“Do not let your love become attachment, nor your hatred become destruction.”
— Umār bin al-Khattāb
They’re speeding away from one of Copley’s more humanitarian ops when Nicky first mentions it. Returning fire on a dusty back road to stave off the pursuit of some very angry smugglers, he leans back in through his perch at the window, reloading with his cache of armor-piercing rounds and casually says, “It has been how long since we last spent time apart? Since the industrial revolution, I think.”
“A bit late to split up now, love.” Joe laughs from behind the wheel. Nicky is back out the window, all elegant lines angled at their enemy. Joe needs to be careful of maneuvering with his heart in such a delicate offensive position. Nicky would forgive him if he was thrown from the vehicle, but Joe would not.
“A break would be nice, I think,” Nicky continues, the winds whipping past swallow up his words, but the receiver under his hood keeps his meaning crystal clear.
“To be clear, now, in the middle of a firefight, late to our rendezvous with Andy, Nile, and our very impatient pilot who threatened to strand us in this forsaken country, now is the time you want to discuss this?”
“Yes.” Joe thinks he can hear Nicky’s smile. “What do you think?”
“I think I wasn’t aware we needed a break,” Joe protests. The word feels dirty and contemptuous in his mouth. Like fast food and diet water, it was yet another ridiculous modern custom that need not apply to them. “Wait, have you been reading those trashy airport magazines with Nile again?”
He chuckles into his headset. “You wound me, Yusuf.”
“That is not a denial!”
Nicky must have his sights lined up in his scope because he pulls the trigger. Half a moment later, an explosion rocks behind them. A glance into the rear view reveals a toppled back armored vehicle in free fall down the hill they’re currently racing up. The actual wounded are assuredly dead, and the remaining two black vans maintain their course. One picks up speed. Perhaps Nicky killed a friend of theirs.
Joe gives the signal and shrugs off their gains by steering onto a rougher patch of road.
“I understand wanting to get away,” says Joe. “Away sounds nice right about now. But apart, that I do not understand.”
Nicky fires again, followed once more with the screech of twisted metal pummeling the road at dangerous velocities.
“You know what they say; absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“We’re older than any of the people who first said that. What could they have known that we don’t?”
“It is only an idea, Joe,” Nicky says it as if he is only saying it. But his love does not speak to take up space or time. It’s been too long for all that. Joe wants to argue as much, but Nicky yells out to him, “Hit the breaks!”
Joe has his foot on the pedal before he can wonder what it is Nicky is planning to do. The car behind them hurdles ahead of them as they lurch to a painful stop. Nicky is braced for it, but not tightly enough. Yusuf pulls him bodily into the seat by the back of his tack gear. Their remaining pursuer’s vehicle is spinning out on the road, trying to reverse course on the narrow mountain track. It skids dangerously close to a rusted iron barrier between them and the ravine below.
Joe floors it. The enemy lobs a heavy hail of bullets against their cracking windshield while their vehicle’s front grille rams the other armored car. Like a billiard knocked into a corner pocket, the black van ricochets off and over the ledge. Their screams fade on the way down, ceasing with a final boom.
Joe cracks his neck and eases the front seat into a more comfortable reclining position. Nicky settles and buckles into his chair. They radio out to Andy of their delayed ETA.
“So where would you go?” Joe asks. He doesn’t ask the most crucial question, where on Earth is Nicolò so keen to go alone?
Nicky’s face shines soft as he resembles his gun. “The equator, I think. Or near to it.”
“The equator,” Joe repeats. There is nowhere in the equator that they have not already been together. It is clearly not the point of whatever travel Nicky is hoping for, but it feels relevant to Joe. “How long would you be gone?”
“A week, no more.”
Joe shifts gears onto new terrain, contemplative while roadsides advertising civilization and nearby populations pass them by. He doesn’t like the idea. Nicky certainly knows that Joe does not; he knew he would not before the subject was ever broached. And still, Nicky is asking him. Whatever it is he wishes to see or do, Joe would make room enough for him to achieve it. Joe could never find it in himself to deny Nicky.
“I suppose a week is long enough for me to throw out those awful tablecloths you bought at the souq in Constantinople.”
* * *
Nicky packs quick and efficient as he chatters on about seeing Haiti again. Joe wishes not for the first or the last time that he had been more insistent in traveling along with him. If not to keep his husband company, then for the sheer fact that the island remained one of the most beautiful things ever sculpted to this earth. It seemed infinitely cursed by tragedy, inhumanity, and white tourists, but still, a most resplendent place.
“My tablecloths had better be here when I get back,” Nicky warns, “and my bookshelves, too.”
“It is my books on those shelves, I should have a say in them—”
“Not this again, Yusuf—”
“I can build much better shelves!”
“You two ready?” Nile asks from the doorway. She looks bored, already regretting her offer to help Nicky cart away his luggage down the cramped flights of stairs. That or she does not care about the ongoing nigh-theological battle of Joe’s last half millennia; trying in vain to make his love understand that while he may have the eye for a sniper’s scope, his eye for color is terrible.
“Thank you, Nile,” Nicky calls after her as she disappears down the whitewashed hallway with her arms full. He turns to Joe. “And you, try not to burn Barcelona down while I am gone.”
“There’s always Madrid if I get the itch.” Joe had intended to be masking his foul mood, but he can’t help but mutter and sulk. It is not like the old days, when traveling alone could mean a man was never seen or heard of again. GPS and credit card receipts made vanishing a far more difficult feat.
“It is seven days.”
Joe doesn’t need the reminder. “Make it six and I’ll spare the bookshelves.”
From the front step Nile helps him wave Nicky off and into his taxi. With little else to do other than one kiss more in goodbye, the car carries him off the Aleppo pine bordered street and out of sight. Joe shoves his hands in his pockets and asks Nile if she’s ever been to the Mercado de La Boqueria. He knows she hasn’t and that she will jump at the chance. She has a healthy appetite for all the things the world has to offer. Joe appreciates it, and the excuse not to return to his empty apartments just yet.
It takes a little work to steer Nile’s learned dialecto mexicano into something befitting España. To her credit, she does know enough to avoid the smoothies and Americanized refreshments advertised in English. The market, like everything under the sun, has ceded ground to tourism, but no sister in arms of Yusuf al-Kaysani called al-Tayyib will sink to such moral lows. After wading through familiar vendors and embracing neighbors, they pass the stall that Nicky insists on purchasing their coffee from. Joe sighs, doing his level best to stare ahead.
“You’re really going to miss him,” Nile marvels. She’s too sharp not to see right through him and how he haggles over some particular fine pieces of charcuterie to distract himself. “A thousand years together and you’re going to miss him until next Sunday.”
“Should I be happy he’s gone?” Joe asks, bristling under the accusation. It’s all true, but hearing it out loud makes it feel all the more absurd.
“Of course not.” Nile pats his shoulder. A few stalls over, she picks an excellent fish from the day’s haul. Joe would be proud he has taught her so well if she wasn’t smirking at him still. She continues with her teasing remarks all the way back to La Rambla. “I think it’s cute that the two of you want to be around each other even after all these years. I knew a lot of married couples back home that couldn’t stand each other.”
“That never made sense,” Joe wrinkles his nose and shifts the backs in his arms. His gentlemanly decision to carry Nile’s much heavy bag was a clear mistake. “Arranged marriages go out of mode, people start picking their partners, but they pick people they hate.”
Nile shrugs. “Not everyone’s got destiny on their side.”
Back at the apartment, Joe keeps Nile entertained with his collection of art and trinkets, which she insists on calling antiques. They de-bone the fish for cooking and drink cañas around the coffee table, agreeing that Joe’s taste in art exceeds that of Nicky. “Though he does try,” Joe is quick to add, looking remorseful at the schlocky Florentine artwork above the reading nook.
“Aw,” coos Nile. “You even feel bad saying mean things about his art now. It’s only been four hours, Joe.”
“If I wanted to be mocked at every turn, I would have kept that traitor around.”
For a moment Nile is quiet. Joe had noticed she didn’t like to talk about Booker. She seems to have developed a soft spot for the Frenchmen, duplicity and all. Nile never says it, but she still believes his punishment was too harsh. Joe isn’t sure if it’s her youth or just that kind-hearted nature of hers. Though Nicky himself possessed a gentle heart and he had been the one to settle on century long banishment. Joe had been pulling for more.
“You could travel too, y’know. I’ve been thinking I might, after I check in with Andy at the delta safe-house. Nicky actually got me thinking, I always wanted to learn to ski.”
“When did he suggest that?” Joe laughs, clearing away Nile’s plate. Nicolò di Genova was graceful, as nimble as he was light-footed. But every ounce of his gainliness fled him on the snow and the ice. Even Joe, the son of arid deserts, had more dignity in the winter.
“He didn’t say it,” Nile explained, “he just sort of reminded me. His trunk popped open while I was trying to get it in the back of the taxi. I saw all his snow gear and his coat. It made me think I still have all the time I need if I ever wanted to hit the slopes.”
“Oh,” Joe says, confusion rising. He doesn’t show it however, and he and Nile spend the remainder of the day with unremarkable ease.
* * *
The new millennia and its internet made everything more dangerous. Cars, weapons, and gear can be traced to their place of origin and purchase. If photographed, any item or article bought in a specific city at a specific time leaves a unique trail to be followed. The last Joe checked, it was a tool utilized mostly by fascist cops to track and beat and jail protestors from New York to Hong Kong. But it could be just as precarious for them. It is why a curated rotation of something as simple as clothing is important.
Joe's winter coat is hanging in the closet. Nicky’s is not. Meaning it is with Nicky. In Haiti. Which makes no sense at all. Joe groans, forcing down the errant doubt as well as closing the closet door. What would make more sense is that Nicky changed plans at the last moment and simply failed to mention it.
Any alternative is just ridiculous.
Nicky leaves a text, saying he has landed safely. Joe calls him a day later and he does not answer. He texts Joe back instead, right before he turns into for the night; miss you, see you soon, and malta next?
Joe sleeps terribly the next few nights. His arms keep reaching out to pull Nicky closer to his chest. A centuries long habit that he cannot imagine breaking overnight. When he does nod off he stirs often, still reaches for Nicky, or turns over waiting for Nicky to finish up in the bathroom, because that must be where he is. He can’t be too far.
After the fifth restless night Joe gives in. He leaves their stowaway home and checks into the nearest hotel. The rates are exorbitant and he is surrounded by Canadians and some sort of international convention that keeps marching up and down the halls. But at least he can finally sleep in a bed that is not his own. In the dead of the morning, he hands over a credit card labeled Joseph Jones and eats and drinks and meets a Dutchwoman with rakish eyes. She hints at how often she is sick of her husband back home and relieved to be rid of him for the weekend. Joe laughs in the face of her advances. He simply can’t relate.
“What, you’re never sick of her?” She points at his ring finger.
“Him,” he corrects, “and no, not yet.”
The woman tempers somewhat. She invites herself to sit at Joe’s table and eagerly asks how he met his husband. Joe could never put his finger on the why but some modern women found men who loved other men to be woefully enthralling. Absent a good reason, he decides he likes this stranger well enough. He learns her name is Sabine, she has been married ten years, and possesses a love of the dirtiest martinis and an uncapped sardonic wit. She buys them more liquor and he entertains with an abridged retelling of how he fell in love with a missionary priest as a young enlisted man abroad.
“Missionaries?” Sabine shudders, lip curling in distaste.
“I know, I know,” Yusuf agrees, one placating hand in the air and the other on his drink. “His choice in career has been my great misfortune in life, but god, do I love him.”
“You poor thing,” she says with a shake of her head, eyes full with pity that is neither a jest or feigned.
“And how is that, you figure?”
“If worse comes to worse, I can always pull the plug,” she raises her left hand, pointing to the diamond on her ring finger, “but you can’t get rid of what you have. You can’t walk away. Can’t even save yourself.”
Joe’s laughter is lubricated by the alcohol and the fact that she clearly believes what she is saying. “And to think I used to pity people in loveless marriages.”
Sabine tuts her tongue and pops a gin-soaked olive into her mouth. “Spare me. The only ones who need sympathy are people who think they’ve found their soulmates, or worse, the ones who actually have.” She shakes her head, suppressing a shiver of dread. “Imagine that? Being unable to live without someone? Pity that before you pity me.”
Joe snorts under his breath. He’s not sure why, but he welcomes her dour outlook. It feels bracingly familiar. “The romance in your heart could freeze a desert.”
