Nile isn't sure what wakes her up. She lies in her bed for a few moments, staring up at the cracked ceiling of the bedroom. The safehouse they’re in is tucked away in the Swiss countryside, and she can smell the larch trees that stretch up the valley from through the open window.
There's a muffled noise from across the room. Nile rolls over, trying to search it out in the darkness. Andy is asleep on the bed in the corner, right under the open window. Nicky and Joe are up against the other wall, their silhouettes indistinguishable from one another. Something thumps against a wall, the silhouettes of Nicky and Joe shifting, and then there's a quiet whimper that makes Nile sit up in bed and shove the covers away, ready to get to her feet.
Nicky is faster. He sits upright, a second to come to full wakefulness, and then immediately turns to Joe. "Joe," he says softly, wrapping an arm around his chest. "Joe, love, wake up. It’s just a dream. Wake up, my love."
Andy is sat up in her bed now. Her lips twist in a sad smile as she watches Nicky continue to shake Joe gently. He's slipped into Arabic now, from the sound of it, and there’s a soft stream of words falling from his lips as he wraps his arms around Joe and holds him close. Joe twists in his grasp, a muffled stream of words that Nile can't make out slipping through clenched teeth.
"Get the light."
Nile jumps at the sound of Andy's voice. She gets to her feet and hurries to the door, feeling for the light switch at one side. With a quiet click, the room is illuminated, Nile wincing at the sudden brightness.
Joe comes awake instantly. He sits bolt upright, almost dislodging Nicky, and then doubles over with what sounds horribly like a gasp of pain. Nicky wraps his arms around him from behind, pulling him a little more upright and holding onto him as Joe grimaces and clutches at his side. His eyes are wide as he stares around the room, the sound of his harsh breathing filling it up until it’s almost all that Nile can hear.
Nile has seen that look before. She is- was, she supposes now, a Marine. She’s seen her fair share of nightmares that leave you inside your own head, even when you’re awake.
"We're just outside Zinal," she says, her voice steady as the light and the sound of her voice push at the night around them until it gives and recedes a little back into the corners of the room. "We hiked in on the haute route and down into the valley yesterday. You bought us all ice cream at the café in town in the afternoon as Andy and Nicky argued over the best flavour of ice cream."
"I still maintain it is pistachio," Nicky mutters into Joe's shoulder. He shushes him gently as Joe grits his teeth against something Nile can’t see, a groan slipping through his lips. “You’re alright, love.”
"We all know it's mint chocolate chip, and anyone who says anything else is just kidding themselves," Andy says easily.
Joe takes a deep breath, and sags back into Nicky's grip. There's a wince on his face as he moves, and one of his hands presses down on his stomach. Nicky spots it, of course, but he doesn't look alarmed like Nile thought he would. He just covers Joe's hand with his own. "Belgium, 1815," he says quietly. "You were shot by a cannon, away from all of the rest of us. I was so scared seeing you lying there on the ground for so long as I ran to you, but you woke right when I got there. I kept falling in the mud trying to get to you, and the first thing you said was how terrible I looked, as you lay there with half your side missing. I sat with you as it closed up. It took so long I thought we might get found, and I had one hand on my rifle ready to defend us, but nobody found us. For nearly ten minutes I sat there with you until you were whole again."
"We talked about fireworks," Joe says. His voice rasps in his throat, and he winces again, his breath hitching. "You promised to take me to the biggest fireworks display you could find, but they get bigger every year."
"Then we will have to keep going back," Nicky replies. Joe huffs a laugh and then winces, his entire body tensing in Nicky's hold. "It was real," Nicky says. "It was real, my love. I remember it happening. I was there. It was real, I promise."
Nile fetches a bottle of water from her bag and puts it down on the end of the bed. "Here," she says quietly. "Do you...do you want some painkillers?"
Joe looks up at her and then looks away, letting his head fall to Nicky's shoulder as he squeezes his eyes shut. "Thank you," Nicky says quietly. "There should be ibuprofen in the side pocket of my rucksack."
