After Copley’s revelation, everyone stays with him for a couple of days, eager to learn more. But before long, they decide to leave his home - Home base? Do they have proper headquarters now? Joe wonders - and get away for a little while. They have a new purpose now, yes, but they can continue the fight later. They need to rest first - not just to lay low, but to disappear for a little while and recoup.
Joe looks around the room at his and Nicky’s things as he starts to mentally catalog what they’ll pack and what will stay behind. He wants to say they’re used to packing light but he’s not actually convinced a sword or a scimitar would be considered ‘light’. He lets his hand hover over Nicky’s blade for a moment, motionless, as he considers the next few weeks and what they’ll do after.
He feels the change in the air around him. He knows Nicky too well to startle at his sudden, quiet appearance; he simply reaches the same hand behind him without looking and takes Nicky’s without fumbling.
“Sei pensieroso,” Nicky observes, squeezing Joe’s fingers.
“You know me. I’m a man of deep thoughts.”
Nicky laughs, then starts sorting through his gear, putting some items aside while stacking the rest. Joe follows suit, making sure they’re on the same page as to what will make it to their respective bags. It’s familiar, comforting.
Once they’re finished, Joe needs to kiss Nicky, feel him close. Nicky is kneeling on the floor, adding one last item - which isn’t on their list - to his bag, as he never fails to do. Joe kneels beside him and runs his hand through Nicky’s hair to get his attention. When he has it - when doesn’t he? - he leans over to nibble lightly at Nicky’s jawline before moving up to his lips.
“Was that necessary?” Nicky is already a bit breathless.
“Always.” Joe kisses him again as he puts more of his weight on Nicky’s body. Breathless is just the beginning.
They need to heal, to rest. Then they’ll decide how they want to handle this new future of theirs.
Above all, Joe thinks, they need to learn a new way of being together before they feel confident enough to accept any new mission that Copley might pick up. Booker had been their fourth for a little more than two hundred years; Nile is in no way a replacement. She’s her own woman, and has already earned a solid place in their group, but they don’t really know each other yet... only know of each other through their dreams. They’ll need time to find out what rhythm they’ll follow together. They’ll have to learn how to truly become the teammates that circumstances forced them to be in such a short time. Joe has every confidence that it will work out, that Nile will make herself at home within their unit, but he also knows they can’t rush matters.
So he can’t just take Nicky and leave immediately. The logical solution would be for all of them to leave for Malta, but he is not ashamed to admit that he’s selfish; he doesn’t want to share that with anyone but Nicky. He wants to visit Malta only with Nicky, and to be with him to the exclusion of all others. He doesn’t want to have his attention divided. So he chooses the next best thing - Italy, of course...
More specifically the Calabria region, where they have a secluded place lost in the mountains. They haven’t been there for a long time. As a bonus, it is closer to Sicily; he can imagine taking a little road trip around the country, Nicky and him, before heading to Malta. Whenever they feel ready, that is. He doesn’t care how long it takes.
Later, when the four of them gather to make plans in what Joe has started calling Copley’s ‘war room’, he puts his suggestion to the vote.
“Do you have safe houses everywhere?” Nile asks, with genuine curiosity in her voice. She has a laptop open in front of her; Joe can see she’s already researching the place. He’s curious about what she will find - and how; he wasn’t joking when he told her it was a secluded place.
“We have many safe houses and many homes,” Nicky replies in that informative yet vague way he sometimes uses. It can either be extremely frustrating or very endearing. Tonight, Joe leans towards the latter, but he has to hold back a smile when Nile looks less than impressed.
“In time you’ll want to add some of yours to the list, I’m sure,” Nicky adds, which seems to mollify her a little. He’s looking at Nile with a curious expression on his face… no, Joe corrects himself, a pained expression on his face. It’s very subtle and gone in a flash, but Joe notices, and understands right away. Joe sometimes feels that he could forget how to speak all the languages in the world - has forgotten some of them, those that were already old in his previous life, before he met that beautiful man who stubbornly refused to die - but he will always understand Nicky, no matter what.
So he understands, without a word uttered by Nicky, that seeing Nile in front of her laptop reminds him of Booker, who was their go-to guy when it came to ‘techy stuff’, as Andy referred to it. The room is filled with his absence. But before Joe lets the anger take hold, he turns his attention to the others.
“Let’s focus, please.” He crumples a piece of paper that has fallen off the table and throws it at Nile. “We all agree mine is the best suggestion, right, Boss?”
