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Ever since his first visit to Malta, Joe has counted the morning as his favorite time of day. On this particular morning here, years and years later, he finds that he still feels the same. The sun isn’t at its hottest, not yet, but it’s getting there - Joe can feel the line of sweat beginning to gather where his baseball cap meets his hairline as he wanders along one of the streets overlooking the ocean. The city is waking up, and not for the first time, he feels grateful to be a part of it.

He would rather be in bed with Nicky, of course, but this little excursion isn’t coming without its benefits.

It doesn’t take long for Joe to reach the bakery on the other side of the neighborhood they’re staying in - a consistent favorite of his and Nicky’s throughout all of their trips here. The owner waves him inside before she’s even switched the sign on the door from closed to open, and he chats with her for a few minutes before pointing out the reason for his visit and gratefully accepting the neatly-tied cardboard box she hands him over the counter.

Muscle memory takes over as he leaves the bakery and strolls down paths he’s walked hand in hand with Nicky more times than he can count. The air feels warmer than it did when he left the villa, but there’s a cool breeze drifting off the ocean that lifts Joe’s t-shirt off of his chest and chases away some of the heat. There isn’t a single ounce of tension in his body - breathing has always felt easier here, and Joe is pleased to find that hasn’t changed with time.

It was Andy, actually, who had orchestrated he and Nicky even being here in the first place. She’d ambushed Joe in the kitchen of their safehouse in Poland one morning before the sun was even up. He’d been making tea when he heard her quiet footsteps behind him as he poured hot water into the two mugs on the counter, followed by the scraping of the chair she pulled out from the table and its creak as she sat.

“Who was it tonight?” she’d asked as he took the seat across from her. The tea was still too hot to bring back to the bedroom and risk Nicky spilling it and burning himself.

“Nicky,” was all Joe needed to say. The house was too small for his and Nicky’s recent alternating nightmares, following one of the most difficult missions they’d ever completed, to be a secret. And even if it wasn’t, Andy has always felt omnipresent. She would never need to hear them waking up in a frantic rush each night to know that something wasn’t right.

“I love you both very much,” Andy had said as she pushed the two plane tickets across the kitchen table to Joe, “which is why I don’t want to see either of you for at least two months.”

“I’ll call you if the world is ending,” she’d added with a subtle grin, and Joe had hugged her long enough to make up for three.

Joe continues his walk, and after turning a few corners, he’s kicking off his shoes in the entryway of the house he and Nicky have been staying in. They bounce gracelessly over the woven rug beneath his feet and onto the tile, and he steps over them as he makes his way down the hall and into the sprawling kitchen. The bottom floor has consistently been cooler than the top, but Joe still welcomes the chill of the refrigerator on his skin as he slides the bakery box inside. When breakfast will actually be eaten, he doesn’t know, but he and Nicky’s days have been blissfully unstructured lately, and Joe doesn’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

He ascends the stairs two at a time, and then quietly pushes the bedroom door open. There’s a warm breeze coming in through the open balcony doors that brings the curtains to life every few seconds, letting the bright sunlight filter in and cast a muted glow over the room.

Nicky is still asleep - he’s lying on his stomach now, one arm folded under his pillow and the other stretched out across the bed. The sheets are pooled around his waist, leaving his bare back exposed.

Nile had asked Joe a few weeks ago what it’s like - loving someone for as long as he has and as deeply as he does. He’d told her that looking at Nicky often feels like seeing him for the first time. That Joe’s breath is taken away in the most simple of moments - watching Nicky read at the end of the couch after dinner, catching his subtle smile when he meets Joe’s eyes across the room, getting lost in the way the sun frames his face and paints his features gold. That Joe has been falling in love over and over and over again for centuries, as easily as breathing, accompanied by the steady comfort of knowing that Nicky is doing the same.

Watching Nicky right now feels like one of those times.

“Nicolò,” Joe murmurs as he sits down on the edge of the bed and flattens his palm over the small of Nicky's back. The warmth of Nicky's skin seeps into Joe's hand and travels up his arm, leaving his chest tingling with it. He lifts his hand then, and ghosts the pad of his pointer finger over the lowest knob of Nicky's spine.

“Wake up, tesoro,” Joe says as he traces up Nicky's back, swirling gentle patterns in his sunlit skin. “I brought breakfast.”

Nicky mumbles something incoherent against his pillow, and Joe laughs as he rubs his hand over Nicky's shoulders. “If you don’t wake up, I’ll have to eat it all myself.”

“Traitor,” Nicky says as he effortlessly flips over to lie on his back. Joe’s hand never leaves him - he slides it down Nicky’s side and stops it to rest comfortably over his hip.

“Good morning,” Joe smiles as he finally meets Nicky's eyes.

“Good morning,” Nicky echoes. “What was so tempting for breakfast that you left me here all alone?” He can’t hide the teasing quality of his voice - it never fails to amaze Joe how Nicky can be so level and measured with his words with everyone else, but can barely be sarcastic to Joe without the real meaning of what he’s saying remaining clear.

