there’s only one room, or when whatever they’ve just done makes Andy nod towards a bedroom and the rest of them follow, Nicky wakes up first.
Now that she’s looking for it a little more, Nile remembers that first night, when she dreamt of a woman screaming in an iron coffin and woke up trying not to echo it. Nicky had been awake almost as soon as she had sat up, a handgun pulled out from under his pillow and in his hand, eyes immediately taking in the rest of the room.
It happens again, over the months that they travel and work together, Nile constantly trying to keep up with the sheer amount of knowledge that the other three of them have as she works out where she fits into all of this. A car bomb goes off a few blocks from their hotel in the middle of the night in Tirana, and by the time Nile is awake Nicky already has his gun out, propped up on one elbow as Joe wakes a little slower behind him. Nile watches as Joe’s hand lands on Nicky’s hip, Nicky pressing back into him as he watches the door, gun ready in his hand.
In Oslo, a group of drunk university students mistake the hotel room they’re in for their own. At the first rattle of the door handle, Nicky is awake and reaching for his gun. It takes nearly a minute before everyone is awake enough for Andy to go and shoo the drunk students away and for Joe to reach around Nicky and slide the handgun out of his grip. Nile resists the urge to go and hit some people for waking her up after she nearly had her entire leg blown off earlier today, and watches as Joe herds Nicky back into bed. “No shooting the students, love,” he mutters, already half-asleep as he pulls the covers back up over them.
Nicky mutters something that Nile can’t make out as Andy shuts the door and turns the light back off. “Absolutely no shooting the students,” she says as she slides back into bed. “Like you two have never come back drunk and stumbled into the wrong room, already half-undressed and far too attached to each other for anyone else’s eyes. You’ve scarred many people for life. Including me.”
Joe laughs, and slips the handgun back under Nicky’s pillow. “Let’s not get into that, please.” Andy winks over at Nile, and the moment that Nicky and Joe head off in the morning to get breakfast, she fills her in on some of the better tales.
“Does Nicky always put himself between Joe and the door?” Nile asks over breakfast a few days later.
Andy hums opposite her at the café table, and sips at her coffee. “You’ve noticed.”
“That he always wakes up way quicker than Joe?” Nile asks. “Yeah, it’s sort of hard to miss with him going for his gun every time we’re startled awake.” She picks at her pastry, watching the oblivious tourists mill past them on the street. There’s some sort of exhibition on at the museum further down the road. They’re meeting Joe and Nicky there later, taking a little bit of time off before they leave the country and head off somewhere else for a job, and then more training. Joe has promised to show her how to shoot from a horse.
“We’ve been ambushed before,” Andy says in answer. “Plenty of times. And I watched them argue in that way they do where neither of them actually say anything, over who gets to be in between the entry point and the other person. But Nicky just wakes up quicker. Always has. He won that argument in the…sixteenth century, I believe, after Joe was between Nicky and the mercenaries who found us in the night, and was killed before he even woke up properly.” Andy shakes her head, a small smile tugging at her lips. “The fight after that one lasted for days. Fair warning, Nile, if Joe and Nicky ever do get into an argument that lasts longer than a day, you don’t want to be there when the argument finally finishes and they make up.”
“I- oh,” Nile says. She can’t help the face she makes. “Yeah, I don’t think I do.”
They leave Oslo a few days later, and things promptly go to shit.
By the time they’ve tied up the final loose ends of the job and gotten rid of the double-crossing idiot who thought it would be a good idea to try and trap and blow them all up, Nile is both figuratively and somewhat literally dead on her feet. She staggers behind Andy into the safehouse, fumbling for a light switch. They’re a few hours outside of Melbourne, some smaller town Joe and Nicky picked to lie low for a few days whilst Copley can scrub any trace of them from the systems. The air conditioning is broken and the lights flicker in and out, but there are beds. Nile couldn’t care less about anything else.
There’s a unanimous decision to let Joe have the first shower, given that he’s still dripping something on the floor that Nile really doesn’t want to think about. Nile gathers up the bloodstained clothes in a binbag for burning as Andy tries to get good enough signal to find out whether they can get food delivered to nearby, and Nicky climbs up onto the roof to watch the road below them with his sniper rifle.
He’s still up there, the shower still running, when the food arrives. “Take some up to him,” Andy says to Nile, pulling open one of the cartons and removing all the tomatoes to put them in another. “He’ll be up there for a while, and I think Joe is going to use up all the hot water before he even thinks about getting out of the shower.” She pushes the carton with all the tomatoes over to Nile.
It takes a bit of scrambling and one heart-stopping moment where she thinks she’s about to fall two storeys into the street below, but Nile makes it up to the roof without spilling any of the food. Nicky is on his stomach at the edge overlooking the street. His sniper rifle is nestled in his arms, aimed steadily down at the street below. Nile can see it shifting in his hands, the scope moving across the people wandering down the road one by one. “I’ve got food,” she says, setting the carton down next to him. “Andy put extra tomatoes in it.”
“Still in the shower. I think he’s trying to forget the entire day in there.” Nile sits down next to Nicky and picks up the binoculars on the floor. “Anything in particular we’re looking for?”
Nicky shakes his head. His breathing is slow and even, the rifle still under his hands. Nile has watched snipers before, and is still amazed at the stillness that comes over them, the way she has seen them lie there for hours and hours, unmoving, just watching through the scope. She settles down next to him, and watches the people down below through the binoculars.
After half an hour, the loose pebbles and gravel on the roof are digging into Nile’s knees and elbows with every breath, and absolutely nothing has happened. She sits up with a wince, setting the binoculars back down. Nicky has barely moved, only looking away from the rifle to eat a few pieces of pasta out of the carton every few minutes. “I don’t know how you do it,” she mutters, rubbing at her elbows. “I’m going down to get some more food. Anything you want?” She’s a little surprised that Joe hasn’t made his way up here, but then again, it was Joe who took the brunt of the mission and ended up covered in someone else after that bomb went off almost in his face and took one of the terrorists with it.
Nicky shakes his head, not looking away from the street. “I’m fine.”
Nile shrugs. “Suit yourself.” She gets to her feet. “How long are you staying up here?”
“For a while,” Nicky just murmurs. His breathing has settled into a deep rhythm as he watches the street below, and Nile just leaves him to it.
Joe seems unperturbed by Nicky being up on the roof, finally out of the shower when Nile makes her way back down. He wolfs down the rest of the food as he chats with Andy about their next move, whether Copley should erase every single trace of them or if it’s worth leaving some moments out there that people put to good use. It’s hours before Nicky reappears, smelling of dust and the heat of Australia in February, his sniper rifle over his shoulder. He cleans it at the table whilst Joe hands him cloths and oil, idly twisting the cord attached to the weight and needle, used to pull a cloth through the barrel of the rifle, around his fingers. Nicky reaches out and unwraps it from around Joe’s finger without a word, and Joe catches the needle to thread a small square of cloth through it before handing it over. His hand lingers on Nicky’s for a moment, and Nicky tangles their fingers together.
As the sun starts to set, Nile crawls into one of the beds in the one bedroom in their safehouse. Andy is already asleep in one, pushed up against the far wall, and Nicky and Joe fall into the other bed just as Nile is dropping off. There’s a hushed conversation between them that Nile can’t quite hear, but she can see Nicky tug Joe down onto the bed, Nicky shifting until he is firmly between Joe and the door and sliding the handgun under his pillow. They’re still whispering to each other when Nile gives in and falls asleep.
She wakes up suddenly.
The room is dark. She lies there for a moment, heart thudding in her chest as she listens, staring at the vague shape of Andy in the bed across from her. There’s another muffled sound, and then the sudden rustle of covers being thrown back. Nile sits up to see Nicky already awake, discarding the handgun in his grip to turn to Joe behind him.
“Joe. Joe, wake up.”
Joe twists on the bed, sheets tangled around him. Nicky puts out a hand and Joe hits it away in his sleep, nearly driving his elbow into Nicky’s side. Nicky dodges it easily and slots a hand between Joe’s head and the wall. “Joe,” he says again. “My love. Wake up.”
Joe shoots upright with a choked gasp, instinctively swinging out. Nicky takes the brunt of the blow with only a slight grunt, but all the fight drops from Joe immediately. “Nicolo?”
“Right here,” Nicky says easily. Nile watches as he grips the back of Joe’s neck, bringing him closer and pressing their foreheads together. Slowly, Joe’s gasps for breath ease and quieten. Nicky leans back and presses a kiss to Joe’s forehead, murmuring something too low for Nile to hear, and possibly in a language she doesn’t speak yet. Or one that doesn’t exist anymore.
Joe pulls a face. “Ugh. I need another shower.” He grimaces again, pressing his head against Nicky’s shoulder as he tugs at his shirt. “I can still taste it. Him. It? Does he cease being classed as a person when he is no longer in one piece?”
“Depends on how many pieces,” Andy says, sitting up in her bed. “If someone loses a leg? Still recognisably a person. If they get turned into confetti by a bomb? Probably can’t be classified as a person anymore.”
Joe nods, and then grimaces again, wiping at his face. “It’s just sweat,” Nicky says quietly, apparently able to read Joe’s mind even in the middle of the night when they’re all dying from the heat. He glances at the rest of them, and then back at Joe, who is rubbing his hands across his face and looking miserable, even to Nile. “Come on,” he says quietly to Joe. “There is probably more hot water by now. Enough for a shower.”
