Nicky comes to sputtering and coughing, his lungs desperate to expel the poison they’re already healing from. His first thought, as it always is when he wakes from death, is of Joe. He turns his head away from the fluorescent lights above, blinking hard to rid his vision of the afterimages as he searches. The metal floor beneath him lurches, and he realizes all at once that he’s moving, he’s in some kind of truck, and there are other people around him too, other bodies holding guns, but none of them matter, not until he sees—
Joe, sprawled out on the floor two feet away from him.
He isn’t moving.
He isn’t breathing.
Nicky lunges for him, calling out his name, but immediately he is yanked back. A half-second later, the world around him jerks from below— a pothole , he thinks—and amidst the disturbance, he reaches forward again. He manages a moment’s purchase—his fingers just briefly clutching Joe’s bicep—before he’s hauled back again.
Still, Joe hasn’t moved. Hasn’t spoken. Hasn’t so much as blinked.
Nicky’s heart thunders beneath his ribcage, fear beginning to cloud his other senses. The words fall from his lips, first in Italian, then in Arabic, then a mix of the two because he can’t think straight and he doesn’t care and it doesn’t matter. He and Joe have never needed language to communicate, but now it feels more useless than ever.
Still, he tries.
Wake up, he orders.
Wake up, wake up, wake up.
The longer Nicky goes on without an answer, the harder it is to speak. Demands devolve to desperate pleas. The words tear from him, and they hurt more coming out than any bullet does going in.
Talk to me. Come on. Come back to me. You have to come back to me.
“Shut up,” one of the guards snarls, kicking him in the side with a steel-toed boot.
Nicky grunts only briefly at the pain, and ignores the man. He doesn’t matter. None of them do.
All that matters is Joe lying there, silent, motionless.
He isn’t dead. He can’t be dead.
No, no, no, no.
Nicky wrestles against the hands holding his shoulders, leaning as far forward as he can, raising his voice so Joe can hear it, wherever he is.
Please, my love—
“If you’re going to keep whining, do it in English.”
The order catches Nicky off guard, and he breaks off mid-sentence, his head snapping to the side. The guard who spoke is sitting on the other side of the van, just a few feet away. There is an ugly look on his face, and a hostility in his eyes Nicky has spent centuries fighting against.
He isn’t going to stop now.
Nicky shifts, twisting his body to the side so he can face the man and look him in the eyes. He can’t get close—not with so many hands on him—but he has his attention. He stares the man down, feeling the rage grow until he can’t contain it anymore.
“Fuck you,” Nicky snarls in English.
He gets the butt of an M-4 to the face for his trouble, but he heals quickly. Too quickly. By the time he reaches up with one hand to wipe away the blood, his fractured cheekbone has already mended itself.
But still, when he looks back, Joe has not moved.
Nicky doesn’t think this time; he doesn’t hesitate. He’s done it hundreds of times before. Shackles—be they metal or plastic—aren’t hard to get out of when you don’t mind breaking a few bones in the process. He shifts his shoulders, moving himself into position. He wants to be ready to lunge across the floor of the truck the moment he’s free; he wants to touch Joe and bring him back the way he has so many times before.
He breaks his right thumb first, snapping it clean at the joint and sliding off the zip-tie in one fluid motion with his fingertips before switching to his left. By the time he has the second zip-tie off, the bones of his right thumb have already realigned and the left are on their way. Before any of the guards have time to realize what he’s done, he’s got Joe’s face in between his hands, and he’s cradling him close, begging him to wake up, to come back, to come home—
The blow to the back of the head doesn’t kill him, but it does crack his skull. He doesn’t want to let go of Joe, but he does anyway, reaching for the wound on instinct, and that’s when they get him. They dislocate one of his shoulders in their rush to tie him up, but it doesn’t matter.
The pain doesn’t matter, because Joe is still where Nicky left him. Not a flicker of consciousness has crossed his face in all this time.
Nicky is scared now. Well and truly scared. Joe hasn’t gone this long without coming back in—what, decades? Nicky can’t remember. He can’t think. The fear is overwhelming and he can’t process it properly, not in such militant conditions.