Nicky doesn’t reply, just gives him one of his quiet smiles. Joe feels something within him loosen up a little, as if his skin isn’t so tight anymore. Andy agrees right away, but Nile looks a bit dazed. Maybe it’s the thought of visiting Italy, maybe the idea that by leaving with them of her own accord, she more or less officially enlists in this new life. Her reaction is a complex mix of excitement and caution, but she rises to the challenge, as Joe knew she would.
It’s a pretty old place - although, to their eyes, not that old - but it has all the amenities needed to feel comfortable. Andy might not care about comfort, most of the time, but Joe and Nicky do. Booker had felt the same - maybe even more so than the rest of them put together - and he’d been vocal about it.
Joe tenses up at the memory, and wishes his life hasn’t been so intricately linked to him. He opens his eyes, stretches while being careful not to disturb Nicky, and frowns slightly. He makes a quick inventory: there is no sound or noise other than those he’s used to around the house. He can hear Nile busy in the kitchen, her domestic sounds already familiar. He feels rested, his body in perfect condition, the horrid wounds suffered during their captivity little more than a distant memory. He expects the hurt to come back in a dream or as phantom pains one of these days, but he’ll deal with that when it happens. But now something feels off. His attention immediately turns to Nicky, who’s lying on his side but has now awakened, although he remains still and silent.
Joe looks at him and knows. He kisses Nicky’s cheek gently before scratching his beard against the skin, blowing against the long neck in front of him. Nicky lets a little laugh escape as he squirms away, an automatic response that always thrills Joe; Nicky is so sensitive around his cheeks and neck. Usually, he’ll protest vocally as well, although this time he doesn’t. He pecks Joe on the cheek before he lies back on the bed, still without uttering a word. Touching Nicky is always about pleasure, but Joe is also testing the waters.
“Ok, then, Nicolò,” Joe answers easily. “Guess we have been through a lot recently. Between you and me, I’m still very pissed off about the whole affair. I can’t say I’m not feeling it too so, yeah, I get it. Want to get up?”
Nicky doesn’t reply, but he’s definitely listening. He pushes the sheets down the bed with his legs, baring them for no other reason than he feels like it? Joe certainly doesn’t mind. He minds even less when Nicky curves his naked body tight against Joe’s side, pushing his head against his heart.
“Fai leva sui miei sentimenti, Nicolò. I like your plan, love. Definitely can get behind it.” He’s about to add that he could get behind something else when he feels Nicky’s hand cover his mouth. He kisses the palm, laughing. “Ok, ok, shutting up now.” He maneuvers Nicky’s body so that his head rests in the crook of his neck, stroking his hair and his spine in a soothing motion, and waits calmly for Nicky to signal that he’s ready for them to go downstairs.
It happens every other century or so. It’s not depression, nor is it dissociation. It’s more like Nicky needs peace and quiet to be able to take everything in, accept loss, assimilate change.
Joe gives a mental shrug; they all have their own ways of coping. Andy is fierce and resentful, defying a world that refuses to bend to her will. Booker always tried to numb it down. For all the good it did him.
Joe has a feral need to protect what is his, a desire to burn all that could threaten what is precious to him, to raze the world if anyone dares touch what is his. It’s a quiet fury, but fury all the same. He wonders what Nile’s coping mechanism will be. Will she scream herself raw, find something to hit? Time will tell.
Nicky processes in silence - a very Nicky way to do things, in Joe’s view. It’s his way of avoiding being crushed by the weight of life as an immortal - the sheer feeling of loss that you experience time and time again: the loss of family, of home, of the new home that you painstakingly rebuild after the last one, only to lose that one too. The loss of an era, of a way of living and thinking, the loss of stability, of immutability... even the loss of parts of yourself.
Life as an immortal means the profound certainty that the world will change around you and one day be unrecognisable to your eyes, that you will go back to places you’ve once known, unable to find your way any longer. It’s the knowledge that you will lose everything you knew, that what was familiar will sooner or later be long forgotten by a society that never seems to grow and evolve fast enough. Immortals must face the deep confusion when what you took as truth becomes refuted, a thing of the past.
People speak of the ‘generation gap’ as if it’s a universal pastime, they reminisce about ‘the good old days’, long for what they’ve lost, but they have no real understanding of what it means to truly lose everything they know. There’s no definition for that kind of loss, no frame of reference for a gap of a thousand years between your time and the current one.
Philosophy and psychology - fields that help define humanity, that try to understand and explain the way people think, react, evolve, deal with loss or change - are based on events and behaviours, and how those act upon a lifetime that is all but obscenely short to them. Joe has always felt that they have little relevance to an immortal life.
It seems impossible to put into words what that weight of knowledge does to you, so at times like this, Nicky stops using his. It never lasts very long, although it depends on what caused his mental retreat in the first place. The first time it had happened, it had scared the hell out of Joe - who was still Yusuf back then - but now he recognises the reaction and understands. It just has to pass; he just needs to be patient.
