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When The Cherries White With Blossoms, Be Ready & Be Brave

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Joe woke up, attention shifting from lackadaisical to alert between seconds. His brain spat out memories in unreliable order, giving him conflicted messages of danger. He tensed, his thoughts slow to unmuddle.

Oh, he was tired.

Bed. He was in bed. In Surrey--Copley’s house. One of his guest rooms. There was too much space—the bed was too big, adding to his anxiety. He had pushed the mattress into the corner to box it in and give his poor instincts a chance to relax. He had fallen asleep with Nicky against his chest and his back to the wall. Safe, then.

Awake, things had changed. His back was still against the wall, but his arms were empty. Nicky sat upright beside him; a hand occasionally skated over Joe’s shoulder, up his neck, stopping to trace under his jaw and back again. A book rested on his lap, and he scratched at its pages with a marker. The strong smell of ethanol ink caught in Joe’s nose, shaking him out of his sleep fog.

“What are you doing?” he mouthed into Nicky’s thigh. They had slept in their clothes, unwilling to let their guard down in Copley’s territory.

“Watching you sleep.”

“What else are you doing?”

“Rewriting King Lear,” Nicky said. His voice was plagued with distraction. Joe pulled himself up enough to see the page; Act II ran red with slashed words. His lover’s eyes were the color of the sky just before a tornado touched down.

The sun had barely risen. Not that Surrey’s muddy weather made that obvious. Long shadows painted the room. Everything in this place was stark and neutral and far too orderly. It felt like sleeping in a museum--the formality and over-designed spaces were impossible to get comfortable in. He yearned to paint the room with chaos and color and emotion--anything to remember what life looked like.

He wasn’t the only one feeling on edge; a handgun waited on the table. Nicky didn’t sleep without one close by when he didn’t trust their safety. His ability to wake up, aim, and shoot in moments was a subject of envy on Joe’s part for centuries. He was slower to come around, absorbing details in increments. The coordination of a weapon was as beyond his sleep-addled self as sunlight to the far side of the moon. Nicky, however, took in everything from the start.

And he multitasked like a monster; the hand on him had wandered into his hair for long, slow strokes that made it hard to think, but Nicky’s attention was still on the page.

“I know Shakespeare is no Al-Mutanabbi but is the massacre of his written word really necessary so early in the morning?” he asked.

“I think so,” Nicky said as he scratched out another line. Since he didn’t seem inclined to give his lover his full attention, Joe let his fingers do as they pleased, teasing at the delicate skin of Nicky’s inner thigh through his clothes.

It got him a hissed breath. A bemused smile and a flicker of his gaze. A red mark across his knuckles when Nicky retaliated with a swipe of his pen.

But then his attention returned to the page. Concern grew from sudden roots in Joe’s mind. Nicky had been quiet since the Prospect of Whitby. Since Booker. Since the revelation of Copley’s research and tracking of their lives. He avoided eye contact. Kept his opinions and thoughts short. Drifted for hours at a time in silence. Had not eased the burden that so clearly hung off his shoulders.

The last time he had been like this had been in the years after they lost Quynh. He would find his way back--Joe had faith in that. But leaving Nicky alone in this was anathema to him.

“Where did you get a copy of King Lear?” he asked, more to draw a conversation to life.

“Copley has a library down the hall. I found it while he was explaining his research.”

“Let me see.” He took the book from unresisting hands. Eyed the carnage. There was no pattern in the lines Nicky deleted—just impulse and reaction. A stick figure was doodled in the upper corner, locked in the throes of a painful death. He suspected it was supposed to be Merrick. Nicky was not an artist. When he engaged with the creative spirit, visceral emotion drove him.

One line amongst the survivors of the rampage jumped out: Prithee, if thou lov’st me, tell me.

Joe wanted to write that one across Nicky’s forehead in big, bold lettering. He exchanged the marker for a kiss. His lover gave both to him willingly; his pale face was tired, and his limbs slow to behave. Fresh concern came down hard.

“Did you get any sleep?”

“It’s hard to drift off here,” Nicky admitted.

He agreed. But restlessness was something he could help with. The book and the marker were cast into the blankets around them, forgotten. He pushed Nicky down into the sheets. Clothes weren’t so much a challenge as they were another layer he knew how to strip away with frank familiarity.

“Forget Shakespeare,” he muttered, nudging Nicky’s chin up until their eyes met. “We’ll find a book of Abu Nuwas’ work--the uncensored stuff. I’ll read it to you.”

Nicky stared at Joe with shaded adoration, tentatively coming out from the cold. Joe offered him heat and comfort and more, calling him out of his melancholy. Long fingers clasped his bearded chin and brought him in for a deep, slow kiss.

But he stayed quiet. Even his moans here lesser, tucked under his breath and held close to his chest.

The problem was that Joe loved a gentle heart. And gentle hearts couldn’t help but empathize and to fathom. Nicky twisted his emotions in knots, trying to understand everything the last few weeks had brought. From Andy’s breaking of their year of limbo to the revelation of their lives tacked on an investigative board. Nile’s arrival. Booker’s betrayal. Andy’s mortality. They had gone centuries as they were, working small and dedicated and in the shadows. And in a week, everything Joe had come to take as undeniable had changed. Destiny certainly had a nasty sense of humor.

“I’m here,” he whispered. “Put me to good use.”

“Help me think about something else,” Nicky asked. Exhaustion and a tint of desperation touched his eyes. He pulled Joe close, tried to hide in his shoulder. Nails bit into his skin, tiny points of pain urging him on.

He kissed a line of devotion that long, pale neck, taking a leisurely path down. His reward was a breathless whine; Joe could spend a lifetime detailing that holy noise. Reverential and fervent, like he was releasing wanton life itself from his body. Like he was trying to find divinity in the meeting of their bodies.

Large and slender hands sank into his dense curls. Cradled him with a firm and loving touch, fingers taking the time to get familiar with the vulnerable parts of him. A wiry thumb brushed against the delicate skin behind his ear. Tapped at the joint of his jaw in playful distraction. They traveled with him on his way down; Joe laid blessings over his lover’s heart. Lavished the rungs of his ribs with kisses and praise. Teased a line of pleasure down his torso and between his thighs. Nicky’s short gasps and pleas left them both panting.

Their responsiveness to one another had only heightened over their centuries together. They reacted, tuning and priming to each other’s presence like finely-trained hunters. Half-hard and rocking into any tease or touch, Nicky keened in want. Petting at the sensitive junctures of those long legs and narrow hips, Joe settled between his thighs. Encouraged them to relax and hone in him and him alone.

When he took Nicky into his mouth, when fingers tightened in his hair, when a low voice suddenly took on depth and volume, Joe felt righteous and powerful. He worked with plenty of noise and spit, slicking the glide of his lover’s cock against his lips. Swallowed him down over and over. Demanded all of Nicky’s focus and attention, because they were the only ones who mattered in this moment. The world and the problems in it could be held off for a little longer.

He worked in his own time. Sometimes teasing, with light grazes and kisses. Sometimes taking Nicky deep down his throat. Played on instinct rather than rhythm, reading his lover’s body like a favorite book. Nicky was doing the same--they created a feedback loop between them, each acting and reacting to one another.

Nicky cried out when he came. Pulled at his hair, pressed himself deep in Joe’s throat. He swallowed down what he could and caught what he couldn’t. It was a mess, and he loved it. Things like this shouldn’t be neat and contained. He shook his own pleasure out of his bones and ached for more.

The grip at the base of his skull didn’t let him pull away. Nicky hauled him up with strength born of fervor. Kissed him, regardless of his seed on Joe’s tongue. Their breath mingled in short, puffing gasps as his lover graced him with a hard, intense kiss. He was hard and wanting, needing Nicky to help him get through it all.

They had been together for so long that it was nearly impossible to do this on his own anymore.

Joe accepted the ardor offered with soft favor. Let himself be pulled into Nicky’s lap, straddling narrow, powerful hips. Once released for longer than a breath, he hid his face in Nicky’s shoulder as those lovely hands skated down his back and around his waist. Braced his hips and drew him flush.

“Will you talk to me, my heart?” he asked.

Nicky kissed him instead, tasting of heat and hopelessness. That was the only answer he offered. When he pulled back, two fingers tapped at his lower lip. No words, then. Disappointment warred with desire as he opened his mouth. Accepted Nicky’s fingers as easily as he had his cock.

Half-laden eyes watched him, smoltering and blown large with lust. He had never been able to pin down their exact shade. He had once tried to make a list of all the things that undefinable blue-green color reminded him of--he added to it by the year. Yet he never came up with a single answer.

Once he had gotten Nicky’s fingers good and wet, they left him empty and panting. Were replaced with ambitious lips that plundered Joe’s mouth with lazy want. Those slicked fingers took his cock in hand like it belonged there. Stroked in one long, languished pull. Rationality was a far-gone dream.

Joe often wondered if the parts of themselves they regrew were virgin land; new flesh that didn’t know touch and sensation. Because he couldn’t otherwise understand how Nicky’s touch shocked and sparked desire in him like it was their first time all over again. How this man still drove him to such passionate highs. Why everything else drifted out of concern under his attention.

Pleasure buzzed harsh under his skin, building higher and higher and dragging him along with it. He cried and quivered, rocking into Nicky’s touch in a frantic, uncoordinated rush. Incredible competition shook him to a rigid standstill. Shot release through his life and limb. His breath abandoned him as his orgasm overtook his instinctual needs, gasping as his lover casually refamiliarized himself with intimate parts of him.

“There now,” Nicky whispered. Soft and low, his words reverberated in Joe’s chest. He pressed close into his lover’s embrace, wrapping them up together.

The book had been kicked off the bed during their coupling. Joe bid it good riddance. The shredded play was nothing but a reminder of their souls' shreds, patchy as they were with ugly healing—time to think of other things.

***

Nicky stayed passed out to the world for the rest of the morning. Under Joe’s hand, his chest rose and fell in steady time. A job done deserved a reward, and he was starving. He tossed the butchered play on the dresser and went in search of food.

Copley’s house was big and quiet. Paranoid in an unknown space, he put his boots on—they were muffled against the thick rugs that tracked the house. Like the guest room, there was too much space to get lost in and not see danger until it was on him. There was old money in a place like this--the kind of old money that spoke to too much power and too little ethics.

More money than an ex-CIA agent could easily boast. The man had mentioned a late wife—what had she done with her life to have this kind of legacy? Joe made a note to find out.

On the first floor, he followed the faint echo of voices. Things started to look familiar: he tracked them back to the den full of Copley’s research. Of their lives and their deeds. Of their choices, spread out on the wall.

