The sea spits out what once was Nicolo di Genova. He might become that once again, but, for now, it hurts too much to breathe, so he doesn’t. Dying is more familiar than anything else. It’s easier.
But when he revives once more, there is still so much. The cold calm of the ocean bottom is gone. Now, there is the grit of the sand against his skin, the raw drag of it matching the feel of every breath of air in his lungs.
He can’t tell if the sound is worse or not. The ocean waves pound just beyond him, and above him are the shrill cries of seagulls, which pierce his eardrums. The air blows across the sand, scattering bits of this and that. He can hear all of it.
He hasn’t even managed to open his eyes yet, but there’s light beyond his eyelids that promises to be blinding. Faintly, he remembers the idea of looking at things.
At the bottom of the sea, he’d have seconds before each death. In between gasping, useless breaths, he would catch fragments of his own memories, the briefest flash of images. At first, they had been clear. But with each grasp, each time Nicky clung to them before dying, he rubbed a little bit more of the memory away. He would start to know that something was important but not why.
He held onto sets of those images: dark, laughing eyes. Hands skimming paper. A sunset. Women riding horses. A longsword flashing through air.
He’d tried to hold onto sounds and smells at first too, but that required too much thought. In between life and death, there was only the flash of an image, that swell of panic as the water entered his lungs again, the scrabble of his hands and feet against the unforgiving metal.
It’s too much to open his eyes yet: to think of all the things he might see, what the ocean looks like from outside of itself, how big the sky is, and how far stretching the land might be. How many colors the world is made up of.
He concentrates on the pain of breathing and focuses back on the images that are all that’s left of Nicky di Genova. He breathes in. He thinks of the dark, laughing eyes. He remembers the lines that had crinkled around them. Nicky breathes out. Joe.
Booker steps tactfully out of their shared bedroom. Some part of him doesn’t know why he bothers. Joe will scarcely notice that he’s gone, let alone that Andy and Booker are about to discuss him.
“How’s he doing?” Andy asks, on cue, over the phone, when she hears the door click shut behind Booker.
“Worked up,” Booker says, which is perhaps the understatement of the century. In some ways, they’re very lucky that Andy and Quynh are closer and it makes more sense for them to go to retrieve the new one – Nile, Booker reminds himself. The new one has a name: Nile Freeman.
Booker has not seen Joe this worked up ever. Perhaps he was once, the first time Andy, Joe, and Quynh dreamed of Booker himself. Somehow, Booker doesn’t think so.
Of course, he’s a bad judge of that. Joe had been the first to find him, and he had hardly been an easy introduction into the world of immortality. Booker had had no idea what the actual fuck was going on and was trying everything to get back to Paris. Joe had distractedly entertained those notions, content to assist Booker in whatever way he could as long as Booker kept telling him about the dreams: the man in the coffin at the bottom of the ocean.
They’d reached Paris two years later, and Andy and Quynh had been waiting for them.
Booker’s wife had remarried in the time that he had been declared dead. It hurt. There was no denying that. He’d held out hope that he could step back into his old life until he had reached Paris and found that door firmly shut.
And somehow, after spending two years with Joe, he was able to appreciate that at least his wife and children had had their grieving and own closure.
He’d never seen love that was like such an open wound before.
Perhaps, he should have been annoyed at Joe by that point. There were plenty of times when he had been in the past, when he had snapped and told him under no certain terms that he didn’t care in the slightest about the man in the box, if he could be called a man at all anymore, really.
The longer the four of them traveled together, though, the more that Booker had come to pity Joe. Andy and Quynh both loved him a terrible amount. That much was clear. But they all hurt each other. Andy grew impatient with Joe as he ran himself ragged, meticulous in his notetaking about Booker’s dreams. She would grow snappier, and Quynh would grow quieter until Andy and Quynh were also fighting with each other.
Joe seemed oblivious to them entirely. If Andy planted herself in his way, he would just step around her.
They made it nearly 10 years like that before Andy threw in the towel. She gave Booker the option of coming with them. It probably would have been the easier, saner option. Lord knew that Booker had learned more useful things in two days with Andy and Quynh than he had in two years with Joe.
