Yusuf becomes Joe by accident during the Great War.
A week into the one-year ordeal of blood, mud, and human suffering that will eventually be known as the Battle of Gallipoli, the four of them wash into a British ration tent so hungry they could eat four separate horses looking for sustenance other than month-old hardtack. Booker’s the one doing all the talking, since Andy’s voice is a woman’s voice and Nicolo and Yusuf have the wrong accents, and he has to pass Yusuf off as a Frenchman from Algeria named Joseph Lelivre because this awful two-sided siege they’re stuck in with the Ottomans has made everyone in the Entente suspicious of men who have curly black beards and Arab skin and generally look exactly like Yusuf does.
He’s Joe after that, even in private, because there isn’t really any “private” on the frontlines, in the trenches with bullets they can’t even hear anymore punching holes in sandbags and the cold air full of dust and men crammed shoulder to shoulder, pissing where they stand and sleeping where they stand, and even if the shelling has made them all temporarily deaf they still can’t risk someone hearing Yusuf and getting the wrong idea. They’ve all been prisoners of war in the past, they know how much it hurts, to be kept alive, and they’re not eager to find out what technological advances this first war of the modern era has heralded in that particular regard.
Nicolo manages to hold onto his name until World War II, at which point Mussolini makes it rather uncomfortable to be an Italian. He starts with the French Nicolas, again bestowed upon him by Booker, but they bounce through so many units and so many battles that by the end of it he’s gone through Nikolai, Nicholas, Nick, Nico, Nicky.
He sticks with Nicky because Andy hates that it rhymes with her own alias, to which he replies that she ought to have stuck with Mack, the name she’d adopted when Andromache and then Andromeda both went out of style in quick succession, which had been first bestowed upon her by the Celts in Roman Britannia but not used until the Wars of Scottish Independence, which he and Joe and Quynh had gotten used to. She’d been fully Andy by the time they found Booker, so he never went through that adjustment period of starting to yell MACK! on the battlefield and having to change halfway through, when they’d ended up on the wrong side of the Hundred Years’ War for her to be a Scotsman. He goes through it in 1915 though, and again in 1940, and he’s never been good with names—when he’s put on the spot and has to come up with aliases for them he can never think of any surname other than his own, Lelivre, so it’s not long before he gives up completely and resorts to calling both of them boudin! which translates roughly to a disgusting type of sausage or an old and unappealing prostitute, depending on who you ask.
Nicolo also sticks with Nicky, privately, because Joe campaigns for it; Joe spends wakeful nights in rat-infested warrens on the frontlines wrapped around him, closer than it’s acceptable for two men to be, but no one interrupting them because no one cares, here, in this land of misery and paranoia and dread. Joe murmurs sweet nothings into the back of his neck until Nicolo can’t help but break out into a tired smile, testing the sharp cute syllables of it, Nicky, Nicky, Nicky, and decides, “It suits you, habibi. I think I would like to call you Nicky while I open you up to take my cock.”
Andy, who’s keeping sentry on a pile of sandbags in the mud, bloodied axe leaning against the wall beside her, only smiles softly and says nothing. They’ve lived together through eras when it wasn’t unusual for couples in the communal beds at inns to take pleasure in each other, through eras when people wouldn’t even bother stealing out of the light of the fire for a quick fuck. She’s borne witness to their lovemaking enough times that there are hardly any secrets between them, at least not in this department; anyways, they were around for her and Quynh, and they’ve weathered the tide of her thousands of conquests since—she’s hardly going to begrudge either of them a little wishful dirty talk in the middle of one of the most harrowing wars they’ve ever fought.
She keeps up her argument against Nicky as a point of pride for another few months before she lets it drop, but months are nothing to them, and anyways Nicolo can always see in her face that she’s already accepted it. He’s Nicky now. Joe, in the freezing wet and weeping hours of night, has christened him so.
Booker they call Booker for obvious reasons, and because they can hardly continue calling him Sebastien Lelivre when the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Sebastien Lelivre are still running roughshod over the earth and some particularly prodigious historian might dig up his actual death certificate.
They start on the nickname before he learns English, which leads to a very hilarious (for them) and frustrating (for Booker) summer in which Nicky teaches him defunct Middle English spellings and Andy uses her Scottish accent like a torture device, Booker turning to Joe in his desperation—aide-moi, je t’en supplie—only to be convinced by Joe under the guise of much needed assistance that the word “wagtail” is used to address your elders and people who you respect and that he should turn it on the local police.
Needless to say, Joe and Nicky spend a particularly idyllic afternoon in the French countryside fishing pieces of Booker out of a stream.
When they get Nile, they mostly call her “kid” and “pipsqueak,” because letting the new ones keep their names for a while is sort of like letting a baby have a safety blanket. She’s not going to stay Nile Freeman, there’s no way she can keep her identity in this day and age, but she needs a while to get used to what they all did ages ago: that your name is not who you are. There is nothing in a name, save what you give to it.
“Why Malta?” Nile asks, nearly a year after Merrick. She’s been with them in Valletta for a couple of days, dumped off for babysitting while Andy makes her decennial trek to the middle of the Gobi Desert.
“It’s beautiful here, no?” Joe returns.
Nile nods, looking around at the Baroque limestone façades, the colorful rows of shutters, the awnings flapping gently in a Mediterranean sea breeze. She’s tense in the shoulders, leg bouncing—she hasn’t quite gotten used to the geologic page of immortality, to the idea that she can linger on things, on places, on people.
