At first, Joe didn’t notice. Caught in his own maelstrom of anger, directed at Booker and himself, he didn’t notice until after dinner one night at a safehouse in Connecticut. Nicky was washing the dishes and Joe sidled up to his side to wipe them down and put them away. Nile sat up on the kitchen counter, on Nicky’s other side, peeling an orange. She was trying so hard, bless her, to fill the very obvious hole that Booker had left behind.
“Why do you all have different sets of safe houses,” Nile asked.
“We all simply have different preferences as far as accommodations are concerned,” Nicky said diplomatically.
Joe snorted and Nile’s brows scrunched up in confusion.
“What Nicky means is that Andy’s perfectly comfortable living in a bat cave, while Nicky and I have better taste than that,” Joe said with a laugh.
Andy poked her head into the kitchen, frowning deeply.
“Admit it Boss,” Joe pushed, abandoning the dishes wholly in favor of pushing Andy’s buttons in the way only he ever got to do.
“Spoilt children,” she huffed, expertly stealing an orange slice from Nile’s hand without her noticing. Joe laughed at that, really laughed for the first time in nearly month and at the heels of that realization he almost missed Nicky’s near silent words.
“Of course Nile you’re welcome to any of our safe-houses, at any time,” Nicky said.
It wasn’t unusual for Nicky to offer that, ever gracious and kind. Nile merely smiled before forging on with another question but Joe tuned it out. Something about Nicky’s tone had been off and usually Joe trusted his gut over anyone’s else’s when it came to Nicky’s moods but he glanced at Andy nevertheless.
To find her frowning a little too as she stared at the back of Nicky’s head. She caught his eye, and whatever she saw there had her slowly pulling Nile out of the kitchen to talk in the living room. When they were out of sight, Joe turned back to Nicky, arms crossed over his chest.
“What Joe,” Nicky asked, putting away the last of the plates.
“Really,” Joe asked.
Nicky sighed, letting his head hang heavy as he braced his arms on the countertop. Joe settled himself against Nicky’s back, wrapping an arm around the man’s waist and usually, always, the man would melt backwards into his touch.
Instead Nicky stiffened and Joe caught his gaze flick to the living room.
“Nicky what,” Joe said, trying not to sound hurt as he took his arm away. He couldn’t hide it, or anything from Nicky though and the man quickly spun around to hold Joe against him again.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Nicky said, running his hands over Joe’s arms, the span of his shoulders before letting them rest against his chest.
“What’s wrong habibi,” Joe coaxed.
“It’s, I saw Nile scrolling through pictures of her family on her phone yesterday,” Nicky finally said after a long pause.
Joe didn’t know what to make of that.
“Do you think we should take her to see her family then,” Joe asked, beyond confused.
They’d asked Nile if she wanted to see her family again, but she’d refused, claiming she wasn’t ready. Because seeing them again would also be like saying goodbye, the final realization that that part of her life was over. They could ask her again, but
“It’s not that Joe,” Nicky interjected.
Joe waited patiently until Nicky found his words again, watching the storm being waged in those beautiful eyes.
“She needs us now,” Nicky started.
“And we’re here for her,” Joe replied, tracing a thumb over Nicky’s cheek. The man wouldn’t even look at him now, staring at his chest instead, wandering hands clutching the rim of his t-shirt tightly.
“We cannot mess up with her like we did Booker, Joe,” Nicky finally said.
Joe went still, heart suddenly hammering in his chest. He’d known Nicky’s kindness was a well with no end in sight, and knew that with that kindness, that inherent desire to always do good came guilt that was often uncalled for.
But this, Nicky blaming himself for Booker, for Booker’s betrayal, like Booker hadn’t delivered the both of them to a mad scientist to get dissected like fucking frogs.
Like Booker hadn’t thrown 200 years of friendship, of brotherhood right back in their faces, claiming it wasn’t enough. When Joe had done everything he could to be there for the man, to make him feel less alone.
He had tried so damn hard and Booker hadn’t even tried telling him how bad it was, how bad his sorrow ran, turning to torture at the hands of scientists instead because he wanted to die. His brother wanted to die, had wanted to die for 200 years and he hadn’t uttered a single goddamned word
“Joe. Joe look at me. Yusuf.”
Nicky’s voice penetrated the rage that had formed a haze around his mind, and he slowly returned to the present. To find Nicky’s eyes boring into his, his hand softly scraping at Joe’s beard.
