The first time Nicky bakes bread for them to share — thick, rounded puffs of aish baladi, prepared with the utmost concentration and care — the sun has begun to set in Cairo, staining the sky the same vivid colour as the tangerines that grow ripe and heavy on the trees outside their door.
Joe leaves Nicky to divide out the dough, taking himself into the next room where he cleanses himself and lays out his prayer mat in readiness for Salat al Maghrib. In the fading light, Nicky joins him, sitting silently off to one side with his head bowed in peaceful contemplation.
“Your bread smells good,” Joe tells him with fondness once he’s done, carefully rolling away his prayer mat and gently touching his fingers to Nicky’s stubbled cheek.
“It’s nearly ready,” Nicky says, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze. “A few minutes at most.”
Joe waits while Nicky kneels to murmur a prayer of his own, ever-grateful for the quiet intimacy of this shared ritual they’ve created for themselves. Give us this day our daily bread, goes the supplication, and it catches at Joe’s attention more on this day than it would on any other. He looks to Nicky — at his prayer-clasped hands, the flour beneath his fingernails — and finds it suitably fitting.
After that, the kitchen beckons. The heat from the oven is stifling within the mud-baked walls, but Joe considers it a small price to pay in return for a supper so readily anticipated and tells Nicky as much.
“You mustn’t laugh at me if it isn’t good,” Nicky says, though he’s almost laughing himself as he does so. He’s brimming with easy affection today, even more so than usual, a bit of rest and sunshine having done them both the world of good. Joe grins at him, lounging on a nearby stool and thoroughly enjoying himself watching Nicky work. “It’s been many, many years,” Nicky adds thoughtfully, plucking each flatbread from the oven’s stone base with scorched fingertips and dropping them into a bowl, “since I made these last.”
Wherever their travels take them, Joe tries to pick up any language previously unknown to him, even if it’s merely the bare bones of it. Scattered pieces of importance, just enough to get by on. He's learned nine different ways to express the concept of beloved, but as Nicky tears a wedge of bread in two, offering Joe his still-warm share with an even warmer smile, he thinks that perhaps Nicky just taught him a tenth.
“Well?” Nicky asks, his own food untouched while he awaits Joe’s verdict.
It’s slightly overdone, gone crisp around the edges and a fraction dry, and the best thing Joe has ever tasted by virtue of the tenderness kneaded into it by his favourite pair of hands.
“I wouldn't change a thing,” Joe assures him, and he wouldn’t: not the bread, not Nicky, not a morsel nor a moment. Every bit of it is a gift.
Returning from the market one evening with an overflowing basket of supplies and a sudden zest for baking Joe hasn’t seen in a while, Nicky declares his intention to make pudina paratha and proceeds to scatter ingredients and cooking implements over every part of their basic kitchen like a chaotic but well-meaning whirlwind. He doesn’t bake particularly often, but when he does he puts his entire heart into it.
“Andromache taught me how to make this the last time we saw her,” Nicky says by way of explanation, the smell of mint filling the air as he tips a pile of freshly picked leaves onto a wooden board and begins chopping. “I only hope I remembered it right.”
Joe offers his assistance and moves around him in a practiced kind of dance, slicing onion and fenugreek and borrowing pinches of an array of spices — turmeric and cumin, red chilli and coriander — mixing it all together to create a simple accompaniment.
Nicky discards two lots of dough before deciding the third is a success, rolling it out into flat discs and brushing each one with oil. He fetches a bowl of water and rinses the flour and spices from his hands in a bright swirl of colour, bumping his hip against Joe’s as they jostle to fry their meal in sizzling pans over the wood fire.
The weather is mild so they take their food outside to eat on the doorstep, sitting shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence. Joe is hungrier than he’d realised, having been too focused on cooking to realise just how much he needed to eat. The curry tastes incredible and the bread better still, flaking and full of flavour, stuffed warm into his mouth piece by piece.
Later that night, Joe can still taste the mint on Nicky’s tongue when he leads him by the hand into their bedroom and kisses him; feels a different kind of hunger, not yet sated, and sinks to his knees to fill his mouth all over again.
It occurs to Joe somewhere on the journey to Mek’ele, his thoughts turning to food after hours of travel, that they’ve already forgotten more recipes than they’ll ever remember.
He’s more inclined to preserve Nicky’s many and varied ones than anything else, so it’s for that reason that they sit down the next day over Nicky’s first and remarkably successful attempt at himbasha bread — soft and sweet, fragrant with crushed cardamom — to document as many as they can. Joe listens intently as Nicky dictates each of them aloud to the best of his recollection, writing them down onto scraps of paper he promises he’ll keep safe. They say no more on the matter once they’re done, but Joe thinks of a leather-bound sketchbook sitting pristine and untouched in his pack and knows he’s not yet finished.
Whenever he’s able to, in the rare moments he’s alone or in the mornings he happens to wake before Nicky does, Joe secretly transcribes each scribbled recipe from the paper scraps, meticulously documenting them in a variety of languages and scripts and decorating each page with patterns and sketches until he’s satisfied with the outcome. He fills dozens of pages but leaves many more empty, blank sheets ready and waiting for their life not yet lived.
