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the old guard coffee house

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“The angry man is back,” Nicky murmured under his breath as he leaned back towards Andy, raising an eyebrow. Andy only snorted, and shook her head. He’d been angry from the moment he’d walked in the shop for the first time, though misspelling his name- Nicky had never met a Yusuf before, and it was easy to mishear things in the busy shop- well, it certainly hadn’t helped. He hadn’t gotten it wrong once since, though the glare he got made him double check it every time. He always came in a few minutes before nine, and a few minutes after twelve, always rushing and carrying stacks of papers. Nicky wondered what he might be doing, rushing all the time, but living in London meant that any profession was possible, really.

He knew how much Booker had to work, studying, and saw the same harried look in his eye sometimes. Perhaps the handsome- not that Nicky had paid much attention on that front, not for a long time, no, and his faint blush after serving him was from the lingering embarrassment, and not anything else, no matter what Booker liked to say when the shop door closed behind Yusuf’s freshly-caffeinated back- perhaps he had a similar job.

“Good morning, how may I help you today?” Nicky asked, plastering a smile on his slightly flustered face as the other man approached the counter. It was met with a scowl, and Nicky almost recoiled as dark eyes with deep bags met his. “Your usual?” 

The shop was quiet- Yusuf often came in during lulls, so Nicky had the chance to get to know his order. Black coffee. Nothing special. And a concerning amount of sugar, but nothing else. Really, he didn’t even need to write the name on the cup, but it was protocol. After those hipster children had made complaints about not getting the full coffee shop experience. Starbucks had a lot to answer for.

Carefully, considerately, Nicky wrote out his name. It was the only one he ever really concentrated on, anymore- well, ever. He figured most people were more intent on what was in the cup, but he wasn’t going to make that mistake with him again. Handing the cup back to Andy, he turned to face Yusuf.

“Exciting day planned?” he asked, deadpan. Yusuf glanced at him, frowning a little and shaking his head. Not… the reaction Nicky had wanted.

“Work. Just… work.” He shrugged a shoulder, and Andy set the now full cup on the side. Nicky set it on the counter, smiling at him slightly, encouraging. 

“Well, have a good day at work, Yusuf. ” Nicky nodded as the next customer trailed through the door. He nodded back, almost surprised, and took his cup with a muttered ‘ and you ’. Nicky breathed out a deep sigh and shook his head as the man left. It was nearly a smile, that time.

There was always a rush before people got into work- usually a little before Yusuf turned up- and a second one after they arrived, sent out to fetch the office coffee. They barely had a moment to think until shortly before the lunch rush was expected to happen.

“Oh, have a nice day , Yusuf, I’m so happy to see you, Yusuf…” Booker called out from where he was cleaning down the tables in the now-empty shop. He’d paused to check his phone, sliding it back into his apron after glancing at the name, and was leaning back against an almost finished table. “Anyone would think you had a crush on him. You could just put your phone number on his cup, you know, instead of his name at all.”

“I- I do not . And I will not!” He replied, emphatically as he busied himself cleaning the counter in front of him. “I want to make sure he knows I simply misheard him, and now…”

“Now you need him to know how sorry you are.” Andy cut in, reaching out to shove his shoulder gently. Turning to the back office, she shrugged a shoulder. “If you really like the man you call almost exclusively ‘the angry man’ when he’s not in the shop,” she frowned a little and shook her head. “Just remember how he treated you, you don’t need to keep making an effort. Serve him and move on, and if he does anything to upset you again, he’s not coming back.”

“I… appreciate the concern, Andy.” Nicky said with a nod, but Booker’s words were spiralling in his head. Why was he so concerned with what the ‘angry man’ though? Why was he so obsessed with making him smile? He was snapped out of his thoughts as the door to the office shut. Andy probably had plenty to do back there, and he and Booker could deal with anything on the shop floor without her. The three of them worked well together- their own little team.

Glancing over at Booker, Nicky frowned a little. He was glancing at his phone repeatedly, slipping it away as soon as he thought someone might be looking at him. Leaning forwards on the counter, he called out to him.

“Book, the phone isn’t going to turn into a monster, what has you so worried?” He asked, resting his chin in his hands. “Annoyed another poor girl?” 

“Ah, very funny. No, it’s… it’s about my classes, about the Bar exam. It’s coming up now and I’m just… worried.” Booker replied, frown deepening as he put his phone away quickly. “It’ll all be fine, Nicky. No worrying.”

Booker had been at school for what felt like forever, changing his majors until he was the oldest member of his, supposedly, final choice- Law. He’d joined the coffee shop’s little family when he’d gotten into law school, apparently having finally run out the sizeable inheritance he had been given by some distant family member through the seemingly infinite years of schooling. Nicky cared for him, but he didn’t understand him. He, too, had been unsure what he wanted to do when he reached adulthood- but instead of joining the army, as his father had wanted, he found himself settled in London, and working in a coffee shop while he tried to figure out what came next. He was still trying to figure that out. 

“If you need more time to study, I could take a shift or two.” Nicky offered, shrugging a little. He usually had at least a couple of days off a week, and rarely had much to fill it outside of cooking and baking- and there came a point where even a coffee shop couldn’t sell everything. That, and he was glad Booker was finally finishing something. But Booker shook his head.

“I should be fine, at least for a few more weeks. Just waiting for emails, about my practice results.” He glanced back at his phone, shrugging a little before slipping it back into his apron pocket.. “But none yet. Soon, I’m sure.”

Nicky was, at least, glad that his job didn’t involve exams. At least, not often. Sometimes, Andy would start quizzing them all on whatever subject took her fancy that day, and they certainly felt like examinations of a kind.

He shrugged off Booker’s agitation, and occupation with his phone, and went back to cleaning his station, greeting the trail of customers that started to come in, leading to the evening rush. For people needing caffeine to get through the rush hour home, The Old Guard Coffee House  was a much needed stop.

By now, Yusuf had missed his second appointment at the shop- usually a little while after the lunch rush- and as the days went on, he missed another, and another, until he came in a little after noon a few days later.

Andy raised an eyebrow at how Nicky straightened a little, turning to face him fully with a smile. 

“Yusuf, how can I help you today? You haven’t been in for a while.” Nicky said, second guessing the words as they came out of his mouth. But this time, he did get a ghost of a smile. 

“Ah, a black coffee, please. I’ve been… busy, with work.” Yusuf rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck. “I was starting to forget what the outside world looks like.” As he pulled a face, Nicky chuckled and went to write his name on the cup, but Yusuf’s hand shot out and curled around his wrist gently. 

“Oh, I-”

“It’s- I’m sorry, for how harsh I was before. I… I had had a bad day, and I am used to people mocking my name.” Yusuf shrugged a shoulder, looking at the cup. “But some of my friends, at work, they call me Joe.”

Blinking, Nicky nodded and looked up at him with wide eyes. He was willing himself to not blush, not now, don’t make it obvious- and then Joe let go of his arm, muttering an apology. Writing Joe, in big clear letters on the cup, Nicky handed it back to Andy with a harsh look. Andy took it, miming her lips zipped shut, and made the coffee. 

As they waited, Nicky tried desperately hard not to stare. But now he’d seen the man smile- albeit faintly, barely- he wanted to make it happen again. Unfortunately, he had nothing to go on.

“So… where is it that you work?” Nicky asked, waiting for Andy to set the cup down. Joe blinked back for a moment and shrugged a shoulder.

“Oh, I’m a lawyer. More of a… dogsbody, at the moment. But one day I’ll be able to run my own firm. Take on clients I want to, you know?”

Smiling and nodding, he glanced over to Booker, sat in the corner on his break. While there was enough space in the back office to sit and take a break, Andy’s precarious piles of paperwork made for a much tenser lunch than you needed after dealing with customers all morning.

“One of my coworkers is studying to be a lawyer, maybe one day he will work with you.” He smiled as Andy finally set the drink on the counter, and handed it over to him. “I hope you have a good, less busy day today, Joe.”

“Ah- and… and you, Nicolo.” Joe said, squinting a moment at the nametag on his shirt. Nicky was about to correct him- his paperwork might have said Nicolo, but no one outside of Italy called him that, apart from the owner of this place. But all too quickly, as he was processing how his name sounded in Joe’s mouth, the other man was gone.

With Nicky left gaping a little like a fish, Booker chuckled into his sandwich. It seemed that last part had, at least, been loud enough for him to hear.

“Oh, Joe and Nicolo , hm? When I first came here-” Nicky cut him off with a short noise, and one of the charity pins they sold aimed for his head.

“When you first came here you were insufferable, so it seems nothing has changed, hm?” Nicky shot back, though he was grinning. “Well, Joe actually smiled today. Perhaps I was wrong, labelling him the angry man so soon.”

Andy snorted from behind the counter, shaking her head a little. “I’ll believe it when I see him smile more than once- and at someone other than you.” She draped herself over his shoulders for a minute with a smirk. “No one can help smiling at you, Nicolo. ” Almost squawking in distaste, Nicky turned to swat at Andy as she danced away into the back office. “I have work to do, so play nice.”

Nicky huffed a breath as he perched on the stool behind the counter. Booker was finishing his break- they took it in turns, who got to go on break before and after the lunchtime rush. But soon enough the queue started forming, and the day continued as it usually did. 

Except for the man that Nicky now couldn’t get out of his mind.

Chapter Text

Nicky had never actually seen Andy distressed before, and it was quite off putting- not that he was going to say anything. She had a phone call earlier, that morning, and she’d yet to tell anyone what it was about, but something told him she didn’t like it- something like the tense way she was holding herself, the one word snappy answers to the most innocent of questions. 

Even seeing Joe, and managing to get a smile again, wasn’t making up for how much his boss was clearly upset. As the day came to an end, she called out to Booker as he was heading out of the door. Nicky was still finishing up his closing duties, and he paused as Andy stood in the middle of the smallish shop floor and looked between the two of them.

“I had a call from the owner.” Booker and Nicky’s faces turned ashen at this. What could the owner want, except… “They’re… contemplating selling. But, apparently, their… niece? Great-niece? Some kind of relative, well. She needs a job, apparently, and if we can train her and give her a ‘positive work experience’ then… well, they might rethink selling.” 