Andy is already getting up and picking up Nicky's bag to look through it. She pulls out a tab of pills and hands it over. "Hang in there, tiger," she says to Joe.
Joe huffs a laugh. "Could you be anymore stereotypical, please?" he asks. "More metaphors. People in pain always need more metaphors."
Nile sits down carefully on the end of the bed as Nicky pops out two pills and tips them into Joe's hand. Joe tips them back shallows with a grimace. "We do have a bottle of water," Nicky says.
Joe leans back against him and laces his fingers with Nicky's where they press on his stomach. "You are just jealous that I can dry swallow pills," he mutters. “You’ve never- ah, shit, that hurts.” He takes a slightly shaky breath, seems to pull it back together a little, and tilts his head just enough so that he can look up at Nicky. “You’ve never been able to master that.”
"That's a weird skill to brag about," Nile says from the end of the bed. Andy grins at that from where she's taken a seat on the floor, under the window.
"Have to keep the romance fresh," she remarks. "Else they're just two old men in love."
Joe turns his head to give her a look, though there is no heat behind it. "We are old, we are men for a given value of what a man is, and we are in love. What is wrong with that?"
"Romantic," Nicky murmurs in his ear. Joe hums, and then tenses again, his hand pressing down on his stomach. Nile watches as Nicky tightens his arms around Joe. "It was real," he says. "It was a hundred and fifty years ago, but it happened.”
“I know, Nicolo,” Joe replies quietly. “Just convince my nerves of that, and we’ll be good.” He looks over at Nile and smiles tiredly at her. “I am sorry if I scared you.”
“Are you in pain?” Nile asks. She pauses. “That’s a stupid question, actually, you already answered that. What’s wrong?”
Joe hisses as he sits up a little further, Nicky settling them both back against the wall. Andy tosses a bar of chocolate from Nicky’s bag at Nile, taking another for herself. “Midnight snack. We’ve earned it.”
“Those are mine,” Nicky points out, his voice easy. He’s smoothing his thumb across Joe’s side where his hand is still pressed down, rucking up his shirt and then smoothing it back down with every stroke. Nile doesn’t even think he realises that he’s doing it.
“They’re Milky Way bars, which you buy specifically so I take these and don’t touch your stash of Snickers,” Andy says, already peeling the wrapper. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed your secret stash.”
“Ah, but have you found the secret secret stash?” Joe asks with a tired smile. He glances over at Nile and the chocolate bar still in her hand. “Eat it if you would like. Nicolo has many more. And once Andy has satisfied her midnight chocolate cravings, I will explain why I woke everyone up tonight.”
“It can wait until morning,” Nicky says, letting his cheek rest on the top of Joe’s head where they’re sat against the wall.
“It can be explained now, my love,” Joe replies. He turns to Nile, a slight wince on his face at the movement. “You have noticed by now that we do not scar, yes?” Nile’s fingers brush over her neck before she even realises that she moved her hand. Joe nods. “Exactly. What you have probably noticed as well is that there is no evidence at all that you have had your throat cut, been shot a few dozen times and walked away from a fifteen storey drop into a car with nothing more than a lingering sense of unease at how high the drop was.”
“None of us have any evidence of the ways we have died,” Nicky continues. “But you remember the fall, don’t you? You remember the first time you died, the way your blood spilled out as your throat was slashed. I remember the first time I died, when the love of my life drew his sword across my neck as I drove mine into his chest and we both fell to the sand.”
Joe hums at that, a small smile curling his lips as he leans into Nicky’s side, and the fond look on Nicky’s face makes Nile’s chest ache a little. “Your body forgets, but your mind remembers them,” Nicky says softly. “Sometimes, your mind just remembers.”
“Sometimes, the mind remembers a little too well,” Joe adds, his voice soft. Nile’s confusion must register on her face, because he nods to himself and sits up a little more. “We have better memories than normal people, you will find. I think we have to, else we would be overwhelmed within a few centuries. But we cannot remember everything that we have done.” He glances up at Nicky. “The two of us have been together on this Earth for nine centuries, Andy for far longer. We cannot remember everything that we have done, let alone every time we have died.”