He can’t decide when to gift the finished piece to Nicky, instead leaving it tucked away out of sight while he waits for the right moment. He finds it a few days later, lying naked and satisfied in bed together by the glow of a candle. Nicky reads aloud in Arabic from a borrowed poetry book while Joe sprawls on his stomach alongside him, allowing the words to wash over him like a balm.
Nicky looks relaxed. Happy. Joe thinks he’d like to see what it might look like if he makes him happier still.
“I’d like to give you something,” Joe murmurs when there’s a pause between page turns, reaching out and stroking his thumb over Nicky’s hipbone.
“Again?” Nicky says, dragging an appreciative gaze down the length of Joe’s body.
The subtlest lift of one eyebrow and the barest hint of a smile somehow combine in a way that looks utterly salacious on him. Setting his poetry book aside, he lies back against the heaped pillows, tugging Joe down to lie on top of him and between his parted thighs in a blatant invitation.
Joe goes willingly, laughing, caging him in with both arms.
“Not that kind of giving,” Joe says, looking down at him with affection. Nevertheless, he can’t resist laying a trail of kisses along his jawline and down the tempting column of his throat. “Though — hold that thought, we might come back to it. After I’ve given you your gift.”
Nicky accepts the book with a wonderstruck expression, apparently rendered speechless at the unexpected sight of it. Pulling himself upright to sit cross-legged, he strokes reverent fingers over its cover; pries it open with careful hands, looking at each page like it’s a precious thing, before finally setting it aside for safekeeping.
“Yusuf,” he says at last, his eyes soft when he meets Joe’s gaze. “How is it, after all these years, that you’re still able to surprise me?”
Joe has never found it particularly difficult, in truth; he knows what Nicky appreciates in life and tries to provide him with those things often.
“I think you’re worth surprising,” Joe says, as simple as that.
Nicky entwines his fingers with Joe’s and hauls himself up to straddle his thighs, a warm and welcome weight in Joe’s lap.
“These hands,” Nicky murmurs, lifting them to his mouth and pressing a kiss to each of them in turn. “They have a gift.”
“This one? Maybe a little,” Joe says with a smile, flexing the fingers of his right hand and examining it. The one calloused by a quill’s shaft, the whorls of each fingerprint an accidental canvas ingrained with charcoal shadows and ink stains. “The other? Not so much.”
Nicky draws Joe’s right hand to his chest, placing his palm over his own heart; takes the left and brushes his mouth over the heel of it before guiding it down to his inner thigh. He shivers slightly when Joe’s fingertips make contact with the sensitive skin there, then guides it higher still with the softest intake of breath.
“I like that one too,” Nicky says, and Joe finds they have more to discuss on the subject of giving after all.
The baking of a loaf of rye bread becomes a daily routine during their downtime in Denmark, the burning stove ensuring the house remains well-warmed to keep winter’s chill at bay. Nicky makes it a habit to leave a loaf baking while he makes more dough to proof for tomorrow, experimenting day by day to find the best-tasting ingredients. His latest addition to the recipe is the replacement of water with a generous quantity of ale, which might have been a fine choice had they not drunk the remainder of it directly from the bottle and long since abandoned yesterday’s dough to bake unsupervised.
It’s how they find themselves still half-dressed on their narrow bed, the headboard hammering a lasting reminder into the paintwork as Joe rides Nicky into the mattress with unabashed enthusiasm. Nicky clings bruisingly to Joe’s hips, an endearing smudge of flour over one cheek, and stares up at Joe in a dreamy, devoted sort of way that suggests he’s entirely oblivious to the smell of baking bread turning distinctly charred and overdone.
“Ni-co-lo,” Joe says, drawing out the vowels in it, his tone light and teasing. “Our supper is burning.”
Nicky, too drunk on ale and the tight heat of Joe’s body to have noticed until now, goes comically wide-eyed for a moment.
“Oh,” he says with a breathless laugh, his hips jerking up stutteringly to meet Joe halfway when he sinks his weight down onto him fully. He looks genuinely torn between amusement and actual concern for Joe’s wellbeing. “I forgot. But — I don’t want you going hungry because of me.”
Joe, who considers himself to be of equal blame for the entire situation and has no intention of leaving this bed unless the house begins quite literally burning down around them, keeps a knee pressed firmly to either side of Nicky’s hips to keep him exactly where he is. Thoughtful, he runs a thumb over Nicky’s bottom lip then slips two fingers into his mouth to suck on; has him moaning around them as he grinds down hard and picks up the pace again.
“We’ll make do without,” Joe assures him, voice catching on a gasp, both plenty full already.
The apartment they rent for a month in Paris sits directly over a long-established and highly regarded boulangerie, the smell of fresh baking a near-constant that permeates every room. Despite the proximity, Nicky decides to wake early one morning to bake a sizeable batch of brioche rolls for breakfast. Joe, knowing better than to question it, gives him a mug of hot coffee and an encouraging smile before leaving him to it.
