“So,” Nile says, lifting her eyebrows teasingly. “You and Joe?”
Nicky feels his heart sink, heavy as a stone. It’s an easy mistake to make. Joe had been intensively protective during the whole Merrick debacle and Nicky had let himself indulge in it too much. It’s difficult not to remember what he once had.
“It’s not like that,” Nicky says. He doesn’t mean to add, “Not anymore,” but the words trip past his tongue.
The apology in Nile’s eyes tells Nicky he’s let his expression slip in a way he hasn’t in centuries, his whole broken heart on display.
Nicky puts a gentle hand on her shoulder in absolution. Do not feel sorry for me, he wants to say. I had his love for centuries and it was a blessing beyond measure. I have been always more fortunate than I deserve.
But he’s already said too much. Best to let it lie, the way he has for so many decades, a deep but endurable pain. Nicky would never trade the years that Joe loved him with the entirety of his generous heart.
Joe comes out of the bedroom to join them and Nile’s mouth shuts tight. Nicky’s grateful for her discretion. He’s grateful that she asked him first, alone. The agony of hearing Joe explain that they’d grown out of the romantic aspect of their relationship, dry and factual, without realizing that Nicky’s heart is still bleeding, would probably be enough to drive Nicky away again for decades and Nile deserves better than one more empty space where her new family should be.
“Nicky and I were talking about art,” Nile lies before the silence can lengthen and Joe can draw the unmistakable conclusion that she and Nicky were talking about him. “Do the rest of you have lost Rodin’s hidden in caves somewhere like Andy?” she asks. She sounds like she wants the question to be facetious but it comes out sincere which is just as well.
“I have a few Saïd’s stashed away,” Joe says. “A Degas. Caravaggio.”
“I have a Michelangelo,” Nicky offers. “A painting, not a sculpture.”
Joe turns to look at him. There’s a spark of something in his eyes. Interest? Envy? Nicky can’t read him as well as he once could.
He’s never shown Joe the painting, never mentioned its existence. It had seemed safest. He shouldn’t have said anything now. It’s been a day for spilled secrets. Nicky should go to bed before he lets anything worse slip.
“Can I see it?” Nile asks, her eyes huge and rapt in anticipation.
“No,” Nicky says, regretful to deny her. Nile asks for so little. He should be able to give her this. But, “It is… private.”
He can see she takes the meaning that it’s explicit; a nude, however tasteful. Nicky wouldn’t have minded showing her such a thing. He feels little need for modesty about his body. What Michelangelo captured of Nicky is far more compromising than that.
Something in Joe’s face flinches and Nicky looks at him quizzically but Joe waves his concern away.
“Were you a model?” Nile asks, excitedly. “Did any other paintings survive? In museums?”
Michelangelo had done several paintings of Nicky but most of those lesser works don’t seem to have weathered the years so well as Nicky himself did. He hasn’t seen them since they left their easels.
Nicky hums. “There is an angel on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel that bears me some resemblance.”
Nile makes a face like she’s silently screaming inside.
“I’ll take you to see it sometime if you like,” Nicky says.
“Let’s go now,” Nile says.
Nicky shifts slightly on the couch, trying to ease the cramps in his muscles while Joe’s focus is on his painting. “Another minute only, tesoro,” Joe had promised, perhaps an hour ago, but Nicky would gladly suffer such small pains in perpetuity for the sake of Joe’s happiness.
Nicky is stretched across the cushions, his left arm propping up his body to turn him slightly in the direction of where Joe’s sitting in the corner of their small living space, his head tilted back to expose the long line of his neck.
“Just like this,” Joe had said, his warm hands guiding the curve of Nicky’s neck, lips kissing up the column of Nicky’s throat.
Nicky’s eyes had fluttered closed in pleasure.
“Except I must see your eyes as well, ya amar,” Joe said, moving to kiss Nicky’s eyelids. “No painting could do you justice without the reflection of your soul.”
Joe executes a showy flourish with his paintbrush. “Finito!” he says. “Come and see.”
Nicky stands and crosses the room to hover behind Joe’s shoulder. The room is perfectly rendered, the light and colors in the painting more vibrant than reality. Nicky too is more radiant than he could ever imagine himself. Joe sees him through such a kind lens, all Nicky’s flaws smoothed away by love.
“It’s beautiful,” Nicky praises, pressing a kiss to Joe’s temple.
“Of course,” Joe says, without arrogance. “It’s a picture of you.”
Joe pulls Nicky down into his lap and Nicky winces, his leg still recovering from soreness. Joe frowns. “What is it, my heart?”
“Only a cramp,” Nicky explains.
Joe looks at him in dismay, then around the room at the lengthening shadows. Joe has never been a good judge of time, and least of all when he’s engrossed in his art. Nicky’s always found it endearing. “I beg your forgiveness,” Joe says, nuzzling against Nicky’s cheek. “I would never mean to cause you discomfort in sitting for me.”
“It’s nothing,” Nicky says. “I would suffer any pain to make you happy.”
Joe doesn’t look pleased by this declaration. He cups his hands beneath Nicky’s chin, delicate as if Nicky were made of glass. “Don’t say such things. To cause you even the smallest pain could never bring me happiness.”
But Nicky doesn’t have it in himself to take the words back. He would die a thousand deaths for one smile from Joe’s lips. He loops his arms around Joe’s neck, steadying himself across Joe’s thighs.