Joe knows she won’t for a long while yet; he remembers it took him nearly a century to stop feeling the urgency of passion whenever he and Nicky were alone together. He’d been insatiable, then, in a different way than he is insatiable today, not because of the depth and surety of his love but because of the newness of it, the fear that it could all be taken away.
“It’s pretty, sure,” Nile admits. “But you guys talk about it like it’s this mythic place.”
Joe meets Nicky’s eyes across the café table, debating without words which of them gets to give the kid a history lesson, and after a moment Nicky sighs and sits forward. “For a man to love another man has for most of our lives been punishable by death or castration, in much of the world. Such sentences have no lasting consequences for us, of course, but it has always been easier to sleep at night in places where we do not have to fear we will be imprisoned and tortured for the crime of walking hand in hand in the street.”
Nicky glances over at him, and Joe can tell even underneath his sunglasses that they’re remembering the same incident, the Spanish Inquisition and stones and fire and when they still wouldn’t die, a kennel of hunting dogs that hadn’t been fed in near a month. Joe gasping back to life through a perforated throat, the blood on Nicky’s face shot through with clean tear tracks and him trying to wipe his hands off on his soiled pant legs before pushing Joe’s organs back into his body, because even then they knew what it felt like to die of sepsis and they knew dirt was involved, somehow. The dogs had gone for Joe first, and Nicky had killed them all with his bare hands to keep them from eating him; Joe couldn’t get him to talk about it for years, afterward. They’ve still never told Andy, or Booker.
He reaches over and grabs Nicky’s hand. Nicky squeezes back gratefully. “Malta was the only place in Europe we could live, for many years,” he tells Nile. “Truly live, without looking over our shoulders.”
“At least until the British arrived,” Joe adds ruefully, “at which point we went to India—”
“And then the British arrived there,” Nicky finishes, “so we went to Japan, which thankfully was never colonized. Plenty of war, though. Lots of work for a pair of indomitable samurai.”
Nile’s eyes widen. “You guys were samurai?”
“Yes,” Nicky laughs. “Although, not technically, since we never trained in any of their schools—”
“You remember what the other samurai used to ask us?” Joe cuts in, smiling at the look of warning Nicky shoots him over his espresso. “Which of us was the man, and which was the boy?”
Nicky rolls his eyes heavenward while Nile chokes on her orange juice, and Joe remembers fondly the nightly ritual of taking each other out of all that complicated armor, kneeling on tatami mats in their rooms in Edo, the trees and the night breeze and the organic non-mechanical murmur of a pre-industrial city breathing like a living thing through the thin paper doors. Both of them fully naked in the lantern light and unashamed, pinning Nicky down and making him scream, the freedom of being able to scream, make as much noise as they wanted, wetting Nicky’s skin with his saliva and letting it dry in the open air, sealing his lips over the hot delicate flesh of Nicky’s erection and catching Nicky’s release on his tongue and not worrying that some passerby might hear Nicky cursing him out in church Latin, no blankets pulled over to hide them, no cover of darkness required, just straw mats and skin.
A painter had asked to watch them, once, fascinated by non-Asian flesh and the foreign physiognomy of their bodies; centuries later, in the charred skeleton of firebombed Tokyo, Joe went looking for the original ink drawings, but could find only prints, spirited away in the back storage room of a palace museum, hidden by devoted academics during the homosexual purges of Meiji-period Japan. They still have the prints, but when Joe tried to put them on permanent display in one of their safehouses, Nicky took them down, claiming in public that Joe only wanted them up because the artist made his cock the size of a horse’s, and in private that there had to be some things that remain only between them, and that for him that half-century spent together in Japan, with Quynh at the bottom of the sea and Andy fucking her way through the Caribbean, was one of those things.
Joe, of course, obliged. He would oblige Nicky anything, least of all such a simple request, put so sweetly to him in the sleepy hours of the morning, over a breakfast of tea brewed in a pot gifted to them by the shogun himself, il tuo cazzo di cavallo è solo per me, amore mio.
“Anyways,” Nicky continues, still with the accusatory side-eye at his lover. “Once Malta dealt with their British problem, we were very happy to return. There are many fond memories here, for us.”
So much of the world in the world in the 12th century is cruelty and smallness; so much of it is death and war and hatred, and when they meet in Jerusalem in the midst of one of God’s rancorous holy wars Joe has no way to shelter Nicky from it, so he is careful—he is so, so careful, that when he takes Nicky to bed for the first time, he’s gentle with him.
They know that they can’t die but they haven’t figured out what that means yet, because Andy and Quynh haven’t found them yet, they’re just holed up in a goat farm as far out into the desert as they could get, trying to avoid the crashing tides of the world that demand they see each other as enemies, bound now, inextricably and viscerally, by the world-shaking experience of dying under each other’s hands and being reborn staring into each other’s eyes and doing it again, and again, for days.
Nicky, who still ties himself up in knots of Roman Catholic guilt over the simple act of self-pleasure, has been harboring intellectual doubts about the faith since long before became an ordained minister and rode off to die in defense of a land he’d never set foot in, so it’s really only a question of logic to talk him into bed (stiamo morendo di fame l’uno per l’altro, non lasciarci morire di fame).
The difficult part, once they’re there, is convincing him to enjoy it.
When Joe touches him Nicky tenses like he’s still expecting his God to smite him, even now that they’ve passed outside the laws of life and death which bind mortal men, but Joe had turned back when Nicky hesitated on the threshold and said, “I will not take that which is not freely given, habibi,” and Nicky took Joe’s face in his hands, soothing his thumbs over the prickly seam where his beard met his cheek, and told him, “I have never felt for my God half as much as I feel for you,” and asked, “Go slowly, amore mio,” and kissed him, his big hands shaking on Joe’s face, all the confidence with which he had wielded a sword drained out of him completely, so Joe doesn’t stop when he tenses, because Nicky’s fists might be twisted in the bedclothes but Nicky’s eyes drag imploringly at him, per favore, per favore.