“You’ll find the same happens to you eventually,” Andy adds through a mouthful of chocolate. “But it’ll take a few centuries for you to notice. Don’t worry about it now, you’re still young.”
“So just now…” Nile says, trailing off.
“I dreamt of something I could not remember, and when I woke up, my side felt like someone had taken a mallet to it,” Joe says easily. “My mind remembers the cannon ball, even though my body forgot it, an hour after it happened and when Nicolo finally stopped hovering nervously.”
Nicky snorts. “I was not hovering.”
“You were, but I forgive you for the transgression,” Joe says, turning to press a kiss to Nicky’s cheek. “I experience this more often than Nicky or Andy. We don’t know why. But I suppose it is a minor thing to pay for the blessing of this.”
“A blessing?” Nile asks before she can help herself.
“You saw the good we have done,” Nicky says quietly. “You will have a wall of your own at Copley’s soon enough. Besides, I have been granted centuries to spend with the love of my life. How is that not a blessing, to us?”
Nile nods. “So…it’s like phantom limb syndrome,” she says slowly, fitting another piece of this never-ending puzzle that she has found herself in into place. “The mind believes that the lost limb is still there, and sometimes sends signals of pain sort of by accident. Only it’s not a limb as such this time, but an injury. That makes sense.” She sees the discarded ibuprofen tab on the bed next to them. “Do the painkillers help?”
Joe shrugs. “They don’t hurt. It is probably more of a placebo effect than anything else, but it makes Nicolo feel more at ease, so I indulge him.” Nicky scoffs, and Joe elbows him gently in the side. “There is no point in not admitting it.” He turns back to Nile. “It will pass. It always does, and I will be fine in the morning.” He glances down at her hands. “Andy will eat that if you do not want it.”
Nile realises she’s tugging at the wrapper. “I could use a midnight snack.” She unwraps it and bites off a chunk.
She spits it back out into her hand a second later. “What the fuck is this?”
“A…Milky Way?” Nicky offers with a frown.
“No, a Milky way is nothing like this.” Nile pokes at the remaining bar. “A Milky Way is…not this! Where’s the caramel? And what is this nougat? Why isn’t it chocolate flavoured?”
“A Milky Way has always been like that,” Andy says with a frown. “It’s malt flavoured, I think.”
“It’s disgusting, that’s what it is.” Nile gets up to throw the half-chewed chunk in her hand into the bin, and tosses the remaining bar to Andy when she holds out a hand. “Give me a Hershey’s bar any day.”
Andy makes an obviously fake gagging noise. Joe turns to give her a look, wincing at the movement, as Nicky shakes his head in disappointment. “I forgot that you were American,” Nicky says. “We will have to educate you on food.”
“Excuse you?” Nile says.
Joe waves a hand. “He is Italian. He believes that only Italians can cook food properly.”
“It is true,” Nicky mutters, hooking his chin over Joe’s shoulder. “American pizza is…blasphemous.”
“Hush, you,” Joe says fondly. “But unfortunately, I do have to agree on the subject of Hershey’s chocolate. It tastes like bad cheese.”
“Hey! Hershey’s is good chocolate! And they make Reese’s peanut butter cups, which are objectively the best.” Nile isn’t quite sure why she’s defending Hershey’s chocolate so passionately, but Joe looks distracted, his hand not pressed so tightly into his side, so Nile continues on an impassioned rant about American confectionery that is way too long.
“You are trying to convince an Italian to give up his artisanal confectionery,” Joe says when she finally runs out of steam. “And as someone who has been in love with an Italian for centuries and has eaten almost everything that Italy has ever produced, I have to side with him.” He glances over at Andy. “She just likes Milky Ways.”
