He wakes up with blood in his throat and someone leaning over him saying, soft voiced, “Come back to me.”
Warm hands are cupped around his face. His head hurts like he’s been bludgeoned with rocks, repeatedly and with prejudice, but the pain is starting to leech away. He coughs, metallic.
“Joe,” the man above him breathes with relief. His eyes are large and pale and hurting.
“I’m here,” Joe says, just to see some of the agony leave those eyes. He suspects it isn’t the truth, or not the full truth in any case. He doesn’t remember that his name is apparently Joe. He doesn’t remember anything.
The man sighs, tension leaving his shoulders. This is probably going to come back to bite Joe in the ass but when he looks around there are more important things happening right now.
They’re in a warehouse and the warehouse is on fire. Men in black tac gear are scattered along catwalks up near the rafters, lining up the muzzles of their guns on the top rails, ready to shoot. Joe can keep up his lie of omission for a few minutes while they try not to die.
“Quickly. Up,” the man at Joe’s side says, lifting beneath Joe’s elbow, and Joe doesn’t know him but somehow he thinks, I’d follow you anywhere, and then he gets up and he does.
Maybe Joe’s brain is just a little rattled. Everything could come back to him in a few minutes. Where he was born and why people are trying to kill him and the name of the man with his hand anchored on Joe’s shoulder. He doesn’t look like someone easily forgotten.
Joe should probably be focusing on their escape, but all he needs to do is keep his feet moving. He can spare a glance to catalog the man beside him: short brown hair, pale skin. His pink lips are pressed together in concentration. Joe wonders what they look like when they smile.
“Joe! Nicky!” a woman’s voice calls, seconds before she barrels around the corner of the hallway they’re in. She has an axe in her hand, red with blood along the edges.
“We’re here,” Nicky says. Joe’s not sure the name suits him. It isn’t what he would have guessed.
“Nile’s bringing the car around,” the woman says and turns back the way she came.
Nicky’s hand slides down from Joe’s shoulder to his wrist, tugging him forward. Joe’s pulse quickens under his fingers.
When they exit the warehouse, it’s to a dark, cool night. Stars hang across the sky like diamonds. Joe breathes deep, the smell of crisp clean air replacing the tang of blood and smoke. There’s a hint of salt; they must be near an ocean.
A black car screeches around the side of the warehouse with a young woman at the wheel. Nile. Joe’s only missing one name now, the woman with the axe. She slides gracefully into the front seat and Nicky does the same in the back, leaving the door open for Joe.
Nicky doesn’t scoot all the way across the seats. When Joe closes the door behind him, they’re pressed thigh to thigh. Nicky sighs and rests his head tiredly against Joe’s shoulder. Joe wants to wrap an arm around him. It feels like the right thing to do, but he doesn’t know if he can trust it. The past is still a blank and it looks like Joe’s going to have to face that. He doesn’t think he can fake his way through this.
Joe shifts, moving his shoulder so Nicky has to raise his head. Joe ought to look him in the eye for this.
“Joe?” Nicky says, sounding confused. His eyes are so like when Joe woke up, wide and waiting. “Are you all right?”
“I’m sorry,” Joe prefaces, because he can tell this is going to hurt, and he doesn’t want it to. He can tell already that he never wants to hurt these people, Nicky least of all. “But who are you?”
The car swerves before Nile gets it back under control and Nicky physically recoils, suddenly across the seats, almost pressed to the opposite window.
No, Joe thinks, come back. His hand reaches out toward Nicky without thought.
Nicky takes Joe’s hand easily. He comes back across the seat and raises his palm to Joe’s cheek, stopping an inch before their skin touches. Joe can feel the heat of him, barely a breath away.
“Joe,” Nicky says, very quietly. “You do not remember us? You do not remember—,” his voice stalls. “You do not remember me?”
Joe shakes his head. “I’m sorry,” he repeats. He’s so sorry for the look on Nicky’s face.
Nicky nods and says, confidently, “It’s okay. You hit your head. It will heal. We are your family. Andy and Nile.” He nods toward the front seats where Andy is looking back at Joe with still eyes. “I’m Nicky—Nicolò.”
Nicolò. That seems to fit better. “And you’re my...boyfriend?” Joe hazards. He hopes it isn’t just that he wants it to be true. Maybe he should have waited and asked Andy or Nile later.
