Objectively speaking, it had been a good day.
The mission—carefully chosen so as not to put Andy at risk without making her feel as if she were being handled with kid gloves, and so as not to compel Nile to do anything with which she was uncomfortable, and so as to minimize the potential of running up against some new situation they could not prepare Nile for—had gone without a hitch. It had even been a little fun. The job was to intercept a shipment of malaria drugs hijacked by drug smugglers and get them back to the medical aid society they’d been donated to, and it was really more a heist than anything else. Nile had been fantastic, working herself as smoothly into their patterns as if it were her hundredth mission rather than her first. No one had died, not even one of the team, and if Joe had broken both legs jumping from atop a moving train at one point, well, it was a pretty cool way to break your legs, and they healed quickly.
So really, none of them had any excuse for being as melancholy as they were.
They’d gathered back at the hotel Copley had booked for them, briefed him on the success of the mission, and then stuck around after they kicked him out of the conference room to do a more private post-mortem for the team. There wasn’t much to dissect. Little stuff, really—miscommunications, a railway employee who hadn’t expected to see Nile on a freight train and had had to be knocked out. Nothing serious. It had been a great success, and not only for a first mission with a new member.
Nile, whose enthusiasm for having participated in an honest-to-God train heist had been flagging at their lackluster efforts to mirror it, looked around the table. Why the hell was the table so big?, Joe wondered. The whole room seemed far too big to have conversations in, which defeated the point of a conference room if you asked him. “Am I missing something?” Nile asked. “Because I thought we agreed that that went pretty well. I know I don’t have that psychic thing you all have going on yet—”
“Nah,” said Andy brusquely. “You were fine.”
“Better than fine,” Nicky said. “It was a good job well done.”
Joe smiled. “Beat the pants off our last job,” he said, and then immediately regretted it. He didn’t want to think about either the imaginary girls in South Sudan or motherfucking Merrick’s laboratory.
Nile leaned back in her chair and peered skeptically at them. “All right,” she said slowly. It was clear to Joe that she was making a deliberate effort not to pry; she was tactful in that way. “So…no other issues we need to work on for next time.”
Nile, Joe thought, was young in a very different way from Booker. Earnest-young, not miserable-young. She was efficient, professional, comparatively upbeat even in her grief for the mortal life she had lost. By this point in their discussion, Booker would have been well on his way to drunkenness, and probably would have made some choice remarks comparing Joe to a Wild West train bandit. The thought was colored with anger, as it was almost every time Joe thought of Booker, but the anger had started to decay underneath into something painful.
He cleared his throat. “Nah,” he said. “Though I guess we could practice jumping from moving trains more.” He looked to see if Andy would smirk at him, or say something—after all, she was actually pretty good at jumping from moving trains—but she was staring at the table, rubbing her fingers together like she was grasping for something that wasn't there.
“Yeah, okay, cowboy,” said Nile wryly. She looked at the table, pursing her lips as if she were thinking seriously about something, before saying, “You…okay? I know it’s…weird, when you have that tight-knit unit, to have a change in personnel. Especially when shit gets real.”
She probably did know, Joe reflected. From what she’d said when they were preparing, training, getting to know each other, her bond with her Marine unit had been very close, disrupted only by death. Hers was the flip side of this strange newness—Joe couldn’t always remember what it had felt like in those early days, when it had been him and Nicky and Andy and Quỳnh, and it had been a different world then, but perhaps it had been a bit like what Nile felt now.
Joe just felt very old.
“It is…a change, from the last two hundred years,” Nicky admitted. Joe could see buried conflict within him in the way his eyes flickered between Nile and the middle distance, the troubled wrinkle of his eyebrows. “Not a bad one, of course—you were wonderful, Nile. We’re very happy to have you. It’s, ah. Hmm.” He drummed his fingers on the polished wood of the hotel conference table and said, apparently to the ceiling, “I became a great enigma to myself and I was forever asking my soul why it was sad and why it disquieted me so sorely. And my soul knew not what to answer me.”
Nile frowned in confusion. Joe couldn’t blame her. “That Augustine of Hippo?” he asked. He thought it was.
Andy groaned. “Fuck, Nicky, not now.”
Nicky straightened in his seat, looking regretfully at Andy. “Of course. Sorry. I think we are all tired.”
Andy knew Nicky better than almost anyone, Joe excepted, he thought, but when she was exhausted and irritated and guilty, sometimes she took for preaching what was actually Nicky trying to articulate what he felt. Which in this case was probably something close to what Joe and Andy were feeling. The same absurdly gloomy cloud seemed to be hanging over all of them.
“You ever get real depressed after a party?” Joe asked Nile. “I think it’s kind of like that.”
“Sure,” she said with an understanding nod. “It’s a hell of an adrenaline crash, that’s for sure.” She rubbed at her neck. “Maybe we should all turn in, do something to chill out tomorrow.”
“I think I’m gonna do something to chill out now,” said Andy, standing up. “Don’t call before noon tomorrow, okay?”
Joe, Nicky, and Nile exchanged glances—telling Andy to be careful with whoever she was hooking up with was unlikely to yield good results, but they still wanted to—before Joe said, “Have fun, boss. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
That got a quiet little laugh out of Andy, which made Joe feel the tiniest bit better. “Sure, Joe,” she said, before sauntering out of the conference room like a tiger seeking prey. Nothing would happen to her, Joe told himself. Things didn’t happen to Andromache the Scythian—she happened to them.
When the door swung shut behind her, Nicky sighed and set his elbows on the table, resting his chin in his hands. Joe’s heart hurt a little, for his beloved as much for himself. It was such a silly thing—a trio of immortals who’d seen their worlds rise and fall a hundred times, having this much Sturm und Drang over the idea of things changing—but that was the human heart, wasn’t it? It didn’t listen to reason.
To Nile, he said, “Sorry we’re not much fun tonight. Tell you what, why don’t you figure out what you want to do to celebrate your first mission, and we’ll do it tomorrow?”
“Anything I want?” Nile asked, eyebrows raised.
“Anything except karaoke,” said Joe firmly, and both Nicky and Nile cracked a smile at that.
“He’s joking, Nile,” said Nicky. “He’s very good at karaoke.”
Nile rolled her eyes. “I’ll bet.” Closing her eyes for a moment, she tilted her head back as if resting it against the back of her neck. After a moment, she looked at them again with a tired smile. “Well. I think I’m gonna head up and see what they’ve got on the room service menu.”
The hotel was some glamorous, pricy thing with gleaming floors and chrome everywhere and a bar that was more like a club. The clientele consisted of the young and fashionable and rich, who passed through the hotel conducting their business meetings and love affairs with the sure efficiency of the confident and self-centered. Joe, who was old enough to remember harboring his camels and buying souvenirs at beautiful fanādiq in Sfax and Tripoli back in the day, was less impressed with it than Nile. Still, he had to admit there was a certain appeal to the impersonal luxury, the way the hotel catered to their bodily senses while leaving no imprint upon the heart, empty and soulless and without memory. Joe would be willing to bet that the room service menu had no prices on it, to hide the gross overcharging. He grinned at Nile. “Why don’t you get an in-room movie, too?” he suggested. “We’ll charge the whole thing to Copley’s account. Business expenses.”
They chattered innocuously about the movies and foods Nile had a taste for in the elevator; when she got off on the floor below Nicky and Joe’s, it was as if the air had suddenly become heavier, and Nicky let his face sink again into more solemn lines. Joe sighed. He suspected neither of them was going to sleep particularly well tonight, despite the late hour and their exhaustion.
There was a kind of comfort and safety that came with finally finding and entering their room, a sense of reaching a defensible position that settled in as Joe closed and locked the door behind them, and his mood lightened by a feather’s weight. “You know, I’ll say this for Mr. Copley’s guilty conscience,” he said, taking in the little suite’s high ceilings, large windows, and tasteful art. “It’s raising my standards for accommodations. How many more fancy hotels you think we’ll be able to get out of him?”
“Like this?” Nicky asked, wandering around alert as a hawk, measuring out the space of the room with his feet and eyes. “Not many. Guilt is easily forgotten.” He ducked his head into the bathroom and said, sounding more genuinely cheerful than he had all night, “Oh, Joe, look at this shower! It’s like a little room!”
Joe looked. The bathroom was huge, and the shower was indeed like a tiled alcove walled off by glass, small for a room but large for a closet. It had not one but three showerheads, angled so that the water would hit the bather from all sides. He whistled, imagining what it would feel like. “Another point for Mr. Copley,” he said.
“He did well on this job,” said Nicky, serious again. “It bothers me to trust him, but one must give credit where it is due. He’s earned many points.” He pulled away and settled in a large, brightly upholstered armchair in the corner of the room, flipping on the lamp on the side table before bending over to wrestle his boots off.
Joe leaned against the door frame of the bathroom to watch him, taking in the tension in his shoulders, his tight, quick motions as he unknotted his laces and shoved his socks into the toes of the boots. “Are you all right, beloved?” Joe asked softly. They had no one to put on brave faces for now.
Nicky looked up, a frown pulling at one corner of his mouth. “In most every way, yes. This job was not very difficult for me.”
That was probably true, Joe admitted; Nicky had been in charge of coordinating transport for the medication, a side of things that had gone off without a hitch. And yet, that lingering air of melancholy clung like a shadow to him. “But?” Joe prompted.
“But….” He shrugged, the barest twitch of his shoulder. “It’s a very strange kind of loneliness, to miss someone and to be angry at them and to worry about them all at the same time.”
“Booker?” Joe asked, though he already knew the answer.
Nicky nodded. “It was easy not to think of it while we were not working, but tonight, I thought so many times how nice it would have been to have him here. How much help he could be to Nile. I suppose the years to come will be a penance for us as well as for him, and perhaps that’s only right, but. Well. All of Time’s disasters I found easy to bear but the departure of loved ones.”
