It has been years now since Nicolo and Yusuf finally tired of running their blades through each other. Guttural war cries and steel stained with red have been replaced with soft moans and reverent hands. For now, they have turned their backs on war and death so that they can learn about each other: their languages, their histories, and their bodies. There will come a time when they must venture back into battle—their shared dreams of two warrior women wading through wars and battlefields towards them is a reminder of that.
Until then, the two men are content to simply travel the world and navigate what it is they are to each other—a definition that evolves in lockstep with the way they learn each other’s languages. Yusuf, with his mercantile background, already has a few languages and dialects within his skillset, and his grasp on Ligurian currently exceeds Nicolo’s grasp on Arabic. Yusuf enjoys teasing Nicolo about this; it’s usually when they’re pressed together in bed, no energy left for anything except the soft exchange of words and their meanings. Nicolo finds that he enjoys being teased—better to be on the receiving end of Yusuf’s wit than his blade.
Enamored as Nicolo is by Yusuf, with his sly smiles and slyer tongue, he is also no fool. He knows exactly how dangerous it is to display any open affection. Love between two men is dangerous, and love between two men who look like them even more so. Nicolo takes great care to keep his hands away from Yusuf whenever he’s certain there are watchful eyes, and sometimes even when he’s not certain.
But he was bound to slip eventually.
They’re in a tavern somewhere in central Europe, its name and its quirks destined to fade into hazy memory as the centuries pass. Especially given just how drunk Nicolo is at the moment. He’s once again grateful that this strange, incomprehensible gift he and his lover share did not take away their ability to enjoy alcohol.
Across from him at the table is Yusuf, a touch less imbibed but equally as happy as Nicolo feels. They trade harmless, sometimes unintelligible barbs; their still developing mastery of one another’s language slips the more they drink. Nicolo finds that he does not mind, given the mischievous glimmer in Yusuf’s eyes that promises great pleasure once the two are alone. It distracts Nicolo enough that when he lifts his mug for another drink, he misses his mouth—the cost of his mistake is lukewarm beer pouring down his front.
Yusuf’s momentary shock quickly devolves into laughter. Nicolo’s initial indignation at Yusuf’s reaction also melts into chuckles. Their mirth blends together, stretching out for what feels like ages. Nicky watches as Yusuf slaps the table, punctuating his amusement.
For a brief, wonderful moment, Nicolo forgets where they are. He simply wants to touch the hands of the man that has killed him so many times and brought him ecstasy even more times. So Nicolo reaches out a hand and puts it over Yusuf’s, rubs Yusuf’s knuckles gently with his own thumb.
Yusuf’s laughter fades. A small smile spreads across his face, framed by his thick beard. For a moment, they just stay there, connected to one another. But then, Joe’s eyes widen, as if realizing what they’re doing, so he pulls his hand back. The shock of it takes Nicolo aback, but he does not fault Yusuf—this was his mistake, and his alone.
Yusuf scans the room, looking to see if anyone caught a glimpse of their impropriety. Nicolo does the same. At the exact same time, their eyes land on a group of six men across the tavern. All pale and dirty with thick arms and even thicker bellies. There is a venom in their eyes as they murmur between each other—without a doubt, they caught sight of their indiscretion. Nicolo feels anger churning in his gut; whether it’s at himself for making such a stupid mistake, or at these men for daring to judge him and who’s company he keeps, he cannot tell.
Nicolo catches Yusuf’s eye: his bearded partner gestures wordlessly towards the door. Nicolo nods, and the two quickly make their exit. Nicolo curses as he stumbles into a patron-less table on his way out—a sure sign that there’s still plenty of alcohol in his veins affecting his equilibrium. But he’s still cognizant enough to know that the six men have begun to follow them outside.
The lively sounds of the tavern fade away as the two men venture into the village, which has begun to fade into the evening. Nicolo and Yusuf take great pains to not be too near each other as Yusuf guides them both towards their inn. Villagers pass them by with the occasional curious glance, but nothing more.
Nicolo observes Yusuf from the corner of his eye. From the way his shoulders are set and his fists are curled, he can tell that Yusuf also knows they’re being followed. So neither of their senses are so dull that they can’t detect danger…
…but alas, they’re not so sharp that they don’t make the mistake of turning into a narrow alleyway.
They’re about a quarter through the passage, only to stop cold at the sight of three of the men from the tavern waiting for them at the exit. Nicolo turns back, tugging at Yusuf’s elbow, only to see the other three men have blocked them off. Of course.
