“Fifteen for two,” Joe says, sliding cards around on their little table, “fifteen for four, a pair for six.”
“Muggins, run for three,” Nicky says victoriously.
“Ah, shit. Run for three,” Joe says, moving the blue marker forward for Nicky.
Nile looks over the top of her copy of The Return of the King and sighs. “You’re speaking another language again,” she notes. “One I don’t particularly care to learn.”
“Ignore them,” Booker says, tucking his toes under the warmth of her thigh and readjusting his own Silmarillion. “Cribbage is older than I am, and they’ve only made it more convoluted in all those years.”
“You’re welcome to have a hand,” Joe invites, as Nicky tallies up his own score.
“No, thank you,” Booker says. “You’re strange enough from a distance.”
“And one for his nibs,” Nicky proclaims.
“For his nibs!” Joe claps his hands. Nile rolls her eyes.
Booker’s wristwatch buzzes, and he extricates himself from Nile. “ Scusi,” he says as he goes to grab his phone.
“Are we still playing aces multiply?” Nicky asks.
“We’ve never played aces multiply,” Joe shoots back. “It’s a ridiculous rule, and I would never have agreed to it.”
“You did agree to it! I just came from 1692, and we played that scoring in Portugal.”
“No, you came from 1845, New Zealand, and in 1692 we were in Spain, not Portugal,” Joe retorts handily. “We’re not playing aces multiply.”
“Bah!” Nicky throws his cards to the table. “Caught out again. I should have said that I came from the future.”
The year is 2062, and Booker enters the room again, his face ashen.
“Guys,” he says. His voice is low, but it cuts through everything else, and he has their full attention.
“It’s Quynh,” he says, phone held lax in his hand. “She says it’s time.”
They make it to the foothills of the Eurasian Steppes by dawn, private jets being as fast as they are when you have the resources that the team has. Once it got difficult for Andy to travel, she and Quynh had set themselves up in a cottage with a view of the rugged mountains and plains. There’s medical supplies and equipment around, keeping her comfortable; Quynh hasn’t left her side, and the whole team spends a week there every month.
They pull up in the car and all take a moment, looking up at the cottage.
“What do we do?” Nile asks, helpless. “How do we do this?”
The four of them look at each other. They’ve never had to bury one of their own before. It was only Lykon, and none of them were there for that.
Joe takes Nile’s hand. “One step at a time,” he says, and they start up the mountain.
Nicky sinks towards the back of the group, and when they get to the cottage he ducks around the side into the garden. He crouches down among the lettuce and tomato plants there, his head in his hands.
Joe finds him quickly, sinking down beside him and spanning a hand across his back.
“I can’t be here,” Nicky says, his teeth gritted.
Joe rubs along his back. “I know it feels that way.”
“No, I mean-” Nicky forces it past the lump in his throat. “I really can’t be here.”
He looks up at Joe, eyes shining. “I’m not done yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not caught up,” he says. “I know there are chunks of the 1700’s still missing, mid 1900’s, 13-”
“Nicky,” Joe interrupts. “You’re here now.”
“But I can’t be,” he begs.
Joe pulls him close, and he sobs into Joe’s shoulder for a long time.
They’re drawn from their grief by Quynh delicately clearing her throat by the gate.
“She’s asking after you,” she says. “She wants to see all of us, one by one.”
The five immortals sit in silence in the living room packed with ancient artefacts and more weapons than is worth counting. It’s nothing like the hospital they feared Andy would live out her last days.
“I’ve lived long enough,” she had said several years ago. “I don’t need anything extending my life further than it needs.” But she hadn’t refused when Nicky had dusted off his medical license and gotten hold of appropriate painkillers.
One by one, Joe, Booker, Nile walk into that room and spend a good hour or more with her. All come out red-eyed.
Nicky is the last one to be called, and he’s so nervous he’s almost about to vomit as he steps through the door.
It’s a cozy bedroom, with warm, hand knitted blankets spread out on the large bed, and art decorating every wall. Both Joe’s and Nile’s art works are hung prominently, but what catches Nicky’s eye is the familiar photo of all six of them, dressed up for what he now knows is a wedding and grinning broadly, framed on the bedside table.
Andy is propped up against the pillows, looking some eighty years old, her face deeply creased, hair a shock of white against the rich red pillows.
“Ah, wipe that look off your face,” Andy says. “I know you haven’t died since the last time we videocalled. I don’t look that bad.”
“I’m not ready,” he confesses.
“Well I am, kid, so buckle up.”
He takes a seat by her bedside, clasps his hands together and rests his chin on them.
“I’m not ready to say goodbye,” he whispers. “I haven’t finished my timeline up until now, there’s so much I haven’t experienced with you yet. I’m missing gaps. Whole decades.”
“Then you’re not the one saying goodbye. I am.”
That gets him. He’s welling up now.
“One day I’ll go down, and it will be the last time I ever see you.” His face contorts with holding back tears, now. “And I won’t even know it.”
Andy shrugs, nonplussed. “I’m okay with that. You’ll remember me fighting. Not like this, old and helpless.” She raises her arms, wrinkled and thin.
That draws a chuckle from him. “No one who has ever met you has ever thought you were helpless, Andy. Even in my early days.”
She smiles and places a hand on his cheek.
“Oh, my early days, too,” she says. “We were too similar. I saw too much of myself in you. Still waters running deep, dragging the unrighteous to their deaths. It’s why it took me so long to warm up to you.”
“You killed me many times.”
“And I’ll kill you one more if you’re not careful,” she says, poking a gnarled finger into his chest with surprising force.
Nicky laughs. “I don’t doubt it.” He tilts his head and says slyly, “Whereas I didn’t trust you because I thought you were the one banging the hottest man I’d ever seen.”
Andy laughs, a pure, joyful sound that turns into a dry, raspy cough.
Nicky gets her some water and strokes her hair back from her face as she settles again into the pillows.
Andy sighs. “Tell me about the future,” she says.
“Andy…” Nicky trails off, a warning in his voice.
“Who am I gonna tell, huh?” She says, waving a hand. “How would me knowing anything change it? Tell me what it’s like.”
Nicky settles back into his chair, and she watches him with sharp grey eyes.
“We take to the stars,” he says, eventually. “The things we see out there, Andromache, it is hardly comprehensible. We spend years aboard spaceships, floating in zero gravity. It’s like swimming without getting wet. Quynh loves it.”
A small, delighted smile. “She’d love that.”
“Yeah. It’s not easy,” he warns. “We have new things to fear. The vacuum of space, cloning… We have new immortals, too, they’re amazing. Oh, you thought it was hard tracking down a new one in Russia in 1812. Try entire planets and different solar systems.”
Andy arches an eyebrow. “I’ll leave that job to you lot, then.” Another bout of coughing. “And Quynh?”
“She does okay, Boss,” Nicky assures her. “More than okay. She misses you, every day, the pain doesn’t go away. I’ve been to the future, past her final death, but I haven’t seen it, they say she died well. But she gets to explore so many worlds, she does nothing but travel and she carries you with her, always.”
“That’s good,” Andy nods, her eyes sliding shut. “That’s very good.”
She stays like that for a while, resting, content in the stories of the future he told. Just as she’s beginning to drift off, Nicky leans forward and whispers.
She takes a moment to rouse. “What?”
“I named a planet after you.”