The joke came to Joe’s mind easily—Augustine and “Qays and Lubnā” in one night? You must really be down! What’s next, “The Consolation of Philosophy”?—but he let it go as soon as it had formed. Nicky was down, and so was Joe, and there was no reason for either of them to pretend otherwise. “We lived a life of pleasure for a while,” he quoted. “If only Time could summon human beings again!” Time technically could and would summon Booker again, but it couldn’t summon the life they had lived before Merrick Pharmaceuticals.
“Yeah,” Nicky agreed, the twist to his mouth telling Joe that he had understood what Joe had not said. He nodded again, as if to himself this time, before fixing Joe with a heavy look. “And you, my heart?” he asked. “What are you feeling now?”
It was a serious question, and Joe took it as such. A love like his and Nicky’s could not have lasted for nine centuries without a great deal of honest examination of their own and each other’s hearts. “Like you,” he said slowly, trying to parse the tangled knot of emotions he had been shoving to the side all night, “angry and lonely. Maybe the proportions of anger and loneliness aren’t the same, but I don’t know. I don’t like to think about it too closely. It’s like touching a wound before it heals.” In answer to Nicky’s compassionate gaze, which encouraged him to continue, he added, “I think in a way I’m already mourning Andy, which I know she’d hate, but...to know that there’s a time when she won’t be here is like knowing the sun will fall from the sky.”
Joe was warming to his subject now. “And I’m so pissed off that Booker did all that shit to become mortal and he didn’t get what he wanted but Andy did. Not that I want Booker dead, angry as I am, but what kind of cruel trick of the universe is that?”
“It does seem ironic,” said Nicky, with a humorless quirk of the lips unworthy of the name of smile.
“What’s the point of all of it? What message is it supposed to send? You have no control over anything? You’re gonna live when you want to die and die when you want to live? Your efforts to save kids and keep each other together and cure cancer are gonna blow up in your face, so fuck you for even trying?” He knew his voice was getting a little loud, and it was unfair, because it wasn’t as if he were even angry at Nicky, but he couldn’t seem to help it. It was like a tap had been opened inside him, flooding him with feelings he’d been keeping dammed up for months.
Maybe in the back of his mind he had hoped that Nicky would have some words of wisdom that would help him find some meaning in all of it, this jumbled mess of sympathy and rage and desire that for fucking once in their lives, their little family could gain a member without also losing one. But if he’d wanted that, he would have been disappointed, because Nicky just looked at him sadly and said, “I don’t know, Joe.”
And like that, his anger deflated. He swallowed, a bitter taste at the back of his throat. His anger these days always seemed to end here, this sort of hollow, shriveled sadness. Out of nowhere, the thought occurred to Joe: “I miss Quỳnh.”
The more he thought about it, the more he meant it. He simply couldn’t imagine that Quỳnh—that joyful forest fire, that merry summer storm, that swift-moving river both terrible and beautiful—would ever have let Booker sink the way he had. She’d have made Booker introduce his wife and children to them and made the two families into one. She’d have distracted Jean-Pierre from the pains of death with tales about her friendship with Khutulun daughter of Kaidu or her adventures fighting pirates in the Indian Ocean, and he would have died knowing that his father would have saved him if he could. She’d have gotten drunk alongside Booker and then forced him to train with her the next morning and fight until he was too tired to do anything but laugh at her endless collection of dirty jokes. Something. Anything.
She had been like that, Quỳnh, never the kind to tread delicately around a problem when she could charge in and spring herself upon it. Her mourning and anger and sadness had all found outlets in action—often in violence. But for all that, she’d been fiercely kind in her way, with a keen sense of justice, and she’d taken Joe and Nicky under her tutelage with a patience that Joe found astounding in retrospect. Her love had been tangible, heartening, unyielding. And with Quỳnh by her side, Andy—strong, sad, weighed by endless guilt, dearer to Joe than his own flesh--was unstoppable. A mountain that could never crumble.
We lived a life of pleasure for a while. Joe missed Quỳnh, and how happy they had all been once, so much that it hurt. If he had felt old before, with Nile, now he felt like a child crying out for its mother.
He didn’t know what Nicky read in his face as he thought, but after a contemplative pause, his love nodded slowly. “Me, too. Much would have been different if she were here.”
“She would have liked Booker,” Joe said ruefully.
“She would have. And Nile, too.” Nicky rested his elbows on his knees and laid the weight of his head in his hands, staring at the floor with his fingers buried in his hair. Joe stepped toward him automatically, out of words but ready to offer a comforting hand. Before he could, Nicky looked up again. With a painful sincerity in his face and voice, he asked, “Joe, do you think we will be able to hold this group together?” After Andy dies, he didn’t say, until Booker comes home, until Nile is ready to take the place meant for her, until we find Quỳnh, but Joe could fill in the blanks easily enough.
His breath caught in his throat. Nicky, who believed in destiny and togetherness and purpose and the inherent goodness of humanity with an earnest and hard-won faith he had crafted for himself out of history’s wreckage, didn’t often ask Joe that kind of question. More often it was Joe who let Nicky’s certainty be a warming balm for his own doubts. But Joe couldn’t lie to him about this, even if it would be a comfort, even if he wanted to, so he said, “I don’t know, Nicky.”
Nicky nodded, accepting this as patiently as he accepted everything. Curling his toes into the carpet, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, his fears were now hidden behind the wall of calm he always erected when he could find nothing else to do with them. “You can have the first shower,” he said, his voice matter-of-fact, “and I will take care of your gear.”
Apparently the conversation was over.
It was just as well; Joe felt drained. It was on the tip of Joe’s tongue to accept Nicky’s typically generous offer with gratitude. Though his legs had healed, he was sore and tired and dearly wished to be clean.
At the same time, this uncertain future still lingered between and before them, and the idea of simply showering and going to bed felt less than appealing. Joe’s frustration with himself reared its head again, once more mocking his own dissatisfaction and his lack of control over things—did he think he could fix the problem of Andy’s mortality, Booker’s despair, Quỳnh’s torment? Did he think that talking things out with Nicky, once Nicky had made it clear he was done talking, would accomplish anything? Did he think he could rewrite the fates that had brought them all to this point?
What arrogance. Better to give it up for the night, to clean himself up and let Nicky take care of his Kevlar and weapons, as he had offered.
Joe blinked, a thought occurring to him, some perverse little impulse running back over Nicky’s words and his own thoughts.
Might not be better if Nicky were to take care of him?
Perhaps it was not the time for such games. Nicky had not indicated that he was at all in the mood for sex, and Joe wasn’t certain he was up to the task, either. And then again, perhaps it would help both of them. It had been months since they’d had the privacy to do much together, and the more Joe thought about it, the more he wanted it. Like a key formed to open one particular lock, Nicky and Joe’s pleasures had always fit perfectly together, and there was something to be said for the healing that came from this kind of closeness. Not from the sex, so much, but from the knowledge that their hearts still beat as one, the warmth of connection. Joe allowed himself to imagine it. “We could do that,” he said slowly. “Or…we could bathe together.”
A crack appeared in Nicky’s wall of calm, and he blinked at Joe with mild surprise. Joe looked steadily at him, drinking in his familiar, beautiful face, and telling him wordlessly what Joe wanted and what he would offer in return.
Nicky was a clever man and knew Joe intimately; it did not take him long to understand what Joe was asking for. He let out a wondering sigh, and a small smile brightened his eyes. “Oh, that kind of bathing together.” He stood so as to meet Joe’s eyes without having to look up. “Okay,” he said, and Joe could already see ideas blossoming behind his clear pale gaze, and he felt his spirits lifting. “Give me two minutes to prepare, all right?”
This meant Joe was in for a treat. He brushed his hand against Nicky’s cheek and dropped a feather-light kiss on the bridge of his nose before pulling back and saying, “Don’t be long, sweetheart.”
“Two minutes,” Nicky repeated, before vanishing into the bathroom and shutting the door behind him.
The sound of the shower followed almost immediately after, a prelude to the real show. Though they often hopped into the shower together for a brisk wash and a quickie, occasionally Nicky wanted to take his time, and at those times he did not want even the care of his own body to distract his focus from Joe. Joe grinned and settled into the chair Nicky had vacated. If he was quick about it, maybe he could get undressed by the time Nicky had finished.
He hadn’t quite mastered the intense efficiency that Nicky could put into his leisure activities, however, and truth be told, he wasn’t trying particularly hard. He’d gotten his jacket and body armor off but was still doing battle with the knots in his bootlaces when Nicky emerged, true to his word, two minutes later. He was clean and freshly shaven and not wearing a stitch of clothing.
Joe forgot about his bootlaces. Perhaps it was foolishness, but every time he saw Nicky’s naked body, it was like the first time—almost a thousand years later, a glimpse of his bare shoulders, the trail of hair leading down from his navel, his perfectly formed cock could still wipe all thoughts from Joe’s mind, replacing them with the most romantic of music and the filthiest of visions.
He blinked and forced himself to focus. Nicky was looking at him, a smile hovering at the corner of his lips as he laid his neatly folded clothes over the back of the desk chair. “You don’t look ready to bathe,” he said to Joe.
“Bootlaces,” he offered.
Nicky laughed and brushed a lock of wet hair out of his eyes. “Let me help.”
He kneeled in front of Joe, his clever fingers expertly untangling the knots and pulling off Joe’s boots. Joe stroked a hand over Nicky’s hair, enjoying the familiar sense of contentment that the sight of his love on his knees before him, the feeling of those well-loved hands on his body, never failed to inspire in him. Perhaps there was something to be said for inefficiency, if it came with such a view.
“Ah,” he said as Nicky pulled off his left sock and grasped the foot between his hands, rubbing at a tense place in Joe’s heel. “You’ve got a real gift for that.”
“For untying shoelaces?” Nicky asked, still absorbed with Joe’s left foot. Joe had a tendency toward ticklishness, but Nicky’s touch was firm and sure, and Joe could feel a tightness he hadn’t even known was there begin to loosen.
“I was going to say foot massages, but shoelaces, too.” Joe closed his eyes and sank into the sensation. “Fuck, that feels good.”