Joe feels his chest being patted twice before he loses Nicky’s weight against his chest. Time to face the day.
Joe can see Nile frown. She’s already pretty attuned to them; she can feel that something is a bit different. Andy looks at Nicky, shoots a look in Joe’s direction, and understands immediately. She gives a sharp nod before smiling at Nicky. She comes to him and cups her hand around the nape of his neck “So it’s like this, eh, Nicky?” She gives him a little smile, a bit sad, but understanding, knowing. Joe knows her hand is a solid, warm weight on Nicky’s neck.
Nicky shrugs softly.
“It’s ok. We’ll just wait.” She jerks her head in Joe’s direction. “Just make sure that one doesn’t try to fill in the silences, alright? We hear enough of him as it is.” And just like that she grabs her cup of coffee and goes to sit outside.
“To think I delayed Malta to stay close to that woman!” Joe shakes his head. “Never let anyone accuse me of being selfish again, my love.”
There are a lot of repairs to be done in the house; it keeps them all busy. They cook, they walk for hours, talk for even longer. They get to know Nile, and Nile them. Andy is busy relearning her body, trying to understand its new limits. She seems less angry than before, though she rages about this new injury or the indignity of that new pain that lingers for too long. But Joe thinks she’s also excited to be able to feel something so new to her after several millennia. It’s fascinating to witness, but also somewhat unnerving.
Nicky is doing fine. He doesn’t seem in any hurry to find his voice, but he’s as active as the rest of them, and as engaged as ever when it comes to the maintenance - or, more accurately, the creation - of their family unit. Joe knows Nicky is watchful of Andy’s moodshifts and attentive to Nile’s behaviour. He’s always been like that, granted, but after Booker, Joe knows he’ll be even more vigilant for a while. Joe promises himself to pay attention, too.
He might not be talking, but Nicky watches. Contrary to popular belief, he’s fine on his own; they are not joined at the hip and can, in fact, do things separately… they just choose not to, most of the time. Yes, he’s fine with joining Andy on an errand or keeping Nile company; he has no trouble functioning, never has. But he might be more demanding of Joe’s attention, and whenever Joe is around, makes sure to have him in his line of sight. Joe doesn’t mind the scrutiny at all; he might even make things easier for Nicky by moving where he’ll be visible. Anyway, right now - always - he likes knowing where Nicky is, too.
Keeping Nicky close soothes him and, after everything they’ve gone through recently, he thinks he deserves it. Besides, having Nicky so silent like this does things to him. He can’t really describe it and doesn’t necessarily feel the need to have this particular emotion analysed or defined; it just is. So Joe continues to watch Nicky.
Like now, for instance, although this time his attention is also on Andy. Nicky and Andy are back from their stroll to the market down in the nearest village. It’s a beautiful walk, although long and somewhat difficult; it’s a pretty steep path. He can see Andy’s cheeks are still a bit red from the heat and exercise. They all know what it’s like to be short of breath, of course, to be tired - hell, completely exhausted. Each of them knows what it’s like to have your arm feel like lead although it’s imperative that you throw another punch, raise your sword one more time, help your teammate get up once again. They are no strangers to any of this, but it’s always the result of violent combat situations; once the fighting is finished, after their injuries have healed, their bodies recover quickly. They rarely get worked up just because of a difficult march, so seeing Andy like this makes him pause. Then again, she looks... alive, is the word that comes to mind, which… well. He’d rather not dwell on it too much. Perhaps vibrant is a better description - in this moment, even more so than usual. He’ll have to ask Nicky what he thinks, later.
“At least, I won’t hear you complain, this time,” he jokes, his mind already on the design while he draws the first line across the paper. He absentmindedly hears Nile ask Andy to repeat his words to Nicky and take notes while googling the words, no doubt.
In the past hundred years, whenever Nicky goes through one of his ‘silent episodes’, Joe uses language as a way to lure him back to using his voice, although always gently, and letting it happen at his own pace. English is not even their default language, after all; it’s always a choice. Right now, they use it mostly for Nile’s comfort. It will change when she learns more of them. Joe loves playing around with languages with Nicky, almost like a game between them, maybe a sort of reverse throwback to a time when they couldn’t understand each other at all. They’ll use the local language of the country they’re in, of course, but also switch languages depending on what they want to say - some things can be expressed better in one language compared to another - or to reflect their moods.
