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the shadow of my wound

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The atmosphere in the car as the team left the mess of Merrick behind them was thick in its uncertainty and silence. The drive to the safehouse wasn't going to be long, even if traffic in the center of London made it slow going - some place in Wapping that was almost uncomfortably close to Merrick's office, but then it wasn't as though anyone would be coming after them.

Andy drove, still leading her small family despite her injuries, despite her mortality; as though they would have it any other way. As though she would.

Booker, curled in as much as he could get towards the passenger side door, had his head ducked and his eyes closed as though he was already asleep, like he was trying to forcibly escape into the ignorance of unconsciousness.

Nile actually was asleep in her seat, head tilted back and to the side against the head rest. Quite apart from the relentless pull of exhaustion that came with healing the kind of catastrophic injuries one obtained when falling from a tower block onto a car, Nile also still had a Marine's ability to fall asleep anytime and anywhere.

Joe sat comfortably in the seat beside Andy, looking forward to getting out of clothes that he'd spent too much time being tortured in, to washing off the stink of sterility and blood both. He'd looked into the rear view mirror only once to check back on Nicky, who had looked up and back at him at the same time, tethered somehow like they always were. Joe hadn't been able to drum up a smile for him, but the corner of Nicky's mouth quirked in something like one.

For his part, Nicky was listening to the soft whuffing of Nile's breathing as she slept, trying to ignore the hard line of Booker pulling away from him on the other side and watching from the back seat as Andy took a wrong turn and cursed softly under her breath.

It ended up taking almost an hour to get to the safe house, even if Google Maps made it 20 minutes. Andy and Nicky were the only two awake by the time Andy pulled in to the drive, but the sound of the engine cutting off woke the other three. They were all unusually quiet as they got out of the car, stretching tired muscles, picking up their weapons discreetly and letting themselves into the normal-looking detached house; the place was sparsely furnished - nondescript sofa and armchairs in the living room, a cheap table and chairs set in the kitchen - but it was clean and secure and had running water.

Andy went in first, although she only made a cursory check of the living room before crossing the empty dining room and falling into one of the chairs in the kitchen, Nile following and watching her fretfully.

"We've got the upstairs, boss." Joe called out as he followed Nicky up the stairs to clear the rooms up there; there shouldn't have been anything to worry about, but they'd disturbed squatters in safehouses before and besides, they were all feeling a little cautious.

Booker, yet to look anyone in the eye or speak to anyone, crossed through the kitchen and on out of the utility room to the backyard where he could just be seen from the kitchen window, already lifting that ever-present flask to his mouth. Nile, who had been watching him, turned her attention back to Andy who was sitting stiffly with a hand held against the wound on her side.

"First aid kit's under the sink." Andy told her, the pained and weary tone in her voice masking any other emotion she might be feeling about her new status. She'd known, hadn't she, even before she'd realised that the stab wound she'd received in the church still hadn't healed by the time they'd made the cave in Val d'Argent; she'd known something was wrong that night at the church in Goussainville, flexing her fingers and feeling an ache in her knuckles that still lingered from her fight with Nile hours earlier. Some part of her had known even then; her immortality had faded just as Nile's awoke.

"We're gonna need better stuff than this." Nile commented after flipping the green box open and looking through the inventory. The first aid kit was old and disused, the creams and bandages and what other limited paraphernalia there was long expired.

"We're not going to be here long." Andy assured, even as Nile went about rinsing and filling a glass with water from the sink and handing it over with a couple of painkillers popped from the blister pack. The face Andy made when she downed them showed exactly what she thought about needing to do so, but she was still in pain even after the morphine she'd been given in the lab and she needed to take the edge off until they could properly go to ground.

"I thought this was a safehouse?" Nile queried, taking a seat opposite Andy.

"Temporary safehouse." Andy amended. "Just a place for us to clean up before we... decide where to go from here." she cast a look over in Booker's direction as she spoke, and Nile didn't say anything. She had almost glossed over the fact that Booker had betrayed them, had betrayed the others. She couldn't say that she didn't understand why Booker had made that decision; she hadn't known him long but she'd rarely seen him without a drink in his hand, or that flask within reach, and she'd heard, seen, the agony in him as he'd told her of losing his family. Losing love. The sting of missing her own family hadn't even had time to really settle in yet so she could understand him all too easily.

She could understand why Booker had felt as he did, it was how he could have made the choices he'd made that she was having difficulty squaring.

"It's all clear, and we still have towels and a change of clothes here." Joe's voice shook Nile from her thoughts, looking up to see his eyes flicking over the open first aid kit, Booker's shape outside the kitchen window, the way Andy sat stiff and upright in her chair. "Who wants the first shower?"

