Joe woke to his name being sworn at him by the only voice he loved. He smiled before realizing they were in no smiling situation.
He was awake but it took time for his eyes to open. Fuck. He’d been drugged. His limbs were heavy, coming back piece by piece. He jerked his shoulders and legs, forcing himself to stir faster.
“Yusuf!” Nicky snapped between swear words in a dozen languages.
“Here,” he muttered, mouth feeling like it was full of cotton. He forced his eyelids to open and saw his beloved standing in the middle of the room, glaring at him. It was a good glare—not a good situation glare, but just a glare that looked damn good.
Nicky sighed, shoulders dropping in some relief. He gave the cuffs chaining his wrists to a hook on the center of an interrogation one last tug. The table was welded to the floor. Nothing moved. He lost interest in trying and sat down on it instead. Nicky did that, once he realized there was no way out of a situation, he just relaxed and leaned into it.
Joe had seem him make polite conversation with their captures, even befriending them, never giving any hint to a temper beneath and then, as soon as he has the opportunity, killing their enemies without a second thought. No one ever expected it from Nicky. No one that knew him, that was certain. He was kind and considerate, he listened and he thought. But Joe also knew how deadly all that careful thought could be. Nicky could make plans that took years to work out.
And then there were the times he was just doomed and didn’t bother to fight it.
Joe had seen him shrug and step up to a hangman’s noose when he saw no quicker way out.
“Where?” Joe asked, sitting up. His hands were cuffed too and locked to a bolt on the floor near a door. He did not like the distance between them.
“Underground facility. Warehouse maybe?” Nicky sounded bored.
Joe smiled, trying to get comfortable on the concrete floor. It was impossible. Andy had been picking a fight with a drug lord. They had been taking out parts of the organization, one piece at a time—the trouble of being only four soldiers. But the thugs that showed up and dragged them out of the safehouse had not managed to get Andy or Nile.
“What did they drug us with?” Joe asked, rolling his head back to lean it to the wall, focusing on Nicky.
Nicky looked away from him and Joe felt cold fingers clawing up his spine.
Nicky sighed and turned around so Joe could see the blood stain down the back of his shirt and matting the back of his hair.
“Fuck.” Joe looked around anew, trying to find something they could use, some way of getting lose. Things always went from manageably bad to nightmarish when people realized they were immortal.
Nicky gave him a quick rundown of the building, as much of it as he’d seen anyway.
The doors opened and they both went quiet.
The drug lord they’d been making life hell for walked in, flagged by four other men. He smiled at them, one at a time, before settling his attention on Yusuf. “You are a monster, yes?”
Joe and Nicky exchanged glances. Nicky shrugged, Joe answered, “It depends on your perspective. For you? Yes, I suppose.”
Nicky smirked behind the man, just for Joe to see. He was well out of reach of where the drug lord had placed himself. These guys weren’t new to crime and danger—even if they weren’t hundreds of years old.
“I am reasonable,” the man went on. “I could make a fortune off of you. A man you can do anything to? Can torture and kill? And then have no true crime committed at all? No body?” His smile vanished and he jabbed a thumb back in Nicky’s direction. “I can sell him by the hour and probably fix all the damages your witch has cost me this year in a month.”
Joe sat very still, fixing his gaze on this man and not allowing himself to look at Nicky—not allowing himself to imagine it.
“But I want the witch,” the drug lord went on, no doubt referring to Andy. She had gotten very close to killing this man last week. “Call me sentimental. I am willing to trade two for the one.”
Joe did glance at Nicky then. They both shrugged and nodded. “Okay. Would you like me to call her or—”
The man frowned and took a step back, to the side. One of the goons moved in, grinning out of control—like he’d just been waiting to be let off the leash. He grabbed Nicky by the back of the neck and turned him, pushing him face down on the table fast enough to make the impact echo in the room.
Joe yelled. “I said I would get her!”
The man sighed like he was tired. “You think you can win. You think you are a hero. But you are still a man and you have weaknesses like a man.”
The goon gave Nicky another slam to the table, busting his lip on the steal surface before pinning him with one hand and using the other to start pulling his pants down his hips. Nicky started resisting for the first time, kicking and thrashing.
“Wait! Wait!” Joe yelled, cuffed hands up as high as he could get them from the floor, spread like he could offer peace. “I said I’d do it!”
“I am making sure you do. I am not bluffing, Mr. Monster. I want that bitch and until you bring her dead and hog tied to my door, this will be happening. It is…” he searched for the word, Joe’s heart beating in his throat. “Incentive.”
Nicky stopped fighting and Joe almost threw up. He turned his head away from Joe, so he wouldn’t see his face when it started.