“Ugh,” Joe says again, pulling a face and looking like he wants to scrape off the top of his tongue. Nicky uses the sleeve of his shirt to wipe across Joe’s forehead. “I do not like Australia anymore.”
“Does anyone?” Nile can’t help but ask. “I mean…spiders.”
“Kangaroos,” Joe counters with a shake of his head. “Crazy fuckers.”
“Statistically, horses kill way more people here than any spiders or sharks,” Andy adds. She lies back down in her bed, pulling the sheet up. “Don’t be too loud, or I will put snakes in your bags before we leave.”
“I like snakes,” Joe mutters, but he lets Nicky pull him up to his feet and wrap an arm around his waist to steady him. He rests his head on Nicky’s shoulder. “Snakes are misunderstood.”
“They’re creepy fuckers, is what they are,” Nile says. She pauses. “Need anything? I can put the kettle on or something.” Nicky gives her a nod, and Andy huffs something about nobody appreciating sleep enough as Nile gets up and follows them out of the bedroom.
Joe and Nicky disappear into the bathroom, and Nile hears the shower start up as she fills up the kettle. It’s not quite loud enough to completely muffle Nicky’s voice. “Next time, let me open the trapped door,” he says as there’s a series of muffled thumps that sounds like two people nearly slipping on tiles as they get into a shower. “It’s much easier to wash gristle out of my hair than yours.”
Joe huffs a laugh, though it sounds tired. “Then who would watch my back?” he asks. “You know there is no greater reassurance than knowing the crosshairs of your scope are focused on me.”
“If I am watching your back, then they are not on you,” Nicky points out. “Turn around, love. You missed a bit earlier.”
“I am certain that you are humouring me,” Joe says, “but it is late, and I can still taste that man in my mouth, so I will allow it.”
“I can fix that,” Nicky says, and then the kettle is whistling and drowns out any noises that Nile definitely does not want to listen in to.
They emerge from the bathroom just as Nile is setting down three mugs of tea on the table and poking at the teabags with a spoon. She isn’t really bothered by tea, especially not this herbal stuff that Andy bought, but she thinks that there might be a slow campaign being waged by Joe and Andy to convert her. Anyway, if she starts drinking coffee now there is no way she’ll be able to get back to sleep.
Nicky is stifling a yawn as he and Joe shuffle over, but sits down at the table and pulls two of the mugs towards them. “Andy’s tastes only get weirder,” he mutters, prodding at the teabag, but he takes a sip anyway.
“It’s corn silk tea, and it is good,” Joe says, sipping at his own mug. He looks more awake than Nicky, eyes flitting to the door and then back to the table, his hands clasped around the mug. Nile can feel his foot tapping against the floor underneath the table, over and over again, but Joe says nothing about what woke him as they chat idly about anything to do with the shitshow of the past few days.
Joe’s foot nudges against the table leg too harshly and Nicky’s tea slops over the rim onto his hand. Nicky just cleans up the split tea with his hand, not stopping talking as he wipes his hand off on his jeans, and Joe’s leg stills for a minute before the sound of tapping starts up again.
Nile watches Joe’s face. She may not have spent a millennia with him, but she doesn’t need all that time to know he’s currently stuck inside his own head. There’s a brief wince at something she can’t see, and Joe’s hands tighten around his mug.
“Nicolo,” he says softly.
Nicky breaks off from slandering English tea, immediately turning to Joe. A slight frown flickers over his face, and he reaches out to carefully pull Joe’s hands away from his mug. “Excuse us, Nile,” he says. He tangles his fingers with Joe’s and tugs him gently to his feet, Joe leaning into his side just a little. “Thank you for the tea,” he adds over his shoulder.
“No problem,” Nile replies. She finishes off the dregs of her tea, and watches as Nicky pulls Joe towards the front door of their little safehouse. Joe stumbles slightly, and Nicky releases his hand to wrap an arm around his waist. They slip through it, the sound of crickets briefly reaching her before Nicky shuts the door behind them.
Andy stirs when Nile comes back into the bedroom. “They’re outside,” Nile says as Andy gives her a questioning look from beneath her sheets. “Nicky doesn’t like your tea.”
“Nicky doesn’t really like any tea,” Andy replies. She yawns and rolls over, her sheets getting even more tangled around her. “They’ll be back in eventually. And Joe will probably tell you what it was about in the morning, if you ask. When it’s a little less raw, and when Nicky isn’t hovering as much.” The tangle of sheets looks like it shrugs. “He doesn’t like it when Joe has nightmares.”
Nile snorts. “Obviously.”
She falls asleep before Nicky and Joe reappear, and wakes up in the morning to the two of them curled up together on the bed like they never left, Joe’s arm wrapped tight around Nicky’s waist.
As soon as they wake up, last night is evident. There are deep bags under Joe’s eyes, the same under Nicky’s even after multiple cups of shitty coffee. Nicky moves around Joe as they get ready, never moving too far. It doesn’t even look like he realises he’s doing it, but Nile doesn’t think he gets more than ten feet away from him all morning.
Eventually, all of them despair at the shitty coffee in the safehouse, and Andy deems it probably safe enough to go out to find breakfast. The town is large enough that they actually have a choice of cafés, though predictably neither meet Nicky’s exacting standards. Nile has already heard the lecture on standing versus seated, and how no self-respecting person should drink coffee with milk in it after midday.
That one usually comes as Joe stares Nicky down whilst he pours half a jug of cream into his coffee in the afternoon.
It’s a sign of how tired they must be, how late they both stayed up last night, that Nicky makes no complaint when Andy pushes open the door to a café that can only really be described as quaint. Gingham tablecloths, mismatched dinnerware, an actual jukebox in the corner that is blessedly quiet for now. Nile can’t help but wrinkle her nose at it, but then she can smell something frying and her stomach overrules everything else.
“I’ll order,” Andy says as they slump down into a booth, Joe looking like he’d quite fancy pillowing his head on the table, sticky tablecloth and all. “Fry up for me and Nicky, pancakes without bacon for Joe, pancakes with extra syrup for Nile. And coffee all round, I think.” She looks at Nicky and Joe. “I’ll tell them to keep it coming.”
Joe waves one hand at her in a vaguely grateful manner as he rests his head on Nicky’s shoulder. “Thanks, boss.”
After a couple more cups of coffee both Nicky and Joe seem to perk up a bit, and Joe starts quizzing Nile on any of the Arabic that she remembers. The smile on Nicky’s face slowly grows as Joe teaches her more phrases, correcting her pronunciation with a grin of his own.
Nile pauses. Joe’s grin is veering steadily from encouraging to shit-eating. “Okay, just what exactly does this new phrase translate to? Because I feel like this is not how you ask someone for directions.”
Nicky snorts, and Joe’s grin widens. “It’s always gotten me what I’ve wanted.”
Andy groans, and stabs at a sausage. “Your top pick up lines for Nicky, whilst I’m sure very useful for you, are really not the first things you should be teaching Nile.”
“His pick up lines?” Nile screws up her face. “Ew. Gross.”
“That one translates to I would die a thousand ways to spend a day at your side,” Nicky says, his smile softening. “So, as pick up lines go?” He shrugs, and gives Joe a fond look. “Not too bad.”
“Great, so I can romance the cashier in Arabic, but I can’t ask how to get to the train station?” Nile crumples up a napkin and throws it at Joe’s head. “Thanks a lot, idiot.”
Joe laughs, holding up his hands. “Peace, peace! I only taught the most important things first. Now we can get to the train stations. And the airports.”
“Andy has to check everything you teach me now,” Nile insists. “Else I’m going to really embarrass myself some point down the line.”
“That, or get yourself a gorgeous man to spend the night with,” Joe points out, making Nicky snort with laughter and nearly choke on his coffee. “You can just thank me now, it’s fine.”
Nile is nearly through her stack of pancakes, repeating phrases after Joe that Andy now translates each time, when the bell above the door rings as the door is pushed open. Nile is facing away from the door, because after whatever last night was, she doubts either Joe or Nicky want to have their back to the door, and so she sees Nicky look over her shoulder and tense before she sees anything else.
Nile twists in her seat. A man has just walked through the door and is staring up at the menu over the counter. He’s big, wearing a sleeveless leather vest even in this heat, head shaved and old tattoos up his arms and neck. “What is it?” she asks quietly.
Nicky’s expression is guarded, and he’s shifted so that he’s sat on the edge of the booth. Joe just looks faintly sad. “Look at the tattoos,” he tells Nile. “Closely.”
The man is still studying the menu, facing away from them. Nile studies the tattoos, trying to pick out the individual patterns. A few runes cover one bicep, replicated in patches on the back of his vest. Her gaze skips up to the ones on his neck, and her heart sinks.
Andy nods. Her hand is hovering near her belt, where Nile knows a knife is tucked away. “Fucking neo-Nazis.”
Joe breathes out, and then reaches over and deliberately takes Nicky’s hand where it’s resting on the table. “I grew very tired of them in the forties,” he says. “I do not like these people, pretending to follow a doctrine they did not see, believing that there was any value in anything they did.” He waits until the man at the counter turns around, and then very deliberately, without looking at him, leans into Nicky’s side and presses a kiss to his cheek.
Nile sees the slight roll of Nicky’s eyes, but he turns his head and kisses Joe back, a quick press of lips against his.
