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are there still beautiful things?

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i. your lover in starlight

Looking back, it is so easy to see the signs of Booker splintering before them. It is so easy to see that Nicky can barely feel the anger over his sense of shame. He thinks if Andy hadn’t been hurt, if Joe hadn’t, he would not have it in him to be angry at all.

He thinks of eternity stretching before you, and loneliness, and the weight of watching your family die while you go on, and no end in sight.

He thinks of dreaming intermittently for two hundred years of Quynh drowning and drowning and drowning at the bottom of the ocean.

He thinks of how Booker was when they first found him, frightened and with his wife and children’s names spilling from his lips, and how they left him now on that rocky shore, alone.

He is suddenly seized with a need to see Joe, to have him in his arms. He gets to his feet and goes in search of him. It’s not a big house. In fact, Nicky thinks, it is rather charitable to call it a house. Someone less kind might call it a shack. But it’s quiet and it has running water and electricity and really, in the end, all they need is each other.

Joe is outside. The house is small but it’s got a porch, and Joe is sitting on the steps. He’s lit with the glow from the front door, but if Nicky turns off the lights, they’ll be left with the darkness and the stars.

Nicky flips the switch.

Joe turns, and there’s a knowing glint in his eye. Nicky is still sometimes caught off guard by how beautiful his Joe is.

“Nic, my Nico,” he says. “Dear one. Your Catholic guilt is written all over your face.”

That startles a laugh out of Nicky. “Am I so obvious?”

“To me, of course,” Joe says, serious. “Do you want to talk?”

Nicky doesn’t answer for a moment. He does want to talk, but mostly he wants to be close to Joe. He goes to sit, and Joe slides down one step and shifts so that he’s seated between Nicky’s legs, leaning into his chest and tilting his head until he’s resting it on Nicky’s shoulder.

Nicky presses a kiss to his cheek, wraps his arms around Joe. It’s a relief to feel his chest rise and fall, a relief to feel the line of his spine pressed against him. It’s uncanny how Joe always knows what he needs. 

“We should have noticed,” Nicky says, after a few minutes of companionable silence. “He was calling for help and we weren’t listening.”

“No,” Joe says, a little short. He looks like he’s going to continue, but cuts himself off, looking frustrated.

“You’re still angry,” Nicky notes. It’s not an accusation. He and Joe have always processed their emotions differently. That was a hard lesson to learn in the beginning, but they’re used to the push and pull after all these years. Joe is usually the more gracious of the two — Nicky can forgive and does so freely, but he doesn’t forget. Joe will let bygones be bygones. Right now, though, Nicky can feel the tension all along Joe’s body.

“Sto bene,” he says, gentle. “I’m okay, Yusuf.” It’s always when Joe thinks Nicky has been wronged that he’s the angriest. It’s the only time he can manage to hold a grudge. Nicky presses his lips to the spot where Joe’s neck slopes into his shoulders. Joe shudders.

“You were hurt,” he says. He reaches up and back to cradle Nicky’s face in one big hand.

Nicky sighs. “I had you with me,” he says. “It wasn’t so bad.” And it wasn’t. Pain was just pain, and it always passed. Merrick was a small, petty man and that doctor was just another fool in a long line of people who thought that the ends could justify the means. Nicky wishes that he hadn’t died quite so many times, nor taken as many bullets, and he wishes that Joe had not had to watch him get shot in the mouth, but apart from the sharp sting of Booker’s betrayal, this past week doesn’t come close to ranking in their most disastrous ventures.

And that, in the end, is what it comes down to, Nicky thinks. Joe is fiercely loyal and when he loves, he loves wholly. Joe would sooner carve out a piece of his own heart than betray any of them — and would sooner survive that, too. To learn that Booker had done what he had — it was hard.

“You’ll always have me,” Joe says.

“Yes,” Nicolo says, warmly.

Joe twists around, turns so that he’s kneeling before Nicky and staring at his mouth. Nicky draws him in for a kiss. It’s sweet and unhurried, and Nicky can feel Joe’s lips curling into a smile before he pulls away. Nicky looks at him in no small amount of awe. A thousand years together and he still has to catch his breath at the sight of his Yusuf, awash in starlight.

 

ii. rainstorms & thunder in the summer air

Nicky likes Korea. In the summer, the humidity makes Joe’s hair a mass of curls and frizz, and Joe is disgruntled by it, but Nicky loves it. He resists the urge to reach out and tangle his fingers in it, pull Joe in for a kiss. Joe winks at him like he knows what Nicky was thinking, and he probably does.

Nile has been to Korea, but there’s not an abundance of sightseeing time when you’re on active duty, and she’s never been to Jeju Island. They’re hiking the Gwaneumsa trail now, and the views are to die for. Nile is wide-eyed as she takes in the sights.