She huffs a laugh. “Did you now?”
Nicky nods. “It’s beautiful. Long stretches of plains and jagged mountains, taller than any we have here. There are these large creatures, well, they’re not un-horse-like. They’re a bastard to tame, but you’d like them.”
“It sounds beautiful.”
“It is, Andy.”
She waves a hand. “Go get the others,” she says, her voice a whisper. “I’m getting tired.”
They don’t leave her side after that. Three days, they stay in that cozy room, swapping stories and making Andy laugh.
In the end, she slips away in silence, almost unnoticed in the talking and the memories that were being batted back and forth above her deathbed. She passes with the ghost of a smile clinging to her lips, surrounded by her family.
Andromache was born in the saddle. She has learnt to carry her home with her from her earliest days and she fights from horseback more easily than she breathes. Horse warfare does, however, have its drawbacks.
Nicolò is thrown from his horse by a javelin that pierces his chainmail and he is trampled under enemy hooves.
“Nicolò!” Yusuf screams and leaps from his horse to the broken and battered body of his love. They are usually so careful to defend Nicolò, but this is war, and anything can happen.
He’s awake when Yusuf goes to him and shields his body where it has landed face first on the ground, and Andromache brings her warhorse close to them to defend them. She dispatches a few more enemies with her bow before hooking it to her saddle and shortening the reins.
Yusuf is rolling Nicolò over gently, and Nicolò looks up, blinking rapidly at the pain. He’s looking up at Andromache, eyes shining wet with tears, and an expression that is somehow even softer than usual.
“You okay?” She asks. Her mare twitches, and she pulls it into check by circling them. He’s died, she can see that, but he recognises them, he’s calm and orientates himself well.
He nods, eyes not leaving her face.
“What’s gotten into you?” She asks.
“Nothing,” he says, too quickly to be believed. He gets to his feet with a hand on Yusuf’s shoulder and grabs the sword he hands him.
His voice is a little choked as he watches her pull her axe from her belt.
“It’s a pleasure to watch you ride,” he says, regaining a bit of his usual cockiness.
Andromache matches his tone by showing off. She rears her horse and it kicks it’s forelegs, then she rides away into the battle, baring her teeth and grinning as she dives into the fray.
Living in space can be a tricky endeavour.
There’s a whole new set of skills that are required to carry out their operations in space. Scanning technology has gotten so essential, so ubiquitous, that sneaking up on a compound is almost impossible.
Smash and grabs have fallen by the wayside. Subterfuge and spywork have become the name of the game. Getting through the door is often the hardest part, but this mission in particular has a number of delicate moving parts.
“Code’s holding up,” Iokua reports, sliding out of the pilot’s chair and leaning out the cockpit door. “We got permission to dock, Cap.”
Nile nods and turns back to her oldest friends. Since the second great vowel shift and the changes that come with languages shifting and clashing over time, all their names have shifted again. Her own name is pronounced more with the shorter vowel these days, and the other two are now known as Nyko and Yotuv.
“You ready?” She asks.
“Almost,” Yotuv says. They’re both dressed in finery, complete with epaulettes. He’s affixing the jewel tone cape to Nyko’s shoulders. When it holds firm, he slides his hands down where it hangs from Nyko’s broad back and playfully gropes Nyko’s ass on the way down.
“There,” he says, as Nyko turns to him with a small smile. “Just as gorgeous as the day I fell in love with you.”
Nyko looks unamused, but only to those who don’t know him well. “Remind me how that happened again?”
“You hadn’t bathed in weeks and were knee deep in muck wearing nothing but a tunic.”
Nyko hums. “Just as I thought,” he says, but his small smile returns.
They’re a far cry from the mud of Earth now. They both wear matching black boots and regulation pants, but Yotuv’s cloak and decorations indicate a Company Loyalist. With the biometric alteraters they won’t be suspected as infiltrators. Many golden rings decorate Yotuv’s fingers, and Nyko, under the disguise of being a bodyguard and escort, has numerous weapons on his person, both displayed and hidden. There’s a short sword at his hip that the untrained eye would be forgiven for thinking was ceremonial.
“We might be wrong,” Rivet says, looking out the window. “I mean, I did my research, but mining operations out here are as common as dust.”
She’s the most recent addition to their group, only three hundred cycles, about three hundred and thirty years since they found her labouring away on a small asteroid settlement, building defences for the town she was the Marshall for. Her body had been older than most before her first death, well into her forties with thick forearms accustomed to working with machines. She has a mechanical mind, keeping track of lots of moving pieces easily. As soon as Nile had met her, she had known the mechanic would train up well as a strategist and leader, but she still has a while to go.
Ever since they lost Booker to a lethal dose of radiation, there’s been a heavy grief in all of their hearts. It wasn’t fair. Nyko and Yotuv were older by several hundred years, but they had to bury the younger Sebastien back on Earth under the setting sun. It reminded them of the stories of Lykon, the harsh truth that there are no strict rules that govern this immortal life. But Booker was not the best suited for immortality, even once he found trust and belonging. He was settled in the knowledge of his death, grieving only for Nile.
They lost Nile for a few years into her grief and reliving recorded memories, but soon after, they found Rivet, and she had a new purpose. Rivet has made Nile feel strong again, a plan to train up the other woman to be a leader, even while being covered in grease.
Gone is Rivet’s usual worker’s gear. She, like the rest of them, is dressed in the bland uniform that will let them go unnoticed, covered wrist to throat to ankle, so unlike the bright colours all three prefer. Nyko and Yotuv, however, are dressed to draw attention.
“There’s no good reason for the Company to be moving this many bodies through here this frequently,” Nile says. “Maybe we find them or we find something else unsavoury. Either way, we have work to be do here.”
Iokua rests his hand on the gun at his waist. “No argument from me,” he says with a brilliant smile under his broad nose.
Yotuv chuckles. They are all warriors still. Iokua was found to be an immortal when he was executed as a ringleader of a worker uprising on a space station orbiting a gas giant.
“You clear on the plan?” Nile asks.
“Nothing we haven’t done before,” Yotuv says easily. He puts on an affect of a well-bred Company loyalist. “When I’m investing this much into the sector, I expect to see what I’m buying.”
Nile nods, content, and when Iokua locks the docking system onto the mining operation’s orbiting station, they stand shoulder to shoulder in the airlock.
Nyko squeezes his lover’s hand. He’s nervous, a feeling he hasn’t experienced in a long time.
Seventeen cycles earlier, Nyko had woken up after an explosion that had decimated a farming town. Yotuv was curled around him, even as their disintegrated bodies pieced together from the aerosol that they were reduced to. They pulled each other from the crater, completely naked and dragging themselves until they reached a tract of land far enough from the smoke that Iokua could fly the ship close enough to drop a rope ladder and pick them up.
Nyko learnt the date, got oriented and nodded silently. In the mess room, eating protein rolls to build up their strength again, he confided in Yotuv.
“This is the furthest forward I’ve gone,” he whispered. “I’ve never woken up later than this. And I’m old, Yotuv. I’m very old.”
Yotuv understood immediately. He was feeling the same.
“Do you think…” Yotuv started. “Do you think this is the end? Are you healing?”
“I checked. I am.”
Yotuv checked as well, pulling his multitool from his belt and making a cut on his arm. It healed the same way his wounds have always healed.
“Then we are not dying yet,” Yotuv said.