But something pulled at him all the same, couldn’t leave Joe to lost wandering and ocean obsessions. While he understood that he wasn’t responsible for making sure that Joe found Nicky, he felt that taking away the scarce dreams that Booker had seemed somehow cruel.
(Though, that, he wasn’t entirely sure. Maybe it would have been easier if Joe didn’t have to wake up to Booker thrashing in the sheets and nearly howling for air. Maybe it would have been easier if Booker had just lied and said that Nicky was gone.)
They became travel partners and Booker was privy to the schemes that Joe funded, some of which worked and some didn’t. They were on early iterations of the submarine and Joe owned an entire company dedicated to developing technology that mapped the ocean floor. Sometimes it felt like they’d seen every particle of the ocean through the lens of a camera. Joe constantly had information leaked out to adventure goers that there was supposed to be a wreck, flush with Spanish gold, in the general vicinity of where they thought Nicky to be.
Booker looked for specific types of fish or plants in his dreams of Nicky, and Joe drew and drew and drew, taking his drawings to marine life experts.
And, yet, never Nicky.
Last night, they’d both awakened from a new dream: a woman in combat gear, her throat slashed, the light draining from her eyes. Booker had shuddered as he woke, still able to feel the beat of her heart pumping out her blood. But Joe had been energized.
Booker knows that if it weren’t for the dreams, Joe wouldn’t care about a new immortal. But the dreams are the breadcrumbs that Joe keeps wasting away on.
He wants to get to Nile as quickly as possible, and it takes Booker to convince him that it would be better if Andy and Quynh go. Instead, Booker and Joe stop over at Joe’s house in Malta, where he keeps the majority of the research. An entire house stuffed full of clues that might not matter, overtaking anything of the life that Nicky and Joe might have once built here together.
On the other end of the line, Booker hears Andy breathe. Not for the first time, he wishes that she could offer him some advice on how to help Joe. But after nearly 200 years, Andy has started deferring to Booker in matters that come to Joe.
“I can talk to her,” Booker offers finally. “Nile. I’ll give her an idea of what to expect with him.”
“Yeah,” Andy confirms. Quynh calls in the background. “All right. See you soon, Book.”
Nile is handling this well, all things considered, Booker thinks. She is still looking around the table at them with something akin to a suspicious look. But it’s more that she’s taking the measure of them, he thinks. She’s smart. And a little bit of time with Quynh and Andy before Booker and Joe’s arrival seems to have assuaged the worst of her disbelief.
They eat dinner together. Booker finds it stunning how neither Quynh nor Andy has managed to become a competent cook yet. He figures they’re lucky to not be eating horse meat.
He offers to be the one to show Nile where they’re sleeping and get her situated with a toothbrush, soap, and a towel.
“Listen,” he says, lingering after she’s accepted everything. “Andy and Quynh explained that we all dream of each other, right?”
“Yeah?” Nile answers, clearly not sure where he’s going with this. “They said the dreams stop when we meet.”
“They do,” Booker confirms, feeling almost as if he’s giving a military report now. “But there’s one more of us. His name is Nicolo di Genova, and he’s trapped at the bottom of the ocean. When you dream of him, you’ll drown with him. He and Joe were together, and Joe is still looking for him. So, he’ll want to know anything you saw or picked up on.”
Booker pauses for a moment. “He can’t really understand what it’s like to go through that sort of dream anymore either, I think. What it’s like to be dying and feeling someone else’s fears and torture. So, he’ll be in your face about it. He doesn’t mean to forget you’re there, but most of him is just always in the sea with Nicky.”
Nile looks a little doubtful in the way that Booker has come to learn is actually her processing what she’s being told.
“You still have these dreams?” she surmises even though it’s a question.
“And you’ve been around for 200 years,” she continues, putting pieces together. “How long has he been down there?”
“Five hundred years,” Booker says, and he can see the way that Nile pulls away a little. Probably some part of her is still wrestling with the impossibility of that amount of time at all and some part of her is probably balking at the notion of being trapped underwater for an amount of time she can’t even conceive.