“Island’s changed since we were here last,” Joe remarks idly. His shoulders are relaxed, and he’s walking loose and easy. His eyes are scanning their surroundings for potential threats. Luckily, the trail isn’t too crowded today. They have to be careful not to draw attention to themselves at tourist destinations like this.

Nile had heard of Jeju Island from a friend in her old life, and when she mentioned offhand that she’d like to visit, Nicky and Joe had jumped to accompany her.

(“I don’t need babysitters,” Nile had said with a roll of her eyes, but fond all the same.

“Perhaps we want to visit old sights,” Nicky had said, and Nile had shrugged and asked Andy if she wanted to come. Andy had cheerily declined and warned them to keep their noses out of trouble.)

“When were you here?” Nile asks. She always wants to hear about their past involvements in history. Nile is curious by nature and her heart is big. Nicky doesn’t begrudge her the telling of even their less successful attempts to shift the course of humanity.

“The uprising,” Nicky says. “1948.”

It had been Booker’s idea to go. Booker sometimes liked to play at apathy but he was no more immune to a people in need than the rest of them. They’d arrived with the island in the throes of rebellion, with a government killing its people and a desperation in the air that they were all familiar with. It was too late to turn the tide, but they each did what they could. It wasn’t enough. It rarely felt like enough, but sometimes their efforts felt more like failure than others. This was one of them, with thousands dead and no acknowledgments of wrongdoing from the government once it was all over.

Joe says, “Booker insisted we come. He was right, we were needed, but we came too late to save many people.”

“You saved who you could,” Nile says, firm in her belief in them as always.

We didn’t save Booker, Nicky thinks. And on the heels of that thought: You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. But maybe they should’ve tried harder.

“All we can do, Nile,” Joe says, “Is try harder next time.”

Nile says, “That’s all anyone could ask for,” and leaves it at that. Her emotional intelligence is so much higher than theirs had been at that age, Nicky thinks fondly.

Jeju Island is nice, green and lush and — cloudy? It occurs to Nicky that the temperature has dropped in the last half hour or so while they’ve been hiking. They didn’t check the weather before they left. It had been all clear skies when they’d started, and now it looks like it might storm.

There is a clap of thunder. Nicky amends the might storm to will storm in his head. There’s nothing to be done. They are halfway up a mountain. A little bit of rain won’t hurt them.

Still, it’s almost a surprise when the skies open up above them. The water sheets down and soaks them in the space of seconds. Nicky turns to Joe, because he will always turn to Joe, and is delighted to find him looking back. He is always looking back, and Nicky is always delighted. Joe drags his gaze down Nicky’s body, and Nicky is very aware of his shirt plastered to his chest. Nicky tries not to smile. Joe winks.

Nile has her head tilted upwards, eyes closed. “I love storms,” she says, when she opens her eyes back up and notices them looking at her. She seems relaxed, peaceful in a way that she usually isn’t. The first century is hard, Nicky knows. He doesn’t miss the feeling of being unmoored, of being uncertain of himself and what was to come.

Joe slides an affectionate arm around his waist and Nicky leans into him.

The rain keeps falling. By unanimous agreement, they continue hiking after a few moments of companionable silence.

The trail is easy here, and Joe takes Nicky’s hand in his. The sound of the rainfall against the foliage surrounds them, and Nile goes ahead, sure-footed and eager to reach the summit. It’s good to see her excited. It’s good to have Joe’s fingers entwined with his own, and it’s good to stop for a second and pull him into a kiss. Joe makes a tiny surprised noise as Nicky brings his hands up to wind his fingers in his hair.

Nicky’s been told that kisses in the rain are romantic. They’ve had their fair share of them over the years, but he can’t definitively say they’re more or less romantic than any of their other kisses.

What he knows is this: The taste of Joe, and the feel of his lips, and the way he gives a small, contented sigh when they break away from each other. They’re going to be annoyed about their damp clothes later, but right now it’s refreshing and water is dripping from Joe’s curls into his beautiful, wonderful face and Nicky can’t bring himself to mind the rain at all.

“I love you beyond reason,” Joe says, solemn, but his eyes are dancing. His laugh lines are pronounced. Nicky smiles and steals another kiss.

“Come on,” Nicky says finally. “We’re going to lose Nile.”

“You’re not going to lose Nile,” Nile says. She’s waiting a few meters beyond them, lip twitching. There’s an indulgent look on her face. “Nile is waiting for Joe and Nicky to finish being disgustingly romantic in the rain.”

Nicky laughs. Joe, at his side, does as well. This time when Nile starts back up the trail, they follow. Today is a good day, Nicky thinks. All this time and there are still such good days.