"You and Nicky take it." Andy decided firmly, even if she did cast a glance Nile's way as she did. "You've both got a day's worth of blood on you."

Joe looked like he might argue when Nicky, who had shadowed him down, spoke. "Nile will need a change of clothes. We'll go out, bring some food back too." There was a moment of consideration before they all seemed to come to a decision.

"Thanks boys." Andy said with a tired sigh, levering herself up from the wooden chair and making for the sofa instead, accompanied by Nicky who wanted to make sure she was comfortable before he headed upstairs.

"Thank you." Nile added to Joe for her own sake, relaxing a little when he smiled back at her companionably.

"Fa niente; just let us know what you need and we'll pick something up for you." He assured. The smile fell from his face when he looked up though, and Nile glanced back too, although she knew he was looking at Booker. The man was still at his post outside, still drinking from the look of it and staring steadfastly out across the garden, although he must have been able to hear them through the open back door.

Joe gave her another small smile, one that didn't really make it to his eyes this time, before turning away to go up after Nicky.

Nile sighed but left Booker to it, pouring herself a glass of water and carrying another one out to Andy.

~~~

Nicky had enough time to retrieve a couple of towels from the airing cupboard and was leaning over the bath to start running the shower by the time Joe reached him. He looked over his shoulder with a smile and Joe finally gave him a grin back, closing the door and sliding the little bolt home.

He turned to see Nicky still fiddling with the mixer tap arrangement, apparently trying to get the water hot but not scalding, and his chest seized in heartache when he caught sight of the blood sluiced down the back of Nicky's shirt, caked liberally into his hair. The wounded sound Joe made caught Nicky's attention immediately and he looked up, the worried expression on his face taken over by understanding when Joe stepped close and reached out to cradle the sides of Nicky's head.

"Sweetheart." Joe murmured, pained, his thumbs gentle against the hinge of Nicky's jaw, fingertips questing gingerly against the stiff little spikes that the blood had made of Nicky's hair.

"Sto bene. Sto bene." Nicky assured him, reaching up to curl his fingers around Joe's forearms, drop their foreheads together.

It was too similar to the way he'd reached out to Joe before, lying on the floor in a wide spatter of his own blood and bone and brain matter for that half second he'd given them before turning and getting up. Joe was going to take the time he hadn't allowed himself then, to do what he'd wanted to now.

He turned Nicky's face up into a kiss that was deep and thorough, finding the taste of him against the metal tones of blood that he could swear were still there. They came together in that kiss, of course they did, and he couldn't help but brush a hand over the crown of that most precious head, his fingers skimming down and over the place where a bullet had put a hole in it as though it burned him to do so. His finger nevertheless caught against a small, sharp shard of what he realised had formerly been part of Nicky's skull and he moaned at the sick horror of it, as awful as if it had been new to him.

Nicky reached up and took hold of that hand, lacing their fingers together and pulling back from the kiss. "Sto bene, vita mia. I'm okay." he said softly again, in English too, like that might help quell this anguished thing inside Joe.

"Habib albi, let me take care of you." Joe wasn't asking, already reaching down to the hem of Nicky's bloody shirt, even as he pressed their mouths together again for another kiss. "Ana bahibik." I love you.

"Ana oheboky aydn." I love you too. Nicky let Joe pull his blood-stiff t-shirt over his head, let him unfasten his trousers so that they could drop to the ground, but didn't let Joe get any further without allowing Nicky to similarly strip him in turn. He peeled Joe's blue shirt up and off him, frowning at the blood stains left behind on Joe's skin. It seemed so long ago that they'd been sitting at the table having dinner and getting to know Nile; all he could see now was that doctor, cutting away pieces of his Joe with the self-righteous fervor of a fanatic. He didn't realise that he'd been rubbing his thumb over those streaks of dried blood to make them flake away until Joe took his hand and pulled him out of his thoughts. He offered Joe a tired smile, even if he knew his love could see through it.

Joe stood close again, curling his fingers through the hair behind Nicky's ear as Nicky worked to undo Joe's trousers. He pressed a kiss to the bowed top of Nicky's head before their mouths met again, Joe's pants joining Nicky's on the floor. He felt suddenly desperate to clean the disinfectant and pain-sweat and tinge of smoke from their bodies and he led Nicky by the hand into the shower, putting Nicky's back to the spray.

"Here habibi, hold onto me." he spoke just loud enough to be heard over the soft susurration of the spray, guiding Nicky's forehead to rest against his shoulder. The shower started working the blood away from the top of Nicky's spine and down his back, the run off tinged a diluted red even before Joe started smoothing water into Nicky's hair. Nicky sighed against Joe's shoulder, his hands rubbing soothingly against Joe's back, under his shoulder blades where he'd curled his arms around that familiar frame.

