Actions

Work Header

wounds such as this

Work Text:

“Nicky.”

Booker says Nicky’s name quietly, likely hoping that Joe won’t hear. Joe does have most of his attention on Andy, who has hauled herself out of the driver’s seat of the car, and Nile, who is following close to Andy without hiding it. He has half a mind to follow closely, too, but he’s guessing his hovering won’t be nearly as tolerated as Nile’s.

It’s scarcely enough to make Joe miss Booker saying Nicky’s name. A snarl rises in his chest, vicious and mean. The part of him that wants to hurt Booker as much as Booker as hurt him. He wants Booker to never be able to hurt him – to hurt Nicky – like that again.

The instant his eyes meet Booker’s, Booker takes a step back, holding his hands up in appeasement.

Joe swallows back acidic remarks in lieu of looking into the backseat. Nicky is still seated in the middle of the bench, eyes closed but not asleep.

At the feeling of Joe’s gaze, he blinks his eyes open. The corners of his mouth twitch his non-smile to tell Joe he’s okay. Joe knows this is true. And Joe knows better.

Joe slides into the backseat next to him.

“Just a moment, my love,” Nicky murmurs.

“You got up too fast,” Joe says back quietly. He wraps his arm around Nicky’s shoulder, letting Nicky lean into him. He has to work to ignore the sticky feeling of the blood. He thinks of radio static, of the notes to his favorite songs. He tries to think about anything except the ringing of the gunshot, of the way he can still taste gas and gunpowder on his tongue.

“Mm,” Nicky answers.

 

Big wounds do take longer. That, for the most part, is true. But just like their immortality, there’s an asterisk.

“Don’t get your brains knocked out,” had been Andy’s initial, unhelpful explanation.

The follow-up, moderately more helpful version had been: “You never know how your brain’s going to decide to heal itself, and it’s probably going to be different every time. So, don’t get your brains knocked out or in.”

Of course, by then, Joe and Nicky had already learned that lesson. It had been an early one for the two of them, dated before they were even Yusuf-and-Nicolo and to when were nameless to one another.

They’d been fighting for all of a month, having left the battlefield but not yet formed their uneasy alliance. Instead, the killing had just begun again each time they ran into one another. This particular fight had ended with them grappling one another until Yusuf had gotten ahold of Nicolo’s longsword and bashed his head in with the pommel.

They’d done this song and dance long enough that Yusuf knew not to stick around. He’d picked himself up and continued onto the nearest town, taking Nicolo’s sword with him with every intention of pawning it when he got the chance.

Three days later, he’d run into Nicolo in the market while trying to find a seller and Nicolo had just looked past him as if he didn’t know he was. He seemed unsteady on his feet. Still, Yusuf hadn’t tried to press his luck. He took off that night, and it was another two weeks before Nicolo caught up to him, spitting mad and ready to retrieve his weapon.

It had been years and years before they’d had enough words for Nicky to properly explain to Joe what that week had been like, reviving in the sand, still hurting and twitching. How it had felt like the most important parts had strung themselves together first, and the rest kept healing as the week went on, leaving him reeling with side effects.

 

Joe listens to Nicky’s breathing for an hour in the car. He’s asleep, and Joe wants to move him into the new safehouse, but he knows that there must be something healing that isn’t making it easy for Nicky to walk.

It used to be that they could go a long time without sustaining a really significant head injury. But with the advent of guns, they’ve seen more and more of their own brain matter, and Joe can only imagine how much of Nicky’s brain was affected by today’s injury.

He grits his teeth as the inside of his eyes blots with the halo of blood that had been around Nicky. It had been bad. Nicky’s going to be healing all week, probably, and anytime Joe witnesses one of the side effects, he’s going to be right back there in that lab. Losing Nicky infinitely in his own thoughts.

He traces his fingertips over Nicky’s knuckles and tears bead in his eyes.

Nicky sighs in his sleep, shifts beside him, and then clearly starts to wake. He squeezes Joe’s hand and then turns his head so that he presses a sleepy kiss to Joe’s temple. Joe sniffles, unable to hide the fact that he’s truly crying now. Despite his blurred vision, he can see Nicky wiggle his toes inside his shoes.

“Let’s go inside,” Nicky murmurs a moment later. He links their hands together, and Joe follows without letting go of his hand.

The lights are mostly dimmed already, and Andy and Nile are sprawled out next to each other on the living room floor. Andy’s hair is damp and there’s a fresh bandage on her side. Joe adds it to the ever-growing list of things they need to thank Nile for.

