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This Lifetime and the Next

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It’s too cold. It’s the kind of cold that leaves Nicky stiff. Frozen. His arms, his legs, his chest. Even his eyelashes feel frozen, locked together in a cage of darkness.

He was once warm, a distant memory reminds him. Warm and surrounded by gold. Kindness used to wrap around him, holding him in comfort and safety. It never wavered or faltered. It never left him. Even in the end…

the end…

alwaysiamherealwaysiwillalwaysiwillmyloveiwillalways I will stay with you always

Joe.

Nicky suddenly, violently gasps for air and it is stale. As if the air here wasn’t meant for breathing. But it fills his lungs, it gives him purchase to move.

Joe.

His head hits something hard. Everything he touches is hard. Slick and hard and he knows something is very wrong. So deeply wrong about the something that surrounds him. It’s too small. It smells new and still somehow smells of dirt and mold and he’s in here alone and Joe is waiting, he’s waiting-

And Nicky remembers. Everything, too much too fast. Joe holding him. They shook. It hurt. He hurt. Joe’s hands were red. Nicky was bleeding. He was dying and Joe was still with him

Bile rises too fast for Nicky to do anything but turn his face and vomit.

He’d died.

But he isn’t dead now.

He is awake, trembling, covered in his own filth and it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. He is still here. He is alive. His heart is beating too fast and his lungs are losing air as fast as he’s taking it in and his body feels cramped and unable to move enough to properly shake the cold but he is impossibly, impossibly alive.

He forces himself to calm down, then forces himself to stay calm. Or at the very least not to panic, because wherever he is, it’s somewhere he doesn’t belong. He has to get out.

It’s too dark to see even though he knows his eyes are open now. So he uses his hands, touching what he can. It feels like… bedsheets. Nice silk ones but they’re not comfortable. They’re hard underneath. And the roof is barely higher than the floor he’s on. He doubts he could turn over to do so much as a push up, much less-

It’s a coffin, he realizes.

He’s in a coffin.

He died. They buried him. Except now he’s alive and buried.

-:-

He drags himself up the garden path, the grave still in his mouth. His fingers are stained red with blood from wounds he no longer has. Yet his nails are broken as if he’d need evidence that he fought his way out of the earth. Fought his way back to here. To home. To Joe.

Nicky has no idea what he’s going to say. He has no idea how long he’s been gone. Days, at minimum. Funerals take time to plan, especially for young men who had nothing arranged or-

He chokes down that thought. Shoves them back into the box he’s created in his mind full of things to deal with later like another coffin under the earth. Instead he focuses on making his hand wrap around the door handle in front of him, making it turn and open.

It’s unlocked. It shouldn’t be unlocked. After what happened to them, Joe should be locking every door and window and finding a way to be safe when-

Another thought for the box.

“Joe?” he says very softly, stepping into their house. His voice is timid and unsure and a little rough but it at least makes a sound when nothing else does. Everything else is quiet.

So very quiet.

“Joe?” He calls louder this time. Silence is still his only answer.

His husband should be in the living room this time of night; with a sketchbook on his lap and a football match on the television But there’s nothing.

Maybe he’s gone to stay with his friends, Nicky thinks. Hopes. Desperately hopes that Joe isn’t alone. He doesn’t deserve to be alone.

But still Nicky searches. He looks in every room and every little hidden corner for a sign of Joe but finds nothing. Less than nothing, he realizes slowly. Things are missing from the house.

It takes Nicky three passes through the living room to realize their wedding photo is gone from the mantle. His favorite hoodie is no longer in the hall closet. His wallet is not by the door. Joe’s clothes are not in the dresser in their bedroom. The book Joe had been reading is nowhere to be found. Pieces of them, of their lives together and separate, are gone.

Somehow it’s his absent cellphone that breaks him. All the never deleted voicemails and texts from Joe, photographs Nicky treasured and thought safe. Shared playlists and half finished games between them. It’s all gone. And when he picks up the landline and dials the only number he knows by heart, an unfeeling voice informs him that Joe’s number is no longer in service.

It’s only now that he thinks he perhaps did die and might be in hell; that maybe he only feels alive so that every little loss he discovers will slowly kill him instead. Leaving is worse than being left, his purgatory insists; he’d left Joe and this is the price he must pay.

He’s cold again as he drags his tear soaked soul into the empty bed.