They both let out sighs, though the slight relief that they weren’t imminently losing their jobs wasn’t much when faced with the fact they’d have a new member of the crew- and one with a direct line to the owner was enough to make even the best employee nervous. 

“What… is she like?” Nicky chanced to ask, leaning on the counter and tilting his head to the side. Andy shrugged.

“I have no idea. That’s all I was told. But we’ll be finding out in a couple of days- she starts on Monday.” She put her hands in her pockets and looked between the two of them. “Look, I don’t like being told who I have to hire. We don’t even need an extra pair of hands, not really, and if she doesn’t like being a barista, we could all lose our jobs. It’s an unfortunate position.”

Booker laughed and shook his head. “That’s one way to put it, boss.”

“She might be nice?” Nicky offered, casting another glance over his workspace before going to fetch his things from his locker in the back office. “It could be good for us, Andy. With Booker’s exam coming up, it makes sense to have an extra pair of hands trained and ready. Especially given we’ll have to hire someone new when he passes the Bar, anyway!” Trying to keep them upbeat, Nicky grinned at both of them. “And think of it this way, Booker. Finally, you get to stop being the new one.”

Huffing, Booker shook his head. “Having to train a baby, who has only been given the job because she’s related to the owner? No, thank you.” 

“Well, ring-a-ding-ding, Booker, you just won the prize of being the one to train her.” Andy said, raising an eyebrow. “I trained Nicky, Nicky trained you, and now it’s your turn.” Her order was met with a relatively good natured groan and grumble as Booker picked up the last of his things and turned to leave. “Bright and early tomorrow, Book. Gotta teach them to be punctual.”

Sighing, he shook his head and muttered something under his breath in French. Firing back at him without a second thought, Andy stalked over to him as he fumbled the door, escaping the shop only after a vigorous hair ruffle.

Nicky shrugged as she turned back to him. “You know, I think some new blood might be a good idea. I can keep an eye on Booker, if he starts cutting corners.” Andy shook her head.

“No, no. He complains but he knows it’s smart, in a way, to have a new employee trained and ready for when he leaves. I just…” She trailed off and shook her head again.

“You wish you’d had a choice in it.” Nicky finished for her, and she levelled a look at him before nodding once. “I understand. But give her a chance, Andy. I think she might be better than you expect.”

Sighing deeply, Andy shooed Nicky away. “Go on, you should have finished ten minutes ago. Get out of here, go do… something that has nothing to do with coffee.” Nicky smiled and nodded back at her, twining his scarf around his neck.

“Yes boss, I will.” 

It had been what felt like far too long since Booker had joined them. Not because he didn’t want him around- far from it, he was a part of their family- but because he had already been with Andy in the shop for so much time before even that. A new person arriving reminded him that he had been here for as long as he had, and sometimes… sometimes he wondered if what he had really was enough. He had plenty of time to mull it over between leaving the shop and returning the next morning- thinking while baking was one his top skills, and he had the feeling Andy would need the baklava to get her through the day.

When he arrived, a young black woman was sitting outside the shop. Nicky was due to open, but even he was five minutes early for his shift.

“Oh, hello. I’m very sorry, but we don’t open for another fifteen minutes?” He said, approaching slowly as she seemed to be in her own world. She didn’t seem to notice until he was practically on top of her and she snapped out of it, looking up at him and taking her headphones out. 

“Hi, are you Andy? I’m Nile, I’m here to start my training?” She said, holding out a hand confidently, seemingly unruffled. Nicky’s eyes widened and he smiled warmly at her, shaking his head.

“Andy won’t be in for another hour or so- I’m Nicky, and Booker, who should be here in the next five minutes, will be your main trainer. But I can show you where to put your things, and show you around, if you’d like?” He offered, smiling brightly now as he turned to open the door and let them both in. “You’re very early.”

Nile shrugged, looking around the modest space. The scattered tables and mismatched chairs each had character- a story to them. Nicky often sat at the tables investigating each scratch, each scuff, each unexplained mark. The furniture of the Old Guard was… old. And each piece made it a little more like home. He knew it didn’t look like much to an outsider.

“I wanted to show I’m. I’m not just here because of my family, I want to work hard, get some experience, you know? I think it’s important to… well, do your duty.” She blushed a little, shaking her head. “I mean, I’m not expecting to be in the line of fire for making coffee, but… I don’t want a free ride. I want to serve. My mom cried for an hour when I told her I wanted to join the armed forces, so I thought something else might be better, and I’m in the UK on a working holiday, and… well, you know the rest.”

As Nile had been speaking, Nicky had busied himself starting getting things working. They’d cleaned everything down the night before, so a quick wipe and he was ready to go. 

“I do?” He asked, raising an eyebrow with a hint of a smirk on his lips. She looked at him strangely, and then shrugged. “Ah, no, I do. Andy, she doesn’t like to keep things from us. I’m glad you aren’t the…”

“Spoiled brat you expected?” Nile said with a chuckle as she looked up at the signs. There weren’t too many fancy drinks- mostly syrup options, and sometimes they had fancy hot chocolates. Nicky liked to sample those, but he wasn’t really allowed. Not after the Peppermint incident. 

“No, you are not, and I am very glad. Would you like a drink, to start the day?” He asked, getting himself his own coffee ready as he moved around the space with practiced ease. Nile nodded, and she came behind the counter to watch him. They spent some time talking through the different machines, sipping coffee, as the shop slowly came to life and he started serving customers. Booker was, as usual- late. Only ten minutes or so, and Nicky thought that was probably the closest to punctual it was possible for him to get. 

He took over training Nile relatively easily, showing her the different machines in more detail- more formality- as if Andy turned up and he was calling the milk frother the noisy box he might get in trouble.

Nicky kept an eye on the front, making sure that even during the rush the trainee wasn’t about to get overwhelmed. Things were kept ticking- especially when Andy arrived early. It was too busy for a decent while for them to even talk, but finally as things calmed again she gave Nile a once over and looked at Booker. He shrugged.

“Fast learner, I think, and she hasn’t done anything terrible in the last… hour and a half.” He said, leaning back against an uncleared table. “She has promise.” Andy nodded, giving Nile another considering look. 

“I’m Andy. I hope you settle in here.” She said, offering her a hand. They shook, and eventually Andy pulled back and nodded again. “I have some things to do in the back office, you do have some things to sign as well?” She said, gesturing. The two of them headed back and Booker and Nicky were left alone in the quiet shop for a moment. 

They were elbow deep in cleaning up the detritus of the early morning rush when he saw the new person. An older black man, in a nicely tailored suit, stood outside the door reading the posters for a while. Nicky only noticed when he finally cleared the tables by the window, seeing him unmoving in the street the whole time it took him to balance the cups and throw out the rubbish.

After what seemed like far too long he entered. For half a moment, Nicky thought he recognised him- was he the owner? He’d never spoken to the owner, not directly, but perhaps- but no. He seemed more interested in the board than talking to the employees of the shop. 

“Hello, sir, can I help you today?” Nicky asked, slipping behind the counter and plastering on his best customer service face. 

“No, no. Just looking. I thought I’d come and see what this place looked like inside, given I walk past it every day.” He said, looking around the room again. “It’s… quaint.”

“We are quite happy with it, sir.” Nicky said, still with a smile. Sighing slightly and nodding, the other man shrugged a shoulder. 

“I apologise for taking up your time.” He said, ducking his head for a moment and turning to leave- but not before pausing to watch Booker from across the room. As he strode towards the door, Nicky shook his head clear of the slightly odd encounter. He’d certainly seen stranger, in his time at the shop, it wouldn’t even hit his top ten. But it left a sour taste in his mouth, and even moreso that he hadn’t seen Joe that day yet.

Turning to ask Booker what he’d made of it, he saw the other man coming towards him and untying his apron. “I have to go, take my break now.” He said, hanging the apron on the hook behind the counter. “I won’t be long- you can call in Andy and the new one, if you need help?” He asked, hopefully but without any real questioning. Nicky shrugged and raised an eyebrow.

“Of course, is everything alright?” Nicky asked, leaning back against the counter to watch him, concerned. 

“Yes, yes, just- I have to pick up a workbook, that one of my tutors has put together for the class.” Booker flashed a smile at him, though it barely reached his eyes.

“You should slow down, Booker. You need to focus on your work, I can ask to take over Nile’s training.” He offered as he reached out to pat him on the shoulder. Booker shook his head.

“It’s fine, I promise you. I’ll just eat little things- did I see you bring in something in a tub earlier?” Booker started to walk to the door, calling over his shoulder. Nicky scoffed.

“Yes, for Andy. Nothing for late arrivals!” He called back, grinning. He knew Booker would end up with a little treat, eventually. Even Andy’s voracious appetite for baked goods couldn’t match Nicky’s overenthusiastic portion sizes.

As the hordes of interns with long lists arrived, Nicky did end up needing Andy and Nile’s help, but he was happy to see the two of them working well together. Andy was exceptionally good at keeping grudges, sometimes, but he was glad this wasn’t one of those times. Booker returned, eventually, and the four of them got on with the day- and making sure Nile knew what she was doing. 

It didn’t take long for Nile to be introduced to the concept of Joe- every time anyone came in the shop in the minutes before and after noon, Nicky practically leapt to his feet. But still, no Joe. Booker’s good natured teasing lead into him pantomiming the whole story and left Nicky blushing bright red. 

Maybe it was a good thing, when Joe missed some of his coffee dates. Just maybe.

Chapter Text

It had been a long week. Joe had been in sporadically, and Nicky was starting to wilt without his smile. That, coupled with Nile’s seemingly endless errors, meant by Friday he was all done with people, and working, and being asked to make hot drinks that he was fairly sure didn’t exist. 

“Joe! Good morning, would you like your coffee?” He exclaimed, settling behind the counter again and reaching for a cup with a smile. His smile faded as he saw the worried expression on Joe’s face and he frowned, concerned.

“Oh, I- yes, yes please.” He said, glancing around. “Sorry, my… my boss isn’t very happy today.” Joe shrugged one shoulder. “It’s not going to be fun.” Nicky pulled a face and nodded, glancing back at the office door. 

