Nile set her books down onto the kitchen table with a groan, two at the top of the stack sliding off and rattling the silverware as they thumped down. Nicky shot her a disapproving look from the stove, but he was busy doing some cooking thing, so Nile ignored him.
“Why do they even still have textbooks,” Nile moaned. “Why isn’t all this shit digital?!”
“It probably is,” Joe pointed out as he joined Nile in the kitchen. Deftly he scooped up the two fallen books, then piled half her stack on top of them. “Come on: Nicky’s about to serve dinner.”
Nile sighed but picked up her smaller stack of books and followed Joe into the living room, where he set her books on the coffee table. But he didn’t just leave them: he started flipping through, humming and mumbling to himself over the titles. Nile dropped her stack down next to his and peered at what he was doing.
“Anything I should know about?” she asked.
“No…” Joe hummed. He waved a paperback at her. “Not as many art books as I was expecting.”
“I have to get the core classes out of the way first,” Nile explained.
“Or you could just take the classes you liked,” Joe countered. He laughed. “It’s not like we have a degree requirement.”
Nile shook her head firmly. “No: I’m going to do it normal. The first time, at least. I want to go to college and get my degree, just like I always said I would.” She took the paperback from Joe—it was a copy of Julius Caesar, for some English class. “Like I promised my ma I would.”
Her eyes were cast down, so she couldn’t see Joe’s expression. But she felt (more than heard) him sigh next to her, before he reached out and cupped a hand around the back of her head. “Come on,” he told her. “Let’s see what we can steal from Nicky before he’s done.”
A string of Italian words—probably swear words, judging by the tone—beckoned them into the kitchen. Nicky’s back was to them but that didn’t keep him from shaking a wooden spoon out to his side. Nile snickered as Joe crept up on him.
“Mi amor…” Joe cooed, wrapping himself around Nicky’s back. Nicky appeared to try to shake him off, but wasn’t trying very hard because Joe hung on like a limpet, and even settled himself in more: hooking his chin over Nicky’s shoulder, arms wrapped around his waist. “Nile’s had a horribly long first day. When’s dinner going to be ready?”
“Never, if you make me burn it,” Nicky chided with no heat.
“That smells amazing,” Joe moaned, but his nose was buried in Nicky’s neck, so Nile wasn’t sure if he was talking about the food or Nicky. If it was the latter: ew, guys, come on. Get a room. Or, rather: go to the room you already got! Except not until after Nicky finished cooking, because it really did smell that good.
“If I add the milk too quickly the sauce will separate,” Nicky warned Joe.
“Can I help with anything?” Nile asked, because her mama didn’t raise no lazy bones. But Nicky shook his head.
“Ah, no, Nile: thank you. There is nothing to do.”
“Nicky has this down to a science,” Joe told her, still attached to Nicky’s back but somewhat less entangled that a minute ago. “Everything’s perfectly timed. The bread comes out when the sauce is done; the pasta is al dente when everything else is finished; the chicken resting exactly three minutes before-”
Nicky shrugged. “It is a rhythm.” He shot a glance over his shoulder to smile at Nile. “When you invented electric stoves, ah. Took me a decade to find my rhythm again. Like dancing to a song a half-second fast.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later and Nile was marveling at the rhythm of Nicky’s kitchen. The chicken was resting, the pasta drained, the sauce onto the pasta, chicken into the sauce, bread out of the oven. And he didn’t use timers for any of it!
“Nicky’s timer is in his head,” Joe said as they helped Nicky serve. “Nicky: what time is it?”
“Seven twenty-four,” Nicky said, without looking up.
Nile looked at her watch. “Twenty-one, but holy shit.”
“Ah, well,” Nicky complained with a smile.
Nile glanced around. “Should we wait for Andy?”
“She’ll be in when she’s in,” Joe told her.
As they ate—and of course it was somehow the best alfredo sauce Nile had ever had—Nicky and Joe asked her about her first day at college. If she thought about it too long, Nile might start crying, because it felt so much like family, but it was still so different from how she imagined this day. But she pushed those feelings down and tried to enjoy the warmth and genuine interest of Joe and Nicky by itself.