“American chocolate uses butyric acid and removes some of the fats from the milk, which is why it can taste like cheese,” Andy says, folding the Milky Way wrapper into what looks like the beginnings of an origami elephant. “European chocolate uses full fat milk, so it has a much richer taste and creamier texture.” She shrugs at all their looks. “What? I read.”
“Andy buys a New Scientist every time we find one,” Joe says, ignoring Andy’s hiss of traitor. “I suppose it’s all fascinating to someone who is from a century where they believed that everything revolved around the Earth.”
“Just because Islamic astronomers started accounting for the Earth’s rotation in the twelfth century, it doesn’t mean you have to rub it in,” Andy remarks. She turns to Nile. “Keeping up with the latest science and technology is important. We might like going back to swords and battle axes sometimes, but it’s no question that a gun is quicker.”
“You just like knowing that your philosophers were wrong,” Nicky says. He easily dodges the balled-up wrapper that Andy flings at him, not even moving away from Joe. “Just like you are wrong about ice cream.”
Nile watches Joe out of the corner of her eye where he’s slumped in Nicky’s hold, as Nicky and Andy fall back into what is obviously a well-worn debate. He looks tired, and there are still lines creasing his face when he moves, but he looks…content. His fingers are still laced with Nicky’s over his stomach, his eyes half-open as he rests his head on Nicky’s shoulder like it’s meant to fit perfectly there.
His eyes flicker over to meet her gaze. “What is your favourite ice cream?” he asks.
His voice rasps a little. Without breaking away from explaining the merits of gelato and how the lack of air bubbles makes it richer, Nicky picks up the water bottle and presses it into Joe’s hand. Joe murmurs a quiet thanks as he twists the cap off and drinks, not looking away from Nile.
“I know this doesn’t help the argument over American food, and Nicky is probably going to hate me for this,” Nile says slowly. “But I really love ice cream with cookie dough chunks in it.”
Both Andy and Nicky abruptly stop talking and turn to look at her. “Heathen,” Joe murmurs with a smile.
Nicky shakes his head. “It has been nice knowing you,” he says, his voice serious if not for the poorly suppressed smile trying to curl his lips. “But I don’t think I can work with you knowing that you like biscuit dough in an ice cream.”
“Cookie dough,” Nile corrects, and Nicky looks affronted.
“Oh, god, not this again,” Andy mutters. “Don’t get him started.”
Nicky looks like he’s about to make an impassioned speech about biscuits when Joe tenses again. This time, he doesn’t relax after a few moments, and Nile watches helplessly as he leans forwards, hands pressing tight into his side. “Motherfucker,” he spits, doubling over. “Fucking cannon balls.” His fist thumps down on the bed once, hard, and then Nicky takes his hand and presses a kiss to his knuckles as Joe spits muffled curses through gritted teeth.
“What flavour of ice cream?”
Nile jumps, and turns to Andy. “Sorry, what?”
Andy’s gaze flickers over to Joe and Nicky on the bed. Nile turns to see Nicky shifting back along the bed, easing Joe down until he’s lying almost flat, his head pillowed on Nicky’s thigh. Joe immediately turns and presses his face into the fabric of Nicky’s trousers, one hand gripping the discarded sheets on the bed and the other still held by Nicky, pressing down over his side. Nicky’s thumb strokes long lines across the back of his knuckles.
“What flavour of ice cream?” Andy asks again. “To go with the cookie dough chunks?”
“Oh.” Nile turns back away from Nicky and Joe. She feels like she’s intruding on something private, as Nicky talks softly in Italian and Joe answers with muffled curses that become more and more inventive as the minutes creep by. “Vanilla, I guess,” she says eventually. “Otherwise you can’t taste the cookie dough, and then what’s even the point?”
“What about mint, with chocolate cookie dough and chocolate chips?” Andy asks. She steals another chocolate bar out of Nicky’s bag and tears the wrapper open.
Nile makes a face. “You’re obsessed with mint chocolate chip. It’s not even that good. Pistachio is better, if it’s made right.”
