Florence, Present Day
Joe never tired of Florence, so long as Nicky was at his side.
They walked together through the familiar streets, soles of their shoes fitting against the grooves in the cobblestones as if the two had walked them when the foundation was first laid, literally and metaphorically cementing their place in history. They’d missed the birth of Florence by a few centuries, but they’d seen the city grow. They’d experienced the time of the Medici and of Michelangelo, but also recalled the year the city fell under Nazi control. When the British liberated Florence, Joe and Nicky were there, pulling the strings that led to the reclamation of the city.
Florence would always be familiar, the foundation the same even as the people around them changed. When they returned, no matter the decades that had passed, they would walk together, traveling secluded paths with their fingers laced until Joe would pull away to point and say something like: “Nicolò, remember when—” before recalling a memory that would leave them both with warm cheeks and lips curled upward.
Florence was not the only city they’d claimed for themselves; there were others: Oslo, Warsaw, Valletta (really, all of Malta was theirs), and on and on. They were places they had been called to on a job, traveling alongside Andy — and later Booker, and even later Nile — to right wrongs and restore balance. They were places where Joe had watched Nicky die, and places Nicky had watched Joe die, those few minutes never getting easier as one waited for the other to heal. Always, there was the worry that this time would be it, that their immortality would be shattered and the wounds would never heal. Like it had been for Lykon; like it was now for Andy.
Eventually, though, wounds would close and the cities would become places where, in the late hours of the night, or in the early hours of the morning, Nicky and Joe would lose themselves in the streets, holding on to one another in a way that said: Sono qui. I am here. Sempre. Always.
Tonight, they lost themselves in Florence as if it were 1489, the year Joe had sought out rising artist Leonardo da Vinci to inquire about the painter using Nicky as a muse. When the two had seen the Vitruvian Man at an unveiling in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice centuries later, Joe had said that the piece was not, in fact, inspired by the work of Vitruvius, but inspired by Nicky.
Nicky had said that Joe was making things up, that he was full of it. Unfazed, Joe had leaned close and whispered, “But it is true, my love, because you are perfect.” That was two hundred-some years ago.
That day in Venice was no different than tonight in Florence as the two walked together across the Piazza della Signoria, carefully navigating through throngs of tourists and Florentines alike. They passed by the Fountain of Neptune, lights illuminating the marble and bronze statues. Before they walked too far from it, Joe squeezed Nicky’s hand and nodded to the backend of the marble god. “Your ass is better, Nicolò.” He mused, voice just above a whisper.
A retort of any sorts lived and died on Nicky’s tongue; instead a grin spread wide across his face and laughter escaped him. The way he laughed was a melody, a symphony Joe never tired of. His smile was a touch of warmth against the cool Florentine night. “Come on, I would like to take you somewhere.” Nicky said, leaving behind the statue with its mediocre marble ass.
They walked together along Via dei Calzaiuoli , the sounds of Italian nightlife drifting with them as they went. Joe was certain he knew where Nicky was leading him, but feigned surprise all the same when Caffè Gilli came into view.
“1848.” Joe said as the two moved closer, hovering at the threshold for just a moment. “You bought me a ciambella .”
“And we talked about the future of Italy.”
The café was quieter tonight than either Nicky or Joe remembered it being in the past. A few bodies lingered on the patio outside of the shop, sipping on caffeinated drinks despite the hour, and having hushed conversations overtop a mellow soundtrack. Inside, the space was a little louder, a little more crowded near the counter, but still possessed a level of intimacy that carried with it feelings of familiarity.
A former hub for intellectual life, Gilli was a place Joe and Nicky knew well. Like them, the space had been shaped and transformed by history. At present it was a place for tourists and Florentines to feel important; the chandeliers alone that hung from the ceiling were a testament to the upscale nature of the building and its history. For Nicky and Joe, Gilli was a reflection of the life they had lived together for centuries; past and present coming together within the café’s walls.
“Look, Nicky.” Joe said as they walked to the pastry counter together. A small line had formed ahead of them; children tugged on their parents’ shirts as they pointed with excitement to the array of treats not-yet picked over, and young adults gossiped with one another in languages both familiar and unfamiliar. “ Ciambelle.”
A series of doughnuts and doughnut-like foods with various types of jellies inside and toppings on top were nestled in one corner of the display case. Not all of them bore the name ciambella, but the word created the same sense of nostalgia as the rest of Florence, so Joe had taken to calling anything resembling a doughnut a ciambella . Nicky never thought to correct him.
The treats in the case were more extravagant than the simple sugar doughnut Joe and Nicky had shared the first time they found themselves at Gilli, but Joe could not deny the way his heart tugged when it was their turn to order and Nicky asked for one of each.
He listened as Nicky conversed with the worker in Italian, smiling to himself as Nicky explained how his anima gemella — his twin soul; his soulmate — loved sweets. Joe missed the woman behind the counter’s reaction; every piece of him was dedicated to Nicky. His eyes followed the way Nicky’s lips curled upward and his eyes crinkled in the corners. His ears listened to the sound of Nicky’s laughter, the sound of his voice as he thanked the worker for the ciambelle. His hand reached for Nicky’s as they left the shop together, finding a table on the patio away from everyone else.