“Perhaps you would like to bring me pleasure?” Nicky asks and watches Joe’s eyes go hot, feels Joe’s hands glide up his thighs and beneath his shirt to rest in the divots above Nicky’s hips.
“Yes,” Joe breathes. “I would like to do that.”
It takes sixteen hours to travel from Paris to Rome by train.
Nicky falls asleep somewhere near the border of Italy. When he wakes, his head has lolled onto Joe’s familiar shoulder. Joe’s arm is draped behind his back, holding Nicky close, like he still loves him. Like he still loves him in the way that Nicky wants.
Nicky lets himself have a moment to bask in the warmth and closeness. Joe smells like paint and cardamom. Nicky dreams sometimes that he hasn’t lost this, that it’s something he could have again. It’s a fantasy he needs to let go of. Joe will always be kind, but he doesn’t want all that Nicky would give him. Not anymore.
Nicky blinks his eyes open and catches Nile looking at him from across the aisle. She looks so sad for him that Nicky finds the strength to sit up and move away.
“Forgive me,” Nicky says to Joe, in Italian. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep on you.”
Joe looks at him softly. “My shoulder is always yours to rest on, tesoro,” he says.
Nicky’s breath catches at the old sobriquet. Joe had learned Genoese endearments six months into their acquaintance and used them unstintingly thereafter, to Nicky’s entire disarmament. The sword at his hip had been little protection for his heart.
There is nothing to protect him now.
Nicky turns to watch the country hills rolling by out the train windows and lets his vision blur.
They’ve been living in Alexandria for five years when it happens. A peaceful, idyllic life suddenly, devastatingly, swept from beneath Nicky’s feet.
“I think,” Joe says slowly, so slowly, like the words are trapped behind his tongue, “that I should leave.”
Nicky drops the teapot he was holding. Vaguely, as if from far away, he can hear it shatter. I should leave, Joe has said. Not we should leave.
Nicky once died pierced through the heart with an arrow. This feels much the same.
“What do you mean?” he asks, hollow. Joe hasn’t been parted from him for longer than a few days at a time in centuries. Leave sounds far more foreboding. Leave has a ring of permanence.
Joe turns his face away. “Just that,” he says, his usually loquacious tongue gone suddenly as quiet as Nicky’s. “It would be for the best perhaps if we take some time apart.”
Nicky feels the words like a dagger across his throat. Why? he thinks, tortured. But his mind fills in the blanks, flashing to so many afternoons in the marketplace. Rana pressing a ripe fig into Joe’s hand, lashes lowered. Hasani with his kind, eager smile, almost a match for Joe’s in brightness. Admiring gazes follow Joe everywhere, it’s only that he’s never looked back before.
Nicky hadn’t seen him look back at anyone now either but surely this is the most simple explanation. Nicky prefers it to the idea that his own flaws have become visible and insurmountable to Joe. Better to be supplanted by someone else’s virtues than reviled for his own vices.
Joe doesn’t leave immediately. He packs a bag, struggling to sort out what’s his and what’s Nicky’s when they’ve shared everything for so long. There’s time for Nicky to beg. For an explanation. For a retraction. Please don’t leave me. I still love you.
But Nicky knows he could better bear a bruised and lonely heart than to lash Joe to him with chains of pity and affection if the tether of love that’s so long held them together has snapped. Joe has given Nicky four centuries of his heart. To ask for more, for forever, would be a selfishness Nicky could never countenance.
And he doesn’t want to hear the words he can imagine with terrible vividness: I don’t love you anymore. Nicky doesn’t want to make Joe have to say them outright when he’s trying so clearly to be kind. He doesn’t want the echo of ‘don’t’ to sit beside the memory of every time Joe told him ‘I love you’. Memory will be all Nicky has now.
It was foolish to have thought that he could have Joe at his side always. Nicky can see, in hindsight, the cracks he’s willfully ignored. Joe has been hesitant with him for months. They’ve barely kissed, and on the nights that Joe’s made love to him, he’s been so implacably tender, a leave-taking all on its own.
Joe is standing at the door and Nicky’s hands are shaking.
Joe doesn’t look happy to leave for his new life, but he has never wanted to hurt Nicky. Nicky could never doubt that he’s sorry for it, that Joe would love him still if he could.
Nicky wants to step forward. To ask for one last kiss. Joe, he thinks, would let him have that.
“Until we meet again,” Nicky says, quietly. There is comfort in that at least. Nicky will always have Joe in his life, if not in his arms. In fourteen years they’ll meet Andy and Quynh in Greece, a planned reunion.
Joe nods. His bag is slung over his shoulder. “Goodbye,” he says, his eyes as deep and fathomless as the ocean, and turns to go.
Rome is beautiful.
They arrive in the evening, just as the sun is setting, turning the sky to copper and gold. The high dome of St. Peter’s rises above the buildings. Nicky remembers how it used to look, half-finished, centuries ago.
Nile tugs him by the hand, guiding them through the cobbled streets as if she’s the one who lived here for years. Joe’s hand is hovering against the small of Nicky’s back, barely touching.
