Things go tits-up in a remarkably old fashioned way in Estonia--the apartment building where Nicky, Joe, Nile, and Andy are squatting catches on fire. “I don’t want to hear shit from Copley about security cameras,” Nile says through gritted teeth as she and Nicky kick down doors to make sure the building’s other residents get out safe. “Next time, we are staying in a goddamn five star resort.”
They get everyone out safely, but Joe’s beard catches on fire and Nile has to jump out of a fourth floor window. There are definitely onlookers with smartphones. After Andy and Copley finish yelling at each other (Andy burned her arm and is pissed about it.), Andy tells them that they need to get off the grid while Copley cleans up the mess.
“OK, boss,” Nicky says. “Should we split up? We can go north.”
Joe groans. North means ‘cold,’ and Joe is, in Nicky’s expert opinion, a gigantic fussy baby about the cold.
Andy looks at Nile and says, “I have a place in the middle of nowhere, Ukraine. We can go there.” She turns to Nicky. “So yeah, you guys can head north.”
“We have a place in Finland,” Nicky confirms as Joe mutters, “Fucking Finland,” next to him. “We’ll wait for Copley to get in touch?”
Yup,” Andy says, resigned.
“Your place in the Ukraine isn’t a cave, is it?” Nile asks.
“Humans lived in caves for thousands of years, Nile,” Andy responds, and Nicky smiles because this is already becoming a bit with them.
“Yeah. There’s a reason they stopped, you know,” Nile replies.
Nicky turns to Joe, who is missing half his beard and frowning like he’s been told it will never grow back. “Does it have to be Finland?” Joe asks.
“It’s driveable, and it’s peak northern lights season,” Nicky says apologetically. “We probably won’t see anyone, but we won’t look out of place if we do, either.”
They’d shouldered their go-bags as soon as they smelled smoke, so money and passports thankfully aren’t an issue. They rent a car and start the 20 hour drive up to Inari. Nicky takes the first shift driving so Joe can trim the half of his beard that hadn’t burned off.
“You are laughing at me,” Joe says evenly, moving the scissors along his jawline.
“I am not,” Nicky replies, keeping his eyes on the road.
“You are laughing on the inside.”
It’s a disadvantage of nine hundred years in each other’s pockets, Nicky thinks, because he is laughing on the inside. His beloved looks like a seabird mid-molt.
“I liked this beard,” Joe says.
“It will grow back just as beautifully,” Nicky says.
“It won’t be the same though,” Joe replies mournfully, and Nicky mentally settles in for a long, grumpy drive.
They’ve been to every corner of the earth, and the Arctic Circle in winter feels more alien than almost anywhere else, the land drained of color and the sky infinitely black but for the incandescent peaks and swirls of the aurora borealis.
The snow surrounding their cabin is powdery and light, blown easily by the frequent sharp gusts of wind. It’s mostly gone from the front steps, but they have to dig out a drift right in front of the door.
Joe peels out of his wet clothes and leaves them on the floor inside the door. Nicky sighs and picks them up, looking up to see Joe already pulling on a second long-sleeve shirt from his bag.
Joe looks out the window at the endless night and says, “Do you remember that underground city in Turkey?”
“Which one?” Nicky asks distractedly as he checks the utilities. They haven’t been back to this house in decades, but it has a hired caretaker and has been rented out fairly regularly. Nicky is relieved to find that the water and electric are in running order.
“Not important,” Joe replies. “You remember living underground, though?”
Nicky remembers the rush to get an entire population underground before the raiders came through, although he no longer remembers who exactly the raiders were. Just that they’d torch the town and anyone in it, and that it happened often enough that the town easily moved down into the lower city’s maze of tunnels and rooms, built far earlier by other locals hiding from other raiders. He remembers torches along corridors that were as busy as main streets, the firelight giving everyone’s skin a reddish tinge.
To Joe he says, “I remember our bed was carved into the wall, and you banged your head on the ceiling every morning.” That earns him a small smile, which is a bit disappointing since Nicky had been hoping for a laugh. “Why do you ask?”
Joe hums, then says, “I missed the sun there too,” before sighing dramatically and adding, “At least in Turkey it was warm.”
Nicolo de Genova has loved Yusuf al Kaysani for a dozen lifetimes and, God and/or the mysterious forces governing the universe willing, he will love him for a dozen more. Nicky repeats this mantra to himself as Joe complains every day from breakfast until bedtime.