Sabine shrugs. “Better cold than burned… but don’t ask me what that means, I’m drunk,” she giggles. “And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a certain businessman over there is eyeing you up.”
Without looking, Joe holds up his ringed hand in clear view of the direction she points to. He hears a sigh and the retreat of footsteps.
“Now I know which of us deserves more pity,” Sabine bemoans, pointing a rueful finger. “He was hot and you don’t even care.”
Joe’s chuckle is remorseless. “You said it yourself. Can’t ever be rid of what I’ve got.”
“Well… I wouldn’t say not ever… you could always kill him,” she offers, clinking their glasses together.
“Oh, believe me, I’ve tried.”
His ventures at the hotel bar fritters away a little time before nightfall. In his hotel room he lies abed and doesn’t let himself think about winter coats, ugly tablecloths, or turncoat brothers that left his trust abused and aching, looking for shadows where none could possibly reside. Only lets himself feel how the week’s end can’t arrive soon enough.
A knock comes from the hallway door and a cheerful voice sings “Housekeeping!” in unmistakable Italian.
Joe throws the door open before he’s even put clothes on. “You’re back early.” He pulls Nicky inside, arms around his waist and flush against him for a kiss. “You really wanted to save those bookshelves.”
“Yes, I was happy to see everything was in its place. Everything except you, my love.” Nicky lets himself be kissed and pawed at by his hopelessly eager husband. He does have to wrap his fingers in Joe’s curls to tilt his head back before he can get another word in edgewise. “You hate this hotel. You always say none of the tourists know how to park and the airport taxis make traffic terrible.”
“True. But I hate sleeping alone more.”
“Oh? And you weren’t sleeping alone here?” Nicky slips out of his shoes and heads directly for the mattress. Joe doesn’t bother indulging his playful accusation. He joins Nicky on the covers and pulls at his belt.
“It was easier to sleep here than it was in ours.” Joe kisses his chest, savoring the thrum of his heart beneath his rib-cage. A nagging fear, foolish but real, finally wanes and Joe wills his eyes to shut in a quiet moment of thanks. “Any bed we have shared is going to feel empty without you, Nicolò.”
“So you found a bed we have never shared?” Nicky leans into his touch. His eyes are aglow as he murmurs softly, “Yusuf, even for you… that is a bit much.”
“Hey!” Joe laughs self-deprecatingly. “I could have found a bed-mate, y’know. I wasn’t exactly hurting for offers.”
“Yes, you could have had your pick of more bored housewives abroad.”
“And a few businessmen, plus one very handsy bellboy.”
Nicky groans a sound of anguished amusement that echoes through a millennia. “Why must you be this way?”
“Babe, you’ve only been asking me that for nine hundred years.”
“Because you are hopeless,” Nicky declares and Joe does not argue. He has never been one for hope. Any measure of it he may have contained always felt incomparable next to Nicky and the endless faith he possessed. Rolling his lover over, Joe supposes any need he should ever have of hope, he would have to get by with a measure in Nicky’s. For now he is content to share in their love making until someone calls hotel management to tell them to keep it down.
* * *
Joe means to ask about the coat, about the trip, about Haiti. It slips his mind until they are home again and Nicky is checking all their worldly possessions. Well, all their worldly possession stashed in this particular safe house. He doesn’t trust Joe not to have slipped something in with the rubbish.
“Nile is on the alps, y’know,” Joe mentions, eyeing the closet. “We could join her. Pack our coats.”
Nicky, only half paying attention, pulls his coat from the chest by the door. It’s crumpled and dry as he hangs it on the back of a chair. With a furrowed brow he levies a most hurtful accusation against Joe; “You only want to go so you can laugh at me on the snow again.”
“I would never!”
“1954, Joe! I slipped once and you laughed so hard you cried.”
“Those were tears of joy,” Joe insists, affixing his straightest face. “You hit the ice so fast a bullet missed you!”
Nicky does not forgive him and loudly bemoans his plight that he must love such a cruel, cruel man. They never do end up going to the alps in the end. Copley calls after finding a new job. They meet up with Andy and Nile off the coast of Tangier and the mountains, like Malta, are left to wait.
* * *
Joe never would never have thought of the ordeal again if not for Venezuela. Copley brought them the job, trying to stave off a US backed coup. It should have only taken a few weeks. They have been stationed here for months, waiting for reinforcements from the UN. By the end of it, the country is a bloody swath of violence. Caracas bore the brunt of it. The city is still burning. Men, women and children were fleeing, hiding from the foot soldiers of greedy men who were themselves the foot soldiers of greedier men living entire continents away from the Serranía de la Costa. While they had killed some and saved many others, nothing was resolved. The Blue Helmets came marching in and they would solve nothing either. Not in the lifetimes of the children he helps board up in the retrofitted city buses as they prepare for their mass exodus.
“But their children, and their children’s children,” Nicky says after having gone quiet for the longest time. “Maybe someday they will return. They could build something here. We’ve seen it before.”
Even Andy has to smile at that.
They load their cargo plane for the layover to the ship that will get them back to Lisbon when Nicky floats the idea of heading up to New York. Andy shrugs once Nicky’s talked her around the idea and Nile is pleased she’ll have more legroom on the ride up.
“I know you hate the Americas,” says Nicky considerately. “You don’t have to stay any longer because you think you need to keep me company.”
“I can’t stand North America. Central and South are just fine. Present carnage not excluded.” Joe would tangle with any cartel embolden warlord before ever again submitting himself to any of the past three United States administrations.
“I kinda wish I could go,” Nile mentions absently.
“Absolutely not,” Andy says, showing her age and her ease of command. “Copley may have gotten you a KIA but we—”
“Can’t risk exposure, I know.”
Deep down Joe wants to prod her along. She wants to see her homeland, and Joe would feel better if it was the two of them traveling together rather than Nicky all on his own. Not that he could not handle himself. But the moment passes and Nile shuffles after Andy. Joe knows he is expected to follow suit. He can’t will his feet to move. Not with the welling doubt he can’t shake.
“What’s in New York?” Joe asks just as the plane engine begins to roar. Joe should ask just how Nicky is planning to travel up the latitude to the United States, what contacts he is using.
“A surprise!” Nicky kisses him and ushers him onward through the plane hatch. “I won’t be long, promise. You won’t even miss me.”
* * *
It turns out to be a promise Nicky can’t keep. He calls twice to extend his stay in the west by what amounts to a week and three days and Joe himself curses every time he hangs up the phone. Each delay lends to the tightness in his chest, every hour stoking a dread Joe cannot quell. There is not a name for this misgiving he feels.
Joe never says as much out loud but Nile looks at him with teasing pity and Andy gracefully refrains from comment, save for noticing Joe lingering at the safe house in his refusal to return to an empty home.
“Better here than Barcelona,” she says idly in the kitchen while mutilating the potatoes Joe asked her to peel. Joe really should know better after all these years. Her skill with a blade began and ended at the lines of the battlefield.
“You never liked any of our accommodations — be delicate, Andy, you’re pressing too hard — and if we left it up to you, we’d all live like transient vagrants — Andromache, please! Those are vitelotte potatoes—”
“Cities are dangerous.” Joe snatches the knife away. There may be enough of the spuds left to salvage. “So are paper trails.”
“We all can’t leave our stuff in caves. Plus, papers are the only thing that is safe anymore. It’s the digital, the facial recognition, databases, surveillance. Honestly if you had told me back then what the internet would bring, I would not have believed—”
Joe pauses for a moment. Words caught in this throat, as still as his knife raised over an unminced pile of herbs. He remembers, years ago how Andrea hissed and spit at the first television projection they had ever seen. Remembers his Nicholas, perplexed and uneased by trusting radar in battle. And another time, standing at a counter much like this one where Joseph had watched his brother pour over some clunky contraption that spewed forth wires and lights and whirring noises. There had not enough words in French or Italian to explain to Joe just what the Americans and their DARPA had made. Only a quiet wonder he still hears whispered in his ear, “plus rien ne sera jamais comme avant.”
Joe brings down the knife, neatly grinding. Thinks to himself, it’s funny the things you forget. Less funny are the things that won’t be forgotten. His fingers slip under the knife in a careless motion. With his ring finger in his mouth, he turns to Andy with acquiescence.
“Boss, if you’re so worried, we can upgrade security. I’ll make contact with Copley in the morning.”
Andy nods, watching the nick in Joe’s skin knit back together, content to be finished with the matter and picks a new vegetable to mangle.
Copley finds the whole ordeal to be quite funny. Managing real estate was not what he signed up for when hunting down the great Andromache of Scythia, but he does not complain. He makes quick work of the stack of papers Joe leaves with him and is punctual and hospitable when he recalls Joe to his English base of operations to go over the particulars. He even serves tea.
“Let’s see… beginning with the Barcelona building, the Swiss home, the plot in Morocco… and I must say your property portfolio is quite diverse. Enviable, truly. My work with the company never took me to half so many wonderful places.”
“Understandable,” Joe sips the mug that Copley prepared. “They tend to install you agents anywhere there’s fragile democracies or oil. Beauty never lasts in those places.”
Copley swallows an amused but chagrined look, not rising to Joe’s bait. “What do you take more offense to, my being American or my approximation of the English?”
“Flip a coin and there’s your answer.”
Copley grins the same way he did through Nicky’s sniper scope. He’s a man used to being hated. For good and earned reasons, and if Joe had to guess, some unearned reasons as well. Joe sips the rest of his tea and opens the folder handed to him.
“As you will see,” Copley narrates, “my recommendations for you are brief, mostly updates and extensions of the safeguards already in place, particularly with Chefchaouen home. Otherwise, the precautions you have taken thus far are excellent. Owning the buildings outright through third parties, secure supply chains, blind spots against agency interests. Very thorough, and all Booker, I presume?”
Joe grits his teeth, “Yeah… We trusted him with security.”
Copley has the good grace to finally look ashamed.
“Again, my apologies,” Copley says.
From there on out, they only discuss business.
* * *
Before, they used to split up all the time. Andy would run off on her own, Nicky would find the nearest mass, and Booker was always drunk somewhere, waiting for Joe to fish him out of whatever bottle he climbed into. More often than not, it had been Joe leaving Nicky behind, venturing out the longest and the farthest, enabling and indulging Booker.
It hurt to think about now but there had been a time when Joe was so very grateful to add the surly Frenchmen to their numbers. A time when Sébastien had been the most fun he could remember. His wry humor, his quick wits, the graceless way he threw his fists. Nothing and no one could out gamble or out drink the man. He could go a whole night three bottles deep, still hollow leg and picking locks and forging signatures. Joe had been by his side when Booker first tinkered away days at a stolen radio, figuring out how they worked long before the others could. The three of them found machinery mystifying and their newest recruit seemed to arrive just in time to save them.
That man feels like a stranger, like someone who slipped from view while Joe had not been paying attention. Remembering Sébastien the way he remembers Booker feels shameful. The man who had sold out his own family could not be the same man Joe spent that week-long London bender with. The pair of them laughing and foolish in the streets, arrested nightly for rowdiness. The man who had giggled at him from the back of a police wagon while Joe explained himself again and again to the woodentops to no avail. No, officer, he had not meant to be a nuisance, he was merely celebrating his dear friend’s one-hundred-and-eighty-eighth birthday, yes he was quite spry for his age. Their explanations, however true, garnered them no sympathy; but every cell they landed in Booker broke them back out of. Some Booker even broke back into, if counting the one time they forgot Joe’s baseball cap.
Afterwards, Joe had crawled home to their safe house to find Nicky waiting for him, all grins with only gentle admonishment and open arms. Joe knows he owes Nicky the same welcome in return; anything less is selfish. Anything less is admitting that he still isn’t past Merrick Pharmaceuticals; that he is not past Booker.
He refuses to let that be true. He refuses to let the next ninety-eight years be ruled over by that coward. Joe forces himself to stop watching the clock and to stop pacing the floor. His time could be far better spent dreaming up ways to welcome home his Nicolò.
* * *
“Sorpresa!” Nicky shouts, kicking the door shut behind him. “Look what I have brought for you—”
Joe does not mean to greet Nicky by tackling him against the rickety old door, but it is in essence the result. The brown paper wrapped package tumbles to the floor from Nicky’s grasp, his hands are now quite occupied clutching Joe by the shoulders. Joe bites his bottom lip and drags Nicky deeper into the kiss, into his arms, leaving just enough room to pry the jacket he wears off of him.
“Joe, you have to open your gift,” Nicky protests the second they break away to breathe.