Andy is sleeping angled toward the second bedroom. Its door is half open, making it so that Booker’s feet are just visible at the end of the bed. He’s too still to be asleep.

Anger burbles in Joe’s chest once more, but before it can take tangible shape, Nicky leads him toward the master bedroom and its attached bathroom. They strip together, perfunctorily. Joe knows that Nicky would prefer to clean himself up right now, to spare Joe the sight of the blood and bone and brain matter that’s going to swirl down the drain. But the last time they had been in the United States, Joe’d taken nasty headshot and when he’d been cleaning up in the shower later, his legs had given out, and he’d hit his head when he’d fallen, knocking himself back out once more.

Joe isn’t taking that chance with Nicky tonight.

They clean one another up, Nicky’s fingers gentling over Joe’s neck to get rid of the crusted blood from where Merrick had stabbed him. He helps Nicky pick the bone out of his hair. Tries not to think about thin Nicky’s skull feels beneath his fingertips. About how frighteningly vulnerable the human body really is.

He tries to marvel in the miracle of Nicky’s body instead. To console himself with the universe recognizing all that Nicky is and could be. He fixates on the strength of Nicky’s forearms, the dexterity of his fingers, the kindness in his smile.

He doesn’t know if he succeeds.

He’s still a riot of clashing emotions when they climb into bed together. He wants to feel safe and warm, but he’s still just tired and scared. He needs to sleep but he’s afraid to. He’s certain that if he falls asleep, Nicky’s brain will forget to tell his lungs to keep breathing. He’s not sure if he’s ever felt like this in all the long days of his life.

“Sleep, Joe,” Nicky murmurs. He squeezes Joe’s hand, presses his body as close as he can to Joe’s. Faster than he would have thought possible, he does as Nicky says.

 

“Yusuf,” Nicky calls into the dark of the night.

“Sono qui,” Joe promises, breathes, kisses, against the back of Nicky’s neck.

Nicky relaxes marginally. Not enough, Joe notices, even though if he’s half asleep.

“Where are we?” Nicky asks in Italian.

Joe breathes out and shuts his eyes, needing a moment to prepare himself. He knows there are worse moments to deal with memory loss, but he wishes that Nicky had just been able to sleep through the night.

Joe shifts the slightest amount to turn on the lamp beside the bed. He maneuvers Nicky onto his back and runs a thumb over the jut of one elegant cheekbone. Nicky goes, willingly, expression full of trust even when he doesn’t know what’s going on.

“The Nysa safehouse,” Joe murmurs, searching Nicky’s face for indication of how much he actually remembers of the last few days.

Nicky’s brow furrows, which means that it’s not enough for him to understand why they’re in the United Kingdom.

“You were shot,” Joe continues, still gently tracing Nicky’s features because he knows it comforts both of them.

The brief explanation is enough for Nicky, who sinks back a little more into the bed, eyes drifting halfway shut.

“I’m sorry,” Nicky answers, cupping Joe’s face in between his own hands. Joe turns to kiss his palm. It’s an unnecessary apology, but there’s no sense in treading over that well-trodden land. It’s not Nicky’s fault that Joe is hurting, but Joe is hurt all the same, and Nicky would carry that weight for him if he could. But, alas, there’s the crux of the problem. For Joe not to hurt, Nicky would have had to not been hurt in the first place. They both know what it’s like to have to watch the other suffer. Their pain has become looping infinity, ouroboros.

“Are you okay?” Nicky asks.

“All in one piece,” Joe reassures him, putting on as much of a smile as he can manage. “Ready for your inspection should you desire it, my Nico.” He waggles his eyebrows even though there’s no actual heat behind the words. Nicky needs his sleep. It’s the surest thing that will keep the healing process steady and sure.

Still, Nicky smiles, sleepy and crooked, and Joe is lost for words when it comes to describing all the things he feels, all the things he would do for the smile.

“The others?” Nicky asks.

“Safe,” Joe reassures him. “Here.” He doesn’t know if Nicky remembers Nile, but if he doesn’t, that’s too much to heap upon him right now.

He leans in and kisses Nicky’s eyelids.

“Sleep, my heart,” Joe says. Nicky wraps a hand around the back of his neck and Joe presses his forehead against Nicky’s so that they’re sharing breath.

