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though it was not my task to watch

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I watched the stars, though it was not my task to watch;
at times I wrapped myself in my remaining rags.
He would protect his comrade in a fight…

from "Elegy for Sakhr", Al-Khansa (trans. Geert Jan Van Gelder)

In retrospect, Joe thinks it must have started in Merrick's lab. In the fight after Nile freed them, after they'd learned about Andy's mortality, when it was just him and Nicky against Keane. But perhaps that's unfair; those were extraordinary circumstances, and they were all under a great deal of stress. And both still dazed from the smoke bomb and choking on gas -- not at their best. It may have been no more than that.

Still. The way Nicky hurled himself at Keane, with no strategy or skill whatsoever, just to distract him from hurting Joe. The ugly way he died for his trouble. There are worse ways to die -- they've all certainly experienced worse -- but there is something viscerally violating about having a gun shoved in one's mouth. Joe still has nightmares about it. He wishes he'd been able to give the man the slow and painful death he deserved for inflicting that upon his Nicky.

But at the time, it's just one more awful moment in several days full of them, and Joe tries not to let it consciously linger in his memory.

So his first sense of somewhat amiss comes about a month later. Andy has decided to train Nile in the various skills she deems necessary to immortal life, and graciously permits Joe and Nicky to tag along. In truth, Joe would prefer not to let his remaining family out of his sight anytime soon, and he knows Nicky feels the same. It's not only the urgency of Andy's mortality. It's also about welcoming Nile into the family properly. They'd done the same for Booker, once, just as Andy and Quynh had for them. New immortals always need a few decades' adjustment period.

Andy has a house in rural Canada, about two hours' drive north of Edmonton. This is the first time Joe has seen it, but then, they all have their private places -- not exactly secret from one another, but wholly their own. Booker keeps an apartment somewhere in Paris and a house on Martinique; Joe and Nicky maintain seven separate residences across various continents, their current favorite being an apartment along the canal in Port Said. Andy, though -- Joe has never tried keeping track of where Andy goes when she needs solitude. She prefers open, empty spaces, where she can go weeks without having to encounter another human being.

It both warms Joe and saddens him that she's allowing them into her private place here, now. He knows it's only because she does not think it a secret worth keeping any longer. This house, and perhaps others like it, will be a part of Nile's inheritance. Soon Andy will have no further need of them.

He tries not to let that thought linger, either.

The house is by one of the many small lakes in this part of Alberta, quiet and secluded. It actually has running water and electricity, which is a step up from most of Andy's safehouses, and several bedrooms. Joe appreciates that -- it's likely why Andy chose this particular place. It feels less like they're on a mission and more like a home.

So: it's summer in Canada, the air is warm and humid, the trees hum with the sounds of insects, and Andy has just slashed Nile's arm open nearly to the bone with her knife.

"Motherfucker!" Nile yells, while Andy cackles gleefully. "This is what passes for fun for you, isn't it?"

Joe laughs from where he watches on the back steps. "What, too slow for that old lady, Nile?"

"Old lady, my ass," Nile mutters, pressing the sides of the cut together until it seals cleanly. "Hag."

"She's going easy on you," Joe advises. "You think an enemy will wait patiently for your wounds to heal?"

Andy arches an eyebrow. "You got a problem with my training regimen, Joe?"

"Not at all, it's very humanitarian of you. I just hadn't expected you to go soft in your dotage."

The knife that thuds sharply into the wooden railing just beside his head makes a compelling argument to the contrary. On the other hand, she easily could have aimed for his eye, so perhaps she is softening.

He grins and yanks the knife out of the railing, throwing it back at her as hard as he can. Andy snatches it easily out of the air and resumes attacking Nile.

"Having fun?" Nicky asks in a mild tone as he emerges from the house.

He takes a seat on the step above Joe's, which puts his denim-clad thigh on the perfect level for an armrest. Joe makes use of it immediately, leaning against him. "Very much so," he agrees.

Nicky observes the rapid interplay of knives glinting through the muggy air. "She's teaching Nile knife fighting?"

"She's teaching her the humiliation of defeat," Joe corrects cheerfully. "Knives just happen to be involved."

He slants a glance upward, expecting one of Nicky's quicksilver little smiles. But Nicky's brow is furrowed, his mouth pressed into a thin line as he watches. Joe regards him for a long moment, then clasps his ankle lightly, stroking it. "What troubles you?" he asks, when Nicky looks down at him.

Nicky sighs, returning his gaze to the two women sparring. "This is not a fair fight."

"No fight against Andromache the Scythian is ever fair," Joe points out wryly.

"That isn't what I meant. It's -- look at her. At Nile. She's pulling her punches."

Joe watches more closely. He's right. She is. "Andy won't heal if she hurts her. She's just being careful."

"I know, but Andy isn't." Even as he says it, Andy slashes out with her second blade and cuts Nile right across the face. Nile screeches, more out of fury than pain, but Joe can feel Nicky's whole body tense up beside him.

He's not sure quite what to make of it. But they're all still recovering from the ordeal with Merrick in their own ways, and if Nicky feels this uncomfortable, Joe can't help but try to smooth it over. He gives Nicky's ankle one last quick squeeze before pulling himself up to his feet, groaning theatrically. "All right, you've embarrassed the poor girl enough," he calls out. Andy breaks off her attack, turning to give Joe an unimpressed look; Nile just bends over at the waist to catch her breath. "Is it my turn yet?"

"No," Nicky says -- not loudly, but forcefully, as though the word was involuntarily ripped from his throat. When Joe glances back at him, brows raised, he covers it with a crooked smile. "I'd like to give it a try myself, actually. I've spent too much time lately staring down the scope of a rifle, I could use some practice with hand-to-hand."

Joe frowns. Nicky may be their sniper, sure, but he's hardly a slouch when it comes to close quarters combat, as he's proven very recently. But Nile brightens at his suggestion, so Joe keeps his mouth shut.

