It took until they were in the safehouse, all safe and tucked away, for Joe to finally choke those words out. Booker was out getting food and supplies, Joe had made sure Nicky had what he needed to wash the blood out of his hair and it killed him not to be up in the shower with him, but the confusion and fear was still plain on Nicky's face and that was seared behind Joe's eyes.
"Well. Yeah. You and Nicky are not hogging all the hot water," Andy's words were normal, the regular teasing about how much time Nicky and Joe spent together after a mission, but her tone was tired, weak, her wound had reopened in the battle and the scent of blood was heavy in the kitchen where Nile was trying to patch her wounds with what limited first aid supplies they had. Band-aids could only handle so much, though.
Joe shook his head, though. Everything felt off, his skin felt too tight, nothing felt normal anymore. He hadn't felt like this in...well. A thousand years since he died, since he had first woken up with Nicky's blood on his hands. A thousand years of finally feeling complete.
And it was gone.
That realization made him sag suddenly, leaning against the doorframe to keep from collapsing to the floor. He heard Andy call out his name, and Nile caught his arm before he could really fall. She helped him to the table and pushed him down into a chair before heading to the sink to grab a glass from where the dishes had been drying. She filled it with water, and Joe focused on the sound of water from the tap and on his breathing and not the knife twisting into his gut, deeper and deeper.
"Joe." His name was almost an order, and Joe's eyes snapped over to Andy. His breath shook as he inhaled, but he didn't answer her right away. She only lifted her eyebrows slightly, but she didn't push either.
Until Joe finally managed, "Nicky doesn't remember." He lifted a hand and gestured vaguely. "Um. Anything. Me, you, immortality." His voice shook as he added, "Us."
"How?" Nile set the glass of water on the table next to Joe's hand, and she briefly brushed her hand over his before she went back to doctoring Andy. "I mean. He was fine against Merrick, right? He knew what to do."
Joe shook his head. "You underestimate muscle memory and Andy's experience as a commander." He offered a shaky smile to Nile. "You were following orders without question too."
"Not entirely without question," Nile argued, but there was no real heat in it. She glanced over her shoulder at Joe.
"How, Joe?" Andy this time, and it was Andy's calm, certain voice, that seemed to center him. It didn't calm him, but it gave him something to cling to, something to help him not feel like he was drifting away.
"Keane. Shot him in the head, and Nicky…" Joe's mouth worked wordlessly for a moment as he tried to think of the words. "Nicky healed, no slower than any other time. Nothing different, but it was a headshot."
"We were all shot in the head in South Sudan, Joe."
"Hell, Andy shot me in the head a couple of times, too," Nile said, but it was more to back up what Andy said than trying to disparage Joe's theory.
"Once, kid," Andy replied with a small smile before Joe coughed, and Andy turned her focus on him.
"Not like this, Andy. This was…" He slumped back in the chair. "Gun in mouth, blood and brains on the floor. It was bad." He rested his elbows on the table, pressing the heels of his palms against his forehead, fingers tangling in his hair. "There's...parts of the brain that could have been really damaged, right? Parts that handle memory."
Nile just shrugged, and Andy shook her head, rubbing her fingers over her eyes for a moment. "This doesn't happen, Joe. We heal, it's what we do." She brushed Nile's hand to the side as she rose to her feet, moving around the table to lean back against it next to Joe.
"Until we don't." And that...that was everything Joe didn't want to put into words. He didn't want to even contemplate that this could be the beginning of everything...ending.
She placed a hand on his shoulder, glancing back at Nile before she shook her head again. "Text Booker. Tell him to see Elton, get new papers for the five of us." She exhaled. "Send him a decent picture of yourself for the passport."
"Maybe you're right. Maybe he's still healing," Nile said, digging her phone out of her back pocket, her voice soft, and Joe looked over at her before he shook his head in response.
"It's never worked like that before." He sat up straighter in the chair. "We were burned at the stake in Castile in 1485, and everything was fine after we healed." That was technically a lie. The trauma, nightmares, tremors whenever they were around fire, both of their faiths had been shaken, and it had lasted over a century for both of them, but beyond that, physically, they had been fine.