 

iii. small kindnesses 

They’re in Vegas. Andy likes it, the glittery, manic energy, the griminess of the city’s underbelly. It’s easy to get lost in the mass of humanity here, and there’s something comforting about that, too.

For Nicky’s part, he likes to see Andy smile, and he likes to see Nile get to enjoy herself and act her age for once. And he likes the heat of Joe’s gaze when they go out clubbing. That’s for tonight, though.

Right now it’s morning, early enough that the others are all still in their rooms, and he’s slipped out of the condo they’re using, courtesy of Copley. Joe had woken when he had, of course, but he’d sensed Nicky’s need to have some time alone and had blearily brushed a kiss against Nicky’s hand as he rolled out of bed. Nicky had lingered for a moment, holding Joe’s gaze. Joe had blinked slow and languid, then said, “Swift, I think. Go well, Nico.”

Nicky didn’t even bother asking how Joe knew where he intended to go. Joe knows his heart through and through.

The desert sun is strong, just beginning to really warm up as Nicky heads off to his destination. A cursory internet search had indicated that the store he wanted was still in business, and Nicky still remembers Booker’s surprise when he’d found an antiques book dealer tucked away in the bustling heart of Las Vegas.

It’s a quick walk, so it’s not long before Nicky finds himself ducking into the small storefront. It’s just as it was over a decade ago, cozy and inviting. A sanctuary. Nicky likes to read, but doesn’t collect books in the way that Booker does — the nickname is both a play on his surname and a reference to his hobby — but he can understand the appeal when he’s in spaces like this, surrounded by so much history, neatly bound in paper.

“Welcome Bauman Rare Books,” a voice says cheerily.

Nicky turns to see a young woman, probably around Nile’s age. Her name tag reads Ellis. She’s smiling at him. “Is this your first time here?”

“It’s been some time since I was here,” Nicky says honestly, “But it feels the same as ever.”

Ellis nods. “I’ve worked here for four years and it feels like it’s suspended in time,” she says, and Nicky almost laughs. Suspended in time indeed. If only she knew.

“I was wondering if you could help me find something,” Nicky says.

She raises her brows slightly. “Oh,” she says. “Of course! What can I find for you?”

“I’ve heard this store has a particularly lovely copy of Gulliver’s Travels,” Nicky says, and hides a grin as her eyes widen.

“We do, a really wonderfully preserved two-volume first edition. Are you interested in purchasing it today?” She’s plainly surprised. Nicky supposes that it’s probably one of the rarest — and most expensive — books in their inventory.

“I am,” he says.

It’s simple enough to complete the transaction, and Nicky walks out of the store with two carefully packaged volumes of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travels and a considerably lighter wallet, metaphorically.

The others are all up and about by the time he makes it back to the condo. Nile is at the kitchen table. Her headphones are in, but when she sees Nicky she pulls them out of her ears and greets him readily. “Where’d you go?”

“Errand,” Nicky says. He peers into the kitchen, where Andy is leaning against the counter with a mug in hand. Joe comes up behind him. Nicky hears him coming and isn’t surprised when a pair of arms wrap around him. Joe’s breath is warm against his neck. “Nicolo,” he says. “Dear one.”

Nicky turns to kiss him properly. “Hi,” he says.

Joe says, low, for his ears only, “Stai bene?”

Nicky smiles, goes in for another kiss to wipe the concern off of Joe’s face. “Sí, non ti preoccupare.”

Joe relaxes. “You get it?”

Nicky nods, presents the package he’s been holding tight to his chest. Andy comes over to see what he’s holding, and then says, soft, “Nicky.”

It’s Joe who responds before Nicky can even open his mouth. “He’s still ours,” he says darkly. Nicky turns gentle eyes to him. Joe holds his gaze steadily.

Andy looks a little surprised. All this time and they still manage to keep her on her toes, Nicky thinks. He knows Joe too well to think that all has been forgiven. It hasn’t, not yet. But Joe has also never had the stomach to watch those he cares about suffer, even when he’s working through his own anger. At the end of the day, it’s just the four of them — five, now, with Nile — and Andy’s mortality has shaken them all. Booker is still one of them.

“You two have always been the best of us,” Andy says, and she says it like fact.

“I think that’s Nile,” Nicky says. It’s true. Nile’s presence has brought a light to their group that has been missing for too long. Centuries. He thinks that Nile’s steadiness, her innate goodness, would have balanced Booker out on his most difficult days.

Andy cedes the point as Nile joins them in the kitchen. “Oh,” she says, seeing the wrapped package in Nicky’s hand. “Is that for—” She trails off, awkwardly.

Nicky gives her a little smile, nods.