There was still some budget brand combined shampoo-and-body-wash in a half empty bottle on the windowsill, some coconut thing that Andy had grabbed from the Tesco Express last time the group had stayed here. It had a pump dispenser so it was easy for Joe to get an amount into his palm and then into Nicky's hair with one hand; the other hand remained cradled against the back of Nicky's head, as though it would all come apart again if he let go.

He worked the cheap liquid into Nicky's hair, managing to get a lather worked up even in the rock hard water here in Wapping. Even the generic scent of coconut was a welcome replacement to the acrid smell of the lab and the stink of violence that had followed. The lather frothed up red under Joe's fingers and Joe had to focus on the feeling of Nicky's hands still kneading gently against his back so as not to get tugged away into flashbacks of seeing his beloved lying there on that floor again. He rinsed it out and started again, working the now tacky leftover blood out of Nicky's hair with his fingertips as though he wanted to get every strand individually clean.

There was more than blood washing away down the drain, small pieces of matter that Joe didn't want to identify and the odd, light 'tink' as another sliver of bone worked free from the mess. It took another two applications of the soap before Joe was satisfied that all traces of what had once been inside Nicky's head had been cleaned away from the outside of Nicky's head; they had probably been in the shower for longer than they should have, but they were sharing it and needed the extra time.

Nicky had kept his eyes closed as Joe had washed his hair, breathing in the scent of coconut which would linger on him for the next two days and the smell of Joe's skin that he could always find under any amount of grime. He had a sniper's patience but would have held still for this anyway, feeling the tension and fear and heartache drain slowly out of Joe's body as the blood washed away. He knew that Joe needed to do this for him, and he couldn't deny that he really needed it too.

He moved back a little as Joe's hands moved away from Nicky's hair to his neck and his shoulders, closing his eyes with the foreknowledge that Joe would want to wash his face clean for him. Joe seemed to want to rub away every smear of blood or dirt from Nicky's skin with just his thumbs, and still Nicky waited. Joe seemed to be satisfied with his progress when he stopped to cup Nicky's chin and slip his thumb over Nicky's mouth. Nicky opened his mouth just a little, just enough to take it in and nip the end of it, prompting a brief huff of laughter from Joe.

He opened his eyes just in time to quirk a smile back before Joe's mouth was pressing to his again for a quick one, two, three kisses.

"Let me get the rest of you and then you can get my back." Joe promised, the words a tease because he knew Nicky would want to reciprocate. He had to chuckle at how unimpressed Nicky looked at that, giving him one more quick kiss before lathering up a face towel and rubbing the rest of Nicky clean. He worked down Nicky's front, across his chest and ribs and those places where the marks from long medical instruments had long since healed away. He worked up and over Nicky's shoulders and down his arms before returning to his stomach and navel, down over uninterested genitals; he could have worked Nicky up, worked them both up into something more heated, but the strain of the last 24-plus hours and their shadowing grief and pain left them too out of tune. Later, maybe.

Joe still took the chance to kiss Nicky's hipbone as he washed down his legs and knees, picking up one foot at a time to rub them clean as Nicky held onto his shoulders for balance and wriggled his toes in response. He stood back up and was greeted by another brief kiss before he pressed gently at Nicky's shoulder, urging him to turn around. He took an extra moment to rub tenderly over the vulnerable nape of Nicky's neck before working down his lover's back, and if he maybe made room for a little friendly grope over Nicky's ass as he washed down, well, he was only human.

His work done, Joe rinsed Nicky off under the spray with brief sweeps of his hands over just-scrubbed skin and then pulled Nicky into a close hug under the guise of switching their positions to allow Nicky to return the favour.

Nicky was shorter than Joe only by barely two inches, but Joe still almost cheekily ducked his head down so that Nicky could reach out and scrub his fingers through all those curls. He loved the resistance of them under his hands, always did, and Joe took the opportunity to nose in against Nicky's collarbones while Nicky reached out for their old friend, the coconut shampoo.

Nicky wasn't overcome with the desperate need to make sure that Joe's skull was still in one piece, but he was no less thorough for that. He curled his fingers into and through Joe's hair, making sure to work the shampoo down to the scalp and frowning when he came across little pieces of glass from the window Joe had swung through. He picked each piece out, flicking them around the shower curtain out into the sink, and then ran his hands through the wet curls again to make sure he'd caught each one.