Since Nile joined them, it has also become a challenge of sorts. She’s eager to understand how an immortal life ‘works’. Most of all, she’s curious about the skills one might acquire when your lifespan extends to hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and the logistics - for lack of a better word - of living so long and having the opportunity to learn so much.
“How many languages do you speak? Do you ever take classes?” It’s clear from her reaction that she’s impressed at their answers, although apparently she's been following YouTubers even younger than she is who speak as many as ten or twelve languages, so Joe suspects her ‘awe’ only goes so far. Her questions are wide-ranging, from, “Do you play any instruments?” to, “Have you ever flown a plane?” and, “You were a medic once; how often do you go and train to keep up with medical progress?” She does tend to throw out a question whenever she sees an opening. They’re not as idle as they might seem. These questions - and the answers she gets - are helping her come to terms with her changed circumstances.
“Do you think our skills are finite or can we improve indefinitely?” she asks Joe one afternoon, when she discovers that he draws.
She has such a thirst for knowledge, such a profound desire to understand what she is now, what her life entails. It has been more than two hundred years since they had someone so new by their side. He has to admit her questioning is refreshing.
Joe can also tell that the more she questions them - he sometimes feels like a walking Wikipedia page - the more she starts to grasp the extraordinary turn her life has taken. Dying and coming back to life should be enough of an explanation, but it doesn’t seem to be. Not really. And the concept of time is even more of a challenge. People say it’s self-evident, but that’s such a lie. And it becomes a completely alien concept when you realise you might have thousands of years ahead of you to live your life. The concept is extremely difficult to grasp at first. Joe thinks it’s simply too big for the human psyche.
The idea is brought home to her one evening when they are slowly digesting one of the latest meals prepared by Nicky and Andy. She makes a show of complaining that she was conscripted against her will, although they all know she loves cooking with Nicky. One topic leads to another, and Nile wants to know about the first time they flew somewhere, and the first time they saw a car. Joe can’t wait for her to be comfortable enough with them to ask about ‘riskier’ subjects, but he’s comfortable with the topic of the evening: public transportation.
“We were in a small village in France, and poor Nicky actually had a heart attack.” Joe can’t help poking fun at his lover. “It wasn’t so much the car itself but the noise, see? It was like hell had broken loose. The poor cows in the countryside didn’t produce any milk for days afterwards.”
Nicky, still in the middle of his island of silence, makes a gesture that is so stereotypically Italian that it makes Nile crack up. It’s completely unexpected; none of them are ‘stereotypical’ anything, which is what makes it so damn funny. Nile doesn’t speak the ‘language’, but she doesn’t need to; the meaning behind it is pretty clear.
“You’re full of it,” she accuses Joe.
He raises his hands in surrender. “It actually was at one of the first car shows held in Paris, back in 1898.”
“News existed at the time, you know,” Andy teases. “People were quite curious about those ‘automobiles’. And that one,” she points at Nicky, “really wanted to see what the fuss was about.”
“What about planes, then?”
Andy grimaces. “It sure beats riding a horse or having to sit on a train for days on end, but I can’t say I’m a fan. It is efficient, though.”
“Thousands of years on the ground,” Joe adds, trying to make his point. “When you think about it, that's quite a long habit to break. Friendly advice - don't sit next to her on a long trip. If you have to, just let her sleep; it'll be easier.” He pauses. “For everyone.” He dodges the punch she throws his way without heat, then laughs.
“I see.” Nile smirks with a look of recognition in her eyes, but Joe doesn’t have a chance to wonder about it for too long; she goes silent as her eyes widen.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” She shakes her head, as if to physically clear her mind. “It’s just. Thousands of years. I might actually see... that’s crazy. Starships? Like, I could serve on a starship?” She stares at them, almost stunned. “This is science fiction, guys. Pure science fiction. God! What about climate change? I’ll get to really see the consequences?”
Joe can tell she’s getting worked up; they all can. Nicky puts his hand on her thigh, trying to keep her grounded. It is a lot to take in - and she doesn’t even understand what it really means, yet. Humans are resilient, true, but most of all, they are change-resistant. This is when the concept of immortality gets tricky for them.
The human brain resists change; it will fight for things to remain the same, for its life to remain the same. Imagine the struggle to constantly face changes of such magnitude that your brain might not comprehend it at first, to constantly have your knowledge shattered, your certitudes eroded. What is familiar, known, and understood becomes lost, outdated, with no other choice but to adapt, learn new concepts, navigate around new shifts of paradigms, assimilate new ways of looking at the world. Staying true to your convictions can be draining; it demands a lot of inner strength not to lose your values when the ones around you keep shifting - although, thankfully, often for the better.
Progress is generally considered a positive thing, a way to go forward in human history. Although this is usually true, it can sometimes be difficult to keep up.
