* * *
Sixteen thousand days. More. Joe has felt each and every one of them as keenly as the knife that separated him from his first life and the one that followed. A deep cut upon his skin in another sunrise without him, and another after another after another. Nico. Nicolo. Nicky.
Stretched out and clamped like an animal for the slaughter, bones and skin and soul laid bare.
His eyes, stained glass running crimson but a thousand years Joe has known them, will know them for ten thousand more, whatever the miles that separate them, and for the thousandth time since that wretched video flickered to life on James Copley’s computer screen, Joe reminds himself: seventeen times, seventeen times we were in the same city, less than a mile apart, and I did not know it.
“Nicolo, Nico, Nico,” he whispers, lips to cheek, nose to brow. Sour blood and skin.
Nicky’s breaths are short, sharp, that bastard collar cutting his oesophagus. Joe tugs at it once, a futile pawing, before he senses Booker moving around behind him, looking for keys. Joe threads his hands into Nicky’s hair, short, crunchy with dried sweat that’s left salt licks up his face.
His mouth gasps around his words before, dry and raspy: “Your hair.”
Joe laughs, a sparkling sound that scrapes out of him painfully, of course, what else?
Sixteen thousand days, more, and he’s still indignant about Joe’s hair.
There’s the scratching across the floor of Booker kicking something out from under his feet in frustration, and a smattering of French as he raids through shelf after shelf and Joe should help, should let go, should turn away, but if he does this godless place might steal Nicky away again, and he can’t risk it, can’t risk it for anything. His hands on his face, in his hair, smoothing down his earlobes, rubbing the stains from his temples.
“I have so much to tell you,” Joe whispers, and Nicky’s lips twitch in a smile. His lips are cracked, but they don’t bleed.
“Tell me?” Nicky asks, faintly, repetition and request in one, and there are so many things Joe could say, so many things he should say.
So many things he has seen and done and accomplished, with Nicky in the forefront of his screaming mind, but none of it comes to his tongue; not the children he’s saved, not the animals he’s tended, not the houses he’s built or the battles he’s fought.
Instead, Joe tells him: “Italy won the world cup twice.”
Booker swears loudly, the memory of it still a blight on France’s honour, and the split sound of simple joy that bursts out of Nicolo’s cracked, bloodless mouth burns tears out of Joe’s eyes that sting his cheeks.
“Voilà, whoreson,” Booker says roughly, thrusting a metallic pin into Joe’s palm, while he gets to work on Nicky’s ankles.
The metal collar buckled around Nicky’s neck is thick, and attached into the table with severe locks. It unpicks easily enough, but it takes both of Joe’s hands and all of his effort to prise it open, leaving a momentary, livid purple stripe across Nicky’s vulnerable throat. At his first true gulp of air, Nicky chokes and coughs, his face scrunching up with displeasure as he tugs at his wrists, eager to be free.
“Alright, it’s alright, it’s alright,” Joe whispers, again and again, scrambling at Nicky’s left wrist, then his right, while Booker pulls the bulky bar off his midriff.
The indentations and bruises are quick to fade, but Joe will remember them for a long time to come, those violet tiger stripes littering his Nico’s body.
Nicky tries to push himself up, but he’s wobbly as a new born calf, elbows and knees trembling, and Joe catches him around the abdomen before he can slump back to the table and bang his head. The blood over his face is sticky, like a thick smear of warpaint across his eyes and he rubs at them, hard, too hard, the heels of his hands digging into the sockets as if he might shove them all the way into his head.
“Nicky, Nicky,” Joe chides, nearly chokes on his name, to whisper it, to whisper it and be heard.
His heart is a hummingbird trapped in the cage of his body.
He tries to pull Nicky’s hands away before he can hurt himself, but Nicky flinches back, instinctually at his touch. Joe bites his lip, a sound of dismay trapped in his gut before it can do more damage, just as Booker comes around the table, holding a pale blue pair of doctor’s scrub pants. The wreckage he’s left of the room in his uprooting is thorough, and very welcome.
“Here, let me help,” Joe says, the words coming out jumbled, perhaps in a language Booker does not even know, judging by the flicker of confusion on his face as he lightly cups the back of Nicky’s head.
Nicky understands, though. He has always understood.
He shifts and slides, his heels dragging on the table, and Joe lifts each foot through a trouser leg, gently tugging them up his too-thin legs, over his bony hips. Booker has an arm around Nicky’s shoulders, holding him upright, and Joe doesn’t miss the way Nicky’s head drifts to Booker, so that his forehead can brush against Booker’s cheek.
Joe can’t remember the last time Booker’s mouth trembled like that, but he recognises the fearsome grip he has on Nicky’s upper arm from the force of his own trembling hands.
“How are we doing this?” Booker asks, without letting Nicky go.
Joe reaches out to cup Nicky’s jaw, pulling his focus, and his eyes drift with hazy exhaustion, blood-soaked sea glass, glimmering and tired. His hands are limp at his sides. Could he even hold a gun right now?
“Don’t even,” Nicky slurs, determined all the same.
Sixteen thousand days. More. He still knows the lightning strikes of Joe’s ideas as if they were his own.
“Moonlight,” Joe says, hoarse wonder, a thumb dipping at the corner of Nicky’s mouth. “Consider this recompense for Tibet in eighty-eight.”
Nicky’s smile is weak under his thumb, but his fingers have strength in them, when he reaches up to grasp Joe’s wrist.
It’s dire circumstance alone that keeps Joe from falling to his knees there and then. The warmth of his grip, Joe has imagined it every waking moment. A phantom over all four limbs, this is what he endured it for. Sixteen thousand days. More. For this, this moment. This soft, sturdy touch.
Booker chuffs a laugh at the incoherent grumble that follows.
“Front or back, Nicolo?”
His voice breaks over his name, a tide over sharp rocks yet to be smoothed over by time and wear.
Nicolo squeezes Joe’s wrist and says, “Gun?”
Joe pulls one from his calf: light, an easy grip, familiar enough despite the years between then and now. Only a few bullets left, but with any luck, it won’t even need to be fired. He uses both hands to wrap Nicky’s fingers around it, though they mould like clay, strong even when they are not.
“At the risk of untimely jealousy,” Booker mutters, as he slots between Nicky’s dangling legs and turns his back to face Joe. “Use your thighs, Nicolas.”
Joe laughs wetly, checking his own ammo, and sees Nicky whisper something that makes Booker chuckle, mouth wobbled by a fresh onslaught of tears.
He hoists Nicky onto his back, testing his grip, and nods for Joe to leave first, which he does, or he would, only –
The world disintegrates and reforms around her, standing before them through the open doorway.
Joe feels the tattered cloth of his heart set alight. Her voice, ruined by surprise, by joy, by grief. You have never failed us, Joe had promised her, and he meant it, but he could barely speak it. She has borne his ire and his desperation for so long, for sixteen thousand days, and more.
Andromache, bloody and tall, half anguish, all wonder. A gun in her hand, rips in her shirt.
She opens her mouth to say something else, but it twists at the last minute with a grimace, a frown: “No time,” she says, a warning to them, or maybe even a reminder to herself. Harsh as the sunlight of her wet eyes. “Copley and Nile are waiting. Hurry.”
Andy turns her back, and Joe falls behind, so there is only the bare expanse of Nicky’s skin, his to protect, his all to protect, as pale and smooth as it was forty-five years ago, but for the same red slash of a scar above his hip from his boyhood, and the mountainous lines of his ribs pressing up against his skin. Joe wants to lay his palm over his spine, but he keeps only close, covering Nicky’s back, and Booker’s, too.
They move quickly, steadily, uninterrupted but for the line of bodies that leads them out onto the mezzanine, and down a half-spiral of stairs into a wide, blood-splattered atrium. Andy in front, Andy leading, always leading. Joe thinks he might have forgotten, until this very moment, how far he will follow her.
