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the person falling here is me

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Nicky wakes up, and before he opens his eyes he knows three things.

 

First, he's not in the infirmary anymore, and in fact, he's certain that it was burned down around him. He can smell the fine layer of ash on his skin, and something else. Something antiseptic and chemical that says laboratory and makes the hair rise on his arms. Second, Joe isn't here, because no one is whispering his name, Nicolò, and destati, destati. Third, he's been restrained with some degree of skill to a heavy chair, and he's not going to be able to get free quickly.

 

Nicky opens his eyes and waits to see what's going to happen.

 

There's eight men, heavily armed. There's another man in front, smiling down at him. Handsome in that overbred English way, tall and wide through the shoulders, with a leonine mane of silvering hair. His suit is Savile Row, and his smile makes Nicky wish he had just one fist free.

 

The man leans in a little closer, still smiling, so Nicky does what Joe would do instead, and slams his head into the man's nose.

 

The guards beat him to death. They’re a bit overenthusiastic, given that the man's yelling at them, bloody handkerchief clutched to his nose, a yell that could possibly be stop, stop, reduced now to a nasal honk. Unfortunately, one of the guards gets Nicky in the skull at just the right angle with his boot. It's probably an accident. Professionals, for the given value of the word, in that they're being paid to keep Nicky here, alive or mostly.

 

Nicky makes this assessment when he wakes up again, the grind of bones resetting, blood in his eyes. On the bright side, the man in the Saville Row suit —Merrick, Mister Merrick, one of the guards called him— has a broken nose, and what promises to be two spectacular black eyes. Nicky feels the exchange has been fair. Merrick stays out of range this time. He's trying to smile, but now it looks like it hurts. Good.

 

"I'm given to understand your name is Nicolo," Merrick says, pronouncing it in the English way, where the emphasis falls wrongly and jars on the ear. "Nicolo, I represent a rising pharmaceutical company, and as we come to the turn of the millennium, I feel that you and I have been granted a truly golden opportunity to work together." Merrick smiles again. One of his teeth is chipped, but he hasn't seemed to have noticed yet. "Help me, and I can give you anything you could ever want."

 

Nicky is tied to a chair and there are eight bruised men with guns trained on him. Merrick is smiling, like Nicky is a fool. As though Nicky would ever walk out of this place with any of these men alive.

 

He thinks, I want my broadsword, I want a long shower to get the smell of this place off my skin. I want to burn your homes and your buildings to ash, and then I want Joe to fuck my mouth on a bed with clean sheets, and then I want to drink espresso and do it all again, only harder this time.

 

He doesn't say any of that. He says, mildly, "You cannot give me what I want."

 

Those are the first, and the last words he ever says to Merrick.

 

***

 

This is how it began.

 

Once there was a young priest named Nicoló, and he left his home in Genova to take up the sword and join God's army on their mission to liberate the Holy Land.

 

At the siege of Jerusalem, he encountered a young dark-eyed soldier and sliced his guts into the dusty earth, but not before his enemy managed to cut his throat. They died together, Nicoló di Genova and Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn al-Kaysani. They died tangled together on the bloody ground, in the long shadow of Jerusalem.

 

That should have been how it ended, but it wasn’t.

 

They never quite managed to untangle themselves after that.

 

***

 

There's a speech. Every new face in the lab gets it read out to them by someone, another lab staffer, a bored guard. Sometimes it's by Merrick himself, when he deigns to come down and risk getting blood on his shoes. It's called Interaction and Handling Protocols for Subject 155. "Do not touch or interfere with Subject 155's bindings. Do not attempt to transfer Subject 155 between the lab and the holding area without permission from a senior scientist and the presence of at least six guards. Do not engage with Subject 155, but ensure anything the subject says is recorded for future analysis, especially as it pertains to the existence and whereabouts of others like the subject. Do not tell the subject anything about yourself or your personal life."

 

Andy had a useful expression for long lists of rules like this. People do shit, signs get made.