Joe tugs and tugs at the belt around Nicky’s hips. “Is that not what I am doing?” But for a moment Nicky fusses still, though he has yet to stop kissing Joe back. It only makes Joe hungrier down to the core of his stomach to know he was missed in turn. To feel the eagerness winning out over Nicky’s sense of propriety.
“You’re insatiable,” Nicky accuses, “You don’t even care how hard it was… how long it took for me to find it.”
“I care very much about how long it took. Because it was far, far too long.”
Nicky laughs, rocking forward for another kiss. “Patience has many virtues.”
With enough prodding and promises, Nicky convinces Joe to undress his package before the both of them. Unwrapped, the package is a heavy leather book with no clear discernible title. He checks the binding for an author or a date but finds nothing. It is not until he’s turned the book over in his hands again that the weight of it feels familiar.
“Nicolò, is this — ?”
He nods, delighting in Joe’s own delight. “I could not find the original manuscript, but this is the last printed copy, perhaps anywhere on earth.”
Joe flips through the pages. They smell of an age long passed. “All of England hated my writing. It was always Shakespeare this, Shakespeare that. There was only room enough for one bard in the entire kingdom. Where did you find it?”
Nicky beams with pride. “There was a bookdealer in the States. A recluse with a massive library. He refused to meet in person and only accepted cash. He did not trust banks or printed receipts or anyone with an accent. I had to pretend to be American.”
Joe winced. Nicky’s American accent always sounded like a New Yorker with a cold.
“He was quite unwilling to part with it, changing his mind over and over again. But we settled on a price.”
Joe does not like the sound of that. “How steep?”
Nicky squeezes his eyes closed, embarrassed. “Very.”
“You have always been a terrible barterer, my heart.”
With a red face, Nicky takes the novel from Joe and slots it on the overflowing bookshelf between Al-Majjaty and Foscolo. He steps back, settling into Joe’s arms and they took the moment to marvel at their collection. Any day now the battered old thing will collapse under its own weight; the Donne and the Angelou and the Pushkin and the Chaucer will scatter across the splinters. Kissing Nicky’s shoulder, Joe vows that when the time comes, he will not tell Nicky that he told him so. However, he will think it deep down in his heart, loud enough for his love to know. Nostalgia and sentiment bare only so well under gravity and the literary greats.
“While I appreciate the thought, Nicolò,” Joe turns to steer them towards the kitchen, “my linguini on the stove now feels like a meager offering in return.”
Nicky points his nose in the direction of the dining room. “Is that what I smell?”
“It’s the recipe Pilar from down the hall gave to us. The one with the clam sauce you loved.”
Nicky runs a finger over their wine rack, checking labels. He holds up a bottle of white and red, clearly leaning towards the white. Joe however points to the Sangiovese, feeling contrarian and lively. Shaking his head, Nicky asks, “I thought you swore you would never forgive Señora Pilar for trying to set me up with her nephew?”
“I won’t and I haven’t, but the clams are innocent of her crimes.” Joe wrings out two folded napkins and dishes generous helpings from the pot. He drinks from Nicky’s cup and is quite pleased to find the Sangiovese unoaked and light, earthen and dry. “Though Pilar and the other old birds still love to gossip about you on the patio. Señora Castellanos tells anyone who will listen how you’ve left me. Even I was starting to believe her.”
“Yes, Yusuf,” Nicky deadpans, “you have caught me. I am abandoning you for another.”
“I knew it!” Joe mockingly despairs. “Where did you meet him?”
“In another holy war.”
“Of course! How romantic.”
“I didn’t mean to fall for him, but it could not be helped.” Nicky uncorks the red again to pour more wine in condolence. “I told him I already loved another, the most perfect man. One with a charitable heart, such handsome curls, who wrote me sonnets and held me lovingly.”
“But you’re leaving me anyway?”
“Yes, I’m afraid,” Nicky reaches across the table to hold Joe’s hand. The caress is so tender that it throws doubt on the humor of their game. “You must understand, my new love swears he will let me cook with guanciale whenever I want.”
Joe snatches back his hand, the mirth draining out of him as he pushes back from the table. “That is not funny, Nicky!” Nicky however disagrees, and does his best to swallow the linguine without choking on his laughter. “Nine hundred years! Nine hundred, and you still miss cooking with swine?!”
“Delicious swine, Joe! Very delicious!”
* * *
It takes Nicky days to remember to unpack his bag. He spends too much of his free-time scouring their cupboards and cabinets searching for the tablecloths that Joe hid when he could not bring himself to throw them away entirely. A week later the bag has moved from beside the front door, to the hallway, to the laundry closet, to their bedroom. Eventually Joe drags the duffel out from under their bed and sorts through the task himself. He finds the usual fare; a folded money clip, false papers, burner phones with the battery removed, an assortment of clothes. It’s the faded cadet blue button down that smells unmistakably of modern gunpowder that makes him shove everything back inside. A rucked up receipt falls free. It is a railway ticket from Brussels, dated a week and a half prior.
Joe can’t think of anywhere further from the Americas.
It takes a few days but his messy husband unpacks. Loading up their laundry baskets, he regales Joe with talk of the Northeast and fisheries of the Maine coast. “It's a beautiful country, at times.” Nicky insists. “Once you get past the falsehoods and the land of the free.”
“Yes,” Joe says quiet as the dead. “Most things are more beautiful if you ignore the lies.”
* * *
Joe has so rarely needed to confront Nicky, he cannot remember how it was done. He knows it involves more than throwing Nicky’s long sword at him demanding they settle the matter with blades. Their last great impasse had not been since the third crusades when Nicolò still held the Roman church close to his heart, when he made excuses for their bloody campaigns. Yusuf had no patience for it, for how lightly he took the crimes of his former ministry. Nicolò argued bitterly that neither of them could claim the Holy Lands, Yusuf himself born in the ports of Mahdia. He was relentless in reminding Yusuf he did not even respect the caliphate, that he hated Salah ad-Din, and all this was true. True as the fact that all those who made Jerusalem feel like a second home to Yusuf were long dead. Truer still, it would always remain the last place he had seen his brothers alive.
That fight that night had been ugly. So ugly it made Joe miss the times when they stabbed and kicked and killed each other. Those wounds had been easy enough to resolve. Coming back to life was simpler. Coming back to each other is much harder. It was far more painful pulling apart to opposite ends of the bed, neither touching or speaking.
How long they carried on like that, Joe cannot recall. They were both so stubborn in those early years. So long in the unraveling of time, the constant moving, the senseless death surrounding but evading them at every turn. They clung together in their new fragile love, and yes, they were often uncareful with it. But Joe knows it was Nicky who apologized in the end. Their reconciliation sealed with his oath that together would help turn back the Templar forces.
Yusuf had not believed him at first. It had taken a night’s worth of convincing before he asked with hope in his heart; “You would fight against your homeland?”
Nicolò had smiled in the moonlight, his meaning undeniable and plain when his hand rested over Yusuf’s heart. “My home is elsewhere now.”
In bed, Joe lays his head on Nicky’s chest. Propped by a pillow, Nicky murmurs and wraps an arm around Joe until he is comfortable and they mold into a shape they’ve taken countless times before. Beside them, the window Nicky leaves open lets in an evening breeze that laps at the pages in his book. Joe closes his eyes and focuses on the sound beneath his ear. The same drumming beat, rise and fall of a comforting tune. It’s the oldest song he knows. He never learned words, but he knew it true. Knew it well enough that he can tell when a note is skipped, hearing the question before the asking by the pause before Nicky shifts and inhales; “is something wrong, Joe?”
Yes. So many things are wrong. He’s not sure he has the courage to name them all.
Nicky waits until Joe shakes his head. Accepting the lie only because he cannot see Joe’s face before he sets down his book and turns out the light.
* * *
Joe looks forward to ops now more than anything. It is a relief every time he gears up for the missions Copley brings him or the jobs that filter through the grapevine of Booker’s old contacts. Andy still insists on no-repeats and he wishes he could convince her to change her mind. Repeats meant more contracts, more contracts meant less downtime. Less time spent at their leisure when Joe was left feeling like an axe hung over his head. Because they are still happy, of course. They could never be anything else. But now that happiness carried seams he could not iron away until he dared admit the unspeakable.
Nicky had taken one other spontaneous trip; an auction in Athens and a stop over in Mykonos for more baklava. He still had not learned his lesson about hopeless wagers. “This time is different,” Nicky swears on their way to an old Polish hotel. He is carrying the delicate sweet in a fine muslin napkin.
“The only thing different about this time is that Nile will be the one taking your money, not Booker.” The last of it comes out harsher than Joe intends. Again he has not slept well since Nicky was away. He is grown more than tired of his own needful tempers.
Nicky’s anticipation dampers. He turns to Joe solemnly as they walk. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Yes, Joe doesn’t say. Yes, he wants to talk about where Nicky goes. He wants to demand answers, why it felt so vital and necessary for him to go alone. He wants to know if Nicky understood the way the days dragged on and how the nights never ended when Joe lay with all his uncertainty. He wants to know when he lost hold of Nicky’s honesty, why his once forthcoming nature now eluded them both. He wants to ask Nicky if he knew Joe contemplated asking Copley to track him because he could not bring himself to do it. That he often came close despite the obvious violation and the disastrous repercussions of Andy finding out.
The accusations die in his throat. Perhaps because more than anything Joe wants to know if he alone is to blame. If all his suspicions have simple, obvious answers that he was too proud or foolish to see. If learning the answers might break his heart.
He dodges the question, pointedly not looking at his husband. “What is there to talk about?”
Nicky sighs. “About Booker.”
Joe stops in his tracks. “And why would we need to talk about him ?”
“Because at some point, we have to—”
“No, love,” Joe scoffs, kissing Nicky’s cheek. Of all things, that man was the least of their problems. “We really don’t.”
An hour later, Andy guesses the baklava is from Mykonos, before going the further step informing them exactly which bakery made it three streets from the Paraportiani Church. With his husband’s hubris decidedly crushed and Nile five hundred euros richer, they’re off to Warsaw to disperse some illicit small arms trade. The mission is no great undertaking, easily accomplished with the right strategy. Joe only has to fire his weapon once. Fleeing the policja is what proves difficult.
“Why are they chasing us again?” Nile asks, ducking low in her seat. Her head whips forward when Joe takes a particularly hard turn. The sirens behind them never flicker or fade. They’re gaining.
“They think we are the criminals,” Nicky says as the vehicle skids to avoid oncoming traffic. “Perhaps we should not have brought so many guns?”
“Turn here!” Andy shouts from the backseat but Joe waves her off.
“That road has been a dead end for years, Andy!”
In the end Joe doubles back, a diversion tactic. They need to ditch the car, disperse and regroup. They passed a car lot a ways back, they could hit the ground and disappear from there. They only need to make it over a bridge.
They never get the chance to execute his escape plan. Not before the distinctive sound of repeated gunfire shatters the glass alongside Joe and his world goes icy black.
He wakes in a motel laying on a bloody pillowcase. He’s cold, soaking wet, and there is an awful pressure behind his eyes that reminds him of every other time he’s had his head caved in. It ebbs away slowly and he rises, his ears following a familiar sound. Nicky is knelt beside the bed. His face is hidden in his clasped hands. He’s praying, fervent and hushed; “I cannot… I cannot… not without—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Joe croaks, reaching out to run his hand through his love’s dark hair. “You can say amen.”
Nicky’s eyes fly open. “Yusuf?” He scrambles up the bed to throw his arms around Joe’s neck. His clothes are only half dried. “You’re here.”
“Where else would I be?” Joe kisses him. Nicky tastes like burning, like fear. “What happened?”
“They shot you. The car turned over. We went into the Vistula.”
That explains why he smells dirty river water. “Did the policja see us when we surfaced?” Joe straightens suddenly. “Shit, what about Andy? She went under?”
“Andy is fine, she got back to the surface in time. But you… when we got you to shore, you didn’t… The wound didn’t close… and I thought—”
Joe gingerly feels up and down the bloody pillow. A hard nub of metal rolls down the fabric. Joe holds up the bullet to Nicky to see. “Must have embedded deep. Took its time working its way out.”
“Yes,” Nicky agrees despite his misgiving look. He takes the bullet between his two fingers and tosses it away as if it were still hot from the muzzle. “I thought you were… that you might…” He holds Joe a little harder.
“Sono qui,” he whispers and Nicky shivers.
“You would tell me if you stopped healing.” It is not a request, but a fact Nicky utters with trembling faith. “If you had known… you would not hide that from me.”