The burly men close in on them, hulking golems fueled by nothing more than ignorance and bigotry. Yusuf quietly shifts his stance to something more suitable for combat, and Nicolo mirrors him—albeit a bit unsteadily. Without saying a word, they turn their backs to one another to face their respective opponents; their ability to communicate through violence is as natural as their lovemaking.
As the three men on his side approach, what ripples through Nicolo’s mind is not so much fear as it is annoyance. Fighting and killing…to Nicolo, these are acts he can commit with as much ease as standing and eating. But he can tell that the cloudy veil around his senses is going to make this particular fight difficult, and it’s that same cloudy veil that got them into this altercation in the first place.
The first man on his side of the alleyway charges at him, as slow and obvious as the sunrise. Any other day, Nicolo could have put an end to this fool’s attack with minimal effort. But today, he is too slow to stop the man from slamming into his midsection. It nearly knocks the wind out of him, but Nicolo grits his teeth and widens his stance to prevent himself from being knocked over. He then slams his elbow down onto the middle of the man’s spine, eliciting a horrific yelp unbefitting of his size. Nicolo follows up by wrapping his arms around the man’s face, the bone of one of his forearms cutting into the man’s cheekbone. With a brutal twist, Nicolo breaks the man’s neck and lets him fall to the floor, dead.
The man’s two friends scream obscenities at him, and they attack him together. They unleash a rain of fists on Nicolo, too wild and too fast for him to handle in his current state. Knuckles crash against Nicolo’s arms and face and skull—ironically, the intensity of it pushes Nicolo further towards sobriety. But where there was once a haze of alcohol there is now a haze of blood and pain.
As Nicolo stumbles to the ground, his assailant’s fists turning into kicks and stomps, he catches a glimpse of Yusuf further down the alley. His lover seems to have shaken off whatever drunkenness was still in his system, because he is a vision of elegance and power. Despite the narrow space and the unfavorable numbers, Yusuf is at a clear advantage. He spins between evasion and striking like a man possessed, his palm strikes and knee spears devastating his opponents.
Even curled up on the ground, bleeding and broken, Nicolo can’t stop watching Yusuf.
“NICOLO!” he hears Yusuf scream.
As the kicks continue to rain down on him, Nicolo waits for death. By now it’s a familiar friend rather than a terrifying stranger. The pain of dying never gets easier, but there’s a strange comfort in that moment of respite before life takes him back.
Suddenly, the punishment stops.
Through one swollen eye, Nicolo can see that his lover has intervened on his behalf. But as Yusuf takes on the last two men, he no longer looks like the calm, unflappable warrior he was just a few moments ago, the one he has always been. His skill is still there, but a cold, terrifying fury radiates off of him—the look on his eyes could raze kingdoms.
Yusuf could end the fight so easily, but instead he relishes in the carnage he is unleashing upon these men. One of them, bloodied and bruised beyond recognition, collapses, leaving only one man to bear the brunt of Yusuf’s bare-handed destruction.
Nicolo distantly muses that he should be embarrassed that he didn’t put up a better fight, but he still gets a perverse thrill out of watching Yusuf spin the last man’s face directly into the stone wall. The splatter of blood and the sickening crunch ignominiously marks the end of the brawl.
Yusuf hardly takes a moment to breathe before he kneels down by Nicolo. Already, Nicolo’s wounds have begun healing. He groans as his muscles and skin stitch themselves back together, and his bones shift and slither back into their natural states. Yusuf helps Nicolo get into an upright sitting position.
“My love,” Yusuf whispers into Nicolo’s mouth in Nicolo’s native tongue. “My moon. Are you okay?”
Nicolo can’t help but laugh. The pain has mostly left him, leaving only a twinge of shame. “Of course I am okay. I am only sorry that you had to do all my work for me.”
Yusuf smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “My love, we may not die, but I will never enjoy seeing you in pain. I will punish anyone who dares hurt you.” It comes out a bit stilted, the rush of battle clearly making it a bit hard for Yusuf to speak. But the intensity in his eyes is unmistakable.
Nicolo puts a bloody hand to Yusuf’s cheek, momentarily silenced by his own awe.
By now they have been together for years, have spent almost every waking moment together in so many different places that it’s become difficult to keep track. But even after all this time, the depth of Yusuf’s love continues to stun him. This man would fight through army upon army just to keep him safe. Just to be by Nicolo’s side.
Nicolo believes—he knows—that he will always want Yusuf there.
“You are everything to me,” Nicolo whispers in Arabic. Yusuf smiles, bright and real.
“We must go, before anyone discovers what has happened here,” Yusuf murmurs in Arabic, gesturing to the six broken bodies around them. He helps Nicolo to his feet, walks him out of the alleyway and onto a main road—luckily, no one seems to be around. The two head back for the inn quickly and quietly.