When Booker pauses to hoist Nicky higher, there’s a startled gasp that fists Joe’s heart, but he keeps his eyes on the doors they leave behind, the dead men in their wake.
He wants to pour gasoline over them, over everything. He wants to burn this entire compound to the ground, to erase every speck of its memory. Scorch the earth until the ruins are beyond salvation, and nothing green shall ever grow again. He wants to pour the fire of his hate, sixteen thousand days and more of mourning and dying and viciously hoping, into the merciless void of this place.
But he can’t. He can’t. A burn mark on his soul.
There is a hospital here.
A very real hospital, with very real patients and very real doctors. Not merely the monstrous lab coats who spilled their evil into and over his heart, but good women and men, innocent women and men, maybe even children, and Joe cannot forget that. He cannot forget the soft bright moonlight in Nicolo’s eyes, almost a thousand years ago. That first cautious, lopsided grin when he whispered: You are always the better man, aren’t you?
He isn’t, he isn’t. Joe doesn’t have the words for it. Nevertheless, he’s spent a thousand years trying to live up to that assessment, and he won’t let this place be the thing that proves Nicolo wrong.
Andy was right. There will be a time to clean up, but this isn’t it. This is survival. This a rescue, and Joe won’t risk his chances of Nico getting as far away from this place as he can for anything, not even the volcanic desire for vengeance in his fingertips.
The atrium echoes with their footsteps, with the distant wail of an alarm. Joe feels it on the back of his neck, the creeping disquiet of the facility. They have minutes, perhaps only seconds, before someone else crosses their path. There is violence in his knuckles, in his teeth. He wouldn’t need a weapon, should anybody try to stop them. Let them come, there is no force on earth or beyond that will keep him here.
“On my count,” Andy warns, and Joe glances past her to the emergency door she’s aligned with.
Booker steps back, once, and Nicky is so close Joe’s elbow brushes his lower back.
Blood and fear start to rumble in Joe’s ears, a steady roar that quickens his breath. Andy counts, and kicks, and –
“GET IN!” he hears Nile shout.
Joe’s stomach twists, and then he is running.
The sunlight is dazzling, already the morning is close to hot.
There is a large black van with a side door slid open, and the passenger front, too. Copley is behind the wheel, bellowing for them to hurry, and Nile’s eyes are so big in her face, all worry and relief. There’s a trickle of blood on her forehead, with no wound left to run from.
Andy leaps into the back, but Booker knocks his head forwards at Joe, who flounders for all of a second before realising, and scurrying in after her.
Booker turns, backing to the open door, and Joe reaches blindly to wrap his arms around Nicky’s waist. He’s cold, and clammy, and he’s pressed from head to toe against Joe for the first time in forty-five years. Sixteen thousand days, more, and his weight is a blessing, a wanted, unwasted thing. Nicky’s arms loosen from around Booker’s neck, just as shots start to ring out. Voices are shouting, and Nile swears loudly.
She fires back, and Booker, flinching, does the same. He pulls out of Nicky’s hold, and shoves wordlessly at Nile for her to get into the back, too, before leaping in beside Copley.
The doors roll and slam.
The wheels of the van screech thunderously in a swerve that topples both Joe and Nicky, and Joe clutches him tight, one arm cushioning his head before it can hit the floor of the van. There is no way of knowing what is happening outside, save for the clattering of gunfire, but Joe can’t fix that. All he can do is press his face into the back of Nicolo’s head, his eyes clenched tight, and breathe him in.
“I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
He murmurs it, over and over, as Nico shakes violently all over. He retches, twice, and Joe pulls him upright to keep him from choking but there’s nothing coming out, there’s nothing left for his body to give, and the dry sob that heaves out of him is so painful that it conjures one from Joe, too.
Nicky. Nico. Nicolo, hurting.
“Mia, mia,” Nicky cries out, but he gets no further.
The van crashes through something fast, and Joe’s hold loosens as they bounce and jolt and then Andy is there, Andromache. Her arms. Her hands. Her fingers.
Andy scoops herself around Nicky as if they had been carved that way from marble. Her palm slides firmly over the back of his neck, the other flat against his back, and while half his weight never leaves Joe’s legs, the other half is lying over Andromache’s front. His face is hidden beneath her jaw, where he is safely hidden. His fingers hook into the ripped holes in her shirt.
Joe brushes his hand over Nicky’s hip, down his leg, and feels another fracture of his soul settle, to see them embrace.
It’s not that he had thought he was lying to Nile, when she asked, when he told her, back in that busy station in Paris.
And it’s not that he had ever forgotten how much Andy cared for Nico, either.
Only that, over the years, or maybe all along, she’s been so good at shielding the most vulnerable of the defences that surround her heart. It’s easy to ignore grief that hides in the shadows. Starved of sunlight, Andromache has let it fester, and he knows it was for his sake, and he’s grateful. He knows he could not have borne seeing Andromache in such pain, too, all this time.
Now, as she murmurs in low undertones that Joe makes no intrusive effort to overhear, Andromache breathes deeper than Joe ever remembers her doing, her eyes closed, blind to everything, deaf to everything, except the man in her arms.
Through the wall of the van, Joe hears Booker swearing. They can’t get far like this. His stomach flips with worry, and it must show in his face, because when he catches Nile’s watchful gaze, she offers him a tight, reassuring smile. Her eyes dart back and forth to Nicky, who’s still hidden under Andy’s strong arms and lyrical whispers.
The van bumps over something hard. Nicky yelps is surprise, drawing back from Andy and into Joe’s waiting arms.
Joe tucks his nose behind Nicky’s ear, hands clasping over his chest and stomach, thumbs stroking his sides.
He takes over Andy’s steady stream of murmuring, tuning out Nile and Andy as they talk through their escape in half formed, breathless sentences. Joe’s ears are too full of Nicky’s shuddering breaths for anything else. Each drag of air into his lungs is fast, a gasp of panic held too long before a violent exhale. His fingers scrabble at Joe’s arms.
Joe feels him, suddenly, slip out of time and place.
“Nico, Nico, it’s OK, it’s OK, please, Nicolo, please,” Joe begs.
Worry dries his mouth and throat, words cracking as they reach his teeth.
Nicky’s hands are buried in his eyes again, rubbing them uselessly, too powerfully, and Joe tries to pull them away from his face, even as Nicky lets out a cry of distress. Joe doesn’t know what they’ve done to him, what drugs are coursing through him or what memories are washing over him, but he’ll be damned if he lets Nicky hurt himself any worse when he’s finally out of that place.
“I’m here. Sono qui. I’m here. ‘Ana huna. I’m here. Eímai edó. I’m here,” he promises, a flurry of English, of Greek and Italian and Arabic, his scratching voice filling the back of the van as it revs and charges. There is no more gunfire, but they are travelling at speed. It can’t be sustained for long, not if they want to be unnoticed.
Nicky rolls suddenly around in Joe’s grip, so his face is pressed into Joe’s chest, and whatever jumbled words come flying from his mouth are too muffled to be understood, their vowels piercing Joe’s heart nonetheless. His fingers are brutal, biting into Joe’s ribcage as he clutches him with one hand, the other wrenched hard at the cloth of Andy’s trousers.
Joe catches Andy’s gaze, but she looks none the wiser, her hand cupped over the back of Nicky’s without trying to pull him away.
The van jerks, and Nicky yelps, and they struggled to remain sitting upright as it makes a sharp turn.
Copley and Booker are shouting – at each other, or something else, it’s impossible to make out.
Joe tugs Nicky close, despite the wriggling of his frame as he struggles to be free of his cage, even the cage of Joe’s arms, and Joe feels all the hissing relief of the past twenty minutes bubble up into a spiral of despair again.