There’s a scoff from behind them. Nicky stills, and turns around. “Can I help you?”
The man sneers. “Help? From you? I don’t think so. There’s nothing I need from a couple of-”
“Don’t fucking finish that sentence,” Nile snaps. She stays in her seat, but only just.
“Nicky,” Joe says mildly, and then says something in Arabic that makes the side of Nicky’s mouth twitch like he’s trying hard not to laugh. The man’s expression darkens.
“Speak English,” he spits. “You fucking come to this country, where you’re not wanted-”
“I want him,” Nicky says. His voice is utterly calm, which somehow makes Nile even more nervous than if he was shouting. “I love him. Is there a problem?”
“Damn right there’s a fucking problem,” the man snarls. His face is turning a remarkable shade of red, and Nile shifts a little closer to the edge of the booth, just in case. “It’s fucking unnatural, that’s what it is. You think you can just get away with this- this degeneracy. People like you, you’re the ones who ruin this country with your-”
“You are a child.” Joe’s voice is firm as he stares up at the man towering over them. His fingers are still laced with Nicky’s. “You put that swastika on your neck as if you know anything about the people who used it to commit atrocities you could never imagine, in the name of some imagined nightmare world that will never come. You are playing at things you cannot hope to ever understand. You hate us merely because we exist, and as such I will not expend any effort trying to persuade you otherwise. It is beneath me to do so.”
He stares up at the man, no hint of anything but contempt for him on his face. “I know that I am worth more than you,” he says calmly. “I am loved by this man. It is a blessing I strive to be worthy of every single day. Whatever your opinion is of us, it means so little in the face of the love that I have for my husband.” A slow smile spreads across his lips. “Also, the sex is fantastic.”
Nile chokes on her own spit. The man in front of them turns even redder. “You-”
Nicky gets to his feet and stands in front of him. “Choose your next actions very carefully,” he says, his voice eerily calm. “If you harm any of these people at this table, if you harm my husband, I will have to kill you. And that will get very messy, which is not fair on everyone else in this café, and then we won’t be able to come back to Australia for a while. Which, despite the weather and the various dangerous animals-”
“Misunderstood,” Joe interjects.
Nicky nods. “Misunderstood animals, my mistake. Anyway, despite all of those things, I do like parts of this country. I would prefer not to have to leave so abruptly. But I will kill you, if you harm them.” He stares the man down. “Your decision.”
The man splutters indignantly. “How- how dare you-”
“How dare I?” Nicky folds his arms in front of his chest. “I have done nothing but love this man and my family. It is you who walked in here with that symbol on your neck, the one that has brought so much misery and hatred to people who did nothing but be who they are. I have heard your arguments so many times before. They have never held true.” He glances back at Joe, who is watching Nicky like he has hung the stars in the sky himself. “He is right. Your opinion means nothing to us.”
“I think that you should leave now,” Nile says. “Before we do something we can’t undo.” Her hand clenches around the fork resting on her plate.
The man’s gaze swings to her, but Nicky intercepts him before he can even take a step in her direction. “Leave,” he says, one hand outstretched. “Now.”
“This is a free country!” the man spits. “We have free speech here, you can’t make me leave.”
“Free speech means that you cannot be imprisoned by the government for what you say, as long as it is not inciting violence,” Nile snaps. “That thing on your neck incites violence just by being there. Get the fuck out before I make you leave.”
Someone has come out behind the counter now, name tag and apron askew. “We don’t tolerate bigotry here,” they say firmly. “I’m the manager. I want you to leave.”
There are a tense few minutes where Nile thinks the man might throw a punch at Nicky, just for the sake of it, but eventually he leaves when the manager calls the police. Nicky stays at the door, watching until he’s out of sight, and then comes back to the table. “That was hot,” Joe says with a grin, pulling Nicky in for a kiss. “My knight in shining armour.”
Nicky snorts. “Dusty chainmail covered in sand and a dented helm is more accurate,” he says, but he kisses Joe back.
The manager brings over another plate of pancakes and round of coffee. “On the house,” they say. “I’m sorry about that.”
Joe waves his hand. “Times will change,” he says, and he sounds so confident that Nile thinks she might believe him. “They have already.” He tangles his fingers with Nicky’s, and the soft smile curling Nicky’s lips as he looks over at Joe seems so private that Nile glances away for a moment.
She looks back when she remembers something that Joe said a few minutes ago. “Wait a hot second,” she says, looking between Joe and Nicky. “Husband? Are you two married?”
Andy bursts out laughing as Nicky blushes and looks away. “Yes,” Joe says with a grin. “And no. What is marriage, when we have what we have? What is a piece of paper, compared to a millennium?”
Nicky rolls his eyes. “Joe is a romantic. He has this idea that we should get married in every country, once it is legal.” He pauses. “Not that legality actually stopped us before.”
Andy is still laughing. “They snuck into the basilica in Genoa in the fifteen hundreds-”
“The third of March, fourteen ninety-six, actually,” Joe corrects.
“Fourteen ninety-six,” Andy says, “and convinced a priest who Nicky had saved from a complicated…thing, to marry them in secret.” Her smile softens. “Quynh and I were their witnesses.”
“We evened it out by sneaking into a mosque a few decades later and exchanging vows there as well,” Joe adds. “Oh, and there was that thing on the ship. You remember, when we lived in Nassau for a couple years. With…” Joe drums his fingers on the table. “Hornigold! That’s right.”
Nicky shakes his head with a fond smile. “Matelotage doesn’t count as actual marriage, I don’t think. And we were both definitely not of sound mind after drinking that much rum. Was that when we lost all our hats?”
“And stopped a merchant vessel to replace them, yes,” Joe replies. He grins, and pours more cream into his coffee. “Good times. Andy made a ferocious pirate, you know.”
“Arr,” Andy says, completely deadpan, and that sets off another round of laughter that is impossible to shake.
They’ve taken Joe.
The dust is so thick in the air that she’s choking on it. There’s blood sheeting down the side of her face until it isn’t, until her skin pulls as the gash closes and the blood starts drying, tacky and sticky on her skin. The wail of sirens and cries of people are strangely muted, and then there’s a horrible pop in her ears as her eardrums piece themselves back together, and she can hear everything.
They’ve taken Joe.
There was- is, maybe still, she doesn’t know- a protest, in a country teetering on the edge of collapse. Joe had said something to her yesterday about being able to taste revolution in the air. Nile could feel it. Walking down the streets, watching people begin to mobilise, to crowd together in squares around activists with megaphones standing on top of cars as the police visibly started to bristle, she could feel the tensions saturating the air until it felt like she was swimming through it with every step.
They were meant to watch. Do what they could behind the scenes. Not interfere unless peoples’ lives were at risk. Revolutions exist on social media now, and the risk of doing something stupidly heroic and it being captured by a thousand phones was too high. Blend into the crowd was the unspoken order, and hope to steer things in the right directions as best as four people amongst thousands could.
But there had been a child. Wandering into a street where police were turning violent and grabbing anyone they could reach as the protesters turned and ran. Joe had muscled through the crowd, scooped up the child and handed him off to Nicky, and the police had immediately focused on him.
Nile had watched the decisions play across Joe’s face. Fight the police, and there’s a good chance that they’ll be exposed. Run, and the protesters behind him trying to flee might get caught up and more people might get hurt. She had seen the exact moment that he made the decision, and then she had watched, too far away to do anything, as he had dropped to his knees with his hands in the air.
Immortal or not, it was impossible to push through the crowd of people fleeing wildly in any direction that was away from the police. She just watched, struggling against a surging mass of people and hearing Nicky scream Joe’s name over the crowd, as the police surrounded him and Joe fell to the floor under the onslaught.
She gets to her feet. Andy is behind her, pulled to relative safety from the car bomb that had just gone off in their path as they raced across the city. Nicky is sprawled on the street across from her. As she watches, he comes back with a jolt. He’s on the ground for only a few seconds before he’s scrambling to his feet, a wild look in his eyes as he spins around.
Nile rushes to him and grabs his arm. “Nicky!” she says again. “We’ve got to get off the streets.”
Nicky is staring down the street, through the dust choking the air and the rubble strewn across the road. “We have to get off the street,” Nile says again. She tries to tug him away, but he doesn’t move.
Andy is there, hands grasping Nicky’s face. “We will get him back,” she says, her voice low and urgent. “Nicky, listen to me. We will find him and get him back. But we have to go. Now. That is an order.”
Nicky’s gaze turns to Andy. He turns and follows without a word.
They get off the street. Other people will come and help the victims of the car bomb. There are medics in every crowd of protesters, civilians who will do the right thing and run towards danger instead of away. But they have to get off the streets. They have to find out where the police are taking protesters. They have to find Joe.
Nile spends hours running through back alleys with Andy, following the crowds and the demonstrations, tracking down the loose groups who are desperately trying to keep track of people imprisoned or dragged off the streets. Nicky splits off, following a lead that they can’t give up on. There are protesters hiding out around police stations, watching every entrance and exit for people being taken in or thrown out onto the street, and Nile spends frantic minutes convincing them that she’s with them too, that her friend was taken hours ago and there’s no sign of him, whilst Andy scopes out the building and determines that, once again, there is no sign of the people who took Joe.