Given their bloody visage, Nicolo knows that they will likely need to leave the village before sunrise, lest the residents realize that they were responsible for killing six of their men. However, given that this all started because of two men touching hands, Nicolo finds that he has no guilt to spare.
A near millennium later, so much has changed. Kingdoms fell, democracies rose. Wars became deadlier, uglier, crueler—something that should be impossible, yet humanity found a way. Nicolo and Yusuf’s immortal unit of two became a group of four. Then it tragically became three, and then four again. And for right now, they are a beautiful five. Hopefully it stays that way.
Yet as much as things have changed, a few things have not. Nicolo, now Nicky, still loves Yusuf, now Joe, as deeply as ever.
And Joe is as fiercely protective as ever.
Nicky is reminded of this fact as he slowly wakes up, his head and body laid against cold, rumbling steel. This is a decidedly different feeling from returning from death. Whereas coming back to life feels like a lightning strike, a sudden and booming awakening of all the senses, waking up from unconsciousness feels like climbing out of quicksand: a slow, uneasy ascent out of stifling darkness.
The first thing Nicky registers is Joe calling out to him in modern Italian, “Wake up!”
“I’m here,” Nicky murmurs back, willing himself to get up off the metal floor he’s been lying on, his eyes still closed. He realizes that he’s been chained up. No doubt, Joe is in a similar setup. “I’m here, wherever this is.”
“In an armored van. They used gas.”
That tracks, Nicky thinks carefully, the attack on the church rushing back to him in waves. It’s been decades since the team was caught so unaware, and now it’s twice they’ve been ambushed in as many days. How irritating.
Nicky falls onto his training, assesses his surroundings with practiced quickness. As Joe said, they’re in an armored van. They are surrounded on all sides by armored soldiers—no doubt on Copley’s payroll, or on the payroll of someone connected to Copely.
“I told you, shut up!” the soldier behind him spits.
“I need to know he’s okay,” Joe declares with a naked, unashamed sincerity. Nicky’s heart swells.
“That’s sweet. What is he, your boyfriend?”
The soldiers laugh at the inane joke. Nicky, now fully cognizant, sighs.
The world has come a long way in the time he and Joe have been in it. He vaguely recalls that time many centuries ago when they fought those six men, who had decided to attack them simply because Nicky had decided to caress Joe’s hand. To express his love in such a small and quiet way.
Back then, any form of “deviance” was a death sentence if one wasn’t careful enough. And many “deviants” weren’t as lucky or as skilled as Joe and Nicky.
That’s why, these days, Nicky still gets a thrill out of seeing men and women get to openly love partners of the same sex. He loves how people now have the freedom to live as their truest selves, breaking out of whatever silly gender norms their culture has forced upon them. If there’s one thing immortality has taught Nicky, it’s that the differences amongst humanity are more beautiful than the similarities.
But these soldiers’ ugly, churlish laughter brings Nicky back down to earth. Proof positive that there is still a long way to go and that there are people who still judge others for simply being true to themselves. Nicky closes his eyes again, tired of the way the world must be dragged kicking and screaming towards progress. He idly aches for Andy, empathizes with her weariness.
That’s why it almost catches him off guard when he hears Joe retort: “You’re a child. An infant. Your mocking is thus infantile.”
Nicky opens his eyes, locks them on Joe, who has his own eyes trained on the soldier that had insulted them. Joe’s eyes shine like a roiling nighttime sea, endless and defiant. Nicky can’t take his gaze off of them; so enraptured he is by those eyes, that for a blissful moment Nicky forgets their whole predicament.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Joe continues. He speaks with such force, such conviction, it is a wonder that the entire planet does not stop to listen to him. “This man is more to me than you can dream. He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness and warmth when I shiver in cold. And his kiss still thrills me, even after a millennia. His heart overflows with the kindness of which this world is not worthy of. I love this man beyond measure and reason. He’s not my boyfriend.”
It’s here that Joe pauses with a deep breath and turns at last to look at Nicky. Having that intense gaze focused on him, only him, has never stopped feeling like a priceless gift. A holy blessing that Nicky will never feel worthy of but will always crave.
“He’s all and he’s more.”
The softness of Joe’s tone belies the power of his words. It lights all of Nicky’s senses on fire. He wonders, not for the first time, how Joe still finds new ways to declare his love. How does Joe always find the bravery to carve out his heart and offer it so casually to Nicky?
(Perhaps it’s because Joe can always grow his heart back.)