“Nico, Nico, it’s me, it’s me,” he tries to say.
“Calmati, Nicolo,” Andy says, once, twice, again, the blade of her voice sharpened with worry.
Her other hand comes to rest on Nicky’s back, but this time he flinches away from her touch.
He shouts something that’s mostly hard consonants into Joe’s stomach. Joe is certain he can feel the damp of his tears soaking through his shirt. Please, he says, louder, louder, and then –
A small voice. Unsure, but true, the emphasis haphazard, unusual in her mouth.
Nicky stills, almost immediately. His lungs are still working desperately, his breaths coming hard and large and quick, but his fingers lose their dagger grip on Joe’s sides. He doesn’t try to wrestle away, and only shifts, slightly. His face is tucked, chin to shoulder, to he can stare behind himself, and Joe doesn’t need to see properly to know he has made eye contact with Nile.
Nile is leaning back against the door, one hand gripping a strap hanging from the ceiling, the other a clenched fist punched into the floor beside her knees. She makes no move to touch Nicky. Only stares back, with an open face, so young, so young.
Joe wonders if she knew that word already, or if she looked it up.
There is a single, rattling moment, as they all hold still and silent.
“Sorella?” Nicky whispers, in wonder, in surprise. His entire body seems to sink, weighty, over Joe’s. “Tu? Sei qui?”
Nile, blessed girl, miraculous girl, glances self-consciously up at Joe, as if wondering what to say.
Joe simply nods, for Nile to copy, which she does beautifully, a fragile smile on her face as her hawklike attention returns immediately to Nicky. More confident now, she nods, and says, “Yes,” so softly it is almost unheard above the grinding of the engine.
Nicky takes another confused breath, blinking and turning to look up at Joe.
Joe puts a hand cautiously on the side of Nicky’s face, and feels the draw of his own damp smile. Glass pane eyes, lost and hungry, roaming Joe’s face. Joe will wait, for as long as it takes. His thumb brushes lightly at a smear of blood across Nicky’s cheek, back and forth. It’s too dry to be rubbed away so easily.
Nicky’s brow twitches, confused, then pained, then hopeful, and Joe is ravenous for every expression that passes over his face.
“Amore,” Nicky says, barely audible. Then, that daring not-yet-smile. “Italy won twice?”
Joe beams down at him, pressing his nose into the bridge of Nicky’s to laugh, as Andy scoffs and Nile looks incredibly bemused.
“1982 and 2006,” Joe replies, and puts his lips gently over Nicky’s eyelids, one by one. Nicky winces, but doesn’t pull away, leaning into the heat of Joe’s face.
Before anyone can say anything more, however, there is a jerking screech as the van comes to a sudden, grating stop. Joe tightens his grip momentarily, but releases his arms from around Nicky before he can be fought off again.
“Time to change,” Andy says gruffly, still holding Nicky’s hand to her leg, and nods for Nile to get out first.
Andy goes next, while Joe coaxes Nicky into rolling over. By the time they’ve shuffled to the open door, Booker is there, with his arms out.
Nicky is a little more reluctant this time, but he tentatively accepts Booker’s hands pulling up into a mockery of standing. Joe slides out behind him, and almost headbutts Nicky when his neck is suddenly tilted back, face to the sun and his eyes wide open, glittering opals in his pale, stained face.
“Il sole,” Nicky murmurs, and Joe feels it cleave his chest apart, his reverence, his delight, at nothing more than the sun on his face.
How long has it been?
The very thought of that answer is too much for Joe to think on, right now. He gathers Nicky’s weight from Booker, who relinquishes his grip with only a little reluctance, and looks around at the abandoned warehouse parking lot they’ve ended up in.
Copley is already moving to another car – an unremarkable enough, dark red SUV – while Booker joins Andy in emptying several gallons of gasoline all over the van.
“Can you walk?” Joe asks, simply, and Nicky looks uneasy as he takes a wobbly step.
Before Joe can decide whether or not he really wants to force Nicky’s hand and scoop him up – which he will, he has done before and will do again, he will, because he’s here, he’s here, he’s here – Nile appears on Nicky’s other side. She’s smiling, still, that loveliest, most hopeful smile of hers, and holding out her hand in an offer.
Nicky, to the firework stuttering glee of Joe’s hummingbird heart, takes it willingly, putting a little more of his weight to the left.
“Grazie, sorella,” he hears Nicky murmur, as they make their way towards the SUV, and even at the fraction of a glance Joe spares for Nile’s face, he can see the brightness of her grin, the protective clutch of her hands around Nicky’s.
It’s only as they reach the open door of the car that Joe notices a second black van, identical to the first one, parked a little behind it. He’d forgotten. His heart seizes up in his chest, and he tries to shepherd Nicky in before he can notice but it’s too late.
Hungrily staring at every surrounding his starved gaze, and his sniper senses no duller for their disuse despite his momentary lapses in lucidity, Nicky has already seen it.
“Yusuf,” he says, his voice cracking.
There’s the gritty roar of the fire being set alight behind them.
Copley’s already climbing into the front of the second van.
Andy has her hand on the driver’s side door when Nicky finally understands.
“No, no, ANDROMACHE!” Nicky shrieks, and Joe barely manages to hook his arms around Nicky as he wrenches his hands out of their grips. Nile tries to grab him back, too, but he’s a wildcat in Joe’s arms. “Andromache-mia-madre-mia-Andromache-no-no-ritorno-Andromache-ritorno-per-favore-Andromache! Non lasciarma, per favore, Andromache! Ti prego!”
Andy pauses for barely a moment, her eyes wild, caught on Nicolo wrestling to reach her.
“Nicolo! Fermati! Nicolo, per favore, Nico, Nico.”
Joe presses the words into the nape of his neck as he hauls Nico backwards, but it’s no use.
Andy’s expression hardens all over, and for a single devastating moment it’s like staring back into the face of five hundred years ago, alone and shackled in a witch’s cell, before she tears away her gaze and clambers into the car without a word.
“Booker!” Joe shouts, clamping down Nico’s jabbing elbows and praying for forgiveness, because Nicolo’s fighting with everything he has but it’s barely a fraction of the strength Joe is used to from him.
His heart in tatters, he hoists Nicky up and Booker is there, creased with his own anguish as he easily grabs Nicky’s legs, and together they heave him into the back seat of the car while Nile leaps into the driver’s seat. The van is already little more than a flurry of dust, and all the doors of the SUV are barely closed as she turns the ignition and takes off in the opposite direction, heading towards the highway.
Nicky doesn’t have the voice or breath to keep screaming, but every exhausted sob that wrenches out of his chest is another knife in Joe’s soul. There are hot, sticky tears running down Nicky’s cheeks, smearing the bloody mess around his eyes and forehead into pink streaks. He pushes his face into Joe’s stomach without another word and cries, open mouthed and heaving, into his abdomen, stretched out across all three seats with his legs over Booker’s thighs.
Nile is distracted, glancing every other second up into the rear view, but she keeps to an even speed, her fingers drumming a familiar tune into the steering wheel, and Booker –
Booker has his arms around Nicky’s calves, and his forehead is pressed into his knees like a child wrapped around a parent’s legs. His shoulders are hunched to his ears.
Nicky, even amidst his rocking cries, has buried one hand in the thatch of Booker’s hair and is holding onto him, as if he is afraid Booker will disappear, too.
From the front of the car, there’s a hiccupping hitch of breath from Nile.
Joe strokes his hands over every sharp angled piece of Nicky he can reach. His hair, his neck, his ear, his shoulder, his side, his hip, his back. He shudders in time with his grief, each whimper a bruise Joe can’t find the strength to heal from, as tears of his own slip past his jaw.