Nicky wonders what made Joe decide to come on this particular adventure. Was it for Nile? For the art? Sometimes Joe and Nicky travel together now and sometimes they don’t. Andy never quite caught onto the change. Nicky had asked once, back in the eighteenth century when they’d all three re-met in Greece and he’d been feeling particularly melancholy, if he could go with her to Guangzhou when she left.
“I thought you and Joe were going to Cairo?” she’d said, and Nicky hadn’t the heart to tell her that Joe was going alone, that Nicky was adrift and lonely. He’d gone to Kolkata in the end, a dart thrown at a map.
Booker too has always looked at Joe and Nicky as a pair, pre-determined. Nicky can still feel the sting of his words in London, worse for their unfairness: What would you know of the weight of the years alone? You have always had each other.
It’s nice to have Nile understand the truth of it, however painful.
At the hotel, Nile asks for a rollaway bed for their double room.
“We don’t need that,” Joe says, giving her an odd look. When they’re together, he and Nicky still sleep in the same position they settled in centuries ago, Joe curled close around Nicky’s back. Nile knows that. Nicky’s sure it’s one of the reasons for her original misunderstanding of their relationship.
Nile looks at Nicky and he shakes his head. “Sorry,” she says to the receptionist. “Never mind.”
Perhaps it would be kinder on his heart in the long-run if he could really let Joe go, Nicky thinks that night, tucked into Joe’s embrace. But he will always want whatever Joe can give him.
Nicky goes home, thinking to soothe his broken heart with familiarity. But Genoa isn’t home anymore. Its streets are unfamiliar and strange and, worse, nowhere is home now without Joe.
Perhaps he’ll go to Venice. Or Florence. Or Nice. What does it matter? He picks a direction and starts walking.
The road is poorly maintained, full of sunken puddles and the ruts of cart wheels. Nicky’s considering leaving it entirely and cutting cross country over the hills when he hears shouting and the ring of steel blades.
Around a bend, there’s a caravan beset by bandits. Several of them are engaged in fighting guards outfitted in purple and black while others make off into the sparse cover of the surrounding trees, arms heavy with baggage and other odds and ends. Nicky sees one man disappearing with a rug thrown over his shoulder and shakes his head.
He pulls his sword off his hip and catches a bandit’s blade before he runs an unarmed traveller through, a senseless waste of life. Nicky kicks out to push the bandit back and scores a wound across his chest, enough to make him turn and run. His fellows are scattering too, beaten back by the guards or having judged enough treasure taken.
One of the carriages rattles suddenly as someone pushes their way out, a man of about thirty with curling hair and a crooked nose. “Have they gone? Is anyone injured?”
Nicky moves to walk by, to continue on his way to nowhere, when the man’s gaze focuses on him, arrested. He looks at Nicky as if he’s a vision. “You are an angel made flesh,” he says, eyes wide. “I must paint you immediately.”
Another artist, Nicky thinks despondently. Life should not be full of such cruel ironies. “I must be on my way,” he lies. Nicky doesn’t wish to be a muse again. The pedestal fall back to earth when inspiration fails and moves elsewhere could only have been worth it for Joe.
“Please,” the man says, holding up a staying hand, “allow me to introduce myself. I am Michelangelo Buonarroti. We are on our way to Rome under the patronage of His Holiness Julius II.”
Joe could have named every artist of import within a thousand miles. Even Nicky has heard of Michelangelo.
He has no desire to be of even tangential service to another pope, but if the coffers of the Holy See are being emptied for art, that at least leaves less to be spent on spurious holy wars.
“All right,” Nicky says. “I will go with you.” He has nowhere else to be.
Nicky wakes before dawn, as has always been his curse. So many hours spent alone on balconies and porches, puttering about in kitchens, while he’s waited for Joe or Andy or Quynh to wake from their more peaceful sleep. Booker and Nile failed to buck the trend. Late sleepers all of them.
Nicky will have to wake Nile and Joe soon so they can join one of the tour groups in the early morning to avoid the main crush of tourists that stream through the Sistine Chapel day after day, necks craned up in awe.
He reaches for his bag. Nicky has caches of weapons and artifacts, all the accumulated detritus of nine hundred years lived, in as many places around the world as Andy and Joe, but there are some things he always keeps close. A pendant from Andy. Knives from Quynh. A spare toothbrush for Booker—useless now—who had forgotten his own with alarming regularity.
Nicky’s Michelangelo is rolled up safely in a plastic sleeve he’d borrowed from Joe’s art supplies when he noticed the edges of the painting were beginning to suffer. Nicky ignores it. It’s not his own face he wants to see.
Nicky unfolds a small leather folio to reveal his most precious possession.
“You have so many pictures of me,” he’d said to Joe, centuries ago. “Will you draw me one of you?”
“You wish a portrait for a locket? To keep me close to your heart always?” Joe had asked, teasing.
“Yes,” Nicky said, nodding. “Only not so small as would fit a locket.” He held out the flat of his hand. “At least so large.”
“Your wish is my command,” Joe said. His eyes were soft and wreathed in the crinkles of his smile. Nicky hoped he might draw himself with the same expression.
Nicky brushes a finger across Joe’s sketched face, smiling just as he’d once hoped. Charcoal on parchment. It’s been Nicky’s companion for many years, a piece of Joe when he was missing all the rest of him.
Nicky looks over at the bed where Joe is still sleeping. He wonders how long he’ll get to keep the real thing this time.