Nicky also thought Nile was wasting her time taking core classes, but he understood Nile’s desire to go through the motions of a “normal” college education. “It’s difficult,” he defended her to Joe, “if you have not been in school, to do the basic things. Writing, analysis. It is good for Nile to start at the beginning.” He smiled softly at Nile. “We forget, sometimes, how much there is to learn. How little you start out knowing, in the beginning. Things which come easily to us now: argument structure, organization, critical reading: these things we do as naturally as breathing, we once had to learn, too.”
“Well, but you guys probably weren’t going to colleges back then, right?” Nile asked. Even as she did, she was abruptly aware of how little she knew. They were from the Crusades, which was, what: middle ages? Were there colleges in the middle ages? No, right? That was the Dark Ages or whatever (wait… were the dark ages different from the middle ages?): there weren’t normal schools or colleges unless you were, like, a King or something. Were there?
“I was educated through the priesthood,” Nicky explained. “I could read and write Greek and Latin, but otherwise my education was roundly lacking.”
“My dad was a merchant. I learned how to do sums, navigate at sea, write, that sort of thing. And, of course, we learned the Quran.”
“Well then how’d you guys learn… everything?” Because Nicky and Joe were smart: they knew shit about music and literature and wine and art and… everything, it seemed. And Nicky was trained in medicine—he’d mentioned it before, going back and retraining every few decades. Not to mention all the damn languages everyone spoke. “Is it just because y’all were there when like, electricity got invented?”
Joe laughed and Nicky smiled into his wine. “To be fair, we were,” Nicky pointed out, which just made Joe laugh harder.
“You guys probably like, hung out with Albert Einstein, that’s why you’re so smart,” Nile sighed.
“Did we ever meet him?” Joe wondered, looking at Nicky, who shook his head.
“We were going to, but he died before we managed to visit Princeton.”
“Point is,” Nile continued, “I bet you hung out with loads of like, super smart guys, and you just learned everything straight from them. Like Michelangelo and Da Vinci, and-” she snapped her fingers and pointed at Nicky. “Like Galileo! He’s Italian, right? I bet you learned astronomy straight from him.”
Nicky’s fork slammed down on his plate. “For all the good it would do!” he cursed, then descended into a string of Italian vitriol. Nile’s eyes bugged out of her head as she watched Nicky go into a full Italian rant, hand waving and rude gestures and all. She turned to look to Joe, who was sighing as he patted his lips with his napkin.
“Nicky, Nicolo,” Joe sighed, holding both hands out. “Inglese, Nicolo, per Nile.”
“Galileo is an overrated, stubborn, thick-skulled, ungrateful, pig-headed man, who did not make great strides in astronomy.”
Nile glanced between Joe and Nicky. “I thought he was the… you know. Heliocentric guy, right?” (Nile checked the word in her head. No, that was right: “helio” meant “sun,” so “heliocentric” was the sun-centered solar system thing).
Nicky slammed his hands down on the table, jabbing one finger out at Nile. “The only thing that Pisan ever contributed to astronomy was naming Jupiter’s moons. It was not his heliocentric system: it was Johannes’!”
“Who’s Johannes?” Nile asked, wincing as she did.
Nicky swore to himself in Italian while Joe groaned and put his face in his hands.
“Hey, Nile?” Joe asked, as Nicky continued to rant. “Take a history of science class as soon as you can, okay? I don’t think Nicky’s heart can take it.”
Nicolo’s fist connected with Galileo’s nose, crunching under his knuckles. Nicolo shook his hand out for show, knuckles already healed even as Galileo swore and leapt backwards, both hands cupping his nose.
“Cazzo!” Galileo shouted. “You uncultured Genoan! What would you ever know!”
“I know better than to tell the Holy Father to go fuck himself!” Nicolo spat. “Or did they not teach you good manners in Pisa!”
“They taught us not to kowtow to lecherous old men-” Nicolo swore and crossed himself as Galileo continued ranting, “-who couldn’t tell their asshole from a hole in the ground, and think they can lecture me on astronomy-”
“Your models were shit anyway!” Nicolo threw back at him. “You were stuck on concentric circles! Johannes-”
“Oh, Johannes!” Galileo sneered. “Save me from another lecture on the great mind of Johannes.”
“Johannes is all the natural scientist you will never be.”
“Well then tell that bastard of a Pope to go excommunicate him!”
“He’s Lutheran,” Nicolo spat.
