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Portrait on the Road to Tarascon, revisited

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They don’t normally take missions when they’re on their own. Time off is, after all, for recovering and decompressing. This means different things for each of the team. Andy does her mysterious activities, ranging from teaching young girls to read in India to destroying a series of punching bags in abandoned warehouses. Nile enrols in long-distance classes and sends periodic group texts like “Lorenzo Medici: hot or not” and “Learned today that some people think Elizabeth I may have been a man cuz what, women can’t rule???? Male historians should be banned.” Booker these days, Joe thinks, probably digs himself a dramatic hole in the ground to sit in and drink cheap whisky and cry.

Joe and Nicky generally agree that time off is a vacation. They choose small towns off a map or chase the ghosts of their memories to old haunts. They lay on beaches. They spend the lion’s share of some weeks rutting against each other slowly, only to turn around for a stretch marked only by gentle steering touches and reading aloud to each other.

They have become very similar, but not the same. Most of all, Joe knows Nicky doesn’t appreciate the self-care as much as he does, but then, the Franks had always had a dubious relationship with cleanliness. Past the point when killing had become routine and their languages had started to blend together at the edges into their earliest patois, Nicky had been physically a mess. Joe can say this, because he loves the man more than the earth loves a new dawn. The army of god, for all their white fabrics and polished armour, had such disgusting fingernails that Joe still dreams of them as often as he dreams of a blade in his stomach.

Joe is the one who buys the new foaming face masks. He is the one who remembers to moisturize his heels and elbows, and the one who will crack first on a mission and demand a safehouse with at least, please to whatever power in which you will trust, Andy, clean water if not running water. He loves Nicky, but Nicky will cheerfully pick the mould off a loaf of bread and use the rest for sandwiches, or shower in less than ten minutes and use a combined shampoo and conditioner. Like many things about the new century, he will participate without complaint but simply isn’t bothered enough to change his ways. They have agreed to disagree on the subject: Joe will enjoy their time off, and Nicky is welcome to join when he can perceive the physical benefits of the activities

So it is that Nicky first learns of the sale.

Joe is trying to reread Iman Mersal’s poetry collection in his second bath of the day. Nicky, still sunburned and wrinkled from their day at the beach, had begged off by promising to make dinner. This means that though he has lost the opportunity for a deliciously slippery handjob, Joe can fully recline in the water, nose and book barely above a field of rose-scented bubbles.

He goes from blissful reflection to wakefulness immediately at Nicky’s first, “Joe!”  There is, of course, a gun tucked neatly under the lip of the sink counter which he trades for Mersal’s book with a murmur of apology. He makes it to the living room in seconds, sopping wet and prepared to face another nude death.

Nicky is holding the tablet Nile had given him, starting intently at the screen. So intently, in fact, that it takes him a moment to register Joe’s tension and state of undress. By the time Nicky looks up, Joe has surveyed the room, still secure, and set the gun gently on a side table.

“You called?” he asks, leaning on the doorframe.

Nicky looks up and then double takes, does a slow and appreciative head-to-toe and then jerks his head in an invitation for Joe to come closer. Joe goes over the couch rather than around, deposits himself still dripping in Nicky’s lap with only the quickest grind of his hips in greeting. Nicky absently kisses beneath his ear as he holds the tablet up so both can view it.

Joe hasn’t seen the piece in some time. He’s brought back more than a hundred years: the bright palate, the daubed brush strokes, that god-forsaken straw hat.

“I thought it was destroyed in the bombing,” he murmurs reverently and reached out to gently touch the image of “The Painter on the Road to Tarascon.” It’s clearly a modern photograph, detailed despite the degree of zoom, and the newspaper at the bottom of the shot shows yesterday’s date.