Joe still didn’t know how he felt about that. Andy needed a comprehensive perspective. Nile needed a purpose for what was happening to her. But he couldn’t shake the foreboding dread that came with being so voyeuristically studied. Idealized, and turned into some sort of spirit. Watched without his knowledge by a man who knew how to look past their defenses.

Copley’s reverence was unnerving. He and his family were trying to do the best they could against a tide of an evil and very human intent to harm. And some days, that was harder than others. He didn’t need someone’s genuflection heaped onto it.

He peeked inside the crack in the door. Andy and Nile nested on a long white couch, flipping through a collection of photographs set in an organized little binder. Copley was a respectable distance away in a low armchair, watching them with tired eyes that still carried a hint of awe and nerves. He cradled a stiff drink. Joe was a little envious.

Andy caught him before he could slip away. “Are you guys up?” she asked. Attention turned to him, making him grumpy as well as envious. He and Nicky had tapped out of studying the copious piles of research last night. Clearly, they had left a party behind.

“Do we need to be?” he asked.

Andy shook her head with a toneless hum. Winced, and put a hand on her abdomen. Joe was done with all of this.

“Then we’re not up yet.” he opted. If he got Nicky a few more hours’ sleep, and if he didn’t have to deal with anything happening in this room, he was all for it. “Is there food?”

Andy waved off Copley’s attempt to rise. Stretched to her feet and passed the album in her lap to Nile. She plucked a particular photo out of it and came to him. Flipped it in her fingers to show him the image.

In it, he and Nicky stood with a young Mexican revolutionary between them. The date in the corner labeled it the summer of 1912. “Remember him?” she asked.

“I do.” The young man--Emilio, his memory recalled--had seen Andy and Nicky come back after being riddled with bullets and hacked to pieces. Had watched what he considered a miracle with wide eyes. Had been convinced God had sent them to help their cause. He and Nicky had spoken to the young man at length about faith and belief. Emilio had loved them--but he hadn’t worshiped them. He instead took strength from them. Their conversations had been sparks of joy amongst a gruesome conflict.

“His granddaughter is a leading organizer against government abuse,” she told him. “She’s considering a run for office. And she’s as determined as he ever was.”

Joe accepted the photo, shaky. A year in the hills of Morelos meant they were covered in a healthy dose of scruff and grime and sweat. The lush landscape had been so different from the deserts of Jerusalem, where Joe’s memory took him back to in times of stress. He had rather liked the intense beauty of the rain and forest they had battled in.

He studied it on the way to the kitchen, when he realized Andy was still watching him with too wise eyes. Ducking away from the scrutiny, he found the foundations of a decent meal: coffee. Setting the brew to percolate, he raided the refrigerator. By the time he had banged something simple together, Andy had taken advantage of his hard work and stolen a cup from the maker. Her eyes were still watching, still waiting for the tension to break.

Joe wasn’t a particular fan of expectant silence. “What is it, Andy?” he finally asked.

“Booker thinks you’re the reason it’s one hundred years,” she replied, quiet. She spooned a hefty dose of honey into her cup, the silver tapping circles around the delicate white mug. Even Copley’s dishware was too fancy. Joe wondered how rude it would be to break a few plates, just for the joy of being inconvenient.

“I know. I don’t care,” he said, unrepentant. He had made no secret of his displeasure. Of the hurt and anger and fear Booker’s actions had ignited in him. For himself and for those he cared about. For that, Joe would be slower than creeping ice to forgive.

His favorite idea had been to go a few dozen rounds with Booker and his scimitar. Work off his anger with some vicious sparing and a few pounds of flesh. Not to the death, per se; but enough to leave scraps that would take more than a minute to heal up.

Maybe to death once or twice. Just so Booker remembered how deadly Joe’s anger could be. It wouldn’t be forgiveness, but it would be cathartic.

But it hadn’t been Joe. Nicky had been the one to hold firm. Both on Booker’s isolation and the years required for forgiveness. Because Nicky understood penitence.

“He needs to believe in his punishment just as much as we do. It has to hurt. If it were any less, he won’t think it’s enough. Even if he’s grateful, even if he’s surprised, he won’t believe it’s enough. And if he thinks we didn’t punish him enough, he’ll keep hurting himself. Because, in his mind, he deserves worse than what he got. To punish himself, he’ll hurt us all,” Nicky had argued. Again and again.

And it had worked. Even Andy couldn’t argue with him by the end.

When she had said her goodbyes. When she had gotten in the car and refused to let the tears fall, she had instead looked at Nicky.

“You were right,” she had admitted.

“I wish I wasn’t,” he had replied. And proceeded not to speak another word for the rest of the day.

Joe closed the refrigerator door with more force than necessary. His anger didn’t have a target, and it only grew when undirected. In its roots anxiety and frustration built up, loading him down with grievance after grievance.

“Think you’ll ever tell Booker different?” she prodded.

“Probably not,” he replied, blunt. If Booker wanted to blame him until their final deaths, he was fine with that. He could match the man toe-to-toe on any field. Let the traitor rage in impotence.

“I wish he could have seen Copley’s work. Maybe that would have brought him back,” she continued. The cup of coffee she cuddled remained undrunk.

She was charitable. Joe didn’t agree. And he had known Andy for so long--he recognized her biggest tell. This roundabout opening was her angling for something. “Is there a point you’re circling?”

She didn’t project her concern. When she struggled with something, her face went blank. Emotion dropped off her face. “I keep coming back to why he did it. How lonely he was, especially this last year.”

Joe turned on her; his anger, once nebulous and detached, began to form into something more visceral. And here she was trying to take it from him--when it was all that was keeping him going right now. A need to keep it close to him, to curl around its purifying heat and use it to sear the hurt from his wounded soul, made him righteous. He snarled: “His grief isn’t my problem anymore.”

She had borne out his temper for nearly a millennium. She didn’t back down, raking his emotions higher with her stubborn determination. “Yeah, that’s what I’m getting. Grief makes people do stupid things, you know. I’ve certainly let my grief get the better of me over the centuries. Looking at it that way, everything makes more sense to me.”

“Again, Booker isn’t my problem.” And Joe really wanted to be done talking about him.

“I’m not talking about Booker’s grief. I’m talking about yours.”

He stilled. Looked at Andy, flat and unamused. “What are you trying at?”

“I’m trying to put us back together. But that’s hard when you won’t talk to me. What are you thinking, Joe?”

“That this is a useless conversation. That I’m tired. That Nicky hasn’t eaten since France, and neither have I, come to think of it. Are we done?” His tone said they had better be done.

She huffed. Took a quick drudge of her coffee. “Yeah, we’re done.”

Joe went back upstairs, a food tray balanced in one hand. The photograph of Emilio made its way there between the plates and silverware. He swept her words into a dustbin and tossed them into the unused corners of his memory.

Later, Nicky woke up enough to shower off and shave with a disposable kit they found in the vanity. The lights were off, weak English sunlight coming in the windows. The bathroom, like the rest of the house, was modern and shiny and too stark. Joe’s old sensibilities were uncomfortable.

He showed Nicky the photograph. “Remember Emilio?”

“Hmmm,” His lover’s eyes flickered over the picture. Recognition colored them. “He would spend his whole day flirting with you.”

“Only because the poor man kept stumbling over his tongue with you.”

“He was such a sweet boy,” Nicky agreed with a smile.

Joe understood poor Emilio’s fumblings. When Nicky turned his full attention--all his kindness and empathy and focus--onto one person, words often became difficult to form. Thoughts didn’t hold much weight or substance anymore.

Luckily, Joe had been made a poet as well as a warrior. Words were his weapon of choice long before he had picked up his scimitar. He has been blessed with a soulmate who could silence people with his heart--and that just made Joe more verbose.

The photograph remained propped up against the wall; a single photo on a too-large canvas of white and wood.

***

“We’ve got to go back to Goussainville,” Joe said that evening. Their swords were still in the chapel, left behind in the chaos of their kidnapping. Nearly a thousand years and countless wars had not separated them from their weapons--this time would be no different.

“Take Nile with you,” Andy called. She had stretched out on the couch, an ice pack on her abdomen. He didn’t think that would help a stab wound heal, but she seemed to be enthralled to engage with the mundane details of healing the old-fashioned ways.

Nile, evidently bored exploring (sometimes ancient) history, perked up from her deep slouch.

Beside him, Nicky froze. It was quiet. Joe felt it anyway, embedded as he was in his lover’s space. Only because he was watching for it.

Nicky was disarmed and uncomfortable. And he hadn’t explained why.

Joe’s protective instincts reared faster than a fire through kindling. He had to get Nicky out of here. This place was toxic. If that meant dragging Nile with them, great. And if it got him away from the unsettling feeling of this place, all the better. He grabbed for the first compromise that would get them out the door as quick as possible. “Sure--You up for it, Nile?”

“It gets me out of here for a bit? Yes,” she replied like the over-eager youngster she was. This tedious walk down memory lane had been fun, but she wanted her own memories to reminisce.

Nicky didn’t say anything until they returned to their bathroom.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” he muttered. Joe stilled. Turned to Nicky. His shoulders were around his ears, his eyes downcast.

“Hadn’t done what?”

“Invited Nile.”

Surprise tasted bitter on his tongue. “Why?”

Nicky vacillated. Dread was apparent on his expressive face. Every bone spoke of discomfort and anxiety. But he did put any more words to his displeasure. And without words, they were sunk before they sailed. Joe pushed; “Why don’t you want Nile to come along? I thought you liked her?”

“I do. It’s not…” Nicky moved around the room, touching this corner and that as if to learn every inch of the space. He could never sit still when he was upset. He was also putting distance between them. “Do you remember what Booker said? In the lab?”

Unwanted, Joe was thrown back into his memories. In that moment, all he could feel was the straps holding him down. The needle in his neck. The bitter taste of betrayal coating his mouth.

“What do you know of the weight of all these years alone? You and Nicky always had each other, right? All we had was our grief.”

Joe’s anger ripped through him, hot and energized. Vitriol flowed out of him like water through cement cracks even as Nicky begged him to stop.

Damn the man! Could Joe not escape his torments for a few hours, at least? Was that where this was coming from? He snapped, rougher than he meant. “Who cares what he said? It was a pathetic attempt to justify his betrayal--I won’t give it weight.”

“What if we do the same thing to her?” Nicky whispered. Joe’s anger became icicles in his chest. Froze up his veins like winter rivers. Left him zapped from bewilderment and ugly shock.

Why must Nicky decide to carry everyone else’s guilt? Wasn’t his own enough?