 

Interaction and Handling Protocols for Subject 155, and its ever-growing list of pages and sub-headings, exists because Nicky has been getting rid of the scientists, one by one. He does it to slow their work down, and he does it to occupy his mind, and he does it because, really, and here he hears Booker's voice, when the lines are crossed, Nicolás, you're an absolute little shit, you're only quiet compared to Joe, and you're only nice compared to Andy. 

 

Sometimes it's simple and sometimes it's hard. Nicky is only a man, really, but you don't live nine hundred years without learning how to find the weak points, where to strike someone to cause the most damage, even when someone thinks you're helpless. 

 

Even if you mostly are.

 

There's Dr. Maura Lee, who didn't talk to him at first, wouldn't look him in the eye. Nicky drew her out, little by little. Told her little stories, made her laugh despite herself. Told her how wine and honey tasted, an explosion of sweetness and life, after weeks in the heat and silence of the desert. How long two years could feel, on the Silk Road, and how fast it could fly when you talked and laughed and danced all night and slept all day in a garret apartment in Paris. How the phonograph, how records had changed the world, because he could hear music again that he hadn't heard in centuries, music that he'd only held in his memory. The brutality, the helplessness, of hearing a boy, somewhere in the dark on the other side of the wire, drowning in the mud. He never tells her about his family —he’ll never be that stupid— but he lets her hear their absence in his stories, his love in the gaps where they should be.

 

He hears her crying, quietly, late one night when the lab is almost dark and the next morning she's not there. Nicky actually hopes she got away. He can’t say that much for most of them.

 

Another time, he spent twelve hours a day, every day for six months humming, even after they gagged him and tried to paralyze his vocal chords, which stopped lasting more than half a second after their first three attempts. The Bee Gees, Stayin' Alive, for twelve hours a day, every day for six months until Dr. George Kaufmann finally storms out for good, cursing him with a fluency that Nicky, who lives with a family of dead language polyglots, actually finds astonishing.

 

Booker will love that story. He misses disco, the poor soul.

 

The next one took more than three years. Nicky didn't say a single word the whole time in the lab. Just went away inside his head, and watched the man, Dr. Ronald Green, watched him still and calm and tranquil, even when they were cutting pieces off him. Watched him until the day he finally snapped and started stabbing Nicky in the eyes with a scalpel, screaming stop it stop it stop stop, until three guards burst in, and dragged him out, still screaming.

 

Nicky clenches his jaw through the blood and agony, and remembers that once, in the early days of their acquaintance, Joe had held him down with the whole weight of his body and gouged out Nicky's eyes with his broken thumbnails. And decides that this, in comparison, isn't quite as bad.

 

Once, it was a mousy-looking woman and he never learned her name, because she only lasts one day. Because Nicky is dreaming of Joe, naked and wet from the shower, his big hand at the nape of Nicky's neck and the mousy-looking woman wakes him suddenly, and he's strapped down on the gurney again, the warm lovely heaviness of Joe's hand vanishing like it was never there, and the fury that rises is so instant and white-hot that Nicky bites through his own tongue and spits the great gout of bright arterial blood straight into the woman's face.

 

Quynh would have liked that. She had good aim and a mean streak, that woman.

 

***

 

He misses Joe.

 

It's one of those things that's self-evident. Water flows downhill, the sun rises every morning (and somewhere outside this cursed place, it still does), and Nicoló di Genova still aches for Yusuf Ibrahim al-Kaysani with every fiber of his being.

 

He knows that Joe is still alive, by the simple fact that Nicky is still alive. Nicky has faith in few things in this world, but this is one of them. A God whose infinite kindness gave him Yusuf would never take him away.

 

***

 

Merrick dies. First it happens slowly, and then it's very abrupt.

 

Nicky hasn't seen daylight since he arrived in this place. He tracks years by changing hairstyles and glasses. The guards get bigger. The technology in the lab gets sleeker. Fine lines get deeper, skin gets looser, hair goes whiter. Strength gradually falls away, a bellowing voice goes whining and querulous.