Joe softens his touch. He laves open-mouthed kisses to the insides of Nicky’s legs, like he learned at a whorehouse in Riyadh, turning his tongue and his teeth and the scrape of his beard into he baby-soft skin of Nicky’s thighs, hands soothing over his sweaty flanks saying low and ragged and reverent and only for him, Nicolo, Nicolo, ya’aburnee, so that by the time his mouth makes it anywhere near Nicky’s cock, Nicky taking a moment to stare down at him, wide-eyed and wild with lust, because this is still taboo in his culture, pleasuring a lover with your mouth, he’s breathing hard and begging for it, not just with his eyes, but out loud, the choppy desperate cadence of his Yusuf, Yusuf, Yusuf knocking off the wattle and daub walls.
The first time Nicky comes in the presence of another human being, it’s on Joe’s tongue, and Joe drinks it down greedily with a sound like a growl, his hands spread on Nicky’s rear to keep him pressed deep into his mouth, wanting to feel every tiny twitch of his cock as he writhes through his orgasm.
Joe kisses him in the aftershocks, wet and languid and searching, and when Nicky’s aware enough to blink up at him, eyes so blue that Joe feels, intimately, as he presses their foreheads together, that he’s been run through with a spear, he tugs just a little on Joe’s beard and says, “They didn’t teach us that, at seminary. I’m going to need some instruction.”
Later, he’s so clumsy with Joe’s cock, so earnest and devoted to the task of making Joe come, that it doesn’t matter that he has no earthly idea what he’s doing—Joe falls apart in the space of a minute.
Nicky watches it happen, not moving away, and gets a rope of semen on his face for his efforts, which he runs his fingers through, quizzical, and then sticks in his mouth, and Joe thinks he can hardly be blamed for the fact that the goats don’t get fed that night, or the next morning, when he spreads Nicky out and licks into him, then slicks his fingers with oil and eases past that tight rim of muscle into the hot soft clench of his body, Nicky’s heart fluttering against his fingertips like it had fluttered when they died with their hands buried in each other’s chests, woke up with them sealed inside and died again.
Nicky has never been soft, but he does feel the injustices of the world more acutely than the rest of them—than Andy, who’s been numbed to such things, than Quynh, who’s always had a mean streak of her own, than Booker, who feels nothing more acutely than he feels his own sorrow, his own loss. Joe knows that Nicky is one of the rare few driven to the priesthood by an actual desire to help people, and that there is no way he’ll ever walk away from a fight.
He tries to get him to sit out the Vietnam War, but Nicky has seen the photos of crying children and he’s seen the mass graves, and he knows the real reason Joe really doesn’t want to go is that he sees Napalm and he remembers being on the ground in Nagasaki and he’s afraid, even if what he’s doing is yelling about moral grey areas and needing a break and Nicky not loving him enough to just once stay home, but he sees the children and he can’t not go, so he stands his ground and stays stony and silent while Joe shouts up and down the house in Valletta, and then when Joe stops shouting and starts drinking, he slips out into the night and goes to meet Andy and Booker in Saigon.
Joe drinks himself to death in Malta and then drinks himself to death in Athens and then sucks it up and gets on a plane to Vietnam.
In the end, he’ll always love Nicky more than he’s afraid of anything.
He makes his way solo through massacres, through idyllic rice paddies and farm towns where eyes follow him with suspicion until he speaks French instead of English. It’s a horror of a war, like all wars and especially all modern wars, which subsume entire nations instead of just battlefields, and Joe wants—like he always wants—to take Nicky far away from it, so he doesn’t have to look, so neither of them have to look, but he knows that no matter how far they went Nicky wouldn’t be happy, to know that people were suffering while he did nothing. Nicky needs to fight, so Joe will fight.
He finds them after three weeks, escorting the survivors of a razed village through American-held territory to the relative safety of Laos. Booker sees him first, slogging through the open water of a low fallow paddy to where they’re encamped on a small island, and Joe can’t hear him, but he sees him say, Nicky, and then that blond head is popping up out of a group of young children, those blue eyes blinking at him, steady and understanding, not a trace of judgement, and Joe suddenly feels like such a bastard for what he said in Valletta that by the time Nicky reaches him he’s near tears.
It takes almost a month to get their caravan to safety. Nicky spends every night entertaining the children around the fire, teaching them Italian songs and letting them show him how to make hats and dolls and necklaces out of the tall grass, his smile easy and genuine in that way it only ever is around children, but not uncomplicated, because he loves children and Joe thinks that it’s the cruelest part of all of this, that he can never have them. That Joe can never give him any, because the pain of loving them and having to bury them them would be so much worse than the pain of never knowing them at all.
They do die once from Napalm, but it turns out to be not so bad as mustard gas. It’s more like burning alive—quicker, at least, than struggling for breath in a yellow cloud while your insides liquefy.
They’ve died worse deaths, namely from plague, which Andy had gotten and then they’d all gotten, holed up in a monastery in the Alps, long excruciating days waking up frozen with snow because no one was strong enough to get up and start a fire, not even strong enough to close the shutters, each of them dying of illness or exposure in turn and being well enough to play nursemaid for a few hours before falling ill again, a Sisyphean cycle which had ended seemingly by magic after a couple of months and which they now understand must have ended because they’d finally developed the right antibodies.
