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A home (isn't always the house we live in)

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In the nine months since she met Andy and the others, Nile has thanked her former life for making her so adaptable. Without her training, she suspects she might well have given up and curled herself into a little ball for a few years.

The differences between her previous life and her new life are abysmal. If the rules of the games aren’t changed mid-stream, she will probably live for thousands of years... and Nile has no idea when she’ll get used to that idea. Fortunately, there is some common ground between her former job and her current one that at least helps her maintain her balance.

Perhaps most important is that she still belongs to a group of warriors traveling around the world, working to stop evil people doing evil things. It’s a good enough foundation to help her feel a bit more stable when everything around her seemed to be crumbling.

It’s not just the loss of her family that troubles her. It feels viscerally wrong to be mourning people who are still very much alive - but Nile is mourning them. She’s mourning so many things, actually: her family, her previous life, her belief in what is possible in the world and what is not, all of her expectations of what the future might hold for her…

It’s a lot to reconcile. But she’s adapting; Nile is nothing if not resilient. She’s confident in her own resolve to get through this, but she’s also grateful for her team. They’ve been supporting her every step of the way, each in their own way, each complementing the others.

Just as in her previous life, the discipline of maintaining a routine also helps a lot. It’s not an easy task, but they make do - which is why, even when she feels exhausted or just not in the mood, she refuses to skip a single training session. Not only does she have so much to learn - and God, there are so many things to learn, or re-learn - but she also simply needs this training regimen to feel better, not only physically, but mentally.

Case in point: after a couple of hours under Andy and Joe’s teaching and scrutiny, Nile is extremely sore, and feels like she’s been put through the wringer. But she also feels so much calmer than she did this afternoon.

“Can I go and die in peace now?” She expertly avoids Andy swatting at her, and takes her smile and nod as permission to head to their little bench for a well-deserved break.

As she sits down, she notices Nicky standing at the doorway, probably curious about what they were doing outside. “Hey, Nicky, you’re back.”

“Hey, Nile.” He squeezes her shoulder and is about to head back to the house when Andy calls to stop him.

“I need a sparring partner who’s not about to keel over.”

Nicky laughs at Joe’s indignant, “Oi!”

“Sure, Andy. Give me a second.” Nicky disappears inside, then comes back almost immediately with his longsword. He walks to Andy with a confident stride and stands in front of her, where he does his little curtsy thing, bowing his head over the pommel of his sword. Nile has no idea whether there’s a historical reason for doing it, but she always finds it charming.

After playing the patient teacher with Joe for a couple of hours, Andy seems only too pleased to have a proper ‘fight’; she looks pumped. Nile has the feeling she’ll enjoy the show.

Nile grins at Joe as he comes to join her. He grabs one of the bottles of water waiting for them on the window-ledge near her head. He takes a long gulp before reaching for one of the last chocolate bars left in their little snack stash. He all but devours the bar, then crumples the wrapping paper before sliding it into his pocket.

Now that Nicky is here, Nile suspects Joe has lost all interest in ‘the longest and hottest shower known to man’, as he was so fervently anticipating not ten minutes ago. She’s not surprised when he sits down beside her to watch the fight - which means, of course, to watch Nicky.
Always the teacher, Joe motions to the field. “Notice how Nicky is angled to protect his offside as he engages?” Then he jerks his head in Nile’s direction. “So. How are you feeling?”

Nile thinks he’s not just asking about the training session. Her grin gets a little bigger. “Pretty good, actually. Kinda mellow? And sore, of course. Do you guys ever take it easy?”

Chuckling, Joe nods towards the competitors. “You should’ve figured it out by now - Andy doesn’t know easy.”

“As if you were any different.”

Joe doesn’t reply, but he doesn’t need to; the look on his face shows his satisfaction. He stretches deeply and leans back against the wall.

The bench is resting against a side of their house, facing Nile’s favourite part of the property; it’s a large open space interspersed with trees that are absolutely beautiful and obviously very old. She can’t help but be amazed at the sudden thought that, as old as they are, the trees might be younger than Joe and Nicky - and are, of course, much younger than Andy.

Nile’s eyes widen as she considers the idea that Andy is actually older than the oldest trees in the world. How old is the most ancient tree? Four thousand years? She’ll have to check.

“Oh, I know that look,” Joe muses next to her. “What did you just realise?”

Nile considers him in wonder... this handsome guy who can look so inscrutable when he chooses to, and yet so ‘normal’ most of the time. He’s frequently even funny and irreverent, which never fails to surprise her. It’s stupid, she knows, but somehow she can’t stop thinking that immortals should be all wise and impenetrable and aloof. But of course that’s just popular cultural stereotype, right? Wait... could there be stereotypes when talking about myths and legends?

“Damn, must be a good one.” Joe laughs softly, then borrows an expression she has often used in their company during the past nine months. “Is your mind blown again?”

“Constantly, with you guys by my side,” Nile replies with easy good humour. “Good thing I recover each time!”

Joe shakes his head at the comment and leaves her be for a moment. They both watch as Andy and Nicky go through an intricate series of attacks and parries. Nile loves watching them all train, especially when they use their own weapons. The movements look nothing like the techniques she’s so familiar with - obviously. There is a fierce beauty in the flowing sequence of motions, graceful and seemingly effortless, even though Nile knows they’re anything but. She glances at Joe. “It feels like a dance.”

“It sort of is,” Joe agrees. “It’s definitely an art, at any rate. It’s all about your mastery of body mechanics, learning how to distribute tone through your body, how to anticipate your opponent’s movements - or in this case your partner’s, which is so much more fun for obvious reasons. You learn how to engage the participation of each part of your body for the right motion. It’s a game of give and take. Proprioception is the key.”

Nile isn’t sure what Joe reads on her face, but he raises his eyebrow at her. “What? It’s not just slash and punch. We’re not barbarians; we educate ourselves, you know,” he teases.

“On the art of killing?” she teases back.

“Well.” Joe shrugs. “I prefer to think of it as the art of protecting, but there usually is a lot of killing involved in the process, yeah.”

They resume watching the mock fight in companionable silence for a little while. Despite the clang of blade against blade, it’s actually kind of peaceful.

Nile isn’t sure what time it is; her guess would be close to 7.00 PM. It’s not yet dark, but the sun has started its slow descent below the horizon, bathing everything in the soft, warm light that never fails to make her feel mellow. She hears birds sing as they fly above their heads and identifies them as swifts; their song has become one of her favourite sounds.

The world seems to slow down around them - well, except for Andy and Nicky. Nile reaches for the hoodie next to her and puts it on; now that she’s cooling off, she wants to ward off the chill of the air. She settles more comfortably on the bench.

“I’m sorry you came to us when you did,” Joe says, out of nowhere. Nile blinks at him in surprise, but he’s not looking at her; his eyes are fixed on the other two, working in perfect synch. “You met us at our worst, I’m afraid, and now we’re a bit broken.”

The sound of clashing blades resonates all around them as the exercise grows more intense. Nile eyes the two teammates again; Andy and Nicky have now gone for a rather more ferocious approach, although they’re still completely in tune, taunting each other and laughing together.

They look both focused and relaxed, and Nile thinks they certainly don’t look that broken.

Intuitive as ever, Joe guesses what’s passing through her mind. “I’m glad we still look the part, but I feel it. We all do.” He points to Andy and Nicky. “Even this; we have to re-learn it all. Because Booker isn’t here anymore to be our fourth, and because you’re not Booker. It makes us off-kilter; we need to readjust.”

“Is that why we haven’t taken on any big jobs so far?” It hasn’t escaped Nile’s notice that Copley has mostly pointed them in the direction of missions that were... never easy, as such, but not as dangerous as what she knows the three of them often take.

“We can’t go back there if we’re not one hundred percent in synch,” Joe says pointedly. “We’re getting there - you definitely fit in - but we can’t rush these things. And, of course,” he adds, eyes on Andy, “the stakes are higher now. We can’t afford to take the same risks.”

There’s an air of melancholy clinging to Joe like a shadow. Nile isn’t sure what to say that could help, so she chooses not to say anything.

Andy’s newfound mortality and what it means in terms of her being in the field have been a constant point of friction between her and the rest of them. There was never any doubt that she would continue to fight by their side, but they’ve incorporated new fighting routines to make sure that, when necessary, the others will act as human shields. But Andy chafes at the changes; as their leader, her sense of responsibility rebels against the idea of any of them dying for her - even temporarily.