“Oh my heart, no,” he whispered. He wanted to rush his lover and envelop him in his arms. Muffle him and help him forget these horrible thoughts. Distract him with sweet words and new ideas to erase even the granule of this poison.

Which was why Nicky was across the room. They both knew the importance of separation. It was harder to think, harder to disagree, harder to dig into the unpleasant realities of their situation, when they had their hands upon one another. Pleasure was a gift--and like any gift, it could distract at the worst times. Their problems seemed less when they were in one another’s orbit.

But problems remained, no matter the distraction. And whatever Nicky was dealing with would be helped with being spoken aloud. Then Joe would know how to kill it and excise it from their lives. So he stood still, and he let Nicky speak without distraction. No matter how much it hurt him to see his soulmate tormented so.

“What if he’s right? We were so lucky to find one another--and I’d never change that--but what if our love ruins our family?” Nicky's eyes were the shade of the terrified robin being chased down by the hawk. “I knew Booker was sad. I didn’t know he was sad enough to try and end it for us all. I don’t know how I missed it. That we were making him worse, not better. How lonely we made him feel.”

“I don’t care what that traitor thought of us,” Joe repeated, brutally honest. It burned him hot and angry that everyone else seemed to want to extend the bastard the benefit of doubt. Of forgiveness.

Nicky kept going, regardless of his anger. “What if I miss it with Nile? What if we only remind her of loneliness and isolation? Are we going to have to do this again in two hundred years?”

Joe resisted the urge to climb higher on his fury. Vented his annoyance in a hiss of breath between clenched teeth. “Have faith--Nile isn’t Booker.”

“We don’t know that. We don’t know who she is yet. And I don’t want to hurt her.” Oh, there was that gentle heart again. That alone brought him back from the brink. He offered his hand, urging Nicky closer now that the words had been said. There was restraint, and then there was torture. He grasped them close and set his belief with firm hands and a steady voice.

“Then let’s go to France with her and find out,” he whispered. “Don’t fall to the fear of the what if, my love.”

Nicky pressed close. Hid his face in Joe’s shoulder. Shivered against the sorrowful emotions roiling through him. “Tell me I didn’t ruin Booker,” he whispered. “Please, Joe please! Tell me I didn’t make a mistake. One hundred years--Lord help me, that may actually kill him.”

He whispered sweet words and assurances. Pet Nicky’s hair back from his eyes to clear them and offered the comfort of a caring touch. Over and over, he laid in pledges and promises. But he could tell, in his lover’s gasps and tears, that Nicky didn’t believe him yet.

And that burned. Seeing Nicky in pain always burned, hotter than the desert sun. Joe’s anger set to a steady simmer, waiting for something to kick it off into a volcano.

***

Copley supplied them with money, papers, and packs. His earnestness hurt. Paying penance in his own way. Joe was hesitant to accept anything from the man--his suspicion still ran deep. It didn’t help that Booker had been the one to handle their supplies and technology in the past.

Nile took over without asking or being asked. With abrupt efficiency, she checked the phone’s encryptions. Considered the offered luggage. Reviewed the documents and parceled out the money. Inspected the weapons. She worked with the joy of action and purpose--she was ready to move, just as he was.

When she nodded her approval and shouldered her pack, Joe relaxed.

They didn’t have much to take with them--their current clothes had come from a local thrift store. They had none of their usual tools or supplies; Brexit made keeping a stocked safehouse in London complicated. His teeth ached to realize they were being supported by Copley’s generosity, as freely as it seemed to be.

“You sure you want to stay behind?” he couldn’t help but ask Andy again.

“I’ll only slow you down,” was her reply, same as always. He didn’t argue with her.

On their way out the door, he tossed the marked-up copy of King Lear into his bag, more for the weight of the thing than any emotional attachment. Like a half-finished crossword puzzle, his brain toyed and twisted the phrases Nicky had left on the page. He took the red pen, too.

They came up to the chapel at night, moving through the shadows to avoid awkward questions. Merrick’s security goons had left a mess and a half behind, which always brought attention. The bodies were gone; the bloodstains weren’t. Police tape ringed off the doors, but the rooms hadn’t been cleared out yet.

Joe cut away the tape and held the door open for Nicky and Nile. Closed it firmly behind them. Flicked on a torch and took in the damage. The crumbling hole in the wall. The soot stains on the brick. The explosion of rubble on the floor. “Andy’s always been a straightforward thinker.”

“Hard to miss that kind of signal, for sure,” Nile replied.

“My fault,” he admitted. “I once missed a cue in Moscow. In my defense, I was taking heavy fire at the time. Andy had to fight her way out on her own. She’s never really let me forget it.”

What hadn’t been thrown about by the explosion had been tossed by law enforcement. Nicky, digging around the rubble near their bunks, glanced through his lashes with a knowing smirk. They both knew there was more to the story than that. Joe didn’t feel like expounding on his mistakes, though. And since it was his story, he could tell it his way.

He found their gear and ammo, but Nile found his scimitar. She raised an inquiring eyebrow at him as she hefted it. “Can I?”

He nodded and watched her pull the blade from the scabbard.

“This is wicked,” she muttered as she inspected the edge. While in need of a polish, it looked none the worse for wear. Something tense and high-strung in Joe’s chest unwound, comforted by the return of something so dear to him.

“It’s older than I am,” he told her. “It belonged to my uncle before it passed to me.”

Her eyes were wide behind the weapon. Her grip suddenly went tight, like she was afraid she’d drop it. Joe grinned at her. “But no pressure.”

“No pressure. Not like I’m handling a priceless family heirloom or anything.”

“An heirloom that likes to be used. Shift your hand a bit,” he instructed. Tapping her knuckles to move them, he changed the position of her grip. Showed her how to use the momentum from her elbow to her wrist to leverage the blade.

She swung the blade in a graceful arc. Her footwork needed work, but her core picked up the innate fluidity required to keep herself balanced. A spark of joy flooded him at her quick learning.

She misstepped and stumbled over a cluster of rocks. Limbs pinwheeled wide as she fought to keep her balance. Reacting quickly to minimize the limb-loss, he grabbed his scimitar in one hand and her arm in the other. Steadied them both.

“Yeah, let’s be smart about this. Nicky! We’ll be outside,” he called. His lover, picking through the kitchen, glanced his way with a nod to show he heard.

Joe pulled her outside, oddly excited. “You’re okay with this? I mean, showing me?” she asked. Excitement bled off her.

“You think I wouldn’t be?”

She shrugged. “It feels like all I’ve been doing the last week is playing catch up. Not just this week, honestly, the last few years. Nothing but trying to learn. I figure it’s as frustrating to the folks around me as it is to me.”

“It’s not annoying--its the prerogative of the young.”

She gave him a strong side-eye. “How old are you? Like, before you died the first time.”

“Thirty-three,” he replied with a laugh. “Still older than you.”

That earned him a hard eye-roll, which did nothing to temper her drive. She rooted a deep feeling of satisfaction and anticipation in him that she had understood and accepted his offer for what it was. He wanted to show her the things he knew--how to get stronger, smarter, more knowledgeable. It thrilled him that she was receptive to that, and wanted to learn as much as he wanted to teach.

The moon was almost full, coloring everything silver. The occasional airplane came and went, adding light and noise to the proceedings. He showed her how to set herself, where to keep her feet and how to balance. She was used to rooting, planting herself to take aim and fire with steady confidence. But swordwork required a body-awareness that needed guidance to find.

“First things first. I’ll tell you what my uncle told me--accept that you’re going to cut yourself. The more you try to avoid it, the more certain it’ll be that you’ll lose a finger.”

“Won’t I just regrow it?”

“Yeah--but it’ll take an hour and bleed like a fountain while it does,” Joe told her from experience.

The old graveyard had enough room for two to move without hindrance. They ran through the drills of his childhood as he got her used to the idea that her body was a moving extension. That every muscle and shift could affect what the blade did. They were worked up and sweating when Nicky came out.

He leaned against the church wall, watching them. His sword was strapped onto his hip, where it belonged. His rifle rested against the wall. When Joe saw him, he beckoned him closer. “Come play with us,” he urged.

“You’re busy,” he replied, soft. His accent was more pronounced in this place. He had never really lost it over the years. Joe’s changed with the century, depending. He loved the sound and flex of a new dialect. Nicky--his old-world soul and his confidence in himself--always had that vocal root back to their beginning.

“Come play with me. We’ll show Nile what us old men can do, huh?”

Nile had great facial expressions. She turned them on Nicky now, excitement and beseechment and curiosity blending into one. Joe wasn’t about to tell her no. So he didn’t and turned the force of his own enthusiasm on his lover.

Nicky may have been able to deny one of them, but not two. He lobbied a valiant defense that lasted an impressive minute before it collapsed. With a grace that never failed to captivate, he pushed himself off the stony church wall. Pulled his sword from its sheath. Set himself up for a fight in the old graveyard. Nile gave them enough space to keep her limbs out of the way of danger, backing up behind a gravestone.

Across their blades, eyes the color of purified cobalt glass sized him up. Not entirely with intent--there was admiration there, as well. Appreciation that Joe felt in turn. He winked, quick as lightning.

Nicky was sometimes too in his head. His heart, his kindness, was unparalleled. Joe was in awe of how easily it came to him. But sometimes it made him skittish. Overconcern led to tentativeness and avoidance. Time to get through that.

Their swords had met a hundred times in a hundred different ways. They clashed fast and furious, fighting down to the bone. They had sparred, as the world increasingly changed and shifted, taking away other skilled fighters they could hone themself against. They had used these moments as foreplay, teasing and testing and tempting all in one.

But Joe honestly couldn’t remember a time where they had performed for an exhibition.

They didn’t aim to hurt one another. In a way, that made it more difficult. Their attacks had to be creative—their defense, perfect. There was a level of anticipation and intimacy that came with dueling for show because the idea was so profoundly different. Joe’s goal wasn’t to kill Nicky--it was to highlight his skill. Give him openings to execute the more complex and impressive moves in his skillset.

Nicky did the same to him as well, the further into the match they went. His lover finally broke his thoughts out of stagnation. Freedom let him show off his speed and his agility. Highlight the flourishes and weaves he favored. Gave him room to spin and duck and clash with abandon. Met him hit for hit, and provided him ample opportunity to boast.

Oh, he loved this man.

They ended at sword-point with one another. Not because they had fought to a standstill, but because that had been where the natural flow of them finished. There was no other way for them to be.

Silence wasn’t possible in Goussainville; the planes overhead ensured that. They soared, filling their sky with light and noise. Ringing remained in their wake.