 

 A better follower of Christ would turn the other cheek. Nicky, however, can't deny that there's been a terrible satisfaction, in watching Merrick grow old.

 

Merrick doesn't agree.

 

"You monstrous fucking selfish thing!" Merrick is standing over Nicky, strapped down to the gurney in enough places that he can't headbutt Merrick again. A pity. His eyes are red-rimmed and wild, and spittle flies in his rage. "The things we could have done together! The discoveries we could have made! All for the price of a little blood!" 

 

Nicky watches him calmly. His face is liver-red. There's a vein about to bust in his left eye.

 

Merrick grabs him by the throat. Someone is trying to pull him off, but those long, skeletal fingers dig for purchase around Nicky's exposed neck. His air stops, and dark spots start to bloom in his vision. Merrick looms before him, and through the blood pounding in his ears, Nicky hears him, his wheezing shrieks: "I shouldn't...have had...to get...so old!

 

Nicky dies. 

 

Merrick must have been right behind him, though, because he's not standing over Nicky anymore, when he gasps back to life. Because there are people screaming, and guards shouting and cursing, and someone's on the floor, doing chest compressions on a body just outside Nicky's line of sight.

 

His throat throbs abominably and his heart is pounding out of his chest, but Nicky smiles up at the ceiling while the panic swirls around him.

 

***

 

There's no mirror in Nicky's cell.

 

It shouldn't bother him. Nicky's never been vain. He was a priest in his first life, they had no mirrors then, and he thought himself beyond earthly vanity. Then he met Joe, and it wasn't long before vanity stopped mattering, seemingly for good, because Joe thought he was beautiful all the time: ragged and windburned in the desert, naked and drunk on wine in Michaelangelo's studio, buried in ridiculous down-filled winter gear when they summited K2 alone in 1956.

 

And it shouldn't matter to him. But they only feed him once a day, institutional food, and the caloric intake is low, too low for the glucose IVs in the lab to supplement. He knows it's purposeful, to keep him weakened and well under his fighting weight, but it makes his clavicles and his ribs sharp in a way he remembers from the years before food was cheap and plentiful. They shave his face every three days, his hair every six weeks.

 

The worst of it is, it does matter to him. He thought he was beyond vanity, but he stills wants to be beautiful for Joe, when he sees him again. When Joe comes to find him, or he escapes, or hell, when time brings this fucking building down in pieces around him, he still wants to hear Joe's breath catch when Joe sees him. It might be vanity, but Nicky has so very little here, and so he holds on to every piece of himself that he can.

 

***

 

One morning, with great pomp and surrounded by guards, a new man appears outside Nicky's cell.

 

Nicky is sitting cross-legged on the cot, and doesn't stand. He glances at the man. Young, with a moneyed, confident stance, and eyes and a smile that Nicky pegs as another Merrick in half a second. A late-in-life son, or a grandson, more likely.

 

The new Merrick claps his hands together, and says, "Well! Subject 155, a genuine pleasure to finally meet you. You've made my company a great deal of money, you know, but new blood, as it were, new ideas now. I've always felt my grandfather lacked the proper vision for what we could do here."

 

Ah, yes. Nicky barely has to listen now to know the shape of it. This Merrick has a plan, a grandiose plan with himself at the center of a brilliant new future, and all it will cost is Nicky and every thing on this earth he holds dear.

 

Nicky waits until Merrick runs out of words, which takes a while, and then says, "A fine justification. I've heard it many times before."

 

And he doesn't say anything else, even when Merrick's voice rises higher and higher in anger, and he doesn't make a sound when Merrick finally grabs a gun from the nearest guard and shoots him in the gut.

 

He was probably aiming for the heart. He seems like the type.

 

***

 

In his white cell, with the white cot and the white toilet and shower drain in the corner, Nicky dreams. He doesn't think he ever dreamed so much outside, but his mind fills this blank space with memory and light and colour.

