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Quiet Mind, Steady Heart

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Nicky woke as his spine and skull harshly contacted something hard and, judging by the reverberation in both the air and his bones, metal. His left wrist was grabbed and positioned, followed by a tight pressure and a click.

Restraints. Not good. But so far it was only one arm, and that he could work with. He’d once had an arm severed, and still managed to scale a hundred-foot cliff face as it grew back.

But he needed to work quickly. If his other hand was restrained, he was done for.

So, priorities; get a judge of his surroundings, possible exits, number of hostiles. Stop the progress of the person restraining him. Procure a weapon, possibly a hostage for leverage.

All of these priorities, of course, came in at number 2. Priority number one...

Joe.

Joe had always had a better tolerance for toxins than Nicky—of the many, many times they’d been poisoned, drugged, gassed, and sedated, Joe almost always woke up first. In fact, Nicky liked to joke that Joe’s tolerance for toxicity was what formed the bedrock for their love; he healed through Nicky’s ingrained hate and intolerance, took the brunt of his religious vitriol, and came out the other side, patient as always as the poison finally wore off and left only a bare and terrified Nicolo di Genova, who could finally see that everything he’d been fed since he was a child was a lie.

The fact that Joe’s voice was absent was concerning—if he was able, he always spoke in times like this, so that Nicky would know he was there. So that he might wake, even if in a state of abject terror, with a tiny morsel of stability. With something to hold onto, reach out for, anchor with.

Nicky needed to see. But opening his eyes would tip off his captors that he was waking, and they may move to restrain him quicker. Which, as of yet, the person doing so was on track to make a rookie mistake—pulling a strap over Nicky’s chest instead of the other arm.

A one-armed man still had options, deadly ones. It was a lesson Nicky learned the hard way approximately a millennium ago.

So, working to keep his breaths still evenly paced, he peeked a single eye open.

His jailor, a man of stocky build and broad, square shoulders, was leaning over him to reach for the strap on the other side of whatever Nicky was lying on, likely a gurney. He hadn’t noticed Nicky’s consciousness yet, a fact that would work in Nicky’s favor for only seconds more. So, slow and steady, he allowed his head to roll to the side.

The room spun with the remnants of the sedative, and Nicky’s head throbbed, but it was immediately clear; he was surrounded by enemies, and Joe was nowhere to be found.

The panic was immediate; his heart hammered in his chest and his mind buzzed with the images of a thoroughly broken and distraught Andy, winding aimlessly through the streets of London, the roads leading west, the oceans of the world, looking for something she would never find.

Hot on the heels of that image, though, was Joe’s voice, spoken in a hushed and private whisper in a decrepit safe house in New York in 1962—the mission had gone all wrong. Nicky was nesting on the roof of an adjacent building while the other three performed what was, up until that point, a perfectly executed infil. That was, until the mobster’s flunkies had gotten wind of them, frankly Nicky still didn’t understand how, and the trio was ambushed and cornered. Should have been easy—only 10 guys. Nicky should have been able to easily take out at least the nearest three with his brand new Mauser M59, and in the following “oh shit, sniper,” moment, the trio could take out the rest.

But, in a particularly vicious move that still haunted Nicky’s waking nightmares, one of the flunkies had shot Joe in the eye, and then stood over his lifeless corpse and emptied his entire chamber into him. It was gruesome, and excessive, not to mention a complete waste of bullets to a man who seemingly believed his target to already be dead.

Nicky had been so stunned that he failed to take out a single target, which ended up causing very painful deaths for both Andy and Booker.

Nicky had been silent later at the safe house, when Andy was understandably laying into him. But Yusuf knew—waited for Andy’s anger to simmer into exhaustion, and took Nicky’s still-trembling hand in his own, bringing it to his lips.

“I know it was difficult, habibi,” he whispered against Nicky’s knuckles. “I wouldn’t have been able to function either. But... I will always get back up for you. So in the meantime... whenever you’re out there, covering for us, and you have to watch violent things happen to me, just close your eyes...”

He’d removed his hand from Nicky’s, placing one at his temple and the other over his heart.

“Quiet mind, steady heart,” he said, the declaration painfully confident. “Quiet mind...” he inhaled, and Nicky copied it. “Steady heart,” he finished, releasing the breath as Nicky did, and a wave of calm came over them both. “You’ll always hit your mark.”