Just before he drifts off entirely, Nicky suddenly says Andy’s name in the way he had when he’d still been on the ground, plastered to the ground by his own blood. Joe stops breathing. But Nicky doesn’t wake fully. Instead, his breathing evens out and he goes the rest of the way to sleep.

Joe moves as slowly as he can to turn the light back off. He doesn’t want to dare wake Nicky again, but he’s awake now.

He tears at himself. Should he have let Nicky go back into the fight so soon after being shot?

Andy’s theory had always been that their brains fixed what was needed first, anything that was needed to get them alive and moving to safety. So, some parts needed to be smoothed out a bit later.

And Nicky had gotten up so fast. He had instantly been honed back into getting to and helping Andy. In a battle, they always had to trust the other to know their own limitations, and so Joe had done that. He had followed, because he trusted Nicky, and there was no time to stay, not when Keane or any of the other soldiers could have come back. Not when, truly, Andy might have been in more danger than they were.

But on the other side of things, curled close to a Nicky who is going to be going through days and days of healing, he hesitates in his decision-making. Maybe he should have made Nicky pause a moment longer, take another breath to heal there.

Tears leak out of the corner of Joe’s eyes, down the curve of his neck, and puddle in the hollow of Nicky’s throat. It’s a testament to how worn he is that he doesn’t wake.

 

Joe does eventually fall asleep. He wakes still tangled with Nicky, who hasn’t moved at all in his sleep. It’s a rare occurrence for them, and Joe takes a moment to nose in against Nicky’s neck, to feel the thrumming of his pulse and hear the soft rhythm of his breathing.

It’s good that he’s still sleeping, Joe remembers himself. Sleep means that Andy’s deemed this a safe enough place to stay for a little while. Sleep means more time for Nicky’s body to make him whole again.

Some part of him hangs onto the moment for everything he is, because he doesn’t know what happens next. There have been few times as big and unknown as this in his life.

But Nicky sighs and shifts beneath him. Joe knows he’ll be awake soon. He kisses Nicky’s cheek and extracts himself from the bed, figuring that he’ll make coffee and eggs so Nicky will have something nice to wake up to.

Andy and Nile are gone from the main room. He worries for a second, just because he can’t not. But he finds a note that Nile must have tactfully left on the kitchen counter, and he figures that he has to trust that their newest sister has things covered. She’s more than proven her worth in the last few days, and he also thinks she wouldn’t hesitate to barge in and wake up him and Nicky should Andy decide to do something particularly stupid.

Then again, Andy is quite adept at being stupid when she so sets her mind to it.

But even Andy, he guesses, will be on her best behavior so as to not put extra strain on him and Nicky especially.

Joe begins his fight with the coffee machine. He makes a mental note to give Nicky shit for it later, because Nicky is the only one who can get it to work properly and is resistant to any indication that they need a new machine for this safehouse. He only has himself to blame when he gets lackluster coffee from the rest of them, Joe decides. He’s already anticipating the snarky remark Nicky will lob back at him, preferably in Italian and preferably half muttered into his mediocre coffee.

It’s the first normal moment he’s had in days. It’s the first time he’s felt normal in days, and the moment is almost immediately ruined by Booker coming out of his bedroom.

There’s a pause when they both look at each. Joe can see the way that Booker’s shoulders wilt forward, as if it’s possible for him to draw in on himself.

All of his anger comes roaring back. He is not a person made for anger. He doesn’t know what to do with it – is clumsy with it. That’s something Nicky has told him time and time again, that he’s so grateful that despite their time together, that despite the horrors they have seen in their long lives, Joe is relentless in his pursuit of the brighter, better side of life. He can act from a place of justice, sometimes something akin to righteousness – but not often anger, no.

It doesn’t usually burn long enough in him.

But there’s nothing to damper this anger now. He has never been hurt like this before because he’s never loved anyone the way he loves Booker. What relationship is there to compare him to? Andromache? They are the same only in that they are deep loves that have embedded themselves in Joe, that span beyond what he has words for, what the human mind can rightly comprehend.

They’ve always had their own spaces that they needed to reserve for themselves. A personal store of sorrow, Joe had always thought. He’d never bargained for this much deceit.

“I don’t want to see your face,” Joe snarls at Booker through gritted teeth. “I can’t stand the sight of you.” He has no idea what he’ll do. Doesn’t know if he wants to find out. But there’s no Nicky or Andy to placate him by pointing out that now isn’t the time, that they’re better and safer as a united front. No Nile to defuse the situation because she can’t understand the complexity of it. No, now is the time.