"You were burned at the stake?" There was a note of incredulity in Nile's voice, and Joe had to remind himself just how new she was to all of this. He waved it away.
"Inquisition. I refused to convert."
"And Nicky?" Joe had to smile, the expression soft, and while the memories were still horrible and traumatic and he still sometimes woke up from dreaming about it with the scent of burning flesh in his nose, but it was Nicky. He couldn't help it.
"Stubborn. He refused to leave." Anything else Joe felt like adding to that died in his throat when Nicky came into the kitchen. He was awkward, unsure, wearing a sweater that was several sizes too big and standing just inside the door like he wasn't actually sure he was welcome. His hair was wet from the shower, and it was sticking up on the sides like he had been running his hands through it in frustration.
Andy gestured for him to come in while Joe rose to his feet. Everyone stopped moving then, Nicky stock-still just past the door like a frightened animal, Andy and Nile still by the table, and Joe looked between all of them for a moment before his eyes went back to Nicky. He took a step toward him, but Nicky took one step back, and Joe just nodded as he moved to the door, to step past Nicky.
"I'm going to clean-up. Let me know if I need to go help Booker." Joe took another look at Nicky, not looking away when Nicky looked up at him and their eyes met, and Joe hesitated at the door, searching Nicky's eyes for some kind of recognition.
And when he didn't find it, Joe simply nodded again, swallowing hard and clenching his teeth to keep from saying something, probably something he shouldn't. He finally left the room, heading up the stairs towards the bedroom. He grabbed a change of clothes out of the closet and a towel off the stack of linens. He piled his clothes and towel on the sink before he stripped out of his bloodstained clothes and shoving them to the side. He would add them to the pile to be burned later, along with Nicky's.
He turned the water on, not bothering with cold, knowing that the pipes wouldn't get the water hot enough to do damage but at least it would hopefully get his mind off of everything else. He climbed under the water, bracing his arm against the tile of the wall, resting his forehead against it as he let the water pour down. The pulse of it beat against the back of his neck, and he had hoped that pressure would massage away everything.
That was a foolish hope because it only just reminded him of how missions were supposed to end. They were supposed to walk out of the bad guys' lair together. Make it to a safehouse, eat, burn their bloody clothes, clean themselves and their weapons. And once all of that was done, Nicky and Joe would find a quiet, mostly private place to reconnect, to reassure, to make sure that the other was safe, in one piece.
That was how it was supposed to go.
The uncertainty of it all made Joe lash out and he hit his fist hard against the tile wall. Over and over again, until the tile broke and his knuckles bled, then healed, then bled again. Eventually, he sunk down until he could sit in the tub, just letting the water wash away the blood both old and new. He didn't cry, he didn't mourn.
He did wish Keane was still alive. He wished he hadn't made that such a quick death. But even after what was lost to him, what was taken from them both, Joe had never had the stomach for torture.
Eventually, the water went cold, too cold to really be able to stand, and not long after that Nile knocked on the bathroom door. She pushed it open without Joe saying anything. She didn't say a word as she poked her head in taking stock of him sitting in the bathtub, the bloody and broken tile on the wall, and she just lifted her chin in a silent question.
Joe simply nodded and waited until Nile pulled the door shut before he put his hand on the edge of the bathtub and pushed himself to his feet. He felt like he was in a daze now. The anger had drained out of him, but he was at a loss. Normally he would talk to Nicky, normally he would talk to anyone on his team, but instead, he just dried off and pulled the t-shirt and sweatpants on and headed back to the bedroom.
Joe sat down on the edge of the bed, propping his head in his hands, rubbing his fingers over his forehead. As he tried to just...think his way out of this predicament.
After all, this had to just be a part of the healing process. Everything else they had gone through, it had never been like this, no one had ever been wounded quite like Nicky had been. Maybe the internal healing just took longer. Maybe he needed to die again like some kind of reset button, but that was ridiculous, and Joe was not about to be the one to do that. Nor was he about to let anyone else.
