With none of them really having eaten anything since feasting on Nile’s birthday lunch, the breakfast waffle-eating contest turns out to be a very good idea indeed (if Joe does say so himself). Everyone eats at least their fill, sharing the competitive edge that they’ve all found themselves on for much of this week off, be that throwing snowballs at each other, racing on skis, or yesterday’s particularly underhanded final game of cards. Waffle-eating, however, is the real test.
With a heavy sigh, Joe drops his fork onto his half-finished fourth plate and bows his head, tapping the table in defeat. “I’m out,” he groans, and can feel Nile’s glee without opening his eyes to face her.
“I hate to say I told you so.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Andy says, polishing off another quarter. “He’s very used to hearing it by now.”
“Ha. Fuck you,” he grunts amicably at her, and Andy hums. Managing to raise his head, he leans backwards in his chair, trying to give his stomach a bit more space to stretch. “Nicky.”
Opposite him, Nicky, who sensibly called it quits after a respectable two waffles, just says “You are well aware of your own limits,” with an amused but pointed look, and while Joe pouts at him (because that is not supportive, Nicolò - although the leg bumped against his under the table is nice) Andy rolls her eyes with a weary exasperation.
Nile frowns at her, no doubt sensing a story. “What?”
Andy replies, “Malta.”
Huh. Maybe they do have a Malta Look, then.
Their youngest looks between them as she chews on her final bite of waffle. “Is this the same time as the -”
“Nope,” Joe says quickly, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. “Very different.”
“And a tale probably not best repeated over a dinner table,” Nicky adds.
Eyebrows raised, Nile looks to Andy, who shakes her head. “Okay, starting to think maybe I don’t want to know…!”
True to her word, Nile Freeman takes the crown of waffle-eating champion, though only by one quarter of a waffle, and Joe thinks Andy might have let her win. They have to reassure her they can foot the bill (or rather, Copley can), but when they step out into the chilly air she’s back to teasing Joe over his suffering, the hat Nicky bought her sat snugly on her head, bringing a warm flush to her cheeks that looks good on her. She’s practically glowing as they make their way up to the cabin, some of her spirit even spreading to Andy as they walk together, and Joe would be envious of the spring in her step if he wasn’t so happy to see it there.
He has Nicky to pull him along, anyway, who tucks Joe’s hand into his own coat pocket where it belongs.
The walk has a healing effect on them all. This time, Nile is the one telling a story, an anecdote from her training days when a squad-mate had made a poor choice for dinner the night before a cross-country run. It’s the first time she’s voluntarily shared a story like this - a memory that makes her laugh, sometimes giggling too much to speak, and Andy asks gentle questions afterwards to keep her talking and animated. Joe doesn’t know the specifics of her conversation with Nicky the night before. When he’d asked, Nicky had only said it was about family and forgiveness, and that was enough for Joe not to pry any further, knowing exactly where it would lead. It’s no surprise it has helped Nile, though.
They reach the cabin pleasantly exhausted, and while Andy and Nicky pack away the provisions they’d bought earlier, Nile makes a beeline for the collection of presents they’d bestowed on her and takes up the bright handmade journal that had arrived this morning, hunting down a pen to write the standings of the waffle-eating contest on the first page. It shouldn’t surprise him that she’s put the book to its decided-upon use already, not when he approved of the idea of using it as a score-book in the first place, but something stills in Joe’s chest at the sight of it in her hands so easily. Never mind that he read the note that came with it, recognising what was being said and what the gift signifies - it’s Nile’s. The damn thing hasn’t crossed his mind once after they left for breakfast, and there’s absolutely no need to concern himself with it again, or what she chooses to do with it.
His sixth sense kicks in, and Joe looks up to lock eyes with Nicky in the kitchen. He says something quiet to Andy over his shoulder, then makes his way to the stairs, Joe following close behind. In their room, after Nicky’s closed the door, Joe asks, “Did you tell Booker to send the journal?”
He nods, hands on his hips. The answer doesn’t give him anything to work with; it’s not a relief, there’s no satisfaction, but nor is he disappointed. He just knows, now. It’s a fact. Joe sits down on the bed. Andy will have her reasons, just as Nicky would have if it had been him, and he respects that. It’s not what he would have done, but she would never have let that stop her.
Nicky sits beside him. “You disapprove.”