They reunite with Nicky as the sun begins to set. The sound of sirens has only increased, armoured trucks now roaming the streets as they declare a curfew. People are scattering, tension giving way to panic as intersections fill with tear gas and the streets are slick with water from the cannons.
Nicky has blood down one side of his face that wasn’t there before. He’s wearing a jacket even in this heat, which Nile knows is only to conceal the guns and knives in holsters beneath it, and a backpack that definitely contains his sniper rifle, broken up into pieces.
“Nothing yet,” Andy says. They’re tucked into an alcove on one of the quieter streets, and Nile is still rinsing her hands off after tear gas sent dozens of people hurtling blindly towards them and she helped a medic strip contaminated clothes and rinse eyes until the water ran out.
Nicky barely moves. There’s a knife in his hand that definitely wasn’t there before, his fingers running over the grip. “We’ll find him,” Andy says. She grips his arm. “Nicky. I am not leaving here until we find him.”
“But that means you’ve got to keep your shit together.”
Nicky’s gaze turns to Nile. She was a Marine. She has seen shit in the past year that she doubts anyone beyond this little family she’s found would understand. She has watched her bones click back into place, has jumped off a skyscraper and walked away a minute later, has abandoned everything she ever knew and loved to do some good in a way that she doesn’t hope to understand yet.
She has a hard time meeting Nicky’s gaze.
Nicky has always been the quiet one. The kind one. The one to rein in Joe when tempers flare, patch Andy up in safehouses with gentle hands, provide words of encouragement to her when the days are saturated with that special tint of insubstantial grey. She sees none of that now. And she remembers, abruptly, that deep well of cold patience that makes Nicky such a damn good sniper.
Nile meets his gaze. “You have got to keep it together,” she says firmly, pulling on all the experience she found out in the desert. “We will find him, we won’t stop until we find him and get him out. But we can’t do that if you fuck off on a suicide mission, or get yourself captured.” She pokes him in the chest. “You might be a millennia old, but I’m the Marine, and I know that the first rule of combat is that you don’t fucking make yourself another victim. Joe needs you to keep it together.”
There’s a moment where Nile thinks Nicky might just turn and leave. Andy’s grip tightens on his arm, and Nile doesn’t look away.
“I know,” Nicky says, his voice quiet. His gaze flickers away for a moment, cracking just slightly before his shoulder straightens and he shores it back up. “I will call Copley.”
“At the safehouse,” Andy says firmly. “There’s going to be a curfew, and we need to decide our next steps. We can’t do that if we’re dodging soldiers all night.”
“There are still people out here,” Nile protests. “The curfew isn’t going to do anything, it’s too volatile already. They’re going to get hurt.”
“Safehouse first,” Andy just says, and Nile recognises an order when she hears one.
Andy hands Nicky a phone almost as soon as the door of the safehouse is shut and locked behind them. “We need his help,” she says, her voice almost soft. “Remember that.”
Nicky puts the phone on speaker and sits down at the table. His back is ramrod straight.
The phone connects. “Copley.”
“It’s us,” Nicky says, his voice flat. “Copley. I would like you to think back to when I did not kill you for your part in our capture. For your responsibility in Joe’s torture.” He pauses for a moment, and the line is silent. “I am calling in that favour.”
There’s a sharp breath over the line, and then another, slower this time. “What do you need?”
Nicky’s words seem to stick in his throat. “I- we-”
“You know where we are,” Andy says, stepping forwards and gripping Nicky’s shoulder. “The protests have turned violent. The police are swarming the streets. Joe has been taken.”
“Fuck,” Copley says immediately. “Okay, okay.” There’s the sound of rustling, and a muffled curse directed at something else on his end. “Okay. What do you know already?”
Nicky reports. There’s no other way to describe it, the way his voice goes horribly flat as he describes the trigger that moved the protest to a riot, the child that Joe passed to him, the way that Joe stood in front of the retreating crowd and surrendered and was beaten for it before being dragged away. The car bomb that stopped them in their tracks as they pursued. The little that they’ve found so far, frantically running through the streets.
“Okay,” Copley says again when the words finally dry up and Nicky falls silent. “I have contacts in the region, they might know more about where they might disappear someone…interesting. If they’ve…worked out who Joe is, what he can do, then there will be certain places that they take him.”
“He hasn’t been moved out of the city,” Nicky says. “I checked. But they didn’t know where he was.”
Nile winces at the tone. The way he checked probably has something to do with the dried blood around the hilt of his knife that hasn’t quite been cleaned off.
“I doubt they would, right now,” Copley says over the line. “Not enough people to control the streets and try to move someone out of the city, especially with every main exit undoubtedly being watched by both sides. I’ve seen it before.”
“Especially if Joe makes trouble for them,” Andy adds. “Which he will.” She glances over at Nicky. “They’ll hide him somewhere here, wait for all of this to die down one way or another, and then move him out of the city. Which means that we have time.” She grips Nicky’s shoulder. “We have time.”
Nicky stares at the phone on the table. “Then we should not waste it.”
He gets to his feet. The chair scrapes against the floor and nearly topples over, Nile catching it at the last minute. Nicky doesn’t seem to notice. He picks up the backpack and a dark hoodie flung haphazardly over the back of the ratted couch pushed over to one side to make space for the large map of the city spread out across the floor, scribbled over with pen and highlighter. He picks up his sword and straps it to his belt, hand resting on the hilt, and then hesitates.
Nile follows his gaze. Joe’s sword is propped up against the wall, next to Andy’s labrys. Nicky stares at it for a long moment. He picks it up, hand running over the scabbard for a moment before he sets it on his back, where Joe normally carries it, with an ease that speaks of centuries of practice.
Nicky turns back towards Andy. “Don’t ask me to wait,” he says, his voice low. “If you give me an order, I will follow it. So do not ask me to wait. Not for this.”
“We need to be smart about this,” Andy says. She steps in front of Nicky, not quite blocking his route to the door but not making it easier for him either. “We need a plan. Copley will help us. But it won’t do any good if you just disappear into the night and don’t come back.”
“I’ll do everything that I can,” Copley says over the line, and Nile reaches over to pick up the phone.
“Yeah, I’m going to hang up on you now,” she says, taking it off speaker. “Work fast. Don’t be a dick.”
“I’ll do my best.” The line goes dead, and Nile starts scrolling through local social media because it gives her an excuse to stay in the room and keep an eye on Nicky without being too obvious. Andy manages to convince him to stay without making it an outright order, and they are crouched over the map spread out across the floor, talking quietly.
Nile scrolls through twitter, and her heart abruptly sinks.
“Nicky,” she says, and something must get through in her voice because Nicky is on his feet a moment later, Andy close behind him. “There’s a video.” Nile turns the phone around to face them, and braces herself.
She presses play.
The footage is shaky, people yelling in the background. Nile watches from a balcony high up above the street as the police turn on the protesters, as a child wanders out into the street and Joe runs for them, snatches them up and presses them into Nicky’s arms. She watches as Joe kneels down in the street, hands above his head, and she keeps watching as the police converge on him and he is thrown to the ground.
The video ends just as they’re dragging Joe up from the ground, hanging limply between two men. There’s a pause, and then it begins to play again.
Andy swears. “I’ll call Copley back. He can wipe it. It’s hard to make out any of us on this, the quality is too low, but we should take precautions just in case.”
Nile looks up at Nicky. His face is completely impassive as he looks down at her. “How many people have seen it?”
Nile checks the phone. “Six thousand,” she says, eyes widening. “It only went up a couple hours ago.” She refreshes the page. “Seven thousand now.”
Andy is already pulling out her own phone. “He might not be able to scrub it completely, but he can mitigate the damage.”
Nicky holds up one hand. “Wait.”
Andy pauses. Nile watches the hits counter steadily tick up on the video. Nicky stares down at it for a long moment. “What are people saying,” he says to Nile.
Nile scrolls quickly through the comments. “A lot of outrage,” she says eventually. “A couple of local news outlets have retweeted it in posts favouring the protests. It’s…” She trails off. “Holy shit. The New York Times just tweeted the video.” The hits are spiking now, comments flooding across the phone screen faster than Nile can follow. She returns to the video, muting it before the screams and yells of the protesters can fill their tiny safehouse again. She can just make herself out in the bottom, fighting against the surge of the crowd. Nicky is on the other side of the street, his mouth open in a shout that Nile can still hear, echoing in her head, as he desperately fights against the people around him.
Nicky watches the video play through again. “Don’t take it down,” he says, his voice flat. “Not if it is doing good.” His hand clenches around the hilt of his sword. “Excuse me.”
Nile watches him leave, and then turns to look at Andy. “We’re going after him, right?”
Andy picks up her labrys. “God save me from heroic dumbasses,” she mutters to herself, but she follows Nile out the door.
“I cannot fucking believe that we’ve lost Nicky as well.”
Andy grabs Nile’s hand and pulls her down a side alley, picking up speed. “He’ll be okay,” she says. “We keep going. We keep looking.”
They sprint through the streets, switching to the densely packed rooftops when it becomes impossible to get through the crowds on the ground. The mandated curfew has done almost nothing. The tensions have risen over already, are seething throughout the city, and it’s too late now to contain it.
Not that it’s stopping the police from trying.
Nile gets one text from Nicky, a time and an address. “Let’s go,” Andy says, and they turn and head across the city.