"You mean I might actually stand a fighting chance?" she says with a grin. "Hell yeah, let's switch it up."

Andy rolls her eyes. "Coward," she says, but she tosses her knives over to Nicky, one by one, without further protest. There are tired lines drawn at the edges of her mouth, her eyes; maybe Nile isn't the one that Nicky's trying to protect.

Joe returns to his seat on the steps, and Andy joins him there, their shoulders brushing. They watch as Nile resumes her defensive stance. Nicky holds both knives comfortably, clearly at ease with them, but makes no move to attack, merely circling patiently until Nile realizes he's waiting for her to make the first move. She does. It gets more interesting after that.

"She was a Marine, you know," Andy remarks. "It's not like she's never used a knife before."

"Yes, that's apparent." Joe winces a little as Nile gets a good jab in, scoring Nicky across the thigh. Blood seeps into the torn denim. Nicky just grunts and uses the momentum of her swing to grab her elbow and flip over over his bent knee. It clearly catches her off guard, but she manages to land on her feet, like a cat. "He thought she was pulling her punches, with you."

Andy doesn't respond for a few long minutes, her eyes never straying from the fight. "She's not the one pulling punches now. He is."

Joe looks sharply at her. She just jerks her chin, redirecting his gaze back to the skirmish.

She's right. Nile is fighting fluidly now, clearly freed from her self-imposed restraint, and she's good, she's very good. But Joe has been watching his Nicolò fight for nearly a thousand years, and as much raw talent and Marine training as Nile might have, it's no match for that depth and breadth of experience. Yet she's clearly winning, inasmuch as this sort of sparring match can have a winner, dealing out far more damage than she's taking. For all that Nicky always keeps at least one knife in his hands, he never draws blood, dealing blows with kicks or elbow jabs instead, even while allowing her to slash and stab at him many times.

It takes a great deal of skill and control to lose a fight this carefully without letting your opponent realize it's deliberate.

"Maybe he wants to boost her confidence," Joe says, a little uncertainly.

"Hmm," Andy murmurs. "Maybe."

The match ends when Nile somehow manages to plant her knife squarely between Nicky's ribs, near his heart. She blinks, then recoils, falling all over herself with apologies. Nicky just laughs it off, though he does grimace as he removes the blade from his chest. Fortunately, she didn't hit any major arteries, and it's already begun to heal before it manages to kill him properly. So she didn't technically murder him. He congratulates her and heads back inside, saying he needs to change out of his bloodstained clothes.

Andy pushes herself up to follow him immediately, with a quelling look back at Joe. Joe sighs and allows it. He helps Nile clean off the blades, and quickly teaches her a different method of gripping the longer knife, one that will give her more control over it, all while keeping one ear cocked toward the house. At the first sound of raised voices, he gives Nile a wink and goes after them.

Neither Andy nor Nicky are ones to shout and stamp their feet, so it's not that they're yelling at each other, it's just a sort of escalated intensity. They're speaking French -- Booker liked to claim it's the best language for arguing -- which means one of them, at least, didn't want Nile to overhear. She already speaks conversational Spanish and Pashto, and has been making solid inroads on Arabic, but they haven't started her on French yet. There has been no reason to.

"...coddle the kid," Andy is saying when Joe finds them in the kitchen, her arms folded ominously across her chest. "She won't learn unless--"

"She does not need us to teach her how to die!" Nicky spits out. His beautiful gray-blue eyes glint like sunlight off a blade. "She will get plenty of practice in that on her own."

"I'm not trying to kill her--"

Nicky throws his hands in the air, reverting to Italian now. "You put your labrys in her neck three days ago! How is that a useful education, Andromache? You are teaching her to be cavalier about it, that her death is more meaningful than her life--"

"And how is what you're doing any different?" Andy asks, softer now but no less intense for it.

Nicky's mouth flattens into an unhappy line. He glances past her to see Joe lingering in the doorway, and closes his eyes a moment, taking a deep breath. "I need a shower."

"Nicky," Andy says quietly.

"Just -- just be more careful, please." He scrubs a hand across his face, then pushes past her and Joe to make his way upstairs.

Joe just looks at her. Andy sighs and gives him a half-shrug, paired with a rueful not-quite-smile. "Too bad we can't settle it with blades like civilized folk."

"He's still working through it," Joe says gently. "We all are. Give him time."

Andy laughs without mirth. "Yeah, well, time is not a luxury I have anymore, is it?"

There's nothing he can say to that, so he doesn't try. He follows Nicky upstairs instead.

The bathroom is still empty. Joe finds him in their bedroom, just sitting at the edge of the bed. He's already shirtless, head in his hands, breathing hard. There's not a mark left anywhere on his skin.

There never is, though. That doesn't mean the scars aren't still there.

"Beloved," Joe says quietly, kneeling before him. "Are you all right?"

Nicky lifts his head enough to meet Joe's eyes. His own are pale and glassy. "Fine," he mutters, pressing his forehead against Joe's and exhaling heavily. "I'll be fine."

They stay like that a long time, just breathing the same air in warm silence. But when they finally pull apart, Nicky kisses him sweetly and smiles, and he does seem more himself again after that. So Joe tucks his concern away into the back of his mind, and does his best not to worry over it.

It's some months later when the matter finally comes to a head, on a Copley-sponsored mission. They're in southeastern Belarus along what was once an industrial railway line, which is now being used by a local sex trafficking ring. A long-abandoned depot has been converted into a waystation of sorts, and according to Copley's intel, there's a "shipment" due to depart in the next forty-eight hours.

Security on site is laughable; it's the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere, disincentive enough to prevent the trafficked women from making a run for it. Once the team has secured the perimeter, Andy and Joe focus on evacuating the young women -- they have the strongest Russian language skills -- while Nicky and Nile split up to clear the rest of the depot. Supposedly there's an office with a safe that contains documents implicating the ringleader, and Copley would very much like to retrieve those as well.

