Eventually there comes a lull—at least enough of one that they feel no guilt whatsoever in abandoning Nile to the same brutal and incredibly necessary training they all endured at some point under Andy's unforgiving tutelage—and so they go to Malta.
It's a three hour flight from London, barely long enough to settle in with a shared pair of headphones and a history-based podcast to poke holes in. Joe ends up circling through the in-flight movie list four times before settling on some loud, obnoxious American film ("an oxymoron," Joe cracks with a grin), and Nicky doesn't give it one iota of his attention, too busy planning to eat his way to a temporary death on a truly terrifying amount of pastizzi. If he doesn't end their stay leaking ricotta from his pores, it will be a wasted trip.
He must be shifting like an impatient child in his seat because Joe reaches over and threads their fingers together without looking away from the screen. There's a knowing smile on his face, though, and the twitch of his cheeks says he wants to needle him about his pastry addiction, but Joe keeps his teasing to himself and lifts their joined hands to press a kiss to Nicky's fingers.
The touch of Joe's mouth to his skin sends a feeling through his chest and down into his belly not unlike the first drop of a rollercoaster. Or, more accurately, the dizzying fall from a faultless Andravida horse. They had been riding a pair of them through the surf of San Blas Bay before it was called that, and Joe—having sent Nicky into a cackling fit over a story from his childhood involving his younger brother, six dogs, one dress belonging to a neighbor, and a rockslide—steered his mare up against Nicky's colt, caught Nicky's hand, and touched his own smile to it.
It was the first time either of them had dared to act upon the suffocating tension tangled hot and thick between them, and Nicky was caught so off-guard that his colt, mistaking his surprise for danger, bucked him straight into the water. After that, it became a game to see who could undo the other with just a touch. Nicky spent their first time in Malta in a hypersensitive daze and honestly doesn't remember much about it.
They've been back several times, but the second visit is perhaps the most memorable, and Nicky squirms a little in his seat to think of how terrifying and thrilling it was to feel the slide of a hand against his in plain sight of the Knights; the novelty of hot breath and teeth behind his ear in the shadows of Mnajdra; sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a green swell overlooking Mġarr ix-Xini and biting into his first pastizz, salt on his tongue that could have been from the cheese or sweat or the ocean spray in the air. Joe had pressed their lips together for the first time on that hill, gentle and almost polite, except when they broke apart and he darted his tongue inside Nicky's panting mouth to get a little taste of the ricotta.
Breathless, Nicky had buried his head in Joe's shoulder and asked, voice small and shaken, if they might sit quietly and admire the view for a while. Always kind, Joe wrapped an arm around him and said they could stay there as long as he wanted. Nicky sighed his thanks and didn't mention that God had turned his knees to water for his sin and he didn't think he could walk for a while.
"I can't tell if you're thinking about your precious pastizzi tal-irkotta or if you need to take a piss," Joe mutters, knocking their heads lightly together. "What's got you so antsy?"
"I'm not antsy," he lies, and Joe drags his attention away from his dreadful movie to give him a look that says he stopped buying what Nicky was selling around the time Angkor fell.
"Nicolo," Joe wheedles sweetly. He noses at Nicky's neck, drags his teeth over the spot that never fails to make him shiver.
He shivers. "I'm not, Joe."
"But something's on your mind."
In many ways, it is liberating to be so known by someone, to be pulled apart and studied at the most basic level and then pieced together again with an expert hand. To be known means there is no need to hide, but it also means you can't hide.
"I'm thinking about Malta."
"Okay." Joe purses his lips thoughtfully. "What about it?"
"Nothing. I'm just… thinking about it. About the second time we went."
When Nicky entered the priesthood, it was out of necessity rather than piety. He was the fifth son in a poor family in an even poorer town, and joining the church was considered one of few opportunities one had to be fed and housed on a regular basis. Of course, when he joined they gave him a sword instead of a parrish, but he was still promised food and shelter and a place in Heaven if only he would make both a weapon and a temple of his body and cast aside all earthly pleasures in God's name.
It took nearly two years of taking sacrament, preaching guidance to anyone who wanted it (or didn't), and righteously killing as many usurpers as possible before he could confidently say he belonged to God and God alone. It took two days spent glutted on pastry and Joe's cock to make him take it all back.
"Ah, that about it," Joe says, and he's just as cheerful surrounded by mundane people on a mundane flight as he is strapped down in a laboratory after hours of torture. "I treasure that trip more than you know. I wish you could've seen your face the first time you let me inside you. You looked so annoyed."
"Keep your voice down." Nicky makes a face, then casts a furtive glance at the people across the aisle. The woman closest to him is asleep. Her seatmate has headphones in. He answers in Italian, just to be courteous. "I was not annoyed. It was my first time with anyone like that. I was shocked. Consumed, even."
"No, you were definitely annoyed." Joe's amusement is beautiful in Italian. He has always relished the curl of the romance languages; he took quickly to Nicky's tongue in more ways than one. "There was an accusation in your eyes when you finally opened them to look at me. You acted like your precious God and I were in cahoots, deliberately keeping the wonders of sodomy a secret from you."
"We had been traveling together for nearly four centuries by then," Nicky grumbles, absolutely annoyed now that the memory has been unearthed. "If I was annoyed, it was because of all the time we had wasted."
But Joe has always had the uncanny ability of seeing what lies beneath what lies beneath—under the shock of unexpected pleasure, Nicky had been annoyed. Actually, he'd been positively furious. Not at Joe, who waited four hundred years to join with him like that, whispering gentle words in Nicky's own mother tongue all the while, but at the God who bade him to erase this part of himself in order to call himself whole, and at the priests and soldiers and scriptures that said such an act was evil in the first place. Nicky had never felt as holy as he did in that moment. The stretch and burn of Joe inside him felt like a sacrament.
When he begged Joe to take him the second time, it felt like catharsis, and he wept with relief to feel the holy ghost leave him entirely. The third time was just plain fun. By the time they'd left the island, they had run the gamut of all seven sins. And most likely invented a few new ones.
"Well, we certainly never made that mistake again," Joe says. He taps a playful finger against one of Nicky's knuckles and smiles to see his hand twitch.
And now that the loss of their immortality is no longer just one of Andy's sad parables but a very real threat, they never will again waste that kind of time. They're finite; they don't have the luxury of making 400-year-long mistakes.
"When we land," Nicky says, hot with new urgency, with newfound purpose, "I want two things: I want to eat pastizzi until I physically can't, and I want you inside me for as long as you can stand it."
Joe's throat bobs and his pupils blow wide until they nearly swallow his irises completely, but he still finds the wherewithal to be an absolute bastard. "Will there even be room for me with all that pastry?"
"There is always room for you." Smiling, Nicky threads their fingers together again and rests his head against Joe's, feeling as shaken and humbled as he did on that green hillside overlooking the bay centuries ago.
"As long as I can stand it, huh? That's an awfully long time, Nicolo. That's forever."
"We have it." Until they don't.