Fuck, Joe thinks. Definitely should have waited and asked Andy or Nile later instead of putting that on Nicky. Is Joe an amicable ex-boyfriend? A secretly yearning or already gently refused lover?
Or is that too far in the wrong direction? Husband? They’re not wearing rings but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Joe thinks of Nicky’s head on his shoulder, his pained eyes on Joe as he woke up. Come back to me, he’d said.
“Husband,” Nicky says, and Joe feels a sweep of relief, a strange possessive joy that almost doesn’t belong to him.
“Good,” he says, startling Nicky into a smile.
In the front seat, Andy laughs.
Nicky’s hand, held hovering above Joe’s cheek like a bird afraid to land, comes down to softly cup his jaw. “Everything will be all right,” Nicky says, and Joe believes him.
The bed is too large.
It’s a ridiculous thought to have. The bed Nicky had led Joe to in the small country house is a single. Joe’s crowded up against the wall, his ankles hanging off the bottom edge of the mattress. He still feels it.
“Maybe sleep will help,” Nicky had said, turning down the covers for him, a gesture that had made Joe’s eyes well for no reason he could name.
Joe punches the pillow beneath his head. Maybe sleep would help if he could only achieve it. He feels like he’s been tossing and turning for hours, his mind spinning. What’s going to happen if his memory doesn’t come back? They’re clearly soldiers. Black Ops? Not the kind of thing where you can throw a liability like memory loss into the mix.
And Nicky. Will he still want a husband who doesn’t remember him? Who doesn’t know their anniversary or their jokes, the promises they made each other, all the things that build a life together? How many missteps will Joe make where he should be sure footed? How often will Nicky have to forgive him?
Joe swallows around the burn in his throat. It seems a terrible sentence to force on someone he loves.
The bedroom door creaks softly and Joe glances up, glad for a distraction from his melancholy. The outline in the doorway is so vague it could be anyone. Joe couldn’t say how he knows, with perfect certainty, that it’s Nicky even before Nicky says, softly, “Joe? You cannot sleep?
Joe levers himself up on his elbows. “No,” he admits.
Nicky steps into the room and crosses to the bed. Joe can just see the pale gleam of his eyes in the dim light, the soft curve of his shadowed cheek.
Nicky puts a casually proprietary hand on Joe’s hip and nudges him over onto his side, back to the wall. Then he slides under the circle of Joe’s arm, his back to Joe’s front, the perfect missing puzzle piece.
Oh, Joe thinks, understanding. It isn’t that the bed was too large, but that it was too empty. His body remembering what his mind can’t.
“This is all right?” Nicky asks, not looking over his shoulder. His voice sounds strange, thick, but it’s probably just the edge of sleep. A tremor runs down his spine and Joe pulls the sheets up over them, tugs Nicky a little closer into the warmth of his body.
“Yeah,” Joe says, resisting the almost irresistible urge to bury his face into the nape of Nicky’s neck. The lines are so blurred. He’ll let Nicky be the one to reach across them for now. “This is good.”
In the morning, Joe’s alone in the bed and he crawls out in search of Nicky and sustenance, in that order.
Luckily, they’re both to be found together. Nicky is in the kitchen, singing quietly in Italian as he stirs pancake batter, coffee percolating at his elbow. Sun slants in through the window, hitting him perfectly, a soft, effulgent halo glowing around him like a Renaissance painting. Joe’s fingers itch, with the desire to touch him and the desire to paint him both.
Andy kicks out a chair across from her at the table and Joe is abruptly reminded that other people exist. “Thanks,” Joe says, sitting down.
“You sleep okay?” Andy asks. “Anything come back to you?”
Joe had slept like a rock after Nicky climbed into bed with him but his memories are still out of reach. “Nothing,” he says. “Is it going to be an issue for any missions coming up?”
“We’ll take some down time while you recover,” Andy says, easily. “It’s not a problem.”
Joe wonders how long that will hold true.
“Coffee,” Nicky says, appearing at the table with three mismatched mugs hooked through the fingers of one hand and the coffee pot in the other. When he sets them down, Andy takes the red mug. Joe looks between the remaining two: solid green and blue with a ring of gold along the rim. Is one of them his? Does it matter? He can’t remember how he takes his coffee.