“She’s coming back,” he says, every few minutes, though he’s certain it’s meaningless to Nicky, no matter which language he tries it in.
As the adrenaline slowly begins to tremble its way out of Joe’s body, a bone deep, forty-five-year-old exhaustion takes over.
Sixteen thousand days. More.
Nicky’s featherweight in his lap is too much, is not enough. He wants to stare at him for another forty-five years, just to catch up, without blinking, but he can’t keep his eyes open. Nicky’s ragged breaths are an ebbing reminder of his presence, and Joe tucks himself around him a little better: a hand on his chest, another on his crown.
He strokes his thumb over the bumps of his ribs, and whispers promises into the thrumming heartbeat of the car.
He sinks into a restive, trembling sleep, with Nicky under his hands, and Booker silent beside him, and Nile watching from the front of the car.
* * *
Joe wakes up all at once, and knows these three things for certain: they haven’t stopped driving, Andy hasn’t checked in yet, and Nicky is here.
Nicolo. Nico. Nico.
Joe has to clear the thick wedge of honest adoration from his throat as he looks down at his shadowy, thin face. He wants to stroke the line of his nose, dimple the mole on his cheek, follow the contour of his brows, but he daren’t disturb the serenity that has lodged itself decidedly onto Nico’s face in slumber.
He hears Nile’s voice, low, almost under her breath, say: “We’re at the last stretch before Munich.”
Munich, it hasn’t even been four hours yet, then. They’ve got a long way to go, more than twice their journey so far before they can expect to hear from Andy and Copley, wherever they might be.
Joe grimaces, remembering the scramble to heave the strength of Nicolo’s feeble limbs out from under him, the agony in his scream as he cried out not to be separated once more. He knows, rationally, with rest and time, Nico will understand why. He won’t hold it against Andy, or Joe, or any of them. It’s a poor comfort, all the same.
There’s a rustle of movement that drags a frown over Nicky’s face. He tuts in a state of half-sleep, before Booker’s voice, stifled by Nicky’s leg where he’s still wrapped like an octopus around him, says: “You have to let me up at some point, di Genova.”
The corner of Nicky’s mouth twitches playfully, and he tugs at Booker by the fistful of hair he has had hold of all this time, by the looks of it.
“Succhiami il cazzo, porco schifoso,” he mumbles.
Like the first split of sunlight through nought but stormy clouds, Joe feels the smile break over him, his mouth, his face, his whole body, beaming. He laughs, and Nicky startles like a bird, but only succeeds in burying himself deeper into Joe’s embrace, hiding that precious smile lingering on his lips.
Joe slides a hand over the side of his head anyway, and leans down to kiss the delicate shell of his ear.
Nico releases Booker from his stronghold, instead threading his fingers into Joe’s hair –
Or, he tries to, but it’s so short his clumsy grasp slips right off his head. Nicky huffs into Joe’s stomach before rolling back to stare crossly up at him. Joe could kiss that false rage for days.
“Your hair,” Nicky says again, before making use of both Joe and Booker’s available arms to hoist himself into a more upright position. His legs flop down, and he leans heavily into Joe, but Joe wouldn’t complain for anything – will take every touch Nicky can give him, just to know for certain he is there.
Nicky rubs at his eyes again with his knuckles, and Joe feels a stab of worry, but it’s merely a sleepy gesture, followed by a wide, lion’s yawn, and a shiver.
A soft brrr sound has barely tripped off his teeth before Nile is reaching with one hand for a backpack from the front seat, which she pulls up and hands over to them.
“There’s a sweater in there,” she says, and when Nicky stares at it a little stupidly, as if wondering what to do, Joe takes it from her and sets about pulling a cosy piece of teal cotton blend out.
“Here, love,” he says, and tries not to fuss too much as he manoeuvres it over Nicky’s head. His worries are unfounded, however, because it seems Nicky feels as incapable of dressing himself as he looks, and allows the attention with barely a twitch.
It’s not just a sweater, as it turns out. Soon, Nicky has been bundled into the sweater, a thick pair of socks, some soft plimsoles and even a thick scarf which, in spite of the thick sunshine pouring like butter through the windscreen, he huddles around himself more than once before sinking back under Joe’s open arm. His feet, he presses against Booker’s thigh, and Joe doesn’t miss tiny swallow of a sound Booker makes, as he puts his hand with frightening softness on Nicky’s ankle.
The very air of the car feels fragile, suddenly.
Joe thinks, with little more than a word, he could burst into tears, and almost does, when he glances sideways and catches Booker staring at Nicky with wide, disbelieving eyes, not even blinking as he takes in every detail.
Nicky takes a huge breath, and Joe feels it in his own lungs, staggering through him.
“How long?” Nicky asks.
Joe’s mouth clamps down so hard on the strangled thing that nearly bursts out of him, he hears his teeth grind, and he knows Nicky does, too. His hands are so tentative, lying in Joe’s lap. He’s staring at the back of Nile’s headrest.
After two failed attempts at prising his mouth open without risking something ugly and awful spilling out of him, Joe looks to Booker for help, which feels cruel, because it’s always been the other way around. Joe’s always been able to give voice to Booker’s thoughts, when the words have grown quiet in his mouth. But this, it’s so large, it’s so long, and it isn’t fair to keep Nicky waiting for an answer but Joe knows if he opens his mouth the only thing that will come out is Too long, too long, forever, the longest death I’ve ever known. Sixteen thousand days. More.
Booker’s voice is odd; tender and strangled when he says, “Forty-five years, last month.”
For a moment, Nicky merely stares at the car seat in front of him, unseeing. His thumb twitches limply against Joe’s leg in an aborted squeeze of comfort. To give or to receive, it’s impossible to guess. Maybe both. Then he nods, slowly, very small.
“That sounds right.”
It’s a quiet, defeated sound, doesn’t sound real in Nicky’s voice. His Nico, his Nicolo. Relentless, shining Nicolo, moonlight in the darkest of winter nights.
Nothing more is said until they reach the outskirts of Munich, to a gas station with a small car park.
Nile pulls in carefully, at the furthest pump, and after a brief argument mostly using their eyes in which Booker assures Nile that he’s going to do it because it’s safer for him to be caught on camera than her, and not because he doesn’t think she’s capable of putting gas in a car, Booker climbs out into the breezy sunshine.
With the door still open, Booker leans in for a moment, his fingers still attached to Nicky’s abruptly tense leg, and after pulling his attention to him, he signs: I’ll only be a minute.
With Nicky’s face pressed close to his throat, Joe feels the burn of embarrassment redden Nicky’s cheeks, but there is no unkindness in the sweeping gestures of Booker’s hands, and Nicky does, for all his blushing squirms, relax a little as the car door shuts.
Booker makes quick work of it, disappearing into the shop while Nile reverses into a secluded parking space. After checking for nearby cameras, she slides out and scurries around to take Booker’s seat, careful to sit as polite a distance from Nicky as she can manage in the back of the car, what with Nico’s feet still resting in a tight curl beside him.
There’s an unusual shyness to the way she looks over at them, taking in Nicky through her eyelashes, followed by Joe, who wants to say something, anything, to this wonderful, miraculous woman who has come into their lives with all the vibrancy of spring blossom after a century of frost.
What can he say?
It’s Nicolo who says it. Of course it is – This would have been so different, Joe promised her, and he meant it, and he was right.
Nico turns his head, and takes in Nile’s features with methodical attention, and his voice is hoarse but his words are clear.
“Thank you, Nile. Without you, who knows how long we would have suffered the wasteland of these years.”
Joe takes his fingers tightly, and can’t bring himself to let go of them until Nicky tugs away. He ducks his head in apology, pressing it briefly against Joe’s temple in reassurance.