“The pastries that you were eyeing last night,” Joe answers matter of factly. “The ones with the ricotta cheese. They’re in the fridge. And I got fresh bread,” he adds as he nods toward the paper bag sitting on the table across from the bed.

“I’ll let you disappearing slide, then,” Nicky grins as he stretches his arms out sideways and then covers a yawn with the back of his hand. “Thank you, amore mio. We can cut up the fruit we bought yesterday too.”

“Mhm,” Joe hums as he brushes his thumb absently over Nicky's hip. “It’s beautiful outside today.”

“Remember the boat ride we took last time we were here?” Nicky muses as he turns his head toward the balcony and the light filtering through the curtains. “That might be nice.”

“As long as you remember your sunglasses this time, because I’m not giving you mine again.”

Nicky snorts out a laugh and shakes his head, and the warmth that bursts through Joe’s chest at the sound is so, so much more intense than anything the sun could ever give him.

Joe takes a moment to watch Nicky's face - the dark circles under his eyes are gone, and his hair has gotten longer, fanning out over his cheek. Joe switches his gaze to Nicky’s chest next, and down to the subtle curve of his stomach. He’s grown softer in the weeks they’ve been here, crafted by days upon days of lazy mornings and local bakeries and a clear and welcome lack of strenuous physical activity beyond that which has taken place in their own bed. It’s not a major change, but it’s enough for Joe to notice the difference in this body that is as familiar to him as his own.

And Joe has held and loved and worshipped every possible version of Nicky over the past nine hundred years, each one as beautiful as the last, but there’s something so comforting to him about this version. About watching Nicky's hard lines soften, about brushing his palm over Nicky's stomach as they settle into bed each night and feeling physical evidence of the fact that they’re resting, and for the first time in a long time, letting the world move forward without them.

It strikes Joe, suddenly, how physically whole Nicky looks, and he feels almost dizzy with the relief of it.

“Hayati.” Joe is pulled back from his musings by the sound of Nicky's voice, as Nicky smiles and clumsily tangles his sleepy fingers with Joe's. “You’re staring.”

Joe doesn’t realize he’s spoken “can you blame me?” aloud until Nicky smirks and tugs him closer by his hand. There's not much he can do lying down with Joe sitting over him, but Joe goes as willingly and easily as he possibly could.

“Come back to bed?” Nicky asks, and there’s no version of Joe, or Nicky, or the entire damn world where the answer to that question would be no.

Joe slips his t-shirt over his head and tosses it into the pile of Nicky's clothes that have been on the floor since last night, adding his shorts a moment later. Then he’s kneeling with one knee on either side of Nicky’s legs, his hands skating slowly over Nicky's sides.

Nicky's eyes never leave Joe's, and the intensity and love and want in his look send another rush of longing through Joe's chest.

Nicky had come apart so easily last night, unraveling beneath Joe and gasping out his name over and over again like a hymn until he was trembling in Joe's arms. They'd fallen asleep tangled together, and despite everything, Nicky had still found enough awareness to pull the sheets over Joe’s shoulders, protecting his sweat-soaked skin from the chill of the breeze drifting in through the windows.

If Joe hadn’t been so concerned about snapping Nicky out of his blissful haze, he could have cried.

The air in the room still feels charged, even hours later, but in a softer and more grounding way than it did when the sun was down. Nicky's watching Joe, waiting, and Joe isn’t willing to make him wait even a second longer.

He surges forward and kisses Nicky, reveling in the satisfied noise Nicky makes against his mouth. Then he’s lowering himself down so their bodies are pressed together, warm skin against warm skin against soft sheets that still hold the feeling of every night they’ve spent together in this bed.

“Yusuf,” Nicky mumbles between kisses, “I’m glad that your walk wasn’t very long.” Joe’s skin still feels warm from the morning sun, but Nicky’s fingers scratching gently over his back and shoulders bring a different kind of heat. It curls low in Joe’s belly, familiar and safe but with the same burning intensity as the first time Nicky ever touched him.

The whine Nicky makes when Joe pulls back from his lips turns into a quiet groan as Joe begins kissing down his neck, not stopping until he reaches the dip at the base of his throat. He breathes out for a moment, while simultaneously finding Nicky’s hand against the sheets and tangling their fingers together without even looking up. He trails down the side of Nicky’s neck, mouthing at a tendon that’s only visible once in a while, and chuckles against Nicky’s skin as Nicky involuntarily arches his back and knocks his chest against Joe’s.

“This is all it’s going to take?” Joe teases.

“Be quiet,” Nicky mutters, so fondly it nearly makes Joe’s chest ache. His next breath leaves him in a rush as Joe presses his hand into the mattress. “Your mouth is very powerful.”

“So I’ve heard,” Joe grins, and then follows Nicky’s collarbone down to the center of his chest. Nicky’s heartbeat pours into Joe’s bowed head as he presses kiss after gentle kiss to Nicky’s skin, squeezing his hand with the same consistent rhythm. He feels the sudden pressure of Nicky’s heel digging into the back of his thigh, urging them closer together, and as familiar as the sensation is, it still sends sparks shooting up Joe’s spine.