 

That night, he dreams they're in the house in Klosters. The looming dark shape of the mountains outside the windows, darker than the winter twilight sky. A cooking smell, browning meat and lemon in gremolata —a memory, then. Joe in the galley kitchen, cooking osso bucco. He'd made Andy drive with him, bitching, all the way down to Lugano to pick up veal shank that morning, because the butcher in Klosters hates foreigners and also cuts his veal too thin, both crimes worthy of perdition in Joe's view.

 

In the dream, in the memory, the radio is playing Verdi's Rigoletto, the '46 recording with Gobbi and Neri. Rigoletto and Sparafucile are plotting the deaths of Rigoletto's enemies. Andy, lying with her head in Nicky's lap, wearing a thick Irish sweater she stole from Joe, with the light from the fire flickering in her half-closed eyes. Booker in the green wing chair, reading quietly, but occasionally the rasp of his voice when he comes to a line he knows one of them will like; "-et Saint Apollinaire, raide et ascétique, vieille usine désaffectée de Dieu, tient encore dans ses pierres écroulantes la forme précise de Byzance," and he raises a meaningful eyebrow at Nicky.

 

Joe in the doorway, smiling at them, smiling at Nicky, smelling like good food and olive oil, wiping his hands on a dish towel. He looks at Nicky, and starts to say—

 

—a flash of light, too bright, the fire, the desert sun, a magnesium flare trapped inside his head, and a voice, a young woman lying on a hard packed floor with her throat cut, her eyes wide and staring and terrified. He's lying on the floor beside her and she's looking right at Nicky, she's close enough to touch. Her mouth is forming words but nothing is coming out, and if he could just reach her-

 

Nicky shouts himself awake. Takes a long minute to sit, holding his head in his hands. Eventually flips off the camera in the corner, but his heart's not in it today.

 

Beautiful girl, he thinks. Oh, you beautiful child. Where are you, what's your name, oh please hold fast, be safe, they're coming to find you.

 

***

 

He dreams about the girl again, on and off. Still only in frustrating flashes. She's alone, she's still alone, and he wakes up with his heart pounding, sick to this stomach about the thought of her out there by herself, frightened and with no one to care for her, to watch her back. He starts forcing himself to sleep, dozing in the lab during the day and grimly balled on his cot at night, praying for another glimpse of her.

 

And then he's on a rattling, stripped-out DC-10, desert dust in his nose and mouth, and he sees the girl, snarling, trying to punch Andy right in her face. And Nicky frightens the hell out of Dr. Allen Shah and two technicians when he bolts awake on the gurney, shouting with laughter.

 

He accidentally gets a borosilicate glass pipette jammed through and broken off in his hepatic artery, which, how did they do that by accident, but oh, it's worth it to see them together, to have dreamed Andy's wild smile as she dumped the girl on her ass.

 

He keeps it off his face while he's bleeding internally and Dr. Shah and the techs yell at each other, but he thinks, exultant, You found her, you found her, please take such good care of her.

 

***

 

He only dreams of her in bits and snatches for weeks after that. Sparring with Andy, leaning over a disassembled engine with Booker. Nothing to get a real sense of her, beyond her wide young eyes, the determined set of her mouth.

 

And then one night, he's suddenly out in the brackish wind, in a swirl of fine rain. The white dunes and the wild overcast sky, the way the sand and sky look just down the coast from their house in Bassin d'Arcachon. Memory fills his nose with salt spray, the grit of fine sand between his toes. He sees Joe first, and then he sees her. Joe in his black leathers, helmet off and dark curls standing wild in the wind, straddling his '61 Lito 500 Motocross, the one with the flashy yellow paint job that got scratched badly that time Nicky jumped him in the garage, and never fixed. The girl's riding Andy's '68 Bultaco 360 El Bandido scrambler, dressed in a white and green leather bomber, her braids flying. She's screaming with laughter, and Joe is watching her, his crow's feet deepening. Smiling at her like he can't help himself.

 

Nicky wakes up weeping, his face in his hands because he can still smell the sea on the wind, see the girl's wild happiness and Joe's rangy body and beautiful face, and the joy of it swells inside him like something he can't contain.

 

He doesn't torture Dr. Kozak even once. It's such a beautiful day.

