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Bottled Time

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A scent wafts delicately into Nicky's path and he's lost. In an instant, a memory takes him, like a wave curling over his head, and washing him adrift in the undertow.

Some small piece of his mind that is always on alert keeps him moving forward past the open windows of what can only be a perfumery. Joe is walking along side him. But all conscious thought is pulled back, drawn back, hundreds of years.

The sound of the city around him alters, warps. Instead of car horns and the buzz of planes overhead Nicky hears the clop of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones and the distant mummer of the central market. They had a room they rented together in a boarding house. The room was tiny, just enough space for a narrow cot that they shared, a bench for sitting under the single window, and a wash basin cabinet.

"Yusuf," Nicky whispers hoarsely, his throat suddenly bone dry.

Joe stops, hearing so much in the two syllables of his name. A name Nicky rarely uses in public anymore.

"Nicolò?" He replies dutifully. He will never not answer Nicky when he calls. Never.

"Do you smell that?"

Joe takes in a deep breath. Up ahead, at the mouth of the alley way they’re using as a quick short cut, Nile has paused, noticing they're not following anymore.

A scent tickles Joe's nose. Familiar, but he can't quite place it. It's a deeply aromatic smell, frankincense he thinks, overlaid with lemon or maybe bergamont or both. Something faintly floral is mixed in there, just subtle enough to tease. Joe looks at his husband and is somewhat startled to see that his blue-gray and green eyes are dilated so much they're almost entirely black. There's a look of deep hunger to his brow and jaw, his mouth is wet. An answering shiver of arousal pulses up Joe's spine.

"I smell it, I can't place it though."

"You wore that exact scent in the 1100s," Nicky explains, his voice a husky rasp. "You bought the bottle when we were in Baghdad. After that caravan job where we both got bit by snakes."

The scent teases the memory forward for Joe now, and Nicky's absolutely correct. He remembers plucking the vial from a group of them more or less at random, and had loved the scent. It was an indulgence, given their level of funds at the time, but it was a small pleasure he’d allowed himself. He wore it diligently for several months while they were in Baghdad, taking various small jobs and saving for the next leg of their exploratory journey east.

"I remember. I almost managed to use it up before the bottle broke on the road to Samarkand. It made our pack smell like frankincense for weeks."

Nile, who had been drifting closer, a concerned look on her face has gotten near enough to them to properly see. Whatever she finds on their faces must be quite a sight because she abruptly turns on heel and marches determinedly away towards the hotel.

"Habibi," Joe says quietly, his own voice dropping to a low rasp. He can't help but respond in kind to Nicky. Just like he would never ignore Nicky's call, he cannot ignore Nicky's pull either.

"You were wearing it the first time we kissed," Nicky whispers. His hand drifts up to fit along the edge of Joe's jaw. Nicky let's the pad of his fingers slide through his love's beard, with just a touch of nail to add to the scrape.

"You were wearing it the first time we made love," Nicky continues. He steps in close, and can feel Joe's body heat radiating against his skin. Nicolò is suddenly 45 again, reaching out for the firs time for this impossible, passionate, beautiful man. His hands are tingling, his body trembles with adrenaline.

Joe can see it on him, even if he can't see the past like Nicky can in this moment. He may not have the scent tied to the memory Nicky has been thrown into; but the look in Nicky's eyes, the anxiety, the fear of being rejected, the anticipation of being accepted, the reckless, unfathomable hope that propelled Nicolò di Genova to first press a dry, chaste and loving kiss to the knuckles of Yusuf al-Kaysani, 900 years ago – well, that's a sight Joe will never forget.

For a split second, these two impossible humans stand upon 900 years at once. They are not on a planet spinning through space, passing in one direction through time; no, for that moment, all of space and time spins around them.

Nicky exhales and Joe reminds himself to breathe. The past drops away and it’s just 2022, they're in Manila for a short stay before they go and meet Andy, Quynh and Booker in Hyderabad. Nile has fled back to the hotel, and they can't say they blame her.

They buy a bottle of perfume from the shop and return to their walk.