“Okay,” she says. “Okay, good.” Her chin is tilted like she expects an argument. From who, Nicky doesn’t know. Andy is hardheaded and she’s fair, so she won’t be the one to reach out to Booker, but Nicky knows she won’t stop any of them from doing so if they wish. And Joe, well.

“Joe’s the one who suggested Jonathan Swift,” Nicky says, needing Nile to understand the kindness running deep in Joe’s bones. He needs Nile to understand that it had been Joe who had stopped their own cycle of killing, all those years ago.

Surprise flits across her features, there and gone so quickly that Nicky can’t even be sure it was there.

Joe says, laughing a little, “I’m angry, Nile, not cruel.”

“No,” Nile says, surely. “I know you’re not cruel.”

Nearly imperceptibly, Joe relaxes. Nicky looks at him with immeasurable fondness. As if anyone could think him cruel.

(Later, Andy will hand him a slip of paper with a Parisian address, and Nicky and Joe will take a walk to the nearest post office.

Later, they’ll venture out to the bars and the clubs and Nicky will let Joe pull him away from the table for a dance.

Later, Nicky will fall into bed with Joe, like thousands of times before, and Joe will mouth at his jaw, his throat, kiss him hungrily. Nicky will be left gasping as Joe wraps a hand around his cock, and he will leave Joe in much the same state when he sucks him off.

Later, they’ll lay with Joe curled around Nicky as always, and Nicky will succumb to sleep thinking of Joe’s indomitable kindness and warmth and love.)

 

iv. the first breath after dying

Nicky struggles his way back to consciousness, to life, to find Joe cradling him in his arms. “Yusuf,” he says, with his first breath.

Joe bows his head, arms slackening in relief. He’s shaking, a little. “Nicolo,” he says, and his voice is wracked with emotion.

“Sorry, sorry,” he manages, in Arabic. He must have taken longer than usual to wake. It had been a bad death. He can feel his chest cavity still trying to knit itself back together. “I’m fine, I’ll be fine, where are Andy and Nile?”

“They went ahead,” Joe says. “I think the hard part is over, though.” He cocks his head, listening.

Sure enough, there’s no sound to indicate that Andy and Nile have run into any more trouble. Nicky lets himself sink into Joe, grateful for the respite. His body needs another few minutes to heal enough so he can move about again.

Joe sweeps his hair out of his face, combs through it with his fingers. He winces as he reaches matted blood from an earlier death. “I was worried,” he murmurs.

“I’ll always come back to you,” Nicky says, helpless. His chest aches, and it has nothing to do with the physical damage.

“And I to you,” Joe says. “Nothing could keep me from you.”

It’s a marvel, Nicky thinks, that they haven’t tired of life yet. The world-weariness that Andy still carries in the line of her shoulders, Booker’s desire to end things once and for all — that has never touched them. Each time he wakes, he’s flooded with gratitude, because more often than not when he wakes, Joe is the first thing he sees.

He just stays still, content to feel Joe breathing behind him. They’re still in that position when Nile and Andy come running. Nile skids to a stop where they are. “Nicky,” she says. “Fuck, thank god.”

Andy has more dignity about it, but her gaze sweeps over him searchingly before she seems to relax.

Nicky frowns. He must’ve been out even longer than he’d thought.

“I’m good,” he says, and moves to sit up on his own. Joe lets him go, and Nicky steals a glance at his chest. His shirt is a lost cause but the skin is nearly finished forming. “Let’s go.”

He gets to his feet and is pleased when he feels minimal pain. Joe stands with him, brushes one hand gently along his chest to check that the injury is healed.

“I’m good,” Nicky repeats, and leans forward to rest his forehead against Joe’s for a moment. Joe closes his eyes. Nicky looks at the strain around his mouth, the tension along his brow, and thinks that they’re well past due for some rest and recovery.

When they’re done with this, he thinks. Maybe he’ll tell Andy and Nile they need some time. Joe takes a few more breaths, visibly drawing strength from their contact, then nods. “Let’s go,” he says, and he sounds more like himself.

 

v. the beat of his heart against yours

Since Andy’s newfound mortality, each death brings with it a sense of unease, a heart-stopping fear when the revival comes slower than normal. Knowing of Lykon and hearing stories of him isn’t the same as seeing the way wounds no longer heal for Andy, isn’t the same as the stark understanding that things can change at any moment.

Nicky has never been so keenly aware of the tenuous nature of their continued existence.

And Joe— Joe has been missing for nearly a month, after a mess of a mission left them separated and vulnerable. They’re not invincible and this time they’d overestimated their abilities. Adjusting for Andy’s new vulnerability on top of the addition of Nile and loss of Booker had shifted the dynamics of the way they worked, and whatever alphabet soup agency that had targeted them this time had managed to isolate Joe and snatch him away. Nicky had moved to go after them, mindless with rage and fear and Nile had tackled him from behind before he could do anything stupid. You’re more use to him out here and working to get him back, she’d said. Nicky. Nicky, stop. We’ll get him back. We’ll help you get him back.