Nicky solves the problem for him, pouring into the blue mug and reaching across the table to the sugar bowl. He ladens in two spoonfuls. “You like sweet things,” Nicky says, pressing the warm mug into Joe’s hands and Joe thinks, yeah, I do, don’t I?
Andy snorts into her coffee and Joe looks up from where he’s been watching Nicky's hips as he walks back to the stove to flip the pancakes. “What?” Joe says, cheekily. “He’s not wrong.”
“You may not remember anything, but your personality is perfectly intact,” Andy assures him.
Good, Joe thinks. It’s strange; he’s lost so much but somehow he doesn’t feel lost. Sitting at the kitchen table with Andy, Nicky only a few steps away, the faint sounds of Nile waking up across the hall, it all feels as comfortable as if he’s known them for years for all that Joe can’t remember the details of it.
Joe pours coffee into the mug left behind. “How does Nicky take it?” Joe asks Andy.
“With milk,” Andy says, “but he usually just ends up drinking half of yours anyway.”
Joe finds the idea of that as endearing as he finds everything about Nicky. He gets up, setting Nicky’s coffee on the counter as he opens the fridge to take out the milk.
“For you,” he says, puting the doctored coffee beside Nicky’s elbow.
“Thank you,” Nicky says, turning his head, a small smile on his bowed lips.
There’s a beat a moment later when Joe knows he’s missed something. Nicky’s smile falls away. Shit. Would Joe with his memories have leaned in for a kiss? Would he have put a hand against the small of Nicky’s back? Stolen a sip of Nicky’s coffee; the same soft, casual thievery that Nicky apparently participates in?
The moment is gone a second later as if it never happened. Nicky turns back to the pancakes and executes a poorly timed flip, the pancake folding over, half beautifully golden and half raw batter. He pokes at it dispiritedly and mutters something under his breath in Italian.
“That one can be mine,” Joe says.
“Yes, I know,” Nicky says, and he’s smiling again, his eyes warm on Joe.
Joe wonders if he routinely consumes Nicky’s cooking failures. It seems an easy concession if the reward is Nicky’s happiness. He puts his hand over Nicky’s on the spatula. “Am I any good at flipping?”
“You are a virtuoso,” Nicky says, ceding his place at the stove.
Nile slouches into the kitchen, attired in soft sweatpants and a tee shirt several sizes too large for her. She perks up, spying Joe at the stove. “Pancakes?”
“Pancakes,” Nicky confirms. He opens one of the cabinets and pulls out a bag of chocolate chips. Leaning over Joe’s shoulder, he sprinkles a handful into the latest pancake. “For Nile.”
Joe smiles. Nile doesn’t look that much younger than them but there’s a clear gap. He isn’t surprised to find that Nicky indulges her.
“You are a marvel, my love,” Nicky says, ten minutes later, looking at the plate of flawless pancakes Joe’s produced.
Joe feels his heart jolt. My love. “Thank you, darling,” he tries in return and Nicky laughs. “Sweetheart? Baby? Give me something here, I’m injured,” Joe says, hand on his heart.
“I’m your love too,” Nicky says.
It’s strangely sweet that they use the same endearment for each other. Everything about them is so sweet Joe almost wonders if it comes off as cloying from the outside but Andy and Nile seem inured, sipping their coffee peacefully at the table.
He and Nicky bring the pancakes over to the table to a cheer from Nile. Nicky immediately takes a sip of Joe’s coffee despite having his own an inch away from his hand.
“You doing okay?” Nile asks Joe, around a mouthful of pancakes.
“Yeah,” Joe says, “I’m all right.”
The next night, Joe dreams about sand, hot sun scorching down. There’s a sword in his hands, wet with blood, and he thrusts it through a man’s stomach. Wide, pained eyes look back at him. Familiar eyes.
Joe wakes with a gasp.
In his arms, Nicky turns to face him. Joe can’t look him in the eye. I killed you, he thinks, even though it’s ridiculous. It was only a dream.
“Joe,” Nicky says, “did you remember something?”
Joe shakes his head. He gently maneuvers Nicky aside so he can climb out of bed. He needs to move. He needs to run. To be somewhere other than here.