When all the women have been safely loaded onto the truck provided by Copley's local contact, Joe gives the driver a thumbs up, and the truck peels away down the dirt track that pretends to be a road. Andy and Joe start trudging back toward the depot. Joe switches on his comm link. "We're all set. Any luck on your end?"

"Working on it," Nile replies. "Office door is some kind of like reinforced steel, and shooting the lock off didn't help as much as you might think."

"Well, hurry up, it's fucking freezing out here."

Nile's laugh sounds like static in his earpiece. "You clearly haven't experienced winter in Chicago."

"Consider yourself lucky that Booker isn't here," Andy says wryly. She's always been the sort to poke at bruises to see if they still hurt. "He has opinions about Russian winters."

"Well, it did kill him that first time," Nicky points out, his voice tinny through the earpiece. "More than once, I think. Nile, un attimo, I'm almost there, I will help you."

"No worries, I got this." There's a clanging noise over the comms, presumably the recalcitrant door slamming open. Worryingly, this is followed by a high-pitched beeping. "Shit. Must've tripped something."

Andy and Joe exchange a look before breaking into a jog. "Security system?" Andy asks.

For a few long seconds, all Joe can hear is beeping.

"Uh, not exactly," Nile says. It's hard to read her tone. "There's a panel next to the door with a keypad and a countdown timer -- fifty seconds. Exactly how paranoid did Copley say this guy was?"

"Very," Andy says grimly. "My bet's on some kind of self-destruct mechanism, Zhdanovich does not leave loose ends hanging. Just get out of there, Nile."

"I got thirty-five seconds, it's worth a shot," Nile says tersely. "Safe on the wall. Gonna try to bust it open."

"Get out of there, Nile!" This time it's Nicky's voice, strained and out of breath. "Che cazzo--" His comm clicks off abruptly mid-invective, and Joe huffs out a laugh even as he speeds up to a run.

"Almost got it," Nile grits out. "I mean, what do I have to lose, right?"

The beeping gets shriller, and through the earpiece, Joe can hear Nicky shouting Nile's name again, as if at a distance. She must switch off her own comm at that point, because an abrupt silence falls. Joe nearly trips over the body of one of the guards they'd killed in their initial approach and hisses out a curse. All is quiet for another heartbeat, two, apart from the sounds of his and Andy's harsh breathing as they sprint toward the depot. Then there's a muffled explosion from somewhere within the building. The narrow windows set high along the walls rattle with the force of it; one shatters. The double doors at the entrance still stand open; Joe races Andy inside.

The cavernous space within once would have held multiple locomotives in need of maintenance; the traffickers had built labyrinthine subdivisions within the structure, none of which were very architecturally sound. One entire section at the far end seems to have collapsed due to the explosion. The air is already thick with plaster dust and the smell of scorched metal. "Think you'd better stay outside, boss," Joe says, listening to the floor creak under his feet.

Andy just rolls her eyes. "Not much chance of that, is there?" Raising her voice, she shouts, "Nile? Nicky?"

"Over here!" Nile calls back, coughing. "Fuck! I could use a little help…!"

Joe's heart thuds painfully against his ribcage as he follows her voice. For all that he knows, intellectually, that it will be all right -- that even if the worst has happened, they will survive it -- his body's fear response remains just as urgent as the first death, the fiftieth, the thousandth. Ice water sluices through his veins, his breath sticks in his throat, and adrenaline leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.

Fear for his own life and safety is negligible: quickly suppressed, easily managed. Fear for Nicky is intolerable.

The explosion shorted out the electricity in the depot, and the skies are gray and cloudy, so only thin daylight manages to filter through the high windows along the outer walls. It's enough, though. Enough to see where the upper floor has collapsed into the lower, leaving a pile of twisted metal and concrete and rubble. The reinforced steel of the door that had briefly thwarted Nile earlier survived the explosion, of course, though it now hangs off its hinges. She shouldn't have bothered with the door, Joe thinks grimly. Should have just kicked through the wall instead.

"Help me," Nile grunts, struggling to shift a heavy metal beam. It's hard to make out distinct shapes through the haze of dust. She seems mostly unharmed, though her whole body is now coated with a fine layer of plaster dust. "Nicky literally yeeted me out the door, but he didn't get out in time. I can't get this fucking thing out of the way--"

Joe curses fluently in several dead languages as he hastens to assist her. There's no visible sign of Nicky anywhere beneath the rubble, he's buried so completely. Bit by bit, the three of them manage to clear the worst of it away. A hand emerges, then the rest of his arm, flung outward as though reaching toward the doorway. Joe scrabbles frantically to unearth him, shoving aside the block of concrete that had likely broken his skull. His soft hair is dark with blood. "Nicky, Nicolò, wait just another moment more, you're nearly free of it," he murmurs, crooning, shifting another beam off his torso. "I am here, you can come back to me."

"Better if he holds off," Andy says under her breath. "This will hurt like a bitch until we get it off him."

Joe kneels in the rubble at Nicky's side, cupping his face, gently thumbing away the streaks of dust. Nicky's gray eyes, normally so bright and expressive, gaze blankly upward. Joe thinks that this is perhaps the part of death he hates the most, that vacant stare. The tangible absence of the soul. "Come back to me," he whispers again.

"I think that's the last of it," Nile says eventually. Her voice is a little shaky, hesitant. "We should get out of here before anything else collapses on us. Should we try to carry him, or…?"

"Give him a minute," Andy says. "It'll be easier once he starts to heal, otherwise we risk doing worse damage in the meantime." There's a hand on Joe's shoulder, squeezing once. "Give him a minute," she repeats, more quietly, for his sake. "You know he'll be all right."