Nicky’s hand moved from his heel to his calf, working its way under Joe’s blue jeans to rub at his leg. “Could feel better if we made it to the shower.”
Joe sighed. “Such impatience.” But he was already standing up. Nicky rose with him, giving Joe another chance to see his body in all its glory.
“Have I told you lately how glad I am that we’re almost the same height?” he asked as Nicky moved to unbutton Joe’s shirt. “I never have to strain to look into your eyes, nor you into mine.”
Nicky’s gaze flicked up from Joe’s shirt to look him squarely in the face, and Joe sighed. The color of Nicky’s eyes could be cold at times, steely when he was angry, more gray than blue, but when he felt passionate, looking into them was like sinking into a warm ocean. Joe could feel heat moving through him even as his chest was exposed to the cooler air of the room. “Ah, beloved,” he said, “I am the luckiest man alive, for God to have given me so perfect a match.”
“Would it be more perfect if I were an inch taller?” murmured Nicky, who was carefully pulling Joe’s hands out of the cuffs of his shirt and folding it. His grin was half hidden by the sleeves.
He was forced to let the shirt drop when Joe drew him in for a kiss, firmly gripping his chin. To kiss Nicky was to reconnect with the wellspring of love and life and passion that daily renewed Joe’s strength; he savored the warmth and the wetness and the taste of him. Then he pulled back, still holding his beloved’s face in one hand so that he could not look away. “No,” he said, calmly but resolutely, so there would be no misunderstanding. Joe knew the steps of this dance by heart. “Would the moon be more beautiful if it were symmetrical? The stars if they lined up in orderly rows? There is not a thing I would change about you.”
Nicky swallowed, his playful mood gone, and Joe let go of his chin and watched hungrily as his Adam’s apple bobbed. His eyes roamed over Joe’s face as if seeking to memorize it, as if he didn’t already know it by heart. “You’re so…you make me feel…” he began, and then gave it up as a bad job. He leaned in to kiss Joe again, long and fervent, his fingers pressing points of heat into Joe’s ribs.
Joe knew what he made Nicky feel.
They kissed until they ran out of breath, until Joe pulled his head away to rest it against Nicky’s forehead. “You know,” he said, “I still have pants on.”
The tension of the moment broke with Nicky’s quiet laugh. His hands reached from where they had rested at Joe’s sides to pull down the zipper of his fly and work the waistband of the jeans and his underpants over his hips. “Step up, please,” he said, sounding collected once more as he returned to his knees to pull Joe’s pants the rest of the way down. Joe readily complied, standing on one foot and then the other as Nicky took off the jeans and underwear and laid them, along with the shirt, over his own clothes on the back of the chair. His work done, he settled back on his heels to scan Joe up and down.
Sadly, his gaze was a little more concerned than lustful. Joe’s legs were, he was forced to admit, not looking their best. They had been badly scraped and cut when he jumped from the train, and a compound fracture in his left leg had sent bone tearing through skin and denim. All had healed, but both legs were now covered with streaks of dirt and flakes of dried, browned blood. Nicky made a tsking sound with his tongue, running his thumb over a particularly thick bloodstain. It itched. “Such a mess, my cowboy,” he said, and then he fluidly rose once again to his feet.
“I suppose someone ought to clean it up,” said Joe, giving him a practiced look of wide-eyed innocence. Nicky huffed out another laugh and twined his fingers with Joe’s, pulling him forward.
The bathroom had not had time to become properly steamy during Nicky’s hasty ablutions, but the air was still pleasantly warm and moist. Joe let himself take a few deep and cleansing breaths of it as Nicky went to turn the shower on, testing the water with his hands. When he judged the temperature right, he ushered Joe in.
Joe closed his eyes in the purest of pleasure. He had always liked his baths so hot as to be almost painful, and the temperature was perfect. Having three shower heads was a pleasant novelty as well; to be sprayed with water from multiple directions was a bit like standing under a hot rain, if rain fell evenly and firmly in a spray that massaged as it washed. Joe had not marked the precise position of the shower heads before, but he imagined that Nicky had adjusted them so as to be in the proper place for men of their height, to hit Joe right where he needed it. His shoulders and back were already relaxing under the pulsing pressure.
Steam rose from the floor, fogging the glass of the door as Nicky closed it behind them. It smelled lightly of the orange blossom soap Joe favored, a bar of which was sitting on the little shelf in the shower. He guessed that this, too, was Nicky’s doing.
“It’s truly a blessing to have a man who can read one’s desires like a second self,” he told Nicky. “My heart, you have outdone yourself.” He didn’t think he’d even brought any orange blossom soap on this job; Nicky must have put it in his own luggage.
“I cannot take credit for the original idea,” said Nicky wryly. He was carefully kneeling in front of Joe again, this time with a washcloth in hand.
“No, but as always, you have taken my wishes and brought them to life.”
He watched as Nicky carefully, gently, methodically washed the blood from his legs, periodically wringing out the washcloth and reapplying soap. To be relieved of the itching was bliss; the soft scrape of the washcloth felt as if it were bringing Joe’s skin back to life under Nicky’s skilled hands. Occasionally he would pause in his labors to press a kiss to a place that had once been wounded, smoothing his fingers over the skin afterward as if to verify that it was whole.
When he had finished with Joe’s bloody shins and knees, he returned his attention to his feet, washing up to Joe’s ankles and back again, between the toes, gently nudging him to lift his feet one at a time so that Nicky could scrub their soles.
Awash in blissful sensation, Joe let his mind drift, thoughts flowing fluidly until they caught on a memory. The sight of Nicky’s bowed head, his own bare legs, struck a chord in him. It was very, very easy for nine hundred fifty-some years to blur together, and much of those years had been lost and forgotten. But some memories had been taken out and examined, retold and reformed, so often that, even if things hadn’t happened exactly the way Joe remembered them, they still stood out in his mind. Some memories became as chapter headings that marked out turning points in Joe’s life, scenes to be played out again and again. “Nicky,” he asked, “Do you remember the first time we went to the hammam in Nablus together?”
Nicky paused in his careful ministrations to look up at Joe. “I do.”
“This reminds me a bit of that,” said Joe. “Except of course I never fell in love with the attendants washing me there.”
The corner of Nicky’s mouth quirked with good humor. “I should hope not.”
It had been in the early twelfth century, after they had both had their fill of killing each other. Nicky had been splitting his time between skirmishes, escorting pilgrims, and laboring with the sick at the Hospital of St. John; Joe had been splitting his between skirmishes, trying to rebuild the Levantine branch of the family book business, and going quietly mad as he tried to work out what God meant by this strange magical gift He had laid upon him.
The hostility between him and Nicky had cooled as both men had realized that they were not getting any older--that the futures laid out for them, of marriage and children and growing old having carried on their fathers’ legacies, would never come to pass, and that, aside from the mysterious women of their dreams, there was only one person in the world who could understand what each of them was going through. Mistrust and anger had become tentative curiosity and the beginnings of understanding and forgiveness, which had in turn become a friendship as tender and delicate as a flower bud unfurling in the spring.
It had taken time. Nicky had had more than a bit of the ascetic in him when Joe had first known him, a kind of cold, righteous harshness that exulted in suffering rather than breaking under it. Joe had more than once thought with bitterness that he would have been a fine martyr in one of the gory, ridiculous saints’ lives the Latin Christians were so fond of. He seemed more weapon than man.
But as their days of companionship multiplied, it had not taken Joe long to uncover the soft sweetness that lay below this austere surface like the seeds of a pomegranate beneath its hard rind. As Nicky’s years in the Holy Land stretched into decades, time wore away some of his sharper edges. Away from the battlefield, he endeavored with a childlike earnestness to perform acts of charity for anyone who seemed like they needed it. If charity could not undo the violence that had come before, it was something Joe could respect and relate to, a point of connection between them and their faiths. Though Joe hadn’t expected much by way of culture from a sparse-living Frank, Nicky had drunk up the poetry and finely crafted books and beautiful architecture that Joe showed him as a parched man drank water in the desert. No artist himself, able to write only in stiff and awkward Latin prose, Nicky had had—still had now--a keen love for others’ creations. Joe had, against his inclination, been charmed.
For his part, Nicky’s every appreciative look and fumbling attempt at Arabic made his admiration of Joe clear, and he strove to give as much as he got in their friendship. He had shown Joe the round Latin script he had learned in his monastery as a boy, mustered his own half-remembered Virgil and Ovid in answer to Joe’s Ibn al-Rūmī and Abū Nuwās, told him stories of complicated Genoese family politics that, though much was lost in translation, captivated and amused Joe. They debated theology, compared notes on their respective languages, tried to theorize about why they continued to live without bringing up the fact that they had died at each other’s hands. Soon, the days when Joe did not see Nicky were rarer than the days that he did.
Still, Joe had thought of all this as chance and circumstance, nothing he could not do without. It had been a thoughtless utterance when he asked Nicky to accompany him to the bathhouse for the first time, but this carelessly dropped invitation had led to a revelation.
“What color were the tiles there, my love? Do you remember?” The twenty-first-century shower blurred his memory of the twelfth-century hammam.
Nicky thought about it as he gently scratched at an itchy and persistent flake of blood on Joe’s thigh that had been giving both of them trouble. “Green and white,” he said finally.
“Ah, yes, that’s right.” Joe could see it now. Not fancy, but respectable, a relatively new establishment, it had largely been filled with locals and visiting merchants, mostly Muslim with a few Syrian Christians. On that particular morning, if Joe remembered correctly, Nicky had been the only Frank. “An excellent color scheme for seeing you naked for the first time.”
Nicky rolled his eyes, shifting to one side so that he could wash the back of Joe’s right thigh, his washcloth-covered hand curving around Joe’s buttock. “If you didn’t want me to embarrass you, you should have told me to bring a towel.”
“Oh, I wasn’t embarrassed.” He probably ought to have been scandalized. Nicky, whose experience with public bathing facilities in Italy was far different, had, to the shock and grumbling of several of the other patrons, not covered up al-Ghazali’s prescribed area between knees and lower stomach but had entered the hot room as naked as the day he was born. Ignorant but never unobservant, Nicky had realized his faux pas almost immediately and flushed with shame.