And that’s without even touching the fear that one of them - Joe or Nicky, specifically - might not heal or come back. They haven’t talked about it explicitly, but Nile knows they need to, eventually. From Andy’s comment on how they all just need to get better at avoiding bullets, Nile is certain she’s not the only one who’s uneasy about the possibility.

“Things are what they are, I guess.” Joe stretches out his legs, right ankle crossing over the left. “It shouldn’t be a surprise by now; things change. And it’s not even the first time we had to rebuild ourselves. After Quynh...” Joe rakes his hands over his face and seems to pull himself together by force. “We’ll just have to do it again! Hopefully for good. I’ve heard a very smart, very sexy guy say that things happen for a reason. I’ll have to trust him. ”

Joe’s smile is more bittersweet than truly happy, but still hopeful. Nile thinks it’s enough for now.

She can’t deny that they didn’t meet under the best circumstances. Survival mode is never a great way to meet people. Then again, it’s the perfect way to really get to know them, in their rawest and most sincere selves - a sort of trial by fire. If you survive it, nothing can get you down afterwards.

Nile thinks they’re actually doing pretty well, considering. They’re growing closer, and she already trusts them with a fierceness that sometimes surprises her. She doesn’t think they need to be ‘fixed’ as much as they need to heal, and she’ll be happy to help them with that.

There’s a new series of loud clangs; Nile can hear Andy almost cackling at something she did. When she looks their way, Nicky is stroking his side, looking annoyed.

“Hey, I was wondering.” Nile’s eyes turn back to Joe. “Do I have to learn how to use a sword?”

She has been curious about their choice of weapons ever since she realised Andy wasn’t the only ‘original’ of the group clinging to their first armaments. With her modern military training, Nile thought at first that lugging around the large, heavy blades would be a major inconvenience. But as ridiculous as the idea might seem at first, there’s no denying how deadly efficient the three of them are with their ‘antiquated’ weapons.

If she thinks about it more deeply, Nile has to admit there’s a certain... is ‘elegance’ the right word when you’re describing a gruesome fight that usually ends up with maimed and bloody bodies scattered all around you? But she can’t find another way of describing their techniques.

Watching them fight while using their respective weapons always seems rather... surreal to her, savage in a way that she can’t really define. Just, ‘other’, she guesses. She can’t imagine what it’s like to face the business end of Andy’s labrys, Joe’s scimitar, or Nicky’s longsword. What final thoughts must go through the minds of those who confront such fierce warriors from a different time?

“You don’t have to do anything, Nile.” Joe’s answer brings her back to the discussion at hand. “If you want to use a sword - or anything else, really - we’ll help you find the one that is the right fit for you, and we’ll teach you how to use it, but there’s no obligation. It might be impractical for you, actually... not as organic as you might think - or hope - it would be.”

There’s a question she’s dying to ask, but she’s a bit wary of mentioning it; she doesn’t want to bring back bad memories. She ponders for a few moments, then decides to go for it; she knows Joe won’t begrudge her need for answers. “Did Booker...?” Nile pronounces his name carefully, willing Joe to understand that he doesn’t have to give her an answer right away if he isn’t comfortable doing so. She can wait.

Truthfully, Booker is a reference she can’t completely dismiss; for a long time before she arrived, he was the youngest and the newest. Arguably, Joe and Nicky had been the ‘youngest and newest’ for a much longer time but Booker comes from an era that is, obviously, still foreign to her - but not to the same dizzying extent of the years and experiences that Joe and Nicky have lived through, let alone Andy.

She can’t really put into words her impression of Booker, especially as she didn’t know him for very long, but he had seemed... more aligned to modern society. Not that it really matters, now that he’s no longer part of the team.

“Booker never asked,” Joe admits. “He was always so eager to find the newest weapon, the latest gun. He was all for modern technology.” Joe’s voice trails off. As usual when talking about Booker, he gets a bit lost in his thoughts, and his shoulders are a little tense.

Nile feels sorry whenever she mentions Booker, but she doesn’t believe it would be any healthier to never even say his name. Also, she wants to be super careful to avoid following Booker’s path, and knowing more about him could help ensure that. And she doesn’t want the others to worry about it on her behalf.

“I know you see me as this...” Nile looks for the right word, then smiles when she recalls how Joe so often describes people, “...‘infant’, and I get it. It drives me crazy sometimes, but I get it; you’re older than some civilisations - how could you not think of me as anything else? But in this time and place, I’m not a baby. I’m almost thirty; I’ve seen the world, I’ve killed, I’ve died... it changes you.”

“I know,” Joe agrees easily. “And you’re right, it does.”

“I’ve known what I wanted from life for a long time now. I’m not trying to...” she gestures as she tries to explain, “...I don’t know, ‘find’ myself. Of course I have to adapt to this whole crazy new life. But that’s ok - we Marines know how to adapt, remember? Ok, so it might take some time.” Nile bumps her shoulder against Joe’s. “But I have it on good authority that I have time in large supply at the moment.”

“You already have a better head on your shoulders than Booker ever had, I’ll give you that.” Joe looks almost proud. “And we don’t want to rush you.”

“I know, Joe. You’re actually all super nice about it and I appreciate it, really. But it’ll take some time to reconcile what happened after I got killed.” She swallows. “I will never not miss my mother and my brother, but I’ll try to accept that it wouldn’t be good for any of us if I stayed in their lives.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know. And some things haven’t changed. I mean, I always wanted to make a difference, to help the helpless. That’s basically your spiel, right? ‘We fight for what we believe is right’. That was a good sell, man.”

Joe smiles softly. “I will let him know.”

“Let me know what?” Nicky asks. Nile hadn’t noticed him and Andy approaching, unlike Joe, who always seems aware of all their positions around him - especially Nicky’s. Andy grabs a towel and wipes the sweat from her face and neck, but she’s in desperate need of a shower. She’s a bit out of breath, but overall looks very pleased with the way the training went.

For his part, Joe only has eyes for the man in front of him. News at 11!, Nile thinks. He’s studying Nicky’s face and - if you ask her - looking sort of hungry.

As for Nicky, he’s patiently waiting on Joe’s answer, a soft smile on his lips. His eyes are gleaming with the adrenaline high that comes with a good workout, especially when it’s a fighting session. He’s covered in sweat and, when he runs a hand through his hair, he makes the strands stick up every which way. Standing in front of Joe, he not so subtly stretches his arms over his head, making his shirt ride up a little, exposing some skin. Nile rolls her eyes and Joe chuckles, obviously on board with this new development.

“Feeling a bit riled up, my love?” Joe asks, unashamedly.

This, maybe more than anything else, is an aspect of their lives that she needs to get used to - the way they talk about sex with no sense of shame or propriety. Nile snorts internally; she sounds like a character in a Jane Austen novel! She was in the Marines; she’s heard so many rowdy comments about sex, but the vibe between Joe and Nicky is so very different.

For one thing, they never get vulgar - much less disrespectful - towards the other, but she’s simply not used to people being so free about their need for each other. And Andy is even worse than the men - although it’s actually rather refreshing, a woman so unashamedly embracing her wants and desires.

Nile can’t be that open yet, but she actually doesn’t mind it in them. And whenever she does feel a bit of discomfort, they’re always quick to pick up on it and never fail to change the subject.

Nicky doesn’t explicitly answer Joe’s question, but he traces Joe’s lips with his fingers, which is apparently all Joe needs. He reaches out a hand and grabs Nicky by the neckline of his shirt, pulling him down towards his face. He kisses Nicky the way he always does, like the touch of this man’s lips on his own is the most thrilling experience in the world, like Joe could kiss him for a thousand more years and he’d still long for more.

“Are you two done, or do you need more time?” Nicky breathes against Joe’s lips when they pull apart. Nile melts a little at the thoughtful question; it’s clear that Nicky has a very specific idea of what he wants with - needs from - Joe right this minute, but he would defer to her if she asked. She decides to put them both out of their misery.

“We had a good chat, but I think I’ll leave you guys to it.”

She laughs at the twin looks of gratitude she immediately receives, then watches them go back to the house. They don’t exactly hold hands, but stay in physical contact all the same.

Andy is watching her watch them. Nile cocks her head and gives her a bright smile. “Those two, right?”

“Tell me about it.”

Nile returns to Copley’s computer room and puts her tray on the table, letting everyone help themselves to their drinks.

“Thanks, Nile.” Nicky smiles gratefully at her as he grabs two cups before going back to take his place next to Joe, handing him his drink.

