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Retrograde

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Yusuf awakes, hands gripping his tunic, wet with blood. He is alive. How is he alive? He remembers the sword of the Frank, coming down to cleave into his shoulder. He remembers slicing the enemy clean through the belly and falling to the ground, his lifeblood spilling into the sand.

The world is silent, the battlefield lines have long shifted around him, but the bodies have not been moved. He has not been moved.

He sits up, expecting pain, but none comes. Then he sees the fire. And the Frank.

The other soldier has made camp in the middle of the wretched battlefield. A small fire burns, and slices of fish are cooking.

The Frank, the same man who delivered his death blow. The one Yusuf killed. He’s sitting, tending to the fire, watching Yusuf with his bright eyes.

Before Yusuf can grab for his scimitar, the man gestures to the fish and speaks, in perfect Arabic.

“For you, Yusuf Al-Kaysani. I will not be here long.”

Yusuf has never been more terrified. “Who are you? What did you do to me?”

“I am Nicolò di Genova, the one who killed you and the one that you killed.”

He speaks softly, with confidence, like this is something he has done many times before. Like Yusuf’s armour, the man’s chainmail is stained through, the red cross lost in the blood, but the man doesn’t seem to mind.

“You know my language, you know my name.”

“I know many things,” is the only answer Yusuf gets.

The land around them stinks of corpses in the heat, nothing has survived the slaughter.  “So I am dead,” Yusuf says.

“Don’t worry,” Nicolò says with a smile. “It doesn’t stick.”

Yusuf must have gone mad, because the next thing the man does is reach into the fire with his bare hand. He picks up a roasted fish while his flesh bubbles and burns, then takes it to Yusuf.

“The Scriptures say that Christ ate with his disciples to show he wasn’t a ghost,” Nicolò says, “but that won’t mean much to you for a while yet.”

With this, he pops a few flakes of fish meat into his mouth. He gives a half hearted shrug. “It is not the best meal I have cooked for you, but it is a start.” The rest of the fish is pressed into Yusuf’s slack hands.

Yusuf doesn’t miss the fact that the pale hands that touch his are suddenly free of any burns or blisters. Completely healed, as Yusuf’s body is also.

“How can this be?” Yusuf breathes.

“Ah, the great mystery.” Nicolò drops to the ground beside Yusuf. “We still don’t know how or why, and my life is a particular thorn in our understanding. Go on, eat, I have much to tell you, and not long to say it.”

Yusuf obeys, only so he can recover his bearings enough to see his sword, lying on the other side of him from this strange creature. If he moved slowly, he could grab it without being seen.

The man named Nicolò smiles at Yusuf. It’s a peculiar sort of smile. “You are so young. There is so much to look forward to.” Then his face turns hard.

“Listen, Yusuf, I tell you this now so that one day, you may tell it to me.” The words make no sense, the man is speaking like a prophet of old. “We are now immortal, living and dying and living again. This is a great burden to bear, but there are those like us that we shall find, friends who will be with us for many lifetimes. We have also found each other, and Yusuf, we will always be bound together.”

The man is distracted, his eyes tracing the heavens as he recites this speech of madness. He doesn’t see Yusuf grasping the hilt of his sword.

“If you hurry to the hills, you can reach the encampment before sundown,” he continues in the same tone, and Yusuf plunges his blade into his chest.

The Frank doesn’t cry out, doesn’t even seem surprised to be murdered again.

“I said I wouldn’t be here long,” he gasps out.

Yusuf’s grip on his sword is white knuckled, and he’s shaking all over as he jerks on the blade. He can feel the man’s lung collapsing, blood spurting fresh over his tunic.

“Hurry. Sundown.” The man says with his last breath. With great effort he stretches out a hand and points towards the hills, the place Yusuf’s army were to retreat for safety.

With no air left in his body, the Frank stares up at Yusuf, a soft smile on his face even as he’s dying, like he’s committing it all to memory. Then the man winks.

Yusuf pulls free his sword with a sickening crunch and the man expires. Yusuf flees to the hills.

Chapter Text

For the last few lifetimes, Nicky has been in retrograde.

He has been tracing his deaths backwards until he finally lived the start of his mission, and knew what it was his team was fighting for. They were in a warzone, during the Great War, somewhere in Eastern Europe. He would wake in battle, call for Booker to throw him a weapon, be taken down, rinse and repeat.

Which means that at the end of all the bloodshed he gets the delightful experience of watching Joe walk through a tripwire he knows is there, blowing both himself and his heart through a wall. A necessary evil of his curse, because he remembers that this mission ends with all of them together, safe, and the mission a marginal success. It is the best he can hope for.

At least he knows that when Joe revives he will find his love with him, ready to fight and having knowledge of guns. They will need him to make the sniping shot from across the river. He has already succeeded.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Nicky wakes up and his flesh is burning. He chokes on ash and his eyes are stinging. There’s a fire, out of control and burning the building around him.

He tries to orient, but the inferno is too strong, and he can barely open his eyes. He gropes along the splintered floor, picking a direction at random, and dragging his body with all his strength. He can't feel his legs, he's not sure they're attached.

His fingers touch a scarred body, limp burnt flesh, and he forces his eyes open. It's a child, a girl, pinned by fallen debris, body limp as Nicky moves her.

He stares at her face, trying to see past the ruined flesh. He doesn't recognise her. That's the worst part. Was this a child dearly beloved by him, or a stranger he tried and failed to save?

Nicky doesn't know, so he wails until he chokes on ash, his lungs succumb to the heat and he dies again.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Nicky wakes in a room, stretched out on a bed. The world is calm. Joe is sitting on a chair, watching over him. He’s hunched over, hands clasped together, elbows on his knees. The room is cleared of weapons and bland enough to be within a range of a hundred years.

“Year?” Nicky croaks.

Joe’s head snaps up. “2020,” he answers. “Malta?”

Sì.

Joe releases a breath. “Where are you coming from?”

“Not far,” is all Nicky says. He never tells Joe of the quick lives, the flashes of suffering, too quick to even place on a timeline.

He doesn’t often awake in the calm. It’s usually carnage and trenches and move-before-they-see-you. He takes the opportunity to stretch and flop down on the bed again.

Some of the little mysteries solved, Joe moves to sit on the bed beside him. Nicky throws an arm around him easily and curls his head into Joe’s hip.

“Where are we?”

“Turkey.”

“Hmm.”

Nicky raises his arm and touches Joe’s chest. Already his heart is slowing from the maddening pace. If Nicky has been dressed and cleaned already, he must have been incapacitated for a while. Or perhaps it was a long, slow death. Brain bleeds and pneumonia and radiation poisoning are familiar territory. Whatever it was, it held him in death long enough to worry Joe, there is a furrow between his brows.

“You are mad at me.”

“You got hit by a car, Nicky. This was supposed to be a holiday.”

Ah, internal bleeding, then.

A line of tension is still pulled through Joe’s back. Nicky sits up against the headboard, and Joe turns so they are face to face.

“We talked about this, Nicky,” Joe starts, an old worn argument for him, but new and confusing for Nicky. “We needed to rest together, then you went and put yourself in danger again. It probably wasn’t even going to be a lethal crash-”

“What, you want me to apologise? I wasn’t even there, I didn’t have that conversation with you.”

“Well, he’s not here, is he? You are.”

Joe stands, his face a grimace.

“Well, what do you want me to say?” Nicky throws after him. Joe doesn’t answer, doesn’t rise to the bait of throwing barbs just to feel satisfaction of causing pain when they land. A small clue that this Joe has lived more than this version of Nicky has.

Nicky’s heart aches. He gets up to stand behind Joe and presses his forehead to those soft curls.

“Oh, amore mio. How long has it been since the last death?”

“Two years. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it, my love. The holiday is finished anyway.”

Two years, a sizeable stretch. Enough to mourn the consistency of life with the same man. They squeeze each other close, then release. Joe begins opening drawers, the tension in him slowly easing.

“Is there work to do?”

“Booker. He has a job, we’re meeting in Marrakesh in three days. Andy’s been traveling for a year.” He gives a small wrapped package to Nicky. “For her.”

Nicky gives it a sniff with a small smile. “Good odds?”

Joe shrugs, but returns the smile. They will be with family soon.

 


 

 

(The baklava won’t make it past Andy’s sharp senses, which Nicky knew when he bought it. It will give Joe a hearty laugh to see him defeated, and he will wonder if this was a bid for forgiveness from the one who died too soon?)

 

 


The first time


 

 

The first time Nicolò died, it was on the battlefield in the Holy Land. He was full of self-righteous fury and he cut down the man who killed him.

When he hit the ground the noise of battle left him, and he could hear only rushing like the waves of his home town. He landed face up, staring at the open blue sky. It was far bluer than the sky from home, bright with the hot sun. It was beautiful. So many years fighting for this sacred land, Nicolò had never noticed how beautiful it was.

 

 

 


 

 

 

The first time Nicolò awakes, he is sure he has been judged by the Almighty and been sent to hell. It is dark, and there is cold stone under his body, a cave, perhaps, only one hewn by human hands, the lines straighter and cleaner than any he saw in the Roman ruins. He is face down, and his whole body is on fire with pain.

There is light that he sees, cold and blue flames captured in small boxes. And figures too, unholy figures garbed in strange black clothes gathered around him, each one holding bright lights shining out and long menacing black sticks. Everything is cold. Everything is pain.

He is on the ground, there are others on the ground, too. His head is turned towards them and they are bloodied and broken and dead.

He is staring at the face of a woman, her face illuminated like ice by the blue light, blood and wounds maring her body. As he stares, the corpse begins to stir.

The open wound on her face is closing, and she coughs. All three of the dead begin to rise, unholy and horrible. One looks straight at Nicolò, a man like a corpse.

Nicolò screams and screams, and there is sound louder than he’s ever heard before and sharp pain in his body, and he dies again.

Chapter Text

Yusuf lives for a year before he sees that mysterious Frank a second time. He is half convinced it was a dream, or that in a vision of madness he awoke from death to see a Crusader speaking his tongue and with soft eyes. He had used the word immortality, and at first Yusuf hadn’t believed him, but the wounds which heal after every battle forced him to confront the truth that something has changed within him. Even still, he’s not foolhardy, he hasn’t died again yet.

But the Crusader plagues his dreams, he searches for that face, those eyes among the living and the dead, but for a year he sees nothing. Sometimes they have taken prisoners, and Yusuf had elected to guard them, learn some of their language and ask careful questions about one of their own. But in this battle, there is no chance for prisoners. There is no chance of mercy.

He is escorting his General to the front lines, carving a path for him through the chaos. He bloodies his sword on many of the invaders, moving swiftly but getting tired in the long battle.

“Demon!”

There is a cry across the battlefield, and Yusuf sees him, only-

This is not the same man who had tended to him after they killed each other. That man had been calm, wise, possessing a knowledge beyond what Yusuf could imagine.

This man is feral.

His eyes are wide and crazed. He’s wielding his sword with brutality, cutting down man after man, but he is running for Yusuf, screaming in Ligurian.

“What the hell have you done to me?” The Frank cries.

Their swords meet with a clang, vibrations buzzing up Yusuf’s arm.

“Nicolò!”

“Release me from this curse!”

The man lunges at him, full of fear and anger, and Yusuf does not understand. This was the man that had explained immortality to him with such poetic words.

“You are the one who did this to me!” Yusuf parries back with his words and sword.

“Stop torturing me! Let me die!” The man begs, teeth bared. Then he runs Yusuf through.

He pulls his sword free, then, standing over Yusuf in victory, he is caught by a crossbow bolt through the neck, and they go down together. Just how they did the first time.

 


 

Yusuf is lined up among the rows of the dead. His brothers in arms are laid on the floor beside him, arranged but not yet prepared for funerary rites. His helmet and turban have been removed, but his armour and boots are still on. His hand is clutching his sword to his chest.

There is a hand in his hair, petting him gently to wake.

Yusuf bolts upright and scrambles away, brandishing his sword between himself and the other man. The point wavers between his face and throat.

The warrior is there with him, but this one is much more like the first. Settled, unnerving. A twin perhaps?

No, not a twin - by all that is holy - he is fiddling with the crossbow bolt that killed him.

“Good evening, Yusuf.” And they are back to Arabic.

“What is happening to me? What is wrong with us?”

He doesn’t just want the man dead this time, he wants answers.

“It is time you knew more.”

The Frank is wearing different clothes, his head wrapped in a scarf that drapes down over his shoulders. These are more the clothes of Yusuf’s own people than those of a Crusader. The man wears them easily. He stands and arranges the scarf to hide his face.

“Come. We do not belong in the place of the dead. Leave your armour, put this on.”

Yusuf obeys and replaces his bloodied tunic with the one Nicolò hands him. The belt and scabbard he keeps, cleaning the sword thoroughly before putting it away. Nicolò stands at the doorway, keeping careful watch.

Yusuf follows after him. “Why did you kill me?”

Nicolò holds up a hand to stop him walking out into the street where a unit of soldiers pass by. “Not here.”

Yusuf follows this foreigner through the streets of the city. He moves with an easy grace, it’s almost hypnotic.

“I’m sorry you have been alone this past year.” Nicolò says over his shoulder. There is a strange accent to his words. “I think it must have been difficult to detangle from the army and track you again.”

“I knew a man from Cairo once,” Yusuf says. “He fell from the city wall and woke up with parts of his life missing. He couldn’t recognise his children, but knew his parents.”

“You think this is what happened to me?” Nicolò asks with a smile. “You are very clever, Yusuf, and not far off.”

The city under siege is a tense place, women and children whispering among themselves, all in fear.

“I will take you outside the city,” Nicolò says. “And I will answer any questions you have. But you must then choose your own path.”

They escape the city in the dark of the evening and walk through the night. By the time the sun is rising they have made it through to nearby farms, mostly sacked for the invasion, but in the rubble they scrounge enough food for a meal. Some abandoned flatbread, unpulled, undersized root vegetables and water pulled from the nearby well make a passable stew that they cook in a pot that was left behind.

Nicolò sits in the dirt on a ridge and gestures for Yusuf to take the place across from him. He asks in an awkward phrasing. “What were you told when you first resurrected?”

It is the first sentence Nicolò has said that was stilted, usually so fluent.

You told me,” Yusuf answers, stressing the pronoun, “that we are immortal. We would live and die and live again.” He rubs at the spot in his belly where the straight sword had pierced him the day before. “I didn’t believe you.”

“You know now that it is true. And what else did I say?”

“That there are others like us, that can share in our burden.”

He feels like a student at his childhood mosque again, proving his memory to the ulama.

“You said we are bound together. I’m finding that hard to believe, too. There is no place in my life for my repeat murderer.”

Yusuf glares at him, expecting a fight, but Nicolò’s face gives nothing away. Totally impassive. A battle of wills, and one that Yusuf loses.

“You said I could ask questions.”

“You may not like the answers.” Nicolò waves a hand. “But I shall try.”

“Why did you kill me?”

Nicolò thins his lips, but replies. “The first time, because your people were the ones I was taught to hate. I know better now.”

“You killed me yesterday,” Yusuf points out.

Nicolò laughs. “I am sometimes quick to learn, sometimes slow.”

The next question ferments a while in Yusuf’s mind. “If I cannot die, what is to become of me? Life eternal is not natural.”

“Nothing that lives, lives forever.” Nicolò replies, the cadence of a familiar chant. “One day you will die. Our wounds will stop healing, and it will be our end. But there are many centuries to go yet. You are still new.”

New. He doesn’t feel new. “Then how old are you?”

Nicolò barks a laugh that feels just a little too harsh. “That is a difficult question.”

The sun has risen now and Nicolò turns his face towards it.

“Have you studied the stars, Yusuf?”

“I am not a scholar.”

“But you know of the movement of the stars and the planets.”

Yusuf inclines his head.

A long fingered hand spreads out and passes in front of him, tracing a path in the morning sky. “All of the stars travel the same way, slow, but onward, onward, yes?”

“Yes.” Yusuf wonders if the man has lost his mind again.

“But the planets do not have this path.” The hand turns to a point, and the finger wiggles like a dance, back and forth, twisting around back onto its own path. “Their movement is different. You, the others like us, and the rest of this world, you live like the stars. Your life goes through time straight, one day after the next. I am not like the rest. My life is back and forth, and detached from the way you live yours.”

“What do you mean by this?” Yusuf demands.

For the first time, Nicolò looks sheepish. “I killed you yesterday, and you awoke at the same time, the same place. But when I die, I wake at different times, different places. This bolt,” he tosses it to Yusuf, and it lands in the dirt by his knee, “it killed me yesterday, but I woke up many years from now. I lived several lifetimes in those places before returning here and pulling it from my neck.”

“You asked me how old I am. By my best guess, I am somewhere in the realm of 200 years old. The one that you met first was older, the one yesterday was younger.”

“Older, what, so that wasn’t you who cooked me fish?”

“Is that what I did?” Nicolò has a soft smile. “No, I haven’t yet lived that life. But I will.”

“It was short,” Yusuf feels the need to confess. “I killed you.”

“Well then, in that case I look forward to it.”

Yusuf feels confused, tracing the words of this strange man over and again in his mind. “So you have seen the future. Have you seen the past?”

“No, no.” Nicolò says. “My first death was the first we shared. Until that day I was an ordinary man.”

The city stirs in the distance, and Yusuf hears the adhan calling for fajr prayer. The start of a new day.

“You said there were others.”

“Yes. You have been dreaming about them.”

“Oh,” Yusuf breathes, “the women.”

“They will be dreaming of you, too, until you find each other.”

“Why? Why do we live again? Why are there others, what is this all for?”

Nicolò puts his hands up in a shrug. “I believe it is because we are meant to find each other. It’s like destiny.” He tilts his head back and looks down his nose at Yusuf. “As for what to do with our long lives... what would you do with yours?”

Yusuf hadn’t considered. He has a warrior’s skill, and there are invaders in this land. “I have more work to do here.”

“Perhaps.”

“What do you mean, perhaps?”

“You were recognised when you died yesterday. You weren’t lost in the battle, your body was recovered with honour.” Nicolò was infuriatingly correct. “What would the General do, I wonder, with an un-killable guard? Trust him?”

“What else can I do?” Yusuf balls his fists up.

Nicolò lets Yusuf’s anger pass and says in his same steady tone, “I said I would answer your questions, then you may choose your path.”

“You’ve lived the future. Don’t you already know?” The words come out pointed and cruel.

“Some things I know, but I have learnt not to meddle. I can only guess, and I have been wrong before.”

“There are other fronts in this war,” Yusuf muses. “Other places I could fight.”

Nicolò’s face turns to the horizon again. “Alright.”

This confusing man, who is at once his enemy and his mentor, who knows too much but has parts missing. A man unstuck from time. He doesn’t offer anything back, and for a brief moment Yusuf feels pity.

“And what about you?”

“What of me?”

“I mean, what will you do? Where will you go?”

Nicolò swallows, and his eyelashes flutter as he blinks rapidly. Some sand in his eyes, perhaps?

“I will go where I am needed.” He says, finally. His voice is rough, “I will do the good I can do.”

“Well then.” Decisions made, Yusuf gets to his feet. He reaches out a hand to help up his murderer, and Nicolò grasps him by the forearm. “I am sure this is not the last time we shall meet, Nicolò di Genova.”

Nicolò’s hand falls away from his own, limp. “I’m sure it’s not.” He returns.

They stare at each other, each unwilling to move. Nicolò’s hand rests on the pommel of his sword.

“Allow me to walk with you until evening prayer,” Nicolò asks. His phrase is awkward and formal, bidding on Yusuf’s hospitality. “It will be a long journey to the next battlefront, and it is not good for men such as us to be alone.”

Confused, but respectful, Yusuf replies, “as you like.”

 


 

They disassemble their little camp, taking the last of the vegetables and wrapping them in a makeshift bag. After assessing the surrounding geography, Yusuf plots a path that will keep them away from the battlefield and they begin their walk. It’s a comfortable pace once they make the road, with a smattering of conversation, pointing out this plant or that marker for the other’s opinion. Still, Yusuf doesn’t trust the other immortal, least of all his stories of living other lives. It's all so strange and far fetched that it feels too big to believe.

When the sun hits its peak, they rest for an hour in the shade of a large tree. Yusuf compliments Nicolò on his handle of Arabic, and the other man is bashful in return.

“I had a good teacher,” he says, and the look on his face leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

Yusuf doesn’t pray on their journey, doesn’t trust the man enough to put his sword out of reach and close his eyes. When Nicolò learns his worry, he laughs.

“I wouldn’t worry about that, my friend. Of the two of us, I am the better swordsman right now. I would only take you in a fair fight.”

“Is that so?” Yusuf returns. He doesn’t mention the endearment that seems to have slipped out so easily, but he dwells on it as they walk.

Once or twice they meet another one of Yusuf’s people on the road, and Nicolò hides his face. He still offers a greeting of peace as Yusuf barters for a small portion of food, but refuses the invitation to sit with them for the meal.

“They think you are a deserter,” Yusuf says once they have continued down the road.

“I guess I am.”

Evening comes, and they have barely circumnavigated the battlefield, going as they have at such a great distance. Nicolò’s eyes begin to dart out to the horizon and further, likely making his own plans to travel on alone. Yusuf feels a strange surge in his belly against the idea.

“Stay the night,” Yusuf says before he can doubt the words. “Sorry, I mean, it is dangerous for you to travel alone in this land. Permit me to ask a few more questions.”

“As you like,” Nicolò returns.

They make camp below an outcropping of rock, hardly more than a shelf, and let the rock shelter them. They make do with their foraged vegetables, enough to feel fed but not full. They had both been on military rations, and the slow walking pace was less strenuous than fighting a war. A small fire burns between them, Yusuf continues to keep his distance, even after he requested the man’s company.

“Do we do this often in the future?” Yusuf asks. At Nicolò’s arched eyebrow he clarifies: “Share a meal?”

Nicolò gives a small, hidden laugh, but does not answer. A few minutes later he says: “How strange it is to see life through your eyes.”

Yusuf gets a distasteful feeling in his mouth, like he has eaten a sour grape. He feels the need to protest that he is not a child, but at the memory of his nephews protesting the same, he holds his tongue.

At the thought Yusuf swears. “My family,” he says, “I haven’t been home for two years. How am I supposed to tell them?”

“That is the one question I cannot answer.” Nicolò looks confused and uncertain in a way he hasn’t looked before. “You never told me what you did.”

“What did you do?”

“I haven’t decided either.” Nicolò bundles up some fabric into a makeshift pillow and spreads out on his back on the other side of the campfire. He had surrendered the covered area to Yusuf and the fire they built. “Sleep on it, Yusuf. There is no need to make a decision tonight.”

Yusuf sees the other man’s eyes open in the dim light and watches how he gazes openly at the night’s sky.

“How beautiful.”

“What?” Yusuf asks.

“The stars.”

Yusuf cranes his head up. The stars are the same as they have always been. A stunning depiction of the Creator’s majesty, but nothing he hasn’t seen before.

“You forget what you miss, when it’s gone.”

“Don’t tell me the heavens themselves are destroyed in the future,” Yusuf warns.

Nicolò laughs. “No, no, not quite so dramatic. Often hidden, yes, but not destroyed.”

Yusuf imagines a world layered in cloud, where not even the light from the moon can be seen in the ink of the night, and he shudders.

“You said you had more questions.”

“Why do you always wake before I do?”

“You’re a heavy sleeper,” Nicolò says easily, then he looks over at Yusuf, bashful again. “Oh, you meant, when you die.” Yusuf jerks his head back. How could this stranger so easily comment on Yusuf’s sleep? Unless he is, after all, telling the truth.

“The first few times are slow. I merely have more experience waking, and larger wounds take longer to heal. Trust me, I would rather we wake together.”

He keeps bidding Yusuf to trust him, a strange bet and one Yusuf is not sure will pay off.

“We live and we die.” How easily Yusuf says this now. “How far does that stretch? If I lose a finger, is it gone forever?”

“It re-grows. Same with a limb.”

“What about a head?”

“I’ve never seen it, and I don’t intend to, thank you very much.” Nicolò’s face is a picture of horror and confusion.

“I was only curious.” Yusuf mumbles. “Can we starve?”

Nicolò’s face closes off. “It is not a pleasant thing. You want a loyal friend to nurse you, as you die and revive. Your body eats itself first.”

“I’m sorry,” Yusuf says. “Is it painful?”

“I don’t know. They gave me their food, and I defended their bodies from theft until there was food again.”

“From theft? Why would - oh.”

“Yes.” The silence stretches into the darkness.

Another question comes unbidden into Yusuf’s mind. “Does this war ever end?”

“All things end,” Nicolò says. He has closed his eyes and looks surprisingly peaceful. “But this conflict lasts longer than most. I feel there is always blood shed into these sands. Sleep, Yusuf. There will be more time for questions in the morning.”

Yusuf bristles under the assumption that he will stay in the morning, that they won’t part ways as he had planned. He cracks the logs of the fire into embers and lets them glow out. He is asleep before the embers die.

 


the thrum of hooves in orange sand, red clothes flapping at speed, dipped in blood. Another woman, her arms uncovered, a lion on her chestplate, urging the horse on, a double bladed axe at her hip.


 

Yusuf wakes with a choked gasp. Nicolò is already up, his dagger drawn.

“It’s alright,” he chokes out. “Just a dream.”

This hardly settles Nicolò, but he sits back down. “The others,” he says, voice grave.

Yusuf rubs a hand down his face. “Yes. The women.”

“How are they?”

Yusuf waves a hand. “Just a dream.”

“Not these dreams. They show you as they are.”

“Then shouldn’t you know?”

“I do not have the dreams as you do.” Nicolò has a strand of sadness in his voice. “Perhaps because I have already met them, or merely because I am different.”

Oh, Yusuf realises, the others that are to share their burden, they must be his companions in the future.

“I saw they were on a horse, riding hard. There was blood dripping from their weapons.”

A choked laugh. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“What kind of women are they?”

In the darkness, Nicolò is barely visible, Yusuf can’t make out his face. “They are more incredible than you can imagine. Go back to sleep, Yusuf. You won’t dream of them again tonight.”

 


 

Yusuf wakes early, before dawn, when only a dim light brushes the horizon. Nicolò rolled onto his side during the night, facing the burnt out fire. In the dim light, Yusuf can see his face spasming in a dream. Yusuf decides not to interfere, he doesn’t know what he would say anyway.

He goes down to the river to wash and to pray, content with the distance between them to protect him from attack from his enemy. Is he still his enemy? Yusuf doesn’t know. There is so much he doesn’t know.

When he returns, Nicolò is awake. He has stripped off his shirt and is doing some strange exercises, dressed only in his loose pants. He lies flat over the ground, with only his toes and hands touching the earth, and lowers and raises himself quickly. His lips are pursed as he breathes tight rapid breaths in and out as he pushes himself up and down against the ground.

“What are you doing?”

Nicolò responds with the rising and falling beat of his exercise. “They are called push-ups.” With that he holds himself steady, so low to the ground and so long that the muscles in his arms and back tremble with exertion. Then, with a gracefulness Yusuf has never seen before, his back bends and he somehow flicks himself to his feet. He stretches his neck then groans. “I do not feel as fit for battle as I would like.”

“I thought you said you were the better swordsman,” Yusuf says dryly.

Nicolò laughs, the first bright and easy laugh Yusuf has heard, and says an unfamiliar word; “Touché.”

He takes up his blade and swings, loosening his wrist and moving his feet easily. “Before I woke here, I was taking a holiday.” He looks distracted in the familiar routines of practice. “The body is the same, but you would be surprised how much strength and stamina is in the mind.”

He changes his grip on his sword and raises it. “Spar?”

Yusuf recoils. The thought of trading friendly blows with the man that killed him twice over repulses him.

Something shifts under the skin of Nicolò’s face. His smile doesn’t drop, nothing really changes, and whatever shadow is there is gone by the time he sheaths his sword.

“Another time, perhaps,” says the man outside of time, “I will wash and be with you soon,” and he quickly leaves.

Yusuf kicks apart the cooled coals and buries them in the dirt. If he’s a bit sharper with his actions than usual, he’s only letting out the frustration of his new reality. Life is death, and his enemy calls him friend. Nicolò is acting as if the invitation to sit and camp with him was an ongoing one, will he ever be free of the infuriating Frank?

Yusuf mutters under his breath, building up his anger on purpose until he’s almost at boiling point.

Nicolò arrives back from the river, his long hair wetted back and knotted with a strand of leather, but a few strands have already escaped and cling to the long column of his neck.

“Thank you for the evening,” Nicolò says, collecting his sword and dressing quickly. “I will take my leave and make for the coast, find some way to do some good in this war.”

At once, all the heat of anger leaves Yusuf, and he is filled with nothing but pity. Together they erase the signs of their camp and collect their things, the silence heavy between them.

Nicolò inclines his head in salute and farewell then turns away. He marches away, keeping a soldier’s pace as he circles up to the ridge. Yusuf doesn’t move from his spot, rooted and stuck as the only link to his future and understanding of what is happening to him hikes away.

“Wait!” He calls with a strained voice. He is halfway up the hill to Nicolò before he can call out again so the other man hears him. “Wait. Stay with me one month more.”

Nicolò won’t meet his eye. “Why?”

“It will give me time to learn your language.” Yusuf is surprised to realise that the words coming from his mouth are true. “You said this war continues on. We can take the time to find a way to fight together.”

Nicolò hasn’t yet covered his head, his hair is soft around his neck and ears as it dries. “You don’t need to learn Ligurian, I thought my Arabic was quite good.”

“I need Ligurian to teach you Arabic.”

Nicolò’s eyes soften. “I never said you taught me Arabic.”

“It’s true though, isn’t it?”

Nicolò laughs. “Si, yes, it’s true.

“Then I must learn.” Yusuf spreads his arms out, like it is the simplest thing in the world, to tie himself to his murderer. “I will go with you to the coast, and you can teach me on the way.”

The moment hangs there between them, then Nicolò steps to the side and gestures to Yusuf, after you.

When the month runs out, neither one of them asks for a second. They don’t need to. From then on, it is never a question that they travel together. It bears true for all of their lifetimes.

Chapter Text

The months stretch into years and even after three, still Nicolò walks beside this strange, young version of his heart. Pazienza becomes his chant, patience, patience. He is determined to show Yusuf the same measure of patience and kindness that was shown to him.

Yusuf is so much more skeptical as a young man, he holds everything back. Or tries to, at least. Nicolò knows every movement, every twitch of his hands. He manages to pretend he doesn’t see it, tries to give him some measure of privacy as he works through his immortality. Still, it is one thing to see Yusuf angry, quite another thing entirely to feel powerless to fix it.

He is desperately lonely for company. He knows if Yusuf were here, his Yusuf, he would look at him with a fond expression and tease him for acting like a child. But as it stands, he is alone with Yusuf’s eyes that are too hard and turn cold too quickly.

He takes to quizzing Yusuf after each one of his dreams. Which way did the mountains curve? What kind of thread did you see? Draw for me the carvings you saw. Yusuf humours him for a time, but quickly grows tired of it. Nicolò feels the tension rise and backs off without a word. He is forever doing this delicate dance of flirtation and distance. It is a headache, and one that Yusuf often runs out of patience for.

One time Yusuf draws his sword and holds the tip steady at Nicolò’s throat, demanding the secrets of the future. Nicolò has half a mind to let him, surrender this war of attrition and escape to any life, any future, anything to get away from this stranger with his partner’s face.

Patience, patience.

But then he will walk alongside Yusuf, and hear him murmuring as they travel, and realise that the man is reciting the Ligurian vocabulary he has learnt. He learns Nicolò’s native tongue with the same focus and determination he puts to everything else, at first forming clumsy sentences with fits and starts, nothing like the easy fluidity Nicolò is used to. Until one day, as Nicolò passes him his oiled and sharpened sword and Yusuf murmurs his thanks in practiced Ligurian and makes an offhand comment about the weather and Nicolò’s heart seizes in his chest.

Nicolò needs an outlet and takes out his frustration in a personal mission behind enemy lines where Yusuf cannot follow. He strips a Crusader uniform from a corpse and slips into the camp. He remembers enough of the structure and protocol to manipulate himself into a position of authority there. He cuts and re-routes supply lines enough to disrupt their outpost and force the army to retreat across ground they had gained. When he is discovered he fights his way out of there, cutting down peasant and knight alike, barely more than a few good hits landing on him.

He finds Yusuf again, covered in blood and only a little of it is his, and Yusuf grasps for the hilt of his sword.

“Nicolò, are you-?”

“Still me,” Nicolò assures him. “I did not die.”

It is surprisingly difficult to die here. Most deaths in these wars are slow, from infection and disease, slow enough that their bodies heal before they succumb. Nicolò has seen bullets rip through a body and still kill the one behind it. Arrows can puncture and swords can slice, but going down and playing dead for a moment is often enough time to heal up before life is snuffed out. That is, if the enemy even gets close enough to attack. Nicolò is earning quite a reputation for himself on the battlefield.

Yusuf isn’t quite so lucky. He has died twice more since Nicolò joined him, and both times Nicolò blames himself. He had moved too quickly through the attacking army, leaving the remainders to be handled by Yusuf, but it was too much for him, and he was overwhelmed. He’s still so early into his training. How quickly he forgets that Yusuf doesn’t know the steps to their dance. Nicolò holds entrails in Yusuf’s gut as the wound stitches over and Yusuf gasps to life.

“What should I do, if you die?” Yusuf asks the next day, as they bury yet another one of Yusuf’s countrymen. The young soldier had seen Yusuf rise from the dead, but had been killed in battle shortly after.

“You must be patient with me,” Nicolò replies easily. “Speak to me, tell me where we are, what we need, and I will follow you.”

“Why?”

“You are…” Nicolò waves a hand, grasping for the word in either tongue, “il mio unico puncto fermo.”

Yusuf squints, trying to parse the Ligurian. “Fixed?”

“My rock. Anywhere I am, you are.”

Yusuf doesn’t respond to that, but the line in his brow says he is thinking about the nature of free choice and determinism again.

They lead a small band of highly trained men through mountainous terrain to circumnavigate a battalion of Crusaders. It’s a risky mission, one they would be happy to take on themselves, but the men with them are foolish and brave, as they themselves once were. Nicolò and Yusuf take the night watch together, so they can speak of secret things without being heard.

Nicolò is digging into the ground with a stick, keeping his hands busy. “This war is so slow,” he complains about nothing in particular. It is difficult and time consuming to move an army without horses or jeeps. “There is so much waiting. I have seen war where it is death after death. These weapons are brutal, but not every time lethal.”

“You are saying that bows and swords improve over time?” Yusuf asks, one of the rare times he enquires after the future in good humour.

“Humans are warmongers. They will continue to perfect the craft long after we are gone.”

The mission goes sideways, and they are left dragging their wounded men away, too many dismembered and close to death’s door they have to leave behind, carrying only the few who could perhaps survive. Nicolò doesn’t let them stop until they reach a well that still has clear water. He washes everything, even the open wounds, and is so frenetic that Yusuf is exasperated, proclaiming “my hands are clean!” as Nicolò pours fresh water over them again before he tends to the next wounded.

When they return to the army, their wounded in tow, Nicolò is suspected as a double agent and they are run out of the camp. They barely escape alive, and they run through the night and most of the next day. In hiding they have the chance to discuss their families again.

Nicolò has already decided. His family is half a world away, and even if he could guarantee he would survive the journey, he had already lived so many years apart from them and seen Genoa changed. To revisit would be to reopen a wound already healed.

Yusuf doesn’t have that luxury. He decides to leave for his hometown and tells Nicolò he will be back before winter sets in. Nicolò says goodbye with a heavy heart and stays in the border towns. He learns of a gang of bandits that is taking advantage of the destabilized area. He hunts them to their hide-out, careful not to be seen until he knows the full scope of their operation.