But Joe had been fascinated—fascinated by the cluster of curls, darker than the hair on Nicky’s head, that covered his loins; fascinated by the red, uncircumcised member that emerged from that little forest; fascinated by the lean, strong muscles of his thighs; fascinated by the deep rosy flush, from heat and embarrassment, that spread from his chest to his face. Rather than telling Nicky to cover himself and offering him a towel, or explaining again about propriety and modesty, he had simply stared.
Joe liked to think that, in a way, the man that he was now had been born in that moment—that brief handful of seconds when the tinder around his heart had caught flame. “No, I wasn’t embarrassed,” he repeated. “I thought you were the most beautiful man I had ever seen.”
“Oh?” Nicky had gotten other ideas, now, his soapy fingers pressing between Joe’s cheeks as his face brushed against the crease of Joe’s thighs. Despite his casual tone, Joe could see on his shoulders that same deep flush that had so entranced him nine hundred some years ago, Nicky’s body saying what his words did not. Heat that had nothing to do with the water flooded through Joe’s body, his past and present selves overlapping in their arousal.
“I did. I took one look at you and thought, ‘God has made this man to be mine. What other man in this bathhouse can say that his beloved is both the sharp sword and the sweet-natured gazelle? Who else can boast that he has the regard of a man whose face is like the dawn and whose smile is like the rising sun? No other man can say that he has spilled his beloved’s heart’s blood and been slain by his sword in turn and risen again, both reforged into something new and stronger.’ I wanted to drag you from the bathhouse and cover your face in kisses.”
“You could have,” said Nicky softly, and his face was now so close to Joe’s cock that, even in the heat of the shower, Joe could feel his shuddering breath on the soft skin there, and his cock raised itself in interest. “I wouldn’t have objected.”
In real life, it had been another year of sleepless nights spent writing love poetry and melancholy days spent rejecting a confused Nicky’s company before Joe had worked up the nerve to make his advances. But in retrospect the path that had led from the bathhouse to this shower seemed clear and solid, and so he said, “Do you know what I would have done?”
Nicky looked up, and Joe could see his own hunger mirrored in Nicky’s face. “What would you have done?”
Fortunately for both of them, Joe liked to indulge in this kind of fancy out loud as much as Nicky liked to listen to it. “I would have pulled you naked from the hot room and thrown everyone out of the massage room so I could have my way with you. After I had kissed every inch of your body, I would have brought you off. I would have stroked you with my hand until you were weeping for release, telling you all the time how I adored you, how every quirk of your eyebrows and twitch of your lips drove me mad. And when you had finally come, panting and shaky, I would have taken my own pleasure from you.”
“How?” The question was barely audible over the sound of the shower, but both knew the answer.
“Your mouth, light of my eyes. That gorgeous, talented mouth of yours.”
As if he had been waiting with bated breath for these words—and if Joe knew his beloved, he probably had—Nicky took this as his cue to go to work. Wrapping his lips around the head of Joe’s cock, he sucked with light pressure, a move that never failed to drive Joe wild with desire for him to go deeper, take more. He tangled his fingers in Nicky’s short hair and tugged as best he could, urging him on.
But Nicky was never one to be rushed. He was playing with Joe now, lapping at his dick with quick little swipes and swift, light kisses, as if he were cleaning it like he had Joe’s legs. He rubbed at the delicate skin behind Joe’s balls, teased his hole with warm, slippery fingers.
“Fuck,” Joe groaned, unable to muster anything more articulate than that. Nicky pulled away quickly to give him a bright smile before taking Joe’s whole cock into his mouth, working it in earnest now.
They’d done this so often before that Joe could bring himself off just imagining Nicky’s tongue working its way over his delicate slit, the warm silk of the inside of his cheeks, the blissful tightness when Nicky took him into his throat. But Joe’s imaginings were a pale shadow compared to the reality of his love’s mouth moving up and down as he got into his rhythm, that perfect gentle pressure from his lips and more insistent stroking from his tongue, the heat and wet and underneath it all the attention. The knowledge that Nicky was watching and taking in every twitch of Joe’s muscles, fluently interpreting every cue to suck harder or pull briefly off or play with his balls, was as intoxicating to Joe as Nicky’s every practiced and confident movement. No one alive could read Joe as Nicky could; no one could ever be as devoted to Joe’s pleasure.
Joe could not have said whether it was this thought that did it, or Nicky’s brilliant idea to deep-throat him once more while pressing a finger slowly but firmly into Joe’s ass, but whatever it was, everything in him tightened in anticipation before letting go all at once, and he seemed to be floating in a cloud of pleasure as his orgasm crashed through him like a wave. Nicky swallowed around his cock, once and then again, and Joe groaned with the overwhelming sensation of it all. “My God,” he said once he had recovered enough for speech. “No man on earth is your master when it comes to blowjobs.”
Nicky pulled off, and a last little spurt of semen burst weakly from Joe’s cock and onto his lower lip. He wiped it away with a flick of his quick pink tongue and smiled the smile of the self-satisfied up at Joe. Despite his smugness, Joe could see that his own cock was hard and straining. Nicky had always taken pleasure from giving it.
Joe had to take a few deep breaths to come back to himself, letting the drumming rhythm of the shower echo the thrumming in his ears as he gave himself over to the floating sensation in his limbs. When he had recovered himself at least enough to be coherent in his own mind, he looked down and, with mock solemnity said, “Ah, there goes all my cleanliness.”
“Maybe,” said Nicky hoarsely, “someone should clean you up.”
He quickly repeated his ablutions of Joe’s legs before carefully standing, Joe lending a steadying hand as Nicky braced himself against the shower rail. “Hello,” said Joe inanely when they were face-to-face again.
“Hello,” Nicky repeated.
They smiled at each other like fools for a moment before Joe decided he couldn’t wait until Nicky was done washing the rest of him, he needed a kiss now. Nicky didn’t object. Though his own arousal must have been becoming uncomfortable by now, he submitted with eager reciprocity to Joe’s ardent quest to lick every trace of his own semen from Nicky’s mouth. It was quite a task, and by the end of it Joe’s tongue was languidly rubbing against Nicky’s, tired but content.
He pulled back to stroke his thumbs under Nicky’s eyes, over his cheekbones. It was really astonishing, he thought, to love one man so much, to feel as if his skin could not contain it. The slope of his nose, the mole on his cheek, the stiff little hairs left behind when he shaved—every line of Nicky’s face filled Joe with lightness and joy.
Nicky’s own hands reached to grasp at Joe’s waist as he scanned Joe’s face with the air of one who cannot decide what delight to sample first. He turned his face into Joe’s right hand to kiss it. “I dropped the washcloth,” he murmured against Joe’s skin as if he were telling him a secret.
Surprised, Joe laughed. He’d forgotten about it. “Better pick it up, I guess.”
Nicky took to washing Joe’s arms and back and neck just as gently as he had his legs, but with a good deal more sensuous attention to places he knew Joe was sensitive—the underside of his arms, the place where his shoulders met at the base of his neck, the soft skin behind his ears. It was a heavenly torment. Despite the heat of the water, Joe could feel gooseflesh rise anywhere Nicky was not currently touching, anticipating where his hands would go next.
The washcloth paused as he dropped a hard, sucking kiss at the place where Joe’s left shoulder met his neck, and Joe couldn’t help but groan. “Fuck.”
“Feel good?” Despite the mischief in Nicky’s tone, muffled by the skin of Joe’s shoulder and the ever-present patter of the water, it was a genuine question.
‘Good’ wasn’t quite the word. Alive, maybe, awake, like every inch of his body cried out for more, like he would shake apart in a minute. He could feel himself hardening again. Long refractory periods were a thing of the distant past for them. “Perfect,” he managed. “Get my front?”
He could feel Nicky’s hair brush against his back as he nodded. “Anything you want, Joe.”
Anything you want. Maybe it had always been unspoken between them, but Joe thought he remembered the first time Nicky had actually said that to him. As the edges where he ended and Nicky began seemed to blur in his mind, he pictured them in a dark felt tent, warmed by dim coals and the heat of their bodies. He couldn’t quite remember where or when they’d been, but he thought he knew the general shape of it--in the steppes between the lands of the Great Liao and the Great Jin, some handful of years after they had met Andy and Quỳnh.
Everything had felt new and strange then. By the time Nicky and Joe had finally met Andy and Quỳnh at a caravanserai in Samarkand, they’d thought they were pretty hot shit. They were pushing eighty years old, but they looked the same as they ever had. It seemed to them like a great secret had been shared with them, hidden from other men, and so they began to live increasingly separately from their respective peoples, traveling, adventuring, growing only more confident in their fighting skills and their love. They felt invincible.
Joe didn’t think he’d actually thought about how old Andy and Quỳnh were, not explicitly, but if anyone had ever asked, he’d have said that they were probably around the same age as Nicky and Joe, born of the same strange crucible that had forged the two of them. The discovery that, instead, these two ancient women had been walking the planet for thousands of years together, older than both Nicky’s messiah and Joe’s prophet, figures from the age of myth and legend, had shaken the metaphorical earth beneath their feet. And yet, Quỳnh cautioned, even they might not live forever—the story of Lykon had cast a sobering pall over their meeting.
When the party finally split up to go to their respective rooms, Joe had not felt so small, so powerless, so completely ignorant of the grand designs that governed the universe, since the day he’d killed and been killed by a bastard Genoese crossbowman and both had lived to tell the tale. Said bastard Genoese crossbowman had been even more solemn and contemplative than usual that night, and Joe uncharacteristically short on words, and they’d simply clung to each other in the night without a thought of sex.