“Take a breath, soldier; you’ll get used to it,” Joe advises, not unkindly. “You won’t have a choice.” He shrugs. “I mean, people complain about having to learn their way around Internet when they grew up with a landline. Try witnessing the moon landing when you were born in the Middle Ages. And let’s not even mention our dear Andromache of Scythia, here.”
“How do you do it?” Nile looks her age for the first time since they met her.
Andy smiles at her. “Like pretty much everything else, kid. One day at a time.”
He steps into the type of domestic scene he immediately commits to memory, to offset the days filled with screams and blood: Nicky is putting the dishes away, while Andy is sitting on the floor; she’s busy cleaning their weapons with a meditative look on her face. Nile sits at the table, reading a book.
“Minulla oli erinomainen päivä,” he greets them, not-so-coincidentally checking off one more language in his very long list.
Nile gives him a suspicious glare. Joe has no idea why or when, but at some point she has convinced herself that he’s been planning to troll her with a string of gibberish, and try to convince her it’s a real language. Apparently she thinks the day has finally come. She sets her book aside as she declares, “Ok, now you’re having me on. You made that up!”
Nicky laughs at her attitude. People who can make Nicky laugh like that always endear themselves to Joe. He steals a kiss as Nicky approaches with a plate ready for him. Joe holds his hand as they both sit down at the table.
Joe slowly repeats the phrase for her, then adds, “I hope you did, too?”
She opens her laptop, then turns the screen towards Nicky. He points at the relevant section of the page before he types a few words. She nods in thanks, then tells Joe, “I did, yeah.” She glances at Andy, still focused on her cleaning job, even though Joe knows she’s not losing a second of their little talk. “My day was pretty great, actually,” she agrees. Nile types for a moment, then reads the result a couple of times. “Kiitos?” she tries.
Close enough, Joe thinks. “You’re welcome.” He squeezes her shoulder once. “And I’m glad you did.”
As he dives into his plate with gusto, Nile resumes her reading. Nicky seems content to just watch them for now. Then Andy asks Nile a question that apparently has to do with an email Copley has sent them, which is definitely news to him. From his expression, Nicky is also in the dark.
He appreciates that Andy has not yet broached the subject to either of them. Right now, Joe’s main priority is Nicky; he couldn’t care less what Copley might have to tell them. It’s not that he wants the world to keep burning while he’s having a little holiday, but the thing is, the world is always burning. He’s taking care of Nicky, Andy, and Nile as well as himself; for now, that’s enough to contend with. There will be time later to care for the world again. Besides, he knows Andy and Nile are keeping watch while waiting for him and Nicky to be ready. The world doesn’t need to worry.
“If Renaissance hadn’t happened, I’m pretty sure Joe would have invented it,” Andy says sarcastically.
“Ah, il Rinascimento - such a thrilling time for those of us who enjoy art!” Joe proclaims. He had learnt so much during that period.
“Did you know many artists of the time?” Nile asks with stars in her eyes. Joe remembers that Nile is into art as well.
He nods. “Most of them were arrogant assholes, though,” he can’t resist adding. He’s not really lying; many of them were just that. “Or maybe ‘entitled’ is a better way to describe it - very sure that their work was always the best. You’d have hated them.” Joe cracks up at Nile’s shocked gasp; she almost looks offended on all those artists' behalf.
“I don’t want to know. Don’t ruin it for me, please! Still,” she has an awed look on her face, “to be able to go and talk to Leonardo da Vinci, David, see Rodin work... meet all those people, participate in those historical events...”
Joe shakes his head. Ah the naivety of youth. “You’re looking at history through modern eyes. Don’t forget; hindsight is always twenty-twenty.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nile,” Andy steps in, “you have to understand we had no way of knowing that this artist’s work would live through the ages, or that that writer would become iconic. Sure, some of them had their entries at royal courts or the Vatican - or some other VIP shit - and they became quite renowned in those circles. But often the poor bastards lived their lives without any recognition and died in poverty; those guys only became famous years after they were dead. Then there were others who were revered in their own lifetime but forgotten soon after they died. Just ‘cause we have a long life doesn’t mean we can predict the future.”
“But Rodin,” Nile insists. He’d always had a special place in her heart.
Joe takes pity on her. “We’ll tell you all about those we met, promise. And I’m sure Andy has very interesting stories about them.”
Andy snorts into her drink. “Pot, meet kettle!” She points an accusing finger at Nicky. “And don’t you dare play innocent, Nicolò,” then turns to Nile. “Don’t let him fool you; this face has turned more than one man’s head, and inspired even more of them.”
