It isn’t that he didn’t trust Nicky.
“Isn’t he, like, a thousand-year-old super soldier? Same as you?” Nile asks, her eyes squinting up at him as she shifts from foot to foot.
Joe grins, casting a look out over the desert in the general direction their safehouse lies, even though it couldn’t quite be seen through the rocky landscape. He’d taken Nile out for some sword-training at the earliest crack of dawn, letting the other two rest after the last mission. No special reason for it except that Andy is now mortal and Nicky is, well, adorable when he sleeps.
“We’re not quite that old yet,” he replies, “but yes, Nicky is quite the sight when he fights.”
“So then why do you always…” Nile gestures vaguely. “I’m just saying. It doesn’t seem like he runs to you as much as you run to him.”
Her face twists up, uncomfortable asking even while Joe is unoffended.
“Ah, you’re asking if my heart neglects me?”
Nile scowls and he laughs.
“You misunderstand, Nile,” he says, stabbing his sabre into the ground as the conversation grows deeper. “My need to put myself next to him in battle is more a nervous tick that a romantic gesture. My Nicky doesn’t love me less than I him, of that I am certain.”
Nile grows pinched. “So then why?”
Ah, what a question.
Hundreds of years ago it was Yusuf who would be the one to run Nicolo through, his blood coating the very sword they used in their training of the present. Then immediately after, when they travelled and fought reluctantly as, to one another, they were still the enemy was also a fraught time. It took decades for Yusuf to see his Nicky, to see beyond the flat eyes and foreign tongue and into the hands built for helping and body built for love.
The growing process had been something else. Nicolo had only moderate compassion for Yusuf in the beginning, overwhelmed with the world they were being thrust into and his life as a crusader he was leaving behind. Nicky hadn’t confided in Joe in those times, too often simply looking up at the night’s sky and letting himself remain silent where Joe needed to fill the space with words. No, Nicky’s compassion had shone through with strangers; farmers who needed someone strong to finish their new barn, merchants who needed guards for their wares against criminals, small orphan children who needed kindness from adults in a life without. Nicky gave it, gave them all everything he could give and did so in a way like he was genuinely moved, genuinely happy to help.
Yusuf had witnessed it, over and over, barely believing the man who had fought such an evil war could carry strange old women on his back and walk them up steep hills, or patiently listen to a beggars story even when they had no money to give, or braid a little girl’s hair when it got stuck in low-hanging tree branches. He laughed when others laughed and wept when others wept.
And Joe had been overcome.
He had seen the evils and folly of men, had seen it in Nicky just as well. To witness the stark contrast, the duality within the man he would grow to take as a lover, had filled his spirit in wordless ways. He grew a new hope looking into Nicky, seeing a depth of compassion he’d never seen before, nor expected from an ancient enemy.
So when another came to kill that man Joe had no choice. His hope was carried in Nicky, his belief in human goodness so wrapped up in every other thing he so loved about the man that his body demanded he move. That he put himself between that man and danger, that he himself embody that piece of humanity that strives to protect kindness and compassion and empathy. It was a divine force that had first moved his legs into stepping between Nicky and some Germanic spear oh so many years ago, and it was that same instinct that made sure he stepped up beside his love and took bullets for him whenever God would allow.
He explains as much as he can to Nile, seeing her expression shift through many emotions before settling.
Joe chuckles, feeling her youth. “You know,” he says, picking up his sabre once more, “I do have a more selfish reason for stepping up to protect him as often as I do.”
“Oh, yeah?” Nile asks, lowering into the stance Joe had so recently taught her. “What’s that?”
“Whenever he sees my blood spilled to protect him, his eyes burn like you couldn’t imagine, and he fights like a starved lion in a colosseum. I would spend my life chasing that sight and die a happy man.”
Nile groans, swiping at him. “I’m sorry I asked.”