Nicky spends a year in Rome being immortalized in oil, painted winged on frescos and canvas. None of it compares to the least of the sketches Joe once made of him.
Michelangelo tells him, “You’re the most natural model I’ve ever had.”
“Thank you,” Nicky says. He doesn’t say that he trained himself to stillness centuries ago, for another artist.
Nicky watches as Michelangelo seals the painting with resin. His fingers twitch against his sketch of Joe, its edges thin and wearing despite Nicky’s reverent handling. He’s had to impose a strict limit on himself, to open it to look at only once every two days, to save it from deterioration. It’s a hard rule to keep to.
“Could you seal charcoal with that?” he asks. It would be worth it, Nicky thinks, to let someone else see this wound in his heart if it meant he wouldn’t lose it entirely. The thought of smudging Joe’s face, of the tear at the topmost corner of the parchment extending to rip away a portion of Joe’s curls, makes Nicky’s heart ache.
“Yes,” Michelangelo says, curiously. “Has someone else gifted you a portrait?”
“It was done for me, not of me,” Nicky says. He takes the sketch carefully from his pocket and offers it for inspection.
“He’s very beautiful,” Michelangelo compliments. There’s no jealousy in his voice. He took Nicky’s rejection of an invitation to his bed with perfect equanimity. “A new lover?”
Nicky doesn’t know what the expression on his face looks like but he feels the words like a stab to the heart. What Nicky wouldn’t do for Joe to be a new lover, a current lover, and not a memory relegated to the past.
Michelangelo’s own face goes white. His hand grasps for a brush.
“He’s very important to me,” Nicky says, trying to keep the catch out of his voice. “I would like to keep the sketch in good condition.”
“Of course,” Michelangelo says. He takes the portrait from Nicky with careful hands.
Nicky has seen him paint the most intricate details: the delicate sweep of eyelashes, the minute folds of a robe. He should be able to trust Michelangelo’s professional skill without question, but he breathes a sigh of purest relief when Michelangelo brushes the resin over only the smallest corner of Joe’s neck to prove that the charcoal won’t smear or dissolve before he sweeps broader strokes across Joe’s face, the drawn silk of his hair, the beloved tip of his nose that Nicky used to be able to kiss every morning. He should have taken every opportunity while he had the chance.
Joe’s smile is just as bright beneath the layer of protective laminate.
“It will need to dry overnight,” Michelangelo says.
Nicky feels something wrench in his chest. He doesn’t want to leave the sketch out of his hands, but neither does he want to damage it, to smudge his own fingerprint across Joe’s cheek in a moment of inattention.
“The bed is yours if you prefer not to walk back to your lodgings tonight,” Michelangelo says. “I’ll be working all night.”
“Yes, that will be fine. Thank you,” Nicky says, drifting over to the pallet in the corner. Michelangelo could have some of the most luxurious rooms in Rome but he’s chosen a spartan life, content with his workshop, his tools near at hand. Nicky fades to sleep to the soft sound of paint bristles over canvas. It reminds him of happier days.
When he wakes, Joe’s portrait is dry. Nicky smooths a hand over Joe’s beloved smile, frozen in time—in a time when he loved Nicky—before he tucks it away.
Michelangelo has fallen asleep in front of his easel, balanced precariously on his stool. Nicky turns his eyes to this newest painting and feels the breath leave his lungs.
It is of Nicky again, but not as an angel, not smiling or sitting or looking away.
Nicky’s face, close-up, dominates the frame and he is broken. His mouth twists with ill-concealed pain. His eyes shine bright with held tears. Everything about him speaks to desolation and wretchedness. Nicky knows this is the exact expression on his face when Michelangelo asked him who Joe was, captured by a master.
At his shoulder, Michelangelo has woken. “Nicolo,” he says, standing.
“My pain was not yours to paint,” Nicky says.
“Forgive me,” Michelangelo says. He rolls the painting into a tube, hiding Nicky’s painted face from view, and passes it into Nicky’s hands. “The painting, it is yours. Burn it or bury it. Whatever you wish.”
Nicky turns away. The vellum is thick beneath his fingers, the smell of the resin sealing the paint still fresh and pungent. It makes his eyes sting.
He leaves Rome that morning.
The chapel is cool in the morning and everything about it is beautiful: the geometric tiles on the floor, the thick draped curtains along the walls, and, of course, the ceiling Michelangelo labored under for years.
“Finally, I am out from under that terrible drudgery,” he used to complain to Nicky in the evenings, before he picked up his brushes again and stroked Nicky’s skin tone across canvas.
Nile lies down on one of the benches along the walls and stares up, her hand reached out in mimic of The Creation of Adam.
Joe doesn’t seem similarly impressed.
“You don’t like it?” Nicky asks, confused. He’s seen Joe in raptures in hundreds of museums, waxing poetic about brush strokes and color. One of the greatest works of Michelangelo—artistic titan enough to last the centuries with them—seems to Nicky that it should earn similar treatment.
“It’s magnificent,” Joe says, but his eyes have barely skimmed the ceiling, focused only toward the east end of the chapel, on The Last Judgement rising behind the altar.
“Where are you, Nicky?” Nile asks, standing up from the bench.