“Not yet,” Nyko allowed. “But soon. This life, I suspect.”
Yotuv slid his hands around Nyko’s back. “Our lives are still very long,” he reminded him with a smile and a nudge of his nose to Nyko’s cheek. “We can be careful. What do you want to do?”
Nyko released a long, shuddering breath. “I don’t know. Could we even retire? It seems impossible.”
He pressed a quick kiss to the corner of Yotuv’s lips.
“Well. No decisions need to be made after an atomisation,” Yotuv declared. “Let’s sleep on it.”
That night, curled together as they have always been on the bunk in their quarters, Yotuv had a dream.
He woke with a jolt, the image of a young man with a shock of hair, face painted for war, and there was someone by his side, there, but out of reach, hazy like through a thick fog.
He had had these dreams before. He knew what they meant. Before Nile had a chance to clang on the door to their quarters, he’d sat up with Nyko, and they’d made a decision.
They couldn’t retire, not when there was another immortal out there who needed them.
The Company Member greets Yotuv and his entourage under the false name, Green. He introduces himself as Kel and beckons Green leave his extras to wander the station
“My people will need refreshments, rest. They will also be reporting back to me,” Yotuv says impassionately. “See to it that their movements are undisturbed.”
“Of course, of course,” Kel rushes to acquiesce, keying the data for Nile, Iokua and Rivet for high levels of access. Those three depart, fading into the background to their own missions of investigation.
“Does your guard-?” Kel starts, but Yotuv doesn’t let him get far.
“He stays with me.”
Nyko’s glare is enough to pin any mere mortal to the spot.
“Now, we had business to discuss,” Yotuv says, gesturing grandly with a jeweled hand for Kel to lead the way.
Kel starts them towards the lower decks. “Unfortunately the Governor is a busy woman, we will be unable to meet with her. I understand that you are interested in personnel,” he says. “We have quite a few here that are fascinating pieces.”
“I’m an investor,” Yotuv says dryly. “I like to know my money is paying dividends.”
“Right, then,” Kel says as they walk. “We have been making a bit of a collection here. I’m sure we can satisfy your curiosity.”
“Purchasing?” Yotuv asks. It’s not the first time he’s had to play at being a slave-buyer, he’s gotten upsettingly good at it.
“Unfortunately these pieces are not for sale. You are most welcome to view them, however.”
Yotuv casts a side glance at Nyko, who doesn’t even nod to show his understanding. This mission is going to get messy.
They go to the lower decks, locked behind keypads and scanners, even hidden below the gravisim systems. No legitimate business goes on with the roar of the gravity generators in the background.
Kel shows them sleeping quarters of smuggled workers, packed shoulder to shoulder and unsanitary. Yotuv lets his disdain show on his face.
“I was after more... unusual pieces,” Yotuv says.
“You know what he’s talking about,” Nyko growls.
The impression they give, that they have clearance above what Kel could dream, strikes fear into Kel’s heart and overrides any protocols that should be followed.
“You’re talking about… the twins?” He asks, voice quavering.
Yotuv turns to him and summons all his height. He’s formidable, particularly measuring up against this new generation who grew up in artificial gravity.
“Take us to them.”
They travel through several more layers of security, Nyko activating the tracker hidden in his belt. He gets a silent vibration confirming that Iokua is following them through the system.
The sheer space and airflow required for the gravisim generators have most space stations suspending them in open pits, echoing chambers with the steady drone of air and water cooling.
“Long way down,” Nyko says, peering over the thin waist-high railing. He eyes the zig-zagging stairs they are making their way down, and how they trace every inch of the place as maintenance access for all the cooling systems. Too far to fall, too dangerous to try and explode the system as a distraction to release the workers.
“We discovered them in the Levantine System,” Kel says, as they descend the stairway around the gravisim. “They are fascinating creatures.”
“Are they human?” Nyko asks.
“Well, you see, it’s not quite that simple-”
Yotuv stops. “If this branch cannot be bothered to conduct a D/RNA test, it doesn’t do much for my confidence.”
“We did,” Kel rushes to say, bidding Yotuv onwards. “They are human, at least by every metric we can put to them, except one. They are unlike anything we have ever seen.” His eyes shine with interest, so proud to be showing off his little toys. “My scientists suspect they are some new form of evolution. Something unheard of since the dawn of recorded history.”
They share a look. Andromache did pre-date the written word by some measures. It was a comfort to know that even after all this time, their footprints hadn’t been discovered, but only because their team had destroyed or hidden every piece of evidence that could be traced to the presence of immortals.
“How intriguing,” Yotuv says dryly.
Heavy metal doors slide open, and directly in front of them is a cage, the size of a small room. Two humans are inside, in their early thirties, a man and a woman.
“Back for more, you piece of shit?” The man asks, spitting in Kel’s face.
“Shut up, you idiot.” The woman slaps his chest to get him to stop, then she mutters in a dialect too fast for a Company lackey to understand, but easy enough to understand for two men old enough to have been there when the root languages were formed. “That’s them.”
“Now, these two may look like typical humans, but I encourage you to look closer,” Kel says.
Yotuv takes his invitation, and peers at them through the bars. The man he recognises from his dreams. The familiar shape to his eyes, the stubborn jut of his chin. Yotuv gives Nyko the slightest nod, indicating this is the one they were looking for. He steps back and twists a gem in the ring on his forefinger, sending a signal to Nile that they’ve found the target. The woman, he vaguely recognises, but it may just be that the twins have the same lithe build, the same shock of hair.
There’s something in her expression, however, some element of recognition as she looks between Nyko and Yotuv. The young man, meanwhile, looks surprised, maybe a bit confused.
“I confess I don’t see anything remarkable,” Yotuv says, to Kel, drawing back from the bars.
“What if I told you that their birth records indicate that these two specimens are over fifty cycles old?”
Nyko shrugs. “Anti-aging means nothing. The industry is already developed.”
Kel shakes his head. “No, not anti-aging. Healing.”
He hits a button that makes a wall come down between the two of them, separating the twins. Then, without warning, he takes the gun from his hip and fires three rounds at the woman. The man cries out and throws himself against the wall, trying to get to her.
Yotuv’s heart is racing in his chest, and even unflappable Nyko stiffens beside him when the woman doubles over. She doesn’t lose her footing, just leans heavily on the wall and stumbles, blood seeping through her fingers.
Within moments, the blood flow stops, bullets are pushed from her skin and rattle on the steel floor.
“You see? Healing,” Kel says. “Hurt them any way you wish, and we have, within moments they are fully healed.”
It brings back sour memories for Yotuv, so he trusts Nyko to manipulate the man further.
“A trick,” Nyko proclaims. “Holograms in the bars, I’ve seen it before.”
“No, Sir, I assure you it is real,” Kel rushes to say. “Inspect her, if you wish, make your own wounds. Only be careful. The female has been known to make anything into a weapon. She’s a Hellcat.”
So the woman is an immortal, just not one that was clear in the dreams.
“Do they both heal?” Yotuv asks.
Kel nods. “They’re a matched set. We tried separating them before. It did not… go well.”
She grins at them and wipes blood from her face, but she doesn’t look untamed or frenetic, she looks genuinely pleased to see them.
“Open the gate,” Nyko orders. “I can handle myself.”