Joe winks at Nicky. “The boss is always right!” He’s thinking about a couple of sculptures he’ll have to show Nile one of these days, although he’ll need to decide which museum to start with. Choices, choices...
Nicky’s response to Andy’s comment is a complex mixture of equal parts embarrassment, amusement, and, Joe knows, wonderment at the idea of anyone finding him beautiful. He will accept such comments from Joe, but sometimes only reluctantly. The lesson of humility had been driven into Nicky from an early age; he’s carried it with him for all these years.
When Nicky tenses up a little, Joe puts a soothing hand on his thigh.
“I’m not ready to leave this place either, Nicky,” she assures him. “But we’ve been sitting on our asses for too long. You know the practice will do you good.” She reaches her hand behind her and draws the weapon almost casually. “It’ll do us all good.”
Joe feels a sudden energy run through him. She’s right, they need this.
“Don’t eat too much,” Andy warns them before heading to the door. “I’m not going to take it easy on you just because you decided to get lazy these past weeks. It’s on you, guys, if I hand your asses to you all damn day.”
Just as she promised, they do have their asses handed to them - repeatedly; she’s absolutely ruthless. Joe wonders if Andy has something to prove, but soon comes to the conclusion that she’s not so much trying to prove something to them as to herself; they just happen to be in the way. He doesn’t mind. The pain actually feels good, it’s invigorating.
When Nile takes his place, it gives him the opportunity to watch her in action in a controlled setting, rather than when they’re fighting for their lives. She is no match for Andy, yet - nor for any of them - but she's already a worthy opponent. Not that he’s surprised; he’d seen what she was capable of at Merrick’s lab, but he’d had other things on his mind back then. Now he has the opportunity to really appreciate her technique; she’s pure Marine, which will come in handy, but it’s obvious that they have so much to teach her. When they do, she’ll be absolutely unstoppable. Joe is impressed with her focus, with the way she gives her everything into the fight, even though she’s smart enough to recognise that Andy is the superior fighter. She’s cunning, too; he likes her style.
“Pretty good addition to the team, don’t you think, Nicky?”
Nicky nods, clever eyes analysing the strikes, the way Nile moves, how she parries Andy’s attack. Joe is impatient to fight against her, and he can see that Nicky is curious, too. They smile at each other.
Their attention returns to the combat scene. Both women are now on the ground, arms and legs entangled as they continue to fight. Joe can tell Andy is ready to finish it, and she does; she transitions from crucifix to a brutal reverse omoplata and waits for Nile to tap out, which she does.
Andy gets up right away and extends a hand to Nile, who takes it and lets herself be picked up. Andy, breathless and red-faced but looking as fierce as ever, pats her on the shoulder.
Nile comes to them, looking a bit dazed. Joe hands her a bottle of water; she drinks half with apparent relish. When she’s done, he gives the bottle to Nicky so he can share the rest of the water with Andy.
“Come on, Nicky, make me proud!” he encourages as Nicky brushes past him, his sword at the ready. As brutal as their training sessions always are, they also give Joe an opportunity to ogle Nicky. He intends to enjoy the show.
Nicky doesn’t begin fighting right away, but starts his own version of a long-perfected posta drill. Knowing him, he probably wants to give Andy the time to catch her breath, but Joe doesn’t care about the why; he just enjoys the show. He could watch Nicky transition from one position to the other all day; his lean, beautiful - powerful - body holds each stance perfectly, almost effortlessly.
Then he watches as Nicky and Andy circle each other before they each strike at the same time and end up in a bind that is more playful than serious. It’s somewhat boring and theatrical, as moves go, but Joe savours the sight as Nicky’s t-shirt rides up to display a tantalising bit of skin. Then Nicky thrusts his sword forward with a half-swing. Joe nods to himself, game on.
He feels Nile staring at him and raises his eyebrows at her expression. “What is it?”
“Nothing.” She shrugs, then explains, “I just realised how beautiful it is.”
“The way you look at him.” She answers simply, but seems to be pondering something.
“Well,” he says, pointedly returning his gaze to Nicky, who’s never more beautiful than when he’s focused on something, so when he draws his sword, he’s absolutely magnificent. Part of it might be because it’s a bit unexpected - soft-spoken, unassuming Nicky turning into a deadly creature.
Andy and Booker have mocked Joe mercilessly whenever he mentions Nicky as an ‘angel of death looking for retribution’, but he stands by it. The sight of Nicky covered in the blood of their enemies is enough to make his own sing.
“I know, I know,” Nile says fondly. “He’s the most beautiful man on the planet, I get it.”