Nicky points to the middle left of the wall, where a group of angels are raising the saved up to heaven. There’s an angel with familiar cheekbones, an aquiline nose, musculature less exaggerated than many of the other figures. A curl of billowing blue ribbon hides the angel’s cock from view, an ironic modesty for the papacy to have enforced on painted figures when the Holy Fathers of the era were hosting orgies and bacchanalia that would make the modern world blush.
“I cannot claim it’s modeled on me in certainty,” Nicky says. “Michelangelo was painting the ceiling when I was in Rome. This wall he didn’t paint for another twenty years. He may have forgotten me entirely in such time.”
“It is you,” Joe says flatly.
Nicky supposes he would know best. Joe with his artist’s eye and his detailed knowledge of all the dips and curves of Nicky’s anatomy.
“Totally you,” Nile agrees. She has a small pair of binoculars, stamped with the Vatican Museum’s logo, pointed up toward the fresco. “Damn, Nicky. I can’t believe you were one of Michelangelo’s muses.”
“He had many models,” Nicky says. The Last Judgement alone hosts over three hundred figures. There’s nothing to indicate that Nicky was in any way more special than any other model.
“He added you to a painting twenty years after you left him,” Nile says. “There was obviously some residual pining.”
Joe makes a jerky motion at Nicky’s side, drawing Nicky’s attention. His attention is always finely attuned to Joe. “Joe, are you all right?”
“Of course,” Joe says, but he sounds breathless, weak.
“Let’s go find something to drink,” Nicky says. He cups a gentle hand beneath Joe’s elbow and guides him away from the fresco.
They spend years looking for Quynh. Nicky can barely remember what air smells like untinged with the sea. When Joe kisses him, he tastes like the salt spray of the ocean.
Nicky kisses him back, more soft than fervent, trying not to betray the desolation of a century without him. He knows it’s only grief that’s driven Joe back to him. The loss of Quynh. The way Andy has withdrawn from them. And whoever Joe might have left Nicky for has surely lived out their mortal life.
Nicky may be all that Joe has left. He will do all he can to be a comfort.
“Nico,” Joe moans, his hands guiding Nicky’s hips as Nicky rises and falls on his cock, and Nicky presses his face into Joe’s neck to muffle the I love you’s he’s no longer supposed to say.
When Andy finally decides, “Enough,” her eyes dull and burning, they make port in Lisbon. Andy sets her travel bag on the dock and hugs Nicky close. “Hold onto him,” she whispers into his ear.
Nicky wants to weep, but all his tears are long spent. “Of course,” he says thickly, because to say anything else would be the height of unkindness. Nicky still has so much more of Joe than Andy has of Quynh.
Nicky steps away so Andy can hug Joe too. She whispers into his ear, perhaps the same words, and Joe’s forehead falls to rest on her shoulder. Andy cups a hand around the back of Joe’s neck. She gives him a moment, two, and then she’s out of his arms, halfway down the dock in the blink of an eye.
Nicky wants to call her back, to reach for her. He’s tried so many times over the years. But some heartbreaks must be suffered alone. Nicky knows that better than most.
Joe comes back to Nicky’s side and Nicky feels himself let out a breath of relief. Joe could disappear from him as quickly as Andy. As quickly as Quynh, forever.
Nicky wants to take Joe’s hand, lace their fingers together, but the spell of intimacy that kept them close in the belly of the ship feels broken on land. “Shall we travel together for a while?” he asks, quietly.
Nicky wonders if Joe could love him again, if the past century has only been an interruption, a pause in their eternity, something to put behind them. Pride would never prevent Nicky from accepting a place back in Joe’s heart again now that it’s been forcibly vacated by whomever shared Nicky’s previous luck. Nicky could only ever be grateful for any love that Joe might offer him.
Joe looks at him. His hand reaches out and then retracts before he touches Nicky. “I don’t think that would be wise,” Joe says, and Nicky feels his heart drown.
Nicky hasn’t seen Joe paint in centuries, but in Rome he paints. Dozens of large paintings of the city streets at morning and dusk, the quiet green of the countryside, and smaller rolled canvases tucked into a corner, finished and packed away before Nicky could see their subjects.
They’ve taken a small house outside the city because Nile wants to sightsee for more than a few days and there’s no reason they can’t stay for a few weeks or a few months or a few years. Time is on their side.
“You’re still there?” Andy asks, sounding irritated, when Nicky calls to tell her. She’d vetoed coming with them with extreme prejudice.
“The house is nice,” Nicky says. He thinks maybe he’ll keep it. “Will you come now?”
“No,” Andy says, without elaboration.
“Okay,” Nicky says agreeably. He isn’t sure if her reasons are about Quynh or Booker or Rome. There are cities that all of them hate for their own reasons. Nicky will never go back to Alexandria. “We love you,” he adds because he wants her to know and time is no longer on Andy’s side.
“I love you too,” Andy says, quiet, and then she hangs up.
“Was that Andy?” Joe asks when Nicky wanders into the room he’s set up as his studio. Nile is sitting on a couch against the far wall, eating strawberry gelato and watching Joe paint.
“Yes,” Nicky says, settling on the couch beside Nile. She offers him a spoon of gelato and he smiles it away. “She still won’t come.”
Joe turns away from his easel to look at them fully. “Why not?”
Nicky shrugs. “It is Andy. I’m sure she has reasons.”
“Mysterious reasons,” Nile says, licking the back of her spoon.
