Joe was originally the better cook between them, and Nicky was a better hunter. This was when they had different names and were, in less important ways, different people. They had just spent over a century killing each other, and after the siege of Tripoli when the city was razed to the ground, they spent another hundred years in bed committing new acts of beautiful violence while the city rebuilt around them.
Joe introduced him to new spices, saffron, cinnamon, a whole spectrum of flavor Nicky didn’t understand. He’d said, “just because we can’t starve to death doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy eating for the sake of it. Open your mouth,” and Nicky complied to suck a thick sibagh off of his thumb.
“Where did you learn how to cook like that?” Nicky asked more than once.
Joe always shrugged. “Everywhere I’ve been, I guess.”
He was just naturally good at it, or made it look natural anyway, the same way he held a sword or sucked Nicky’s cock at night. His recipes lived in his head, and even if he could teach Nicky to enjoy the balance of flavors, Nicky could never recreate them when he tried on his own.
They both fell into new skills, hobbies, ways of life with each other over the centuries. Nicky learned to fence, played chess, and learned Joe's native language by studying calligraphy. He stayed out of the kitchen, but it was the smell of Joe’s cooking that always made him feel most at home. Cooking remained Joe’s thing until at least the seventeen hundreds—
—“Oh, it was at least a century after that, my love, you’re exaggerating,” Joe says, more focused on uncorking another bottle of wine than he is on Nicky or Nile. “You went to pastry school after we moved back to Paris.”
“But you forget I had an apprenticeship before, while Andy had you playing quartermaster to Napoleon.” Nicky slides his empty glass across the table to Joe.
Joe shakes his head. “You’re supposed to let it sit.”
“It was fifteen dollars at Whole Foods, it doesn’t need to sit.”
“Wait,” Nile says, knocking back the last of her own wine, before sliding her glass across the table as well. “You went to baking school in France?”
“And I had an apprenticeship.”
“I don’t know what that word is,” Nile says, trying to fit the vowels more slowly into her mouth, “oo-yoo-chin—”
“Oh, but you did so well on the rest!” Joe’s smile is complimentary, and he refills her glass first. “Your Russian is getting really good. What’s it in English, Nicolo? Apprentice, apprenticeship, I think. Like the TV show.”
“I think it’s because we always speak Russian when we’re drunk, Nile gets better when we’re all drinking.” Nicky takes his own glass back from Joe the second he refills it and swirls it aggressively, the stem caught between his fingers against their hardwood table. “We should maybe start doing language lessons before dinnertime.”
“Or we just don’t have to drink,” Joe says, but he’s refilling his own glass.
“You’re no fun,” Nicky gripes.
Joe laughs and rolls his eyes, passing around his back to get to the kitchen. He kisses the top of Nicky’s head as he goes. “Maybe so. But now that I think about it, learning Russian drunk is a very authentic experience.”
“An authentic experience would be losing three toes to frostbite in Leningrad.” Nicky smiles at Nile across the table like it’s funny or relatable.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, taking another sip of wine. “I spent my service in the desert. All I had to worry about was heat stroke and camel spiders.”
“And, you know”—Nicky mimes slicing his throat open with his finger—”that.”
“Well, that’s what I’d thought,” she says, staring down at the table, its glossy, waxed surface. “Anyway.”
“Anyway,” Nicky repeats, a little more somber, realizing his mistake.
“I’m checking on the carrots,” Joe excuses himself completely and abandons them for the kitchen.
“What I’ve been trying to say is, between the two of us, he’s always been the better cook. I like to be in the kitchen, but it makes sense to him. But also, he cannot bake to save his life,” Nicky says, leaning forward with a conspiratory smile. Nile finds herself charmed by him despite so many things. “I’m an incredible baker.”
“Because you went to school,” Nile says. “Why?”
“‘Why’ anything? Life is long and boring. I like learning, I like sweet things, things that for a long time just belonged to a place where Joe was from, where he brought me, how he would spoil me in between the wars.” Nicky sighs, swirling his wine again. “Also it thrills me that he can cut and clean an entire lamb, but he can’t bake a loaf of bread to save his life.”