No. Yes? He scrubs a hand over his beard, quashing the urge to get up again and pace, putting his energy into focusing his thoughts. “You know he left a note with it?”
“I saw it on the way in,” he says, and Joe quirks an eyebrow at him. “It sounds promising.”
Just because we keep hurting doesn’t mean we stop living. Promising, yes, and upon reading it himself Joe had felt satisfied - Booker’s finally accepting that his life doesn’t have to be lived under the pain of loss, and that’s a good thing. He knows it’s a good thing. So why doesn’t it feel good?
A hand curls securely over his forearm. “Speak,” Nicky commands, voice soft.
He closes his eyes, grounds himself through the touch and lets the first thought come to him. “It’s only been a few months. We said a hundred years. A snake may shed its skin but it is still a snake.”
“So the shedding of the skin itself is meaningless?”
“Old, new, fresh starts - no, of course not. But eventually that new skin will be shed too, so - so what does it matter how many times it’s happened before? That only proves the snake hasn’t changed.”
Nicky’s gaze gains clarity. “You don’t expect Booker to hold to his redemption.”
“He abandoned the men he fought with before his first death. He threw us to the wolves for something only he wanted.” A bitter laugh slips loose. “Which, really, we should have seen coming a mile off.”
“How could we?” he asks as Joe gives in to his restlessness and stands. “It helps to know an enemy if you are to recognise his approach.”
Joe turns to him. “We knew Sébastien. And he knew us.”
The corners of his lips twitch, but he says neutrally, “Our circumstances were very different.”
“Watching the world we knew crumble and change without us? Meeting others who could not be killed? Fighting, bleeding, dying with them?”
“We all went through that, Nicky - all of us. And not once have we ever felt the need to break the bonds of trust a life like ours depends on.”
Nicky stands too, slowly, and folds his arms, brow drawn in thought. “You cannot forgive his actions? Or his selfishness?”
He paces a bit, but explains; “I can’t forgive his actions because they put us in harm’s way - because you got hurt, needlessly, as a result of what he did. And I can’t forgive his selfishness because it led to him taking those actions.”
“He thought he was helping Andy, too.”
“Did he ask her? Did he think about us?”
“I think Booker thought about us a lot, actually. Perhaps we are at fault for not extending him the same courtesy.”
“Well try as I might, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the bastard,” Joe says. “And it still hasn’t helped me come one bit closer to understanding why.”
Nicky is quiet, his gaze lowered slightly. “It must be a terrible thing,” he says after a moment, “to want to die when you cannot.” He looks at Joe. “How could we know?”
And just like that - like countless times before, and likely countless times yet - Joe is blindsided by just how much he loves this man. The breadth of his mind, the depth of his capacity to consider others, it always leaves him breathless with awe, moreso when he knows it’s a choice Nicky continually, actively makes. Joe would say not everyone deserves their consideration, a view with which Nicky agrees only to point. “You’ve forgiven him?” Joe asks when his heart has settled again, hands back on his hips, the excess energy that comes with frustration gone.
“Mostly,” Nicky admits, moving a few steps closer. “I am struggling to forgive him for hurting you, but I understand why he acted the way he did.”
Joe frowns. “Because he wanted to find a way to die? That’s not an excuse to drag you, me and Andy into shit as well.”
“You’re right,” he says. “But we have been selfish too, Yusuf.”
He immediately rears back to protest, but then stops, looking away with a sigh instead. Andy has, on occasion, berated them for being too absorbed in each other - only when it impacted the team, though, and never for an unjustified reason. She knows, inasmuch as she’s able to, what they mean to one another, but that isn’t always an excuse when there are others trusting you to fulfil a role, and who don’t have that same someone for whom everything else can come second at the drop of a pin. Booker was always one of those others, especially after losing the last of his family; and sure, Joe knows perfectly well how he could get jealous of his and Nicky’s relationship, but still - “I won’t apologise for being happy with you.”
“Nobody is asking you to.”
“Good. Because they wouldn’t be alive to hear my answer.”
A tiny puff of amusement slips from Nicky’s lips. “We do not want to die because we have each other to live for,” he continues, sombre again. “If we had tried to comprehend the direct opposite of that, could we not have…” His face clouds.