“I knew this would make you angry,” Nicky muttered.
“So you kept this from me,” Joe said.
Even saying the words aloud was ridiculous. That Nicky had kept something from him, had been able to keep something from him after all this time was simply ludicrous. No this was on Joe, for not seeing this sooner. He’d been so blind in his rage, in his own hurt. Selfish, so fucking selfish.
Even now when he’d lost himself in his thoughts of Booker, drowning out Nicky’s words completely.
“Joe,” Nicky pressed.
“I’m sorry I didn’t,” Joe started hoarsely. He felt a few hot tears leak out of his eyes for far too many reasons to name, and then Nicky was drawing him forward so Joe could drop his head down to the crook of Nicky’s neck, pressing a kiss to the line of his shoulder.
Joe drew back when the tears stopped, keeping his forehead glued to Nicky’s, their lips a scant inch apart.
“I don’t want Nile to ever feel alone like Booker did Joe,” Nicky said.
“Booker refused the love we gave him Nicky,” Joe argued.
“Maybe we didn’t give him enough,” Nicky retorted.
At that Joe drew away completely, staring at Nicky with wide eyes.
“Booker was my brother Nicky, my friend. I loved that man, just as I love you and Andy. So unless you’re saying that my love is not,” Joe started.
“Don’t even finish that,” Nicky interjected. That was anger in his beloved’s voice, on Joe’s behalf.
“Then how did we fail him Nicky? What did we do wrong,” Joe pressed.
At that Nicky fell silent, worrying his bottom lip. Joe closed the distance between them again, planting his hands on either side of Nicky’s hips, eyes locked with Nicky’s to challenge. Daring him to try and tell Joe that they’d treated Booker with anything but kindness and love. That this mess in any way was anyone’s fault, least of all his Nicky’s.
“Maybe it was just seeing us Joe,” Nicky started hesitantly.
“I will not apologize for loving you,” Joe stated bluntly.
Too many people, across too many centuries had asked him to and he’d refused every single time. Damn everything if he’d start now. He felt a complex knot of emotions for Booker, but there was no hatred there. Nothing that couldn’t be mended with time.
But if this pushed Nicky to start apologizing for his happiness, his love, the stars would fall from the sky before Joe so much as looked at Booker again.
“I wouldn’t apologize for us Joe. You know that,” Nicky replied.
Not immediately no. He’d taken his time replying to that and Joe was half tempted to hunt Booker down and slit the man’s throat just for that.
But Nicky needed him hear, now, listening.
Joe didn’t know where this conversation was going but it was starting to fill his veins with dread, something like panic skittering across his veins.
This was what it felt like, he realized belatedly, to be unsure in a relationship, to deal with a new hurdle. They had not had one of these in a while, at least not in recent times.
“What do you want to do Nicky,” Joe asked softly.
Nicky huffed out a breath, leaning forward to burrow his head against his chest. Joe wrapped his arms around him, running a hand through his hair.
“I don’t want Nile to hate us one day Joe. I don’t want her to do what Booker did,” Nicky murmured.
“So what do you wish for us to do differently habibi,” Joe asked.
“Share more with her. Booker saw us as this unit, and we are. You are everything to me Joe but,” Nicky started. He cut off, biting into his lip again until Joe spoke.
“Let’s take a trip. All four of us. We’ll go to Malta with them,” Joe suggested.
Joe watched with no small amount of adoration when Nicky’s whole face lit up. There was that burning sense of pride in his chest, because making Nicky happy, understanding him and loving him was Joe’s greatest purpose in life.
“Yes we’ll take them to Malta. We can stay at our safe house with them. I can teach Nile old recipes. She enjoys cooking after all,” Nicky rambled excitedly.
“I can show her my old paintings too, though some I’ll have to insist stay between us ya hayati,” Joe said with a wink.
Nicky laughed before leaning in to kiss him, stoking the fires of the flame in Joe’s heart, the fire that hadn’t so much as dimmed in the 900 years it had burned for this man and this man alone.
“I love you,” Nicky said simply when they drew back with flushed cheeks.
It struck Joe then that he could say those words over and over again for the rest of his existence, without so much as stopping for breath and it wouldn’t be enough. Wouldn’t even be close.
Joe snorted, running a hand through Nicky’s hair.
“Love doesn’t encompass all you are to me ya amar,” Joe said sincerely, earning himself another kiss.