Nicolo crossed himself again as he paced away from Galileo, across his courtyard. Yusuf stood at the other end of it, idling against a pillar as he snacked on an assortment of fruits and cheese a servant had brought out. He even was sampling some of the wine, though he spat it to the side once he’d had a taste. Nicolo took a glass from him and threw it back, drinking it in one long draught. It was excellent wine. Nicolo scowled harder and wiped at his mouth.
“Try this,” Yusuf told him, pushing a piece of cheese into Nicolo’s mouth with little preamble. Nicolo munched on it petulantly, the smokey flavor of the Gouda captivating his senses.
“Delicious,” Nicolo grumbled.
“Should I get the horses?” Yusuf suggested airily.
Nicolo sighed. He snatched up a date from the plate, smearing some goat’s cheese onto it before popping it in his mouth. It was exquisite. He picked up another glass of wine and sipped at this one at a more reasonable pace.
“No,” he grumbled. “Not yet. We promised Johannes…”
“Would you like me to try speaking with him?”
Nicolo snorted and took another sip of the wine. His Yusuf: always joking.
“No…” Nicolo sighed, nearly a whine. He threw his shoulders back. “No. I will deal with this infuriating Pisan.”
“Here.” Yusuf pressed a honied fig to Nicolo’s lips, which he accepted with no protest. Nicolo licked the sweetness off his lips, accepting a kiss from Yusuf to chase away any remaining sticky sweets.
Nicolo straightened his spine. Now. To work.
“Johannes has arranged for a professorship for you in Linz,” Nicolo explained, keeping his tone even. “Yusuf and I can fund your travel. There is no real threat, to yourself or your family-”
Galileo scoffed. His eyes were already purpling up, nose swollen. It somewhat ruined the dignity of the scoff. “Did Socrates flee his fate when Crito paid off the guards?”
Nicolo rolled his eyes. “You’re hardly about to be executed, Galileo. You’re confined to the grounds of your estate.”
“All the more reason not to flee! My lot is far kinder than his, making me a coward tenfold were I to escape it.”
“You may be no great thinker like Socrates, but you two certainly resemble each other in never knowing when to shut up,” Nicolo spat.
Galileo swept his arms out at Nicolo. “If I am to suffer such insolence from some cock-sucking student of Johannes’ who hardly has hair on his balls-”
“Better that than an excommunicated old sinner dropping stones out windows!”
Galileo struck out at Nicolo, trying to slap him across the cheek. Nicolo blocked it easily, swiping Galileo’s hand away. They scuffled, Galileo striking out and Nicolo mostly slapping down his blows. He could hear Yusuf sighing dramatically from the sidelines, though he couldn’t see his love and the surely exasperated expression that graced his fine features.
“Why did you even come, if you are so slavishly devoted to Johannes’ scientific acumen?!” Galileo cried.
“Out of love for Johannes!” Nicolo cried back.
Nicolo leaned forward eagerly, the lamplight shining in his eyes. His gestures flung wide in his enthusiasm, the way he only got when he was truly relaxed, truly at home. Yusuf tried to capture some of that movement in sketch, though he knew he’d ever fall short of the vivacious, beautiful man before him.
“But, are you certain there are only five perfect solids?” Nicolo insisted. “Perhaps there are others Plato missed, and some sextum quid-”
Johannes shook his head, eyes glinting. “No! It is impossible. I have done the calculations: the dodecahedron is the last solid possible, even using the sophisticated al-gebra we have today. We have only these five solids before us. It is why I despair ever finding a solution.”
Nicolo bent his head to the table between himself and Johannes, locks of hair slipping over his eyes. Yusuf longed to tuck those locks behind his ears, caress those cheekbones in place of the hairs. But his Nicolo was deep in thought, heady with wine and shared love of an academic puzzle, and Yusuf would never interrupt such joy.
Johannes sighed. “It would be beautiful if there was a solution, wouldn’t it? A harmonices mundi.”
“Do not despair, Johannes,” Nicolo reassured him, eyes still fixed on the calculations before them. “I am certain there is an order to it. A beautiful order.” He glanced up, smiling at Johannes. “God would not create it otherwise.”
They retired to their quarters late, late in the evening, and only once Yusuf reminded Johannes of his full schedule in the King’s court tomorrow. They held hands on their way to their guest chamber, Nicolo swaying lightly into Yusuf thanks in small part to wine but in larger part to heady enthusiasm of a long night spent philosophizing. Yusuf bent to press a kiss to Nicolo’s temple as they entered their chambers.