 

***

 

Nicky prays a lot, in the cell.

 

In his life outside, he'd fallen out of the habit. But while this is not his old monastic cell, lined with cork against the winter cold, there's enough similarity in this stark box of a room that he falls back into that old, old pattern.

 

First, prayers for the dead and the dying. That new guard last week, who thought Subject 155 in medical scrubs with his arms shackled was fair game for —well, the guard hadn't finished detailing whatever obscenity he was looking to commit to Nicky's body before Nicky brought him down and got his legs around the man's throat. Dr. Shah, he heard the technicians discussing earlier, with his stage 4 lung cancer.

 

Dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive them which trespass us.

 

Well. Forgiveness is a tall order, but easier, he finds, after you break the rapist's neck. Nicky might not be a very good Catholic, but he's absolutely met worse.

 

A prayer for Quynh, his ferocious friend and Andy's lodestar, lost still, somewhere far beyond their reach. He prays to Mary, the ocean star, to guide them to Quynh, guide Quynh back to the friends who love her.

 

Solve vincla reis, profer lumen cæcis, mala nostra pelle, bona cuncta posce. Break the chains of the sinner, send light to the sightless, forgive us our sins and entreat for us all good things.

 

Then, prayers for the living. He prays for Andy, that her heart will fill with grace, to help her carry on when the world is too bleak and life is too long. He prays for Booker, that he can let go of the things he cannot change, instead of letting their thorns wrap around his heart. He prays for the beautiful young woman in his dreams, that his family loves her and that she never comes to harm.

 

And he prays for Joe. Yusuf, he thinks. In his prayers, it's always Yusuf.  His eyes fill. He can't help it. 

 

Yusuf, my love, please forgive me for being parted from you. Oh my love, please forgive me.

 

He realizes he's speaking out loud at the end, barely a whisper. But the guards outside don't speak Italian, or they don't care. He's got his back to the camera. There's no one to hear him.

 

Yusuf, and he knuckles tears away before they can fall. The blood in my heart and the breath in my lungs, the sun that brings light and warmth and gladness to my days. Here abideth faith, hope and love, even these three, but the greatest of these is love. Life is very long and I love you. I will see you again. 

 

Life is very long, and I love you and I will endure to see you again.

 

He believes it, because he has to. Nicoló, called Nico and Kolya and Nicholas, Niels and Neacel and Mykolai, Klaas and Nikora and in the end, Nicky. He has lived such a long time, and he will endure this, because his family is waiting, and Joe is waiting.

 

***

 

It's a normal morning. Dr. Kozak, who he's known to bend the rules, has been trying to get him to tell her why his cell lines won't persist in vitro for more than a few days, but she's given up for the morning because Nicky keeps answering her in ecclesiastical Latin. She's getting her revenge, however, with a heavy needle and an unanesthetized lumbar puncture. 

 

Nicky is chewing back a howl because there's nothing but nerves there and she's hitting all of them, so he almost doesn't hear the shooting. And then it comes again, more shots, along with yelling, and Nicky registers it on an instinctive level first, before his brain catches up and his eyes go wide. He heaves himself away, straining against the restraints and breaking off the needle deep in the muscle of his back. Dr. Kozak is grabbing at the tray of instruments, metal clattering, yelling for the guards, her forearm braced against his chest. She stabs him with another needle and Nicky's not braced for it, feels his spine arch and yells when the pain hits.

 

And then the door of the lab smashes in and half a second later, there's the loud crack of a gunshot. A fast slash of blood hits his cheek, and Dr. Kozak crumples to the floor.

 

Nicky tilts his head up. Joe is standing in the ruined doorway, staring at him.

 

Nicky feels a smile start to tremble across his face. "Yusuf," he says.

 

Then Joe's across the lab in five fast strides. He rips the restraining strap off Nicky's chest and then proceeds to forget the rest because his big hands are suddenly framing Nicky's face, and when he kisses him, Nicky also promptly forgets the remaining restraints. "Nicoló," Joe says, his voice shot through with grief and love, like he couldn't think of anything else to possibly say, and Nicky lunges upward and kisses him back with everything he's got.  