“Of course.” Joe makes a half aborted movement to get them off the bed, they need to dry off and find something warm to wear. But Nicky refuses to budge. “Why would you think otherwise?”
Nicky looks remorseful for a moment. “Andy didn’t tell Booker.”
Joe isn’t sure what that is supposed to mean, or what it could possibly have to do with either of them. He is tired of thinking about Booker. So he shrugs and asks, “Who’s to say he wouldn’t have shot her anyway?”
“Joe!” Nicky exclaims darkly, choosing now to move away and scrub at his face in frustration. “Why?” he mutters to himself. “Why must you be this way?”
Joe’s own temper flares. Of all the times he’s been asked that, never once had it felt this close to scorn.
“What way would you have me be, Nicolò? Tell me what you want me to say, and I will say it.” Joe peels out of his sticky wet t-shirt. He throws it to the ground and it lands with an unsatisifying plop. “I am sorry I scared you. Truly, I am, but I’m still here, I’m still healing. Isn’t that enough?”
He reaches to cup Nicky’s perfect face in his hands. Thumbs the ridge of his jaw, knowing his touch is still cold. Still Nicky glares aside, displeased with Joe for some reason. Angry even, which only raises Joe’s own ire. He knows he can match his husband step for step. The two of them going in circles, distracting themselves from what was important by circling back to that bastard instead.
Joe closes the last of the distance between them, defiant and aching. “There is nowhere I would go without you.”
The pledge is as fierce as it is backhanded. He means every word and he demands as much in return. Joe would be a wreck in Nicky’s place. He has done in the past, raging and fretting at the fickle restoration that returns them to life as quick or as slow as it pleases. It is an agony not easily soothed, even when he hears lungs fill with air and his name called out. But death did not linger for long, death did not require explanation. Death is not what drove Nicky from their home and their bed and the safety of Joe’s arms.
“Nicolò, tell me wh—”
A knock comes at the door. Andy sticks her hair in, making direct eye contact with Joe as she asks, “Are we planning a funeral or not?”
Joe detangles his body from Nicky’s. “That's cold, Boss.”
“She just doesn’t want you to steal her mortal thunder,” comes Nile from behind her. Her eyes are full and bright and she looks as if she might even cry. “I’m glad you’re okay, Joe.”
“Thank you, Nile,” Joe says exasperated. “Glad someone is overjoyed to see me alive.”
Nicky makes a truly indignant noise. “Why do you say this as if I am not?”
“What proof do I have of that? You picking a fight the moment I open my eyes?”
“I am the one picking the argument? No, Yusuf, that is you—” Nicky jabs a finger at him hotly. “Why can’t you just be reasonable?”
“Well, I did die—”
“Do not remind me!”
Andy and Nile mercifully close the door on the pair of them, reminding them both they have a plane waiting for takeoff.
* * *
After a prolonged spat that somehow ends in Joe apologizing twice and a conjugal quickie in the motel bathroom that leaves possessive scratch marks healing down his back, they make their way to the airfield. Strapped in the luxury accommodations of yet another cargo plane, Nicky and Nile are both lulled to sleep by the roar of the engines. Andy, opposite Joe, stays awake. The fresh scrapes from her own perilous brush with death are scabbing over. She picks at one on her chin. Joe wants to tell her it will never heal like that, but he’s forgotten what mortal healing even feels like. It is just as well; she doesn’t like them bringing up her wounds.
“It’s okay, Boss,” he tells her, thinly veiled in his attempt to take her mind off scratching the bandages on her arm. “You can say it. I know how much you’d miss me if I was gone.”
She snickers, eyes darting over Nicky sleeping next to her. “Your widower would be a pain in the ass to deal with, that much I'll admit.”
“Shh! Don’t say the W-word so loud. Even the idea I go before him…” Joe whistles lowly.
“Used to doubt if either of you could manage to do anything alone, let alone the mortal death. Now though…” Andy trails off. “How many continents has Nicky been to these last couple months? On his surprise visits? They’re going on a year or two now.”
Joe shifts uncomfortable in his seat. They were in fact heading into the third, but Joe doesn’t see why this need be brought up. He himself manages to not think about it for months on end. But Andy’s got a look in her eye making it clear the matter isn’t close to being dropped. Not even as Joe leaves her hanging with no response, the silence only broken when Nile lets out a gasp in her sleep. He turns to her belted form writhing in the chair. She keens softy and her face a stirring mix of twitching fear and pain. Joe reaches to wake her.
His hand falls away at Andy’s command, suddenly lacking strength. “She’s dreaming… is it her? ”
Andy nods, her fingers running over her necklace. “Nile doesn’t wake up screaming anymore, but the dreams still come. She says it’s worse when we wake her.”
The guilt bleeds out of Andy. Her oldest unhealed wound, the only one she ever carried through her immortality. The last half millennia had left Joe well acquainted to it. The sharpened grief she turned inward on herself, the mental fog that rolls through as the present and all of history falls to the wayside.
Joe cannot imagine that sort of pain. He knows he would not have borne it half as well as she if it had been Nicolò who was lost to them.
“I'd started to think she was gone,” Joe admits. “After a while he stopped dreaming about her. Maybe in time Nile will stop seeing her, too.”
“Booker never stopped dreaming about her,” says Andy, hollow and cold.
Joe raises a brow. “Yes he did. After the first half of the Great War. He said she just faded away.” Joe remembers that day, the quiet confession made in the emptying field hospital wards. It had been a sad day, but it had been a small mercy nonetheless.
“The dreams are forever Joe; until you meet, or one of you dies for the last time. There is no inbetween.”
“No, no, Sébastien, he said…” Joe swallows his own naivety. Laugh, he realizes, “Right. Booker lied. Of course he lied. After all this time why am I still surprised?”
The way the man could still play him for a fool is infuriating.
“He thought he was helping.”
Joe says nothing more. He’s exhausted of this specter looming over all they do. Joe already has enough ghosts, some guiltless ones even. He does not need more.
They wait in silence, giving Nile all the time she needs to rouse from her sleep.
* * *
At home, out on the patio under the open sky, he and Nicky stretch on cushioned chairs with their bare feet to the orange tiles. Neighbors stop by to bid their greetings, some remarking how good it is to see them still together, that they never once believed Señora Castellanos and all her slander. For the most part they are left alone in the still air smelling of cocido radiating from an open cooking window mixing with the marijuana smoke of the university students. Between them is a bottle of wine and Nicky has been carving and peeling fruit from the market all morning. He tucks another sticky piece between Joe's lips before tasting the melocotón himself. Around the sweet mouthful, Joe mumbles, “I should get shot more often if you will dote on me like this.”
“You are terrible,” Nicky chides, pointing his knife at Joe. “I didn’t even get to break the neck of the man who shot you.”
Joe pushes the brandished blade away by the blunted edge. He has rather enjoyed Nicky’s need to be near him, to hear him, to be inside him. The sex has been blindingly spectacular and Joe feels up to another round right about now. He is about to say something terribly clever to lure his husband back into bed when Nicky glances at his phone. It’s vibrating mutely. Joe cannot see the screen. Nicky doesn’t mention if it’s from Nile or Andy or Copley. Instead he silently offers more of the imported guayaba. Joe declines it, musing back in his lounge chair.
“It's a shame artillery never existed when we first met. My first few deaths would have been quicker under your aim. Cleaner, too.”
“Stop it, Joe,” Nicky smirks, amused despite himself.
Joe’s never met a thread he didn’t feel deserved a good tug. He digs into the last of the fruit and goads his oft beleaguered husband. “Part of you must miss killing me. If only a little.” He holds his forefinger and thumb apart by the merest centimeter.
“Why would you say something so horrible?”
“You have yet to offer a contradiction.”
Nicky scowls at him lightly, but Joe catches a shift in his eyes. He appears ready to say something, a something that Joe has been waiting for. He sits upright, leaning closer as if it might urge him on, bringing it out the truth at last.
Instead Nicky sips at his wine, pointing across the courtyard. “Oh, look, it is Señora Pilar. I should go ask if her nephew is still single…”
* * *
Nicky’s hovering only lasts so long. Weeks and months pass and one afternoon he comes into Joe’s art room to tell him, “I was thinking I would go see Rome.”
Joe doesn’t let his unease show as he selects the red paint for the horizon he had been painting blue. His work in color had always been dreadful, anyhow. Without looking up from the ruinous crimson smears, he asks the same old questions. “How long will you be gone?”
Nicky drifts from the doorway. “Not long at all.”
There is a melancholy in the remnants of the mallow sky at the end of his paintbrush. The unavoidable result of two opposites forced together; a simultaneous change and a ceasement and one more wrecked painting. Joe rises from the mess of his work some time later, not bothering to wash his hands to keep from staining the white rinsed walls.
“Why don’t I come with you?” Joe asks, finding Nicky packing for his impromptu pilgrimage.
Nicky doesn’t take him seriously enough to look up. “You hate Rome.”
“So did you, once.”
“Wouldn’t you rather see Mahdia or Jerusalem?” Nicky asks, pleasant and jovial. “Remembering home as it was and for what it is now. It could be a beautiful thing, I think.”
Joe’s home is still Nicky. It is Nicolò and Nikoloas and Miklaus and Nikolai and Nicholas. It is the way he smells after bathing, skin cleaned and sweat-less. The way his cooking tastes of years and years of garlic and saffron and ground up adoration that kept Joe well fed, never weary. It is his hopelessly ugly sweaters that he folds incorrectly and the mismatched furniture he insists on. His terrible eye for art and for all of Joe’s truest shortcomings. The window he left open in their room on cool nights, inviting the moonlight into their bed.
Joe does not have the words to tell him there is nowhere he needs to go to remember home. He’s still searching when Nicky leaves an untroubled kiss to Joe’s knuckles when he raises to fetch something from their closets. It is all it takes for Joe to relent, his resolve melting from his bones. He could argue or bicker or protest. He could insert himself in Nicky’s plans until he gives in; but that is not who they are. Nearly a thousand years and never once has it been who they are.
Resigned, Joe allows his husband his evasions and his chastisements for the paint left on the walls. He wrings an oath out of Joe that the corridors will be washed over by the time he returns. “And my tablecloths?” Nicky adds, eyes glancing over the linen cabinet.
“Those I will be holding hostage.”
Hardly a day passes before Joe bids Nicky goodbye. Joe tries in vain to kiss Nicky one last time, but each kiss bleeds into the next. Nicky gasps something about the time, needing to make his flight. Joe is too single-minded for any of it to register. Fixed on the taste of Nicky, it is beginning to remind him too much of their first time, the fearful and guarded ways their lips met but still unrelenting. They had been lost, unchanging and clinging to each other while the rest of the world spun away.
Nicky pulls back, his cheeks red and breath in short supply. He grins wolfish with his hand on the door. “And what was that for?
“For safe travels…” Joe lays yet another kiss. “And a reminder that wherever it is you go, I am here, waiting for you.”
Nicky’s hand falls from the door knob and grin gives way to a frowned half formed word. Whatever the word may be, it never comes. Leaving Nicky speechless used to leave Joe feeling triumphant. Now it is another conversation they have yet to have piled on with the rest.
Joe has no intention of making his departure easier on him so he leaves Nicky at the door without offering to haul his luggage. He doesn’t make it halfway across the entryway before he has to stop at the softened sound, “Yusuf, wait,” barely audible above the thud of Nicky dropping his bag to the floor.
Nicky is everything and everywhere, his hands knitted at the nape of Joe’s neck, trailing kisses from his mouth to his beard and down his neck. His touch is blistering, relentless, and when Joe opens his mouth just so, the fierceness turns to something wonderful. The pace and pressure thrills him so he can barely keep upright. Under Nicky’s guidance they’re moving as one, backtracking from the door deeper into their home. Hands meet behind Joe’s back when he flails and misses reaching for the doorknob but Nicky’s twists it free. From there it is the familiar downward motion. Staggering into bed. Discarding any clothing that dare get between them. Skin baring to skin. If Joe can trust anything, it is the way this feels. The unchanged cartography of Nicolò’s skin, the planes of his torso, and the axis of pleasure igniting. That no time has passed from the first, the last, or the next meeting of their souls.
“Do you know how impossible you are?” Nicky breathes, frenzied words slurred against the shell of Joe’s ear. “Do you know how hard you make this?” Joe does not know what he means by that. He’s unsure if he even heard him right. All he knows is that it burns tight and perfect when he draws Nicky closer. That he loves this man with shred of his existence and every second he breathes. That he damn well intends to earn the low satisfaction of his exasperated husband rebooking his flight because he didn’t have the willpower to walk away from this.