It’s been the longest four weeks of his considerable life.

“Nicky,” Andy says. “We’re getting closer. Copley thinks he has something. He says to expect to move tomorrow at latest.”

Nicky just nods. Copley’s been trying, but from what he’s gathered, Joe’s been passed from the hands of one agency to the next. A promising lead can go up in smoke in a matter of hours. Twice already they’ve just missed him. It’s going to drive Nicky mad.

“We should go get—” Nile starts, and Andy presses her lips together. Nile holds Andy’s gaze defiantly.

Nicky almost smiles, would have smiled if he wasn’t so consumed with worry for Joe. For someone who knew Booker only a handful of days, Nile has a great deal of faith in his abilities.

She goes to see him every year, Nicky knows. They all know, even if they pretend they don’t for everyone’s sake. Nile is kind and stubborn and stands by her belief that no man should be left behind, and in her eyes, Booker is part of her unit.

Andy says carefully, looking at him, “Do you trust Booker with this?”

Nicky barely even has to think about it. “Yes,” he says.

They’ll be stronger with Booker than without, for one thing. Nicky will not lose Andy to get Joe. He’ll not put that guilt on Joe’s shoulders, and three immortal bodies is better than two. And besides, he knows with a surety that runs deep in his bones that Booker will always align himself with them rather than against them when push comes to shove. He’d shown as much, back during the Merrick incident, and Nicky had seen the genuine remorse and the self-loathing in his bearing afterwards.

Something has fractured between them, but it’s not irreparable. There is still love between them. In matters like this, Nicky trusts him.

“Okay,” Andy says. “Let’s go then, quickly.”

Packing is just making sure that they’re not leaving anything behind in the safehouse. They’ve been living out of their go bags, so they’re in the car within minutes.

Nicky feels minutely better now that they’re in motion. He can’t remember the last time he’s been this antsy, but then again, he can’t remember the last time he’d been separated from Joe for this long. Even during the rare times they’re not physically together, they’re always in contact. This is the longest he’s gone without speaking to Joe since they stopped trying to kill each other, he’s sure of it.

Nile drives them. Andy catches a nap in the backseat, since she’d been on watch nearly all night. Nicky sits in the passenger seat and tries to breathe normally.

 


 

They find Booker in his shitty apartment, arms cuffed tightly behind his back and hanging from the ceiling fan. He stares at them with glassy, blank eyes, and then comes back to life with a jolt. He drags in a rattling breath, looking at them like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. Nicky is frozen in shock for a second. His throat hurts just to look at him.

“Book,” Andy says, horrified.

Nile makes a pained noise behind him and stumbles towards Booker. Andy disappears momentarily, returning with a chair from the kitchen and positioning it beneath Booker so that he can stand while they work to get him down.

Once he’s freed of the noose, Booker collapses. Nile barely manages to catch him before he hits the floor hard. Andy crouches by them, concern written all over her face. Booker gulps in air, desperate, hands flying to the bruises on his neck as soon as Nile cuts him out of the cuffs. He’s healing already, Nicky thinks with no small measure of relief.

“Quynh,” Booker says, when he’s recovered his voice enough to speak. “She found me.” It’s barely a rasp, but Andy stiffens.

Nicky is numb all over. He instinctively seeks out Joe for comfort before remembering, and his sympathy for Booker’s condition wars with the all-consuming fear for Joe and what he must be going through. It’s been a trying month. When this is all over, he’s going to take Joe and steal him away for a long vacation, and the others will have to make do without them for a time, he thinks.

Booker looks up at their little group and realizes they’re one short. “Where’s Joe?”

“He was taken,” Nile says, when she sees that Nicky isn’t going to speak. Booker looks at Nicky, blatant worry in his eyes.

Nicky suppresses the less charitable part of his nature, the part that wants to snipe at Booker for even putting them on the radar like this. Perhaps Nile senses this, because she adds swiftly, “We came to see if you would help us find him, but —”

“When did she come,” Andy says, interrupting. She’s got a dangerous glint to her eye.

“No more than a week ago,” Booker says firmly. His voice is nearly back to normal, although he’s still absently rubbing his throat.

Nile stares at him. “A week,” she says. “You were hanging for a week?”

“It wasn’t by choice, Nile,” Booker says, a little testy. But there’s no real bite to it. He says, hesitantly, “She’ll probably be back. She wanted to know where you were, said she’d come back and try me again if she couldn’t find you in a reasonable amount of time. Not sure what she considers reasonable.”