His brooding thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the bedroom door, but Booker like Nile didn't wait for Joe to say anything as he pushed the door open. Everyone on this team needed to learn manners, but then the scent of the coffee Booker was carrying filled the room and provided an effective distraction even if only for a moment.
"Andy said you'd appreciate this more than anything." Booker offered a tight smile before he continued, "She also said you need to stop brooding alone in your room and come downstairs to eat."
"I don't need booze right now, Booker," Joe replied, just because that's what everyone expected whenever Booker made coffee, but his voice sounded as exhausted as he felt. He ignored the rest of what Booker said, mostly because he knew that Andy was right, he wasn't doing anyone any good by staying where he was. He rubbed his fingers over his eyes.
"It's just coffee, Joe." Booker actually smirked. "Nile made it. So it's probably not strong enough." He shrugged. "Americans." Joe snorted at that, but he reached up and took the cup of coffee from Booker. He didn't drink it though, he just cupped his hands around it, hoping and wishing the heat would actually warm him. It didn't work. "There's take-out downstairs, and Nicky..." Joe lifted his head then, and fixed his eyes on Booker, waiting for him to finish what he was going to say. For his part, Booker just shrugged.
"He's sitting down there, lost, alone, and probably...," Booker snorted slightly. "Probably more scared than he has ever been before." He gave Joe a very pointed look with those words. "And no one else is going to be able to get through that. You know that," Booker said.
"I can't....He doesn't know who I am, Brooker," Joe said, setting the coffee cup on the bedside table and rising to his feet.
"Then tell him. Because if he gets the story from Nile or Andy or, God forbid, me, he will hate you for you not being the one to tell him, and you know that." Joe just stared at Booker for a long moment, knowing the other man was right but not wanting to really admit that outloud. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly before waving Booker away.
Booker simply nodded before heading to the door. He stopped before stepping out of the room. "If I could fix this…"
And Joe didn't know if Booker was really trying to apologize or if he was trying to give Joe something to focus his anger on, but it didn't matter. "Stop." There was no threat in Joe's voice, but it was certainly an order. Joe just didn't have the force of will that Andy did, who could give orders with a look and people would fall over themselves to comply.
Booker didn't argue. He just nodded. "We're heading to Alexandria. We'll decide where else after that. Food's in the kitchen, so is Nicky." Joe nodded just to acknowledge that he heard and Booker left, closing the door behind him gently.
For a long moment, Joe stood there. He knew he needed to be downstairs. He knew he wanted to be there, but that knife was still buried in his gut, twisting, slowly killing him, and the idea of spending time with a Nicky who might not know him...
He worried that might really be the end of him. Even before his immortality, Joe had never handled heartbreak well, and this time was so much more, bigger, than anything that had ever come before.
Joe sighed finally, opening the door and heading, not downstairs, but to the bathroom, grabbing his discarded bloody clothes and Nicky's, heading down the hall to toss them in the pile with the rest of the team's. Then, with nothing else to occupy his thoughts, nothing to keep his hands busy, Joe headed downstairs.
He stopped at the doorway to the kitchen. The sight of Nicky sitting in the chair that Joe had vacated earlier had the same effect on him that it always did - his breath caught, his mouth went dry, his heart skipped a beat - and it took him a moment to clear his throat, if only so he didn't startle Nicky.
"Have you eaten?" Joe asked, keeping his voice soft as he stepped inside. He could hear the others in the living room, the low hum of the television covering whatever they were talking about. Nicky looked up, just staring for a moment before he glanced over his shoulder at the door to the living room, and when he looked back at Joe, he shook his head.
"I-...No. I wasn't hungry when Sebastien brought it in," and that caught Joe off-guard. No one had used Booker's real name in decades, over a century.
"You know his name is Sebastien?"