Nicolo turned to him, absent-minded smile gracing his striking features. “Hm?”
“Simply for love of you,” Yusuf told him, as if he ever needed a reason to kiss his beloved.
“Not jealousy?” Nicolo teased as he headed to their washroom. Johannes’ servants had changed the linens and water, allowing Nicolo and then Yusuf to scrub up before bed.
“Never, my love, never,” Yusuf reassured him, as if he needed it. “How could I be jealous of something that brings you so much joy? Of a partnership that brings such light to your eyes, that fills your evenings with the pleasure of good friendship and fine company? My dear, watching your friendship with Johannes only makes me love you ever the more, because I see you illuminated with the fire of passion for knowledge, for beauty. Seeing you at work with your strings and formulas is like watching the finest artist immersed in his work; like watching a violinist’s transcendent performance. It is not jealousy but a love that grows more every day.”
Nicolo was in Yusuf’s arms before the end of his speech, eyes shining with love and only a little with wine. “This is how I see you as you sketch, when you play with children, when you save a life or discover a new language, a new culture.”
Yusuf shrugged lightly, squeezing his arms around Nicolo’s waist. “What good luck, that we both love each other so.”
Nicolo was laughing as he pulled Yusuf into a kiss, mouths and noses slotting together like the finest craftsmanship.
“Take me to bed,” Nicolo whispered against Yusuf’s mouth.
“Ah, my darling: how could you ever doubt me?”
Nicolo strode back to Yusuf, gesturing wildly. Galileo was a bastard, and Nicolo couldn’t stand the thought of spending one more minute in that wretched man’s company. It was time for them to go—they had done all they’d could for the old mule. Yusuf grabbed a few pieces of fruit and cheeses for the road before hurrying to follow him.
“The man can rot, for all I care,” Nicolo cursed, striding out to the front doors of Galileo’s estate.
“Perhaps we come back and try again in six months, a year,” Yusuf offered. “After he’s had some time to appreciate the extent of his sentence.”
“Why bother?” Nicolo snapped. “He’s a stubborn old fool. He’ll likely dig his heels in even more.”
Lightly, airily, like he was hardly thinking about it, Yusuf commented: “Yes… but Johannes would want us to try.”
Nicolo’s rapid strides slowed, then stilled. One hand went up to rub at the back of his head, as his eyes darted down the winding front path of Galileo’s estate, then back to the front doors. Nicolo sighed and met Yusuf’s eyes.
Yusuf wrapped one arm around his shoulders. “For Johannes, hm?”
“One more day,” Nicolo agreed. He threw one hand out, even as Yusuf guided him back into Galileo’s villa. “But I am not speaking to that man again until dinner!”
“However will we pass the time?” Yusuf mused.
“Okay, okay,” Nile held her hands up, one extensive lecture on the brilliance of Johannes Kepler (and the many, many shortcomings of Galileo) later. “I get it! Kepler, good. Galileo, bad.”
“He wasn’t that bad,” Joe commented, only to get an absolutely betrayed look from Nicky. It’d be funny if Nicky wasn’t so clearly deeply, deeply wounded. Joe waved a hand at Nicky. “He was a stubborn ass. But the church did excommunicate him for being right, love.”
“The Church excommunicated him for his lack of tact as much as anything,” Nicolo grumbled. He sighed. “And of course she shouldn’t have done that, of course not. But…”
“…It didn’t help that he was an ass?” Joe finished for him.
“Exactly,” Nicky grumbled.
Nile looked between them. “So I guess I gotta take like, an astronomy class, huh?”
Joe shook his head. “You’ll never learn this in astronomy—it would be all modern stuff. Take a history of science class.”
“Philosophy of science,” Nicky offered.
Nile had the courses pulled up on her phone and was scrolling through them. “There’s a history and philosophy of science class?” She frowned. “Oh: it’s three thousand level. And got pre-requisites? Dang. I gotta take some logic class first.”
Nicky’s expression brightened considerably as Joe groaned and began collecting their plates. “Oh, Nile! You must! I will help you.”
“Now you have to,” Joe warned her. “Sorry about that.”
Well, it couldn’t be so bad, right? After all, apparently she had the guys who were around when this shit was invented to tutor her. …Though hopefully they didn’t have such strong personal feelings about whoever invented logic.