“I am glad, and quite fortunate, that Andy is possibly the best boss I could have hoped for. If you ever need a career change…” Nicky trailed off, glancing behind the counter at the different syrups they had. Joe actually laughed, cutting off his thoughts. 

“You know, if this client doesn’t stop coming into the office, I might just take you up on that.” He replied, with a smile wider than Nicky had seen on him before. It took his breath away for a moment, and he just… stared. “Are you okay?” 

“I- yes, yes, I am fine, thank you- I was actually wondering… You like your coffee with so much sugar, would you like to try one of the syrups? I think you might like this,” he said, pulling out a bottle and waving it a little. “Don’t worry- first experiment is free.” As the words came out of his mouth, he could feel Booker’s eyes on him. Andy didn’t do free drinks- and Nicky was already wondering if he had enough change in his pockets to make up for it.  

“I won’t take money from you, Nicolo, but I think I will try it. I trust you.” He glanced up at the board and pulled out a few more coins, setting them down on the counter. His full name, soft and gentle, from Joe’s mouth gave him a strange feeling of butterflies in his stomach, and he barely contained the blush that threatened to rise on his cheeks. He was focused enough on that much that he almost missed Joe saying he trusts him. 

“That’s very… Well, if you don’t like it, tell me, and I will get you another plain cup. Okay?” Nicky said, turning to start the drink. With Andy and Nile busy with further paperwork, and Booker tidying the pre-work rush up, it was all him for once. Setting the pre-sweetened drink in front of Joe with a smile, he shrugged a little. “I hope you do enjoy it, though.”

Blowing on the hot liquid for a moment, Joe sniffed the drink and his smile grew a little. “Oh! I can smell it, even with the coffee. It smells good.” As the shop was empty, he allowed himself another moment, taking a quick sip and licking his lips. “And it does taste good. Thank you, Nicolo. I like this very much.”

This time, he couldn’t stop the blush rising. “Oh, it’s- it’s nothing.” Nicky said, barely able to keep looking at Joe. Looking at his smile was like looking at the sun. “I’m just glad, that I was right. I will remember your new order now?” Joe nodded, reaching out with his remaining coins and dropping them in the tip jar and winking, before turning to leave. Nicky was left staring after him, which was becoming somewhat of a regularity with Joe.

He’d barely even noticed Andy and Nile coming back into the main shop from the back office. It was the quiet noise of surprise from the younger that had him snapping out of it to look at her. 

Nile poked Nicky after the door shut on Joe, grinning wickedly. “Did he just… wink at you? Ooh, Nicky! And he really called you Nicolo - I agree, though, it does sound very pretty, with his accent.” Booker grinned brightly, but shook his head.

“I never said it sounded pretty, I said that Nicky blushes so much that he must think it sounds pretty.” He explained, then glanced up at the clock. “But you do have break now, so at least you’ll be able to get over it.”

Grinning a little, and rolling his eyes, Nicky hung up his apron and went to fetch his lunch from his locker. Settling down to eat in the near-empty shop, he watched the others working. Andy was observing, and Booker was explaining why some process was the way it was. Safe, clear instructions, they could all hear them. Andy crossed the room halfway through to sit with him, leaning back and stealing some of his carrot sticks. 

“Tell me why you like him.” She said, tilting a curious look at him. Nicky was taken aback, finishing his mouthful and sighing deeply.

“I don’t know that I do, yet. There… there is something, a spark. He is kind, he is not just… he is not an angry man, not like that, not like I thought.” He shrugged a little. “I have been here a long time; I have learned that people will be foolish and get my name wrong, and I have learned to be calm about it. He… has not. And that is fine.” Andy frowned a little, and kept watching him thoughtfully as she crunched on her stolen lunch.

“I think he is an old soul. I think he is… like me, lost and looking. Not that I am lost - I know where I am, I know I am here and I am happy here, with you and Booker and now Nile. But…” Nicky trailed off for a moment, searching for the words and gesturing with a half-eaten sandwich. “He makes me smile, and I would like to make him smile more. I think there is a lot there, to see. A deepness in him, something… special.” 

Taking a deep breath, Andy nodded finally as her face relaxed. “I can understand that much.” She stared past him, out of the window as she got lost in a memory, and Nicky knew which. Quynh. She’d been with them before Booker, but… something had happened. He never knew quite what but he knew the pain that Andy felt was eating her soul away. Setting his food down he reached out to touch her hand gently, expression concerned and touch soft. “Thank you, Nicky.”

They sat silently eating for the rest of Nicky’s break, or at least most of it. The last few minutes were cut off when they heard a thump, a hiss, and Booker swearing loudly. 

“Not that dial, the other- you could have scalded me, Nile, to the bone, you should be more careful, listen to me more.” He said, accusatory as he stood back away from the machine, shaking one hand. 

“I- I don’t know what happened, I did exactly what you said-” She said, frowning as she ran through the steps in her mind. Nicky had leapt up from his seat at the noise, and could see that one of the settings was wrong, dangerously so. Glancing over at Booker, at his face contorted in anger, he took a deep breath and explained what had gone wrong to Nile, talking her through the process again and showing her the problem with the setting. 

“Oh, I. I must have understood what Booker was saying, I’m so sorry.” She said, frown deep and concerned, though understanding what had happened clearly brought some relief. Nicky offered her a small smile and shrugged.

“It’s been a long time since Booker was trained, and maybe he’s forgotten some of the steps, hmm?” Andy asked, settling back in her seat to steal the last of the carrot sticks. “Nicky, you can take over for a while. Maybe once she knows the basics you can teach her your little tricks, Booker?” 

Still scowling, he muttered something under his breath and threw his hands up. “Fine, fine, as long as I’m out of the range of the calamities.” Andy threw him a look and pointed at the back office.

“Go on, go take your break now, in there. The three of us can cover the rush.” Opening his mouth to argue, Booker deflated a little as he listened and headed back.

Nile was still flustered with the near miss, but with Nicky’s help and Andy standing by to cover if things got too much, they got through the first rush with a minimum of errors. Nicky had been a little concerned, for a while, with her- making simple errors that cost time and money, and potentially even customers. But working alongside her she was competent, and smart, and wasn’t afraid to ask questions if she didn’t understand something. 

“I know it’s… unlikely that he will be here long enough to,” Nicky murmured to Andy as they were closing up, “but perhaps in future I should train all the new hires? It would be no problem, I just think perhaps…” 

“Perhaps Booker is a really, really crap teacher?” Andy deadpanned back and finished clearing one of the tables. “He seemed to be doing fine, but Nile clearly was missing things he should have taught her first. She shouldn’t take much longer to train up, though. Hopefully just in time for Book to head off into revision mode.”

Nicky nodded and smiled a little. “I don’t mind, truly. She’s quite pleasant to be around.” Andy shrugged a shoulder and looked over to where she was packing up her things through the open office door.

“She is. She’s green, to everything, but she’s… she’s okay. We’ll get her there.” Sighing deeply, Andy smiled a little at her as she walked up and said her goodbyes for the night. Nicky followed suit, as they finished the cleaning, and Nicky was already contemplating what he might be able to make- for Andy and Joe both. 

It turned out, though, that everything Nicky made for two weeks went almost entirely to Andy- with a little sneaked to Nile, and a little stolen by Booker. It was a little frustrating, but it did mean his tests were received by someone that would not hesitate to review his baked goods. In extreme detail. Nicky was always amazed by Andy’s ability to simply state what was missing from each recipe, what needed to be added. It was part of why he kept baking for her.

Seeing Joe that time, seeing him smile and laugh and trust him, it had induced a kind of euphoria in Nicky that every day without that smile faded more and more. It was so… childish, he felt. Every morning, every lunch. At least Nile had met him, and knew now why he was so enthusiastic about him- and why the others teased him so much.

And Nile was improving. She still made mistakes- odd ones, sometimes, like putting the wrong syrup in a drink, or knocking something over. Every time, she swore she had the right one, or that the pail or container hadn’t been there until she moved, but every time, it was difficult to see how it could have happened otherwise. She was apologetic, but not fawning- she knew, sometimes, that they were genuine mistakes, and every time something happened she considered it a learning experience. Nicky was surprised, and glad, to have an eager student.

Booker certainly hadn’t been. And, as it stood, Booker was there less. Taking less and less shifts as his revision timetable got more and more intense, and his test date got closer and closer. Even when he was in the shop he had textbooks open on the side, and seemed so stressed that Nicky gave him a wide berth.

And once again, Joe was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter Text

Joe had been coming in most days for a little while, still tired and stressed but finally, finally, looking like he could cope with the weight on his shoulders. He came in almost like clockwork, like he had back when he had first started coming, and Nicky had felt his spirit lighten every time he saw his face. He also steadfastly ignored Booker’s teasing that he hadn’t corrected Joe about his name; though each of his points were absolutely true. He liked the special, private connection it gave him, and it did sound… pleasant… coming from his mouth.

Andy had been in the back office with the man from the other week for most of the day. They hadn’t heard anything from the room- not even when Booker put a cup against the door, though Nicky was fairly sure he’d been doing it wrong. The three of them on the shop floor had been getting antsier and antsier, coming up with more and more ludicrous possibilities for the man in the back room. Booker’s suggestion she was pregnant with his child was laughed down by Nicky, leading Nile to throw out that perhaps they were old secret spy buddies.

Nile had already confirmed the man wasn’t the owner, that she’d never even seen him before, and by now Nicky trusted her enough to know she wasn’t some kind of mole. She seemed as concerned as the rest of them. Over the few short weeks she’d been with them, she’d become as much a part of the family as any of them. She fitted in with Nicky’s softness and Booker’s lack of a filter, and asked Andy the right questions. Even though she was a little like a baby deer on ice and still finding her feet, Nicky was making sure she didn’t fall. 

But the three of them still felt on edge throughout the end of their shift as whatever was going on in the back room just… kept going. Hour after hour and Andy was still closed up in the room. They hadn’t come out for coffee, they hadn’t asked anything of the three employees on the shop floor. They’d just… been in the room.

Nicky was expecting the day to go by entirely unpleasantly, and he’d given up on seeing Joe at all when Nile shot an elbow hard into his side. “Look who just came in.” Nicky’s eyes widened in happy surprise and he stood a little straighter, adjusting the edge of his apron and trying to adopt a calm, collected pose. 