“Wow,” Nile whispered into the night. Nicky withdrew, body and sword, hiding a smile of pride and adrenaline in the shadows. Joe wanted nothing more than to haul him close and kiss him senseless. Fuck him on the wet earth until neither of them cared about things like fear and anger anymore.

But Nicky didn’t want a kiss right now. He didn’t want to give Nile any sort of exposure he worried would drive her to jealousy and loneliness. He didn’t want her to follow Booker’s path. So Joe shook his limbs out and grinned at Nile. “And that’s how it goes.”

“Think I’ll ever be that good?”

“We’ve got plenty of time to find out,” he said as he stretched his singing body. She hummed in thought as she started loading up their rented car.

The train station was busy and chaotic. French wasn’t Joe’s best language, so he left Nicky to talk with the ticket agent and browsed the tourist displays with a casual eye. Beside him, Nile dug through a stand of postcards. Plucked out a handful. Used a crumpled euro to buy the lot.

“It’s a thing my dad did,” she admitted to Joe’s curious eyebrow. “He hated wasting film on the touristy stuff. Instead, he’d buy a postcard, since he figured someone else already went through the trouble of getting a good shot of the usual places. This way, he could concentrate on taking photos of the things he actually cared about. I like to pick some up wherever I go.”

Joe peeked at her selections: The Eiffel Tower. The Arc de Triomphe. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Touristy and beautiful.

“Got any others you want to collect?” he asked.

Nile tilted her head, curious. “I mean...yeah. Not in a rush to get back to Surrey?”

“Not really.”

“Oh, thank God,” she burst out, relief radiating from her every bone. “Neither am I. Can we go to Greece? I’ve always wanted to see Greece.”

Joe glanced at Nicky. His lover’s eyes the color of pale blue moths fluttering over a candle flame. He shook his head, imperceptible--he wanted to avoid spending more time with just the three of them.

Still so worried they’d implant envy and loneliness in Nile for being what they were.

“Greece sounds wonderful--we haven’t been there in decades,” Joe decided in a fit of obstinance.

***

The burner phone rang on their way out of Paris on a train, heading south.

The distraction came with some relief--Joe and Nicky had spent the last hour having a silent argument over sleeping arrangements that consisted of sharp looks, hand gestures, and the occasional spit of Italian. Because apparently the don’t expose Nile to heartbreak trend Nicky was on stretched to their sharing a bunk. Or maybe this was punishment for Joe’s impromptu change to their itinerary. Either way, Joe wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. There was acknowledging that Nile would be on a different and difficult journey throughout her time on earth, and then there was the evasive denial of the obvious.

Nile, her headphones on in a deliberate attempt to ignore them, watched the country go by. At times, she would mouth along with the lyrics in her ears. She’d let them sort themselves out.

Joe grabbed the phone and stepped away. Answered with some relief. “Yeah?”

“I’m about to ask you something you’re not going to like,” Andy warned, her words slightly slurred.

He paused. Looked around like he could see the threat coming. “Are you drunk?”

“Yeah, a little. Copley’s passed out under the table. Not surprised he’s a lightweight. You ready?”

He rubbed his eyes and braced himself. They were gritty with sleepiness. “Yeah.”

“What would you have done if it was Nicky they had locked into that iron coffin?”

His body tried to freeze and turn simultaneously. It was a nasty sensation, a harsh scraping of his bones as his instincts collided with conflicting demands. He searched out Nicky in frantic scrambling. Desperate to reassure himself that, no, this was not a dream. Nicky was fine. Would be fine. As if Andy’s scenario hadn’t been Joe’s recurring nightmare for nearly five hundred years.

He didn’t know what he would have done. Outrageous and improbable solutions came to mind. Kill every Christian in England in revenge. Make the Archbishop of Canterbury dance over hot coals. Spend a dozen lifetimes finding a dozen ways to burn London to ash and dust. Chuck himself into the ocean wrapped in chains, because if he couldn’t find Nicky, he would suffer with him. Turn away from their principles of service and bring the world to ruin, because Joe was pretty sure he could conquer the world if he really needed to.

The most terrifying thought was that he would have done precisely what Andy had done: search for as long as his soul could take the pain and then move on, lugging grief and horror and loneliness on his shoulders every step of the way.

Nicky blinked at him. Tilted his head. Concern touched his face. Nile saw and glanced over as well. Joe turned away so they couldn’t see his face and the rage painted there. His voice came back to him, low and furious: “That’s a rotten question with no good answer. Why...why would you even ask me that? What is wrong with you?”

“I wonder rotten things when I’m working through my grief. And I figured you were already mad at me, so I may as well pile on and ask,” distance made Andy calm.

“I’m not mad at you--or I wasn’t until about a minute ago!”

“Yes, you are. I think you’re even more mad at me than you are at Booker.”

“Stubborn woman,” he pressed his face against the glass of the train’s window. “What is this? Why are you doing this to me?”

“You’re avoiding me. And here’s the thing, Joe--you don’t normally avoid fights. I’d go so far as to say you start them when you’re bored. So, I think you’re mad at me, but you don’t want to be.”

Joe fell silent, watching the country lights slip by. Finally, he pulled words from his mouth and fashioned them into a sentence. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

Her sigh was a crackle over their connection. “Joe.”

“No--why didn’t you trust us? You knew you were racking up injuries without healing, Andy, and you didn’t say anything. What--were you just gonna die in the firefight and leave us all wondering what happened?” The more Joe spoke, the angrier he got. He was damn near breathless with it by the end.

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“It’s only as complicated as you make it,” he growled.

“What would you have done differently if you had known?”

“It’s not what I would have done differently, it’s what Booker would have done.” Joe was grossly unfair. He knew that. But it didn’t stop him. Andy was dying, slowly and surely. She had nearly died for the last time in Merrick’s tower. And he was angry about it.

Yes, they all would in the end. But the reality of it had him frantically peeling at his skin in an attempt to ignore it. But he couldn’t help but think: Would Booker have pulled back from his suicidal dive, had he known? Would all of this have been moot, if Andy had told them when she realized she was no longer healing? Would Nicky be free of the grief and sorrow that now haunted him?

Joe fiercely wanted to know. And that made him wild.

“Well,” she said. “At least you know you’re mad at me, now.”

“Sleep it off, Andy,” he spat and hung up the phone. Breathed deep to regain some sort of the sleep-doused haziness she had shocked out of him.

It was no use. Calm was a longed-for dream after that. And he didn’t feel like fighting with Nicky anymore. So he pulled out the marked-up copy of King Lear from his bag. Dug out the red marker from his pockets. Worked the words into something else.

Let shame come when it will, I do not call it.

He circled that line twice, vicious.

***

They ended up in Rhodes. Nicky forgave Joe for his obstinance enough to enjoy the allure of the ocean on a bright summer day. Though not quite enough to kiss him in public. Joe tried not to be too hurt: baby-steps, after all. He was forcing Nicky to confront his fears of guiding Nile through strong-armed exposure. His lover wasn’t going to go down without a fight on that, same as him.

So, he stretched his patience to the brink and enjoyed Rhodes. He had always thought Nicky looked beautiful in sunlight and linen clothes, with saltwater on his skin.

Nile browsed a tourist flyer with undisguised interest while they checked into the hotel. Whether by way of apology or ingratiation, Copley had not been stingy on their travel budget. Joe picked something on the high end so that Nicky could enjoy the view, and Nile could enjoy the luxury.

He pushed the bed against the wall. Old habits died hard.

While Nile explored the room with excited noises, Nicky stood on the balcony and took in the blue sky and the white walls and the crashing ocean. Joe followed him out there, enchanted by the relaxed line of his shoulders and the sunlight turning his shirt transparent. He slipped a hand over his waist, and with just the two of them out there, Joe kissed him, light and sweet. Nicky let him.

The ocean had nothing on the color of his eyes. Nile stuck her head out on the balcony, squeaking over the ocean. Joe clung to the memory of that kiss as Nicky pulled away.

“Know any Greek?” he asked, in need of a distraction.

Nile shook her head. “I know enough Pashto and Farsi to get by. High school Spanish. A little Arabic.”

“How little?”

“Very little. Are you about to tell me I’ll pick it up as we go?”

He grinned, spending another opportunity for a lesson. He liked passing things onto her. (He didn’t think about Booker; about teaching him Arabic during long nights through Bolíver’s liberation campaigns in New Granada; about the bonds of camaraderie and trust that had been so much more fragile than he had realized. This place was about Nicky’s reluctance and Nile’s education. Not his anger.)

“Greek used to be the lingua franca. It was the first language Nicky and I shared,” he explained. “He didn’t know a lick of Arabic, and I couldn’t tell Genoese from Latin. I knew Portuguese, but of course, he didn’t.”

“I spoke French like a native son, even then,” Nicky replied, low. “Too bad for you--your French is still terrible. But everyone spoke a little Greek, once upon a time.”

“Let’s just start with Arabic,” Nile said, looking a little wild around the eyes. “You can only shove so much in my head at a time.”

They ended up with seasoned lamb skewers and a bottle of wine from a local vendor for dinner. They ate on the beach, watching a host of local folks play backgammon in an open sort of community spot. The air was filled with light and noise and activity. Joe sat with his back against a fence post and Nicky’s ankle brushing his every once in a while. Nile ate like she hadn’t seen food in a week.

“Were we starving you?” he couldn’t help but ask.

“It’s so good,” was her only response around a mouthful of lamb. She pointed at his half-finished skewer. “You gonna finish that?”

Joe gave it to her. When she demolished it, new energy imbued her. Made her active and restless. She got to her feet, dusted off her hands, and nodded to the backgammon players. “Come on,” she encouraged, pulling them both along. She didn’t lack for an outgoing spirit.

The backgammon board was olivewood and beautiful. Polished to a shine and soft with age. The players around them paid them little attention once it was clear they were only interested in exploration.

“Wanna play a round?” she asked with a small smile.

“You know the rules?” He set up the board in familiar settings. He’d learned to play on his father’s knee, centuries ago.

“I can get by.”

They played through a few rounds without much excitement--Nile knew the rules well enough, and Joe appreciated the distraction. The steps of the game focused him, calming him down.

On the third round, and to his great surprise, Nicky tossed down a fold of euros next to the board. “A hundred on Nile,” he said.

Nile blinked, seemingly surprised by the abrupt show of support. She and Nicky shared a look that Joe chose not to decipher.

“You sure?” she asked.

“I am,” Nicky replied.

“My heart’s been lost to a wastrel,” Joe joked. “If you ever need money in a hurry, make a sucker’s bet with Nicky. You’ll win every time. He’s a gambler at heart.”