“Joe,” Booker says in weak protest. “I’m sorry—” He sounds as if he’s gearing up for an explanation.

He falls silent quickly, though, apparently lost for words.

“That’s it?” Joe asks, outraged. “That’s the best you can do?” He’s acutely aware that there isn’t any explanation that would satisfy him. In truth, they both know that Booker had summed up the entirety of his point in the lab. No amount of eloquence is going to change his point or make Joe understand.

“What of your grief now, Sebastien?” Joe presses. “Now that you’ve thrown away the only people who would have loved you unconditionally?” As he speaks, his voice raises in volume, and he finds himself nearly stalking toward Booker. Booker doesn’t have the dignity to look him in the eye.

“Yusuf.”

Joe turns at the sound of his name to see Nicky in the doorway, still looking wrinkled with sleep, frowning. It’s a sight that he normally loves – to see Nicky sleeping in, indulging a little, relaxing, letting himself be held while sleep warmed. But right now he just looks shaded in the wrong places, tired and bleary.

My love, Joe wants to protest, he has broken my heart, and I can’t pretend to hide the hurt. My love, I am on fire with this anger, and if I don’t put it somewhere, it may burn me alive.

Nicky opens his mouth and answers him – tries to answer, but all that comes out of his mouth is gibberish, sounds garbled together. Nicky frowns faintly. The creases in his forehead sear themselves on the inside of Joe’s eyes.

He flings himself at Booker before he can think. They go tumbling to the ground together, Joe messily hitting Booker wherever he can reach, Booker doing absolutely nothing to stop him. His blows are sloppy, unsophisticated, considering that he is a man who knows how to kill – and kill quietly and quickly when needs must.

But there is no precision to this. This is an explosion.

When the blood rushing in his ears fades, Joe becomes aware of a great deal of shouting. Someone loops their arms underneath his and yanks him backward and away from Booker. The knowledge that it’s Andy is the only thing that keeps him from lashing out because protecting Andy is more important to him than hurting Booker.

She hauls him back another few steps before pushing him bodily toward Nicky, who catches him deftly and holds him close as if he was the one who was being hit.

“That’s not how we’re doing this,” Andy says sharply. “Go to your room.”

She says the order without realizing the oddity of her words. Nicky snorts into Joe’s hair, and Joe can’t help the smile that tugs at his lips, even though it feels shaky and hysterical. All the same, he lets Nicky gather him up and lead him back to their bedroom.

He sinks weakly to the side of the bed. The scant damage to his knuckles has already healed, but the sensation has left him feeling twitchy. He shakes out his hands and then reaches desperately for Nicky. Nicky remains still standing, but presses his forehead down against Joe’s, hands smoothing over Joe’s shoulders and arms.

“Nicky,” Joe begs, trusting Nicky to know everything he is asking in that single word.

“The words are coming back,” Nicky reassures him, pressing a soft kiss to his temple. He’s speaking an old dialect of Italian, though, meaning that most languages are probably still eluding him.

“I don’t remember everything, though,” Nicky admits. He doesn’t know why Joe had been fighting with Booker. He doesn’t press for details, though, trusting Joe to tell him what he needs to know when he needs to know it.

The scattered memories had been what had scared Joe the most when they had started understanding what could happen after a head wound. How could they really know when they had remembered everything again? It’s already terrifying how much they forget because of how long they live. Joe obsesses over his memories – really, is part of the reason why he became truly dedicated to the arts.

And he had been scared – for a long, long time, for their first centuries together – that he would wake and not know Nicky or Nicky wouldn’t know him. But with the exception of the very first time, they’ve always remembered each other now, a reassuring blessing. Nicky argues that they’re too ingrained in each other. That it’s too much to forget.

Joe presses his face into Nicky’s chest. This will come back to Nicky, too – the whole sordid affair, the time in the labs, Booker’s betrayal. This will be a defining moment of their lives, just like losing Quynh was. So, he lets Nicky forget a little while longer.

“Come back to bed, sweetheart,” Joe entreats. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Joe knows that Nicky is still tired, still tinged with pain and pressure, because he agrees without any fuss. If he were himself, if he knew everything, he would want to be cooking for everyone, to be checking on Andromache’s wound, to see how Nile is feeling.

Instead, Nicky sinks down into the bed with a soft sigh. He moves to gather Joe up against him, but Joe doesn’t let him. He pulls Nicky against him instead, runs a hand up and down Nicky’s back, plays gently with his hair in the way that he knows relaxes Nicky. Soothes him until he falls back asleep again, his breath fanning against Joe’s chest.