“You can ask Andy and Quynh more if you’d like,” Booker says. “But they are unlikely to offer the information themselves.” He pauses again. Perhaps the next part is too much, but she is family now, and Booker feels she deserves to know even if someone else should be the one saying it.
“They blame themselves,” Booker says finally. “They had been captured during the witch trials in England, and Joe and Nicky came to rescue them. Joe got out with Andy and Quynh. Nicky didn’t. They feel guilty over Nicky’s fate and that they can’t take care of Joe even though he is still on land and breathing air.”
Nile curses low, under her breath, and Booker feels for her.
They are still all together two years after that conversation when the dream changes.
Nile has been helping Andy and Quynh on their missions to do good while Booker has been providing support from a technology standpoint. It does feel good to be actually useful, and their new sister has created something of a balm to their family: another layer between Joe’s obsessions and Andy’s angry grief.
Booker and Nile wake up in near tandem and look across to each other. Joe is still fitfully splayed on his sleeping bag on the floor, and Andy and Quynh are gone from their sleeping area.
They did not dream of cold, dark waters and useless lungs. They did not dream of a mind broken down beyond thought and into mere emotion.
Instead, they had dreamt of another warm bed, of a weariness that went so deep that it still did not allow for thought but it did allow for quiet. The low murmur of voices in the background, eventually being woken for some water and a bowl of soup. Questions, but questions that could not be answered just yet, so just giving into the call of sleep again.
Booker heads out of the room clad only in his pajama bottoms and goes to where Andy and Quynh are sitting outside. Nile haunts his footsteps.
“Nicky isn’t in the ocean anymore,” Booker says with no preamble. The two women turn to look at him at the same, shock apparent on both their ancient faces. No one says anything.
Nicky is on the beach long enough that someone finds him. An elderly couple take him into their home. He’s aware of the fuss around him for some time, but he’s just too tired to care, too overwhelmed by all the fullness of being alive again.
He sleeps. For the first time in a very, very long time, Nicky sleeps and so he dreams.
He’s filled with more voices and faces that he doesn’t know, so he floats among them in the same way that he’s been floating amongst his hosts.
Until, out of nowhere, through the eyes of the unfamiliar Frenchman, he catches sight of two women standing together facing away from him, their backs a neat line. And, oh, he knows this image. The women on the horses, always moving away from him. He can’t see their faces, but he knows the way they lean in toward each other.
Without the gasping pressure of water around him, he’s able to take them in for seconds longer, to feel the love the Frenchman has for them.
To remember his own love for them. The safety and protection that they meant. My sisters, Nicky thinks, the words coming to him unbidden, the very first words that his mind has held in ages. Some part of him surprises at the consciousness of it, at his awareness of self. But at the same time, another part is affirming that he is correct: yes, he is a person of himself and these are his sisters.
The woman on the left turns, and Nicky catches just a flash of her face. Another word returns to his mind.
He doesn’t know how long he exists like this. For some time, whisping between his dreams and what might be the waking world, each only feeling half real. He eats and drinks when he’s awake, but he still doesn’t know how to put his growing thoughts into words.
He focuses more on the dreams, which bring words back to him. He learns Nile and Booker. And is surprised to learn that they, in turn, are learning Nicolo.
He spends a long time in the ether feeling over the form of that word in his mind. He is a person and that is the word that is supposed to be the summation of who he is and has been and might be. The longsword is part of that word. But so is Italy and making bread with his hands and comforting a crying child. Nicolo is a walk across a long desert, penance brimming in a broken heart, purpose in a renewed heart. Nicolo is being kissed across the sands of that desert, being kissed on the beach with the sunset, being kissed before going to sleep and right after waking up.
Booker, Nile, Andy, and Quynh fade to the background as he remembers Nicolo. They are also discussing Nicolo.
Suddenly, they make themselves impossible not to pay attention to, though. There’s an explosion on their end, and Nicky’s mind pivots to them, drawn to the light.
There is the final piece of Nicolo. The man with the warm, laughing eyes. The other half of every kiss.