The slaughter is brutal and bloody and not nearly as satisfying as he had hoped. He raids their supplies and takes most of their equipment and coin. Unfortunately these caves are a little too routinely used to be good for longer term storage, so he sets out to leave the valuable items outside of homes he knows have been targeted. The coin he counts out and keeps, wondering if this same small pile of money will continue to be grown and invested until it buys a small farm and cottage, overlooking the sea on a Mediterranean island.

Nicolò rents himself out as a hired hand to a farming family there, and they are amazed at his pale skin that never burns in the sun. The family has seen a few deserters pass through their town, hoping for a better life far away from war. None, however, that speak their language or are as kind as Nicolò.

When Yusuf returns, he finds Nicolò drunk and dancing with a girl child a little more than ten years old. The family that had taken him in celebrating the first chills of winter with a bonfire. His confusion at the scene is evident, and only deepens when Nicolò can’t help but embrace him. He moves back before Yusuf can react, holding him firmly by the shoulders.

“Yusuf, are you well?”

Yusuf doesn’t answer. He greets the family briefly but turns back to Nicolò, “We should be going. We have more work to do further north.”

 


 

Yusuf can’t bear to speak of what he saw in his hometown. He wants to hold it close to his chest, but the way Nicolò looks at him fills his heart with bitterness. Nicolò knows, he’s sure. He’s heard it all before, and it makes Yusuf uncomfortable to know that even his most treasured thoughts will one day be exposed to this man he doesn’t trust.

He is grateful, though, for the preparation Nicolò has done in the months Yusuf travelled. They now have packs and rations, good quality boots and more coin than he has ever held, even when he traded as a merchant. When he shares this with Nicolò he gives a small grin.

“My father was a trader, too,” Nicolò says. “And his father before him. Genoa is a port city, almost everyone is a merchant.”

“But not you?”

“I, ah, before I joined the Crusades I was in training to become a priest,” Nicolò says, bashful again.

Yusuf tries to imagine this ruthless warrior covered in blood, blessing communion and leading prayer.

“Being honest, Nicolò, I think you would have made a shit priest.”

Nicolò laughs, a full throated laugh that catches them both by surprise.

 


 

The weather turns colder and the days get shorter for their third winter together. Word had reached both armies of the pair of them, each enemy convinced they are working for the other side. There is nowhere for them to go, too infamous to carry out their missions. This is their first winter without the benefit of tents and horses and brothers in arms. They have to keep a fire burning through the night, and each buy an extra outer-cloak when they pass through a market.

One night Yusuf wakes to hear the shuffling of feet. He is already alert and reaching for his weapon when he sees Nicolò’s shape passing back and forth. Nicolò is fisting handfuls of his hair as he paces, muttering rapid Ligurian like the fall of heavy rain. Yusuf isn’t that fluent yet, he only catches a few familiar words, stupid, consequences, patience, you know what she would say.

“Peace, brother,” Yusuf calls, raising a hand.

Nicolò releases a strangled sound.

“What is wrong?”

“No, nothing, nothing is wrong,” Nicolò insists, flopping to the ground on the other side of the fire with a thud. “I am merely missing someone who won’t be here for a long time.”

An apology sticks in Yusuf’s throat, but he doesn’t let it escape. “You should get some sleep, if you can, Nicolò.”

The other man stands, jittery, and puts more wood on the fire. “It is a cold night,” he says, by way of explanation.

This won’t do at all. Yusuf shuffles back from his position by the fire and sharply inclines his head at the empty space beside him.

There is a beat of silence in the dead of night. Then Nicolò moves and takes the place between Yusuf and the still burning fire. His hands are twitching, and he doesn’t settle easily.

“By the Almighty, you are as skittish as a kitten,” Yusuf complains, pinning him down with an arm across his midsection. “Have you never shared warmth with another soldier before?”

“Not for,” Nicolò’s voice has dropped to a harsh whisper, “not for a long time.”

“Well then.” Yusuf throws the edge of his cloak over the both of them and firmly shuts his eyes. “Sleep,” he commands.

 


 

Yusuf wakes and rolls over onto his back and away from Nicolò. Always quickly alert, Nicolò rises and puts out their smouldering fire.

Seeing the Frank move as he does each morning, Yusuf feels a surge of pity at the distressed picture he painted the previous night, then he feels something approaching fondness for the smile he gives as he gets to work preparing their weapons.

They have no mission, no support, and nowhere to go.

“I had another dream last night,” Yusuf says. Nicolò twitches an eyebrow but doesn’t pause his movements dragging a whetstone against the edge of his blade.

“Of the women,” Yusuf clarifies. “I think they are close. I could smell some food, familiar food, and I am sure I have seen that river before.”

“Could you draw it?” Nicolò asks.

Yusuf takes a stick to the wet smooth dirt and draws, stepping lightly so his feet don’t leave prints. It’s a difficult perspective, from some mountain top overlooking the curves of the river flowing from a large lake. One of the mountains in the distance has a distinct ridge that he points out to Nicolò. In turn, Nicolò points to a certain curve of the river.

“Was there a mosque here? With two spiral minarets?”

“Yes.”

“I know the place. Or I will, one day. The river changes course, but that mountain remains the same. It is maybe a four week journey.”

Their eyes meet, but they do not speak, Nicolò seems to be waiting on Yusuf for a decision.

Yusuf nods. They will seek out the others.

 


 

It takes two weeks, the women are clearly also seeking them out, and they meet in the middle in a long rocky valley. Yusuf stands in the middle of the road to meet them first, Nicolò preferring to keep watch from a higher vantage point until contact is made.

The Asian one is riding a horse, and the Greek with the lion on her chest walks alongside it. Nicolò refused to tell Yusuf anything more about them, insisting it was important for them to meet as naturally as possible.

“Peace be upon you!” Yusuf calls out. “I have been dreaming about you.”

The Greek turns to the other woman. “This is the one,” she turns back to Yusuf and speaks Arabic with a strange accent, “where is the other?”

“Waiting,” Yusuf replies. “Until you know that we mean no harm.”

The Greek points to the outcropping of rocks that Nicolò had taken shelter behind and arches her brow. Ah, Yusuf realises, a woman used to ambush.

The Greek is on edge, and she confers with the other one in harsh whispers.

“What is your name?” The one seated on the horse asks.

“Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Kaysani.” He pauses. “Yusuf.”

The woman smiles kindly, while the Greek scowls. “I am called Quynh, this is Andromache. She said that we would find you. You must be confused and scared. What do you know?”

“I know that we live and we die and we live again,” Yusuf replies, no shred of confusion or fear in his voice. “May I call my friend down?”

The women look to each other and share a sharp nod, and Yusuf twitches his fingers over his head. Nicolò emerges and slides down the rocky slope. His face is unusually impassive, bright eyes darting between the two of them.

“Prove it.” The one named Andromache jerks her chin forward, holding her double bladed axe at her side. Before I find out for myself is heavily implied.

Yusuf pulls a dagger from his belt and rolls up his sleeve. He cuts a line across his forearm, deep enough that blood gushes forth. He waits a moment then wipes the blood away, flicking the excess into the dirt. No more blood wells up, his flesh is soft and healed.

Quynh dismounts easily and grabs his hand. “Extraordinary,” she says, looking him over, “and impressive that you trust us so quickly. It wasn’t like that with Lykon.”

“None of this is like it was with Lykon,” Andromache mutters, her eyes narrow. “I don’t like it.” She points a finger at Nicolò. “This one doesn’t speak?”

Dunamai lalein, I am capable of speech.” He answers in Koine Greek. “My name is Nicolò di Genova.”

“The dreams were hazy around you. Why?”

“I cannot say.”

Andromache has a hard line to her jaw and she looks him over carefully. “You know too much.”

“I have lived a long time.”

“The dreams only started a few years ago,” she shoots back.

They stare at each other, not giving an inch.

“I am immortal, like you,” Nicolò says.

“I don’t buy it.”

“Maybe he is different?” Quynh suggests.

Before Yusuf can explain, Andromache speaks again.

“No, let’s see if you really are who you say you are.”

Her teeth bare, and she raises her labrys. Nicolò keeps his arms by his side, palms out as she charges at him.

“No! Wait!” Yusuf screams, but Andromache buries her axe in Nicolò’s chest.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Yusuf is over him, his face shaven, and he has a metal helmet on his head. Mud and trenches are common to all wars, but the screaming planes overhead place him firmly in the 20th century.

“Nicky, are you-”

He doesn’t get any further, because Nicolò surges upward and catches his mouth in a bruising kiss. It’s desperate, and there is blood in his mouth, and their teeth catch. They kiss in the open, and it’s just as exciting as it was the first time, and Nicolò’s leg is reattaching with a burning pain. Nicolò holds the back of Yusuf’s neck tightly, keeping him close, even as a shell explodes close by.

When they pull away, Yusuf’s eyes are searching his.

“I was never cut out to be a priest,” Nicolò says, his voice hoarse. “Three years is far too long to follow you around, do not touch, do not touch!”

With that, Nicolò sags back against the side of the trench with relief, his throat working hard as his body stitches itself back together.

Yusuf lies alongside Nicolò, pressing their bodies together and shielding him from the rest of the world.

“You’ve had some hard lives before, haven’t you?” He asks, speaking in English, a warning that Italian is not safe in this time.

“Not like this, you were right there, but you didn’t trust me, didn’t know me.”

Their hands hold each other, bloodied and through bulky uniforms, but it is enough.

“You must be coming from the early days.”

“From the first.”

“Ah, pazienza, pazienza.” Yusuf grins.

Nicolò cups a hand to Yusuf’s cheek, and the brown eyes soften. “Oh, I have missed you.”

“I am right here.”

There is a particularly close barrage of gunfire, and Nicky grunts.

“Where are the others?” He asks.

“Booker is embedded in la résistance, Andrew led the last charge, he’s fighting in no man’s land.” One of Andromache’s many disguises. Yusuf’s voice catches. “Quynh-”

“I know,” Nicky says, before that particular wound can reopen. He checks his body and finds all parts present. “Well, we have to push to the front.”

“Why?”

“I have no desire to die again today, but I have a score to settle with Andromache.”

 


 

Piles of dead, and the front line has advanced a few dozen feet. By the dark of the night Nicky and Joe are propped up across from each other against the walls of a trench, their legs entangled. Joe takes a long drag of his cigarette, and Nicky hasn’t taken his eyes off him since the fighting died down.

Nicky gives him a light kick at the hip. “You never told me.” Joe’s face is barely illuminated by the dim lamp that hangs from the repurposed rubble, but still Nicky catches the quirked eyebrow. “What happened when you went home,” Nicky finishes.

“Ah.” Joe doesn’t pretend he’s not delaying the inevitable when he takes another breath of smoke. “I thought you already knew.”

“No.”

“It was so long ago, Nicky.” There is a chance there, for the topic to be dropped, for them to move on from this painful reminder of their own immortality.

“Not for me.”

Joe tilts his head back and closes his eyes. “The word had already reached them, by the time I did. The whole city knew I was a traitor, or was it a deserter? I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. I would have been killed if I had revealed myself. I had to stay disguised.” His words come through stilted, uneasy. “My father was at the city gate, and I walked straight past him. I couldn’t stop. If I had stopped, I would have been killed.”

Nicky moves across the yawning gap between them and tucks himself under Joe’s arm.

“My parents were doing well. Wealthy and respected. Better than I thought, to be honest. I thought they would be scorned for what I did. I thought I ruined their lives. But they were okay. That’s all I needed to know.”

“I stayed out in the fields, in those little lean-to shelters for the harvest, do you remember?” Joe’s hand rests on the back of Nicky’s neck. “They um, they had a funeral for me. I paid one of the village kids to take me to my own grave. I guess it was easier to pretend I was dead instead of a traitor.”

“Maybe they wanted a place to grieve,” Nicky murmurs.

“Maybe.” Joe’s fingers play with the hairs at the nape of Nicky’s neck. “I don’t want to think about what awful thoughts they must have had about me. It must have been so hard for them, sending me off and being alone, then hearing I was a traitor. My sister’s husband died in the siege. I saw her spinning thread. And my nephew saw me, my sister’s boy, he was the only one who did. I gave him a coin, and he was convinced I was a ghost. It was the youngest one, fuck, what was his name?”

His hand clenches, another piece of his past slipping away.

“I will find out for you,” Nicky swears into Joe’s chest. “There are still many years missing from that time.”

Joe holds Nicky close and buries his nose in his soft hair.

“I am glad to have you again,” Nicky says.

“Even in this shithole?”

“Any shithole is worth it, if I can have you and be yours.”

“Oh, my dear Nicolò,” his fond smile can be heard in his soft voice, “and they call me the poet.”

Chapter Text

In 1715, Edinburgh, Nicholas is beaten to death in a riot against the unification of what will one day become Great Britain. Andrea drags him to safety and guards his body until Joseph finds them, throws Nicholas onto his back, and they go to their tenement building apartment.

They have a small room between the three of them, up on the top level. They have one bed and one chair to share. The shuttered window does nothing to stop the smell of shit coming from the streets, but it’s private.

Nicholas is healing, his wounds are stitching together, but he’s taking a long time to wake up, the longest he’s taken since he was dismembered by a cannonball in 1634. Joseph thinks he’s going to wake up young.

Andrea agrees with his assessment and takes her tobacco down to the street, waiting for the signal. It’s best for Nicholas to have a quiet awakening, if he can, there are too many variables, he needs a moment to orientate.

Joseph scrubs his face clean as he can and strips Nicholas out of his bloodied shirt-sleeves, but the underthings are clean enough to stay.

His body is mostly healed before he wakes.

Nicholas gasps, jolting from the thin bed and grasping at his hair, his chest. His eyes are wild and dart around the room, barely pausing on anything.

He doesn’t speak, doesn’t ask for the year or where they are. He’s hyperventilating, he’s-

“Nicolò,” Joseph says, and his own voice startles him.

Nicholas lets forth a barrage of Italian, old Ligurian, and it’s not clear if he even expects to be understood.

“My head, it was- What is happening? I have never- Who the hell is that?”

A lump fills Joseph’s throat, and he can’t speak. He gets up from the chair and pours clean water from their washstand into a tin cup to buy himself some time.

“You can call me Joseph.”

He turns to take the cup to Nicolò, but the room is so small he’s halfway across in one step and his love’s eyes fill with fear.

“No, don’t touch me.”

Joseph freezes. He sets the cup down on the floorboards and backs away into his chair. With his foot he nudges the tin cup towards Nicolò.

“You should drink.”

Nicolò doesn’t take his eyes off him. Slowly, his mouth drops open with realisation.

“Holy mother of God. You’re the Saracen.”

Sitting in his shirt-sleeves, waistcoat and breeches with the noise of the Scottish city from the window, Joseph feels every year of his six centuries removed from the Crusades. But he has to take himself back there, for Nicolò’s sake, for the sake of every fond memory they have built together.

“We met each other on the battlefield,” Joseph confirms.

“You killed me.”

“And yet you live again,” Joseph prods, nodding at Nicolò’s body as proof.

At that, Nicolò just shakes his head.

“This is nothing but pain. This is damnation.”

Joseph’s heart breaks again. He leans back and the chair creaks. Six hundred years to prepare and he still doesn’t know what to say.

At his hesitation, Nicolò builds up steam.

“What are you doing to me?”

“I am not doing this to you, we are going through it together.”

“Then we are both damned.”

“No,” Joseph says urgently, “we are immortal. Living and dying and living again. There are others like us. We take care of each other.”

Nicolò shakes his head again. “This is not living.”

Joseph looks to the ceiling, willing the tears to hold back. He hears Nicolò shuffle around on the bed, and gives him a moment before he leans forward and grabs the tin cup from the floor.

“You really should drink something. It’s just water, see?” Joseph takes a drink and smiles weakly. Like a mouthful of poison would do much.

Nicolò nods jerkily, his hands bundled in the thin blankets of the bed. He withdraws one and holds it out, and Joseph takes that as permission to move closer.

The moment their hands touch, Nicolò pulls his knife from under the pillow and stabs it into Joseph’s heart.

The wind is knocked out of him.

Demon,” Nicolò hisses.

Blood is pooling onto his waistcoat, but not much of it. Nicolò left the knife in his chest for the satisfaction of seeing it buried to the hilt, so it’s holding in most of the blood.

“Ow,” Joseph says.

This is not the first time Joseph has been stabbed in the heart, though never with so much poetical resonance. After he regains his breath he grips the handle and slowly eases the knife out, slow enough to let his heart heal around the wound, inch by inch.

Joseph smiles in a way he hopes is reassuring, but Nicolò is horrified at the tableau.

“See?” Joe wipes the knife on the rag by the washbasin. “We heal.”

Nicolò presses his back into the wall and doesn’t take his eyes off Joseph.

“I know you’re scared and confused,” Joseph says, dropping into the chair and letting the knife clatter by his feet. “Please allow me to speak, and I will try my best to explain.”

Nicolò doesn’t move. It’s as close to permission as Joseph is going to get.

“We are the same in many ways, but different in one. We don’t know why, but we have theories,” Joseph begins. “If you had killed me just now, not just wounded, I would have died for a minute, then woken back up right here, in this room. But you’re different. When you die, you always wake back up, but you wake up in different places, different times.”

Nicolò finally meets his gaze with disdain.

“I know you have no reason to believe me, to trust me,” Joseph says in a rush, “but surely you’ve noticed. Your hair is different, your clothes. Even the weather, this is not the Holy Land heat.”

A long fingered hand reaches up, grabs at his hair and tugs. “They shaved my head,” Nicolò murmurs.

Joe doesn’t know what memory Nicky is referring to, but he feels a surge of righteous anger all the same. He focuses to keep his voice level.

“You died in 1096, but right now the year is 1715.” At that, Nicolò jolts, and Joseph rushes to explain some more. “You didn’t lose all those years, one day you’ll go back and live them. You weave through and around history and your long, long life.”

“It’s merely a vision, a nightmare,” Nicolò insists.

“Stick around for a while, you’ll see that it’s not,” Joseph suggests. “Every time you die, you wake up in a different life, sometimes forward in time, sometimes back in time.”

“What kind of life is that?” Nicolò snarls.

“A good one, if you let it be so,” Joseph counters. “Nicolò, we are not on the battlefield here, we can be safe, or we’ll go out to the country, you can see for yourself.”

Nicolò presses the heels of his hands into his eyes.

“Why won’t you just let me die and stay dead?” He murmurs. He looks up sharply. “If I kill you, will it stop?”

“It won’t,” Joseph says with a soft smile. “But if it makes you feel any better, you are welcome to try.”

Nicolò sighs and scrapes a hand through his hair. He looks through the shuttered window and out into the street and is silent for a long time.

“If you can’t stop this torment, then I have nothing more to say to you,” Nicolò says with finality.

“Nicolò,” Joseph breathes, “you can’t ignore me forever. I am trying to help you.” But he gets no response.

A horse in the street whinnies, and Joe can hear shouting from the level below.

“Okay,” Joseph says. “Listen, Andromache is downstairs, she’s- there’s a woman, she’s like us. She’s incredible. She can help you understand.”

Nothing. Nicolò’s face is to the window, his shoulders a hard line.

“I’ll go get her.”

Joseph picks up the knife, and on second thought also grabs the swords and axe that are wrapped up in a cloth behind the door.

“Nicolò,” Joseph says, the bundle tucked under his arm. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

No movement. No recognition. There’s a chasm between them six hundred years deep.

He latches the door behind him and hesitates before he pulls out the metal key and locks Nicky in there. It seems cruel, but necessary, the key is heavy and uncomfortable as he clutches it in his hand, all the way down many flights of stairs.

Andromache has her hair tucked up into a cap, leaning against the side of their building in a wynd. She’s chewing tobacco noisily and spits it out when she sees Joseph.

Joseph has never hidden anything from her, and she always reads him easily.  She quickly embraces him, her hand cups the nape of his neck and strokes the soft curls there.

“How is he?”

“He’s young. I think, I think this is the first,” he says into her shoulder. “I mean, the first time he’s understood, there’s been, there’s been quick deaths, he’s scared.” His eyes scrunch shut. “He won’t speak to me.”

“Oh, Yusuf.” Endless lives she’s lived, and still, endless sympathy. “I’ll talk to him.”

They pull back from their embrace, and Andromache strokes a hand over the bloodied tear in Joseph’s waistcoat.

“He stabbed me.”

“That’s my boy.” Andromache smiles.

Joseph's laugh is a wet, sad thing.

“I feel so fucking helpless.”

Andromache presses their foreheads together.

There’s a crash of wood and a dull thump. A woman screams, piercing, voices raise, and Jospeh and Andromache rush back into the street.

The sight that greets them is horrific.

Faced with his new reality, trapped in an unfamiliar place, Nicolò had hurled himself through the window several stories high. He had hit the ground hard and snapped his own neck.

The one that wakes up knows them, comforts them, and they don’t talk about where the younger one went.

 

 

 


 

 

 

The Nicolò that threw himself into the street wakes up in the Holy Land, in the middle of a battle. Now this is familiar, the smell, the heat, the noise.

“A dream,” he says to himself. “Nothing but a dream.”

Someone calls out for him, his actual name, and Nicolò responds in Ligurian that is understood. A man grasps his elbow. The face is unfamiliar, but definitely one of his countrymen, and he pulls Nicolò to his feet.

“I thought you were dead,” the soldier says.

Nicolò looks down at the mud where he had been lying, trying to see his blood mixed in, but it’s all too dark to see.

“So did I.”

The soldier grins at him, all white teeth, and claps him on the shoulder. In the heat of battle there is no time to argue, they just accept the miracle.

For one long week, Nicolò fights with his countrymen again, and the routine is familiar and welcome. Some of the faces he recognises, some he doesn’t, but they all know him well, particularly the young man that pulled him to his feet. What is his name? Why doesn’t he recognise him? It never comes up, but the soldier talks freely with Nicolò about his small vineyard back home, the way the pigs snuffle at his boots, the little brother who waved him off to war.

Too quickly, they are fighting again for their Holy cause when the front lines break. It’s messy, confusion reigns as the war becomes man to man, each just fighting to survive.

“Nicolò!” The soldier calls again. He slices a Saracen in the thigh and yells out. “The enemy general is moving into the fray.”

Two more Nicolò cuts down. “Then this is our chance.”

The soldier grabs him. “No! His bodyguard is fearsome, no one who goes up against him lives.”

“Show me.”

They fight their way over the ridge, to where the battle is thickest, bodies are everywhere, intermingled, and many of them are still groaning, reaching for help as the two of them trudge past.

“See, there, by the standard.”

There is a warrior there, escorting a man with bright armour. The warrior is turbaned, his armour bloodied, and he wields his sword with fury.

“Watch out!” Nicolò pushes the other soldier out of the way. The forward guard has reached them. Three guards, strong and courageous, raise their swords towards Nicolò and his fellow soldier,  and the fight is on. They are fast, and like most sword fights, it’s over in two or three hits. Nicolò is caught by a deep slash to the arm, and another hit on his wrist has him dropping his sword. He tackles his attacker to the ground and gets to work making his fists bloody.

The other young soldier doesn’t survive the skirmish. Once Nicolò has victory, he finds him under the body of a Saracen, eyes dead and mouth agape.

Nicolò heaves the Saracen off him and touches their foreheads together, closing both of their eyes. In this small beat of quiet among the bloody battle, Nicolò notices the pain of his arm has faded, and the same where his wrist was cut. He scrapes blood off his hands and searches for any sign of wound or damage.

His heart sinks. He finds none.

He looks up from his brief mourning, there, in the distance again, is the Saracen warrior, the one no one can fight and live. The one that haunts Nicolò’s dreams.

It’s true. All of it. But here is the chance to have revenge, to escape.

He gropes around for his sword and charges at the man, screaming obscenities. It’s quite a distance between them, littered with enemies on both sides and bodies piling up. Nicolò adds to them without hesitation or remorse.

As he screams, the Saracen warrior notices and cries out, knowing his name as he somehow always does.

“Nicolò!”

It is even more infuriating than the first time. Nicolò swears to make good on the man’s offer to kill him, anything for a chance to end it all.

“Release me from this curse!”

Their swords meet, once, twice, and the warrior is saying something back to him in fractured Ligurian.

“Stop torturing me! Let me die!” Nicolò screams.

He knocks away the curved sword and has a clear opening. He takes it, and runs his sword straight through the other man’s chest. Blood spurts everywhere. The Saracen stills, light fading from his brown eyes.

Nicolò gets one short moment of righteous victory, then he catches a crossbow bolt in his throat, blood pours into his lungs and spits from his lips.

 

 

 


 

 

 

The Jeep veers sharply around a corner, Andy taking it hard and fast as she always does. There’s chaos in the back, they’re all shouting at each other. Nicky is on the floor of the truck, splayed out on his back the same way Andy threw him in during their rush to escape. Joe is cradling his head in his lap, calling for him over and over.

“Nicky! Nicky! Wake up, please, destati, hayati.

“What’s going on back there?”

“Hard right!” Nile calls out, and Andy slams the truck hard, darting around a burned out car in their way. Nile grips a handle tightly through the turn to stop from swinging, but the boys are bounced around in the back.

“I don’t know!” Nile calls out. “He’s not waking up!”

“Joe!” Andy yells. Gunfire rains over them, a few stray bullets slamming into their hood. “Fuck!” She hands Nile an assault rifle and points at the guard tower near the compound gate they’re barreling towards. Nile swings her torso out the window and takes aim. Her aim is true even with the bouncing truck and they have a clear run to freedom.

“He’s not alive,” Joe groans.

Andy reaches behind herself and slaps Joe over the head. “Stop fucking looking at his face and check his body! Yes, boss?”

“Yes, boss,” Joe parrots. He slides a hand down and under Nicky’s bloodied shirt, feeling for the open gunshot wounds, but he finds nothing but sticky warm blood. Nicky’s skin has stitched over, and Joe even grabs one of the bullets as it’s forced from Nicky’s gut.

“Healing,” Joe reports.

“Then give him time.”

They’re out, now, out on the road trailing through the dense forest. An explosion far behind them rocks the Jeep. Nile spins around and sees a fireball rolling through the sky and black smoke pouring from their handiwork. She swings back into the truck.

“Joe, what-?” Is all she gets to ask, because at that moment, Nicky wakes up.

His arms are the first thing to lash out, jerking and grabbing for some form of stability in the bouncing truck. Then it’s his voice.

A wordless, awful scream, yelling for something, some form of relief. His legs are kicking out and then his whole body is thrashing.

“No! No!” Nicky screams.

“Nicky,” Joe calls gently, touching his face.

“Get your fucking hands off me!” Nicky bellows in his native tongue. “Saracen scum!”

Joe pulls his hands away, but Nicky is still jolting and kicking out. He’s louder than Nile has ever heard him. Andy swears, flicking her head back and forth from the dangerous road to what’s happening in the back of the truck.

Nicky scrambles away from Joe, then makes a move to throw himself towards the open back of the truck, the road that will be swarming with evacuees out for blood, for Nicky’s blood. He was the one who set the charges.

“No!” Joe yells and tackles him to the truck bed. He pins him down, arms wrapped around his torso to stop his escape.

“It should have worked, it should have worked.” Nicky is sobbing, no less violent. He cracks his head back into Joe’s nose. He sinks his teeth into the meat of Joe’s arm around his neck and blood spills over his lips.

“What the fuck?” Nile launches herself over the back of the front seat to where they are struggling. Andy tosses her the medical kit.

“Sedate him!”

Nile doesn’t understand the words Nicky is screaming, but she hears the desperation and moves quickly. She pulls out a hypodermic needle and their morphine supply.

“If you overdose him-” Joe warns.

“I won’t!”

It takes long moments for the sedative to take effect. Nile has to pin down Nicky’s legs when he tries to roll them all over and kick them off, but his heart is beating jack-rabbit fast, and soon his movements become sluggish. He releases the iron bite he had on Joe’s arm and tries to speak again, spitting out blood into the air.

Nile doesn’t know much Italian yet, but even she understands the begging in his voice, “no, no, per favore, non posse.”

As Nicky’s attempts to escape slow down, Joe gently releases his hold, purposefully unclenching his muscles and beginning to stroke him gently.

He’s asleep but alive when they hit the open, smooth roads.

Andy clenches the steering wheel.

“Fuck.”

 

 


 

Nicky wakes up in the safe house, in a room stripped of all weapons. He was dressed and cleaned while he was unconscious. His hands are bound in front of his body with something he will one day learn are called handcuffs, and connected to a chain around the bedpost.

Again, three hundred years later, a week later, it doesn’t matter which direction you count it, Joe sits in the single chair across from him.

The morphine releases Nicky from its haze slowly, he has enough time to get his bearings. He flexes his wrists against his bindings.

“Release me,” he demands, softly, coolly.

“No.”

He surges upwards, full of fury. “Get these fucking chains off me!”

“I will not.”

Nicky sits up and tests the slack of the chain. There is enough length for him to rush at Joe, but not quite reach him. He stands over him, spitting vitriol.

“You son of a whore. You fucking demon. I’ve killed you before, I will kill you again. I will rip out your throat with my teeth!” He pulls, hard as he can, trying to close the two feet distance between them. “Release me!”

Somehow, Joe retains his composure. “That’s not much of an incentive for me to unlock those chains,” he says mildly. “I’m not releasing you while you’re acting like this.”

Nicky spits in his face.

Joe sighs and wipes it away. “What do you remember?”

“I remember killing you,” Nicky sneers. “Twice now I’ve run you through, and another I stabbed you in the heart.”

“Ah. I thought so.” Joe furrows his brow, trying to place everything he knows about these early lives into a timeline.

“Unlock these chains,” Nicky demands again.

“Why? So you can go on killing and dying and being killed again? Is that really what you want?”

“You know what I want, Joseph.”

“And I can’t give it to you.” Joe spreads out his arms. “We are at an impasse. So I’m going to bring in someone else.”

Joe pushes the chair another few feet away from Nicky, then gets up and goes to the door. He hesitates before going through, hand on the door handle. “Give it a chance, please, Nicolò.”

Give, precisely, what a chance is left unsaid. This life, immortality, his curse, the others, he could mean it all.

 

 


 

 

Joseph leaves, and a few minutes later, a woman takes his place. She is tall, with short cut dark hair and she’s holding a bottle of wine and two glasses. They’re the finest crafted things Nicolò’s ever seen.

“Hello, Nicolò. I am Andromache the Scythian. Call me Andy.”

Nicolò studies her. “I know your face.” He has a flash of memory, of cold white light and smooth cave walls. “You were dead, and then you weren’t.”

“Yeah,” Andy laughs softly, “that about sums it up. But I don’t do that anymore.”

“Die?”

“Come back to life.” She slumps down in the chair and cracks open the bottle of wine. “I’m the only one here you can hit and I’ll stay hurt. I thought some consequences for your actions could do you good.”

She pours one generous glass of deep red wine.

“I don’t care,” Nicolò says, boorish.

“You might. And you can’t undo that action. So, I can pour you a glass, but if you stab me with it, I could die, so…” She hovers the mouth of the bottle over the second glass and waits. “Do we take that risk?”

Nicolò’s tongue feels dry and tacky in his mouth. “I won’t hurt you,” he promises.

“Atta boy.” She fills it, just as large as the first, and hands it to him. “Of course, if you use that glass to kill yourself, you’ll only wake up somewhere else, and I can’t guarantee it will be as pleasant as this.”

It’s different with this woman. With Joseph there is a tension, a friction, one might even call it bad blood. Andy is compelling, commanding, she has the air of assumed leadership, and Nicolò can’t help but be drawn to it.

“So there is an end to it,” Nicolò muses.

“Nothing that lives, lives forever.”

“Then how can I stop it? How can I be like you? I want to be mortal again.” His voice is urgent, but he takes a step back and sits on the edge of the bed, the wine sloshes in his glass without spilling. His body betrays him, showing his tiredness.

“We don’t control when it ends.” Andy speaks more directly than Joseph. Less attempts to soften and deflect. “It’s merely my time.”

Nicolò uses both hands, as they are still bound together, and lifts the wine to his lips.

He half splutters at the taste of it. “Madre di Dio, this wine is good.”

Andy laughs, and it’s a joyful thing to come from a woman with eyes so haunted.

“They don’t water it down like they used to.” She grins slyly. “Wait until we get to the hard stuff.”

The glass is half emptied before Nicolò pauses. Too long it’s been since he has had any part of luxury.

“Is it true what he says? That I move back and forth through time?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Andy makes a small, amused sound and kicks backwards on her chair, splaying out her legs. “That way madness lies.” She raises the glass to her nose to inhale, then drinks deeply. “I think it’s a way to keep the rest of us together, to keep us sane, on the right path.”

Nicolò tries to carefully broach the topic. “When you say ‘us’...?”

“The others like us, immortals. I lead the team.” She smiles at him, easy and free, and he realises that his first assessment of her was incorrect, incomplete. Yes, this is a woman haunted, but she is also kind and gentle. Her eyes soften as she speaks of her team, there is clearly a deep love there.

Nicolò drinks again.

“Easy, tiger. We better put some food in your belly before it all goes to your head.” She points an accusing finger at him. “You’re a sloppy drunk.”

Nicolò stays where he sits, and his eyes slide to the door like he’s expecting a bowl of slop to be passed through it, but instead Andy stands and swings a ring of tiny keys around on her finger. At his confused look, she smiles, and this time it’s a little bit sad.

“You think you’re a prisoner here?” She asks.

“Am I not?” He jangles the handcuffs pointedly. His guard goes up again, all the good will won is lost in smoke.

“You were going to get yourself killed, or one of my people. I can’t have that.”

“What does it matter? One more death among dozens?”

“Hey.” Andy’s tone is sharp and she puts a hand on his shoulder that is equal parts caring and a warning. “It matters how we live. And we’ve got a chance here, to take a moment, to explain what’s going on, to make it so when you wake up you’re not so goddamn confused.”

She sits down on the bed next to him, close enough that he could hurt her, if he wanted to. “Give me this life. A year, maybe two, then when you die and wake up in the 13th century or whatever, you can fuck off back to Genoa and become a priest for all I care.”

It’s a lie, that she doesn’t care, but one that Nicolò easily accepts.

“I just want to help you get your bearings,” she says softly. “That’s all.”

“Is it?” He asks, steel in his voice. She doesn’t answer him.

She rubs her thumb over one of the small keys and sighs. “Listen. I’ll get these off you. But if you try to kill any of my people out there, I’ll get involved myself.”

“You’re worried I would kill you.”

“Oh no, you can’t land a hit on me, Nico, but it’s cute that you think you could.” It should seem boastful, but her words ring true. “If you try to take a knife to Joe again, you’ll wake up somewhere worse than this place and it will be a long time before you rest again.” She puts the key to the handcuffs but doesn’t unlock them yet. “Do we have an understanding?”

Nicolò is more than a little afraid of her, and he agrees.

It’s not far to walk from the bedroom to the common space. Joseph is standing there, arms crossed over his chest, and seated at the table is a woman Nicolò doesn’t recognise. He looks around the room.

“Not much of a team,” he says.

Andy strides past him. “We’re down a few right now.” She throws over her shoulder. “Thanks for being tactful about it.”

“Andy,” Joseph warns.

The younger woman points at a bowl of soup and slice of bread at the table next to her. “Um, eat. For you,” she says.

For the first time Nicolò notices that everyone has been speaking his native tongue, with no hesitation or confusion. Only this woman stumbles through her words. Nicolò takes his seat beside her, his eyes still darting around. He’s not sure he could eat, his stomach feels too cramped and unsettled. But the smell, oh, it’s enchanting.

He groans and brings his face close to the dish. The colour is a deep red, but it doesn’t smell like beetroot or radish.