“Good afternoon, Joe, would you like your coffee?” He asked, bright smile all for him. Joe looked increasingly tired, and stressed, every time he came in which given how he’d looked when he first turned up… didn’t bode well. He wondered if Booker would end up looking that tired- not that he didn’t already, and often. 

Nodding wordlessly, Joe fished in his pocket for his change and as Nicky was writing his name on the cup he glanced behind him at a tub of his most recent baked offerings. “That looks interesting. Early dinner?” He managed, forcing a smile. Nicky, busy with the cup and pointing Nile to the syrup he’d tried him on the other week, blinked in half surprise.

“Oh, that? I… I like to bake, and the others like to eat. Would you like to try some?” he offered, waiting as Nile got the drink ready. “I would be happy to wrap some up for you?” He’d been baking again, intermittently, but each time Booker or Andy had gotten through his offerings well before Joe found himself in the shop. It was only the strange man’s presence that had taken Andy away from her share.

Joe glazed at his watch and shook his head at it, frowning at it, before looking up and smiling warmly at Nicky. Things were, perhaps, finally going well for him, perhaps even well enough that he could spare a little time with the curious Italian he’d seemingly formed a bond with.

“Nicolo, I don’t want to presume, but… You finish soon? The coffee shop, it’s closing soon?” He asked, tiling his head to the side. Nicky nodded, tilting his head in confusion at the question. Catching Booker out of the corner of his eye being shoved by Nile just confused him more until Joe asked his next question. “Maybe I could wait, and… we could share some, together?”

Nicky stared at him, wide eyed for a long moment, before seemingly coming unstuck and nodding, enthusiastically. “Yes, Joe, I would like that very much. I will get you your coffee, and you could wait over here? We can talk, then, as I’m closing up.” Joe waited a moment for his drink, as Nile had long since placed it next to Nicky without his noticing, and settled in the spot Nicky had told him to. 

He’d barely been sat down for a moment when the back office door opened, and Andy walked out with a stony face, followed by the man. Nicky hadn’t seen her look so upset in a long time, not since Quynh had left, and that had been just as secretive as all this had been.

“Guys, I… I have some bad news.” She said,jaw clenched tight and words clipped. The other man almost rested a hand on her shoulder before she flinched away. 

“Andrea, that really isn’t your job, I told you, I can tell them.” He said, tilting a seemingly concerned look in her direction. Even Nile knew that wasn’t her name- and that she had little patience for those who called her it. Taking in a deep breath, Nicky could see Andy was about to snap. 

“For the absolute last time, my name is Andy. And I will tell them, because they’re my family. You’re a stranger, and you have absolutely no space here.” Turning away from him, Andy faced back to the others and shrugged, exhausted. Nicky could see the worry, the concern for what she was about to tell them etched on her face. “The owner is selling, regardless of Nile being here. We have about a month before the shop is shutting for good.”

Nicky and Nile couldn’t help letting out gasps, and Joe fell still and silent in his seat. Booker was the only one in the room apart from the stranger to not look stricken by this announcement, though Nicky supposed it wasn’t odd. He only had a month or so before his exam, and then he’d be fine. A lawyer, much less common than a barista looking for a job. Andy raised a hand as they started to babble out in panic, and then the stranger opened his mouth again. 

“I’m sorry to bring what sounds like bad news at first to you all, but please, rest assured. My name is James Copley and my client, Merrick Industries, is completely intending to build a similar coffee shop in the development, and I am sure I’ll be able to get assurances that you’ll get your jobs back there.” He smiled at them, nodding his head. “I promise, this development is going to improve the area dramatically. You might even get a pay rise.”

Scoffing, Andy rolled her eyes. “If you were able to get any assurances, you wouldn’t have spent so long going over every detail of the shop first. You’re not building anything better, you’re destroying a community hub, and I don’t want you in my shop.” 

“With all due respect, it isn’t really your-” He started to say, trying to pull a sympathetic face but dramatically missing the mark, looking more like he was annoyed with the pushback than anything.

“Out, now.” Nicky growled an interruption, glaring with violent intent at Copley. Sighing, the other man shrugged a shoulder and started to leave. Nile, Nicky and Andy watched him closely as Booker moved to sit back in a chair with a heavy sigh.

“Andy…” Nicky murmured, moving from behind the counter to pull her into a hug. “This isn’t your fault.” Cupping her cheek, he looked into her eyes and nodded once. “It is the fault of greedy businessmen who know nothing about community or family. This will not ruin us.” 

“Thanks, Nicky.” She murmured, nodding back and turning towards the back office. “I… I have some clearing up to do. He went over everything.” Offering a small smile, and knowing there would be little he could do to help her, he turned back to where Joe had been sitting, but he was gone. His coffee sat, barely touched, on the table he’d been sat at before the announcement. It had all happened so fast, Nicky hadn’t even noticed he’d left. Visibly deflated, he went about cleaning up and set the drink to one side, hoping Joe would come back before he left for the night, having had to run out for work, or perhaps the bathroom. 

He didn’t come back. 

Instead, unbeknownst to Nicky, Joe had returned to work. It had been all well and good, knowing abstractly that the coffee shop that his boss’ client was trying to buy was in the area. It was something different to know that he had directly worked to hurt Nicolo- and the others. The Old Guard Coffee House being taken over, destroyed, removed and replaced with… with something with no character, something with no heart, something… without Nicolo. It was unfathomable, and worse when Joe thought about how it would be down to his work.

Finding a way to halt the sale, halt the redevelopment, became his priority the moment Copley, his superior’s superior’s superior, as far as he could tell, mentioned ‘Merrick Industries’. Every file he’d worked on for close to a year was stamped with Merrick’s personal insignia, and it was entirely as obnoxious every time he saw it. 

There was something niggling in the back of his mind, some recollection of something that he’d seen that he’d questioned, but had been quashed by one of the others. Perhaps it was something they were trying to hide, to force the sale? Perhaps that vague memory was the only way to speak to Nicolo again without feeling a gnawing pit of guilt in his stomach.

Joe struggled back to his cramped apartment close to four in the morning, files and files stacked in his arms as he desperately scoured every page to find a way to fix his errors.

Nicky got home early, unfocused and upset. He threw out four rounds of ruined baklava before he went to bed, and his bad mood didn’t lift in the morning either.

Even Nile, usually tactful and calm, struggled not to comment on the dark cloud over his head. Andy had thrown herself into trying to find a loophole, a way to stop the sale- or, perhaps, try to buy the shop herself. Nicky wasn’t even sure where she was going to start, but he didn’t have much hope. No, the usually upbeat and hopeful young man was struggling to plaster on his customer service smile and with each customer the mask slipped a little more.

Booker’s absence that day didn’t help either- his shifts were so reduced now his exam was getting closer, it felt as if he was barely there anymore. Nile needed little further training, and Nicky and Andy were both pleased with how much she had improved, and how hard she was working- when they could see past their rage and distress, at least.

The tense awkwardness that permeated the coffee shop in the aftermath of the revelation that they were on a countdown to losing their jobs, and the disappearance of Joe, was difficult to ignore, and Nile spent most of the rest of that week being bounced between Andy’s silent fury and Nicky’s disgruntled upset.

Chapter Text

The days felt like they were dragging by but at the end of the first week of their month’s notice, Nicky wasn’t sure where they had all gone. He’d practically been on autopilot, serving each customer and, as the days went on, getting less and less sure that Joe would ever come back.

Had he… panicked? Had he heard that the shop was going to shut down and decided that an imminently unemployed barista wasn’t… wasn’t worth the effort? Had the drama of it all scared him away? He hadn’t even taken his coffee, which sent Nicky into a different spiral- perhaps he’d hated the syrup after all, and fled when he had a chance to avoid the food… but he’d been the one to ask to sit and eat it with him.

Nicky was so confused by it all, and spent most of his evenings distracted and trying to find the perfect recipe. If Joe did come back, he would certainly show him a perfect baklava, and no one would be able to  argue with that.

Andy certainly wasn’t, especially as she was mostly subsisting on Nicky’s baked goods and a somewhat concerning amount of tea. Looking into property law, asking Booker for help- when he was in the shop, of course- and trying desperately to find a way to stop the sale. She had been the first manager here, hired by the owner the same week he bought the property years ago. It had her soul in its bones and she wasn’t about to abandon it.

Nicky admired her for that. There was little he could do but his job, and to the best of his ability- which was still good, even with the lack of Joe to distract him.

- -

Little did Nicky or Andy know, of course, that Joe was only absent to help them, and following many of the same lines of inquiry - quietly - that Andy was poring over. It took up every moment of his time that he wasn’t being pushed into helping with the sale. He almost enjoyed the dramatic irony of it all, but he knew until he had an answer to actually fix it, he couldn’t go back to the shop.  He had two options- because he couldn’t lie, could he? Find a way to fix it, or find a way to make it up to him, without the shop. Until he had something to show for himself, how could Nicolo even begin to forgive him?

--

It was easy to lose track of things in the busy shop with everyone preoccupied. Andy spent almost no time on the shop floor, and with Booker revising even when he was at work, Nile had to step up to help Nicky keep on top of it all. 

Going from being a new trainee to having a position of trust in a little over a month had been unexpected, but Nile tried her hardest to rise to it. She was conscientious, arriving earlier and leaving later than she needed - trying to prove her worth, in a way, even though the owner had decided her presence wasn’t a good enough reason not to sell. She cleaned and kept people upbeat, asked Nicky about his recipes and tested Booker from his flashcards, made Andy drinks and put actual food in front of her. Having her there, and a part of the family - Nicky was sure she was the only thing keeping them all sane in the days leading to the end of their world.

Having grown comfortable around her, Nicky didn’t feel the need to check on her, or watch her constantly, even on days when Booker only worked the morning shift with them. One early afternoon, his turning to ask her how long a drink would take coincided with her pressing a button on the machine, which spat boiling hot water all over Nicky’s hand and arm.

