It’s about five years after the Merrick affair, five years since Nile joined them and Booker was left to his own devices, that Nicky accidentally ends up on an international most-wanted list.
They’re making a pitstop in the UK on their way to Germany; the four of them are fresh off a red-eye across the Atlantic, tired but wary and alert. The job in the States had gone as smoothly as one could when trying to interfere with a high-profile kidnapping and extortion, and the people heading the operation had been successfully put down, but not before a close brush with the FBI team that had been circling the case, albeit slowly and not very successfully.
Andy had immediately grown nervous, ordering the group to lay as low as possible until they could leave the continent. Even after all of Copley’s efforts, it was still unknown how much of Meta Kozak’s data existed or whose hands it may have fallen into. Joe generally tried not to worry about such things too much, but he still noticed his own shoulders relax once the plane touched down at Heathrow after an uneventful flight.
They’ve been at the safe house on the outskirts of Surrey for two days when Nile and Nicky take the train into London. Andy’s been gone since after lunch, having left muttering about running errands, so Joe is left with the cramped two-bedroom above the corner shop to himself. He has his laptop and the neighbours’ wifi, which is how he ends up spending the entire afternoon catching up on the football he missed.
The last dregs of anxiety from the job have just started to fade, finally, when his phone beeps. Pausing the match with a grumble, he flips his phone over and holds it up.
[unknown number] – 17:02
I need a go bag. N.
He blinks, and swallows, pulls the laptop shut and pushes himself off the bed.
When on the move, living out of a permanently packed bag is the norm, so he doesn’t have to add much to Nicky’s. He checks for passports, three with Nicky’s own name in various forms and five with random aliases, and uses cash from his own stash and Andy’s to make sure there’s about five hundred euros and a small stack of twenty-pound notes. He slips two burner phones into a side pocket, a bottle of water into the other, and a loaded handgun on top of rolled clothing. He then zips everything closed and digs through his own bag for a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and ballcap.
Nicky lets himself in the apartment quietly, on light feet. When the door is bolted, he looks up at Joe with hooded eyes and strides towards him, puts his hands to either side of Joe’s head and kisses him. It’s a hard kiss, given with serious intent.
A goodbye kiss, Joe thinks frantically.
“Where’s Nile?” he asks when Nicky breaks away and starts stripping, kicking off his shoes.
“Still in London,” Nicky says. “I told her to find Andy before coming back.” Down to his underwear, he slides Joe’s pants and top on, tugs the cap down over his head. He instantly doesn’t look like himself. “I stole a car, left it a few blocks away.”
“Copley.” Nicky stoops to tie his bootlaces, efficient and even toned. “He called. I’ve been made. They have my picture, name, DNA.”
“Everyone that matters.”
Joe rubs his forehead. "Kozak.”
“Yeah.” Nicky stands, steps in close to grip Joe’s hips. “But they don’t have yours.” His eyes are wide and clear, and Joe drinks him in as much as he can. While he can. “I won’t bring danger back to my family. To you.”
“Don’t ask me to, Joe,” he says, softer. He raises his chin to kiss just above Joe’s eyebrow. “You’ll be careful, yes?”
“You be careful,” Joe says forcefully. Something rages in his chest. He yanks Nicky in closer and catches the sigh as it falls from him, bites into his lip as hard as he dares, grasps as his neck, hair, shoulders, any part of him. Memorizes the taste, scent, sound of him, even though Joe could never forget any of it even after another thousand years.
He feels the shudder that goes through Nicky when he makes himself pull back.
“I love you, my heart. I love you,” he mutters. He then turns on his heel, backpack slung onto one shoulder, and is gone. The click of the door closing roots Joe to the floor.
The warmth of Nicky’s lips fades from his too quickly.
He hasn’t moved much by the time Andy cautiously enters, pistol first, Nile sweeping the hall behind her. Joe had retrieved his own weapons once Nicky had left, just in case, but no government officials ever came knocking, so he’s just been sitting at the kitchen counter by himself in silence.
Andy sees him, sighs, and tucks her sidearm into her belt.
“He’s been and gone?”
Joe nods, chin resting on his laced fingers. “About an hour ago.”
“Did he say where he was headed?” Joe shakes his head.
There’s contemplative quiet between the three of them for a moment. Nile looks between the two of them. “What do we do?”
Andy catches Joe’s eye. He finds in her expression the same distant exhaustion he feels in his own bones, and he lowers his gaze in deference.
“We continue,” Andy states. “On to Berlin. Copley doesn’t think they’ve been tailing us, so we should keep moving like we planned.”
Like Nicky knows we planned, goes unsaid, so he’ll at least know where they are if he needs them.
“I’ll get more info if I can,” she adds, more to herself. “See what we can do to help get Nicky in the clear.”
