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Guiding You Through

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On the monitor, two private security guards herd Nicky into the large personal office.

Booker sits straighter in his chair. “Andy, Joe, this is your cue.”

Both of them make soft affirmative noises through the comms. If he looked at the monitor with all of the manor’s security feeds in a grid, Booker could presumably watch them slip out of the gala in the ballroom. Instead, he keeps his eyes on the second monitor, the full screen dedicated to Nicky’s current predicament.

One of the security team places a chair in the middle of the office’s open space in the exact center of the frame.

“Nice placement,” Booker says.

Nile leans out of her chair to knock their shoulders like this isn’t their first mission together. “Thanks.”

He doesn’t actually know who chose that spot on the bookcase to hide their microphone and camera—maybe Copley— but Nile had placed it during a meeting with Delgado a few days ago.

Andy had called Quỳnh the same day, saying their current mission needed some less familiar faces, just in case.

A security guard practically shoves Nicky into the chair. Nicky’s tuxedo bunches around him as he clenches the arms of the chair, watching the team arrange themselves around the edges of the room.

Delgado takes his place in front of Nicky. “What are you doing so far from the gala?”

His voice carries through the computer’s speakers.

“I count eight,” Nile says over Nicky’s reply.

Booker lifts his pen and circles the air over the dark shape at the bottom corner of the monitor. “At least nine people total, but this one” —he circles over the man in the pale grey suit— “he’s not security.”

Nile leans across their narrow work table, trying to see what he sees, and he lets her try to put it together herself. She’d been surprisingly chipper about missing the charity gala to sit in an actual security van with him.

“Book, am I clear?” Andy’s voice comes over the comms.

On the other monitor, she waits beside a doorway, her floor-length black gown a stark contrast to the bottom of a white marble stairwell. The feed for the hallway she’s about to enter is empty.

“You’re clear.”

Joe appears in another hallway. He has the riskier route through the bedrooms and offices on the upper levels, coming closer to the office where Nicky is being held. Joe fights well enough in a tuxedo that one chance encounter might not ruin their recon, but it’s always better if the marks never know they were hit. Joe ducks into the first room, out of the camera shot.

Booker glances at one of the feeds in the ballroom, but he has no chance of finding Quỳnh without making it full-screen, and the distraction would be worse than useless. It hasn’t escaped his notice that, unless they need another distraction, her role in the mission is to have fun at the gala, but he also isn’t going to complain. She deserves to have fun.

Delgado’s pitch changes.

“I swear I just took a wrong turn.” Nicky’s voice trembles, and Booker shakes his head, amazed as always how thoroughly Nicky pulls on another character.

“You missed all the signs? The stairwell wasn’t a clue?” Delgado demands.

“Please,” Nicky twists to look at the men surrounding him, ignoring Delgado entirely. “I meant no harm, but I understand I broke the rules. I will leave without a fuss, if you want.”

“No.” Delgado’s voice lashes through the audio feed. Nile jumps, and Andy, Joe, and Quỳnh might’ve even caught it over the comms. “You will give me answers.”

“I have,” Nicky says. “I will answer anything. Ask your questions.”

“Why should I believe anything you say?”

Delgado takes a menacing step forward. Nile’s breath catches, but she doesn’t interrupt. Hopefully Nicky will leave the office unharmed, but he has to buy them as much time as he can to search the most likely spaces for Delgado’s client records. If that means taking a beating, Nicky won’t shy away from inciting one.

With Delgado’s notorious temper, it won’t take much.

“If I may?” the man in the grey suit asks. When Delgado looks at him, he raises his eyebrows and gestures toward the overly large desk behind Nicky.

“Oh.” The rage seeps out of Delgado’s stance so quickly Booker can’t help tensing. “That’s an excellent idea.”

The desk blocks Delgado’s hands as he rummages through the drawers. When he straightens, he taps a slim black case against his palm twice before opening the contents on the desk. Grey Suit watches closely but doesn’t approach.

Nicky twists in the chair but part of the security team blocks his sightline. “Please. I have no reason to lie.”