And then, from the far corner of the truck, comes a voice that sounds almost kind.
“I wouldn’t worry. From what we’ve seen of you, your friend will be fine.”
Nicky has to crane his neck to see the man. Beneath all the body armor, he looks young. Nicky’s age—well, his body’s age—or younger. And already he is here. Already he is this. It never takes long to turn men into thoughtless killing machines, no matter the era.
“He is not my friend,” Nicky spits, letting his fury flare out.
The guard from earlier, the one who told Nicky to speak English, snorts at this. It sets off the others laughing—though not the one in the corner, Nicky notices.
“Not a friend, huh?” one of them asks, feigning innocence. “Then what do you call it? There are so many words these days; I can’t keep track.”
“Oh, I think we know what you call it,” another sniggers. “Fag’s a fag.”
“Nah, man, I think they had a different word for them back in the Crusades.”
Laughter sparks at this, amplified by the metal box surrounding them. There aren’t more than ten guards in the truck, but it sounds like a hundred. It makes Nicky’s skin crawl. He can feel the anger burning in him like coal.
“Like I said,” one of them concludes once the laughter’s died down, “fag’s a fag.”
He holds Nicky’s gaze while he says it, his finger curled around the trigger of his rifle. Waiting and ready. He expects Nicky to attack him, wants him to attack him. Nicky wants it too. He doesn’t think he’s wanted anything so badly in years.
But still, Joe has not stirred next to him. Nicky feels only half-alive, waiting for his return. He does not want to risk a firefight. Not yet. Not now.
So instead Nicky tilts his head back, lifting his chin to the man in what minor bit of defiance he can manage. The fury simmers hot in his gut, but he keeps it from sparking into fire.
“This is funny to you?” he wonders aloud. “Why?”
When the man doesn’t speak, Nicky turns his head, his eyes trailing over each man, meeting as many eyes as he can. The young one from before, with his feeble words masquerading as kindness, keeps his head turned to the floor. Eventually Nicky ends up back where he started, with the foulest of them staring back at him.
“Are you being shy with me,” Nicky prods him, “or do you not have an answer?”
The man says nothing, choosing instead to shift his gun from one hand to another. Nicky smiles—he knows the movement. It isn’t a threat; it’s a stall. It’s an attempt to reassure oneself of one’s power. It is weakness personified.
“I was like you once,” Nicky tells him quietly. “I was raised to think certain things, hate certain people. For no reason, really, when you think about it. I did it simply because I was told, and because it was normal. It was expected of me—to go places and kill people, not for any truly righteous cause, but just because they were different. They did not look like me, and they spoke words I could not understand, and they prayed in ways I had never known. They weren’t right .”
Nicky hears a low groan from somewhere behind him, and though his heart aches with relief at the familiar sound, he refuses to break eye contact with the man. He can look at Joe in a minute, thanks be to God. But for now, he wants to finish this.
“It took me time,” Nicky continues. “It was not immediate, this learning. This understanding. This love? Pftt —” He waves a dismissive hand. “—it was not conceivable to me, not for hundreds of years. It was ugly and dirty and depraved. It was not what a man did, and I scorned the thought of it then, just like you do now.” Nicky tilts his head, taking his time. “But I was born nearly a thousand years ago. Learning was so difficult then, knowledge so scarce. But you, with the history of the world at your fingertips at all times. I wonder what your excuse is for being so mindless and so cruel?”
Nicky surveys the man in front of him, searching his eyes for any realization. Any shift on the scale. The man meets his gaze defiantly but he does not speak. Nicky can feel the discomfort building in him; he knows only a few more words will push the man over the edge. Nicky longs to do it—just for the chain reaction he knows will follow. If he is hit again, he will not stay on the floor. Not now that Joe has returned to him.
Nicky cannot help but sneak a look at him, finally. Joe is sprawled out on the floor, half propped up on one elbow. His gaze is lazy as he looks back at Nicky, his mind still piecing things together. It’s the way he always looks when he wakes—from death, from sleep, from sex. It is Nicky’s favorite look. It means his heart is alive, beating strong once more.