“Joe!” Nicky calls after him, but Joe is already out the front door. His feet slip in the morning dew and Joe has a terrible flash of slipping in blood, the streets red with it.
Nicky finds him at the lookout with an ease that suggests Joe comes to this spot often. Waves crash against the sea wall a hundred feet below.
“Will you tell me what you remembered?” Nicky asks.
Joe watches a wave crest and break. “It was only a dream.”
“Tell me then,” Nicky says, “about your dream. Was I there with you?”
I killed you. The words stick in Joe’s throat. He doesn’t want to say them. He wants to have a morning like yesterday, with pancakes and smiles. He wants his good memories, not this strange bad dream, so vivid it might have been a memory except that Nicky is standing here in front of him and not dead on the sand.
“Did—,” Nicky swallows, loud in the silence Joe’s left. “Did I hurt you?”
Joe spins around, startled. Nicky is standing out of arm's reach, carefully spaced away from him. “No!” Joe says. “No. I— I killed you.”
Nicky nods like this isn’t shocking, like it isn’t horrifying. “Joe,” he says. “It’s hard to explain. We do not understand it ourselves, not truly, but you and I do not die. Not like other people. We killed each other many times when we first met, but we always came back.”
Joe stares at him. He wonders, for the first time, if Nicky is lying to him and why.
Nicky takes a knife out of his pocket and draws it swiftly across his wrist before Joe can react.
Joe runs to him, instinctive, pressing his hand around the wound to stem the bleeding. Nicky’s blood on his hands again.
“Joe,” Nicky says, “it’s all right.” He prys Joe’s hands away. “See. It will heal.”
Joe wipes the blood away. It has slowed. He can’t feel the separate folds of skin, disconnected where Nicky made the cut. Nicky’s skin is perfectly smooth again.
“It’s the same for you,” Nicky says. “And for Andy and Nile.” He cups Joe’s hand carefully and looks into his eyes. “Will you let me show you?”
At Joe’s nod, Nicky makes a small cut on Joe’s palm. Nothing like the lengthy slice he’d made across his own wrist. It takes a moment for Joe’s blood to well to the surface. A few drops only and then the cut is gone as if it never existed.
Joe takes the knife from him and cuts again, wider this time. It takes a moment longer but it closes just the same. “Did I really kill you, then?” Joe asks. He doesn’t understand. How could he have done it? How could they have gone from a sword through the stomach to stealing sips of each other’s coffee in the mornings?
“You did not love me at the start,” Nicky says, something weakly humorous in the sad tilt of his smile. “I did not love you either. We killed each other many times.”
Joe imagines Nicky lifting a sword, a swift, clean strike from his shoulder to his hip. “How many times?”
Nicky shrugs as if it doesn’t matter. “We didn’t keep a count.”
“But you’re my husband,” Joe protests. He can’t imagine laying an unsoft hand on Nicky, let alone killing him.
“It was many years ago, Joe. We came to love each other later,” Nicky says, quietly. “We have loved each other for centuries.”
Joe’s mind reels. They don’t die. He’s lost not the thirty odd years he’d assumed, but hundreds.
“I’m sorry this first one was not a good memory,” Nicky says. “We have so many good memories. You’ll see.”
Nicky holds out his hand. Joe puts the knife back into his palm. Nicky blinks and pockets it, then he reaches out his hand again. Oh, Joe thinks, taking it, and let’s Nicky lead him back home.
Two weeks later, Joe has yet to remember anything else. He wonders if he’s preventing it somehow, the trauma of that first memory making his mind skittish and unwilling.
When they sleep, Nicky’s ribs feel fragile beneath Joe’s fingers. Four inches lower, that’s where Joe’s sword went in. The only time he remembers. We killed each other many times, Nicky had said. Did Joe stab Nicky through the heart too? Did he strangle him? Bludgeon him? Cut a red smile across his throat? There are some memories Joe doesn’t want back.
“It’s all right,” Nicky still says when Joe’s missing memories show no sign of reappearing, although there’s a hint of concern around his eyes. He takes great joy in re-introducing Joe to his favorite things: sweet oranges and vibrant paintings, books faded from long use, the constant loving press of hands against their pages.
In a trunk beside their bed, there are volumes of poetry in Arabic and Italian, Spanish, English, French, Russian. When Joe opens them, he can read them all. In the margins are curls of his own handwriting.