There are tears glittering in Nile’s eyes, though they don’t fall.
Just like before, she holds out her hand in solemn offering. Nicky takes it, with both of his own. He pulls her to knuckles to his forehead, then to his mouth, before letting go again.
His voice is thick with rust as he murmurs: “I’m tired, Yusuf,” in jumbled, half-hush Zeneize.
Joe curls him around, so his head is tucked into the crook of one arm, and he can sleep undisturbed.
“Sleep, love,” Joe replies, looking up to see Booker loping towards them with a plastic bag swinging in his hand, his sunglasses slipping down his nose. “We have a long way to go.”
“She’ll call?” Nicky asks.
The English, when it comes, sticks awkwardly in his mouth, as if he does not enjoy the taste of the vowels.
Joe strokes his face, the new angles of his gaunt cheeks.
“She’ll call. I’ll wake you when she does.”
Nicky nods, beads of sweat glistening on his brow though he doesn’t relinquish the scarf from around his neck.
Nile slowly pulls his feet into her lap, the way Booker had, glancing at Joe as if for permission. He smiles at her encouragingly, while Nicky stretches out a little better, snuffling and shuffling until he’s all but crawled inside Joe’s soul.
Booker’s quiet when he closes the door, and starts the engine, the rustling bag on the front seat beside him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he murmurs softly, in a song of a voice. “We have lift off.”
Nicky is asleep before they’ve circled around Munich.
Joe is quick to follow.
* * *
He doesn’t need to wake Nicky when Andromache calls, in the end, because Nile can barely get the word Andy out before Nicky is awake with such violent alertness, it’s as if he hadn’t been asleep at all.
It’s an eerie, unpleasant similarity to Nicky’s usual swift wakening, tinged with an aggression, a panic, that Joe isn’t used to. His eyes are wide, his skin pasty, and within moments he’s back to denting his eye sockets with the heels of his hands.
Joe touches his wrist, in a silent plea for him to leave it, but this time Nicky rears back entirely, out of the way.
“She’s safe,” Nile says, as soon as the call has ended. “They’ll meet us there. Might even beat us to it.”
They’re through the Austrian border, on a long road through Innsbruck to change vehicles, before turning south for Bologna. It’s Joe’s turn to drive next, and he’s a little worried about letting go of Nicky for that long, but it’s only fair. With their added detours, it’s an almost twenty-hour drive straight, assuming they get through each border check clean.
“Where are we going?” Nicky asks, finally.
Joe rests his nose against Nicky’s cheek, prickled by the dusting of stubble just starting to show.
“We’re going to Monica’s house.”
He kisses the indent of Nicky’s smile, when it dimples his face.
* * *
They found Monica’s house in the late seventeen-forties. It has never, to their knowledge, been owned by a Monica.
However, after discovering the collected, heavily redacted histories of Nicolo the Roman and Yusuf the North African – neither of whom were particularly fond of their titles, being only half-accurate and vaguely assumptive – the man who had sold them the property had decided to weave them an inexplicable account of how this house had been built on the very site where Saint Monica died.
Nicolo, who was growing ever tired of the long, gnarled tooth of Christianity, had considered this a reason to abandon the purchase entirely. He had no interest in living anywhere that claimed to be a holy site, even one that almost certainly wasn’t.
Yusuf, on the other hand, was ever ready to fall in love with a tall tale, and had persuaded his reticent love to accept it for the charming fiction of a hopeful salesman that it was.
“He would charge us triple for the honour of sleeping in her grave,” Nicolo had said with a reluctant pout, even as he eyed the lemon trees in the orchard longingly.
Yusuf scoffed jovially, stroking a finger over Nico’s Adam’s apple, to the sweat collecting in the hollow of his throat.
“Don’t be so silly, Nicolo,” he replied gleefully. “He said she died here, not that she was buried here!”
Nicolo had rolled his eyes, and made quite the fuss about it, but Yusuf knew he had been persuaded when he reached up and plucked a ripe lemon from a branch, pressing it hungrily to his nose and making noises about having a better place to grow basil this time.
“I will not live in another bastard townhouse with four measly hours of sunlight a day!” he had bellowed, after leaving the first house they had found.
They bought it for, if not quite triple its worth, then probably at least twice.
Nicolo grumbled the whole time, and bad temperedly spent the first four days fixing the garden and back orchard, all the while getting repeatedly burnt to a crisp in the scorch of August but stubbornly refusing to cover his pale-blistered-pale-again skin.
Yusuf, for his part, had painted using the new oils Nicolo had given him, which he had done so along with a peck on the lips and a demand that Of course I don’t need your help. You killed my rosemary, Yusuf Al-Kaysani. Do you know how aggressive rosemary is? It’s unkillable, and you killed it.
It’s been crumbling and getting rebuilt ever since, Monica’s house. Lovingly restored, again and again. They aren’t even sure how much of it is the same house they first paid for, anymore.
The original lemon trees have long withered. Nicolo wept when they returned to find the final one cracked by recent storms, but there are others, now, that Yusuf had bought and then generously not attempted to plant. Lemons, and pears, and olives. The herbs grow wild and free, the rosemary safe and huge, and every wall of the house both inside and out has been subjected to mural upon mural of Yusuf’s creative boredom.
It is home, as much as any home ever is, when it must be abandoned at a moment’s notice.
It is their home.
* * *
They arrive in Ostia, on sea-kissed the outskirts of Rome, shortly before six in the morning.
The sun has broken the horizon. The sky is awash with pink clouds that cut through a pale, yellow and blue sky. Life has already sprung through the streets, the first signs of markets and shops. Two cafes already have their chairs arranged outside, scattered around closed parasols. There are trucks unloading goods, and the voices of early rising workers are carried on the wind.
Monica’s house is closer inland than the main town, a stone’s throw from Antica – Exactly, Nico had huffed, after the pushy salesman had left them to discuss buying it, Saint Monica did not die so far from the sea, who does he think we are? – and Joe presses a hand to the window, as if he might touch the old stones, drawing warmth from their history, and the lengthy memories he has of exploring them over the years.
He looks down at Nicky, whose eyes are closed, but his lips are thin, pressed together as he lies curled on his side with his head on Joe’s knees.
The car has been silent for almost an hour: Booker in the driver’s seat for the final stretch, Nile beside him. In the back, Nicky is taking up the width of the car with his long legs, arms looped between Joe’s knees. It’s unclear, how lucid he is, but he certainly hasn’t slept since they crossed the border into Italy.
The house is secreted away at the end of a thin, meandering road that cuts through the neighbouring farmland like a rugged, abandoned snakeskin, roughly ripped and bleached by the sun. It’s a bumpy final mile, and Booker chooses haste overcaution as he approaches the mouth of the gaping driveway.
Sunshine has painted the house’s aged face pale. On the doorstep, her elbows on her thighs and looking in dire need of a bath, is Andy.
Joe rubs Nicky’s shoulder, coaxing him up to peer through the window.
Sure enough, the sight of her seems to dispel some of the pensive storm clouds gathering in Nicolo’s face.
Booker yelps a string of incredibly poor French when the door opens before the handbrake Is even on, and Andy is on her feet in an instant.
Nicky scrambles out of the car, all limbs, Joe following with his heart bursting painfully at the tickle of laughter in Andy’s throat, which escapes her as Nicky is checking her over for injuries with his hands and his eyes. He’s so wobbly on his feet that he nearly drags the pair of them to the floor as he keels leftwards.
“No, no,” Joe says, gently, catching Nicky around the waist.
“I’m alright,” Andy is saying, repeatedly, in a voice that actually sounds like she means it. “Nico – Nicky – Nikomachos. I’m alright, I’m –”
The words fall apart in her mouth as she takes him in. Joe sees them, broken consonants like candle smoke on her breath.