Nicky remembers being in awe of Andy much longer than the thirty seconds Nile apparently managed. “She stabbed me almost immediately,” Andy had told Nicky with fondness.
“Your painting is lovely, Joe,” Nicky says. This latest canvas is a scene of the city at night with haloed streetlights in ochre and gold.
He’s missed Joe’s artistry. Joe’s paintings had always warmed the walls of anywhere they’d lived. Nicky remembers an old ceramic teapot they’d once owned, plain and functional when he’d bought it at the market. Joe had spent perhaps fifteen minutes dabbing at it with paint and turned it into a masterpiece. Nicky hadn’t even wanted to use it after.
“I don’t want to risk breaking it. It should sit in the window where it can be admired,” he’d argued with Joe. “I’ll buy another for every day use.”
Joe laughed. “I will only paint that one too,” he’d said, cupping his hand to Nicky’s cheek. “I did it for you. You should have beautiful things, Nicolo.”
I have the most beautiful thing, Nicky had thought, looking at the warmth of Joe’s smile, and he’d thought then that he’d be able to keep it.
“Thank you, tesoro,” Joe says. “Will you sit for me sometime?” he asks and Nicky feels his heart stop, before Joe tacks on quickly, “Nile.”
Of course, Nicky thinks. Joe hasn’t drawn Nicky in centuries. His inspiration dried up with his love, long ago.
Nile frowns. Nicky thinks she can probably feel his sudden rigidity beside her and tries to relax. “Maybe some other time,” Nile says, and puts her hand over Nicky’s.
Nicky lives by the ocean, along the eastern edge of the Atlantic, in faint but unforgotten hope. The ship would have cast Quynh off quickly, he thinks. Men are superstitious and seamen more than most. They wouldn’t have wanted a witch in their hold during their crossing, not longer than necessary.
There is good to be done, kindness to be offered, in an ordinary life. Nicky tries for years at the water’s edge.
Nicky tells the children that play on the shore outside his small house a story about a princess locked not in a tower in the air but in a coffin beneath the sea. He can’t muster the kind of poetry Joe could have casually spouted but it is tragedy enough without that. Nicky can tell the story is powerful enough to be remembered by the children, their faces enthralled and upturned.
Someday they, like their families, will make their living from the sea. And perhaps someday, if an iron coffin is caught in a net or washed up onto the shore, they’ll remember the princess, a victim and not a monster.
Nicky remembers Quynh every day, another tender ache in his devastated heart. Over two hundred years since Joe first left him and still he feels numb and destroyed by turns, half his heart calcified and half bleeding and torn, the only kind of hurt that doesn’t heal.
He goes out on the water some nights, when the ocean is calm, his small wooden boat rocking gently on the waves. Nicky looks up at the bright moon—waxing and waning and waxing again—and wonders where Andy and Joe are, if they are well. He puts his head beneath the waves and says, water-muffled, ti amo, sorella, as if Quynh might hear.
It aches to know that his family is broken up all across the world, all of them drowning alone.
Copley calls to tell them one of Merrick’s associates is on their trail and Nile books them all false tickets on three different trains and lets Joe and Nicky know she’ll meet up with them at the bus depot.
Joe zips his rolled paintings quickly into Nicky’s duffle bag.
“But your landscapes,” Nicky says, regretful, looking at the canvases still stapled to their rigid frames.
“It’s all right, I don’t care about those,” Joe says, waving Nicky’s regrets away and abandoning the lovely paintings without a backwards glance. He slings Nicky’s bag over his shoulder. “Is there anything you can’t bear to leave behind?”
Only you, Nicky thinks, and shakes his head.
Still, Nicky hopes no one finds the house. That Joe’s paintings stay safely on their easels. That the clothing and trinkets they’ve all collected over the weeks are left untouched, waiting their return.
Not every memory is a torment. A hundred years from now, when Joe is parted from him again, Nicky will remember the days here in Rome fondly: the sweep of blue behind Joe’s paintbrush, sunlight spilling down through the oculus in the Pantheon, their evenings with Nile on the veranda drinking cheap wine and laughing. He is lucky, truly.
“Nicky,” Joe says.
He’s standing in the doorway and Nicky has a horrible flashback to Alexandria. Their door had faced east there too. But this time Joe’s hand is extended and Nicky grabs for it, more quickly than is probably warranted, before Joe can lower it, before he can say it would be better for them not to leave together, to split up and fade away until they meet again.
Would that you would take me with you always, Nicky thinks, gripping Joe’s hand as they jog through the streets, and leave Rome behind them.
Sebastien is lost and he is desperate and he is angry. Nicky aches for him and his choices. To never see his family again or to see them every day, always knowing the ticking clocks behind their hearts where his own has stopped. Sebastien will outlive them by centuries and there is nothing any of them can do about it.
Andy argues for a clean break. “You shouldn’t go back,” she says, shaking her head. “Easier for them to think you dead in the war. People can understand that. They can move on.”
“It will only hurt worse in the end if you draw it out,” Joe agrees. He made the same choice, once.
Nicky says nothing.
Sebastien doesn’t listen anyway. He tugs his cap down over his ears and storms toward the door. It’s six hundred miles to Paris but traveling is easier when the hazards of the road can’t kill you, or not permanently at least.
Andy throws up her hands and disappears back into her bedroom.