Joe’s personal least-favorite might’ve been mustard gas, but he knows Booker’s got a bad thing about starvation and Andy’s been drawn and quartered more than once, had to wriggle her limbless torso to both arms and both legs in turn to let them reconnect, and he’s there when Nicky wakes screaming in the middle of the night, he was there to dig him out of the cave-in.
“How do you stay human?” Booker asked, once, bivouacked on the side of a mountain somewhere in Armenia somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. “Seeing all this suffering, living through so much…Some days I feel as if the world barely touches me, anymore.”
They were all quiet for a long moment, staring into the warm light of the fire, lost in thought. When at last one of them spoke, it was Nicky, his voice measured and mindful like it used to be whenever Joe would catch him in prayer, back when he still prayed. “We die,” he said. “And we hurt. That is what keeps us human.”
Andy arrives in Valletta thirteen days late with Booker’s head in a suitcase.
“It was detached when I found it,” she swears, hefting the whole bloody mess of it up onto their kitchen table, completely oblivious to the unamused look Joe’s giving her from the other room. “And Athena’s fucking tits, it won’t shut the fuck up. He’s your problem now.”
Nicky, because he’s Nicky, is much more concerned with the fact that Booker’s been decapitated than the fact that a chatty severed head is getting blood all over their table, and shoots Joe a vaguely reproachful look when he tells Booker they still haven’t forgiven him for turning them over to a mad scientist, wrapping Booker in one of their dish towels and spiriting him away to the upstairs bathroom, where Nile—who’s just finished puking—takes one look at the gruesome bundle in Nicky’s hands and starts puking again.
She eventually escapes down to help Joe in the kitchen, which is good because it’s hardly sanitary to cook kapunata and mop week-old brain matter off the table at the same time, and Nicky shuts himself in with Booker and won’t even come out when Joe calls up to say dinner’s ready, so he and Nile end up eating a tense silent meal listening to unintelligible voices murmur through the ceiling.
A few hours after dark, Andy finishes drinking and fucking the anger out of her system and comes back, slamming through the back door and up the stairs into the bathroom with Nicky and Booker before Joe can even get up to yell at her not to treat his house like a fucking punching bag.
“Something’s happening, isn’t it?” Nile asks in the ringing silence, wide-eyed and still vaguely green.
Joe has no patience tonight. “Andy went to China and came back with Booker’s head. Yes, something’s happening.”
He leaves his dirty dishes on the table and heads up the stairs just in time to catch Nicky coming out of the bathroom. He had big plans, on his way up, about yelling at Andy for bringing that traitor into their home, but then Nicky meets his eyes and he looks so wan and hunted that all his anger leaves him in a rush.
“Nicolo?” he asks softly, and Nicky draws him down the hall, into their bedroom, closes the door, shutting out the rest of the team and the rest of the house and the rest of the world. “Nicolo,” Joe says again, not a question this time, and catches him by the elbow. “Hey, come on. Tell me.”
Nicky stares back at him in the dark. “Quynh,” he says. “Quynh has Booker’s body.”
Joe blinks. “Quynh is at the bottom of the ocean.”
His lover shakes his head. “No. Quynh is on a yacht somewhere in the South China Sea with an army of mercenaries running a human trafficking ring, and she wants us to go talk to her.”
“Us?” Joe asks.
“All of us,” Nicky clarifies.
“Well.” Joe rubs his lower lip, frowning. “It’s always something, I suppose.”
Which is how they end up with Booker back on the kitchen table, sitting in a bucket of ice to numb the fact that he’s got no fucking body, pressing him to recall every last detail of Quynh’s floating base of operations.
He doesn’t remember much, which can happen when you deal with a head-related death, so all they really have is a basic floorplan of the bridge and the top deck, and a sketch of the underside of the boat that he remembers from when he was drowning that isn’t going to do them any good unless they plan to infiltrate via the propeller, or something.
Joe, who’s cooperating under duress and taking every opportunity to shoot scathing looks at the back of Booker’s head, asks, “Are you sure it was Quynh?”
Booker’s eyes slide to him, unamused, but Andy cuts in before he can answer, “She was the only other person who knew about that drop in the Gobi. We set it up so that if we ever got separated, we could find each other again. Swore to visit it every ten years. I show up and I find Booker’s head—it’s not a fucking coincidence, Joe.”
“I didn’t say it was a fucking coincidence,” Joe hisses. “But look at what Copley found out about us, that we thought no one would ever find out. If you lead us into another goddamn trap—”
“I don’t think Booker set up his own decapitation,” Nile ventures, at the same time that Andy snaps, “It’s hardly a trap if we know it’s a fucking trap. When has a ransom demand ever been anything else?”
“Plus,” Booker drawls, sounding exhausted, “I’ve only been seeing her in my dreams for 200 years, so.”
“Maybe your body will grow back,” Joe tries, which only earns him a groan from Nicky and a nauseous look from Nile and an emphatic recounting of an incident involving a guillotine and a lot of French peasants from Andy.
They resolve to leave for the South China Sea in the morning—Andy rode back most of the way on a ship that’s still docked in the Grand Harbour, since it’s tricky to fly commercial with a severed head, and it will take them as far as Muscat, where they’ll have to meet up with their usual pilot, Wei.
There’s no vote, because everyone knows that Joe would be the only holdout but also that Joe would cave after Nicky stared at him imploringly for a few seconds, but that doesn’t stop Joe from grumbling about it while they get ready for bed.
“You wouldn’t leave him,” Nicky tells him, when he gets done brushing his teeth like he’s trying to kill something. “Even if it was only you, you wouldn’t. Don’t take out your fear on a man who’s lost his body.”