 

Joe's kissing him fast, frantically, across his cheek, his eyelids, his temples as Nicky leans into him as hard as he can. "I knew you'd find me," says Nicky. His voice feels hoarse from choking back that longing for so long, and now Joe's here, he's here, and Nicky wants to wrap himself around him and never let him go. 

 

Joe presses their foreheads together, and whispers, "I thought you were dead, Nicky, I thought you'd left me."

 

Nicky shakes his head, squeezes his eyes shut, because no, no, never. "No, my love," he says, and he can't grab onto Joe because his fucking arms are still strapped down, but then Joe rips the bindings loose without even looking, and Nicky's arms are finally free to wrap around Joe like he's ached to for all these long years. He buries his face in the crook of Joe's neck, and he whispers, "I'm so sorry."

 

Someone is yanking at the restraints on his legs, and he looks up and it's Andy, glorious and terrible. Her eyes shine with tears as she yanks the straps away. "We need to get out of here," she says, but she's leaning in like she can't help herself.

 

"Andy," he says, and then she's in his arms, and despite her ferocity she holds him as gently as Mary with the Christ child. 

 

And then Booker, spattered with blood, two fresh bullet holes through his shoulder. He grabs Nicky with bruising force, and Nicky hugs him back just as hard. He gasps when Booker's hand finds the broken needle in his back and unerringly draws it out, the pain already fading. And then, over Booker's shoulder, he sees her.

 

"You were in my dreams," says Nicky, and he smiles at her. She's even more beautiful in life, a gun in her hands, flanked by his family. "What is your name?"

 

She smiles back at him, like the sun rising. "Nile," she says. The river, he thinks, the bringer of life. "I'm so glad to meet you."

 

"Nile," he says, and when she steps forward he folds her into the cradle of his arms. "Thank you, Nile," he whispers, just for her ears, and she hugs him tighter. "Thank you so much."

 

"I told you," Joe says to her, hauling him to his feet and drawing him close to his side while Nicky finds his balance. "You didn't know what you were missing."

 

Nicky laughs, and slings an arm over Joe's shoulder, for balance and because he can. "I'm sure you've taken good care of her."

 

Nile grins at him, and flashes a conspiratorial look at Joe. "Yeah," she says, "He's all right."

 

***

 

"How long?" he asks, limping down the corridor, flanked on all sides and Joe says, "It's 2020, and too long."

 

Thirty-seven years, he thinks, and he's glad, suddenly, that he couldn't count the days, the months, because every moment away from Joe is a moment too many.

 

They cached the rest of their gear just down the hall from the lab, and Nicky stops abruptly at the gleam of metal beside Andy's labrys. Joe hands Nicky his broadsword, clean and sharp enough to sing, and even if he's weak as he's ever been, thirty-seven years isn't enough to take the edge off the muscle memory.

 

Joe throws his jacket over his shoulders, and it swallows him up, warm and heavy and the smell of Joe's skin rises in his nose, and Nicky could fight through an army with his bare hands if he had to. His family has him and he's getting free of this place.

 

Two corridors and twenty-eight armed men later, Nicky is soaked with blood and sweat, bare-chested under Joe's jacket and moving in tandem with his lover, like they'd never been apart a day. And it's so good, to take that animal part of him that's been watching and waiting, and feed it blood until it's gorged, until his arms tremble with every swing, Joe covering his back and Andy charging ahead like wrath itself, Booker killing anyone who comes up behind them in snapshot bursts, Nile clearing every corner with a gun to her shoulder like she'd been born to this.

 

And suddenly, there's nothing but the drip of blood and the last gasps of dying men, and then Nicky says "Stop," because it's Merrick. Cornered, all his men dead, and shrinking back against the window.

 

He points a gun at Nicky, in a trembling hand. "That's my company’s property," he says, and Nicky thinks, as last words go, his grandfather's were better.