Time heals all their wounds, Joe reminds himself. But the big wounds take longer. And wounds of this sort are unpredictable.

It takes Joe a long time to fall back asleep. He’s too aware of Andy, Nile, and Booker moving in the next room, too aware of Andy talking in a low voice, of the scarce grunts in return from Booker.

He sleeps fitfully when he does manage it and wakes feeling worse than if he hadn’t sleep at all. Nicky hasn’t moved at all, though, which Joe is grateful for. Belatedly, he becomes aware that he’s awoken because Andy is standing outside the door.

He extracts himself as carefully as he can from Nicky. Nicky, of course, stirs, makes a grumpy noise, and tightens his arms around Joe’s torso, trying to keep him in the bed.

“Sleep,” Joe murmurs to him in three different languages, kissing him on the forehead. Nicky lets him go, albeit reluctantly.

He opens the door and slips through, trying to allow as little light as possible into the room. It puts him very close to Andy. He doesn’t hear anyone else in the house.

“How is he?” Andy asks.

“He’s having moments,” Joe answers, gesturing vaguely at his own head. Shorthand for: nothing we haven’t seen before, nothing I know isn’t unusual, but it still breaks my heart to watch it. It’s still more than I can bear.

She nods.

“We’re going to split for a little bit,” Andy says. Joe knows this is the part where he should protest, that they’re stronger when they’re together. But this is the only moment in all his centuries that he doesn’t think it’s true.

“You and Nicky stay here,” Andy continues, nodding toward the door. “Get him healed up. When you’re ready, you can meet up with us and we’ll decide what happens next.” What happens to Booker, Joe understands.

“Where are you going?” Joe asks, clearing his throat.

“Copley’s arranging something,” Andy says. “Some place new. He’ll be with us, too, I think.”

Joe purses his lips, unable to help himself, because he doesn’t like the idea of both Booker and Copley being around Andy.

Andy rolls her eyes.

“I’ll let this slide just this once,” Andy says. “Next time, I’m reminding you how very not helpless I am.” She smirks. “Besides, I’ve got all of Nile’s years of experience at my back.”

Joe snorts.

“I suppose Nile never will let us live this one down,” Joe says. He longs for that time already: when they’ll be able to joke about how Nile had to come save Andy who had been trying to save Joe and Nicky. He doesn’t know if they’ll ever get there, though, not when the reason this particular enemy got so close is because they had inside help.

He sighs.

Andy steps in to hug him. Joe wants to hug her as tightly as he can, but he’s aware of her injury. Still, they hold each other for longer than normal. When she steps away, she pats him twice on the face.

“Take care of yourself, Joe,” she says, as if this situation is something that can be covered by such mundane advice.

“You too, Andy,” he says.

Within the hour, she’s gone, and the house yawns around Joe. Nicky is still asleep, and Joe doesn’t want to risk waiting him. He cleans instead, needing something to occupy himself with. He takes stock of the house, listing anything they might need, and then has some groceries delivered. It’s not something he cares for, but he doesn’t want Nicky to wake up and be alone.
He gets to work cooking, which is far more enjoyable to him than cleaning. And it’s nice to know he’s doing something that’s going to nurture Nicky.

He’s just finished the soup, and the garlic bread is freshly out of the oven, when he hears stirring in the bedroom. Joe gives it a moment or two, but when Nicky isn’t forthcoming, Joe heads back into the bedroom.

Nicky’s still in bed, although he cracks his eyes open just a bit when Joe walks in. He almost immediately closes them again.

Joe settles in next to him, doing his best not to jostle him. Gently, he runs a thumb over Nicky’s brow, as if trying to ease away the tension he can see there.

“How are you feeling, my love?” Joe asks softly.

Nicky hums before answering.

“Headache,” he says finally. He opens his eyes and looks at Joe, although he winces as he does. “I was shot?” Nicky asks, only half a question. He either reminds part of their earlier conversation or he’s able to put together the pieces from what he’s feeling right now.

“Yes,” Joe says. “You’re healing quickly, though, I think.” He’s silent for a moment longer, waiting to see if Nicky wants to know anything else, if he wants to ask where Andy is or what happened with Booker or confirm what he remembers about Nile. He remains quiet, though, eyes lilting shut once more.

“I’ve made you something to eat,” Joe murmurs. “And you should have some water. How would you feel about a bath after?”

