“We should go to Rome.”
“Nicky. I adore you. I cannot, in good conscience, let you fight the Pope.”
“Wouldn’t be much of a fight,” Nicky says disdainfully, fanning out further the newspaper he’s holding and pointing to the offending article. “Look at this. They’re changing Mass. Again.”
“Oh, again?” Joe says, playing along as if he hadn’t heard the story break on the dinky old radio they have puttering along on the kitchen counter. He is pointedly not smiling, despite how relentlessly endearing Nicky’s frown is. Honestly, he wouldn’t put it past the paper to start sizzling. “English wasn’t bad enough?”
“No; they need to make up their minds,” says Nicky, shaking his head as if he’s shocked the Council didn’t personally consult him. Joe, in all fairness, thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea with the state of things these days. “Yes Tridentine, no Tridentine, Tridentine only in special circumstances, and now...” He snorts. “Yes, because this is the biggest concern they have on their hands at the moment.”
Joe moves his head to rest heavily on Nicky’s shoulder, scanning over the bulk of the article. “They’re getting rid of the Christ refrain? I’m all for brevity being the soul of wit, butー”
“It doesn’t have any discernible purpose,” Nicky finishes, tilting his head against Joe’s. “Mm. Did you pack new shampoo?”
“Variety is the spice of life. ‘Spirit upon them like the dewfall’? Are they pulling ideas from teenagers’ poetry, now?”
“People thought the old translation was too conversational,” he explains. “Wanted more formality.”
Joe turns and stares at him blankly. “It’s Mass. How much more formal can you get?”
“Enough to bring ‘dewfall’ back into the lexicon.” He reaches for his coffee cup without looking away from the paper and takes a distinctly distasteful sip. Yet another thing Joe loves about him, really: only Nicky could make drinking coffee elegantly distasteful.
He reads a few more lines of the article, then pauses. “Oh no, aşkı, they got rid of the joke.”
“What joke?” comes Andy’s voice, then Andy’s favorite chipped, possibly-toxic-at-this-point mug, then Andy herself plopping into the seat across from them.
“Seven out of ten bedhead, boss,” says Joe, who receives the finger in return as Nicky spins the newspaper around and slides it towards her.
“The Vatican Council has decided that changing a word or two in the English Mass is a vital priority,” Nicky says dryly. “Which, unfortunately, nullifies a very long standing, mildly funny joke.”
“Oh, you all can make jokes? When did they change that?” she replies, glancing over the paper.
“It only works if the priest is using a microphone,” Nicky explains, pointedly choosing to ignore the jibe, “and he begins by shouting into it something like, ‘Is this thing on’?”
“No no, do the voice, Nicky,” Joe interrupts, and gets a look in return. He grins. “Please?”
“Ask me again when I’m awake, and the answer will perhaps change.” He returns his gaze to Andy, who raises an eyebrow before taking a sip of her tea. “The priest does a little back and forth with the congregation, makes some noise, and then he says, ‘There is something wrong with this mic!’. And the congregation responds, ‘And also with you,’ and now they cannot do that anymore, I assume because someone told the Vatican about it.”
“No on the jokes, then,” Andy nods. “Huh. Not a big fan?”
“I like one thing they changed,” admits Nicky. “‘"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed’ to ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed’. It’s from the Gospels,” he clarifies at her confused look. “Jesus speaks to a centurion who believes he isn’t worthy to house him.”
“Do you just get an eidetic memory as a priest?” she asks, face refusing to betray whether or not she’s joking. “Or do they do an IQ test alongside the one concerning emotional repression?”
“Oh, g’morning pot,” says Booker, pausing to lean against the doorway, the dim light of the kitchen making his dark circles look downright cartoonish, “what were you saying to the kettle?”
“That the kettle has an interesting choice of axes to grind today,” Andy replies. “And you look at those two and tell me Nicky has a prayer and a half of getting on my level.” She smirks and takes another sip of tea. “Now that’s funny.”
Joe looks at Booker from where he’s still practically pressed against Nicky’s side and shrugs. “The Vatican changed Mass a bit. Nicky doesn’t approve.”