Andy rolls her shoulders back. She does it when she’s anxious. “Okay,” she says. “We find Joe. Then go from there.”

She strides out of the room before any of them can speak.

Nicky takes a moment to re-center himself. Finding Booker like that, and learning of Quynh’s escape, and Joe still fucking gone. It’s too much. He’s got to pull it together. It has never been more important for him to be focused. Every time he closes his eyes he can see Joe clear as day in front of him, head tilted ever so slightly to the side and with the smile he reserves for Nicky alone.

When they find Joe he’s going to kill every fucking person who’s dared to touch him, and he’s going to track down every last person who’d held Joe captive these past weeks, and he’s going to kill them too, may God forgive him. And if God doesn’t, it will still be worth it to have Joe back by his side and safe from those who have hurt him. Nicky hasn’t fallen to his knees in worship of anyone save Joe for centuries now. It is what it is.

Nicky walks over to Booker, offers him a hand up. Booker looks at him for a moment, than grasps it. “Nicky,” he says.

“You’re still one of us,” Nicky says evenly. “And we need your help.” He’s aware of Nile watching them, listening and waiting. She’s a good kid.

“You have it,” Booker says, rough. “We’ll get him back. We will.”

 


 

Copley comes through.

San Francisco. Private company, contracted by DARPA.

They’re on a plane within the hour.

 


 

“Andy,” Nicky says. “After this—”

“I don’t want to see the two of you for at least a year,” Andy says. “And that’s on the conservative end, I mean it.”

“No,” Nicky says, as tempting as the thought is. “We find Quynh.”

Andy’s expression twists into an approximation of a smile. “I expect she’ll find us.”

“Either way,” Nicky says. “We’ll be with you.”

He holds her gaze calmly until she nods once in acquiescence.

“Get some rest if you can,” she says, pitching her voice so that the others can all hear. “I want you all sharp.”

Across the cabin, Booker looks up. “Sure, boss,” he says, soft. He says it like he’s missed hearing those words out of his own mouth.

Nile’s eyes are closed, but her lips curve slowly into a smile.

 


 

It’s an unassuming facility. The floor plan that they committed to memory during the overseas flight indicate that Joe is being kept as close to the center of the complex as possible.

There are armed guards at the front gate. Nicky lays a hand on his rifle. He’s got his longsword at his hip and one of Joe’s scimitars strapped to his back. The modernity of guns is all well and good, but there’s no replacing the heft of a sword in your hand. He wants Joe to have that small comfort available to him if he wants it.

Andy clasps the back of Nicky’s neck, makes him look at her. “Are you good?”

“Sto bene,” he says. It’s the truth. He’s the calmest he’s been since they’d lost contact with Joe. This, he knows how to do. It isn’t the first time he’s fought his way through a swath of hostiles to get to Joe, and knowing them, it won’t be the last.

He’s peripherally aware of the others doing last minute checks on their weapons. Nile takes a deep breath. Booker clasps him on the shoulder wordlessly. Nicky takes it as the gesture of support it is.

“Okay,” Andy says. “Let’s go.”

They fall into their usual formation, or at least as usual as it can be with this group. Andy leads, her only concession to her new mortality the kevlar vest she’s finally agreed to wear. Nile is, as ever, her shadow. Booker follows the two of them and Nicky brings up the rear. He feels an icy focus settle over him, and when they breach the entrance and the first wave of security reaches them, Nicky feels nothing at all as he  throws himself into the fight.

Over the years, the ways people kill each other have evolved. The heat of battle though? That remains unchanged. They’re faster than the hired security, and more vicious, and when Andy takes her labrys in hand and dives into the close-range combat with grace and ferocity, the others close behind her, it’s easy to tell that this first wave of security is woefully unprepared for them. It doesn’t take long to dispatch them entirely.

“Everyone still with me?” Andy asks. She’s not even breathing hard.

“Yes,” Nile says, all business.

Booker snags an extra pistol off the body of a guard. “Never better,” he says.

Nicky’s already through the next door. They’re so close. He isn’t stopping, Andy’s “I go first” rule be damned. An alarm has started blaring. Good, he thinks grimly. Joe will know they’re here.

He stalks down the corridor. The others are following, he can hear them close behind him. None of them object to him taking point.

When they come across another group of guards, Nicky gives into his instincts and draws his sword. The blade sings as he pulls it out of its sheath, and it sings as he whirls it over his head in one smooth motion. He brings it down and doesn’t flinch at the spray of blood. Later he’ll think about the path of flesh he’s carving through and feel the full weight of the lives he’s taken tonight on his shoulders, but right now— right now the only thing that matters is Joe.

The only thing that ever matters is Joe.

Nicky is barely aware of his surroundings as they fight their way through to the laboratory, only stopping when they reach a steel door.