The mid-afternoon meeting has extended into early evening. Participating in the mission prep is a big difference from her former job; Nile is slowly adjusting to the responsibility.

She’s no longer a soldier who simply follows orders, but an active partner in the process, one step after the other, from planning to execution. It’s both exciting and nerve-wracking, but she loves putting together a mission from the ground up.

But it takes a lot of time - even more now that they’re going after some much bigger fish. It’s their first high profile job since Nile became part of the group. She has no idea whether it’s been done on purpose, but it’s been almost a year since her first death. If that’s not symbolic, she doesn’t know what is.

At one point in the meeting, Nile volunteered to get some coffee; a little distance seemed the only way to keep her head on straight. Copley had left them earlier, explaining he had more research to do. It’s been just the four of them for a couple of hours, going through all the intel Copley’s gathered from his previous investigation. The man is thorough; there’s already a lot of information.

Nile turns her attention to the discussion at hand and tries to catch up. She takes a step closer to the screens, staring at the documents on display. There are a bunch of pictures of their mark with different people - always men - by his side. There’s something familiar about those companions, although she can’t immediately pinpoint what it is.

Next to her, Joe motions to one of the screens with his cup. “I think we all agree, then. Definitely Nicky, this time.”

Nile looks at them, then at the screen again. “Agree on what?”

“Seems like our mark has a type,” Andy replies. “And turns out it’s pretty convenient for us.” She winks at Nicky.

Nile suddenly gets it, the reason why she found some familiarity in the pictures. Now that it’s been spelled out, it jumps at her; Vondeel does indeed have a type. Her gaze moves around the room. Apparently they’ll be using that strategy to get close to him. She hasn’t really thought about it before.

“So that’s something we do?” Nile isn’t judging; she simply needs to know more about the way this is going, needs to understand exactly what they’re willing to do for the success of their missions.

Andy turns in her direction, leaning back against the heavy desk. She doesn’t reply immediately, then finally gives a tiny shrug. “Depends on what you think that ‘something’ is, exactly.”

“In this context, I guess I mean using Nicky as...” She tries to find the best description without being insulting, which is definitely not her intention.

“Honey trap?” Joe suggests.

Nile tilts her head. “I suppose, yeah.” She has a sudden realisation, and blinks at Nicky. “Is that why you’ve been growing your hair, Nicky?”

“It’s my birthday soon,” Joe cuts in. “He knows I like it longer.”

Nicky throws an amused glance his way, neither confirming nor denying Joe’s statement.

Nile crosses her arms. “I thought you didn’t celebrate birthdays because ‘things were different back then, kid’.” Her imitation of Joe is pretty good, if she says so herself. Nicky seems to think so as well, if the entertained look on his face is any indication.

“I’m afraid the time for respect towards an elder is long gone, Nicolò.”

“Sounds like it is,” Nicky agrees.

“So, is it?” Nile asks once more, unwilling to let Joe derail her thoughts. He’s very good at deflecting. Again, she is not judging, she’s simply curious about the answer. They’ve been working together for a year now, but this particular way of dealing with a mark has never come up. “Were you getting ready for that guy?”

“Not really,” Nicky replies, which isn’t exactly the clear-cut answer Nile was expecting. “I felt like going for a change - imaginary birthdays notwithstanding - and, well, from the profile Copley was compiling, I did feel it could be a possibility. Doesn’t hurt to be prepared.” He shrugs, as if it’s nothing.

She has to wonder - is it truly ‘nothing’ for them? God knows they never lose an opportunity to remind her that privacy is a modern concept, and how values keep shifting from century to century. Sometimes the way they talk makes it seem like they’re detached from certain concerns or worries that seem completely reasonable to Nile. Do they really view their own bodies - and the ways they can be used - so objectively?

Do they consider their goals so important that everything else is just a detail? Just part of a plan? Nile has never even thought of discussing such a topic with them - and that’s not even touching the question of ‘adultery’.

“What’s the plan, then? Is it just flirting? Are you going to sleep with him?” She feels like a straightforward question will bring her the straightforward answer she seeks. She realises she’s looking at Joe as much as Nicky when she sees a slight change in Joe’s expression.

“I’m not in charge of who Nicky chooses to have sex with, Nile. No matter how much I can make his body sing, I’m not the one deciding who he’ll share his repertoire with.”

Sometimes Nile doesn’t know whether Joe is being serious or trolling her. She discreetly checks with Nicky, trying to gauge his reaction. He looks both fond and exasperated, which is one of the many ‘Nicky-looks’ mostly reserved for Joe. She can’t help but smile, and decides Joe was being serious and trolling her. “No offense meant to the most beautiful love story that ever lived, Joe,” she says, humouring him but apologising in the process, just in case. “I'm only trying to understand.”

“Of course. None taken.” Nile knows he means it. “Help me help you, then; what do you want to understand exactly?”

“How this whole thing works, you guys.” She chooses her next words carefully. “I’ve been trained to see and use bodies as weapons long before I met you. Andy keeps trying to push the concept even further with each new training session. I need to know whether this,” she points at the screen, then in their general direction, “is another way to use them.”

“There’s no simple way to answer this.” Nicky almost sounds apologetic.

Andy joins in. “What Nicky is trying to say is that yes, sex can be just another weapon in our arsenal. Sex is about many things, Nile; I won’t insult you by trying to explain that to you. So, yes, it can be a tool. But we will never ask you to use it if you’re not comfortable with the idea.”

“I don’t think I will be.”

“Case closed, then,” Andy says, as simple as that. “For transparency’s sake - some of us have done such things in the past, when we thought there was no other way to reach our goal. There was a time when information was much more difficult to obtain, and physical threats don’t always bring the result you want. It is a means to an end, even though I get that it can be difficult to understand. At any rate, it’s never been taken lightly.”

“Ok.” Nile will need to think about that bit of information later. “Thanks for being honest with me.”

That is how this whole thing works, kid. Complete honesty and hard-earned trust. Always.” There’s a fierce gleam in Andy’s eyes; it’s easy to guess who she’s thinking about.

Nile nods to her.

Andy stares at her for a moment before she seems to decide the situation has been dealt with and they can move on. She turns to Joe. “Anything you want to add?”

Taking his cue, Joe nods. “I was just thinking that Nicky hasn’t answered Nile at all.” Nile has come to learn that Joe is never more devious than when he’s playing innocent. “So. Is he going to fuck Vondeel?”

Nicky huffs at that. “No, Joe,” he enunciates slowly, “‘Nicky’ isn’t ‘going to fuck Vondeel’, as you well know. Nicky will merely pretend that he’s available.”

“It’s for Nile’s benefit, love!” Joe protests. “I do know, indeed. She, on the other hand, looked worried and confused.”

“Thank you!” Nile can’t help but laugh at the comment. Chances are that’s exactly how she looked - the confused part, at least. The ‘worried’ part, not so much. “Then again, I’ve been with you for a year now, so confusion is just part of my daily routine.”

“We are sorry,” Joe says, hand resting on his heart.

“Liar,” she breathes fondly. “I’m a bit disappointed, though,” she teases. “I thought you were going to tell me all about how your love transcends everything and it wouldn’t have mattered if Nicky gave his body to someone else.”

Joe looks extremely pleased with her comeback. “Of course our love transcends all. Of course it wouldn’t have mattered. You do learn quickly.” Then he winks at her. “Sex without love or affection - or without plain carnal desire -” he smirks in Andy’s direction, “is just a hollow experience. I appreciate your concern earlier, but Nicky and I have loved each other for literally hundreds of years; the act with Vondeel would have been absolutely meaningless.”

Nile can tell Joe is warming up to his subject, admittedly one of his favourites and, well, she did ask for it. Of course, she doesn’t mind.

“As Andy said, it can be a means to an end. It’s not the act itself that matters, but the intent. Nicky’s eyes never stray from me, just like mine never stray from him. This is all that ever matters.”

“Thank you, Joe. I feel much less disappointed now.” Nile makes sure he can hear the warmth in her voice.

It’s obvious that he does. “Happy to be of service.”

Another time, another place. Nile doesn’t have to be told this isn’t one of their safe houses; she could feel the difference as soon as she set foot in the place they’ll be staying.

It’s not so much the fact that it's barren, or mostly lacks all the comforts of a home; some of their safe houses are nothing more than a single room with only the bare necessities. But the flat doesn’t feel like a home at all. There’s nothing of Andy, Nicky or Joe’s lying around; the absence is stark.