Time went into slow motion, it felt to Nicky. He could see the raised, red skin appear on his arm and Nile’s panicked expression, could hear a vague, concerned noise from the customer at the till. It didn’t hurt for such a long moment while he looked up at Nile with wide, scared eyes that he thought perhaps it was a dream, a joke, and then the searing pain set in. Crying out, he stumbled back as Nile looked on in horror. Booker hasn’t been through the first aid plan with her , Nicky only now realised.

“Andy. Get me Andy. Now, ” he managed to hiss, running over to the small handwashing sink and turning the cold tap on full. The pain was so bad that he felt like he might throw up, but he tried to breathe through it and held his arm under the cold water until he felt it start to go numb. 

The next little while was a blur. Fortunately, in what seemed like the only stroke of good luck they’d had in the shop in months and months, the waiting customers were understanding. Nile couldn’t stop apologising, going over every step in her mind and out loud, trying to figure out what had happened. Nicky tried his best to placate her, but Andy was a whirlwind around him, looking after him as best she could after dragging him into her office. 

“I don’t think this needs A&E, I think you should be fine like this,” she said, frowning deeply at the now loosely plastic-wrapped arm. “How’s it feeling?” Andy asked, now settling back against her paper-covered desk as he sat in her chair. 

He shrugged a little, staring at his arm. “Sore, but I am glad it was not worse.” He shrugged his other shoulder, holding his arm awkwardly, but carefully, and looked up at her. “It was not Nile’s fault.” Nicky stated, emphatic. “The machine is not new, and many things could have gone wrong.” 

Andy shook her head. “She almost did it to Booker once, at the start of her training. You remember that? You’d think that she’d be more careful, after something like that.” She sighed and shook her head again. “I have to send her home, and we can review her training, and whether it’s sensible to keep her on for… for the short term, at least.”

Nicky sighed deeply in response, and ducked his head. “Andy, we have to consider… we have to consider all the possibilities. I do not think Nile would have hurt me with any intent, and she has been so careful for weeks and weeks. It is not her fault.”

“I’m sorry, Nicky, but I have to send her home. And I’ll have to send you home, too - you can’t work like that.” Andy reached out to cup his cheek. “And no baking, either. I’ll drop by with dinner for you tonight, and you can see how you feel in the morning. I don’t want you making it worse.”

Shooting her a look - one that spoke of a fierce stubbornness fighting with relief - he tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. “Nothing fried, I know what you can be like.” He murmured, before pushing himself off the chair. “I should be fine getting home. Thank you for looking after me, but… please do not be too harsh with Nile. I like her being here.”

Andy nodded a little and moved to let him out. “I’ll send her home, and… talk to Booker tomorrow, when he comes in for the early shift, and see what he thinks. I know you two disagreed on her training, but she did struggle a lot, and it didn’t stop.” 

“Just… she did not mean it, and I hold no grudge. It will never happen again, that much I do know.” Nicky replied as he slung his jacket over his shoulder and picked up his bag. “I’ll see you tomorrow, after lunch?” 

--

“Only if your hand is okay, Nicky.” She called back, as she moved to follow him onto the shop floor. Andy had worked through the customers that had been waiting while Nicky doused his hand, and Nile had been left to deal with the cleanup. Nicky offered her a small smile as he left, but Andy’s expression was stern, and cold. She sat opposite Nile, waiting the few moments for the door to shut behind Nicky.

“I know that it was an accident.” she said, placing her hands palm down on the table between them. “I know you didn’t mean to do it, you didn’t do it on purpose, and that it won’t ever happen again, I understand that. But Nicky got hurt this one time that it did happen, and I can’t just let that slide.” 

Nile nodded and hung her head, frowning deeply. “I… I understand that. But I still really can’t tell what happened- I checked the machine this morning, when me and Booker opened, and I’d been using it fine. Ask him!” 

Andy just nodded and looked out the window for a moment, trying to understand, trying to put the pieces together in her mind. “I will, I’m not going to kick you to the curb. But we have to shut for the day. Don’t… I’ll call you, when I’ve made my decision about your place here. Okay? I know it’s probably not what you wanted to hear-”

“It’s better than firing me on the spot.” Nile interrupted, looking at her carefully. “Would you… would you let me know how Nicky is doing, if he comes in before I… before you make your choice? I hate the fact it was me who hurt him.”

Andy nodded, and moved to head to the back door. “Leave the closed sign up, don’t worry about locking it. I’ll be heading to the library in a minute.”

--

It hadn’t taken long for Nicky to get home. His small apartment, not too far from the shop, hadn’t been much to speak of when he’d first moved in, but making it his home had been his first priority. Now, full of warm, vibrant colours and everything he needed to be comfortable, the only thing absent was… anyone else. Andy sometimes visited, and he had often had Booker over to watch sports, but most nights he arrived to a cold and empty flat.

As he settled on the deep sofa he wondered if a cat would be a good companion. He preferred dogs, always had, but cats did not need walking, and if he just made sure it had plenty to occupy it while he was at work… 

He knew that he was avoiding thinking about the one thing, the one person, he would have liked to see after everything that had happened, with everything that was going on. He steadfastly pretended that brown eyes and curly hair weren’t flashing behind his eyelids every time he closed his eyes, and he was in no way imagining what it would have felt like if Joe had been the one to wrap his arm, if he was waiting for Joe to bring him dinner. He was not.

Until he was, and he spent longer than he would have liked to admit daydreaming about the possibilities.

--

Andy returned to the shop shortly before going to get Nicky some food, after realising that she had left his day’s offerings in the fridge. There, she ran into the very man Nicky was lazing on his couch daydreaming of, outside the shop.

“Oh, hello? The shop is… I don’t think I’ve ever seen the shop shut before six before, is everything alright?” he asked, briefcase in hand and a deep frown on his face. Andy knew who he was really asking about.

“Nicky hurt his hand today, and without him we were… too short staffed to stay open. He’ll be okay, but… You were there, when I told them the shop was shutting.” She said with a frown, moving to unlock the door. “Come in, I’m just picking up some things.”

Following her, he looked around the dark, tidy shop quietly. 

“You just left, that night. Walked out, when he was getting shitty news, and he waited for you.” She said as she reached the counter, leaning back and folding her arms over her chest. “Why should I tell you a single thing? He’s been waiting for you, all week, to come back and explain to him why you abandoned him. Why should I trust you?”

Joe rubbed a hand through his hair and stared at the floor for a long moment while he considered his words. “I left because I also had bad news, and I have been trying to… rectify mistakes of my own.” He said, carefully. “I would appreciate it if you could at least pass on a message, so that he knows I am sorry, and if he is willing to give me another chance- not that I deserve it, not from him - then I would very much like to make it up to him.”

Andy watched him with narrow eyes as one moment of silence turned into another and she tried to weigh up what she knew about the man - little, outside of how he had hurt Nicky - and what she knew about Nicky’s feelings for him.

“He got hurt today. A bad scald. He should be fine, but he’s not going to be in the shop properly, working, for a few days.” She said, softening a little. “I’m supposed to be taking him dinner, as he shouldn’t be cooking, but I think he might appreciate it a little more from you. Let me… let me give you his number.”

Rushing forward, Joe’s concern about Nicky’s injury was clear on his face - and Andy was sure if she hadn’t offered to send him, he would have asked to see him. This way, at least, Nicky couldn’t complain about her choice of food.

Chapter Text

It had taken no small amount of courage for Joe to call Nicky. He’d been surprised, a little, at Andy when she gave him the number and encouraged him to go and care for Nicky. She’d seemed so cold, and he’d heard some of the comments she’d made about him- the angry man. He hated that someone thought of him that way, even if it was clear she was changing her mind.

“Hello? Who is this?” The sound of Nicky’s voice coming through the tinny speaker on his phone brought him out of his musings, and he couldn’t help but smile at it absentmindedly.

“Nicolo? It’s me, Joe, Andy gave me your number,” he replied, perching on a bench near some takeaways. “She said you could do with some food?”

The silence on the other end of the line seemed to last for minutes, even though Joe knew it had only been a few seconds.

“Hello, Joe. I… She said she would bring me dinner, but I will not argue with her if she is sending you. Perhaps you will bring me something other than a bucket of chicken?”

Joe laughed at that, taken aback by the image of Andy in one of the dingy looking chicken shops on the road. “Well, how do you feel about… hm. Falafel?”

“That is fried food I can get behind, Joe. I will text you my address? It is not that far from the shop.”

Joe could hear him moving wherever he was, the slight clatter of plates. “I’ll see you soon. I promise,” Joe said seriously, waiting a moment as the silence on the other end of the call returned, before hanging up. At least he could make Nicky and Andy’s day a little easier - and he had news for him. 

--

Nicky was still wondering if the pain in his hand - which, given the painkiller he had taken, wasn’t particularly bad - had made him hallucinate an entire conversation with Joe when the doorbell went. He’d been lost in thoughts for a while about Joe’s promise and how he was sure that the other man didn’t say things like that without clear reason, and he couldn’t help but read into it a little. 

Rising to answer the door, he was pleasantly surprised to discover the call had been entirely real. “Joe, hello! You… you look tired, come in.” He said, already worrying over the other man.

“I think I got enough for us both, if you don’t mind me staying?” Joe asked, almost tentatively. 

Nicky offered him a small smile, shaking his head. “I don’t mind. I think it is time you told me where you disappeared to that night, and why.” 

--

Joe sighed and nodded, and they got to work setting out the food and making themselves comfortable. Joe’s plate sat untouched in front of him as he tried to find the words.

“James Copley is… not quite one of my employers. He’s a senior partner at the firm I work at, and I’m one of the people working for him.” Joe said, unable to look directly at Nicky. “One of the people working on Merrick Industries’ plans for the development.”

He heard Nicky set his fork down- and, of course he would be delicate enough to eat Falafel with a fork. Joe could feel his eyes on him, considering, open, and a little confused.

“I didn’t know it was your shop, or… or I don’t know what I would have done.” Joe shrugged a little, looking down at his plate. “I don’t know if I would have quit my job, but I probably wouldn’t have worked myself quite as ragged to hurt someone I- I- think fondly of.” The words that he wanted to use were on the tip of his tongue, the desire to start waxing lyrical about this kind, compassionate man, about how he had watched him in his patience and that he had seen his hint of a trickster beneath and wanted to learn more. But first, he had to finish.