“What is this?” He asks, dunking the bread into the bowl and ripping into it with his teeth.

“Soup,” the young woman answers, “tomato.”

Nicolò looks at her blankly, but she doesn’t expand on it, so he shrugs and goes back to his meal.

She’s shocked and exclaims something in an unfamiliar language, but he catches a reference to “Italy”.

Joseph answers back in the other language, and Andy is laughing. It sets him on edge that they are talking about him in a foreign tongue, laughing at him.

The young woman isn’t laughing though, and looks just as bewildered as he feels. The other two take their seats and begin to eat. The young woman clears her throat and sticks out a hand to him.

“I’m Nile,” she says in rough Ligurian. “I’m new.”

“Nicolò di Genova.” He shakes her hand. “I am new as well.”

Nile’s grin, even as she tries to hide it, is a bright and beautiful thing.

Chapter Text

The meal is an awkward affair, Nicolò downs all his soup and almost a whole loaf of bread before his stomach cramps up and he has to stop. He’s left with nothing to occupy himself, as the others, who paced themselves better than he, continue spooning mouthfuls in silence. Andy tops up his wine glass without a word, and he fiddles with the incredibly fine stem of the glass. It feels as though it will crack between his fingers, as does this fragile peace between the four of them.

Joseph keeps glancing up at him, small, quick looks that are meant to be hidden, but Nicolò is so on edge he sees them every time.

He occupies himself by studying the room they are in. It’s a contradiction. It is constructed well, out of either bricks or stone but painted over without ornamentation. Like it’s built for nobility but inhabited by commoners. There are many items he doesn’t recognise, and more that are missing. There’s no hearth, no chimney, and it’s all lit by the lanterns contained in glass embedded in the ceiling.

One of the items seems to be a thick iron door to nowhere, and there is a small square of paper attached to it.

He stands from the table abruptly, but isn’t stopped as he goes to fetch the paper. It has neat, printed writing on it, some form of list in an unfamiliar language, but the script is recognisable.

“This is my handwriting,” he says, brandishing the slip of paper at the others. “How did you get this?”

They share a glance, which only makes him angrier.

“You know that you dance back and forwards through time,” Joseph starts, his voice always calm and gentle. “You have to remember, from our perspective you never leave, just change. You wrote that note yesterday, before the mission, stuck it to the fridge and now you’re standing here. It’s just a list of food to buy at the market, Nicolò.”

“But it’s in my handwriting,” Nicolò says, and he recognises how weak he sounds, like a stubborn child. He looks down at the note again and turns it over. On the back, in Ligurian this time, but the same neat print he had learnt under the tutelage of Father Giovanni di Cogorno, is a long message. He only reads the first line.

Trust them, little bird.

Nicolò jolts and keeps the paper in the palm of his hand, hiding the secret note from view. There are more words present on the page, but he can’t read them out here. His heart is racing, and he tries to cover it.

“So, what happened yesterday?” He asks, keeping his voice level as he sits back down, pressing the paper carefully to his leg.

Joseph glances at Andy and speaks slowly, picking his words like he’s walking through a particularly tangled forest. “We had work to do, there was a group of people making something like opium, only much, much worse, for destroying lives, not for medicine. We went in late last night. You destroyed their supply, we stopped their work, and you were shot on the way out. You died.”

At that, Nile reaches out and touches Nicolò gently on the arm.

“I’m sorry,” she says. Her speech is heavily accented.

He looks at her quizzically.

“In the truck,” Nile says, “I inject you.”

He stares at Nile. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“A truck,” Andy explains, “it’s a carriage that moves without horses. You were violent when you revived, Nile had to give you opium poppy to go to sleep.”

“Oh,” his eyes cast about the room, “I thought it was another death.”

Nile’s face crumples in sympathy, and Nicolò finds he has a fondness for her, far more than for the other two.

“No, it was before dawn,” Joe says. “It’s noon now, you’ve spent a few hours asleep.”

Nile has something to say, and she struggles through with a lot of hand gestures. She’s smiling as she does so, proud and joyful as she retells a story meant to make them all laugh.

“You and me, same, Nicky,” she says, pointing between them. “Andy take me, first time I die then alive. Andy take me, I wake up in truck too.” She mimes opening her large eyes, looking around with a shocked expression. “Very confused, uh, angry? Yes. Confused and angry. Same for you and me. I kick, fall out, look,” she points around herself with sharp jabs, “desert, desert, desert. Where am I? Bad idea!”

Her hands spread out comically wide, and Andy is laughing openly. Nicolò can’t help the small smile he wears.

“Tell him about the-” Andy gets out.

Nile doesn’t release the storytelling floor easily. She’s a natural at this, drawing them in with rising tension. She’s pointing an accusing finger at Andy.

“Scary lady walking at me. I get up, want to run, run where? I don’t know, then BANG!” She slams a hand on the table. Even battle-worn Nicolò startles, then laughs at himself.

“Andy shot me! Death number two!” She holds up two fingers, then taps one on her temple. “But I am smart. I wake up, Andy is angry, I is angry. I have my knife, and stab her!” She thumps her chest. “Right here!” She pulls a scowling face that Nicolò presumes to be an imitation of Andy, and it must be fairly accurate because Joseph has his face in his palm, shoulders quaking with quiet laughter. Nile mimes pulling a knife from her chest in the same manner one would flick off a fly.

Nicolò laughs. Loudly and freely, it’s only a little bit hysterical, breaking through all that time of tension and confusion.

“Yes, yes, Nile. We are the same,” he gets out in between bursts. “I stabbed Joseph last week, too.”

“Last week?” Nile repeats.

“1715,” Joseph answers.

“Whoa.”

Nicolò is still sniggering and runs a hand through his hair, testing the length.

“Your Ligurian is good,” he tells Nile.

She pulls a face at him like she knows he’s lying to be polite.

“Ah, you got me,” he corrects. “It is fun to hear you speak it.”

“You taught her. You taught all of us.” Andy waves a hand. “It’s going to be a problem.”

“What is?”

“Languages. Italian did not become lingua franca, much as we hoped.”

“Language of Franks?” He repeats.

“Do you remember Sabir?” Joseph asks.

Of course he remembers, in his last few months of his life before that first death at the hands of Joseph, he was the regular translator for his regiment, speaking the hodge-podge language to local travelling traders. His father had spoken Sabir quite well, often trading with those on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. He is Genovese, and very clever, the language came to him more easily than Latin.

“Of course I speak Sabir, do you not?” He answers in the referred language.

“Not for a few centuries,” Joseph answers back in the same. “I apologize, I should have remembered it was more recent for you. Unfortunately, it didn’t get far from the coastlines, and eventually English became the common language of the world.”

Nicolò’s mouth fell open. “What? England?”

“I know they’re not much from your time, but yes.”

“No, we don’t know what time or place he’ll wake up in next,” Andy shoots back. “Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Greek, Florentine Italian. He’s going to need Arabic too, remember.”

“I remember.” Joseph’s lips harden into a thin line.

Suddenly, Nicolò needs to escape. He stands abruptly and has an impulse to be vulgar, to put distance between himself and the rest of them.

“Where can I go to take a shit?”

Nile stands. “Shit. Toilet, yes? I can do.”

“No.” Andy grabs Nicolò by the elbow. “I know all the ways this can go wrong.”

 


 

Andy drags Nicky down the hall, insisting firmly, “You sit here, don’t squat.”

Joe slumps over and presses his head to the table.

“Oh, Joe. Are you going to be okay?” Nile says, switching back to English and rubbing a hand through his hair and down his back.

“I’ll be okay,” he answers into the table. “I’m just tired.”

“So.”

“Yeah.”

A cry comes from down the hall, Nicky aghast. “But this is paper!”

Joe snorts, then buries his head in his hands.

“I take it you didn’t know how this would shake out,” Nile guesses.

“Oh well, you know Nicky.” Joe waves a hand. “Doesn’t like to tell too much, complicates things.”

Although, apparently, she doesn’t know Nicky. Not this one with a sharp tongue and distrustful eyes.

The first night Nile had met the rest of them, in Goussainville, she had met Nicky’s eye across the table, and he hadn’t looked away. From the first moment she met him, Nicky always wore a half-smile around her, one that became full-blown in the aftermath of Merrick, but at that first dinner it was restrained. She’d gotten half the story from Booker and Joe, that they were immortals hundreds of years old, then the big reveal from Nicky.

“I’m unhooked from time,” he had said. “I die and revive in different times, forward, backward. Last month I was in Egypt in 1510.”

Nile’s face must have been easily read, because he had followed it up with, “You don’t believe me.”

“No, of course not.”

“Why?” He had seemed genuinely curious. “Is it so different from a soldier that won’t stay dead?”

“No, but, you’re talking about time travel,” she had insisted.

“I don’t tend to call it that.” He had folded his hands under his chin and stared at her. “Your name is Nile Cassandra Freeman,” he pronounced. “You hate mushrooms, but love the time of the day between afternoon tea and dinner, when you can have a glass of wine but still watch terrible TV. You’re a fast thinker and fearlessly loyal. You wish you could be better at sculpture, but you’ve never really had the time, am I correct?”

Nile remembers baring her teeth, she’d been so angry. “You’ve been stalking me?”

“No, no. You told me.”

“When?”

“2021, which, I believe, is next year, yes?” He’d looked to Joe for confirmation. “It was a long time ago for me.”

Nile keeps rubbing at Joe’s back and makes a mental note to tell him those details before the year is out.

“So what do we do?” Nile asks.

Joe gives himself another moment of despair, then he raises his head up, and a visage of peace comes over his face.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he announces. “Weapons training, languages, history. Hell, you could do with a lot of the same yourself. He, uh-” He scratches a hand through his hair. “He said Paraguay was interesting this time of year. Guess there’s a lot of hard work ahead.”

“Maybe,” Nile says. “But it can wait until tomorrow. C’mon, Joe, give yourself the day.”

Pazienza, pazienza,” He chants.

They decide to take the day. They’re all exhausted from the all nighter and spend hours lying in various positions across the safe house. After his foray into the world of modern plumbing, Nicky doesn’t emerge from his room again. Andy’s eyes are hard as she begins preparing the safe house.

This Paraguay safe house is relatively new to the team, bought on a whim by Booker in the last decade or two, not yet filled with memories and paraphernalia. It’s more of a complex than a house, enclosed with a brick fence. Their backyard is a decent size, and beyond the fence are a few miles of half-tamed forest before you get to the nearest town, another hour’s drive to a large city. A good place to hide and stay hidden. Andy gives out instructions, then gets in their truck and drives off to get some supplies. Dutifully, Nile and Joe get to work disassembling the safe house. The television is unplugged and packed into the garage, along with most things they can find that were invented within the last fifty years or so. Nile gets to keep her phone and charger, mostly for the photos of her family, and in case Booker or Copley needs to get a hold of them. Joe finds a box for her to keep them out of sight, though.

Andy returns hours later with the truck bed full of supplies.

Food, ammunition, clothes for them all, maps and many books. Joe flicks open a crate and surveys the cache of various weapons there.

“Leading a revolution, are we?” He says.

“Many times throughout history,” Andy grins back.

When the sun dips behind the mountains, Nile takes a plate with a sandwich, a glass of water and some fruit down the hall to Nicky’s room. She knocks gently and calls through the door.

“The dinner is here.”

He opens the door a crack and is visibly relieved when he sees it’s her. He takes the food offering with a murmur of thanks.

“Are you okay?” She asks. The word doesn’t translate, it’s far too modern. “Happy?”

“No, not happy in the slightest,” Nicky responds. “But thank you for the meal.”

“Tomorrow is big work day,” Nile warns him. “You and me same. Lots to learn. I will go to bed soon.”

Nicky’s eyes dart over her shoulder and around the hall, then he opens the door further and bids her come in.

The room was mostly clear of personal items, they’d only been living there for a few days before the mission, and Joe had asked Nile to clear the room of weapons as he’d carried a drugged out Nicky through the building. There was a mix of clothes in the open cupboard, not that this Nicky would know the difference between his and Joe’s clothing. Nicky leaves the door open behind her, and Nile has a sudden recognition of chivalry and intention to keep her virtue unharmed. That ship has long since sailed, but it’s nice to know Nicky’s thinking about it.

“Can I ask?” Nicky starts. He passes the yellow post it note to her, flipped over so she can see a message on the back. “What is this?”

Her Italian is developing, and she understands better than she can speak, but her reading is pretty good too, she takes a moment to read and re-read it.

Trust them, little bird. They are good people, and one day they will be very important to us. I know you’re scared, but our life with them is good and has so much joy. Be patient. Trust them. Trust me. - Nicolò

“What does it mean?” He asks.

Nile traces her fingers over the neat handwriting. “What do you think?”

“My brother called me ‘little bird’,” he says. “I haven’t thought about it since I was a youth.”

Nile can’t help smiling. “Why little bird?”

He waves a hand heavenward. “I was always up in trees. Plus,” he flicks a finger across his aquiline nose.

Nile can’t help but grin at that. “I think you are kind,” she says, passing the note back to him. “Kind to people and kind to you.”

Nicky doesn’t quite pull a face, but it’s clear he doesn’t believe her. He clearly doesn’t know how to ask the next question. “When, when is it?”

“2021,” she answers. “Crusades 900 years ago.”

He takes a deep breath. “I was born closer to the life of Christ than I was to today.”

Nile waggles a hand. “Maybe same same.”

A laugh bubbles out, but Nile can’t help the yawn that escapes her.

“Sorrys” she mumbles.

“Of course.” He beckons her to leave. “You should sleep now, only…” He squints up at the lights in the ceiling. “Is it always bright here? Do you not sleep in the dark?”

“This. Here.” She shows him the light switch and after she demonstrates he gives it a few experimental flicks.

“Mine.” She points at the door across the hall, then the one beside his. “Andy.” All the way at the end of the hall is pointed out as Joe’s. It’s so far away from the others. They’ve never had need for four bedrooms before, Nile was filling the space left in Booker’s absence. Joe is making do with a pull out sofa in a spare room, he wouldn’t hear of Nile trying to trade with him.

“You have so many rooms,” Nicky says. “I presumed the bed would be shared among us.”

Of course. Nile has had a fast education in the history of communal sleeping since meeting the team, she’s learnt that separate rooms and separate beds are an unnecessary luxury. After a few sleepless nights she quickly got used to the feeling of a leg thrown over hers or rolling over and bumping into Andy’s back. And the size of the modest queen bed in Nicky’s room must be boggling the Crusader’s mind.

“All yours.” She waves a hand over the whole room, Joe’s clothes included. “Good night, Nicky. If trouble you have, I am here.”

“Good night, Nile.”

 


 

Nicolò’s eyes open as his door cracks open. He’s lying flat on his back, hands folded in his chest. He looks to the door and sees Joseph there, peering in. He raises his head and let’s it fall with a crack against the bedhead.

“You again,” he says.

“Me again,” Joseph agrees.

“Why is it that every time I wake up, you are there? No, wait.” He sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed. He’s still wearing all the clothes Joe had dressed him in the day before, belt and all. “Why are you always there when I die? Do you like seeing me gasp for breath? Does it bring you pleasure to see your enemy die and die and die again?”

“Never.”

Nicolò puts on a cruel sneer. “I have seen your face many times in death.”

“I am there when you die so I can be there when you wake up.”

Joseph’s expression is inscrutable. He makes an aborted half-motion to step inside the bedroom and close the gap between them, but Nicolò’s nostrils flare, and he doesn’t move.

“Don’t act like you care,” Nicolò warns.

Joseph’s posture straightens. Nicolò has landed a blow and he revels in his success.

“Come and break fast,” Joseph instructs perfunctorily. “I will lay out clothes suitable for training.”

 


 

“Training” is a very generous term for what they do. Joseph packs huge bags full of heavy inventory for them all, and Andy straps them up with equipment, only half of which Nicolò recognises, then the four of them run for miles at speed from their compound and into the jungle surrounds. Nile calls it “PT”, and Nicolò vomits three times before noon.

They explain that war changes shape through the years, becoming more fast paced, less drawn up battle lines and slow trudging of armies, more quick drops and horseless carriages (or flying horseless carriages) carrying the soldiers most of the way to the battle.

Nicolò will believe that when he sees it.

Out in the middle of the untrodden forest, in a small clearing overlooking the valley, Nicolò gets his first introduction to gunfire, barring his brief experiences on the receiving end.

It’s impossibly loud, one gun making a sharp booming sound greater than the noise of a whole battle. He covers his ears and winces, then feels like a fool for being the only one who does.

“Andy,” Joseph says once he notices. “We should get him some earmuffs.”

Andy has enough sympathy to at least look guilty. “We’re all the way out here now, you can run back, or we could do this another day?”

“No, I’m fine,” Nicolò insists.

He learns a lot of very specific words in English that day, round, load, hammer, brace, fire, recoil, and all of them are repeated and drilled into his head as much as the safety aspects. The guns themselves are magnificent, enchanting and complex, and he is fascinated. Nile sees his reaction and unloads a bullet, she pulls it apart to show him how it works, labelling everything as she goes. She pours gunpowder into the curve of a green leaf and summons a flame with a lighter. He startles, then laughs as the whole thing burns up with flames and sparks.

Andy clears her throat, her face clearly meaning business, and Nicolò feels like a boy again, being caught with snails in his pockets at Mass. Andy sets out the pattern for their training in clear terms.

Weapons, language and instinct training will be the focuses of the next few months. She gives instructions in their best known language first, then again in the one they are learning for the day. Sometimes she gives it in English, then points at Nile, and she has to translate it for Nicolò, in a process Nile dubs “Rosetta Stone teaching”, but what it has to do with a little rose, Nicolò can’t determine.

They easily fall into their roles, the two teachers and the two students. The bitterness and suspicion Nicolò harbours doesn’t lessen with the training regime.

The first time Joseph lays out an array of knives before him, while Andy and Nile train with staves in place of swords, Nicolò weighs one with a particularly vicious curve in his hands and considers slicing through his own neck.

Somehow, as always, Joseph knows more than he should.

“I would ask you to please not to kill yourself again so soon,” he says, his voice steady. “There is still so much for you to learn.”

“Andy is mortal now,” Nicolò muses. “Perhaps I am, too.”

“Don’t…” Joseph’s voice lowers, and for the first time, Nicolò feels he has touched a nerve of the man who is usually so unshakable. Joseph turns away, putting his back to Nicolò as he busies himself with the blades on the table. When he speaks again, his tone is back to his usual steadiness. “This body, perhaps, but you still have many lives to live,” Joseph says. “Killing yourself now would only prolong your trauma.”

Nicolò drives the knifepoint into the bench. “What the fuck do you know about my trauma?”

“You-” Joseph starts, but his voice fails him. “I know that you died many times.”

“Dozens,” Nicolò says. Why does it feel like he’s twisting a knife in Joseph’s gut, when it’s his own pain being exposed? “Each one worse than the last. This is the longest I’ve stayed alive.” He rounds on Joseph, the only one he can be truly angry at. “I have died every way a man can die.”

And the worst part is that Joseph never rises to the bait, never yells back or throws a punch or spits in Nicolò’s face. He just sits there and takes it, like he deserves the rage and much more besides. It leaves Nicolò’s anger burning through his heart and leaving a cold empty hole.

“I know,” Joseph says. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty fucking evident,” Nicolò sneers. “You’ve been there almost every time, doing fucking nothing. I heard you. They were cutting into my skull and I could hear you, but you didn’t stop them.”

He drops onto the low wall and buries his head in his hands, cradling the place where the machine opened up his brain.

When he looks up, Joseph’s eyes are shining with unshed tears.

“I was captured too,” Joseph says, and finally his voice quavers. “They had me, and they kept-,” he breaks off, “and there was nothing I could do.”

“Well,” Nicolò waves a dismissive hand, “how kind of you to at least remember.”

“It was recent,” Joseph takes a seat on the wall next to him. “Nicolò, please, you have to believe that I tried.”

“Do I?” The words are harsh but Nicolò has no power behind them. He’s just tired.

Before Joseph can speak, Andy and Nile come back into view, sweaty and panting.

Nicolò averts his eyes out of respect for the women, their bare, glistening arms and legs are an unfamiliar sight for him. His chivalry earns him a laugh from Nile and Andy ruffling his hair like a child.

The heat of the moment is broken, and Nile declares herself too exhausted to continue training for the day. Without a word of the palpable tension they have interrupted, they all push inside, where Nicolò quickly retreats again to his bedroom.

 


 

Nile winces as she hears the bedroom door slam shut. Joe stands at the mouth of the hallway and sighs.

Andy walks past him and rubs his shoulder. “I’ll get dinner.”

Nile holds onto Joe’s arm and gently pulls him away to the living room.

“This must be killing you,” she says, once they are collapsed on the couch together. He doesn’t look like he disagrees.

“It…It is building a foundation,” he finally says. “You do not rush a building you intend to stand for a thousand years.”

He looks up at her stricken face and pulls her close. “Oh, sorellina, do not fret. This is not the first time I have lived for years with a Nicky that does not yet love me.”

Nile mumbles into his chest. “Yeah, but has he ever hated you before?”

He smiles ruefully.

“Patience, patience.”

 


 

The next morning, Nicolò is wide awake in the pre-dawn light. He doesn’t sleep well in this new strange land, softness of the bed be damned. It helps him, sometimes, to pretend that he has not travelled through time, just to an undiscovered land where they do strange things like ignite a flame with a single finger and eat such an impressive array of food for an ordinary evening meal. The world is too quiet here, and the lights in the other rooms keep him awake, even though he has a door of exquisite craftsmanship shut firmly between himself and the others.

So he’s awake when he hears the shuffle of feet, a quiet murmur of voices meant to not disturb. Nicolò moves in silence, gets up and inches to his bedroom door. He ever so slowly turns the handle and opens the door a crack.

He hears the voices louder now, but no more distinct. Joseph, he presumes, from the deep timbre of his voice, and one of the women, he can’t tell which.

A door opens nearby, and Joseph emerges, his back to Nicolò. Who owned which room again? The question is answered when a pale hand reaches out and Andy squeezes Joseph’s shoulder. He positively melts into the touch and mutters his thanks.

Joseph wanders down the hall to his own bedroom in the secretive early hours of the morning. He is loose limbed and more content than Nicolò has ever seen him.

Oh” Nicolò thinks, and closes the door.

Chapter Text

The days bleed into weeks bleed into months. Each day starts with hard physical training, then weapons and languages, then, as the sun sets, history and tactics.

When Nile questions the benefit of PT every morning, Andy gives her a very unimpressed look over her shoulder.

“We’re not trying to be fit, I’m teaching you to push through the pain,” Andy says. She halts their marching up the mountain and turns. They are all standing downhill of her, Joseph taking up the rear, and it gives her an even more imposing figure than normal, as she towers above them. She speaks, translating fully into both Ligurian and English, something she only does when it’s important.

“Never stop moving. Push through the pain, even when you’re coughing up blood. Don’t stop, because a still target is a dead target.” She jerks her head first at Nicolò, then at Nile. “If you die on the field, it’s a roll of the dice what happens next. And if you die, there’s no guarantee you don’t get captured. You have to keep moving. Stay alive.”

“If you go down with eyes on you,” Joseph says from behind, “you stay down. Play dead, all the way to the morgue if you have to, and break out when backs are turned.”

“Survive, evade, resist, escape,” Nile says, and Andy translates for her.

“We usually put “escape” a little higher on that list,” Andy adds with a smile.

 


 

It’s three full days of training before Nile can’t take it anymore and she cracks over breakfast.

“You are like shit,” she says to Nicky.

Joe is drinking his breakfast tea when she says it, and it snorts right up his nose.

“Excuse me?” Nicky asks.

“You!” She gestures wildly. “You are shit.” She pinches her nose, then mimes waving a bad smell away.

“I am not sick,” Nicky says.

Joe has stopped coughing and beats on his chest to stop from aspirating. “She’s not talking about miasma, Nicolò,” he explains. “She’s saying you smell.”

Nicky looks baffled. “I wash. I have been washing with the basin every day.”

“But have you been using soap?”

Nicky just stares at them.

“You did not supply me with any,” he says. “I will make my own if you wish me to pay for my lodging, you need only supply me with the tallow-”

“No!” Joe says with a laugh. He doubts Nile would cope with casual handling of animal byproducts in the house. He rubs his brow as he recalls the basin in his and Nicky’s room. “Oh, the fucking liquid soap, pump action…”

Andy chuckles. “Soap or no, his hair is getting greasy, and I will not be the one explaining how showers work.”

Everyone looks over at Joe. He raises his hands in surrender. “Even I will not have that argument before PT.”

So they go out again and push the truck uphill together, Nile feels her knees give out several times, but she gets hauled up by one of the team every time, and they keep going. By the end of it, Nicky is drenched in sweat, and his arms are visibly shaking. His hair is stuck to his face and the back of his neck, and Joe looks away quickly.

Joe shows him how to work the shower, explains the shampoo and conditioner, proper procedure for soap, and even explains the razor and shaving cream.

“Are beards not the custom here?” Nicky asks.

Joe rubs his own. “Variety is common, you may groom yourself however you like.”

Nicky frowns. The dusting of whiskers across his face always grows a lighter shade than his hair for the first few weeks, before it fills out and darkens. The fact that Nicky hasn’t shaved since the mission has made it easier for all of them, easier to differentiate this Nicky from the other versions they know. Joe can always tell though, can always see a change in the way he holds himself, the tension in different places, the way he reacts.

“Personally, I don’t mind the scruff.” Joe gives a half-grin, but the flirtation doesn’t land.

Nicky is still staring at himself in the large mirror, and Joe remembers the poorly polished glass and metals of the ancient world, how Joe knew the face across from him better than he knew his own for centuries. How he still does. He has to look away, so he nudges the laundry basket with his foot and explains it.

“Nile will wear fresh clothes every day, but I understand if that feels strange,” Joe says. “I’d say throw in the sweaty clothes and underthings daily, everything else can keep until it holds a smell. I’ll wash everything in the basket every few days.”

“I’ll wash my own clothes,” Nicky says, his voice pulled tight.

Joe doesn’t mention that it’s Joe’s shirt on Nicky’s back.

The familiar smell of their bodies fills the small bathroom. Joe aches to touch.

“It’s no trouble,” Joe insists. “The machine does all the work.”

Nicky fiddles with the towel left out for him, so different to touch from the scraps of nonabsorbent linen they used to dry themselves with.

“Where is everyone else?” He asks.

Joe’s heart stutters in his chest. Does this version of Nicky, so young and hasn’t yet met them, does he dream of Booker and Quynh? He’d always said he doesn’t have the same dreams.

“Who do you mean?”

Nicky waves a hand at the shower. “The one who burns the fires and pumps the water. Are they far away? Or do you hide the serfs underground?”

“Oh, no, no, it’s pumped and heated by power and pressure and…” Joe finishes lamely with the default answer they’re been giving him for everything, “machines.”

“Machines, machines,” Nicky grouses.

In the end, Nicky keeps the beard.

 


 

It’s another week before Nicky explodes at Andy about the machines. She’s explaining why they have so many types of cloth, that they are not rich, it’s just that’s what’s available to them, and a damn sight cheaper than going back to tailor-fitted like Nicky is exclaiming.

“All this nonsense!” He stamps his feet as he paces back and forth. “Lighting fires, washing clothes, making them! Does no one do honest work with his own hands?”

A fair point, but still. “Do you want to go out and chop wood all afternoon?”

“Yes!” Nicky exclaims. “At least that makes sense! Not this endless running and pushing and speaking four languages!”

Nicky leans his back against the wall, and his shoulders sag.

The sight of Nicky in pain causes a visceral ache in Joe’s heart. The worst part is not being able to reach out, to ease the thumping heart with a touch of his fingertips.

He can only do what he can do.

“Okay,” Joe says.

Nicky’s eyes slit open and over to him.

“What?”

“I said, okay. If you want to chop wood, that’s what we’ll do,” Joe says, shrugging. “We’re not prison guards here, Nicolò. If you want something, just tell us, we are trying to help.”

Nicky looks down at his hands that were shaking from exhaustion after PT not long ago. The muscles have healed, but they still move sluggishly.

“Perhaps tomorrow,” Nicky concedes.

“Tomorrow,” Joe agrees.

 


 

They train with swords and shields in the compound courtyard. The image of Nile’s absolute glee when she upgraded from staff to sword is not one Andy will soon forget.

They disassemble guns on the table in the house. This is something Nicky enjoys, the calming repetition, the way the pieces fit together and pull apart. It’s the first time he doesn’t immediately retreat to his room after Andy proclaims training is done for the day. He stays at the table as Joe prepares dinner, shakshuka with a loaf of defrosted bread, pulling the pieces of the pistol apart and cleaning each one.

Nile explains she had enough of gun maintenance training back at basic, so she pours herself a generous glass of white wine. She sits across the table from Nicky as his diligent fingers work an oiled cloth around each piece of metal.

They’ve been keeping Nicky’s diet simple, lots of vegetables and stews. They’ve basically gone vegetarian after he was gobsmacked from being served meat two meals in a row. But one thing Nile refuses to live without are ginger cookies that Nile had learned from her grandmother as a teenager. It is a small luxury, something that she bakes about once a week and slowly works her way through. Nicky had tried a small cookie from the first batch, and his eyes had almost rolled out of his head.

“Too much!” He had insisted. “Such sweetness and spice are overbearing.”

“Never!” Nile had shot back.

She sits across from him, the last little stack of cookies on a plate in the middle of the table, right alongside the gun oil. It takes some prompting from Nile, but eventually they begin speaking. When the two of them talk, it’s always fractured in either of their languages. They label and describe and comment on everything they can see, bouncing back and forth, leading to little jolts of joy when the message is successfully understood. It typically devolves into Nile’s cheerful smile beaming at him, while Nicky can’t help but be won over.

Nicky tests out the offer from Joe earlier, to ask for something. He asks for a bottle of wine, and it is given to him freely. He only pours himself a glass, Nile preferring the white, and he drinks the whole thing before dinner. Andy swoops in and packs away the guns before he’s more than a third through the bottle.

Andy eyes Joe over the meal, at the way Nicky sways at the table, keeps dropping his spoon. He stumbles down the hallway and straight to bed, collapsing before he even closes the door.

Later, once the house has gone to bed, Joe steals a quick glance at Nicky’s form on the bed, then shuts the door. He goes, as he often does these dark lonesome nights, to Andy. They speak in hushed voices, back and forth lest they wake the subject of their conversation from his wine induced coma.

“I won’t fail this team the same way twice,” Andy’s voice is harsh, and even being quiet she gestures broadly with her arms.

“He’s not a prisoner, Andy,” Joe defends. “I’m not going to deny him his freedom to make bad choices.”

“If he wants out, he knows where the weapons are, hell, he knows he could follow the road to the village if he wanted to.”

“We’ve asked him to stay, so we can teach him. I’m not throwing that trust away based on one bottle of wine.”

“It’s not the fucking alcohol, Joe. If it was I would be the worst offender.” She sits on the edge of the bed and buries her head in her hands. “It’s the misery, the hopelessness. How can I be making the same mistake again? I’ve lost God knows how many years with one of mine at the bottom of a bottle,” she hisses. “I don’t have that kind of time again.”

Joe sits down beside her and wraps an arm around her. “We know it doesn’t stick, Boss.”

“Yeah, yeah, but how long does it last? God, and when?”

Joe doesn’t have an answer for that, so they get under the covers and hold each other until the pre-dawn light.

 


 

The next day after training, Nile can’t help herself. She hadn’t heard Joe and Andy’s conversation, but she’s just as concerned about the way Nicky shies away from any conversation and comradery. It all feels wrong.

She goes down to the garage storage and finds Booker’s collection, a few boxes of books.

“He won’t mind,” she tells herself, cracking open the first. “I’ll just steer clear of old editions.”

Except she’s not an appraiser, so she has no idea what she’s working with. And as she pulls out large Russian tomes and essays on financial systems, she starts thinking that would be more than Nicky bargained for. Was the concept of a novel even invented by then? Shit.

Right at the bottom of the first box, she finds a familiar looking soft cover book. It’s a little beaten up, and, yes, Booker’s ripped out a few of the thin pages of the introduction to make cigarettes, but it’s still, undoubtedly, the Holy Bible, Nueva Versión Internacional.

“Thank you, Booker,” she murmurs and quickly sends him a text.

When she knocks on Nicky’s door and waits, she shuffles her feet and feels ridiculous. Nicky opens the door, and his expression is clearly one of concern. She smiles at him, that always seems to make him feel better.

“I have a gift for you!” She says in English, the language of the week.

She pulls the Bible from behind her back and hands it to him. Nicky’s eyes widen, and he takes it from her with trembling hands.

“Espanol,” she says. Spanish was all they were allowed to speak last week, Nicky had caught up quickly. “I looked up if verses and chapters were a thing in your time, when you were at the monastery, but they weren’t, so I highlighted key parts to help you find your way through it.”

Nicky beckons her inside.

“Wild,” he murmurs, and Nile blames herself for him picking up that particular English exclamation. “The language of the people, yes?”

He places the Bible spine first on the little desk and opens it gently to the middle. He lands in Isaiah, and Nile has taken a marker to Isaiah 11.

He gasps. “You did this?”

“Yeah, you know, the root of Jesse, and all that,” she says, but Nicky is horrified.

“What will abbazia say?”

“Abbazia?”

“The Chiesa, the monastero.”

“Ah, monastery?”

“Yes, yes, what will say when you give back good book is damaged?”

“Oh no, it’s ours, well, I got it from a friend. He said it’s fine, you can keep it. Oh, shit, was it like the Qur’an back then? Like, you can’t damage it?”

Nicky just stares at her. “Nile, this is paper. This is book.”

Oh, right. She holds up a finger for him to wait and darts back into the hall. She returns with a notebook and a fine point pen. “For you. We have lots of books.”

He slowly turns the fragile pages, reading snatches of verses here and there out loud. Even Nile can tell his Spanish accent needs work, but he nods thoughtfully like he understands the passage.

“Thank you, Nile.”

His smile is small, but present, and she doesn’t feel guilty about leaving him to his work that evening.

 


 

They’re working too hard. Nile knows it, knows it from the way Nicky falls into bed each night and barely interacts with them. Knows it from the way his eyes are getting harder. It’s been weeks of the same, and rather than opening up to them, trusting them, he stays alone in his bedroom for longer hours. Even as his grip on the languages gets better, Nicky gets quieter, less trusting of the team with his thoughts.

He gets on best with Nile, though, both bound together by the equal suffering of being students to immortals much older than they are.

It has been a pretty good day, all things considered. Nicky took an axe and a saw and felled a tree in the forest, then he and Nile threw a rope around it and dragged it half a mile back to their base. Halfway through the journey, Andy pops out from behind a tree and hurls rocks at them. They find what cover they can, as Andy transitions to firing bullets into their legs and over their heads.

“You won’t always be armed!” She yells between barrages.

Nile signals her plan to Nicky, but it is only being half understood, they both reveal their position too early and are met with a second smattering of cover-fire keeping them in their place.

“Communicate!” Joe calls, from some unknown location.

They pause for a beat behind the small tree, to formulate a better plan, check it is understood, and execute it.

By the end, Nicky has wrestled hard with Andy, not quite pinning her but with enough gusto that she loses her gun and she commends him, and Nile has thrown the axe at Joe as a distraction, gotten Joe’s gun and shot him through the shoulder.

“You could have killed me!” Nicky accuses, giving Andy back her gun and popping bullets from his legs.

“No, I wouldn’t have,” Andy says.

 


 

So, it was a good day. But still, Nicky shuts the door to his bedroom and doesn’t come back out.

