“Our Nile may have missed her calling,” Nicky says with a choked, hoarse laugh. “She should have been an actor. Or a surgeon.”
Then he slumps over in Joe's arms, unconscious, and Nile drops the scalpel, spins around, and throws up on the carpet.
“Make me bleed,” Nicky murmurs, lips barely moving, head hanging limply while he feigns unconsciousness. “Lots of blood, they can't see me healing un–”
“Wake him up,” Johann orders, and Nile punches Nicky hard enough to split her knuckles on his cheekbone.
He sleeps the whole way back to the safe house, conked out on Joe's shoulder and looking as peaceful and comfortable as can be, for all that he’s covered in blood and dirt, and he keeps sleepily pawing at the side of his head until Joe catches his hands to keep him from poking at his ear as it regrows.
“You've never had to grow something back, have you?” Joe whispers to Nile when he catches her staring. She shakes her head silently. “It's itchy.”
“It will grow back, though, right?” Nile asks, not really a question. Fresh pink skin is already stretching itself over the exposed cartilage. “He's gonna be okay.”
“Yeah, he'll be okay,” Joe says, absently shifting Nicky around so he's sprawled more comfortably against Joe's side. “Sleep for a few hours, wake up long enough to eat an entire buffet, then go back to bed. This kind of thing always burns a lot of energy.”
“But he'll be okay,” Nile says again. Maybe Joe hears the desperation bleeding through in her voice or maybe he just knows her well enough by now to guess how she's feeling, but his eyes are soft when he looks up at her.
“Yeah,” he says quietly, smiling. “He'll be just fine.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Nicky says frantically. “Please, stop, I–”
Nile swallows. Behind her, Johann snorts. “What were you doing trying to break into Mr. Naylor’s office? What were you looking for?”
“This is a mistake, please, I swear I don't–”
“Reese,” Johann says flatly, and Nile nods and reaches for Nicky's left hand, zip tied to the arm rest, and snatches it up so it pulls against the plastic tie.
“Reese,” Nicky says, voice shaking. His eyes meet hers steadily. “You don't want to do this, I'm sorry–”
He squeezes her hand. She breaks his ring finger.
Nicky does finally emerge from his and Joe's room the next morning, wearing sweatpants and an ancient SCAD sweatshirt that must be Joe's.
“G’morning,” he mumbles, then blinks fuzzily a few times before he seems to register who he's talking to. “Oh. Nile.”
Nile, frozen with her coffee cup halfway to her mouth, gapes at him for a few seconds before she manages to wiggle her fingers in a stiff, awkward wave. “Morning.”
He looks good. He looks normal, like this is any other day, like it's a weekend and he slept in too late. There are pink pillow creases down his left cheek. There's no sign that Joe had to carry him out of Naylor’s mansion barely twenty-four hours ago, broken and bloodied.
He yawns. “Is there more coffee?”
“It's a Keurig,” Nile says hesitantly. “There's K-cups in the cabinet, next to the mugs.”
“Keurig,” Nicky repeats blankly, then shakes his head, a little more awareness coming into his eyes. “Oh! Oh. Thank you, Nile.”
He shuffles around the table towards the counter, and he either doesn't notice or chooses to ignore the way she shies back as he passes. He yawns again as he gets down a mug and rifles through the coffee pods before pulling one down, popping it in the machine, and starting the water.
Nile hovers uncertainly by the fridge. She was planning to heat up some leftovers and then go pick through the impressive library in Joe and Nicky’s safehouse, but now Nicky's right there, and she just needs to see for herself.
“Nicky,” she says, taking a step forward and reaching out to brush her fingers against his arm.
He flinches away so hard he knocks the half-full cup over. Coffee spills across the counter, and more continues to spew out of the Keurig.
“Shit,” he gasps. Nile stumbles back, nearly tripping over a chair in her haste to get away. “Sorry, sorry, you surprised– shit.”
He dives for the roll of paper towels next to the sink. Nile opens her mouth to… apologize? Ask his forgiveness? It doesn't matter. She can't get a single sound out of her suddenly dry throat, and she stays silent as she all but runs out the back door.
“I don't know anything,” Nicky slurs. “Swear I– Reese, you know.”
Nile wipes her knife on her jeans. “I know you lied to me. I know you said it was just us, but it wasn't, was it?”