“Am I a poet?” Joe had asked. He’d already seen his artist’s sketchbook. Page upon page of Nicky’s smile, Andy’s sharp chin, a sad-eyed man he can’t remember.
“Oh yes. You once wrote me a sonnet every day to prove that you could keep up with Shakespeare. They were far better than any of his,” Nicky said, with a loving heart.
Without feet I can make my way to you, without a mouth I can swear your name, Joe read, Rilke’s words underlined in his own hand.
Yes, that is for you, he thinks, looking at Nicky, but it feels like an echo. Joe wonders that he could feel stronger for Nicky even than he does now but he knows somewhere deep and visceral, in his heart’s blood, the marrow of his bones, that it’s so. Nine hundred years of love and memory make it possible. Joe wants that back. For himself and for Nicky.
Nicky looks at him like he’s the sun and stars. Joe wishes he could remember what his past self did to deserve it. He wants to do it all over again in his current incarnation, so he can feel as if he’s earned it.
“Tell me your favorite memory of us,” Joe says.
Something stricken goes through Nicky’s eyes. He turns his face away for a moment until he masters it and then turns back to Joe, smiling, but sadly. “A difficult proposition, my heart. You’ve given me so many to choose from.”
Joe’s throat burns. He opens his mouth to take it back, to say, I’m sorry. You don’t have to tell me. I’ll remember. I’ll remember.
“You first told me you loved me on a hill in Thessaly,” Nicky says, softly. His face is far away, as far away as Thessaly perhaps. As far away as nine hundred years. “It was dusk. I remember the wind was cool and sweet. We’d eaten plums for supper. An ordinary night, until you looked at me and gave me the words I had so long ached for but never allowed myself to hope I might hear.”
Joe lifts shaking hands to brush the wetness from Nicky’s cheeks.
“Ah, what a waste for me to be the storyteller,” Nicky says, laughing through his tears. “Forgive me. You could have told it with such poetry.”
Joe hates the past tense bitterly. “I’m sure you were very beautiful,” he says, quietly, trying to imagine the Nicky of centuries ago. Would his hair have been longer? His face bearded? His eyes, at least, would have been the same. Joe’s sure he held the words of love in his heart as long as he could bear. The same way he carries them now.
Two weeks at Nicky’s side and Joe knows that he loves him. Joe would tell him, for the first time—the first that time Joe remembers—in this house in Marseille, but Joe as he is now is not the man that Nicky loves and it can only be unwelcome to be loved by a shadow, a ghost.
I am only the house of your beloved, Joe had read in his books of poetry and felt his heart constrict.
“Come, I’ll tell you a better story,” Nicky says in a rush, brushing aside his favorite jewel of a memory.
Has Joe taken even that from him? Turned his remembered joy to bitterness? Joe puts a hand over Nicky’s knuckles. “Thank you,” he says, “but I think I’ll go for a walk. The weather is very fine.”
“Yes,” Nicky says, his eyes clouded. “All right.”
Joe leaves him there, at the center of all that poetry, beautiful and behind him.
“Copley sent us a new job,” Andy says.
Nile and Nicky both shoot unsubtle glances at Joe before they turn to Andy. “It’s a milk run,” Andy says. “We can do it with just the three of us.”
Joe can’t believe Andy thinks that’s going to fly. “No,” he says. “I’m going.”
Nicky’s been practicing sword fighting with him. Joe occasionally gets distracted by the fierce lines of Nicky’s body, the sweat that gathers at his hairline, but he can hold his own. Another instance of his body’s remembrance. Joe wonders, if he kissed Nicky, would his lips remember? But there’s little point in speculating.
“You don’t remember our fighting patterns. You’d be a liability,” Andy says bluntly. She adds, assuaging, “We could use a getaway driver.”
Joe imagines sitting in a warmed car, the engine purring beneath the hood, while Nicky is fighting without him, the interminable waiting to see if they’re all right. He doesn’t think he could stand it. “No.”
“Rear guard,” Andy says, compromising. What she really means is lookout, but Joe nods. At this point he’ll take it.
“It will be fine, my love,” Nicky says.