After she leaves the kitchen, phone in hand, Nile rolls her shoulders absently and turns her attention to Joe. “You okay?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Joe says, sitting up. “Nicky can take care of himself. It’s not the first time one of us has had to go dark alone.” He smiles, resigned. “I’ll worry, but I’ll be fine.” Squeezing her shoulder, he gestures down the hall with his chin. “Let’s get packed up. We have a train to catch.”
She seems dubious but follows him anyway.
Three weeks pass, with minimal contact from Copley and none from Nicky. Joe keeps himself occupied by teaching Nile what he knows about surveillance and hacking. He doesn’t have Booker’s skills, and he’ll never be able to do what Copley can do with his contacts and influence, but he knows enough to get started. In any case, knowing a little is better than knowing nothing; that kind of thinking has saved him a death or two in his time.
The thing about Nile is that she’s perceptive. Andy has been soldiering along as usual, not treating them any differently with the team is down to three for the time being. Nile, though, watches Joe a little more, curious. Nicky could be gone for months, years, if Joe is ready to be honest with himself. A drop in the ocean of his own life, but still a long time to her. She operates so well with them, fits into their family so easily, that Joe often forgets she’s still only about as young as she looks.
One night, on the eve of a month since Surrey, Joe and Nile are seated at the kitchen table of their home base. She bites her lip and types away at a laptop, then sits back with a grin and pumps her fist. “Hell yeah.”
Joe’s been peering at the liquid in his coffee cup a little absently. At her words, he shakes himself internally and leans over to see what she’s done. A couple of live surveillance cameras have been tapped into. It looks like she’s managed to sneak her way into the James Simon Gallery.
“Very nice,” he says.
She side-eyes him. “I cheated a bit.”
“If it works, it works.”
“You can admit you weren’t paying attention,” she shoots back, amused. “Tired?”
Joe lifts a shoulder.
They’ve been cooling their heels, though not by choice. Their next job was supposed to have been for a climate conference in Berlin, to act as covert security against underground threats of terrorism. Far from the hardest work they’ve ever done, but Nile and Nicky had both been enthused – his Nico had always had strong feelings regarding environmental responsibility.
In any case, the conference had been postponed.
Nile looks at him, twisting her mouth like she wants to say something more, when Andy shoves open the door of the apartment without fanfare and strides in. She rounds the table and spins on her heel, facing them both.
“Word from Copley,” she says.
“Is Nicky alright?” Nile immediately asks, and bless her for getting straight to the point.
“He’s fine and, apparently, exceedingly difficult to trace,” Andy replies, something a little like pride colouring her tone. “Apart from one scuffle, he’s a ghost. Interest will fade as people exhaust their leads, but that might be a while. Either way, we’re still not implicated.” She swipes her hair back with one hand. “Yet.”
“Yet,” Nile echoes.
“Scuffle?” Joe cuts in. “Meaning…?”
“Some French operatives got close,” Andy tells him. She then pauses, gives him tiny smile, before turning for the fridge. “They’re lucky they didn’t get closer.”
Nile can’t help a short laugh, relieved, and Joe can’t help the glow in his chest at the though of his Nicolo – his clever, ruthless, brilliant Nicky – holding his own with no trouble, even with every international and federal agency across the globe breathing down his neck.
A month later, with the Berlin conference over and done with, cutting through the dark quiet of his room in the Prague safehouse, Joe’s phone rings. Sluggish to wake as always, he thoughtlessly gropes for the device and brings it to his ear, already more than halfway back to slumber as he answers and mumbles a greeting in some language. He’s not sure which one.
“Joe,” Nicky breathes.
Joe’s heart thuds almost painfully.
“Nicky,” he says. He sits up. “Nico.”
“It is so good to hear your voice,” Nicky says, and Joe’s still having trouble getting his brain online.
“Are you alright? Are you okay?”
Nicky hums gently. “I’m just fine, I promise you.”
“Where are you?”
So, Oslo, according to their decades-old code. Far, but still on the continent; the thought settles Joe some.
“I hope the weather is nice,” he says, which makes Nicky chuckle. They can’t divulge anything of import over the phone, but at least they can talk.
“You know, it isn’t bad,” Nicky replies. On his end, there’s some shuffling. Joe pictures him sitting outside, head tilted back to gaze upon a clear night sky.
“How is work?”
“Busy.” Nicky sighs. “I’m kept on my toes.”
“Any sign of…” an end, Joe can’t say.
“I don’t know,” Nicky says softly. More shuffling, and then, “I’m sorry. I need to hang up.”
Joe closes his eyes, knowing that just making the call was risky enough. “Yes. Okay.”
“I love you.”
“As I love you.”
The line clicks dead. In the morning, he tells Nile and Andy that Nicky checked in, but offers no more detail than that, keeping his love’s words just for himself.
Another two months later sees the team of three at the basement apartment in Brooklyn. It’s a bright afternoon, sunlight falling pleasingly across Joe’s current sketchbook, when Andy appears and drops some papers on the coffee table and says, not too ominously, “Don’t panic.”