“I found something, something I… I couldn’t do anything with alone, not without getting in a lot of trouble.” He started, finally looking up at Nicky who was watching him like he was about to startle out of the chair. “They’re trying to get away with something- I’m not sure Copley even knows about it, not exactly, but he told them all not to let anything get in the way of the sale…” 

Finally, Nicky spoke. “ Yusuf. Calm down. Speak slowly, and tell me what you have found.” He reached over and, almost like when Joe had asked him to call him by his nickname, curled his fingers around his wrist.

“The building is listed- it’s old, and protected because it’s special. It was one of the earliest coffee houses in London, see?” He brought out a few pieces of paper, showing them to Nicky. “They have tried to hide it, because they would much rather pay the fine for doing it than be stopped from all the money the development would bring. But it could stop the sale.” 

--

Joe’s revelation was stunning to Nicky. Every part of it, from his place in the possibility that he would lose his job through to how hard he had worked to find a way to save it. He leaned back for a moment to watch him, and nodded firmly. 

“We will tell Andy in the morning. Eat your food.” He said, before returning to delicately eating his own. He could see Joe was tense, so he smiled softly at him, gesturing with his fork. “It is good.”

Joe snorted and shook his head, then started to eat as well. 

They spoke a little about the food, about the mess of baking supplies - supposed mess, though, as Nicky proclaimed they were all exactly where they needed to be - and about everything but Joe’s work, the coffee shop, and Nicky’s hand. It gave Nicky time to process what Joe had said, think about what his reaction should be. 

Eventually, they were finished and Nicky moved to get their plates together. Joe managed to slip in front of him, picking them both up and moving over to the sink. “You can tell me I am a guest if you like, it will not stop me from taking care of you.” He said, finally looking more firmly at Nicky’s hand. “Go and sit, Nicolo, and then we will be able to finish our conversation.”

It was frustrating to have to wait, now that he was ready, but he wasn’t upset. Joe was helping him, after all, and without him there he probably would have overtaxed himself, and hurt himself more.

Finally, finally, Joe joined him on the sofa. Making a pleasantly surprised noise at how plush it was, he got comfortable and looked at Nicky almost expectantly.

“I forgive you, for leaving. Not that you asked me to.” Nicky said, raising an eyebrow. “You left because you heard what had happened, realised what you had done, and needed to fix it- I cannot fault you of why you did it, but I was still… upset.” He looked down at the space between their feet. “And I will take what you have told me to Andy, first thing in the morning. But first, there is something else I must do.” Nicky smiled to himself for a moment before turning to Joe. 

Frowning, Joe leaned towards Nicky, about to ask a question when the other man’s lips met his own. Nicky’s own mind was yelling at him - so impulsive, so rash, what if he’d been reading the signs all wrong, and this man was- kissing him back. 

It had been so long since he had kissed someone, he was almost too aware of every little detail- his breathing, the way he was touching Joe, the feeling of their lips together- except for the one part he should have been. 

He didn’t realise he’d moved his injured hand, nor that Joe was moving towards him, and when they collided he almost felt his whole body spasm. “ Fffanculo! ” He exclaimed, biting his lip to try to hold in any further expletives. As he sat back against the sofa cushion, he looked over at Joe, who was hunched over and groaning low.

“Fuck- shit- ow. ” He breathed out slowly and carefully sat back up, looking at Nicky, hands firmly between his legs, grimacing. “You- uh, you caught me.”

“Oh, cazzo. ” He moved a little, trying to position himself to comfort Joe without being a liability, and sighed a little, defeated. “I’m very sorry, Joe.” 

“It’s- it’s alright, it wasn’t your fault, Nicolo.” He managed a smile, sitting a little straighter. “Is your hand alright?” Joe asked, tentatively reaching out.

“It is sore, but it will mend. Would you… just sit with me a while?”

--

Andy’s day hadn’t ended well. While she was collecting her things before leaving again, the shop phone had rung. A woman claimed her bag had been stolen when she’d been in the shop earlier that day - around lunchtime. It was the changeover, when Booker left and Nicky arrived; when the shop floor was the most at risk for complications. 

After bringing up the day’s CCTV from around the time - dated, but it still worked, especially on the same day - she settled in to watch it. Nicky came in on the screen, and she could pick out the woman from her description. The bag was pushed far under the table, and was likely still there, under the lip of the chair.

But her eye was caught by something else - Booker, coat on and ready to leave, as Nile greeted Nicky and told him how the day had been. She’d heard them talking, the door a little ajar, but she hadn’t seen Booker round the corner at one of the machines.

Booker, ready to go home, was messing with the machine that had, for all intents and purposes… been set up that morning. By Nile, carefully, properly. 

She kept watching as he left, clapping Nicky on the shoulder and nodding to Nile as he passed them and walked out the door. 

The shop was quiet - the early lunch crowd was finishing up, and no one had ordered a drink that required that machine. That was, until the order that ended in Nicky’s injury.

It had been Booker. It had been Booker all along . Every time Nile had made a seemingly ridiculous mistake, knocked something over - Booker had been sabotaging her. It had been easier when she’d been training under him, but with Nicky taking over… well, he’d clearly had to come up with something more dramatic. 

Andy sat at her desk, turned off the screen and sat in the quiet room for a moment before standing, storming over to the table the woman had been sat at. Exactly as she’d thought, the bag was there, shoved back as the woman had moved her legs under the table. Throwing it onto the table, she sat down again and held her head in her hands.

She and Booker had been close ever since he joined the crew of the coffee house not long after Quynh’s abrupt departure and, in some ways, she had focused her grief at that into building her family with the two men. He had a haunted look in his eyes, sometimes, that she knew she mirrored and that Nicky never really saw. There was something he’d been running from, or to, and sometimes she wasn’t sure if he even knew which one he was doing. But they’d been a family , goddammit, they’d been the three of them for so long, and Nile had become a part of that- and Booker was leaving, and he was taking them down with him. 

She was so incandescent with rage and despair that she couldn’t bring herself to stand without worrying she would break the first thing she came close to for long minutes, wondering where she had gone wrong, and why Booker had betrayed them and hurt Nicky- and for what purpose.

Chapter Text

Nicky had dozed off sometime after their little incident, and he woke up dazed and confused and unsure not only what time it was, but what day. Shifting slightly, he winced as his hand twinged. He felt hungry, which meant it had to have been a while- and the light outside suggested it was a little after dawn. But Joe was still sitting next to him, head tilted back as he slept.

Joe’s arm was gently curled over his shoulders and he felt warm, and safe, if a little uncomfortable. It seemed his awakening stirred Joe as his eyes flickered open and he blinked slowly. “Oh. Hello.”

“Hello, Joe,” he replied, sleepy smile all for him. His stomach rumbled a little and he blushed, looking away. He woke up quickly, and he could see Joe was a little sluggish. Perhaps not a morning person - something to consider for the future. 

“Hungry? You have food in your kitchen, not just baking ingredients?” Joe asked, already pushing up to stand after pressing a gentle kiss to the side of his head.

A little bewildered, Nicky nodded. “Should be plenty.” 

“Good. You stay there. I’ll make you breakfast.”

Nicky sat where he was told and smiled to himself, fingers tracing his lips thoughtfully. After Joe had said he didn’t mind staying, they’d spoken for a while and then drifted off into comfortable silence- and then, apparently, sleep. He’d expected to wake up to an empty, dark flat and not Joe making him food.

--

Andy had spent the night tossing and turning and unable to sleep as she considered what Booker had done, and how he had hurt Nicky through Nile- and why he would have done such a thing. They’d spent a lot of time together- going to bars to talk when Nicky went home to bake, learning each other’s scars. 

She thought she'd understood him. He was lonely, so lonely she wondered exactly who it was who had burned the heart out of him and left it for ash- those specifics they never discussed. Andy found herself circling around that and the almost negative image she had of his pain and the one he had of her own.

When the dawn came she still wasn't sure what to do. She knew she needed to confront him; hell, she was pretty sure she had to fire him. But first, Nicky had to know.

It was barely seven when she finally couldn't contain her need to call him. Sitting on an overstuffed armchair in her flat she stared at her phone for a long moment, hovering over the speed dials for Nicky and Booker like she couldn't make her mind up.

But finally she did.

"Nicky? I'm sorry it's early." She started, unsure of how to continue. She was surprised by his happy, contented tone.

"It is fine, I am just… having breakfast." He said, the pause just long enough to be intended. 

Andy could feel his grin through the phone. She knew she was about to steal it. "Is Joe there?" she asked, cutting through any innuendo. She hadn't expected it, but given how enamoured they'd both seemed for some time, she wasn't surprised.

"Joe? He is, yes," Nicky replied with a hint of surprise in his voice.

"Well… that's good. I need to tell you something, are you- are you both decent?" Andy asked, reaching for her jacket and keys. There was a brief pause on the other end of the phone, followed by a sigh.

"We fell asleep on the sofa, so yes. Is everything alright, Andy?" Nicky sounded concerned now and she hated that she'd caused it.

"No, Nicky. It's really not." 

--

"I knew I recognised him." Joe shook his head with a frown. "He was in the office, late one night. It was around when Nile started, I think." He was tense, coiled. Someone had hurt Nicky, and that someone was a part of Nicky's family. There was no worse betrayal in his eyes.

"There must be an explanation," Nicky said, looking between them. "He has to have a reason." 

"He's meant to be at the shop to open in half an hour," Andy said quietly, shrugging one shoulder. "You deserve answers the most, you and Nile. I'll call her now, and we can meet at the shop?"

Joe looked at them both carefully, wondering if he would be included in her we , before Nicky took his hand. 

"If you have time?" Nicky asked softly.

Joe nodded and squeezed his hand. "I do."

"Then I'll see you at the shop. We need some answers."

As Andy left, Joe watched Nicky get ready quietly. He'd gotten changed before they'd sat down to eat and was wandering around and looking for the spot he’d left his keys, wondering if he was feeling brave enough to try putting his jacket on. He wasn't. 

It was nice to see him in his own habitat, outside of the view of customers; most customers, at least. He held himself differently. While he was careful with his hand, he moved through the space more fluidly, interacting with the building blocks that made up his home easily as he realised his keys were in his jacket pocket. Finally getting up from the couch, Joe got himself ready, not able to do much with the crumpled shirt he'd been wearing since the morning before.