“What does he do in there for hours?” Nile complains to Joe as she plays sous chef. She’s dicing herbs as fine as she can. Without a processor, kettle and microwave, the meal often takes longer to prepare.

“Lately? Translating that Bible you gave him, I think,” Joe says. “He asked me if ‘penance’ was a correct translation of arrepentimiento.”

“Oh,” Nile says. “Sorry if I overstepped.”

“No, it was a good idea, thank you Nile. He often reads the Scriptures in the local language to acclimatise. I should have remembered Booker had his usual habit of leaving one around.”

“Hell, if he wanted to translate, I could have given him the Koine Greek,” Andy says, munching on her pre-dinner snack of peanuts.

“Didn’t he speak that, at one point?” Joe asks.

“With an accent. I always thought that was weird, we barely even went there before it faded out.”

“What, you guys don’t ask?” Nile’s eyes flick between them.

“We accept what he tells us,” Joe says. “It’s not my place to intrude.”

“How is it not your place?” Nile grumbles, then waves a hand when Joe starts. “I know, I know. But I’m serious. We should bring back team movie nights.”

“We are not doing that,” Andy says. She’s firm, but she’s grinning.

“Why not?” Nile asks. “It will give him something to do, a reason to stay out with us.”

“We’re not here to teach the conveniences of 21st century life, we’re here to teach him how to survive,” Andy says.

Nile reaches her boiling point.

“We should be teaching him family!” Nile exclaims. “Trust, kindness, joy in life, isn’t that the Nicky we know?”

They don’t respond to that, but Joe hangs his head.

“I’ve been trying,” he murmurs finally.

Nile’s heart sticks in her throat. “I know, of course you have, fuck.” She touches his shoulder. “But it’s okay to try something new.”

 


 

PT the next day is chopping firewood again, but this time Andy has them stack a bonfire in the middle of the courtyard. Nicky gets a brief lesson in explosives, but it’s only an excuse to throw accelerant on the fire and watch it go up.

“You sure about this?” Nile asks, carrying out evening snacks and a bottle of wine.

“How do you think we passed the time before the invention of television, Nile?” Andy asks with a grin. “Sat around staring at each other?”

By the time the sun is slipping behind the mountain, they’re all lounging around on un-chopped logs, working on their second glass of wine, talking and laughing and making little challenges for each other, like flicking grapes into the air for the other to catch. Nile decides she needs something to soak up the alcohol in her stomach.

“I could go for some toast,” she says out loud, in the way you do when you want someone else to do the work for you.

“Then go,” Nicky giggles at his own joke until he hiccups.

“I’m serious!” Nile is clearly not. “I haven’t had toast since you got here and we packed away the toaster.”

“Toaster?”

“A machine to heat bread and make toast,” Andy supplies.

“A machine!” Nicky exclaims and throws his arms to the sky. “God forbid you hold bread over a fire for a few minutes!”

They laugh, Joe falling backwards as he does so. Nile stands up indignantly.

“I will!” She sways with the air of someone who is drunk but desperately trying not to appear so. “I’ll show you, Mr Di Genova, I’m perfectly fine without a toaster.”

She isn’t fine without a toaster, two pieces of bread are sacrificed to the bonfire before she figures out how to get the bread to stay on her stick. Her patience is rewarded, she gets a nice golden crunch to go with her peanut butter. They throw potatoes, another new world vegetable Nicky has developed a taste for, wrapped up in tinfoil into the coals and eat them with cooked mince and sour cream.

After dinner, Andy stands up and regales them with a poem. Nile suddenly has an appreciation for the title “epic” given to these ancient poems. Andy starts speaking and doesn’t stop for almost a full hour. It’s all in rhyming couplets, and in a version of English that sounds older than Shakespeare, but Nile lets go of the need to understand every word, and the poem sings to her. It’s the story of two lovers on either side of a war, there’s a journey to find an animal-king’s missing cloak and plenty of funny side characters. Joe keeps the beat on the side of a hollow log, and dutifully participates with the call and response moments.

It’s the most incredible thing Nile has seen Andy do since the massacre at Goussainville.

At the end, Nile and Nicky jump to their feet with applause and cheers.

“What the fuck?” Nile asks. “How did you remember all that?”

“I told you, we didn’t always have television,” Andy laughs. “And I pre-date the written word, any fun you want to have has to come from your own head.”

“Was that a creation of your own mind?” Nicky asks.

“No, that came from a little village in Hertfordshire about six hundred years ago. The parts I forgot I had to rewrite, though.”

“Now, Signora,” Nicky says, downing the last of his wine, “it is my turn.”

He launches into a bawdy song in Ligurian, one that has him kicking up his feet and dancing in circles around the bonfire.

It’s surprisingly dirty, about a woman who calls out to the chimney sweep, and has lots of jokes about her chimney hole and how he squeezes in to clean it. Even Nile, her Ligurian slowly developing, picks up on the innuendo.

Everyone is laughing with tears in their eyes when he’s done, the final verse about a baby that pops out of the chimney all covered in soot and looks like the chimney sweep.

He bows with a flourish and a big grin.

“I thought you were a priest!” Nile gasps out.

“Of course,” Nicky says. “All the best songs were performed in the church courtyard.”

“That was amazing, you got another?”

Nicky hums and scratches a hand through his growing beard. “One that needs a partner, but I respect you ladies too much to impinge on your honour and ask you to participate in such a display.”

Andy snorts into her whisky. “Shows what you know.” But Nile reaches over and slaps her shoulder to shut up, because Nicky is pulling Joe to his feet.

Joe goes willingly, following Nicky’s lead to stand side by side, arm in arm, then Nicky starts to sing.

It’s another ribald comedy, this one about a semi-blind knight and multiple bouts of mistaken identity. Nicky plays the knight, and Joe is cast as various people and even animals that the knight mistakes for his wife. The knight dances around town and engages in double talk with the priest, the farmer, the beekeeper, and each time Nicky pulls Joe close, and acts out feeling Joe up, touching his robes, his beard, the buzzing of his bees and casts him away when he realises it’s not his wife.

Joe’s cheeks go pink halfway through, and stay that way.

The little play ends with the knight coming across a horse, Nicky grabbing Joe all over and talking about strong limbs, a steadfast companion and long eyelashes and pronouncing he has found his wife at last. He dips Joe over his knee, and, finishing on a pun on the word “mount” that somehow still translates, spins him around and jumps on his back like a piggy back ride. They hit the ground in a pile of limbs, laughing uproariously.

Applause follows, but Joe isn’t too quick to get up. He stays sprawled on Nicky, his arm across Nicky’s chest, his head on his shoulder, and shouts to the heavens.

Bravo, bravissimo!”

Nicky matches Joe in pinking his cheeks at the praise. “It’s better with instruments,” Nicky says, suddenly shy again. “And if you’re in the courtyard with the town, you can grab any person from the party, there’s a verse for every job.”

“I don’t know, I think Joe enjoyed his part.” Andy chucks a peanut at their touching heads.

They waste the rest of the evening telling stories and drinking wine. Andy introduces Nicky to “the hard stuff”, and he develops a quick taste for rum over whisky. Nicky demands a folk song from Nile’s home land, and doesn’t believe her when she has nothing to offer. The only thing that pops into her mind is “I’m a Believer” by Smash Mouth, and there’s no way she’s singing that, no matter how drunk she is.

The night creeps on, and it is the most relaxed they have been together since before the mission that brought them this younger Nicky. Something seems to have shifted in Nicky, even though he’s still reserved, he no longer looks at them with suspicion.

 


 

It’s a change in their training plan too. They start doing more hands on tasks. Andy starts with Nicky.

“You did well the other day disarming me,” she says, pacing back and forth on a large mat they’ve pulled outside. “See if you can try and pin me.”

Nicky lowers his center of gravity and raises his arms. He goes to grapple with Andy, but as soon as he makes his first move, she pulls a gun from her waistband and shoots him in the thigh.

His knees give out and he yells, but stops himself from collapsing.

“That’s dirty tricks,” he says through gritted teeth.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot we were so in the time of chivalry and gentlemanly conduct.” Andy gives a satirical bow. “Now are we gonna brawl or are we gonna brawl?”

Nicky launches at her, and she gets two more shots off before he gets to her. He collapses to the ground two feet away.

Andy tosses the gun to the ground and rubs his shoulders. “C’mon, Nico, push through the pain.”

He glares up at her, and as soon as he has his feet under himself, she grins and dances back, fists raised.

They fight every day from then on, Nicky trying with all his might to land a hit or take her down, even while being shot at or fought off with her labrys. After two weeks of trying, he finally does, and Andy celebrates her bloodied nose with a whoop.

“If you’ve ruined thousands of years of my good looks with one punch, I’m going to be very upset,” she says, in a tone that suggests she very much wouldn’t be.

His reward for the successful hit is in a big black case Andy pulls from her room.

“I was going to save this until after we’d done shotguns, but I think you deserve it,” she says, swinging an arm over his shoulders. They’re so much more free with their affection now, Nicky smiles softly through their touches, even if he doesn’t initiate them himself.

Andy gestures for Nicky to crack open the case.

“By God’s nails,” Nicky whispers.

Inside the case is the most incredible gun Nicky had ever seen. It’s long and thin and has several parts placed carefully around it.

“It’s beautiful, Andy.” He traces a finger along the narrow barrel of the gun. “What is it?”

Andy grins and presses a kiss to the side of his face.

“It’s yours.”

 


 

“Nile.”

She buries her face in her pillow and doesn’t respond.

“Psst. Nile, wake up.”

She startles awake, fully alert but still confused.

Nicky is at the foot of her bed, his eyes wide with glee.

“Nicky, what’s wrong?”

“I learnt the date,” he says, like that explains everything.

Nile rolls over and checks her clock on the bedside table. “Nicky, it’s 5:30 in the morning!”

Precisamente. On the 15th of August.”

She flops down on the bed, then, when Nicky averts his eyes, pulls the sheet to her neck over her sleeping tee.

“What’s so special about August 15th?”

“It’s Assumption Day,” he answers. He bounces lightly on his toes.

“Nicky, Assumption is exactly correct, because you’re acting like I have any idea what’s going on.”

“The Assumption of Mother Mary, when she was taken into heaven,” Nicky says. “You are Christian, yes? I have seen your crucifix.”

Nile touches the gold chain and cross around her neck.

“I’m more of a Baptist than a Catholic,” she says.

They’re staring at each other, the way they often do when their languages break down.

“Uh, Protestant?” Nile tries weakly. “Shit, half a millennium early on that one.”

“Catholic, I know this word.” Nicky waves a broad arm. “Everything, universal, yes?”

Ah, Catholic in the sense of all Christians everywhere, everywhen, that’s something Nile remembers from Sunday sermons. “Sure, what the hell, yes, I’m part of the universal church.”

“Then we must celebrate!” Nicky’s voice is a stage whisper as he glances at the door. “I don’t think Andy is Christian, and I didn’t think the Muslim would care.”

“Nicky!” Nile admonishes.

“The church forbids work on a Holy Day!” He says in his excited whisper again. “Not even two immortal teachers can command that we train today!”

Realization dawns on her. Holy days, Nicky wants a holiday. “You want to play hooky?”

He twitches his head to the side. “How do you play ‘hooky’ game?”

“You sneak away from your teachers,” Nile says, “and have fun all day with your friends.”

Nicky smiles broadly, all bright teeth and creases from his nose. “Yes! I want to play hooky.”

And so they sneak away from the compound before the sun has fully risen. Nile leaves a note on the counter so Andy doesn’t raze the jungle to the ground looking for them, and takes her phone, but otherwise they give no excuses.

Nile drives the truck, and Nicky almost screams as they barrel down the dirt drive to town.

“These machines!” He curses.

Assumption Day seems to be a public holiday in Paraguay, because the town is a lot busier than usual. There are some stalls set up and Nicky, despite not knowing the language or the time period a few months ago, fits in smoothly. The dialect of Spanish that the locals speak is a good challenge for their burgeoning super-spy skills, but Nicky is far more interested in the hand woven crafts, which he points out to Nile with victory.

“See? No machines!”

Nile is drawn to some gorgeous pottery pieces and for the first time, tells Nicky that she wants to do more sculpture, improve the skills she’s got.

“Well,” Nicky says, “you have all the time you want now.”

And it’s the answer she’s been expecting all year.

They buy street food and run through the town hand in hand. The whole day they feel like schoolchildren, running about without teachers to scold them. Nowhere is that more pronounced than when Nicky gets his first glimpse of an alpaca.

Madre di Dio,” he whispers. “What is this sheep-camel?”

Right, Nile realises, another thing unique to the New World. She explains, trying to remember that this man has never even seen a photograph of anything, let alone the exotic animals she takes for granted.

Nicky asks the farmer if he may touch the alpaca, and when he does, he devolves into giggles.

“It’s so soft!”

Nile sneaks her phone from her back pocket and opens the camera without Nicky realising. He puts his face to the soft wool of the alpaca’s neck and rubs.

Nile snaps a photo of his joy. Nicky doesn’t even know what a phone or a camera is, but she’s going to live for thousands of years, and she wants to remember this moment.

Chapter Text

Nicky and Nile try every sweet treat from every street stall and hole in the wall shop they can find.

“Donuts, c’mon, Nicky, tell me you like donuts!” Nile waves one in his face. “Every culture in the world loves fried dough.”

He tries one, and his eyes go wide. Nile is proud to have success, but her victory is tainted when he eats the rest by licking the donut clean of sugar and cinnamon before chewing on the treat.

“Why can’t you eat like a normal person?” She complains. “We should pick something up for Andy, too, she loves sweet food, she’ll be sad she missed out.”

“Oh I’m sure they had fun without us,” Nicky says.

Nile looks at him curiously, not quite figuring out what he means, but he just quirks an eyebrow knowingly and doesn’t respond.

He’s distracted by a woman walking past carrying a chihuahua in her arms.

“Is it for… hunting mice?” He asks in his new Spanish.

The woman hurumps at him.

On the drive back to the compound they call home, Nicky demands they stop by a paddock where a few horses are grazing by the side of the road. He leans his arms on the fence and bows his back to bask in the afternoon sun. It’s the most open and relaxed Nile has ever seen him, like a peace is settled into his bones.

“These are beautiful creatures,” he says, jerking his head at the horses. “Very good stock. We should ask the owner to borrow them, you must learn to ride, Nile.”

“Yeah, not today. Andy will kill you if you get me on a horse before she does. I think her people, like, invented horses.”

He hums and inclines his head back, eyes shut.

The easiness doesn’t last, Nile realises. He doesn’t stay this loose limbed and free. Something happens to him to give him the closed off, tight smiles she remembers from the first night she met him. He’s boyish, right now, even cheeky. He does things without thinking about them, without worrying about the consequences.

The Nicky that Nile once knew was reserved, watchful, but hesitant. Once, she was on the phone to Booker and described him as “passive” and was given a strongly worded lecture about Nicky’s character, that patience and kindness should not be mistaken for weakness.

She’s been so caught up, so invested in the learning and training and becoming close with Nicky that she hasn’t realised that he’s different from the rest of them. They’re both so young right now, compared to the others, but he doesn’t stay like her. He doesn’t stay like any of them.

They’re all bound together in this immortality business, but he’s alone. He’ll have to leave them one day. They can’t stay safe forever, maybe even one day soon, and he’ll go back, or forward, and he’ll have to do it alone.

Nicky’s wisdom comes at a price, and it’s one Nile hopes she won’t have to see.

Nile finds her voice sticks in her throat. “C’mon, let’s go home.”

 


 

Andy greets them with her arms folded across her chest, a mock frown on her face.

“Did you kids have fun?” She drawls.

“We brought donuts!” Nile says with a grin, waving the bag to pacify her. It works, Andy grabs the brown paper bag off her and starts digging in.

“We’ve got a surprise too,” Joe says. “Come see.”

On the kitchen table is a long wooden crate, stuffed with straw. Joe reaches in and withdraws something wrapped tightly with bubble wrap.

“I had Book pull this out of our storage in Val d’Argent,” Andy says, as Joe pulls at the bubble wrap. “We’ve been saving this for someone special.”

Joe reveals a pair of curved, beautifully decorated, wood and gold flintlock pistols. He tests the weight in his hands, grinning widely.

“Just as gorgeous as the day I got them, hey, Boss?”

Andy is still withdrawing her own weapon, a long barreled pistol that Nile recognises from old cowboy films as an original Colt.

“That’s wild,” she says, diving into the box herself.

She finds a long musket with an attachable bayonet among other artifacts of guns and explosives that would be at home in a museum, and Nicky is just as intrigued.

“Wild,” he agrees, and Nile has really got to stop using 21st century slang, or at least throw in a “groovy” or “radical” for good measure.

Joe aims both barrels out the window, then bends his arms back to rest his matching flintlocks on his shoulders, grinning like a regular pirate. “When you revive into the middle of a battle,” he says, “you won’t always be handed a fully functioning, minimally jamming gun. Call this historicity training.”

“Nile there’s no need for you to learn how to shoot anything older than World War 2,” Andy says.

“No, but I wanna!”

“Pardon, but, World War?” Nicky asks.

“Just…” Andy isn’t going there. “Just help us unpack.”

From amongst the straw, Nicky pulls out a thick envelope, one that Nile jolts to see has Booker’s fine, looping script on the front.

“Nile Freeman,” he reads. “Freeman? Is that your hometown?”

She snatches it off of him.

“No, it’s my last name. You know…” She trails off, “no, of course, you don’t know. Okay, there’s like billions of people on earth now, right? So if your government wants to keep track of everyone it’s easier if names are unique. So you’ve got to have a first name, like Nile, and a last name that you share with your family, and a middle name too, mostly.” The words are already out of her mouth before she realises, Oh, this is how he knows. “My full name is Nile Cassandra Freeman.”

“It’s a nice name,” Nicky says, scratching a hand through his hair, and it tuffs up, “but why do you want a government to be able to track you?”

Nile opens her mouth to explain, then shuts it again, re-considering.

“We don’t,” Joe says, hauling in another box, this one full of ammunition. “That’s why we have to change names every few decades. It never used to be a problem until record keeping became essential.”

“Right now he’s Joseph Jones, and you’re going by Nicky Smith.”

“But I’m not a Smith! Won’t they be suspicious when I cannot forge?”

 


 

Before Nile is permitted to learn how to use a ramrod to load muzzleloading guns, a pile of books are dropped in front of her on the kitchen table.

“It’s a Holy Day,” Nile says authoritatively. “I’m not supposed to do work on a Holy Day.”

“Be grateful this is all I’m giving you,” Andy says.

“But why do I gotta read the history books?” She asks, never sounding more like her little brother come exam season. “Shouldn’t this be Nicky’s job?”

Andy jostles Nile’s head as she moves around the kitchen. “He will have to live through it and learn the hard way,” she says. “And there’s nothing in these history books that prepare you for the sights and the smells and the everyday living.”

Joe agrees with her. “Nicky will need the details, Nile, you don’t.”

Nicky has all his guns laid out on the floor and is steadily working on speeding up his unjamming procedures. He tilts his head when he hears his name, but keeps his hands moving in the new routine.

“Then what’s the point?” Nile asks.

“You’ve got to learn the patterns,” Joe says. “Get used to the idea of nations rising and falling. Find out what changes the world.”

Andy raps her knuckles on a stack of books. “This is how we choose our jobs.”

Nile doesn’t miss the way Nicky’s hands slow, and he watches their conversation with hooded eyes.

“I thought you just tried to do what is right.”

Andy slides into a seat across from her, and crosses her arms on the table.

“Which is better to do? To rescue a political prisoner or let the people riot?” She asks.

Nile is stumped. She feels conflicted, and even worse that she can’t confidently blurt out the right answer.

“What jobs are our responsibility, and what are best taken up by others?” Joe adds.

Nile scratches at the back of her neck. She wishes she knew.

“That’s what you meant,” she guesses, “when you said it depends on the century. You don’t know if what you do will result in good. It’s only… only what you think is right.”

Suddenly she’s staring down the barrel of thousands of years of uncertainty. It was easy, looking at Copley’s wall, all marked out and easy to place on a timeline, easy to see with hindsight all the good that came from their work. Looking into the future, she doesn’t even know where to start.

“It’s so much,” she says. “How do you do it? How do you know what’s important?”

“It’s all important,” Joe says. His eyes are bright. “Every piece of it. Every battle, crop, little bits of beautiful art, a family struggling to get by, it’s all important.”

She looks over where Nicky is sitting, legs crossed on the floor, his expression painfully familiar as he listens in to their conversation. He’s watching Joe carefully, with a small crease between his brows.

He doesn’t ask, doesn’t inquire into how his own fucked up situation applies to the team, if he should, or could, direct them, to learn the future and tell it to them. Nile has to look away.

She flops open the first book in her pile and snorts a laugh. Booker had scrawled over the contents page, crossed out the title of one of the chapters and defiantly written “this chapter is shit” and “Trust her impressions of the economic influence of the Silk Road, but read Edward Said (1978)”.

“Will you read for us, Nile?” Nicky asks. Again, he’s asking for something for himself, but this time less destructive.

“It would be rude not to read aloud,” Joe informs her.

“Won’t that like, break the timeline?” She asks. “If Nicky learns too much about his future?”

Joe stands behind Andy and rests his large hand on her bare shoulders. She tilts her head back into his belly and smiles at him.

Nicky looks at Nile and waggles an eyebrow, that same knowing look that she doesn’t understand, that’s meant to communicate something like you see? I told you. Only she doesn’t get it, and he doesn’t explain. She’s not shocked to see the easy physical affection between the two of them, between any of them, it’s a familiar sight.

“I tend to think that time is a lot more robust than we give it credit for,” Joe says. “Nicky, you may learn the future or not, either way, we are all responsible for our actions, and it will play out.”

Andy clasps one of his hands. “And I go back and forth. Last year it was ‘why fucking bother?’ and now…” She shrugs. “I think information is a valuable resource. We don’t have answers, but we do have purpose.”

So Nile reads out loud.

 


 

After a few hours, Nile’s voice has gone scratchy and dry, then healed again several times over. She’s fairly certain Joe has fallen asleep on the couch, his hands folded on his chest. It’s almost dinner time, which means it’s time Nile pours herself a wine and kicks back. There’s leftovers in the fridge, and Nile had demanded the microwave back so she could make her hot chocolate no matter what Nicky says about a pot on the stove, so no one has to cook tonight. There’s no rush, they can stay relaxed together. Nicky puts together a platter of finger foods, cheese and ripped up pieces of fresh bread he bought in town during their game of hooky.

Andy absentmindedly sorts through the books on the table, ranking them in order of importance and scanning Booker’s annotations with a thoughtful nod and a small smile. One book she extracts from the pile is a brown paperback.

“Oh, fuck off,” she grouses. In typical Booker fashion he had written on the inside cover, with flourishing curves and even a few sarcastic love hearts:

Ma cherie, my oldest, beautiful, faithful friend, for you, my own explorer of the East

xxx

“That jerk,” she says.

“What?” Nile asks.

Andy holds up the front cover for her to see.

The Journey East: select stories from Brave Western Travellers Exploring the Exotic Near and Far East from the 12th to the 19th centuries.

Even Joe lifts up his head and groans. He flops a forearm over his face and laughs to himself.

“I’m guessing you’re not fans?” Nile hazards.

“Fetishistic, inaccurate-” Andy begins, her teeth bared.

“Racist, just plain bizarre,” Joe finishes. He deepens his voice and thickens his accent to a caricature. “I will take your white woman and throw her in my harem.” He spreads his hands hopelessly and chuckles. “I mean, you gotta laugh, right?”

“Listen to this shit!” Andy says, flipping through the book and reading aloud. “Ahem. ‘In Marco Polo’s journeys, he encountered the topsy turvy culture of the inhabitants of “Uncian,”. The men were lazy, self-important, and mostly useless, or, as Marco puts it, “gentlemen, according to their notions. They have no occupation but warfare, the chase, and falconry.’ You’re just mad because you sucked at all three, Marco.”

“Wait, you knew Marco Polo?” Nile asks.

Andy levels an amused glare at her. “Marco Polo claimed that at seventeen he travelled from Venice to the East with his father Nicolo and ‘Uncle’ Maffeo.” The quotation marks around ‘uncle’ were evident in her tone. “While he was there they met with wild and wanton women. C’mon, Nile, what do you think?”

“I thought you guys tried to keep out of the spotlight of history,” Nile says with an arch of her eyebrow.

At that, Andy turns her stare to Joe and Nicky. “Someone thought it was a good idea to bring him on their journey.”

Joe quickly glances at Nicky, and Nile gets the impression that it was, at one point in history, Nicky’s idea, but Joe has to leap to his defence. Nicky can’t argue a decision he hasn’t made yet.

“The kid was always hanging around port, begging us for stories, then you and Quynh sent word to meet up,” Joe shrugs. “You can’t blame Nicky for suggesting we bring him along. We didn’t think he’d make a book!” He turns to Nile. “If he hadn’t been bored in prison he would have never dictated his travels. We could have gotten away with it.”

This is clearly an argument they’ve had before, and Andy is more interested in examining the book.

“Marco Polo in China, give me a break,” she grumbles. “He didn’t even make it to China, we did!”

“Give us another one,” Nicky prompts, a wry little smile indicating he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Andy does, grumbling and swearing at every line, and Joe egging her on perfectly. Once she reads a short paragraph about the geography of a port city and says, “That’s quite true, actually,” but most of the time it’s a shitshow.

It’s exactly the sort of shitshow Nile loves to veg out to, drinking her wine in the late afternoon.

“This is much better than watching crappy TV,” she announces.

Later that night, they’re all full and wine drunk, and Nile is still giddy about skipping out on training. Nicky tentatively pushes his socked foot out to brush against her ankle, and through the haze of alcohol she realises it’s the first time he’s initiated physical contact.

“You know what I think you should do?” She says, as though she’s been asked. She pokes her foot back at Nicky’s. “You should invest in Bitcoin.”

Joe snorts.

“What do you mean?”

“Actually, no, I don’t trust you on the dark web. What you should do is wait until you pop up in 2011, and tell Booker to buy as much as he can under $10. Sell them all again in 2019.” She makes an explosion sound. “Easy money.”

Andy laughs out loud. “He already did.”

Nile sits up from her stupor.

“What?”

“It was a nice little boost to our finances at the right time,” Andy says. “He treated Nicky to his new sniper rifle. Huh. I always wondered where Booker got the tip off.”

She and Nile grin at each other, but Nile’s head is spinning a little bit. It crashes to a stop when Nicky breaks the silence.

“Who is Booker?”

Nile’s jaw snaps closed. Her eyes dart to the other two, but they both look away. Joe makes a half-aborted move to wrap an arm around Nicky’s shoulder, but stops himself before they touch. Do they tell him? Could he fix it?

Andy, ancient and wise, rips off the bandaid.

“Booker is one of us.” Her words are curt. “He’s not here right now.”

Nicky nods, apparently satisfied with that very insufficient answer.

 


 

The shadow of Booker comes up again a couple of weeks later. Nicky and Nile have gotten the hang of the flint firing older guns, and Andy wishes she could get her hands on some of the field artillery they used in the 20th century, but detailed descriptions have to be enough.

They’ve been competitive all week, little challenges here and there, “first to the tree stump”, “can you take me down before I escape the compound?”. They’re sitting outside eating their mid-day meal, practicing their now suitable Arabic, when Nicky asks.

“Who had the worst death?”

Andy looks to the sky.

“That’s too grim, dear Nicolò,” Joe says. He leans forward and waggles a pointed finger. “Now who had the worst first awakening? That is a good question.”

Andy rolls her eyes. “You had Nicky, I hardly think you qualify.”

“You did?” Nicky asks.

“Only briefly.” Joe waves a hand, unwilling to speak of it. “Then it was a long time of confusion. For a while I thought I was chosen by God.”

“Well, who’s fault is that, that you only had him briefly?” Andy snorts into her cup.

“I thought I was insane,” Nile says. “That I’d had a seizure or something.”

“Please.” Andy pulls a face. “You woke up in a field hospital, cleaned and dressed and surrounded by your countrymen.”

“That were freaked the fuck out!” Nile throws back. “And if you hadn’t shown up and kidnapped me, I could have gone home on a medical discharge and been very confused in twenty years when I still hadn’t aged!”

Joe looks like he wants to say something, but changes the topic. “Do you even remember your first death, Boss?”

She flicks a bottle cap onto the air. “The first few times I figured I’d gotten lucky. Dodged just fast enough, or something. First time I realised? I woke up smothered by my people in a mass grave.”

“Fucking hell,” Nile breathes.

“Yeah, not something you forget, no matter how old you are.” Andy smiles wryly.

Nicky tilts his head. “May I ask, Andy, how old are you?”

“Oh, very old.”

“Older than Joseph?”

She barks out a surprised laugh. “Yes, Nico, much older. Ancient.”

Then Nicky says something she clearly doesn’t expect.

“I’m sorry.”

She tilts her head to the side and regards him thoughtfully. “Thanks.” She clears her throat. “Anyway, my money’s on Booker for the worst first awakening. Looting bodies in war was common in his time. He woke up naked in a Russian winter. Everything he had was taken, even his teeth.”

She bares her own as both Nicky and Nile recoil.

“Looters were after everything they could sell. Even dentures,” Joe explains.

“Wait, they grow back, right?” Nile asks, sounding a bit panicked. “Tell me I’m not doing eternity with the one set of teeth.”

Joe quirks an eyebrow. “You have regrown every bone in your hand, why wouldn’t you regrow your teeth?”

“I don’t know,” Nile shoots back, “why isn’t dentistry covered by health insurance?”

 


 

A year and a half into their time in Paraguay, Andy gets sick. It’s some flu, it gives her the runs and the shakes, and she resents the way it makes her look undignified much more than she dislikes actually being sick.

Joe hovers, bringing her a whole pharmacy and drinks with electrolytes and swaddling her in blankets. His foot bounces as he watches her sleep, because she won’t allow him to fret over her when she’s awake.

“I hadn’t realised,” Nile mutters to Nicky. “I haven’t been sick since the first time I died.”

“We can’t get ill?” He asks.

“We can, but your body heals quickly,” Joe answers. “The worst I’ve seen is an hour or two.”

Andy has been sick for two days.

“Will she be okay?” Nicky asks.

“You tell me,” Nile quips harshly, then looks contrite. “Sorry, that was uncalled for. I’m just, I don’t like to see her like this.”

Andy, with great effort, lifts her head and croaks out. “She doesn’t even want to be seen like this. Get out, you lot are worse than flies hanging around horseshit.”

Nile rolls her eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”

Nicky hesitates, lingering at the doorway until Andy notices him, sighs and waves him in.

“What’s on your mind, Nicky?” At the exertion, she reaches for a glass of water and drinks deeply. Her limbs move slowly and heavily, a rare expression of weakness Nicky hasn’t seen before.

“I’m sorry, I hadn’t realised…” Nicky trails off and tries again, this time in Genoese. “When you first told me that you had become mortal, I was jealous. All I wanted to do was end my suffering.”

Was it really only a year or so ago?

“And since then, you seemed so invincible.” He can’t stand the intense way she looks at him. “At least until I broke your nose.”

She huffs a laugh.

“I think I understand now, what it means, that you don’t heal.”

“Yeah. It sucks, but hey, it’s my time. Everything dies.”

“No, I mean, I now realise what the world is losing, in losing you. Your few decades left are nothing compared to the life that you have led.” He looks away as he considers. “I know it is inaccurate, but I feel like I am losing you too early.”

“Everyone is acting like I am dying tomorrow,” she says, her lip curling a little, but it’s good natured.

“It may as well be, for immortals such as these,” Nicky replies. “They are worried about what life will be like without you.” He inclines his head, thinking about his words carefully. “Especially Joseph, what you two share, a thousand years together, it’s beyond imagining.”

Andy looks at him like he’s said something true, but odd. “He’s a big softy, our Joe.”

Nicky clears his throat. “Even still, I see their grief today, and my heart breaks, even though I haven’t yet had my time with you, as you say I will have.”

She regards him thoughtfully, propped up on soft pillows.

“You’re the best of us, Nico.”

His face colours and he ducks his head, then his brows crease and his jaw tenses shut.

“Now get out of here, some of us have healing to do.”

 


 

Another night, Joe goes to Andy in the early hours, needing some time, some space to be himself. He wants to tell her that they’re feeling settled, that they’ve made progress. Nicky can hit a coin at one kilometre now, and can track a bird through his scope at the same for over an hour. They’ve both achieved a fairly solid grasp of the basics of half a dozen of the most relevant languages. Both students are quick to think on their feet, devise solid strategies and know their way around most of the weapons in their arsenal.

Joe feels proud, feels itching ready to go and be in the world again.

But he also misses his everything, misses the way his Nicky presses into him in sleep and looks at him with adoration, not shuttered with suspicion. It’s pushing two years, not the longest he’s ever gone, he can be patient, but the last few years have been hell, with Booker’s betrayal and the arrival of Nile, and Andy’s mortality, is it so wrong if he wants a little comfort and familiarity?

Yes. It is wrong, if it means hoping the one he loves most in the world suffers and dies and departs. The guilt hangs heavy and tight around his heart.

He silently opens the door to Andy’s room and finds the lamp still lit. Andy is hunched over her cramped desk, scribbling something furiously. In the last couple of days her room has transformed. Squares of paper are plastered across the walls, each with a year, location or event. Andy’s not half a bad artist herself, and at some points she’s sketched buildings, boats and coastlines.

Two different coloured pieces of string connect the timeline that she’s constructed. The red thread is a solid line, straight and almost circumferencing the room. The green thread is sliced into pieces, looping forward with broad arcs and doubling back, occasionally ending at a question mark or falling to the ground, waiting for the connection to be found.

“You’ve been busy,” Joe remarks.

Andy grunts and snatches up the paper she’s working on and sticks it to the wall next to a note that says Crimea, then stalks over to the other side of the room, grabs a loose green string and pulls it across to her new note.

“I’ve been trying to piece it all together,” Andy says. “Everything I know, what it means.”

Joe traces his eyes across the timeline she’s built, the criss-crossing threads of Nicky’s life, the way his green thread trails off multiple times into a blank space ahead of the note that says “Paraguay, 2021-2, Training”.

“You been sleeping, Boss?”

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“It’s just, you never felt the need to put it all down like this before.”

“I wasn’t dying before,” she says. “I’m ending, he’s starting, I just have to, have to do everything I can to make sure you’ll be okay.”

Joe’s heart melts. Andy shows she cares in tough love and gifts and bright smiles, and he’s treasuring each and every moment. “Wallahi, Boss, you’ve just got to trust us. We’ll do good. We’ll be fine.”

“I’m worried that Nile’s not ready yet,” Andy says finally. She works a thumbnail between her teeth.

“Nile’s far more capable than-”

“No, Joe. I’m worried she’s not ready to replace me.” She sighs and reaches over to grip his neck. “I love you, Joe, I’m more than confident in your skills, but-”

“I have other duties that come before the team,” he finishes for her.

“You said it, not me.”

“No, you’re right, I can’t afford to be leading when I’m too worried about what happens to Nicky. And the others, well…”

Andy doesn’t finish what’s on their minds. “If I’m passing her the baton, I have to know she’ll be okay. She’s my protégé.”

Joe ducks his head and smirks at her. “You’ve got a few years in you yet, Andromache.”

She thumps him on the chest and pushes him away playfully. He mockingly rubs the sore spot she hit him as he turns to survey her work again. He clears his throat. His heart is thrumming in his chest.

“There’s something I need to talk to you about. Something Nicky said to me when we were here.” He taps a long finger on the mark for “Merrick”. The green thread returns to this spot multiple times. “I buried it, but I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Alright.” Andy looks at him quizzically. “You don’t look so good, Joe, you look shaken.”