When the light catches on the syringe, Booker grimaces but there’s no point in alerting the others until they have more information. Nile either missed the flash or is following his lead.

“Hold him,” Delgado orders, and three of the security team immediately step forward. Two take Nicky’s arms and the third slams his shoulders against the back of the chair. Nicky puts up a token fight before letting them immobilize him.

“What—?” Nile starts.

“Wait,” Booker orders.

Thankfully Nile falls silent, but her hand clenches in the meat of his thigh hard enough to bruise.

The bodies block Delgado’s movement, but there’s no doubt he’s injecting Nicky with something. His fixation on getting answers means it probably isn’t fatal.

The men back away, leaving Nicky disheveled and sprawled across the chair. His top priority will be figuring what effects he’s supposed to be facing and then keeping up the farce even after his fast metabolism burns through the drug.

“Did you give him the full syringe?” Grey Suit asks with such careful neutrality that he must know more about the drug than Delgado does.

Delgado tosses the empty syringe on the desk, and Grey Suit winces. A dealer, with any luck, or a broker.

Or a scientist.

Bile burns in Booker’s throat. This was a mistake.

He shouldn’t be the one watching over them. It’s too soon, and this is far too close to the last time he worked with the team, in London, fighting to take down another stupidly rich monster and his scientist.

When Booker had fucked everything up.

“What did you give me?” Nicky asks, his head lolling against the back of the chair to stare at the ceiling. Maybe he’s thinking about that other lab too.

Booker should’ve fought harder to stay away. He knew where he stood with his exile. Quỳnh stayed with him for stretches of time, and Nile dropped by for a week here and there, getting to know him, she said. It was a far better exile than he deserved.

He let Andy and Quỳnh wear him down too easily.

“My favorite,” Delgado grins. “When one of my contacts told me he had a man that could make a truth serum, I thought it was impossible. What science-fiction. But I’ve seen it in action. In a few minutes, you’ll tell me everything I need to know, whether you want to or not.”

“What?” Nicky’s voice trembles.

Delgado pats his shoulder. “Do you understand?”

Nicky takes a shaky breath and his eyelids flutter. “Yes, I understand.”

“Good.”

Delgado crosses to the bar cart in the corner and pours two fingers of dark liquor into a crystal glass. There’s nothing to indicate it’s whiskey, but Booker’s certain.

He can’t hold back his snort. Marks trying to be cliched villains are always his favorite. “Twenty euros says he stole that from a movie with a bad guy he identified with a little too hard.”

Nile rears back, pulling her hand off him. “How can you focus on that? Nicky’s in trouble.”

“What’s going on?” Andy’s calm over the comm.

Nile shoots Booker an apologetic look, but he shrugs, watching Joe slip into another room on his route. “Truth serum.”

“A genuine one?” Andy’s voice crackles.

“Might lose you soon, boss,” Booker reports. He can’t see her on any of the basement feeds so he’s not surprised the comms are spotty too. “It’s real and a compulsory one.”

“How can you tell?” Nile leans almost into his lap to press closer to the monitor.

“He signaled,” Booker traces over the screen. Nicky’s head has dropped to one side, but his hand closest to the camera has two fingers pressed flat against his leg and the other three tucked into a fist.

“You have a signal for truth serums,” Nile says flatly.

“Of course,” Booker shrugs. “Zero means it didn’t work. One is for truth serums where staying silent is an option. Two means he has to answer, and he has to answer truthfully.”

“Then we have to get him out,” Nile says. Her eyes unfocus as she runs through strategies to get Nicky out of the manor.

Booker lets her plan. The very reason she’s stuck on surveillance with him instead of cutting the search time down further is too many people inside know her cover identity from planting the camera. She’ll reach that conclusion again in her own time.

“Nicky’s fine,” Joe says, easing into the hallway and moving to the next room.

When Nile turns her glare on Booker, he raises his hands. “He’s done this before.”

“He’s been interrogated,” Nile says slowly, “with truth serum before.” Her voice has that same mix of incredulousness and acceptance she gets every time they tell her they’ve done something she thought was impossible.

