History is not a linear progression.
It’s easy to think that now is necessarily better than then, and it’s comforting to believe that tomorrow will definitely be better than today. If Nile has learned anything from living with people who’ve been experiencing and shaping history for literally thousands of years, it’s that the idea of an inexorable march toward progress is bullshit.
This is on Nile’s mind with particular weight when she and Joe return to the safehouse after what should have been a quick supply run.
“What took so long?” Andy asks as soon as they start hauling grocery bags into the house. “Nicky was worried.”
“No, I wasn’t,” Nicky says mildly from his place by the stove. Joe walks over and gives him a kiss on the cheek in greeting.
“We need IDs,” Nile tells Andy. “Or you two have to do all the driving. Something.”
Andy frowns. “What are you talking about? What happened?”
“We got pulled over,” Joe says, and Nile can see Nicky's grip tighten on his arm. “Took half an hour to convince the cop the car wasn’t stolen, and he still gave Nile a citation.”
“He tailed us for a few blocks, too. Lucky he didn’t follow us all the way back here,” Nile grumbles.
“How the fuck did you get pulled over?” Andy asks Nile. “You’re supposed to be the good driver.”
Nile shrugs. “Driving While Black?”
“Having a brown passenger didn’t help,” Joe adds. He doesn’t sound bitter, just tired. Nile knows they’ve both dealt with this kind of shit their whole lives, but her life has been a few decades; Joe’s has been several centuries.
Nicky mutters something Nile can’t exactly translate, but she understands the universal inflection of fuck the police.
Andy sighs and rubs a hand over her eyes. “Is there anything we need to worry about? Any chance this could come back to bite us?”
“Doubt it,” Nile says. “Cops don’t usually follow up on this shit.”
“Good. I’ll talk to Copley about IDs.” Andy shakes her head and looks over at Joe and Nicky. “Is it me, or have cops here gotten worse?”
“Nah. They just have bigger guns, now,” Joe replies, flopping into a corner of the couch. “Same racist bullies they’ve always been.”
“They can’t arrest us for kissing, anymore,” Nicky points out.
Nile joins him in the kitchen and starts to put away the pile of groceries. “Tell me that didn’t actually happen.”
Nicky just raises an eyebrow and tilts his head.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Technically, we didn’t get arrested,” Joe says. “Nicky got harassed, and I got shot.”
Joe shrugs. “Well, for sodomy.”
Nicky turns around, frowning, "Was it sodomy or miscegenation?"
This is suddenly much more interesting than Nile expected. “Wait, so you got arrested either for being gay or for being interracial, but you can’t remember which?”
“I mean, the assholes who tried to arrest us were probably offended by both, but...” Joe scratches his beard in thought. “Y’know, I think you’re right. I don’t think sodomy was illegal in New Orleans, at that point.”
Andy chimes in, “Doesn’t mean you couldn’t get arrested for it.”
“But, technically, you didn’t get arrested.” Nile clarifies. “You got harassed and shot.”
“Ask them whose fault it was,” Andy tells her.
“A repressive cultural ideology rooted in the veneration of racial and sexual purity?” Joe suggests.
Nicky just says, “It was Joe’s fault.”
Joe sighs. “Okay, first of all, I was drunk. Second, I was pissed off.”
The American Civil War was, to put it in twenty-first century vernacular, a clusterfuck.
Joe tended to think of America, in general, as a clusterfuck of a country. Before the European colonial powers had begun to butcher the land and fight over the pieces, it had been a beautiful place, full of peaceful people and overwhelming natural beauty, and Joe was deeply grateful for the privilege of having seen even a fraction of it before... Well, before it became America.
The so-called War Between the States was just the most recent verse in the saga of ceaseless conflict that had defined the nation from birth. It was not the bloodiest or most brutal war Joe had ever taken part in, but it was exhausting in a way that few others had been.
Now, though, it was over, and they were celebrating. Rather, a surrender had been issued, and the four immortals were drinking. Over and celebrating were words too definite for the reality of the situation, but they were relieved that Andy had decided their part in the conflict was done.
Relief led them to an inn in New Orleans, at which they proceeded to consume many, many bottles of alcohol and plates of food, and Joe was feeling more content and at ease than he had in recent memory. His plans for the evening consisted of his two most treasured pastimes: enjoying a meal with his family and taking his beloved to bed.
He was dreaming idly of the latter task, unabashedly staring at Nicky’s mouth on the edge of a wine glass, when Booker suddenly called to him from the bar.
“Joe! Joseph! Mon frère!”
Booker, who had been sent to inquire about further food, was standing beside the innkeeper, waving for Joe to come and join him. Joe sighed and pressed a quick kiss to Nicky’s temple. “I will go see what our Frenchman wants.”
When Joe had reached him, Booker gestured to the innkeeper, saying, “ Monsieur, please tell my friend what you just told me.”
The innkeeper made a face, clearly trying to maintain a façade of polite professionalism. “I meant no offense, sir,” the man said, still speaking to Booker. “I only wished to inform you that there is a place for the help to enjoy themselves. I thought your boy might be more comfortable with his own people.”