Nicky hums again and shifts so that he can press the softest of kisses to Joe’s thumb. Joe loves him so much his heart aches with it. He makes a note to kiss Nicky until he’s warm and lazy with pleasure when Nicky is feeling better.

For now, kissing Nicky on the tip of his nose suffices.

“Stay here,” Joe says. He still half expects a protest from Nicky, who detests eating in bed, but Nicky doesn’t say anything.

So, Joe hurries. He scoops out a bowl of soup and just brings in most of the loaf of bread, which Nicky secretly loves but feels he shouldn’t because it comes frozen. When Joe presents it to him, Nicky shadow smiles, and Joe can’t help but feel pleased with himself.

He climbs back into bed with Nicky and they eat together, letting the silence fill the air. Nicky’s being an unusually good patient, and Joe doesn’t know if it’s simply because he feels so poorly or because he knows that Joe needs to be able to take care of someone right now.

Nicky seems ready to drift back to sleep, but Joe insistently presses a glass of water into his hand – and has another at the ready, because dehydration is no joke, immortal or not.

Nicky obediently drains both and then leans into Joe.

“Are you coming into the bath with me?” Nicky asks with a hint of teasing.

“Why, Nico,” Joe teases, his cheek pressed to the top of Nicky’s head, “are you trying to make a move on me?”

“Me?” Nicky parries back. “Never. I’m proposing a platonic bath in which we are pressed close together while naked.”

Joe laughs a little, although this is by no lengths their finest banter. But it feels good to have Nicky acting something close to normal, to have them sharing a moment close to normal. He could almost pretend they’re back at the hotel before Booker brought Andy back to them.

“Has there ever been a moment when my dick has been pressed against your bare ass that has been platonic?” Joe half whispers in teasing. He can just see the curve of Nicky’s smile.

“Mm,” he says. “I’m sure there has been. Give me a moment.”

“You think on that then,” Joe says, unwinding himself from Nicky. “I’ll go get the bath ready.” He kisses Nicky, briefly, because he can, because Nicky should always know how loved he is, because kissing this man is as natural as breathing.

He winds into the bathroom, turns on the hot water, and dumps in whatever fancy bath concoctions they have in this particular safe house. Luxurious baths have become a recent obsession of Joe’s, and it hasn’t been hard to pull Nicky along with this interest. He’s installed some truly remarkable tubs in their more updated safe houses.

By the time the tub is almost full, Nicky appears in the doorway, already naked. Joe takes a long moment to admire him – unharmed, unbloodied. A more familiar sight to Joe than his own body.

“My moon,” Joe says, holding out a hand to draw Nicky near, “My Nicolo.”

Nicky comes to stand in front of him, and Joe rests his head against Nicky’s chest so that he can feel the rise and fall of it while they wait for the tub to finish filling.

Once it is, Joe gets in the tub first and Nicky climbs in carefully after him, settling in the spread of his legs. He leans his head back against Joe’s shoulder, and Joe kisses his temple.

“Is your neck sore?” Joe murmurs.

“Yes.”

It’s a little bit awkward given their position, but Joe moves his hand up so that he can massage his fingertips into the tight muscles in Nicky’s neck. Nicky breathes out as he does and the tension starts to melt from his body. He lolls back against Joe, eyes mostly closed once more.

After hours and hours of watching Nicky hurting, it’s a relief to have some way to comfort Nicky and make him feel good.

“This touch alone would make me love you for a millennium, Yusuf,” Nicky says drowsily.

“Being able to touch you this way would be a blessing for a millennium, Nicolo,” Joe answers softly.

He lets his hands stray, idly rubbing over Nicky’s body any place that he finds a knot of tension. Nicky slowly melts against him, eyes closed again, breathing deep, all but asleep once more. They stay there until the water threatens to turn uncomfortable. Nicky is pliable as Joe maneuvers him out of the bed, towels him off, and gets him into clean pajamas and then bed. One more glass of water, and then Joe climbs in after him, holding him close.

Nicky squeezes his hand as they fall asleep together.

Andy.

It’s not quite a shout, but the urgency is there all the same – a sharp staccato that pulls Joe sharply out of sleep.

Beside him, in bed, Nicky is no longer lying down. He’s upright now, looking around half wildly before fixating on Joe. Joe’s throat tightens. Nicky’s hand goes to the back of his head, not quite touching, and then down to his abdomen, near where Andy had been shot.

“Andy?” Nicky says again, desperately this time, as if Joe can somehow change the truth of the memories that have finally returned to Nicky, seared themselves back into the synapses of his brain.