“Stand back,” Booker says, when it’s clear that they won’t be able to ram the door down. He’s got a grenade in hand. Nicky’s got no idea where or when he acquired it, but Booker’s always been resourceful in a fight like that, a fucking magpie when he sees explosives. Nicky gives the door plenty of room. Booker pulls the pin and tosses the grenade.

The ensuing explosion leaves his ears ringing, but he’s not disoriented enough to have to pause. Nicky charges through the gap and promptly takes two bullets, one to the shoulder and one to the ribs. It’s regrettable, but he’s got his eyes on a prone figure strapped to an exam table and there is nothing on this earth that could keep him away from Joe for one more second.

He dispatches any security personnel unfortunate enough to be between him and his Yusuf, and then he’s finally, finally by his love’s side.

Joe’s not moving and Nicky’s heart seizes in fear. The sound of gunfire — all around them — seems very far away. Nicky’s vision tunnels and he’s suddenly unwilling to touch Joe, because what on earth will he do if he finds Joe’s body cold under his hands, and then his sense wins out and he looks at the monitors that indicate that Joe’s heart is beating strong in his chest.

Nicky rips out the IV lines, reasoning that the drugs being pumped into Joe’s system are the only thing keeping Joe unconscious. Their healing factor doesn’t make them immune to drugs, but it does metabolize any foreign agents in their bodies quicker than a normal human would be able to. He unbuckles the straps tying Joe down and he stands there and waits, his hands moving tenderly of their own accord across Joe’s hair, his face, his arms.

It doesn’t take long. Joe wakes quiet, in the way he does when he’s unsure of his situation. Nicky’s seen him do it a hundred times, a thousand times. His breathing pattern changes ever so slightly, although he doesn’t stir. Nicky can see the exact moment he realizes he’s not bound to the table anymore, and then the exact moment that he takes in the feel of Nicky’s hands on his body. His eyes fly open and he gasps out, “Nico, my Nicolo.”

Nicky bows his head and does not weep. There will be time for that later.

“Yusuf,” he says, soft, as Joe sits up and reaches out for him. Their embrace is too short, but Nicky drinks in the familiar scent of him, feels the reassuring thud of Joe’s heart. He buries his nose in the nape of Joe’s neck and breathes, and his hands check Joe all over for injuries, and when he’s satisfied that Joe is none the worse for the wear physically, he reluctantly pulls away.

Joe is looking at him warmly. “I knew you would find me,” he says.

“Always,” Nicky says, voice tinged with desperation. “Forgive me, we took so long —”

Joe leans forward and cuts him off with a kiss. As far as distraction tactics go, Nicky has to admit that this one has been, traditionally, effective. It’s chaste all the way up until Joe growls a little and deepens it, licking into Nicky’s mouth and drawing forth a breathy sigh.

From across the room, Nile says, sounding genuinely sorry to interrupt, “We should get out of here.”

Joe looks over Nicky’s shoulder. “Nile,” he says. “I’m very glad to see you.” Nile beams at him in return, her radiant smile at odds with the blood painting her face red.

Andy walks over to see for herself that Joe is well, her shoulders sagging momentarily in relief when she registers that he’s really okay after his month-long stint in captivity. “I’m good, Andy,” Joe says, gentle. “I’m here.”

Andy nods. She clasps him on the back of the head, tips him forward until their foreheads are touching. “Let’s not do that again,” Andy says, and waits for Joe to nod before releasing him and stepping back.

And then Joe locks eyes with Booker, who has kept his distance. He’s got his rifle resting on his hip, and he’s watching their reunion with thinly veiled longing.

“Should've known we wouldn't stay out of trouble for a hundred years,” Joe says in French, wry. “I suppose I should thank you.”

Booker responds quietly, in Arabic. “It's my fault they know about us at all.”

Joe rolls his eyes. “Come here,” he says, still in French, a peace offering, and Booker obeys, Nile moving smoothly to cover his previous position at the door.

Sometimes kindness leaves Booker wrung out, leaves him snappish and edgy and unsure of his footing around them. This doesn’t seem to be one of those times, Nicky thinks, as he watches Joe pull Booker in roughly for a hug, whispering words inaudible to the rest of them that makes Booker nearly collapse into Joe. Something settles in Nicky’s heart.

“Incoming,” Nile warns them. She’s long since abandoned the semi-automatic rifle she’d started the extraction with, and now she’s reloading the pistol she favors, a Beretta that she’d found in one of their weapon caches at some point.

Nicky turns his attention back to Joe. “We brought you clothes and boots,” he says, as Andy tosses a bundle at Joe. “And I brought you this.” He pulls the scimitar from its sheath on his back and presents it to Joe, hilt first.