"The rumpled look suits you," Nicky stated, finally by the door with a soft jumper, one sleeve pulled up so it wouldn't rub against inflamed skin. "I could lend you something, if you want?" 

Joe shook his head. "I wasn't going in to work today anyway - I don't get many days off, but after this I can head home and get something."

Nicky looked almost deflated and Joe laughed, bright and warm. "I would be coming back, Nicolo. Just… cleaner." 

Nicky smiled and blushed a little in response, running a hand through his hair. "Well, that is fine then. Come on, let us see what Booker has to say for himself."

-- 

Nile had been surprisingly understanding on the phone, calm and quiet as Andy gave her the news. She said she would be in as soon as she could manage it, thankful that it hadn't been her fault after all.

Booker was setting up the tables and getting things ready for opening as Andy, Nicky and Joe all entered the shop. 

"Coming in together now?" he asked, directing the question to Nicky and Joe. "What did I miss yesterday afternoon?" His smile was wide and warm, and started to fade quickly at the three stony expressions facing him.

"You missed Nicky getting seriously hurt," Andy said, walking towards him. "And you missed me finding out it was your fault from the CCTV. Care to explain?" she asked, leaving out the other connections they had made. 

Booker almost crumpled in front of them. "Nicky? Shit, I'm so sorry, it wasn't meant to… hurt anyone."

“Then what was it supposed to do?” Andy asked, arms folded across her chest as she glowered at him, the admittance to the betrayal somehow making it worse.

“I…” He wiped a hand over his face and gestured at the table. “It’s a long story,” Booker said, eyes almost pleading.

Andy nodded, moving to sit opposite him. Nicky slid in next to him and Joe hovered near, watching Booker with concern.

Booker sighed deeply and looked out of the window, unable to look at the others. He took a long moment to compose himself, bring his thoughts together, before finally speaking.

“I’ve been struggling, for a little while. I was… I was contacted by Copley, lawyer working for Merrick. He said if I could… encourage the sale, if I could make sure it happened… then he’d make sure we all had jobs afterwards.” He shrugged a little, frowning as he barely glanced at Andy.

“Once Nile was hired, he told me to try and sabotage her. I didn’t want to! She seems like a sweet kid. But… if anything got in the way of the sale, then those jobs would vanish. For all of us.” Booker hung his head. “So I did it. It was easier when I was training her, when I was here more often. Copley… Copley said the owner was dragging his feet, because of her. He needed her gone.” 

--

Nile knew that the machine malfunctioning hadn’t been her fault- not properly, not fully. She’d set up the machine as she was supposed to, as they’d all done, and… and she’d been betrayed by Booker. 

She didn’t understand why. He’d clearly been stressed, with the workload and training her and… and even though Andy hadn’t told her he’d been doing it from the start, in that moment it all made sense to her. She’d started to think she didn’t belong there, in their family - that she wasn’t like them, wouldn’t fit in, wouldn’t ever - but now… now she knew none of it had been her fault.

The trip into work on the bus was quiet that early. It gave her time to work through what Andy had told her- not that it had been much. That Booker had been actively sabotaging her from the very first day she arrived… She’d started to think of him as a friend, and she still didn’t know why she’d been targeted. He must have had a reason, and it must have been a good one. But she wasn’t going to let him off too easy- he had to give her an explanation, and a damn good apology or she wasn’t going to forgive him, not at all. 

--

Nicky stared at Booker, eyes wide as he thought through everything Booker had said. Joe was staying quiet above him, and Nicky could tell he had something to say. He was, at least in that moment, managing to hold it in as Andy sighed and shook her head.

“You really thought he’d have a job for you?” she asked, leaning back against the chair. “Oh, Booker .”

Looking over at her a little confused, Nicky tilted his head to the side. “He thought there would be jobs for all of us, Andy.”

“I did, I did- I was nervous, yes, about what would happen after the Bar exam. But I wasn’t going to… leave you all behind,” Booker said quietly, seemingly doubting his own words.

“And instead you got Nicky hurt,” Joe said with no small amount of distaste. “And you made Nile think she was clumsy, and almost got her fired- months of little more than bullying.

Even though he agreed, the pain in Booker’s face made Nicky reach out with his good hand, curling his fingers into Joe’s jacket. “Joe, please,” he muttered, looking up at him softly. 

Joe nodded and went back to leaning against the edge of the chair, quietly glaring at Booker.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I never thought- I thought you might check it, see it was wrong, or maybe…” He trailed off, shaking his head as the door opened and closed behind them.

“Maybe it would have just been me that got hurt?” Nile’s voice carried over the shop, and she stood with her hands on her hips in front of the door.

They all started, turning to look at her. Nicky could see the pain on her face. 

She crossed the room to stand next to Joe, folding her arms over her chest. “Well. Go on.”

“No one was supposed to get hurt, no one,” Booker said, shaking his head and looking at her with genuine regret in his eyes. “It was meant to scare, make it… difficult… But I would have told Andy, after the sale. I would have.” He looked over at Nile, eyes pleading. 

Nicky heard Joe scoff a little under his breath, and honestly? He agreed with him. Neither of them believed that Merrick would really follow through on any of those promises. They turned to look back at Andy, waiting for her to pass her judgement.

“You’re suspended, from now on, obviously,” Andy said, the pain clear in her voice. “You should pick up anything you’ve left here, while… while we decide what’s going to happen.” 

Booker nodded slowly, sadly, and for half a moment Nicky almost felt sorry for him. At least, until the injury to his hand twinged. 

The day started moving fast once Booker had left; Nicky one-handedly helped out as Nile and Andy set up and Joe had run home to change. The atmosphere was quiet, subdued in the shop as they went about serving customers as the morning rush began and Nicky was left with his thoughts.

All of which were about Joe.

Chapter Text

It was nearing the end of the day, and Joe sat with Nicky in one of the more private corners of the shop floor. Nicky hadn’t wanted to go and leave Andy and Nile in case everything got too stressful, and so Joe had returned with his laptop and an intent to start asking around for new jobs. 

It was a stressful afternoon turned into a pleasant one, as the four of them joked at each other and caught Joe up on some of their stories. Any concerns Andy had about him had melted away, and it was clear that ‘the angry man’ had been an entirely incorrect epithet after all. Just protective; of himself and his culture, and now of Nicky and the shop. 

Andy appreciated that. She’d always been protective of Nicky. He saw the best in people, and always gave them the benefit of the doubt if things were unclear, and she knew that Booker’s betrayal might not have brought out rage in the man but it certainly had brought a layer of hurt that only Joe seemed able to soothe.

As Andy started closing up and Nile began cleaning, Nicky blinked and stared straight at Joe. “I haven’t told her yet.” 

“Told who what?” Nile called out, and Andy stepped away from the cash register to look at him carefully. 

“Joe found something useful,” he said quietly, grinning a little. “About the shop? The building. It’s listed.” Nicky reached to squeeze Joe’s hand and smiled at him, soft and warm. 

“It… is?” Andy said, taking a step back and turning to the office. “I haven’t seen anything about that in the documents I have, I need to call-” 

Nicky and Joe gestured at her to go, and they sat back and watched each other for a moment. 

“You know, I am very glad I got your name wrong that first time,” Nicky said, glancing down at their hands. “If I hadn’t, perhaps you would have been just another customer, until the shop shut.” 

Joe hummed softly, turning Nicky’s hand around in his own and frowning for a moment at the comparison between Nicky’s hands, his injury. “Perhaps we were destined to meet, and you were destined to annoy me into noticing your eyes.” 

Squawking a little, Nicky laughed and pushed at Joe, shaking his head. “There is nothing annoying about me, Joe," he said teasingly. "You, on the other hand…"

Joe laughed loud and bright, reaching to curl his hand around Nicky’s wrist. “You have no idea how annoying I can be, Nicolo.”

“I would like to find out,” he murmured, soft and sweet as he basked in the attention.

Glancing at his watch, Joe swore quietly under his breath. “I’m sorry, Nicolo, but I do have to go. I have some work to finish before tomorrow- I still need a decent reference.”

“I understand,” Nicky said, nodding forlornly. “I hope it is not too difficult for you.” 

Joe shrugged and stretched a little, looking at Nicky like he was trying to commit every detail of him to memory, before ducking to kiss him softly across the table. “It would be bearable if you let take you out for dinner tomorrow? Late, I will have a lot to do at work.”

Nodding still, though smiling again, Nicky bumped their foreheads together gently. “I would like that very much, Joe."

Nile would probably have said Nicky was absolutely unbearable to be around the next day, had she been less enamoured by the soft, thoughtful smile that played on his lips most of the time, and the sweet Italian song he sang while cleaning. She didn't know the meaning of all of the words, but she knew enough Spanish and French to pick up on the fact it was a love song. 

"Nicky?" she called over to him, a little after the lunch rush had cleared away.

"Yes, Nile?" He practically beamed at her from across the room. 

"When are you going to tell Joe that no one else calls you Nicolo?" Nile asked.

Nicky frowned just a little, his brow furrowing in thought before he shrugged. "He is the only one who has ever paid attention to my name badge, and I do not… I like the way he says it," he hummed and smiled a little at her. "If I told him the only one who calls me Nicolo other than him is my grandmother, do you think he would keep calling me it?"

The answer seemed to placate Nile, though she tilted a smile back at him. "I think he'd like it, your own special little thing." 

As they both went back to cleaning, Nicky's song came back more hopefully as he thought over Nile's suggestion. Things had looked so dire only a few days before, and now… Nicky was happy again, looking to his future not only with Joe, but the shop and the family they had built.

When Andy came out of the office a couple of hours later with a confident grin on her face, Nicky knew his hope had a strong foundation.

"The owner didn't know about the listing status," she said, leaning against one of the counters as they were starting to close up. "When he actually understood what it meant, he decided he didn't want the hassle- so he's just not going to sell." 

Nile whooped, waving her cloth in the air in celebration as Nicky pulled Andy into a tight hug, smiling brightly at her.

"Thank you, Andy," he said, holding her close for a long moment. "Thank you for fighting for us."