Joe nods numbly, not taking his eyes off Nicky's face. Too long, it feels like it's been too long, but head injuries are often the slowest to wake up from. So many delicate parts to the brain, so much potential for damage. Slice off an arm, and you're awake the whole time watching and feeling it reconnect; a good crack to the skull, though, and you don't come back at all until that part's sorted. He knows this. But still, the niggling doubt, the icy terror: what if this was the final death?

It happens all in a rush, life returning. The vacant eyes blink once, twice, and Nicky takes in a great, shuddering breath, coughing on dust. Joe quickly curves an arm around his back, bracing him, helping him to sit upright. "I've got you, my heart," he says softly. "You're here, you're with me, you're okay."

"I'm here," Nicky agrees, grimacing. "Fuck, that one hurt." His eyes widen in abrupt panic. "Nile!"

Nile immediately drops down into a crouch beside them. "Hey, Nicky, I'm fine. Not a scratch, thanks to you."

That might or might not have been true; but at any rate, she's certainly fully healed by now.

Nicky sags back into Joe's arms for a moment, his relief palpable. Just for a moment, though. Then he drags himself to his feet, too roughly, shaking off Joe's arm. There's an audible pop as a dislocated bone somewhere in his leg snaps back into its socket, and Joe hisses softly in sympathy.

"Did you get what you needed?" Nicky demands of Nile. His pale eyes seem to spark in the thin sunlight that breaks through the hazy air, like heat lightning. "Whatever it was you thought worth dying for?"

Nile flinches as though from a slap, but recovers quickly. "The safe? No. It blew up with everything else. I think at least one of the explosives was set inside it."

"So perhaps next time, you will do as Andromache tells you," Nicky snaps. "Before you throw your life away to no purpose whatsoever."

"Nicky," Andy says warningly.

Nicky turns his steely gaze on her instead. "If she starts to hold her own life so cheaply, she will forget that others' lives are not!"

"Okay, I get it, I got your ass killed instead," Nile says. There's fire in this one, Joe thinks: she's willing to bite back. He would appreciate this more if it were not Nicky provoking it. "And I'm sorry about that, I truly am, but I did not ask you to play the hero. I would've been fine, anyway -- it's not like it matters!"

"It always matters! Death is not -- it is not a game, it is not casual, it is real and it is painful and it is not a thing to be chased, not ever!" His voice cracks, and Joe slips an arm around his waist to ground him, to gently tug him back from this imagined precipice. He's beginning to guess where Nicky's thoughts have gone.

"She is not chasing death, my heart," he murmurs, for Nicky's ears only. "Not hers nor anyone else's. She made a mistake, and she will learn from it, but this is not the best time or place to discuss it."

Nicky rubs a hand across his face, which succeeds only in smearing the dirt around, but some of the stiffness in his spine loosens. "I know. I'm sorry, Nile," he adds tiredly, looking back at her. "Let's get out of here, hmm?"

The angry fire is gone from his eyes, as quickly as it first appeared, but Joe isn't sure he likes the way their light seems to have been snuffed out entirely. Still, he holds his tongue as they carefully make their way back out through the destruction of the old depot.

Once outside, Andy urges them all quickly into their car, worried that whatever Nile tripped might have sounded some kind of alarm elsewhere, and she drives them away through the forest with her usual abject disregard for the vehicle's physical limitations. Nile called shotgun, and alternates between staring moodily out the window and shooting hesitant glances over her shoulder at the back seat. Joe gives her what he hopes is a reassuring smile. Nicky just remains curled up against his shoulder, eyes resolutely closed. He might be sleeping or praying or neither. Sometimes Joe can tell; today, he has no clue.

The day is long even after that. A long drive across the Ukrainian border to Korosten, where Nile buys a burner phone to contact Copley with news of their mission's qualified success -- they got the women out, which was their top priority, so Joe doesn't feel too bad about the supposed documents that blew up with the safe. Then they split up into pairs at the train station, buying tickets at random in opposite directions. Better safe than sorry. For Joe and Nicky, this leads them to Kyiv, a city of which Joe has always been fond. Less so in February, but the glittering domes and spires still have a certain chilly splendor.

Copley provided sufficient funds for them to book a room in the first middling-to-nice hotel they stumble across outside the train station. By then it's late enough in the evening that they take quick turns in the shower to wash off any remnants of the depot, then inhale a quick meal at the hotel bar and head directly back upstairs to the room. Nicky has been quiet and withdrawn all day, and Joe doesn't press. They both sometimes need space within their own heads. He doesn't begrudge it, especially after a death. Nicky still catches Joe's hand in the bed, tugging until Joe curls warmly around him, so whatever he's working through in silence, he's clearly not upset with Joe. That's all that matters for now.

Normally, Nicky is the light sleeper, while Joe is slow to rouse and slower still to fully awaken, but both tend to drop off quickly enough -- a soldier in any era learns to snatch sleep whenever and wherever they might find it. But tonight, sleep eludes Joe for a long time. He wraps Nicky tightly in his arms and presses his lips to the nape of his neck, feeling Nicky's breathing go slow and even against his chest. The steady rhythm of it reassures him, as it always does, but doesn't draw him along down into unconsciousness.

His mind wrestles with the memory of Nicky's anger, that lightning strike of rage, so unusual for him. So rare to see it directed at one of their own family. Even Booker's betrayal hadn't prompted this reaction, not from Nicky. Joe is the one with the quick temper, the one to flare up and lash out, his ire blazing hot but just as quickly burning itself out. In contrast, Nicky's anger tends to be cold and implacable. When determining Booker's sentence, it was Joe who wanted to hurt him -- kill him violently a few times, perhaps subject him to a few particularly medieval forms of torture, just to make a point of it. Nicky was the one who advocated for exile. Nicky chose to punish him.

Why had this mission so provoked him?