“Sebastien,” Nicky says, putting a halting hand on his shoulder.
“Will you tell me too that I am wrong?” Sebastien says, shaking Nicky’s hand away.
“No,” Nicky says, and sees Sebastien’s eyes go narrow with suspicion. “It will hurt to lose them.” A truth that none of them can deny. “But if you do not go back, you have lost them already, before the necessity of it. I will tell you, for my part, I would not give up the years I had with those I loved.”
Nicky didn’t go home to his family in Genoa but he knows of what he speaks. He wraps a loaf of bread and kisses Sebastian on the cheek in farewell. “Go safely.”
When Nicky turns around, Joe is looking at him with wounded eyes.
Nicky doesn’t mean to hurt him with his pain. “Forgive me,” he says. They’ve never spoken, in all the years that passed, of the way Joe left him. It would have been foolish for Nicky to spill out all his bottled pain only to have to see the apology in Joe’s eyes. Why hurt them both? Even this vague allusion has been too much a reminder.
Nicky goes out to sit on the stoop, watching Sebastien’s hunched form as it becomes smaller and smaller with distance, one more person leaving Nicky behind.
They end up in adjoining hotel rooms in a town near Vienna, exhausted from endless hours cramped on buses and then in a sad, unmemorable Volkswagen that died on the side of the road and forced them to walk five miles into the nearest town.
Nile keys into her room and closes the door behind her, too tired even to try to save Nicky from himself.
Nicky falls asleep immediately, Joe collapsed beside him on the bed, an arm thrown across Nicky’s waist.
When Nicky wakes up later, reaching for him, Joe isn’t there. As much as he should have become used to it over the centuries, there’s always a moment where it strikes Nicky to the heart, as raw as the very first time.
It’s a blessing to discover that Joe hasn’t gone entirely. He’s sitting on the floor, his back against the bed, in an odd boneless sprawl. His head is bowed and Nicky can’t see his face, but he knows somehow that Joe is weeping and it catapults him out of bed, down to his knees to take Joe’s face between his hands.
“Joe,” Nicky says carefully, wiping away Joe’s tears with his thumbs.
Nicky’s Michelangelo is in Joe’s hands.
“Oh,” Nicky breathes, a punched out exhale. He should have realized that its rolled up size and plastic sleeve, borrowed once from Joe’s own supplies, would have made it almost a perfect match for the paintings Joe made in Italy and haphazardly threw into Nicky’s duffle during their escape from Rome.
Nicky wonders how long Joe’s been awake, how long he’s been looking at it, the open devastation of Nicky’s face.
“Forgive me,” Joe says, his voice a rasp. “I thought it was one of mine.”
“It’s all right,” Nicky says. In truth, his expression in the painting belongs to Joe as much as it does to himself. “What do you think of it?”
“I think I would gut him, were he still alive,” Joe says. His hands are curled tightly around the edges of the canvas. “What did he do to you?”
Nicky sighs. “It was not an intentional unkindness.” Perhaps it will be best to purge this memory after all. Infection has killed Nicky many times. He reaches into his bag and takes out Joe’s portrait, his fingers automatically tracing over the shape of Joe’s smile.
“You still have that?” Joe asks. There’s a kind of hope in his voice that Nicky doesn’t understand.
“Of course. I’ve never been without it,” Nicky says. “The paper was wearing and Michelangelo sealed it for me. He only asked me who you were.”
Joe looks utterly perplexed. He presses, “That alone produced this look upon your face?”
“It was barely a year after you’d left me,” Nicky says in explanation, though it seems dishonest to imply that he feels the pain of it any less keenly for all the time that’s passed.
Nicky hasn’t killed Joe in nine hundred years but he’s looking at Nicky now as if he’s cored him through the heart. “But I only left so that you could be happy,” Joe says. He looks wretched, the mirror of Nicky’s face in Michelangelo’s painting.
Nicky stares at him. “How could your leaving have ever made me happy?” he asks, lapsing into Genoese. He can’t form the words any other way. His brain feels confused and overtaxed, spinning in circles of memory and new speculation, but with no conclusion that he can draw. That will have to come from Joe.
“I wanted to free you from any obligation,” Joe says. “That you might pursue your feelings for— for—” Joe stumbles to a stop. He looks not like he misremembers a name but like it might hurt him to say it.
“For who?” Nicky has to ask, despite any pain it might cause.
“For Hasani,” Joe gets out.
Nicky feels his brain screech to a halt. Hasani. He remembers the impression of a bright smile—measured against Joe’s as all smiles must be in Nicky’s mind, and always found wanting in compare. So much of Alexandria is lost to Nicky, a faded backdrop to his sharp memories of Joe and the way he’d turned in their doorway and left Nicky behind. But Hasani, yes, he remembers.
Nicky made few friends in their travels. He’d never been gregarious like Joe. He couldn’t think so easily of words to say to people and often his grasp of the local languages had been poor. Hasani had been his friend purely by a kind persistence on the other man’s part. He’d shown Nicky where to find the best bread and the honeyed sweets that Joe liked, taught Nicky some of the local songs that he might work and sing and be thought less taciturn. And once, in the marketplace, he’d looked wistfully between Nicky and Joe, two stalls away and laughing, and said, “I should like to have the kind of love you have one day.”