Quiet mind, steady heart.

With one last deep, measured breath, Nicky sprang into action. It went down within seconds, exactly as he planned.

First, he got his captor’s attention with a rough grunt, and as soon as the man’s face turned toward him, Nicky slammed his forehead into the man’s nose. He could both feel and hear the wet crunch of collapsing cartilage, and in the disorientation and teary eyes it caused, Nicky reached for his own bonds and uncoupled them.

Chaos erupted as the room full of enemies noticed the commotion, yelling and pivoting to face Nicky, guns drawn and leveled.

With the practiced precision of one who’d been doing this since guns were invented, Nicky rocketed to his feet, spun his still-reeling captor into a chokehold that doubled as a human shield, and simultaneously unclipped the man’s gun holster and raised the weapon to the man’s temple.

Nicky didn’t need a name to pinpoint the leader of this private little army, only behavior—the man stepped around the white-clad Doctor woman, shoved her behind him, and the rest of them fanned out to his left and right, flanking. The man’s gun was trained near Nicky’s head, but given its proximity to Nicky’s hostage, he did not fire.

It told Nicky everything he needed to know—they knew they could simply shoot Nicky and he would be fine. But they were unwilling to risk one of their own, who definitely wouldn’t be.

Leverage.

“Where is he?!” Nicky yelled, shoving the gun harder against his hostage’s temple and keeping his finger carefully angled against the trigger guard. Upon recognizing the all-around looks of confusion, he corrected, in English.

“The other one?” the man asked flatly, and rage boiled in Nicky’s veins so white-hot that a shudder coursed him. The other one. As if all that Joe was could be simplified down to a test subject, exhibit A, one of two. As if his millennium of selflessness and compassion, his warm smiles and long, heart-stopping kisses, his rich, soft eyes and rough but doting hands could be distilled into a test tube and diluted. As if he wasn’t a human being at all, but rather a pile of muscle and bone to be dissected.

“Yes, the other one,” Nicky growled, moving his finger from the trigger guard to the trigger itself and knowing the commander would take it for the serious threat it was.

The commander’s pupils rapidly analyzed the situation, going from Nicky’s face, to the gun, to his hostage soldier, to the men standing behind him.

“Take a look around, you really think you’re gunna get out of here?” the leader, Keane, if memory served, said in a monotone. “You’re outnumbered, and we don’t even need to keep you alive. The second you try anything, we take you out again, and trust me, we won’t be making the mistake of doing it with a sedative this time.”

Nicky sneered. “Oh, I know perfectly well how men like you operate. Frankly, I’m shocked you haven’t sacrificed this poor bastard already just to subdue me. But since you haven’t, allow me to make something perfectly clear.

“I’m not trying to escape,” he said, resigned. “I’m very aware that escape is improbable, and that any attempt would lead to my capture. I’m not even trying to avoid your little experiments, your tests. I know you’ll take what you want from me, people like you always do...”

At this, Nicky let his eyes wander to the Doctor, staring his truth into her cold, analytical eyes.

“What lies on the other side of the bridge is worth the bones you built it on,” he said, quieter as his mind took him back nearly a thousand years, to a beautiful city burning in the name of a conqueror, of a people screaming and crying under swords supposedly blessed by divine calling. Of a man, fighting for his life and those of his people, just trying to protect their way of life. Of gorgeous brown eyes, entreating and passionate, even as they closed for the umpteenth time.

“I know your type,” Nicky went on, shrugging off that ever-present guilt as he met Keane’s eyes once more, allowing I used to be one of them to go unsaid. “And I’m not going to fight you...”

“Really?” Keane replied, voice laden with sarcasm. “Cuz it kinda seems to me like you are.”

Nicky snarled at the man’s glibness in the face of one of his own, gun pressed to his head.

“Keep us together, that’s all I’m asking,” Nicky clarified.

Keane scoffed. “Yeah, that’s not how this works,” he said, actually lowering his weapon but keeping it in hand. The others, however, kept theirs trained on Nicky and his hostage. “You don’t have the power here, and we’re certainly not negotiating.”