-:-

A week later - and it is a week, Nicky knows; time passes exactly as it should, hour by hour, day by day - a crew of ten men comes to the house. Nicky hides as they start to box up his life and that’s when he fully understands that Joe is never coming back here. And Nicky can’t stay.

When the crew breaks for lunch, Nicky haphazardly packs a duffel bag with anything he can get his hands on. He tries to focus on essentials only because he knows he will need clothes and a toothbrush and cash but he also needs that bottle of Joe’s cologne and the sweater with the torn cuff and there’s a picture of the two of them visiting his family and that has to go in the bag. None of it is enough but he’s out of time and he didn’t prepare for this at all.

In 23 minutes, he’s out the back door wearing Joe’s abandoned baseball hat.

-:-

Nicky sits in the very back of a cafe in town for a few hours before his instincts start screaming at him to get out. He overheard snippets of conversation about home intrusions and a disturbed grave and he knows they’re talking about him. Talking about Joe. How it’s just so strange that he’d leave so soon. Yes, of course, it is likely grief but it’s still just so strange that a young man would die the way he did, here of all places, and his husband-

The mug in Nicky’s hand has broken at the handle, piercing his thumb with sharp points. He’s gone before anyone can look at him. Good.

How dare they? How dare they? These people knew him and Joe. They knew how kind and gentle and selfless his husband was. That he could never harm anyone. He’d jumped in front of a car for someone’s daughter once. And to even entertain the idea-

No, he couldn’t stay. There was too much talk and someone was bound to recognize him sooner or later. He wouldn’t be able to explain how he’d crawled his way out of his way out of his own grave and how his skin was unmarred by the fatal wound that had put him there. And the more he thought about it, the more he was sure he’d choked on dirt and suffocated a few times and he’d definitely sliced his thumb open mere moments ago.

And yet, he is fine. No cuts or scars to show for any of it.

I’m a freak, he thinks and it isn’t funny at all but he can’t help the laughter that spills out of him. More than laughter, really. Hysteria. He splinters, collapsing painfully against a brick wall. He sits in garbage and laughs until shadows fall and the alley is dark with night.

-:-

He thinks about going home to his family, to his mother. As if he were a child again and only she knew the secrets of the world and knew best how to teach them. But he knows he won’t be able to see her grieve for him and he knows in his heart that she wouldn’t be able to handle him as he is now. It would break her more than his death. So he can’t see her.

His only hope is to find Joe. Somehow.

He budgets his money carefully. It’s not much and he needs to use half of it just to get far enough away from this town that he might feel safe again. Half of the half left should be kept for food, he decides but does not look forward to the kind of food his meager budget will afford him. Housing is a distant, uneasy thought he has no solution for.

The one thing he can’t talk himself out of is purchasing a phone. Cheap, heavy, and prepaid but he needs to have something that may tentatively connect him to the world. There’s no one to call him and in turn, no one he can call (except his desperate hopes that Joe’s number will come back into use) but it’s something. It’s a step towards rebuilding whatever life he can have now.

-:-

Every day is a struggle. He’s constantly tired and hungry, always questioning his next move. Everything he owns is still in the duffel bag he packed a year ago. But in some ways, he’s fortunate. Finding little bits of work seems to be easier for him than it is for the friends he’s made while sleeping outside. People look at him and trust him enough to let him fix their broken fence or join a construction site for a day. And on those days, he takes his money and divides it into four parts: food, necessities, savings, and phone minutes. And if he sometimes finds that the first two needs outweigh the others, then that’s his choice. Sometimes his friends need his help more than he needs to hide a few extra notes in the lining of Joe’s hat.

He’s not naive; he knows there would be trouble if anyone found out he had money saved. But Nicky also knows that if that day comes, he’d forgive them. After all, he can survive so much more than they can.

He can survive a lot of things, he has discovered. Stab wounds, he already knew. But he’s been able to add to the list of things he’s died and revived from: frostbite and heatstroke, malnutrition and dehydration, fever and sickness. More violent things too: beatings, a stray gunshot, a rabid dog. He’d stepped into a fight over a loaded needle once and ended up accidentally injected. Overdosed. He was lucky that only his shoes had been taken by the time he came back around.

He’s grateful and humbled but he still wants for more. That’s what his savings is for. He needs more if he’s ever going to find Joe. That’s the one thing he can’t give up. It’s selfish and a little ugly of him to hold onto Joe the way he has, but it’s truly the only motivation Nicky has to keep moving forward with his ridiculous life. If Joe refuses him in the end, at least Nicky will have found him. He’ll know that his husband is well and safe.