Andy hauls Nicky into herself, and Nicky melts to her will. Joe tries to step back, trusting Andy to keep Nicky standing, but before he can move, two arms are yanking him in. Andy fingers are digging between his shoulder blades, while Nicky’s palm is wide over his hip, and Joe breathes in deeply only to catch the air in the back of his throat, surprised, though he shouldn’t be. He can feel them, and he can smell then. Beneath the blood and the sweat and the car-smell of travel, they are there.
Joe tries to blink back the tears in his eyes, even as they spill treacherously down his cheeks.
“You didn’t go in?” he asks, palming them away.
Andy shakes her head, holding out the key to him.
“Didn’t feel right,” she says, and Joe doesn’t question the multitude of her meanings.
The truth is, being here at all in the last forty-five years hasn’t felt right.
Joe takes the key, pulling back and catching sight of Nile and Booker near the car. Her hand is on his arm, almost as if she’s about to hug him, or has just done so. The look between them is a private thing. He does not pry, grateful, for them both, the fact of them, their places here, beside him, and beside each other.
A cold, familiar hand slides int Joe’s, and he looks down at their interlocked fingers, his and Nicolo’s.
It’s right. It’s good. It’s natural.
Sixteen thousand days. More. They are still Nicolo, and Yusuf. Their souls still know each other, as they have always done.
Nicky smiles at him. Blood on his face that hasn’t been washed off yet. Hair short and matted. Wearing a teal sweater and blue doctor’s scrubs and a chunky marron scarf. Alive. Here.
The moment feels golden, and crystal. Preciously preserved in Joe’s bursting heart. Forty-five years he has waited for this, and like the first taste of a new harvest it’s sweeter than he even could have imagined.
“Welcome home, moonlight,” he says, his palm sweating against Nicky’s.
Then he unlocks the door, and leads them inside.
* * *
Sixteen thousand days. More.
In a safehouse – Naamcha, perhaps, or Cairo – Joe sat down with a brand new notebook.
It was a cheap, ugly thing; entirely apart from the leather bound gifts Nicolo would leave for him to find, wherever they went. The lines on the pages were dark, heavy, close together. Too angry a hand or too sharp a pencil would puncture it quickly.
He opened a brand new pack of blue pens, even cheaper than the paper.
He started on the top of the inside cover of the front, and wrote on every line of the eighty pages, side after side, until he reached the bottom on the back cover.
It was 2009, and he needed to rest. But not that night. This was more important than rest, and far better for his aching soul, if not for his weary body.
The first line read:
Everything I must tell you.
* * *
On the twenty-sixth line:
11/07/1982 – Italy beat West Germany in the FIFA World Cup Final. I was in Argentina, because I knew that is where you would have wanted to be. I stayed with a man and woman, Nicolas and Martina. They had very little, but they had each other, and they were happy. I was sad to leave them.
* * *
On the thirtieth line:
09/07/2006 – Italy beat France in the FIFA World Cup Final. I was at the match, in Berlin, with Booker. He lost €600 in our bet, plus another €300 for Zidane’s headbutt. I spent it all buying Italians drinks all night.
* * *
“Someone has been in here.”
Nicky’s voice is sharp. Piercing. It might be the loudest he’s spoken that wasn’t a yell yet.
His shoulders square up as he stares around the entrance, barely soothed when Joe rubs them with his thumbs.
“Si, yes,” he says, forcibly switching them back to English, if only for Nile’s sake. “I pay someone to come in, twice a year. To clean, and fix things, if I cannot.”
Because I could not do it anymore, he does not add, though it seems he does not need to, because Nico’s stare creases softly, and the corners of pale, chapped mouth twitch unhappily.
“Someone…comes inside? Alone?”
Joe knows his fears. Understands them, as he does his own. He places his hand on Nicky’s cheek.
“Trust me,” he says, a reminder, not a request.
It has been a long time since they had to ask for each other’s trust, much longer than forty-five years. Merrick might have taken a great deal from them, but Joe refuses to believe that they could take that.
Nicky takes his wrist, and smile again. It’s a polite, forced expression, but no less genuine for it. Joe takes it for the acceptance it is, and leads them further into the house.
“Wow,” Nile says, in a voice so exaggerated Joe thinks she must be teasing them. However, when he glances over his shoulder, it’s to see her face alight with awe, staring up and around so quickly, he might have to worry about giving her whiplash.
Booker, he’s surprised to notice, has a hand on her shoulder, guiding her a little from behind. The calmness of his eyes, when they catch gazes momentarily is not the melancholy Joe is used to seeing. He’s startled, and pleased, and he feels a quick flurry of guilt that he has to smother before it can ignite. He has been neglectful, these past forty-five years. He knows he has.
Moreover, he knows that Booker forgives him for it, and Andy, too. Joe will not be so forgiving of himself, all the same.
A tug on his hand pulls him forwards, and Joe returns his attention to Nicolo, who is looking suddenly very worried as he marches directly through the house, all the way to –
“Love, love,” Joe says with bitten laughter. “I promise, it’s OK. They took care of it for me. I didn’t touch a single plant.”
“Not even the rosemary?” Nicky retorts archly.
And that is the moment, precisely, when Joe knows his misshapen, weary soul has found root inside his body once more. His smile will not be removed, his love will not falter, his spirit will not wane. He is here, alive, and so is Nicolo, his Nicolo.
Nicolo, irate over his rosemary, shoving his way out of the backdoor and into the garden and falling to his knees in the overgrown herbs as if he might follow Daphne into the flora and sprout leaves himself.
“Not, even, the rosemary,” Joe replies, standing on the patio tiles they laid together, almost a hundred years ago. Moss-eaten, and weather-beaten, but strong, sturdy beneath their feet.
Nicky has a fistful of rosemary in one hand and a clenched bunch of basil in the other. He’s holding them tightly to his chest and breathing in their combined scents as the sun splits a new rainbow over his beautiful face.
The others are following, but Joe cannot look away from the starlit gleam in his eyes, the lines of his cheekbones cutting around them.
Another breath, and another.
Nicky heaves a mouthful of air and it traps itself, quite suddenly, in his lungs. He shudders, as tears spoil his eyes and the bright glow of his grin twists, panic-stricken.
Joe’s heart lodges itself in the back of his teeth.
“Nico, Nicolo,” he says, skidding to his knees amidst the herbs and clutching Nicky’s face as he pulls in more and more air, a pitchy, scratched record sound skittering out of him. His eyes squeeze shut, and he brings his wrists to them, hasn’t even let go of the plants as he rubs and shakes, his body folding into itself, into the earth, disappearing before Joe’s very eyes. “Nicky, Nicolo –”
“What’s wrong? What is it?”
Andromache. Her shadow, her knees, and then her hands, her face. She’s crouched on Nicky’s other side, a hand hovering over his neck before laying over his nape. Other than another gasping sound, he doesn’t seem to notice.
“He’s just – you’re OK, my love. Nico? I know, I know it’s – Nicolo, you’re –”
Joe presses his face close to Nicky’s head, cradling him, shielding him, and that’s when he hears it. Barely audible beneath the loud warble of his breath’s Nicky is whispering, in a constant stream of hissing vowels.
Joe can hear the others, the underwater mumble of their voices, their movements, but it’s nothing to that whisper. That violent, sudden plea, as quickly as if a switch had been clicked off in Nicky’s head. Joe can feel his own panic growing thorns, vines up his throat, blocking his airway. He feels helpless, impotent to do anything more than stroke Nicolo’s head and call out his name.
“You’re awake, darling, you’re awake. You’re here, you’re here, I’m here,” he says, or he thinks he does. It’s garbled mess, like chips of broken teeth loose on his tongue.