 

Joe snarls, and his gun comes up, but he's bracing Nicky so he's half a second too slow, Nile and Andy already moving. Andy's labrys sings through the air and suddenly it's buried in Merrick's neck. Half a second after that, Nile hits him centre mass in a bone-crunching tackle, and the window shatters behind them with the force of her blow. For just an instant, they're in the air, shards of glass sparkling, and then they're gone.  

 

Joe looks at Nicky, his eyes wild and wet with love, and he says "Faster than the elevator." So they fall out the window together, arms around each other, together all the way down.

 

***

 

In all the long years locked away, he'd always thought the first thing he'd want to do was fuck Joe for three days straight.

 

And god, how he wants to. But it all catches up with him at once, the crash of the adrenaline and the fading light of the sun. So beautiful after all those years in the cell, and there's a fine tremor setting into his limbs, and his breath is coming uneven. He's sitting in the backseat of the car, and the motion would nauseate him, but he's curled up around Joe, and Joe is holding him in his lap, weeping silently, whispering Nicoló, Nicoló against his skin, like he's still trying to believe it.

 

And oh god, the weight and the heat of his body under Nicky's, his silky black hair under Nicky's fingers. His eyes, devotion and devastation and everything they've never had to say, and Nicky kisses him, couldn't stop if the world was ending, as he and his family weave across London in the dying light.

 

Joe and Booker have to half-carry him into the house in Chelsea. Andy sets the alarms and closes the security shutters and then she and Nile put their shoulders together and shove all the expensive hardwood furniture screeching across the floor to block the front and back doors. Nicky would laugh but he can barely catch his breath.

 

Joe won't let him go, and Nicky won't let go of him or Booker, and in the end, they all pile together in the big bed. Joe covering Nicky's back, pressed up against him in a burning hot line, knees behind knees, Joe's chest to his back, his face buried in Nicky's neck. Booker settled up against the headboard, Nicky's head resting against his thighs, one hand gentle in Nicky's hair. Nile curled against Booker's side with her leg hooked over Andy's shoulder, fast asleep. Andy, her back pressed in a hard line on Nicky's other side, still and quiet and watching the door, a gun in her hand.

 

Nicky won't let any of them get out of arm's reach for two days.

 

Then, his libido catches up with him and Andy says "Yeah, okay. Come on, Nile, I want dim sum. Book, get the car." And it must be good dim sum because they don't come back for three days, and in the meantime he and Joe wreck the sheets, break the bed and finally have to settle for the floor.

 

***

 

"Oh," says Joe, in the kitchen, some time later. A fast phone call and a hundred pound tip had brought a motherly dark-eyed woman to their door, bearing an enormous cardboard box marked Andreas Grocery. She takes the money and laughs when Joe proclaims, in only slightly awful Greek, that she's the hero of the hour who has saved his marriage, that now he can cook for his true love.

 

Nicky is sitting on the kitchen floor with his legs stretched out, eating glossy green taggiasche olives from the jar and tearing pieces off the fresh baguette, still warm in its paper, with his oily fingers. His ankles are tangled with Joe's. Joe's standing over the stove with a cast iron pan, poaching roughly quartered quails in garlic and rosemary and red wine. He hands the bottle of burgundy down to Nicky, and Nicky drinks what's left in three long swallows.

 

Joe's been singing as he cooks, his fine bass voice rusty but slowly coming back to form. One half of a duet, humming the baritone to match. Sparafucile, Nicky recognizes, promising to kill Rigoletto's enemies, and he laughs. Pulls Joe's hand down to kiss his knuckles, fragrant with wine and garlic.

 

Joe smiles down at him, and then remembers what he'd begun to say. "Oh, yes. Music streaming. Wi-fi. Smartphones. Oh, Nico, you'll love it."

 

"Yes," says Nicky, Joe's fingers still touching his mouth. It's not enough yet, but it's a start. There's time now, time for music and good food, time to read with Booker and make Andy laugh and learn all the things that Nile loves. Time to put his head against Joe's chest and sleep, and know he'll be there tomorrow, and the day after that. "I know I will."