Booker grins. “And he’s good at it.”

“Sarajevo, ‘94,” Joe agrees.

“Havana, ‘57,” Andy adds.

“Samarqand, 1365,” Quỳnh says under her breath.

Joe laughs, bright and open, but that’s not a story Booker knows, and now’s not the time to ask. He’ll ask after they all get out of this. It’s something to look forward to the next time Quỳnh visits his little flat in Paris.

“Ok, I get it,” Nile grouses but it’s good-natured.

Silence falls over the comms, but Delgado sips his drink, leaning close to Grey Suit.

Booker might be able to pick up some of the words if he tweaked the settings on the microphone, but they won’t be discussing anything valuable in front of Nicky when they clearly don’t trust his reasons for straying from the gala.

“Are you good for this, Book?” Joe asks.

Booker winces.

He’s running surveillance that Nile could probably do on her own, from a van because it puts him one-minute from the manor. His vest, two guns, and a small brick of C-4 wait by the door for the moment the stealth approach stops working, and someone has to storm the gates. He has the manor’s layout memorized, including the grounds, and he’s plotted every potential pitfall he can imagine. Yet, Joe only trusts him to watch Nicky’s back as long as Nicky isn’t actually in danger.

It hurts worse that Booker can’t even blame him.

“I’ve got him.” Booker barely keeps the sting out of his voice.

Joe makes a noise that doesn’t translate over the comms. “I don’t know what they’ll ask,” Joe says nonsensically, “and I don’t know what he’ll answer.”

“I’ve got him,” Booker repeats, “and it looks like the interrogation’s beginning.”

“We’ll start with an easy one.” Delgado sets down his empty glass with an excessive clink.

Someone should’ve taken him up on that bet. Once upon a time, Nicky would’ve.

“What’s your name?” Delgado asks.

“I’ve had many names.” Nicky tips his head back against the top of the chair like he’s exhausted already.

“What’s your real name?”

Nicky gives a half-hearted shrug. “What makes a name real?”

Delgado glares at Grey Suit, and Booker makes a note on the pad of paper at his elbow. If Grey Suit is getting blamed for the truth serum not working right away, there’s more to the story than just ‘a contact who knows a guy,’ and Copley will need to follow up.

Grey Suit shakes his head so slightly the camera hardly registers it, but Booker’s used to looking for the smallest signals.

“What does your mother call you?”

Nicky’s forehead pinches. “Nothing. My mother is deceased.”

Delgado straightens to his full height, looming over Nicky like a predator about to strike, but Nicky spreads his legs wider and drops his chin to his chest, ready to be devoured if only Delgado asks the right question.

“Why are you here tonight?” Delgado tries.

“I was asked to come.”

“By whom?” Delgado demands. “Who asked you to come?”

Nicky lolls his head to the side, flashing a dirty smirk. “My lover asks me most often.”

Nile snorts.

Delgado takes a deep breath. “Who asked you to come to this event this evening?”

“Oh,” Nicky says, still calm. “My boss.”

“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.” Delgado claps his hands together, and Grey Suit sags against the wall. “Who is your boss?”

“She goes by many names.”

One of the security team twitches at the edge of the frame, but it’s impossible to tell if he’s irritated or trying to keep from laughing. Neither are particularly concerning unless it feeds Delgado’s rage.

Delgado crosses his arms over his chest and taps the opposite elbow.

“What name was she given when she was born?” he says slow enough to be considering every word before he says it.

It’s a good phrase and proof that Delgado has caught onto Nicky’s game. The more specific the question, the harder it will be for Nicky to avoid giving an exact and too honest answer.

Whether or not he realizes Nicky is intentionally being obtuse is another matter.

“She doesn’t remember.” Nicky makes a face at the ornate rug when the words sound far more ominous than they should.

“What do you call her then?”

“Boss.” He’s so matter-of-fact that it comes across as guileless.

Delgado drops his arms, and his neck tenses enough for the tendons to show through the feed. “What else do you call her?”