“Fucking Nazis,” Nicky says abruptly. Joe, like most of the world, hasn’t forgiven Hitler and his mad, genocidal, nationalist cult. However, Nicky still bears a grudge as if just yesterday they had reached the fences of Dachau. In the decades after V-P day, he’d encouraged the team to take up Nazi Hunting in Argentina. He’d helped Mossad capture Eichmann, worked his way steadily through a hit list that existed in only his mind, personally drowned Mengele off the coast at Bertioga.

“Fucking Nazis,” Joe agrees calmly. He swipes down for more information, scowling at the details of the illegal auction. “Nicky, this is in two days. There’s no way we can get Andy and Nile over there and vet the site for extraction.”

“Then we do it ourselves,” Nicky says calmly. He doesn’t often demand much and Joe has died for him, before, and died for art as well.

“A little reckless, Niccolo,” he suggests gently. “We could monitor the auction and take it off whoever buys it.”

Nicky doesn’t quite push him off but does lift him away with a strength that sends an inappropriate frission of pleasure down Joe’s spine. Side to side, he takes Joe’s hand and meets his eyes firmly. “I want no one to profit from this. From Vincent’s pain, from the hurt these thieves caused so many.”

Joe is not so strong himself as to be able to say no to that face. “I’ll need to find some pants,” he says after a moment, sways closer instinctively when Nicky grins. The kiss is a reward for his weak will, drawn out and punctuated with a final press of Nicky’s lips to the corner of Joe’s mouth.

“I’ll pack while you dress,” Nicky promises, squeezes both Joe’s shoulders firmly. “This will be wonderful, Joe. Thank you.”

Joe returns to the bathroom for a towel, much less necessary than it would have been if Nicky had spoken in complete sentences in the first place. He drains the tub with a sigh of longing, then tidies the books back onto the bedside table. His mission outfit, one of hundreds of copies scattered across the world, is where he left it in the bottom drawer along with Joe’s current favourite shotgun. He packs for them both, too, folding one of Nicky’s well-worn hoodies on top of a pile of interchangeable t-shirts, jeans, and briefs.

Nicky is loading their swords in the back seat with a tender touch when Joe emerges. This time, the way he looks at Joe is more heated than when he was naked less than an hour ago. Joe smirks, puts his sunglasses on and stalks forward for another kiss against the car door.

“You owe me,” he says. It’s good to stay accountable, even if he’d follow Nicky (back) to the middle of a desert for the chance of another smile. “You’ll be feeding me grapes and fucking me for a week when we get back.”

“I think I can handle that,” Nicky replies dryly. His hands slide down for a quick grab at Joe’s ass, then Nicky folds himself down into the driver’s seat.

Joe is nowhere near as talented as Nile or Booker, but he’s capable of navigating google maps and images and has enough experience to sketch the beginnings of a plan without further details. Besides, unlike some of the sad men of the current generation, Joe has developed past any unwillingness to ask for help, so when their internet signal picks up again after a few hours of driving he’s greeted with profiles on the suspected buyers from Copley and a detailed floorplan that Nile has scraped off the ass-end of the internet and a brief flirtation with an architect.

“How do you want to do this,” he asks. Andy normally plans the ops, but it’s not like this is the first time it’s the two of them. They will make the decision together. Even if he makes Nicky work for it. “Smash and grab? Hail of bullets?”

“Silent extraction,” Nicky says promptly. Joe groans, partially dramatics and partially genuine agony.

“You love silent extractions,” he whines. Nicky spares a glance from the road to smirk at him. “Nicky, Nicolo, north star in my heavens, please do not make me grapple down a building again.”

“You did so well in England,” Nicky says coyly. Joe reaches over to punch his arm, and his cherished bastard doesn’t even blink. “Who can blame me for wanting to spend more time with you in a harness.”

“If you put me in a harness, we’re bringing it back with us,” Joe says darkly. “I’ll need to revisit it to overcome the memory of how it always tries to pinch my fucking dick off.”

“Silent extraction,” Nicky repeats again. The smirk hasn’t left his face. “Just like we did it in the Vatican. The sellers, I think, are unfortunate descendants and should not be punished for the crimes of their fathers. Maybe this will teach them that art is meant to be donated, rather than hoarded.”