Two more months of saving money and his name now is Nicky Smith. He is 30 years old, 178 cm in height, and an Italian citizen. At least, that is what his identification says. There is no real record of him but the forgery is good enough that the policewoman he tests it on doesn’t question him too much. It’s enough for him to move on.

Having an identification card opens up the world in ways that he had certainly taken for granted before. A card lets him buy a proper train ticket. It gives him a chance to apply for a job in his new town. It gives him access to shelters and resources while he waits to hear from his applications.

It also lets him use the public library free of suspicion. Before he could only steal bits of time before he would be ushered quietly away. But with a card, he can use the computers for much longer. He can look for Joe and he can do it better.

It’s still much harder than he ever anticipated. He’d known Joe to be a private man but on the internet, he is seemingly no one. His name is too common and it’s only because Nicky knows he can search the archives of their home’s newspaper that he finds even this trace of him. But beyond that and any leads to where he might have gone, he finds nothing and it’s so frustrating, Nicky could scream.

He doesn’t though. He simply refocuses. He tries to find Joe’s friends: Andy, Quynh, Lykon, Booker, Nile. But if Joe is no one, so are they.

-:-

“You’re here quite often,” the elderly librarian says to him after a few weeks of Nicky frequenting his front desk.

“I don’t have a computer where I live,” he explains as he hands her a few books to check out, “but don’t worry. I won’t be bothering you so much anymore. I’m starting a new job at the grocery store soon so my time here will be much more limited.”

“Oh that’s a shame,” she says with a laugh. “I enjoy watching you work and you’re always kind enough to clean your station when you leave.”

Nicky smiles gently as she hands back his book. On top of it is a piece of paper with the names of at least ten books nearly printed. At the bottom is a phone number, handwritten.

“What is this?” he asks.

“That is a list of books I’ve ordered for you,” she explains. “You have a very specific interest and you’re burning through what I have on the shelves. And the phone number, that’s my cell phone. You can call me and if I’m available, I will let you come in to use the computer. Even if we’re closed.”

Nicky stares dumbly at the note, unexpectedly overwhelmed. His eyes even burn a little as he struggles to thank her. If she notices his unshed tears, she doesn’t draw any attention to them at all as he saves a second number in his phone.

Maria becomes a good friend. She doesn’t exactly understand the computer programs Nicky is trying to teach himself but she is a very skilled researcher. Old school too, so when she finds Joe’s name in a witness statement from 15 years ago, it’s confusing but exciting in so many ways.

“I had no idea he was in Chile 15 years ago,” Nicky muses with her after hours. “I can’t believe it never came up between us.”

“My dear, I am still finding things out about my Therese and we’ve been together for 40 years,” Maria laughs. “Lives are meant to be shared and those who are meant to be in them will always find something new to share.”

“The girl said he saved her life,” Nicky says, eyes scanning the print off once more. “This is apparently a habit for my husband.”

“What do you mean?” she asks and Nicky smiles. Half to himself, half to her.

“Back home, he was quite the local hero,” he says. “He pulled a young girl out of the way of a speeding car. He saved a boy from drowning. On one occasion, he helped put out a very large grease fire at our favorite restaurant and we never paid for another meal.”

“He sounds very brave,” Maria says and there is a note of approval in her voice that warms Nicky’s heart. “I believe you will find him again.”

“Thank you,” he says softly. “Your help… your kindness means more to me than you know. I can never repay you.”

“I haven’t done anything,” she insists, then pauses purposefully. “Yet.”

“Yet?”

“You are a proud man, Nicky,” Maria says as she leans forward and sets down three keys in front of him. “I know you’ll object to this but Therese is becoming quite insistent with me. There’s an apartment open in the building she manages. I put in an application under your name and she approved it.”

The pieces don’t fit together right away so Nicky just continues to stare at the keys between them. An apartment is still a distant dream, even with the steady job he’s enjoyed over the last six months. The shelter is fine with him for now, he doesn’t need-

“Maria, I can’t-”

“You can, my dear,” she says. “I know where you stay at night, Nicky. I’ve never heard you complain once.”

“Because I-”

“I believe you were meant to be in my life. And this is something I am sharing with you. So please. Take the keys. Let me take you home.”