Joe looks at him, leaning in the open door to their en suite in his t-shirt and boxers, with his steady, even gaze that sees right through Joe like he’s made of glass, and feels all the fight bleed out of him.
Nicky’s right, as he so often is. Joe’s ire, his anger, almost always comes from a place of fear—he’s like a cornered animal, that way. But there’s no need for it here. Nicky has always been with him in his fear, with him in his panicked instinctive shouting, with him in those raw gasping moments of rebirth when Joe reached out instinctively for a mother who was centuries dead, to catch Joe’s grasping hands and press their foreheads together and murmur, kun hadiana habiin, amore mio, sono qui.
He braces his hands on the counter, toothbrush still clutched in one hand, and stares at Nicky the same way Nicky had stared at him that first night a thousand years ago: per favore. “Quynh is dangerous,” he croaks. “If she blames us, if she wants to do to us what they did to her—”
Nicky comes to him, shushing. “No. That’s not going to happen.”
“How do you know?” Joe implores. “How can you know that, Nicky? If you were the one at the bottom of the sea, I could not carry on like Andy has, I would—you know that I would—”
“Hey, hey,” Nicky shushes him some more, taking Joe’s head in his hands, pressing kisses to his face like the time it took Joe’s eyes two days to grow back, and he’d say Nicolo, and Nicky would say qui, with a kiss to his shoulder, qui, with a kiss to his ear, qui, with a kiss to his reaching fingers. “Nile says she can put chips in us.”
Joe frowns. “Chips?”
“Some sort of technology. She says it will let us see where we all are. On the computer.”
The computer has always been Booker’s realm, being the youngest among them, but Joe understands at least vaguely that it can be used to find people, and track them, and also buy things. “She’s sure?” he asks.
“Yes.” Nicky presses a long, chaste kiss to his lips, one final assurance, like calming a spooked horse. “She’s sure.”
Near dawn, Nile gasps awake down the hall from a nightmare, and Nicky and Joe wake with her.
They’ve always been lighter sleepers than the others, for virtue of their sleeping in the same bed being a capital offense for so much of history. Nicky groans into his pillow because they’ve only been asleep for a few hours, and Joe hums against the back of his head and runs his lips over the shell of his ear and reminds him that he’s the one who always wanted children, a joke which still hurts a bit but hurts less now, after so much time, now that he can send Nicky down the hall to knock softly on the door to Nile’s room, now that he can creak down the old stairs and put the teapot on and go fishing in their pantry for chamomile, because even though Nile is technically a grown woman, she’s still a baby.
Granted, she’s a baby who says fuck a lot and is careful to always double-tap and knows more about technology than the rest of them combined, but she also asks earnest questions that start with will it hurt if and will I die for real if and how have all your teeth not fallen out? and Joe still has the drawing he made of her face when they first dreamed her, eyes wild and white-ringed with terror, blood spurting from a slash in her throat, and he remembers and he knows that Nicky remembers what it was like those first hundred years, not understanding what was happening to them, suspicious of the whole world and all the people in it, no longer able to trust such simple truths as “all men must die.”
They remember what it was like, to be new and unmoored, clutching to each other for steadiness. Nile was not so lucky as to die the first time on her soulmate’s blade, so instead she has them. She has friends, and community, and Booker’s head blinking awake on the table to gaze longingly at the hot cocoa, and say, when she tries to feed him some and it only pours out through the bloody stump of his severed throat, “Ah, c'est la guerre.”
For someone who thought guns were a passing fad until the Second World War, Andy sure does own a lot of them. She keeps upwards of three dozen in a safe in the basement of their house in Valletta, ostensibly for emergencies but really as an excuse to come and visit them whenever she wants. They’d let her come, anyways—they’re always happy to have her, but to tell her that would send her into hiding for at least a century, trying to shake off the cloying feverish panic of setting down roots, so they let her keep her guns, and they pretend.
Quynh was never here; the house isn’t that old. But there are pieces of her here, like traces of someone who’s died: a trunk of silks too delicate to keep in Andy’s damp storage cave, a set of ornate throwing knives that predate the birth of Christ tucked away in the top drawer of a desk, accent walls in the downstairs powder room and the kitchen painted Tyrian purple, that awful shade that’s not quite purple and not quite red and not quite brown, because Nicky had seen a can of it at the store when they were renovating in the 1980s and remembered how much Quynh adored that dye, how she’d used to insist they stop and hold up Silk Road caravans to steal it from travelling merchants.
The guest room Nile’s using used to be full of French literature and skinny jeans and ugly homemade sweaters, but Joe boxed all that up and put it in the basement the second they got in, muttering about fucking traitors and avoiding Nicky’s eyes every time he passed the kitchen and the smell of fresh pastry and Nicky tried to engage him nonverbally and mostly by staring in an open and honest conversation about his feelings.
Their old samurai armor is in the basement, with Andy’s guns and their rusted katanas. Joe remembers the headache of sending for it, trying to convince the great-grandson of the man they’d left it with in extensive handwritten correspondence that they were their own great-grandsons and that he wouldn’t just be shipping it halfway across the world to some strangers. And he remembers how it had felt to meet the ship in the Harbour and cut the rope on the crate, to find their armor gleaming and perfectly-maintained, as if not a day had passed since they fought in the shogun’s wars—the rush of nostalgia for another life, the pressure of tears at the back of his throat and Nicky’s hand on his arm, squeezing.