Joe reaches past “Merrick”, past the present day and fiddles with a green thread that stretches into the uncertain future.

“Are you okay?” She asks.

His voice cracks as he answers.

“I don’t know.”

 


 

One afternoon, Nicky takes some time after his shower to groom himself. He trims his hair and his beard to a style he had seen on some of the men in the town. It’s nothing drastic, but he finds his face suits the shorter hair on the back and sides and longer on top. When he finally emerges, he finds the others in the living room, arguing back and forth in hushed voices.

They immediately stop and look at him.

Nile clears her throat. “Lookin’ good!”

“Oh, no, please,” he says sarcastically, “don’t stop on my account.”

They’ve been caught, and are at least shame-faced about it. Nicky folds his arms across his chest. “What’s got everyone up in arms?”

He’s quite enjoyed getting to know idioms in the various languages, though has learnt to be skeptical about Nile’s suggestions.

Nile turns away, busying herself with things in the kitchen. She sometimes steps away when there’s something between the rest of them. Most of the time Nicky feels like her equal, his teammate, but then there will be moments like this, where it’s assumed he belongs with the other two ancient ones. But he doesn’t feel the connection that’s assumed, it leaves him feeling empty.

Andy, always the direct one, speaks. “There’s trouble, down south. A hired militia group is disturbing a local community for their waterway access.”

“This is a job?” Nicky asks.

“Just a tip off,” Andy replies. “Mrs Villalba at the bakery told me, her grandson is from that region.”

“It’s a job we’re not ready for,” Joe says.

“No, you just think I’m not ready for it,” Nicky assumes, jutting his chin forward.

“We’re not ready,” Joe says again.

“What is the point of all this training if I cannot put it to use?”

“There’s more training to do, still. Andromache,” he turns to her, “there’s no rush to get out in the field, we’ve got more time.”

“The town might not, Joe-”

“From what Mrs Villalba said, it’s mostly intimation tactics right now. If we get involved the situation might escalate. People may die, not just us.”

“And if we don’t, families will be thrown out of their homes.”

“I’m no stranger to that myself, Andy.”

Nicky raises his palms out, stepping between them, playing peacemaker in a way he’s never done before.

“I want to do it.”

“Nicky, you’re not going,” Joe says quickly.

“You are not my mother, Joseph Jones,” Nicky snaps at him. “You don’t get to decide my life.”

“He’s right, Joe,” Andy says. “It’s not your call.” She turns to Nile, who is decidedly not listening to their conversation. “Nile?”

Her eyes go wide. “Me?”

Andy snorts, and even Joe can’t help but smile.

“We’re one team, we don’t try to out vote each other, we agree together,” Andy says. “And we follow our leader, so, Nile, what’s it going to be?”

Nile looks at them all, and straightens her shoulders.

“We’re going.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Nicky gets killed on their mission. Of course he does. He catches two bullets in quick succession in his back, and one of them strikes the edge of his heart. His knees hit the ground, and before Joe can get to him, he dies.

 

 

 


 

Chapter Text

Nicky dies in Paraguay in 2021, full of bravado and confidence and surrounded by gunfire and friends. As he goes down he thinks “be ready, push through the pain, there will be a battle, you must be ready.”

He wakes up, and the world is quiet.

He’s on his back, there’s no gunfire, no marching armies. There is hardly any noise at all, but in the distance he can hear wailing.

He feels weak, but not in much pain, not centred in any one place, at least. There are no bullets pushing through his skin, no pools of blood under his body. Just weakness.

He struggles to sit up and takes in the room around him. A simple wooden room, no furnishings to speak of, just a few sacks in the corner, and a figure wrapped in a cloak, sitting on the floor across from him.

“You slept a long time.” The voice is rough, speaking French.

Nicky sees the speaker, all bundled in a brown cloak, and is shocked when it takes a moment to recognise him.

It’s Joseph. But his face is pulled thin and sallow, all the colour is gone from his cheeks, and his hair is long and lank. He looks like a skeleton, his eyes sunken into his head. His face is clean shaven which only makes his stark thinness more evident.

“Joseph? What happened to you?” Nicky asks.

Joseph licks chapped lips. “What do you mean?” His eyes dart across Nicky’s face, categorising his expression. “Did you, did you die?”

“Yes.” Nicky doesn’t know why he’s whispering.

“Ah, shit,” Joseph says. He runs a hand across his head, and stringy hair comes free. “You said you were feeling fine.”

“What the fuck is going on?” Nicky asks. He wants to raise his voice, jump up and scream, stomp his feet, but finds he doesn’t have enough energy for any of that.

“Famine. Disease. It’s hard to have one without the other,” Joseph says. “We’ve just got to wait it out. Quynh will be here in a few months. End of the season, she’ll be here.”

“Quynh?” Nicky asks.

“She had business to attend to, back home,” Joseph replies. “Our features wouldn’t have been a benefit, we thought we could do some good here, but…”

Nicky looks down at his own hands and finds his skin paper thin and blotted.

“Who’s Quynh?” He asks.

Joseph looks at him sharply. “Nicolò, how old are you?”

There is some bitterness in Nicky’s mouth when he answers. “You have called me very young, but I am old enough to understand that this is my life now, living and dying and being thrown through time.”

Something at Joseph’s hip stirs. At the edge of his cloak, where Nicky expected to find the bulk of Joseph, he now realises is just Andy. She’s as thin as he is, and slow moving. She raises her head, and Nicky almost recoils at her face. Her lips are pale and thin, her hair long and ratty, tied back with a single cord.

They look worse than shadows of themselves, almost unrecognisable as the people who grinned at each other as they strapped on tactical gear and loaded weapons earlier that day. These ghosts couldn’t have driven for hours together, singing old folk songs about chimney sweeps.

They look one day away from death.

“You died?” Andy asks.

“He’s young,” Joseph adds.

“Good. The other version of you didn’t agree.” Andy sits up and grabs at the couple of sacks at the corner and presses them into his hands. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better. We’re not going to make it through to the end of the season.”

“Andromache, you can’t ask this of him,” Joseph protests.

“I can, I will,” she says. “We’ve got to go to hard rationing.”

Nicky opens the sacks, he sees mouldy bread and pickled fish, there’s some loose wheat ready to be crushed and baked, and nuts and dried fruits. Decent rations, Nicky has seen worse, but then- he looks up at the others. It’s not enough for three people. It’s barely a month’s worth for one.

“What do you want me to do?” He asks.

“Take the rest of the supplies, make them last as long as you can,” she says. “If we die over and over again, it doesn’t matter, but you do.”

“I won’t let you die!”

“You’ll have to,” Andy shoots back. “Unless you’ve got any other bright ideas?”

Joseph stares at him, his eyes watery. Nicky looks away, his heart in his throat. “I don’t like it.”

Andy quirks a small smile. “I’m not thrilled about it myself. But I’m a pragmatist. If this is the only way forward, then we push forward. Push through the pain.”

That jolts something inside of him, the part that responds to a bark of ‘soldier’, that loves structure and discipline. He takes the food they press into his hands, and he does his job.

 


 

Nicky has known hunger and starvation before. When he marched in the Crusades, the men grew hungry, they ate the horses, and there were whispers some even ate the dead enemies. But those were armies, far from home, they had signed up for it. He’s never known starvation on this grand scale before, never in cities packed with people, and more pouring through the gates every day, looking for food, not knowing that in their own rural towns they had a better chance of survival. The living replace the dead every day, and the dead line the streets.

The first time he sees a priest go into a house and come out when the household is wailing, he is furious that they don’t ring the bells to honour the dead, but then the priest goes to the next house down the road, and there must be more dead to find there. The bells can’t sound all day, it would break their spirits. For the first few days he lives off mouldy bread and stale crackers, his gut cramping up, and thinks about the lamb cutlets he had cooked with Nile just last week.

He knows how to ration food, knows how to conserve energy, and what foods suit the activity needed. He is no stranger to denying his own bodily urges, it’s simple to keep reaching inside the sack of their supplies when his stomach is crying out.

Within days, Andromache and Joseph become too weak to leave the small apartment they’ve paid for, so Nicky is the only one who goes out to the city gate and tries to find work. The pay is paltry, and bread costs a week’s wages, he can’t bring home enough for the others, and every job he takes is a coin that doesn’t land in the pockets of those who only get this one, short life.

He mashes up the wallpaper into a paste with water and feeds it to Joseph and Andromache and tries not to think about how many times they died while he was out. He goes outside the city to the garbage dump and joins the many people there scavenging for what they can find to eat and to sell and he finds a horse’s bridle ripped into pieces.

He goes to the market but no one will buy it, so he takes it home, grinds the leather and eats it.

He stays by their side through the night, when he hears screams of desperation and death through the city. He knows people have taken to stealing from each other, now that the weak are defenceless. He hardly sleeps, for fear of passing in the night and letting them down. Nicky tries to pass the long hours, tries to think and pray and recite the passages of scripture he’d memorized in three languages but his brain is foggy, and he doesn’t get far.

One night, early on, Joseph grunts awake, or alive, and rocks his head around to see Nicky.

He reaches out a hand, and Nicky isn’t heartless, he takes it. By God’s wounds, his wrist is so thin, Nicky can wrap his thumb and middle finger around it.

“You know, I was dreaming about Malta,” Joseph says.

Most of the time Andromache and Joseph don’t speak, they don’t have the energy to waste. But he’s looking wistful, and Nicky is so lonely.

“Malta?” Nicky hums. “I’ve never been.”

Joseph closes his eyes, and for a moment Nicky thinks that’s the end of that. Then he parts his lips, and a pink tongue darts out to wet them.

“They make this fish soup there, aljotta.” He smiles in a soft way he usually reserves for Andy. Nicky smothers the hot flash of possession that jerks in his belly. It is not his smile to keep. “I could really go for aljotta right now.”

They’re not near the coastline, Nicky doesn’t even know where they are, just a walled city on a hill, and the people here speak a form of French that he can now stumble through. The only river is half a day’s walk and so overfished that he passed a woman selling snail shells in the market, the inners already sucked out. There is no fish left.

Nicky doesn’t know what else to say. “Me too.”

“You’d like it there. We should go sometime.” Joseph’s eyes are still closed, but his fingers flex against Nicky’s palm involuntarily, in a way that could be interpreted as stroking, but Nicky will not think of it that way.

“That sounds nice.”

At that moment, Andromache stirs, and Nicky jumps back like he’s been burned. She gasps for water, and it’s the only thing Nicky can give in abundance. The wells and pumps run freely here, but he’s beginning to suspect the “germs” Nile had spoken of had gotten into the supply.

His heart races as he pours water into a clay cup for her, feeling all manner of shame. Here they are, dying every day to protect him from adding to his long list of deaths, and Nicky isn’t just stealing the food from their mouths, but Joseph’s energy and gentleness that should be Andy’s.

Joseph’s hand is still outstretched on the wooden floor between them, but Nicky cannot bring himself to touch him again.

 


 

Nicky drinks rainwater until his stomach could burst and hires himself out as a guard to the baker. He can’t be paid in bread, it’s too costly, but he gets a small pot of yeast, and it will be enough to turn the handfuls of seeds he still has into a few buns.

He still has his sword, and although his training in the future for the last two years was mostly around the guns, he still knows how to wield it, that most of the battle is fought in intimidation and threats. He knows his own face is too thin and his clothes hang too loose on his form to be perceived as a threat, but the people recognise a soldier’s posture and his stance with a weapon.

For a few weeks he just stands guard, watching the lines of people go in and out of the bakery. Occasionally he has to remove someone from the stall, telling them to move on, but more often than not they end up crying into his tunic that they can’t afford to pay, sometimes talking for an hour, and Nicky is perversely pleased that his grasp on the language is only so-so. There is enough grief in their voice to break him, without knowing the exact suffering they speak.

Everyone’s hungry, but only those with things to sell have enough to buy the bread. Some children hang around all day, waiting for the price to drop at closing, count their meager coins and go home disappointed.

 


 

He remembers the day it changes. The day the line at the bakery turns to a crowd, the day a stern word and the flash of steel is no longer enough to deter them.

The people are so desperate, they beg and beg to be let through, just a handful, sir, just a mouthful, that’s all.

There’s not enough to go around, even if he did let them through, some would die. The baker would die before giving up the lifeblood of his family.

The crowds run up against Nicky’s sword.

He cuts one man’s arm, as a warning, but it doesn’t stop them. They just step over their fallen friend and keep pushing forward.

He abandons his post and coughs up a splatter of stomach bile against the wall.

He could have stayed and been a murderer of desperate people, or abandon his post and be a coward.

Every choice he makes is wrong.

 


 

He doesn’t sell his sword. By the time he thinks to, he doesn’t like the thought of who would want to buy it in these times, and what they would do with it.

His sword is already sullied enough, but for the first time Nicky thinks about the soul of the one at either end. He cleans and polishes the blade and then hides his sword under the floorboards.

 


 

He gets a stroke of good luck when he catches a pigeon by their home. He feeds her moulded grains that caused Andromache to shit herself, and keeps her locked in a small cage he has found among the garbage and fixed with some twine. She only lays two small eggs every week, but Nicky makes do. He cooks the eggs with curdled milk and takes them into their room.

But even though Joseph and Andromache rouse with the smell, they both refuse to eat, and push it back to Nicky. His hard won eggs taste bitter in his mouth.

As a compromise, he grinds up the shells to a fine powder that he sprinkles in a cup of water for them both, and they revive a little that evening. Andromache teases him for his pet pigeon and the way it craps its cage and makes their room smell, but Nicky is using its shit to cultivate a hidden garden of root vegetables so he wears the teasing proudly.

When the pigeon no longer lays eggs, he wrings her neck and drinks her blood. If he gets sick, it will be over soon, and he could use the energy. The feathers he sells, the people are getting thin, the warmth of a few more feathers in their beds is well worth it. There’s not much he can buy with what he gets for her plumage.

Again, the other two refuse the meat, but he convinces them to take the cooked grizzle, he boils the eyes and makes a stew with her bones and his small vegetables and feeds it to them, spoon by spoon. He thought they were thin when he first woke up, but weeks into his mission here, they are looking more and more like skeletons. He thinks that they’ve changed, that they will never again smile and relax around a bonfire as they once did, but then catches himself. The ones that trained him were the same ones that remember their heads being cradled by him as he spoons broth into their mouths. One day they will smile again, be strong enough to carry packs up a mountain and push a truck through mud.

The extra energy from the pigeon’s stew is a curse. Andromache goes into convulsions, and Nicky has to pin her down and shove his fingers into her mouth to stop her biting off her own tongue. Joseph also suffers his own form of a fit.

His bony hands reach out, grasping at ghosts.

“Nicolò, Nicolò,” he chants, “hold me, please, just for a few hours, let me see your face.”

Nicky looks away, full of pity for this once great man laid to waste, confused and bewildered, calling for the wrong immortal. He tries to hold off, tries to preserve the man’s dignity. “Andromache is here, by your side,” he says, pulling his hands towards her. “See? Here.”

But Joseph grasps at Nicky, his fingers like claws digging into his flesh.

“Please, please, I need you,” Joseph croaks.

“I’m here.” Nicky gives in.

Joseph’s eyes focus on his for the first time in days. His mouth works silently for a moment.

“Do you remember Malta?” He asks.

“No, Joseph, I’ve never been, remember?”

Joseph reaches a hand up and traces it down Nicky’s face. “The sunlight was so golden, wasn’t it?”

Nicky’s stomach churns in a way he can’t blame on hunger.

“You should go to sleep, Joseph.”

“Stay with me,” Joseph begs. “You can hold me, I need you, I want to hear your heart.”

“I’ll stay with you both,” Nicky allows. He slides down between Andromache and Joseph, and they both turn to him. They’re so thin and cold.

Andromache spasms a hand on his chest and buries her face in the crook of his arm, her nose is frigid. Joseph crumples. He curls into Nicky, pressing every inch of skin he can find to him. He keeps chanting Nicolò, Nicolò, and nothing makes any sense.

Even Andromache sighs and groans out, “Quynh.”

“She’s coming,” Joseph says. He reaches across Nicky’s chest and cups her cheek, stroking her neck.

Nicky is caught in the middle, and scrunches up his face, his eyes squeezed shut against the wetness there.

“When?” Nicky whispers. “When is she coming?”

But they have both slipped into sleep.

 


 

Nicky haunts the city like every other hopeless soul does. He wanders the streets looking for something to do, some way to get just a little more food to pull through. No one here looks at him, they walk about, never looking each other in the eye, too ashamed of what they’ve done to survive, even as they’ve all done the same.

The first time he smells sizzling fresh meat, his mouth fills with saliva, and he follows the scent like the rest of them. What he finds is the Mayor’s soldiers executing a man on the spot for the murder of his wife. The crowd is horrified, that one of their own would do this, would kill just to eat their family’s flesh and survive.

Within two weeks, the rage in the city turns to pity, to empathy, to understanding.

Another week and they all turn their heads away when they smell cooking flesh, living in denial.

“How lucky of them,” one older lady on the street says to Nicky, “how lucky to still have a pig to slaughter. I think I could ask them for a hoof. Yes, yes, I will ask them for a hoof, and they will give it to me.”

One day, Nicky is on his way back to the apartment when he comes across a man in the street, hauling Andromache away by the armpits. She revives in the middle of the theft and immediately puts up a fight, scratching and screaming and kicking. The man is clearly shocked, he had assumed she was dead and was taking her off to be butchered and sold.

Nicky doesn’t have his sword, but he runs forward and screams, and the man drops Andromache to the ground. Her skin is so thin it splits on her back and legs on impact.

The man flees, and Nicky pulls Andromache to his chest and carries her back home. She is lightweight, but he is tired and weak. He finds Joseph sprawled out on the doorstep, blood in his hair. He’d tried to go after her, to save her.

Nicky’s thoughts turn to what would happen if they were taken. If hungry people find that their limbs regrow and their flesh returns. He can’t let that happen.

He pulls his sword up from its hiding spot under the floorboards and draws it from his scabbard. He doesn’t sleep much after that, just sits as an eternal watchman.

 


 

There’s no more work. Even if there was more work, there’s no food to buy, no matter the coin.

Nicky’s thoughts circle around these simple facts, unable to escape the deep grooves they’ve dug in his mind.

There’s no more food and no work, no hope of money to buy more before the week is out. They’ve already sold their possessions, their clothes, everything they brought with them that wasn’t hidden away with Quynh in Asia. She’ll come for them.

There’s nothing left for Nicky to do, no more food to be scavenged, no more work to be done.

He begins to prepare for death.

Nicky moves Joseph and Andromache and bundles them together, as lovers should be. The warmth they share will be important, and could stave off one or two deaths. Then he sits apart, propped against the opposite wall, tucks his cloak around himself and pulls his hood up for warmth. He keeps his sword close and faces the door.

He’s going to die, he trusts any version of himself to jump to his feet and fight if someone comes for their bodies again.

His vision goes grey at the corners, and creeps inwards, even as he keeps his eyes on the door.

Joseph groans, and it’s the most pathetic sound Nicky’s ever heard.

Commit this to memory, Nicky stares hard at the image before him, of Joseph and Andromache together and weak and hurting, speaking to a version of himself far flung in the future that will return here, don’t forget, even in hundreds of years, they trusted you to protect them, you can’t fail again.

He holds off as long as he can, stays awake fighting the haze of grey that threatens to pull him under. By now, death is a familiar sensation, and he knows when it’s coming.

Don’t forget, he orders himself and succumbs.

As he sinks into the grey, there’s a figure at the door, a woman holding a bag and a bow, and she comes to him, calling his name, but he slips away.

 

 

 


 

 

 

He awakes in a cell, or some form of dungeon. The stone is rough beneath him. Two men approach the bars, holding themselves like guards. They wear clothing he doesn’t recognise and scream at him in a language he doesn’t understand. Nicky keeps his mouth shut.

They don’t seem to realise he had died and revived, or they would be moving with more urgency. There is no sign of the other immortals, no screams or faces he recognises in the other cells. He doesn’t even hear familiar names in the questions they barrel at him.

He’s tired, and still hungry, even though when he looks at his hands and sees they are as healthy as they’ve ever been. His arms feel a healthy plumpness, the sudden change from bony thinness leaves him uncomfortable.

They pull him from the cell into another room, lit by a barred window. There, they beat him and shout things he doesn’t understand. He plays damaged and hurt, even as he feels his body stitching over, he makes sure to keep the blood smeared and fresh on his skin as he jerks on the ground.

A particularly solid kick lands on his kidneys, and he vomits a thick yellow substance onto his feet. He sees half-digested lumps of vegetables and goes to grab at the vomit, to stuff it back into his mouth, but they haul him away and back to his cell.

The guards throw him a lump of bread, he rips into it with his teeth and sobs. Even though he can feel the swell of his belly returned, he hasn’t eaten a meal in months

When the guards are gone and the bread is gone, he drags himself over to the bucket in the corner, whether it’s for drinking or pissing in, he doesn’t know. He presses his face into the bucket and inhales mouthfuls of water until he drowns and he surrenders his body to a version of himself hopefully more qualified.

 

 

 


 

 

 

His first thought is that it’s taking longer to die than he thought. His lungs are still full of water, but he opens his eyes and doesn’t see the bottom of the bucket, instead it’s murky water. His whole body shivers, and he realises he’s entirely submerged in water now. He must have awoken into another time. Just as he realises he has been transported, his body is thrown to the side and slams into rocks. He tries to scream but there’s no air left in his lungs.

Nicky has been caught underwater in a swell before, he knows how disorientating it is, knows to release some bubbles and follow them to the surface. But there’s no air left in his lungs.

His foot finds a rock and he pushes off, trying to put some distance between himself and the rocks, hoping it takes him upwards.

Already his vision is starting to grey out at the edges again.

No, not grey this time, black.

Something black flicks at his face, in the peripheries of his vision, then an arm wraps under his armpit and across his chest.

He’s hauled one way, his entire body being dragged, and he desperately kicks his feet, salvaging the last threads of his energy to push through with this other person.

His head breaks through the surface of the water and he coughs up some water and feels like he’s drowning again. Long, wet, black hair plasters across his face and gets sucked into his mouth.

Scusi, scusi!” A voice says, and the hair is removed.

He vomits and coughs up brackish water until he can finally gasp and return air to his lungs and open his eyes.

The arm under his armpit continues to drag him through the water as he splutters.

Attento!” A woman screams, and they are dragged back under the water by a strong current.

This time though, Nicky knows which way is up and kicks with all his might, holding onto the one who grabbed him. They break through together again.

He hears voices in the distance, getting louder as they keep swimming together, holding on tight to each other. He knows which way is up, but as for the rest of it, he still feels disorientated. The water doesn’t taste salty, a river, perhaps?

The voices raise, and he hears the creak of wood, and soon both Nicky and his rescuer are being hauled from the water and into a boat.

Nicky immediately turns to face overboard and cough and splutter until he can finally fill his lungs without a death rattle. He hears voices shouting behind him, and someone touches his shoulder, but his ears are rushing, and he can’t understand them.

Then, praying he hasn’t been captured by pirates, he slumps down against the side of the boat and looks at them.

It’s Joseph, and Andromache, and another woman he doesn’t recognise. They’re healthy and whole, cheeks plump, even as their expressions are terrified. Joseph is at the oars, dropping them and climbing over towards him.

In front of Nicky is a woman from Asia, completely drenched and coughing up her own lungful of water.

Nicky brings his knees in close to himself and drops his head, utterly exhausted.

Grazie,” he croaks.

Joseph splutters a shocked laugh. “Are you…?”

“I died,” Nicky answers. “What happened?”

Andromache is holding a bundle, something he now realises is a young child, but wet and floppy and still.

He answers his own question.

“I tried to save the child, didn’t I?” He presses the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Fuck.”

“A child from the village,” Andromache says, holding the bundle close. “You didn’t know it.”

That was even an option? That he could wake up and already have failed someone he knew, without even knowing it? That one day he could desperately try to save someone, only to realise too late, that many years past he had already failed.

He wants to be sick again, but distracts himself by making introductions to the woman in front of him.

“Thank you for pulling me from the water, signora,” he says.

She looks up at him with an expressive scrunched up nose and furrowed brow.

“You don’t know me?” She asks.

Nicky looks at the other two for help, but they look just as shocked as she does. Ah, another one like them, he supposes, one he’s supposed to know.

“I’m new,” he says, by way of explanation. “I haven’t even met Booker yet.”

“Who’s Booker?”

“I don’t know,” he says simply. “I haven’t met him.”

The Asian woman bursts into peals of laughter.

“Our Nicolò is very young, Andromache!” She cries, her face split into a big grin.

“Oh,” Nicky says. “Thank you. It has been a long time since I heard my name like that.” Said by someone cognizant, at least. “For the last two years they called me ‘Nicky’.”

Her eyes drift over to the other two, and she leans forward like she is conspiring with him. “Did they? I’ll have to have a word with them.”

“No, no, it grew on me, after a time,” Nicky says, with a small smile.

“How do you feel?” Joseph asks.

Nicky takes stock of himself. All parts present, no bones pressing against his skin. “I’ve felt better. I’ve felt worse.”

“You look like a drowned rat,” the stranger says.

Andromache laughs. “You don’t look too good yourself, Quynh.”

Nicky’s heart stutters in his chest. “Quynh,” he repeats dumbly, then his voice drops to a whisper. “You’re Quynh?”

She looks at him curiously.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“You came.” Tears are welling up in his eyes. “We were starving, and you came for us.”

He throws himself at her feet and collapses into her. Finally, after months of being alone, on the edge of survival, Nicky lets the burden fall and cries into Quynh, his saviour.

“Thank you, thank you,” he sobs. “You came. I saw you.”

“Of course, dearest Nicolò,” Quynh says, holding him close. “I’ll always come for you.”

Chapter Text

Nicky has spent months clinging to the hope of Quynh’s name. He stays where he fell, on the bottom of the boat, not willing to release her quickly, no matter how wet and smothered and cold he feels.  He also cannot bear to look at the two others, all he can see is their washed out faces in rictus.

“Picardy, France,” Andromache says, after Nicky has sobbed his throat raw and it re-healed. “1320, yes?”

“I don’t know. I never knew the year.”

“Oh, Nicolò.” Joseph’s face contorts in pain. “I’m sorry.”

Quynh strokes a hand through his hair. “It was long ago for us, but not for you, isn’t that right?”

Nicky squeezes his eyes shut. “Do you, do you have any food?”

Joseph rushes to oblige. They had been out fishing, judging by the nets and poles, and he pulls out some hard crackers and fresh berries. Nicky takes them from him gratefully, but still can’t look at the other man. He wears the expression of desperation the same way, whether it’s caused by hunger or watching his friend be taken by the treacherous river.

Joseph hovers over the bundle of Nicky and Quynh, his hands stretching and clenching uselessly.

“Yusuf, take the oars,” Andromache commands.

Nicky raises his head. “Yusuf?” He asks as Joseph clambers back to his spot in the small fishing boat and starts rhythmically rowing.

“He’ll get us back, Nicolò, don’t you worry.” Quynh’s voice is soft and comforting.

“I know, but, Yusuf?”

“Yes?”

“Is that your name here?”

The oars stop their beat in the water.

“It’s my name.” Those deep brown eyes don’t move from Nicky’s face. “The name my father gave me. Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Kaysani.”

Nicky can see that he speaks with weight and import, that there is something he’s expected to understand, but he feels as lost and floundering as though he was never pulled from the fast flowing river.

Of course ‘Joseph’ wouldn’t be the name of a Saracen in the Holy Land, in the same way Jesus didn’t actually call his disciples Matteo or Matthæum, or Giovanni or Juan.

“Alright,” Nicky says. “I can call you Yusuf.”

Yusuf’s hands grip the oars until his knuckles go white. “I would like that.”

Nicky can’t stand the way he’s being stared at, so he returns his face to Quynh’s shoulder.

“Take us back to the village,” Andromache says.

“Oh, fuck,” Nicky groans. “The child.”

“I’ll handle it,” Quynh says.

In the distance Nicky can hear loud screams. Quynh detangles herself from Nicky and pulls the bundle of the child into her arms. Yusuf pulls their little fishing boat up to a dock, where a crowd of people are screaming. As soon as they arrive, Quynh leaps from the boat and is pulled into the throng towards the child’s mother. Nicky has heard the screams of wordless grief before. It’s not something that can be forgotten.

He sinks into the bottom of the boat, and his stomach threatens to overturn its crackers and berries, but he can’t stay there forever. Yusuf helps him to his feet and puts a pack into his hands to carry as Andromache ties off the boat.

Quynh is speaking quickly, in a dialect Nicky can only barely make out. What he can discern is the faces morphing from panic to horror to fury. The dead child is taken from her, and the mother falls to the ground.

They are met with suspicion. A group of strangers in this land, of mixed races and strange tongue are easy to blame for a tragedy, and within hours they are run out of the town.

They ride out on horseback. It’s been a few years since Nicky has ridden, but he finds his seat in the saddle quickly. Once they have put a good distance between themselves and the town, they rest and water the horses at a creek, and Nicky drops to the ground.

Yusuf and Andromache feel the tension in the air, and do as they always do, busy themselves with practicalities. They pull out the saddle bags and take stock of their supplies. They discuss where they should go, ever the strongest link in the team.

Quynh sits by Nicolò, a solid, quiet presence. She doesn’t broach the topic, but he feels the invitation to speak anyway.

“Today was the worst day of her life,” he says. “The mother. Nothing will ever be the same, and we just move on. It’s just another, another fucking Tuesday for us.”

“It’s a Thursday. April, 1440,” Quynh says, with a dry sort of humour that takes him by surprise, and he huffs a laugh. “It was bad for us too, Nicolò. Seeing you go under and not come up. We were all scared.”

They both look at the other two, and Nicky knows them well enough now to know they’re pushing through, keeping the team moving and protected until they’re safe.

“Just because we come back,” Quynh says carefully, “doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.”

 


 

Andromache picks their direction of travel, and Nicky follows along. Their horses fall into a marching order that Nicky doesn’t recognise, but it feels natural all the same. Andromache at the lead, Quynh behind her, then Nicolò, and Yusuf at the rear. The gentle pace of the horses once they’ve found their path lulls him off, let’s him retreat into that meditative place, the part of his mind that can sit and dwell on simple thoughts.

He stays deep in meditation for hours of travel, letting his mind wander and stray, circling back to the smells of those city streets lined with the dead, then back to Paraguay and to Nile sitting on the floor and Joseph braiding her hair.

He comes to with a voice screaming his name and the sound of hoofbeats hard against the earth.

The world is spinning past him at a gallop, another horse keeping the brutal pace beside him. What is he running from? Nicky lurches in the saddle as Andromache leans over and grabs his horse’s bridle, pulling it hard so they turn in a tight circle and slow down.

“What the hell was that?” Andromache asks.

“What are we-?” is all Nicky can get out, before he feels his heart is up in his throat and racing as fast as his horse was. He feels sweaty and hot all over, and his hands are trembling where they grip the reins. His whole body is shaking and he feels like he could fall to the ground.

“What’s wrong with you?” She demands. Nicky would like that answer himself.

“Did we escape?”

“Escape what?”

“Whatever the hell we’re running from.”

Andromache brings her mare around, staring at him as they slow to a halt.

“We’re not running, Nicolò, you just took off by yourself,” she says. “We thought you’d seen something, that you’d come back, but you didn’t. I’ve been chasing you down for an hour.”

Nicky blinks, and takes in Andromache’s mare, sweating at the flanks, his own racing heart. He doesn’t recognise where they are, but that’s nothing new.

He has no explanation, so he just says “Oh.”

Andromache gives him a peculiar look, then circles her horse around him. “Let’s head back.”

It doesn’t get better after that. Nicky loses time again during the night at their little camp, he stares at the fire for what feels like a few minutes, but Yusuf grabs him by the shoulder and gets a broken wrist for his troubles.

“Why did you do that?” Nicky demands, as Yusuf cradles his wrist to heal straight.

“You hadn’t moved for hours, you didn’t hear me,” Yusuf says. “I was worried.”

The next morning Quynh is complaining about the supplies, picking through her saddle bag and saying she was sure she had more dried meat than she finds there. Nicky sits silent on his own horse, the stolen jerky and nuts burning a hole in his saddlebag. One by one their eyes flick over to him, but they don’t accuse him of the theft, even though it’s obvious he is the only culprit. He’s glad they don’t demand an answer from him, he doesn’t have any explanation. He just... he needed more food in his pack. He doesn’t even eat it, just keeps it close, nibbling at what Yusuf hands him each meal and pushing what remains to Andromache, who is always hungry.

For two more days they travel together, and Nicky tries his hardest to get to know this new one of them, Quynh. It’s harder than he thought it would be. Everything’s changed. Even the dynamic he thought he could rely on, Yusuf and Andromache the trainers and mentors, is broken. Quynh doesn’t fit the mould he’d cut out in his heart for Nile, there’s no friendly banter and competitions with big grins.

Everything is wrong.

He gets angry easily. Short and quick little outbursts of harsh words, throwing off a comforting hand and marching away from them to fume by himself. They’re on the road for weeks, and he’s never thought he would be so selfish as to expect a private room, until he had one for years and then it was taken away. He needs to cool off, rest and be secluded, but the others won’t leave his side. They treat him like thin pottery, every word short and perfunctory and layered with sympathetic eyes. There are no fireside poems or songs as they ride. Just brief instructions, the expectation of obedience and hours of silence.

He hates it, and in short order he comes to hate them too.

His gelding gets spooked one morning and bolts, throwing him onto the sharp rocks and breaking his back. Andromache has him before he blacks out, bringing his spine back into alignment. He screams into the air as he heals. He’s grouchy the whole rest of the day, something Quynh describes as common for a “near death experience”.

Nicky snaps at them that evening, yelling into the night, “Even the fucking horse knows I’m a fraud!”

He takes his bedding far away from them that night and shudders in the cold in silence.

Traveling to Catalonia is set to take them a month, or longer, if they find friendly communities along the way they can look for work. But most of the time they have a set routine while they travel. They start early, keeping the horses’ pace easy, and spend hours walking the path.

The days of nothingness remind Nicky of being a child again, where boredom and hunger feel the same, then he’s off his horse and digging in the ground with his fingernails.

“What are you doing?” He’s asked.

“There’s roots here, we can eat them.”

“We have enough food.”

“But there’s food here.”

The look they give him is full of pity, and Nicky wants to lash out at them again. He clenches his jaw shut, gets back on his horse and rides off. He can’t stop thinking about the roots he left behind, his mind circles back to them like a carrion crow around a corpse.

 


 

He escapes their presence one evening. He stays by the riverside until the sun well and truly slips behind the hills and dark descends on them. He can see their small campfire in the distance, hears the layers of voices with different accents and smatterings of languages.

Nicky decides to slow his pace, find the softest earth for his feet to fall. He’s always been good at the skills of ambush, and many times has led soldiers on the attack. He’s always had patience.

They’ve been talking about him.

“Just give him more time,” Andromache says.

“It’s not just time, something’s wrong with him,” Yusuf says.

“He’s just young, and he doesn’t know us yet,” Andromache returns.

“Picardy was bad, even for us.”

“It was months before you felt yourselves again,” Quynh adds. “Nicolò was our rock.”

The silence hangs in the air, and Nicky edges closer to the camp.

“Have you ever seen him this young?” Quynh asks.

Yusuf sighs heavily. “I don’t know, once or twice, maybe. It wasn’t for long. He’s always known you.”

Rage re-circulates in Nicky’s heart. He hates it. Hates their fucking faces and the way they stare at him every day.

He sits back on a rock when the conversation shifts into a language he doesn’t recognise, with words rising and falling like a song.

Is this going to be the rest of his unnatural life? Peering at the edges of a group he will never belong in?