But Andromache and Quỳnh had welcomed them like they were promising new apprentices, or perhaps long-awaited younger brothers—to be trained, certainly, sometimes by very harsh methods, but also to be guided and taught and loved. It was like nothing either Joe or Nicky had either experienced, to be unmoored from the civilizations that had molded them and to be initiated into a society of only four people—forever in the world but not of the world, as Nicky would say. The years and centuries of a strange and lonely life stretched before them, citizenship in a secret nation whose customs would forever need to evolve with the world around them. It had been exhilarating but frightening, fulfilling and lonely, and as they tumbled into this strange new life Joe and Nicky had been drawn together even more tightly.
Neither Nicky nor Joe knew much of anything about the politics of the conflict between the Western Liao and the Jin, and the many peoples who were caught up in it, so they were more or less content to follow Andy and Quỳnh’s lead in this as in everything else.
Joe thought, in retrospect, that he and Nicky had both as good as worshipped the women, though their younger selves would have considered this to be idolatry had anyone suggested it to them. His Nicolò was possessed of a pilgrim soul, forever seeking the good, and Andy and Quỳnh had long since wearied of endless and aimless violence. Having pledged themselves to battle for just causes and defend the defenseless, they had been more than willing to direct Nicky’s valiant heart into what they considered the proper channels, and Nicky deferred to them with a kind of awed humility.
For Joe’s part, he had found it a relief and a blessing and an inspiring beauty to be presented with a model of what he and Nicky could be, a place they could occupy in the world. They were not mere accidents of nature; they had a purpose, a part to play in some grand history, and the conventions of the world were as nothing compared to this mystical truth, a truth that Quỳnh and Andromache embodied. The symmetry of two women and two men loving each other, the idea of an undying brotherhood and sisterhood of arms, it had inspired Joe to better himself in learning and poetry, in the art of war, in making love to the man who held his heart in his hands.
This was not to say that all was smooth sailing. They had not all yet come to understand each other, and they were all too spirited to avoid quarrels.
On this particular day, a conflict that had been brewing for a week finally came to a head. Nicky had recently begun to confuse and irritate the women by doing such things as packing away their tent as well as his and Joe’s and cleaning up the remnants of their campfire in the mornings. Andy had wondered if he thought them incapable because they were women; Quỳnh had wondered if he thought he was their servant as the youngest of the group. Joe, who had known Nicky many years by then, thought that it was something else entirely—he knew how well Nicky liked both Andy and Quỳnh, and it had occurred to him that Nicky sometimes showed his liking by taking on tasks he thought would make someone’s life easier.
When he had helped Nicky explain this to Andy and Quỳnh one morning, they had been content and happy with the extra help, though Quỳnh was rather particular about how her tent was put away. The rest of the day was spent learning the practical ins and outs of the efficient construction and deconstruction of a ger. Nicky, who had learned better than most men that good intentions were no substitute for good deeds, was an attentive student, as was Joe, who thought that this would probably come in handy someday.
Joe had not been content to leave it at that, though. That night, he had tried an experiment. Decades of making love with the same man had taught him the power that his words gave him over Nicky; reciting poetry, describing sex acts, or simply talking about the weather while he jerked Nicky off or fucked him or received a blowjob would amplify his pleasure, which in turn amplified Joe’s. But that night, in their smoky felt tent, Joe had tried to harness this power by giving Nicky instructions: this was how he should open Joe with his fingers, this was how he should enter him, this was the rhythm Joe wanted. His success had been extraordinary, and both he and Nicky had passed an intensely pleasurable evening. In the afterglow, curled up together in their thick fur and wool rugs, he had asked Nicky whether he liked taking orders in bed. Joe, who thought of himself as a worldly man, had read about such things. It was no hardship to indulge Nicky if he enjoyed it—Joe had certainly gotten a thrill from it.
Nicky, languid in the aftermath of their sex, had pondered this for so long that Joe thought he had fallen asleep, but finally he had said in a low voice, “I think it’s more that I like making you happy, and knowing that I’ve done it. ” He had paused, his eyes reflecting the low light of the banked coals as he stared steadily at Joe. “I like to listen to your voice, to hear if I’ve succeeded. I want to be…a safe harbor for you, maybe. Or…or a garden where you can always find anything you want. You know I am no poet,” he’d added apologetically.
But Joe had understood what he had meant, the depth of feeling behind it, and he had felt love, of which he had foolishly thought he understood the bounds and limits, swell inside of him like an ocean. Pushing himself up onto his elbows so that he could cover Nicky’s body with his own and stare down at his face, stark with shadows but with a softness even in its austere lines, Joe had said…
What had he said? He couldn’t remember the words, now, only the feeling, the weighty delight of loving and being loved with equal fervor, a sensation that seemed to fill him to the brim like an overflowing cup. It was the same feeling pushing at him from the inside now as he watched Nicky wash him, his focus entirely on Joe.
“You know,” he said, “it’s a cliché to say that words cannot describe something, but it’s true—I genuinely don’t have words for how I love you. But it’s such a joy to try and speak it anyway.”
Nicky huffed one of his quiet laughs, but his hand slowed on Joe’s chest, and he leaned his head in closer to Joe as if to share his breath.
“I feel sorry for everyone who has to go through life without such a love,” Joe continued. “In such a cold and complicated universe, I’ve been blessed beyond measure, to be joined with the one person out of all the billions on this earth who is the other half of my soul. Who is water when I’m thirsty. A solid place to stand when everything is shifting around me. A balm when my heart is sore.” Joe could feel his eyes burning with tears. “A gentle hand to clean my wounds. Dexterity when I can’t untie my bootlaces. A safe harbor. A garden where I can always find anything I want.”
He didn’t have to ask if Nicky remembered that night on the steppes; his mouth quivered, and his own eyes widened, startlingly blue-green against his flushed face and vulnerable in a way Nicky seldom was. “Joe,” he said, voice thick with emotion, and, finding this inadequate, he leaned in to kiss Joe’s brow, his temple, his nose, before pulling back to try again. “You are everything to me.”
For all he deprecated his own verbal skills, at times Nicky had a real way of cutting to the heart of a matter.
He rested his forehead against Joe’s chest for the span of a few shaky breaths, and Joe stroked the back of his head, running his fingers through Nicky’s wet hair and reveling in this precious weight.
After a moment, though, Nicky seemed to have pulled himself together. Straightening, he pulled back slightly to give Joe’s body an admiring once-over.
Joe grinned, still feeling a little watery but content with the shift in mood, pleased at the attention. Sure, he knew he looked good, but the occasional reminder that he could still knock Nicky’s proverbial socks off never hurt. “Like what you see?”
“My God, you’re beautiful,” said Nicky, voice still serious but steadier and a shade lighter. “If I could only—” His eyes darted up to the ceiling as he thought, no doubt looking for the appropriate line of verse, before he visibly gave up.
“If you could only what?” pressed Joe. He loved poetry, loved Nicky’s love of it, but the knowledge that whatever came out of Nicky’s mouth next would be his own words was an incredible turn-on.
“Ah, it’s a little silly, but you know, sometimes we will be doing something perfectly ordinary—eating dinner or taking a walk or reading—and I will look at you and it’s like lightning to the heart. I feel like a schoolboy with a crush, full of butterflies. ‘I am sitting with the best and handsomest man in the world, and he likes me.’ And with you like this, talking like this?” He gestured toward Joe and shook his head. “It’s almost too much to bear.”
Silly, he’d said. Well, he was right about one part. “I like you?” Joe smiled and blinked away his tears, reaching out to trace a line of faint freckles along Nicky’s collarbone. “Little bit more than ‘like,’ my heart.”
“Little bit more than a crush,” said Nicky, smiling back at him. “Do you want me to wash your hair?”
It didn’t take long for Joe to consider and reject the possibility. It was a wonderful luxury for Nicky to wash his hair for him, to massage his scalp and rub beard balm into his facial hair, cradling Joe’s face in his hands, but it was an indulgence for a calmer time, a time when they would have weeks or months to themselves and could distract themselves from cares. “Not now,” he said. “I don’t want to wait.”
Nicky met his gaze calmly and stroked a thumb along Joe’s cheekbone. “Wait for what, my love?”
Half a dozen possibilities presented themselves. They could fuck between each other’s thighs, as they had done when they were still young men and not quite free enough of foolish ideas about manliness to submit to other sorts of sexual attention from each other. They could stay in the shower and Joe could return the favor of Nicky’s earlier blowjob. They could go out to the bed and Joe could fuck out his lingering unsettled energy into Nicky’s willing body. They could make out like teenagers and then go to bed early like old men.
But when he turned the matter over in his mind, Joe knew what he wanted. “I want you to fuck me until I come again from nothing other than the feel of your cock in me,” he said. “And I want you to stay hard for me without coming until I have finished and can blow you.” He cast a questioning glance at Nicky’s cock, which had taken varying levels of interest in the night’s proceedings but was straining again at Joe’s words. “Do you think you can do that, Nicky?”
Nicky blinked, his eyes going a little glassy and his shoulders rising and falling as the idea seemed to filter through his body. “If you ask me to,” he said slowly, “I can.”
“I am asking.”
“Okay,” said Nicky, exhaling heavily. “Okay. If you will stay here for a moment—”
Joe stood still as Nicky stepped out of the shower to grab a pair of towels and then ducked back in to turn the tap off. He barely had time to feel the chill of the cool air before Nicky was wrapping a towel around his shoulders and gently drying him. The shower was still steamy, held in by the glass walls that surrounded it, and the towel was thick and soft; Joe let himself luxuriate in it.
Leaving the towel twined around Joe’s lower body, Nicky grabbed the second towel he’d draped over his shoulder and dried himself off, much more efficiently than he had Joe. After briskly rubbing himself down, he squeezed some of the water out of his hair, and Joe found himself captivated by a single drop of water as it rolled down Nicky’s chest. Perhaps he should take up sculpting again, he pondered. This was a moment that deserved to be committed to marble.
The bedroom seemed cool in comparison to the bathroom, but Nicky’s mouth was hot, forceful in a way he had not been the rest of the night. They kissed frantically as Nicky herded Joe toward the bed, their mouths sometimes missing each other and sucking and biting their apologies and promises against the sides of necks and the undersides of jaws. There was something deliciously refreshing about the smooth, crisp bedspread against Joe’s skin as the edge of the bed hit the back of his knees and he sat, the towel around his hips falling to the floor in a crumpled mound.