Joe doesn’t think he’s met a single person other than Nicky and maybe Nile who’s taken that stance. He fires off another message to Copley asking for further details on site-security, pulls out his notepad so he can be more comfortable when he sketches the route in. Nile had shown him how to use a digital map program but the changed motion of his fingers from drawing to clicking made him feel like he was underpreparing for the mission. She’d given him a new notebook with a fond smile several days later.

He sketches the plan in pencil and describes as he goes in their useful abbreviated speech, switching to Dutch for the right words for the necessary equipment to safely transport Vincent’s work and back to Italian for the most effective curse on Nicky’s head for vetoing every door on the main floor. The floorplan of the building is low enough that dramatically being lowered from the roof will not be required, but there are other inconveniences.

Which is how Joe ends up balancing the only man he has and will ever love, steady and graceful and unbothered by the sound of dogs from the other side of the house, on his shoulders. Nicky had learned lockpicking from some urchins, he’s sure, and claims to keep his skills sharp because the team shouldn’t have a blind spot. Joe is pretty sure that actually, the tiny precise motions and the careful attention necessary for their execution are just exactly what brings Nicky satisfaction. From Joe’s first death at the point of his two handed sword, Nicky has been refining his movements and his skills and his patience until he can do as much damage with a needle or a sniper’s nest as he could with a warhorse and crossbow.

Nicky’s weight lifts off him and Joe looks around to make sure they haven’t dropped anything, accepting the hand up through the window and landing softly on the carpet of an unoccupied guest room. 

“Rich people,” he mouths to Nicky with a smirk, gesturing at the ornate but dusty mirror, whose frame clashes horrifically with the sleek lines of the bedframe it faces. Some people have no sense of style, and without Booker to laugh about it with, Joe has had to make a point to alert his changed team of the fashion faux-pas they’ve walked through. Nicky, who once bought a fuzzy orange toilet-seat cover just to ruin Joe’s day probably, gives him a fond look but clearly does not appreciate the joke.

Joe takes the lead carefully on the wooden floor of the hallway, comfortable in the knowledge that Nicky is making sure their exit stays clear. There are few surprises in the layout, the home seems more vacation home than family lair.  They freeze once, when there’s the murmur of voices behind a closed door, and then again when the heavy sounds of a guard’s footsteps echo down a hall parallel to theirs.

These people aren’t foolish enough to leave the door to the storage room completely unattended. Two men, bored but with their attention focused each way down the hall. Joe watches them closely for a few minutes, but they’d put in place overlapping shifts rather than shift changes so he doesn’t anticipate a pause to slip in the last door. Nicky’s hand on his shoulder urges Joe back slowly, through a scuffed door and into another under-designed room.

“Ready?” Nicky asks. He laces his fingers into a sling and Joe makes sure to meet his eyes so Nicky can remember how strongly against this part of the plan Joe was, then steps into them and uses the momentum of Nicky’s upwards push to launch himself through the opening where Nicky had removed the vent and into the airway shaft. From below him, Nicky makes a filthy comment about his appreciation for the view and Joe takes his time to wiggle his ass before he hauls himself the rest of the way in. Fucking air vents, where does Nicky come up with this stuff.

Nicky has always had a better vertical jump and Joe can feel the shift of the metal as he hauls himself up behind. A single click of his rifle on the roof of the passage is the only other sound Nicky makes and there’s no response from the men in the hallway. Joe drags himself forward on his elbows, reminded unpleasantly of their escape through a muddy tunnel in Montségur after its surrender, leaving behind friends willing to die for their faith because the risk of being discovered as undying and presented to Innocent was too great. He’s cleaner today, and the guilt in his heart is remembered rather than achingly fresh.