They sit and whisper about him and his moods and his timeline, speculating and assuming, and they don’t fucking ask. One day he will be older than them. He’ll come back to a time like this and laugh about how childish they are. Only he won’t have anyone to whisper with, because he’s alone. He always has been.

Nicky’s fingernails dig crescent moons into his palms.

Quynh speaks again in Arabic. “We were able to heal together, after the Great Famine. When we go down fighting, we still march off together. He never gets that chance. He’s just thrown somewhere else, with its own fucking problems.”

“He’s one of us, but he’s not like us,” Andromache says. “We have to remember that.”

“Don’t say that,” Yusuf shoots back, steel in his voice. “Don’t say I don’t understand.”

“You don’t,” Quynh says. “Just like I’ll never understand the terror of being in a mass grave, or being alone for thousands of years.”

Andromache grunts and flicks something into the fire, and it’s so achingly familiar that Nicky is homesick.

“We’re different,” Quynh says.

Yusuf makes a sound of protest.

“We are,” Quynh says, with no room for argument in her tone. She turns her head to the side and stares directly at Nicky hidden behind the branches. “How long have you been there, dear Nicolò?”

There’s no need for shame, not when they were the ones gossiping about him.

Nicky stands and confidently strolls back into the circle of light cast by their fire. “Long enough to know I’m an outcast among freaks.”

“So you are,” Quynh says. “Are you going to hide from that fact? Or face it head on?”

Her candidness disarms him, something he’s not used to. He hasn’t quite gotten a hold of this other woman yet.

“Quynh thinks your mind is struggling,” Andromache says, switching to Ligurian. “That because you don’t get a chance to resolve the situations you’re in before you die, you keep trying to solve them.”

“That’s why you’re collecting food, but you’re not eating it,” Yusuf adds. Nicky’s hands go to fists, but Yusuf is quick to pacify him. “We’re not mad. If you want to keep finding supplies, if that helps, we want you to do it.”

Quynh looks at Andromache, who doesn’t respond. She elbows the other woman in the chest and clears her throat, pushing Andromache to speak.

Reluctantly, she does so. “And I should say... I’m sorry.” Her lips purse like she’s forcing down a lemon. The honesty about how much she struggles to get the words out is refreshing and makes Nicky smile. “I shouldn’t have given you the responsibility of living through a famine all alone, especially when I knew you were young. I should have let Yusuf share the burden with you.”

“We both would have died,” Nicky protests.

“But we would have been together,” Yusuf replies.

“And…?” Quynh prompts.

“And we never thanked you for taking care of us,” Yusuf moves across the circle and kneels in front of Nicky. He takes Nicky’s hands in his, clasping them tightly.

“We did,” Andromache mutters.

“He deserves to hear it now,” Yusuf shoots back, quick as an arrow. He turns to Nicky. “Thank you,” Yusuf says. The intensity in his eyes makes Nicky want to squirm away, but he has endured more pain than this before, and he keeps going. “You sacrificed so much to keep us safe. For people that, I assume, you hardly knew. That was a kindness to us. Thank you, Nicolò.”

Yusuf raises Nicky’s hands to his lips, and kisses the back of one, then the other, as must be the custom for his people.

It’s too much.

He has to look away. He catches Andromache’s eye, and she’s smirking.

“I’m not kissing you,” she says, raising her hands. “That is strictly a Yusuf thing.”

“Not for me!” Quynh proclaims. She bounces forward, wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him on both cheeks.

“Thank you for taking care of my family,” she says and presses her forehead to his.

 


 

After that, the silence is broken. They talk as they ride their horses and they start with the famine.

Andromache recalls the pigeon, and it starts off Nicky explaining how he sat still for an hour to catch her. Quynh sounds suitably impressed and asks enough questions that Nicky can talk about how she cooed when he scratched her head, and how he talked to her while the other two slept and died and revived. Nicky explains that ‘they had an understanding’, that he would keep her alive as long as he could, then he would make her death quick and painless.

Yusuf tells the story leading up to Nicky’s arrival, that they’d seen the famine coming and urged the Mayor to impose restrictions on feast days, told people to ration their food from the earliest days of the hard harvest, that Nicolò had caught the disease by going into the sick house and performing last rites.

It helps, in a way, to tell and retell the stories. Nicky doesn’t think he could do it if Quynh wasn’t there. She prods their stories along, even as they are painful, and there is relief in having them out in the open.

Gradually the topics shift, onto facts about the land they walk through, little memories of tasty cuisine and funny stories of mistaken identity. Nicky still brings up the famine when the urge rises in him, and he finds that over time he can sit and eat a full meal or let the supplies in his own pack run low when he knows there is more in another’s.

Quynh takes him hunting when they pass through a wood with plenty of game. She all but drags him, dodging sticks with silent footfalls. Then she gives him her bow, and when he protests, she tells him it’s common enough that they share bows between the two of them, being that they break more often than swords and need replacement frequently. “All least, compared to our long lifespans,” she allows. His own was damaged about a year ago, by her reckoning, and apparently he hadn’t found any up to his standards to purchase since then.

They stalk a small herd of deer for most of the day, then Quynh gifts him the chance to take the final shot at a small-sized doe, and he lands an arrow straight in her neck, then another right behind her ear. Her herd goes on without her, and Quynh pounces. She takes a wicked sharp dagger to it on the spot, even as it scrambles, slices it’s throat and lets the blood drain into the dirt.

“This has been fun,” he says, as she pulls out some lengths of rope and begins tying its front hooves together. “It’s good to get away from the other two sometimes.”

Quynh looks up at him quizzically, even as her fingers don’t slow from their deft movements.

Nicky feels perhaps he misspoke, that maybe Andromache and Joseph haven’t yet fallen into bed and in love with each other, he realises he doesn’t know anything about this time of their history. He can’t screw this up.

“I just, I mean to say,” he says quickly, “that I haven’t had the chance to get to know you yet.”

“Why is that?” Quynh asks.

“You weren’t there, when I met the other two, and- and the other new one,” Nicky says.

“Oh really?” She says. She ties the back hooves together too, then throws the rest of the length of rope over a branch with a single precise throw. She hauls on the rope until the deer is hanging upside down and the blood more freely drains out.

“Does that bother you?” Nicky asks.

“Not at all, you know I don’t spend every waking moment at her side.”

The pronoun makes him tilt his head, but he doesn’t comment on it. Without being asked, Nicky ties off the slack to an exposed root, then they sit down while they wait for the blood to stop emptying, the deer lifted off the ground and slowly spinning between them.

“I don’t know much about you at all,” he points out. “Just what I’ve observed.”

“And what is your assessment?” She asks.

Nicky has made a habit of studying people even from childhood, trying to unlock the puzzle of other people. “I believe you’re a quick thinker and clever. You don’t hesitate, but you’re not brash either.” He flicks his eyes to her face and away as he speaks. “You can be still as a glassy sea or as dangerous as a storm. And you’re strong. Very strong, enough to push through anything.”

Quynh hums and then shrugs and smirks, as though she agrees, but is vain enough that she feels his review could do with more embellishments and praise.

“Not strong enough to lift this one, I’m afraid,” she says, patting the deer on the flank. “Why do you think I brought you along?”

She’s handsy, too, as she strips Nicky of his shirt. This sort of thing used to embarrass him, but living and traveling with these wild women has reduced his sense of proprietary somewhat.

Together they sling the deer over his bare shoulders, tie it off to stop it from slipping, and start the slow arduous march back to base. It’s not that different from the backpacks filled with gear he used to lug uphill during PT with Nile, and he misses her desperately.

Only five hundred and eighty years to go, he thinks.

When they bring home the venison, Nicky bare chested, sweaty from the journey back, and blood dripping down his neck and side from the deer, Yusuf stands and stares at them, his eyes darting quickly over Nicky - the dirt on his face and his blood-smeared chest - as his throat works, but he doesn’t look away.

“I didn’t die, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Nicky says, throwing the deer to the dirt and flicking sweaty hair from his face. “You’re still stuck with me.”

“No, I…” Yusuf, the poet, is lost for words.

“Now, that’s a look,” Andromache says, her hands on her hips.

Nicky flushes down to his chest, bashful at being half-naked in the company of women. But Andromache doesn’t seem to mind. She hauls the deer into position and pulls out a large knife.

“Yusuf, dear, would you be so kind as to be helpful with this piece of meat, rather than drooling over the other?” She says.

Something must have been lost in the translation, Nicky assumes, as he always does, his grasp on Arabic is a little outdated. Or perhaps over-dated?

Nicky takes their emptied waterskins to the small creek, to wash himself and to fill them to help with the other’s efforts. As he goes he hears the laughter of women behind him, and Yusuf protesting something.

 


 

The butchered deer feeds them well that night, the first solid meal of meat Nicky has had since those ribs with Nile that feel like a lifetime ago.

Nicky has been carrying a great number of spices in his pack, with colours and smells he could never imagine, let alone name or know what goes best with fresh deer rump. He’d smelled them though, pulled out the little satchels of cloth and leather, even a couple of glass jars, opened them carefully and buried his nose in them. He has often passed the time this way during his night watch, grabbing the spices at random and trying to identify them by smell alone.

Yusuf takes control of the spices, after asking Nicky’s permission, which had been a bizarre conversation because Nicky hadn’t pieced together that the spices being in his pack implied they were his. He has no great feeling of possession for anything in this time, only his sword and a constant sensation of loneliness.

They prepare the carcass, too large to eat on their own, take them to a nearby town with an Abbey and make a tidy sum of money at the market. The tavern is full, so Nicky is gently bullied into going to the Abbey and asking for rooms.

“You speak the language,” Yusuf says.

“Barely.” The Spanish they use here is very different to what he practiced in Paraguay.

“The language of soulful, good-hearted religious folk, with big eyes and honest faces,” Andromache teases.

Nicky convinces Quynh to come with him, he doesn’t trust himself about town, and makes his inquiries of the Abbot, asking for beds for four.

He eyes the two of them suspiciously at the church’s gate.

“She your wife?” He asks, jerking his chin in Quynh’s direction.

Nicky isn’t offended by the sound of protest she makes. “No, no, she’s not, but the other two-”

“Men and women sleep separately here,” the Abbot interrupts. “Married or not.”

Quynh’s grin shows just a little too much teeth. “No hay problema!” She says, no trouble at all, while she grabs Nicky’s arm and takes him back to the others still at the butcher’s.

“A bed!” Yusuf groans, his head tilted back with a grin. “I have missed proper bedding.”

“Only till the end of the week,” Nicky reminds him. “Temporary lodgings.”

But even that can’t put a dampener on Yusuf’s spirits. He all but sings as they get their horses settled into the stable and give what remains of the deer to the kitchens. Yusuf tries to charm the cook to let them into the kitchen, but they are shooed out, and their venison is added to the spread for everyone at the Abbey, a fitting payment for their lodgings. Yusuf and Quynh complain about the flavouring, but Nicky and Andromache eat the pastries with silent gratitude.

A young boy shows them to their rooms, men in one building on the premises, and women in the other. Quynh and Andromache walk arm in arm together, a little bounce in their step, as Yusuf calls out something after them that Nicky can’t translate.

 


 

Of course, there is only one bed.

Nicky stays where he stands at the doorway, staring at the single well stuffed straw mattress in the cramped room. The ease with which Yusuf makes himself comfortable in the small room does nothing to soothe Nicky’s worries.

Yusuf unloads his pack onto the small table and hangs his scimitar on a hook on the wall. He takes to the furthest side of the bed, and when he sinks into the bedding he lets out a groan that’s positively sinful.

Nicky swallows, and it does nothing for his dry throat.

“I didn’t take you for a hedonist,” he says, trying to land a barb.

“I appreciate the little luxuries in life, I have no shame about that,” Yusuf says, his eyes still shut, his face relaxed. “They are a gift that makes this long life sing.”

Nicky places his own belongings on the table as well, his own sword long and straight hanging next to Yusuf’s, and sits on the chair to tug off his boots.

“I assume this is not the first time we’ve had to share a bed?” He asks.

“No,” Yusuf says. He rolls onto his side and props his head on his hand to observe Nicky. “We have slept together many times before. Even from the earliest days of our acquaintance.”

Of course, another 21st century convenience Nicky has to unlearn. Only a couple of years ago he was assuming the bed in his room was to be shared. How quickly his standards and expectations morph to the place he is in.

“Well then,” Nicky says, with false levity in his voice, “tell me, do I snore?”

Yusuf huffs a laugh. “You are a faultless bedfellow.” He flops again onto his back and stretches his arms up, then links his hands behind his head.

Yusuf remains the picture of contentment as a serving boy knocks on their door and brings them jugs of water and washbasins. Nicky thanks him, and when the boy stares at the two swords that hang side by side, Nicky takes down his own and shows the blade to him. The boy has a dozen questions, and Nicky answers them to the best of his ability. The boy points to the curve of Yusuf’s sword, and when Nicky looks at the other man for permission to take it down and show him, he finds those deep brown eyes watching him closely.

“You are good with children,” Yusuf says once the boy’s curiosity has been sated and he has left the room. He says it like it is a fact long known, but worth stating all the same.

“In Picardy, the children didn’t survive the disease. By the end, I barely saw them,” Nicky says. “It makes me happy to see a boy young and full of energy.”

Yusuf’s eyes crinkle as he smiles at him. “The little luxuries.”

Nicky smiles in return. Speaking of the famine doesn’t hurt any more, he has resolved that chapter to a fact of his life, no different from the place of his birth or his love of rich smells. Nicky places his boots neatly by the door and bundles his footwraps in a smelly pile to be washed after he washes himself. They discuss briefly the town they find themselves in, the Abbey and the middling quality of the room and bed.

“Still, Andromache and Quynh will be happy to have the privacy,” Yusuf muses.

Nicky agrees. “Traveling among the company of men, it must not be easy for them.”

Yusuf barks a sharp laugh, then quickly stifles it. “No, that’s, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh.” He runs a hand through his hair. “It’s just strange that something I take as a fact as immovable as the earth could not be so easily seen. I forget that you don’t know them well, forgive me.”

“What do you mean, Yusuf?”

“They love each other. They always have.”

“Andromache and Quynh?”

“Yes.”

Nicky stares at him.

“They love each other,” Yusuf adds slowly, “as the most intimate and passionate of lovers do.”

“Oh.”

“As I said, they will be very thankful for the private room tonight. They have been patient, as they knew displays of that nature might unsettle you, strangers as they are to you.”

Oh.

Yusuf’s gaze is steady on Nicky, and Nicky fiddles with his hands as he formulates his answer.

“I’m sorry,” Nicky says. “Traveling with two that love each other dearly… it can be lonesome. It must be difficult for you.”

Yusuf tilts his head to the side, considering his answer, like he would a philosopher’s posit. “It can be.”

“So we must have each other for company, then.”

“Yes, I suppose we do.”

Yusuf turns away as Nicky strips to wash with the basin and a rag. Their little sliver of pressed soap goes a long way, even if it doesn’t froth as much as the soaps did in Paraguay.

“A perfect bedfellow would, I think, insist that dirty boots be taken off before you retire,” Nicky says dryly.

Yusuf laughs at that, waving a hand as he gets up. Nicky faces the wall as he dries and re-dresses in his underthings, and without being asked, Yusuf washes both of their footwraps and hangs them over the chair. It is a warm night, they will dry well.

“How long have they…?” Nicky asks.

“Andromache and Quynh had each other for hundreds of years before they found Lykon and then us.”

Another name he’s supposed to know. “Lykon… is there another one of us?”

Yusuf looks stricken in the candlelight. “I should have explained, this life we have, it is long, but it is not eternal-”

“No, I know,” Nicky interrupts. “One day we stop healing, we get sick again, we age. Nothing that lives, lives forever.”

Yusuf doesn’t ask how Nicky knows this, why his face becomes shadowed.

“He was like us and he died, long before either of us were born.”

The mood has turned sombre, and there is nothing left to do but extinguish the candles and climb into the bed together.

Nicky stays firmly on his back during the night. He imagines himself as a corpse that cannot rise again and lets his body weigh down heavy into the straw mattress. Sleep doesn’t come as easily for him as it seems to do for Yusuf. After the other man finds his position of comfort, he barely moves for the rest of the night, his breathing evens out and catches a little now and then as he sleeps.

Unfortunately for Nicky, Yusuf’s preferred sleeping position is on his side, facing Nicky, and just as he falls asleep, Yusuf slides a hand across his belly, and it weighs there like an iron bar. Nicky keeps his hands tucked up at his chest all night, but when Yusuf’s hand touches his, those long fingers stroke his wrist gently, even in sleep.

 


 

Their few days in the Abbey feel like a little holiday. They wander about town, play board games with old men in the square and feel an uneasy peace between the four of them. Nicky and Yusuf make quite the stir, going to the river with all the dirty clothes. The townswomen titter at them as they drop their basket of clothes on the riverbank, roll up their sleeves and get to work.

They beat clothes clean against the washing stones and flick water at each other. When they pull out Quynh’s dress, one of the women teases Yusuf, but he just holds it up to his chest and swirls it about.

“Looks good, no?” Yusuf calls out.

They laugh, and Nicky can’t help smiling at Yusuf’s goofy expression, and it makes the time pass easily with the steady beat and muscle strain of washing clothes.

Still, it’s exhausting work.

“Yusuf, this is a joke that won’t be funny for almost six hundred years,” Nicky says, rubbing cool river water on his overheated face, “but I retract my earlier hatred of machines.”

He looks over at Yusuf’s strange expression, then he cackles a hard laugh.

 


 

There’s a festival on the day they leave town.

“A celebration of getting rid of us, huh?” Andromache grins, even as she puts another sweet treat into her mouth.

Nicky found a woman selling orelletes, a flat, sweet pastry fried in oil and sprinkled with sugar, and had to be stopped from emptying his purse for more of the fried dough. Decorations hang from every building, and stalls are set up in the street.

Quynh flicks up her feet to the minstrel’s songs and pulls Yusuf along to dance with her, draping him in ribbons she just bought. Andromache tucks her arm around Nicky’s, and he laughs into her headdress.

“Oh, she would love this,” Nicky says, a grin on his face.

“Who?”

Nicky releases a long, shuddering breath. “A friend of mine. One that won’t be around for a long time. A very long time. I miss her.”

Andromache looks across at him, taking in the downward curve of his lips, the way his eyebrows twitch together. She grabs a flower from a passing bouquet and tucks it behind his ear.

“Well then,” she says with a smile, “you had better make some memories to share with her, Nicolò,” and she pulls him in to join the dance.

 


 

They spend a few years on the Spanish coastline, doing good where they can. Nicky soon realises that the war-faring skills he was taught in Paraguay are only a small sample of what’s needed for a life with this team. Everywhere they go, Yusuf helps to dig wells, Quynh introduces fishing techniques, and Andromache scolds every horseman she meets, before taking their horse and training the man.

Nicky feels lost for a while, the silent observer of their fully functioning team, useless and confused. He gets snappy again, shrugging off their presence and glaring at Andromache for imagined slights.

“You can’t possibly think that,” she says, mostly to Quynh, but her voice raising in response to Nicky. “He always works with the structures already there, Nicolò, you should just-”

He yells at her.

“Shut up!” He screams, his neck muscles bulging, his voice echoing off the valley. “I’m so fucking sick of you all talking about me like I’m different people! I’m not, I’m me!”

They stare at him, struck dumb. His heart is still racing and his nose scrunches in disgust. “I’m just one person with a twice fucked up lifetime.” He spits at Andromache’s feet.

He can’t stand their faces, so he stalks off from their camp, picking up small stones and hurling them at boulders so they shatter. He weeps as he goes, hot tears that spill over his cheeks, and he mops them up with his hood.

Eventually he finds a gnarled tree that twists onto itself. Giving in to the urge to escape that reminds him of his childhood, he drops his sword belt to the ground and grabs the lower branch. He drags himself up the tree and finds a spot high off the ground, enough that he wouldn’t be seen easily, and settles in.

If he had his sniper rifle, he could hit the blacksmith’s forge from here.

It doesn’t take long for Yusuf to find him. He wanders along the same path, and without even looking up to see him in the branches, Yusuf sits down next to Nicky’s discarded sword and presses his back against the trunk of the tree. Yusuf removes his turban and puts it by his side. And then he waits.

An hour later, Nicky speaks in a soft voice that always carries itself to Yusuf’s ears. 

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have screamed at her.”

Yusuf sighs. “No, Nicolò. You were right. I’m sorry. We don’t treat you as we should.” He picks up a stick and breaks it between his fingers, then again. He lines up the pieces as little soldiers in his hands, and when he places the small sticks end to end, they cannot fit back together. “It’s hard... to learn and unlearn every few years. But it’s not fair to you, to treat you this way. I am not the same man I was in the early 1100’s either.”

“I just…” Nicky starts, then thinks better of it. He climbs his way down the tree and takes his spot beside Yusuf. “I don’t feel like a real person. I’m a fractured thing, or a story, never lived in truth. I’m covered in spikes and misshapen.”

Nicky tugs his hood over his head and down until it covers his face, then he presses the rough cloth against his eyes, blocking out the world.

With a wordless groan of shared hurt, Yusuf puts an arm around his shoulder and pulls him to his chest. It helps, the pressure of his body, and the way Yusuf pins him so his ears are muffled too. The world seems narrowed from the endless expanse it was a minute ago.

“You are-” Yusuf’s voice is a pleasant rumble under Nicky’s cheek. “You are a full person, a wonderful man, I have seen it every day since you woke. The life you were given is a burden that would crush anyone. I know you feel alone, and lost. But I believe in the heart of the man I see right here. The same man I met on the battlefield in Jerusalem.”

Nicky snorts and pulls his head back.

“We really did kill each other, didn’t we?” He says with a watery smile.

“Many times,” Yusuf says, then winks. His own eyes are wet with tears.

Nicky laughs again and wipes his cheeks. “I’m sorry. I thought I was doing better.”

“Never be sorry for expressing your feelings to me, Nicolò,” Yusuf says, then he chews his lip, like he’s reconsidering his words.

“I think I do best when I have some seclusion,” Nicky says. “A place to rest away from everyone. Not all the time, just, the option, if I need it.”

“Okay. We can do that.”

“And let me be, don’t push back on who I am, trying to make me into a version that I’m not.”

“Of course, Nicolò. Anything.”

Nicky gives a curt nod, like he’s solved the issues of the world, but his hands still tremble. “I still feel frustrated, like an over boiling pot. Maybe I need to go and chop some more wood?” Then he laughs, a slightly unhinged laugh.

Yusuf looks at him quizzically.

“Just something you said once,” Nicky says. “You had to be there.”

“Well,” Yusuf says, like that makes sense, “if it helps? Andromache even owes you an apology. I bet my last fig you can’t get her to let you use her labrys.”

“I’ll take that bet.”

He doesn’t win, even his cajoling about hurt feelings isn’t enough to win her battle axe for something as menial as wood splitting, but their dynamic shifts for the better and he feels more at home among them.

 


 

They get back into fighting for what’s right. Quynh hears of trouble in Turkey, great battles and sieges, and they board a boat to sail the length of the Mediterranean.

It’s been about seven years now since Nicky woke up under the water and Quynh saved him from drowning, and in that time the two women have fully abandoned any pretense of discretion. They touch each other and give each other words of love in plain view. But the place that their passion is most clearly displayed is in the battlefield, where they fight with equal ruthlessness as a perfect, matched pair.

Nicky keeps what he knows about the future of Joseph and Andy to himself. He knows that even the most wonderful of love matches may sour and bitter over time. His own parents married full of joy, but by the time Nicky left for the monastery, they would not speak to each other.

Andromache and Quynh have been in love for hundreds of years, but by the time of Paraguay, she wasn’t even mentioned. Do another five hundred years bring division and pain? Perhaps even Yusuf could become a dividing wedge between the two of them. But at no point, not even drunk with wine, does Yusuf push his relationship with Andromache to any place beyond that of friendship.

By the time Nicky thinks he perhaps got things wrong about Andromache and Yusuf, they get captured by pirates.

Their boat is boarded and raided by corsairs from Northern Africa. There are too many passengers for them to risk an all out battle, so they let themselves be tied up below deck with the others.

They talk to Yusuf in the language of his homeland, and Yusuf plays at being won over to them, implying they should release his bonds, but still they hesitate. Most of the supplies on the boat are carried off quickly, and the Barbary pirates debate among themselves what to do with the people, if they would make fitting slaves or if they weren’t worth the effort of transporting them all. They make a show of going through their captives and picking out a few that would fetch a high price.

Quynh bites one hard enough to draw blood and spits it at another.

“I do not like this pit viper,” the bitten one sneers. “Take the other woman. She’ll be easy.”

Yusuf glares at them with disdain. “You are blind, and foolish, if you think Andromache is weak,” he says, open and honest, his voice lilting like he’s speaking poetry, but his passion builds until he surges forward against his bonds. “This woman burns with the passion of a thousand suns, she gives me strength when I fall and gives my life meaning when there is no hope. She is the light that guides us along the path, this woman is strength made flesh. This woman is not weak .” He turns to her and smiles. “She is the foundation of my earth.”

Nicky sees there is nothing but love shining in Yusuf’s eyes as he looks at Andromache and knows he was right all along. He loves her. Nothing could be more certain.

Yusuf fights them, as the corsairs grab Andromache and take her above deck, but she goes willingly, a small smirk on her lips.

She returns within the hour, freed and covered in blood that is not her own. She takes a knife to the ropes that tie them, then wipes the blood from her face.

“We’re clear. Their boat is sinking, all of them on board.” She doesn’t say that it’s just the bodies of pirates on the other ship, already slaughtered by her hand.

“You could have released me,” Quynh scolds, as she rips through the last of her ties. “I could have helped.”

“I knew where you were,” Andromache returns. She bends down to undo the ropes around Yusuf’s hands.

“It would have been easier if you hadn’t given them that little speech, Yusuf,” she says dryly.

He smirks at her and bumps their foreheads together.

“It needed to be said.”

 


 

The first time Andromache gets hit and goes down, Nicky loses it. There’s blood everywhere, she’s been cut into her belly and up through her chest. There are guts in the dirt, and the light fades from her eyes.

Nicky screams and runs to her, dropping his crossbow and cradling her face. She’s not waking up, she’ll never wake up, she doesn’t heal.

He sees her, sitting across from him, holding a bottle of wine, as he lies chained up, saying she won’t come back again. He sees her weak and feverish, but stubborn as always.

Andromache gasps and spits up blood, and it starts drooling down her chin.

It’s too much for him, he collapses over her, the scent of viscera is everywhere.

“You were dead,” he says, even as he gathers her guts from the dirt. “You were dead, you weren’t coming back.”

It takes a while, but her body stitches together under his hands.

“Not this time,” she says with blood in her teeth, “these assholes aren’t taking me here.”

 


 

Nicky loses himself easily in the battles they fight. He learns the pattern of advance-regroup-advance that keeps them moving.

He frequently occupies the same space of the battle as Quynh, fighting from a distance, landing arrows and bolts exactly where they’re needed to keep the path clear for Yusuf and Andromache. Quynh is lethal beauty in a fight, from a distance and up close. She whirls and grins as she cuts through enemies, and they don’t seem to land a scratch on her.

Despite their efforts, they lose more battles than they win.

Quynh finds Nicky in the wreckage, on his knees, tears streaming down his dirt covered face.

“I should have known,” he tells her. “There were books on history. I could have stopped it.”

Quynh presses a hand to his shoulder.

He grimaces. “What’s the point of this curse if I can’t fucking do anything worthwhile?”

“The consequences aren’t up to us,” Quynh says. “They never have been. All we have is a responsibility to do what is right.”

“What if I could have stopped it?” Nicky groans. “Stopped any bad thing from happening.”

“Then you would have,” she answers him. “If it happened, you couldn’t have stopped it. Trust yourself, Nicolò. You know I do.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

After a decade or more with them in the mid 1400’s, Nicolò goes down fighting in one battle and gets up in another. His sword is still in his hand when he wakes up, but his armour is lighter, the weather is hot and dry.

Nicolò gets to his feet, and tries to orientate himself in this new time and place.

He’s in a battle, a desert somewhere. He looks at his clothes and finds loose flowing robes, patterned and bold, and bloodstained.

Ah, a neck wound, he surmises.

A man is running at him, yelling, and Nicolò lowers his centre of gravity and raises his sword.

The man halts, his eyes wide and terrified, and Nicolò is shocked when he recognises him as Yusuf.

Yusuf’s beard is shorter and stylised to a point at his chin. His head is wrapped with an unfamiliar headdress, and his clothes are different.

Of course his clothes are different, Nicolò has traveled through time.

“Nicholas, are you-?” Yusuf starts.

Nicolò lowers his sword. “Hello,” He says.

Yusuf envelopes him in a bear hug. Nicolò gets squeezed so hard he chokes a little.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Yusuf says, releasing him quickly and checking him all over for wounds that have already healed.

“I’m okay,” Nicolò says.

“I should have been here,” Yusuf says.

“You’re here now. Where are-”

A loose warhorse barrels past them, and a javelin narrowly misses their feet.

Nicolò takes up his sword. “Which side are we on again?”

He gets a toothy grin in response. “Just follow me!”

 


 

After the battle, Nicolò and Yusuf sit together on a mat in the house of a kind family they protected, eating fresh bread baked with olives.

The year is 1511, and they are in Northern Africa. Andromache and Quynh are elsewhere, somewhere in Europe on their own missions.

Nicolò expresses surprise at that, but Yusuf assures him it’s routine to break off now and then. The two of them have been traveling together through Africa for the last dozen years or so, if Yusuf’s memory is to be believed. Yusuf names some lands and cities that they have been through recently, but Nicolò doesn’t recognise them.

“Have you ever been to Malta, Nicholas?”

Again, this place. ”No,” Nicolò answers wryly. “But it has been recommended.”

Once Nicolò knows firmly that his previous life is in Yusuf’s past as well, he asks about those years.

They made it out safely, all four of them. The world kept spinning and the team kept fighting. It wasn’t that long ago for Yusuf either, and he speaks of those years fondly and recites the rules they agreed to together under that tree by the river to help Nicolò feel settled and content.

 


 

By Nicolò’s counting, he has lived approaching two decades since Nicolò and Yusuf slayed each other in the Holy Land, and only now does Nicolò realise he enjoys the other man’s company.

He had no reason, in Paraguay or in the mid 1400’s, to spend time with just Joseph. There were always others around, softening the sharp edges, making the days easier.

At the start, Yusuf was the enemy, then a ghost in his nightmares. In Paraguay he was his teacher and mentor, a kind one, but there had always been distance.

Then came Nicky’s first death where he knew what was coming, or he thought he did, because there was only famine and diseases. In that place, Joseph was his sickly ward and responsibility. Even in the decade past, Nicky had been more concerned with getting to know Quynh and finding his own two feet. At no point has Nicky considered Yusuf to be a friend.

In Marrakesh, though, Yusuf takes him through the markets, past great piles of brightly coloured spices and purchases trinkets and spices for him. They laugh together as the tailor fits Nicolò with outfits that feel foreign to him and shows him how to properly arrange the headpieces.

“No, these are new,” Yusuf says, when Nicolò grumbles about it, “it took me a bit to get the hang of them myself.”

Yusuf gets himself a richly decorated outfit, with yellows and reds and a high collar that accentuates his beard and shoulders. It has intricate brocade across the chest, and Nicolò flicks a finger at the design.

“A bit of a waste when a sword will be run through it,” Nicolò says.

Yusuf shrugs. “A little luxury.”

The spices again are in Nicolò’s pack.

“These are mine?” He tentatively asks.

Yusuf is ever patient with him. “Of course.”

“I don’t even know what they are,” Nicolò admits, and Yusuf laughs.

“The memory of you asking me for help cooking will be one I treasure for many years,” he says. “I know the basics, of course, but I think we would best be served by going to an expert.”

They find an ancient woman in a busy city in Morocco, and she says they speak Arabic like her grandmother. Her name is Kahula, but they call her “little granddaughter”, and she swats at their bottoms with her stirring spoon.

She teaches Nicolò how to properly season meat and tricks for getting the best vegetables for each dish at the market. Yusuf is given supporting tasks like taste-tester and tries not to show just how capable with a knife he is when chopping up vegetables.

After a few months of teaching, Kahula deems Nicolò’s cooking, “Not bad. A little practice, and you may be decent yet.”

With a wry smile, Nicolò answers, “I do believe I have the time to practice.”

 


 

One day, a year or two after Nicolò arrived in this time, Yusuf hangs around at the docks and picks up some news from abroad.

“Think it’s time to find the others?” He asks Nicolò.

Nicolò hesitates. He’s enjoyed staying in one place. The busyness and smells of a portside city reminds him of home, even if the faces and language and cuisine is different. And he’s not quite willing to endanger this tentative friendship he’s building with Yusuf. But then he remembers Quynh’s complaining about the flavouring of the venison they hunted together and he wants to show her what he’s learnt.

Out of the port of Marrakesh, Yusuf and Nicolò board a boat headed for London. It’s a merchant vessel with a few hammocks for passengers who don’t mind taking up a sword if pirates attack.

Nicolò is on deck when Yusuf finds him, the wind in his face and mussing his hair that’s long enough that it now curls around the back of his neck and whips at his eyes. He’s leaning on the port side railing, staring at the horizon.

On the other side of that ocean are baked potatoes and alpacas and tomato soups.

He feels like he could cross that ocean right now, and Nile would be waiting for him on the coastline with a bottle of very fine wine and incredibly soft beds and a noisy world, but that’s not true at all. He’s so far away from her and he doesn’t know when he’ll return there. He might not see her again for hundreds of years.

“I wish this boat would go faster,” Nicolò says.

“Are you worried for them?” Yusuf asks. Nicolò shrugs, but Yusuf reads him well. “They are experienced women, Nicolò. They will be fine without our help.”

“I know,” Nicolò assures him.

He turns his face back into the salty wind.

“I just have a bad feeling.”

 


 

There are rumours, when they dock, of witches who bring with them a curse, of women who can’t be killed. Of a vengeful spirit that destroyed a ship of men from the inside out.

They find Andromache wailing by the seaside of Brighton. She’s screaming, her arm outstretched, grasping at the water.

Nicolò doesn’t understand, and then, with his heart in his stomach, he does.

It’s the sound of wordless grief again.

Nicolò has seen Andromache angry, has seen her smile and sing, has seen her grit her teeth and pull a sword from her own chest.

He’s never seen anything like this.

Yusuf goes to her and touches her shoulder.

She turns and rages at him.

“You two think you are so fucking special, because you have each other, that you’ll never be apart.” She spits at him, her teeth bared. “Guess what? I had her, and now I don’t. It’ll be the same for you.”

Nicolò can’t, he can’t move. His feet are stuck as stone, and he can’t think.

Fiery eyes meet his.

“You.”

Her voice has been scraped through stones.

“I didn’t know,” he whispers.

“How dare you!” She screams.

“I couldn’t, I swear, I didn’t know.”

Yusuf screams.

Andromache lodges her axe in Nicolò’s throat.

“I didn’t know,” he gasps out, choking on his own blood by the sea. “I didn’t know. I didn’t-”

Chapter Text

Joe is still coughing and clearing his lungs of the last of it. Was it knock out gas? Or was he killed by it? Warmongering humans have developed so many strategies to kill and incapacitate over the centuries, it’s no longer easy to know.

Nicky hasn’t moved.

“Nicolò.”

Someone tells him to shut up, but Joe stretches out a hand.

“Nicolò, destati, destati.”

His voice almost breaks. His fingertips barely graze Nicky’s shoulder before his arms are yanked away.

There’s blood on Nicky’s face, and he’s not breathing.

Destati.” Please. Please wake up. Joe hunches over him, even as he’s kicked again. It’s always Italian, when Joe doesn’t know. “Nicolò, destati.”