She doesn’t rush him as he struggles to make his decision. He feels like he shouldn’t, that he’d just be taking advantage of her kindness and friendship. And she and Therese are the only real friends he has right now. He knows others from work and the shelter, compassionate and caring people, but these two women are in his heart in ways the others aren’t. If he were to lose them because of his own selfishness…

But he so misses the comfort of a place to call his own. Where he might be able to unpack his duffel bag for a while, put the picture of his family and Joe next to a bed. He could see their faces first thing in the morning. He could say goodnight.

“Thank you,” he manages to say before he has to focus on not crying. He clenches his fingers around the keys still on the table and Maria folds her hand over his and lifts their linked fingers to her mouth. She kisses his hand, like Joe used to, and Nicky sobs.

-:-

Maria’s research has gone as far as it can. She’s reached the first true dead end of her long career and she grumbles about it guiltily over every Sunday dinner Nicky serves to her and Therese. She feels like she has failed him.

Nicky wishes he could tell her all the ways she has not.

Over the two years they’ve worked together searching for his Joe, they’ve each stumbled across wild and fascinating stories buried in history. She revels in the almost fairytale aspect of these lost tales, remarking once that when she meets Joe, she’s going to insist on traveling his genealogy.

“I bet anything he’s distantly related to this Josef Laurent,” she’d declared.

Nicky believed her; or rather he was starting to believe that Joe was Josef Laurent. He tried to dismiss the feeling as wishful thinking, as coincidence. It was just his mind trying to reconcile missing his other half with the fact that Nicky wasn’t quite as human as he used to be.

But then he stumbled across an old classicist journal with an article dissecting the mythical trials of Heracles. And he remembered a conversation between Joe and Andy that had Nicky in stitches, laughing into his husband’s shoulder while Andy called Hercules “a bitch boy”. And then Joe had called her Andromache.

Hercules fought an Andromache, according to mythology. And it was definitely too far fetched to be true but…

but so was a man who could not stay dead.

It sent Nicky in a thousand different directions. Reincarnation, resurrection, immortality, legends and myths. And as he followed these thin threads through history, he kept finding more reasons to think just maybe he was right. That it was true. And he wasn’t alone.

A warrior named Lykon appeared in Asia with an archerer known as Quynh. He found a man named Sebastien in France who had sons with names Nicky was certain he’d heard from Booker’s mouth. Nile’s family was in military records from the American civil war. And Joe… the more he looked, the more he appeared, and so very far back in time.

Either Nicky was pulling at strings just to keep his mind from cracking or he was right and both options were equally overwhelming.

Three years of searching and somehow he was even further away than when he started.

-:-

He left Maria and Therese two years ago, once he became convinced he was on the right path. He’d taught himself how to gain entrance into secure and private databases, things he had no business being in. Things that someone, somewhere, sometime would have to notice. He couldn’t risk his friends, these kind women who took him in and loved him. So he said his goodbyes and started over again.

But he was smarter this time, more prepared. The years with his friends had been good to him. He had funds, better technology, and he’d learned how to straddle the line of having an identity while still being somewhat anonymous. And he knew how to find patterns and clue where no one else would think to look.

More than that, he knew now Joe is definitely out there and that Joe is like him.

The only thing he can’t figure out is how Joe hadn’t known the same about him, hadn’t known to wait for him.

But he would be able to ask him one day. Soon maybe, if Nicky’s latest lead panned out. Because Joe had very recently been in Paris. That was a fact. The first fact Nicky had regarding his husband that existed in the present time.

And as it turns out, he’d been right about Paris. It had just taken too long to confirm it. The trail disappeared almost immediately upon Nicky’s arrival. He was good at covering his tracks, his husband. It was only because Nicky knew him so well that he managed to find himself in the same shops and pubs Joe visited. Places people vaguely recalled seeing him.

It’s a cafe where Nicky finds the hard proof. A small and quiet shop that served strong coffee and candied fruits. Nicky goes in only because he knows it’s the kind of place Joe would have stopped for. As Nicky talks to the waitress, showing her the only picture he has of Joe, he spots a loose sheet of paper pinned on the wall over the register.

“Can I… would you mind if I could take a closer look at that drawing?” he asks.

“Sure,” the waitress replies, taking it down by tearing the paper through the pin and handing it to him. “My boss likes it. Some guy left it, I guess.”

She leaves to take someone’s order and Nicky is left looking at his own face, sketched in charcoal with strokes he knows so, so well. His heart aches as he looks at the curve of his own lips, the mole on his cheek, his eyes closed as if asleep.