Kel knocks the barrel of his gun on the metal bars. “Behave, Hellcat, or you know what happens.” He waggles a small handheld device with a prominent button. She pulls back, standing up straight. The gate to the prison is opened, and Nyko strides in.
His back is to Kel now, and Nyko tries to soften his expression, hand outstretched. This isn’t the first immortal he’s had to collect and explain the situation to. He did it to Yusuf once before as well.
What he’s not expecting is for the woman to smile at him.
“Hey,” she whispers, then she winks. She lifts her hand from her gut, showing no wound. “I’m okay, Nicolò,” she whispers.
Nyko’s gut rolls, and he freezes.
“How are we doing this?” She murmurs. “London, 2020?”
“Wha-?” He starts, then Yotuv acts.
Yotuv draws his gun and fires at Kel’s hand, destroying the fingers holding the remote. Immediately, the woman bursts into a run, past Nyko, out of the cell and tackles Kel against the thin railing.
Over, down and down they go, into the pit they fall together.
“No!” Yotuv screams, but already there’s a sickening crunch of bodies and bones.
“Don’t worry,” the man says, elbows resting nonchalantly through the bars. “She comes back. She always comes back.”
Nyko has a lump in his throat. He’s off-balance, confused.
“My name is Yotuv, this is my husband, Nyko. We’re here to rescue you.”
“I know, I’ve been having the dreams. I’m Yun,” he says. “I believe you’ve met my sister.”
“No,” Nyko says, stunned. “We didn’t even know there were two immortals.”
Yun looks bewildered. “But she talks about you all the time.” At their stunned looks he corrects himself. “Right. Your future, her past.”
Nyko and Yotuv share a look.
“Yun, listen, when she heals from mortal wounds, when she dies and revives-” Nyko asks. “Is she changed?”
Yun shrugs as Yotuv works at getting the gate open.
“Yeah,” Yun says. “She travels through time. You explained it to her. At least, that’s what she told me.” He throws his hands up. “I dunno, man. I just go through life in the right order.”
The door slides open, and Yun immediately rushes to the rail, peering over it and calling out.
Nyko turns to Yotuv, his eyes wide. “What does it mean?” He mutters. “There’s another one like me.”
Yotuv doesn’t have an answer, just clasps Nyko’s hand tightly and pulls it up so he can press a kiss to the back of it. He doesn’t let go easily.
“Shin!” Yun shouts. “Shin! Up here!” He releases a breath. “She’s okay. She’s coming up the stairs now.”
“You seem remarkably calm about all this,” Yotuv notes. Yun smiles.
“I’ve been dying and coming back to life for almost twenty cycles now. I kinda get how it works. And she always promised we’d get rescued.” He spreads his hands. “Guys, it really is an honour. You were the first.”
Yotuv takes a half-step backwards. “We weren’t the first.”
“The first like us,” Yun says.
“A pair of immortals,” Nyko guesses. “Born together.”
Yun shakes his head. “Not just a pair. A dyad.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have to come in twos,” Yun says. “The time traveller,” he gestures to Nyko, then to Yotuv, “and the anchor.”
What he’s saying starts Nyko’s mind spinning. The very idea that his travelling, his twisted up lifespan isn’t just an accident, isn’t a fluke, but a natural part of the grand scheme of immortality.
Shin, at that moment, makes it back up to them. She’s covered in blood, her workers clothes are un-salvagable.
“You usually do a better job at orienting me,” she grumbles.
“What, you want me to shout it down for the whole station to hear?” He shrugs. “You literally hit rock bottom, the only way to go was up. We’ve been re-living for seventeen cycles, stuck here for one. These guys just came to break us out.”
Shin gets a good look at them, then her eyes widen.
“Nicolò,” she beams. “It’s so good to see you.”
Nyko looks skeptical. “Likewise?” He says. It’s been a long time since he’s been surprised like this.
Shin’s eyes slide over to Yotuv, and then her mouth drops.
“You’re Yusuf,” she breathes, completely in awe. “You’re really him.”
Without hesitation, she runs to him and jumps in the air. Yotuv catches her, her legs wrapping around his hips.
“Well,” he laughs. “Pleased to make your acquaintance!”
“I was just explaining your dyad theory,” Yun says.
“It’s not a theory,” Shin replies. “I know it’s true.”
“Two data points hardly make for good scientific rigor.”
“Excuse me, I’m afraid I still don’t understand,” Nyko says. “I’m not quite as sharp as I was in my younger years.”
Shin jumps down and looks between them, eyes shining.
“It was never just Nicolò with the added gift,” she says. “It was both of you.”
“There has to be an anchor,” Yotuv murmurs.
“Exactly.” Shin beams. “Without them, we truly are lost. Now, can I borrow that knife?”
“The others are here too, right? We’re breaking out?” Shin asks. “We’ve got tracking chips embedded, they’re attached to our ribs. If we want to move, we gotta take them out first.”
Yun releases a long sigh. “Fuck.” And he strips off his uniform and lies down on the bench to go first.
The four of them find a surprisingly comfortable rhythm, Nyko putting his surgery skills to use on one twin at a time. They hold each other’s hands through the pain and another death each. Their screams are swallowed by the noise of the gravisim generators. Yotuv makes contact with Nile, she’s already planned a little disruption and chaos to the Company’s operation that can be activated as soon as they’re ready.
The version of Shin that wakes up is a lot less cocky about her deaths than the last two. She’s younger, and scared, and… and she doesn’t know them. Yun calms her down with a well practiced speech, and of course, she always knows him.
Nyko knows what to do now. He’s seen the shape of their relationship, sees a purpose in living this life. He puts forward all his love and compassion, as he carefully introduces himself and Yotuv. He explains that they are immortal, that her life, like his, is reflexive and twisted up, but that a life like theirs can be so, so good.
“Say the word, Yotuv, and we’ll light up the fireworks,” Nile says through the com.
Trackers discarded and large, open chest wounds closed up, the four of them start the long march up the stairs around the gravisim generator, the twins draped in the cloaks from Nyko and Yotuv’s backs. When they’re just outside the door, ready to walk into what will certainly be increased security and Company Loyalists who don’t want to part with their immortal prisoners, Yotuv sends the signal.
Something, somewhere explodes, courtesy of Rivet’s handiwork, and every siren starts blazing.
“Through to the mess, then hold,” Nile instructs, and Yotuv directs them silently, Nyko bringing up the rear. Words are no longer necessary for them, having lived multiple thousands of years by each other’s side. They developed this dance long ago.
They move quickly through the bustling hallways. The crew are all panicked, it makes it easy enough to find new clothes for the twins to let them pass unnoticed. The mess hall seems to be a congregation area, workers and guards and Loyalists alike gathered in large numbers.
“Really, Nile?” Nyko grumbles. “This is your plan?”
Across the mess hall, Nile gets up on a table and catches his eye.
“People!” She calls out loud. When that fails to get their attention, she fires a gun into the roof. There are some screams, but the whole mess quietens down. “Listen to me!” She commands. Her voice is a force to be reckoned with and not easily dismissed. “The exploitation of the Company cannot continue. Listen to your workers.”
She reaches out a hand and pulls up a man in workers gear, dirty faced and broad shouldered. He begins speaking about rights and equality, and just like that, they’ve started a coup.
With everyone on the station distracted, Nyko and Yotuv lead the twins to Nile and the others, pushing through the crowd easily.