Eventually Joe nods off, dozing fitfully. He's not sure what exactly wakes him again, some indeterminate amount of time later, apart from a nagging sense of something being off. Then he realizes that while Nicky still slumbers, his breath is hitching wetly in his throat, his shoulders shaking. As though he's weeping in his sleep.

Neither of them are strangers to nightmares. It's the very quietness of this one that makes Joe's chest ache. Even asleep, Nicky is trying to keep from disturbing him.

There's a soft whimper, which sounds nothing at all like his Nicolò, and a murmur of what might be Andromache. Enough of this.

"Nicky," Joe says softly, putting his lips close to his ear. He rubs a soothing hand slowly up and down his bare arm. "Nicolò, my heart, it's just a dream. Just a dream. Come back to me, break free of it."

Nicky shudders with his whole body, then stiffens, awakening. "Yusuf?" He immediately rolls over to face Joe, tension drawn tight in every line of his body. "What happened, what's wrong?"

"Shh, all is well," Joe says, reaching up to cup his face. He brushes his thumb across Nicky's cheek. It comes away damp with tears. "You were having a nightmare, I think. I could feel you weeping."

Enough moonlight breaks in between the slats of the cheap window shades that Joe can see his brow furrow, glimpse the wetness clinging to his lashes as he blinks in confusion. "Was I?" He scrubs his hand across his face, then stares down at it. "Oh."

Joe props himself up on one elbow, tracing gentle patterns across Nicky's collarbone, his shoulder. "Do you want to speak of it?"

"No," Nicky says at once, almost violently, shaking his head. He jerks away from Joe's touch. "No, it is nothing, leave it be."

"All right," Joe agrees, stung but trying not to let it show, hand raised peaceably in the air. "I didn't mean to pry."

He starts to shift, to give Nicky the space he seems to need, but Nicky reaches out to clutch at his hip before he can roll away, fingers pressing deep into his skin. "Wait, no, please. I didn't mean -- I need--"

His eyes are nearly wild, searching Joe's frantically in the moon-streaked darkness. It breaks Joe's heart a little, this uncharacteristic uncertainty. "What is it, beloved? What do you need?"

"You," Nicky breathes, pressing their foreheads together. His hand grasps reflexively at Joe's hip, grip tightening. "Joe, love, please--"

Joe kisses him deeply, palming his jaw. Nicky yearns into his touch, pressing close, tangling their legs together. His mouth is hot and needy. "Always," Joe says against Nicky's lips. "You never have to ask."

But Nicky's mood is restless and desperate tonight, as though trying to chase away any lingering remnants of his unspoken dream. "Please," he whispers again, between biting, frantic kisses. His hands shake as they cup Joe's face. "Oh, please!"

Once, many centuries ago, they had been crossing the Mediterranean in a sailing ship when an unexpected storm sprang up. Not a truly terrible one -- Joe would encounter worse, in later years, in other oceans -- but still shocking in its abruptness and brief ferocity. Joe remembers both the fear and the wild thrill of it, clinging on to the rigging and feeling the rain lash against his face, while Nicky laughed breathlessly beside him.

This feels a little like that, the suddenness and fierceness of it, clutching Nicky hard and knowing the storm will simply take them where it will, and there's nothing to do but hold on tight until it passes. He wants to ask what it is Nicky dreamed, to have wrung him out like this. Wants to grasp him by the shoulders and demand to know what had possessed him on the mission today, why he had thrown himself upon the death that was meant for Nile, what had so angered him afterward.

But the truth is, Joe needs this right now, too, nearly as much as Nicky seems to. Any death is hard to witness; but the longer ones, the uglier ones -- those are worse. He needs to overwrite his memory of Nicky's vacant, lifeless eyes with the fire that lights them now; needs to press his lips to the racing pulse in Nicky's neck, the proof of life there. Feel warm, pliable skin against his own, already damp with sweat.

Nicky claims his mouth brutally, bruisingly. He pulls away briefly to nip along the side of Joe's neck, sucking a hard line following the edge of his beard toward his collarbone. It stings for only a few seconds before healing too quickly to leave a mark, but it's enough to make Joe writhe against him, his hips jerking forward of their own accord. Nicky swallows the groan before it can leave his lips, hand at the back of Joe's head, carding his fingers through the curls. Joe can hardly gasp in a breath between kisses. He would happily die of asphyxiation, if it meant never needing to stop kissing Nicky.

Tonight, neither of them are willing to let go of the other enough to shift positions, to find their release in any other way. Instead, Nicky simply shoves his hand down between their bellies to grasp them both at once, sloppy and inelegant. It should be awkward. But it's somehow exactly what they both need right now. Joe keeps kissing him for as long as he can, until they're just panting against each other's lips, rutting frantically together. Joe comes first, clutching Nicky tightly and arching his neck back with a groan, and he opens his eyes just in time to see Nicky's searing, greedy gaze on him for a few more desperate seconds before he follows.

Nicky curls into him, despite the fact that they're both overwarm now and probably need another shower. Joe presses his lips to Nicky's forehead, just holding him, as their heartbeats slow and breathing returns to normal. "Better?" he murmurs eventually.

Nicky exhales slowly, not quite a sigh. "Getting there. I'm sorry for...earlier."

It's unclear whether he means the nightmare or what happened at the Belarusian depot. Possibly both. "It's all right," Joe tells him, because of course it is. "I just wish I could do more to help."

Nicky's hold on him tightens. "You do," he promises into the curve of Joe's neck. "Never doubt that."

A week later, they rendezvous with Andy and Nile in Berlin. Nicky presents Nile with a ridiculous gift basket full of all the terrible American candies she likes best, and never lets on that it took him the better part of two days hunting through tourist traps in three different cities to compile them. She accepts the apology as intended and immediately rips open a packet of some kind of violently colored gummy candy while Andy rolls her eyes.