Nicky is just finishing up when Joe returns, arranging the rolls on a plate and drizzling them with melted honey while successfully ignoring every imploring look Joe gives him at being made to wait for his breakfast.
“Andy and Booker will be here soon,” Nicky says lightly, swatting away Joe’s sneaking fingers with a pointed look. “We’ll eat with them.”
Denied for now but undeterred, Joe takes Nicky by the hand instead; licks spilled honey off his wrist then leaves a lingering kiss there, his mouth married to Nicky’s pulse for the span of six heartbeats.
“We’re ten steps from a bakery, mon chéri,” Joe says. “As much as I like the things you make for us, I could have bought plenty from the shop. Saved you the hard work.”
“I’d rather make it myself,” Nicky says, shrugging as he sets about clearing up some of the mess. “I like it.”
Joe slips his arms around Nicky’s waist from behind, tugging him in so their bodies align and resting his chin on his shoulder.
“I like you,” Joe says against his ear, soft like a secret.
Nicky ducks his head and smiles, like this is the first he’s hearing of it.
By mutual agreement they find themselves a cottage in the English countryside, several hours’ drive north of London and enveloped by rolling fields. The springtime air is crisp and clear when Joe throws open a window to breathe it in, the only sound nearby being the rustle of leaves in the breeze and the winding brook at the bottom of the garden.
He appreciates more than he can put into words the things they have here while they take a few months of well-earned rest: peace by every definition, a full belly and unbloodied hands.
During the war there were plenty of times he’d felt hungry enough that it was like a nagging ache, left unfulfilled by the bland meals and the dry, stale pieces of bread wrapped in paper they’d eat when they finally found a moment to spare. In many ways he’s used to it, having fought so many battles over so many centuries, but when all is said and done a fresh-baked loaf is paradise after going so long without.
It’s been a while since Nicky last baked for them, but he finally does so one morning having saved up what little flour and butter their ration books allow for. He hums to himself as he moves around the kitchen, more carefree than Joe has seen him in years.
Once the loaf has finished baking and cooled enough to be cut, Nicky takes four thick slices from the end of it, dividing them between two plates with generous servings of butter melting into their fluffy centres. They eat over the tiny table in the kitchen to the sound of the crackling wireless, spilling crumbs onto yesterday’s newspapers.
Later, Nicky pulls Joe in by the hand and kisses him softly, the meeting of mouths as much a thrill now as it was weeks, years and centuries ago. The stillness and the silence around them feels renewing: a world in slow motion.
Joe wakes in an empty bed, tangled in white sheets and warmed through by the sunlight streaming through the window. The clock on the bedside table tells him he’s slept through most of the morning, but it’s of little consequence since they have nowhere to be today but here.
The scent of warm bread carries through from the next room — the last of yesterday’s Hobz tal-Malti, made by Nicky’s own hands during the brief few hours they spent anywhere outside of the bedroom — as well as coffee to go along with it.
“I’m a very lucky man,” Joe calls through to him, stretching out and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Or am I still dreaming?”
Nicky merely laughs, the sound of it bright and unguarded, and returns a short time later with steaming mugs of coffee and piled-high plates he sets down beside the windowsill.
“You’re awake,” he says. “And I’m glad to see it.”
Joe pushes himself up on his elbows to look at him properly.
“You’re naked,” he points out. “Which I have to say, that was a bad choice for you if you planned on leaving this bed again any time soon.”
He takes Nicky by the hand, kissing each of his fingertips in turn, then tugs him down onto the bed with a smile. He’s all long bare legs and sun-kissed skin, too much of a temptation to keep his hands off, and Joe rolls them both over to lay him out on the rumpled bedsheets and kiss him deeply.
Nicky slides his legs around Joe’s waist with an approving hum, and he’s relaxed enough from the endless hours of sleep and sex they’ve shared since they arrived here that it takes no time at all to open him up again. Joe fucks him to a state of such lazy, languorous bliss that they lose all track of time again, and when they finally untangle themselves from one another the coffee has long since gone cold.
The bread, Joe is pleased to find, is as good as ever, thankful for it now that he’s finally worked up an appetite. They eat at a leisurely pace while reclining in bed, Joe finishing his plate first. Nicky looks at what remains of his own breakfast, looks at Joe, and feeds him the last few bites of it from his fingers.
“Thank you,” Joe says earnestly, holding his gaze.
Nicky gives him a curious look, a smile at the corner of his mouth. “It’s only breakfast.”
“It’s more than that,” Joe explains, struck by some emotion he can’t quite put a name to. “To me. When it’s something of yours.”
Silent for a moment, Nicky tilts his head in consideration. His eyes are soft, immense fondness written into the creases at their corners.
“Well then,” Nicky says, cupping Joe’s face with his hand and kissing him on the forehead before curling over him to rest his cheek against Joe’s chest. “Let me tell you what I’ll make for us tomorrow, hm?”
Making himself comfortable, Joe wraps an arm around him and cards his fingers through Nicky’s tousled hair with a sigh of satisfaction. “That would be nice.”
Content, holds him close, and listens.