“We can’t take you anywhere,” Nyko teases Nile, pointing to the rabble.
“Cause a little trouble, raise a little hell,” Nile grins back. “What’s so bad about that? These are who we’re looking for?”
Yotuv nods, clasping the twins on the shoulders. “Yun and Shin. They’re like us. Shin travels through time.”
Nile, to her credit, takes the revelation in her stride.
“Nice. Ready to get out of here?” She asks them.
They open their mouths at the same time to respond, but at that moment the Governor bursts into the room with her security.
“This is an unlawful gathering!” She yells. “Disperse!”
“Time to go,” Rivet says, grabbing the twins by the arms. Within moments the Governor has security open fire.
“Fuck!” Nile yells. They’re running now, winding their way through packed halls. A shot fires over her head and embeds in the wall. The tiny dot in the wall breaks apart into tiny waves of movement and it disperses.
“Crawlers!” She yells, and they take cover.
Infernal things. Bullets filled with micromachines that move through the body and target the heart. It doesn’t matter where you get hit. If it’s crawlers, the strike is lethal within minutes. Their healing struggles to overcome crawlers at the best of times, they’re reactive, and difficult to pin down. Sometimes it’s easier to take out their hearts and grow a new one.
Nyko pulls a collapsible gun from somewhere on his person and hands it to Yotuv as it expands and clicks into place.
Yotuv laughs, free and easy. “You’re always looking out for me.” And kisses him right there, in the middle of battle, like they have for millennia.
When they break apart, Nyko is smiling. There’s no reserve, nothing is being held back in his expression. “I love you,” he says, the simple explanation for everything that he does.
“I love you, too.”
Yotuv takes up the rear guard, laying down cover fire and buying the others time to move back to the ship. Iokua is on the coms, directing them, booting up the ship and ready to go.
Rivet is still young, she’s not quite leading the operation yet, she trails behind Nile, who strides forward confidently. Nyko has the twins in front of him, an arm on each of their backs as they rush ahead, and Yotuv, like always, is putting himself between Nyko and danger.
They’re getting close to the port now, just a few more turns.
“There!” Nile calls. “Almost there.”
The Governor’s Security forces are almost on top of them as well.
A shot of crawlers skims just the edge of Nyko’s boot, too close. A bullet shoots over Shin’s head, and she screams. Yotuv sees the long straight hallway to the ship’s docking bay.
Yotuv has been in too many battles to count. He has the wisdom of thousands of years. He knows what sitting ducks look like.
There’s no cover, no defence, and this close to the airlock, setting detonators is too dangerous.
Yotuv knows what has to be done.
“Go! Go!” He calls, then he turns in the middle of the hallway.
He fires at the soldiers, stopping them in their tracks. The soldiers hold their position around the corner, shooting back blindly.
He’s ruthless and efficient in battle. He could kill every last one of them where they stand, but they have to get out of here. Escape is more important.
When he hears the door open behind him and Nyko shouting, Yotuv turns and runs.
Bullets fire from behind him, exploding on impact into tiny lethal machines.
“Here! Come on!” Nile calls. The others are already deeper and safer in the ship, protected.
Yotuv is the last through the door, taking up the doorway with his broad body and shielding them as it slides shut behind him.
Nile climbs over the bench, shouting up to the cockpit. “Go, go, go!”
Iokua pulls away, and they shoot off into the black.
“Whoo hoo!” Yun calls, ruffling Shin’s hair. “We’re out! We’re out!”
Yotuv stays standing, swaying slightly in the doorway. Nyko’s eyes lock on him.
“Yotuv?” He asks.
Colour has drained from his face.
Yotuv drops to his knees, and Nyko runs to him, wraps his arms around him. His fingers come away bloody.
“Quick! Medbay!” Rivet calls.
“It’s crawlers,” Yotuv says. “They’re going for my heart, I can feel them. There’s nothing you can do.”
“We can pull your heart, Yotuv,” Rivet fires back.
“No, I’ve… this is it, for me,” he says, bringing the span of his palm to Nicolò’s face, looking deep into his eyes. “I knew how I was going to go for a while.”
Nicolò’s crystal eyes are welling up. He reaches for the blade at his side and slices his own finger. The blood blooms up, and the wound doesn’t heal.
“I’m not healing either, I’m coming with you, Yusuf,” he says.
Yusuf huffs a laugh as he tips to the side, slumping until he’s being cradled in Nicolò’s arms. “No, you’re not. When have you ever abandoned those who need you?” He gestures at the twins. “They need you.”
“I need you,” Nicolò says, speaking the truth as he always does. “I have to come with you.”
“After all that work we went through to find them?” Yusuf scoffs. “She knew you, Nicolò. You can’t leave now. You have to teach them.”
“But we need you, too,” Nicolò gasps out. “I can’t teach him what it’s like to be you, to be an anchor. You have to heal.”
“You know me to the core. Nicolò,” Yusuf says, and his tone silences him on the topic. He’s heavy against him. “I’ve been aging for a while now. I’m okay, I’m ready.”
Nicolò brushes Yusuf’s hair from his face. “You should have told me,” he scolds gently.
“Maybe,” Yusuf allows. “Didn’t want you to worry. Besides, they’re too important.” They both look over to the twins, who are holding each other, tightly locked together. Nile has her hand clasped to her mouth, holding back a cry or a scream as she watches Yusuf bleed out. Even Rivet and Iokua are there, eyes wide, their faces pale and drawn.
“They’re the future,” Yusuf says. “I’ve always wanted to see it. It’s beautiful.”
Nicolò is sobbing now, clutching at Yusuf desperately. “I don’t know how to be, without you.”
“You’ll see me again. I promise. This is just my goodbye.” Yusuf seizes up, those machines making their way to his vulnerable, mortal heart. “Promise you’ll take care of them,” he asks, and he holds Nicolò’s gaze, speaking with his eyes because they know each other through and through. Nicolò scrunches his eyes shut and nods, pulling their heads together, drawing every inch of Yusuf close like he can hold him in this life through sheer force of will and fingertips pressed into the back of his neck.
“It’ll be okay,” Yusuf says, his voice soft. “You died well. Really, really well. It’ll all be okay.”
“I love you,” Nicolò croaks out, their heads pressed together. “Yusuf, you are my heart and soul.”
“I know,” Yusuf whispers and leans up to kiss Nicolò’s soft lips one last time. “You are my everything and all. I love you, I love you.”
His heart stutters, and his hand shakes where it’s pressed to Nicolò’s face, thumb gently stroking his cheek.
“Wow. What a life, huh?”
Nicolò laughs, tears running freely, his face twisted into a sad smile.
“Yeah. What a life.”
Yusuf’s heart stutters again, and his limbs go weak.
“Shhh…” Nicolò hushes. “It’s okay, we’ll be okay.”
Yusuf twitches a nod, and he takes one last look up at Nicolò’s face and closes his eyes. He turns his head into Nicolò’s chest where he’s being cradled. He grasps hold of Nicolò’s hand and squeezes it tight, until he doesn’t anymore.
“Yusuf, Yusuf.” Nicolò is rocking slightly and chanting in a whisper. “My love, my love.”
He stays like that for a long time, clutching Yusuf’s body until Nile kneels down and touches his arm.
He looks up at her, and the love and sorrow in her eyes gives him permission to let go and start wailing.
A scream of wordless grief.