Joe finishes tugging on the boots they’d brought him and shrugs on the shirt. He accepts his scimitar and looks at Nicky with a heat that brings a blush to Nicky’s cheeks.

“Everyone ready?” Andy says. She’s got a shit-eating grin on her face. Nicky surveys her and is relieved to see that she hadn’t incurred any injuries at all on their way in.

Booker says, “We should destroy the samples.” He’s holding another grenade.

“Good,” Andy says. “Let’s go.”

 


 

Fighting their way out goes as smoothly as can be expected. Nicky dies once, but only because he’s being an overprotective fool around Joe. He wakes up to Joe kneeling over him, expression torn between exasperated and fond once he’s sure Nicky is back with him.

“You didn’t need to,” he says as he helps Nicky to his feet.

“Wanted to,” Nicky says, honestly. He’d die for Joe hundreds of times over. Probably has, at this point. He’d die for Joe even if he knew he wasn’t coming back, because a world without Joe isn’t one he can bear. Maybe it’s selfish of him, but if he’s selfish about anything, it’s Joe.

“Come on,” Nile says, from the next room. “You can continue your discussion once we’re out of here.”

Joe laughs, bright. Nicky loves him. He tells him so.

“I love you beyond reason,” Joe says, and for a split second Nicky is back on a mountain in Korea in the rain, with Nile forging ahead of them and impatiently waiting for them to get a move on. Hm. That’s a recurring theme, perhaps.

Joe casually raises a handgun he’s picked up somewhere and shoots twice over Nicky’s shoulder. Two bodies drop to the floor. “Let’s go, love,” he says. Nicky follows, feeling right again, feeling steadier with Joe and the rest of the team in front of him where he can keep an eye on everyone.

 


 

The safe house Andy directs Nile to is north of Pasadena. It’s one of their larger ones, with several bedrooms and resting on several acres of land. It’s also one they acquired after Quynh was lost, Nicky notes with approval. Still, it’s nearly six hours of driving. Andy has graciously ceded the passenger seat to Booker, which Nicky suspects is an attempt at giving Joe space in case he wants it.

The car ride is pleasant, if you ignore their disheveled states and the blood literally caked onto their skin. Nicky cannot wait to take a shower.

Andy tips her head back and closes her eyes. She’s either asleep or doing a damn good impression to give them privacy. Nicky drifts in and out himself, with Joe’s limbs tangled with his own, Joe’s head on his shoulder, Joe’s breath warm across his skin.

Nile and Booker talk, but quietly so as not to disturb the others. Nicky can’t really catch what they’re saying, but he can’t help his smile when he hears Booker’s low chuckle.

“You’ve missed him,” Joe says.

“Mm,” Nicky says. He tucks his legs up and leans into Joe. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” Joe says. He sweeps some hair out of Nicky’s forehead.

“Every second of every day we were apart,” Nicky says in a whisper.

“I’m here,” Joe says, equally soft. “And so are you, and we won’t be parted again.”

“No,” Nicky agrees, fierce, and presses a kiss to Joe’s hair.

 


 

They make it to the safe house in good time. At some point in the night, Nile and Booker had switched off, so it’s Booker that pulls the car into the driveway. Nicky startles awake when the car stops moving, only to relax once he gets his bearings.

After they check the house to make sure no one has been there since their last stay, Nicky bids the others a good night and drags Joe to their usual room.

“Dearest,” Joe says once the door is firmly shut, and his eyes twinkle. And Nicky laughs, finally, because his lover is back in his arms, and the lithe line of his body is pressed against his, and he can feel Joe trembling a little in joy, in relief, in exhaustion. They’re both filthy and covered in blood and dried sweat and Nicky wouldn’t trade this for anything.

Tomorrow is a new day and they’ll be thrown back into the thick of things.  Tomorrow they’ll talk to Booker and they’ll listen to Booker and do some emotional bloodletting after all these years, and for all that it will hurt it will leave them all breathing easier. Tomorrow they’ll sit down as a team, as a family, and figure out what to do about Quynh.

Right now, though, is just for them. Right now is for each of them cataloguing the other’s body like so many times before, and Joe sinking to his knees gracefully in the shower and taking Nicky in his mouth as Nicky strokes his hair, gentle in a way that belies his fear over the past month. Right now is for Nicky to pull Joe back to his feet once he comes with a gasp down Joe’s throat and lick the taste of himself out of Joe’s mouth before he reaches down to help Joe finish.

Right now is for falling into bed together, and Nicky thinking over and over again how beautiful his Yusuf is, how beautiful it is to be alive and together, how beautiful it is that they have years and years left ahead of them.

Nicky falls asleep soundly for the first time in a month, to the sound of Joe’s quiet breathing and the beat of Joe’s lion-sized heart.