Nicky pants out another breath as Joe shifts down and then to the side, pressing open-mouthed kisses over Nicky’s ribs. There was a time, somewhere in the mid-1800s, when Joe could see each of them. He can’t now, so the memory dissipates quickly, but when Nicky reaches down and squeezes Joe’s shoulder, it’s clear that he knows that this particular moment is for Joe as much as it is for him.

Nicky sighs, all contentment beneath his thinly-veiled hunger for whatever Joe wants to give him, and Joe feels it beneath his lips. He shifts slightly to the right and kisses the soft swell of Nicky’s stomach. “Ana bahebak,” he mumbles into Nicky’s skin, and then kisses him again. “You are so, so beautiful.”

“Yusuf,” Nicky breathes out, achingly gentle and achingly desperate all at once, like his body can’t decide if it should melt or burn.

“Beautiful,” Joe repeats as he trails his lips down, down, down. He says it in a dozen languages from every corner of the world, some so old that he can’t even remember their names. Only the words, the ones like this that will still never feel like enough for Nicky.

They haven’t spent too much time on the beach yet, so Nicky’s chest and stomach are still pale, laid out like a canvas beneath Joe. Without lifting his head, he brings his hand down to cover the other side of Nicky’s stomach, this vulnerable, gentle part of him that Joe so adores.

“Joe?” Nicky mumbles from above Joe’s head. “I like this better than the time you stabbed me there.”

Joe laughs against Nicky’s skin - he had made the same joke a week earlier as Nicky had laid a kiss over his heart. It’s been long enough that the guilt has passed for both of them, replaced by a simple yet overwhelming gratitude for where they are now.

“As do I,” Joe grins as he shifts further down the bed and Nicky’s body. “Although you are just as alluring to me now as you were all those years ago.” The sheets, by some miracle or curse, are still wrapped around Nicky’s waist, and Nicky makes a strangled noise in the back of his throat as Joe’s breath ghosts over the edge. “Soon,” Joe promises as he leans up enough to drag the sheet down with his finger, and Nicky’s entire body shudders beneath him.

Then, without warning, he turns to Nicky’s uncovered leg and buries his lips against the inside of Nicky’s thigh, and whatever control Nicky had left shatters. He moans as Joe sucks a fleeting mark into his skin, and then Joe is bending Nicky’s leg at the knee to reach as much of him as possible, and Nicky’s pressing his heel so hard into the mattress that Joe is surprised the bed doesn’t creak with it. He reaches up blindly and cups Nicky’s opposite hip, and when Nicky arches up at the next press of Joe’s lips, Joe easily slides his palm underneath Nicky and flattens it over his lower back. He can’t even feel the ache in his wrist as he moves his hand down and Nicky curses in Italian - it’s low and strained and the heat in Joe’s stomach laps at his ribs at the sound.

Joe could so easily get lost in this. Lost simply learning every part of Nicky over and over and over again, mapping him out one warm breath at a time, taking him apart piece by piece and then being taken apart by him all the same.

Please, Joe,” Nicky whimpers, and Joe suddenly wants nothing more than to hold Nicky’s face in his hands, look into his eyes, and get lost there instead.

He leaves one last kiss where Nicky’s thigh meets his hip, and then pushes himself up on his hands. Nicky looks wrecked - his hair is plastered across his forehead while his chest rises and falls too rapidly for it to be natural. His left hand is fisted in the sheets at his side, and Joe runs his thumb softly over Nicky’s knuckles before he finally, desperately, crawls back up until they’re face to face.

“I love you,” Nicky says breathlessly against Joe’s mouth. “I have loved you for as long as we have been given, and I will love you for as long as we have.”

“You are the light that guides me,” Joe whispers before kissing Nicky once, twice, three times, feeling as frantic as Nicky looks. He brushes Nicky’s damp hair off of the side of his face, sliding his hand around until he’s cradling the back of Nicky’s head against the pillow. “You are half of my soul, forever and always.”

Nicky reaches up and curls his hand around the back of Joe’s neck. His fingers are trembling, but there’s a force behind his grip, a single touch that’s part of an unspoken language for the two of them alone. He squeezes once as Joe kisses him again, and Joe can feel the thank you behind it. The simple action stands out with as much clarity in Joe’s mind as the fact that Nicky will let Joe pick their seats on the boat, that Nicky will insist on making dinner for them tonight, that Nicky will wash Joe’s hair with steady hands before they fall back into bed.

And it’s not out of obligation, but out of love, and reverence, and the fact that there’s nothing in the world, in the nine hundred years they’ve been breathing, that either of them wouldn’t do for each other.

Joe,” Nicky pleads. He’s willingly pinned to the bed by Joe’s body, and even with the endless points of contact between them, Joe still shivers when Nicky rocks his hips up against Joe’s stomach. “Please, I -”

“What do you want?” Joe breathes out against Nicky’s mouth before he pushes himself up on one hand and thumbs a stray tear out of the corner of Nicky’s eye. “Whatever you want, my beloved, I will give to you.”

“You,” Nicky answers immediately, his voice shaking on the single word. “Sempre, Yusuf. Always you.”

And with breakfast and the world outside their bed long forgotten, that is exactly what Joe gives him.