Nicky gave him a look that could read as exasperated or fond, depending on the lighting. Joe was unrepentant. His love had many and myriad incredible skills. His approach to money wasn’t one of them. Gentle-born and with a better mind for letters than numbers, Nicky had never quite accepted that money was a thing that needed to be watched.

Joe, a product in equal measure of the merchant and the poet who bore him, mostly found the trait endearing. A quirk of character that defined Nicky as much as his kindness, and not one Joe wanted tampered with. Sometimes, it was frustrating. Usually when Joe was obsessing over changes in trade law. The economic transformation over the centuries was something he kept more than a passing interest in.

At this moment, it was entertaining. He met the bet, as did Nile. The stack of euros was pinned down by a nearby rock as they played.

She bore off all her checkers before he could clear even one, winning her double points for the set. Nicky, keeping track of their scores on the back of a napkin with the red pen stolen out of Joe’s pocket, barely suppressed a laugh as he awarded her gammon.

He studied the board in disbelief. “I think I’ve been hustled.” Nile dared to wink at him as Nicky collected his winnings with a smug little smile.

“If you really want to help me fleece someone, give me a deck of cards next time,” she said with a quick glance at Nicky. “We’ll clean the house out.”

Joe groaned; his lover had gained a partner in crime in his bad habits. Their petty cash would never be safe again.

Nicky broke a laugh behind his hand. “What was that you said, Joe? Something about the ills of gambling?”

Joe kissed him quick to shut him up. Nevertheless, his lover stilled, awkward and rigid. Not because they were out in public, but because they had an audience of one that he was overly sensitive about.

Only Nile had her phone—her personal one that she still carried like a totem—held sideways in front of her to take their picture. She tapped the screen as she saved the moment. “What?” she said to Joe’s raised eyebrow. “You were cute. And those files on Copley’s walls need some cuteness.”

“They do paint an intense portrait, don’t they?” he agreed. “Good, but...a lot.” Nicky hummed.

“It made you all look superhuman. I think that’s what got Copley—he was expecting deities, not humans,” she replied.

“He’s not the first to get curious--just the first to peel off a defector,” he grumbled. It all came back to Booker, and that infuriated him.

Nicky’s hand came to rest on his wrist, stalling the temper. He didn’t say anything--for this, he didn’t need to. His presence, real and whole, pulled Joe back from the worst of his black mood. There was no point bringing Booker up here--he already regretted bringing down their mood. “Where do you want to go next?”

They let Nile pick their direction--and she inevitably led them to the sealine. With Nicky distracted by the ocean and too far away to hear them, she turned to him. Her expression demanded attention. “At first, I thought he was mad at me. But it’s something else, isn’t it?”

“Smart and observant,” Joe praised. “I’m thrilled--you’d be amazed how often those two skills don’t line up.”

“But not thrilled enough to tell me what’s going on with him?”

“Not when I still have faith in your problem-solving skills. And you set the bar pretty high when the take on Merrick’s security tower single-handedly plan of yours actually worked.”

Nile humped. But her expression, her body language, and her silence were contemplative, set to work on the puzzle. Joe mentally wished Nicky luck.

***

They rented a small sloop to cross the Mediterranean. Joe hadn’t picked their path entirely by accident; Nicky’s Genoese blood, primed to steer anything with a sail and a rudder, had him smiling in that heart-stopping and blood-igniting way that got Joe weak in the knees every time.

When you had a world-class sailor for a lover, traveling on commercial ferries was vastly unappealing. Especially since, on rougher waters, he had been known to get seasick.

Nicky had yet to let him live that down.

They had anchored for the night. Joe did his best with the rocking with his back to the wall. Nicky, likely in deference to his sensitivity, had wrapped Joe’s arms around him and gone to sleep without upset.

The full moonlight cast down on them, shading everything in blue and silver. Lapping waves was the only sound for miles.

Nile screamed. Jumped awake with a rough start. Jerking out of her bunk. Nicky wasn’t far behind. Joe, never his best off the block, blinked in surprise to realize he was suddenly conscious.

“Wha--Nile?” he called, groggy. Nicky searched the corners of the cabin for the threat. The handgun readied easy in his hand.

“Nightmare,” she gasped. “A...a your kind of nightmare.”

Joe fought back from the fog of sleep, wading into the realm of reality unprepared and cold. Struggled to righten his thoughts enough to help her through this. Because it wasn’t something she should face alone. None of them should. It was just…hard to think straight without a few moments to remind himself what was going on.

But Nicky was already climbing out of bed. He eased the handgun he had pulled back into its place under his pillow. “Quynh again?”

“No--I dreamed of forests and horses. Pomegranates stuck between my teeth. A man who liked to walk,” was all she managed. It was enough. She scrambled for her stomach, pushing her shirt up to see the unblemished skin there. Stared at it like it was lying to her.

“Lykon,” Nicky explained. “We dream about him sometimes, too. Because we never met him.”

She glanced sideways at them, her face half in shadow from the moonlight. “He’s the one who...who died?”

Nicky nodded. She hissed between clenched teeth. There were tears in her eyes when she scrubbed at them. “This makes no sense!”

Joe agreed. But there wasn’t much for it.

She fumbled for something at her neck that glittered small and gold. Bowed her head low, whispering under her breath. Pressed her eyes shut and brought her shoulders in. All body language that he recognized.

How often had he asked for guidance when lost at sea with no idea what was needed? How often had he sought for reason in emotion? An explanation and a comfort? How often had he watched Nicky do the same?

By the time he realized what she was doing, Nicky was already in motion. He slung himself off the bunk. Set himself on his knees before her. Cupped the back of her head. Pressed their foreheads together.

Prayed with her, soft and singular.

Serenity came upon them, slow. In each fought-for breath and chased-down shred of self. Nicky spoke--in Latin, in English, in Arabic. Different words, different faiths. But with the same end goal; a measure of peace in the center of the sea.

Joe pushed himself up, slow with the rocking and the sea-salt and the devout murmuring. Knelt next to Nicky. Helped them build a quiet place of faith and trust in the hull of their small ship. Nile’s free hand reached out to grasp his open palm.

In time, they moved. Quiet and injured. Reluctant to heal. They were an uncoordinated pile on the floor of the cabin in a mass of blankets and arranged in a sliding scale of limbs. Joe put himself up against the bunk’s stable base. Nicky leaned a head on his shoulder, sloped in next to him. Nile curled into Nicky’s free side, nearly flat on the floor. She clung to them both, looking for something solid in the unsteady current. It was impossible to maneuver alone.

“What is all this?” she asked. Her eyes were lost and searching, trying to find any reason for her new life. It was something they all asked, in their own way. Joe sighed and thought of how to answer.

A hand rested on his thigh, heavy, reassuring, and stilling. A vibration hummed against his chest. Sound and sure, Nicky spoke. In his action, in his felicity, he took all of Joe’s concerns and anxieties away.

“It’s faith. It’s believing in your purpose, even if you don’t know the reason. And it’s... it’s one of the hardest things to accept. That we may never know. It’s like we told you that first night in France--we can only fight for what we think is right,” he explained. When Nicky spoke with belief and passion, his voice dropped low. He brought a cadence to his speech that hypnotized and captivated. It caught Joe every time.

“So you really don’t have any theories?” she asked, wavering.

Joe had vowed to be honest with her--he hoped Nicky would be as well. She needed as much information as she could take. And unlike Booker, who had needed a few years to come around to what was happening, she had gotten through her bouts of denial and anger at comparatively lightning speed.

Though they had undoubtedly thrown her into the deep end in a way they hadn’t with Booker.

His lover, kind-hearted, never disappointed. “I’ve always thought we gain someone when humanity faces a new type of conflict. For Andy and Quynh and Lykon, wars were small-scale things. Fights over resources--territory and survival. They operated in the ancient world. Empires rose and fell constantly. The Akkadians and the Achaemenids and the Romans and the Warring States.”

“I think you just made those first two up,” she grumbled.

“Not a fan of antiquity?”

“I got better grades in math than I did in history. Something tells me that’s gonna change soon.”

Joe grinned in the moonlight, sure that she was right, while Nicky continued. “Nothing was the same after the Crusades. Art changed, philosophy changed, technology changed, life changed.”

And it had changed fast. One hundred years after the Siege of Jerusalem, Joe had looked around and realized the world he had been born into was gone. He had kept going--it was all they could ever do.

“The legacy of the Crusades is still felt today--people still use their language, their justification. And Joe and I are experts in spotting those people and places.” The hand on his thigh tightened. Joe wondered if Nicky remembered sinking a knife into the artery there, nearly a millennia ago.

He captured that hand and braided their fingers together. “Too often, still,” he mourned.

Nicky squeezed his hand and kept going. “Booker was nineteen or so when the National Assembly seized power from Louis XVI. He grew up in the guts of the French Revolution. He knows everything about it. We’ve been neck-deep in revolutions ever since.”

Nile, prone against them, pressed a hand over her face, scrubbing away the shock that grew up as she followed their logic. “And then me. Right as the world changes again. Because war doesn’t look like revolution anymore--it’s global networks and cells operating on lightning strikes. What I’ve spent my entire career learning about.”

“Andy’s right--and she is not. It’s not harder to hide in this kind of world, but it is wildly different than what it used to be.”

Her eyes were lost in middle distance. “And here I am--I find people who are hiding. I know all the tricks. And now to dodge them…” she drifted off, her face intent as she worked through the implications of that. “This can’t be random. It just...it can’t be.”

It’s not,” Joe agreed.

“So that answers the when. But not the why. Why me?”

Nicky looked up to Joe. In the moonlight, his eyes were the color of copper burning up in flames. “You were chosen. Just as we were. And I think you have enough faith to know that is enough.”

Joe kissed his forehead, a benediction and a release. A reward. He couldn’t express his pride in any other way. Because, when it had truly mattered, Nicky had spoken.

***

Getting back to sleep wasn’t going to happen. Joe took his book and went above deck. He went alone, giving Nile and Nicky space. To talk, yes, but also to understand one another. To start building the foundation of something that would last centuries.

Joe left them to it with no small amount of relief. The running anxiety in his chest settled into contentment, nurtured by the steady rise and fall of the deck. He couldn’t hear what they were saying--and he didn’t want to, this was for the two of them to work out--but the gentle lull of their voices left him peaceful.

He took a bottle of water with him. His body wasn’t on the same page as his ambitions. And the rocking wasn’t going away any time soon. The bouncing coastline gradually coming into focus turned his stomach in unpleasant ways.

When they joined him on deck with the rising sun, Nicky was more relaxed than he had been in days. And that relaxed Joe. Nile said good morning with a clear voice and proceeded to explore every inch of the boat. Again. Touched what she could, even going as far as to untie and retie knots so she could see how they had been put together.