He kept steady eye contact with Joe while he soaped away the blood and dirt from his face, combing his fingers through Joe's beard and laughing when the feeling made Joe groan in soft pleasure. Of course he had to bring Joe in for a kiss for that one, but he made good use of his time, rubbing his fingers against Joe's jaw as he did. His fingers lingered over those places where biopsies and samples had been forcibly extracted from them; the memory of Dr Kozak cutting out little squares of Joe while the heart monitor raced and then flat lined had him frowning, the ache so clearly visible in his face that Joe rubbed his nose against Nicky's cheek to kiss it away.

Nicky pressed close to Joe to finish washing his body, keeping as much body contact as he could when he kneeled down to wash Joe's legs. He beckoned Joe to turn so that he could wash the backs of Joe's knees and the backs of his thighs, leaving a chaste kiss on the lean swell of the back of Joe's hip as he stood, sucking kisses against the skin of Joe's shoulders as he finished washing Joe's back. Joe turned as Nicky wrung the face cloth out, taking hold of Nicky's upper arms and pulling him into a kiss as he stepped backwards under the shower to rinse off.

It felt as though they'd spent hours in there, but only twenty minutes had gone by since they'd moved into the shower. They parted with a sigh and Joe turned the taps off while Nicky carefully stepped out of the bath, wrinkling his nose as his feet met bare carpet. Joe joined him a moment later, wrapping a towel around his hips as Nicky had done before following Nicky out of the bathroom towards the bedroom which they'd picked as theirs for the moment.

"Shower's free!" he shouted down the stairs, expecting the 'about time!' he got from Andy in response. Fuck, Andy. He couldn't even begin to wrap his head around how they were going to approach their leader's sudden vulnerability, which it was regardless of how lethal Andy remained and how she would deny it. She hadn't needed immortality to be able to soundly thrash the homophobic security guard, the same one who had survived the brief and one-sided brawl with Joe and Nicky in the armoured truck, but it wasn't just a question of her skill. They all relied maybe too heavily on the ability to take damage and just keep pushing through it when they fought, letting their bodies spit out bullets and seal up cuts while they pressed their advantage; Andy didn't have that option anymore.

"Tesoro? Stai bene?"

He blinked out of it when he heard Nicky asking if he was okay, smiling at the sight of the man seated on the bed still in his towel, another in his hand where he'd obviously been drying at his hair.

"Sto bene, caro." he assured, closing the door as he stepped into the bedroom and coming to stand in front of Nicky, reaching out to take the towel. "Let me?"

Nicky gave the towel over easily and bowed his head down to rest against Joe's stomach. Joe rubbed the towel over Nicky's hair almost too gently for it to be of any use, and Nicky guessed it would be a while before Joe would stop seeking to reassure himself that Nicky's skull was in one piece. He briefly pondered Joe's towel from his position, thought about tugging it down and taking Joe into his mouth, but he decided against it in much the same way that Joe had kept things chaste in the shower. They were both too tired, in more than one sense of the word.

The pair drip dried in the time it took for Joe to dry Nicky's hair, as carefully as he was going. He let the towel drop and ran his fingers through the back of Nicky's hair almost compulsively, the over-applications of even that cheap soap ensuring that it was silky and soft under his fingers. All that gore was gone now and all that was left was the memory of pain, the knowledge that someone had blown a hole through the back of Nicky's head and Joe hadn't been able to stop it happening; yeah, that was all. There was silence between them for a moment before Joe spoke.

"It wasn't just a headshot." he murmured darkly, his voice low and taut. "He shoved that gun right into your mouth, Nicky. I haven't seen you damaged like that since-" he paused, unable or unwilling to remember. Nicky maintained his silence, even if his hands came up to take hold of Joe's hips gently, soothing, waiting. "I pulled myself over to you and I could see, I could see that there was nothing left of the back of your head." His fingers trembled in Nicky's hair. "And you didn't come back and I couldn't bear to look... those long minutes that you weren't breathing..." He shook his head as though to shake the memory out of it.

"Bigger wounds take longer to heal." Nicky reminded Joe, even though Joe already knew that. Nicky took Joe's hands in his, pressing a kiss to the back of Joe's knuckles and looking up at him, open and certain. "I'll always come back to you, my Yusuf."

They both knew they had no real way of knowing that, but they'd promise each other anyway.

Joe leaned in and kissed Nicky, slow and deep and relieved again like he had been when Nicky had taken that deep gasp of air as he'd come back. They parted and Nicky gave Joe that smile that had always been just for him.

"Come on, habibi." he said, rubbing his thumbs over Joe's fingers. There was still Booker to deal with, and Andy and Nile and Copley, but for now... "We made a deal. We'd better go shop."