“Damn right he is. And he’s not just a pretty face either.” Joe knows that most people don’t really notice Nicky until he decides to be noticed, but then, of course, it’s usually too late for them. It baffles Joe that people can’t recognise how dangerous the man truly is, but of course it’s part of the disguise, a secret weapon of sorts that the team has used many times in the past - and quite successfully. As for those who mistake kindness and compassion for weakness and fragility... they usually get what they deserve in the end.
Let the world underestimate Nicolò di Genova and then weep for it.
“You’re having sappy thoughts again, I can tell!” Nile mocks him. “Man, you’re so gone.” But there’s genuine fondness in her voice.
“I am,” Joe agrees easily. He’ll happily shout it to the world. Is known to shout it to the world, actually - or to assholes in vans who think they have Joe and Nicky when, in fact, Joe and Nicky have them.
Joe is still watching the scene in front of him. Andy and Nicky are back to circling each other, waiting for the other to create the smallest of openings so that they can lunge forward, go for the kill, as it were.
“Of course, you’ll also learn Nicky can be a stubborn little shit when he wants to be,” Joe adds.
“Thank God,” Nile says. “I was starting to think the man was perfect!”
Joe snorts, his attention back on the combat that hasn’t abated in front of them. “Doppelrundtstreich, Nicky!” he yells.
Of course Andy deflects the double-strike with an economy of movement that never fails to impress by how deceptively effortless it looks. Then she points her axe at him.
“Cheaters aren’t allowed around here. This demands retribution.” She holds her weapon against her shoulder and jerks her head in Nicky’s direction. “Why don’t you join your boyfriend, Joe?”
Joe laughs. “Oh, you’re on, Boss.”
Nicky is sitting on the floor, against the sofa; he’s reading an old book he found on his last trip to the village. He looks beautiful like this. As usual, Joe has an almost physical need to commit the vision to paper, but if he indulged, he would never stop drawing him. Instead he just basks in Nicky’s quiet beauty, although he can’t resist getting closer.
“είμαι κομμάτια,” Joe tells them as he sits down heavily on the sofa. He sees Nile’s look of appreciation at the words. She told them she wants to start learning a new language soon, but is undecided as to which one to start with. He’s seen her trying out different websites, and she’s been asking them to talk a little more to get a feel of those foreign languages. He enjoys her dedication once she’s decided to go for something she’s interested in.
He stretches on the sofa before settling down on his side, arm bent, head resting lazily on his hand. Nicky’s back is to him, which gives Joe every opportunity to touch if he wants to - which he does. He cards his fingers through Nicky’s hair.
“It’s getting longer,” he muses, then he hums to himself as he takes a strand of hair and pulls a little playfully. “I like it,” he adds, as if it were a new development. Nicky’s eyes flutter at the gesture. He turns his head to kiss the inside of Joe’s wrist, which certainly does things to Joe too, before he settles back on his book.
Joe flips on his back, one hand resting on his chest. Andy has put him through the wringer once more, as she always does; he wasn’t lying when he told them he was knackered, but it’s the best kind of tiredness. Most of all, he’s relaxed, content, with that deep satisfaction you feel when you push your body to its limit. As brutal as it usually is, the exercise is good for both body and soul. Maybe a bit more for the soul; even though Joe feels the physicality of the training deep in his bones while he’s doing it, it usually disappears quickly. His muscles loosen up almost immediately and the tension eases at the same time, but the brain always remembers. He feels sated - not unlike after having sex, although there is no doubt which physical exertion has his preference.
Nicky turns his head again and looks at him, eyes soft and knowing, always aware of Joe’s mood.
“I’m getting some ideas, Nicky,” Joe tells him while staring back.
Nicky closes his book.
Joe is convinced that tonight will be a bad one, but he believes Nicky will feel better for it. He just hates the process.
Their nights are often plagued with nightmares - how could they not be, after living so long? Especially with the lives they’ve chosen to lead. Some nights are filled with confusion and pain, imagined or real, while others are laden with a terror that isn’t their own.
They wake from those dreams not knowing where they are, when they are, sometimes unable to tell who they are. That feeling is the worst, almost overwhelming. At such times they feel... untethered. Each time it happens to him, Joe doesn’t know what he would do if Nicky weren’t there to bring him back - compassionate, resilient, fierce, stubborn Nicky.
Tonight it’s Joe’s turn. Nicky might be sleeping, but he’s not restful. Joe instinctively knows he mustn’t wake him but must let things run their course, so he’s keeping watch. He watches as Nicky’s body shakes minutely, feeling his own skin prickling. He’s aware of each disturbed intake of breath, which makes his own heart race. His whole body is on alert because Nicky is hurting, his mind finally coming to terms - maybe - with what it has been processing all these past weeks.