He shaves his beard and announces, “My face feels naked.” Then he pats his hair and says, “And now I feel like this is too big for my head.” The fireplace is too drafty. The sheets scratch his delicate skin. Not even the northern lights are spared, as Joe announces apropos of nothing, “I don’t think they’re that impressive, honestly.”
Most of all, Joe complains about the cold. His feet are cold. His nose is cold. His hands are cold. He even tries to convince Nicky that his liver is cold, but sulks off after Nicky tells him he probably just needs to balance his humors.
“Let’s go for a walk along the lake,” Nicky tries after Joe has spent four days airing his grievances from the cabin’s overstuffed couch. Joe gives him a glare icier than the weather. He recognizes that Joe just wants to wallow. It happens. Nicky spent most of the 1310s sulking, for example. So Nicky downloads a book he’s been meaning to read and gives Joe some space.
Well, he tries to give Joe space. Joe does not seem to want it, following Nicky from room to room, sighing tragically about whatever intolerable circumstance he’s found himself in that day.
Apparently Nicky snores too loudly. And the couch is too soft to sit on comfortably. And the food in Finland is too salty. Nicky locks himself in the bathroom one afternoon just to read a few chapters in peace.
Nicky knows Joe is actually miserable and not just messing with him (which also happens; Nicky loves Joe down to his very soul, but is also not above gasping, “Oh my god, you’re gay?” after one of Joe’s flowery declarations of love) because of how quiet he is at night. Usually, they settle into bed and Joe talks softly into Nicky’s neck about everything and nothing until Nicky falls asleep to the sound of his voice. Now, Nicky stares at the wall and wonders if Joe is as wide-awake as he is.
Things come to a head at the end of their second week in Finland, as Nicky is stirring a pot of porridge. Joe wanders into the kitchen, hair askew and a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Nicky would find him adorable were it not for the frown on Joe’s face. “What’s for breakfast?” he mutters.
“There’s creme fraiche, smoked salmon, and that bread I made yesterday, and I’m making porridge,” Nicky replies.
Joe peers over Nicky’s shoulder. “Looks lumpy,” he says.
Nicky turns off the stove, carefully sets the spoon on the stovetop, and manfully restrains himself from braining the love of his life with the porridge pot. Joe would just come back anyway, probably in an even worse mood. Instead, Nicky says, “Yusuf, come with me.”
Joe looks confused and more than a little suspicious, but follows Nicky as he leads him to the doorway. Nicky hands Joe his coat and boots then puts on his own. “Nicky?” Joe asks as Nicky opens the front door. Nicky holds up a finger for silence and walks outside.
He walks a few feet down the walkway to where the wind has blown the snow up into a tall drift and motions for Joe to join him. Joe does, still looking at Nicky suspiciously. Nicky pats Joe’s shoulder, rapidly takes two steps back, and bodily hurls himself at his lover, knocking both of them off their feet and into the snowbank.
Nicky hoped for a second of surprise from Joe, so he’s both proud and annoyed when Joe instantly shoves a handful of snow into Nicky’s face. They wrestle until they’re out of breath, pulling hair and throwing elbows as they each try to gain the advantage. But after a millennia, they instinctively know each other’s moves. Other than getting snow under all of their clothes, neither manages to do the other any damage. They finally break apart, gasping and laughing. Nicky looks over to see Joe grinning and feels like he’s staring directly at a sunrise.
Nicky reaches for Joe’s hand. Joe takes it and says, “You’re getting soft in your old age, habibi. You used to just stab me.”
“Too much clean-up,” Nicky replies, and they collapse into laughter again.
Joe takes a deep breath and lets it out, both of them watching the column of vapor it makes. “All right,” he says. He stands and brushes the snow off of his pants and jacket. “All right,” he says again and holds out his hand to Nicky.
Nicky takes it with a smile. “All right?” He says.
“All right.” Joe laughs, and Nicky kisses his cold lips.
The rest of the day passes quietly. Nicky reads, and Joe does their laundry. At bedtime, Nicky says, “I’m thinking about going into town tomorrow. Do you want anything?”
Joe scratches at his stubbly beard. “Moisturizer? Yes, an entire vat of moisturizer. My skin feels like it’s about to crack into a million pieces.”