"Yes? I am very certain of that." Joe just blinked at that before he shook his head before he moved into the kitchen. "Before you ask, everything else is..." Nicky gestured at his head. "...not there. Not entirely. I know, somehow, that Andy is in charge. I know that without question," Nicky explained as he rose to his feet and followed Joe to the kitchen counter. He stopped and watched as Joe started going through the various take-out containers before he found the ones that Booker had set aside for him and Nicky.
"That's...that's a good thing to know. She'll...she looks after all of us," Joe replied, managing somehow to keep the heartbreak out of his voice. He glanced back at Nicky, offering a smile. "Can you get two plates? The cabinet behind you, second shelf." Nicky blinked, nodded and turned to the cabinets.
Joe waited until Nicky turned away before he let himself slump against the counter as the weight of it all settled on Joe. Not for long, only a moment, because by the time Nicky brought two plates over to set them down next to Joe, he had righted himself and focused on opening the takeout containers.
Joe smirked a little as he said, "Sebastien did well. He managed to get your favorite, at least."
"I'll take your word for it." Joe laughed, sliding the food out of the containers and on top of each plate before grabbing two forks out of the drawer and carrying everything over to the table, gesturing with his head for Nicky to follow him. He set the plates down one the table before he headed back to get two glasses and the bottle of wine off the counter. He set the glasses down and poured them a glass of wine each.
Nicky smiled his thanks for taking his first bite of food, and Joe actually waited, watching, waiting until Nicky made a pleased sound deep in his throat. He grinned, digging into his own food. It almost felt like old times, it was comfortable, it was home.
It couldn't last, of course. Eventually, everything that was going on would catch up to them and the other shoe would drop.
"The woman - the black woman," Nicky began. There it was.
"Nile," Joe answered automatically, setting his fork down and taking a drink of wine, just to give himself something to do with his hands. To steel himself for whatever conversation was about to happen.
"Yes. Nile. She said," Nicky took a deep breath, resting his elbows on the table and twisting his fingers in the too big sweater sleeves, and he looked up at Joe. "She said we've known each other for a very long time." He blinked, looking down at his plate. "She also shot herself to prove that we're immortal?"
Joe laughed, the sound loud even to his ears. "Yeah, she, uh, apparently she does that." He crossed his arms over his chest, balling his hands into fists, digging his fingernails into his palm until he was sure he had drawn blood, just to keep from taking Nicky into his arms.
"I'm not sure how that proves I'm immortal, though," Nicky said, and that made absolutely perfect sense. Joe stood up and moved back to the kitchen cabinets, digging through the drawers until he found a knife that was sharp enough for what he had panned. He walked back over to the table, taking his seat again. He took a deep breath before he sliced the knife across his forearm. Not deep enough to do real damage, but it drew blood. He looked up at Nicky until he felt the wound heal, and he wiped away the blood.
Joe offered the knife, hilt first, to Nicky with his eyebrows raised, leaving the decision to test it up to him. Nicky only hesitated for a second before taking the knife and mimicking Joe's actions exactly. Joe, of course, held his breath. Because what if it didn't heal, what if the memory thing was a precursor to that being that, that being the end, everything falling apart.
He exhaled, his entire body relaxing, though, the second Nicky wiped the blood away, and his arm was unmarred. Nicky stared down at his arm in silence for a moment. "How long ago?" he finally asked, his voice soft.
Joe turned his chair so he could face Nicky better. "We fought on opposite sides of a war, Nicolo," Joe explained, wanting to warn him, to the lay groundwork.
"Ah. Yes. That explains the little rant she did about enemies becoming lovers. She refused to explain." Joe had to laugh again.
"Yeah, well. Kids these days. You know?" Nicky gave him a look saying that, obviously he did not know anything about kids these days. Joe cleared his throat. "It really was a long time ago. Our war. Different times, when wars were cleaner." Sort of. They were, at least, less complicated than wars now. At least people in the crusades actually got their hands dirty instead of using nukes and drones and the air force.
"How long?" he asked again, and Nicky folded his arms on the table, leaning forward, clearly interested in the answer.
"1099. That was the first time."