They chose this particular flat purely due to its location; it’s far enough to be out of harm’s way, but with a clear view of the building they’re targeting.

They’re doing simple recon for now, taking turns with the surveillance, safely hidden on the rooftop they’ve converted into the equivalent of a sniper’s nest. It has everything they need for hours and hours of surveillance.

Honestly, Nile finds it pretty boring. It’s her least favourite part of the job, but she knows it’s necessary. She doesn’t have the same patience as some members of the group - Nicky - but she doesn’t get as antsy as some of the others - meaning, Andy and Joe.

It doesn't help that, so far, they haven’t had any results from all the long, tedious effort. They’ve been in the neighborhood for almost a week now, but they haven’t learnt anything useful.

Frustration is slowly starting to build for everyone - even for Nicky, which is Nile’s base of reference. Andy has already contacted Copley to ask for more intel; they don’t want to waste more time in the area if their targets have changed their plans. He’s currently looking into it, which might take a couple of more days. Nile hopes he’ll do his magic and give them the green light to leave much sooner than that.

In the meantime, they stick to their original plan and keep watch, but Nile can’t wait for Andy to let them know they can stop. Just the thought of another week spent like this makes her feel restless. She tries not to let it show - although, given the little smirk she sees on Nicky’s face, it hasn’t escaped her companion’s notice.

“Not exactly what you signed up for, Nile? Not enough mayhem for you, maybe?” Nicky mocks gently without moving an inch. His attention is fully focused on his target, using one of his many long-range cameras and collecting data - unfortunately, probably useless - in the process.

“I think you’re confusing me with Andy. Or that not-boyfriend of yours,” she answers easily.

Nile feels both delighted and a little proud when she hears Nicky’s laughter. She loves eliciting that kind of reaction from him.

“You are a much easier partner to deal with during surveillance than some people, that’s true.” His eyes flicker to her direction. “Don’t tell Joe I said this, he would be inconsolable.”

This time it’s Nile’s turn to laugh. “It’ll be our little secret, promise.” She stretches out her legs and shifts slightly on her seat - a bunch of cushions on the floor. Truthfully, as boring as this watching might be, it’s not the most uncomfortable she’s ever been during a recon mission. She won’t go so far as say it’s ‘nice’, but it’s really not that terrible. Must be the company.

As they discussed which teams would be doing what, Nile had appointed herself Nicky’s spotter - although at this point, it’s not really the kind of job that requires that sort of backup. Still, two pair of eyes are always better than one, and you just never knew how things might turn out.

Besides, she never loses an opportunity to keep close to Nicky when he’s doing some solo recon; she’s not familiar with this side of military skills, so she’s eager to learn a new aspect of the job.

After a couple of missions where she’s spotted for him, Nile has concluded that being in his place isn’t for her, but she feels it’s important to understand what being the team’s sniper entails - whether it’s to do covert surveillance, or to neutralise enemies from afar. Besides, it’s quite interesting to observe Nicky when he’s in sniper mode. There’s just something different about it - maybe his focus, maybe his stillness - that she really enjoys.

Next to her, Nicky shifts slightly as he does that little rotating neck gesture he uses to relieve tension that’s building up in his body so that he can prevent it from actually becoming a problem. She can practically see his whole body relaxing just that fraction that makes a major difference in his comfort. Neat trick.

Nile checks the time. Almost 8.00 PM; they’ve been here for about five hours. Their attention hasn’t slackened, but she’s sure that nothing will happen tonight, either. If ever. She’s certain Nicky knows it too, but they have a job to do - which means they’re stuck on this rooftop for a little while yet, until Andy and Joe either call it off or come and relieve them.

Hopefully with some food; Nile is getting hungrier by the minute. She remembers Joe saying they would do a quick grocery run before they got back from - wherever they were, the whole afternoon.

She glances at the door leading down to their flat, almost hoping that the mere thought of her teammates would be enough to magically summon them.

“Shouldn’t be long now,” Nicky tells her.

She smiles at him. “Am I that obvious?”

Nicky shrugs, but his gentle smile lets her know he’s not annoyed. “I’m just used to bored people wanting out.”

She can bet. Nile shifts again as she looks around. “At least the view is beautiful up here.”

The sky is almost surreal right now. It is such a cliché to say it looks like a painting, but sometimes there’s no other way to describe the insane gradient of colours of the sky, the way it feels like some celestial artist used all the hues and shades in their palette, then chose the biggest brushes in their possession to paint long, sweeping strokes across the sky.

Tonight is one of her favourite combinations - a gradation of yellows and reds that blend into pinks and oranges. It’s absolutely beautiful, and she allows herself a moment to enjoy it.

Nicky looks up and takes in the view. His gaze shifts to Nile, soft and languid. “You’re right, it is.” He casts a last glance through the camera’s viewfinder, then seems to come to the conclusion that today is a wash, just like the other days have been.

Decision apparently made, Nicky rises from his prone position to sit, back against the wall, one leg stretched, the other bent. His head is still turned toward their target, but his attention is less intense; it shows in every line of his body. Nile realises her own body is almost automatically relaxing in sync with his as Nicky goes from focused to casual.

When the burner phone they’ve been using since they arrived in La’izz buzzes, Nile mentally crosses her fingers that it’s the signal she’s been waiting for. She tries not to look too eager, but has the feeling she fails miserably.

Nicky glances at the screen before looking innocently in Nile’s direction. “Impatient much?”

“Come on, don’t be a tease.” She stretches a leg to nudge his foot with hers. “Is it the call of freedom I’ve been dying to hear?”

“You can’t die, remember?” Nicky answers almost distractedly as he types a message in response to the one they received.

“From boredom? I think you’ll soon find that I can!”

Nicky rolls his eyes; he’s clearly simply indulging her. “Well, you’ll die another day, then - Andy just called the whole thing off. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”

Relieved, Nile pumps a fist in the air. “Yes!”

Nicky smiles fondly at her; Nile recognizes the soft look he always has when he’s secretly thinking about ‘the sweet exuberance of youth’. She finds him just a little ridiculous, even as she appreciates the charming indulgence behind it.

Even though they’re now free to leave the ‘nest’, they don’t immediately make a move, happy to enjoy the scenery now that they can truly appreciate it. They sit quietly, winding down from the day in companionable silence.

It is a beautiful view. The vast city spreads below: boxy brown buildings lining up in what seems to be an arbitrary pattern, a sea of rooftops and terraces surrounding them. Not far away, Nile can see the minaret of the closest Mosque pointing heavenward, majestic and eye-catching. In the distance, a mountain range seems to stretch all around them, reaching towards the horizon.

Nile is aware that, due to inner conflicts and ongoing wars, the city hasn’t been what it once was for many generations, but it doesn’t affect her. Thanks to Joe and Nicky, she has enjoyed the tales of its glorious, happiest days; they lived in this area for some time back in the mid-1300s, then again around 1890. It’s truly fascinating to hear them talk about life back then; it brings the city back to life in a vivid, vibrant way that even the most engaging documentaries could only dream of achieving. Sorry, Netflix.

If Nile could ever forget how special her friends are, conversations when they casually mention their early lives, or share anecdotes about the mundane, daily life in the far past, would definitely be a sharp reminder of how shortsighted she can be. But each new tale just makes her more excited about the stories she hasn’t yet heard.

Beside her, Nicky shifts and glances at her expectantly. “No question for me today?”

She has no idea whether he’s added mind-reading to his skillset, but Nicky’s question makes her blink in surprise. “I’m not that predictable, am I?”

Nicky smiles. “Sometimes people are very easy to read, is all.” But as soon as he speaks, a dark shadow flashes in his eyes before it’s quickly hidden. “Well, except when they’re not, I guess.”

Nile wonders if the spectre of Booker’s betrayal will ever stop looming over them.

“No question,” she hastens to say, eager to distract him. “Just an observation, maybe. I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a sniper, sorry. I’d get antsy very quickly.”

“No need to apologise.” Nicky’s expression isn’t easily readable, but Nile feels like he’s debating something with himself. “It wasn’t my first choice either, if you want to know.”

“Really?” She realises they’ve never really talked about it.

“Really. Quynh was our expert archer back then. Well,” he amends with a soft smile, “just like Andy, she was an expert in anything that could kill or maim, but the bow was her weapon of choice. She was magnificent with it.”

“So you wanted to be like her?” Nile teases gently. She’s learnt to tread carefully when talking about Quynh, for fear of hurting them.