“Ta voix me manque,” Joe whispers along Nicky’s spine “mais j’attendrai le temps qu’il faudra.” He means it, on both accounts; he misses Nicky’s voice, but he will wait for however long is needed.
Nicky’s body goes rigid, as if in sudden pain, before he goes almost limp against the mattress. It’s a bit unnerving to watch, but their bodies sometimes behave in a way that doesn’t make sense, and the way they deal with mental strain is still a bit of a mystery to them.
Joe tenses up at the exact same moment that Nicky startles awake, his eyes wide and confused. He doesn’t fight Joe when he catches his arms; his body instinctively recognises the touch even if his mind doesn’t. He’s still on edge.
“Shh, calmati, Nicolò, tutto bene.” Joe keeps up the litany for a little while, letting his voice soothe Nicky’s confusion, knowing Nicky’s mind will catch up with his body and realise that Joe is with him, that he’s safe. They both are.
Finally, Joe can see recognition in Nicky’s eyes. He rests a hand against Nicky’s heart, feeling it race. Nicky doesn’t seem to remember how to take a deep breath.
“Hey, Nicky. You know how it is, you can breathe, I promise you are okay.” Nicky nods shakily, then follows Joe’s rhythm. They’ve done this so often that they’ve lost count. Joe is expecting Nicky’s brain to take over soon.
“See, Nicolò, you know the drill.” They stare at each other while Nicky gets his breathing under control. Joe kisses his cheek; Nicky’s face is burning as if he has a fever. “Can you tell me what it was about?”
Nicky frowns, shakes his head.
Joe sighs; there are so many potential stress points. Their torture at the lab. Booker’s betrayal. The guilt of his punishment. Andy’s fate. Their fate. One of the hundred deaths he’s gone through, that Joe has gone through. The horrible, impossible wounds they have sometimes suffered... there are far too many reasons for the nightmares.
Nicky opens his mouth before closing it again. It’s the first time, since the beginning of this episode, that Nicky seems to want to talk but is physically unable to. He’s becoming frustrated and even more upset, which makes Joe want to shatter something.
“Listen, Nicky, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me. It doesn’t matter.” But he cannot stop his voice from taking a sharp edge. Suddenly he’s incredibly, intolerably angry. On Nicky’s behalf. On his own. For everything they’ve been through recently. For what could happen in the future. He’s furious.
“It doesn’t matter,” he repeats, almost growling. “Whatever it is, it’s you and me against the world, Nicky. Always and forever. You hear me?” Nicky’s eyes grow dark, and he nods with such a relieved expression that it breaks something in Joe.
He can’t help it; he has to kiss Nicky, to taste him, feel his breath against his own skin. They kiss like that for a long, long time, until the frenzy fades away a little.
Nicky closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath. He curls on his side, keeping hold of Joe’s hand and bringing Joe with him. Joe had no intention of letting go either, so he lets himself be pulled against Nicky’s back. He shifts a little so that his whole body is pressed tight against Nicky’s; he can’t bear the thought of even a single breath coming between them. His lips rests against the nape of Nicky’s neck, his arm reaching across Nicky’s chest, hand clenched on Nicky’s arm.
He feels tired, but secure in the knowledge that Nicky is safe in his arms.
“We’re gonna be okay, Nicky,” he whispers before he lets sleep take over.
“I was thinking,” Nicky starts, his voice raspy from lack of use. “I was thinking that we need to organise a meeting with Copley.”
Joe is almost giddy with happiness as he hears that beloved voice after so long. Nicky has found his way back to him.
“But after Joe takes me to Malta. Then we all meet at Copley’s. Alright, Boss?”
Joe doesn’t know which is sexier - hearing Nicky speak again, or the phrasing. At any rate, both go straight to his cock.
Andy and Nile stare at Nicky for a second with such intensity that Joe knows it will embarrass Nicky, but to his obvious relief, they both take it in stride. It’s never easy for Nicky to resume where he left off.
“Sure, Nicky,” Andy agrees. “I think you’re right. We’re ready.”
They are. They will have to go through many missions before they’re as tight a unit as they were with Booker, but Joe knows without the shadow of a doubt that they will get there. When they do... they will absolutely obliterate the poor bastards that get in their way. He cannot wait.
But first, Malta.
Joe comes to stand in front of Nicky and takes him in his arms, hands running through his hair. Nicky presses against him, almost melting into him. Joe loves this man beyond measure and reason. He wants to bury himself deep inside him, to take him apart before putting him together again, but he keeps his touch soft and gentle as he tenderly kisses Nicky’s temple. “Welcome back, u mae amu.”