Joe swore wildly, with words he’d never even used before.
“Nicky!” he tried, desperate for him to look at him, to not be alone. “Fuck! Nicky, look at me!”
His hips thudded to the table and Joe shouted while the other stayed quiet, like they were one person split into two. As though Joe vocalized the agony of Nicky.
“Nicolo!” Joe yelled at the top of his lungs, refusing to look away no matter how much he didn’t want to see this. “Look at me!” he shouted, ordered, raged. His cuffs cut thick lines into the backs of his wrists and he didn’t even feel the bite. “Look at me!” he howled again, this time in Italian. He saw the twitch of Nicky’s shoulders.
“Nicolo!” he screamed, kicking at the ground, demanding he look back at him.
Nicky ground his teeth and turned his head, face tight and tears glassing over his eyes, though he refused to shed them. Those blue eyes stared back at him, furious and hurt and a million emotions warring beneath them like an ocean. He stared back at him, even as his body was being rocked by the other behind him.
It wasn’t exactly what was happening that brought all that emotion tangling together, but how it was happening. Joe knew. How could he not know? He knew Nicky just like he knew himself.
“You have been tortured every way the beasts of this world have devised,” he said in that old Italian dialect, the one Nicolo had spoken to him in a desert long ago—the one he had not understood at first but come to dream in for the rest of his life. “You are Nicolo di Genova and you have died every way a man can die. You will survive. You will always survive. And I will always love you.” His voice was steel, because it had to be. Because he would not break, not now, not ever when Nicky needed him.
The men in the room moved, grabbing Joe from both sides, keeping him on his knees.
“You see,” the man in charge crooned. “You do not have time to waste, my friend. Bring me that bitch as fast as you can. This is fair, I think. A trade.”
Before Joe could say anything more, a gun pressed to his skull. He saw Nicky’s eyes widen just before the world went dark.
When he woke up he was in the backseat of a car, still handcuffed and beside a man with a gun trained on him. The driver laughed in surprise when he sat up, like maybe he had not believed it would really happen.
“We’ll drop you in town. When you get her, bring her to the edge of town and—” the guy beside him was talking.
Joe didn’t hear him, not really. He heard the wind that day he first saw Nicolo on a battlefield in another time and place. He grabbed the gun, took a bullet in the side and twisted it out of the man’s hands. He shot him once in the face and then the driver in the back of the head. The car veered off the road, kicking up clouds of dirt. He leaned over the seat to lift the guy’s leg off the gas and then pull the break. He fished the keys from the other man’s pockets and uncuffed himself while the car came to a stop and then got out. He only bothered to pull the corpse of the driver out, taking his seat and getting back on the road, going back the way they’d come.
He knew this area, had mapped it and marked it with a potential site Andy had suspected was being used to move product.
He picked up the phone on the passenger seat but didn’t slow down, dialing Andy’s burner phone from memory. He wouldn’t wait and she wouldn’t ask him to. She wouldn’t even ask him to explain. No one could do what they did for as long as they had and not know all the worst parts of humanity. She would know, because they had all gone through enough with each other to know when no explanation was needed.
He didn’t pull up and sneak into the building. He saw the two guards near the door of the warehouse smoking and talking and rammed the car right into them, smashing them against the outside of the building and then got out and picked up one of their rifles, shooting the two people that poured out of the building first before stalking in.
It was all a haze of red after that. Red and the sound of the wind and war and Nicolo’s breaths when they fought that first time. He had been beautiful. Yusuf had not appreciated it at the time, but he recognized it when he remembered it now.
He killed everyone in his path down the hall and the stairs, following the trail of his own blood back to where they’d carried his dead body from the room. The door flew open before he reached it, the tall man that had violated his Nicky stepping out, gun in hand and eyes wide and searching for what could be causing all the ruckus. His pants were still open.
For a second they stared at each other and Joe had no words. He had enjoyed words all his life, but there was nothing. He could have shot him, but he didn’t. He disarmed him and then beat him to the ground, using the rifle in his hands like a club. And when he was done, when the man was dead, he shot him just to be sure.
When he opened the door, his Nicolo was standing beside the table, arms to the side where the cuffs pulled his wrists toward the center. He waited, watching him. If anyone else had opened the door they would think he was fine, unscathed and maybe even bored. But even though Joe saw through that, he would not take it from him.
Joe crossed the room, fishing the handcuff keys from his pocket. The wind in his memory died down, replaced by the right now sound of Nicky breathing—painfully steady, like he was forcing it to be so. Joe uncuffed him, rubbing at the red marks on his wrists on second nature, even though they would fade almost instantly. Nicky was wound tight, eyes falling anywhere but directly on him. But he still leaned in, still touched his forehead to Joe’s before they moved on from that room. Nicky took the gun Joe had tucked into his waistband, checked it and then went to the door first.