Nicky chuckles. “I wanted to emulate her in many ways, yes, but I had no inclination to learn that particular weapon skill. She was the one who decided to teach me, although I wasn’t the most enthusiastic pupil. She certainly got annoyed with my attitude on a regular basis.”

Nile’s eyes widen at the idea of a... what, rebellious Nicky? The idea seems so foreign to her, although she secretly delights in it. “Hard to imagine.”

Nicky shrugs softly. “I was still young, back then. For us, I mean. I was... much angrier, I think.”

“You?” She finds the idea almost outrageous. “Having anger management issues?”

Nile would be hard pressed to describe Nicky’s expression; maybe a mix of embarrassment and sadness. “Let’s say I was still conflicted about many aspects of our lives. Being with Yusuf helped - he was my salvation - but I still had many things to sort out. It wasn’t easy.”

Nile nods silently, not wanting to interrupt him. Joe and Nicky rarely talk about their early lives - at least not so far back as those very early years - before they became at least travelling companions, and long before they became friends, much less lovers. Whenever they do, she feels like she’s listening to a story of redemption. It’s incredibly fascinating and humbling.

She might have thought they would have no problem telling such tales - after all, they’d mentioned their gruesome first encounter barely twenty minutes after meeting Nile for the first time - but she’s come to the conclusion that that instance was more to make a point. It rarely comes up in conversations.

Nile no longer considers eighteen months an extended period of time - and she certainly doesn’t feel like they’re close enough yet for her to really ask for details - but she’s so curious about how these two men became Nicky-and-Joe. She also feels like it’s a story that can help her keep faith in people, help her believe that people can change. At least, some of them.

It’s a reassuring thought, especially with the lives they lead. But she knows it’s a very painful story for both of them, maybe Nicky in particular. She never wants to push, so she waits patiently for him to tell her more - or not, as he chooses.

“Maybe that’s exactly why Quynh decided she would teach me this particular art,” Nicky eventually continues. “It wasn’t about barging into battle and killing in a rage. It required us to always be extremely quick, sharp, and focused - but demanded that we remain still in the midst of chaos and kill with quiet purpose.”

“Smart woman,” Nile notes.

He smiles. “Always. But maybe I wasn’t as smart back then. I -” He keeps silent for a little while, apparently gathering his thoughts. “I kept thinking of other battles. Other warriors. The Genoese crossbowmen were still renowned at the time. I’d fought alongside them during the siege of Jerusalem, and I wasn’t keen on following their example.” Nicky shakes his head. “It was a confusing time for me. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to keep fighting at all. And here was Quynh, demanding I learn a new way to kill. It was... a lot.”

“I can imagine.” Nile also had moments of doubt about her own lifestyle when she was still in the military - usually in the middle of the night.

She’s always believed it’s only fair to reconsider your life choices every now and then; she just hasn’t really considered what any of them might have wanted out of that life. Nile is aware that they’ve taken breaks along the way, but hasn’t thought about what that actually means.

From previous discussions - some of them quite heated - Nile knows that Nicky has a lot of thoughts about the military - about the whole military-industrial complex, to be exact. She doesn’t think she will ever fully comprehend where he’s coming from, but she acknowledges his past is still a sore spot for him, that his guilt over his early actions is a weight he carries to this day.

She’s asked a lot of questions, and tried to find reliable resources to read and educate herself, but understanding a society that is almost a thousand years old is... difficult, to say the least. To be completely fair, sometimes she has trouble understanding the culture she’s currently living in; it’s hardly surprising that the distant nuances are hard to grasp.

Their musing and conversation are interrupted by a voice calling from inside the flat; Joe and Andy are back. With food, apparently. Nile suddenly remembers she’s hungry.

As they stand to head downstairs, Nile can’t help asking one last question. “Did it help, then? Quynh’s lessons?” Her query is pretty much rhetorical. Technically, she already knows the answer - she’s all but looking at it. Nonetheless, she’s curious about Nicky’s thoughts.

“It did. She was quite often right, as infuriating as I sometimes thought it could be. She was impulsive and quick to anger, but she was also very wise and empathetic. She knew it would help me in the long run. Learning to use a bow, learning to focus on the target, to still my thoughts along with my body... it was almost meditative.”

“I wish I’d known you back at your beginning,” Nile says, almost without thinking. She’s so incredibly curious about who they were so early on; she wishes she could have seen this version of them - so young, almost new - at least compared to now. But as she sees Nicky wince a little, she regrets having spoken her thoughts aloud.

“I’m glad you didn’t. You wouldn’t have liked me.” Nicky speaks almost matter-of-factly, but it makes Nile ache a little. “I was a different man then - obviously. But what I mean is that I had so much to learn and relearn. I had to... rebuild myself, if you will. It was a long process. And painful.”

Nile bumps her shoulder against his playfully, gently. “Well,” she says, trying to communicate how sincere she is, “I do like the result. Very much.”

Nile knows they are all beyond needing validation from anyone as young - and as new to the team - as she is, but she just wants him to know that she has his back, that she trusts him. Wants him to know she’ll never think less of him for the long and difficult journey he embarked on, all those centuries ago. Seeing the little smile she receives, she knows he’s heard her loud and clear; she’s happy and satisfied to be in sync with this compassionate man.

It doesn’t take long for Nile to put her clothes and personal items away. They’re between jobs and still travelling light, but she makes sure to arrange every item so that the space is as cosy as possible.

Once it’s done to her satisfaction, her eyes sweep over the small room that will be her bedroom for the next few days, and she nods to herself. She likes the result; the space is small but practical and, even though the furniture is a bit old-fashioned, she finds it charming. She feels at ease already, and is certain she’ll enjoy their stay.

Eager to get acquainted with another new city, she opens the door to her small balcony and steps outside to enjoy the scenery. The street where their building is located is crowded and noisy, but Nile loves it. There’s the hum of traffic, of course, but as she stands on the balcony to listen to her surroundings, she’s especially focused on the activity and music coming from the bars and restaurants lined up on each side of their street. The city is bursting with life; after the speed and the stress of their last job, it’s exactly what Nile needs right now.

From the street below, she catches the rising and falling of various conversations; it’s easy to imagine groups of friends meeting to celebrate the beginning of the weekend, coworkers ending the work week on a fun note, couples enjoying a night out.

Every now and then someone bursts into laughter, people call out greetings, others shout for a taxi. It’s chaotic, but somehow also peaceful. It’s the everyday, carefree sound of people going about their lives and enjoying some down-time together - a very welcome background noise, which Nile basks in it for a little while.

When the air becomes a bit too chilly for her to stand outside, she steps back into the room and closes the window. She grabs her notebook and a pen and heads to the living room.

There’s only Nicky there, sprawled on the sofa, quietly reading a book. He’s changed into comfortable pants and a grey sweater that looks incredibly soft to the touch. Nile makes a mental note to get one like it, although it might not be easy to find; she’s pretty sure the aforementioned sweater has achieved that level of softness by being worn many, many times.

She takes a seat at the table and opens the notebook that she’s kept with her through every new move over the past year and a half. She’s been taking notes of the places they’ve stayed in, the museums she’s visited, the food she’s tasted for the first time, the details she wants to commit to memory. She doesn’t know whether she’ll keep up the habit - how many notebooks like this one would she have to fill over ten years, let alone a hundred, or a thousand? - but for now, it’s a simple way to keep track of all the new experiences she’s living.

“Where are the others?”

Nicky looks up from his book. “Andy wanted to stretch her legs; she went with Joe to get us some food.”

“Yes, the -” Nile frowns. They have repeated the name countless times but, for some reason, she can never remember it. “What’s the name of that dish you absolutely want me to try, again?” It might be easier to remember if she writes it down.

“Bryndzové halušky,” Nicky enunciates slowly.

Nile blinks. “Yeah, no. You’ll have to spell it for me.”

Nicky does, accommodating as always, then goes back to his book.

“Thanks, Nicky,” she says, already distracted; her mind is focused on everything she wants to write down.

Despite the noise from the street below, the flat insulates them from the sound fairly well; she can still catch a glimpse of what’s happening outside, but the noise is never distracting or annoying. It’s a soft, distant murmur, and actually rather nice. She can hear Nicky turning the pages of his book, a gentle accompaniment to the general mood. Overall, she’s enjoying the peace and quiet of the moment as she writes down her thoughts.