It takes him a painfully, terrifyingly long time to lift his head enough to meet her eyes, unfocused but serious.
“No,” he says softly. “There… there is someone else. I'm sorry.”
She backhands him across the face. “How long?” she demands. “How long?”
“Not long now,” Nicky swears, sounding desperate. “Barely a minute, it feels like–”
Nile brings the knife down across his shoulder, ripping a hole in his t-shirt and scoring a deep, clean cut underneath, and he shouts and jerks back.
One minute. Joe's on his way.
Joe finds her outside, curled up on one of the large, flat stones lining the pond. It used to be nice, from the look of it, but the property has been left alone so long that the small bridge is falling apart and the plant life is wild and overgrown. There are tadpoles swimming around the shallow water by her feet. She dips her hand in, and they swim up to nibble at her fingertips.
Joe is kind enough to loudly knock branches aside as he squeezes through the bushes to get to her. He pauses before he sits down, eyeing her thoughtfully for a minute before kicking off his sandals, dropping onto the ground next to her, and easing his bare feet into the pond. He hisses when his feet hit the cold water, then huffs out a soft laugh when the tadpoles immediately swim up against them.
“You only startled him, you know,” he says. “He was still half asleep. He just didn't see you moving.”
“I was right there,” Nile says.
“He had his back to you,” Joe says with a shrug. “You've never been surprised by someone standing right next to you?”
“He flinched,” Nile says. “Like, there's jumping because you're surprised, okay, but he flinched.”
Joe doesn't say anything for a long few minutes. Nile swirls her fingers slowly through the water, watching the tadpoles flit around them, and Joe wiggles his toes.
“He doesn't blame you,” he says finally. “He feels guilty for reacting badly just now.”
“He feels–” Nile lets out a strangled laugh. “What's he got to feel bad about? I spent an hour working him over with a scalpel. He didn't do anything.”
Joe shrugs. “He feels bad that you feel bad. I told you, he's not angry with you. He knows it wasn't easy. It's never gonna be easy, hurting someone you love. Especially not like that.”
“I did hurt him,” Nile says faintly. “I… You saw him. I fucked him up.”
“We heal,” Joe reminds her gently. “You did what you had to do. The two of you kept the rest of us safe.”
“By tor–” She chokes on the word, shakes her head furiously. “I did that to him. To Nicky. You saw it.”
Her right hand spasms in the water, sending tadpoles swimming frantically away only to return a moment later. Joe reaches for her left hand and folds it carefully between both of his.
“I love Nicky,” he tells her quietly. “And it kills me to see him in pain.” She nods miserably, and he squeezes her hand. “I love you too, Nile. It's not any easier to see you hurting.”
She sobs just once, hoarse and gasping. “I had to– they were all watching, I couldn't let someone else–”
Joe shifts closer so he's pressed against her side, solid and warm, and she leans in helplessly while she babbles.
“Nicky said to make him bleed, and he was right, I had to, but I did and it actually hurt him and it, and I– I hurt him–”
She breaks off, turning and hiding her face in Joe's shoulder while she tries to get her breathing back under control.
“I know,” he murmurs. “I know. God, you really went through it, huh?”
“I didn't want to,” she whispers, pulling her hand out of the water to clutch at his shirt. He doesn't so much as twitch at the cold pond water dripping down his front. “I didn't want to do it.”
“Yeah.” Joe presses his cheek to the top of her head with a sigh. “I know you didn't. And Nicky knows that, too.”
“He's scared of me.”
“No,” Joe says, firm and decisive, letting go of her hand so he can wrap his arms around her in an actual hug. “He's not scared of you. The last time he saw you, you were hurting him, yeah.” He squeezes her a little closer when she sniffles. “And maybe that's still a little fresh in his mind. But I once stabbed him in the gut and he beat me to death with a rock before he bled out on top of me, and look at us now!” Nile lets out a hiccuping little laugh despite herself, and she can hear Joe's grin as he continues, “And that was us trying to hurt each other. Wanting to hurt each other.”
“How long did that take, though?” Nile mumbles against his chest. “After all that. There's no way you just went right to being in love.”
“Why, you looking to make Nicky fall in love with you?”
Nike squeaks and jerks back, smacking at Joe’s chest while he laughs and lightly bats her flailing hands away.