Sono qui.” Nicky’s face is still to the floor, and he grimaces. I am here. “Sono qui.” With slow, groaning movements, he sits up, still speaking in Italian, but it’s not as ancient as Joe feared. “Wherever here is.”

He’s not scared, not shocked. He must be old enough to be seasoned in this life.

“I know as much as you, I’m afraid. Armoured van.” Joe stares at the face he knows better than his own. Who are you? What do you know? ”They caught us on film.”

Nicky’s eyes are tired and shuttered. He scans over the men, their weapons. “Duemila...?” He hazards a guess.

Duemila venti,” Joe confirms the year for him. 2020. Nicky had died, in that explosion and gas, gone off to who knows where. Sometimes Nicky will know when a death is coming. He’ll suddenly re-examine their surroundings, or meet Joe’s eyes. Sometimes he even has a chance to say goodbye.

But this one had been a shock.

When he learns the year, Nicky huffs and frowns. “I’m afraid this one will get worse before it gets better, my love.”

Old then. Joe watches the expression around Nicky’s eyes.

Very old. Perhaps older than even Joe is.

Joe reaches forward and places a hand on Nicky’s knee.

“Are you okay?” He asks in English, a little clue of the language he heard the guards speak.

A guard grabs at him. “I said, shut up!” He yells. “Don’t touch your fucking girlfriend.”

Nicky pulls one of his small twisted expressions.

“This old prejudice,” Nicky says. “It’s so pathetic it’s almost quaint.”

“It’s not quaint,” Joe bristles. “It’s childish.” He turns to the soldier. “As you are a child. Children who have no concept of responsibility, of consequence. You sit here in the presence of a man who has the unimaginable weight of all those things on his shoulders. This man knows what it is to feel grief and loneliness untold. After a thousand years of killing, his heart is still overflowing with kindness that the world is not worthy of. With your eyes full of hate you cannot see what is in front of you.”

Joe looks at Nicky, at his worn expression, but also at the way his eyes crinkle at the sides.

“This man guards my heart. He has shown that he loves me in a million ways, and I can only ache for a million more. I love this man beyond measure. Our lives have been folded together, and I choose him every time. He’s everything to me. He’s more. He always has been.”

“You’re an incurable romantic,” Nicky says and leans forward.

But they are pulled back, pinned across the chest by the soldiers before they are able to touch.

Being jostled by the moving truck and the soldiers, Nicky meets Joe’s gaze from across the van, and he twitches an eyebrow.

Then all hell breaks loose.

Nicky pitches a soldier over his shoulder and onto Joe’s waiting knee. Joe gets his bound hands around one’s neck and cuts into his air supply while the other soldiers rush to their weapons. Joe is stuck for a moment, bearing up under punches as he tries to find a way to incapacitate the rest, but he can’t take his eyes off of Nicky.

Over hundreds of years of fighting, Joe considers himself adept at killing. More often than not, he walks away untouched and he fights now with instinct rather than planning, trusting his muscle memory and senses to move quicker than his mind ever could. He’s no Andy, but he’s good.

But today, Nicky is something else. He moves with a speed and lethality that startles Joe. He blocks hits that Joe doesn’t even see coming and turns their momentum into moves that incapacitate his attackers. Even in the cramped space of the van, with his hands bound and weaponless, the soldiers can’t touch Nicky.

Before the man under Joe’s hands loses consciousness, the rest of the soldiers are dead.

“Holy shit,” Joe breathes.

Nicky’s chest heaves. He steps over a fallen man, grabs Joe with his bound hands and leads him to sit on the bench. He kneels down in front of him and clasps Joe’s hands.

“Listen, Joe. I don’t think we have much time.” Nicky leans forward and gives him a chaste kiss, just the barest brush of lips. “You must be strong. This will not be pleasant.”

Joe grips Nicky’s hands back. “I won’t let them hurt you.”

Nicky’s expression collapses. “You won’t have a choice. Do you love me?”

“Yes!”

“Do you trust me?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then let this happen.” Nicky moves his hands to Joe’s neck. “There is so much ahead. I’m sorry I cannot walk the path beside you.”

Joe squeezes his eyes shut against the tears that sting at him. “What do you need?”

Nicky’s face softens, like he can’t believe the goodness of this man in front of him.

“I’ll need to hear your voice,” Nicky says. “Keep talking, so I know you are with me.”

The van stops its rumbling, pulling to a stop and being parked.

Joe kisses him again, desperate and hard. “I’m always with you,” he whispers.

The doors of the van open, and Nicky drops to the floor, his affect changing immediately to aloof and snarky.

“I don’t suppose it will be possible to get these chains off of us,” he quips.

They’re roughly escorted out of the corpse filled van at gunpoint.

Joe glares daggers at James Copley. They never should have done the repeat. Andy’s suspicion at the start was right, and Joe curses at himself. He never should have encouraged her to come back to them in Marrakesh. Nothing good has happened since then.

Except, perhaps, Nile Freeman.

 

 


 

 

Joe remembers when he’d woken up in the train car, his dreams were full of vivid images.

“What is it?” Nicky had asked from his arms, being jolted awake as Joe had spasmed in his sleep.

“What the fuck?” Andy breathed, dragging her hands through her hair, and Booker unscrewed his flask.

“A dream,” Joe said, sitting up and getting his sketchbook.

“This can’t be happening,” Andy muttered. “Not now.”

Joe was already focusing on his drawing, moving quickly to capture the likeness he had seen. “I saw a black woman.”

“Clay walls,” Booker said, his voice gravelly. He gestured with his fingers. “Part of a nametag. “‘Free’ something.”

Nicky was already grinning, open and free.

“Yes?” He prodded. “What else?”

“A Pashtun knife,” Joe said, his eyes squinted shut as he tried to hold her features in his mind, before his pencil moved across the page again.

“And a med-evac,” Booker added. He ran his hand over his throat, face a twisted grimace. “I felt her die.”

Joe looked up in time to see Nicky leaning back against the walls of the carriage, a complicated expression on his face.

“She’s a Marine,” Andy said. “Combat duty, or near enough. Afghanistan.”

She levelled a cold stare at Nicky.

“Isn’t that right, Nicky?”

He hadn’t given her an inch, and Joe had to jump to his love’s defence.

“Leave it, Andy,” he’d warned. How often he’d gotten between Nicky and Andromache’s blade. How often he’d been too slow.

Andy got up and stood over Nicky. Joe pitched his shoulders across Nicky’s chest protectively, a physical reminder to Andy that he wouldn’t allow much more.

“What else?” She demanded.

“I cannot tell you,” was his soft reply.

“You know the goddamn mess of a situation we’re in here, Nicky, so tell me-”

“You have enough to find her already,” He answered.

“We can’t deal with this right now,” Booker interrupted. “We have to find Copley.”

“We can’t leave her alone,” Joe protested. “If Nicky knows her, then we have to find her.”

“We can find her another day, one when we’re not out in the open,” Booker said.

“She’s in the open!” Joe threw back. He gritted his teeth and went back to his drawing, he couldn’t afford to become distracted. Nicky peered over his shoulder at the sketch, then pressed his forehead into Joe’s back.

He knew her. Of course he did. Occasionally Nicky had mentioned missing a friend, but that was a long time ago. He hadn’t mentioned her for centuries. Could this really, finally, be the person Nicky was waiting for?

In truth, Joe was just desperate to meet her. She sounded wonderful.

Andy thumped the train car wall in frustration.

“What did we do, Nicky?” She asked.

He sat back, rested his arms on his knees and linked his fingers together. “I don’t know. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t know everything about our lives, and I haven’t lived this one before.” He met her eyes, the only one of them that had ever been able to stare Andromache down. “But you know what it was like. She needs us.”

“Boss…” Booker started. “We can’t deal with this right now.”

“No,” Andy said, her mind made up. “We have to. We can’t go to ground if there’s some Marine out there dreaming about us like a homing beacon.”

She held out her hand. Joe put the finishing touches on his sketch before ripping the page out and handing it to her.

“Fuck. She’s just a baby,” Andy said.

“She’ll grow,” Nicky promised.

There was something in the way Nicky’s eyes had lit up when Andy brought Nile into the abandoned church in Goussainville that made something warm curl in Joe’s heart.

There is a future, Joe reminds himself as he’s marched off the plane. This too shall pass. Nicky’s presence and reminders are enough for him.

But that was a different Nicky. One that woke up in the ambush in South Sudan, and died just a few scant hours after finally meeting Nile Freeman again.

Not this one that seems ancient.

 


 

Nicky levels his own withering stare at Copley.

“We expected more from you,” Nicky tells him as he is marched at gunpoint to the private jet. “You are a wiser man than this. Why are you compromising yourself in this way?”

Copley doesn’t have an answer for him.

“But Nicky, look at this plane!” Joe eggs him on. “It’s very nice.”

They are loaded onto the plane, get chained around the ankles and strapped into their seats, across the aisle from each other and out of reach.

For the plane ride across the English channel, Nicky makes jokes that unsettle their captors but make Joe smirk.

Nicky makes an excellent spy. By the time he achieves all the milestones Joe can follow, and even more that Joe can’t quite grasp, Nicky’s disposition changes. He becomes changed enough that Joe recognises him as “old”, and he picks up and discards accents and character traits easily. He knows people well, knows how to push and prod them to do what he wants. He’s also endlessly patient and kind, giving chance after chance for someone to change their ways, then admitting to Joe afterwards that he knew they would not change, but he needed to give them the opportunity.

In the darkest times Joe wonders how many times he has infiltrated their own family, subtly steering them this way or that.

When the plane begins its descent, Nicky’s posture changes. Joe watches carefully as Nicky shifts into a meditative expression. He keeps murmuring words of encouragement in their old dialects. He refuses to answer any questions Joe puts to him, but merely brings up little memories of times long ago.

They are transported to a London skyscraper and brought before a weaselly young man who quotes Shakespeare to them and introduces himself as Stephen Merrick. Joe follows Nicky’s lead, gives him nothing but a bloodied nose when he gets too close.

“There’s your balance, asshole,” Joe spits, even as a gun is shoved in his face.

The guards wind him with a knee to the stomach, and he doubles over, groaning.

Merrick confirms Copley’s betrayal in setting them up for the footage of their resurrection.

He tends to his nose as he leans against a desk. “However,” he says, “I prefer my evidence first hand.”

He attacks Joe with a silver letter opener, stabbing repeatedly into his back and neck. Joe cries out, wincing in pain at the attack.

Nicky stays silent. He doesn’t yell for him, doesn’t draw attention to himself. It’s a bargain they made centuries ago on their first visit to Malta.

Nicky must never put himself in danger to save Joe. He must always let Joe bear the brunt.

“Ah, damn it. Shit!”

Joe feels his wounds stitching together under the doctor’s feverish eyes.

“And a fair few quid to boot,” Merrick says. Joe can almost hear him salivating.

It always comes down to the money.

Nicky is on his knees beside Joe now, close enough that their heads can brush.

I’m here, Nicky says with his eyes, I’m with you.

For how long? Joe wonders.

The others are saying things about research and development now, and Joe can’t stand it.

“He thinks you’re a mouse, Nicky,” Joe says, trying to provoke a response, any response from Nicky, but nothing comes.

There’s a cold twisting weight in Joe’s stomach when Nicky doesn’t fight the guards as they push him face first to the ground. He’s seen this version of Nicky in a fight. They could do some serious damage together here. But Nicky goes willingly.

“Hey, hey! AH!” Joe yells as bolts of electricity zap through his muscles and he’s pinned down. He’s struggling to stay conscious even before they put the injector to his neck and it pinches him.

He keeps his eyes on Nicky, even as the black fuzzes across his vision. He’s doing a strange sort of breathing technique, his mouth open and huffing deep breaths, but his face is calm, even if it is twisted in sympathy against the floor.

“I’m sorry,” Nicky tells him, before it all fades to black.

 

 


 

 

Doctor Meta Kozak considers herself a very practical woman. She has no great love for Merrick, but neither is she blind to the reality of limited funding for her type of cutting edge scientific research. They’re using each other to get what they want. It’s a dynamic she is well familiar with.

Kozak had done her time in academic research, cramped and underfunded, endlessly tedious with boards and post-grads and bureaucratic nonsense. But here, she did groundbreaking work into the Telomere extensions, and was well on the way with her own passion - preventing cognitive decline with Klotho hormones. She had a lab with her own name on it and assistants that were competent and she could easily fire if they weren’t, with many more willing to take their place. She had a seat at the table in directing promising research, not sent off on fool’s errands at the whim of public interest and investment.

Being at the top of the food chain had the added benefit of finally, finally insulating her from asshole men who knew the business of science was shaky at best, and held that advantage over her. She sunk her life into research, and after she won Merrick’s respect, she didn’t have to beg and grovel for more funding and resources.

It’s always about the money.

He had come to her with a hypothetical a few months ago, all bouncing feet and waving hands. He told her a story of ageless beings, of cells that heal and re-heal instantly.

“Now, what could you do with genetic code such as that, Doctor Kozak?” He asked.

Anything. Everything.

The degradation of genetic code, she explained, was the cause of aging, and aging was the one thing that had never been able to be tamed.

“Our cells regenerate.” She said. “Making copies of copies, and eventually, over time, these copies break down. This is why we age, why the elderly take so long to heal from bruises, it’s the root of all sickness that cannot be cured.”

“Unless it can be.” Merrick said.

Months later, he brought her video footage of people rising from the dead. Or mostly. She watched as the figures on the ground slowly got to their knees, and feet, but one, the male closest to the camera, stayed on the ground, screaming until he was shot again, then rose slowly, surrounded by the others.

“This one.” She said, tapping her finger on the white male with the hood. “Something is different about him.”

In the footage, in the last seconds before the female destroys the cameras, the two other males gathered around the third, passing him weapons and speaking too quietly to be picked up by the microphones.

Merrick was gleeful when he presented her with samples that were scraped from the floor in South Sudan, and furious when she told him they were contaminated and incomplete.

“Not all diseases can be found and cured in the blood,” she explained. “I need live bone marrow, liver samples. If you want anything neurological, I’m going to need brain matter too.”

That was where her true interest lay, in the way a mind works and re-heals.

Admittedly, her requests became greedy. “Live subjects would be best,” she said. “And I would feel more confident if I could take the samples myself.”

She had no idea that the footage was directed, that they had walked into a slaughter, until long after she’d made her request to Merrick. She cursed herself for not having been more logical, for not having made the connection that if these ageless beings were real and she didn’t know about them, then they didn’t want to be found.

Then she spoke to one of them on the phone.

It was a conference call, over some satellite link she knew was untraceable. There were three blinking lights on her computer screen, labelled “Contact” and “Subject”, and the last being Merrick’s personal line.

The Contact spoke, a rich English accent, responding calmly to Merrick’s fury.

“What can you get me?” Merrick demanded.

The Subject’s name lit up, as a rough voice spoke French into the call.

“I can get you one,” the Contact translated.

Merrick addressed her. “Will that be sufficient, Doctor?”

“Which one?” She’d asked.

A picture flashed across her screen, then vanished before she got a chance to save the image. It was a headshot of a white man, early forties with sad eyes.

She’d imagined a drug being brought to market. A revolutionary drug that could change the world and rebalance power for generations. A drug developed from and effective only for middle aged, white European men.

She shook her head.

“No,” she said. “I need diversity.”

The Subject spoke again, in French without needing her words translated, which just confirmed he understood English but refused to use it because he was an asshole.

“Perhaps we can get the woman,” the Contact allowed.

“Are you deaf?” Merrick shouted down the line. “We have to have diversity. The Middle Eastern market alone-” he’d cut himself off. “I need all of them, or we have nothing, and there is no deal.”

Kozak was familiar with the feeling of being too deep in it to back out now, and she suspected the two other men on the line felt the same way.

This had all started with a hypothetical, a theory Merrick had postulated based on a fairytale. But these people were real, and it was quickly getting out of hand.

But they all wanted something, and nothing is free in this world.

 


 

They bring the two male subjects from Merrick’s penthouse and into her lab. They are dragged between the guards, unconscious even as they are stripped of their shirts and bound to the testing beds.

She snaps on latex gloves and uses alcohol wipes to clean the not insignificant amount of blood from the chest of the white male. Her bin fills up with wadded up wipes, then her phone rings.

She sighs when she reads the name on the screen and answers.

“Lizzy, this isn’t a good time,” she says in a hushed voice.

“I know, I’m sorry,” comes the tinny voice on the other end, “but it’s been a bad day. He was just reading with Katya and he lost it. Can you speak to him?”

“No, I don’t-” Kozak says, but the phone is already snatched out of her sister-in-law’s hand.

Sestra,” says her brother, speaking in Ukrainian, “Lanyo!”

“Vitalik, I’m at work right now,” Kozak answers back in their home language. She drops her voice, even though everyone else in the room is unconscious.

“It should be there, it’s, ah, fuck-” Vitalik releases a stream of words that don’t make sense, and she can’t follow them. “The fucking thing!”

Kozak hears a scold of “language!” from Lizzie, even though the swearing is in Ukrainian. They’ve been raising Katya as bilingual, at least they were, until the diagnosis.

“Tell me what you were doing, brate,” Kozak calmly says.

“I was baking bread,” Vitalik answers.

“He wasn’t, Aunty Meta!” Comes Katya’s sweet voice. “We were reading in the library.”

“No!” Vitalik protests, as he does so often these days. “There was, and there was bread for the children for lunch, wasn’t there, Sestra?”

“You’re confused again,” Kozak says. “Just let Lizzie handle it.”

Stubborn silence on the other end, but she is an older sister and she out-wills him.

“Pechu, pechu xlibchyk,” he murmurs. “Dityam na obidchyk.”

It’s hesitant and monoton, with no beat or rhythm, but Kozak recognises it all the same. A childhood song that takes her right back to sitting on her grandmother’s floor. I am baking, baking bread. For the children for lunch.

Kozak rubs her forehead. “Menshychkomu – menshyj.” The smaller will get less.

Even as she only gives him the next line and the beat, he hisses out a breath. “Bil’shychkomu – bil’shyj.” The bigger will get more, he says, his voice less frantic. She imagines him sinking into the big red reading chair in their library that will soon be turned back into a nursery.

Together they sing the last line, “Shust’ y pich! Shust’ y pich!” Dash it into the stove!

There is a muffled sound, and Kozak assumes the phone is dropped to the ground, before it’s picked up by Lizzie.

“Thank you, Meta, I could never have… He’s calmed down now. I’ll let you get back to your work.”

Kozak says her goodbyes and hangs up the phone. She turns back to the gurneys where the subjects are strapped and finds one already awake and watching her.

Lanyo!” She swears, not expecting to be observed. She recovers quickly. “That was a heavy dose for you to shake so quickly. The other one hasn’t woken up yet. Is that common?”

“I wanted to speak to you,” the subject says, like that explains anything. Sea-glass eyes trace back to where she was speaking on the phone.

“My Ukrainian is a little rusty,” he says, “but that was your brother, yes?”

“Yes.”

He speaks with a soft, calming voice, as though she were a child. “He does not sound well.”

This isn’t what you’re here for, she thinks, but she answers all the same.

“Alzheimer’s. Early onset. He’s only 35.”

The man doesn’t acknowledge the straps that bind him to the gurney, the vulnerable position that he and the other one are in. His face is full of compassion.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says. “That must be difficult for you. There is a genetic component to early onset Alzheimer’s, isn’t there?”

Kozak sneers at him.

“This isn’t about me. Let my brain rot for all I care.” She flicks a hand. “Even if there was a gene therapy program discovered tomorrow, I’m too old. I’ve made my peace with that. But he has a four year old daughter, and a boy on the way. What am I supposed to tell them? That they have thirty, forty good years on this earth and then waste away? That they will carry a curse on to their own children? What sort of a life is that?”

“A good one,” the man answers, “if they let it be so.”

The silence hangs heavy in the air before she turns to her instruments.

“I don’t have to justify myself to you,” she says harshly.

Monitoring systems first, adhering cords to both of their chests and fingers.

She takes blood, wiping the inner part of his elbow with iodine as those eyes track her every movement. He stares at her, unblinking, and it reminds her of the lab mice she has worked with in the past. When she moves on to taking a tissue sample from the skin and flesh of his bicep, no bigger than a coin, he hisses softly in pain.

It surprises her. She didn’t think they would feel pain, but not sure what led her to think that. She’s in too deep to back out now.

And the circle of flesh fills with muscle before her eyes. Before she has even labelled the container, there is nothing there but skin.

“Remarkable,” she murmurs, smoothing over the skin with her latex gloved hand. The flesh feels firm, with no ridges or discolouration, as if she has never made the cut.

Would she even be able to access deeper tissue before his skin healed around her instruments?

She sinks a long probe into his abdomen, and he twitches and groans.

“Do you feel the wound trying to close?” She asks. She certainly can, the friction against the instrument increases the longer it’s down there, and just after she has gripped her sample, the pressure increases like the probe is being forcefully extruded.

“You will not be able to achieve your goal,” he tells her. “I’m sorry.”

“Science is cumulative,” she answers him. “If I am unsuccessful, my research will build up the next generation to find a cure.”

“No one will, not this way.” He releases a small grunt as the probe pops free from his skin.

“You think I go too far? That I am unethical?”

“I would say immoral.”

“Many unethical people have changed the world for the better,” she answers him. “If I am the next in a long line, then so be it.”

“A fine justification,” he allows. A small smile graces his lips. “I have heard it many times before. But they never recognise what it is that truly changes the world.”

“And what is it, then, that changes the world, other than science?” She challenges him.

There is a long pause, and his eyes flutter shut. “Your family is from the Ukraine, yes?” He says. “I was there, in 1943. It was… such a complicated time in that place. But in the midst of all the confusion and politicking, I met a young woman. She was nothing in the grand scheme of things. A clerk, in a Greek Orthodox Church.” He gives a half-smile. “We had many spirited discussions about faith. Her name was Lidja, and she had lost everything. Her brothers were conscripted in the Red Army, her parents had died in the famine. Her whole family, gone, just like that.”

Kozak stops her sampling as he talks, and he doesn’t stop staring at her.

“There was a scheme at the church, to distribute baptismal certificates to the Jews in the ghettos. She wasn’t the priest baptising them, she didn’t come up with the plan herself. But she was an important part of the story. When the printing paper ran out, she sold all her stockings and lipstick to buy more. She stayed up all night fixing typewriters, just so they could squeeze another day’s worth of certificates from them.” He sighs, leans his head back and closes his eyes. “Such a small thing, one person doing good despite the odds, but trust me, Doctor Kozak, when I say, that is exactly what changes the world.”

Before she can stop herself, Kozak blurts out, “My grandmother’s name was Lidja.”

He doesn’t seem surprised at her admission.

Those clear eyes turn to her, it’s unnerving, like he’s looking directly into her soul.

“Is that so?”

 

 


 

 

Joe jerks back to life and consciousness with a tight gasp. Immediately his eyes are searching around himself, even before they can focus.

“Nicky,” he groans.

Sono qui,” comes the answer.

Still, Joe doesn’t settle until he sees Nicky’s face from across the way. Straps and medical equipment are attached to both of them, and he tests their strength. They don’t give.

Capture. The very thing they fear most. Quynh’s face haunts Joe just then, even as he asks after Nicky.

“Did you-?” He starts, unable to finish.

“Still here,” Nicky answers. “The lights did not go out. But for how long I can stay, I don’t know.”

Joe flexes his wrists again. Nicky didn’t fight it, he must have known this was coming, and he didn’t do anything to stop it.

“This is what you wanted, was it?” Joe asks furiously. “Captivity? Experimentation?”

“Joe,” Nicky scolds. One word from him and it douses the fire in Joe’s heart. “Do not accuse me so. I cannot bear it.”

“Forgive me,” Joe begs. “I’m scared.”

“Me too, my heart,” Nicky returns.

“Is this…” Joe can’t summon the words, so he resorts to euphemism. “Have you been here before?”

Nicky cranes his neck around to more fully look at him.

“I will need to hear your voice,” Nicky says.

Joe’s heart is in his throat, and he chokes on it.

The doctor returns. Kozak, Merrick had called her. She’s silent as she takes a blood sample from Joe, then flesh and tissue.

Apropos of nothing, from Joe’s perspective, Kozak turns to Nicky and crosses her arms.

“The plan didn’t rest on Lidja’s shoulders,” she says, and Joe’s eyebrows rise. “If she didn’t do those things you say she did, it would have been someone else.”

“But it was her,” Nicky replies simply. “She saw the chance to do good, true good, and she took action. Even in those small ways. I have always admired people such as her.”

The whole conversation leaves Joe confused, but Nicky clearly has a plan. He leans up as much as he can in his restraints.

“You can still follow in her footsteps. There is always a chance. I don’t know how we escape these chains, but I know that we will. Perhaps you will be the one who releases us. You can still do some good, something that truly changes the world.”

There is a long pause, then her face hardens.

“Bone marrow next, I think,” she says.

 

 


 

 

After hours, her little jars are filled with samples, and Joe has sweated and soaked through the scratchy paper sheet under him.

Still, Nicky speaks to the doctor, prompting her along and prevailing on her good nature with gentle words. She leaves the lab for a minute, taking a sample for more thorough examination.

“She doesn’t deserve your kindness,” Joe says, keeping his eyes on the ceiling.

“It’s grace. No one deserves it,” Nicky returns. “You don’t get to decide who receives it.”

The weight in Joe’s guy feels sour. “I hate this. I hate it so fucking much.” He turns his head towards Nicky. “We get out, right?”

Nicky raises an eyebrow at him. “Of course we do.” Then he smirks. “You still haven’t had me for the first time, yet.”

Joe lets out a loud laugh. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten that,” he says with a grin. “I’ve been looking forward to it for over seven hundred years.”

The change in Doctor Kozak comes not long after that.

She’s cursing under her breath, obviously unsatisfied with what she sees in the microscope.

She pulls out a walkie-talkie and speaks into it. “Keane, could I please have two men in the lab for transfer?”

“Transfer?” Joe demands. “Transfer where?”

“Relax,” Kozak says, pulling forward a different bed on wheels. It has a head brace, one that opens and shuts to keep the head in position, a brace to pin a chest down, and a gap down the middle that can expose a spine. “I’m not going to separate you.”

“Yeah, you’d better not,” Joe threatens, ice in his voice. “There will be no grace or mercy from me if you do.”

Kozak, along with the two soldiers, pull up the new bed alongside Nicky’s and lock the wheels. They pin him down with arms around his neck and limbs, and a gun in his face for good measure. He goes willingly enough, and they strap him down with new restraints.

It’s a turning table, one that totally immobilises Nicky. Just before his head is strapped down, he looks at Joe, and whispers, “Just your voice, Joe. That’s all I need.”

Once he’s strapped down securely, Kozak flips him over onto his front, exposing the long line of his back. Kozak prepares a long thick needle. It is slipped right into his spine in his lower back and Nicky screams. Clear fluid fills the syringe, and Joe has a few more choice words for her.

“Neural tissue, too,” Kozak says.

“Nicky, Nicky, I’m here,” Joe says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

She wipes iodine on the nape of Nicky’s neck.

“Anywhere I am, you are,” Nicky says.

“That’s it, that’s it exactly,” Joe says. “What am I, Nicky?”

“You’re constant. You’re my rock.”

Another instrument is aimed at the bottom of his skull.

“Goodbye, my love,” Says Nicky.

“No!” Joe shouts. He screams himself hoarse.

Nicky shakes and shudders as the needle sinks into his brain. Then he goes limp.

 

 

 


 

 

 

The guards spin Nicky’s bed back over so he faces the ceiling. He doesn’t move even as they unstrap his head.

The heart monitor reads flatline, and Joe can’t bear it.

“Nicolò,” he calls gently.

“You’re dismissed,” Kozak says to the soldiers.

Joe can’t look away from Nicky’s face. He still isn’t moving. There’s no change in the monitors.

“Nicolò, I’m here,” Joe says gently.

There’s nothing.

It wasn’t a big wound. It shouldn’t be taking this long to heal.

He should be awake.

“Nicolò… wake up. Wake up. I’m here, you’ve got to- Nicky, wake the fuck up!”

Even Kozak looks concerned, she pauses at her instruments and watches the heart monitor, but Joe couldn’t care less what she thinks.

“Nicolò,” His voice cracks. “You promised me.”

The monitor beeps. Just once.

“Thank fuck, Nicolò, destati, sono qui con te. Non avere paura.” Joe can get his shoulder half-off the bed. The straps pinch at his wrists and elbows as he strains.

Nicky gasps awake, his muscles seizing against the straps. He thrashes, and Joe almost fears a seizure, until Nicky opens his eyes and speaks.

It’s that ancient Ligurian, heavily accented. He’s terrified.

He’s begging Mother Mary for salvation, for death. He can’t get a full coherent sentence out.

A sharp acrid smell fills the air. He’s pissed himself.

Nicolò, here I am!” Joe shouts.

Nicky’s eyes finally focus on the world around him. His skin is ashen white, and his eyes are wet and scared when he finally turns his head to see Joe.

There is no recognition on his face. He’s looking at Joe like they are strangers.

“Nicolò, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

Nicolò’s face contorts, and he begins to weep, big hot tears track down his face.

He calls out for his mother and he has never seemed so young before.

“Extraordinary,” Doctor Kozak says. She sees the change in him and draws the wrong conclusion. “It seems that damaging the brain matter of the cerebellum while the body is still intact brings upon an Alzheimer’s like state. This experiment bears repeating.”

The secret of their immortality is already exposed. Joe will carry the secret of Nicky’s recursive life to the grave, after a few thousand years of torture if he has to. What Merrick and those like him would do with Nicky’s curse… the sabotage and spywork and secrets of the future he would uncover. It is Joe’s greatest fear.

Three hundred years ago, in a tenement building in Edinburgh, Nicky had grabbed at strands of his hair and said, “They shaved my head.”

Now, Kozak brings a pair of clippers to join the rest of the instruments on her tray.

“Nicolò, I am with you,” Joe says in the language of his lover’s childhood. “No matter what happens, I’ll be with you.”

Nicolò’s eyes widen as though he hears the words like a threat.

Doctor Kozak grabs Nicolò’s head and begins shaving. Nicolò sobs through it, as locks of brown hair drop to the ground.

“Please, Lord. I beseech thee, in the hour of my death-” he murmurs.

Joe is spitting insults at her, begging her to stop.

“He’s had enough! Leave him be!” Joe roars. “Use me!”

“Receive me with joy into the arms of Thy mercy. Through Christ my Lord. Amen.” Nicolò is forcing his prayer through tears.

When the doctor is done, and Nicolò is shaved bald, she straps his head back down to the turning bed. Joe can’t meet his eyes again. There’s a chasm between them, and Joe can’t stretch across it.

The bed is spun over again, but Kozak doesn’t go for Nicky’s spine this time. She wields a small scalpel and slices under the skin at the nape of his neck.

“Nicolò, it’s going to be alright,” Joe says, as Nicky screams. “You’ll be safe soon, I promise you that.”

There is no mercy, no anaesthetic. She slices into the skin and muscle until a large flap is revealed and she peels it back. There is his smooth skull, bloodied, white and exposed.

Nicolò still hasn’t died.

“Nicolò, I will find you. I’ll keep you safe!”

He’s babbling and drooling, he doesn’t talk to Joe, it’s just begging.

A nightmare, Nicky had thought at first, he couldn’t understand the start of his unnatural life as anything but damnation.

How could any Crusader make sense of medical torture in a white sterile lab in the twentieth century? A stranger’s voice with the face of his enemy that calls his name and makes impossible promises?

Nicolò begins to pray, “Pater noster,” but can’t get further, he’s stuck in his terror as he cries out, “pater noster, pater noster,” a desperate plea, our father, our father, and he can’t summon any more words.

Kozak cleans Nicky’s skull of blood and picks up a medical drill.

Joe can’t scream at her any more, all he can do is help a desperate former priest pray for mercy.

Pater noster,” Joe cries out to Nicolò, “qui es in caelis.”

Sì, sì.” It’s the first sign of the man that isn’t pure terror. With this jolt to his memory, Nicolò is able to continue. “Sanctificetur nomen tuum.”

Adveniat regnum tuum,” Joe says, just as Kozak finds her angle and turns on the drill.

Fiat volun-”

And then Nicolò expires again.

 

 

 


 

 

 

“You bastard, you slimy piece of shit!” Joe roars at Kozak. “I will kill you, you motherfucker, I’ll make you suffer, and no amount of begging will stop me!”

She’s tuned him out, working methodically on the exposed part of Nicky’s brain, taking samples from the surface and further in. Already the skull is creeping closed.

“You won’t be able to get what you want. All you are doing is torturing a good man and signing your own death warrant, I will see to it,” Joe promises darkly.

The heart monitor beeps and finds a steady slow pace, even as Nicky’s brain is exposed. The flap of skin slides closed over the hole Kozak has drilled.

Lanyo,” She swears.

She steps away from Nicky, flipping the bed back over so he rests on his back and taking the brain matter samples with her.

Nicky gasps awake, even as blood continues to drip to the floor.

“Nicolò, Nicolò,” Joe chants.

His head is still pinned and immobile.

“Joe?” Nicky croaks. “Where-?”

“I’m here,” Joe rushes to say. Fuck, his whole body is trembling. “We’re in Merrick’s lab. 2020.”

“Again?” Nicky asks. He can’t turn his head, even as Joe stares at his profile. “It feels like I was just here, not six months ago.”

Joe feels tired and wrung out, and apparently he’ll see Nicky die at least one more time before this resolves.

The curve of Nicky’s head looks awfully fragile without hair. Joe’s never seen him shaven down, Nicky’s never wanted to. And now Joe knows why.

Nicky’s nose twitches. “What’s that smell?”

“You, ah, you wet yourself.”

Nicky flexes his hips against the restraints and grimaces.

“That would have been…” Nicky starts. “That was one of my firsts.”

“Yeah,” Joe says. “I figured that.”

“You know what, Yusuf?” Nicky says. “Fuck this year.”

Joe laughs and flops back onto his bed.

“I agree, Nicky,” Joe says. “Fuck 2020.”

 

 


 

 

What Kozak finds in Nicky’s brain matter infuriates her.

“It’s nothing,” she says, “nothing in your grey matter I haven’t seen before. No evidence of decay.”

“Unremarkable, am I?” Nicky asks.

Youngish, Joe clocks him as, younger and cheeky, or perhaps he is just trying to cheer Joe up after what he witnessed in one of Nicky’s first resurrections. Either way, they’re not discussing it in front of her.

“You know how much this means to me,” she says to Nicky. “What happened before? You weren’t yourself, it was like you… regressed.”

Nicky’s face remains impassive. “Forgive me, I do not feel like being on speaking terms with someone who has cut out parts of my brain.”

Kozak recoils, evidently aware that whatever goodwill Nicky held for her was spoiled by her own actions. She takes it as though she has been scolded and retaliates like a child.

“Well,” she says, “if your cells don’t hold promising data, then perhaps his will.”

And she turns her attention to Joe.

 

 


 

 

Nicky, true to the promise he made in Malta, never interrupts Kozak as she pulls Joe apart. She opens up his chest cavity, and Joe is still living when she observes entire systems in operation. Joe flatlines at least three times under her knife, and loses consciousness many more times. Joe counts it as three lives he’s saved Nicky from living.

She doesn’t shave Joe’s head as she takes a neural sample. Nicky arches an eyebrow and says it’s the only wise choice she’s made all day. Joe laughs even as the probe is inserted into his spinal column.

She places two IV lines, one in each of Nicky’s arms.

“If I can just catch it in the act…” Kozak says, hooking up a chemical concoction to one. On the other end, she places an empty bag that slowly starts filling up with blood.