Joe is still drawing him.

Nicky takes it with him when he leaves and only feels a little guilty about it when he tucks it into his wallet next to Joe.

-:-

Nicky has died a fair few more times since his first death nine years ago. Lately though, it’s been more… on purpose. He doesn't want to die and the pain still isn’t something he can get used to. But he’s out of ideas.

He’s always just behind Joe. The man moves so quickly and silently through the world. One day he’s in Canada, the next week in Australia. Egypt, India, Italy, Russia. He’s everywhere and nowhere and Nicky simply cannot keep up.

Maybe it’s time to make Joe come to him.

Nicky is deliberately reckless. He confronts a gunman robbing a bodega and gets shot on camera. He runs into burning buildings and allows himself to be interviewed for television. He takes advantage of any dangerous situation he can find and in this world, there are far too many.

He can’t stay in place though. He recognizes that. It’s too suspicious and he understands now why Joe and his friends are always on the move. But Nicky can leave traces behind, a trail to follow. Eventually they’ll have to notice. However they disappear, it’s not without help and it’s all Nicky can count on.

-:-

He was perhaps too reckless. The wrong people noticed. His small apartment is filled with gas and he dies gagging in Berlin and wakes up in a London penthouse. A very British man, his accent nearly impossible to decipher in Nicky’s state, compares him to a mouse and stabs him with a letter opener just to watch him heal.

Maybe this was a bad idea.

No, it was definitely a bad idea. They’re cutting into him and taking pieces out and it fucking hurts but all he can think about is that now people know about him. They could know about Joe. The others. They could be doing this to them and if they’re not… they soon will be and it will be all Nicky’s fault. He will have led them here.

He will have damned them all.

-:-

“...Nicky, you beautiful Italian bastard.”

He barely recognizes the voice, having last heard it nearly ten years ago. But it’s French and it doesn’t belong to any of the doctors he’s seen for the two days he’s been strapped to the table in this lab.

“Huh?” he mutters. His throat is thick with the drugs but he feels calloused hands on his wrists freeing his restraints. The same hands helping him sit up. Something soft is being pulled over his head and his arms are being fed through something just as soft and…

It’s a shirt, Nicky realizes, embarrassed that it’s taken so long. His eyes open and snap into focus.

“Booker!” he yells, flinging himself off the table and ripping out the wires still connected to him, blood splattering. But he recognizes this man. He knows this man and the sheer relief of seeing him again almost makes Nicky collapse in his arms.

Booker makes a surprised noise but hugs him back with a ferocity that lifts him off the ground. They both laugh when they part, Booker’s hands clasped on Nicky’s shoulders.

“You have no idea how much trouble you’ve caused us,” Booker says, still laughing. A gunshot rings out and suddenly his eyes shift and sharpen. He pulls a gun from the waist of his jeans and hands it to Nicky. “We gotta move. You know how to use this?”

“Not well,” Nicky admits.

“Just shoot the guys who aren’t us,” Booker instructs and then they’re running.

Nicky isn’t a terrible shot, he thinks, when at least two men he’s aimed at go down. And he knows it’s him because Booker is facing the other way. Beyond that, he can’t really keep track of everything going on. He just follows Booker’s lead and tries to shake off the bullets he catches.

They take a sharp corner and he’s face to face with a gun barrel. Time slows down enough to think he’s never been shot in the head before and to wonder what it will feel like. His eyes slide down the black silencer and it’s

“Nicolo?”

It’s Joe. His Joe. His beautiful and brave and kind and fearless Joe. He’s waited for this moment for over nine years. Imagined it, dreamed it, planned it.

“Hi.”

Ruined it.

He’s ruined it.

Joe’s gun clatters to the floor. Joe’s hands cup the back of his neck. Joe’s forehead leans against his. And Joe kisses him.

Like it’s the first time. Like it’s the last time. Like it’s everything in between. There is salt on their lips and blood under their tongues but Nicky doesn’t care. This is all he’s wanted for so long and somehow is better than all he’s wanted. It’s all and it’s more.

And it’s over too soon.

A bullet rips through his shoulder and lodges in Joe. Nicky panics. Joe’s hurt. And that’s unacceptable. So he fires the gun in his hand, shoving Joe back around the corner he came from and Booker is the one to cover them both.