* * *
The last of Nicky’s texts ding in his pocket; taking off now, talk to you soon. Joe types half a dozen responses. All embarrassing run on sentences full of pleas and thinly veiled questions. He never hits send.
The impulse to smash the irritating invention is strong. Vaguely, Joe remembers a time when he had dignity. A time when he said what he meant, when neither death, war, hatred, nor creed could cause his words to falter. When he did not flinch away from Nicky when he needed him most. But this is more than mere avoidance or aversion. It’s a deep-seated recoil in his soul, a fear he cannot shake. A fear that lay close to the tight hot pit in his chest that takes everything in him to hold fast against.
Neither work nor art soothe him. Apprehension turns to dread turns to a restless sleep on the couch. Even in dreams they stumble over the unspoken. From his clouded mind rises the unbidden image Nicky turning from the door to say something. An echo of words whispered as they lay entwined. The careful reluctance his love embodied that Joe had seen before, long ago in the dying light of the battle of Ashkelon. When Nicolò had thrown away his sword, laid down all their futile killing, and waited, wordless, for Yusuf to understand.
Their home is still and silent when Joe wakes, abrupt and breathless. He reaches for Nicky, out of habit, out of need. His fingers find only air. It’s the first long night of many, he tells himself, stepping into the kitchen for a drink. There he realizes two things. The first, the couch an untenable place to sleep, he can literally feel his spine shift back in alignment. Second, that a still and silent home does not mean empty.
He is not alone.
Half started into self defense he nearly kills the intruder. Aiming the closest projectile he can find, a carved paperweight shaped like an anvil that says something vulgar in Catlonian, he launches it with all his might before scrambling for a more adequate weapon. The shot is deflected right back at him. It nearly takes his head off and embeds itself in the wall behind him.
Joe flips the lights on.
“Madre di Dio— Andromache, what are you doing here? Why are you standing in the dark?”
“I wanted to talk,” says the prehistoric mortal slouching next to his dish rack. “You were sleeping.”
“So naturally you break in— and wait, have you been in my cupboards?”
“No,” Andy slinks over to the dinner table, pushing back her fringed hair. “Just the fridge. You’re out of basbousa.”
“Of course we are,” Joe groans. God help whatever stood between this woman and her love of sweet cakes. “Well, don’t bury the lede. You didn’t come all this way for our pastries. What’s so important it couldn’t wait until next check-in?”
She sits down at the barrel-shaped kitchen table. “I’m here because I can’t keep waiting for one of you to put a stop to this,” she gesticulates with her hand vaguely about their home, “with whatever this is.”
“I’m gonna need some specifics.”
“You know exactly what I mean.” She is not wrong; Joe does know. To live and fight and converse as long as they have, intent and meaning come to be known before it’s spoken. The weeks since the last they spoke shrink down to the merest of passing moments without missing a beat. She is here to finish their discussion from the cargo plane.
“Where is Nicky?” she asks, finally. “Where is he, right now?”
Joe bristles against her words. He knows where Nicky said he would be, but does not bother dragging Andy into the lie.
“I'm not my husband's keeper.”
“Fine. Then why the sudden unaccompanied jaunts around the world?”
“Because he wants to travel and he does not need me to let him.” Joe wants to retreat from the conversation but there is no plausible place to go. He’s already home. Andy has said nothing to merit him kicking her out. She’s only spoken the truth. But Joe has truths of his own. “You might remember it was you who had no problem traveling alone for months on end. Neither did Booker.”
Andy brings her hands down to the table, loud enough to startle him. “And look at all the good that did us! A year apart is all it took and Booker got lonely, desperate, and he—”
“No!” he surges heatedly, “Booker got drunk and stupid and selfish. Nicky is none of those things.”
“Exactly,” Andy points out, onto something she feels is more than obvious. “He’s selfless. Selfless to a fault.”
If Joe ever had to impugn the character of his husband, that would be the first thing he put on the list. But what that might mean now, and if it was the answer Andy had for the questions that plagued him, Joe could not see how.
Sighing, he feels his age and every passing moment since the first strike of Nicolò’s blade bore down on him. “I’m not interested in playing this game, Andy. I… I’m too tired. I’m tired of no one saying what they mean. So just out with it, alright? Say it and be done.”
Andy inhales. She looks exhausted, too. “We are creatures of habit, Joe. Old dogs without a lot of new tricks. Booker and Nile, they’re young. Young enough to break routine. That’s why we didn’t see either of them coming.” A fraction of a smile graces her face. “But not us, not you, me, or Nicky. That’s why he has to have a reason. Has to have something different, something new to explain it.”
“Like seeing a room full of evidence. Evidence that affirms everything Nicky’s always believed. That there's a point to all this.” Andy is never so deliberate and reserved as she is in the moments before a battle. In her most quieting moments, when Joe knows she thinks of Quỳnh and only Quỳnh, of what she lost and what she stands to lose. She wears that same face now, staunch and poised for a fight.
“Joe, I need to tell me with absolute certainty that Nicky isn’t pulling solo jobs.”
Joe reels back as if slapped in the face. “Nicky isn’t pulling solo jobs,” he repeats, immediate and toneless. He gives no indication of the pieces coming into place in his mind; the smell of gunpowder where there should be none, the train ticket from the wrong continent, every story that did not quite add up.
Andy is not convinced. “Knowing the work we do somehow matters, years down the line on some big cosmic scale, it fits everything Nicky’s been saying for centuries. Only now he has proof, and maybe… maybe he wants to exploit that proof. If he thought he could do as much good as possible—”
“He would what? Bend the rules? Run up his chance of being exposed? Of being captured?” A half hysterical bout of laughter churns in his gut. Solo jobs were dangerous. Solo jobs meant no extraction, no back-up, no solid contingency plans. The danger of it was incalculable. “No. No, Nicky wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do that to me. To any of us.”
“Joe, none of this is about accusations—”
He scoffs. “It sure as hell feels that way.”
Gritting her teeth, Andy rises. “It’s about trust. I don’t need to tell you why I’m being overly cautious.”
Joe nods tightly. Everything always comes back to it. Right back to Booker.
Stepping closer, Andy continues, her voice low and serious. “If you tell me now that Nicky isn’t taking it that far, that he isn’t doing something risky out of some… misplaced idealism, then I’ll believe you.”
“Just like that?”
“Of course. You know him best.”
At last, the burrowing gyre within him has a name. Joe knows now what he’s been so damn afraid of all this time. That what he loved most, that what he could not face eternity without, could be lost to him.
He doesn’t let it show.
“He would never be that stupid,” he tells Andy, thanking her for her concern, for her love, for her trust. They were a family. They should always be honest with one another. He wills himself to believe it, he needs to feel it if he expects Andy to buy it.
And she does. Nodding again, she half apologizes to raiding the fridge and turns to leave without another word. But Joe can’t help it. He has to ask.
“Andromache, if you were so concerned about this, why didn't you just ask Nicky?”
Andy looks at him with pity. “Because I thought you would’ve by now.”
* * *
Tracking Nicky is a pain. Not because he is skilled at evasion but because every step feels like a betrayal. Even as Joe finds a piece missing from their personal armory, the Sig Sauer P320 Nicky would never have taken to Rome, he feels he’s failed his husband. He should have done more to defend Nicky against all accusations. No matter that Andy is closer to the truth than she knew, the impulse to protect his husband is close to his heart. Heavy is the need to never hold in him doubt, to stow away the accumulation of fears.
Her conclusion makes sense. For all the work they did, there were three times as many jobs they turned down. Their work required secrecy, delicacy, and above all else, no repeats. Sometimes it did not matter how worthy a cause was, if the operation wasn’t safe enough to conduct, if the variables could not be contained, they simply gave it a pass.
Joe’s hands are shaking at the recollection of Nicky standing in that room. Smiling gently at the reams of photos and registrars and personnel paperwork and atlases and passports. “Cosa vedi, Nicolò?” he asked and his heart turned to him, “opere buone… redenzione.”
Not a year after he had stood beside Nicky’s creased face, frowning over intel of an Indonesian job. They passed on it. Decided less than unanimously to let it go simply because it was too close to Surabaya, a city where they had made a lot of noise less than a decade ago.
He should have known Nicky couldn’t just walk away.
Joe nearly calls him. With shaking hands, twice he dials the disposable mobile number Nicky left him but cuts the connection too soon. He is afraid no one will answer. Irrationally afraid the wrong person will answer. Hearing his voice alone will not be enough. Joe has to find him. Has to wring his neck, to keep him safe, beg at his feet and let his forgiving heart wash over him.
With some omissions and outright obfuscation, Joe has Copley pinpoint Nicky’s location via satellite data. It’s a mistake to involve the American, there’s no way Andy won’t hear about it. But he gets what he needs and he is on a plane the next hour.
In the cramped and suffocating window seat he spins his wedding ring around his finger. Forcibly still, his mind drifts to the worst conceivable outcomes. Iron cabinets and steel cages, sealed airless rooms and ice cold examination tables. Nicky could be lost, captured, far from Joe’s reach. And for what? His pride and his too bruised trust that would not let him ask his husband a simple question.
Joe knows the plane will land before sunset, but he keeps his eyes on the horizon waiting for the moon to rise despite himself.
After disembarking he navigates the dismally rude masses of Charles de Gaulle without letting himself consider what it means. Elbowing past the efficiently disorganized chaos, his thoughts circling around the most fearful ends before ever settling on the obvious; Nicky is in Paris.
It can only mean one thing.
* * *
At first look, Joe thinks there must be a mistake. The coordinates provided by what Copley claimed was a reliable but, soon-to-be decommissioned satellite leads to one of the sketchier parts of the tenth arrondissement. The pinpointed address is nothing but a run-down apartment complex; mid-century, only a few stories high, with poor sight-lines and too many entrances. None of the makings of a safe house. Even worse positioning for an op. A careless neighbor lets Joe in the front door and he begins his trek up the stairwell with a hand on the gun in his belt. He paid a local contact an extortionate price for the piece and its untraceable rounds. Time being of the essence, he didn’t break Édouard’s fingers for being a greedy bastard. He only needed to find Nicky.
Not knowing what he is walking into, or what state he might find his husband in, keeps Joe’s nerves a little too close to the edge. Nine hundred years and he’s never felt fear such as this. It leaves a pressure building behind his jaw. A tightening itch in his trigger finger. His ears strain against the residential quiet. He hears families through cracking plaster. Buzzing television sets. Footsteps. The low pitched decibels of a Parisian siren as it crept away in the unseen distance. At the foot of another staircase, Joe hears it. Two voices wading out from the gap of an unsecured door. An argument.
“ — leave it be… stop worrying about it — ” Nicky. That is Nicky. Heart skipping, Joe takes his hand off his gun, Joe gives the door a slight nudge. It pushes open, its squeaking hinge inaudible over the second unmistakable voice.
“ — but eventually he will get suspicious — ”
There is a coat that belongs to Nicky slung over the unvarnished table in the middle of the room. Alongside it is a military laptop, cumbersome and heavy, its screen blank. Brown paper bags in a line at the foot of a dripping sink. There is the smell of mildew, cigarettes and alcohol from the empty bottles leaned to scratched and dirty baseboards. The windowpane is full of the dimming sunset, the only source of light but all is plain to see. There Nicky stands across from Booker. His husband and the man who betrayed them. The man they swore to abjure for a century.
“I have told you already,” says Nicky with a wave of his hand. He sounds bored. They must have had this conversation many times before. “It will be fine.”
“How can you be sure?” Booker grumbles. “Unless you’re banking on the fact Joe can’t stay mad at you.”
Nicky scoffs. “He certainly can't banish me for a hundred years.”
Booker chuckles low and deep, and Joe cannot blame him. It is a funny joke. So funny he himself is also laughing from the doorway so loud it hurts his throat.
Both the other men turn, weapons drawn before recognition hits them. Joe is gasping, eyes wet with tears, doubled over. It hurts. Everything hurts. The hilarity of it all most especially, viscous and unrelenting, twisting his insides. He barks louder at the first real look he gets of Booker’s face. It’s been such a long time and he’s a ragged mess, unshaven, uncombed, and painfully mortified. He lowers his gun, darting a look from Joe, to Nicky, and back to Joe. Nicky’s own face is just as priceless. The last he looked at Joe that dumbfounded, they were both regrowing entrails for the first time.