“Fuck,” Joe groaned, his arousal reaching a new peak of urgency. He couldn’t keep his hands still—they couldn’t get enough of Nicky’s skin, the shape of him, the pulse of his blood thrumming in his neck or the feel of his chest rising and falling with his harsh breath.
“Lie back,” said Nicky, voice low and intense. “Come on. On the bed.”
No more words were needed—everything else that needed to be said could be said with hands and looks. With Nicky’s help, Joe arranged himself so that he was lying on his back, his head and shoulders elevated slightly by the fluffy hotel pillow and his legs spread and bent so that Nicky could kneel on the bed between them.
“Ah,” said Nicky, looking Joe over with warm, slightly dazed eyes. The dim light cast by the bedside lamp threw him in harsh shadow, but his face was soft. “What a sight.”
“I hope you’re not just going to look, love.”
Nicky smiled, the one-sided smile that wanted to be a grin but couldn’t muster up quite the level of mischievousness required. “No, not just going to look.” He reached across Joe’s body to the nightstand, where he’d earlier thrown what Joe had thought was the kit he used to care for their guns and swords. It was not gun oil, however, but one of their favorite brands of lubricant that he pulled from the bag.
“One never knows,” said Nicky with a shrug. It was this sort of thing that had made Booker accuse Nicky of being deliberately enigmatic—but Joe was not thinking about that now, as he watched his beloved squeeze a dollop of lube onto his fingers, warming it between his hands.
The first finger went in easily, not pressing but probing about inside Joe in an almost curious, playful way. It was not uncomfortable, but neither was it satisfying. “I’m still relaxed from earlier,” said Joe, not quite a hint to hurry up but a reminder.
“Yes, I know,” said Nicky, joining the first finger with a second. This one was a little more of a stretch, particularly when he started to move them around. Still he played with Joe, massaging and stroking and working him up without any apparent purpose other than driving Joe out of his mind. Joe wanted, wanted more, wanted those long and dexterous fingers to move faster, wanted Nicky’s cock, wanted this feeling of slick and aimless playful pleasure never to end. He felt himself squirming under the wave of sensation, heard himself make a whining kind of sigh.
“Fuck, you insufferable tease, you play me like an instrument!”
At that, Nicky broke out into one of his full-fledged smiles—the smile with teeth that pulled his cheeks up and filled the room with light like a full moon. His fingers, which had danced around it coyly, found Joe’s prostate, and stars exploded behind his vision.
“Oh,” was all he could manage, and a fervent hope that he had not yet come. He had been serious in his instructions to Nicky. He wanted nothing more in the world than to come on Nicky’s cock.
“You were saying?” asked Nicky.
Joe could take no more of this, and he pushed up on his elbows to drag Nicky down and take his mouth again. “Nicolò,” he said when he had run out of breath for kissing. “I need you.”
Nicky panted, flushed, looking at Joe with wide eyes. “You have me,” he said. He reached a hand down between their bodies to slick his cock and guide it home. He didn’t need to look—his body and Joe’s knew each other better than any other men’s ever had--so Joe could stare into those endlessly deep eyes as Nicky pushed himself in.
Nicky was thicker than his fingers had been, hotter, and Joe gasped with the pleasure of it as he was penetrated inch by inch. It didn’t matter how many times they did this, Joe was always amazed at how it felt. The fullness of it, the tightness and stretch as his body reluctantly welcomed Nicky in. The intimacy of it, taking his beloved into himself, the sense that perhaps they had gotten so close to each other that with one deep thrust their souls would intermingle, and Nicky’s heart would beat in his chest and his breath would fill Nicky’s lungs. Joe didn’t know how he had ever lived before discovering this warm and living delight. It was a joy in cold tents, in dusty safehouses, against the wall in clubs and in the backseats of cars, and it was a joy here and now in this soft and pristine bed they were even now mussing.
When he had finally impaled Joe to his core, Nicky let out a sharp breath and shut his eyes, probably willing himself not to come. Joe waited as patiently as he could; he had every faith in his man’s willpower.
After a moment, Nicky opened his eyes again, his brow now set in a determined furrow, and he braced himself above Joe to fuck into him in earnest.
He did not need direction or encouragement—other men could only dream of being or having such a lay as Nicolò of Genoa, who had been bringing pleasure to Yusuf al-Kaysani for almost a millennium and had it down to an art—but Joe had never been a quiet man, and Nicky liked to hear him. “Ah, fuck, Nicky, that’s it,” he got out as a hard thrust to his sweet spot sent sensation from his head to his toes. “Oh, oh, good, that’s so good,” he gasped as Nicky ground into him and nipped light, biting kisses over his chest and shoulders. He could say nothing at all at the slow glide of Nicky pulling himself almost all the way out before driving back in at a new angle that pushed all thought out of Joe’s mind. He could only moan in ecstasy.
Perhaps he would have begged Nicky to take his cock in hand in a moment, but Nicky, who remembered what Joe had asked of him better than Joe had, executed some fantastic sort of twisting motion with his hips that seemed to short-circuit Joe’s brain and had him coming with a cry over Nicky’s chest and stomach.
“Holy shit,” said Joe, shaky and dazed as he stared at the mess. “Holy shit, Nicky.”
“I will….” Nicky hadn’t come yet, still hard in Joe, but he looked just about as fucked-out as Joe felt. One of his arms trembled, threatening to buckle and dump him onto Joe, and he straightened it again with visible effort. “I will get a washcloth.”
Joe’s clarity was returning somewhat. “Like hell you will,” he said. “Let’s roll over.”
They maneuvered so as to put Nicky on his back while trying to stay on the same side of the bed—no sense messing the whole thing up. Joe enjoyed the feeling of Nicky’s cock in him for one more long moment before pulling off and devoting himself to cleaning Nicky with his mouth.
He took his time lapping the mess off of Nicky’s stomach, knowing that his beloved had been very patient but was, in the end, only human and would not last long once Joe finally got his mouth on him. There were few things in life that Joe enjoyed more than the feel and taste of his own spend against Nicky’s skin, and as his sex-dazed mind continued to clear, he traced patterns against Nicky’s trim body, spelling out silent words of love with his tongue.
Nicky shuddered underneath him, stomach muscles twitching, and Joe looked up to meet his eyes. Nicky’s gaze was soft, expectant, still yearning. “Good?” he asked.
“Marvelous,” said Joe. “You were perfect for me, Nicky. Just what I needed.”
The praise made Nicky smile his moonlight smile and made his dick twitch against Joe’s body.
He had more than earned a blowjob, Joe decided. “You ready to come?”
“I—yes. That. Please.”
Joe needed no further confirmation. He ducked down to wrap his lips around Nicky. As he had earlier guessed, it didn’t take long. Joe had barely begun to tease at Nicky’s length with his tongue before Nicky made a sharp, bitten-off sound, grasped at Joe’s hair, and flooded his mouth. Joe didn’t mind—he would have the opportunity to take his time with Nicky’s cock later. For now, he swallowed and lapped up what he had missed, and when his beloved was more or less clean, he crawled back up the bed to rest his head on Nicky’s shoulder. “Good?” he asked.
“The best,” said Nicky, whose arm had wriggled under Joe to wrap around and stroke at his ribcage. With his other hand, he reached to flip off the lamp. “The best I have felt in ages.”
Joe smiled, feeling contentment wrapping around him like a blanket, and nuzzled his face into Nicky’s shoulder.
The air conditioner in the room hummed away in the corner, and the distant noise of the city was muffled by thick windows and some twenty-five floors. They tugged the mussed sheets over their naked bodies and curled into each other, and the night felt like a watchful friend. The rise and fall of Nicky’s chest slowed as he dozed off, and Joe rested his hand on his stomach, careful not to wake him. Nicky had never been an easy sleeper, falling asleep slowly and waking quickly, but they had discovered over the years that sex was an effective treatment for his insomnia. It wasn’t as often as he liked that Joe got to watch Nicky sleep, but it was always a lovely sight, lovelier for the knowledge that it was because they had worn each other out with their lovemaking.
For Joe’s part, he was physically tired but still wakeful. Not because he was still troubled, he didn’t think—his heart felt light, his body wholly sated. He would have to shower again in the morning, of course, but Nicky’s thorough cleaning and fucking had left him feeling like a sort of happy puddle.
No, it was not his heart but his mind that was still mulling things over, moving things around the way he did when he was trying to write something and the parts just didn’t fit together until a moment of serendipity. Sex could be clarifying, for lack of a better word, uncovering thoughts that had been covered in gloomy emotion until Nicky swept it away with his dick or his ass or his mouth. Joe had written many a ghazal in the midst of a hazy afterglow. But he was not thinking about poetry at the moment.
He was thinking about another time they had lain in the bed of a hotel, in Southampton, some handful of centuries ago. It had not been nearly so quiet. The pounding of the surf, the calling of seagulls, the howling of the wind—they had long been familiar to Nicky and Joe, a soundscape full of memories of home, but to their weary and heartsick ears, the sounds had taken on the grim character of a bad omen.
They had been searching for Quỳnh for almost a decade, and the fire that had fueled them through those first harsh and angry years was cooling to desperation. Anyone with direct knowledge of where Quỳnh had sunk into the waves had told them what he knew, had died, or both. No iron casket with a woman inside had been washed onto the shores of Bournemouth or Portsmouth or the Isle of Wight. No ship sailing into any of these ports from the Atlantic had brought word of it. They had wrecked multiple ships, killed anyone who tried to capture them, drowned again and again and again.
All of them were crumbling in one way or another. Joe found himself prey to fickle moods, dark spells of melancholy, anger that rose and fell like a sudden storm and left him shaken in its wake. Nicky had gone cold and quiet, barely sleeping and watching the world with a harsh, vigilant gaze. And Andy, well. They had both been terrified that Andy would fling herself into the ocean and never come back up again, choosing the bottom of the ocean over the world without her love. To look at her was to look at a shattered sculpture or a burnt-out home, something beautiful that had been deliberately destroyed.