They have at least a few weeks before Copley will contact them for another mission, though there might yet be further work to be done on the trafficking ring if he gets any new intel on Zhdanovich. But no need to borrow trouble. It's Nile's first time in Berlin, and the rest of them haven't been here since shortly after the Wall fell, so they spend the first day playing tourist. At the Bode Museum, Joe settles comfortably into a debate with her about Byzantine sculpture, and eventually Andy drags Nicky away, saying that if she has to look at another broken-nosed statue, she'll likely start breaking more pieces off them and cause an international incident.

From the gimlet look she slants sidelong at Nicky, Joe suspects she has an ulterior motive. Best leave them to it.

"It's nice to have another artist on the team," Joe tells Nile, taking a seat on one of the benches and gesturing for her to join him. "Nicky is happy to indulge me, but his interest only goes so deep. And Andy…"

"The woman keeps a Rodin in a cave," Nile says. "I swear to God, there was a moment there where my soul left my body and I channeled the spirit of Indiana Jones. 'This belongs in a museum!' You know?"

Joe laughs. "I liked those movies. Movies, definitely a perk of living forever. Some innovations aren't so hot, but movies, those I approve of, even if a lot of them are terrible. Also indoor plumbing, I'm a big fan."

Nile smiles a little, but her gaze has turned inward. "It still hits me, sometimes," she says quietly. "What immortality really means. How much you've lived through. And what it must mean to lose that. For Andy, but also for you guys…" She shakes her head, looking past him to where Andy and Nicky had gone. "She was pretty pissed at him all week, you know, though she wouldn't talk to me about it. I hope they're gonna be okay."

"They will be," Joe says, certain of it. "Andy and Nicky's hard to describe. He's her brother." He taps his fingers along the bench, searching for better words. "Well, we all are, but their relationship is different. They march to the beat of the same drummer, in a way. They're both driven by a purpose that is born deep within their own souls, from a desire to right the wrongs they see before them. She helped guide him to a better purpose than what his Church had indoctrinated in him, and he helps to buoy her when her own faith in humanity is flagging. And he knows how to simply be with her when she needs to find peace." He can feel his lips curve into a smile. "I like to talk too much. It irritates her."

Nile hums softly, considering it. "I got the impression that she was closest to Booker, before."

Joe breathes into it, willing himself to speak objectively. "In some ways, yes. There were different things that they shared." Mostly grief and booze, he doesn't say, because he knows that's not fair. Booker's bond with Andy is far deeper than that. But it wasn't enough in the end, was it? He waves it off. "But we go further back, much further. Booker's only two hundred years old or so. For twice his lifetime, it was just me and Nicky and Andy and Quynh. And Nicky was always Andy's." He rubs the back of his neck, remembering. "I was Quynh's."

There's an ache in his heart that belongs to Quynh, which time has never quite smoothed away. He misses how he used to make her laugh. Other things, too, of course, but her laugh most of all. She embraced joy so open-heartedly, in contrast to Andy and Nicky's habitual reserve.

"Quynh," Nile murmurs. "I still dream of her sometimes."

Not only joy. All of her emotions. Joe shudders at the thought of her unending terror and rage, lost so many leagues beneath the sea. "I'm sorry. That can't be pleasant."

"We all got our own nightmares, right?" Nile shrugs philosophically. "I'll live. But that reminds me. I've been thinking, since the mission, about the way Nicky blew up at me -- ugh, pun definitely not intended, please don't hold that against me--"

Joe lifts an eyebrow. "Spit it out, Nile."

"When's the last time you died?" she asks abruptly.

He blinks down at her, wondering how on earth that was a logical segue. "Feeling morbid today, are you?"

"No, but seriously. Do you remember?"

"I remember many, many deaths," Joe says drily. "I have likely forgotten many more. You lose track after the first hundred or so."

Nile sighs. "Yeah, well, I'm still new enough that they stand out. And apart from that whole clusterfuck with Merrick--"

"Not our finest hour, it's really unfortunate that that was your introduction to us--"

"--I can count how many times I've died on one hand." Nile holds up three fingers. "All training accidents with Andy. Well, the motorcycle was definitely an accident, at least. The axe was probably deliberate on Andy's part, and then there was once I wanted to time how long it would take to heal from gunshots to various places and, uh, miscalculated a bit."

Joe winces. They've all done that sort of thing at some point, though. He vividly remembers demanding that Quynh shoot him directly in the head with her crossbow, just to see what it felt like. Exceedingly painful, is what. Removing the arrow had killed him a second time, since he'd bled out more quickly than he could heal. Head injuries really are no joke. Nicolò had spent hours haranguing him for that one.

"I didn't know about those," he says instead. "Well, apart from the axe. That was fairly spectacular, even by Andy's standards."

She shrugs. "You and Nicky weren't around for the others. Like I said, it's only been three deaths total. By your standards, that's just, like, a vaguely shitty afternoon." She shakes her head impatiently. "Anyway, the point is, I haven't died on any of our missions so far. And obviously Andy hasn't. So when's the last time you died, Joe?"

It genuinely takes him aback, since he hadn't bothered putting it together before, but: "Merrick's lab," he admits. "During some of the tests, I think. I'm not positive if I died or just passed out, but...yeah, pretty sure I died at least once there."

Nile's eyes are warm with sympathy, but she just nods, matching his matter-of-fact tone. "So nothing since Merrick. None of the three of us have died even once on a mission in the past eight months."

"We are pretty damn good at what we do, Nile--"

"How many times has Nicky died, Joe?" She meets his gaze evenly, expression serious. "Since it's just been the four of us together."

Joe shakes his head. "I don't count like that."

"Bullshit you don't. I'll bet you all the money in your wallet that you know exactly how many times you've watched him die since the First Crusade, even if you've lost track of your own."

"I don't count them," he snaps back. "A hundred deaths, a thousand -- why bother keeping track? Bad enough I can replay every single one in glorious technicolor, I refuse to keep a fucking scorecard--"

"Six," she says shortly, cutting him off. "I was thinking about it all week, and I count six. Six times he's died on a mission in the past eight months, including at the depot."