“Nicky’s right,” Andy just replies through a mouthful of Milky Way. “I don’t know if I can let you be a part of this team if you honestly believe that pistachio is a better ice cream flavour than mint chocolate chip.”
“Nicky is a part of this team,” Nile feels compelled to point out.
“Nicky became a part of this team before people worked out that adding salt to ice lowered the freezing point enough to freeze cream and make ice cream, let alone before mint chocolate chip was ever a thing, so I don’t have grounds to refuse him.” Andy starts folding the Milky Way wrapper into another origami animal. “Besides, Joe would give me hell if I gave Nicky hell.”
“You bet I would,” Joe mutters from the bed, his face still pressed into Nicky’s thigh and his voice muffled by the fabric.
“Did he tell you what he said in the transport van, when we were captured?” Nicky asks. Joe groans, and Nile doesn’t think it’s just because of the pain he’s in.
“Let me guess,” Andy says with a smile. “Someone was homophobic, and he made an impassioned speech about how much he loves you?” She watches the two of them for a moment, and her smile dims. “Called them out for not understanding how much of a blessing it is to love someone else, and have them love you?”
There’s a note to Andy’s voice at the end that makes Nile glance over at her. She’s folding the Milky Way wrapper up, smaller and smaller, staring down at it in her hands. For a few seconds, she doesn’t appear to see anyone in the room; Nile sat on the end of the bed, Joe stretched out with his head pillowed on Nicky’s lap. And then Andy blinks, and the world falls back into place.
Nicky’s hand cards through Joe’s hair as he nods. “A romantic,” he says softly, looking down at him. “A hopeless romantic.” The corner of Joe’s mouth tugs up in a small smile in answer, and Nicky’s hand just keeps running through his hair.
They talk aimlessly for a few more minutes, half-remembered stories of delicacies that no longer exist, forgotten recipes and dishes they still remember, centuries after they first ate them. Joe’s breathing slowly evens out, his body relaxing on the bed. His eyes flicker shut after a few minutes.
“Is he asleep?” Nile whispers as Andy’s latest story about the thousand varieties of Japanese salt trails off.
Nicky shakes his head, just as Joe cracks an eye open and looks over at her. “Pistachio and mint,” he murmurs.
“The ultimate ice cream,” Joe says, his eyes sliding shut again as he rests his head back against Nicky’s thigh. Nicky’s fingers scratch lightly over his forehead, running through his curls, and he turns into the touch. “Combine them both. With stracciatella. Not chunks. Better texture.”
“By god, he’s solved it,” Andy declares. “Give the man a medal.”
Nicky huffs a quiet laugh, and there’s an answering smile on Joe’s lips that slowly fades as it seems he finally falls into sleep. Andy gets up and goes to sit back on her bed, pulling the covers up around her shoulders like a cape, which Nile takes as her cue.
“I’ll get the lights,” she whispers.
Nicky nods, and reaches over to switch on the small lamp beside his bed as Nile gets up to head for the main light switch. Nile hesitates, and then grabs an extra blanket from a pile by her bed and spreads it out over Joe’s legs and torso. “Thanks,” Nicky murmurs. He picks up a tattered paperback from next to his bed, and keeps it open with one hand, the other still carding through Joe’s hair.
“You staying up?” Nile whispers.
Nicky glances up. “For a little while,” he says, resting the book on his other leg. He glances down at Joe. “Just in case.”
“You know, you really fit together,” Nile says. “If you don’t mind me saying. Like, it’s just sweet.”
Nicky’s smile makes Nile’s chest ache again, just a little, as he ducks his head to look down at Joe. “We have had centuries together, and I still learn new things about him every day,” he says quietly. “Eternity can be a blessing, Nile. I hope you find that for yourself.”
Nile just nods. “Goodnight.”
“Sogni d’oro,” Nicky whispers back.
The last thing Nile sees as she crawls back into her bed and pulls the covers up to her chin, breathing in the smell of larch trees on the breeze, is Nicky leant back against the wall. He’s lit by the soft yellow light of the lamp, book is propped open in one hand and resting against one leg. Joe is asleep, turned on his side to face the wall. One of his hands is curled in the hem of Nicky’s shirt. Nicky is still carding his fingers through Joe’s hair, over and over again. Without thought.