“Okay, okay, I'm kidding,” he says, still grinning. “It went faster than you'd expect. A while, yeah, but the situation was a little bit different; we had nothing to build on but violence. We still managed it, because we had the time and we wanted to do it.”
He ducks his head to meet her eyes when she looks down. “You and Nicky? You're already family. This is just a hiccup.”
She sniffs and swipes at her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Thanks, Joe.”
He knocks their shoulders together. “Take your time. Don't feel like you have to be okay right away, or like you have to be strong for his sake. You can rest.”
She lets out a long, slow breath and leans back on her hands, staring out across the pond until her vision clears enough to actually see it. It's beautiful in a way she didn't notice before, wild and growing outside the lines it was built into.
“Can you tell him I'm all right?” she asks softly. “I'm gonna stay out here for a little while. But I'm okay.”
“Yeah.” Joe climbs to his feet, slips his shoes back on, and squeezes her shoulder as he leaves.
“Booker’s in the main house. Andy's in the van,” Joe says, panting under Nicky’s weight. Nicky is barely awake enough to move his own legs; Joe is half carrying him as they make their way out of the guesthouse. Nile is in the front, gun held at the ready.
There's not anything to look out for. From the look of things, Joe did a more than thorough job taking out Johann’s men.
“Quynh?” Nile asks.
“Still at dinner with Naylor. She's keeping him distracted while Booker finishes–” There's a loud crack behind her, and Nicky grunts. One of his ribs must have just fixed itself. Joe cuts himself off, switching immediately to a stream of soft, warm Italian. Nile deliberately doesn't listen.
“There you go,” Joe murmurs. “Almost there. She's parked just off the property, just a little more.”
Nile feels painfully exposed as they ease their way across the yard, moonlight and open space making them perfectly visible, but there are no guards to be seen.
“Do I need to get back in there?” she asks, twitching at every brush of wind ahead of them or stifled groan behind her.
“No, you're burnt,” Joe says. “Literally. Booker's torching the place on his way out—you're doing great, Nicolo—so we'll let them think you died in the fire. Between your heroic sacrifice—almost there, my love—whatever we find in the office, and what he's told Quynh, we've got enough proof to take Naylor down. Then Copley’s gonna work his magic to—there you go—to get him to turn over the rest of the circle. There she is.”
Andy's sitting in the driver's seat of the van Copley provided for them, lights off, drumming her fingers against the wheel. She hops out when they get closer and jogs towards them, letting out a low whistle when she sees Nicky.
“Jesus,” she breathes. “The hell happened to you in there?”
“I did,” Nile says, finally lowering her gun. “Come on. Let's get the fuck out of here.”
Nicky is in the living room when she slips in through the back door, letting the screen slam behind her, and he drops his book and stands slowly. “Hello.”
“Hi,” she says, hovering in the doorway. “I, um.”
He spreads his arms, just a little, and she's across the room before she realizes she's moving, slamming into his chest and wrapping her arms around his middle.
“I'm sorry,” she gasps. “I didn't want to hurt you.”
He hugs her back just as tightly, swaying side to side. “You didn't. Not in the long run. I'm sorry for this morning; I didn't mean to make you think–”
“No, no, you didn't.” She shakes her head where it's pressed against his shoulder, feeling the fabric bunch under her forehead. “Or, I mean– I was already thinking it, is all. So that just…”
He sighs and finally lets go, taking a step back so he can meet her eyes. “We might not scar anymore, but our bodies hold onto memories longer than our minds want them to,” he says. “It only took me a moment to remember where we were.”
“Are you sure?” she asks, voice cracking. “I get it, if you–”
“I trust you,” he says softly. “I know you would never hurt me, not if there was another option. We were just unfortunate enough to find ourselves in a situation where there wasn't.”
“I wouldn't,” Nile tells him, equally soft. “Never. I hated doing it.”
He pulls her back in, ducking his head a little so he can press his cheek to her temple. Nile closes her eyes and lets out a slow, contented sigh as some of the sick tension in her stomach finally eases.
“I would have hated it too,” Nicky says quietly. “Doing that to you, I mean. I'm sorry you had to be the one to hurt me. It was the only way.”
Nile sniffs. “I know. I'm glad you're okay.”
“Of course I am. Are you?”
They stand there for a few moments, swaying slightly back and forth, and Nile lets herself be reassured by his warmth. He's alive, and he's safe.
They both are.
“Yeah,” she says. “I'm okay.”