“It is easy now,” he whispers, not looking away from Joe. “All those things I feared, I learned to overcome. And the sins I had heard of—well, I found they were not sins at all. Imagine my surprise,” he murmurs, “ when I was not struck down for committing these heinous acts. In fact, I would say I was rewarded.” Joe chuckles softly at this, and Nicky smiles, watching him fondly. “He called them blessings, back then. But I know there are other words for it now.”
“I prefer our words,” Joe says quietly in Italian.
Nicky nods gently, enjoying the sound of his voice, the language he speaks. They always come back to Italian, to its long and winding history of growth, to its melodic comfort.
But he has a few more things to say in English first.
“I have died a thousand times to be near him. I will die a thousand more. It will not stop me from wanting him.” As the truck rumbles along a stretch of uneven road, Nicky turns back to the man he’d been lecturing. “There will always be people like you. Thoughtless, spineless, loveless. I used to pity you, I used to try to reason with you—well, I am reasoning with you right now!” he admits with a laugh, catching himself. “But it is pointless. You people keep reappearing, no matter the era. It is not worth my time to convince you of anything. So now I kill you instead. It is easier.”
He pauses, pursing his lips—no, that word isn’t quite right. As the men around him bristle, shifting their scopes to target him, he searches for the right word. It isn’t easier , exactly, no, it’s—
“Simpler?” Joe supplies for him, sensing his mind wandering.
But Nicky shakes his head. That word isn’t quite right either. He works for a second, two, then surrenders to the lost bit of language. He will find it eventually, he knows. For now, the two of them have a job to do.
They do not have the element of surprise, but it does not matter. They have, as always, stamina and endurance and centuries of training on their side. Nicky manages to dispatch four of the guards before he feels the tear of metal through his back that ends it all.
The world goes black for a brief moment.
When he wakes, he is still on the floor, though now his head is resting comfortably against Joe’s lap.
“I enjoyed your speech,” Joe tells him cheerfully when he blinks awake.
Nicky sighs. “You are going to say I should leave the speechmaking to you, I suppose? If this is how mine always ends?”
“On the contrary, I rather like hearing you talk about me like that, no matter how it ends.” Joe is grinning beneath his beard, and despite all the years they’ve spent together, Nicky feels himself fall just a little bit more in love with him. At least until Joe adds, “It is nice to be appreciated, you know.”
“Oh, now I do not appreciate you enough?” Nicky shakes his head, pushing himself up into a sitting position. “A thousand years and you are still ungrateful.”
Joe snickers at his grumbling, reaching an arm out to wrap around his waist and pull him back down. Nicky allows it, settling back into the empty space between Joe’s spread legs. He tilts his head to the side, finding Joe’s mouth warm and alive and waiting for his. He lifts one hand to hold the back of Joe’s head, the other cupping his cheek. Their breaths are loud when they finally pull away.
“I’m sorry I took so long,” Joe whispers, touching his forehead to Nicky’s temple. “I’m so sorry.”
Nicky shakes his head. “It is not your fault.”
“If I could warn you next time, I would.”
“You can’t.” They have been over this many times before.
“I know.” Joe nuzzles closer, his voice dropping. “But I don’t like waking, hearing you scared.”
“I am always scared when you leave me, as you are for me. That’s the way it is.”
“That’s our price, huh?” Joe mumbles the words into Nicky’s neck, and Nicky smiles, lifting his hand to cup the crown of his head.
“Among many, yes. Surely the steepest one.”
Joe draws in a deep breath, and Nicky closes his eyes, feeling Joe’s chest expand against his. He holds Joe tighter, pressing a kiss to his neck, knowing they can’t have much more time alone left. They won’t be driven through the night like this forever—at some point they will come to a destination, likely sooner rather than later. Nicky just hopes they won’t be separated.
When Joe next lifts his head, Nicky does not waste anymore time. He leans forward, capturing Joe’s lips with his, and he doesn’t let up. Even when the truck slows to a stop on paved tarmac, and the doors are opened behind them, and guns are leveled in their faces, Nicky keeps kissing Joe. He doesn’t know how many chances he’ll have left, and he won’t give this one up until he’s forced to.
