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Affirmations of Soft Things

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Blood soaks into the worn fabric of the passenger seat as Nile slumps against the window, utterly spent. The pools of light beneath the street streetlamps flash past in a hypnotic pattern of bright and dark. Illuminating small circles of painful normalcy as they pass; two friends laughing as they walk, an empty bus stop, a man with a dog. In a different world that would have been her out there; living, loving, someday dying. It's amazing how quickly she’s become divorced from her previous life.

Inside the truck she can feel the others around her. Booker is driving, his breathing has steadied but there's a raw, hollow look in his eyes. In the backseat Nicky and Joe are curled together, soft words and touches passing between them. If Nile listened she would have been able to translate what they were saying to each other. But she does not, this is their time together, they deserve some small privacies in this world, even from their family. Further back she knows Andy and Quynh are curled together in the enclosed truck bed, nestled between bags full of weapons and equipment.

Trees whip past as Booker turns onto a rural lane, doing his best to throw off any pursuit without making the journey any longer than it needed to be. In some perverse way it reminds Nile of road trips as a kid; her father in the driver’s seat, her mom napping beside him and her and her brother tucked in the back seats. Falling asleep on the return trip and waking up as their parents carried them inside to bed. A tear trickles down her cheek and mixes with the blood soaking into the seat fabric.

Eventually, Booker pulls onto a rutted dirt road and parks the truck behind a decrepit farmhouse. Turning off the engine, he slumps back in his seat, bringing a gore encrusted hand to his face and rubbing his eyes exhaustedly. For a minute they all just sit there in silence, letting some small part of the stress of the mission slip away.

There’s a rustling of canvas bags as Quynh extracts herself from Andy’s arms and pops open the back of the truck. Nicky helps Joe out of the backseat as Nile stumbles out her door and leans against the side of the vehicle. After a second she moves around to help Booker out of his seat and half supports him as the group moves into the house.

For the first time one of them speaks.

“We should get cleaned up,” Joe murmurs, voice cracking slightly. He took the brunt of the wounds during the mission, though none of them escaped entirely unscathed. Every part of him is coated in a mixture of drying blood and spilled engine grease. Nicky moves to help him but Joe waves him off, “No, habibi, no need to get yourself dirty.” Nicky is the cleanest of the group at the moment, having been mostly removed from the fighting with his sniper rifle for this mission.
Nicky looks mildly put out for half a second at the rejection of his help but, ever pragmatic, recovers and nods. “I’ll put some food together while you all clean up. Help me Quynh?” She nods and the two move off into the kitchen, leaving the other four to mutually stumble into the house’s single bathroom.

They work as a group, silently helping each other peel off clothes shredded with bullet holes and stiff with dried blood. Nile starts the shower as Andy, rather than be forced to smear gore in her hair, cuts her unsalvageable sports bra off with a razor blade. Joe stumbles as he steps into the shower and only Booker’s strong hand on his lower back keeps him upright. He mumbles his thanks as the others crowd in with him.

The shower was never made to fit more than two people so it's a tight fit. Their bodies are pressed against each other as the water washes over their heads, turning shockingly crimson before it swirls down the drain.

Andy wraps her long arms around Joe and pulls his back against her chest as Nile opens a bottle of shampoo to start scrubbing blood from his curls. Joe sags into Andy, letting her take his weight, eyes closing slightly as he finally relaxes for the first time since they left the house this morning. Andy murmurs quietly, words of comfort in a language Nile has only just started to pick up. Behind her Booker is lathering up his hands to wash her back where the exit points of a half dozen shots are marked with messy circles of crusty ichor.

As Andy and Nile finish helping clean Joe he steps from the shower, wrapping himself in a soft towel they had left there that morning for after the mission. There's a soft knock at the door before it opens to Nicky bearing a pile of more towels.

“I wasn’t sure we had left enough in here,” he explains as he balances them on the sink before swooping in to take his husband’s face in his hands and press a soft kiss to his forehead.