“Are we not?” Nicky snapped back, making a show of shoving the nose of the gun harder against his hostage’s skull. The man made a small, whimpering noise, and Nicky let his eyes drift to the lifted, placating hands of his hostage, to the sterling shine of a wedding band. “Is that what you’ll tell his spouse, huh? When you’re standing on his doorstep, explaining why he isn’t coming home? Why an insurance payout is all they’ll ever see of him? Will you tell his children that you, his commanding officer, sacrificed him because you didn’t want to talk?”

Not even the electronic whir of assorted medical machines could break the silence that fell over the room. Keane’s eyes narrowed at Nicky, venom and viciousness seeping from them like chemical waste.

“Alright,” Keane said, voice tight and carefully measured, but still very on-edge. “Lower your weapons, lads, the man wants to talk.”

The others hesitated, but quickly obeyed, shakily lowering their guns. Nicky could feel the slight sigh of relief as it left his hostage’s rib cage, and he felt the sudden and unexplainable urge to comfort the man.

“You know what I want,” Nicky said, nodding at Keane. “Bring me Joe, and I’ll release him. Simple as that.”

“Simple as that, huh?” Keane asked, clearly doubtful. “Doesn’t seem like you’re getting much out of that deal. Seems to me like you’re trying to divide my forces to make your escape more likely.”

The rage which had dulled to a simmer in Nicky’s gut roiled again, making his sight go black at the edges and his ears ring.

I’m getting everything out of it! he wanted to scream. I get to be with him, be near him, comfort him as we are inevitably tortured in the name of your science. We’re caught, that much is painfully clear. So the least I can do, the very least, is be his rock, because God knows he’s mine, and I need him so desperately right now.

Nicky did not, however, say any of this. What he said was, “If you’re that worried about sending a single man to go and get him, then shoot me, and see what happens.”

It was a risky bluff, to be sure. Yes, Nicky would kill his hostage, but he’d also likely die in the process, and he’d wake much more securely restrained, and all of this would have been for nothing. He’d still be caught, he’d still be without Joe. And he’d no longer have any chance at leverage.

The decision hung in the air like nerve gas, Keane’s men antsy as their eyes shifted from Nicky to their commander.

Keane ground his teeth, then clicked his tongue in annoyance, turning his head to address the Doctor.

“Doctor Kozak, that won’t interfere with your work, will it?” Keane asked, and the woman seemed to feel bold enough to step out from behind the bulk of Keane’s body.

“Having them together? Hardly. I doubt it will effect my results, and it saves me from having to split my resources between labs. Frankly, I thought that was the plan to begin with,” she said matter-of-factly.

Keane rolled his eyes at her tone.

“Yes, well...” he continued, throwing Nicky another icy glare. “They’ve proven to be a handful together. They took out six of my guys in the transport.”

“Hm. Fascinating,” Kozak said, her monotone belying that she found it nothing of the sort. “That’s why you’re here then, isn’t it? So having them together shouldn’t be an issue. This little... setback notwithstanding, of course?”

Nicky fought the urge to grin. Watching dissent in the ranks of his enemies always gave him a grim sort of pleasure.

Keane sighed again, facing the two men flanking his right side. “Go and retrieve the other one. And if he gives you any trouble, critical shot is authorized. Stay on comms.”

“Sir,” both men acknowledged, holstering their weapons but backing from the room.

The interim was unbearably tense—Nicky’s arms growing tired and shaky from the constricting hold he had on his hostage. Doctor Kozak moved from her place of relative safety to begin preparing a second gurney for Joe, and both Nicky and Keane watched her like hawks, but for entirely different reasons. Nicky held his breath for a majority of the time, waiting and listening for any commotion, silently praying, please come quietly Yusuf, please don’t fight them, please don’t get shot for this.

There was no gunfire, but when the two soldiers entered the room, with Joe in tow, it became clear why.

Joe was stumbling, head lolling dangerously, eyes drooping and barely remaining open. With Nicky’s own sedative long gone from his system, combined with the knowledge that Joe had an easier time with toxins, this could only mean one thing—they’d had to sedate him a second time.

Nicky could practically picture it—Joe waking alone and flying into a fighting rage. Even if he was strapped down, he probably spat at people, pulled at his restraints until he broke his own bones, and headbutted anyone stupid enough to get close.

My Yusuf, Nicky thought affectionately, stifling a grin. Still fighting even when it’s hopeless.