Joe doesn’t know what to say. That, yes, Andy is mortal, though, yes, she is safe and fine for now but not here. It doesn’t matter that he can’t find the right words. They’ve been together for so long that words often aren’t necessary. Nicky ran read all of it on his face.

Nicky lets out a shaky breath and then covers his face with his hands.

“Nicky,” Joe says, helplessly.

For him, Nicky moves his hands, so that Joe can see the tears that are streaking down his face.

“I can’t fathom such a thing,” Nicky says thickly. “A world without her. It’s like finding the stars gone from the sky.”

“I know,” Joe answers, because he does. What has been a constant to them in their long lives? Andy, even more so than their love. They were dreaming of Andy even when they were still bashing each other’s skulls in, when they begrudgingly agreed to travel together even if they didn’t try to communicate with one another, when they moved along to bickering over every little thing they could manage.

They’ve seen so many things and died so many deaths, and there has always been Andromache the Scythian.

He shifts so that he can pull Nicky to him and hold him. This is such a sharp pain, one that he knows they will live with for a long time – for all the years that Andy has left and then some after she has finally left them.

Nicky’s tears drip down the side of Joe’s neck, spilling onto his shoulder, into the hollow of his throat.

They stay like that for a long time. For a moment, Joe considers asking Nicky what he remembers about Booker, but he doesn’t truly want to talk about Booker right now. This moment is for Andy.

“My head hurts,” Nicky says eventually, turning his face into Joe’s shoulder so that half the words are lost.

“My heart hurts too,” Joe murmurs.

Nicky sleeps a great deal over the next few days, although he grows less patient with Joe doting on him. The baths, of course, are still acceptable, but Nicky quickly puts the kibosh on meals in bed and within a day or two has returned to the kitchen himself.

Still, they’re slow and gentle with one another. Neither of them bring up Andy again, although her specter never leaves the room, and Joe knows that sooner or later, he’s going to have to let her know when they’re meeting up. He knows that Nicky will likely want to go back before he really should, anyway.

Joe knows that he still has a headache and that everything that happened to him in the lab is still coming back to him in bits and pieces. They’ll be in the middle of a conversation or a walk, and Nicky will pause and just … drift away for a moment. He’ll come back to Joe, frowning and furrowed and looking like he’s in greater pain, but he doesn’t bring up whatever he’s remembering. Likely, it’s just part of the reel of torture they went through. And what questions or explanations can help with those scenes?

They can’t pretend that everything is okay, but they come to a sort of mutual agreement that they’re tabling a lot of the worst of it.

Until, days in, Nicky drops his knife while he’s preparing lunch for them.

Joe counts the seconds in his head while Nicky’s lost in his memories, waiting for Nicky to come back to him.

When Nicky turns, his eyes wide and hurting, Joe already knows what Nicky is going to say.

“Booker shot her.” His accent is so thick, his English is nearly incomprehensible. It’s a wonder he didn’t chose some other language.

Joe nods, feeling tired.

Nicky looks around the room, as if searching for something that could explain this revelation.

“How could he not understand?” Nicky asks, half almost talking to himself. “He’s never been alone. He’s always had us.”

“Is that enough?” Joe asks softly. He’s not in any mind to defend Booker. He’s done the indefensible, but he feels tangled in his own head over Booker’s motives, and he needs Nicky to help untangle that snarl.

Nicky’s look, something sharper than bewilderment, is answer enough: yes. Yes, to Nicky, their family has always been enough, because their family is part of their purpose. Their family is purpose itself.

“We have always had each other, Nicky,” Joe points out.

“I seem to recall you calling bullshit on that rather quickly,” Nicky says, finally smiling his small smile. “Besides,” he waves a hand, “you could lose me now and you wouldn’t do anything that would hurt anyone at all, let alone them.”

“Do I know that?” Joe murmurs. “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I lost you.”

Nicky’s face softens and he crosses to stand in between Joe’s slightly spread legs. He smooths a thumb over Joe’s forehead.

“I know you wouldn’t do that,” Nicky answers. “You would never, Joe. A broken heart doesn’t excuse what he did. And you, my love, have too kind and gentle a heart, no matter how broken, to spread that kind of hurt.”

“Did we leave them alone too long?” Joe asks, practically begging now. Nicky just looks down at him sadly.