It felt like, for the third time in Joe’s long life, the world had ruptured, been turned on its head. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that Quỳnh could possibly be gone, that they could search forever and never find her. How could their team, their family have been broken by small-minded fucks with nothing more than their stupid ideas about witchcraft, a functioning smithy, and a boat? How could these two women, these ancient warriors capable of taking on an army by themselves, have been split apart by a group of infinitesimally young idiots who were probably incapable of imagining what they had condemned Quỳnh to?
Then again, Joe had thought darkly, maybe they could imagine it. Maybe they weren’t stupid, simply cruel, hungry for the suffering they inflicted.
What, he’d wondered, was the purpose of it all? The sea, dark and seething with foaming waves, seemed to echo his mood as he gazed at it from the inn window. Why had Andy and Quỳnh risked and lost so much for the sake of women who were now no better off than they had been? In this world, all they had was each other—how could they have been so recklessly arrogant as to throw that away, again and again, for the sake of people who did not and could not know them or care about them except as something to exploit or destroy?
Despair was not a familiar emotion to Joe. Maybe in the closing years of the eleventh century he had briefly wished for death, but it was not in his nature to cling to such desires. The world brought too many small joys—birdsong, fresh fruit, a good new play, Nicky’s face first thing in the morning—for him to wish for an end to it. Small joys had carried him through world wars and revolutions, through the rise and fall of nations, through never-ending cycles of death and rebirth. But on that cold and windy day, he’d wondered if he had been fooling himself. Giving the world too much credit. Or perhaps giving himself too much credit, to imagine that anything he did could change it for the better.
He didn’t know how long he had sat there by himself before Nicky had come in, bearing some dubious meat pies from the inn’s kitchen. Maybe he’d been out to run other errands for a few hours, or maybe he’d only left Joe alone for a few minutes to run down and get some food. Joe didn’t remember. But it didn’t matter. The important thing he remembered now was Nicky’s face when he’d come into the room and met Joe’s eyes. Whatever he’d been saying about the meat pies was forgotten, and he’d left them on the room’s little table to come and kneel in front of Joe’s chair.
He hadn’t asked what was wrong—everything was wrong. They both knew it. Instead he had put his hands on Joe’s knees, and the fierce, hardened look he had been giving the world for the last few years was now directed at Joe. Joe’s champion, once again offering him his sword.
But there was nothing and no one to fight, and Joe’s grim mood shattered into a swelling, aimless misery. He’d pulled Nicky up to him so that he could bury his face in Nicky’s shirt and weep.
He hadn’t even finished weeping before telling Nicky to take him to bed, to fuck him, and Nicky, a heaven-sent gift for whom Joe could never be grateful enough, had asked no questions before obeying. Nicky’s inclination might have been toward something slow and gentle, particularly with Joe still crying, but Joe had needed something hard and fast that would drive the dark thoughts from his head, and so Nicky had given it to him. His orgasm had been almost painful and left him feeling drained but also somehow cleansed, as if he had shed some oily slick of melancholy clinging to him like a second skin.
In the aftermath, shaky but more present than he had felt in months, he had clung to Nicky in the narrow hard bed of the inn, while Nicky stroked a comforting hand over his back and sang folk songs from his childhood in a soft voice.
Eventually, Joe had felt collected enough to say, “We will never find her.”
Joe had expected an immediate denial—reassurances that they would find Quỳnh had become rote on their tongues these days whenever they spoke to Andy. Instead, Nicky had thought quietly about it, his eyes drifting over to the window as he watched the waves. “I think we will,” he said finally.
“Why?” Joe demanded, now outraged by the reassurance he had thought he wanted. “Why do you think we will? How long do you think we can keep this up?”
“I don’t mean that I think we will find her now. I mean that I think we have been given reason to hope.”
Joe had pushed himself away to sit up and lean against the wall, peering down in irritated bafflement at Nicky. “What reason? What hope? Can you even imagine what it is to drown again and again and again and to know that you may never be found? What hope do you think Quỳnh has been offered?”
Nicky was not without a hot temper of his own, but it had not made an appearance then; instead he had looked up at Joe with calm eyes. “She has been given time. As have we. We have all been given lifetimes in which to learn and to seek and to overcome.”
“And to feel endless pain,” Joe said bitterly.
“Pain, yes,” said Nicky, nodding slowly. “And longer than most endure. But endless? No. Maybe we don’t know how to find her now. Maybe she doesn’t know how to escape. But we have outlived so many enemies. Suffered much and come back from it. We will live to see the end of this, too. We will watch, and learn, and we will find her, or she will find us, or we will find each other.”
Joe had felt hope, which had been a pain to him for years, suddenly cease to wound him, its edges softening in his heart. “You really believe this,” he said, still hesitant.
“I will tell you what I do not believe. I do not believe that God would have brought the four of us together to be separated like this forever. I do not believe that Quỳnh should spend thousands of years serving as a sword for justice and a shield for the weak only to be given over to eternal suffering. I do not believe that our lives have been given to us as a punishment. And I do not believe that despair should have the last word.”
“I don’t know if I can wait,” Joe had said, choking up again. “I don’t know if I can stand this world until we find her again.”
“You can,” said Nicky implacably. “You are a kind man, and a wise one, and a patient one. You see the good in everything and everyone, and you have everything in you that you need. And if your spirits fail….” He laid a hand on his heart before reaching out to Joe, spreading his fingers against Joe’s chest. “Everything that is good in me is yours. Therefore, avoid vices, cherish virtues, raise up your mind to blameless hopes, extend your humble prayers into the lofty heights. We will keep going, and do as much good in the world as we can, and we will be reunited with Quỳnh. This is not the end of it, beloved.”
And then Joe had felt a peace settle upon him, and he’d reached out for Nicky, and…
Joe’s eyes blinked open, his memories of the Southampton inn replaced with the sight of Copley’s luxury hotel suite, the sounds of the sea replaced with the hum of the air conditioner.
It seemed he had fallen asleep at some point and dreamed part of the remembered conversation. It wasn’t a time in his life he liked to think of all that often, and he and Nicky didn’t talk about it much. But he did dream of that day sometimes, and he always woke feeling comforted.
They’d shifted at some point to face each other like a pair of parentheses, and in the dark of the hotel room, Joe could just make out the outlines of Nicky’s face, peaceful in sleep. He reached across to run his fingers through Nicky’s hair, listening to him sigh, and wondered if Nicky still felt that certain hope. Perhaps, like Joe, he held it in himself as a buried treasure and pulled it out when needed to warm himself with it.
Nicky’s eyes opened, reflecting glints of light from the window, and he reached up to clasp Joe’s arm.
“Sorry,” Joe whispered, pulling his hand away. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Nicky made an eloquent noise of indifference without ever opening his mouth and reclaimed Joe’s hand to kiss it before letting it go again. Stretching his shoulders and legs, he yawned loudly. “You look like you’re thinking,” he said. “What are you thinking about?”
Thinking about you, as always, he could have said, or thinking about that night in Southampton, you remember the one. But his thoughts were beginning to take a more poetic turn, falling into a rough al-kamil.
“The man who holds my heart in endless sway,” he began, switching to Arabic, “he holds the ocean in his eyes and heart. Its storms and waves are humbled by his rage; as ships dart swift upon its placid planes, and sunlight flashes on its calm blue face, his smile brings peace to hearts and joy to souls. The moon will change the tides and time the world, but he a constant in his depths remains, his virtue like the stars a means to steer. In him I know that all things will be found; what time has lost, the water will return.”
Nicky blinked a few times, the movement barely visible in the darkness, before breaking out in an incredulous, delighted laugh. “Did you write that just now?”
If every poet had so appreciative an audience as Nicky, Joe thought fondly, poets would be notorious worldwide for their swollen heads. “More or less.”
“You brilliant man. I will have to remind you to write that one down.” The fancy memory foam mattress shifted beneath them as Nicky rolled onto his side. Resting his elbow on the pillow, he propped his head up on his hand so as to fix Joe with a familiar look of mingled adoration and amusement. “How do you come up with these things?”
It might have been the hundredth or the thousandth time he’d asked Joe that, but Joe never tired of it—the answer was always different. “Writing isn’t simply a thing that happens when I sit down with a pen in my hand,” he said. “It doesn’t happen all at once. You know, sometimes it’s just bits and pieces that just pop into my head and I write them down for later, and sometimes it’s a single line that I go over again and again, and sometimes there’s nothing at all one day, but then I’ll wake up the next day with the whole poem that was troubling me laid out perfectly in my mind.”
“Ah,” said Nicky with a mournful air. It would have worked better if he could have restrained his grin. “All this time I’ve wondered where you find such beautiful words, and it turns out that you write them in your sleep.”
“Well, I was dreaming about you, so I really might have this time.” He gazed at Nicky, feeling once again the weight of his love. “I’m always writing poetry about you, you know that?”
Nicky laughed. “I do know it.”
“No.” Joe shook his head. “You know the stuff I tell you about or show you. I don’t write all of it down, though, a lot of it ends up lousy and I forget about it, but I’m always thinking about it. Every day, all these little things inspire me. Your fascination with supermarket tabloids. Your talent at chopping onions. The way you always put your tee-shirts on backwards the first time and have to take them off and put them on again.”
“I do not always put my shirts on backwards,” said Nicky indignantly, cuffing Joe lightly across the chest.
“You do! It’s amazing--you’d think that even if the tag weren’t there, you’d put them on right way round at least half of the time by pure chance, but no!” Joe shook his head again, picturing it. “It’s the funniest thing, and I love it. I’ve written half a dozen epigrams about it.”
“Works of art, I’m sure.” Nicky’s tone and face said that he had not quite conceded the tee-shirt battle.
But of course, Nicky could only see himself from the inside, and for all his perspicacity, he didn’t always see the parts of himself that Joe wanted to remember. “It doesn’t matter if they’re good, I just want to preserve that somehow. I want to preserve all of it. The way you focus behind a sniper rifle, your patience and cool head. The face you make drinking really good coffee. Your steady hands polishing a sword.”