"First time you killed me, first time I killed you." Joe shrugged. "We died...three times?" Joe actually couldn't remember, those first few days were a haze of swords, blood, ghosts, and beautiful crusaders covered in blood. "Last time we killed each other too. We don't do that anymore," he finished with a slight smile.
"Four," Nicky said softly, and Joe blinked, tilting his head in confusion. "I killed you four times?"
For a long moment, Joe couldn't say anything. Partly because he could only remember three deaths, but four could be right too. He tried to wave away his own confusion. "It's fuzzy. Could have been four times."
"And we've been together since then." His voice sounded so absolute, so certain, but whatever Nicky was remembering, whatever memories were resurfacing, it all seemed to disappear, gone like a strong wind, and he was back to that blank, slightly lost look.
Joe chuckled, the sound quiet and barely carrying in the room as he shook off his confusion. "Oh, no. There was...It was complicated."
"Our religions...yours and mine both, well, frown on two men, and we both tried very valiantly not to be the sinners we were in our minds. Our dreams." Joe offered a small smile at that.
"Our hearts?" Joe closed his eyes for a moment but nodded in acknowledgement. "That sounds like torture."
"It was. For more than a century. It was torture."
"I wouldn't...." Nicky stared off for a moment before looking back at Joe. "I don't think I would have done that intentionally. Torturing you."
"No, not intentionally, but I think...physically I wanted you from the moment I first..." Joe trailed off, tilting his head to the side as he looked at Nicky. "Did they - did Andy, did she tell you about the dreams?" Nicky nodded. "Every time we died and came back, we dreamed about each other, and you...were beautiful. Shining and terrible. Covered in blood and who knows what else from that battlefield." Joe shrugged. "But once we stopped...oh, I wanted more."
"That's weird, Yusuf." Joe lifted his eyes to Nicky at the use of that name, but he didn't comment on it. Andy could have told him, after all. Just as she could have been the one who mentioned Booker's name.
"It's been said."
"Sebastien said it was love. That what we had was not just lust, that it was a sickening kind of love that would rot the teeth of any sane man." Nicky said that like he was reciting it word for word.
Joe rolled his eyes. "Booker would say that."
"Is it?" Joe lifted his eyebrows. "Love?"
"Do you want the practical answer or the poetic? You should know. I'm an artist. The poetic could take awhile."
"Surprise me," Nicky said, the corners of his mouth curling up in a smile, and it took all of Joe's willpower not to sweep him up in a kiss.
"It was 1178. We were sleeping in a cave somewhere north of the Black Sea, I think we were still in Bulgaria but borders meant very little back then, they changed daily it seemed, and you were gone when I got back from morning prayers." He looked down at the floor, letting himself get lost in the memories. "I thought maybe you had got tired of me, of us, of this."
Nicky scoffed and shook his head, at least seemed to enjoy the story.
"But then I found you. By this little road which led to this little town, and you were teaching little, tiny Bulgarian children, farmers' children, to read the Bible." Joe looked up at Nicky, smiling a little wider at him. "In that moment, I was gone. There was no hope. You could have returned to slaughtering me every night, and I would have thanked you and begged for more."
Nicky canted his head at Joe, shaking his head slightly. "I don't..." Joe waved it away with a hand.
"I was already half in love, Nicolo. You and the children...that just made everything much more solid." Joe smiled as he stood up, gathering their plates. "Much more certain." He placed the plates in the sink, From behind him, he heard the scrape of the chair against the floor, and when he turned back to the table, Nicky was gone. Joe exhaled and slumped back against the cabinet. "Okay. Too much," he muttered, rubbing a hand over his chin and beard.
He shook his head and headed back upstairs and to his far, far too empty room. He lied back on the bed clasping his hands on his stomach. He should sleep. He was exhausted, he was full, but everything was still running through his mind. Plus the mere idea of sleeping alone that night...he swallowed hard and squeezed his eyes shut to try and will himself to sleep.
He didn't have long to lie there and brood, though, not even long enough to doze off, because there was a knock on the door. This time, though, no one barged in, and rather than shout from the bed, Joe actually rose to his feet and padded over to the door. He was honestly expecting Andy.