Oh, he loved a curious mind.

Nicky guided them into the Port of Alexandria, his body moving in time with the tide. Joe was equal parts captivated and envious. Nausea sat low in his chest, rearing up in inconvenient flashes. It probably didn’t help that he kept King Lear cracked open on his lap. In his better moments, he could manage a page or two. The marker bled through the lines, blotting out commas and consonants alike.

“See there?” Nicky asked. He showed Nile how ropes and sails and waves could work together to move them along. Sailing was becoming a lost art--modern travel was so much faster. And usually more comfortable. Yet, the ability to sail away from a hostile coastline had often saved them.

(He wondered if Nile knew how to ride a horse. Another skill that came in handy at the oddest times--horses were still the best all-terrain transport in rough country. He made a note in the margin of Act III.)

Whose virtue and obedience doth this instant so much commend itself, had survived the frenzy of red. With his eyes towards Alexandria, he played with the words, rearranging their order and meaning. Worked them into new meanings in the margins. He was so intent he didn’t notice Nicky’s shadow over him.

A hand snuck under his chin. Urged his attention up. Nicky ducked down to kiss him, intimate and loving. It was the first kiss he had initiated since London. Joe nearly melted at the knees, soft and happy with relief. Even his seasickness couldn’t hold down his elation.

Nile wolf-whistled them. Grinned with sunny smugness when they broke apart. Salt wind stirred up her clothes. Her hands were on the steering wheel, guiding them in under Nicky’s instruction. Her face was open and happy, long worries taken away by the Mediterranean wind.

The harbor of Alexandria boasted a row of tourist shops, just like any other port. Nicky bought a large, tacky sticker with a photo of the Nile River on it. He presented it to Nile with a grin that scaled between serene and cheeky.

“Yeah, that's a joke that’s not gonna get old, fast,” she muttered with an impressive eye-roll. But she had a slight smile on her face when she took the sticker and pasted it on the back of her postcard of the Citadel of Qaitbay. Stealing Joe’s red marker, she wrote the date and’ gift from Nicky’ alongside it.

***

Alexandria held a special place in Joe’s heart. For an ancient city, there was little to remind him of older times--structures and edifices had been continuously built up and eroded away. Every arrival felt new and unknown again.

It had been the first city they had landed in, after leaving the battlefield of Jerusalem a thousand lifetimes ago. It had been the city where they had learned what they would be.

The city where Nicolo, virginal and inexperienced, had let Yusuf push him down into the sheets. Had spread his thighs and surrendered his body with want and pleasure. Had looked up at him with eyes like fresh-cut aquamarines, awed and in love and devotional fervor. Had left red fingernail lines down Yusuf’s shoulders and back only to watch them heal over.

Alexandria was a unique city for them. It was the city where they had been born. They knew this place, for all it liked to change by the century. Never let it be said Joe didn’t play any advantage he could. Nile took to it like wildfire, eyes and hands going every which way as she absorbed. When she had questions, Nicky had answers.

Joe had left them to it, content to wait out his seasickness in the hotel. As charming as the one in Rhodes, with crisp, clean sheets and lovely lack of rocking. He couldn’t sleep, not alone in a bed bolted down in the center of the room. He kept the lights low and his breathing steady as his body recovered.

His stomach, sensitive, had denied him food. So his conquest of the shower left him flushed with success. He scrubbed salt and sweat and sorrow from his skin. Enjoyed the heat and the steam and the colorful tile of the bathroom.

The door opened when he shut off the water and wrapped a towel around himself; Nicky, pleasantly glowing and breezy, slipped inside.

“Feeling better?”

“Getting there.”

The large hands on his waist were a pleasant surprise, the heat at his back had nothing to do with the steam. Nicky’s lips brushed against his ear. Touch, bold in their presumption (just like Joe liked), drifted over his body and into intimate places. Joe, smug and thrilled and excited and already short of breath, let his head fall back and enjoy being held.

“Something for you?” he asked, making it clear there were all sorts of things on offer if only Nicky wanted to ask.

“I remember,” Nicky muttered, laying kisses in a loose collar around his neck and shoulders. “A river in the middle of nowhere.”

He thought back; he felt he could be forgiven for being distracted. Nothing immediately came to mind. “We’ve come across a lot of rivers. Wanna help me out?”

His lover hummed, a happy rumbling against his neck. It was music to his ears. “Don’t remember the year. We’d been in the heat all day. You stripped down. Swam in. Wet and hot and more gorgeous than anything I had ever laid eyes upon.”

Humid air packed in around them, turning things slick and heady. Those hands on his hips directed him, taking control. Joe’s brain slipped off any track he cared to keep it on. Nothing virginal or inexperienced about his lover now.

“Nile?” he gasped. Words were hard to find in the rapidly descending pitch into pleasure.

“Got her own room,” Nicky told him, smiling into his neck.

Oh, smart women. Restraint snapped like a dry branch. “Keep talking,” was all he could manage to string together. “Please keep going. Let me hear you.”

Pressure against his back pushed him as Nicky boxed him in against the bathroom counter. Joe let himself be pressed, let a knee edge his legs open. Laughed when teeth nipped his hairline.

“You were so cool to the touch after that, wet from the river,” Nicky’s voice, warm and soft, sounded divine. Fingers quested down his side, over his ribs, around his waist. The deliberate tease made him hiss and squirm shamelessly. All rational thought was gone, abandoned on the field of reality that they fast retreated from. “I think I enjoy this more.”

“Oh, I’ve missed you,” Joe whispered. Because he had. He had missed Nicky pushing for what he wanted; missed his words and his touch and his confident kindness. Missed their connection, rendered low as it had been by betrayal and self-doubt. And he was still angry that those parts of his lover had been compromised by stupidity and greed and grief.

But anger and passion ran on close veins, often crossing threads without warning. When Joe felt this intensely, it was difficult to keep track of where their roots found water. He bore them out with shakes and shivers, enchanted by the run of sensations.

Fingers touched his jaw, scrapped against his beard, urged his face sideways. Nicky kissed his slack mouth. “And I, you.”

Joe racked a hand down the steamed-up mirror to see their shape through the condensation. Nicky’s attention was elsewhere, busy peeling away the terrycloth around his waist, pushing it back onto the counter. The fluffy cotton padded his hips against the merciless tiled countertop.

“Nicky,” he whispered. Whined--he whined. No other name for it. Best to admit defeat now while his defenses were low.

They were pressed close, intoxicating and slick. Hot breath on the back of his neck sent his senses reeling—a pressure between his shoulder blades, a request to do as Nicky bid. Joe let himself be pushed down into soft white towels and unforgiving blue tile.

In the mirror, Nicky’s eyes were bright and beautiful, the riotous northern lights dancing through the night sky. Joe lost himself in them.

“Please,” he whispered, trying for Genoese to appeal to his lover’s better nature. “Please, Nicolo.”

“Please, what?”

“Please don’t leave it here,” he gasped. Pushed up against the counter, he couldn’t touch himself. His pleasure was at the mercy of his heart’s desires. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. Fingers skated up his thigh. Pressed into him with steady pressure. Made him hot and ready and wanting.

He knew Nicky’s cock as well as his own. That knowledge did nothing to ease his surprised delight as he was entered and filled. He hissed soft syllables, fingers spasming in the towels.

Nicky kissed his shoulder. Buried his face into Joe’s shoulder blades and fucked him in deep strokes. He rode out his building desperation with breathless cries. Words fumbled on his tongue--Joe fell into Arabic out of instinct and abandon. “Oh! Don’t make me wait. Please, my love, my heart, I don’t know how to do this on my own anymore. I need you, please.”

He reached back. Grasped the back of Nicky’s head. Kept his body loose and open. Accepted every push, every stroke, every jolt as he was fucked against the counter. There was no greater salvation than offering himself up to his heart; his body, vulnerability, and want. All these things this man held in his firm possession.

He scrambled back for Genoese, ragged. “We are always together, you and I. I would not have it any other way. You guide and guard me, bring me home in the night. My north star, my eternal, if only you knew how you’ve captured me.”

Nicky pulled him close and kissed him fierce; Joe was gone. Words bubbled forth in excess--he couldn't stop them now. Expressions of devotion and love. Emotions, bright and pure. When he spoke, it was thoughtless and free of consequences—running out of him in a rush, like he could impart all that he felt. Just the way Nicky loved to have him, unguarded and open. But he was so wound up, scraping for any sense and meaning in the spiraling lust running through him. His body burned as he babbled for salvation.

“Shhh,” Nicky whispered, assured. “Shhh, I’m here. I’m here. I’m sorry I made you wait. I’m here.”

A hand calloused from sword and sail and sniper rifle wrapped around him. Took him with pride and awe. Joe didn’t stand a chance. He let go, gave way, broke against the tide of pleasure pulsing through him. Everything came due as he screamed, overriding him and turning him into a conduit of temporal joy, giving and taking with the man he loved beyond all measure and reason.

They made it to bed. Eventually. Nicky ran light fingers over his body. “Oh, the things you do to me,” he muttered.

Joe kissed those skating fingers. “Always, my love. For as long as I’m able.”

***

A nudge on his shoulder. On his cheek. Relentlessly, determinedly, he was prodded awake. Joe cracked an eye open. Found Nicky’s beautiful eyes watching him. The room was bright and colorful--if he listened, he could hear the distant call of activity that never left a city.

“Good morning,” Nicky said.

Joe buried his face in the sheets. They hadn’t been able to move the bed against the wall. But it was enough that Nicky lay between him and the door--his instincts let him rest. “Yeah,” he agreed, groggy. Pleasantly sore muscles stretched and relaxed, keeping him sedate.

Fingers played with his hair. Nicky asked: “Awake yet?”

“Urgh. Yeah. Need something?”

The fingers moved from his hair to his cheek. Knuckles rubbed at the line of his jaw with delicate affection. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been doing with Nile and I, my love.”

He stilled. The room became more explicit in clarity. Joe wasn’t above being underhanded, but neither was Nicky. And he knew the quickest way to get honest answers out of Joe. He needed at least an hour before he could hold his own in an argument. So, he came clean. “She’s not Booker--she won’t make his mistakes. Just her own. You needed to stop overthinking things with her. And you were only going to do that when you stopped seeing her like a breakable thing and saw her as a fighter.”

“I know.”

“And she’s so smart, Nicky. So damn smart. She’ll be the best of us, with a little help. We have to help her.”

“I know.”