Frowning at her, Joe leans forwards and drops his gaze to the table.
It’s an open file folder, a couple of printed pages and pictures haphazardly stacked within. He notices a rather unflattering pair of mugshots of Nicky, one from the front and one from the side, and a crisp photograph of a dead man with a neat bullet hole oozing between his eyebrows. Also Nicky, unfortunately. Those too-familiar eyes are open and glazed over.
“Okay,” Joe says. “I am firmly not panicking.”
“The report’s from two days ago,” Andy tells him evenly, sitting herself down beside him on the couch. “The CIA confirmed the kill.”
“Two days,” Joe repeats faintly.
“Two days,” Andy agrees.
“And… nothing since?”
She purses her lips and shakes her head. She then fixes Joe with a steady look. “We’ll give him forty-eight more hours. He’ll know we’ve likely seen this, but he may want to play dead a little while longer.” She sets a heavy hand on his knee. “Forty-eight hours. Okay?”
Joe can’t do much else but nod in agreement.
He’s had practice at soldiering on through tough times; having to entertain himself through this waiting, though, is a harder task. He uses up the entire afternoon out running and then exhausting himself with push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups. Nile joins him for some of it. Afterwards, once showered, she makes them a couple of mugs of tea, as hot as she can, and sits across from Joe on the couch in the front room, feet up on the table.
She watches as he takes a long gulp of his drink and taps a nail against her own.
Instead of saying I’m sorry, she just says, “This must suck.”
Joe salutes her with his cup. “Understatement.”
“Are you worried?”
“Always,” he tells his tea. “But I trust him.”
Nile nods. “I know it’s not the same, but… I dated someone in uni, and we had to spend a summer apart. I remember it feeling like the worst thing in the world.” She snorts lightly. “I guess I had no idea.”
Smiling a little, Joe leans back against the arm of the sofa. “Whether together for a month or a millennia,” he says, “being apart from the one you love will always ache.”
“You and Nicky…” She trails off. “Has it always been like this?” When Joe quirks an eyebrow, she elaborates. “So in sync. Close.”
Resting his head back on the couch, Joe considers.
“Not exactly,” he eventually says. “After so many years, natural ebbs and flows are inevitable. We go through seasons. Of course, you know the story of the beginning. Since then, there have been times when someone on the outside might see us simply as close friends or brothers-in-arms.” His expression turns fond and distant. “Even during those years, though, our love never fades. And then, when we find our stride again, nothing compares.” He closes his eyes. “Nothing.”
He drifts in memory for a long moment, during which Nile takes a quiet sip.
“So many people long for a love like that,” she says, later.
“Love, wonderfully, comes in so many forms,” Joe tells her. “I love Nicky. I love my wayward brother. And I love my sisters dearly.”
Nile watches him, sees Joe in all his warm and gentle glory, and hopes fervently for good news to come within the next day.
[unknown number] – 9:28
Malta, soon? N.
The central train station in Montreal is at a steady boil at ten in the morning. Passenger and commuter and subway trains all convene in the same place, and Joe has already nearly been bowled over by several smartly dressed professionals in the five minutes since he arrived. This is despite the fact that he’s parked himself out of the way, leaning against a pillar, where he can view most of the platform exits with ease.
Nicky’s train, the overnight from the east coast, arrived moments ago. A couple of passengers have just started to ascend the escalator into the station, and Joe is a little giddy with relief. He has been since the text came in three days ago. His skin prickles with want, and he hates the negative space around him for being so empty.
Nicky’s taking the escalator steps two at a time when he appears. His has on a plain sweater and jeans that Joe has never seen before, and a duffel bag hangs from his shoulder, and he’s grown his hair out, and Joe damn near breaks apart right then. It takes second for Nicky’s sweeping gaze to settle on Joe. He cuts through the crowd with purpose.
“Hi,” Joe manages before they meet and he sweeps Nicky soundly into his chest. Nicky catches him around the shoulders, locks them together, and they fit so perfectly that Joe wants to weep with satisfaction.
“Hello,” Nicky murmurs. Joe can’t stop touching him: the length of his back, the dip of his waist, the curve of his neck where his hair falls softly. He kisses Nicky’s ear and leans back just enough to meet his eye.
“I have no words,” Joe croaks, and, really, he does feel like the air has been stolen from his lungs when Nicky smiles in response.
“No words at all?” he asks. “Are you really my Yusuf?”
Mind still scrambled, Joe can only tug him in to kiss him quiet, lingering there even as the station bustles around them. They part after a long moment, though reluctantly.
“I am glad to have you home,” Joe says fiercely, knowing that they don’t really have one home in the traditional sense and meaning the space they exist in when together, meaning JoeandNicky.
“I am glad to be home,” Nicky replies, breathing the words onto Joe’s lips, and he threads their fingers together.