The man is not laughing or warm right now. He is chaotic with emotion, crying and shouting at Booker, Nile, Andy, and Quynh. He is a tormented wave of motion, a slurry of every curse word in every language he knows, bleeding out hurt and betrayal in endless amounts.
“Yusuf?” he asks, voice hoarse and untried, much to the bafflement of the older couple.
Nile was the first to back out of the fight with Joe. She’d tried to tell Joe the information they’d collected on where Nicky is, but Joe’s anger was too much, and Nile had given way to letting her older siblings handle the situation.
Quynh had been next, because she was too exasperated and there were too many voices in the room.
Booker, perhaps, would have kept going, beseeching Joe with 200 years’ worth of brotherhood and all the details he now knew of Nicky. But Andy had sent him away.
Now, it’s just Joe and Andy, going toe to toe while Booker and Nile sit uncomfortably in the living room, still able to overhear them. Quynh went outside over an hour ago and hasn’t resurfaced yet.
“How dare you keep this from me, Andromache,” Joe spits. He’s been speaking exclusively in Arabic since he walked in on them continuing to try and pinpoint where Nicky is. He is throwing things in a haphazard into a suitcase but even he doesn’t know what he’s gathered yet. Certainly not a passport.
“What good are you to anyone like this?” Andy shoots back, her time for patience long since gone. They’re doing little more than shouting at each other in circles now.
Joe throws another load of clothes into the suitcase and tells Andy to go do something so vulgar that Booker flushes in the next room.
“Fine,” Andy says, throwing up her hands. “Fine, I’ll leave you alone, Joe. Just tell me, where are you going? Do you even know what country you’re heading to let alone what city he’s nearest? Are you going to go back to walking the coastline, shouting his name in the wind?”
Joe stops in his frantic packing and steps directly in front of Andy, so they’re eye to eye, practically touching.
“You think I wouldn’t?” Joe asks. “I know he is alive and on land, so I will walk every inch of this planet until I find him. I will scour the United Kingdom again and if he isn’t there, I will go to the Continent. I will revisit any place that’s ever meant anything to us, because I know that if he is able, he will be looking for me too, Andy. I’ve seen so much of the ocean floor – an entirely different world. What is land to me now?”
“Joe!” Andy shouts. “You aren’t thinking! You aren’t thinking about anything but yourself—”
“I have thought of nothing but him for centuries!” Joe raises his voice above hers. “I can’t breathe without him, Andromache! I have been drowning alongside him! Just because you and Quynh can put everything into a corner of your mind doesn’t mean that I can. I still reach for him in the night, still turn to him during the day to show him something I’ve found. I walk this world with the phantom of his hand in mine. I wake in the mornings and have to look at his face in my drawings so that I won’t forget the curve of his smile or the line of his nose. I will not wait a moment longer to be with him for your comfort.”
“That isn’t fucking fair and you know it,” Andy snarls. Booker is afraid that they may actually come to blows.
“We are doing all of this for Nicky,” Andy presses on. “He isn’t well, Joe. What good are you to him like this?”
“Fuck you,” Joe snaps. “I am—”
“We didn’t want to put you through this while we figured out where he was!” Andy explodes over Joe this time. “Fuck, Joe! That’s all we wanted! We wanted to be able to tell you where he was when we told you he was out of that goddamn box!”
She bangs her way out of Joe’s room and heads back into the living room to retrieve the journal with all of their notes. It has details of every dream Nile and Booker have had, along with some crude drawings by Nile of the things she’s seen, all of it narrowing down to where they’ve discerned Nicky is.
Andy slaps the notebook against Joe’s chest.
“There,” she says. “There he is. We all love him, and we all love you, Joe. And if you love us at all, you’ll take five fucking minutes to breathe and let us tell you how he is so that when we go to bring him home, you’ll be able to be there for him in the ways that he needs, and we’ll be there for you.” She breathes in and, for good measure, exclaims, “Fuck!” once more.
Joe stands in front of her, near trembling, cradling the notebook against his chest as if he is both afraid that he might break it and that Andy might take it away from him again.
“Andromache,” Joe says, his voice wavering – already more of an apology than Andy will ever need.