Nicky’s eyes meeting his, and holding, so he knew that they were both thinking of their rooms in Edo, how the morning sun would spear directly through their open window and Joe would hide his face in Nicky’s shoulder, grumbling, how in the winter they put hot rocks under their tatami mats to warm them and broke off icicles from the windows so they could keep fish for later without salting it and how centuries later, after the firebombing, they walked down their same street and over the bridge where one particularly drunken evening Joe had carved in the wood the Japanese characters for Nicolo and Nicky had made him stay and carve out Yusuf as well and it was still there, even though the whole block was burnt down, their old building long since demolished and built over, the bridge was still there. Nicky had cried, would have fallen to his knees on that bridge if Joe hadn’t caught him, like four years of war were catching up to him all at once, like the children they’d seen on fire last night had been the last straw, and probably they had been.
“Tell me, habibi,” Joe had said, feeling like his heart was breaking, and Nicky had clung to his wrists and begged, “Why does it have to be us. Why do we have to be the ones.” And then, standing in front of their armor, under the weight of centuries, Nicky smiled.
The house itself isn’t the most remarkable piece of real estate, but it’s defensible, alone up on a rocky hill on the unpaved outskirts of Valletta, and when they’d come here looking for a place they’d resolved before they set out not to spend more than an afternoon, already wanting to badly to put down roots, to have a place of their own, so when Nicky had squinted up the long gravel drive at the house and said, “That one’s good, don’t you think?”—that had been that.
There isn’t much to it—three bedrooms, two and a half baths, a rather unremarkable back yard that has at times housed a goat and a hammock but which they’ve never quite succeeded in turning into a vegetable garden, like they’ve been saying they’re going to for half a century.
They’ve gotten away with keeping it mostly by disappearing for a few years and coming back claiming to be their own shockingly-identical distant relatives, but also by registering as foreign nationals and filing phony death certificates every couple of years, bequeathing the property to their own aliases.
When they did the renovation they added an extra room to their basement where all the really incriminating mementos—including Andy’s guns—are kept, as well as a jacuzzi that Nicky—greedy, spoiled little thing that he is—has been campaigning for since he found out what a jacuzzi was. It’s an American word, a brand name, Jacuzzi, but Nicky always says it like it’s the Italian it’s pretending to be, jacu-tzi,and only beams when Joe makes fun of him for it because he know Joe likes it as much as he does, the luxury of being able to fit two grown men in a bath without having to clean water off the floor.
They’ve had a lot of safehouses over the years, dumps and penthouses and everything in between. They’ve lived in caves, and warehouses, and spent long years sleeping on bedrolls wherever their horses decided to stop for the night, pillowing down on rocks and dirt with their heads toward the fire and their hands around swords and Andy on watch, lulled to sleep by the sound of her whetstone scraping over her axe, no comfort but the warmth of each other’s bodies.
The house in Valletta, which they’re careful never to call “home” around Andy lest she launch into one of her irate immortality is suffering rants, is the only permanent residence Joe’s ever had, and the only one Nicky’s had since he left the seminary in Genova, freshly-ordained and ignorant of the world, to die in defense of a bare patch of sand on which he had never layed eyes. Joe knows they’ll have to give the house up eventually, but for now it’s theirs; for now, if he can’t give Nicky children and can’t give him safety and can’t give him peace, he can at least give him this.
Joe knows Nicky’s right. Even if he were alone, he’d go for Booker in the end, because Joe only has four people and that bastard Frenchman is one of them. And if all he’d done was hand Joe and Andy over to a rich, sadistic child, he might have been quicker to forgive, but it wasn’t just Joe and Andy, it was Nicky, and Joe can never fucking forgive that. Never, and he knows how long never is, for all of them, so he knows that he means it.
Still, even if he never forgives him, he can’t leave Booker in pieces. So he gets on the boat with the others, he straps his gear on with the others, he rides out into the South China sea under cover of darkness with the others, bouncing over the black silent waves and meeting Nicky’s eyes in the green glow of the running light for a split second, checking in, before he goes back to watching Nile while she boots up the tracking system on their new chips.
“It’s good?” he asks her, when he sees five red dots appear on the map. “Everything’s good?”
She nods, nervous but solemn. “It’s good. If any of us goes over, we’ll be able to track them within ten meters.”
Quynh’s yacht had been easy enough to find, registered with the harbormaster in Hainan under the name Spanish Rose—the same name as the ship that tossed her over, all those centuries ago. It’s a sleek beast in the dark, like a shark lying in wait, dormant, and as they slip on board Joe has to shove down the ridiculous image of it coming to life and devouring them, like Jonah and the whale. Digestion, he suspects, would be a slow, gross, thoroughly horrible way to go.
Nicky’s got Booker in a sling on his front, like a baby, directing them down halls and into rooms full of surveillance screens where guards burst up from their seats just in time to meet Andy’s daggers. Whatever he’s forgotten, he at least remembers where his body is—on ice in the galley freezer, same place they cut his head off, he says he can still feel the cold—je connais le froid, he keeps muttering, je lui connais bien.
They get down there, clean and quiet, no alarms going off, into the galley and into the freezer and there it is, Booker’s headless body, the exposed tendons of his neck trying valiantly to reconnect to something that isn’t there.
Nicky puts the head in place to reattach. Nile, to her credit, manages to keep her lunch while she covers him, as the searching tendons latch on and start knitting back together, Booker’s eyes rolling back with a half-pained, half-euphoric sigh.
Joe hangs in the freezer door and keeps an eye out, sword dripping blood on the tile—plip, plip, plip—but all is calm. The yacht moves mildly underfoot, too big to really be moved by the sea, and he starts to think that they might actually be home for dinner tomorrow, which is of course when he notices Andy hasn’t come back from clearing the pantry and it all goes to shit.