There’s so much Nicky wants to say back, but none of it feels adequate in light of Joe’s declaration. He eventually settles on a tease, tempered with love in his eyes and a small smile on his lips:
“You’re an incurable romantic.”
Nicky surges forward to crash lips with Joe, who meets him halfway. As Joe said, even after a millennia, their kisses still thrill as if they’re doing it for the first time. They stay there for a few seconds, their kiss as much a private expression of love as it is a public display of defiance.
Sure enough, it seems to rankle their captors. Nicky feels rough hands dragging him back, and he sees Joe also being manhandled by the soldiers closest to him. The same man that had insulted them earlier shoves Nicky’s head against the bench, prompting an angry cry from Joe.
“Nice words, but they’re not gonna protect you or him,” the man sneers.
Nicky catches Joe’s eyes again. The softness in them has vanished, replaced by a hard coldness. It’s the look Joe gets whenever something bad happens to Nicky in front of him. The look Nicky first saw back in the alleyway of that nameless village.
In the centuries since that night, Nicky has learned that this look means only one thing: that Joe is going to unleash horrific hell on whoever is stupid enough to hurt Nicky.
Nicky grins, acknowledging Joe’s shift in mood. Nicky adjusts his body a little bit, a seemingly harmless maneuver that is in fact positioning him for the coming fight. As uncomfortable as their bindings are, this is not the first time the couple has fought in chains. This won’t even be the hardest.
The soldiers barely know what hits them.
Nicky knew things were changing again, but he never suspected just how much. Booker’s betrayal and Andy’s unhealing wounds were a devastating one-two punch revelation, and he has no idea how things will shake out once the dust has settled.
But first, Nicky has more important things to worry about. Like coming back from a pointblank gunshot wound to the head.
Nicky feels himself returning from the embrace of death once more. At first he cannot see anything: he can only feel the bullet hole in the back of his head—the bullet hole that Keane had so kindly gifted him—closing in on itself. Soon there is no evidence he was shot at all except for the wet blood soaking his hair.
When Nicky’s vision does return, the first thing he sees is Joe’s upside down head looming over him. The look of relief on Joe’s face is palpable. They touch one another, a moment where they wordlessly remind one another: I’m still here. I’m still with you. It feels more fraught, more potent than ever, in light of what’s happened to Andy.
But a moment is all they can afford. Because there is still a fight to be won, and if they fail, they will all suffer endlessly…and Andy will die.
“Let’s go. Andy,” Nicky utters, shaking them both out of their pangs of relief. Joe helps Nicky up and the two rush to catch up with the others.
As they hurry through the sterile halls of Merrick’s company, Nicky takes note of Joe’s cold, but very familiar, expression.
As if on cue, Joe mutters: “I’m going to kill that man with my bare hands.”
Nicky sighs, shakes his head. “We have bigger things to worry about, my love.”
“I know. But I’m still going to kill that man.”
Sure enough, it’s only minutes later, after catching up to Andy, Nile, and Booker, that Nicky hears it. The cacophony of the firefight above him has died down, meaning that his team has secured the penthouse. He and Booker are working their way through the lower floor in search of that rat Merrick, but Nicky also hears the telltale signs of a fistfight above.
Somehow, he just knows that it’s Joe and Keane.
Even from below, Nicky can hear Joe say it, all quiet rage: “You shot Nicky. You shouldn’t have done that.”
And then, a sickening CRACK: the unmistakable sound of a broken neck. Keane is undoubtedly dead at Joe’s hands—probably via a fatal body throw, knowing Joe. Nicky wishes he could take a moment to enjoy the visual, but he sees that the elevator display ticking down—somehow, Merrick must have weaseled past them.
“Merrick is getting away!”
He, Booker, and Joe soon give chase, leaving Nile to protect Andy. The trio hurry down the emergency stairwell in leaps and bounds, the sounds of their feet echoing all around them. Despite the urgency of their circumstances, Nicky can’t help himself. He calls out:
“I see you got your revenge, my love!”
Descending down the stairs like a wildcat, Joe takes a moment to flash a grin at Nicky.
“I told you I was going to kill that man!” Joe shouts, breathless.
Nicky laughs. It’s strange, given their circumstances and what lies ahead. Even if they kill Merrick—and they will—it is an inevitability that their group will change, and not entirely for the better. Andy is no longer their untouchable leader. Booker will face severe punishment…possibly exile. Nile, hopefully, will at least stay to inject the fresh blood their team will desperately need.
But it seems that one thing that will never change, as long as they’re both alive, is Joe’s protective streak. For that, Nicky is grateful.