Hands are on his shoulders, tugging him upright.
“Joe – Joe – Joe.”
It’s Booker, or Nile – both of them. All his strength is burying itself in Joe to keep him up, while she passes him with the grace of a hand on his shoulder. When she crouches, mirroring Andromache, her lips are near Nicky’s ear, her voice too quiet for Joe to hear it over the thundering of his own heart still clobbering his molars.
“Don’t – Book, Book,” Joe tries to insist, but he feels his fight against Booker’s coaxing wane, even as he tries to push past him, back to Nicolo.
“They have him, Joe. They have him. You need to calm down.”
“I am calm!” Joe yells, flinching at his own volume.
Booker, kindly, doesn’t say anything more. He only stands there, on the patio, sun-dappled and sad, with his hands raised before him, and shakes his head.
Joe hears Nicky let out a loud retching sound, and Nile says something gentle over his groaning, and Joe’s fingernails dig into his palms.
“Calm,” is all Booker says, again. Stern, cool – odd, Joe thinks, like a father, to a child, and for one moment he considers saying something to that effect, or worse. It would certainly knock Booker out of his way better than a dagger only – no. Joe wipes his face and banishes the thought before the words can touch his tongue.
Pain will not make him cruel, not his own, not even Nicolo’s. Not to Booker, not to his brother.
His breath hitches, but the next gulp of air he sucks in is cool and filling. He rattles down his windpipe easier, and the next, and the next. Booker watches him, afraid yet resolved, while behind him, Nicky is coughing and mumbling something archaic enough to make Andy chuckle.
Joe lets the sound ground him, anchors himself to that snicker, that soft Greek, so ungainly in his mouth even after almost a thousand years.
The sun shines on, ignoring them, and casting long shadows over the enclosed garden. When Joe looks over Booker’s shoulder, behind the gated fence, he can see a few lemons ready to pluck.
When he gets a third, generous breath in without stuttering, Booker steps aside.
The urge to collapse at Nicky’s feet is overwhelming, and useless. Joe fights it with everything he has, and instead takes his hand, which is covered in soft needles of rosemary, to pull him up when he starts to stand.
For a moment, Nicky eyes his shoes, looking ashamed. There are so few expressions of Nicolo’s that Joe would forbid, if he could, but that is one he cannot bear to see. With the lightest brush of his fingers, he taps his jaw, asking him to look up. It almost works, but for the frown dipping int Nico’s forehead, too.
His eyes are grey in the shadow of the wall he stands near, and darkened with nameless things.
They wait, patiently, for almost a full minute, before Nicky licks his lips.
Joe sees it, and hears it, like a voice in his head, and in his lungs. He knows exactly what Nicky is about to say, and he can’t stomach it. Unwilling to actually stifle his words, however, Joe is left with only one option.
Nicky opens his mouth, and so does Joe, and at the exact same moment, letter for letter, they both say:
It works. Like heaven splitting the skies, it works, a ray of light. Nicky, embarrassed to be caught out, blushes, and though he purses his lips a smile steals over his face. The glance through his eyelashes up at Joe is quick, and bashful, before he shakes his head at the ground and lifts his own hands to cup them around Joe’s head, his fingers meeting in his hair.
One tug, and their foreheads touch. Nicky’s hands smell of rosemary, and basil. Nicky, smells of rosemary, and basil, and soil. Blood and sweat and travel.
When Nicky speaks, Joe feels it on his mouth.
“This is real,” he says.
“Yes,” Joe replies.
Nicky nods, their noses bumping together in the process.
“I am here, with you.”
“Yes, si, yes.”
Nicky’s hands slide down to his neck, cradling his throat loosely, frightened to touch, maybe.
“You are here, with me.”
“Yes, Nicolo. I am here, with you.”
Sixteen thousand days. More. Forty-five years since Joe kissed that smile, but he knows even without doing so it will be nothing more or less than the simple comfort it has been for a millennium.
It’s Nicky who leans in. Joe feels like marble, or cast bronze, frozen in wait, without breath.
Nicky, his eyes, his smile. His love.
He leans in, body and soul, and kisses him. Not for very long, little more than a peck, lips brushing lips by chance through the air. Coarse dry skin, and the rust of old blood.
Joe’s arms circle him. Encase him. Hold him. Rosemary and basil and soil.
Somewhere nearby, Andromache ushers the others inside.
The sun shines on, ignoring them. Creeping over their faces with her own, warming kisses. Nicky’s hands slide around his waist, and hold on tightly. They are pressed together, an embrace cast in bronze for all eternity. Joe feels warm tears on his neck, silently falling, but he says nothing about it. Neither does Nicky, who surely feels them, too.
* * *
On the eighty-ninth line:
January 1998 – I sat in a cinema, and watched the most important film of the year. La vita è bella. I imagined your hand in mine. Your thumb wiping away my tears, quietly teasing, as you pretended not to notice the ones in your own eyes. I watched it three times, that year. I have not watched it since. I won’t, without you.
* * *
By the time they go inside, the heat of the day has started mounting considerably.
The house is eerily quiet. No trace of three other people hidden in her walls to be seen or heard. They walk side by side, through rooms and up flights of stairs. Nicolo’s energy is lagging, and Joe is not faring much better either. They share weight, one being with four unsteady legs and two pinching hearts.
They need sleep, need rest, need the comfort of soft mattresses and cool sheets to soothe their aching bodies.
Before anything can be done about that, however, Joe needs to help Nicky wash. If nothing else, he has to get that wretched blood of his face, using soft cloths and warm water. Whatever it takes, as long as it is far as he can make it from the harsh antiseptic wipes Booker had picked up at a rest stop. Airing the smell out of the car before Nicky would agree to get back in had been their only real delay throughout the journey, and Joe’s stomach twists to remember the pained look on his face as he’d retched into the layby.
The journey through the house feels alien, entirely new. Yet, a comfort, a motherly embrace.
They pass the north facing bedroom with the creaking wall of shelves – Booker’s room.
Andy’s, with the tall windows and the low sitting bed.
Nile must have been shown the east sunroom, which has been little more than a storage room with extra furniture until now, because the door is unfamiliarly closed when they pass it on their way up to the second storey.
Joe does not pause at any of them, nor does Nicky show an inclination to. They make their way up to the master bedroom, with the westward view of distant buildings; fields and sunlight and sky.
“Come, love. Here. Yes.”
It’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed at the mere miracle of Nicolo, here, in their bedroom. Ushered to the bathroom. Staring around, taking in all the changes, large and small, that have been made in the intervening years of his absence. Joe simply rides the breathless tidal wave that sweeps over him at the sight, nudging at Nicky to stand near the far end of the wet room.
He’s silent, pliant as Joe strips off his shoes, his socks; unloops the sweat-soaked scarf from his neck. It’s only when Joe takes the hem of his shirt that Nicky reacts, jerking back into the sink behind him. His frightened eyes find Joe’s. His hands have grabbed Joe’s wrists, stopping him, and though he softens his touch in realisation, he doesn’t let go all the way.
“Do you want to do it?” Joe asks.
Nicky’s answer is plainly written on his crumpled brow, unusually transparent.
No, and I don’t want you to, either.
Nicky hesitates a moment longer, before unplucking his fingers and half-raising his arms.
It’s a bowed-neck, defeated gesture. Resignation to actions beyond his control, so quickly conceding that Joe feels a hot flashing urge to not do it. To instead cover Nico in layer upon layer of clothes. Let him be hidden, forever, never vulnerable again as he was, naked, stretched like an animal for the slaughter.
At the same time, though, putting it off won’t help. And who knows how often Nicky was able to bathe, or the manner of it when it did happen.
He will feel better for the run of warm water over his skin. Soap in his scalp. That wretched blood off his face.