Joe closes his eyes. There's a reason he doesn't like to do the math. "Seven," he corrects her quietly. "Last week was the seventh." When her brow furrows in thought, he adds, "He caught a stray bullet in Port-au-Prince, you and Andy were in the van already and there was no reason to mention it afterward."

He'd taken the bullet for Joe, specifically. It probably wouldn't even have killed Joe, would have hit somewhere in his back. But Nicky had heard the gunshot and dived to intercept it, and it caught him right in the heart. There was probably something poetic to be said about that. It's not a poem Joe chooses to write.

It clicks together like a missing puzzle piece, connecting with the score of seven deaths to zero, the argument with Andy over teaching Nile how to die, the explosion in the depot. The ugly death at Keane's hand in the lab.

Death is not a thing to be chased, not ever!

Ya rab, Nicky had spelled it right out for them, and still Joe hadn't quite caught on.

Nile bulldozes on ahead. "Look, I know we just shake this shit off, that's literally the whole point. We do what we do because we can take it. But right now, he's taking the hits for all of us. And that's not right."

"I know," Joe says quietly. "But it's all he knows how to do. It's the one thing he thinks he can control."

A tour group wanders into their room, the guide making extremely inaccurate declarations about the Byzantines. Joe wonders how many others have passed through this exhibit while they spoke without his fully noticing. He pulls himself to his feet, offering Nile his arm. "Let's go outside, hmm? I could use some fresh air."

She nods, understanding. "Cool, lemme just text Andy."

The museum sits on an island in the narrow river, and the weather outside is cold enough that only a few of the bolder tourists linger. They cross the short bridge to the riverside park, finding an empty stretch of railing to lean against, looking down at the water. Their elbows bump together. It's nice, Joe thinks, having a new sister after all these years.

"As a general rule, we don't like to talk about the 16th century," he says finally. Nile frowns, clearly not sure where this is coming from, but he's improvising here. Not sure how best to explain it. "That's when we lost Quynh. And then we lost decades of our own, searching for her. It was...not a happy time. Not a time we choose to remember."

Nile nods slowly. "I can imagine."

"You can't, though," he says, not unkindly. "And I hope you will never be able to. It was what it was." He looks down at his own clasped hands, not really seeing them. "Andromache was completely consumed by her loss. Rage, at first -- for a long time -- and driven to absolute desperation as our every attempt failed. And when even she was forced to admit it was an impossible task, the grief overwhelmed her. The sadness lingering in her now, that you have seen, that is but a pale shadow next to this towering grief. It would have destroyed her completely, torn all three of us asunder, if not for Nicky."

"How so?" From the sharpness in her eyes, he thinks she's starting to follow now.

"It's what he does," Joe says simply. "He cares -- he takes care. It's the difference between empathy and compassion, I think. Sometimes he can come off as more distant, less feeling, but that's not it." He holds on to the railing tightly, knuckles white, trying to ground himself in the present. "My empathy for Andy was too strong; I felt her loss as if it were my own, and could not untangle the two, because of course I grieved Quynh as well. I let myself get swept up by the enormity of her suffering. Nicky could have fallen down the same well of despair that we did -- it's not that he loved Quynh any less -- but he was able to separate himself from it, to be truly compassionate. He took care of the practical things so that we wouldn't have to. Went to the markets for food, secured our lodgings, things like that. He kept us going. He kept us from each other's throats, when anger overtook us." He shakes his head ruefully. "Grief is like a beast that lives inside you. It can cry out for blood."

"That I do understand," Nile says quietly. "When my dad died, when I was still a kid. I got so mad, sometimes, at the dumbest shit. I never knew I had that kind of rage in me."

Joe nods. "So. And the years went by, and we gave up the search, and we started taking jobs again. Any jobs, foolish jobs, desperate jobs. Not for the money. Not for doing good -- though not for evil, at least, not knowingly. But just for doing something. Andy chose them as she always did. The more dangerous, the better. She threw herself into battles as though challenging death itself, and we followed her, because what else could we do? There were only three of us left." He sighs, shaking his head. "In a certain light, we all enhanced our combat skills tenfold in those years, simply by virtue of repeatedly throwing ourselves into truly unwinnable situations."

"Not the healthiest coping mechanism, though, I'm guessing."

Joe barks out a laugh. "You could say that. And Nicky grew increasingly unhappy, though he never spoke of it. Andy probably wouldn't have listened anyway. She was too busy getting herself killed." He closes his eyes. He doesn't like remembering the next part. "And then one day, in yet another miserable fight where we were badly outnumbered, Andy had her back to a threat and Nicky saw it coming. He had been disarmed -- literally, his hand had been cut off and hadn't yet begun to heal -- and I was too far away to intervene. So he just...stepped into the path of the blade. I was running toward them when it happened, I saw the look in his eyes. I never want to see that look again. It was almost as if he welcomed it." He takes a deep breath, forcing himself to focus on the river flowing before them, the cold sunlight glinting off the water. "It took his head clean off," he says quietly. "That was a new death, for the pair of us."

Nile presses her shoulder against his, solid and warm. He leans into her a little. "So I guess we can survive dismemberment, huh?" she asks, her tone deliberately light.

"We can," Joe agrees. "Though I wouldn't recommend it. And I wasn't sure of it, then." He props his head on one fist to meet her eyes. "Twenty-one minutes," he says softly. "Twenty-one minutes, after Andy and I had massacred the rest of them and I could return to his side, pressing him back together. I had fallen out of the habit of praying to Allah in those years. But I prayed then." He exhales a shaky breath. "And when he finally revived, I screamed at him. I have never been so furious with my Nicolò, not since we first agreed to stop murdering each other in the Crusade. Terror and anger are so closely intertwined. He just listened, until I had exhausted all the angry words I knew, never once interrupting. And then he said…" Joe swallows, his throat feeling thick and dry. "He said that since he could not stop us from chasing our final deaths, he had decided to join us in it. For if we ever succeeded and left him behind, he would not be able to bear it."