Joe’s heart jumps. It’s the first time Nicky’s called him ‘my love’ again since their—not fight, but Joe doesn’t know what to call it. Their session of mutual emotional pain perhaps. Joe has spent the intervening days torturing himself with more love poetry and pestering Nile.
“Of course Nicky still loves you,” she’d said, looking at Joe as if he’d lost his sanity along with his memory. “What are you even talking about?”
“He loves Joe,” he said, trying to explain.
“You are Joe.”
Joe tried, “He hasn’t kissed me.” It felt entirely damning. Nicky reached out for Joe all the time, slept chastely in their bed, but he’d looked for nothing further.
“Well, did you tell him you wanted to?” Nile asked. “Maybe he’s trying to respect your boundaries.”
What Joe feels for Nicky is boundless. Which is exactly why he’s asked for nothing Nicky might hesitate to give.
Nicky helps Joe into his Kevlar and checks that Joe’s scimitar and guns are secure. “You’re sure you want to come?” he confirms. “We’d only be gone a few hours.”
Joe tugs Nicky’s vest down, making sure it’s covering his stomach as much as possible, the tender place Joe’s sword once went in. “Where you go, I go, my love.”
Nicky smiles at him, but it’s a faded and worried thing.
Joe understands, later, when their milk run becomes a massacre. Bullets split the air like horizontal rain and there’s a hole in Nicky’s guard, a space on his left that Joe knows, suddenly, that he would have filled.
Nicky takes a bullet and Joe abandons his useless covered position at the rear to run to him. Blood soaks through the knees of his pants as he leans over Nicky’s supine body, a mirror to how Joe once died and awoke.
“Joe, it is okay,” Nicky says, or tries to say, like he doesn’t have a hole blown clear through his neck, the kind of thing no one comes back from.
Joe is dimly aware that he’s making a noise he didn’t know his throat was capable of, a high pitched keening. The bullets have stopped, but the light is fading from Nicky’s eyes. His hand, clenched around Joe’s wrist, goes slack and Joe feels the breath go out of him, the terrible heavy stillness of death.
“It’s okay,” Nile says. There’s a stripe of blood across her cheek. “Give him a minute.” She reaches out to touch his shoulder, but Joe shies away. He thinks if anyone aside from Nicky touches him, he might shatter into a million sharp-edged pieces.
Every second feels like hours with Nicky out of the world. Joe doesn’t breathe until Nicky gasps, his body jack-knifing upward. “Joe,” he says, reaching.
Joe clutches him like a drowning man, so close he can feel Nicky’s soft sighing breaths, the quick, miraculous thrum of his pulse.
“I need to remember,” Joe says. He can’t stand to feel like a faded version of himself, rendered in watercolor where he should be oils. Can’t stand to leave the gap in Nicky’s guard where he belongs.
“We’ll go to Malta,” Nicky says. “You will remember in Malta.”
Stepping across the border of Malta doesn’t return Joe’s memories. Nor does crossing the threshold of the small, well-kept house on the outskirts of Valletta.
Something about it feels familiar but it might just be how clearly it’s someone’s home. There are spots of brightness everywhere: a yellow throw blanket, green striped pillows, a cerulean tablecloth. On the walls are framed sketches, recognizable as his own hand.
He follows Nicky through the narrow halls to the bedroom.
Joe stares at the bedsheets. Three nights ago, he’d had a dream. Or categorized it as a dream, because no reality could measure up to the fantasy of how it had felt to have Nicky beneath him, the hot, tight clench of his body as Joe rocked into him. Nicky had writhed below him, begging for harder and more, hands fisted in the bedsheets. The same blue and white bedsheets in their bedroom here.
Joe puts down their bags and trails Nicky, half a step behind, through the rest of the house.
Nicky has to show him where the towels are in their own home. It cuts Joe like a knife, a wound that echoes in his heart far longer than it would on his skin.
“Come,” Nicky says, brightly, tugging Joe out the door. “You’ll love the coast.” He doesn’t let go of Joe’s hand as he guides them through the beautiful, paved streets, past close-packed buildings of sand colored stone, the high dome of the basilica visible in the distance.
The blue, blue waters come at them all at once, around a turned corner. Joe feels it like a balm, the sweet, calm lapping of the sea.
Nicky leads them to a weathered stone overhang and they sit quietly, shoulder to shoulder, watching the water until the sun sinks below the horizon, painting the sky pink and gold.