“It’s very hard!” Joe’s voice bellows from the kitchen.
Nile laughs and shakes her head a little. “I don’t get you guys.”
“No?” Nicky gets his elbows on the table and rests his chin on his knuckles. “What don’t you get?”
In the many months since Andy first found her and dragged her to France, in all the time between that she’s spent with the three of them learning and adapting, fighting and training, Nile’s felt an indescribable disconnect between herself and Joe and Nicky. Andy is almost professional in a sense, teaching her how to fight and wield new weapons, or taking her out to lunch to correct her mannerisms, coach her on becoming invisible. But when it comes to learning languages, Nicky and Joe are more suited, and they invite her to their condos, homes, cabins, and safehouses they've collected over the millenia. Joe cooks them dinner, or sometimes they go out, but they always return home and have a couch or a bed that Nile can sleep on. Even the guest rooms have personal touches; faded screen dividers to dress behind, copper candlestick holder on the nightstand, an antique silver jewelry box inlaid with opals and turquoise.
“I don’t know.” Earlier in the day Nicky had taught her how to read signatures on the bottom of silver furnishings to detect authenticity. Before that they had intercepted a sex trafficking ring, and Nile puked and cried afterward while Joe held her hair, ignoring three bullet wounds in his chest. “You guys are just so normal.”
“Dinner’s ready.” Joe reappears in the door between the dining room and the kitchen.
Nicky coaxes him over with a curled finger, and pulls him down by the shirt when he gets close enough for a kiss. “Nile is complaining we’re too normal.”
Joe runs his hand through Nicky’s hair, turning his attention to Nile. “I think that’s her way of calling us old. You live long enough that the world doesn’t phase you anymore.”
“Okay, I just mean, like, compared to Andy—”
Both Joe and Nicky laugh, cutting her off. Joe says, “Wait, is your baseline here really going to be Andy? You want us to be more like her?”
“I didn’t say that.” Nile frowns, mouth screwing up a little. “It just makes sense sometimes, you know, how she is.”
“Oh, it’s not that we’re old, it’s that we’re boring.” Joe says, hand sliding down Nicky’s neck to rub his back.
Nicky sniffs. “Well, sorry we don’t keep our belongings in a cave and we didn’t invent krav maga or whatever.”
“You know what, not what I said, you’re putting words in my mouth now.” She takes another big swig of wine to give her the extra five seconds to collect her thoughts. “I just mean, you guys balance it. Whatever it is, it’s like you aren’t phased by it all. Yeah, Andy’s her own deal, but Booker’s like eight hundred and some years younger than you, and even he—”
She can’t find the words again. Nicky purses his lips, humming, but he nods like he gets it.
“He grieves, yes. He is still grieving.” He sets his glass down. “He’s young. People like you and Book, there were things you lost, or there’s people you’re gonna lose. Joe and I never had that though, not until the day we died. When we became a family, there was no one to replace. He fills a void in me that only held fear and anger before I knew him.”
“We’ve seen the worst in humanity since our first days on this earth. Even on days like today—it’s a luxury that we can make a home to return to, put roots down, find a favorite restaurant, get a stupid hobby, feel human,” Joe says. He squeezes the back of Nicky’s neck. “Don’t think you can’t grieve, Nile. You should feel however you feel. But don’t let it own you. You have too many things to do.”
Nile suddenly feels like she wants to cry. Yes, she’s still grieving. Yes, she misses her mom who is out there somewhere in the world thinking her baby girl is dead. Yes, she sees awful things every day when she’s out eradicating the worst of people, and time feels like it’s going so fast that she never gets to catch her breath from everyone trying to kill her again and again and again. The only time she ever sleeps a full night and feels remotely part of herself is when she stays with Nicky and Joe, who shampoo brains out of each other’s hair in the shower and clean their guns on the couch watching Chopped reruns.