Do not ask me to stand by and watch you continue to self-immolate, Nicolò had begged, his voice still rough with the pain of resurrection. Yusuf, I cannot, please do not ask this of me any longer, it will make a monster of me in the end. It will twist me into someone you could no longer love.

Those words, the heartbroken expression on Nicky's face, had shaken him to the very core of his being. And it had awakened him as if from a nightmare. Andy, too. Not that they were miraculously able to set their grief aside, not that they could suddenly play at happy families again. The ache of Quynh never left any of them, Andy least of all. But after that, they found ways to start moving forward, helping one another step by painful step, instead of drowning in the maelstrom of their grief for eternity.

"And that's what he thought I was doing, at the depot?" Nile asks, snapping him back to the here and now. "Chasing my final death?"

Joe takes her hand in his. "No, of course not. Not really. But these past months, since Andy became mortal again...we're both grieving, in a way. Not just Andy -- Booker, too. Even though he will return to us one day, and she is still with us now." He shrugs. "It may not be logical, but grief never is. Me, I rage a bit, let it flow through me, shove it to one side where I don't have to think about it. settles into his bones, like a heavy thing, though he does his best not to show it. And I think death is not something he can bear to stand by and watch right now. So he tries to take it upon himself instead."

"That's pretty dumb of him," Nile says, with a gentle smile that takes the sting out of it. She shifts slightly, looking past him. "But I think I get where he's coming from."

Joe turns, and sure enough, they're no longer alone. Nicky and Andy are there, holding hands tightly, their fingers interlaced. Andy looks grave, her face shadowed with remembered sorrow. Nicky's eyes are fixed upon Joe's face. They blaze, nearly incandescent with a tangled mixture of grief, guilt, and overwhelming love. Joe abruptly wants to kiss him so badly he aches with it.

"How long have you been eavesdropping?" Joe aims for casual, but his voice is hoarse with emotion, and he imagines he's not fooling any of them.

Andy glances over at Nicky, then back to him. "Longer than you'd probably like. That's quite the history lesson you've been giving her."

"I'm sorry," he says honestly. "I know we don't talk of it. But I thought it would help her to know."

Nile stands at his shoulder, wordlessly backing him up.

"You're not wrong," Andy sighs. She gives Nile a wry smile. "It's not like trauma is exclusive to immortality, but that shit does tend to accumulate. Still no excuse for being a dick," she adds, elbowing Nicky in the side. The sharpness is somewhat offset by the way she still clings to his hand.

"I know," Nicky says. His gaze slides over to Nile, softening. "She made me promise that next time you run into death, I will let you learn your own damn lessons." He smiles slightly. "But I would still prefer you to avoid it when possible."

Nile's lips twist into something complicated between a grin and a smirk. "Believe me, I'm trying. I'm not that much of a masochist."

"Good." His eyes return to Joe's, fixing there, familiar and beloved. "That goes for you, too, you know."

Joe just nods, momentarily voiceless.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Andy mutters. She shakes off Nicky's grasp, though she gives his hand one last squeeze first, and gestures to Nile. "Come on, let's pick out a restaurant for dinner. We can text them once we've decided."

Nile glances between them, eyebrows raised, then claps Joe lightly on the shoulder and goes. "Sure thing, boss."

Joe hardly notices them leave. He feels frozen to this spot, leaning back against the railing to steady himself. The breeze is sharp and chilly on his face. He doesn't feel the cold at all. "I'm sorry," he finally says, again. "It wasn't my story to tell."

"It was, though," Nicky says roughly. He's moved, somehow, now standing directly before him, though not yet touching. "I know it got better, after that, but still, for years…. You know, when Booker first showed up in our dreams, I was so fucking relieved. I thought maybe Andy would not have to feel so alone anymore, that maybe I could stop worrying so much. I could just fold myself back into you, and know she would be okay. But I was wrong, wasn't I? They were never as bad as you and she were, after Quynh, but they weren't good for each other, either. In some ways, yes, but in others...they fed each other's sadness and guilt, and we just -- let them. Because we had each other."

"We had them, too," Joe says, reaching out to pluck at the sleeve of Nicky's jacket. "And they had us. And now Nile has us, too. She's no Booker, Nicky. She doesn't have his bitterness, his grief. She's stronger than any of us were when we started."

Nicky bows his head, clutching both of Joe's hands in his. "We still have to do better by her. By both of them. Because Andy is running out of time and we have to do better."

"We will," Joe promises. "We already are." He presses a kiss to the corner of Nicky's mouth. "Though I would very much appreciate it if you stopped taking our deaths on yourself. I can't bear watching you die, either."

"I hadn't even realized I'd been reliving it, these past months," Nicky whispers. "I'm so sorry, love." He huffs out a laugh, a little wetly. "You apparently know me better than I know myself. I don't know why I'm surprised."

Joe smiles and kisses him again, lingering there. "Well, I have made it my lifelong study."

Nicky chases his kiss, releasing his grip so that he can take Joe's face firmly in his hands, warm despite the frigid winter air. "I love you," he says, shaping the words against Joe's lips. "I will try. And I will always come back to you. You are my faith, my soul, and my salvation."

"Now who's the romantic?" But Joe can't help but kiss him again for it, and again, and perhaps once more.

His phone buzzes in his jacket pocket. He ignores it, though Nicky chuckles into his kiss. "That's probably Andy."

"She can wait." They're not going to be joining Andy and Nile for dinner.

"It's fucking freezing out here, Joe."

"Is it?" Joe tugs him closer, wrapping his arms around Nicky's waist. "I hadn't noticed."