Joe traces the veins of Nicky’s hands, the tips of his fingers feather light, and Nicky looks at him so softly that Joe thinks maybe, maybe Nile is right and Nicky could learn to love this version of him after all.
In Malta, Joe remembers two things.
They’re standing beneath a stone archway, and suddenly Joe can see it like a strange overlay, the church it was before. “We’ve been here before,” he tells Nicky, excitedly.
Nicky smiles. “Yes, we were married here.”
Joe remembers the church and he remembers Nicky’s voice, a promise echoing across the centuries, I will love you for all the eternity we have left.
The memory starts to slide away and Joe grasps for it desperately. What had he said to that? Surely he’d promised the same. In sickness and in health they would have said, or meant, even without the spoken words. There would have been no caveats when promising so much as eternity.
“I love you,” Joe says, in the here and now. “I don’t know if you can feel for me all that you once did, but I’ve held the words in my heart as long as I could bear.”
Nicky’s eyes go bright. He reaches for Joe’s hands. “That’s just what you said in Thessaly. That you could bear to carry your love in silence no longer, even if I could not welcome it.”
But you did welcome it, Joe thinks. You welcome it still, though I have so much less to offer you. The tears in Nicky’s eyes are ones of joy.
“I am yours to love,” Nicky says, “if you will choose me again.”
“My heart,” Joe says, “memory cannot take you from me. The very moment I woke, I knew you were someone for whom I cared deeply. And I know now, with only weeks at your side, that I love you.”
“I love you too. Always,” Nicky says, and finally, finally kisses him.
Joe’s heart feels alight with happiness, assured of Nicky’s continued love, but he still wishes for his memories.
“Yusuf,” Nicky had called him yesterday, an old name in an old place, and then had to explain.
And it’s not only years with Nicky that he’s lost. He’s forgotten the family of his birth, where he was raised. Maybe, if Joe asked, Nicky could tell him if he’d had sisters, his father's profession, the warm shade of his mother’s eyes, but they’d be dry facts without the feeling behind them.
Joe’s sketchbook is full of people with history he can’t recall. There's a woman named Quynh at the bottom of the ocean and Joe doesn’t remember why that should hurt so much. “And this? Who’s this?” Joe asks, pointing at the sad-eyed man who’d featured significantly in his latest sketchbook before Joe had abruptly stopped drawing him and started drawing Nile.
“Booker,” Nicky says, with a complicated look on his face. “He’s our brother.”
“And he’s gone now?” Joe asks.
“Yes,” Nicky says, “but not like Quynh.”
Joe doesn’t ask further. He doesn’t want to pull another painful story out of Nicky, to re-open wounds that Joe should already know how to navigate.
Nicky has nightmares sometimes. He wakes up gasping, tears on his cheeks. “It’s all right,” he tells Joe. “It was only about Merrick.” It was only São Paulo or Yekaterinburg or Prague.
Joe hates all these people and places that have hurt Nicky and he hates that he can’t remember them, that he doesn’t know what to say to soothe the pain.
He’s forgotten their happiness too and Joe doesn’t know how to forgive himself for the time Nicky laughed, looking at a pomegranate at the outdoor market, and said “do you remember” before he had remembered.
I would die to love you properly, Joe thinks, his arms secure around Nicky’s sleeping form. The way you deserve, with all the history behind it.
He wonders if that’s the solution. If it isn’t patience that will serve him, but action. Joe hasn’t died since the accident that took his memory. Something had clearly gone wrong. He’d hit his head and it hadn’t healed, not the way everyone expected. Maybe what he needs is not rest but a reset.
“Just turn it off and then on again,” Nile had said, rolling her eyes, when Joe had come to her in panic with his phone which had been pixelating and glitching strangely. He’d been looking through his photos, 95% of which were pictures of Nicky. It was a crisis.
The reboot had solved the issue immediately.
Joe wonders if it could really be that—not easy, but simple. He isn’t afraid of it. Seeing Nicky come back from death had been entirely convincing about the phenomenon. And after Nicky’s first demonstration nicking Joe’s palm, Joe had tested himself by cutting off two fingers on his left hand and watching them grow back. He feels fairly confident.