It takes Andy and Nile hours to make it to the rendezvous point, jumping down a rickety fire escape to hit the ground in a back alley. Nile winces reflexively at the jolt that travels up her legs, but it fades before she even fully realises that it’s there. “I don’t see him.”
Andy’s hand clenches around labrys. “He’ll be here. Or else I will be really fucking mad with him.”
A car screeches around the corner and guns down the road. It skids to a stop in front of the alley entrance. The window winds down to reveal a young woman, dark hijab covered in dust and a grim expression. “He said to look out for a scary woman with an axe, and another scary woman who looks like she should probably have an axe,” she says from the car. “And to tell you that Helsinki in thirty-four was your fault, and that you shouldn’t have eaten the sardines.”
Andy’s grip relaxes slightly on the handle of her labrys. “They were herring,” she replies, and the woman nods.
“Yeah, he said you would say that.” She gestures at the car. “Get in.”
“Who the hell are you?” Nile asks, even as she edges closer to the car and watches their sightlines. The street is clear.
“I’m the aid worker who has spent the past half day tracking down the man in the video that’s now gone viral,” she answers. “Nick found me. He is watching the site now, so he sent me to fetch his family.”
“Good enough for me,” Andy says. She pulls the back door open and jumps in, Nile following suit and twisting to watch out of the back window as the car pulls away in a screech of burning rubber.
“My name’s Sarra,” she says over her shoulder as she spins the car around a corner and guns it down the street. “I won’t ask for yours. I don’t know quite what shit you’re involved in, but Nick is…well, desperate doesn’t quite fit, but it’s the best I’ve got. And his husband deserves my help for what he did.”
“You’ve found him, then,” Nile says. She’s not quite able to hide the scepticism in her voice, not when they’ve spent nearly a day sprinting around this city with very little to show for it.
Sarra must hear it, because she glances at Nile in the mirror for a moment. “I grew up here,” she says, her voice hardening. “I’ve watched police take people off the streets since I was a child. I am sure that both of you are incredibly capable, but you don’t know this place. You don’t know these people. Once that video started circulating? I had hundreds of people spread out across the city, friends and people who owed me favours and people who hate this regime as much as I do and want change. A whole network of people who breathe this air every day.” She shrugs, looking back to the road. “I asked. And I kept asking. And when word came back to me from the same people that a skinny white boy was running across our rooftops, looking for the same man that I was searching for, I paid attention. He found me, so I helped him.”
Andy nods. “We will repay you, however we can. Our family pays our debts.”
“Any word on how he is?” Nile asks. “J- the man in the video.” She watches the streets as they drive deeper into the city, the movement of people ebbing and flowing in time with the sirens still piercing the air.
“I have a friend in the force,” Sarra answers, cutting between two parked cars and heading down a side alley so small that Nile winces, bracing herself for the scrape of the car against the wall. The wing mirror just misses a drainpipe, and Nile breathes a sigh of relief as they emerge onto another, larger road. “Feeding information on police movements when they can. They’ve said it’s all being kept very quiet, where he is. Who he is. He’s alive, but I don’t know in what state.”
Nile nods, and goes back to watching the streets around them, Andy a reassuring presence next to her. They can work with that.
The city gets quieter around them. Andy and Nile duck down in the footwell when Sarra says so, and they slip through road blocks and patrols with the aid of bribe money that Andy quietly palms Sarra from the back. Eventually, Sarra pulls up at the side of the road and kills the engine. “He’s on the roof,” she says, her voice quiet even in the enclosed safety of the car. “The house we’re pretty sure they’re keeping him in is across the adjacent street. They’re obviously doing this off the books.”
Andy sets some more money on the passenger front seat. “I’ll stay as long as I can,” Sarra says. “But I’m needed all across this city right now, and I know too much for them to take a real interest in me. If shit hits the fan, I’m not risking getting shot.”
“You do what you have to do,” Nile says. “We can get out ourselves if we need to.”
She’s been planning routes out of this city since they first arrived. They just have to get Joe, and she can get them out.
The air is cool now, in the dead of night, but up on the roof, Nile can see lights across most of the city, bonfires burning in squares closer to the centre, and the flashes and muted bangs of tear gas grenades and flares. Most of it seems to be coming from much further east. The streets around them are eerily quiet.
Nicky is stretched out on his front at the edge of the roof, sniper rifle in his hands. His breathing barely changes as Nile and Andy approach, crouched down low over the roof. At a glance, it looks just like all the other times she’s watched Nicky scope out a target, lying silent for hours and hours with barely a movement.
She picks up the binoculars beside him, and then notices the grip that Nicky has on his rifle. His knuckles are white. His hands are completely steady, his breathing so even that Nile thinks she could set her watch by it. He doesn’t look away from the building across the street, even as Andy comes to the other side of him and starts speaking to him in a low murmur. Nicky reports, and his voice is so clinical that it aches.
He is hanging on by a fucking thread.
Nile has seen it before. She was a Marine. She knows what it looks like when someone shuts down just to keep moving.
There’s no proof that Joe is here. Everything that Nicky lays out for them in a cold voice, that Nile and Andy contribute to with their own information hard-earned over the hours, it builds a solid picture. All the intel that they have is good. But there’s no proof. Nobody has seen Joe be taken into this nondescript building with a small rooftop garden and windows that have been blocked out.
A few men walk down the street below, heading for the front door of the house. Nicky tracks them with his rifle through the scope, and then his breath hitches.
Nile turns immediately to him. “Nicky.”
“Those men were the ones who took Joe away.”
Andy mutters a curse under her breath from the other side. Nicky’s hand moves, as his finger curls slowly around the trigger.
Nile puts a hand on his shoulder and grips him tight. “Don’t make yourself another fucking victim,” she reminds him. “Or I’ll be really pissed.”
The men open the front door to the house and start to head inside, talking and laughing amongst themselves. Nicky’s finger twitches on the trigger, and he breathes out. “Pater noster,” he murmurs under his breath, “qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.”
Nile grew up in church. She recognises the Lord’s prayer, even in Latin.
The men disappear, one by one, through the front door. Latin continues to fall softly from Nicky’s lips until the last man walks through, and the door shuts behind him. “Amen,” Nicky finishes. His finger eases back from the trigger to lie flat against the barrel. “You better have a plan, boss,” he says quietly, turning his head away from the rifle just enough to see Andy. “Because I cannot wait here much longer.”
“I have a plan,” Andy says. She studies the building opposite. Nile has counted three different ways in, and two other exits for people who don’t mind breaking an ankle or two jumping off a roof.
A man appears up on the roof, in amongst the wilting flowers and small trees dotted across the concrete. He sits down up against one of the pots, and lights up a cigarette. “Maybe half a plan,” Andy murmurs, watching him through the binoculars. “A solid third. Forty percent.”
“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Nile says automatically.
The corner of Nicky’s mouth twitches, just a little. “Let’s go,” Andy says. She pulls out a handgun. “Let’s get our Joe back.”
The man on the roof dies with his lit cigarette still between his lips. They slip over the edge of the roof with barely a sound. Nile reaches the door first and tests the handle. It’s unlocked.
Nicky goes through first. They move through the building together seamlessly, but there is a piece missing. There is a gap behind Nicky, a position not covered. Nile feels a step out of line as they begin to sweep the upper floor. She shoves the feeling away, adjusts her position to better cover Andy’s back, and keeps moving.
There are two men in the second room they come across.
Nile takes in the room in a second. Two men say on a rickety bed, piles of cards between them and more held in their hands. Handguns resting on the covers beside them. A pile of uniforms, obviously police, on a chair, surrounded by other detritus crammed into the corner. There is blood on the clothes.
They talk. Confronted with Andy and Nile and Nicky, who says nothing but still echoes in the cramped room until the men can’t take their eyes off him, they talk.
Their prize is in the basement.
Nicky puts a bullet each between their eyes.
From then on, it’s carnage. Men come running at the sound of shots, thundering up the stairs. Nile crouches at the top and takes them out as they come around the corner, one by one until they realise the trap they are walking into. They fire pot-shots around the corner, cheap plasterboard chipping and flying with every missed shot that slams into the wall a few feet from Nile, the air filling with dust and the smell of cordite.
There’s a thud from around the corner at the bottom of the stairs, and a choked scream abruptly cut off into a low gurgle. Andy has found another way down. Nicky runs down the stairs, barely checking before running around the corner, and Nile, with a roll of her eyes, follows. She doesn’t think it would do anyone any good for Nicky to have bullet holes in him when they finally find Joe.
The house is swarming with people, and Nile remembers how much she hates urban fighting.
She remembers, as Andy taps her shoulder and she turns the corner, rifle held securely at her shoulder, the instructors at MCB Quantico telling them about the critical distance. That there is a distance, between enemy combatants, within which fight wins out over flight almost every time. That in a house like this, a maze of short hallways and rooms still left to clear, no clear line of sight at any position, it is almost impossible not to trigger that.
She really doesn’t like not being able to fucking see all the other people who want to kill them.
She follows Nicky down, taking bullets for Andy when she needs to, returning fire until there are dead bodies trailing behind them and she leaves boot prints stained red with every step forwards. Nicky barely even hesitates. He clears room after room, the gunfire echoing until the ammunition runs out and he draws his sword in one smooth arc without breaking step.
There is a door, in the basement, solid iron. Three men stand guard in front of it.
They turn, see them, and immediately start firing.