They didn’t say anything until they finished clearing the building. They had the drug lord cornered in an office overlooking the warehouse. When they kicked in the door and shot the last of his goons, Nicky only paused for a second, long enough to look the guy in the eye before shooting him twice in the head and walking away.
Joe had seen Nicky lose a limb to save a dog. He had also seen him cut down a dozen men with a sniper rifle and then go back to debating coffee versus tea without a second thought. His kindness was endless for those that deserved it.
They stepped outside just as Andy and Nile were pulling up. She didn’t get out or kill the engine, her eyes running over them on their way to the car. They got in the backseat.
Andy had questions and Joe answered when Nicky just sat there, very still, staring out the window.
Nile twisted around in her seat to look at them, to look at Nicky. “Are you okay?” she asked with all the perfect naivety of her age and Joe was horrified to think he might see her lose that someday, to centuries of time and pain.
Nicky moved then, for the first time since he got in the car. He looked away from the scenery sliding by outside and tapped her hand where she was holding on to her own seat. “Always, kid,” he promised her and Joe knew Nicky would mean to keep it now that he said it. “Just really tired.”
Andy watched him in the rearview but didn’t say anything. Her gaze cut to Joe and he held it for a second before nodding once and returning his attention to Nicky.
“Since the job here is done, we can clear out,” Andy said. “It’ll only take a few hours to get to the safehouse in Germany.” There was a pause. Usually she just decided and it was done but this time she waited.
Nicky nodded, agreeing. Nile settled forward again, asking about the safehouse in Germany. Where it was and then goading Andy into teaching her German phrases.
Nicky moved one hand from his lap to the seat between himself and Joe, palm up, blindly seeking but not pushing—like there was any chance that Joe wouldn’t want to hold it. He took his hand, lifting it and leaning over to brush his lips against Nicky’s knuckles. He wanted to talk, to hold him, to apologize for everything that happened today, but he didn’t. He just held that hand gently in his and watched Nicky fall asleep in the car on the long drive.
It was night when they reached the safehouse. It was one of Nicky’s favorites. He wondered if Andy had considered that when she picked this one. It was at the far end of an old orchard in a rural area.
Joe lifted Nicky’s hand in his when they pulled up and he was still asleep. He could carry him. He had plenty of times in their life. He kissed his knuckles again and Nicky shifted, waking, blinking in the dark in confusion and watching Andy and Nile climb out of the car. He twisted toward Joe for some sort of information, like he had a hundred times before when falling asleep on a car trip, and then it all seemed to come back to him. Joe saw it in his face, like a weigh returning, stealing the light from his eyes and forcing him to look away. That was the worst part—how he looked away, like he didn’t want Joe to see it. “Ready to clean the blood and brain out of your hair, my love?” he asked lightly, though he was sure they both heard the strain in his voice.
Nicky nodded but seemed to hesitate a second longer before letting go of his hand to get out of the car. He didn’t go straight for their room and the shower though. Nicky lingered on the first floor with Andy and Nile, explaining how they got this house in a tired mumble that wasn’t exactly like him but no one called him on.
Joe went upstairs first. Their room in this house was just as they’d left it, simple and warm with it’s own bathroom.
He checked the closet for clean clothes and gear, everything right there. He paced and turned on the lights in the bathroom and then went back into the bedroom and sat down in the chair near the window. He wondered if Nicky was stalling to come up because he didn’t want to talk about it, or because he was hoping Joe would shower before him.
His mind raced, trying not to think about the details of then or the possibilities of now. He tried to just wait and think about what he could say.
The door opened quietly, like Nicky was sneaking in in the middle of the night and didn’t want to wake him. He looked surprised when he spotted Joe sitting there. He took a couple steps in and glanced around, at the bathroom and the bed and then at Joe again, sitting in a chair probably looking tense as all hell.
“I’m sorry,” Joe choked out.
Nicky jerked a step back, gaze flying to meet his for the first time in what felt like days and Joe was surprised by what he saw there. He rolled to his feet. He knew immediately something had been misunderstood because there was so much surprised and pain in Nicky’s eyes. And then he was trying to hide it, trying to cram those feelings back down by looking away, tears in his eyes but jaw tight as if to hold everything back. He nodded once, taking another step back. “Yeah. It’s okay. I’ll take the other room.” His voice wobbled and he turned in an almost rush to grab at the door.