And they’re doing the right thing, as Nicky would remind him. It’s easier to lower himself into the room, scanning for pressure points or laser sensors as Nicky twists awkwardly to accommodate both his gun and wide shoulders.

The table is draped with a grimy cloth, and Joe can see the outlines, 48 x 44 cm, of the painting beneath it. He has a hand on the corner, ready to draw the fabric away, when there are shouts in the hallway.

He barely has time to exchange a look with Nicky, immediately starts moving for the door so he’s ready to shoot anyone who comes through. Uncharacteristically, Nicky isn’t at his back. Joe turns around and jerks his head and Nicky shoots back an equally determined look and stashes his rifle under a low cabinet on the wall. Joe does not grab his face. Nicky’s heart is, some days, the thing that most warms the space in his own chest. Nicky’s stubbornness has drawn them through frozen nights before battles, across landscapes both desolate and dense. He loves this man beyond reason or belief of any other human, immortal or not.

Joe sets his rifle down and kicks it firmly so that it skids out of sight as well.

Nicky finds whatever he’s looking for in the bottom of his backpack, lobs a ball of tweed at Joe. He recognizes it the moment it’s in his hands: 1992, Nicky had decided to go back to school for gender studies, excited by the early development of the discipline. Joe, not ready for the agony of last-minute assignments, had opted instead to be a dutiful boyfriend and failed Classics scholar along for the ride in America. Nicky had bought the jacket for the first seminar Joe attended, had peeled it off him at increasingly erratic hours so they could fuck on the rickety couch in his student housing.

He gets it immediately, pulls his hat off to run a hand through his curls to lift them off his scalp and shrugs into the jacket and the sense-memory of Joseph Jones, newly from The Hague and trained in post-impressionism. He tucks his shoulders a little, steps back to Nicky’s side as his love straightens and squares his shoulders, transforming from a thief to a businessman inexplicably inconvenienced in a meeting.

“Who are you,” the first woman through the door says. She’s not armed, or if she is she’s trained well enough to not automatically put a hand on her gun when she sees two unarmed men. The man behind her doesn’t look like he’s ever been in a fistfight, let alone a firefight.

“Who are you!” Nicky shoots back immediately, flings up both arms in a frustrated, dismissive gesture. “We’ve been here for hours, we get here at eight and what, you think you can just blow us off and I’ll leave?”

Joe worships him, delights in him, could spend every second of eternity mapping the spikes and curves of Nicky’s beautiful voice.

The woman, on the back foot, says, “Sir, I hardly think—“

“I can tell,” Nicky interjects coldly. “I said I wanted to verify the painting before I bought it. I offered three times the asking price. I brought you an expert who won’t talk. And for what? This disrespect?”

Joe knows his role in the charade, takes an eager step towards the table, “We waited for you to reveal the painting, I wouldn’t want to presume” and he flexes his hands in genuine anticipation.

“I should really clear this,” the man says nervously.

“Then we walk, and I will tell everyone of how you treat buyers,” Nicky says flatly. The two exchange a nervous look and the woman takes the far corners of the sheet, rips it up and off to reveal the painting.

And it hits Joe like a punch to the throat. Vincent’s loneliness even in a crowd folds into remembrances of Andy and, unprepared though Joe is for it, Booker. Joe is by their sides but cannot free them from the pain they feel, and all he has left is this long-dead art historian version of himself, a few years with Andy and the ache of betrayal from Booker, and this painting which has somehow been stripped of its fucking frame and placed on the table like laminated children’s art.

“You should never have covered it directly, you’ll damage the painting!” he says and steers in into horror instead of the burning frustration below his collarbones. “No padding, no wrapping, at least an acid free cover? Did you even clean this table?”

Nicky shifts slightly but doesn’t speak. The two strangers seem flustered and defensive, but they don’t stop Joe from gently lifting the painting. It’s as beautiful as he remembered.

“It’s no way to treat a van Gogh. This thing is practically priceless! Do you have no idea what it’s worth?”