“I know, all right,” Andy says. “I know.” She steps in and wraps her arms tightly around him and he buries his face into her shoulder. He cries there once more, an infinite number of tears shed over Nicolo into that corner of her soul.
In the end, it is like this: all five of them go to Ireland together, and Booker and Nile make nice small talk with the elderly couple who has been taking care of Nicky. Andy and Quynh stay with them, but they are ever pivoted toward what’s happening in the next room.
Joe walks quietly into that room. Nicky is still curled up in the bed, more asleep than not. He rolls over at the sound of Joe entering the room, his footsteps still a sound that his heart knows even if his mind hasn’t remembered yet.
“There you are,” he murmurs in Ligurian and holds out a hand for Joe.
“Here I am, my love,” Joe answers, managing to hold his voice steady despite the tears coming back into his eyes. He takes Nicky’s hand and climbs into the bed behind, bracketing him. He buries his face into the hollow between Nicky’s neck and shoulder and breathes him in. His hair is long enough that it tickles Joe’s face. He’s never known it’s possible to be so still and be such a riot of emotion at the same time.
Nicky interlaces their fingers together against his chest, breathes out, and lets himself drift again.
They all head together to Malta after that. Which actually means that Nicky and Joe go to their home while the others take up residence nearby because Andy refuses to let Nicky and Joe go too far on their own even if she recognizes that they need some space.
“It’s weird not to dream of him anymore,” Nile confesses one morning when it’s just her and Booker.
“It is,” Booker agrees. He pauses, and then adds, “I didn’t realize how tired I was.”
It’s also hard not to be curious about a person whose head they lived in for a while, feeling him come back to himself. They’re mostly letting Joe and Nicky spend time together, but when they are all together, Nicky is mostly silent, just observing in a way that seems passive but they all know isn’t.
Nicky is like that much of the time he’s with Joe too. They slot back together easily even as they discover all the nuances of themselves.
Nicky sleeps for a few more days once they’re in the villa. Joe cleans, tries to turn this place back into one of their favorite homes. When Nicky wakes, he wanders. He likes to be near Joe, to be idly touching Joe in some way, but flipping through the pages of their lives seems to help too. He’s becoming less faded, as if Nicky is coming back into focus.
At first, that means that he’ll run his fingers over the strokes of Joe’s paintings, and Joe will tell him about where they were or what they were doing when Joe painted that.
“You bought this pigment for me,” Joe says, murmuring the words into Nicky’s ear, bringing Nicky’s fingertips to a vibrant purple.
“This is what it felt like to go to Quynh’s homeland for the first time,” Joe says as Nicky lingers longer in front of another painting. Joe doesn’t ask if Nicky remembers that, and Nicky doesn’t seem to give any indication that he does, so Joe spends that afternoon telling Nicky while Nicky continues to stare at the painting.
The next day Nicky stops at a painting of a beach, and Joe watches as half a smile curves Nicky’s mouth.
“I’m going to take that as a sign that you remember why that beach was memorable,” Joe laughs.
They move onto Joe’s poetry and spend so many days where they are sprawled together while Joe reads aloud. Nicky pillows his head on Joe’s chest and listens to the rumble of his voice, the thump of his heart. Sometimes, that sensation is too much for him to actually take in the words. He traces Joe’s hands, over the planes of his sides, the jut of his hips, comforted by touching Joe casually without all of Joe’s intense focus on him.
Joe is warmed to see when Nicky blushes over certain stanzas. The same stanzas as before, and Joe cannot resist teasing him over it.
Nicky begins to laugh again in those moments, soft but there all the same. He’ll murmur or hum in agreement with Joe, implore him to read another stanza again with a single note of his voice. This part isn’t exactly unfamiliar. They learned to communicate on such small things in the beginning, and while they are both lovers of words, they never necessarily needed the words.
In between the poetry but before the novels, Nicky returns to his kitchen. He is slow there as well. Joe knows that every sense is still near too much for Nicky. He can see it in the way that Nicky will sink his hands into the dough of bread and begin to knead.
“It’s not the texture or the temperature,” Nicky tells him later. “I remember every time I’ve made bread before.”