“Thanks, Nicky,” Booker smiles as he helps Andy sponge at the blood splattered across her chest, “We’ll be out in a minute.”

Nicky nods, distracted as he helps Joe to his feet. Peppering kisses across his jawbone the whole time. As they reach the door Quynh appears silently to help support Joe down the hall to the kitchen. In the bathroom Andy moves to the back of the shower to give Nile a chance to step under the lukewarm water.

“Wait, Nile,” Booker says, reaching out a hand. She just looks up at him quizzically. “What about your hair?” he clarifies, “We don’t have any of your products with us.” The soft smile that spreads across her face is one of the most gorgeous things he’s ever seen. Today was bad, it says, but they’re all still in one piece, they’re together, everything will be alright.

“I know, Book,” she leans her forehead into his chest for a second, “but right now the need to not have bits of my own brains in my hair far outweighs my desire to stick to my hair care routine.”

Andy chuckles at that behind him as she leans down to help clean his legs, “she’s got a point there Sebastien.”

Nile steps back into the water and closes her eyes as it pours over her head, letting the stress of the day be carried away. Booker’s hands are on her shoulders, rubbing the kinks from her neck. Immortality could undo a head wound in minutes but apparently even it struggled with anxiety induced muscle cramps. Nile found that deeply ironic.

Andy steps from the shower, wrapping herself in a towel before tossing one to Nile. Booker finishes washing the last of the soap suds from his skin before shutting off the water and joining them. “Going to have to do some deep cleaning in here,” he notes, eyeing the bloody detritus they had left scattered across the bathroom floor.

“Later,” Nile groans as she opens the door, the smell of cooking food making her groan in happiness. “Food first, chores later.” She walks down the hall to the kitchen where Joe and Nicky are sitting on the floor, wrapped around each other. Quynh stands at the stove, stirring a pot of bubbling stew. She tosses a small grin over her shoulder as they come in and silently points at a pile of clothes on the kitchen table.

“You’re a saint,” Booker says, grabbing sweatpants and a ratty tee shirt before settling down on a chair to put them on. Next to him Nile has swapped her towel for an oversized button up shirt and some sleep shorts, unashamed to be changing in front of her adoptive family. It amazes him sometimes how quickly she has adapted to their lifestyle; the level of trust and love she has for all of them.

“A saint? Perhaps. I have been known to pull off a miracle or two,” Quynh laughs as she reaches out to pull her half-dressed wife into a kiss. Andy snorts and deepens the kiss, doing her best to not get too much of the blood that still splatters Quynh onto her clean clothes.

“Do you want to go now?” she asks Quynh.

Quynh shakes her head, “Nicky first, I can finish cooking.” Nicky throws her a grateful look and he and Joe stand, heading back to the bathroom with their arms wrapped around each other.

Andy pulls a chair across the room to sit next to Quynh and they tuck their heads together in quiet conversation as Quynh slowly stirs the pot. After a few minutes even their discussion drifts to an end and the four sit together in companionable silence until Nicky and Joe rejoin them; dressed and notably rosy cheeked.

As they cluster around the kitchen table Quynh ladles stew into bowls and passes them out to quiet murmurs of appreciation. Andy lets them all get some food into their bellies before she speaks up, “I’ll go first tonight. Today was rough, to say the least, but we got through it. One good thing today though was how Nile instantly stepped in and continued helping the civilians after I went down. You continue to grow and learn with such grace and I am forever thankful that I am alive to witness it.” The younger immortal blushes at this unusual warmth from Andy, who continues unabated, “I love you all and I am glad we are together to share this evening.”

It's a tradition that had been born after a particularly awful job in northern Sweden; a simple affirmation that there were good things in the world even when they were up to their necks in the absolute worst it had to offer.

Quynh goes next, “Perhaps not as personal as Andromache’s but I saw a deer with fauns standing in the fog on the drive this morning. It was peaceful. It reminds me that the world continues on, life continues on through times good and ill.”

“Tonight I got to hold the love of my life in my arms and feel his heartbeat next to mine. What other good do I need in this world? He is my light and my guiding star,” Joe says, a smile on his lips as Nicky buries his face in Joe’s neck.