Nicky leans across the table to take her hands in his. “We’re being serious. But I think it’s important to feel normal sometimes, so you don’t go crazy. And maybe we want to help you find whatever it is that brings you back to earth when you feel lost. Because we know Andy sure as hell isn’t going to do that.” He squeezes her hands. “There’s at least five or seven languages we have to teach you, and I know Joe wants to teach you how to use a bow and arrow.”
She laughs and sniffs, pressed between sadness and fondness like a flower in a book. She wipes at the corner of her eye. “A bow and arrow, huh?”
“On horseback,” Joe confirms. “But first, c’mon guys. Dinner. Let’s take a break from the feelings stuff for a bit, okay?”
Dinner is sumac roasted carrots and grilled duck hearts over a tabbouleh salad. Nicky stands over the table to take an artsy shot for his foodie Instagram account. It’s a nice looking plate of food, nicer even than the other dinners Joe has made when she’s been over, but she’s not about to complain or disrespect their hospitality more than she feels like she has already.
She takes a bite. Her eyes go wide. It tastes even better than it looks. Nicky catches the look on her face and points smugly with his fork and says, mouth half full, “See, I told you, he’s a natural.”
“I’m not arguing, I don’t even know what I’m tasting right now, but it’s amazing,” she replies, trying to cut another bite with a little bit of everything on it. “Maybe Joe should go on Chopped.”
“Oh yeah, that would help us keep a low profile,” Joe says, but he’s clearly pleased that she seems to be enjoying dinner so much.
“Babe, my love, hear us out: what would you make with a basket with uh, let’s see, persimmons, a bottle of grappa, uh, fingerling potatoes, and, help me out, Nile—”
“I don’t know, uh, bologna?”
“Yes.” Nicky chokes down another sip of wine, delighted. “And bologna. What would you make?”
“You’re both evil,” Joe says, shaking his head. “But uh, probably tacos.”
“Tacos?” Nile repeats, and now she’s trying not to laugh. “Okay, wait a second, hold up. Tacos? Wait, wait, wait—”
Which is how the rest of the dinner turns into Nile and Nicky shouting ingredients at Joe, asking him what he’d make with them. Half the time Joe says, “you know, I think you guys are really overestimating my skills here,” but then comes up with something that at least sounds good, or fancy, or both. Soon enough their plates are clean, the second bottle of wine is polished off, and Nicky is eyeing a third while Nile catches her breath from laughing.
“That was amazing,” she says, holding her stomach. “Thank you. I’m stuffed.”
“Stuffed?” Nicky looks suddenly distraught. “No room for dessert?”
“Dessert? What is this, you guys?” She’s had dinner with them multiple times, and it’s always good, but it’s also usually like, pizza or something quick.
Nicky and Joe share a look, and Nicky says, “go get it,” and Joe says, “no, you made it, you get it,” and Nicky rolls his eyes while Nile sits there confused.
“You guys,” she says again, eyes darting back and forth between them.
“I’ll get it,” Nicky says. “Nile, wait here!”
“I literally don’t think I can move, so,” Nile replies.
Nicky gets up and goes into the kitchen, and after some curious shuffling noises, returns with a huge fucking cake. It looks like something out of a magazine with its sharp, rounded white buttercream and molten caramel dripping down the sides. “I just want to preface this by saying that I am classically trained in pastry, and it’s been years since I made a birthday cake. But I tasted along the way and I think it’s gonna be pretty damn good.”
“Uh.” Nile sits there dumbfounded for a second, staring at the cake when he puts it down in front of her. “What the fuck? I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’s not my birthday.”
“It kind of is though, no?” Nicky puts a big number one candle into the middle of the cake. “It’s been a year since you’ve been with us, you know, saved our lives, killed that big pharma teenager trying to sell our skin biopsies for money.”
“We wanted to celebrate,” Joe says. His hands are folded together under his chin, elbows on the table. “One year with our happy family.”
She looks at the candle and can’t believe it. “Happy, huh?”
“We could be,” Nicky says, leaning over the candle with a lighter. “You wanna blow it out and make a wish?”
“Sure, why not,” she replies. Her smile feels too big and fragile on her face while Nicky lights the candle, and Joe leans back in his chair to turn out the lights.
She makes a wish.