Andy ducks back behind the corner as plaster dust fills the air. Nile pushes her back a little further, Nicky stumbling back as a bullet catches his shoulder and blood spills out across his shirt before abruptly stopping. The gunfire continues even as they shelter behind the wall, a measured pace of suppressing fire. Nile glances to Andy, and tries to estimate the strength of that iron door from the few seconds that she saw it.
Andy nods, and takes a grenade out of the pocket of her vest. “Sometimes, more is more.”
Nile pulls the pin, waits a second, and then tosses it around the corner. There’s a clatter of metal on stone, shouts of panic, and then an explosion as the fragment grenade rips through the hall.
Before the dust has settled, Nicky is around the corner, sword at the ready. It doesn’t matter. The three men are lying on the ground with pools of blood slowly trickling out across the floor around them, the thick dust caking at the edges. They are most definitely dead.
Nicky heads for the door, shoving his shoulder against it. The door doesn’t give. “Yusuf!” he shouts through the door, throwing his weight against it again. There’s no reply that Nile can hear over the whine of her eardrums reinflating.
Nicky turns back to the others. “Keys, where are keys, there must be keys somewhere.” He rushes to one of the men on the ground and starts searching through their pockets, ignoring the blood pooling on the ground and soaking into his clothes.
Andy is patting down another of the guards. Nile takes the third, grimacing at the blood that immediately covers her hands as she searches for keys. Her hands keep grasping at pieces of gristle instead, and she chokes down bile.
Andy straightens up, and tosses a ring of keys to Nicky. He scrambles for the door, slipping in the blood on the floor, and slams one hand against the iron. “Yusuf,” he calls out again. There’s no answer.
Nicky grabs a key at random and tries it in the door. It doesn’t turn. He tries another, and then another. Each one of them jams, and doesn’t turn. Nicky curses, and fumbles for another key on the ring. They slip out of his hands and spill to the floor with a clatter. “Fuck,” Nicky spits. He stoops to pick them up, and they clink in his hand as he tries to fit another key to the door.
Nile glances at Andy, who takes up a position at the end of the hallway, and then crosses over to Nicky, wiping her hands off on her jeans. “Nicky,” she says, her voice softening. “Let me.”
His hands are shaking as she pulls the keys out of them. She flips through them quickly, discarding any keys that are too small or the wrong design, and then starts trying one after the other. On the fourth that she fits into the lock, the key turns smoothly under hand and there’s a loud thunk.
Nicky stops breathing beside her as Nile reaches out and pushes the door open.
The smell of damp hits her immediately. The room is small, and dark, the only light that spilling in from the hallway outside. The floor glimmers as the door opens, and Nile realises that it’s because of the water covering it, rippling slightly as the huddled figure in the corner stirs and looks towards them.
There’s a choked breath, and Nicky pushes past her. “Yusuf,” he says, running across the room in a few strides and falling to his knees, water splashing up around him. “Yusuf,” he says again, murmuring his name like a prayer. “My love.”
Nile finds the light switch on the wall and hits it, immediately wincing at the glare of the bright white lights overhead that throw the room- the cell, she should call it what it is- and Joe into sharp relief. “Oh, fuck,” she says. She glances behind her at Andy. “He’s here. We’ve got him.”
Joe makes a muffled noise that is probably some sort of greeting, but Nile can’t make it out around the rough cloth gag pulled tight in his mouth. There is blood on it, more drying down the sides of Joe’s face where the gag has rubbed over and over again at his mouth and cheeks. He’s only in a pair of jeans that look soaked through, blood smeared across his torso and more on his bare feet, even if Nile can’t see any injuries. Both his hands and feet are shackled tight, the skin around them constantly breaking and healing and breaking again with every movement, even as Nile watches.
Nicky makes a sound like he’s been punched in the gut. “Yusuf,” he says again, his voice pleading. “Yusuf, Yusuf, Yusuf.” He pulls at the gag, fingers scrabbling at the tight knot at the back of Joe’s head. Joe tries to say something, but the words come out garbled and indistinguishable. He reaches up and grips Nicky’s forearm with both hands, the manacles clinking with the movement.
Nile pulls a knife out of a sheath at her side. “Here,” she says, voice low, holding it out to Nicky. “This will be faster.”
Nicky takes it and carefully slides the point in between the gag and the side of Joe’s head. Joe says something, trying to turn to look up at Nicky, and Nile smacks him on the leg. “Just because it will grow back, doesn’t mean you should make it easy for him to accidentally cut your ear off.”
Nicky saws carefully through the gag, his knuckles white around the handle of the knife. Finally, the last threads give way. Joe immediately spits it out, the knotted fabric falling onto his lap. “I said,” he gets out, wincing at the raw marks on the sides of his lips that start to heal up even as he talks, “please don’t cut off any hair whilst doing that. I like this haircut.”
“Yusuf,” Nicky gets out. His hand is still clenched around the knife, the other hovering just above Joe’s cheek, like he isn’t sure how to bridge the gap. Joe turns to look up at him.
“Hello, my love,” he says softly. He leans his head into Nicky’s hand. “I had every faith that you would find me. Once again, your heart has not proven me wrong.”
Nile isn’t sure whether Joe leans up, or Nicky leans down, only that they meet somewhere in the middle. Joe’s hands cup Nicky’s face, heedless of the blood on both of them as he presses his lips to Nicky’s. Nicky kisses back almost desperately, pulling Joe close to him. Water splashes around them, now tinged red with the blood on Nicky’s clothes, and neither of them notice.
Nile can’t help but pull a face. “Gross.”
Joe pulls back with a laugh, though it rasps in his throat, and he can’t quite suppress a shiver that runs up his body. Nicky sets his and Joe’s swords down for a moment as he shrugs off his jacket and slings it around Joe’s shoulders. “Oh, my sweet summer child.”
“I regret ever showing you Game of Thrones.” Nile eyes the shackles on Joe’s ankles and wrists, and then the ring of keys in her hands. “Want to get out of here?”
“Please,” Joe says. He sits up, another shiver running through him. “I’m starving.”
It takes Nile a few minutes to find the right keys and get both sets of manacles off Joe. He’s shivering constantly now, tremors racking his body. Nicky has crowded close, one arm around his shoulders and propping him up. The other traces over the healing scrapes on Joe’s wrist. His expression is unreadable. Joe captures his hand, and brings it up to press a kiss to his knuckles.
Andy appears in the doorway as Joe is tossing the second set aside to one corner. “Good to see you, boss,” Joe says as he gets to his feet, Nicky and Nile propping him up. “Took you long enough.”
Nicky makes a wordless noise at that, and Joe leans into his side, slinging one arm over Nicky’s shoulder. It doesn’t appear to just be for Nicky’s comfort either. Nile can see Joe’s legs trembling underneath him. She glances around the room, and spots in the corner of the room near the door something she hadn’t seen before. A couple of empty water containers with a wet cloth draped over them, and a car battery with leads still attached.
She hopes to God that Nicky is too busy, staring at Joe like he might disappear again, to notice those.
Andy strides forwards and pulls Joe into a hug. “Don’t do that to us, you dick,” she says into his shoulder. “Do you know how hard it is to rein Nicky in when shit like this happens?”
Joe hugs her back with his free arm. “On behalf of my Nicolo, I apologise. Now, can we please leave? I would like to put on some socks. And have a shower. A warm one.”
He’s shivering still, his legs unsteady underneath him. Andy ducks under his other shoulder and takes some more of his weight, and between them Joe hobbles towards the door.
They’re nearly there when Nicky’s gaze cuts to the side. He stutters to a stop, eyes fixed on the equipment in the corner. “Joe,” he gets out.
Joe doesn’t even glance over to where Nicky is looking. “Nicolo,” he says softly. “Let’s get out of here, yes? Leave it. It is not worth anything to you.” He glances over at Andy. “Is there a plan to get out?”
“Half of one,” Andy replies. She adjusts her grip on Joe’s arm as another shiver runs through him and he stumbles. “Maybe closer to a third.”
Joe huffs a laugh. He lets his head hang down for a moment. “I think I am happy to take that.”
Nile is running through the potential escape plans in her head as she takes point, heading up the stairs and to the front door. She cracks the front door open, glancing out onto the street. It’s conspicuously empty, except for one car down at the end of the street. As Nile sees it, the headlights flash twice, and then the car slowly moves forwards towards them.
The window rolls down to reveal Sarra, hands clenched on the wheel. “Quick, quickly, get in,” she says. “Before we’re spotted. Have you got him?”
Nile gestures the others forwards, taking up position on the street with her rifle ready at her shoulder as Andy and Nicky pull Joe out of the house and they hobble to the car. Nicky gets in first, then Joe stumbles in. Andy jumps in the front, and Nile takes one last look around at the empty streets before sliding into the back and slamming the door shut.
The car peels away from the pavement with a screech of tires. Nile scrabbles for her seatbelt, before remembering there isn’t really much point anymore. “So,” Joe says where he’s slumped against Nicky, Nicky’s arm wrapped around his waist. “I’m Joe. Nice to meet you?”
Sarra glances in the rearview mirror. “Sarra. There’s been a pretty decent effort to look for you, Joe. I was trying to track you down, and then your husband tracked me down, and now we’re here.”
Joe is still shivering in Nicky’s grasp, and Nicky looks like he’s one hard blow from crumbling as his arms tighten around Joe. “You were looking for me?” Joe asks.