“Joe,” he answers, cupping Joe’s face in between his hands. “Perhaps we forgot how young Booker really is, but no matter how we may be tied together, we can’t be responsible for what he’s done, even if we must live with it. You can’t tell me that Andromache hasn’t gone through pain as great or greater in enduring Quynh’s fate, but she would never make us go through that to ease her own suffering.”

Joe finds tears gathering at the corner of his eyes again.

“I’m supposed to be taking care of you,” Joe argues weakly.

“Taking care of you is taking care of me,” Nicky says, the words reflecting every century that he has spent loving Joe.

“I don’t know what we’re supposed to do next, Nicky,” Joe says, his own words catching on a sob. “Because I still love him but I can’t stand the sight of him right now. Every time I see him, I see you being cut into, I see Andy’s wound. I feel like he’s killed our brother and replaced him with this imposter.” He buries his face into Nicky’s stomach and lets himself be soothed by Nicky rubbing a hand up and down his back while he sobs into the soft cotton of Nicky’s shirt.

“You need time,” Nicky says softly when Joe has calmed some.

“Is that all?” Joe asks wetly, sniffling a bit.

“Time to not see him, I think,” Nicky murmurs. “For the worst of it to not hurt so much. For you to miss your brother more than you detest the imposter.”

Joe pulls away so that he can look at Nicky properly.

“Exile?” Joe echoes. “I’m afraid for him to be alone. I’m afraid for him to be worse.”

“I am too,” Nicky admits. “But I, at least, need time to reconcile these two Bookers. To remember they are one. I cannot be kind to him right now. And I think that cruelty would be a worser kind of loneliness. And maybe,” Nicky hesitates, “maybe with that time, he will realize what he has in us too.”

“Do you believe that?” Joe asks.

“I don’t know,” Nicky admits. “I don’t know what I believe right now, Joe.” He looks so lost.

“That’s not true,” Joe says suddenly. Nicky raises an eyebrow at him, indicating that he should go on but that he’s not entirely sure what Joe’s going to say for an odd moment.

Joe stands so that he can be closer to Nicky, so that he can press their chests together, hold Nicky’s hands, rest his forehead against Nicky’s.

“You believe,” Joe says softly, “that love and goodness are more powerful than the bad things in this world. You believe that those heal the world. You believe that we’re all supposed to be together, and you believe that our purpose is to be champions of love and goodness.”

Nicky’s smile is shy, a faint blush dusting his cheek, and Joe finds it utterly charming.

“I do,” Nicky whispers.

“And,” Joe continues, squeezing Nicky’s hand, “you believe that you and me, our love is proof of concept. Because we were hurting and scared in the beginning. We weren’t a consolation to each other, not then. We were a torment to the other, more questions in a book of mystery.”

Nicky nudges his head more solidly against Joe’s. Like it does so often, the very atmosphere around them feels charged and heavy with the love that Joe feels for this man. The thought of Booker still breaks him, but it’s something of a comfort to remember what he and Nicky had to overcome.

“I’m guessing killing Booker a few dozen times to move past this is it out of the question,” Joe sighs, not even entirely sure if he’s joking or not. And then, after a pause, “Or work through the worst of the anger while he’s away.”

“You could maybe kill him once,” Nicky says lightly.

Joe laughs, unable to help himself despite the dark topic. He nuzzles his nose against Nicky’s and contents himself with resting his body against Nicky’s for a moment. They stay like that for quite some time, taking comfort in the other.

Nothing has changed, but for the first time, Joe sees the potential for a future where everything might turn out okay.

“I think I’ll need another two days to recoup,” Nicky says finally, with an airiness that Joe knows means that Nicky could be back with the others in the next hour and be fine, but that he wants time to spend with Joe – that he knows that Joe still needs more time.

“Very sensible, my darling,” Joe agrees. “You need to finish our meal, after all, and we haven’t even opened that new container of bubble bath yet.”

The next few days aren’t easy, but they are easier. It’s time when Joe can mostly just enjoy being around Nicky while they’re safe in a place with many comforting amenities. They’re soft with another, eating a lot, dozing during the days, and making frequent use of the tub. Their touches are constant and wandering, often leading to nothing more, but occasionally to cresting orgasms that could drown Joe.

At the end of it all, Joe’s anger is still there: but it’s a piece of burning coal in the pit of stomach and back of his throat. He can still barely breathe around it, but it’s not something that’s going to burn him alive anymore. Looking at Nicky no longer causes that fire to flare hotter.

So, they move forward into whatever happens next, and they head back to what has always been their truest home: their family.