Joe is still laughing as he backs away from the door and down the hall. A few elderly women unlatch their doors to hiss at him for the racket. Joe tries to remember enough French to apologize but he can’t help it. He can’t see straight. Can’t think. His lungs ache and the limp beating mass between them feels ready to burst. At street level, the laughter dies when fresh air hits him and he realizes the true depth of his foolishness. All this time. It had all been for Booker.
It’s sickening and it’s miserable, how deep the betrayals go, one after another, reopening the wound his immortality could never close. Joe stares down both ends of the street, unaware of where he’s even going and if either path could ever take him far enough. Numbly, he reaches into his coat pocket to retrieve a set of keys. He’d been too stupid to realize he was standing right in front of his rental car.
His feet pause on the pavement under Nicky’s command instead of his own. Its second nature, a lifelong learned instinct bent into his muscles. Joe is supremely aware of Nicky’s body behind him. Running with a clumsy gait, bouncing off the walls as he turns corners to catch up with him. Though it doesn’t matter how close Nicky comes to him. The distance between them is too vast.
Joe doesn’t need to hear an apology to know Nicky is sorry. The guilt is etched into that beautiful face of his. His frown, his furrowed brow, the corner of his eyes. Joe wants to give into it. He wants to let it be over, to hear a lie good enough to erase it all.
If only his love were a better liar.
“Yusuf,” he begs, daring to use Joe’s true name against him as if hearing it might lend to his innate damned credulity. “This is not what you think—”
“It’s been many lifetimes since you’ve so thoroughly taken me for a fool.” Joe feels flushed, warmer. Hot liquid rage filling him, replacing what shock had numbed. “Andromache, she—” Joe chortles bitterly to himself, “she had me convinced you were on some hopelessly noble venture, that you needed to be saved.”
“My heart, listen to me—”
“And I came running, thinking that you needed me.”
“What are you talking about? Of course I need you!”
“Do you, Nicolò?” Joe smooths his hands over Nicky’s shoulders, up his neck, the line of his cheekbones. There’s a quake to his digits. His fingers press too tightly. “Forgive me, but I am finding it so very hard to believe you.”
“Please, you don’t understand, Booker was just—”
“What did I misunderstand in London?” Joe bellows, voice rising. Nicky starts back a half step, his hurt so deep and clear with his eyes. “What did I misunderstand when we agreed on the price he had to pay? When did we stop being men of our word?”
At that Nicky clamps his mouth shut. He looks to the concrete, to the sky, anywhere but at Joe. It’s a vile, hateful thought churning in his head; how he wishes he found Nicky exactly like Andromache predicted. That all of the lies had been for some self righteous op. That he found Nicky pinned down in a trench, in an alley, or in enemy hands. That would have given Joe something to fight, something to kill. Something other than the man he loved to turn this outrage upon.
“I never asked,” Joe admits, utterly furious with himself but it’s the truth. He has to own it. “I was always certain I wouldn’t like the answer.”
Nicky inhales, ready to say his piece but Joe can’t hear it. He silences Nicky with a dismissive hand and a quick kiss to his forehead. For a brief moment Nicky looks up at him, hopeful.
Joe wants to kill that hope stone-dead.
“I never asked but I still gave you a thousand chances and a thousand ways to be honest with me.” Unlocking the car down, Joe climbs inside. Rooted to the spot, Nicky doesn’t dive after him, doesn’t wrench him out of the car the way the wild look in his eye so clearly indicates he wants to. All he can manage is choking out Joe’s name and half sob.
“Whatever your reasons, Nicolò, keep them.” Joe turns the engine, the callous churning disharmony feeling a vital extension of his fury. “You can explain yourself in a hundred years.”
* * *
Driving away takes every ounce of willpower in him. Not looking back in the rear view nearly kills him. But he manages, plumbing a depth of cruelty he did not know he possessed. His hands are white on the steering wheel, locked in place. The fatigue hits him at the first sight of the tarmac, radiating from his temples to a full body ache. Immortality kept him in one piece, but that didn’t mean the pieces still didn’t want to break.
He’s not sure which is worse; Nicky’s lying to him, or breaking their agreement to banish Booker. Doing this all for the sake of someone who had thrown them to the enemy. For the man Joe is certain he despises now more than anyone or anything he could remember.
Joe punches the dashboard. His knuckles split open and red runs fresh.
Ahead of him is the inevitable inquisition of the french flight police. They would question why he had come to Paris and why he was leaving so soon, suspicion and bigotry in full display. Joe would say the wrong thing, his agitation winning him no favors. Because he didn't have real answers. He’s not even sure why he is here. Every fear he hoped to put to rest has only fortified.
The man he loved did not trust him. He did not trust the man he loved. He lived so many lifetimes, years upon years adding to an unthinkable total, but this is the first impossibility he cannot put from his mind. There is no making peace with this.
The pain in his fist ebbs back at last as the skin is made anew, unmarred as ever. The ghost of a kiss felt long ago lingers where the wound lay before. Nicky’s cherishing mouth to each knuckle, a whisper against his wrist. No, a prayer. So many prayers he didn’t know he remembered; “I cannot face eternity without you… please, come back to me…”
A wound older than his body throbs. In his immortal soul, the essence of him that was built to love Nicolò di Genova pangs again and again.
In the distance, a plane taxis down its runway. Joe doesn’t see it lift off. He’s already turned the car around.
* * *
Cold-cocking Booker on sight feels good.
He opens the door when Joe knocks without a moment’s guard and is sent stumbling back by the wild throw. If Joe were less angry he might notice from the splitting pain that broke his own hand by the force of it. However, less angry is not an option.
“Ciao, Sébastien,” Joe snarls, striding in. “Love what you've done with the place.”
Booker, still reeling back, spits blood in his sink. There is a clink of something hard landing in the basin. He hopes it's a tooth. They're a bitch to grow back. Booker stares hard at Joe, cradling his sealing lip. He can’t be sure what the other man sees, but it makes his eyes flinty and desperate.
“Whatever you think is happening here, you’re wrong.”
“Don’t say shit like that to me, Booker,” he glares. “The implication alone will get you punched again.”
Booker looks wholeheartedly dismayed. “That is not what I meant!”
The genuine disgust in his voice is a small dose of comfort. Because Joe has battled down a number of crazy theories on the drive back. The longer Joe sat with the truth, the less any of it added up. The story that took shape in his mind when he first found Nicky not ten feet from where he stands now had felt so clear and damning then. But now, it only added to the fog. Now all he had was questions.
Booker seems resolved to answer some of them before they are asked. “Nicky ran back up here after you left him on the street. He took the keys to my bike to chase after you. Don’t think I’ll be getting it back.”
Joe wasn’t aware of the fact that he was pacing until Booker’s words give him pause. “So Nicky isn’t here.”
“Of course not,” Booker says, sounding oddly annoyed. “He never wanted to be here in the first place.”
Joe gapes at him. It all makes less and less sense. “Then why, Book? Why was he here at all? Why would he do this?”
Booker looks at him incredulously. Like he can’t believe he has to explain something so stupid. “Why does Nicky do anything?”
This time when Joe lunges, Booker swings back. He takes the shot from Joe because he’s solid enough to stay standing, then feints to the side and drags up his fist. The blow rattles Joe to his core by god, it’s the first part of this that feels unequivocally right.
“I’m not saying that to piss you off!” Booker spits.
“Oh?” he goads back, “you sure about that?” If Joe throws another cheap shot, it’s only because Booker shoving Joe off of him feels like a step in the right direction. Joe stalks away, catching his breath. He is restless trying to restrain the fight pulling at his bones. He came back here for more than the gratification of throwing his fists. So far he has Booker talking, and that is better than he could have hoped. But Joe knows why he’s here. The words for it all finally fit inside his head.
“You know, my first thought, when I found him, was ‘of course he’s with Booker’. How I should have seen that one coming, right from the start. It’s just trading one betrayal for another; his and yours.” Joe strides back around to the table, eyeing Booker sharply. “But you wanna know a secret, Book?”
“What?” he asks, weary, sitting down in a rickety chair beside the table.
“That you can make anything, and I mean anything, make sense if you’re already pissed off enough. It’s what rage does to the mind. It always makes everything feel like clarity. Makes you feel like you have all the pieces you need to justify what you already believe.”
Joe turns his head from side to side. He lets out a shaking breath.
“But Nicky coming here to see you… it doesn’t make sense. It’s wrong. It doesn’t fit.”
Saying nothing, Booker leans back in his chair. Joe keeps talking. It feels like the first time he’s spoken this much in years. “You and Nicky, sure, you get along. Two hundred years of brotherhood doesn’t just go up in smoke, your best efforts notwithstanding. But you’re both closer to Andy than you ever were to each other. And Nicky, he wanted to halve your sentence. Just fifty years. But he settled on a hundred because he knew that’s what I wanted, what I needed.”
Booker sighs, not looking at all surprised.
“Nicky wouldn’t come see you behind my back. My Nicolò does not resign himself to pity when there is penance to be paid.” Scrubbing at his face, Joe’s frustration mounts. “No, he would’ve left you here to think about what you did, have your drunken little epiphanies and all that damn Catholic guilt.”
The look on Booker’s features is straight out of the past. Back when he was still explaining electronics and short waves to Joe, neither agreeing or disagreeing with his assessments, prodding his questions along, letting him dig deeper in his understanding until he hit pay dirt.
“You’re not wrong,” is all he says.
Joe swallows hard. “I’m sure as shit wrong about something because he was still here when he swore he was anywhere else. He lied to me, all to come see you! Why?”
Booker grimaces. “You know why.”
“I swear on all that is holy…” Joe could overturn the table. He could tear this room down to his hinges. He’s so sick of the stranglehold of his anger but he wields it so close to the surface and he’s in Booker’s face once more. “You’re done jerking me around, you fucking bastard! You owe me that much! You owe me an answer! You owe me because I was the one you dragged to the World Cup every year! Because I was the one who paid off your gambling debts when you got in deep! I learned Occitan so you could talk to someone in your mother tongue! I helped you break into Les Invalides so you could piss on Napoleon’s grave! I’m the one who brings flowers to your family crypt because you still can’t face their headstones two hundred years later!”
Booker’s steely resolve breaks at last. His eyes well up and finally he looks ashamed. It doesn’t make Joe feel any better.
“I was your friend,” he seethes, half a howl caught in his windpipe. “I was your best fucking friend.”
“All true,” Booker says. His voice is brittle glass. “You know it. I know it… and Nicky knows it.” Booker wipes at his eyes. He won’t look at Joe, now collapsed in the opposite chair. “I was being serious before when I asked you… a simple question with a simple answer. Why does Nicky do anything?”
Joe stares at his hands more than he contemplates the answer. Interrogates the untorn skin, his wedding ring. The way he circles back to the wrong answers again and again because denial hurt less than the truth.
“Because he loves me.”
Joe knows he’s right even before Booker nods with the soft sorrow in his eyes.
“He… he thinks that you will not admit that you miss me. He only wanted to keep me afloat until, I don’t know, we have some kind of reconciliation.”
“I don’t fucking miss you,” Joe says tiredly. There’s no heat in it.
“Of course not,” Booker agrees.
“You can drown in your pathetic misery, for all I care.”
“I’d be fine with you not showing up at the pier ninety years from now.”
“Can’t blame you.”
Joe hates his impassive face. Hates his subdued willingness to sit there and take it, to lay down and die. This new inclination is one he never knew the man possessed. The brother Joe remembered cut men down for standing in his way. He blew away enemy holds and ramparts, climbed down into ditches to end the work with his bare hands if need be down. This man before him is just a placeholder, sore down to the bones, an empty shell wearing a face Joe still loved.
“We’re finished here.”
Booker nods and Joe rises from the table. He staggers to his feet and out the door, feeling like he might walk right out of his body. It’s all too heavy to carry with him. Joe has every right to turn away, family or no. But walking away from Nicky had taken all his spite and heartache, the worst parts of himself. It left him hollow, aching in a place where whatever power that regenerates them had missed something. Deep between his tissues, a rupture bled and bled and threatened to drown him.
Joe doesn’t make it until the end of the hall.
“Stop fucking drinking, Book!” He bursts back through the door. “Open a goddamn window in here! And if you don’t put some real food in that fridge, so my husband does not have to fly across the continent to do it for you, so fucking help me — !”
Booker watches Joe marching back in, barking orders. He hangs his head, but there’s the faintest edge of a smile.
* * *
Yelling at Booker feels good until it doesn’t. Until they both have to actually say something to each other. The first time since London that they’ve been alone in a room together with a mostly minimal risk of homicide and Joe realizes he’s spent so much time forcing himself not to think about Booker, that he’s never so much as dreamt up what he might say to him now that he has the chance.