“Well damn, maybe you should send them a strongly worded letter, then.” Booker pushes himself off the doorway and heads for the coffeemaker, picking up the pot and taking a long drink directly from it. Joe makes a face.
“Thanks for the backwash, Book,” Andy adds, as if she hasn’t had to scrub each and every one of their grey matter out of her hair at some point. He doesn’t even pause for breath. Joe has to admit, he admires the efficacy.
Booker gulps back the last of the coffee and slides the filter from its slot, tossing it into the garbage. “Alright, so they changed it. Changed it before. Will probably change it again.” He nods his head at Joe, who replies with one in agreement. “So. What’s the fuss?”
“The fuss,” Nicky says firmly, “is that once again, the criticisms being responded to are those that have no actual effect on the workings of the church as a whole, and instead of addressing what should be, they’re making changes to the liturgy that didn’t even need to be made.” He pauses, and then as if as an afterthought, “Also, they sound ridiculous.”
“And there it is,” mutters Andy, but loud enough for everyone at the table to hear. Joe stifles a snicker and quickly grabs his tea, Nicky still nudging his foot under the table.
Later, when Booker has left to do whatever it is he usually does in the back garden (brood, most likely; fight a losing battle against the weeds surrounding his sometimes-remembered vegetable patch, also possible), and Nicky is out for a run, Andy finishes an article on a local estate sale and sets the paper down in a way Joe knows precludes a comment.
“So,” she says casually, “one week.”
Joe snorts. “You’re that eager to lose, huh?”
“Just realistic.” She pushes her mug left and right by the handle. “It won’t even go into effect for years. Besides, something’ll come up. We keep it busy.”
Joe shakes his head, a smile creeping across his face. “I’ll take it, but only because I know how wrong you are. This’ll be fun.”
Andy raises an eyebrow once more. “Somebody’s sure of himself.”
“No,” he says, “I know Nicky. And I know there are two things he can talk about for as long as he needs to, to feel that his point has been made.” He adopts a facsimile of Nicky’s accent, “‘Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ’,” and then drops it with a wink, “and me.”
Just over an hour from the safe house is a grocery store frequented by enough local color, and staffed by enough bored, usually stoned teenagers, that the team can make supply runs in pretty much any kind of state and not get so much as a passing glance. It’s not the closest, nor the most lavishly stocked, but Joe once bought six boxes of Rice Krispie Treats with half a shirt on that clearly used to be white, so the collective consensus is that that kind of outstanding service should be rewarded.
Also, there’s a McDonald’s across the street. Coincidentally.
Booker is holding the promise of a Ptit Fondu and an Oreo McFlurry firmly in his mind as minute thirty-five crawls by and, as he has been doing since minute two, Nicky is admonishing the papacy. It’s almost impressive how long he’s been able to stay on this one, single, excruciatingly boring—to Booker—topic for an extended amount of time, although he supposes that when you study something with the intent of revolving your entire life about it, you tend to develop strong opinions. It doesn’t mean he has to like hearing them, though.
He wonders if this is some kind of extremely belated hazing; he is the youngest of them, after all. Was just under two hundred years supposed to catch him by surprise? What’s even the point, anyway? Bore him to death? Can they even die that way?
Booker swerves slightly to avoid a squirrel in the road, not even bothering with astonishment when Nicky doesn’t skip a syllable. He doesn’t understand most of the Italian, anyway; made a point of not learning too much when he discovered it mostly came out to say sappy shit to Joe. Or, apparently, swear a blue streak highly unbefitting of a fucking priest, because French is still a fellow Romance language, and he can fancy a guess at what “figlio di puttana” means.
“So a question,” he says loudly, finally interrupting Nicky as his hands begin to cramp from gripping the wheel so tightly, “I’ve got, is why don’t you just go lodge a complaint? Fake some credentials, use all that knowledge you have.”
Nicky looks at him like he’s an idiot. Booker honestly feels half of one. “You have an awfully idealistic idea of the Counsel’s feedback process.”
“There have to be other people who are as unhappy about this as you are,” he points out. And who you could talk to instead. Maybe form the world’s smallest, dullest support group. Now there’s a concept.
