Nile sighs, pushing away the book of French philosophy she’s trying (mostly failing) to translate and waving a hand for Joe to enter the room. Quiet days between jobs can be tough to fill. Not that she isn't growing fonder of her companions by the day, but having them doesn't make the ache of missing her family and her old life any less sharp. It doesn't make the adjustment to what they do and how to reconcile it with her understanding of morality, or right and wrong, any easier. It sure as hell doesn't lessen the hurt from what Booker did, or the concern for how he will fare for so long with nothing and no-one aside from his thoughts and endless bottles of liquor.
And so Nile has taken to working on her languages to fill the long hours. And if she can find a way to give back in some small way to Nicky's quiet kindness by engaging him on his incredibly niche interests while she's at it, why the hell not.
Well, maybe this is why the hell not, she thinks to herself, surprised at her own relief to be interrupted. She's a soldier, a hard worker, and certainly no quitter, but perhaps French philosophy had been an ambitious choice.
Joe has the iPad he shares with Nicky in his hand, and Nile can already tell from the cheerful smile on his face and the eager bounce in his step that he’s about to provide her with a welcomed distraction.
“Nile!” He shakes the iPad at her, rocking back in his excitement on the heels of the classic black Vans Nile had picked out for him the last time they all restocked their wardrobes, replacing old things that were left as bloody rags. Him and Nicky have proved entirely too indulgent of her every whim and suggestion, utterly relieved to have somebody who can give them a break from grappling at the quickly changing whims of culture and fashion, at least for a few decades. She doesn’t like to take advantage too much, tries to keep them both current and comfortable, but it is admittedly very entertaining to dress Joe up like the hot piece he is and watch Nicky get disgruntled when young people flirt with him in public.
“I have something to show you.”
She nods, smiling already, taking the interruption as an opportunity to stretch her arms above her head and crack her back.
“What’cha got, Joe?”
He pulls up the chair beside her at the table, setting down the iPad very, very gently. Nile watches in fond amusement as he slowly and carefully, one letter at a time, with the very tip of his pointer finger, begins to type P-A-S-S-W-O-R-D into the lock screen.
Nile knows that Joe could take apart and reassemble any make or model of gun you put in front of him while blindfolded and probably handcuffed. She knows that he can competently fly more planes and man more ships than Nile has or will see for many, many years to come. She’s heard stories about him defusing bombs and making it home in time for dinner, and yet. He’s still mildly afraid of microwaves, and doesn’t know how to type with his thumbs. Nile has seen him cry at The Notebook, and then cry again hours later while telling Nicky about it.
“Is that Camus you’re reading?” He starts speaking around the second S, not moving on to the W until he’s added, “Nicky thinks highly of his work.”
“That’s why I chose it, actually,” she says, watching with a raised eyebrow as Joe carefully navigates to his saved photos and videos. The background is a deadpan photo of Nicky drinking a milkshake through an absurd pink curly straw, 3D glasses from the movie theatre perched on his nose. It was taken several months earlier while Nile helped them set up their new piece of tech. “I feel bad that he doesn’t understand a lot of the things you and I talk about.”
Joe pauses to smile at her before turning back to swipe through some photos Nicky must have taken of him driving them into town earlier in the day to get groceries, the crinkles by his eyes deepening further as he takes them in again. Joe looks confused in the photos, mouth blurred like he’s asking what Nicky is doing, but the frame is centred on a giant orange leaf stuck in the back of his curls. The last one is streaked with movement, Nicky’s other hand reaching out to pluck the piece of foliage from Joe’s head to show him.
“He’ll be touched, Nile. And very happy to speak about it with you, but he doesn’t mind not being in on everything. We're his family,” Joe shoots her a serious look and Nile’s smile grows, “but truthfully I think he’s glad that we entertain each other so that he doesn’t have to listen to us go on about art or pop culture.”