Nile has come to realise that - besides being a concrete way to make sure she’ll remember her new experiences - writing is a great stress-reliever. She’d never had the time nor the inclination before but, after seeing the others - Joe in particular - occasionally do the same thing, she’d decided to give it a try.

Ever since, she commits to paper the good as well as the bad - not to dwell on the negative aspects of her life, but to come to terms with it and move on. She almost quit a few times, but Nicky encouraged her to keep going when she wasn’t sure it was doing any good. Now she’s grateful for that support, and it’s become a comforting part of her routine.

When she’s finished, she closes the notebook and goes to the window, as if pulled by some kind of magnet.

She realises what’s drawing her, and turns to Nicky. “I want to go out.” Her eyes flicker to the crowd she can see from her position. “I think... I think I want to find someone tonight.” To be bluntly honest, Nile wants to fuck, but she can’t yet manage to say it out loud. She’s absolutely sure that Andy would give her a suggestive leer if she was here - probably accompanied by an off-colour innuendo.

The look Nicky gives her is quite different - fond rather than teasing, and quietly understanding. He closes his book and turns his full attention on her. It’s impossible not to feel seen or heard when talking to Nicky; it’s one of the many things she loves about him.

“I’m sure it could be arranged,” he tells her. “I’m also sure Andy wouldn’t mind going to be your wingwoman.”

She thinks about it for a second. So far they have enjoyed a night out every now and then, either as a group or separately, and Andy has found her share of people to spend the night with - but Nile has never followed her example, much less asked to go out for that particular purpose.

She nods. “Could be nice, yeah. If she doesn’t scare them off.” Nile can easily imagine the scene.

Nicky definitely looks amused now; Nile bets he can see it, too.

“She has good instincts,” Nicky says, always the mediator. “If she scares them off, there’s probably a good reason. Not,” he adds easily, “that you can’t take care of yourself, of course.”

Nile nods slightly to him, not offended in the least. Who could compare with Andy and her thousands years of experience?

The more she thinks about it, the more she likes the idea. A night of dancing, of grinding and flirting, on the lookout for the one guy or girl that will make her heart race just that bit faster... and then, maybe, a night of uncomplicated pleasure. Nile wonders if Andy will spend the night with someone too.

Which reminds her. “We defy statistics, don’t you think?” she asks out of the blue.

At Nicky’s puzzled look, she adds, “I mean, what are the odds of us all being queer? That is...” Now that she thinks of it, she doesn’t actually know about Booker. They only ever spoke of his wife, which doesn’t really say anything. “Is Booker... not that it’s any of my business.”

Nicky just shrugs, as casual about this particular topic as with anything else. “It’s ok to ask. Booker never showed any real interest in men. And I don’t know if we do defy them.” Nile can see he’s considering it carefully, then seems to come to a conclusion. “I guess if we think about it in terms of labels - yeah, I can understand that, to your modern eyes, it would seem that way.”

“Ah, my ‘modern eyes’ again,” Nile can’t help but tease him.

A small smile tugs at Nicky’s lips. “You are what you are, Nile, and you love who you love. Labels are mostly a modern construct. We’ve never really fully... committed to it, I suppose you could say. It’s not that I don’t believe the importance or the necessity of it. But we’ve lived most of our lives with a different idea of our identities. It is sometimes a bit difficult to recognise yourself in those definitions?” Nicky shrugs almost apologetically.

“No, I get it, Nicky.”

Nicky’s face lights with that special smile that always means he’s thinking about Joe.

“What?” she asks fondly.

There is amusement in Nicky’s eyes. “I remember when the term ‘homosexual’ started being used. Joe was particularly proud to say that he wasn’t sure what he was, except ‘Nicolò-sexual’.”

Nile rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I can definitely hear him say that.”

“Please, don’t ask him about it; you wouldn’t hear the end of it. He drove me crazy asking me what I was. Of course, he knew.”

Nile feels her whole face go soft, and wonders if Nicky can tell. “You’re lucky to have him.”

“I am. I am very lucky.” In Nicky’s eyes there is still - always - wonder at the thought. Every time Nile catches a glimpse of it, she feels awed. “I’m also committed.”

“What do you mean?”

Nicky shifts on the sofa, getting more comfortable. “I’m committed to making this work. Committed to never taking him - taking us - for granted. Booker... Booker always seemed to think it was easy, that our relationship was effortless, but no relationship can flourish untended. You have to nurture and cherish it, or else it just dies.”

A memory tugs at Nile’s heart. “Like a plant. My mom always said love and friendship were like plants; if you didn’t make sure to water them and take care of them, they would start to wither and eventually die.”

“Wise woman,” Nicky says with a gentle smile. “Like mother, like daughter.”

Nile smiles in thanks. “Looking at you two, I wonder sometimes what it would be like,” she admits. “And I feel like it’d be both wonderful and terrifying. To risk losing someone you’ve loved for so long...” Her voice trails off.

Nicky’s eyes widen a bit. “Oh, it is. It can be overwhelming at times. Sometimes I feel like I can’t even think when I imagine my life without Yusuf even for a minute.”

Nile admires how raw and straightforward Nicky allows himself to be. He’s always so honest with his feelings.

“The fear of making the journey without that man by my side is paralysing, Nile,” he continues. “Mentally and physically paralysing. I love him beyond measure and reason, just as I fear being without him beyond measure and reason. Equally, I can’t bear the thought of leaving him behind, knowing he’ll have to live on his own.” Nicky corrects himself immediately. “Of course, I know you’ll be there for him, but...”

Nile nods without taking offense; obviously, her presence could never compare. But she wants Nicky to know that she would be there for Joe, and stay by his side in his darkest hour.

“But fear is no way to live, and certainly no way to love.”

Nile swallows with the weight of Nicky’s words; she thinks they will stay with her for a long time.

“If our time comes,” - she doesn’t comment on how Nicky avoids using ‘when’ - “be it separately or together, I refuse to have any regrets. This is the mission that is sacred above all others.”

Suddenly, she can’t bear it. Nile takes a long stride to the couch and, as she sits down, she lurches forward into Nicky’s arms and hugs him so tightly she fears he might not be able to take a breath. “God, Nicky.”

They’re distracted from their conversation when Joe and Andy make a noisy entrance, carrying a couple of bags of take-away and bringing them to the kitchen.

Nicky squeezes Nile and bumps his forehead against hers before he stands to join Andy and Joe to give them a hand. There’s no trace on his face to suggest the confession he just made.

Nile watches Joe as he puts his bags on the counter, then cups Nicky’s cheeks to kiss him as he thanks him for the help. Their simple act makes her re-evaluate what she thought she knew about them. She observes them gathering the plates and cutlery, opening the various boxes, laughing with Andy, playfully copping a feel when they think she’s not looking.

The scene is almost ridiculously mundane, yet Nile has an epiphany of sorts.

All of a sudden, she truly appreciates what Nicky just told her. Nile can’t imagine what it’s like to nurture a relationship for that long. They’ve been together for hundreds of years, making it work despite the most unstable, chaotic, and dangerous lifestyle she’s ever seen.

Hell, she doesn’t even know what it’s like to nurture a relationship for more than fourteen months! It didn’t end badly, and she and Nessa remained on good terms, but still... here she is, contemplating several lifetimes’ worth of care and effort.

Nile finds it exhausting just to think about. How do they do it? With her new insight, she realises she can’t even blame Booker for taking Joe and Nicky’s relationship for granted. She’d never tell them... but they certainly make it seem like it’s easy and effortless, as if them being together was a given, as if there was no other alternative.

Nile realises now that her reaction hasn’t been much different than Booker’s. It’s such a huge disservice to Joe and Nicky that she feels a pang in her chest.

Right here, right now, Nile makes a promise: she will make sure to remember that nothing that truly matters is ever easy. Come to think of it, her mother had often told her that, too, repeating cherished words of wisdom that Nile’s dad had pronounced when she’d been too young to remember. She can’t imagine a better principle to live by.

The sound of the multiple detonations all around her is deafening, but Nile barely notices. Her attention is focused on the voices coming through her earpiece, familiar and safe. She also keeps track of the other voices - the ones that don’t belong to her team, the threats she has to deal with.

From the corner of her eye she sees one of those threats coming towards her; she kills him without a second of hesitation. As she watches the man’s body fall at her feet, with the tremors following the shooting still running through her body, Nile has a fleeting moment of complete dissociation.