Every action is treated as revelation and miracle: being slow to add rosemary to anything so he can take the time inhale it, running his thumb over the papery skin of an onion or the waxy outside of an apple. Their meals can last hours sometimes, a slow indulgence of taste where Joe is equally happy to feed Nicky or just watch him.
Nicky laughs when drinking champagne again for the first time.
They take turns reading all the novels in the house back and forth to one another. Nicky grows more comfortable with the sound of his own voice, with the ways that words form in his mind and come out of his mouth.
Nicky delves briefly into the records that Joe has in the house, but those are somewhat short-lived.
“I will not sing for you, no,” Joe teases, “for I still need you to love me at the end of the day. You have always been the singer, Nico, so you must learn these songs on your own.” Nicky promises that one day there will be a time for songs.
They sleep slotted together that entire time. Nicky is always reaching for Joe, touching in small ways as if in part to reassure himself that Joe is there and if, in part, to relearn Joe all the time. Joe is patient. He lets Nicky set the pace in all things, able to tell just how much a simple kiss can overwhelm Nicky.
As if kissing Joe could be anything but, Nicky thinks in protest. When there is the soft plush of his lips, the drag of that beard – the beard alone undoes Nicky for a long time, pulling soft gasps from his throat every time it touches his skin. Joe offers to shave it, but Nicky likes the rush of too-much sensation. Then, there this the touch of the tip of Joe’s tongue against his lip, a heat so profound that it sears Nicky’s entire body, sends jolts of want coursing through him. He melts against Joe in those moments, gone liquid and utterly useless.
And when Nicky sorts out how to touch his tongue to Joe, there’s the taste of him. So subtle compared to the foods that Nicky has reintroduced himself to, but so much that Nicky loses track of the kiss itself, and Joe has to pet his face to bring him back to his own body. There’s the heady rush of Joe breathing against his lips – those breaths growing heavier and hotter the longer they kiss, the more their bodies are twined together.
In truth, the sound of his own breath scares Nicky for a little bit, makes him skittish and pull back from the kisses. But the feeling of needing and wanting Joe quickly outweighs the residual feeling of his chest heaving under a wall of water.
They have been together in Malta like this for weeks when they wake up one morning, flush, as always, and Nicky simply turns around in Joe’s arms and keeps kissing him and doesn’t stop. He is far more sensitive and undone than he was even the first time they did this. He comes once just rutting against Joe’s hip, nearly crying with pleasure, his fingers dragging over Joe’s back.
Joe moves to pull away, and Nicky doesn’t let him, keeps him pinned in the bed, making it clear that this is what today is for.
They prep Nicky slowly throughout the morning, and he comes a second time with three of Joe’s fingers inside of him, twisting at the sheets, and pleading with Joe.
When he finally sinks into Joe’s lap, he’s practically nonverbal again, wide-eyed as he looks down at Joe.
“There we are, Nico,” Joe murmurs. “There we are.” His touch is featherlight against Nicky’s sides and down his hips, and he’s ready to take things slow, but Nicky takes control and just sets them back on a collision course. Joe is the one left clinging as Nicky uses his body to take his pleasure. His third orgasm partners with Joe’s hips rabbiting inside of him as he comes.
They fall, sticky and spent, back to sheets after that, and drowse lazily until sunset when Joe hauls himself up to bring leftovers to their bed.
It’s all bliss. How can Joe say otherwise? Some part of him still fears that he’s going to wake up and find that it’s all gone, that it’s just him and Booker in a dingy motel with a thousand maps of the ocean floor.
As they continue to sort themselves out, Nicky begins to wake before Joe again. For a bit, Nicky lingers in bed and watches Joe.
Eventually, though, he begins wandering on his own.
That’s how, one morning, Joe wakes to find Nicky in the living room with folders upon folders of papers circled around him. It takes Joe a moment to recognize all the research that he’d hidden away when he and Nicky had first arrived back in Malta – all the legal sides of the funding of underwater research, maps and pictures, ocean temperature readings and currents. Anything and everything Joe had ever had anyone look at for him.