Nicky swallows but he cannot resist for long. “Ma’am.”

“What else?”

“I used to call her mi’lady. She hated that, but it was necessary. She would stab me if I ever called her that again. In private, at least.”

Nicky blinks up at Delgado, eyes wide, daring him to ask any follow-up questions.

Delgado doesn’t take the bait. “What else do you call her?”

Booker grimaces. It’s impossible to tell if Delgado is missing the openings Nicky is creating or he’s smarter than they expected. “Nile, can you find Andy on the feeds? Joe, how much longer?”

“That bad?” Joe asks.

“Delgado’s figured out how to game the questions right back.” Booker pauses as Nicky finally has to give a name. Luckily, Anna isn’t a bad one to give up. “And he isn’t taking the bait.”

“What bait?” Nile doesn’t look away from the manor’s security, but if she hasn’t spotted Andy yet, she’s still in the depths of the basement out of camera and comm range.

“The early comment about his lover, for one,” Booker says.

He spares a glance at the other feeds and spots Joe slipping out of yet another room. His pocket bulges around something small that wasn’t there earlier, but there are still too many rooms that could hold the files.

“How’s that bait?” Nile asks.

“If Delgado gets him talking about Joe,” Booker says, “it’ll be hard to get him to stop, and there’s no chance Nicky gives up anything useful.”

“He still won’t,” Joe says, but there’s frustration in his voice.

Booker hums an affirmative. When he and Nicky had both been dosed in the early 2000s, Booker had been ready to spill every secret he ever had. Nicky had talked over him for nearly an hour, carefully feeding their captives dozens of reasons they came to the city without even hinting at their mission. The hostiles hadn’t stood a chance once they asked who else was travelling with them.

The number of ways Nicky could discuss Joe’s curls was truly impressive.

“I called her Mac once,” Nicky muses. “I think she liked that one, but it hasn’t stuck yet. There’s still time.” Nicky’s voice waivers for the first time, but Delgado isn’t smart enough to pounce on that slip either. “I called her—”

“Ok,” Delgado cuts in. “I get it. She has a lot of names.”

Nicky slumps back, letting his eyes drift closed.

“Joe, movement at the far end of the corridor,” Nile jumps in. “Looks like a patrol. I’ll let you know when it’s clear again.”

Joe grunts but otherwise falls silent. Booker bumps his knee against hers, acknowledgment and gratitude for covering for him.

Delgado sets his hands on his hips. “Why are you here tonight?”

“You brought me here,” Nicky says, confused. “I remember you taking my elbow—” he stares down at his elbow as the word tapers off— “You led me here. I didn’t think I had a choice.”

Delgado pins Grey Suit with his gaze again, clearly blaming him for Nicky’s unhelpfulness.

“Not many people touch my elbows,” Nicky adds, his words slurring.

Nile goes rigid in her seat, ready to spring into action again.

“He’s playing it up,” Booker tells her. There’s a chance Nicky’s actually getting more affected instead of burning the drug out of his system, but it’s far more likely he’s toying with Delgado’s expectations to keep him from realizing Nicky’s really the one in control.

“What’s happening?” Andy asks. “I lost you for a while.”

“Nicky seems to be losing track of his thoughts, and he’s just started slurring,” Booker reports. “It’s impossible to tell if he’s faking or not. You know how he is.”

Andy hums agreement, but she sounds distracted too. Hopefully that’s a sign she’s found something, and they can get out of here soon.

“What specifically were you supposed to do here?” Delgado demands, his voice rising like he’s talking to a child who cannot understand what he wants. “What specifically did your boss ask you to do in this building?”

Nicky grunts, and his eyes are definitely closed or supposed to look like they are. “Waltz with some of the potential donors. Talk to people. Look for familiar faces.”

Delgado steps back and studies him for a long moment. Everything Nicky has said is technically true, and that’s the beauty of Nicky on truth serum. He doesn’t have to say everything as long as he says something.

“Is that all?”

Booker curses under his breath. That’s a dangerous question.

“Mostly,” Nicky admits, so he’s certainly still influenced.