She nods, interest already piqued at the photograph Joe has stopped on. It’s of a highly contrasted poster tacked up on a public billboard. He slides the iPad in front of her before picking up her pencil and turning the paper she’d been taking notes on toward himself, clearly meaning to look it over for her. The gesture is utterly familial, the sudden ache of missing her mom and brother choking her so fast that she has to look away from him, pushing the feeling down to focus on the information in front of her.
“Oh, cool, there’s gonna be a midnight art show this weekend?”
“Mhm,” he frowns, penciling in a correction to her conjugation before looking back up at her. “It’s a showcase by a bunch of high school kids protesting how their curriculum doesn’t include any queer artists, and hardly any who are non-white. A woman who works at the grocery store was telling us that her niece helped organize it.”
Nile zooms in on the bulleted list of features, smiling to see that some of the kids are gonna be playing live music.
“This sounds great, Joe. I’d love to go. Nicky doesn’t want to?” She leans back in her chair, watching Joe circle something she’s written and reach for the book she’d been working from. She purses her lips, raising her eyebrows and glancing pointedly at the paper. He smiles again.
“Oh, he’s coming too. I only thought about it as much as how happy it would probably make those kids to see him and I walking around holding hands and enjoying their stuff, kissing in front of homophobes, putting on the cool, adoring, fine art connoisseur couple shtick, you know.”
He looks up from the paper then with a very gentle and thoughtful expression that reminds her so suddenly of both Nicky and her mom that her heart squeezes.
Looking her in the eye now, he continues softly, “Nicky agreed. But he also pointed out that this is the kind of thing you’d probably be doing all the time if you were going to art school instead of training with us. We thought that it would make you happy.”
Nile doesn’t have to bite back the sting of oncoming tears. She doesn’t.
Joe starts flipping through the book, presumably looking for the corresponding page for the part of her writing he’s circled. (Graciously gives her the moment she needs to collect herself).
Nile takes a breath, eyes catching on the refrigerator that’s behind Joe’s chair in her line of sight. It’s an outdated, dingy little white thing, and Nile isn’t convinced that it runs much colder than the house itself does due to the poor insulation. Stuck to it are a bunch of seemingly random newspaper clippings from one month in the late 1990s. There’s also a very shaky stick drawing with a bunch of hearts drawn around it, labelled ‘YUSUF - by Nicky ♡.’ The most recent addition is a takeout menu from a new Thai place that Andy stuck on there just a few weeks earlier.
Nile licks her lips, straightens in her chair and swipes back to the photo of the leaf in Joe’s hair.
“Well, you two were right. We’re gonna have a great time at this thing.” She smiles widely at him, finding that she doesn’t even have to try very hard for it to be genuine. He smiles back, reaches out to squeeze her shoulder. She shakes her head, glancing down at her lap for a second. Appreciates both that he doesn’t take his hand away and that he doesn’t say anything. It's not the same as how her brother would have reacted to her getting upset or overwhelmed. He would have started joking and poking at her until she was smiling and laughing with him. And her mom would have kept up a steady stream of kind and soothing words while hugging her tight.
Joe's reassuring presence is different, just as this new form of family is. Different, but becoming more and more endeared to a close place in her heart as the years go by. Nicky is who she would talk to about fate, would agree with his musings about how the universe had their back in bringing them to each other, if in nothing else. Now, with Joe, she opts to keep it cheerful. It'll be a conversation her and Nicky can have when she throw in the towel on Camus.
For now, she holds up the iPad.
“Tell me, how long was this thing stuck in your hair before he pointed it out to you?”
Joe laughs loud and elated, the tension draining from the moment as he takes his hand back to pat at the back of his head. His curls bounce lightly at the disturbance, and Nile wonders abruptly if he’s ever gotten chewed bubblegum stuck in his like she did once as a very young girl. Wonders if he would have found it hilarious, like she and her dad did, if Nicky would have acted like he was losing a family member while cutting it out for him, like her mom did for her.
Joe shakes his head, looking at once enamoured and royally pissed off (the way only people in love can).
“He said it blew in there as soon as we left the house. And then he took those photos on the way back from the grocery store, three hours later.”