Nicky managed to take his breath away. Again. Like always, like every time.
His fingers were still curled in the cuffs of the sweater as he stepped into the room. He took a deep breath, but he didn't say anything right away. He just stared at Joe for a long moment before he finally said, "I know...I am drawn to you. I don't know if I can stay away."
Joe bit down hard on the inside of his mouth to keep from begging Nicky to stay with him, and eventually he just nodded slightly.
"I need to know more. I don't...the memories are spotty." Joe stepped forward, reaching out to take Nicky's hand. He shook his head as he pulled Nicky over to stand by the bed.
"Don't...you don't need to remember everything at once." God, it hurt to say that, that knife in Joe's gut twisted again. He wanted Nicky to remember, wanted what was lost.
"Ah, but I want." He looked at Joe when he said that, lips curving into a smile that felt so familiar and made Joe's stomach twist in a very pleasant way this time. "To remember, of course."
Joe laughed, then, the sound hollow and bitter even to his own ears. "Then ask what you want to know, my heart."
"Our first kiss." Nicky lifted his chin then, and those words almost sounded like a challenge. Like he either didn't think Joe could remember or wouldn't tell him.
"Malta, 1224. There were soldiers at the door coming to arrest me or you or both of us, a king somewhere far away had decided I and those like me were undesirable on his newly conquered island, and before you went to go tell them to fuck off, I kissed you."
"You waited over a hundred years to kiss me?" Nicky actually looked confused at that.
"You were holy, Nicolo. And a sin. Just being near you was sinful, and while I was fine being damned to hell for my heated and heavy thoughts wondering what your dick would feel like in my mouth, what you would taste like, I would not bring you down with me, beloved."
"Joe." The word was an admonition, but there was laughter in Nicky's voice.
"This is what you do to me, Nicolo. This is what you have always done to me. I forget myself. I forget everything." Joe smiled, and he reached up to cup Nicky's cheek. "There's nothing else."
"All because you fell in love with me because I was teaching children to read?" Nicky shook his head at that, reaching up to stroke his fingers along the back of Joe's hand.
Joe made a vague noise in his throat that could have been in agreement, could have been dismissive, even he didn't know. "You and the children and your war against their boyar because he was selling them into slavery, that just pushed me further over the edge. That just proved that I would do anything for you." Joe smiled. "I was already in love. I simply wasn't ready to admit it until you decided to teach some children to read so they could better their lives."
"That story is not done." Joe just laughed, shaking his head.
"That's the practical part, not the poetic, Nicolo. The boyar, their prince, was killing their parents and selling the children. We killed a prince and freed the people, we both died, and when we came back, we had to pack up our camp and leave since we did, technically, commit treason."
"And since then..."
"And since then, there has been you and there has been me, and we will go to war with anyone who tries to tear us apart." Joe shrugged like it was the most natural thing in the world. "You actually have, there was a small village in Massachusetts about 1700. It no longer existed after 1701." Joe finally couldn't stop himself as he turned his hand and took Nicky's, drawing it to his mouth, pressing a kiss to his palm. Nicky laughed softly, shaking his head, but he didn't pull his hand away.
Instead he lifted his other hand and placed it on Joe's neck, urging him closer, and when he pressed his mouth to Joe's, the kiss was...small. Soft. Questioning. At first. But the kiss deepened quickly, and it burned through him. It always did. Ever since their first kiss when everything felt like something that they should be ashamed of, some sin they would need to confess to some God, when every single touch had taken Joe's breath and he'd never thought he'd be able to remember how to breathe again. Nicky had always been fire.
Even now with his fingers tangled in Joe's shirt, his mouth was hot and wet against Joe's, and the fire raced down his spine and pooled in his belly. His knees gave out, and he sat down hard on the bed, pulling Nicky into his lap, and whether it was the movement or the landing that jarred them apart, Nicky broke the kiss, looking into Joe's eyes.