“Mine feels like it shrank in the wash and doesn’t fit anymore,” Nicky commiserates as he climbs beneath the thick comforter that Joe insists isn’t warm enough. “Next time, we’ll come in the summer.”
“I’d like that,” Joe replies, kneeing his way into bed. “We haven’t seen 24-hour sunlight since we were in, oh, was it Canada or Alaska?”
“I don’t remember,” Nicky admits. He feels Joe’s hands on his shoulders, pulling at him until Nicky rolls over to face him. “Yes?” Nicky says with an encouraging smile. It must be important if Joe wants to look at him while he speaks.
“I didn’t tell you this,” Joe says guiltily, but Nicky doesn’t worry. Joe sounds guilty when he mentions he borrowed Nicky’s toothbrush. He’s just like that. “I thought that when Andy sent you and Nile up and me and her down during the building fire, that she’d leave the building when we got the first group out.”
“That doesn’t sound like Andy,” Nicky says gently.
“Well, I thought maybe mortality would have some effect on her decision-making process,” Joe replies. “And before you say ‘that doesn’t sound like Andy’ again: I know. It wasn’t her reaction that was so out of place; it was mine.” He shakes his head. “I was terrified for her, in a way I never am, even for you. I was useless. All I did was yell at her to leave. I don’t think I helped anyone.”
Nicky can see his lover’s mouth set in a hard, unhappy line. He runs his fingertips over Joe’s cheek, and says, “Can you imagine Andy dying in bed of old age?”
Joe huffs a surprised laugh, pauses, then says, “You know, I really can’t.”
“It’s going to be a nightmare when we lose her, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Joe sighs like he’s relieved to hear it said out loud.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get used to knowing she’s going to die. It’s going to be scary and sad the entire time.”
“Cheerful,” Joe says.
“Honest,” Nicky replies. “We’ve learned to live with so many things, my love. We’ll learn to live with knowing Andy’s time is coming. It won’t be any less scary, but maybe it will feel less overwhelming?”
Joe takes a deep breath, and Nicky feels the tension leave Joe’s body like a balloon deflating as he exhales. “Sorry I called your porridge lumpy,” he mutters into Nicky’s collarbone. “It was delicious.”
Nicky laughs and rolls over. Joe slings an arm around his midsection and says, “Remember that time Andy tried to ride a moose?”
“I do,” Nicky replies with a laugh. “I wouldn’t mind hearing about it again, though.” He falls asleep in the middle of Joe’s angry moose impression.
Nicky walks into the town’s general store the next day and feels a plan forming in the back of his mind. When he walks out two hours later, he’s carrying three full bags and smiling to himself.
Joe is in the kitchen draining beans that soaked overnight. He asks, “Did they have everything for the cassoulet?” before spotting the bags. “Nicolo,” he says slowly. “How much confit did you buy?”
Nicky grins and places a kiss on Joe’s confused face. “They had the confit, but I had to improvise on the sausage. It’s reindeer meat.” He puts the ingredients on the counter. “I got moisturizer.” He gives Joe a sidelong look and says, “Maybe a few surprises too.”
Joe looks scandalized and says, “That little store had surprises?”
Nicky laughs, leaves the kitchen to walk towards the bedroom, and calls, “I’ll show you after dinner,” over his shoulder.
The cassoulet is warm and filling and there’s enough left over for a couple more meals, all of which leaves Nicky feeling quite content as he goes to grab his first gifts for Joe. Joe is banking the small fire in the living room as Nicky returns with the variety of throw blankets he purchased that morning. Joe looks at him and laughs. “Oh, Nicolo, what have you done?”
“They’re very soft,” Nicky replies. “And they can go on the bed too.” He gestures for Joe to stand before saying, “And look: this one has sleeves.”
Joe looks down at the blanket he’s suddenly wearing and asks, “Why does it have sleeves?”
“So you can drink tea without your arms getting cold,” Nicky says with a solemn nod.
“Oh, that’s brilliant,” Joe says with surprise. “I mean, not ‘computers’ brilliant, but still. Pretty good.”
They smile at each other stupidly for a moment before Nicky remembers that he has a plan and says, “OK, now take off your shirt.”
Joe frowns and says, “I know we’ve been together for a long time, Nicolo, but could you try to woo me at least a little bit?”
Nicky feigns offense and says, “The blanket with sleeves wasn’t enough?”
