“Oh no.” Nile undoubtedly meant her voice to be intimidating as she hooked her hands around Joe’s arm, pulling him away from the vendor stalls. They’d come to Munich’s Viktualeinmarkt for some proper produce, but these days that was only a small portion of the wares meant to catch the public’s eye. “You used up all your shopping time choosing those tomatoes. I understand wanting to make sure they’re ripe, but it took you 45 minutes to choose six tomatoes.”
Joe just grinned as he turned back to look at her. “My Nicky must only have the best. He will appreciate those tomatoes far more than he would rubies of the same size.” He yanked free of Nile’s grip in a single smooth motion, then grabbed her hand and pulled her along with him. “I haven’t been to this market since the late 1800s. My grasp of the language was good enough all those cozy little farmers thought I was a Spaniard, and they fell all over themselves trying to show me that their tomatoes could rival anything my ‘country’ could produce.” He sighed happily at the memory. “Now those were good tomatoes.”
Nile groaned, letting herself be dragged. “We’re never going to get out of here, are we?” she said mournfully. “You’ll be here shopping long enough the tomatoes will go bad, then we’ll spend another hundred years going back to choose more, then you’ll get distracted again…”
Joe laughed, shifting his grip so that Nile’s arm was hooked through his. “I would never do that to Nicky’s tomatoes. There’s just one particular scarf over there that caught my eye, and once I find out if it’s worthy I promise you we’ll be on our way.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Unless I can perhaps buy you a little something, a humble thank you for your incredible patience…”
She sighed dramatically, but the corners of her mouth snuck upward. Nile had adapted to the life far better than… some people had (Joe pushed back the complicated tangle of feeling, not wanting it here in this moment), but it was good to see her smile. “Hey, the fact that I didn’t shank you 20 minutes into that tomato hunt of yours proves I do have incredible patience.”
Still, she followed him over to the stall, where the scarf he’d been looking at proved to be machine-stitched and therefore wholly inadequate. Joe made a disappointed noise, fingering the too-rough fabric. “Pity. It’s almost the exact color of Nicky’s eyes. The only thing that’s missing is those little silver flecks, like slices of starlight still clinging to the night sky in those moments just before dawn breaks and everything is hopeful again.” His chest warmed at the thought, the chance to speak of his Nicolo sweeter on his tongue than the finest honey ever created. “My Nicky, the harbinger of hope.”
A few feet away, he heard a woman jab her boyfriend and complain that he never talked about her like that. Nile, overhearing the same conversation, shook her head and pulled him further down the market aisle. “Come on. I want something sparkly, and you can shame more straight guys while you help me find it.”
“As long as it’s suitably well-made, I would be happy to find you something that sparkles with the same brilliance as my Nicky’s eyes.” He held his arm out, pleased when Nile tucked her own arm back into it. “And if I educate some poor souls about appropriate romantic standards as we do so, then so much the better.”
He'd expected her to roll her eyes at that, possibly fighting another smile, but her expression turned surprisingly thoughtful. “Does it bother you, that Nicky doesn’t talk like that?” she asked finally. “I mean, I’m pretty sure that Andy and I would both spend a lot of time killing you two if you both did it…”
Joe sighed dramatically, recognizing the teasing light in her eyes. “Neither of you appreciate true art.”
“Hey, I’m not arguing that you’re not an artist. It’s your poetry I have trouble with.” She shook her head a little, the teasing edge gone. “I’m serious, though. Did he manage an epic monologue somewhere in the 1600s and I just missed it, or is he so good in bed that it just doesn’t matter to you?”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Do you really want to hear how good my Nicky is in bed? Because I would be happy to—”
“Okay, no.” Nile laughed a little as she held up a hand. “I walked right into that one.”
“You did.” Then he sobered, letting the memories rise up and fill him. After almost a thousand years there were only a handful that still carried such sharp, clear edges, but this was one of them. “Have you noticed Nicky is always in front, when we sleep? The ‘little spoon,’ I believe it’s called?”
She glanced over at him again, a certain wariness in her expression. “Yes?”
“And when we fight, how often he ends up in front of me?” Joe’s throat tightened at the thought. He and Nicky had both died so many times, but it seemed even more often that he had to wait for Nicky to wake up. “No matter which of us goes first, he somehow always finds a way to be between the rest of us and our enemy.” He swallowed. “Between me and the enemy.”
The wariness had vanished from Nile’s face, replaced by a gentleness that reminded him so much of Nicky. She squeezed his arm. “He sleeps in front so he’s between you and the door,” she said quietly.
He let out a breath, wanting to kiss Nicky so badly he could feel it in his fingertips. Later, he promised himself. Dinner could wait if it had to. “Once Nicky and I finally decided to stop killing each other, we began traveling together. We had no idea what our respective gods wanted of us, but it seemed wise to try and find out together.” He pitched his voice low, these words meant for Nile’s ears alone. “I’d manage to pick up a decent amount of Italian by then, and we’d started to get to know each other as more than enemies.”
He hadn’t understood at the time why he’d told Nicolo about his family, who’d been dead before the Siege of Jerusalem had even begun. He could no longer recall their faces, but he could still remember his shame at the way his voice had broken when he’d spoken of his mother and sisters. But all Nicolo had done was touch his arm, an endless well of compassion and grief, and when the tears had come there was no longer any shame attached to them.
“Nicky’s grasp of Arabic was… limited at best, and I was the one who had experience in dealing with merchants. I handled whatever purchases we needed to make, but I got so caught up in haggling I forgot Nicky wasn’t the only Crusader no longer distracted by war.”
He'd been badly outnumbered, he explained quietly to Nile. his only goal to get the men away from the villagers who didn’t have the power to magically heal themselves. Once he’d gotten them far enough away, however, he’d let out every ounce of the fury he’d held inside him.
It hadn’t been enough.
“Where was Nicky when all of this was happening?” Nile asked quietly.
“Tending to the horses.” Joe shook his head, that long-ago village laid almost double vision in front of his eyes. “There was no way he could have seen any of it.”
But Nicolo had appeared, somehow, dispatching the Crusaders with a focused, unrelenting rage that had made his own anger pale in comparison. When the last body had fallen, Nicky had immediately rushed to his side to confirm that he was healing.
He hadn’t said anything, not able to put his gratitude into words – they hadn’t been traveling together long enough by then for him to have imagined such a defense – but Nicky had seen the question in his eyes.
“He laid his hand against the side of my face, looked deeply into my eyes, and said ‘Enough pain. No more’ in the best Arabic he could manage at the time.” Joe swallowed again, swiping at his eyes with his free hand. Even he didn’t have words for the way Nicky’s eyes had burned, the vow he was making in that moment as zealous as any he’d ever made to his god. “Almost a thousand years later, he continues to do everything in his power to hold to that.”
Nile was discreetly wiping her own eyes. “Ah.”
“I knew you would understand.” He cleared his throat, raising his voice back to a normal level. “My Nicky’s poetry is silent, but that does not make it any less profound. I have never once doubted the depth of his love.”
Nile sniffed, patting his arm. “You gotta warn me when you start into stories like that. I was expecting more really cheesy romance novel excerpts.”
He squeezed her hand. “Let me make it up to you by buying you something expensive. While we’re at it, you can help me pick out something suitably magnificent for Nicky.”
Even as she rolled her eyes, Nile’s lips curved again. “See? That’s more what I was talking about.”