Joe was there before it opened, one arm up and pressing to the wall to close it. “No, Nicolo,” he hurried, horrified to realize how his heart had interpreted his apology. Nicky thought he was being rejected, either from this room on this night or from them, he didn’t know and he didn’t want to know because both were madness. “I am sorry I could not protect you. I am sorry this happened to you.” His heart broke when Nicky exhaled an almost sob, shoulders sagging in some soul deep relief. Nicky closed his eyes and swayed on his feet, probably resisting the impulse to lean into anything while he was still bloody.
Joe reached out slowly, to steady him with the flat of his hand to his back, relieved beyond belief when Nicky didn’t jump or jerk back. “I will understand if you do not want me in your shower or in your bed tonight,” he said clearly, quietly. “But please, my love, do not ask me to sleep elsewhere. Do not ask me to be elsewhere.”
Nicky’s eyes were still shut but he shook his head, tipping it toward Joe in that silent, natural search. Joe touched his forehead to Nicky’s and sighed at the gentle, relieved exhale that left the other man’s lips. “We’re okay?” Nicky whispered.
Joe winced at the question, because Nicky could not see him do so. His need to ask said volumes about where his mind was. “Always,” he swore.
Nicky nodded, still leaning against him. He stayed there for a little while longer before opening his eyes and straightening himself. He drew a deep breath, looking at the clean bed longingly before turning toward the bathroom. Joe followed but stopped in the doorway, momentarily unsure. They usually showered together when they were relatively safe. He watched Nicky unlace and pull off his boots, dumping them off to the side in what would become the dirty clothes pile to be tossed out. Blood was a chore to wash out.
He had his hands on the hem of his t-shirt, pausing when he noticed Joe still standing there.
Joe braced himself. If Nicky asked him to wait, he would. He would duck back out into the bedroom and return to his silent post in the chair.
Instead, Nicky actually looked worried for him. It was the most incredibly Nicky look and Joe almost smiled.
Nicky took his shirt off and tossed it on the pile. His ribs weren’t broken anymore, no sign of it at all even though Joe had heard them snap under those hard punches. “You don’t have to join me if you don’t want to,” he said and it actually sounded casual.
Joe sighed and walked into the bathroom, kicking the door shut.
The shower was a walk in with two stone walls and two glass. Joe helped clean the blood and brain from Nicky’s hair and wondered grimly how many times they had done this. It was routine. He kissed Nicky’s wet shoulder and helped wash the blood streaks that had soaked through his t-shirt off his back, and then farther down he washed away the blood from his ass and the backs of his thighs, kissing his shoulder again reassuringly when Nicky swallowed back a low, pained sound that had nothing to do with his body anymore.
“Do you remember that time in Venice?” Joe asked quietly.
Nicky turned his head, staring at him. Nicky wouldn’t assume he was talking about that particular incident more than four-hundred years ago. Joe knew he wouldn’t admit it first, because they had never spoken of it out loud. Because Joe had never brought it up.
“I went back days later, armed to the teeth and ready to kill everyone in that building for what that one man did to me.”
Nicky turned around slowly, just watched him, holding his breath.
“But they were all dead.”
Nicky exhaled slowly. Four-hundred years and they had not spoken of it. Joe had not asked and Nicky had not said.
“How did you know?” Joe asked now, because he had always wondered but been too afraid to drag it up and think about it himself. There were so few things they hadn’t talked about in their very long life together.
Nicky was quiet for a long while but finally touched Joe’s hand, lifting it slowly and kissing the water from the back of his knuckles. “You flinched. You never flinch,” his voice was low. “You came home bloody, clothes torn up, and said you got jumped and died. You said it like it wasn’t anything and I would usually have believed it. But you were upset and hiding it. You smelled like someone else and when I reached for your belt you flinched.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“Because you didn’t say anything,” Nicky whispered. He took a deep breath and when his eyes flicked up to meet Joe’s again there were tears in them, and shame. How could he look ashamed? “Should I have said something?” he whispered against Joe’s knuckles.
Joe sighed and moved closer, slow enough to have every movement clearly signaled. His palm touched Nicky’s cheek, cradling it. He shook his head. “I didn’t want to talk about it and then later I didn’t know how. But I knew you knew and nothing changed between us.” He touched their foreheads together. “Nothing changed then, right?”
Nicky shook his head, one arm curling around Joe’s back. “No. Of course not.”
Joe leaned his head back enough to have them staring at one another, to try to make sure Nicky saw it in his eyes and understood it. “Nothing changed,” he said again, slowly. “We are exactly the same. You are my heart.”
Nicky shuddered out a breath and nodded. “Always.”