Booker breaks the silence. “I didn’t ask him to come.” He is solemn when he says it like he needs Joe to believe him.
And Joe does. He hates how painless it is, believing him still. But he does.
Not that he is close to letting it go. Choosing to make a show of scouring the cabinets and piling the last of Booker’s alcohol on the table, he debates pouring it down the nearest drain. However for all the agony he’s been through in the past twenty-four hours no one could blame him for getting rid of it the old fashioned way. He selects a particularly fine vintage of bourbon or himself and pours a glass of store-bought orange juice for Booker. Booker has the nerve to scowl at it, but does not complain.
“He just showed up one day and what? Told you I was a mess?” They would have to have a word about the martial secrets that were never to be divulged to outside parties.
“More like he kicked in my door and dragged me to Mass,” Booker admits and Joe scoffs. Now that did sound like Nicky. “After a while, he came back with a few small-time operations. Local drug trade, police corruption, the works. It took me a while to understand what he was doing, trying to keep me busy.”
“And Brussels?” Joe asks. Booker quirks his brow, and he explains, “I found a ticket Nicky left in his luggage.”
Booker swears in sheer disbelief. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“We all can’t be such excellent liars, Book,” Joe sulks, before Booker can say something about covert preparedness or Nicky’s post-op carelessness.
“No, I suppose you can’t.” Booker looks down at his hands, then out the window. “Nicky never said much about you. I inferred most of it just by knowing how much it would take to pry him away from you. But I always expected his visits to stop sooner. When did you figure it out?”
Joe squints at his drink. It is the good stuff. Booker never skimped on his whiskeys. “I didn’t figure it out. Not really.” Joe scratches his curls, his mind feels thick and slippery. “I came here because Andy thought… well, it doesn’t matter. I just knew Nicky wasn’t telling the truth after the first time.”
Booker stares, eyes bulging like a fish. “Joe, that was ages ago. Why didn’t you say something?”
“Really, you’re asking me that?” Joe crosses his arms, feeling ridiculous. “You’re asking me how I let myself stew over something being obviously wrong and told no one?
“Alright, I get it.”
“You don’t get shit,” Joe hisses. It takes another three swallows of whiskey before he admits the words weighing heaviest on him “I have wasted so much time being pissed off at you.”
Next to him, Booker remorsefully drinks his juice. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes, you’re always sorry Sébastien,” Joe grates, “you’re just never about the right thing.”
It’s clear Booker desperately wishes there were vodka in his glass. He downs it as if it were liquid courage anyway. “If I had told you what I wanted to do, what would you have said?”
“What would I have said?” It’s a hard question. Joe can only imagine the disbelief, the frustration, the anguish that would have raged through him once he understood that Booker was serious. That he was that far gone, looking for a way out.. “What would I have to say to my brother, a man I’ve loved for two hundred years, telling me what he wanted most was to die?”
“Yes,” he darkens. “Exactly that. How would you have taken it?”
“Badly; that I won’t deny.” Joe spins the fine amber whiskey around in his glass. “If you had told me in a safe-house, while watching a match, or waiting for a train, if you had said it then, it still would have been the worst thing I had ever heard.” Joe knocks back his drink. “The very idea is abhorrent to me. That you were in that much pain…” And Booker looks like he might apologize again. Joe does not let him. “Don’t tell me you’re sorry,” Joe snaps. “Any way you could have told me, it would have been terrible. But no matter how bad, you still should have said it. The same way you should have told Andy you were still dreaming about Quỳnh. And do not tell me you did it to help Andy. We’re your family! If you were suffering, we deserved to know.”
Booker looks away shame-faced, but Joe is not done. He is not sure he will ever be done. “And most of all, I deserved to learn it somewhere other than strapped to a table, with all of our lives in jeopardy.”
Booker doesn’t so much as breathe an argument. He does look woefully sad as Joe pours himself another drink.
“You know, there are moments on the job, or with Nile, when she will ask a question — she’s too smart not to ask a million questions — and I'll have half an answer for her. Then I'll turn to you so you can jog my memory about the rest… and I’ll be reminded that you're not there.” Joe clenches his teeth. “And you’re not there because if you were, I’d strangle you.”
Denial is so damn easy, he realizes. It could dig its heels in so deep if he let it. And he had let it, only to find himself at the bottom of his worst impulses, staring up the steep climb back to the truth.
“That’s all it takes and just like that, I’m angry all over again. Angry all of the time, and nothing fixes it.” Not time, not distance, not travel. Not Nile’s wide-eyed optimism. Not Andy’s unwavering strength. Not even Nicky, in all of his kindness and faith, who must have worn himself to the bone beating his fists up against this wall Joe has barricaded his heart behind. “Even when I think I’ve forgotten it, I still carry it everywhere I go. I carry you, Sébastien, and I can’t put you down. Not the way you could with us.”
If there were any courage left in the man, it is spent looking Joe in the eye, into the still raw wreckage of his treachery.
Joe stares right back, a fist over his heart. “I didn’t even know I had it in me to be this angry… to be this hateful all of the fucking time.”
“You’re not hateful,” Booker pleads, sincere and thoroughly broken. “You’re the least hateful person I’ve ever known.”
Joe isn’t sure how that could be true. Booker knows Nicky, for starters. And he clearly can’t fathom what a monster Joe becomes living without the things he loves.
Except, Joe thinks as he’s holding the bottle by the neck, polishing off the last of the liquor to drown the pain in his belly. Except… that Booker does know, in his own way. He’s always known.
“Your boys were good men, Sébastien,” Joe tells him. Booker jolts back as if burned by the words. His face cracks open, looking worse than when Joe punched him. Because that was the dark rotting root of it; the father he once and no longer was. “Perhaps you forget that. That no matter how it ended, no matter what they became in the end, they were good men.”
“It wasn’t…” Booker trails off desperately. “It wasn’t only about them.”
Joe reminds himself to breathe past the knot in his throat. “Take it from me; at some point we have to stop deceiving ourselves. Don’t lie to yourself about this.”
Booker heaves in a breath, his face gaunt and pained. “I just… I woke up one morning and it felt… I tried to see them in my mind but the memory was clouded over.”
The heat on Joe’s own cheek is all that tells him he too is crying. Time had taken many things from him, from Nicky and Andy, but none of those things were children. The three precocious boys who grew to be strapping young men with their father’s striking features, all their late mother’s good sense. Henri, who married an unwed girl and raised her fatherless child. Eugène, so quiet and curious whenever he asked about lands beyond France. Jean Pierre, who loved horses and pilfered coins and laughed loud as a drunkard even when stone-sober.
Booker looks as if he might choke on his anguish. “What kind of a man forgets his own sons’ faces?”
Joe stands as if controlled by some other power. He moves, rummages around the somehow both sparsely furnished and terribly cluttered surroundings until he finds what he's looking for. A ball point pen. A suitable napkin. He traces and traces, furious and precise, sketching three portraits in a row. Deep-set eyes and crowns of wild hair. The picture of their youth, the last Joe remembers of them before he, Nicky, and Andy agreed to keep their distance. He slides the napkin over. “My memory is no more perfect than yours. But is it how you remember them?”
Nodding, he curls inward at his shoulders. He’s never looked so small. “I could not be sure.”
“That's not the same as forgetting.”
Booker bends double, his head in his hands. “But that I even thought I might... I- I should have listened to you. When you told me to leave them be. I should have let go.”
“Andromache told you the same.” There was nor reason he would have listened to Joe over anyone else then. They had still been strangers for the most part. Three strange foreigners arriving at his door, telling a shell-shocked widower how the thing that healed his wounds would not stop. He would never grow and they could not tell him why.
“No… Andy, she ordered it, kindly as she could, but you tried your best to warn me.”
“If I did, it was wrong of me. You deserved your time with them.” Reaching out, Joe clasps a gentle hand on his shoulder. “But that time is done, and as sorry as I am that it wasn’t enough, I need you to hear me when I say this, Sébastien; you’re gonna kill yourself over my dead body.”
Booker, a man who apparently does not contain enough self preservation to move the dial away from zero, has enough guile left for one last smart remark. “That doesn’t mean much to the likes of us.”
“It doesn’t. But I still fucking mean it.”
And maybe it’s the pair of them calling truce, but Joe finally pours a little liquor into Booker’s cup.
They’re well and truly drunk by morning. History folds over like an accordion and they are as they always have been; bickering, posturing, comparing the stats of a match and why Deschamps should be fired. Joe realizes he is remiss in his failure to regale Booker with the exploits of mortal Andy. Her first doctor visit and newfound hatred of needles was the stuff of legend. Booker laughs until he cries, and Joe may or may not tell him in dead languages that he thinks he can forgive him. “You know I don’t understand archaic anything,” he accuses in outdated French. From there he endures a barrage of teasing Ligurian insults that he can more or less parse together.
“And for full disclosure,” Booker says later watching football reruns. “Nicky wasn’t the only one to contact me.” He looks grim when Joe looks over, preparing for an outburst. “I don’t know how Nile keeps figuring out my new numbers, but—”
Joe slaps his hand to the coffee-table. “How does no one in this family understand what exile is?” he moans in disbelief. “A hundred years means a hundred years!”
“They thought they were helping,” he adds firmly. “Nicky, most of all.”
Joe pinches the bridge of his nose. He isn't drunk enough to think about all the apologies he owes. “Yes, I know,” he sighs, regret bleeding into his voice. “Think I’ve known it the whole time and just… just didn’t want to. It was easier that way. And all this time I thought I was waiting for him to stop, to tell me the truth but… of course, he was the one waiting for me.”
Booker raises a glass. “Let it never be said that Nicolò di Genova is not a patient man.” Joe nods but doesn’t let Booker enjoy his sappy satisfaction.
“I hope all his little visits were spent tormenting the fuck out of you.”
“They were,” Booker assures, deeply chagrined. “So much yelling.”
Joe gives him a quizzical look. “Nicky doesn’t yell.”
Booker laughs from somewhere deep and warm, from a familiar place in his heart that Joe has missed so dearly. His hand catches Joe by the shoulder. “He does when it’s about you.”
* * *
Joe takes his time making his way back to Barcelona. Once in the city, he stops to walk along La Rambla, enjoying the shade and flipping off the Columbus monument at the port. From there, it’s a straight shot home. He’s dallied long enough. If he hasn’t found exactly the right words to beg Nicky’s forgiveness yet, he will have to make do in the moment.
Perhaps another sonnet?
Coming home, the old birds see him coming from between the pillars, huddling close to gossip. “For shame, Josefo!” Señora Pilar shouts at him. She looks half ready to charge at him with her broom, the way she would a stray cat. Joe ignores her, vaguely annoyed Nicky never receives such ire from their snooping neighbors. Once he convinces Nicky to forgive him, they’re going to have a long talk about moving up the timetable on the Barcelona safe house. The sooner they burn this address, the better.
Joe unlocks the door, ruminating on whether or not they’d find politer neighbors in Cologne, when he sees something has gone terribly wrong.
The closet is strewn open and drawers popped loose from their tracks. Furniture is upturned, the bookshelves are smashed to splinters and those ancient, abhorrent tablecloths are shredded into a heap. There’s papers everywhere, screens open on laptops, both his and Nicky’s, plugged in and left running on the floor. The dining table is full of all their passports and on-hand cash, maps and flight trajectories, plus the remnants of a shattered cell phone in the middle of it all right next to Nicky’s head where it lay on face down.
“What the hell happened here?”
Nicky, ever a light sleeper, scrambles out of his chair, reaching for a weapon he does not have on him. He stares through Joe. Looking more at a mirage than his own husband, but his body poised to give chase even still.
Joe feels he’s missed a beat. “I live here.”
“Yes,” Nicky nods numbly. “Yes, you do.”
Joe steps forward into the disaster zone and begins to pick up the oddities of it. Nothing of his is broken. In fact, it’s all been deliberately missed. It’s Nicky’s art that’s pulled from the walls while Joe’s books are stacked neatly beneath the windowsill, otherwise untouched. Nicky takes advantage of Joe’s distraction to edge around him, quick and careful. He shuts the front door and latches both the chain and the deadbolt. Not to keep something out, but to keep them in. A tiredness seems to overtake him. He doesn’t turn from the wooden door as he speaks.