He looked at those hands now, thinking of all the violence, the expressiveness, the tenderness they were capable of. The things that Nicky chose to do with them. “There’s a scene that I’ve seen countless versions of over the years,” he said, “and I want to write a poem to commemorate every one of them. It’s the scene where we are at a party, and you are standing to help the hostess before I’ve realized that she hasn’t sat down all evening. Or we are among a crowd of people we are trying to help, and you are comforting a child before anyone else has noticed that the child is afraid. Or some idiot has said something shitty to you, and you realize the pain that this shittiness comes from while I am still sputtering with anger, and you strike the idiot such a blow with your kindness that he cannot help but walk away a better person.”
The corner of Nicky’s mouth turned down. “I think you give me too much credit,” he said, his tone more somber.
“Maybe,” said Joe. “I’m not exactly an unbiased observer. But I don’t think so. I see the way you see what other people need, the way you see what I need, and I want it to be remembered. And you’re always doing things worthy of being remembered, and so I will always have material to write poems about.”
“Hmm.” Nicky seemed to digest this. “Do you mind if I turn on the light?”
“Not at all.” He closed his eyes against the dim light of the bedside lamp, which seemed bright against the dark, and listened as Nicky stepped out of bed and walked across the room. A door opened and closed, and Nicky was settling back into bed. He tapped Joe on the hand with something cold. “Here,” he said. “All the steam earlier—we should rehydrate.”
Joe opened his eyes again to see Nicky holding out a plastic cup of orange juice to him. “From the mini-fridge. It’s from concentrate,” said Nicky apologetically. “And there is no ice. But at least it’s cold.”
It was at that, and sweet, and Joe hadn’t quite realized how thirsty he had been until he tasted it. “You know they’re gonna charge an arm and a leg for this, right?” He shook his head in mock sorrow. “Poor Mr. Copley, his bill full of incidental charges.”
“He can spare the money.” Nicky sipped his own juice, and they sat together in contented quiet. When Joe had just about finished his cup, Nicky set his own on the nightstand and said, “I am not always writing poetry about you. I think if I wrote poems about the face you make when you’re checking if a melon is ripe or your enthusiasm over your fantasy football league, they would come out as the worst Latin hexameters the world has ever seen.”
“I’d read ‘em,” said Joe, who had in fact read a couple of Nicky’s hexameters in the past. They were a little stilted and convoluted, but Joe still loved them.
“Thank you, I think I will spare us all.” His eyes cut over to Joe, still light-hearted but sincere. “Just because I am not always composing odes to you, though, doesn’t mean I’m not always thinking about you.”
“I know that.”
“I hope so,” said Nicky seriously. “I hope I can….” He sighed. “Yusuf, loving you has been the greatest and the easiest work of my life. I want very badly to give you what you need, always. But you should know that you are always giving me what I need, too. If I were going to write a poem, it would be about the way you have made the world a home for us. So many countries, so many years, and I barely recognize the world around us sometimes. If it were me alone, I would pull away. Just…just retreat into myself, not be a part of things anymore.”
Joe didn’t personally think that that was true, but he knew what Nicky was trying to say, and so he kept quiet to let him say it.
“But with you, every new place we go, you have found the best restaurant in the area, and learned enough of the language to have a conversation in it, and made friends with the neighbors. And of course they have become your friends, too, because they see in you what I see in you—that you are like the sun, bringing light and warmth and life with you. Blessed be He who arranged the manner of being of His creation in such a way that you should be the only beautiful, natural light in it.”
“Oh, Nicolò,” said Joe, overwhelmed, and Nicky smiled swiftly at him and reached for Joe’s free hand, twining their fingers together.
“And because you have made this home for us, I can believe that this country, that this century can also be ours. That I, too, can belong to this world. So I will never be alone. And tonight, you saw I needed this very badly, and you gave it to me. So I hope while you are writing your qasā'id you don’t forget about this.”
“It was just as much a gift for me,” Joe pointed out. “I needed it, too. It’s been too long since we really got to take our time with each other.”
“Yeah,” Nicky agreed. And then, “Do you want more juice?”
He did not want more juice. He wanted to kiss Nicky again, so he did, and afterwards he held his beloved’s face in his hands and said, “Babe, I’ve changed my mind.”
“About what?” asked Nicky, staring at Joe’s mouth like he wasn’t quite finished with the kissing.
“This group is not going to fall apart.” Joe didn’t wait for Nicky to catch up to him—knowing Nicky, he was already halfway there. “We’re going to take care of Andy. Booker and Quỳnh are going to come back to us.. And Nile’s going to be the best part we never knew we were missing. Someday I might even feel okay about working with motherfucking Copley.” Maybe, he reflected, working with Copley would even yield unexpected benefits. Perhaps his experiences at the CIA would provide new ideas about finding Quỳnh, and Joe would actually be surprised if Copley and Booker weren’t already in contact. Maybe destiny had had a hand in bringing Copley to them, too.
But the specifics weren’t as important now as the cautious hope in Nicky’s face. How many times had they kept each other afloat over the years? Joe would not let Nicky sink now. He reached out to hold Nicky’s hand to his own chest, letting his love feel the steadiness of his heart. “It won’t be easy,” he said. “But as a wise man once told me, you have everything in you that you need, and all the good parts of me are yours. You always have me. I always have you. And I promise you, that’ll be enough to carry us into the future.”
Nicky’s throat moved as he swallowed, and his eyes swept up to meet Joe’s, looking into them searchingly. And then, slowly, he said, “If you say it, I will believe it.”
Joe willed every ounce of his faith and love into his face. “I am saying it.”
A smile stretched across Nicky’s face—a hesitant smile, a disbelieving one, but no less joyful for all of that. “So be it, then,” he said. “And if you say: ‘It is possible to reach the sky,’ I reply: ‘Yes, and I know where the stairs may be found.’”
“You said it, Nicky.” Joe lay his head back against the pillow and let himself imagine it—let himself imagine his family whole and happy and facing the next century, the next millennium, side by side. “Let’s reach for the sky.”
“Wow,” said Nile when she reached their table by the breakfast buffet the next morning. “You guys are in a good mood this morning.” She sounded almost suspicious about it.
Joe grinned at her. “We sure are.” He’d woken Nicky with a blowjob, and then Nicky had jerked him off slowly, and then they’d gone for another go-round in the luxurious shower. And when they’d gotten out of the shower and dried themselves, Nicky had picked out one of his dozens of identical gray tee-shirts and put it on backwards. Realizing his mistake almost immediately, he’d pulled it off and glared at Joe. Not a word, he’d said as he fixed it. Not one word. Joe hadn’t stopped smiling in the elevator the whole way down to the breakfast room.
“Got laid last night, huh?” Andy said wryly. She didn’t look like her own amorous adventures had filled her with a renewed vigor for life, but neither did she look like she’d had a bad time.
“Can’t recommend it highly enough,” said Joe cheerfully, and Nicky rolled his eyes.
“Here,” he said, pouring cups of coffee for Nile and Andy from the pot he’d requested. “The waitress has already taken our drink orders, but she’ll be back. Andy, they have mimosas.”
“Very nice. Love me a breakfast cocktail,” Andy said, spearing a bite of Nicky’s fancy goat cheese scrambled eggs off his plate. Nicky very kindly didn’t remind her that it was a buffet and she could get her own eggs.
They ordered a mimosa for Andy and a cranberry juice for Nile while the women filled their plates at the buffet. When they came back, Joe let everyone dig in before asking, “So, Nile, did you decide what you wanted to do to celebrate your first successful train heist?”
“Shh!” Nile hissed, looking around as if she thought the people at the next table over were spying on them rather than having a quarrel over their teenage son playing on his phone through breakfast. “Did they not have stealth in the eleventh century?”
“Hadn’t been invented yet,” said Nicky, deadpan.
“Yeah, yeah, not until you and Joe invented it, old man, I know how these stories go,” Nile said, glancing once more at the family with the teenage son before cutting impatiently into her bagel, which was covered in lox and avocado and some sort of cheese that Joe couldn’t identify by sight. Finally the bagel seemed to give in, and Nile looked up again. “Are art museums gonna put us on anyone’s radar? Because the one three blocks from the hotel has an exhibit on the human body and the perception of time. I thought it sounded pretty appropriate.” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out one of the brochures the hotel left in a binder in every suite.
“Oh, fuck stealth,” said Joe, scooting his yogurt parfait out of the way so he could rest his elbows on the table and look at the brochure. Modern art exhibits were exciting to him—he always walked out feeling exhilarated and refreshed, whether the art was to his taste or not. “I love museums, let’s do it.”
Nile smiled at him. “Yeah?” What a bright star she was, thought Joe. Six months she had been among them, and he loved her already.
“May I see the brochure?” asked Nicky. Joe slid it over to him, and he glanced it over, smiling to himself. To Nile, he said, “We can make a day of it. An art museum sounds fun.”
“Yeah, if you like reading absolutely every sign in the goddamned museum.” Andy gave Nile a hearty slap on the shoulder. “Stick with me if you actually want to get through the exhibit. These two’ll spend all day staring at the same painting.”
“Ah, don’t listen to her, Nile,” said Joe, feeling buoyant. “We just like to get the whole museum experience.”
“The museum experience, huh?” asked Nile, eyebrow raised. “Okay, well, if you guys are actually interested…can I see that?” Nicky handed her the brochure back, and she spread it across the table. “I actually had a couple of specific pieces I wanted to see, while we’re there,” she explained, and she flipped the brochure to a page with a map of the museum’s permanent collections.
Joe listened to Nile talk about the museum’s holdings, watched Andy sip her cocktail, met Nicky’s eyes briefly across the table and winked, enjoying the way that Nicky’s attention was momentarily distracted.
The world turned. Change was a constant. But in the grand scheme of years and centuries, the man who could not appreciate a single good day was missing out on something important. And Joe did not intend to miss out on today. He had a feeling it would be one to remember.