Twenty cycles is a long time. Long enough to feel the ache of an aging body that continues on without its heart. Nicolò keeps his promise, he teaches and trains the new recruits, but he’s not really there. He’s not whole.
Nile is his rock and support. The last vestiges of his life from Earth, his first friend.
But they are making something new together, something that will outlast both of them by millenia. She often finds him late in the night cycle, when the rest of the crew are sleeping in their quarters.
He doesn’t sleep well anymore, he spends most nights sitting by the windows and staring out into the black.
Nile often sits down beside him, a hand on his back or neck, or clasping his hand between hers.
“It’s too far to go home,” Nicolò says quietly.
“It is,” Nile allows. “But you know that home is something we carry with us.”
They had buried Yusuf in dirt as warm and brown as his eyes and laid around the mound flowers that would wither and fade.
“I had wished to go to Malta again. One last time,” Nicolò admits. “But only with…”
Nile hums and fills the silence. “The only regret I have,” she says, touching the streaks of silver coming through at his temples, “is that Yusuf never got to see you as this silver fox you’ve turned into.”
He laughs, eyes crinkling at the corners. Every moment is an ache without him.
It’s not all loss and grief. They arrive at port cities on various planets and outposts, the world bustling with life as it was on his first foray into piracy and exploring the new world. Very little takes him by surprise these days, but every now and then Shin will pass him a strange berry or biscuit, and he will savour the taste of something new. The worlds will keep spinning without him.
Shin dies several times in those twenty cycles. She’s more than happy to throw herself into danger, more comfortable with her deaths than Nicolò ever was, because she always knows her brother, her anchor, in every lifetime. At a certain point of her life, she thinks it’s fun.
At other points, the version that wakes up is solemn and wise, still her own self and personality, but having learnt the burden of this twisted up life.
He’s never had a protégé before. He doesn’t know where to start, until he makes an off-hand comment about a time he was thrown forward into the future, feeling lost and young, and Shin sits up on the bench and leans forward.
“I feel like that all the time,” she says. “What did you do?”
And that’s their training. They sit together, drinking tea and telling stories. Yun is almost always by her side, but he’s different from Yusuf. Theirs is a different kind of love, but it is still one that binds.
There are endless days of travel through the black, where they sit together, all six of them, and tell stories, sing songs. Nicolò has no secrets anymore, no hidden knowledge. He hasn’t lived any further forward, and he doesn’t really want to.
Twenty cycles after Yusuf, he keeps the engine of the ship running while in orbit, while the team is planetside completing a mission. When he lands at the rendezvous point and picks them up, they are sweaty and thrilled. They talk at speed, back and forth, revelling in their success, and it isn’t until after they’ve feasted and drank and slumped into beds, does Nicolò realise he hasn’t been needed to teach them or even say a word, they were wonderful without him.
He’s going to the end now, he can feel it.
Nile knows him too well, she finds him seated at the windows late that night, deep in thought. He’s fiddling with a shock device, one wrong move and he could kill himself in moments.
“You’re not thinking of sneaking off without saying goodbye, are you?” Nile asks.
“No, never,” Nicolò says and slides over on the bench, inviting her to fill the space beside him.
She threads her fingers through his, linking their hands together, and waits for him to speak.
“I never wanted to go on without him,” Nicolò says quietly. “I never thought it could be an option, but he was right. They needed me.” He gives her hand a squeeze and swallows the lump in his throat. “They don’t need me anymore.”
Nile takes a breath and steels herself. “You’ve been so important to me, my whole life, but since we lost Sebastien… I knew that if it happened to you, I wouldn’t get to hang onto either of you for long. These last twenty cycles have been a blessing. But I knew it would come to this.”
Nicolò nods, his expression peaceful. “I’m ready.”
They sit in silence and stare at the stars.
“You know, it’s strange,” Nicolò says. “Every time I’ve gone into death, I could be certain of one thing. Yusuf said we’d see each other again. Almost like there’s a gap somewhere I haven’t filled in, but I keep thinking and I can’t remember any missing pieces.”
“You just have to trust,” Nile finishes.
He has his goodbyes, and they’re tear filled, but happy. The team will continue on, Nile will continue on until she’s ready.
Technology has advanced in so many ways in his twisted up lifetime, there are so many painless deaths available to him.
Nicolò chooses to go sitting up at the windows of their space station, orbiting a green and brown marble he can imagine as being the planet he lived all those lifetimes tracing back and forth.
He’s clutching Nile’s hand when he dies. He doesn’t expect to wake up, and he passes with a smile on his face.
Nicolò wakes up in some sterile environment, not dissimilar to most space stations, strapped down to a bed and lost and confused.
He spins his head around and tries to understand. He can’t move his limbs and he starts weeping.
And then - it’s Yusuf. Yusuf is there, just out of reach beside him, bearded and bright eyed and so, so alive.
Nicolò is not sure if he’s dreaming, some fever that delivers his one wish of hearing Yusuf’s voice just one last time before he passes.
They can talk together now, and Nicolò is so overcome, just for the chance to see Yusuf’s eyes again, even if they are creased in pain.
And then, joy of joys, it’s Sebastien, and Andromache, and this life has been a blessing, even for all its limitations, he can see them again.
Nicolò almost doesn’t notice the young man full of pomp and unearned fury. He has made a habit of speaking truth, no matter what. He doesn’t intend to stop now.
Nicolò goes to death spitting truth at an immature man, and there is blood on his teeth, and he is surrounded by family.
It’s 2249, and the team is embedded in the fractured states of what used to be China. They’re pushing ahead at the frontlines, firing rounds silently with the advanced technology available to them.
Nicky climbs down from the tower he’s been using as a base for sniping and joins Joe on the ground.
They touch their heads together, even after such a short separation, they’re glad to be reunited.
Joe touches the radio earpiece and talks to Booker at the front guard.
“How’s it looking there, Book?”
“Could be worse,” comes the gruff reply. “Your sector?”
Quynh replies for them, up ahead she’s hoping from car roof to car roof like a dancer.
“Nicky’s cleared a path for us,” she calls out. “We’ve got a clear run to where you are.”
“Well then what’s keeping you?” Nile’s voice crackles in their ears.
Quynh stops on the roof of a car and turns around, her hair whipping in the wind.
“Joe and Nicky needed to smooch,” she says with a grin.
The radio chatter erupts with teasing and protests.
Nicky rolls his eyes and tugs Joe closer by the belt.
“Always worth it to stand beside you in battle, my love,” he says and nips at Joe’s lips. Joe laughs and pulls Nicky down the street to follow along behind. Usually, Nicky tries to be solemn on their missions, knowing that what one moment be a simple or even fun mission with his family can change so quickly with a single bullet, and he might wake up in a grave or hopeless trench or something worse.
Nicky has been in a good mood lately, content and smiling, when Joe had questioned it, he’d only shrugged.
“I’m happy. Life is good.” And Joe had to agree.
Nile teases them over the radio, but quickly shuts up when Quynh’s voice cuts in and says, “You and Booker aren’t much better lately.”
Booker splutters, and he and Quynh go back and forth in rapid Provençal as they usually do. There was a lot of bleed-over from all her years dreaming of him, not least of which is that she’s picked up a number of his mannerisms. The ancient small woman from a village in the Red River Delta gestures and talks like a middle aged Frenchman from Napoleon’s time and has some very strong opinions about football.