“No, there are.” Nicky nods. “It takes a kind of conversational tone out of it, and that affects some peoples’ enjoyment. People who want their relationship to God to be less ‘fall on your knees’ and more like speaking with an old friend.”
Booker gives him an incredulous look. “We are still talking about Catholics, right?”
Nicky gives a light chuckle. “Yes, we are. Not every one of us keeps a weeping Madonna in every room.” He eyes Booker. “Some of us even tolerate homosexuality. Imagine that.”
“Oh, I can imagine it alright.” He rolls his eyes. “Does Joe have any thoughts on this?”
“No, but he listens, and that I appreciate.” Nicky shrugs, expression softening. “I’ve never read a single page of Lord of the Rings, but I’ll take his eyes when he talks about elves and hobbits every time.”
Sensing emotional vulnerability about to occur, Booker quickly searches for an exit. “Alright, well, why do you care about the English translation anyway? Didn’t you learn your Mass in Latin?”
Nicky’s face darkens, the frown coming back in full force, and Booker thinks, Oh, you have monumentally fucked up. He resists the urge to bang his head on the steering wheel as Nicky launches into an explanation of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum from last year, and how an insistence on facing East limits accessibility via lip reading and completely ruins sound quality without the use of a microphone, which most churches weren’t even built for in the first place, and his myriad of opinions on who should get to read and serve Communion, and Booker truly, genuinely, honestly considers crashing the car into the surrounding forest just to get five seconds of respite from this shit.
A McFlurry has never, ever tasted so unworthy of the trouble.
Out of the corner of her eye, Andy sees Nicky lower his night vision binoculars and sets her jaw. She is tired. She is starving. She is in Washington goddamn DC in the middle of fucking October, and there is not a single ounce of patience she has reserved for this particular reminder of Joe’s smug look when she opened her wallet.
“So I wasー”
Nicky glances over at her, blinking. “You didn’tー”
“Hand me the Cheez-its.”
He seems to consider the merits of arguing, reach a conclusion, then unzips his bag to dig around for the snack container. Andy opens the bag of Cheez-its as quietly as anyone can, and goes back to staring at the windows of the hotel across the street while methodically putting one after the other into her mouth. It is an intensity that leaves no room for discussion as to what they will be doing for the next four hours.
Nicky gives her one more look, then goes back to his goggles. “Right. Let me know if you need anything else, boss.”
Nicoló’s congregation, Andy decides, must have been the most dedicated Catholics on the planet.
Joe is, usually, more than happy to hear what Nicky has to say no matter the occasion, especially if that occasion is an attempt at seduction, but this year is proving to be one of remarkable discoveries, and perhaps increasing evidence that it would be beneficial to get him tested for ADHD.
(“They practically herded me into the theological studies,” he’d laughed, a few years into their tentative new experiment of not trying to stab each other, and Yusef had tried not to think too deeply on what that sound did to him. “I was fourteen and trying my best to debate the priest, and finally they told me to just run home and shut up. I asked them what was so wrong about it, when Jesus himself taught the temple elders when he was twelve, and they said no, Jesus was the Son of God. ‘What are we, if not all sons of God?’ I asked them, and the next day was offered a place among the scholars.” Nicoló had rubbed the side of his nose with his finger, something Yusef would later learn was a nervous habit. “My mother didn’t know whether to be proud of me, or relieved that at last someone else would have to listen to my speeches.”)
Those speeches have been music to Joe’s ears for centuries; Nicky’s thirst and capacity for knowledge, from the guidebooks he picks up for places they’ve already been to, just to see what’s changed, to the dizzying (one could say, extremely romantic) speed at which he picked up Arabic, to his not-so-secret love of sitting down together with a horribly inaccurate historical documentary and shouting at the screen for two hours, and the books he’s given Joe for every birthday since they first began spending them together, never failing to find something fascinating. If Joe spins their love into poetry, Nicky remembers every detail and date of it.