“Poetry,” Nicky murmurs happily. “I heard a song on the radio today that I had never heard before. It was simultaneously so alien to the music of when I was born and yet… many of the themes remain the same. The creation of art continues no matter what. Sometimes it is a song, sometimes a painting and sometimes,” he grins, “sometimes it is my husband speaking words of pure poetry to me.” Joe smiles and leans in to kiss Nicky.

“Get a room you two,” Quynh snorts. The phrase had quickly become one of her favorites after Nile had taught it to her.

“I saw a woman today carrying a bouquet of roses as if they were the most precious thing in the world,” says Booker. “I don’t know where she was heading or who they were for but I think the love and care she was showing those flowers was really the love she had for their recipient. It was a good reminder of the love inherent to simple acts,” he trails off only to have Nile pick up where he left off.

“Simple acts,” she muses, “I'm thankful that my family is here to take care of me. That I can step into the shower and be greeted with people who are ready to help clean the blood from my back and rub the tension from my muscles. That I can walk into the kitchen and be given clothes and food. That I can, and will, do the same for all of you.” She smiles at them all, “I really do love you all.”

“As we love you,” Joe grins, “I thank the world every day that it brought you to us.”

“Sap,” teases Andy gently as she tears off a piece of bread and goes back to her stew.

“I’m the sap? After the speech you just gave?”

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Andy lies easily. They happily tease and needle each other as they finish eating. The pain of the day being washed away by the close proximity of family.

When she’s done with her stew Quynh picks at a spot of dried blood on her arm before glancing at Andy and Booker. They both nod. Even after all these years Quynh still struggles with water. She hasn’t bathed without at least one of them by her side since she returned to them. Andy will always be there to help her with all the patience her immortality has to offer. And Booker is the only one among them who can truly empathise with Quynh’s experience.

As the three drop their dishes into the sink and head off Nile moves to start dishes; only to be stopped by Nicky. “Let me tesoro, go help Joe set up the beds.” Behind them Joe has begun unearthing a pile of blankets from assorted closets throughout the house, piling them next to the old mattresses stacked in the corner of the living room. Working together they push the furniture against the walls, clearing a large open area in the center of the floor. Joe tosses the worn mattresses down before flopping forward onto the closest one.

“Joe,” Nile admonishes as she hefts a pile of blankets, “You have to make the bed first.”

“Just pile the blankets on top of me,” Joe mumbles, face squashed into the mattress.

“I think Nicky would be rather grumpy if he wasn’t able to cuddle you,” Nile shoots back, raising her voice to be audible in the kitchen.

“I very much would!” comes Nicky’s responding shout, accompanied by the sound of clattering dishes. Joe chuckles and hauls himself back to his feet with Nile’s help.

“What would Nicky be?” Andy asks as she and Booker re-emerge from the bathroom, followed by a far cleaner Quynh.

“They’re ganging up on me, boss,” Joe complains before either of the other two can say anything, “apparently they think you need to make the bed before sleeping in it.”

“I agree with Joe,” says Andy, “We’ve slept in far worse places than an unmade bed. Remember Verdun? I think there’s still mud in my ears from sleeping in those trenches.”

“Just because you’ve spent millennia sleeping in the dirt doesn’t mean the rest of us want to,” Nile chimes in as she fits a sheet over one of the mattresses. Booker makes a noise of agreement as he crouches down to help her.

Actually getting to bed is never a quick endeavor. Hair needs to be prepped for sleep, weapons stowed within reach, and locks triple checked. First, Booker insists on resetting the security system twice. Then, Andy and Quynh have to be cajoled from the chair where they had ensconced themselves to kiss each other. Finally though they come together. Nicky and Joe curl together on one side of the bed, Andy next to them with Quynh in her arms. Nile wraps herself around Quynh’s back, burying her face in the other woman’s hair as Booker dims the lights and settles in behind her. One by one they slowly drift off, wrapped in each other’s arms and thoughts.