Bullets ping off the stainless steel appliances in the galley. Booker’s head is about as reattached as a jack-in-the-box, which means they can move him around as one piece but they can’t expect him to use his hands or anything, so they strap him to Joe’s back—Joe, because he’s not much bigger than Nicky but he’s always been better with a deadlift—and get the hell out of the kill box they’re sitting in.
They’re in body armor, but they still stop a couple rounds each: Joe to the face, so that he feels his whole jaw swinging out, unhinged; Nile to each shoulder, phum phum, two quick hits from a silenced rifle that put her back into the wall before Nicky sweeps out around her and dispatches the threat; Nicky, who comes back dragging his mangled foot, the ankle bone shot to shit, white-faced and gritting his teeth as he reloads.
They have to find Andy. Andy’s gone from being their heavy hitter to the ball in a game of full-contact keepaway. They tried to talk her into retiring, right after Merrick, but she’d responded to that suggestion the same way she’d responded in 1648 when they told her to get the hell out of Candia—by pretending she hadn’t heard them at all.
For all that she’s pushing 7000 years old, Andy can be pretty fucking childish sometimes, which is why when they come to a crossroads, Joe looks up the stairs to the sleeping quarters, and says, garbled by his jaw, “Nicky.”
Nicky meets his eyes, understands immediately what he’s saying—that there’s no world in which Andy leaves here without confronting Quynh—nods once, and disappears up the stairs, dragging his bad foot and leaving a trail of blood.
Nile hesitates. “Do we follow him?”
“No,” Joe bites. Booker, thankfully, knows when to shut the fuck up.
He may be a hopeless fucking romantic, but Joe is also a consummate soldier, always has been, and he knows that it makes less than no tactical sense to drag Booker’s dead weight up into the living area when there’s fifty feet and maybe two guards between them and their getaway boat.
So he leads Nile back out onto the swim platform, then covers her while she swims out to the boat and brings it around, the whole time buzzing with furious energy and staring up at the yellow lights of Quynh’s quarters at the top of the boat, hyper-aware of the traitor lashed to his back and swearing to himself that if anything happens to Nicky he’s going to put Booker in a tiny room far away from the sun and throw away the key so he can spend the rest of his immortal existence starving to death over and over again.
“Joe,” Nile says behind him.
They get Booker in the boat, and he tells Nile to circle the yacht at a safe distance and wait to see them swimming out with their computer chips. His jaw is mostly reattached, now, so he actually manages to form the words in English. She guns it away from the yacht, leaving Joe to head back inside.
He follows Nicky’s blood up the stairs, gun out, already hearing voices. Andy’s voice, and one he hasn’t heard for centuries, but recognizes like it was yesterday: Quynh.
Andy’s trying to talk Quynh down, and Quynh’s saying something about how they’re not here to be the saviors of humanity, but to be the torturers, the punishers—the monstersthat humans fear when they go to sleep at night, which is such bullshit that Joe doesn’t even really bother thinking about it, until he pivots through the door and finds Quynh with a gun to Andy’s head, Andy on her knees.
Their eyes both snap to him, Quynh’s hot and sharp with fury.
“Quynh,” he says warily, by way of greeting.
“Yusuf,” she returns. “Been a while.”
Joe scans the room, the open doors to the balcony, Nicky’s blood under his feet on the carpet but no other sign of him. He looks to Andy, and her eyes flick once to the balcony and the dark waters beyond—quick, barely noticeable, but enough to tell Joe what he needs to know: that Nicky went over.
He puts his gun away.
Quynh fails to hide a flicker of surprise. “What? Not going to beg for your fearless leader’s life?”
Joe shakes his head once. “I have somewhere else to be,” he says. “Just know—if you kill her, she won’t come back.”
He looks at Andy one last time, her face streaked with blood, eyes steely and determined, and knows that if this is truly the end for her, this is how she would want to go, with the love of her life on the other side of the gun.
Then he runs across the room, hits the balcony, and dives.
Later, after he finds Nicky halfway to the bottom, foot bound to a heavy brass sculpture, fighting to keep from sinking and struggling to free himself between deaths, halfway through sawing off his own leg with a ka-bar; after he takes Nicky’s face in his hands and gives him the last of his breath, takes the knife from him and finishes sawing through the bone while Nicky’s hands tense to the point of pain and then go limp on his shoulders, after he drowns floating in his lover’s arms and then shocks awake just in time to watch Nicky drown again and then drags him to the surface, straining; after they break into the open air and Nicky gasps back awake with a wretched cough, spitting body-hot seawater all over them, the stump of his amputated leg kicking weakly between Joe’s legs, Joe keeping him above water, pressing rough grateful kisses to the side of his head—he reaches up, and Booker grabs his hand.
Booker doesn’t say anything, just hauls them both up and over into the boat, his head still lolling a little more than usual on his shoulders. But Joe, sprawled out in a puddle on the deck with Nicky shivering against his front, knuckling through the pain of regrowing a foot, mutters, “Merci,” and Booker nods, and it’s enough.
Andy sends Nile a text message: DON’T WAIT UP. RNDZ IN NASSAU 10 WEEKS. She’s had the capslock stuck on her phone since late 2009, so they figure it’s probably her, but on the off chance that Quynh killed her and kept her phone they decide Nassau will be treated much the same way as this latest operation: as a definite trap.
In the meantime they repair to a safehouse in Kaohsiung, an apartment near the waterfront that they purchased back in the 1950s when it seemed like China might invade Taiwan full-out. Like most of the rest of the city, it’s tiny, one bedroom and a few futons crammed into the living room, so it doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy, but Joe is so far from caring that it’s not even worth talking about.