“Hey.” Joe closes the gap between them, his hands finding Nicky’s shoulders. “Nicolò, amore mio,” he says as he squeezes, and when Nicky meets his gaze, Joe shakes his head. “You cannot blame yourself for this. Not for any of it.”
“I don’t,” Nicky assures him, stroking Joe’s arms, “I don’t. But there was much we missed when it came to Booker, and knowing that, I can’t hold his actions against him without bringing myself to account for my inaction. That would be unfair, and life has already been unfair enough to him, has it not?”
So kind, Joe’s heart says as he cups Nicolò’s face to kiss him. Too kind, his mind says as they part. “Maybe,” he concedes - the very nature of their ‘immortality’ is cruel, indeed. Yet they each endure it. “But I can’t forgive what he did.”
And Nicky - with the slightest of smiles on his lips, his hands at Joe’s waist to bring them that little bit closer together - accepts that. “You understand, at least?”
Joe is sincere when he says, “Mostly.”
“So your frustration lies not with a lack of knowing, rather…” A light suddenly appears behind his eyes. “Is it that you cannot reconcile your unwillingness to forgive him with the desire to want to forgive him?”
Understanding Booker means realising that the shedding of snakeskin is no more permanent than the death so often rained on their bodies. It’s a metaphor Joe appreciates only in the sense that it forces a person to confront that notion of redemption, and throughout the years since it was first coined he has held firm to it and loathed its existence in equal measure. Shedding skin is not as easily done as it is said, like so many things, and in the wake of Nicky’s question Joe registers that, as always, he’s right. He can’t discard the memories he’s made with Booker these last couple of centuries, or the bond they forged through blood and steel and days of shared laughter and nights of grief where even Yusuf’s way with words felt useless; and, Allah above, it’s in honour of those memories that he wishes he could find the path that Nicky, Nile, and Andy have already started down. “I want to believe he can change,” he admits, eyes slipping shut as Nicky rubs a hand over his sternum. “I want to - to be happy knowing that he’s trying to, but…”
Should he? Can he?
“We love him,” Nicky says, his voice as soft as the glow of a sunset and as strong as an earthquake in Joe’s ears. “We have already failed him once, and we will not do so again. Belief can only begin with the desire for it.”
Joe searches his face. “He…” Betrayal is a heavy, blunt, and destructive word, one he no longer has the strength to lift.
Now it’s Nicky’s turn to bring his hands up, palms fitting to Joe’s jaw as they have done since the very first time he put them there. “Everything happens -”
“For a reason.”
“Booker’s choice, Nile’s arrival, everything since that day. Perhaps that was all necessary to facilitate the start of his healing.”
“You and your conviction,” Joe murmurs, thinking of the contrast to his own churning, ferocious contradictions they’ve just tried to put to rest. He’s so weary of the turmoil that plagues his own mind.
With a hint of a smirk, Nicky says, “I know it doesn’t always help you.”
“You,” Joe tells him, “help. Even if I can’t always pinpoint how, you help.” He sighs. “The subject of this conversation is just… particularly convoluted.”
“Didn’t we agree, so very long ago, that everything we thought and felt within ourselves was valid?”
They did, another struggle they both wagered and put behind them together. Joe leans his forehead to Nicky’s, letting Nicky guide his head to his shoulder a second later. He wraps his arms around him, feels Nicky’s fingers holding the back of his head, and just like that, his circling thoughts begin to settle.
“There is plenty of time to revisit this if necessary,” Nicky says. “Try not to let it trouble you too much?” Joe merely hums his assent. Nicky kisses the shell of his ear, murmuring against it in Arabic, “Your heart is good, my love. It is bigger than you know.”
Ah. Maybe that’s how.
Heading back downstairs, they find themselves immediately set upon by Nile, who fixes them both with a near-furious glare and demands, “How the hell am I only just finding out that the two of you were the inspiration for Mercutio and Benvolio?” From over the top of her laptop in the living area, Andy doesn’t even bother to cover her smirk.
Joe and Nicky share a look. “Inspiration is a generous word,” Nicky says.
“More like, we let him use some of the dialogue.”
She does a double-take. “Hold up - does that mean that you two wrote…?”
Not wanting to get into the technicalities of who wrote and-or borrowed what, Joe says, “Nicky will explain,” claps him on the shoulder and makes a quick getaway to the kitchen, planning to make it up to him with preemptive coffee. He has the kettle boiling and the mugs out when Andy joins him, and he shoots her a smile. “Coffee, Boss?”