Booker looked at Joe with raised eyebrows and a bemused smile, as Joe glanced between him and the innkeeper in disbelief. It was not the first time Joe had been mistaken for a servant or a slave, but it was the first time he’d ever been asked to leave a public place. It was definitely the first time anyone had assumed Booker was his master.
After a moment of tense silence, Joe laughed loudly enough to catch the attention of several nearby patrons.
“ Fous-moi! Oh, that’s good. That’s very good,” Joe said breathlessly. Clapping Booker on the shoulder, he told the innkeeper, “This man... This man is my brother. My younger brother.”
“ C’est vrai,” Booker agreed, grinning.
“If he tried to give me an order, I’d slap his stupid face.”
Booker nodded, still grinning. “And you would be right to do so.”
“However! This m-” Joe gestured to his other side before he remembered that Nicky was still at the table, not standing beside him. “Nicky!” he shouted. “Nicolò! Hayati ! Come here!”
His perfect, patient, ever-giving Nico heaved a great sigh and stood slowly from the table, Andy following behind him with a look of curious amusement.
“ Sì, amato mio?” Nicky asked, as if this was nothing out of the ordinary.
“This! This is my master!” Joe announced to the innkeeper, throwing one arm around Nicky’s broad shoulders.
“Oh, no. Not this again,” Andy muttered.
Looking to Booker, Nicky asked lightly, “What is happening?
“Our gracious host suggested Joe should do his drinking with the rest of the help,” Booker replied.
Nicky’s response was simply, “Ah. I see.”
“But! But...” Joe went on, undeterred. “To say that I am his slave does not fully express the power he has over me. To call me his servant does not describe the devotion with which I long to fulfill his every desire.”
Several of the other patrons had taken an interest in the proceedings, and a part of Joe’s mind suggested that this was not the time or place to say such things so loudly. He was drunk and in love, and he did not care.
“What then?” he continued, now performing for the growing audience. “His companion? His lover? These are closer, and these are true, but they are much too small.”
He looked at Nicky, and the fond smile that greeted him was truly his undoing. Softer, he said, “What single word could possibly convey that everything I am belongs to him? That his joy is my ecstasy and his sadness is my despair?”
Loudly, for the benefit of those around them and because he knew it would make Nicky blush, he added, “What lustful exclamation could encompass the constant ache my body feels for his touch?”
“ Sir!” the innkeeper exclaimed, obviously scandalized.
Joe just beamed brightly at Nicky. “Moreover, I wonder, is there any utterance to express all of these things, but also to say that they are felt in equal measure? That he is just as devoted to me as I to him, that my comfort and pleasure are of greater importance to him than his own?”
He already knew the answer. He had scoured a dozen languages over nine hundred years, and everything he had learned suggested that, no, there were no human words for what he shared with his beloved Nicolò.
Turning to the innkeeper, he said, “If you want me to go elsewhere and make merry with my fellow Africans, I will, but you may be certain that my beloved will join me.” He leaned in, warning, “And he might decide to show them how much mastery I have over him .”
In their own private language, Nicky spoke into Joe’s ear. “If you keep speaking like this, I will show these people here and now.”
Joe had no choice, in that moment, but to kiss Nicky fiercely on the mouth.
There were hoots and shouts from around the room, though he could not have said whether they were appreciative or mocking. All that mattered in the world was the taste of wine on Nicky’s tongue and the feel of Nicky’s fingers in his hair.
That kiss was infinitely more intoxicating than any alcohol, and, tempting as it was to continue taunting the innkeeper with their utter disregard for propriety, Joe decided he was ready for the two of them to retire to the blessed privacy of their room. One look at Nicky’s clear green eyes, and he knew they were in agreement.
“I think we’ll say goodnight, now,” Joe said. He was speaking to Andy and Booker, but he could not have taken his eyes from Nicky’s face if he had wanted to.
Booker clapped him on the back with a loud sigh and said, “Amusez-vous.”
Joe was vaguely aware of Andy and Booker going back to the table as he and Nicky led each other up the narrow stairs toward their room, too absorbed in the promise of pleasure to notice much of anything, including the hard stares that followed them.
Once away from all other eyes, Joe had just enough presence of mind to turn the lock as he pressed Nicky back against the door.
“I think you can skip ahead from there,” Nicky says from the kitchen.
“The sexy parts are important to the story, though,” Joe objects.
“The position we were in when they came for us is important,” Nicky replies. “I don’t think Nile wants to know the details of how we got there.”
“Please, no,” Nile agrees. “I’m glad y’all have a good sex life, but I already know way more about it than I ever needed to.”
“Well, you’re about to learn something else,” Joe warns her. “Because you should know that w-”
“He tied me to the bed and was fucking me,” Nicky cuts him off. “Which is only slightly out of the ordinary, because usually it’s Joe who is restrained.”
Nile really doesn’t know whether it’s better to hear these things from Joe, who turns it into romantic poetry, or Nicky, who says it like he’s talking about the weather. Either way, she gets the picture.
“Not a good spot to be in, if somebody comes after you,” she guesses.
“No, it was not,” Nicky agrees.
“I’m sorry, did you want to tell this story?” Joe asks.
“Well, you were dead for the next part, so yes, I think I should.”