He slides the hand currently resting on Nicky’s knee up an inch, listening for any reaction in his breath. Outside of their hotel room, Chicago’s windchill screams at the windows, but they sprung for a fake fireplace if only for the ambiance it provides. Nicky pauses to prop himself up further against the arm of the couch and thumb to a marked page in his book, clearly important by the number of exclamation points dashed at the top.
“Look,” he says, turning the book so Joe can see what he’s highlighted, “not man, ‘boy’. A specific warning against pedophillia, and yet time after time after time again we learn exactly what kind of selective hearing is being bred in the Vatican. They must have done a comprehensive reading of most versions of the Bible; did this entire passage somehow get passed over?”
They’ve had the King James mistranslation debate (in which it is Nicky vs. the Catholic Church’s more unfavorable skeletons) many times before, and Joe would never begrudge his husband something about which he is so factually correct, but it’s also a bit of a mood killer. He nods.
“Subtlety was not one of Edward II’s bedfellows, true.” The hand creeps ever-upwards. “Tell me about him, though.”
Without missing a beat, Nicky points at a sticky note pasted by another passage. “It’s in the New Testament, but relevant here; there is a story with Jesus featuring a Roman centurion and a man, in most properly translated scriptures, implied to be his lover. Sodomy, during that time, was seen as a minor vice just as it was during ours. The reason it was elevated to a more egregious sin is wholly due to the King James Bible, and Edwards’s political detractors attempting to delegitimize his power.”
Joe decides to pivot to a new tactic. Maybe they can give roleplay a go again. “He must have been, ah, quite the hedonist, then. If they had to go so drastic.” His hand reaches the junction where Nicky’s hip meets his thigh, and he rubs his thumb at the crease. “Put all those stocks to good use?”
“The Church of England was the one to equate it with heresy,” Nicky continues, absentmindedly putting his hand over Joe’s and curling his thumb around his palm. “The Vatican grouped it with everything else about lustfulness until the twelfth century; they began the regulation, you remember, it was very annoying.”
Joe remembers, alright. And just as they had found something easier to clean than olive oil.
Nicky shifts gears to quoting one of the many treatises of opinion he sent to the Third Lateran Council (making him, Joe suspects, partially responsible for the invention of the disposable suggestion box), and Joe gives a quiet, but fond sigh. There’s the slightest twinge in the back of his mind, an eternal reminder that you can teach an old immortal new tricks, but Pavlovian responses will remain in the repertoire, and his fingers almost twitch for a scintar that isn’t there. Nicky plus preaching plus even the seeds (Joe hopes) of sex equalled…. some interesting situations back when they weren’t quite past the murder phase, but unable to deny their own attractions anymore. He stifles a chuckle and decides finally that subtlety isn’t for him, either.
“Bismillah,” he mutters under his breath, then, “Nicoló,”, placing his hand directly on top of Nicky’s crotch, “hayati. I am requesting we not talk about 1179 when I am trying very hard to seduce you. It strangles the mood.”
Nicky, finally, seems to fully realize what’s happening, including his own developing interest, and blinks up at him. “Oh, I apologize. Do you still want to have sex?”
Joe lets the laugh escape this time, twisting to press a long, firm kiss to Nicky’s forehead. With the other hand, he takes the Bible and sets it a good distance away on the coffee table. “Yes, but then we will talk about why this is somehow not a deterrent to you getting an erection.” He kisses the space between Nicky’s brows. “And maybe ask Booker about a therapist.”
Nicky snorts, running his hand down to rest on Joe’s hip. “Booker has never been to therapy in his life, both when they did and didn’t prescribe cocaine.”
“Yes, and how do you think he’s avoided them all? Knowledge is power.”
This, at last, gets Nicky to crack a smile. “You think my dedication is very sexy. You tell me that every chance you get.”
“I do, I do,” he agrees, and that smile never fails to make his heart stutter, so Joe leans down and kisses him like no one in the world will ever know.
“Is this a thing?” Nile asks, turning her stick a few degrees to the right to toast a new section of her marshmallow. “Do you have, like, a list of ‘Jesus cheat codes’ or whatever, or is it more for Catholics in general?”