Nicky looks up at him when he enters the room, his eyes wide and lost. Joe tugs self-consciously at the sleeves of the shirt he’s wearing, ill-equipped to deal with a Nicky who is hurting, particularly when Joe doesn’t know how to fix it.
“I’m sorry,” Joe says, his voice thick. “I tried. I just couldn’t – no matter what I did, I couldn’t find you, Nicolo.”
Nicky’s eyes only grow in sadness.
“Joe,” Nicky says, looking at the files around him. “What did you do besides this?”
“I,” Joe says, words catching. “I’ve been working a lot with satellites lately—”
“No, Joe,” Nicky says. He looks directly at Joe this time. “What did you do besides this?”
Joe stares at him.
“Besides look for you?” Joe asks dumbly. “Nothing, Nicky. What else was there to do?”
“You’ve been alone doing this,” Nicky says, more to himself than to Joe, looking at a historic account of one of the men who had been on the ship that had dumped Nicky in the ocean.
“No,” Joe says. “I mean, Booker was with me. For when he could be.”
Nicky looks at Joe again and puts the file down. He unfolds from the floor and closes the distance between them, pressing his hands to the side of Joe’s face.
“My love,” Nicky murmurs. “You need to forgive yourself for not finding me.”
“That’s your forgiveness to grant,” Joe answers, feeling his throat beginning to grow tight.
“No, Joe,” Nicky answers, voice still quiet. “What could I have to forgive you for? My heart, look at all you did for me. If it was possible to have found me, you would have done it. I was sent to a place that was impossible to reach, and you found ways to reach for it anyway. Look at this,” Nicky says, somehow able to have something close to awe in his voice as he gestures to some of the photos of shipwrecks that Joe has. “Imagine being told that this was one of the things we would see back in the times that we were born.”
“But it wasn’t enough, Nicky,” Joe says. He’s crying, harshly. They’ve danced around this conversation, and Joe has so badly just wanted to avoid it. He has just wanted Nicky to heal, no looking backward. “I didn’t find you, Nicolo!” Joe bursts, pressing his balled hands to his face.
“Then it couldn’t be done,” Nicky says gently, pulling Joe’s hands away from his face so he has to look at Nicky.
“You don’t know,” Joe pleads. “I missed something, somewhere along the way. You were so close, Nicolo. I made mistakes. I followed the wrong leads. I searched the wrong places.”
“It couldn’t be done,” Nicky says again, more certain than before.
Joe breaks down entirely, and Nicky gathers him close, holding him. He keeps murmuring that same phrase over and over again – also saying that he has nothing to forgive Joe for. Pleading with Joe to forgive himself.
“But you were suffering all that time, Nicky,” Joe gasps wetly.
“And you weren’t?” Nicky asks, stroking at the back of Joe’s head. “You were in that box with me, caro mio. It was just that you couldn’t see it.”
Words leave Joe entirely, and he allows himself to just cry and be comforted by Nicky. He doesn’t know how long they stand there like that, Nicky running a hand up and down his back, almost rocking him, humming to him quietly until Joe exhausts himself.
Once he’s done, he just remains pressed limply up against Nicky, not entirely sure he would be standing anymore if it wasn’t for his husband’s presence. Nicky kisses the side of his head.
“My Yusuf,” Nicky whispers. “Begin to forgive our sisters too. They were mourning both of us.”
Until then, Joe somewhat hadn’t realized he is angry with Andy and Quynh – feels that they left him and Nicky behind at some point. He’s too drained right now to think fully on the nuances of emotion he feels about their sisters, but he nods into Nicky’s neck, because he knows that Nicky is all right.
“Okay,” Nicky says, and he kisses Joe’s temple. “Okay.” He pulls back so that he’s cupping Joe’s face again. He presses soft kisses all over Joe’s face, to each eyelid and tear-streaked cheek, his nose, and then his mouth.
“We are going to have our family back into our home,” Nicky says against Joe’s mouth. “I am going to cook for them. We are going to thank our older sisters for carrying us long as they could. We are going to thank our new brother and sister for bringing us back together and learn who they are. And we’re all going to remember that you are a person who is made for joy and to bring joy and passion into this world.” He kisses Joe again. “Yes?”