She shrugged, pulling back to watch him for a second. "Thank you, and thank Joe, for coming up with it." 

"Thank me for what?" Joe called out from in front of the counter, watching them with a grin. 

"Joe!" Nicky crowed with a smile Andy hadn't ever seen before, warm and wide and full of love. "You are early."

"I… quit," he said with a shrug. "Well, technically I was fired, but if they'd given me half a moment to quit, I would have," he grumbled a little.

Nicky frowned, reaching across the counter to take his hand. "What happened?"

Looking over at Andy, he shrugged one shoulder. "Apparently, the owner of the coffee shop Merrick was trying to buy got cold feet. And… well. Merrick has a lot of pull with the firm." He tilted his head to the side, pulling a face. "Everyone who worked on the purchase got let go."

Reaching out for him, Nicky led him round to sit in the corner where they'd spent most of the previous day together. They'd barely settled when the door banged open - they were still a few minutes from officially closing, but they never usually had customers so late.

Storming onto the shop floor was Merrick - a man they all recognised from the ridiculous posters he splashed all over his developments - and a slightly stunned looking Copley.

"Hi, how can we help you today?" Andy asked, saccharine smile hiding the venom that dripped from every word.

"You can help me by understanding one very important thing, you- interfering incompetents, " he started, pointing at her aggressively. "I do not care about the listing of this ugly, pointless building. We will finish this development, and any chance any of you had at working for me in the future is gone."

Nicky struggled not to laugh as Andy stared straight at him, her smile gone, and he could see her manager attitude coming out.

"I'm very sorry that we seem to have upset you, Mr…?" She trailed off, raising an eyebrow. "I'm just the manager, which means I don't know anything about any listing… but I can promise you, the Old Guard Coffee House isn't going anywhere. Especially not because of you."

"You cannot stand in the way of progress," he snarled before turning on his heel and marching out.

Copley watched him go, seemingly unaware that he'd stayed behind. "I… apologise for him."

Joe snorted then, tilting a look at Nicky, and Copley looked over at him with a frown. "Aren't you one of my third years?"

"I was, until I was fired today- just- by your superior." Joe shrugged, nonchalant, though Nicky knew he was more than a little worried about finding a new job.

"I… may have a solution to that," Copley offered, bashful at least, as he looked over at Andy with no small amount of apprehension. "I don't know how I missed the listed status of this building, and I honestly can't believe I worked for… him," he continued, looking over his shoulder at the long-gone Merrick. "Or that my firm would be so easily swayed by him. I do, genuinely, apologise. And… if you're looking for a job, I might have an idea."

--

Nicky had not thought his first date with Joe, at least the first official one, would, instead of fancy food and romance, mostly involve Joe discussing Copley's plans for a new law firm and eating leftovers out of his freezer. They'd both been a little thrown off by everything that had happened in such a short space of time and the thought of sitting in a restaurant hadn't appealed, so instead they found themselves settled comfortably at Nicky's. At least his leftovers were still excellent.

He didn't begrudge Joe his excitement. He explained that he had worked directly under Copley before, and, before Merrick, had found him pleasant and helpful. There was a lot to consider, and Nicky didn't mind being a sounding board.

It wasn't that Nicky had nothing to say, but that he was still trying to process what had happened. One of his closest friends had betrayed him, on orders from a man who now seemed like Joe's knight in shining armour, and even though they had won in so many ways it did not feel like a victory.

"What do you want me to do, Nicolo?" Joe asked, squeezing his hand gently. It pulled him from his thoughts and he realised that Joe had asked him a question, one he had almost no context for.

"I…" He shook his head slightly as Joe chuckled a little at his confused expression.

"I said it's getting late, and I have talked your ears off enough. Would you like me to go?" Joe asked with a faint smile.

"No," Nicky replied firmly. "No, and I think perhaps we should sleep on the bed tonight." 

Raising his eyebrows with a grin, Joe nodded. "If your couch is this comfortable, then I can only imagine your bed." 

"You do not have to imagine it, bello ." Nicky smirked a little, pushing to stand and reaching out to take Joe's hand again. "We will just make sure to avoid injury, this time." 

"Oh, you think there might be some kissing about to happen? Because, you know, I'm very tired," Joe hummed, lacing their fingers together as Nicky led them through the small apartment to his bedroom. "And the bed does look very inviting…" 

"Yusuf, if you do not kiss me now, I will have to find someo-" Nicky was cut off as lips met his, and he knew even with all of the insanity in his life, being with Joe just made sense.

Chapter Text

Six Months Later

The shop was bustling. Someone - and everyone denied it, but Nicky thought it had been Booker - had let slip to the media how Merrick, development giant, had been trying to destroy the shop and the papers found the David and Goliath story a huge customer pull. They’d even had a small segment on the news, Nicky and Nile pushed in front of the cameras as Andy glowered violently from the back office. It definitely encouraged the owner to keep the status quo - after all, the shop was suddenly making a lot more money.

The fact that Booker refused to acknowledge the possibility it had been him was part of why Nicky was willing to give him another chance. He was steadfast, but Andy wouldn't have thought of it and Nile had been left out of a lot of the drama. Nicky knew Joe would have asked him before doing it, and that he certainly hadn't done it himself. The only logical conclusion was that Booker, in his infinite wisdom and with his ridiculous number of ‘contacts’ he’d built up over his life, had tried to make it up to them.

Andy had kept him suspended for weeks, trying to decide with Nicky and Nile's help - and a decent amount of input from Joe - exactly what to do with him. He’d been alone all through the final days of his revision, and even though Nicky thought of him when his exam was scheduled, he didn’t call. Booker had never been so alone.

When he failed the Bar exam, even Joe's heart softened to him. He had waited a week before calling, desperately begging to be allowed back. He didn't want to start from the beginning somewhere new while he studied, knowing how difficult it would be to balance all of the moving parts, how much further behind it would push him, and how much he honestly missed them all. Including Nile.

They all understood, in time. When he came back, Nile had already forgiven him. She was apprehensive, and she wouldn't forget the way he had thrown her under the bus to get ahead, but she was willing to give him another chance. She checked every machine she used the moment before she used it though, and it took a while before she would turn her back to Booker.

Nicky kept him at a further distance, no more socialising out of work, and for a while he struggled not to shake him and ask how he could have been so foolish. They’d been good friends for so long, best friends, even - learning to truly forgive him would take time.

It was hard to see him. At first, Joe had been all vitriol and fury, trying to defend Nicky from the man who had hurt him, but when he realised that Nicky held no real malice towards Booker, he calmed.

The faith Andy had in all of the members of her little family was clear when she took a vote and they all chose to give Booker a second chance- a probation where anything less than the smallest, most honest mistake would see him kicked out with no hope of return. 

They had all been nervous at first, all their conversations stilted and checking themselves ten times more than they normally would, but as Booker's probation continued they found a new normal. He seemed to understand, to accept the bed he’d made for himself, and worked hard to prove himself.

The fight the shop was waging with Merrick was not always easy. They’d dealt with health inspectors coming because of anonymous complaints, strange ‘orders’ and sometimes, a group of his thugs hovering on the street outside, intimidating potential customers away. He was not willing to give up, but neither were they. Joe was quietly putting together a file on him, tying together loose ends that could be used to trip him up.

Copley's offices were small, suitable for his team of paralegals and first years, and Joe had his own little boxy room to himself but if he wasn't dealing with clients or sensitive documents it was easier to find him in the coffee shop than anywhere else. The corner he and Nicky found themselves in more often than not had become their permanent spot, and if he ever needed a quiet place for an afternoon meeting with a pro bono client he knew the others would set them at ease.

If it wasn't perfect, Nicky thought, then it was very close to it. Nearly five months of seeing Booker almost every day, eyes full of regrets and apologies with every glance in Nicky's direction, had smoothed down the spiky feelings until they were almost friends again. He and Joe were moving into Nicky's comfortable little apartment together, and Nile was applying to college for Art History. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

Until the phone call.

"I have to leave for a while," Andy tried to explain as she pulled her jacket on and grabbed the emergency overnight bag that had lived in the back office as long as Nicky had been there. Nile nodded, going back to collecting cups from the tables.

"How long?" Nicky asked, frowning as he folded his arms and stood between her and the door.

"I don't know. Quynh called." Her voice broke as she looked almost frantically at Nicky. "I've been waiting…" 

"Go, go!" Nicky nodded, shooing her and stepping out of the way. "We can look after the shop. It is in safe hands."

Nodding, Andy managed a smile. "I know. Thank you." She swept out of the door as Booker and Nile exchanged glances.

"You heard me, we are looking after the shop, don't stand and gape!" Nicky put his hands on his hips and raised his eyebrows at them, before sighing a little. "This hasn't happened in a long time. When Quynh first left, she… she apparently called, a few times. Andy went to see her but she was never where she said she would be."

"How long has it been?" Nile asked, setting a tray of cups by the dishwasher and leaning against it, watching Nicky carefully.

"Three, maybe four years I think- since she called last, at least." Nicky frowned, a bloom of sadness coming over him as he realised how long it had been since he had seen his friend, seen her and Andy together, and seen a smile that reached Andy's eyes fully. "I hope this time is different."

“So who’s in charge?” Nile asked, raising an eyebrow at the other two. “I’m guessing not Booker.”

“Hey!” Booker grinned a little bashfully, used to occasional good-natured teasing and bumped their shoulders together gently as he passed by her. “It’s always been Nicky, not that Andy’s left us to it for a while- unless something happened while I was away?” 

Nicky shook his head. “The last time was maybe… two years ago? It was her birthday, we all overdid it a little. It doesn’t mean much, just… keep doing what you’re doing?” 

“Now that I’m sleeping with the manager, do I get more free coffee?” Joe called over with a bright grin, and Nile threw a balled up paper towel at him. 

“No, Yusuf, if anything it means you get less ,” he replied curtly, moving around the counter. They’d almost finished cleaning up, nearly ready to leave for the day, and still Joe had his books scattered across the table. “Tidy up, amore mio , we don’t have much left to do.”

Surveying the little shop as Joe started putting his books away, Nicky smiled to himself. Things were truly almost perfect now, and if Andy could bring Quynh back this time, they really would be.