There was still not recognition, no familiar spark, nothing that told Joe this was his Nicky. He smoothed his fingers back through Nicky's hair, clenching them in the strands as he cupped the back of his head.
"I know I have no right to say this. I know things are...complicated. They are always complicated." Joe smiled as he said that, and he brushed his thumb over Nicky's lower lip. "It has been you for so long, Nicolo. It will never be anyone but you. I cannot even imagine trying to find my way through this life without you." Joe moved his hands to cup both sides of Nicky's face.
His voice was softer when he continued, "I am not leaving. I will not. You can order me to leave you alone and I will never trouble you again, but I will not leave your side, I will not leave this family. I am yours, you are mine. Even if you do not remember that or me."
Nicky didn't say anything, but he didn't pull away. He leaned into Joe's touch, his hand pulling Joe's shirt up enough that he could press his fingers against Joe's side. He pressed the flat of his hand against Joe's skin, and Joe couldn't help the way he leaned into it, the way his breath caught.
"You should stop that, though, beloved, before my hard-won resolve breaks and I kiss you again." Joe smiled, trying to ease his words, trying not to sound like all he desperately wanted for Nicky to keep touching him. Which he did. He wanted nothing else right at that moment.
"Would that be so bad?" Nicky said, and his voice was so innocent that Joe tilted his head. It almost, almost, sounded like his Nicky.
Joe smiled, quick and heated as he added, "It would not be just kissing, my heart." He reached up, tracing his fingers lightly down the blush that had spread down Nicky's neck into the collar of his shirt. "Because I know what this blushing means. I have seen it many times," he said, his smile turning sad. "But you don't and haven't, so we can't." He let his hand fall away, into his lap.
Nicky nodded at that and stood up, but before he stepped away completely he leaned forward, placing his hands on Joe's shoulders and kissing him again. It was slower this time. Gentle, but the fire still burned through Joe, and he stood up, his hand coming up to tangle in Nicky's hair, trying to hold him into the kiss.
He couldn't, though, and eventually they separated. "I'm going to sleep downstairs. There's a couch..." Nicky said, gesturing over his shoulder at the door, and Joe nodded that. Of course, the hope that everything would fix itself with just a few kisses and a few words was just a pipe dream, a fairy tale.
"Sleep well, Nicky," he said, sitting back down on the bed as he watched Nicky leave.
He settled back on the pillows, drawing up into himself as he settled in for the night. He was already chilled even though it wasn't cold outside, but the loss of Nicky's constant body heat was already affecting him, no matter how ridiculous that sounded. Eventually he managed to drift into a light, dreamless sleep.
Sometime in the night, Joe heard the door to his room creak open, and his hands reached immediately for the gun under his pillow until he could make out Nicky's shape by the dim light of the hallway. He released his gun and shifted until he could push himself into a half seated position, but Nicky stopped him from getting all the way up. He pressed a hand against Joe's shoulder.
"I can't sleep," he whispered, even though there was no one else in the room, even though Booker had probably drunk himself into unconsciousness and wouldn't hear them in another room, even though Andy never slept anyway or hadn't but she was human now so who really knew what that was going to be like, and Nile was the kind of light sleeper that learned it from being in a combat zone too long.
Joe made a soft sound in his throat but he pressed his hand against the bed, shifting his weight to give Nicky room to lie next to him, and in the dim light he caught Nicky's grateful smile as he settled onto the bed, his back against Joe's front as Joe put his arm around Nicky's waist. A familiar position, even if the reasons weren't the same. Even if Joe was waiting for Nicky to shove the arm off of him.
"Thank you,," Nicky said in an Italian dialect so old they hadn't spoken it in centuries.
"You're welcome, Nicolo," Joe answered in the same language, breathing the words into the back of Nicky's neck, and when the other man shivered and pressed back against him, Joe tightened his arms.
Nicky was curled almost into a fetal position when Joe woke up the following morning, his hands wrapped around Joe's arm that was still curled around him, and for a moment, Joe just wanted to stay, to pretend that everything was fine and normal and nothing had been lost. And that hesitation to move only a little to do with the morning erection that came from having Nicky's body, warm and inviting, pressed against him again.