The words tumbled out of him without filter, unstoppable. “Did you hear her at the dock? A week--a week--and her Arabic is already improving. Stick you and her on a boat together for a month, and I’m sure she’ll be a better sailor than any pirate or admiral we ran against. And oh, if Andy does teach her how to use her ax--” Lips on his, stilling him. He took the silence, and the grounding, gratefully.

Nicky nudged their noses together. “I know, my love. I know. Nile was not the problem--not really. She and I know that now. I needed time to deal with my grief. My anger.” He paused. Kissed him again. “And so you, my love. Your anger could fuel the engine of the world. But it taxes you and hurts you. I’d give anything to see you free of it.”

Joe didn’t say anything. Pressed his face into Nicky’s shoulder. Decided not to think for a good while.

***

Alexandria became Cairo. Cario became Jerusalem. They didn’t travel with a path in mind, a need to move their feet driving them on. They had money and freedom and a curiosity to learn one another. Nile absorbed their stories, given the added context of kinetic input. With her hands occupied, her mind became a sponge, and she rarely seemed to need more than a demonstration or two before she understood what to do.

Oh, she was such a quick learner. Excitement tinged Joe, giving him hope and joy for the coming years. He hadn’t lied to Nicky--he truly believed she’d be the best of them in time.

The three of them were contemplating a stop-over in Istanbul when news broke.

Nile noticed first--because her phone buzzed. She glanced at it--at them--at the screen again. Then she grabbed the hotel’s television remote.

“What is it?” Nicky asked.

“Just a sec,” she muttered, flipping through channels. Landed on the BBC. Which had a running shot of a burning building. The commentator spoke about an undetected gas leak. Joe would believe that when he swallowed his own tongue.

They all watched in muted horror as Merrick Pharmaceutical collapsed in on itself, consumed by flame. The commentator was just as shocked, muttering out figures and statistics occasionally. But mostly she, like the rest of the audience, just watched the skyscraper burn into nothing.

“Do you think there was anyone in there…” Nile muttered, horrified. The flames licked higher up glass and steel.

“It’s a Sunday,” Nicky muttered around his hand. “No business.”

“The whole thing should be a crime scene anyway, right? Coincidence?” she asked.

“We’re never that lucky,” Nicky replied. His eyes, chicory flowers and jasmine leaves, were wide with disbelief. Joe was too busy to indulge in his own agog; he pulled the front of Nicky’s jacket open. Dug his fingers into the inner pocket. Pulled out the phone tucked there. Punched in the one number programmed into the contacts.

“Hi,” Andy greeted. She sounded happier than she had in decades. “How are you all? Enjoying--well, wherever you are? Paris still?”

“We’re in Jerusalem. What did you do?”

“Jerusalem, huh? Have you shown Nile where you and Nicky met?”

Andy! What did you do?” he demanded again, his disbelief, outrage, and worry mixing into a dreadful concoction in his chest. The building's sign gave up the ghost and tumbled into the cleared out street in a fiery blaze on screen.

She hummed in his ear. “Cleaning up. Copley reminded me of some things we left behind. I think we were a little too distracted by Nile pitching herself out the window to remember that, the last time.”

Joe internally screamed. His grip on the cellular hurt. Anger left him near breathless.
Andy,” he hissed, low and furious. It was all he could manage. The sheer audacity in her voice was something he hadn’t heard in...in centuries.

“I take it I’ll be seeing you all soon?”

If Joe squinted, he could just make out clouds of red growing over his vision. Forcing air into his lungs was a continuous and constant challenge. “Is that what this was all about?” he gasped through his anger. “Getting us out of the way so you could--could galavant around! Do something stupid! Andy--you idiot! Why didn’t you wait for us?”

“Come home, Joe. I’ll tell you when you get here.”

***

They hit Surrey like a storm. Nicky drove because if Joe did, he’d have broken laws. To her credit, Nile kept her headphones in and her nose out of whatever was brewing under his skin. Copley’s house emerged from the horizon, parting through the greenery.

Andy sat on the front steps leading into the house, nursing a cup of coffee. She looked comfortable and relaxed. Smug, even. Her composure ignited words that had been stopped up in Joe’s chest since he'd seen the patch on her abdomen.

He was out of the car before it stopped moving. “What the hell?” he demanded. He got in her space. Let his anger overflow from him to fall onto her. Aggressive and angry.

And she took it. “They had tissue samples for you and Nicky on file. Not to mention all the blood we all left behind. And fingerprints, Copley reminded me. Almost as important. It had to be destroyed, Joe. You know what.”

She took a sip from her too clean, too white mug. Like nothing was amiss. Enraged, Joe looked around, searching for another target. Copley would do. He’d rip the man limb from limb for giving Andy such a stupid idea. And she had gotten the explosives from somewhere. “Where is he? I’ll kill him.”

“Don’t take it out on him, he wanted to do it on his own. He really is trying to help us.”

“No!” He’d bury that particular argument dead and done right now. “Why would you trust him? Why didn’t you wait for us? Do you not get that you can die now?”

“You didn’t belong in that place again,” she said in that casually comfortable, authoritative way of hers. Joe screamed, then. Threw everything he hated, everything he feared, everything he couldn’t deal with anymore, into the air around him.

“It was stupid! What happened to your rules--no repeats! What if they had caught you again--what if you had gotten hurt?”

“That did cross my mind. But I had a promise to keep. I couldn’t just leave it.”

“Damnit Andy, do you not get it! You bleed out now, you don’t come back! You die, and then you’re done! Die, and not come back to us,” his voice cracked, cutting off his rant. He snarled, disgusted and frustrated with himself. But he couldn’t stop it. And in that crack came the flood. He cut himself off before his words broke into a sob.

Andy didn’t shy away. She wrapped her arms around him. Stilled him before he lashed out in fury. She had always been so tactile. Even after everything, she never hesitated to touch them. “I get it, Joe. I do.”

“Then why!” he nearly wailed. She pulled him tight against her, not letting him escape from her. Countered his struggles with brutal acceptance, the kind that made him cringe and cry in shame and joy alike.

“Because it’s what I do,” she said. “I look out for you all. Have you figured out why you’re mad at me yet?”

Joe wanted to keep raging at her. Yell, rail, reject. Only he couldn’t drudge up the energy anymore. It made him exhausted. He was so, so tired, and he didn’t know what to do next. He pressed his eyes closed. Fell onto her shoulders. Let her take the weight of all his terror, just for a moment.

Even in her darkest days, Andy, who had always reached out to them. Rubbed at his back. Met him on the high cliff of his emotions. Took it all. Pushed him over, and fell with him.

And that broke him. Tears overwhelmed his vision; he cried them into her shoulder. Cried for the change. For the loss. For the way the world works. Everything that lives must die. But it must also be mourned.

And she held them both through it. Rubbed at his shoulders and back. Hummed a tune that was older than he was. She doggidly hung on until there were no more tears to come. Like a banked fire, everything holding him up, holding him together, the dams holding his sorrow, collapsed. They ended up on the steps, sitting on the damp concrete.

“How’s Nicky doing?” she asked once he had quieted.

“..better,” he scraped together. He clung to thoughts of Nicky, hoping to wade back to safe waters.

“That’s good,” she hesitated, her face concentrated. “I was worried--he suddenly got skittish around Nile.”

“I worked that out. You know how Nicky sometimes overthinks his feelings,” he mumbled into her shoulder.

“Just Nicky?”

“Shut up.”

“I’m just saying, I remember a spectacular screaming match in East Berlin a few decades ago. Something about me being a heartless, tight-lipped destroyer of lives. I think that was one of your better ones.”

That has been a rough year. He and Nicky had been separated for most of it, helping people slip through the Wall as quickly as possible. He had constantly been hungry and depressed and angry. Andy had said the wrong thing at the wrong time, sparking out a tirade of words he had never meant but that had sparked in a fiery burst from his soul straight to his tongue. He was sure he cribbed more than a few phrases from snips and bits he had collected and hoarded over the years, just waiting to slap them into the air. Bitterness and terror rolled off him in a thundering cascade. In their wake had come harsh regret and remorse.

They had gotten through it. But it hadn't been pretty. And their history had repeated itself once again.

She pressed their foreheads together, so he couldn’t escape her. Her smile was affectionate and old. “I know you, you great fool. I know what it means when you’re angry. And I know you don’t like what’s happening.”

He listened. Watched her, close. He wanted to savor this, wanted to memorize every detail. There was suddenly a finite number of times he would be able to hold her. The woman who had laughed with him and fought with him and had risked everything for him. More than once. Who had taught him so much. Who had protected him and Nicky when they were young and foolish and still learning what they could do.

And someday soon, she would be gone. Her time would come. And all he would have were these memories.

He thought he had been prepared for it. In a theoretical way, he had been. But the reality of it all was brutal. The grief and fear weren’t going to go away. So he ran, pleading for distance.

He had been angry at her because he was going to miss her.

She pulled back enough to meet his gaze. “It’s not just Nile I’m trying to get up to speed, you know. When I go, it’ll be you and Nicky. The oldest, the ones the others will look to for guidance. But you’re not really even that old yet.”

“Andy...” Oh, why was this so hard?

“You’re not. Not to me. And...and I want you to be ready, too. Ready and safe.” She pressed their foreheads together. Whispered to him: “Nicky was right about Booker--he let his grief rule him. And that grief...Joe, it’s a poison. He has to excise it. Or it won’t just be him at stake, it’ll kill you and Nicky and Nile just as it almost did in those labs. And I can’t let that happen. I told you, I made a promise.”

“What promise?”

“That I’d get you and Nicky back, no matter what. All of you.”

Joe trusted her with his grief. This was the woman who had shown him so much. She deserved to know the mark she left in him. The heights she moved him to.

He breathed out. Let go. “You miss us?” he asked, quiet. His voice still wasn’t steady.

“Of course, I did. Welcome home,” she whispered. Joe felt something new and uncomfortably sweet overtake him.

***

Brushes were scattered everywhere. Paint swatches were stuck to the wall. Joe had stopped long enough to put a few sheets down to protect the wood floor, but that only did so much to contain the chaos. He had stolen a shirt out of Nicky’s pack for precisely that reason. Paint splattered over his chest, his face, his hair. Test strips lined his inner arm as he considered different palettes. Through the open window, English rain and greenery combated the fumes.

The bed was pushed up against the wall. His mangled copy of King Lear rested on the side table.

Copley stared at the creation on his previously pristine wall. Trapped in the doorway as he was, there wasn’t much he could do. “It’s...uh,” he muttered, speechless.

“Hope you don’t mind,” Joe said, not really caring if the man did. The brush in his hand was busy; the place he painted didn’t exist. Not really. He painted what reminded him of home--and they had plenty of homes over the years. The towers of the Jerusalem Citadel. The pillars from the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo. The port of Malta, in the distance. A river in the middle of an unknown desert. A sail. A sword.