“I’m okay,” Joe says immediately as Nicky starts to search for the wound. It’s not there. Neither is his. Nicky was right, he was right, he was right.

“Joe-”

“I’m sorry,” Joe says quickly. “I didn’t know. I wouldn’t-”

“I know, I-”

“Hey guys,” Booker interrupts, crouching as he reloads his gun. “I’m happy for you and all but we’re kind of in a situation here. So maybe save it for later?”

Nicky and Joe look at each other and they nod at the same time. Then smile. Nicky has never felt more like himself than he does right now.

They pick up Nile and Lykon along the way, brief reunions that are too happy and wildly out of place during the gunfight happening around them. They’re on their way to Andy and Quynh when things take a bad turn.

An explosive hits them and they’re thrown through a wall into another room. Nicky takes the least of it but he can see Nile and Booker and Lykon are out. Joe is awake but struggling and someone in a gas mask is stalking over to him.

“No!” Nicky grunts. He’s not a fighter exactly, but he’s learned a few things over the years and he wraps one arm around the man’s knee and the other pulls at his belt, taking him down. Nicky received a swiftly broken nose in retaliation, blood soaking into his shirt but Joe is almost up. Nicky just has to keep the man distracted until Joe can get up-

It does not feel good. Being shot in the head. That’s his final word on the matter, Nicky thinks.

But it is nice seeing Joe looking down at him. To feel his hands on his arms again as Nicky reaches up to touch him as well.

“You cannot do that,” Joe breathes, anguished.

“You needed more time,” Nicky says.

“Nicolo, I love you and I regret every moment I’ve wasted being apart from you but you cannot do that to me again. Please. We need more time before you die for me, which you are never allowed to do.”

Nicky wants to argue, to tell him they have nothing but time now, but something in Joe’s very tired and heavy eyes stops him. So he just pulls his husband down until their heads touch again and they can breathe together for a moment. Just a moment before they’re ushered out by Lykon to follow after Nile and Booker.

They’re back in the penthouse in less than two minutes and the six of them have surrounded the man who brought Nicky here. He’s yelling, then pleading, bargaining, and Nicky would almost feel sorry for him if he didn’t lash out at Andy with that very same letter opener he’d stabbed Nicky with.

He’s dead before he can make so much as a scratch.

-:-

It’s been two days since his rescue from Merrick’s lab and Joe’s touch hasn’t left Nicky’s skin once.

In the car, Joe cried and kissed the top of his head. At the safe house, he helped Nicky wash all the blood and bone and brain from his hair. In the bedroom, they couldn’t do anything more than hold each other as they tried to hold off the sleep that inevitably defeated them.

When Nicky meets Copley over breakfast, Joe holds his hand the entire time. Nicky gets to hear a bit of the other side of the story. How Copley had started to realize someone was tracking them in similar ways to how Copley had found the team years ago. Their aliases getting pinged, oddly specific historical searches, attempts to view footage Copley had already scrubbed. Everyone laughs when Nicky says he suspected someone like Copley existed and it almost seems to offend the poor man.

“Take it easy on him, Nicky,” Quynh says as she laughs the hardest of them all. “He’s not like us. As far as we know anyway.”

Which leads him to learning about the dreams and Joe’s hand shaking under his. They’d all dreamt about each other, once upon a time, as a way to find each other. But they never dreamt about Nicky and he can see the guilt in all of their eyes.

“I think it’s because you met them before you died,” Joe says and he sounds almost weak. “I introduced them to you so you already knew them.”

Ah, Nicky sees now. Joe blames himself for this. For losing Nicky in a way none of them had been lost before. But this is not his fault and Nicky kisses him until he knows.

-:-

They’ve been back together for a week and they’ve moved to a new safe house in Malta, just the two of them, when Nicky finds his old duffel bag waiting for him on the couch. He unpacks it in a frenzy, counting and cataloging the contents like he used to when his entire life existed between the canvas panels.

“Is that my hat?” Joe asks as Nicky sets it nearly on the table in front of them. He nods then pulls out the very nearly empty bottle of Joe’s cologne and a threadbare sweater. Next to it is his wallet from which he pulls out the picture of his family and then the sketch he’d found in Paris.

“You were in Paris?” Joe whispers. “When?”

“Four or five years ago,” Nicky answers with a shrug. “Right after you.”

Joe lets out a ragged gasp that startles Nicky enough to turn from his place on the floor to look at Joe, intending to ask what’s wrong. But Joe has his hands on him, pulling him up onto the couch and then he’s completely lost to Joe’s desperate kiss.