Joe shakes his head and says, “Romance is dead.” Then he carefully removes the blanket with sleeves and pulls his shirt over his head.
Nicky sits down on the couch and gestures for Joe to join him. “Trust me,” he says, moving Joe to lay his head in Nicky’s lap then covering him to the shoulders with another blanket. “You’re being wooed.”
At the store, the moisturizer had been right next to the hair care products. Nicky had poked through them until he found a tub of something called “hair pudding” that smelled like the oils Yusuf had used on his long hair centuries ago.
Now, he opens the jar and dips his fingertips into the balm before taking hold of one of Joe’s unruly curls. “I won’t use too much,” he says quietly. “I remember how you used to complain about trying to get the oil out of your tunic.”
Joe’s eyes are already falling closed. “You spoil me, love,” he murmurs. He reopens one eye and says, “You wouldn’t be spoiling me to make me feel guilty for being an ass since we’ve been here, would you?”
Nicky smiles serenely and says, “That doesn’t sound like something I would do, habibi.”
Joe grins so broadly that his whole face scrunches up and says, “That isn’t a ‘no’.”
Nicky methodically works the cream through Joe’s hair, patiently separating his curls and pulling them taut between his oiled fingertips before letting them spring back into loose coils, then twining them around each of his fingers and pulling gently until Joe hums in pleasure.
The motion brings up a long-buried memory of doing the same thing to Joe’s hair when they found a night’s lodging after weeks in the wilderness. He looks down to see Joe’s mouth curled in a smile and says, “What?” even though he knows Joe is thinking about the same thing.
“You used to say I carried the desert with me,” Joe says.
“And your head held as many pieces of sand as hairs,” Nicky finishes. “It was terrible,” he says unconvincingly. “You did it on purpose.”
“Oh no.” Joe laughs. “That doesn’t sound like something I would do.”
When he’s satisfied with the state of Joe’s curls, Nicky sinks both of his hands deep into Joe’s hair, rubbing slow and hard over his scalp, until all the tension has bled out of Joe’s face and the two of them are breathing in sync. Nicky reaches down to stroke at the edges of Joe’s short beard. Joe gasps at the touch, and Nicky’s eyes are drawn to his full mouth.
He smears the last bit of hair oil on his thumb across Joe’s lower lip. With feather-light touches, he spreads it over Joe’s lips until Joe is panting, his mouth shining red in the low firelight.
Joe’s eyelashes flutter for a moment before he looks up at Nicky with eyes as dark as the sky outside. “Nico,” he breathes. “You should take me to bed.”
They undress slowly, Nicky busy pressing Joe’s mouth open for long, deep kisses and Joe rubbing his hands over every inch of Nicky’s skin as it’s revealed. When they’re finally naked, Nicky turns down the comforter and maneuvers them so Joe gets in bed first. Nicky puts his hand between Joe’s shoulder blades, pushing so he lays down on his stomach.
Nicky’s last purchase at the store that morning had been a bed-sized heating pad, and the moment Joe feels the warmth on his bare skin, he lets out the sort of deep, desperate moan that Nicky usually only hears when he has Joe’s cock in his mouth. After swearing to at least three gods in six different languages, he finally says, “Nicolo, you are a prince among men, and you are more important to me than the very air I breathe.”
Nicky kisses across Joe’s shoulders and says, “I know.”
He lays down so his body blankets Joe’s and nuzzles at the juncture of Joe’s jaw and neck, where his beard is still growing back, just to feel Joe shudder.
“Are you warm enough?” Nicky murmurs.
“Yes, thank you,” Joe says. “I’ll sleep very comfortably tonight.”
Nicky laughs. “You want to go to sleep?”
Joe doesn’t respond, just lifts his shoulders and shrugs Nicky off before reaching over to grab his hip and maneuver until they’re pressed nose to toes.
The feel of Joe’s skin, hot from the blanket, knocks Nicky’s breath from his lungs. He bites and sucks at Joe’s lower lip, kissing him desperately. There’s no finesse to it, just tongues, teeth, and heat.
Nicky’s hands wander until he’s gripping Joe’s hips. He starts to mouth down Joe’s neck and sternum, eager to taste his overheated skin.
Joe grabs at Nicky’s hair and gasps, “Wait, stay here with me.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Nicky says, rising anyway to kiss at Joe’s forehead and the skin under his eyes.