“Oh, yeah,” Nile says, abruptly reminded. “There’s a video. You’ve gone viral.”
Joe pauses, and then a wide grin spreads over his face. “Really?” he asks. He considers it for a moment, and then shrugs. “That’s fun. I’ve never gone viral before.” He shivers again, his teeth clacking together, and Nile abruptly remembers that his jeans are soaked through. She glances around the car, and spots a blanket stuffed in the footwell. She grabs it out and drapes it over Joe. “Thanks,” Joe mutters as Nicky tugs it up around him. He shivers again, and then winces. “Fucking electrocution. The effects last for so long.”
Nicky makes a choked-off sound, and Joe twists to look up at him. “I’m okay, love,” he murmurs. He covers Nicky’s hands with his own. “I’m okay.”
Sarra glances in the rearview mirror again. “Do you need a doctor?” she asks. “Or a hospital? And don’t lie to me. It took a lot of effort to find out where you were being held, and I won’t have you repay it by dying in the back of my car.”
Joe shakes his head. “I’m fine. Nowhere close to dying.”
Sarra nods. “We have a safehouse a number of us are using at the moment. It’s safe, there are medical supplies and food there, and you can lie low for a little while. If you need somewhere.”
“We won’t put any of you and your people in danger,” Andy says firmly. “We can look after ourselves.”
Sarra shakes her head, swinging the car around a corner. “We already are, and that’s nothing to do with you. Even if Joe hadn’t done what he did, even if I hadn’t just spent nearly a day trying to track him down and find out if he was still alive, I would still offer. I’m sure that you can look after yourselves, you all seem frighteningly competent. But I’m offering.”
Andy twists in her seat to look back at Joe and Nicky, and Nile follows her gaze. Joe’s head is tucked into the crook of Nicky’s neck, his eyes fluttering a little like he’s finding it hard to keep them open. Nicky has leant his cheek against the top of Joe’s head, staring down at Joe’s bloodied wrists where his hands rest over Nicky’s on his bare stomach, their fingers entwined.
“We’ll take you up on your offer,” Andy says softly.
The city slowly begins to become quieter around them as Sarra drives, remnants of chaos giving way to more ordered streets, a few more cars that have all of them instinctively ducking down. They aren’t followed. They aren’t stopped by police. Joe doesn’t mysteriously start dying in the back of the car, which does cross Nile’s mind briefly.
Sarra finally pulls up in front of a house and kills the engine. She twists in her seat to look back at them, and her expression softens. “Is he asleep?” she whispers.
Nicky shakes his head, but doesn’t say anything. Joe’s eyes flicker open. “Let’s get inside,” Andy says. “Quickly.”
Joe wakes up enough that he can get himself out of the car, shivering at the cold night air. The sun is just beginning to rise, but the streets are still cool, long shadows stretching out from the trees lining the road. Nile watches one end of the street and Andy the other, as Nicky pulls Joe’s arm over his shoulder and helps him limp across the pavement and up the steps to the small house. The limp is a little put on, but Joe winks at her as he hobbles past. “Keep up the charade,” he whispers, and then slightly theatrically stumbles over the front step, making Nicky catch him.
Nile expects Nicky to just roll his eyes, maybe give Joe a fond look. He does neither of those. He just clutches Joe close, takes more of his weight, and helps him inside.
Nile and Andy follow, and Sarra shuts the door behind her. There are voices from further inside, and Sarra pushes past everyone to lead them down the hallway. “Everyone,” she calls out, opening a door and beckoning them through. “We found him.”
All chatter abruptly stops as Sarra leads them through into what looks like a living room long since taken over for planning. Laptops are scattered across the tables, a tangle of charger cords bundled in the corner. A large map of the city is pinned up on one wall, surrounded by sticky notes and covered in highlighter and scribbles of Arabic that are far too hastily written for Nile to read without a lot of effort. Three people are sat around the kitchen table, staring up at them in the doorway.
Joe breaks the silence first. “As-salamu alaykum,” he says to the room at large. “Thank you for helping us.” He leans into Nicky’s side, and Nicky adjusts his grip. “My name is Joe. This is my husband Nicky, and the rest of our family. Is the child safe?”
“He is,” Nile says.
Joe nods. “Good, that’s good. Now. Does anyone have a medical kit? And some dry clothes?”
Someone at the table jumps to their feet, their chair screeching over the floor, as the room unfreezes. “What the hell have they done to you?” he asks, taking in Joe’s appearance. “Those motherfucking-”
The room erupts into some level of chaos as everyone tries to talk over each other at once. Nile can see Joe’s exhaustion creeping up on him, the way he sags into Nicky’s side. Nicky looks like he’s one sharp blow away from collapse.
“Okay, enough!” Nile says sharply as one person tries to question Joe on exactly what was done to him, in an effort to use it to push the cause further. “There’s time for all of this later. Where’s your medical kit, and your bathroom?”
The room falls quieter. Someone fetches a medical kit and passes it to Nile, who hands it over to Nicky. “Bathroom is across the hall,” Sarra says. “I’ll find you some dry clothes.” She looks over them. “I’ll find you all some new clothes. You’re a little…bloodied.”
It’s a fair statement to make.
“Nicky, take Joe and get him cleaned up,” Andy says. “Nile, give them a hand once Sarra finds some clothes. I’m going to do a sweep outside, make sure we haven’t been followed.” She shoulders her labrys, and unsurprisingly, nobody complains as she turns and heads back out of the door.
“Come on, love,” Joe says. “These wet jeans are really annoying.” Nicky says nothing, and the two of them disappear back out the door. A few seconds later and she can hear the sound of a shower starting up.
Sarra reappears with a stack of clothes a few minutes later, during which Nile has been studying the map on the wall and trying not to give anything away even as the questions from Sarra’s friends get more and more pointed. “The others are going to start cooking up some food,” she says, her voice softer now that they’re inside. “And I know it’s been a lot, but with how viral the video has gotten, a lot of people are asking who this person is, whether he’s safe. We would like to release any information Joe is willing to give, to let people know that he is okay.”
“No names or faces,” Nile says immediately. “Nothing that identifies him, or the rest of us. Beyond that…I can ask.” She takes the clothes off of Sarra. “Thank you. For all of this.”
Sarra shrugs. “Think nothing of it.”
Nile retreats before she can get asked anything else. The shower is still running in the bathroom, and she can hear the sounds of muffled talking over the noise of the water. She knocks on the door. “Nicky? Joe? I’ve got some clothes for you.”
Nothing. She knocks again. “Guys?” A muffled noise, but nothing else. Nile grimaces. They need to patch Joe up in a somewhat realistic way, to make sure that they don’t give themselves away, and Nile is the only person in their team that knows her way around a modern medical kit well enough to pull it off. “I’m coming in. Please don’t be doing anything too mentally scarring.”
The door is unlocked. Steam creeps out as she pushes it open, obscuring her vision for a moment. She shuts the door behind her, and her heart sinks just a little as she turns back to the room.
The shower is still running, spilling into the empty bathtub. Joe is sat on the floor next to the bath, a towel wrapped around his waist. His arms are wrapped around Nicky. Nicky’s shoulders are shaking. He looks up at Nile with red-rimmed eyes as she comes in, and then shuts his eyes again, his head returning to its place on Joe’s shoulder.
Nile can see tear tracks down his cheeks, more extending down across Joe’s chest. She can’t find it within herself to be surprised. “I’m going to turn the shower off,” she just says, setting the clothes down on the closed lid of the toilet seat. “Or else they’re going to have a hell of a water bill once we’re done.”
The room is suddenly larger as the sound of water on porcelain abruptly ceases. Joe leans his head back against the bath with a sigh. “Time for fake doctoring?”
“Yep.” Nile grabs the medical kit. “Probably should wrap your wrists and ankles where the manacles were, maybe put some gauze patches over your torso.” She starts digging through the kit, looking for bandages. It’s well-stocked, bottles of antiseptic and boxes of rubber gloves stacked neatly amongst gauze and scissors and even a number of syringes and needles.
Joe stays silent as Nile wraps bandages around him, sticks pieces of gauze in random places across his torso. His hand strokes up and down Nicky’s side, over and over. Nicky’s eyes stay shut, his breathing ragged, and Nile just works around him until she runs out of gauze.
“So,” she says, rocking back on her heels. “Sarra wants to know if she can leak information about you to the local news outlets. Nothing identifying, of course, just that you were taken and, well, tortured, and that you’re safe now. A lot of people want to know what happened to the man in the video.”
Joe looks briefly surprised. “I would have thought you had Copley take it down as soon as it appeared,” he says.
“Nicky said not to.” Nile starts packing away the wrappings now strewn across the tiled floor. “The video is too low quality to make out anything identifying, anyway. And it’s too late now. The thing got retweeted by the New York Times. Literally tens of thousands of people have seen it now.”
Joe looks utterly exhausted, his hair is wet and tangled and he’s holding Nicky like he might disappear in the next moment, but somehow he still smiles. “Does this make me famous?”
Nile snorts. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
“It was doing good.” Nicky glances up, his eyes cracking open and then sliding shut again. “The video,” he says into Joe’s shoulder. “It was getting attention. People were using it to rally. I did not think you would want it taken down.”