So close, but so far. Nicky understands.

They’ve been so careful with each other since they’ve reunited. Joe especially. Supporting Nicky as he learns about who he is, who they all are, what it means, how they have to live. What they do. And how it can all go away one day. There have been others. They’ve lost people along the way and there is often no warning.

Nicky’s hand grips tighter in Joe’s shirt, dragging himself into his husband’s lap. He could still lose him. It’s something he’s never considered. He remembers Joe looming over him after being shot in the head and how could he do that? Put Joe through that kind of fear so thoughtlessly.

“Nicky?”

Joe’s voice sounds far away and Nick realizes that he’s kind of collapsed into him, breathing erratic and it’s like everything finally catches up to him. Ten years of loneliness, of searching, of missing, and it could have been over before they even had another chance.

“I’m sorry,” he chokes and Joe holds him so tight. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know what else to do.”

Somehow Joe must understand because he spends the next hour holding him as Nicky falls completely apart. He thinks Joe does too.

-:-

“You still wear your wedding ring,” Nicky remarks four days later.

“Of course,” Joe says, kissing it once before reaching for Nicky’s hand wearing a matching band. “And you wear yours.”

“Of course. I never took it off.”

“Neither did I,” Joe agrees. “I was prepared to be yours for eternity. I am still prepared. I always will be.”

This stirs something deep within Nicky, though perhaps not as deep as he thinks. It’s the thing that’s always been between them, an ebbing heat that has been left simmering for far too long.

He’s glad in many ways that they haven’t tended to this yet. Nicky knows that no matter how they might have come back to this would have been exactly what was needed but this feels right.

The wait for each other until this exact moment feels like it was all worth it.

“I love you,” Nicky says as Joe lays him on the bed. “I know I would never be able to match one of your speeches but I love you. Every second I’ve known you, every moment we were gone from each other, there was never a time when I wasn’t completely in love with you and I need you to know that. To hear it from me, and to remember it always.”

“Nicky… my Nicolo,” Joe breaths into his neck, his mouth pressing kisses to his skin between words. “You have taken my speeches from me. Since I’ve been able to hold you again, I cannot believe there was ever a time when I thought words could express what you mean to me. You are beyond language to me, beyond comprehension. I can only say this back to you: I love you too. With my heart, with my soul, with my life.”

“Not bad for a man with no speeches,” Nicky mutters before bringing Joe’s mouth to his, his tongue aching to taste the words on his lips. They taste like honey, achingly familiar and he can’t help put keen into Joe further. To have him completely take him over.

There are moments of desperate touches and pleads for more. But there are also whispers to slow down, to wait. Until they are slick and spent and heavy and light. Until they know exactly, as if there were ever any doubt, where they belong.

-:-

The team gives them four months before Andy visits and asks them what they want to do next.

“If you need more time to get back into it, I understand,” she says to Joe more than to Nicky, “but we need you.”

“It’s up to Nicky,” Joe says.

Nicky frowns slightly. It’s not up to him. It’s up to them. But then he thinks maybe he hears what Joe is really saying. There was indeed a choice to be made, a choice that would change his life again. A very big change, something that couldn’t really be walked away from if he started it.

He thought of all he’d learned while trying to find them. How exponentially more he’d seen through Copley’s research. How they helped people. He thought of how Joe helped people. Then he thought of how he himself had tried to help in the little ways he could. How maybe he could do more.

If he wanted.

That was what was up to him.

“I’m not much of a fighter,” he says to Andy and he feels the weight of Joe’s hand on his knee, “but I think I can learn if it will mean that we can do some good.”

Andy really is quite beautiful when she smiles.

“Welcome home, Nicky,” she says.

-:-

“Relax. Deep breaths. Focus.”

“I’m focused. I’m relaxed.”

Nicky gives Joe a look that says he knows otherwise. Joe is fidgety, pulling at the hem of his blazer. The one Nicky had promised he didn’t need to wear. Nicky is in only a thin shirt and jeans, no fuss about him. But Joe had insisted on making a good impression and that apparently meant a maroon blazer that was going to need mending if he didn’t stop pulling at it.

Nicky sighs and knocks on the door in front of him with one hand, holding Joe’s hand with the other. He feels him take a deep breath as the door swing open.

“Hello Maria, Therese,” Nicky says. “I’d like you to meet my husband.”