Just a couple of days ago, she was sitting at a rustic little table on a secluded beach - which they’d reached via a small lane from the house they had stayed in before they needed to leave for this latest assignment. It had felt like they were on their own little island, just the four of them, far away from everything and everyone. Nile had basked in the illusion of not having a care in the world.

She’d gone swimming in the Sulawesi sea - which she’d never even heard of before landing in the country - and they’d enjoyed cocktails while snacking on fresh, ripe pineapples that Andy had harvested from the many plants around the house. Even though Nile had known, intellectually, that pineapples didn’t grow on trees, seeing Andy cut them directly from the plants had still blown her mind.

Andy, Joe and Nicky had been regaling her with the tales of the first time they’d tasted the fruit - a hot commodity in 17th-century Europe, just another way for the most affluent and prosperous families to show off their wealth. Nile had laughed herself silly at the idea of some households renting a pineapple for the night and inviting people over for a Pineapple party to admire it - and their wealth in the process.

She’d been absolutely delighted by the tale, and fondly imagined her teammates discovering all the everyday luxuries she took for granted - coffee, tomatoes, chocolate, pineapples, ice cream - for the very first time. How new and surprising the world had been from time to time, even to their aged eyes.

As she’d listened to them, Nile had realised she often thought of immortality in terms of ‘losing’: losing the people she knew, the things she was familiar with. But she was slowly coming to the understanding that she had to change her perspective, to open her mind and consider all the new things that were waiting for her to ‘discover’ them.

But that idyllic interlude had been a couple of days ago. The sun on her face, the sound of the waves breaking along the shore, the taste of the pineapple on her tongue, the laughter of her friends - that was ‘then’.

‘Now’ she’s surrounded by the sound of gunfire and screams, the taste of smoke and blood on her tongue. ‘Now’ she tries to forget the blank gaze of the people they’ve saved from traffickers, the lifeless eyes of those they couldn’t save. Nile tries not to imagine what their lives would have been if her team hadn’t intervened - tries not to think of what kind of lives those people will have, now that they have faced the worst humanity has to offer.

Nile catches another merc as he raises his weapon to shoot, and breaks his neck. She doesn’t know when she’ll get used to killing people in such a personal - almost intimate - way, but at the moment she can’t stop the small thrill of pleasure at ending a life that has only brought misery to innocent people, one who, without a doubt, would have kept on bringing pain and suffering in the future.

As she discards the body, Nile is distracted by a scream so filled with rage that it shakes her to the core. Her eyes immediately flicker to Nicky, but he’s not the one in immediate danger. She follows his gaze and watches as Joe is torn apart by a rain of bullets.

Without a thought Nile runs in his direction, while wondering uselessly at the senseless way he is being shot so excessively; with those high-powered weapons, a couple of hits would have ensured a kill. But the man - or men, she doesn’t know at this point - isn’t satisfied with a simple death. Maybe they just want more blood, more pain, more revenge... although it’s clear to everyone involved that they can’t win this battle.

She doesn’t understand - has never understood - why. What’s the point? Dead is dead, and it’s a waste of ammunition that could be used against other enemies. As Nile shoots another man coming right at her, she has the time to think that sometimes the only explanation is that some people are sadistic bastards who seem to be addicted to violence. She might feel sorry for them - if the very idea didn’t enrage her. But she won’t let her anger get the better of her.

Despite the chaos, the bullets flying, the people screaming and men moaning on the ground as they’re dying, Nile keeps going. She makes herself a sea of calm in the midst of the confusion, despite how furious she is about the whole situation. She won’t let her hatred of these men who regard human beings as livestock interfere with her objective. The team is here to make sure they never hurt anyone else again; that has to be her focus.

Nile moves in a straight line, aware of Nicky ahead of her, obliterating everyone in his path.

Nile thinks he might have been merely ‘angry’ if they’d just shot Joe once or twice; that’s an expected part of the lives they’ve chosen. But the total savagery with which the traffickers had kept shooting him has sent Nicky on a rampage. His fury is all the more frightening because it’s dead silent and cold as ice. Nicky doesn’t shout, he doesn’t swear or curse at these brutal men, but he is relentless as he destroys every single man in his path.

Nothing can stop him, not the bullets that hit him, nor the desperate attempts made with fists or makeshift weapons. It seems that his whole purpose has been reduced to two acts: walk and kill. His longsword is dripping with blood and other human bits and pieces. Nicky has only one goal - get to the man on the ground while slaughtering as many enemies as is humanly possible in the process. The goons around him don’t stand a chance.

It’s over rather quickly.

The noise of the fighting was deafening. The sudden silence that falls immediately after feels eerie, almost disorienting.

Nile takes stock; the sight around her wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher movie. There are far too many bodies lying on the ground, and the place reeks of smoke, blood, and the acrid smell of sweat born out of stress and fear.

She watches Andy coming towards her and knows Nicky is already kneeling on the ground, hands on Joe. Waiting.

They all are.

Joe is crumpled on his side. He remains lifeless as they continue to wait - it seems to take so long - but then he gasps back to life. Nile hadn’t realised she was holding her breath until now, when she gasps with him, and breathes as he does.

She sees him move, then hears a groan, followed by a complaint. “Talk about overkill.” Joe’s voice is weak, but definitely pissed.

She sighs in relief. He’s ok.

As Joe turns on his back, she sees him open his eyes and blink twice before he sits up. He’s moving a bit slowly, maybe, but he’s already almost completely healed. The clinking of bullets being pushed out of his body and falling on the ground is the only sound she can hear.

Immediately, Joe’s gaze turns to Nicky - always Nicky, like his eyes are pulled by a magnet. They could be on either side of the room, and Joe would find him as easily. The sight used to feel a bit creepy, but Nile has grown used to it.

Nile watches him assess Nicky as his eyes clear from the trauma of death. Now that Joe can study him properly, he can see that Nicky is bloody but standing - well, sitting - by his side. To Nile’s eyes, Nicky seems a bit unnaturally still, but Joe relaxes even more.

Joe reaches out a hand and smiles gently at Nicky as he’s helped to his feet. Joe’s hand stays on Nicky’s wrist, the touch lingering.

“Was there a speech?” he asks, voice still a bit rough - but purposely light, teasing, a welcome sound to Nile’s ears.

Nile, who is learning to know them all rather well, recognises this tone. Joe has - of course - noticed how tense Nicky still is, still upset about his death, still feeling the lingering fear of ‘what if’? What if, this time, Joe didn’t wake up? What if, this time, this death was the final one?

As usual, Joe’s response is to try and lighten the mood, to help everyone come down from the violent rush of fighting and killing, to show Nicky that he’s well... that they still have time.

“No speech,” Andy replies straight-faced, following his lead, “but there are a bunch of dead bodies.”

“Like, a lot of dead bodies,” Nile adds, wanting to do her part.

Joe smiles at her, seeming grateful that she’s also trying.

“He was...” Nile hesitates. She wants to say ‘magnificent’ but it sounds wrong to describe such violence as if it’s admirable. She doesn’t finish her sentence.

There’s a glint in Joe’s eyes - a little dangerous, maybe, but definitely proud; he doesn’t need her to complete the sentence or to add a description. He knows. Shaking his head, he grabs Nicky by the neck; their foreheads meet for a fleeting moment before his lips caress Nicky’s; they kiss almost chastely. “And I’m the one you call romantic,” he breathes against Nicky’s skin, nuzzling his cheek.

When his effort brings the tiniest smile to Nicky’s face, Nile decides they can count this as a win.

Nile sees Joe’s lips moving again; he’s whispering words she can’t hear, and probably wouldn’t understand. It doesn’t matter; those words are meant for only one man... for the ‘quiet, composed’ Nicky, whose fury runs cold and merciless, a sight to behold.

Nicky is still covered in blood and other things that Nile really doesn’t want to contemplate too closely. His fury is slowly fading from his eyes, but he is clearly still desperately in need of reassurance that Joe’s time hasn’t yet come. Nile almost aches for him, even though Joe is right there in front of them doing what Joe does best - being a comfort for Nicky.

Andy watches them silently. When she catches Nile looking at her, she rolls her eyes, but Nile knows it’s just for show. Andy doesn’t try to interrupt or rush the two men; she seems willing to wait patiently for them to be ready to leave - as she must have done so many times before.

Nile can’t help but wonder whether she thinks of Quynh when she sees Joe and Nicky like that... or maybe she thinks of Quynh all the time. Does the shape of Quynh’s absence continuously fill the space around her?