Nile rolls over and listens to the rustle of pages turning until she falls asleep.
Nile wakes up to the smell larch through the open window, of coffee and something baking and the distant sound of cowbells as the herds move across the green fields above them, and decides that today is going to be a good day. The other beds are empty already and she gets up, making her bed with military precision before remembering that her days as a Marine are over, that she’s part of something bigger and better now. She flips over a corner of the duvet in a quiet rebellion.
She’s still smiling to herself as she heads into the little living room and kitchen of the chalet. Andy is nowhere to be seen, but the front door is open. Nicky is sat at the kitchen table, absent-mindedly tracing the grains of the wood with one finger as he scrolls through something on his phone. Joe turns around from the stove when he sees her. “Good morning,” he says, a broad smile on his face. He gestures at the stove with a spatula. “Breakfast in ten minutes, if you would like some eggs. There’s brioche baking in the oven as well.”
“Andy?” Nile asks as she heads over and deliberates between tea or coffee. The kettle is already whistling away on the stove, next to the skillet that Joe is poking at.
“Up in the fields above, getting her fill of the fresh air,” Joe replies. “Sometimes she just has to go and stand in wilderness, let herself be all old and mysterious for a few minutes. She’ll be down soon.”
Nicky looks up, huffing a laugh at Joe. There are the beginnings of dark circles under his eyes, remainders from last night, and an empty mug in front of him. “Coffee?” Nile asks as she pulls out a mug for herself.
“Please,” Nicky replies, holding out his mug. “Don’t let Joe give you trouble.”
“Give Nile trouble?” Joe asks. He gasps. “I would never.” He glances over at Nicky. “You, on the other hand? It is only in your own interests that I try to limit the number of cups of coffee that you have. It is me that has to put up with you for the rest of the day.”
“Don’t listen to him, Nile,” Nicky says, a fond smile on his face as some unspoken conversation happens between him and Joe. “Coffee if you are making it, please.”
Nile starts the coffee as Joe scrambles some eggs, and Nicky checks on the bread in the oven. The smell of freshly baked bread fills the little kitchen as he declares it done and pulls it out, taking it out of the pan and setting it down on a rack. Joe tries to poke at the side of it and Nicky swats his hand away, and it’s so reminiscent of her mother, snapping a tea towel at her as she tried to sneak food before dinnertime, that her chest aches, right in the centre.
She’ll never have that again. But, as she watches Joe and Nicky move around the kitchen with an easy familiarity born out of centuries together, barely even needing to talk to each other to put a simple breakfast together, the ache eases a little at the thought that she has another family waiting here for her.
Andy, with an apparent unerring sense for when food is ready, appears in the doorway just as Nicky deems the brioche cool enough to slice into. She smells of larch and wind, her hair mussed and an easy smile on her face. “Sleep well?” she asks Nile as she slips into a chair at the table.
Nile had woken up again in the night, just as the sky was beginning to turn from black to a deep blue. There had been some light in the room, the lamp beside Nicky and Joe’s bed still on when Nile opened her eyes. She had looked over to see Nicky still leant up against the wall, his head tipped back and the book forgotten by his side as he slept. Joe was on his back, his head pillowed in Nicky’s lap. Nicky’s hand was resting on Joe’s chest, rising up and down slowly with every breath that Joe took.
Nile helps herself to a heaping of scrambled eggs and a few slices of bread. “I slept great, actually,” she says. She looks up at Andy trying to smooth her hair back into some semblance of order, at Joe laughing at her attempts as he puts the skillet in the sink to soak, Nicky tearing off a piece of bread and muttering something about baking times and egg wash.
Joe gives him a fond look over Andy’s head, and winks at him. Nicky just smiles back. Nile leans back in her chair and wraps her hands around her coffee mug, and she listens to the beginnings of home.