“Keep kissing me,” Joe says, wrapping his arms around Nicky’s neck. “It feels amazing. I feel like I haven’t kissed you in forever.”
Held like this, all Nicky can smell is Joe. Iit makes him hazy with desire. “I can kiss you other places, too,” he tempts, dragging his mouth up Joe’s neck to whisper in his ear, “Lick you open. Make you all soft and wet for me.”
Joe moans, and his hips jerk against Nicky’s, but he keeps his hands firmly wrapped around the back of Nicky’s head, so Nicky settles in to suck marks along the skin at the edge of Joe’s beard. He’ll do anything Joe wants tonight, he’s so happy to have him in his arms like this, panting and pleasure-drunk.
He uses his hold on Joe’s hips to set a slow rhythm, their cocks dragging together. It’s toe-curlingly good, but it’s not going to get them anywhere, so Nicky asks, “Yusuf, what do you want?”
Joe sighs. “I just want to keep all of you against me like this.”
Nicky hums in thought. Then he carefully moves back, laughing at Joe’s unhappy yelp at the sudden cold. He rolls Joe over until his back is against Nicky’s chest. “Good?” Nicky asks and feels more than hears Joe’s rumbling assent.
He’d stashed the lube under their pillow when he put the heating pad on the bed, so not only is it easy to grab, it’s also warm. Nicky thinks he might be a genius. He shoves Joe’s leg forward until he can grip an asscheek in one hand and pour the lube directly onto Joe’s hole.
Joe shudders and says, “Nicky, you’re making a mess,” except it sounds like the opposite of a complaint.
“I am,” Nicky agrees, running his fingers through the lube, petting and pressing at Joe’s hole. “Do you think I should stop?”
Joe bares his teeth, not bothering to respond otherwise. Nicky yanks at Joe’s hair then bites the exposed tendons on his neck as he opens Joe up, slowly and carefully. “You look so beautiful like this,” Nicky murmurs in his ear. “Maybe we should just stay here until spring? Whenever you get cold, I can just put you on my cock until you forget all about it.”
“Let’s start with getting your cock in me now,” Joe gasps as Nicky twists his fingers.
“Ask nicely,” Nicky murmurs, but doesn’t even wait for Joe to finish saying, “Please, Nicky. Please,” before he’s pushing in. He keeps his eyes locked on Joe’s face, watches the way his expression twists and shifts between pain, pleasure, and relief.
He pets over Joe’s ribs, his chest, his stomach, his palm slipping over skin slick with sweat, until Joe breathes, “Move.”
Nicky does. He wraps his arms around Joe’s slim waist and fucks into him, grinding deep and filthy.
Joe whines and reaches back to grab at Nicky’s head. Nicky responds by biting the meat of Joe’s shoulder. “Again,” Joe pleads, and Nicky complies, biting at the back of his neck and shoulders until Joe is shaking in his arms, breath gone ragged. Nicky leans hard against his lover’s body, nearly pinning him to the bed, and pistons his hips. Joe moans like he’s forgotten how to do anything else. By the time Nicky reaches down to grasp Joe’s cock, he barely has to close his hand before Joe is coming, breathless and shocked.
Nicky follows soon after, eyes screwed shut against the pleasure overwhelming him. He opens them to find Joe nosing at his face. “Hello,” he says.
“Hello, love.” Joe kisses the tip of Nicky’s nose fondly and says, “We’re a mess.” He’s right. Nicky’s hair is damp and his chest is covered in their combined sweat. He probably should have turned the heating blanket off before they started.
“Hot Shower?” He asks.
Joe makes breakfast the next morning, swirls the jam through the porridge exactly how Nicky likes. He hands Nicky a truly gigantic insulated mug of coffee and says only a little bit of grudgingly, “I thought we could take a walk along the lake.”
They do. It’s fucking freezing. They last about ten minutes, then walk back to sit on the steps of the cabin and watch the northern lights. “I lied. They’re quite impressive,” Joe admits.
Nicky chuckles and continues watching the way the light seems to dance with a life of its own.
“Nico?” Joe asks sometime later.
“I think my balls have frozen to this step.”
Nicky pats his shoulder and replies, “Don’t worry. They’ll grow back.”
After Joe punches his arm and he gets control of his laughter, Nicky says, “I put the heating pad on before we left. And there’s the blanket with sleeves. Shall we go in?”
“Yes,” Joe says. “I’d like that.”