Nicky is laughing at their banter when the toe of his boot catches a tripwire strung on the road and triggers a car bomb.
The street goes up in flames and debris.
Joe is thrown backwards by the concussive force, strong enough that it punches the air right out of him, and he hits the ground, gasping. The image of Nicky, thrown about like a ragdoll in the explosion is seared into his mind, pounding against the back of his eyelids until he can get his knees under himself and pull towards Nicky’s body.
Dead. His lifeless eyes are staring out at nothing, and it breaks Joe’s heart again.
“Cover, cover!” He calls into the radio. “Nicky’s out.”
There’s chatter on the radio to coordinate the response, but Joe doesn’t hear it, in this moment he has one priority only.
There’s a car on fire nearby, Nicky’s too close to it, so Joe grabs him around the chest and starts dragging. His own body is still healing and hurting, but Nicky is more important.
He drags the limp body to shelter behind a huge concrete rock, debris from an exploded building, and holds Nicky close.
“I’m here, I’m here,” he says.
Those clear eyes twitch and shift, pupils stretching and contracting, then they lock onto Joe.
A sigh, a smile.
“That’s it, I got you,” Joe mutters.
“Oh. It wasn’t the end, Yusuf,” Nicky says. His fingertips are shaky as they press to the side of Joe’s face. “I get to touch you one last time.”
Joe only needs a second to piece the information together. This is it, this was the “if” he has pinned his hopes to for 200 years.
He grips Nicky tightly. “I’m going to get you out of here,” he swears, then talks into his earpiece. “Fall back, fall back. I’m pulling Nicky from the field.”
No mission is as important as this.
“What’s happening?” Nile demands. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m getting Nicky out and alive,” Joe replies. “Fuck the mission.”
Nile doesn’t have all the pieces, but she trusts Joe completely.
“Take the chopper,” she orders. “Quynh, cover them. We’ll find you two at the Delta point.”
For the first time since before his first milestone, Nicky stays disoriented. He’s clinging to Joe, stumbling as he’s half dragged through ruined streets, past battalions of soldiers they had charged past. Some salute them, but Joe doesn’t pause.
Nicky’s wounds have healed, but he doesn’t let go, clinging tightly to the other man.
They fall into the helicopter, and Joe signals to the pilot to take it up, and within moments they’re flying.
Joe maneuvers him into a seat and buckles Nicky in. The roar of the engine drowns out any speech, until Joe fits a set of headphones over Nicky’s ears and then his own, then kneels up at his feet, clasping Nicky’s hands.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” Joe says through the helicopter radio. Even to himself, his voice sounds far off and tinny. “You’re at the end, and you just came from Merrick’s lab in 2020.”
Nicky nods, his eyes welling up, staring intensely at Joe.
“Then this is your final life.”
“I’m sure of it.”
And what can Joe do with that?
His hands flex uselessly, and he settles for leaning up and pressing their bodies together, holding tight.
The helicopter isn’t particularly conducive to conversation, so they settle for staring at each other, and soft touches that make Nicolò sob. When they unload at the main military base, he looks shaken enough that they must pass for shell-shocked and are allowed to pass back towards their private quarters.
It’s three hours before the rest of the team is extracted and joins them, and Yusuf and Nicolò have made a plan by then.
Nile is the most worried when she opens the door and sees their expressions.
“What is it? What’s going on?” She doesn’t even drop her tac gear, just rushes to where Nicolò is sitting on the couch and grabs his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
He smiles weakly up at her and grips her hand.
“There’s something we need to tell you,” Yusuf announces to all of them. “Something I told Andy, but I didn’t tell the rest of you.”
Nicolò stays silent. When Yusuf had warned him, he’d prepared himself to see them again, for Quynh and Booker that he had lost so long ago, but he had confessed to Yusuf that he wasn’t sure he could summon the words to speak to all these shadows from his past.
The team, to their credit, sits down and listens intently.
“There was a version of Nicky that woke up in Merrick’s lab, way back in 2020. This version of him,” Yusuf says. He has to push through and say his piece. “He’s ancient, at the end of his life. Old enough that he started aging, and he watched me die.”
Quynh gasps and tears start welling up in her eyes. Booker stays silent, and Nile shakes her head, disbelieving.
“He thought it could be his last life, but I refused to believe it. And I was right, he’s just arrived here.”
“What are you saying?” Booker asks.
Nicolò stands and holds Joe’s hand. “I’m old, Sebastien. Very old. I’m at the end of my life.”
“No!” Nile cries. “I’m not losing you too.”
Nicolò’s expression is so soft and fond. “No, Nile. You’re not losing me. You’ll have me for a long, long time yet. But I’m ready to go.”
Quynh, always quick and clever, pieces it together. “Your mind is, but not that body, right?”
“Then you’ve seen everything.”
Nicky nods, his eyes tracing her face. She reads him easily and rocks back on her heels, crossing her arms.
“How does it end?” She asks.
Nicky takes his time, looking first to her, then Booker, then Nile. “It ends well. For all of us.”
“Are you going to tell us more?”
“Do you want to know?”
Quynh shrugs, content with that answer.
Nile clings to Booker’s arm for support. “What are you going to do?”
“We decided already. I want time with each of you, then we’re going to Malta. Until we’re ready.”
Until Yusuf is ready. Nicolò was willing to go into death watching the stars or staring down Merrick, captured, but never helpless. It was a strange thing, for him to be so confident of something of which he has no foreknowledge.
They’ve lost and grieved one of their own before, but never have they had to do it out of order, like he has.
He takes his time, saying goodbye. There is no rush for him, and Yusuf is keeping him safe at every point, determined not to lose his chance as it was taken from him last time.
And Nicolò gets to walk on the Earth again and hold each one of those he loves close.
With Quynh they travel, hiking through the Alps in summer, each of them being a steady presence to the other. They say goodbye in a lush fertile valley, and she grips his arm and thanks him for everything.
With Booker, he has long conversations over real oak-aged whiskey and rum, wasting nights in various taverns among the people and days wandering museums and eating greasy street food. They have the easy familiarity that can only come from two people who know each other so intimately from going through the worst together but forming a strong bond regardless.
He doesn’t have the same urgency with Nile as he does with the ones he’s missed for so long. Nicolò takes her on a sailboat on the Mediterranean and pulls at the ropes and the salt spray splashes in his face.
He’s happy, seeing her happy and young and fresh. The world at her feet.
He doesn’t have to tell Yusuf anything about the future of the others, about why he clung to Quynh and Booker so strongly the first time he saw them. Yusuf knows him completely.
Malta in 2249 is just how Nicolò remembers it. It’s warm, with golden light that filters through the curtains. They don’t need much, Nicolò and Yusuf, the small farm has stayed free of most technological developments, but the cottage has been rebuilt and refurbished several times over the centuries. It always and forever is the seclusion of safety and peace.
Nicolò wakes one morning, several weeks into their time in Malta, and finds Yusuf’s shirt discarded on the floor and hears the steady rush of the shower from down the hall.
Nicolò picks up the shirt and puts the cloth to his face. He fills his lungs with the scent of the one he loves, then pushes open the door to the bathroom.