If Booker knows what’s good for him he’ll take Nile to get something to eat, since the Korean War MREs in the cabinets aren’t exactly appetizing and it’s hungry work re-attaching a head and Joe’s going to spend the forseeable future reassuring himself that Nicky’s still here, he’s okay, by checking over each and every part of his body—with his tongue. He herds him into the shower first, wanting to get the smell of day-old saltwater off him, and while the water’s heating up he hears muffled voices out in the apartment, Nile saying she wants to sleep and Booker saying trust me, you won’t sleep here, we’ll get a hotel or something.
The shower’s not big enough for two children, let alone two grown men, but Joe and Nicky have shared smaller spaces before (namely, that coffin in Padua), and Joe can’t stand not touching Nicky’s skin when twelve hours ago he’d thought he might have to spend the rest of his unnaturally long life scuba diving in the South China Sea and vacillating between praying Nicky hadn’t gone mad and praying he had, if only to make the drowning easier on him.
Just based on the questioning look Nicky shoots him when he steps into the vestibule, some of that desperation must be showing on his face. “Cos’è?” Nicky asks him, concerned.
Joe takes Nicky’s head in his hands and kisses him. Nicky reacts like he always does: so so beautifully, hands sliding over the slick wet skin of Joe’s shoulders, his back, his waist. Joe takes Nicky’s lower lip gently between his and sucks, and feels Nicky’s whole body roll forward against his in response, like he wants Joe to take all of him, and Joe loves it more than he can put into words when Nicky trusts him with that, with the weight of his body, the care and keeping of it, and he knows in his heart that it will never cease to thrill him—the depth and ardor of Nicky’s faith in him.
“Cos’è?” Nicky asks again, blue eyes spearing Joe at point blank range.
Joe rubs his thumb under Nicky’s eye. “I almost lost you. Down there in the water—”
“No,” Nicky says, easy as anything. “You’re forgetting the computer chips. You would have found me.”
Nicky’s faith in technology he doesn’t understand is slightly less entrancing than his faith in Joe, but no less genuine, and by the time they make it out of the shower, toweling themselves dry and walking naked down the short hall to the bedroom because Booker will probably keep Nile out of here until at least morning, he’s convinced himself that the computer chip in his arm probably could’ve resucitated him and floated him back to the surface, too.
Joe’s attempts to disabuse him of this notion are met by that look Nicky gives him when he doesn’t think Joe knows what he’s talking about, like when Joe tries to tell him which gelato flavor is best or that he knows how to fix their plumbing, so in the end Joe just gives up trying to argue and tumbles Nicky into bed, a puff of dust from the 1950s rising around them so they cough and laugh and have to get up and shake out all the bedsheets, pop back down the hall to rinse the dust off their wet naked skin, crowding into the shower again, Joe turning Nicky into the wall and dropping to his knees to spread Nicky open and lick into him, beard scratching the tender flesh around Nicky’s hole, Nicky swearing in church Latin and shoving back against his face, braced against the tile, telling Joe in stumbling Arabic that if he doesn’t take him to bed and put his cock in him five damn minutes ago he’s going to leave him for a younger man.
Joe obliges. He would oblige Nicky anything, least of all this, least of all lovemaking. He takes him back to the bed with the creaky boxspring, still dusty but less, bottom sheet on and the rest in a pile on the floor, forgotten, unnecessary, and even if they’d thought to leave lube here it would be long past its expiration date, so he coaxes Nicky onto his front and licks him open for long minutes, listening to the breathy punched-out sounds Nicky makes and listening to his body, the fine tremors in the backs of his thighs, the way the muscles in his arms bunch up as he fists his hands in the bare sheet, his whole self shaking like he’s strung out on a live wire, he slips his fingers into Nicky’s mouth and presses them into his tongue and slips them, wet with Nicky’s own saliva, inside him, murmuring into the small of his back, ya’aburnee, Nicolo, finds that spot inside him and rubs it languidly while Nicky pants Yusuf, Yusuf, rubs it until Nicky shakes apart with a last cry of his God-given name.
He catches Nicky’s release on his fingers, slick and hot, and pushes it inside him, spreading, soothing his lips over Nicky’s rear as he catches his breath, limp, helpless, hips shifting weakly back into Joe’s hand with the last shocks of his orgasm, and Joe waits until he’s coherent enough to say, “Pronto, amore mio, pronto, pronto,” and then he takes his own cock in hand and guides the head to Nicky’s red, fucked-out hole, bracing his arms on either side of Nicky’s head so he can watch as he splits him open, Nicky breathing hard and hot, forehead pressed into Joe’s wrist as Joe’s cock which isn’t quite as big as a horse’s but does beg the comparison finds space inside his body. Joe can tell he needs a minute to adjust, so he kisses the back of Nicky’s head, still wet from the shower, and murmurs, “Sono qui, habibi, sono qui, respirare, siamo qui insieme, tutto bene.”
After a long minute, Nicky flails his hand out and grabs onto Joe’s wrist, and says, “Bene, Yusuf, move,” and Joe does.
When the others come back around noon the next day, Booker takes one step inside the apartment before backpedaling and taking Nile with him. “More time,” he mutters, “They need more time.” And out in the street Nile rolls her eyes heavenward and asks how they can possibly need more time, when they’ve had the whole night already, and Booker just pats her on the shoulder and says, “Be glad you weren’t there for VE day. It was like this for weeks.”
Nile’s eyes widen, and Booker laughs, and Joe moans so loud through the open window three storeys up that it sends them scampering back into the hustle and bustle of the city, as fast as their feet can carry them.