Then came a banging on the door, and when Nile poked her head in and saw them, wrapped up in a tangle of limbs, she raised her eyebrows, but Joe only shook his head. "We're leaving in an hour. Pack what you want to take with you. Andy says we're probably not coming back here."
Joe nodded and started to pull away from Nicky, but Nicky's fingers tightened around Joe's forearm. "I will try to remember," he said in that same old Italian dialect. "I will come back to you." Joe's breath caught at that, and he leaned forward, pressing a kiss to the corner of Nicky's mouth.
"I told you. I'm not going anywhere." Either way, memories back or not, Joe knew where he belonged. Where he always had. Nicky turned his head, pressing his temple against Joe's forehead, just for a moment.
He didn't say anything to anyone else as he went about packing up clothes and weapons and the leftover first-aid supplies that Booker had bought for Andy. He didn't bother with the food. Booker had only bought take out the night before apparently, and the leftovers wouldn't travel well. Nile and Andy were eating those for breakfast anyway as they packed.
They didn't stay in one location for long, though. After Alexandria, then Sochi, and on to Pakse. It was just months of jumping from one safehouse to the next. Joe was lost, still feeling adrift without the anchor that had been him and Nicky for so long, but Andy and Booker spent most of their time regaling Nile and Nicky with stories of their adventures. And that helped. Mostly.
There were moments, though. Moments when Nicky would say a name that no one had mentioned, would mention a safehouse in a city that had never been on a map and didn't even exist anymore, but it was fleeting, and it never led to more, deeper memories.
Missions were out of the question, of course. Muscle memory was one thing, but it couldn't be counted on for back-up, and while Joe was sure Nicky would never do anything to get anyone hurt or killed, it was better this way.
Eventually, though, Copley dropped a job in their laps.
And a name. Quynh.
There wasn't a question about whether or not to take this one job. Even Nicky, who hadn't yet remembered Quynh beyond the stories that Andy told, and if he did, Joe would rail against every god in existence, argued that this was clearly important. So when Copley's plane landed for them, there wasn't a moment's hesitation or doubt.
Plane then helicopter and Joe could still feel the thump of it after they landed high in the Andes, even after they disembarked, the feeling vibrating through his body. As the rest of the team stepped forward, falling into a single file line, Joe started to take his spot right behind Booker when Nicky reached out and snagged his wrist. He stopped moving and glanced back at him, lifting his own hand to wrap his fingers around Nicky's for a moment before reminding himself of their new normal.
Technically he wasn't allowing himself to touch. It was torture otherwise.
Nicky smiled gently before he said, "Our first kiss was not Malta." Joe cocked his head slightly as he took his hand off of Joe's wrist to intertwine their fingers for a moment. "It was...a month after we stopped killing each other. We hadn't even made it out of the Holy Land yet. I had a nightmare or you did, maybe we both did, but it was the first night you wrapped your arms around me and we really slept." Nicky's smile widened at that. "I kissed you in the morning before you went to pray."
"Nicolo?" Joe asked, trying to clamp down on the thing that felt like hope unfurling in his chest. Nicky stepped forward, not touching beyond their clenched hands, but it was something.
"I told you I would find my way back." The old Italian got a small smile of relief, shaking his head, but Nicky dropped his hand and stepped back. "It's not all the way." He smiled then, full and wide. "But eventually. Hope, my heart."
Arabic, that time, a version they hadn't spoken since the Fifth Crusade.
Before Joe could respond, though, Nicky continued, "And it was four times. Because you always forget the second time I killed you when the only weapon I had was a rock I used to bash your head in." He smiled then, actually winking, as he fell into the line, taking Joe's usual spot right behind Booker.
And all Joe could do was laugh, smiling and exhaling as hope and relief, tentative thought it was, actually bloomed in his chest. He lifted his eyes to the sky, muttering a 'thank you', a sort-of prayer before he followed the rest of his team, his family.