“What else were you supposed to do, in this building, tonight?”

Nicky opens his eyes, staring into the middle distance without seeing anything in particular. “Look at the items up for auction.”

“What else?”

“Eat the canapés.”

Delgado scowls, and Booker holds his breath. If he keeps asking what else Nicky isn’t admitting, none of them will be able to stop the truth from coming out.

Instead, Delgado looks up at his security team scattered around the room.

“Ideas?” he snaps.

“Joe, you’re clear,” Nile says softly.

The security team tosses out a few questions that Nicky easily dodges with incomplete truths, and Booker sags back into his chair. Nile loses a little of her own vigilance at his side.

“The basement level’s clear,” Andy says, and it’s definitely a complaint. “Joe, status?”

“I picked up a hard drive,” Joe says, “and I’ve photographed a few documents that could be useful. I didn’t look too closely.”

“At least that’s something,” Andy grouses as she appears at the corner of one of the security feeds, pressed against the wall. “Book?”

He scans the screens and nods, “You’re clear.”

“How’s Nicky?” She strides into the hallway, smoothing out her gown as she exits the side door into the garden. Technically, she shouldn’t be in this area either, but most of the security team have been rearranged to accommodate Nicky’s appearance.

“They’ll either escalate or give up on him soon,” Booker says. “Almost done, Joe?”

Joe appears on the feed and flashes the camera a thumbs-up. “I still have the East Wing on this floor, if we can have the time. It’s mostly bedrooms, so it should be quick.”

His tone says he doesn’t expect to find anything else, but they won’t get a second chance at searching the manor.

Delgado abruptly turns away from Nicky, almost looking directly at the camera as he blows out a frustrated breath. Delgado may be more used to delegating these days, but his shoulders hitch in the all too familiar way of someone who wants to hit something until it stops irritating them.

So far, he has no reason to think Nicky’s anything more than a guest that took a wrong turn, missed a sign or two, and got lost in the large manor, but that could change at any moment.

“My family’s probably going to start worrying about me soon,” Nicky offers.

It’s an obvious attempt to regain Delgado’s attention, lacking Nicky’s usual finesse, but the tension drops out of Delgado.

He turns away from the camera and finally takes the bait. “Your family?”

“Yes,” Nicky agrees.

“Who’s going to be the most worried about you?” Delgado’s voice light and casual for how worrying it would normally be to hear a war profiteer ask that question.

Still, against the odds, Nicky managed to turn the topic to Joe.

Nicky rolls his head away from the door to stare straight down the lens of the hidden camera, straight at Booker. “My brother.”

Booker’s breath freezes in his chest.

That couldn’t have made it through the serum. They aren’t brothers, not really. They barely spoke the past few days. Booker had avoided the rooms he and Joe were in, giving them their space to be angry or deal with his sudden reappearance. They only talked about the mission, and then only when Andy forced full meetings.

The serum must’ve worn off, because undeniably, Joe would worry the most.

Or perhaps Quỳnh. After she’d felt safe and settled enough to ask the others to come meet them, she’d folded herself into Nicky’s chest and held on like she was afraid he would disappear if they weren’t breathing the same air.

Quỳnh would probably slide into anger before worry, though, so Nile? She’d been ready to storm the gala for Nicky the moment there was a change of plans. She’d have to race Andy to the office, though.

Delgado pulls Booker back to the mission. “What’s your brother like?”

“He’s a menace.” Nicky’s mouth twitches, and Booker snorts. That’s a gentle way to explain their relationship. “He has his good moments, but he hurts so deeply we cannot reach him. Sometimes that clouds his judgement in terrible ways.”

Booker’s breath turns ragged and he fights to keep quiet.

“But he’s a good person to have on your side,” Nicky continues. “Always willing to learn.”

Nicky’s staring at him like there’s a message under his words Booker should be able to decipher, something about the serum or the plan to get him out of there. What has he learned recently that can fix this?

“I’m glad he’s in town,” Nicky says, staring into the camera like the only thing that matters is Booker figuring out what he’s trying to say. “I’ve missed him.”