He blended them together, creating something new from his memories. Wrote the history of him and Nicky. Of Andy and Quynh. Of Booker, as much as it hurt. Of Nile, considering their potential just as much as their past.

His family sat on the thick rug, comfortable cross-legged and barefoot on the floor. Around them were the photographs. Nicky already had his favorites set aside for frames: Nicky and Joe with Emilio, nearly a century ago. The snapshot from Nile of them kissing in Rhodes. Others that had hijacked from Copley’s collection. One of Andy glaring at the camera that had no evident providence.

Nicky wanted frames of olivewood and silver for their memories. His lover had a unique blend of simple and ornate that Joe loved to watch flare up in subtle ways. He mirrored those flourishes, detailing olivewood in the trees, the docks, the boats, the weapon hilts. Brought silver out in the jewelry, the windows, the shadows, the sky.

If this was home, he’d damn well make it feel like home.

“It’s beautiful,” Copley decided diplomatically.

“Good answer,” Joe agreed, taking a step back to eye his creation.

“We’re gonna do my room next, right?” Nile asked. Copley choked on his tongue.

***

“Stop moving,” Joe ordered.

Nicky valiantly stifled his giggling and calmed himself under Joe’s hands. The pen’s red ink was a stark contrast to his pale skin. He laid on his stomach across the bedsheets, his chin pillowed in his folded arms. Joe straddled him, careful to keep most of his weight on his hands and knees.

Satisfied that his canvas would again be still, he continued. He had stripped Nicky of his clothes and thrown them aside in a messy pile off the bed long ago. Unrestricted, he wrote his modified verses across a bare left shoulder blade.

Save him this night
I whisper kissing argument, likely wars
Betwixt my one and I.

“How does it look?” Nicky asked between pauses in the pen.

“My best work yet.”

On his lover’s body, he rewrote King Lear to suit them. In the scraps Nicky had left him, Joe had found new poetry. From trauma and tarnish, he found love. Pieces together a word here, a phrase there. Balanced to the left shoulder blade, he wrote across the right:

Sir, you have the advantage of the night.
Now, wicked charms, persuade me
Of the thunder bound to you and I
.

“Done,” he whispered.

Released from his duty as an artistic surface, Nicky stretched out. His words expanded and twisted in the shift of his tendons and muscles. Ink covered him; Joe had not been succinct. Down his spine ran another verse, already dry.

Let good my lord, the body’s delicate tempest
Pour on in such as night as this,
Your kind heart gave all
Give me thy hand
Come forth to bed and warm thy heart
Whom I have now--and there--and there again--and there.

Nicky tapped his thigh in a silent request. He rose to his knees, let his lover shift and turn under him. Trapped between his legs, Nicky huffed as he collapsed onto his back. “I can see you now,” he said, cheered. Hands settled on his hips, pulled him down flush. Snuck into his loose shirt and pushed it up his ribs. He raised his arms and let Nicky strip him of his layers, thrown away to join the rest on the floor.

Joe let his eyes wander. He had worked a ribbon of verse across Nicky’s navel. Hither comes my lord in grace. The ink had smudged there--he took the pen back and reapplied it, regardless of Nicky’s laughing disbelief.

“It’ll all come off sooner than later,” he commented.

“I’m aiming for later,” Joe replied. He checked his work across Nicky’s ribs. That one had survived better.

Let him fly far.
In this land he shall remain uncaught.
My worthy lord comes tonight.
By his authority I shall proclaim thanks.

Nicky’s desire was a hard line under him. Joe’s hands went lower, tantalizing grazes teasing little jerks from his prone lover. “You seem in distress--want some help with that?”

“Since it’s your fault I’m like this? Yes,” Nicky replied. His grip on Joe’s hips flexed, putting red lines across his skin.

That was fair. Joe reached for the bedside table. One of the benefits of a consistent home base--supplies were readily found.

He slipped his own slick fingers inside himself. Nicky’s wandering touch was pinned down by his free hand. If he left this part to his lover, he wouldn’t stop until Joe was a twitching, needy pile of nerves and desperation. As much fun as being methodically and relentlessly opened up was, that wasn’t what he wanted right now.

Rather, he wanted to see Nicky fall apart.

Nicky’s eyes, malachite set in sapphires in this light, bore into Joe while he lowered himself down. The hands guiding his hips fluttered to his thighs, his chest, his back. Urged him on with gentle cries. And he didn’t look away. Those eyes saw everything in Joe.

The thought drove him onto Nicky’s cock, taking him deep and slow and all-consuming. Fully seated, he was left breathless and gasping, blown away by how right it felt to have Nicky in him. Their intimacy forged itself in centuries of trust and belief. Passion was found in experience and hard-won connection. They couldn’t disguise themselves and their desires from one another anymore.

Sex was more intense, more overwhelming, in this bared reality. There were no distractions, no escapes. Nowhere to hide. They saw one another for what they were. It was a powerful thing, to know Nicky saw him--all of him. His temper and his impulsiveness. His love and his worry. His awe.

There was nothing more devastating than being in the full and undivided eye of Nicolo di Genova. The trust they reestablished, and the faith they refounded, brought them closer than any declaration. Sex was a lovely byproduct of that intense reconnection.

He put his hand over Nicky’s chest, thumbing at his pale nipple. Reread his handwriting there.

If my good lord be taken
in virtue and obedience,
I shall serve you, sir
.

Hot pressure built between them. He flexed, rocked up and down in a tentative rhythm. Nicky’s hips bumped up to meet him, impatience coloring his expression. Pleasure jolted like white-hot fire through his spine. Joe tilted his head back and moaned out his surprise and enjoyment. Rocked instinctually into that bliss.

Nicky’s hands brought him down, sat him flush on his cock. Divinity couldn’t have felt as good. Stretched wide and full to the point of delirium, already overcome with wonder, Joe didn’t want to fight for control. He was hard and wet and near immobile with rapture. Distracted and out of focus, his thoughts were gone--he didn’t know what to do next, because every way he turned immersed him into the waters of ardor. Helpless, he leaned down, keening when that shifted the points of pleasure in his body, and kissed Nicky with careless abandon.

“It’s too much to do alone,” he puffed against Nicky’s mouth. And it was--he had put his words and his desires on his lover’s skin. Had shown him how Joe thought of him. And now, so deep in emotions, he couldn’t find the exit. Needed Nicky to help him through the rising tide he had pushed them into.

A hand hooked around his knee, tugging him off balance. Long arms, great for grappling and working for leverage, wrapped him sideways onto his back. Nicky’s kiss turned sharp and demanding. His lover was a sailor and a warrior--he knew how to fight his way to paradise.

His pace, rolling like the tide, always there, never entirely leaving him alone, pushed devotion into Joe. His legs were held wide, one hooked around Nicky’s hips, the other splayed. Strong hands kept him open. Kept him accessible. His wrists were taken and sunk into the lush sheets. The message was clear: no touching.

He grabbed at the sheets and let his voice do the work his hands could not. When he cried, Nicky kissed him. When he cursed, Nicky held him fast. When he begged, Nicky gave him what he pleaded for. It was all Joe could ask for and more. However they had started, this wasn’t about easy connection or relief now--this was about fucking Joe senseless. Nicky, with his ink-stained body and his grace-laced heart, took him like he wanted.

Across Nicky’s collarbones were more of Joe’s words, smudged with sweat.

Loyal boy, I’ll work the means
To make thee noble.

Nicky took him in hand. Stoked him in time with his brutally kind thrusts. Joe could do nothing but climax under such exquisite attention. His body spasmed, ricocheted ecstasy through him. The tide overcame him. He drowned with joy and satisfaction at his fall.

He drifted on pleasure that was more intoxicating than any vice, any salvation. Nothing he could do himself could bring to this place of mercy. It was only and always Nicky who did this to him.

Like sleep, his senses returned slow after he came. It wasn’t until he shifted that he realized that Nicky was still hard and hot inside him. He wasn’t moving, caught up watching Joe’s descent into volcanic euphoria. Aching reverence painted beautiful lines on his face.

Joe reached out. Sank his fingers into Nicky’s hair. Pulled him close and down. “What could you possibly be waiting for?” he asked, his voice cracking.

“You put on quite a show,” Nicky defended. “You can’t blame me for wanting to enjoy the view.”

Adorable. But also, inconvenient. Joe wanted Nicky with him, not still stuck at sea on his own. He pulled himself together enough to drag his lover down with him.

Intimacy was born from experience. Nicky knew him, knew he wanted to be overrun and conquered in moods like this. But he knew Nicky as well and loved him for it. Knew his kindness and compassion. His gambling habit and his hypnotic prayers. His sailing instincts and his way with a sword. And, he knew what drove Nicky mad with want. What stroked that part that made his lust run through his concern. What brought him to a place of divine release.

His completion left him pliant and loose-limbed. It was still a challenge to think straight, so he let his instincts take the lead. He curled his arm around Nicky’s shoulders. Set his words close to his lover’s ears. Played to that part of him that sometimes just wanted to ruin Joe for anyone else. His touch was one thing--his words, another.

“Can you see what you’ve done to me, my love? I’m a wreck because of you. Rug burns on my knees and my back. A mess of myself on my chest. Slick and seed dripping out of me; it’ll be running down my legs all day now. Exhausted and used like a well-loved comfort, all from you. You made this body, this heart, this soul, yours and yours alone. I’ll never be allowed in good society again, you scoundrel.”

Nicky’s grip on him went vice-like. His words had stroked simmering embers into a full blaze. It wasn’t just the idea of Joe debauched and ravaged by Nicky’s touch; it was that Joe chose to stay like that. That he made no thought or effort to clean himself up. That he wanted the evidence on him as much as Nicky wanted to leave it there. That was what set his lover’s mind to dizzying heights.

Joe held him through his rise and fall. Cradled him close as the shaking awe set in. This was his favorite part; Nicky gasping and over-sensitive and thought-dumb from pleasure. Nicky pressing himself into Joe’s chest and lost himself in the comfort their bodies found in one another. Nicky turning red and shyly delighted as Joe whispered praise in his ear.

Around them, their room was a collision of color and light. Olivewood and silver shaded in details everywhere he looked--the frames, shelves, the odds and ends that Nicky always seemed to collect when left on his own for longer than a day. Gathered around them like a familiar blanket.

Joe kissed a sweaty brow. Laughed softly when Nicky groaned. “Now, that’s better than Malta, don’t you think?”

That earned him a pinch to his ribs. But Nicky didn’t disagree. Because Joe was right, home always won out.