She accepts, and he takes down another couple of mugs, deciding he might as well make one for Nile, too. There’s an audible intake of breath behind him, and then a quiet, hopeful, “We good?”
Joe stares at her for a second, cursing her propensity for taking blame where she is blameless, then pulls her into a hug. “Of course,” he says, and squeezes her until she laughs.
“Easy on the bone-crushing, big guy.” They part, hands lingering for a moment longer, and Andy cups his face briefly before leaving the kitchen. He watches her go, contemplates calling her back to ask if taking Booker’s room instead of giving it to Nile has helped her, but dismisses the idea with the click of the kettle coming to the boil. Andy and Booker, Nile and Booker, Nicky and Booker - those relationships are the business of the individuals in question, and he won't begrudge anyone their choices.
Nicky appears in Andy’s wake, leaning against the counter as Joe finishes the coffee. In his dark knitted sweater, shoulders loose and relaxed, hair still looking fresh from the crisp air outside, his eyes on Joe’s hands misted with a memory that shapes the tilt of his lips, he is the very embodiment of content, and Joe nearly loses track of his task just for a moment to drink him in. As unwavering as the moon in the night sky, and no less bright. They’ll talk again, he knows, and again, and again still, as many times as they need to until the day they come face to face with Booker once more, when, hopefully, any lingering darkness is gone.
With the coffee finally made, Nicky takes the first two mugs out, and as Joe follows him to where Andy and Nile are talking, a recollection springs to mind. “Hey, Nile - add one to the book for ‘everything happens’.”
Nile’s face splits into a grin and she leaps up to grab the journal. Stood with his coffee, Nicky watches her in confusion. “What does that mean?” he asks, turning to Joe and back. “Nile?”
She un-caps a pen. “Just the one?” she calls to Joe, who confirms as such. (No need to tell her that, technically, he finished the phrase.) As she writes the entry in, realisation dawns on Nicky’s features.
“Really?” he says to Joe, who barely holds back a grin as Nile chuckles mischievously. He rubs his forehead, then waves his hand in defeat and settles it on his hip. “What is it this time?”
“How often you say ‘everything happens for a reason’,” she admits, and Nicky rolls his eyes, making Joe laugh.
“Why have we never done that before?” Andy asks, going to see what Nile has in the journal.
“Andy!” Nicky admonishes.
“How long does this cover?”
“A year,” Nile explains.
“Only a year?” Above Nicky’s protestations she pulls out some crumpled bills from her pocket, straightening a few out to hand to Nile. “Wow, Joe, expected more from you than two-hundred-and-fifty,” she remarks.
Nicky throws Joe a nonplussed look. “You believe I’d say that everything happens for a reason two-hundred-and-fifty times in one year?”
“That counts!” Nile declares.
“That’s not my guess,” Joe clarifies.
“Five-hundred,” Andy says, and Nile balks at the money for a moment before tucking it into the sleeve at the back of the journal and passing the pen to her.
“Guys, come on,” Nicky says, and reaches out to Nile when Andy finishes adding her prediction. “Let me see, please -”
She darts away. “Nuh-uh! You can’t look.”
“Can’t have you swinging it if you know the predictions. You could show favouritism.”
Nicky places a hand on his chest. “I’m wounded, Nile,” he tells her, humour in his eyes. “Deeply wounded.”
“She’s an ex-Marine, Nicky,” Andy says, joining in the teasing. “Everything has to be done by the books.”
Nile scoffs. “Says Miss I-Always-Go-First.”
“You were glad I went first in Nepal.”
“Yeah, so the rest of us got a warning about the smell.”
“Well then there you go, looks like there is a reason for everything. Right, Nicky?”
The man in question tells them in colourful Italian how they all smell, even Nile picking up enough to join in the raucous laughter. “I am not helping any of you,” he says, and takes a drink from his coffee as if to say ‘finito’.
“Neutrality in such things as this is very important,” Joe agrees, slipping an arm around Nicky’s waist. Quieter, he says, “But you’d help me out if you knew, right?” Nicky raises an eyebrow at him, then walks away without a word. “Nicky?” Joe calls as Nile and Andy dissolve into laughter. “Nicolò. Babe!”