“It’s a very Catholic thing,” Nicky clarifies. He hands Joe another marshmallow, who wipes his sticky thumb on his jeans and takes it. “I just happen to have a few more than most today.”
“He was very smug about it back then,” Joe adds, to which Andy snorts loudly and pointedly.
“He’s smug now. You were a very immortal caveat they didn’t account for, Nicky, not a member of Ocean’s eleven.”
“No, no,” Nicky argues, “we’ve robbed a casino before. And a hotel. Not the Met Gala, though.”
“Bucket list,” says Joe, and Nile really can’t tell if they’re joking.
“Wait,” she says, “why? Don’t you guys have, I dunno, offshore bank accounts? Secret caches? A lot of gold bricks hidden somewhere?” Off of their stares, she shrugs. “Savings are important.”
Joe gives her a very patient nod. “Sometimes,” he says, “Andy wants to be Robin Hood, and it’s fun, and usually they have cocktail shrimp that’s slightly more passable than the hotel kind.”
“What about Aldi’s?”
He frowns. “What about Aldi’s?”
“They sell a whole sixteen-ounce ring and sauce; you just have to defrost it.” Now it’s Nile’s turn to give them all a look. “Did you ever talk with the people you gave that money to?” She feels a fond smile creep across her face, chased by a pang of wistfulness. “If you were the opposite of upper class, but you wanted to feel like it? That shrimp ring was like Christmas.”
Andy makes a face. “You lost me at ‘defrost it’. But to answer your question, it’s a Nicky thing as well as a Catholic thing, because opinions are a prerequisite.”
Joe grins. “He’s, to the best of my knowledge, the only man in history to put one so thoroughly over on the Pope. He can have opinions on all he likes. Tesoro,” he taps Nicky’s arm with his stick, “tell them about the Avignon.”
“Asshole,” Andy groans, putting her head in her hands, but this only seems to convince Nicky more. Nile waves a hand to get their attention.
“Sorry, the what?”
Nicky clears his throat politely. “Nile, the Avignon Papacy devalued the power of the Pope and made it a puppet. The Pope had real power over temporal affairs prior to that, but that was ultimately the nail in the coffin. The weakened Papacy lost its authority over anything other than the spiritual, and set it on a downward slope culminating in indulgences you pay for instead of earning with the prior requirement of blood and murder, which morally is reprehensible yes, but I am of the opinion Heaven should not be a pay-to-play, corruption, and the Protestant Revolution.” Nicky shrugs. “The latter I had no personal issue with until Ireland, but the decline of the institution was not fun to watch.”
“What happened in Ireland?” Nile asks, and gets a rare eye roll.
“Ah. Yeah, that’ll put a few inches in the cross-Christianity divide.” She lifts her marshmallow away from the fire pit and taps the bottom of the stick to collapse it further, quickly picking the sticky, slightly burnt mass off and popping it into her mouth. “So you like more of the traditional stuff? What d’you think of the Popemobile? The new one.”
Nicky frowns. “There’s a new one?”
“Oh boy,” says Joe, already reaching for his phone and pulling up Google. “The 1981 model was controversial around here.”
“It looked like a sauna with glass walls,” Andy says, but scoots over to peer at the screen. Nile already knows what they’ll see when the image loads, and Nicky’s face makes it entirely worth it. He looks like someone dropped a dead rat on his dinner.
“That truck has a fucking tumor,” he says flatly. Andy smirks.
“His name is Francis, Nicky; don’t be rude.”
“Better than the Pope-bus,” Joe finishes, looking at Nicky like his clear desire to throw his phone across into the woods is fine art. Ugh, Nile thinks. To him, it probably is.
“What,” she jokes, “do you have a ranking system?” Nicky turns to look at her milliseconds after she realizes her mistake.
Andy walks over to Nile’s log and leans in conspiratorially. “Hope you weren’t thinking of turning in early.”
“Has he ever consideredー”
“Oh, we all have. Glad you’re up to speed.”
“I was a psych minor in college,” Nile says faintly, settling in for the long haul and consoling herself with the knowledge that finally, she’s found at least one thing it’s useful for.