“I followed every plane out of Paris, then every route you could have taken from there. But you didn’t get on any plane at all, did you?” Joe knows this tone. Nicky is never this blatantly conversational unless it’s a smokescreen. It would sound right at home in the midst of an operation or from behind a sniper scope. It’s precise and practiced, equally deflective and dissociative, cold down to the marrow.
“No, I didn’t.”
Nicky looks over his shoulder, working Joe over with a glowering stare. “Was that a misdirection?”
“A misd— Nicky, I wasn’t trying to shake you. I didn’t even know you were tailing me.”
“You ran away from me in anger, of course I was going to chase after you.” There’s an indignant waver to his movements. Almost a growl. How dare Joe think anything else?
“You really want to act like the injured party here?” Joe remembers coming here fully prepared to fall to his knees, heart in hand. But nine hundred years together did not mean his love could not be infuriating. He also remembers endless nights waiting for his heart to come back to him. Joe had been absent a faction of the same time in comparison.
“No!” Nicky rankles, a flicker of hesitation in his stony eyes. He’s fighting down an impulse, Joe can tell. He’s trying not to make the wrong move. The quiet battle within him pitches the other way. “But also, yes, I do. You told me — days ago! — in a rage that I would not see you for a hundred years, and then you vanished!”
Shit. Joe opens his mouth but he can’t manage more than stammer. He had said that, hadn’t he?
“I was waiting here for you, Yusuf. It was all I could do because I couldn’t find you, couldn’t call you, couldn’t track you.” Nicky turns from him with a slow, disbelieving shake. “I couldn’t tell you how sorry I am. You just left.”
“Yeah, I shouldn’t have done that,” Joe admits, his mind treading water. “I should have let you explain, but you can’t have possibly thought—”
Looking at the state of their home, he clearly had. There was haste, carelessness, and grief in the chaos surrounding them. There was little indication that Nicky had done anything but sit at this table for days, barely eating, chasing dead ends, trying to fathom some sense out of an impossibility.
“You thought that I went to ground. That I was hiding from you. That I was going to leave you? For a hundred years,” Joe emphasizes, just to get the absurdity across.
Nicky does not return his humor, saying nothing until Joe cannot bare it any longer.
“Babe, I couldn’t go a hundred days without you.”
Nicky lets out a wince, but not of relief. “Do not tell me you didn’t mean it. I know you too well.” The devastation in his voice is too much. Joe reaches to touch him but Nicky sidesteps his fingers, busying himself with stacking their false papers. “Tell me, where did you go?”
Begrudgingly accepting the distance Nicky insists on, Joe answers him. “I doubled back. Didn't leave Paris.”
“So you went back to see Booker?”
“Spent a lot of time shouting. And some drinking after my voice got hoarse.” The vile look Nicky gives him makes Joe think that maybe he needn’t be quite so honest. An admission of getting shitfaced while his husband was miles away in a blind panic is far from comforting. Nicky returns to shoving things in drawers where they do not belong, avoiding eye contact with Joe.
“Nicolò, look at me, please.” He does not stop at first, but suddenly stillness overtakes him, his hands freezing mid motion. It’s only an inch he concedes, lifting his chin to return Joe’s gaze and let himself be seen. “I’m sorry for what I said. It was cruel of me.”
This time Joe advances towards Nicky, slow and careful. He’s been less delicate walking over minefields. There was less at stake over hardwired explosives. Here, now, he thinks, he could detonate something more precious than his body. He could blow up the better part of a millennia.
“But you know nothing could ever stop me from coming home to you. After all this time, you have to know that.”
Nicky shivers, his eyes closed. “Even if I didn’t deserve—”
Joe doesn’t let him finish the thought, framing his face with his touch. “The time will come for your apology, but Nicky, this is mine; I should have come back sooner, I should have heard you sooner, and I am sorry. I just took a little extra time to get the truth from Booker… Needed him to convince me the two of you weren’t having some affair—”
“What?” Nicky’s mouth falls open and he stumbles back. “Cristo, Yusuf! That is not funny!”
Joe’s face has never been straighter. “Who’s laughing?”
“No, you—” Nicky shudders at a complete loss for words. “You didn’t really believe that.”
Joe shrugs. It’s pure theater and a testament to Nicky’s anxieties that he cannot tell. Instead he eyes him levelly, then swears grotesquely in Italian.
“Suspicion fucks with the mind. And you’ve never lied to me in nine hundred years,” Joe points out. “Kind of wish you had at some point. Maybe with a little practice, you’d have been better at it. But suddenly I couldn’t get a straight answer out of you.”
“But still… Booker?” Nicky reiterates, with such revulsion that Joe is more or less offended on the Frenchman’s behalf.
“Hey, you thought I was breaking up with you for a century,” Joe reminds him. “Like I’d just walk away and leave you to your Parisian lovenest —”
“Stop it,” Nicky begs, appalled. The icy edge to his features is fading, giving way to indignation. Joe feeds the fire, balming his soul with the strange catharsis that is fucking with his husband.
“At least not before I challenged him to a duel for your heart and your honor.”
“Yes, he’s got those sad, pretty eyes going for him, but habibi, he won’t love you better than me.”
Eyes wet and lips pressed together to control either a tide of laughter or a moan of despair, Nicky lets himself be rocked into Joe’s arms. Once he has Nicky back where he belongs, Joe can feel the tight fear woven in his body. A scared, frantic part of him that holds on too tightly, still fearful of relinquishing what he loves.
“Why must you be this way?” he sighs, not for the last time.
And Joe finally has an answer; he’s been incorrigible for all these years and he refuses to be corrected. Not if it meant he would lose this tether to Nicky in their brightest and darkest moments. The unyielding and tireless fight, the endless finding of new ways home even if he had to walk the circumference of the earth.
“He can have you over my dead body,” Joe whispers into his hair, the same old impossible threat and absolute promise. “And even then I’d be coming back for you.”
It is a struggle to get Nicky to eat, but he does it to placate Joe. While mulling around the kitchen they both receive vaguely threatening texts from Andromache, full of typos, while Joe cooks. She has clearly heard from Copley about the satellite maneuvering required to track Nicky down. Both of them will have to answer for it. But not yet, Joe decides, watching Nicky polish off the last of his toast and egg scramble.
“How long have you been awake?” Joe asks.
“How long have you been gone?” Nicky counters.
“Then you need to sleep. Real sleep,” he adds when Nicky looks down at their mess of a dining room table. Joe steers him to the bedroom, ignoring Nicky’s protests as the door swings open. Before them the tidal wave of destruction clearly landed in all corners of their home. The sheets are torn off the bed and the mattress is bare.
Joe raises an eyebrow at his husband.
“It was impossible to sleep in it without you,” is his only excuse, face red with embarrassment.
“So you strip my good sheets? Nicolò… that’s a bit much, don’t you think?” he teases.
Nicky bites down on whatever retort tries to fly from his mouth. “I also got rid of the tablecloths. The bookshelves, too.”
“Nicolò, you didn’t have to.” A vision of Nicky alone, sitting with all his guilt and trepidation as he picks through their home, their every conversation looms in the back of his mind. Joe hates it.
“It does not matter. All of it can go.” He lowers his face to the crook of Joe’s neck. “But not you.”
Joe is only human. He can’t help the twisted vindication burning in his belly at Nicky’s words. He hadn’t strayed half as far for near at long as Nicky had, and still his love could hardly stand it.
They split the difference between sleeping on the bare mattress and fetching new bedding, tossing a comforter over the bed. They undress down to their socks and hold each other close. Joe only gets up for a moment to unlatch the window, the way Nicky likes it. Beyond the streetlamps and the palm trees Joe can see the moon rising. He settles back into Nicky arms and lets himself relax at last. He hadn’t realized how tired he was, not until he heard the soothing melody of Nicky’s heart laying next to his.
“Did you really believe what I said?” Joe asks. Because a hundred years without this is all he can think of now. Fuck. He really needed to watch his mouth. “Did you really believe I could be that… vindictive?”
“No. Not vindictive.” Nicky shakes his head. “But stubborn? Yes. That’s what I was most afraid of.”
“I’ve never been stubborn in my life,” argues Joe. Nicky does not justify such an egregious falsehood with a response. He presses closer to Joe and breathes him in.
“I knew what I was doing was a betrayal.” The admission comes close to the hollow of Joe’s throat. Nicky’s words are so small and frail. “I knew you wouldn’t like it, but I did it anyway. And the way I spoke of you when you found me… it was unworthy, taking you for granted. But Yusuf, I only went to see him because—”
Joe runs a soothing hand through his hair. “Because you knew I missed him.”
Nicky nods. “He was doing very poorly. Worse off than I imagined when I saw him first.”
We were doing very poorly as lab rats, says the old hurt in his chest. Instead he stares at the ceiling and says, “Booker’s been bad off for longer than we’d like to admit. I thought time was helping, but… it only made it worse. I should have noticed.”
“The blame is not yours to bear,” Nicky murmurs. “He made his choices. I've only hated watching you suffer for them.”
“I haven’t suffered, ” he says, playing it off with the last vestiges of his pride.
“You have.” Nicky sits up. Joe’s arms already miss him. “All this time, you’ve acted as if all you needed was to shout your way out of England and matter was over with. That you didn’t need to talk about him or what he did ever again.”
“I didn’t,” Joe insists. He knows it isn’t true but the denial is automatic. It is what he has been telling himself for far too long. “All I really needed was my husband.”
Nicky covers his mouth, concealing a sad smile. “You don’t know how I wish to God that was true. If I could be all you needed I would not have been so scared that in nine decades, Booker could return, unchanged and just as destructive, and break your heart again.” Joe’s eyes sting. It was overwhelming at times to see how fiercely his heart was protected, how wholly he was cherished. “We need them as much as we need each other, and I could not leave it to chance. Please tell me you understand, Yusuf.”
Joe draws Nicky back down to him. His affirmation goes unspoken. They settle into a quiet so heavy it hurts.
“I haven’t been myself, have I?” Joe asks at last.
Nicky rolls over to look him dead in the eye. “No. Not for a long time.”
There is no doubting Nicky’s words. He knew Joe better than he was capable of knowing himself. Knew him in the bright dawn of time and the shadow of death. Knew him in the pain of remaking and rebirth. Joe had been blind and unwilling, unaware of himself becoming a stranger. But Nicky had always and would always be the one and only thing to lead him out of the dark.
Joe hesitates. Feels the familiar fear of an answer he is not sure if he wants to hear. “Have I truly been that bad?”
“Don’t misunderstand me,” Nicky begins gently. “There are times when you are still yourself. When you are joyous and beautiful. When you can let the melancholy touch you, but never let subdue you. And other times…” Nicky’s grip on Joe tightens, “you’re exhausted, forlorn, so quick to lonesome in a way you’ve never been. When your passions turn sullen and nothing reaches you. And worse, there are days when you go so quiet, so far in your own head, you think you can hide that pain. Not only from yourself but from me.”
Joe sighs. “Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive. You have done nothing wrong.”
“I have though,” Joe whispers back. The echo of accusations he held against Booker slithers back in his mind. How the people who love you deserve to know your pain, not have it hidden from them. “I did not want to burden you, but I should have let you in.”
“And I should have known my dishonesty would only make you feel more alone.”
“We’re all terrible liars, aren’t we?” Joe teases softly. “According to Andy, it’s far too late for us to learn new tricks.”
“The old things are passed away,” Nicky says, “and, behold, all things have become new. ”
Joe groans. “Really, Nicky? Scripture?” It was without doubt, the greatest trial of his life; that he was always fated to love this priest turned missionary turned knight.
“I am only saying, maybe we can do better, still.”
Joe stretches out languidly, taking up so much of the bed Nicky has no choice but to lay half on top of him. Joe feels peace overtake him. The last time he was this certain of anything was the first time they lay together just like this, in the Judaean desert while the hills were in bloom and the stars gave way to daylight.
“We will. I promise.”
Nicky sighs with tremendous relief. “Grazie dio,” he mutters, a great succor washing over him as he kisses Joe. “I did not think we could carry on much longer like that.”
“Oh?” Joe chuckles, “I think we had another ten years in us, at least.”
“Absolutely not. I cannot tell you how many times I was this close to throwing your scimitar at you to force you to talk. Thought we would have to solve this like we did in the old days.”
Joe ramps up in bed. “Wait, you thought about doing that, too?”
“As a last resort! It was beginning to feel as if the battlefield was the last place we argued effectively.”
“I knew it,” Joe grins, laying back with his arms folded beneath his head. “I knew you missed killing me.”
Weightless and carefree, Nicky dives down after him, opting to smother Joe with a kiss rather than strangle him outright.