“As always, my love, you know my heart well,” Joe says. Nicky’s breath hitches, and Joe turns to press a kiss to Nicky’s temple. “When we get out of here, we should take some time off. Go somewhere warm, but not hot. And green.” His hand smooths up and down Nicky’s side. “Maybe Ireland. That cottage out in County Kilkenny, where you can walk across the fields to the castle grounds and get fresh milk and eggs from their farmhand.”
Nicky huffs the smallest of laughs. “We can have entire conversations with him without being able to understand a word that he’s saying.”
“Do you still remember any Gaelige?” Joe asks. “I think I can remember how to ask for half a cow, but that’s about it.”
Nile snorts. “Because that’s so useful.”
“You would be surprised,” Joe replies. “I was a merchant, a very, very long time ago. There is a lot you can barter for with half a cow.” He presses another kiss to Nicky’s temple. “That was how we were first able to talk. I knew a little Italian- well, Italian as a language didn’t exist then, but I knew Nicky’s tongue. Enough to call out to him when I realised that I no longer wanted to run him through.”
“It was his terrible pronunciation that stayed my hand long enough for me to realise the same,” Nicky murmurs.
Nile narrows her eyes. “Wait a second. You’ve said this before, only the other way around. Nicky learnt enough Arabic to talk to you, and his accent was so awful you had to stop to understand what he was saying.”
Joe shrugs shamelessly. “It was so long ago. How can I remember exactly how it happened?”
“You’re both terrible.” Nile slumps back against the wall, wincing at the pins and needles in her legs. Nicky’s eyes are shut again, his head leant against Joe’s shoulder, but his breathing has evened out and he mostly just seems tired. Joe looks like he’s a few seconds away from falling asleep right there on the bathroom floor.
He catches Nile’s gaze studying them. “We’re fine, Nile,” Joe says quietly. “Don’t worry about us.”
Nicky stirs. “Quynh is our worst nightmare,” he says, his voice so low Nile can barely hear him. “What happened to her…I could not face it, if it were Joe.”
Nile isn’t sure what her face is doing, but she doesn’t think that it’s anything good. “Hush, my love,” Joe says. “You’re scaring the kid.”
“I’m not your child,” Nile retorts automatically, like she has done so many times before, but her voice is quiet, and she can’t find the normal bite to it. “We won’t- you know I would look for you, right? If either of you went missing. I would look until I found you.”
Nicky and Joe share a look that Nile can’t quite read. There is a whole language that exists just between the two of them, in a mishmash of dialects long since fallen out of use, silent looks and touches that Nile knows she won’t ever be able to understand. “Thank you,” Joe just says eventually. “You can tell Sarra that she can let it be known that I am safe. Nothing more.”
Nile nods, and reaches over for the stack of clothes she left on the toilet seat. “I’ll give you a few minutes,” she says, setting the clothes down next to them, and pretends not to notice the shudder that runs through Nicky and the way Joe’s arm tightens around them.
The door isn’t quite shut behind her when she hears Nicky. “I would never stop looking,” he says quietly. “I could not. If you…I will come for you. I will always come for you.”
Joe is quiet for a moment. “There is an innuendo in there, I think,” he says lightly, and Nicky laughs like he can’t quite believe the sound he is making. The world seems to tilt slightly more back into place.
They reappear a little while later, and Sarra immediately presses bowls of food into both their hands. “We’ve set up a mattress and some blankets for you in the corner,” she says. “Sorry it’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got.”
“It is more than enough,” Nicky says quietly. His eyes are still a little red-rimmed, but there’s a smile on his face that doesn’t look forced as he looks at Sarra. “Thank you. For everything.”
Nile eats quickly, leaning against one wall to try and stay out of the way. Andy reappears as Nile is scraping the last of breakfast out of the bowl, dusty but unhurt. “It’s a mess,” she says succinctly, wiping at her face and leaving a smear of dirt across her forehead. “But we’re safe here. Joe, Nicky, you good?”
“All good, boss,” Joe says around a mouthful of food. He and Nicky are sat on the mattress shoved in the corner, their legs tangled together. Nicky is in the process of tearing up the flatbread and splitting it between their two bowls. “We staying?”
“You look like shit, so yes,” Andy replies. “Get some sleep, both of you, or you’ll both be useless when we get out of here. Nile and I can handle the extraction.” She glances back at Sarra and the rest of her friends, who all immediately pretend that they aren’t listening in and intently stare at their laptops. “And repay some favours, in the time that we have.”
Someone brings round cups of a strong, fragrant tea. Nile wraps her hands around the mug as she leans against the wall, inhaling the steam rising from the surface and watching Sarra and her friends at their rickety kitchen table. Andy has given up on even pretending not to read over their shoulders, and points over Sarra’s shoulder at something on her screen.
Out of the corner of her eye, Nile sees Nicky set his bowl down. He picks up one of the mugs of tea that someone set down beside the makeshift bed, and then presses it into Joe’s hands.
Joe makes a low noise of protest. “There is nothing to apologise for,” he murmurs.
“Take the damn tea, Yusuf,” Nicky replies, his voice sharpening a little. Joe wraps a hand around the mug, and then uses his other to grasp Nicky’s jaw and tilt his face towards him.
“You never have anything to apologise for, to me,” he says, his voice low but firm. “You think I don’t know how hard you fought to find me? It was as hard as I tried to fight them to get back to you, and I would have moved mountains if they were in the way between us.”
“That would take a long time,” Nicky murmurs around a yawn, his head dropping down to rest against Joe’s shoulder briefly.
Joe picks up the other mug of tea and puts it in Nicky’s hands. “We have it,” he says simply. “Now drink this. Maybe you’ll like this one.”
Nile can see Nicky try not to pull a face after the first sip, and she has to stifle a laugh. Joe catches her gaze, and gives her a fond smile. “We’ll leave you to it,” he says, nodding towards where Andy is now in an animated discussion with Sarra. He sets both mugs of tea down and shuffles backwards, dragging the blanket up and around his shoulders. Nicky follows suit, Joe wrapping an arm around his waist and pulling him back. “Wake us up only if something explodes.”
Joe falls asleep almost immediately, his back pressed up against the wall and Nicky securely in his arms. Nicky’s eyes stay open, even though he is obviously just as exhausted as Joe. They flicker to the door, and then past Nile to the other people in the kitchen.
Nile abruptly realises what’s missing. She pulls her handgun from the back of her jeans and crouches down to hand it to Nicky. “Andy did a sweep. She says we’re good here.”
Nicky takes the gun and tucks it underneath his pillow. He catches Nile’s hand as she pulls away and goes to stand up, looking up at her from the makeshift bed. “Thank you, Nile,” he says softly, squeezing her hand.
Nile squeezes back, a soft smile curling her lips. “Get some sleep,” she says. “I’ll keep an eye out for you both.”
Nicky drops off to sleep almost as soon as she stands up, and Nile gets to work.
She doesn’t know how long she and Andy work. People occasionally come in and out of the house, Sarra’s friends going out or other contacts arriving, but Andy intercepts each of them before they make it into the living room. Nile can hear hushed conversations out in the hallway, Copley’s contacts finally coming through, but she doesn’t go to join them.
She’s not sure why. But every time she thinks of getting up from the rickety kitchen chair, she ends up watching Joe and Nicky instead. She can just see the bandages still wrapped around Joe’s ankles, peeking out from underneath his borrowed sweatpants. One of Nicky’s hands is wrapped around Joe’s forearm where it encircles his chest, his thumb tucked under the bandage on Joe’s wrist.
They have two millennia between them. They don’t need protecting. And yet, Nile stays at that cluttered table, in that rickety kitchen chair, and she keeps watch.
Andy joins her, the latest contacts being sent on their way. “We’ve nearly got a way out,” she says. “It’ll be a few more hours, though.”
Nile is certain that if they really needed to go, they would already be out of the city and on their way somewhere far out of the strike zone. But they’re still here, and if Andy believes they can afford a few more hours, then Nile will take them.
She’s scrolling through social media again, trying to see where people are gravitating to in the city, when someone in the kitchen fumbles a pan and it falls to the floor with a loud clatter. Both Andy and Nile jump at the sound, Nile accidentally slamming one hand down on the keyboard and spilling a line of gibberish in the search bar, but there’s a muffled gasp from behind her that makes her forget it and spin around.
Nicky is awake. One hand is already gripping Nile’s gun that was under his pillow, eyes darting around the room. He twists to look behind him, and something in him relaxes at the sight of Joe, still somehow asleep, his arm not even dislodged from around Nicky’s waist. His gaze flicks back to Nile and Andy at the table.
“We’re all good,” Andy says calmly.
Nicky’s head drops back down to the pillow. His eyes flit around the room one more time as he tucks the gun away again, and then he grabs Joe’s hand, lacing their fingers together. Joe grunts a little in his sleep, shifting closer and pulling Nicky closer into his chest. Nicky’s eyes fall shut.
When Nile looks up from the two of them, lying there fast asleep, she sees Andy watching her with a small smile curving her lips. “Get it now?” she asks.
Nile thinks for a moment. “Not really,” she says honestly. She watches them sleep. “But I don’t think I can. Or that I should. It’s not really for me to understand.”
Andy nods, like she’s passed some sort of test. “What are your thoughts on this route out?” she asks, pushing a map across the table. “We need to be at least outside the city walls before sunset.”
Nile slides the map over to her, and picks up a pen as Andy watches. Behind them, Nicky and Joe sleep on.