“Where is he tonight?”

Nicky’s eyes widen, and his mouth pinches in the closest approximation to panic Nicky ever has while undercover.

“Shit,” Nile murmurs too close to his ear, and Booker jolts hard enough that his chair tips up on two legs. He flails, and the chair slams back down.

“Here. He should be in the city for a few days,” Nicky says carefully. “Hopefully, he hasn’t wandered off yet.”

That one’s easy. He should stay in place. Nicky doesn’t want to be rescued.

Delgado turns to the Grey Suit, and Nicky visibly sags.

“What happened?” Quỳnh asks. Her voice echoes, and Booker would guess she’s speaking into a champagne flute.

“They almost tripped him up,” Nile says, “but he saved it. He is good at this.”

“He’ll teach you, if you ask,” Booker says.

Nile’s gaze his heavy on the side of his face, but he can’t bring himself to look away from Nicky to see what she’s thinking.

“Enough of this,” Delgado nearly shouts. Nile flinches, but Nicky just blinks sluggishly. “Tell me what you know about my business!”

Nicky blinks again. “You’re Mr. Delgado?”

A red splotch flares on Delgado’s cheek closest to the camera, and his hands ball into fists.

“He knows that,” Nile murmurs.

“The serum’s worn off,” Booker says.

“Of course I am!” Delgado roars.

“It’s such a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Nicky says, all diplomacy and awe. “I’m a big fan of tonight’s charity, but I never thought I would have the chance to meet you.”

Delgado’s expression shifts too fast for Booker to parse from his profile, but his hands unclench, and the men around the room relax.

“Does your bartender have a bit of a heavy hand?” Nicky nods to himself and keeps nodding like he can’t stop. “I don’t drink much and this has my head all—” He twirls his fingers around his temple. “My boss told me not to drink too much tonight. She’s going to kill me if I try to call in with a hangover tomorrow.”

“You’ll be fine,” Delgado grits out. Then he pauses, tilting his head and studying Nicky. Gently, he adds, “But yes, I should look into the bartenders. I don’t want to be losing money on alcohol when it could be going to the charity.”

“Thank you,” Nicky murmurs. “I’m glad you’re keeping us safe.”

“Of course,” Delgado says in the polished public relations voice he’s used in interviews. “Take a moment to catch your breath, and I’ll have someone help you back to the festivities.”

Nile makes a triumphant sound in the back of her throat.

“Joe, they’re going to let him out soon,” Booker warns and glances at the other monitor.

“I’m finished,” Joe says, slipping out of the last door in a hallway. “I’ll head for the bar in the lounge and then go back into the ballroom.”

“Your path is clear at the moment,” Nile says before Booker has a chance to check, but she’s been watching the hallways more than he has.

Joe strides out of camera range and reappears in a stairwell.

“I don’t feel so good,” Nicky murmurs, closing his eyes and groaning. It’s only a little more theatric than the time twenty, twenty-five years back that Nicky spent three days sleeping next to the toilet while his body tried to purge a parasite.

Delgado’s eyes widen, and he takes a deliberate step back. “I’ll have one of my men escort you to the washroom, then, if that’s alright with you.”

“Thank you.” Nicky dips his chin to his chest and takes slow, even breaths like he’s trying desperately not to throw up the canapés.

Delgado shoots Grey Suit another dark look. Booker will have to get Copley onto that relationship soon. Grey Suit’s expression indicates he’s very aware how short his life may be, and if they lose him, the trail to this truth serum may die too.

“I have to take their camera feeds off the loop before they get Nicky in the hallway,” Booker warns.

“Joe’s clear,” Nile reports.

“Good. They’re going to dump Nicky in the toilets,” Booker says for the sake of the group as one of the security team helps Nicky to his feet with surprising care. “They haven’t said yet which one, but I suspect they’ll leave him in the one off the lounge and play it off like he’s had too much to drink.”

There’s no answer, but then Andy, Joe, and Quỳnh should all be mixed in with the other guests again. Booker switches the manor’s security feeds back to the live feed and mutes his side of the microphone in the office.