The soldiers deposited Joe none-too-gently on the new gurney, quickly strapping him down tighter than strictly necessary. His head rolled weakly to the side, and he peered up at Nicky, a small, subdued smile beginning to spread his lips.

“Nicolo?” he asked, and the anguish and weakness in his voice tore at Nicky’s heart.

“Sì. Stai bene, Yusuf?” Are you okay? he asked, keeping the gun at his hostage’s temple.

“Sì amore mio, sì. I am now,” Joe replied haltingly, mixing languages in his haze, and a look of dawning realization fell over Doctor Kozak’s face.

Amore. A common word among most languages.

But no matter. Her knowing had no baring on what was about to happen. She was going to be ruthless regardless, that much Nicky knew. Now, at least, he could be there for all the times Joe would wake.

In one swift movement, Nicky let out a surrendering sigh, lowered the gun, flipped it around in his hand to hold the barrel, and released his hostage, stepping back and away from him. The man turned immediately, nose bent awkwardly and flowing blood, and Nicky held the gun out to him.

The man snatched it, holstered it, and proceeded to roughly grab Nicky and force him down onto his own gurney, much more vehemently than was needed, as Nicky went willingly. From his periphery, he could see Joe watching, a mixture of fury and apprehension on his face as he watched the man secure the restraints angrily.

“Sorry, sir,” the man said to Keane as he stepped away from Nicky, wiping the blood from his face as he addressed his superior. “Do you want to keep them together?”

Nicky’s heart nearly leapt into his throat, even though he’d known a betrayal of their word was highly likely. He didn’t know how he would survive, how he would breathe if they were separated again. He couldn’t bare even the thought; watching them cart his beloved away, through sterile white hallways that weren’t a prison in aesthetic only.

It was Kozak who spoke next. “Leave them, for now. I don’t wish to be walking back and forth between labs, anyway. If they become a problem, then we can separate them.” She grinned, a wicked, despicable thing, and turned to face Nicky. “Now it is us who have the leverage.”

Nicky was ashamed to admit he’d thought there might be a spark of goodness in her. People of science, in his experience, were usually more inclined to the greater good than people of religion. This, he knew intimately. After all, someone like her would have taken an oath to “first do no harm.”

Apparently the only harm she was disinclined to was that of harm to the payout. The casualties along the way would be justified.

This, too, Nicky was intimately familiar with.

“Thank you gentlemen,” Kozak said, appearing much more confident now that both test subjects were secured. “But I don’t foresee requiring an army any longer. One or two will suffice, but outside the lab, if you don’t mind. I need to get to work.”

Despite being more out of control than ever, strapped down and powerless, Nicky was finally able to take a deep breath as he tilted his head to the side and gazed at Joe, who was staring, unblinking, back at him.

Quiet mind, steady heart.

“Ciao,” he said with a grin as the soldiers filed out of the lab and Kozak began flitting around, gathering supplies.

Joe giggled, and Nicky felt himself calm even more. No drug, no salve, nothing on Earth could possibly match the soothing effect Joe’s laugh had.

“Ciao,” Joe replied, his eyes roving down Nicky’s body, searching for injuries and brightening when they didn’t find any. “You negotiated this,” Joe said, not as a question, but rather a statement of pride. “I just started yelling until they sedated me again.”

Nicky smiled affectionately. “I knew you would.”

The mirth was suddenly and viciously eliminated as Kozak rolled a small metal table between them, all manner of sharp, horrifying instruments on it, all made worse by the knowledge that they likely wouldn’t waste numbing agents or painkillers on them.

Nicky ached to reach out for Joe, even a simple brush of the fingers would be enough. He found himself furious that he hadn’t taken the opportunity between releasing his hostage and being strapped down to lean over and touch Joe, kiss him, anything. Nicky swallowed hard, looking back up at Joe’s eyes, and said what he’d long ago learned to admit, if only to a single person.

“Ho paura.” I'm scared

It was like watching Joe get punched in the gut—tears formed in his earth-rich eyes, and his jaw clenched tighter, just as his fists did.

“I know,” he said, voice quivering and Adam’s Apple jerking as he swallowed his own fear. “I am too, habibi. But I’m here. I’m here.

Nicky closed his eyes as Kozak picked up a scalpel and approached Joe, her eyes empty and distant.

“Quiet mind...” he said, taking a deep breath.

“Steady heart,” Joe replied without missing a beat.