Nicky had put his palm over the back of Hasani’s hand, a comfort. “I’m sure you will,” he’d said. Joe had looked back at him, just then, and the look on his face had been one that Nicky hadn’t recognized.
Was that moment so important? Nicky wonders. A lynchpin around which Nicky hadn’t realized his life turned?
“I never loved Hasani,” Nicky tells Joe. “He was only ever my friend.”
Joe’s breath comes out in a gust. “But then,” he says, horrified, “but then I left you for nothing, for no reason at all.”
Nicky presses a kiss to Joe’s cheek. “I thought the same,” he says. “I thought you must have wanted someone else, someone that you did not speak of so not to hurt me, and who I could not bear to ask about.” Dio, what his cowardice has cost him.
Joe’s hands reach up to cup Nicky’s face. “Nicky,” he says, overcome, “Nicky, I’ve only ever loved you.”
Nicky climbs into Joe’s lap and kisses him with all the pent up passion of centuries. One of Joe’s arms comes up around Nicky’s back, pulling him closer, while the other fumbles behind him for leverage.
“Nicky,” Joe says desperately when they break for air, “Nicky, the bed,” and Nicky climbs off him just long enough for them to stand and tumble back onto the mattress, tugging at each other's clothes. Nicky struggles with Joe’s jeans. Last time they’d made love, fastenings hadn’t been so encumbering.
After, Nicky feels as if he’s glowing. He can barely move, fucked out and sated, his once calcified heart thrumming with all the love he thought so lost.
Joe’s skin is warm beneath Nicky’s hands and his beard is rough against Nicky’s chest, kissing down to his navel and then back up to his lips while he peppers Nicky with all his old and slipped out endearments, hayati and ya amar and tesoro.
“You called me tesoro when we were in Rome,” Nicky says. “I thought it was habit, or perhaps, perhaps you might be willing to open your heart to me again.”
“My heart will never close to you, tesoro,” Joe promises. “It’s why I could so rarely bear to travel with you. I wanted to hold you every moment and ask if we could be again as we once were but I didn’t feel it was my right to ask it. I am so sorry,” he says, petting Nicky’s hair back behind his ears. “Bad enough that I broke my own heart. Unforgivable that I broke yours along with it.”
Nicky kisses him softly. “My heart is yours to do with as you will. I would do anything to make you happy.”
“I know,” Joe says, dropping his face into his hands, and it reminds Nicky of so long ago, of the way this profession of devotion went over so poorly once before. “That was part of the problem. I never want my happiness to come at the cost of yours, Nicky.” Joe cups his hands around Nicky’s face. “Promise me. Will you promise me that you’ll tell me if you’re ever unhappy?”
Nicky has held all of his pain inside his chest for so long. It never did him any good. “I promise,” he says. After all this time, honesty is the least he owes to Joe.
“Thank you,” Joe says. His hand moves to stroke warmly down Nicky’s side and he presses a kiss to Nicky’s shoulder for every other word. “Thank you, my heart, my treasure, my moon.”
Joes moves to rise from the bed and Nicky clutches at his wrist with sudden, nameless fear. Joe pauses and strokes his thumb along Nicky’s pulse point. “I’ll only be a moment. I want to show you something.”
Nicky lets go reluctantly. Now that he has Joe again, he doesn’t think he’ll want to leave the comfort of his arms again for a very long time.
True to his word, Joe is back beside Nicky in a moment. The paintings he carried from Rome, the ones Nicky never got to see, are in his hands and Nicky counts them: one, two, three, four. “Do you remember what Nile said?” Joe asks. “About Michelangelo painting you into The Last Judgement?”
“No,” Nicky says, casting his mind back. Something about being a muse perhaps.
“She said for Michelangelo to have painted you twenty years after you left him, there must have been some residual pining,” Joe says, and unrolls the first of his paintings. Nicky’s face looks out, his eyes gazing into the distance of the hills behind their house in Rome.
Joe unfurls the second painting and the third and the fourth. Nicky. Nicky. Nicky.
Nicky feels tears overflow his eyes.
“I have drawn you a thousand times since we parted,” Joe says. “I sculpted your likeness, just so that I could pretend to cup your cheek.” Nicky raises Joe’s hand to his face and Joe smiles. “You are so much warmer than marble, hayati.”
In the morning, they find Nile in the small breakfast area, nodding sleepily over a cup of coffee.
Her head jerks up, instantly alert, when she sees the way Nicky and Joe have their arms wrapped around each other. Her mouth opens and Nicky can tell from the look in her eyes that what she would like to say would tear a strip off of Joe, but then she presses her lips together. Nicky loves her dearly.
“Good morning, Nile,” Joe says, ebullient, oblivious to the undercurrent. He turns to kiss Nicky, first on the cheek, then full on the mouth, as if he can’t help himself. Nicky has no complaints. “I’ll get us coffee, ya amar. Sit, sit,” he says, pulling out a chair for Nicky.
“Thank you, my love,” Nicky says, smiling softly. Joe’s hand stays in his until the very last moment, when distance forces them to let go.
Nicky turns to look across the table at Nile. She’s frowning at him, the corners of her lips tilting sadly, but the way he’s smiling makes her start to smile too, careful with hope.
“So,” Nile says, slowly. “You and Joe?”
And finally, finally, Nicky can again say, “Yes.”