Nicky stumbles and almost falls, even with the escort taking a not insignificant amount of his weight. He’ll be overselling it to some extent, taking any advantage he can get.

“The truth portion of the serum has worn off, but I can’t tell how real the other side effects are,” Booker admits.

“Either way he’s going to have to keep up the act until he leaves, and they’ll probably be watching where he goes, who he leaves with,” Nile adds.

“Book?” Andy murmurs.

The original plan had Nicky going back to the gala for a while, but that no longer makes sense.

Booker drums his fingers on his knee. There’s a reason Nicky’s usually in the sniper’s nest laying out their tactical retreats, but it’s fallen on him this time and the type of diversion he prefers will ruin the image of the perfect night.

He can’t ruin all of Nicky’s hard work.

He and Nile could pick up Nicky, but Nile has a point that they’ll probably be watching. Nicky could leave with Andy, since he said he was there with his boss, but they can’t afford to burn another identity on this job when it sounds like they probably didn’t find as much evidence as Copley’s client wants.

“Can we rely on the kindness of a stranger to help him when he’s clearly ill?” Nile asks.

Booker bristles at the thought of leaving Nicky vulnerable with a stranger, even though he’s far from helpless, but he doesn’t dismiss the plan outright. Still, he shakes his head. “There are too many shady guests that could cause problems.”

“True,” Nile agrees.

“Someone needs to see how bad he actually is,” Booker says eventually. “Then, unfortunately, his best option is probably catching a cab.”

It’s risky to have him alone with civilians, especially one who might remember where they picked up someone so unsteady, but it’s the lowest risk plan.

“I’ll go,” Quỳnh says in a normal tone, so either she’s found some privacy or she’s pretending to make a call. She gets a lot of joy out of that trick.

“They’re taking him to the men’s room,” Nile protests. “Shouldn’t Joe go?”

“He is busy being memorable,” Quỳnh says. “I’m already memorable.”

“You made such an impression that few will care about you charging into the men’s room?” Booker asks.

He swaps the enlarged feed from Delgado, Grey Suit, and part of the security team lingering in the office to the manor’s security camera outside of ballroom. The camera shows most of the lounge room with a few scattered seating areas for people wanting a more privacy and better seating than the ballroom might offer. The smallest of the manor’s bars stretches along one wall across from the corridor to the toilets.

“You doubt me?” Quỳnh teases.

It’s heady to realize she is waiting for his opinion, but Booker doesn’t doubt she knows her limits. Her whole role tonight was to be memorable enough to be able to demand an audience with Delgado and pull him away from his business with Nicky if the situation looked like it was going bad.

It seems silly now that he thinks about it, but he has seen how imposing she can be when she tries. Going into the men’s room, she’ll raise a few eyebrows, but there are certainly bigger scandals in the manor.

“Okay,” he says.

“Do it,” Andy murmurs.

“Ten seconds until Nicky and his escort reach the lounge,” Booker reports. “We’ll hope the man leaves immediately, but give it enough time to seem coincidental.”

Nile’s finger hovers over one of the ballroom feeds, following the path Quỳnh’s bright red gown cuts through the guests. “If you need an excuse, you can always claim the line was too long in the women’s restroom. That’s worked for me before.”

Booker takes a moment to glance through the feeds for the corridors, but nothing is amiss. Delgado and Grey Suit are alone in the office having an angry conversation the microphone will be recording.

Nicky and his escort skirt the edge of the lounge and disappear out of camera range toward the toilets. There’s little risk of Nicky getting hurt or made at this point, but not being able to see him is hard to take.

The escort returns too quickly to have done more than dump Nicky just inside the door. He overtly scans the few people clustered and chatting around the lounge before he heads back toward the stairs.

“Delgado’s man is gone,” Booker says. “I think Nicky’s alone, but I can’t guarantee it.”

“Understood,” Quỳnh says as she appears in the threshold from the ballroom.

She strides across the lounge, but no one seems to pay her any attention. Once she’s in the corridor, she speeds up a little and disappears off the edge of the frame.