“I am yours forever.” Joe kept his voice a whisper. This moment belonged to the two of them; Florence existed for them alone. “Now pass me the one with the chocolate, la mia anima .” He added with a wink.
“What if that was the one I wanted?” Nicky teased as he handed over the doughnut.
They stayed until the remaining tables cleared and the music began to fade, closing time coming to meet them unexpectedly. Time existed differently for Joe and Nicky; there always seemed to be too much and not enough all at once. Perhaps they would come back ten years from now, walking together past the Fountain of Neptune to find Caffè Gilli and order ciambelle from a different worker. Or perhaps the same woman would be there, wondering why Nicky and Joe looked the same while she had aged.
For now, they gathered up the remaining treats and walked back to the hotel where Andy and Nile would be waiting in the adjoining room. In the morning, the work would resume, but this moment was theirs. It belonged to the two men who had lived one thousand lifetimes together and hoped to live one thousand more.
The hotel was quiet when they arrived, the clock reading 1:26 in the morning. They walked together to the elevator and when the doors closed, ready to take them up to the seventh floor, Nicky leaned himself against the wall and Joe leaned himself against Nicky.
“I keep thinking about what you said to the woman at Gilli.” Joe said, his slow words and slightly slurred speech an indication of how tired he was. “How I am like the second piece of your soul.”
Nicky paused, thinking for a moment, as the elevator door opened. He and Joe straightened themselves and began the short walk back to the room. “Destiny led me to you.” He said, then, as Joe fumbled in his pockets for the room key. “Our fates have been woven together and now you are as much a part of me as I am a part of you.”
“And you call me a romantic.” Joe teased as they walked into the hotel room together, careful not to disturb Andy or Nile who were on the other side of the wall. “Tell me more, Nicolò.” There was a hint of laughter in his voice, a type of joyous laughter brought on by the sound of Nicky speaking to him like a poet of old.
“I have known you for nine hundred years, Yusuf. You were bound to rub off on me one day.”
At this, Joe laughed; really laughed. He dropped the room key on the entry table and came to Nicky, cupping the other man’s face in his hands and kissing first his forehead and then his lips. It was gentle, a moment so brief in their nine hundred year history, but one that spoke to every other piece that made up who they had become.
“Come on,” Joe said, his forehead against Nicky’s, warm breath tickling Nicky’s face. “Big day tomorrow.”
“Big day in six hours.” Nicky responded, reminding Joe of the time and of their reason for being in Florence.
“Six hours? When was the last time we were able to sleep that long?”
The answer was a very long time ago.
They drifted to the bed, which was bigger than many of the spaces they were used to sleeping in. Despite being given the room to spread themselves out on the bed, they chose to hold on to one another; Joe curled against Nicky with a protective arm around him. Nicky’s hand gripped Joe’s wrist, pulling him closer until Joe’s palm rested against Nicky’s heart. It was the way they slept every night, the way they’d slept for centuries. Two bodies, two heartbeats, two souls becoming one.
“Nicky,” Joe whispered, voice barely above a whisper.
Nicky turned his head so his eyes could find Joe’s in the dark. “Is something wrong?” He sounded alert, frightened.
“No, no. Nothing is wrong.” Joe fumbled through his words, cursing himself for causing Nicky to worry about something that now seemed so trivial. “We should sleep.”
“What is it?” Nicky turned his body fully, flipping over to face Joe. Concern showed across his face.
Joe laughed, once. “Do you really want me to tell you?”
“Of course. If something is troubling you, please tell me.”
“I think the moment is ruined.”
“What do you mean?”
Joe found Nicky’s hands and took them in his own, bringing them up to his lips so he could kiss Nicky’s knuckles one by one. It was a gesture that bought him some time as he decided how to word what he wanted to say. “Nicolò, my love, my everything, I kept you awake because I had to tell you that I know now without any doubt clouding my judgement that your ass is better than Neptune’s.” The sarcasm was there, but so was the sentiment.
Nicky’s mouth opened, just a little, and for a moment no sound escaped him. Then the smile began to spread and he said in a hushed voice, “Goodnight, Yusuf.” Nicky leaned in so that he could place a kiss against Joe’s forehead before flipping his body back around, taking care, though, to ensure that he was pressed firmly against Joe. “There are parts of you that are better than Neptune as well, but I will tell you about them in the morning.”
Joe found his way back around Nicky, arms wrapping around the man whose side he would never leave. He felt as Nicky took hold of him, bringing his hand up until his palm rested against Nicky’s heart. The familiar feel of Nicky’s heartbeat guided him to sleep, the same as it had done for nearly a millennium.
It was there that Joe felt peace, caught in a timeless embrace with his twin soul, his anima gemella . His Nicolò di Genova. His Nicky.