Joe nods. He presses himself back in close to Nicky again, nosing along his neck and gripping tight at the back of his shirt.
And that’s what they do.
They stay together in Malta for a year longer. After a few weeks, Andy, Quynh, Booker, and Nile simply move into Joe and Nicky’s home. Nicky continues to remember things in bursts, which is just as well, because Joe too is relearning the joy of who they are.
After their year in Malta, they make the decision to travel together. There are places Nicky wants to see again – old places that he wants to share with Nile and Booker. And there are places that didn’t exist when Nicky was lost that Nile is exuberant about showing Nicky. She takes it as her personal duty to catch him up on all of the art of the last 500 years.
At first, Joe is nervous watching Booker and Nicky together. Booker is the one who held together all the fraying seams of Joe for such a long time, and Joe is afraid that he won’t know how to make space for Booker now.
Of course, Nicky would never let that happen, not knowing everything Booker did. Eventually, Nicky begins to tell Booker of what they did before everything happened – their quest to put as much good into the world as they could. After their few leisurely trips together, they all decide that they want to get back to that on a larger scale.
“They were made for this too,” Nicky says one night, commenting thoughtfully on Nile and Booker, as if their appearance only solidifies Nicky’s belief in their purpose.
The night before they are to leave Malta, Nicky has a nightmare.
He wakes, gasping, and clawing at the sheets of their bed. Joe is awake immediately, reaching for him and trying to soothe him while Nicky continues to gulp at the air. One of his hands lands against Joe’s hip and he holds tight, as if trying to anchor himself there.
Joe hushes him, tries to remind him of where he is, but tonight is a strange night and Nicky cannot stop crying.
“I couldn’t remember you when I came back,” Nicky whispers into this dark, liminal space. “Not really. I couldn’t – I didn’t – I didn’t have words, and I couldn’t remember your name.” He looks at Joe in the dark. “You could have walked by me and I don’t think I would have recognized you.” He lets out a wretched sob. “What if I had been down there even longer and forgotten you completely, Yusuf?”
He shivers at the idea, because it seems so much worse than the finality of dying.
“But I know that is not true, my love,” Joe answers, tangling his hands with Nicky to try and draw his attention back to the present. “You’ve told me before that you remembered my eyes.”
“What are your eyes to the complexity of everything you are?” Nicky cries.
“Well,” Joe says. He draws Nicky’s hand to his mouth to press a kiss to his palm, “I’ve been told they are one of my finest features.” His heart pinches in pain when that doesn’t even manage to draw a sad smile from Nicky.
“Nicolo,” Joe says, more seriously this time. “If you remembered my eyes, you had everything you need to remember everything, don’t you see? For everyone can see how my love for you shines from them. And what is our love if not the foundation for everything we are together? And you may not argue with me, habibi, for my theory is already proven true: here we are, together, and whole and alive still. And I would say that I still love you as much as I did when we first kissed, but my love for you has only grown and changed with every season we’ve spent together, Nico.”
Nicky’s tears have quieted and he is just looking down at Joe now, holding his hand in return, and Joe smiles gently, lovingly, up at him.
“But come, my darling one,” Joe says, tone shifting to a tease. “If you must further prove your love to me, I can endure such.”
Nicky snorts a little, and all Joe can feel is love in his heart for this man. Nicky leans over and kisses him, just a touch of their lips at first, and then playful, and then soft. He settles back down in the bed, pillowing his head against Joe’s chest.
“I do, you know,” Nicky murmurs. “Love you so much. There would be no me at all if I hadn’t had you to hold onto.”
“And you know the same is true for me, Nicky,” Joe answers, running his fingers up and down Nicky’s back in a soothing pattern. Nicky turns his head to kiss above Joe’s heart. He can tell that Joe is growing tired even if he would stay awake for Nicky hours more if need be.
“I shall continue loving you tomorrow then,” Nicky says, able to watch as those words allow Joe’s eyes to drift shut.
“Tomorrow, yes,” Joe promises.