A moment later, she says, “Nico?”

Without a comm, they can’t hear Nicky’s response.

“How are you feeling?” Quỳnh asks.

Booker takes the chance to check on Delgado again just to feel useful. Nicky’s out of his hands for now. All he and Nile can do is watch for threats.

“Quỳnh,” Joe murmurs. He sounds strained, but it’s impossible to tell if it’s because he’s trying to be quiet or it’s nerves for Nicky.

“He is unsteady,” she reports, “but as Booker suggested, he was exaggerating the effects.”

Nile lets out a long breath, slumping back in her chair. Booker can respect the sentiment, but they aren’t clear yet.

“Do you…” Quỳnh trails off and Booker can imagine her head cocked as she searches for the words she wants. “We think it best you return to the safehouse alone, if you feel capable. Is that a good plan?”

The silence is grating, and Booker has new respect for the others listening to him and Nile reporting on Nicky’s conversation all evening.

Quỳnh’s laugh is the rich full-body one. “He agrees to Booker’s plan,” she reports, “although he is certainly still unable to lie.”

Andy makes a noise, but Booker can’t decipher it over the roaring in his ears. “At all?” he asks.

“No.”

There’s curiosity in Quỳnh’s tone, but she doesn’t press. It’s bad enough that Nile is staring holes in his face again.

He swallows hard and toggles the camera feed to an exterior angle for a moment before flipping back to the lounge. “There’s no line at the taxi stand.”

“I’ll return to the dancing,” Quỳnh says. “Nico will wait here for three minutes, then leave. Booker,” she pauses, “he wants to know if you’re okay.”

“Me?” He’s stalling and it feels obvious, but he’s not the one apparently still compelled to tell the truth. “Nile and I are safe, still in the van.”

“He says he’s sorry he put you in that position. This wasn’t what he’d intended,” Quỳnh says.

Booker rubs his chest, but it isn’t soothing.

Andy steps into the frame of the loungeroom, heading for the bar. “Did you have to listen to Nicky talk about Joe with so much detail that his descriptions are worthless?”

“Something like that,” Booker says.

Nile shifts, but she doesn’t contradict him. They’ll have to talk about this at some point, but not now, not in the middle of the mission, when it isn’t fair to any of them. He is their protection tonight, the emergency exit and the voice they’re trusting to have their backs.

He only realizes he’s shaking when Nile’s hand drapes across the back of his own on the table, not squeezing or pressing, but a soothing weight.

“He also wants to know,” Quỳnh says lightly, “if you think Delgado learned to play with his liquor from a film.”

The laugh tears out of Booker, startled and watery.

“There’s movement in the lounge, heading your way,” Nile says too softly.

“I’m going,” Quỳnh says.

She appears on the camera feed just as Booker finds the man Nile spotted heading for the men’s room. He knocks his knee against hers for picking up his slack again, but he can’t bring himself to do anything more.

She squeezes his hand once before shifting back to watch the other monitor. A couple glide through the middle of the dancefloor in a waltz so showy it has to be Joe.

Quỳnh leans against the bar next to Andy. The careful distance between them could mark them as strangers waiting for their drinks, but Andy naturally shifts toward her and relaxes enough Booker spots it through the feed.

By the time Nicky finally stumbles into a taxi and the taillights disappear beyond the surveillance cameras, Booker’s adrenalin has dropped, and he’s feeling the late hour.

“Nicky’s clear,” he reports. “We’re packing in and going dark.”

“Good work, Book,” Andy says softly, and Quỳnh hums agreement.

Nile stands, stretches, and claps him on the shoulder. He claps her hand, acknowledging her role in their success. She’s been doing this without him for a while now.

As Booker reaches to remove his comm, Joe says, “We’ll see you at home.”

It’s tempting to pull out his comm and pretend he didn’t hear the hope Joe hadn’t bothered to hide, but maybe it’s past time he acknowledges when they reach out for him.

“I’ll be there,” he tries.

Maybe it’s not enough, but it’s true.