He’s less confident about whether Nicky would be sanguine about it. Joe doesn’t want to make Nicky watch him die. Even if it’s not permanent, it’s still terrible beyond measure to watch someone you love leave you.
Perhaps he could sneak down to the coast, alone. There are so many precipices over the sea. But what would he do? Leave a note on their worn oak table, tucked beneath the bowl of apples they’d picked at the market: In case something goes wrong, here’s where I Ieft you?
What does love mean if not honesty? The making of choices together?
Joe presses a kiss to the back of Nicky’s neck. Tomorrow they’ll speak of it.
Nicky is hesitant as Joe foresaw. “Joe,” he says, worriedly, “you are as much my heart now as you have always been. If I’ve made you think that I need this of you, I am sorry.”
Joe presses a kiss to his knuckles. “You have nothing to be sorry for. I only want to go through life without such holes in me. If it doesn’t work, I’m no poorer for it. And with you at my side, I am always richer than any other man alive.”
“All right,” Nicky sighs. “I won’t pretend your every death doesn’t strike me like an arrow, but I suppose there’s little hurt in trying.”
Joe thinks it would be best to recreate the original circumstances. “How did I fall?” he asks, softly, sorry to prompt the remembrance.
“They shot you in the shoulder. The blow knocked you backwards and you fell off the catwalk,” Nicky says, the corner of his mouth turned down in unhappiness. “I didn’t see the impact but you woke up on your back.”
Joe remembers that. Nicky leaning over him. Come back to me. The beginning of everything he knows now.
There’s a church two streets down from them that’s closed for reconstruction, scaffolding swarming up the sides. They slip inside and Joe kisses Nicky, soft and slow, before he turns to take the stairs to the choir loft.
Nicky stops him with a hand on his wrist. “Let me,” he entreats, cutting Joe’s palm, to confirm that it heals quickly and well. “All right,” he says as the blood scabs and flecks away. “All right.”
Joe climbs into the loft and looks down. Red and blue light filters through the stained glass windows, throwing patterns on the stone floor. Nicky’s face is bathed in white, tilted up to look at him. Joe can see his lips shaping out prayers to his God.
Joe leans forward, precarious.
Nicky moves instinctively as if to catch him and then stops himself.
Joe closes his eyes. He can’t stand to watch Nicky watch him fall. The air rushes past his ears and then everything goes black.
Joe gasps awake. Alive.
A millennia of memories flood back to him.
He’d had two sisters, both older. His father had been a merchant. His mother had encouraged his art. Joe can’t remember their faces but he remembers the way they made him feel, light and loved.
He remembers Andy and Nile. The twin stabs of Quynh’s loss and Booker’s betrayal, but the good parts of them too. The way Quynh taught him to throw knives, all the sisterly pride on her face when he hit the center mark. How Booker would bring home slim volumes of French poetry along with his novels.
And Nicky. Thousands of memories of Nicky. You did not love me at the start, Nicky had told him and Joe hadn’t but oh how he had not so many years later. How he’d nurtured it at the very center of his heart for centuries and watched it blossom endlessly, perennial.
All the missing pieces fill in like color rushing into a black and white world.
The way Nicky had looked in Thessaly, when the dam in Joe’s heart had overflowed. His kisses had tasted like plums and moonlight and Joe had known he’d never again be able to live without them.
Sweet summer nights in Malta, sweat on the sheets and Nicky beneath him.
Morning kisses over the stove.
Pomegranates, the juice sticky and sweet on his fingers.
Joe knows the shape of their joy and their sorrows too. He wants to weep with the relief of it, feels tears on his cheeks already, but more than that he wants to tell Nicky that it’s all right, that he loves him, he loves him, he loves him.
Joe opens his eyes.
“Joe,” Nicky breathes above him, exhaling with relief. His eyes are large and pale and hoping.
“My heart,” Joe says. “I am here. All of me.” He reaches for Nicky, settles his hand at the side of Nicky’s neck, a soft, familiar place, and draws their lips together in a kiss.
Nicky presses into him. He tastes like plums and moonlight, remembered.
“Do you remember the last time we were in Malta?” Nicky asks. His eyes are hot and full of promises.
Joe smiles. “Of course, my love,” he says, his hand sneaking beneath Nicky’s shirt. “How could I ever forget?”