Later, after they’ve been pulled apart and loaded onto the plane, it’s quiet again. Nicky half expects the guards to separate the two of them, place them in opposite ends of the plane out of spite, but instead they’re strapped in right next to each other—easier to keep an eye on both at once, Nicky recognizes, but he is pleased nonetheless. Joe has the window seat, not that he spends any time looking out of it.
They do not speak much. Neither of them wishes to speak English while surrounded by so many enemies, and whenever they try to use another language, they’re beaten. The wounds heal easy, but the pain is tiring, so they stop bothering. Hours pass in silence, but they do not mind for it is enough that they are together. Enough that they can hold hands despite all their shackles, and lean against one another for comfort.
Eventually, a new day dawns, bright and clear and blue through the window of the plane. Joe looks out, but with the cloudbank below them, it’s impossible to tell where in the world they are. He looks around the plane, but nothing gives him a clue. There is no map displayed on the TV screen, and the pilot’s announcements have studiously avoided any mentions of a final destination. Joe watches the guards as they move around, slowly pacing the aisle. He thinks of the group they left slaughtered in the van, and he yawns. Already that feels like days ago instead of hours. He leans his head against Nicky’s shoulder and lets sleep take him.
He wakes as the plane starts descending. He glances over at Nicky and finds him in nearly the exact position he left him. The skin around his eyes is dark and he looks exhausted.
“You didn’t sleep?” he murmurs in Italian, keeping his voice low so as to not be overheard.
Nicky shakes his head. “But I am glad you did.”
Joe sighs, ducking his head against Nicky’s shoulder. He is pressing a kiss there when one of the guards yells at them to separate. Joe rolls his eyes, but does as told. After going through so many, he knows when to pick his battles.
Which makes him think.
“Everything you said before in that van…” He lowers his voice so it’s hardly louder than a breath. Nicky tilts his head just a few degrees to the side to hear. “Why did you tell them all that? You knew what we had to do. Why waste your breath?”
“I was angry,” Nicky murmurs. “And scared. And I suppose I thought… if I am to disappear into some dank cell for the rest of my life, I will not spend my final days in the outside world being mocked. I love you. I’ve loved you for centuries. I will not hide that fact.”
Joe smiles, and squeezes his hand.
“Which reminds me,” Nicky continues. He looks down at their hands, entangled even amidst the chains. “While you were sleeping, I thought of the word.”
“The word, Joe. What I could not find before. Not easy, not simple—”
“Necessary,” Nicky replies firmly. “Killing them was necessary. They insulted you. I could not let that pass.”
Joe tries to shake his head in disapproval, but he just ends up laughing.
“What?” Nicky asks him. “What is it?”
“Nothing.” He is smiling, trying and failing not to laugh. “I just thought you would have grown out of it by now, that’s all.”
“Grown out of what?”
“Being a knight.” Joe catches his eye. “How many times have I told you? I don’t need you to defend my honor, Nicolo. I didn’t need it in the twelfth century and I don’t need it in the twenty-first.”
“Of course you do. Where would you be without me?”
“Nowhere, obviously, but that’s not the point. I am capable of taking care of myself. That is the point.”
“Not in this instance. You were unconscious.”
“I was coming back!”
“Well, I did not know that. I had no way of knowing you were coming back.”
“You could’ve waited,” Joe points out dryly.
Nicky sighs, closing his eyes as he leans back into his seat. “So you do mind after all. The things I said to the dead men. You did not like it like you said you did.”
“No, I did,” Joe argues. “I told you I liked hearing you talk about me. That was the truth.”
Nicky opens his eyes, glancing over slyly. “Maybe I should do it more, then. If you like it so much.”
A smile flickers in the corner of Joe’s mouth. He tilts his head to look out the window. “Should be landing in just a few seconds,” he murmurs, straightening up. “So if you’d like to make another speech to another group of soon-to-be-dead men, please be my guest.”