And Joe finds himself back in the classroom. He tells them about the rarity of the full-body portrait in Vincent’s work, the similarities of the landscape to other pieces. He describes, in great detail, the process of mixing paints and the uniqueness of Vincent’s eye. As he talks about brush technique, he remembers Arles, Vincent talking incessantly about the yellow of the fields and the way that the town made new things strange and, over and over, Paul Gauguin and his art and his hands with a tone that struck so intimately close to Joe’s heart.  

Joe knows he’s said enough but he and Nicky had left Vincent there as Paul arrived, Vincent glowing optimistically through the normal storm of his depression. And two years later, Joe’s friend had been dead at his own hand. And Joe still has Nicky, who has a softer heart than Gauguin ever could and callused fingertips that Joe could paint a thousand times and never tire of. So he presses on, and every word about the importance of plein air and preservation techniques is just “I love you” again in another language.

Nicky rests a hand on his arm when he has to stop to catch his breath. Joe had felt more than seen the familiar way he rolled his head back, the quirk of his lips.

“I’m taking it tonight,” Nicky says. “My flight leaves in an hour now. I would have been happy to negotiate had you not forgotten about us in this room.”

Somehow it works, the man too cowed and the woman convinced by the microscopic trembling of Joe’s hands on the sides of the stretched canvas. When Nicky walks out, Joe follows. He actively doesn’t want bloodshed, now, not with a treasure in his hands, but Nicky confidently traces a route at a pace which pulls them ahead of the worried entourage following them. Another guest bedroom, and Nicky smashes the glass with his elbow rather than work at the lock.

Already, there are shouts of confusion and anger from the hallway, the house waking up. Joe feels his knee pop out when he lands, but it’s worth it because he’d sooner die again than roll to disperse the pressure with a van Gogh in his arms. They’re in the narrow corridor of darkness Nicky had created with well placed rifle shots and this is far from the first time they’ve bolted away from danger.

At the tree line, Nicky takes the painting from him and shoves it in a bag over Joe’s protests. “Were you listening to me at all?” Joe asks as he ducks to avoid a tree branch on their route back to their discarded car. “About bubble wrap? Or at least linen?”

”You can restore it,” Nicky promises. There’s the crack of guns, close behind and getting closer. “You can replicate it, you can verify it, I would allow you personally to return it to the Kulturhistorisches Museum if it would make you smile.”

Joe skids over the roof to drive while and the painting settle in the back. By the time anyone breaks through the treeline, all they can see is the back of a dull black Toyota without plates. There are a lot of things he could ask for, but he knows there is nothing that Nicky not give freely. “You have to come with me and Nile to the Hermitage. You can translate the signs for her.”

Nicky laughs, low and soft. “Yes. Of course.”

“And you interrupted my spa day,” Joe adds.

“When we get back, I will massage you until the touch of my hands is unbearable.”

“Might need to find a different limit, if we’re ever going to take a job again,” Joe smirks. Massage is a good idea, good start. He draws one of Nicky’s perfect hands forward, kisses the calluses on his fingertips. “But I’m sure eventually I will have more to ask of you.”

Nicky doesn’t need to say thank you to Joe for the heist, but he still does. Joe feels it in the pressure which releases the annoying knot in his right shoulderblade, in the reverent slowness with which Nicky loosens him up. He hears it when Nicky, flush against his back and barely twitching his hips, whispers praise into Joe’s neck.

Morning finds them still in the bed, prone beside each other struggling to catch their breaths. The light warms the painted fields behind Vincent, lingers on the raggedly outlines of his shadow. Joe draws Nicky’s back to his chest, curls his right hand around Nicky’s left forearm.

“We should keep more art in the bedroom, maybe,” he murmurs into Nicky’s neck, voice scratchy and low.

“What for? I have you.”

Joe, warmed to his toes and suddenly much less tired than he’d expected, convinces Nicky to join him for a bath.

 

The Painter on His Way to Work