Joe pulls Nicky’s shirt off, followed by his pants. He does it swiftly, but personally. Lets his gentling touch linger on Nicky’s ribs and knees. Safe, intimate touches.
Nicky’s hands wave loosely for a moment, then cross awkwardly over his stomach. His eyes are shiny, and averted.
“It’s all…” he says, shrugging dismissively, hiding the most protruding of his ribcage with his hands.
“Beautiful,” Joe interrupts, looking into his face, even if he won’t look back. “You were beautiful then, and you are beautiful now.”
He wants to say more, but Nicky’s stiff headshake, the bitter line of his flat mouth, silences him.
Instead, taking off only his shoes and socks, Joe gets into the shower, warms the water with a great deal of tap-negotiation, then pulls Nicky under the spray.
Nicky’s sigh of abrupt contentment is a blistering truth.
Joe scrubs his hair for him, and watches him with relief as the remnants of blood slide off his face in coppery rivulets. Down his shapely neck, his chest. All the way to their feet, where the water swirls in dirty puddles, easily drained away, forgotten as quickly as the bruises that so briefly mar their bodies.
After a few minutes of still hands and running water, Nicky pulls at Joe’s shirt with a shy, hopeful smile.
The permission is as heartening as the water. Maybe more so. Joe grins, hastily shedding his clothes and dumping them in a soaked pile on the tiles across the room. The hands tracing his skin conjure goosebumps, soon soothed by the heat of the shower.
Nicky’s touch is surer than the look in his eyes as he roams Joe’s body, as if rememorising his shape. There is wonder, there. Caution, too.
Joe feels his cock twitch, traitorous in its own enthusiasm, but he says nothing, and Nicky’s fingers do nothing more than skin the thin skin of his groin on their way to his hips. Joe sighs happily, hie forehead coming to rest against Nicky’s, whose own body is reacting to Joe’s, too.
Nicky snorts, somewhere between embarrassed and impatient, and chastely kisses the smirk off Joe’s lips.
Despite the weary slowness of his movements, Nicky insists on washing Joe’s hair, too. Kissing the back of his head and rubbing circles into his scalp that draw gut deep groans from his mouth.
The shower gel Joe squeezes into Nicky’s hands next is mint and tea tree flavoured, and Nicky inhales it so deeply Joe is almost worried he’s going to eat it.
They use the whole bottle, and soon enough the froth of bubbles gathering like sea foam over their toes is pure white.
Joe reaches behind Nicky to twist the taps, surprised and thrilled when Nicky takes the opportunity to kiss the apple of his cheek. His hands come up to rub the water from his eyes, and he lists a little to the right, but Joe is there, and Joe catches him, and Joe guides him steadily away from the wet, soapy end of the room.
In his haste, he’d forgotten about towels, and Joe swears distractedly.
“Wait, just wait,” he says, a kiss on Nicky’s shoulder, before scampering naked and soaked back to the bedroom to root through the drawers. He gets through five towels before he finds one appropriately soft enough and large enough. When he returns to the room, Nicky is standing right where he left him –
Nicky’s hands have returned to his face. Flat, with his palms stifling his mouth and the tips of his fingers pressed roughly into his eyes. He’s trembling all over, and there’s a murmur of a voice coming from behind his hands that Joe can’t make out.
“Nicolo, Nico, Nicolo!” Joe cries, and in his hurry he all but body slams Nicky with the towel, wrapping it around his shivers.
Nicky struggles, for all of a moment, before sinking into Joe’s embrace.
“Nico, it’s OK, I’m here. I’m here,” Joe reminds him. “What is it? What happened?”
Nicky presses his face, still covered by his hands, into Joe’s neck.
He shakes his head, and pushes his entire body forcefully into Joe’s, as if they might merge entirely.
“Tiles,” Joe thinks he hears Nicky say.
Joe doesn’t know what that means, exactly, but he does know how to fix it. Taking Nicky by the arms, he leads him out of the bathroom and into the bedroom, where the floor is not tiled but instead dark hardwood, with a huge rug that they are soon standing on.
“There we go, no tiles, no tiles,” Joe says, desperately, using a corner of the towel to swipe the wet hair off Nicky’s face. “Nicky – Nicolo. Look at me. Darling, please look at me.”
It takes an age for Nicky to remove his hands from his face. When he does, his eyes are bloodshot, but still clear. He sniffs, clutching the towel around himself. His keeps his gaze fixed on the rug, toeing the curls of fuchsia amidst the royal blue colouring. It had taken almost two years of arguing for them to pick it, and a smile almost reaches Nicky’s lips, as if he’s perhaps remembering the day he finally won Joe over.
Joe lightly covers Nicky’s shoulders with his palms, coaxing them down from his earlobes.
“Better?” he asks, despite himself, and Nicky’s shy nod is not easily endured. He pretends otherwise, for both their sakes. “Good,” he says, lightly. “Good. Clothes. Right. Yes. Here.”
Joe can’t remember the last time he felt flustered by Nicky’s presence, if he ever really did. There was hatred, and there was mistrust. And then there was comradeship, friendship, and, ultimately, everything. Whatever lingered between them, however, Joe always understood it. He recognised it for what it was: resentment, admiration, adulation, love.
Now, he feels awkward, encumbered by his own worries and griefs, attuned to Nicky’s every shift and move with the tautness of a violin’s strings. And, worse, he doesn’t know what Nicky is thinking. He doesn’t know what’s going on in that quiet head of his, where he stands, staring at his toes, and holding the towel to his body like it’s pure silk.
There is nothing for it. There is no direction but forwards, and Joe can’t falter, not for a moment.
Nicky is here. He’s here, Nicolo. Sixteen thousand days, more. He has not lasted only to fail him, now.
He makes short work of finding soft clothes – a worn cotton shirt, sweatpants, socks. Nicky takes them quickly, fumbling his way into them almost before fully drying, and Joe follows, boxer shorts, a t-shirt, the towel abandoned on a radiator.
The bed welcomes them. Envelops them in her cool blankets and cradles them. With the shutters closed, the sun is mere slits of warmth, and Nicky burrows his face deep into the blankets with timorous sighs that take root in Joe’s heart.
It feels unreal, unimaginable. Joe can understand perfectly Nicky’s sudden collapse, in the garden. He can barely allow himself to blink, for fear of this oasis vanishing before his eyes.
Nicky. Nicolo, Nico. Here. Here.
Nicky rolls over, so he is facing Joe on the bed. His eyes are still red, tear-filled. His fingers tremble as they clutch at Joe’s shoulders and neck. His feet snake around Joe’s ankles, cold and familiar even through a pair of socks.
“Yusuf,” he whispers, a rusty sound that Joe heeds like a command, as honest and open as the sky.
“Nicolo,” he replies.
It can’t be spoken. This hollow, piercing thing that exists, between them and about them. Rent apart and asunder, two torn edges of a wound that won’t close. Sixteen thousand days. More. Forty-five years of it, absence and wishes and prayers. What voice could do justice to it?
Certainly not Joe’s. A thousand years of poetry in his veins, but this is so much more than that. The sea storm glimmer of Nicky’s tearstained eyes. They lie together, chest to chest, barely breathing, barely seeing.
Joe thinks, at first, he might never sleep again, but his body proves his mind to be full of folly.
Sleep comes, in drifts like wood scattered along a battered shore. He holds Nicky through it, the ebb and the flow.
The sun shines on, ignoring them.
Sixteen thousand days. More.
For the first time in forty-five years, happiness rests in the thrum of Joe’s beating, bursting heart.
They fall asleep, and do not stir, as the daylight grows, and slowly fades to dusk.
* * *
On the one-hundred-and-twelfth line:
Sometimes I wake up, and I am so angry at you that I cannot even think your name.
* * *