Andy’s voice brings Nile out of her reverie. Rather than waiting idly for Joe and Nicky, she’s on the phone, firing orders to the person on the other end of line. Copley, Nile assumes.

Andy catches Nile’s curious look. She gestures towards the cells that held the captives. “Copley will take care of them.”

Nile nods briskly.

When she hangs up, Andy turns towards their teammates. “Come on, guys,” she calls. She jerks her head toward the door. “Time to move.”

“Sì, siamo pronti,” Nicky replies. He kisses Joe once more before turning to Andy and Nile, ready to follow them. “Dai, andiamo.”

“Ditto,” Joe adds. “Ready to go and leave this damn place behind.” He looks like himself again - if you ignore the torn clothes, the dirt and the blood. As usual, after one of their operations, they’re all in a thoroughly deplorable state. Nile makes a face just thinking about it.

Now that her adrenaline levels are dropping, she can’t help but be obsessed with the idea of a shower. Unfortunately, it’ll have to wait; the most they’ll manage is a quick and unsatisfying wipe-down at some out-of-the way gas station before they get to their next safe house.

As they leave, Nile remembers a quote about victory being by nature insolent and haughty. She doesn’t feel insolent or haughty, or any other emotion of superiority. Mostly, she just feels tired. But when it comes down to it, they’ll walk out of here like always: together. That’s the most important victory of all.

It’s mid-afternoon when Nile returns to the house. After the last few days, she’d needed some time alone; she had left early that morning and spent most of the day away. She’s grateful that no-one tried to pressure her to talk or come back earlier than she was ready to. She’d received a single text message with a simple “Hope you’re ok”.

There was no name attached to it, but Nile didn’t need one; it could be any of them, and that knowledge made her feel better. It was a simple way of saying they cared, that they were waiting for her, while still giving her the space she needed. On her way back, she realises she’s impatient to be with them again.

Nile takes off her jacket in the entryway and smiles to herself when she hears loud voices coming from the living room; they’re amused rather than angry, she assesses immediately. She puts her jacket and backpack away neatly - a habit driven into her by her mother long before the Marines came into the picture - before she heads that way. As she gets to the door, she sees Andy, Nicky, and Joe sitting at the table.

She hears a rhythmic sound around the house. It’s beginning to rain; she got back just in time. There’s a sweet smell in the air; someone baked not that long ago. It’s so mundane that it makes Nile’s heart clench, and even hurts a little. It reminds her of the home she lost, but also helps make her feel safe in this new home she found.

Her eyes rest on her teammates. Friends, family? She’s still not completely sure what to call them, even in her own head. Andy is enjoying the result of the baking session, while Joe and Nicky are playing a card game.

Although she wants to join them, Nile doesn’t enter the room immediately; she pauses at the door to take in the scene in front of her. Andy laughs at something Nicky says while Joe snorts and starts dealing cards between the two of them. They’re all relaxed and seem content; Nile wants to commit the moment to memory for ‘rainy days’.

No-one makes any comment at her return or demands that she explain her whereabouts that day; they simply welcome her with a glance or a smile. They don’t smother her with questions or concerns... yet she knows she only needs to say a word and they will stop what they’re doing to listen and talk to her. The certainty makes her feel even better, lighter. She thinks she probably will want to talk later, but not now. This, too, they understand.

As she approaches the table, she sees that Joe and Nicky are using a deck she’s not familiar with. Joe notices her looking and displays his hand of cards in her direction; he makes a show of hiding them from Nicky, who just rolls his eyes - while also obviously trying to take a peek.

“I’ve tried confiscating the cards from those two time and time again, but they keep finding new decks; I’ve given up.” Andy is not playing, but she’s obviously enjoying the show. She holds out her plate to Nile and offers her a crescent-shaped cookie... kourabiedes, she remembers them telling her. Whatever their name, they’re delicious; Nile immediately helps herself to two. Otherwise, Andy will eat them all; the woman is as relentless with her sweets as she is with everything else in her life.

Thanking her with a smile, Nile takes a seat at the table, curious about the game and eager to enjoy the peace and quiet with them - although, from the lively comments she could hear when she came in, calling it ‘peace and quiet’ might be a stretch.

She couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it sounded colourful all the same. Now that she’s here, Joe and Nicky smoothly switch to English without missing a beat. As always, she appreciates how thoughtful the three of them always are; they never fail to make sure to include her in everything they do.

After Andy explains the basic rules to her, Nile finds out fairly quickly why the game is called ‘scopa’ when she hears Joe all but yell the word as he sweeps the three remaining cards on the table, his knuckles knocking noisily against the hard surface.

“I suppose the yelling is part of the game?” she asks, amused.

“Of course.” Joe adds the cards he just earned to the small pile next to him and very deliberately turns one of them face up, cross-wise, while staring at Nicky - who very carefully does not take the bait. “What’s the point otherwise?” Joe continues as he deals six new cards between the two of them.

Andy leans back on her chair. “We stayed for some time in a little village in Puglia in... when was it, again? A little before going to Cuba, I think - nineteen fifty-four?

“Fifty-three,” Nicky answers immediately as he takes two cards on the table with one from his hand and adds them to his own pile.

Andy shakes her head at Nile, obviously reminiscing. “You should have seen them playing with those two brothers -”

“Camillo and Florindo,” Joe cuts in. “They were absolutely ruthless.” There’s no mistaking the fondness in his voice.

“You all were,” Andy teases. “It always got so loud; it sounded like they were coming to blows with each new hand they played.”

Nile smiles, imagining the sight, but she has trouble reconciling the perception she has of Nicky with the scene Andy is describing. “Come on. Even Nicky?”

“You better believe it, kid,” Andy confirms.

Nicky shrugs. “I had to blend in.”

Joe snorts. “As if you didn’t have the time of your life, love.” He swears as Nicky sweeps the table, then smirks at Nile. “It’s always the quiet one.”

Each time they tell her a story of their past, Nile eagerly listens and makes a point to memorise every detail. She joined them so late, she really has no way of ever catching up, but she’s keen to learn as much about them as possible. She wants to understand them, to get a better grasp of where they’re coming from... at least, as much as she can. She sometimes feels like they will always be a bit ‘other’ to her - although never in a bad way.

Lost in thought, she misses the last hand at play. Next to her, Andy stands up. “You’ll learn the game quickly enough. Counting the points, though? It’ll take some time. Their primiera gives me a headache. That’s where I usually lose interest.”

“You never committed to it, you philistine!” Joe replies as they each start to count their cards, then count again - this time a specific set of cards, from the look of it. Nile loses track; apparently you don’t win just because you scored the highest number of cards in this game. She tries to understand the scoring system, but it’s a bit confusing.

“Did you steal my settebello, Nicolò?” Joe’s indignant tone brings her back to the scene playing out in front of her; he does ‘indignant’ very well.

“Of course not,” Nicky denies easily. He casts a glance at Nile. “And I never cheat.”

Joe laughs at that, and Nile realises he sounds absolutely delighted. She can tell the difference, and she’s glad she’s had enough opportunities to hear them laugh to be able to do so.

Joe’s eyes are crinkling. “Don’t believe him, Nile! He cheats. A lot. Even more so because people never believe he’s the kind of guy who would. Very convenient sometimes, by the way.” Joe’s attention turns back to Nicky, affection plain on his face. “Then again... I can’t blame them for thinking butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.”

Nicky shakes his head, a soft smile on his lips. “You’re just a sore loser. You always have been.”

“And you’re just a cheater. You always have been.”

“But if you know I cheat,” Nicky starts, shuffling the cards for another game, “then it’s not really cheating, is it? You expect me to.”

“Finally, after all these years, you admit it!”

“I admit nothing.” Nicky motions Nile to come closer. “Play with me; you’ll learn faster that way.”

Nile nods, smiling at their antics while she feels a sudden warmth; she knows their shenanigans are genuine, but she also feels they’re for her benefit. Yesterday was very bad - hard and gruesome. Today is good... soft and light. As bad as their missions might get, she realises that her team will always make sure the good days make up for the bad ones.

She suddenly remembers what Booker told her; it feels like (half) a lifetime ago: “Just because we keep living doesn't mean we stop hurting.” But now she realises that, although the statement isn’t entirely wrong, it also isn’t complete. Just because you don’t stop hurting doesn't mean you will never be able to find peace or joy. That’s the important lesson to learn here; Booker must’ve forgotten about that part.

As she leans towards Nicky to look at the three cards in his hand, ready to join the game, Nile silently vows that she won’t let herself make the same mistake.