They make love in Malta, in every way they know how to, but more often than not, they just hold each other. There is so much unsaid, because it doesn’t need to be spoken. Every morning Nicolò will look into Yusuf’s eyes and wonder if today will be the day he’s ready, and when Yusuf breaks away and buries his face in Nicolò’s neck, he knows it’s not yet. So he holds him close and enjoys another day beside him.
They spend all autumn and most of winter this way. Malta is cool and refreshing in the winter, and there are less tourists on the streets, so it feels more comfortable and more like home.
Yusuf and Nicolò are sitting on the windswept cliff’s edge, feeding each other foraged berries with goat’s milk yoghurt drizzled in honey, when Yusuf asks about the future.
Nicolò hums with a smile. “Do you really want to know?”
“Hey, I can keep a secret,” Yusuf laughs, remembering decades of piracy and adventures and training where he kept the truth of their relationship hidden until Nicolò was ready. “I don’t need details, just paint me a picture.”
“Oh, I thought that was your job,” Nicolò says wryly.
Yusuf clutches his heart playfully. “My skills are being spurned! I must find my oils this evening and try to capture your eyes again.” He drags a finger along Nicolò’s brow, and Nicolò catches his hand.
“You are the only one who has ever caught my eye,” Nicolò says and kisses Yusuf’s wrist.
Yusuf’s cheeks go pink and he laughs it off. “Come on, Nicolò. Tell me about the future.”
Nicolò looks out towards the horizon. “There’s a whole new team, by the time we go. Each of them are incredible in their own way. They call themselves the New Guard.”
Yusuf chuckles at that. “The New Guard. I like that.”
“And there’s another one, like me. A time traveller. She’s amazing.”
Yusuf sits upright. “Someone else that can travel through their timeline?”
“I know,” Nicolò beams. “It proves I’m not an aberration. The team is meant to have someone like me. It’s destiny.”
“I never considered…” Yusuf begins, trailing off as his brow furrows together. “But it makes sense. Of course there was a purpose to your gift, and it should be carried on, even past your long life.”
Nicolò nods. “It means I’m not alone with it.”
“You were never alone, Nicolò,” Yusuf refutes him gently. “You just needed some time to find your footing.”
“She has a rock, too. An anchor. Her brother,” Nicolò says. “Watching them, it reminded me again how important you are to me. There has to be two. The traveller and the anchor. With their addition, the team is complete.”
“It sounds beautiful,” Yusuf says.
Nicolò nods. “You’ll be proud to see it.”
He rests his head on Yusuf’s shoulder until the sun begins to slip down under the horizon.
The next morning, the sun rises and peeks through the window as sounds of the rushing wind make the walls creak.
Yusuf wakes first, which is unusual for the two of them. This ancient Nicolò is more tired than typical, even though his body is strong. He sleeps longer hours and takes more effort to awake.
“Hey,” Yusuf whispers, and Nicolò stirs. Yusuf tightens his grip around him and gets to work waking him up with soft touches. “Hey,” he repeats.
“It’s the new year.”
Years don’t mean much for Nicolò any more. He nuzzles into the arm around his chest. “What about it?” He mumbles.
“The year is now 2250,” Yusuf says.
With that Nicolò forces his eyes open with a slow blink, pushing himself to wakefulness. He rolls over and props his chin up on Yusuf’s chest.
“A thousand years,” he murmurs.
“Happy anniversary,” Yusuf says softly, but his grin is big and goofy.
“Only one thousand years,” Nicolò returns. “How quaint.”
Yusuf growls playfully and rolls them over, pinning Nicolò to the bed until he’s proved exactly what has been learnt and built together since their first visit to this island.
The days begin to get longer and warmer. The flowers in the clay pots by the gate begin to bud and bloom. With every day, Nicolò gets a little quieter, a little more tired. He’s content now with peaceful sitting and watching Yusuf as he works at chopping wood, no longer needing to keep his hands busy as he did when he was young.
And every morning there is the unspoken question Nicolò puts to Yusuf, Is this the day you are ready? And every day the answer of refusal takes a little longer, it’s a little more uncertain.
Until they’re staring into each other’s eyes, and Yusuf tears up as he finally answers the unasked question with a nod.
“I’m ready,” he croaks out. “But what about you? Is there anything more you wanted to do?”
Nicolò takes his hand. “All I wanted was to speak to you again and I have had all that and more. I’m ready, Yusuf. I have been for a long time.”
Yusuf nods his head with a rough jerk. “What will I tell the next version of you?”
“You’ll think of something. I trust you, always.”
That afternoon, they take their place on the cliffside ledge that was the site of their first kiss and watch as the sun paints the sky with its farewells. There’s another painless death awaiting Nicolò, and like his first death, it will be at Yusuf’s hand.
“What should I do?” Yusuf begs.
“Talk to me,” Nicolò says. “Let me hear your voice.”
Yusuf’s face crumples, and Nicolò strokes the backs of his fingers down his cheek.
“You mean everything to me,” Nicolò whispers into the space between them. “All and more. We have built the best life possible together, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”
“I love you,” Yusuf’s voice is rough and forced out past the heart in his throat.
Nicolò wipes a tear from Yusuf’s cheek with the pad of his thumb.
“Oh, my heart,” he sighs. “I love you too.”
He settles his back against Yusuf’s chest and grips the arm that wraps around him.
“Tell me the story of our lives,” he says softly. “It has been incredible.”
Yusuf takes a deep breath and starts.
He starts with the campfire and the meal of fish in the middle of the battlefield, then the year Nicolò spent living with Yusuf’s family. He tells of meeting Andromache and Quynh for the first time, of their suspicion and confusion. He tells of their wars in Egypt, of falling in love with Nicolò day by day, how he was drawn to his steady presence and hidden expressions. They both chuckle as they remember their first times together, both individually and then united in this place.
Yusuf talks for hours, moving step by step through their long history together, and at some point in the late twentieth century, Nicolò stops answering Yusuf’s comments with hums and stroking his hand, his breathing regular and deep.
Yusuf talks through Paraguay, past the reunion of Quynh into their lives, and still he’s holding on to Nicolò.
Nicolò dies in Malta in Yusuf’s arms, he slips away between stories of his life, all laid out in order, of a thousand years of struggle and bliss and love.
Yusuf sobs over Nicolò’s lax body, tears falling heavy into his hair, clutching him close.
Then the body begins to stir.
Nicky rouses slowly, gripping Yusuf’s arm as his heart begins beating again.
“Joe?” He says, in a hushed voice. His head darts around, trying to orient, to understand.
Joe releases a sob and clutches Nicky closer.
“Joe, what is it? What’s wrong?” Nicky asks urgently, pulling away to look at him, but Joe just shakes his head.
“Hold me,” Joe begs, eyes red from tears.
“Of course, of course,” Nicky says, wrapping his arms around Joe and pressing Joe’s face into his neck. He strokes his hands up and down Joe’s neck, his back.
“What happened?” Nicky whispers into Joe’s curls.
“Do you trust me?” Joe croaks.
The pain in Joe’s voice breaks Nicky’s heart. “Oh, dear heart. With every moment of my life,” he swears.
Joe releases a shuddering breath and relaxes into Nicky’s hold.
“Then trust me,” he whispers.
And Nicky does. They hold each other until long after the sun has set on a warm summer’s day in Malta.
Nicolò di Genova and Yusuf Ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Kaysani are united through everything.
They have two starts, two endings. They love each other.
The rest is just filling in the blanks.