She places a squishable stress ball in Nicky’s hand. “Squeeze this, if you please.”

The ball drops to the floor.

“Oops,” Nicky says, deadpan.

Joe stifles his laugh.

Kozak bends to the floor to fetch the ball. When she presses it to Nicky’s hand again, his fingers are slack and the ball rolls out again.

She huffs and mutters under her breath as she takes her measurements around them. Nicky meets Joe’s eye, his wordless expression is enough again to set Joe off, chuckling again.

“Do you remember that time in the Philippines?” Joe asks, trying desperately to pull his own weight in bringing a little levity to their dire situation. “2003?”

Nicky shakes his head.

“Booker was taken by a gang, they took him out and gave him a shovel, told him to dig his own grave, remember?” Joe says, knowing that he doesn’t.

“Did he refuse?” Nicky asks.

Joe drops his voice to a gravelly approximation of the Frenchman. “If these are my last moments on earth, I’m going to live as I always have - avoiding manual labour.”

“Then he killed them with the shovel?” Nicky hazards a guess.

“Then he killed them with the shovel,” Joe agrees.

Nicky laughs, his eyes squinting shut. He dozes off for a short while, the chemicals and bloodletting draining his energy dry. After a minute, he works his mouth and finds it slow to move.

“Are you alright, Joe?” Nicky asks, his voice slurs. “You’re distressed.”

Joe squeezes his eyes shut against the prickle of tears. “It’s been a very long day.”

 

 


 

 

Nicky dies again, and wakes up slow and confused. Joe has to tell him the year, the fact that they’re captured and tortured and hear Nicky panic.

Kozak sees that brief confusion and pounces on Nicky. She rolls him away for a CT scan, and Joe spends a full hour alone and shivering in that lab, his mind whirring through the worst case scenarios. But he is returned and he hasn’t been killed, so Joe calls that a win. Nicky has been transferred back to the normal testing bed and even been cleaned of urine and given fresh pants, and Joe briefly, foolishly, hopes that will be the end of the testing on Nicky’s brain.

Doctor Kozak tightens the straps across Nicky’s body so he can’t even tremble. She rolls a chair to sit at Nicky’s head.

“I don’t…” she starts, almost apologetic in tone. “I don’t mean to make this more painful than it should be, you have both already proved to heal faster under the effects of sedatives, and I need time to access what I need.”

Delusional, Joe thinks.

So, without anesthesia, she cuts again into Nicky’s head.

She’s prepared, this time. She pins and clamps down the flaps of skin, and takes a bone saw to the exposed, bloody skull.

Both Nicky’s and Joe’s screams can be heard over the machinery.

A block of bone, the size of a hand, is removed. Kozak drops it on her tray and it rocks there. She goes into Nicky’s brain with her probes and scissors.

“It’s okay,” Nicky says.

“No it’s not,” Joe shoots back, straining against his ties. “Hayati-”

“There’s no nerves. It doesn’t even hurt, Joe. I’m okay, I’m okay.”

It does nothing to calm Joe down, he’s furious and quickly growing exhausted.

A flatline again, and another version of his love, dragged from who knows where and thrown into this hellhole.

Joe talks to him, even sings, anything to keep Nicky calm and getting through this.

He doesn’t last long. Kozak grows frustrated at the creeping bone and flesh and re-cuts along her old marks. Nicky cries out and dies again.

Joe, just as he said he would to that ancient version of Nicky, keeps talking. When Nicky calls him ‘Yusuf’, he uses Arabic, and when he cries out for ‘Osip’, he speaks to him in Russian.

Joe hasn’t had a sip of water since Goussainville, and his mouth is dry and croaky, but he doesn’t stop talking.

Five, maybe six lives are passed on the table under Kozak’s knife. Each one is upset and tries to escape, the straps ripping deep into their skin, then they realise it’s futile and try, hard as they can, to speak back to Joe and comfort him in return.

Once, Kozak slices a part of Nicky’s brain on the left, it bleeds heavily, and the words come out jumbled.

It’s a mess of articles and tense markers in different languages. At first Joe almost understands him, then strange words creep in, and eventually all Nicky can do is repeat nonsense phrases and smile when Joe talks.

Afterwards, when his brain is left alone and heals over, Nicky tries to reason with Doctor Kozak.

“Do you know how many years I have lived?” He asks her.

“Nicky, don’t talk to her,” Joe warns.

“No,” Kozak answers.

“Why not?” Nicky asks. “That is data relevant to your research, isn’t it?”

“Alright,” Kozak plays along. “How old are you?”

Nicky grins. “I no longer remember how old I am. You know, before trains and telegrams and accurate clocks, we never used to mark the days by minutes. Work began when the sun rose, it was harvest time when the crop was ready. I no longer use years, I consider my age in terms of milestones, things I have seen and achieved. When we go to the stars, even the twelve month calendar, as old as Caesar, will not last.”

Joe stays silent.

“Why are you telling me this?” Kozak asks.

“Because something you think of as essential as the world marching to the rhythm of the second hand is not unchangeable,” Nicky answers her. “If you are wrong about the fundamentals of time such as this, what else are you wrong about?”

 

 


 

 

There’s another three deaths on the table each, and Joe is bone tired. He’s forcing himself to stay awake, not willing to leave Nicky awake and alone, and even more unwilling when he’s asleep and defenceless.

Joe doesn’t know how much more he can take, and Nicky knows it.

“This is worse for you,” Nicky tells him, in the brief hours of the night they have respite from Doctor Kozak.

“I don’t think it is,” Joe says.

It is the only way they are able to make their grand love story over centuries work, by competing to out-love, out-serve, out-care for each other.

“You’re going through this alone. For you, it’s cumulative,” Nicky says. “I have respite. Hell, we were swimming in the sea two days ago.”

A slow grin spreads over Joe’s face. “That sounds nice.”

Nicky cricks his head around and watches Joe’s face carefully.

“In truth I cannot imagine living my life in one straight line any more. Is that strange?”

Joe considers his answer carefully. “We are, if anything, adaptable,” he allows.

Nicky smiles, a blush that should have lost its charm hundreds of years ago on his cheeks.

“Every time I die I run the risk of coming back here, but I can bear up under it for a time. I’m sorry you have to go through it all at once.”

“After all this time, I still don’t know how you do it,” Joe says. “How you go into death without any idea of what you’ll find on the other side.”

Nicky’s hand twitches and flexes, like he’s reaching out for Joe. “That’s not true,” Nicky says. “I always have you. Wherever I am, you are.”

Joe’s swallows around the lump in his throat. “I’m always with you, my heart.”

Nicky’s soft smile is always something Joe treasures. “Get some sleep, love. I will be here when you wake.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

They’ve been there a day and a night and part of a day, by Joe’s reckoning. He’s lost time himself in the dying and returning, but at least his hours are in the right order.

Doctor Kozak has moved on from small samples, now she’s cracking them open and taking larger and larger chunks. She’s getting desperate. Deaths come faster, despite their best efforts. There are only so many organs they can survive without.

Joe hasn’t heard anything about the others, but the two beds to their right show that Merrick is, at least, hopeful. They’ll come for them. They’ll escape. Nicky promised.

Everything changes after she takes Nicky’s heart. Kozak leaves with the still twitching muscle on a sterile tray. She doesn’t need to see him revive any more.

Nicky wakes up silently, even as his chest is healing over and his sternum cracks into place. His head moves slightly, side to side, trying to orientate himself. Nicky starts softly crying.

“I’m here, Nicolò,” Joe calls out softly in Ligurian.

Nicky’s head bends quickly around towards him, his eyes wide and wet. “Yusuf!”

“We’re in Merrick’s lab, 2020,” Joe recites again, as he has for all the rest of the deaths.

“Earth?” Nicky asks.”

How is that even a question?

“Yeah, London,” Joe says, after a thought, he tacks on, “England.”

“Yusuf… I don’t understand,” Nicky says.

“We’ve been here for a full day, maybe more,” Joe explains patiently, but even as he speaks, he realises something is wrong. “Andy, Booker and Nile are going to get us out.”

“No, that’s…” Nicky’s expression is complicated, and he’s looking to Joe for all the answers. “I was…”

Joe sits halfway up. “Nicolò, what’s wrong?”

“I was aging,” Nicky whispers. “I wasn’t supposed to wake up.”

Joe’s heart drops through to his gut. “You… you were dying?”

“I thought I had made it to the end,” Nicky says. “I thought… I thought there were no blanks left for me to fill, that I’d done it all.” He looks away, searching his memory. “I must have been wrong. Perhaps this is the end for me. Maybe this life, maybe the next.”

He’s speaking Italian, but it’s with an accent Joe can’t recognise, not with all his years of experience.

“I should be dead,” Nicky mutters.

“Nicolò,” Joe’s heart is breaking, he’s thrashing against his restraints and he can’t fucking touch Nicky. “Nicolò, don’t say that,” he begs. “Don’t say those things.”

“No, it’s okay,” Nicky says, his eyes shining, and he’s smiling at him, “I’m okay. I’m ready to die. It’s my time.”

A sob escapes Joe. “I can’t lose you,” he gasps.

Nicky’s face is full of compassion. “You won’t. Oh, Yusuf. What was it, 2020? You still have so... so much more to go.”

However old the version of Nicky was in the van, this one is immeasurably more ancient. Joe is crying now, but all Nicky can do is stare at him with an amazed smile.

“You are so beautiful,” Nicky says in awe.

Joe gasps a laugh through his hot tears.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” Joe vows. “I will make sure you’re safe and spend the next millenia giving you the world.”

“My heart,” Nicky says. “You have done all that and more.”

Joe uses his shoulder to wipe the tears from his face, as ineffectual as it is, and takes a moment to compose himself.

Nicky hasn’t looked away, like he can’t bear to part his eyes from Joe’s face.

“You were… you were really at the end?” Joe asks.

Nicky nods. “I thought I got lucky, living out the end at the end of my life. One small mercy, like a mirror to my life before immortality. Turns out I was just wrong.”

“I wish I could hold you, light of my life,” Joe says, tugging pointedly at his bindings.

“I wish it too.” Nicky angles his head against the bed and looks at Joe with an expression that is so unbelievably fond, Joe can hardly bear it.

There’s a few moments of quiet, then Nicky’s eyes turn misty again.

“Oh, I have missed this,” he says. “I have missed you.”

The words land in Joe’s ear like an off-key chord. Nicky’s head is still turned at an angle to stare at Joe, and he doesn’t seem like he’ll look away any time soon.

“Nicolò, tell me I didn’t leave you,” Joe speaks, his voice dark and heavy. “Tell me I didn’t leave you alone.”

Nicky’s face contorts. “You’re here, aren’t you? No, you didn’t leave me.” A sob escapes him. “I left you. Forgive me, my own, aghfir li arjuk hubiun.”

It’s impossible, and unthinkable. It cannot be true.

“What are you saying, Nicolò?”

“I should have followed you,” Nicolò confesses. “I should have followed you the moment you died in my arms and didn’t wake. Yotuv, I wanted to, but there was so much work to do. They needed me, Yotuv, they were so young, I had to teach them.”

Yotuv, it’s not a name Joe has ever heard before, but he hears the echoes of his own in it. Joe latches onto it, the only thing that he can rationalise and grasp from what Nicolò is saying.

“I could have,” Nicolò continues. “I could have passed right there with you. I checked. I wasn’t healing, I was aging. I could feel it, Yotuv. But you wouldn’t let me leave them.”

“Nicolò...” Joe groans.

“I gave myself twenty cycles without you, enough to pass on what I’ve learnt. I have missed you so much. So often I’ve dreamed of your face. I wanted to hear your voice, just one last time.” He looks away. “Maybe this was a kindness, a chance for me to see you again before I die.”

“I’m here,” Joe says, but he feels far away, like the world has shifted under his feet and thrown him far from his love.

He’s summoning the energy to say something more, when the doors to the laboratory open and Doctor Kozak returns.

“Stay silent, Nicolò,” Joe begs. “Endure and survive, we can speak again soon.”

Nicolò obeys, tilting his head back towards the ceiling.

Mercifully, Kozak doesn’t stay long, she doesn’t even begin a new round of testing. She receives a call and quickly exits the lab, leaving the two of them alone again.

“You know, I was thinking about Malta,” Nicolò says. “I would so love to go there again.”

“We will,” Joe promises.

Nicolò’s smile is tight-lipped. “Of course,” he says.

No! Joe wants to scream, I meant with you! I will take this aging Nicky at the end of his life, and give him nothing but joy until the end.

Nicky looks around the lab. “I’ve been here before,” he says slowly.

“Yes,” Joe confirms. “Many times.”

Nicolò hums. “By the end of it, we had figured out some of how my travelling worked. I tend to stay within chapters, or eras of my life. It has been so long since I was here at this point.”

“This can’t be true,” Joe says, shaking his head. “How can you be here if you lost your immortality?”

“Another thing we were able to learn,” Nicky says. “My mind and body are quite separate. My body was finished, I thought my mind was too. But I must be near the end now, I can feel it. Perhaps the next death will be my last.”

“No,” Joe groans.

“It will be okay, Yotuv. You told me, before you died, that I ended very well. You gave me your blessing to continue on.” Nicolò’s voice is lilting. “You had a good death. You’ll be proud to die it.”

“Were you…” Joe asks. “Were you okay?”

Nicolò smiles kindly at Joe. “I tell you how you die for the final time, and you’re not at all concerned about yourself, you only ask after me. You are the most incredible, caring man, that’s why I love you.”

Nicolò’s hand is straining towards Joe again as Doctor Kozak re-enters.

“Doctor, please,” Joe begs, as she moves quickly through the lab, “please let me go to him. You can keep me chained if you wish, but he needs me. Please, Doctor. Let me touch him.”

Kozak looks at him in sympathy and hesitates. “I’m sorry. I’d love to, but I just don’t have time right now. They’re bringing in the others.”

Joe’s blood runs cold. Nicolò sits up, his face so open.

“The others?” He asks.

Kozak just shakes her head and prepares the straps on the other two beds.

Not half an hour later, the doors of the laboratory burst open, and a string of guards marches in, holding between them, handcuffed and staggering-

“Sebastien!” Nicolò cries. “Andromache! I am so pleased to see you.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Booker asks.

“He is feeling his years,” Joe answers.

Nicolò’s eyes are tracking Andy closely, totally enamoured with her, as she is led to the bed and bound to it. Joe sees it too.

“Andy,” he says. “Your side.”

“She’s not healing,” Booker grunts. “I killed her.”

“It wasn’t you,” Nicky says, as Kozak pulls Andy’s shirt out of the way. Joe collapses to the bed at the sight of the blood still wet and seeping.

Mortal. Andy is mortal.

Joe can’t bear this day any more. He’s tired, he’s adrift, he wants out. For the first time in his long life, Joe wants to put a bullet to his head and wake up somewhere else.

Kozak is talking to the CEO, that man called Merrick who demanded answers to their immortality, and he’s making more demands again.

“All things die,” Nicolò says with the wisdom of the ages.

Merrick narrows his eyes. “What was that?”

“Everything has to die, Mister…?” Nicolò trails off, a question in his tone.

Merrick has spent years vainly trying to prove himself capable and make an impression. He is not a man who is accustomed to being forgotten. “Merrick. Stephen Merrick. We met just yesterday,” he grits out.

“As you say,” Nicolò replies, a sardonic eyebrow raised that never fails to make Joe laugh and fall in love again, except today, where it is painfully familiar yet distant all at once.

Nicolò turns and looks at Andy and Booker. “It is wonderful to see your faces,” he says, tenderly. “I so wanted to see you again.”

Booker looks stricken to the bone by those words.

“Mister Merrick,” Nicolò turns his face back to their captor. “Nothing that lives can live forever. If it is now Andromache’s time, if it is mine, nothing you can do will stop it. I have made peace with that. Have you?”

“Nicolò, don’t waste your time with him,” Joe murmurs.

Merrick glares at him. “We have plenty of time, I will take slices off you for years to get what I want.”

“You won’t get what you want. This is what time is, it is unyielding, and you cannot fight against it,” Nicolò says harshly. He can be endlessly kind or ruthless. His passion and ferocity that are so dear to Joe’s heart have been honed to a fine blade, and Nicolò wields that blade with fury. “Nothing you build here will stand. But we will. You are nothing but a speck, insignificant, forgotten.”

“Shut up,” Merrick demands.

Nicolò barrels on, shining bright as the sun. “We will never be forgotten. My people will still be living and breathing and fighting, long after your name has been scrubbed from the history of earth. I have already seen to it.”

“I said,” Merrick screams, grabbing a knife from Kozak’s tray, “SHUT UP!”

“NO!” Joe roars.

Merrick brings the knife down into Nicolò’s neck, chest, eye, again, again, again. Joe is screaming, he throws himself so hard against his bindings that the bed tilts and slams him sideways against the floor.

Blood is flowing down from Nicolò’s bed, dripping into puddles on the floor, where Joe’s arm is outstretched. His fingers smear through the thick red, and the blood is still warm.

There is so much noise above him, voices raised, Andy and Booker shouting, guns being loaded, boots squeaking against the floor.

But the only thing Joe can hear is the heart monitor’s steady drone of flatline.

Chapter Text

Nicky had left the pebbly shores of Brighton with Andromache’s axe in his throat. Still gasping, still confused, he’d woken up in the freezing cold snow.

“Come on, Nicholas, get up, get up,” he hears Yusuf saying, hands gripping his arm.

Nicky obeys, being pulled to his feet. Heavy boots, thick socks, but still his toes are freezing. He stumbles alongside Yusuf, letting him set the pace and direction as they go. Nicky feels not unlike a maiden dancing at court, feeling her way through the steps led by another. There’s the noise of fighting around them and a strange sort of whistling that ends with a tree behind them exploding into shards and splinters.

Together they take refuge in a ditch, sheltered briefly from the sounds of battle.

“Did you get a good look at any of the men?” Yusuf asks.

Nicky looks about himself, taking in the frost covered trees and dead bodies leaking red into muddy white snow.

“Yusuf…?” Nicky trails off, not sure how to even begin.

Yusuf looks at him, brown eyes barely visible under a brimmed cap and the biggest beard Nicky’s ever seen him grow.

“Ah, fuck,” Yusuf says, his voice a growl. “You died, didn’t you?”

Nicky nods. “My head, I think…” he trails off, touching the side of his head and finds he’s wearing a matching cap with tacky blood plastered to the side. A bullet wound?

“We’re in Western Russia. There’s another one of us, an immortal we’re trying to find,” Yusuf says.

If there’s bullets, there’s guns, and if there’s guns, it might be the twenty first century. “A black woman?” Nicky asks.

Yusuf looks at him strangely. “No, a man. French, we’re pretty sure. It’s 1812, le Grande Armée is invading.”

Heavy artillery fire goes over their heads, and Yusuf covers Nicky with his body. He pulls back after the barrage but Nicky grabs at the thick wool of his coat.

“Where are…?” Nicky can’t bring himself to utter their names.

A huge explosion rocks the ground.

“That’ll be Andrea,” Yusuf says with a grin.

“And... and Quynh…?”

Yusuf’s face crumples. “We lost her. Almost three hundred years ago now.”

“No, I was just there. She can’t still be lost. She can’t be. That’s too long.”

In the distance, Andromache calls their names.

“We’ve got to go,” Yusuf says. “Can you run?”

Nicky nods, and they stumble through the snow together.

 


 

They find Andromache holed up in the ruins of a keep. She’s huddled against a wall, loading and reloading her musket and firing it through the tattered window. When she sees them enter, she immediately presses the gun into Nicky’s hands.

“Cover me,” she orders.

“Andrea,” Yusuf says. “Nicholas died on the hill.”

She looks disappointed and irritated for a brief moment, then schools her face to calm. “How are you?” She asks.

Nicky can’t believe her. He searches her face for any sign of remorse or guilt.

“You killed me,” he says firmly.

“Oh.” Andromache tilts her head to the side. “Which time?”

“Which time?!” Nicky explodes. “The time I could have saved her, but I didn’t.”

Andromache doesn’t need any more details than that. She gets to her feet and stands across from him. There’s a line in her shoulders that shows she’s ready for anything. Her expression is ice, where previously it was fiery rage.

“Where is she?” Nicky demands.

“We don’t know,” she answers.

“How can we not know?” The sheer number of years isn’t graspable for Nicky, he can’t think his way around it. “We have to find her. We have to do something!”

“We have already done everything,” Yusuf says and he sounds so very tired.

Nicky’s gaze flicks between the two of them. His heart is racing in his chest, but they are staring at him, passive and apathetic.

He fumbles with the long musket Andromache had passed him and presses the barrel under his chin.

“I’ll do it,” he says. Yusuf starts for him, goes to pull the gun away, but Nicky wheels back, his eyes wild, a plan forming in his mind. “I can do something. I’ll keep dying until I’m far enough into the future that I can use something, then I’ll come back here and-”

“You never did anything!” Andromache yells. “You just sat there! You watched and apologised and let me destroy you but you never did anything! Almost every version of you I’ve ever met knew what was coming and you did nothing!”

“That’s not the whole truth, Andromache,” Yusuf says, quiet in his tone, but, as always, his voice carries weight.

Nicky’s hands are trembling on the weapon. “Why would I do that? Why wouldn’t I…”

“You tell me, Nico.” Andromache stalks forward, her voice a blade of steel. “You go and live your lives and come right back here and tell me.”

With that, she grasps the butt of the gun. Before she can pull the trigger, Yusuf grabs the barrel and pulls it towards his own face.

The blast is deafening in Nicky’s ears, and gunpowder burns his neck and cheek. The bullet bypasses his head and rips through Yusuf’s head. The back of his head explodes outwards, the point blank range decimates the back of his skull.

Nicky is splattered in brains and bone fragments, then the body beside him falls backwards and thuds to the ground.

“Yusuf!” He gasps.

His hands are trembling as they trace the air above Yusuf’s shattered, unrecognisable face. His cap has been blown off, and his wild curls are matted with thick black blood.

Andromache stands stock still, frozen in place as she watches the body.

Bone and skin begin to reform, and she hisses a shuddering breath. She stalks over to the window and releases a primal scream.

By the time Yusuf’s face has mostly returned, she’s slumped against the wall again.

“I’m sorry,” she mutters, scrubbing her face. “The both of you. I’m so fucking sorry.”

Yusuf groans, his hand coming up to grasp at Nicky’s wrist even before his eyes have fully formed.

“I’m sorry,” Andromache says again.

Gone is the great warrior that Nicky willingly followed into battle. She’s an empty husk, shattered against an unforgiving tide.

Nicky can hardly breathe as the man in front of him pieces himself together. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he whispers.

Yusuf’s lips twitch in a half-smile. “It’s my job.”

The musket is discarded, the time it takes to reload with its ramrod makes it useless and breaks the tension of the room.

“What’s done is done,” Yusuf says, his voice croaky and his throat tender. “We move forward. We don’t let it break us.”

Yusuf is tired after his resurrection, they stay the night in the keep. On Nicky’s nightwatch, he whispers over their sleeping forms.

“What sort of a man knows what is coming and does nothing? For God’s sake, Yusuf, who do I become, that I would stand by and let that happen? What the fuck is wrong with me?”

He gets no answer from them.

 


 

Russia during the winter of 1812 is a shitshow. The muskets Yusuf hands him are slow and faulty, and the pistols are not much better. At least they have their swords, Nicky takes comfort in the heavy familiarity of it in his hands. They fight for two days straight, tracing their way across the front line regiment. Andrea and Osip, as their names are in this land, sleep in brief shifts to catch more clues as to the whereabouts of the mystery man.

Early on, Nicky gives them the name ‘Booker’, but he’s not sure if it’s the man’s Christian name or a nickname, and the fact about him being reborn naked and toothless in the snow is not particularly identifying either.

There’s an urgency to their work, and Nicky finds the constant moving and searching to be a good distraction from the weight in his soul.

The last few years for Nicky, working alongside Quynh, his burgeoning friendship with Yusuf, they turn bitter in his mouth. He thinks back to the lazy years learning to cook in Marrakesh in 1511. At the same time, Quynh and Andromache were being hanged and burnt and shackled. He has had opportunities to leave notes for himself before, why did he not stop it? The thought irritates his mind like a fly buzzing around a corpse. What was the point of his traveling through time if he couldn’t save one of the only people he had ever loved from a watery grave?

Quynh’s own words come back to him, what she told him on the battlefield.

The consequences aren’t up to us, she had told him. We have a responsibility to do what is right.

Did she know, then? Had he warned her of the future tragedy? There was no way to know, now, only to live it.

He keeps his distance from Andromache, remembering too clearly the way her teeth bared and her axe swung. He also distances himself from Yusuf, the guilt he feels for the wasted years the women suffered has tainted the slowly growing friendship between them.

It bubbles up over him one evening. Nicky can’t stand it anymore and has to demand answers from Andromache.

“I need to know,” he says in the cold night. His sharp tone gives him the reaction he’s after. They both stop their fiddling with the campfire and look at him with guarded expressions.

“Why did we stop looking for Quynh?” He asks, voice trembling. He’s chosen a time where the weapons are out of arm’s reach, he has no desire to repeat the events of the keep.

“That is an old wound, Nicholas,” Andromache warns. “Do not prick at it, or it will open.”

“It’s not old for me,” he shoots back.

“Whatever happened to Quynh, it doesn’t matter now. There’s a new one to find.” Andromache clenches her jaw, her clear eyes lit by the campfire. “We move forward, we don’t look back.”

“How can you say that?” Nicky whispers. “How can you say that, knowing what I am?”

“And what are you, Nicolò?”

The challenge lands its stinging blow and goes unanswered. How could it be answered? He is an outcast among freaks.

Whatever respect he had for Andromache drains, then a great swell of pity quickly takes its place. A hurting woman, a general leading a fractured army, a widow, in one sense of the word.

Yusuf looks torn between the two of them, so Nicky makes the choice for him. He takes his bedroll and sleeps on the far side of the fire, away from them, lets them huddle for warmth and shivers through the night.

He wonders how quickly it was after Quynh’s capture and imprisonment that Yusuf fell into bed with Andromache. Was it within a year? A century?

Perhaps they were in denial themselves, thinking that it would be a temporary relief of the ache of loneliness, that it will only last until they pull Quynh from the ocean again. But Nicky has been to the twenty-first century. He knows they still have each other two hundred years from now, and Quynh will not be with them.

At first he had assumed it was mere coincidence that Quynh wasn’t there when they were in Paraguay. But now he has pieced together the horrible truth. Would she ever forgive them?

He wakes up to a dull ache in all his extremities. On the frozen earth beside him he finds something long, round and black, a sausage perhaps?

He rolls it over and sees a fingernail.

“Aw, fuck. Gross.” He goes to push it away but finds his own hand hurts to flex.

“I said you would catch your death on the other side of the fire,” Yusuf says. He’s standing up already, face inscrutable under the beard and hat tugged low over his eyes.

“Yet here I still am,” Nicky quips. The matching finger on his own hand is pinked and fresh. “A finger is nothing compared to what I have lost.”

“And I take it you’ve never been to Malta,” Yusuf says.

“Again, again you ask me about that place,” Nicky grumbles as he gets to his frozen feet. “You know what, Yusuf? I am resolved never to go to that cursed island, so that you are forced to keep asking me about it for eternity.”

The jibe doesn’t land, and they stand across from each other.

“Why do you keep questioning me about Malta?” Nicky asks. “You do it almost every time.”

“Only the times I’m not sure.” Yusuf rests his hand on the pommel of his sword. “It became too complicated to track your life in years, we changed to milestones.”

“Then what happened in Malta?” Nicky asks.

Yusuf looks away at the snow covered mountains. He shrugs. “You will only know that if you break your resolution and decide to join me there one day.”

Nicky stamps his feet to bring circulation back into his toes. He looks down at the huddled form of Andromache still sleeping and buried in her coat. There is something still he has to know, but doesn’t dare ask the woman herself. It might be his only chance.

“Why did we give up looking for her?” Nicky asks.

Yusuf sighs as though he’s been expecting this question. “We never gave up. But the constant searching, it couldn’t continue. We had to outsource our efforts. Andromache was… it was killing her.”

“So you stepped in to play the hero,” Nicky sneers.

Yusuf looks down his scrunched up nose at Nicky. “What are you talking about?” He asks, clearly irritated.

“How could you?” Nicky accuses instead of answering. “Quynh was our friend, Joseph.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Yusuf hisses back. “I’m the one who stood by her, the only one she could rely on. You got the brunt of her wrath, I’m sorry for that, but I suffered with her too.”

“And nothing brings people together quite like pain,” Nicky mutters darkly.

At that, the bundle between them sits up, and Andromache throws her long braid under her hood. “Are we done with this little pity party?” She asks dryly.

Caught. Nicky swallows the lump in his throat. Andromache gets up, and looks between them. She reminds Nicky eerily of the stern old Prioress at the nunnery he used to pay the family taxes to as a boy.

“Yusuf, you’re better than this. Act like it. And Nicolas,” she turns to him, “I loved Quynh more dearly than you can even imagine. I miss her every day. Do not mistake my pragmatics for callousness.”

“But we are months away from the coastline,” Nicky protests.

“This new immortal is more important than a fruitless three hundred year old search,” Andromache says. “We have to find him, because he’ll be dreaming about us. And if he’s dreaming about us, he’s dreaming about her. After all these years, she could be dead for all we know. And we won’t know, not until we find him. Understand?”

“Yes, General,” Yusuf says, and Nicky parrots him.

Andromache nods sharply, then her face is full of sympathy. “I’m sorry for killing you like I did. I was angry at you, at everything, but that’s no excuse. Forgive me?”

“Of course.”

It won’t be that easy, and Andromache’s expression shows she knows it.

“I will find her,” Andromache promises. “One way or another.”

Either you fail for another two hundred years or you find her and you don’t keep her. Nicky’s traitorous mind whispers. He can’t decide which one is worse.

 


 

After a whole day of trudging through the mud and mountains, they come across a ruined scene.

Entire towns, all lit aflame, farms and houses on the outskirts, already reduced to charcoal. Animals, slaughtered and left to rot, crops destroyed.

“What the hell is this?” Nicky says. “The French haven’t made it this far. Marauders?”

“No,” Andromache says. “The Russians did this to themselves. They’ve evacuated everyone, withdrawn to the mountains. Scorched the earth. They’ll let the French starve themselves out.”

It’s unfathomable.

“But the families that left… they’ll have no homes to return to.”

Andromache pushes past him. “They wouldn’t be the first.”

Her words hang heavy on Nicky’s mind. How many years has it been since he thought about his own family, his homeland? Yusuf had talked about moving on from counting out years, but he’s never done that in the first place.

He must be… fuck, he must be over fifty, maybe closer to sixty years old now. The same age his priest was when he was first inducted into the monastery. Nicky thought he looked so ancient at the time, but Nicky has never felt younger or more adrift.

As they march through burnt out houses, he summons the courage to ask.

“What happened to my family?”

Andromache doesn’t have an answer for him. “You never talked about them much,” she says. “Not to me, anyway.”

She looks across at Yusuf, then moves up ahead until the two men are walking side by side.

“Your family-” Yusuf starts, clearing his throat. “They received word of your death, your first one. Father Giovanni di Cogorno had a memorial stone placed for you in the church cemetery, but I don’t think it’s survived til now.”

“And I never got to see them again?” Nicky asks. He’s not shocked by the brief summary, not expecting to make ripples in either life or death. He was never the favoured child, too peculiar, prone to bouts of illness as a babe and preferring quiet solitude to fighting for a rank among his brothers.

“Well, I don’t know that,” Yusuf says. “You don’t quite tell me everything, and there are times you go off on your own.” He reaches out a hand to help drag Nicky up a particularly steep incline, then continues.

“Your sister, Emilia, was grief stricken by the news. She loved you dearly, you know. She went to the Abbey, and became Prioress in her later years. We uh…” Yusuf looks away, hiding a smile. “We read through the Bishop’s registers. The nuns had complaints against her, they always do, but her business skills were remarkable. The only things they could criticize was that she had rather too many little dogs and would leave the convent far too often for social reasons.”

Nicky can’t help his smile. “It sounds like she had a good life.”

Yusuf nods, then goes on to list all of Nicky’s five brothers, and all their wives, even the ones married long after Nicky left for the Crusade. He lists their children too, even the ones that died young. His parents died old, Nicky is happy to hear, comfortable in their station. The fact that Yusuf knows the names of all Nicky’s extensive family is not lost on him.

“It’s been 700 years,” Nicky notes. “You still remember all that?”

“Of course I do,” Yusuf says, like it was as plain as the snow at their feet. “They were your family.”

“And now?” Nicky asks dryly.

“What remains of your family continued on, merchanting will never really be unprofitable in Genova, of course,” Yusuf says. “Your second nephew by your third brother did particularly well in the trade, his descendant was the most recent Doge of Genova, until just a few years ago, when Napoleon took control.”

It wasn’t exactly the question Nicky was asking, but the answer amuses him all the same.

“I meant,” Nicky begins, “what home do I have now? Every place I’ve gone to with my deaths have been different, do I not have a place to settle? A building to call home?”

Yusuf, uncharacteristically, hesitates before answering. “I had rather hoped you would be making a family among us.”

“And what a home that is,” he scoffs, kicking at a frozen cow patty. “My only friend in the world is a woman you won’t meet for at least two hundred years, someone I was beginning to hold close is drowning as we speak, there’s a man out there I still haven’t met, and you and Andromache… well, I still don’t know what to make of you two.”

Yusuf hangs his head, his expression unreadable. “A fractured family, perhaps,” he allows.

They trudge for another few hours through the mud and snow, Nicky deep in thought. He finds Yusuf to be easy company while he thinks, the steady movement of the man next to him a comfort in his peripheral vision.

“I think I want to have a time of mourning for her,” Nicky says finally. “I only knew her for a decade or so, but the grief for me is fresh, and I will carry it even through the centuries I will see her again.”

Yusuf’s face is stricken, but he agrees.

“We won’t have a funeral, you understand,” Yusuf says. “She’s still clinging to that hope.”

“But we can tell stories,” Nicky says.

There is nothing for them to find among the burnt out ruins of the farms they pass through. Not a scrap of food remains, even the wells have been sullied. It will be another night of cramping stomachs keeping them awake. They poke through a homestead, the building still radiating warmth from the fire. By the back fence, Yusuf finds a patch of overturned earth, and giving into a whim, he digs it up. Buried in the dirt he finds a small crate with ten or so bottles of vodka.

“Too heavy to carry, too precious to destroy,” he laughs.

Tearing a page from his journal, he scrawls a message in Cyrillic thanking the family and throws in far more coins than the bottle is worth, before reburying the crate, one bottle lighter.

They make a fire together, and Yusuf passes around tins of vodka, and they tell stories of Quynh.

“I do not wish to hear stories I will one day live,” Nicky says, haltling. “Tell me what it was like, before Yusuf and I joined you.”

And so Andromache talks. She tells them of the thousands of years they had together, alone at first, then with Lykon when he joined them. Nicky hears about Lykon’s quick wit and strategic mind, how Quynh wouldn’t cede an inch of victory, neither in the battlefield, nor in the bedroom.

They drink vodka together, and toast to a life well lived and the hope of the future with her.

 


 

The next morning, Yusuf and Andromache sit bolt upright as they wake up, and swear.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Nicky demands.

“We fucked up, or he fucked up. Either way, we’re fucked,” Andromache says.

“He got himself hanged,” Yusuf explains.

“Desertion, I think,” Andromache adds.

“The man can’t die, Andrea,” Yusuf shoots back. “What’s he supposed to do, throw himself at the Russian winter again and again like the rest of them? We are all deserters.”

Yusuf brings up a hand to rub at his throat, rubbing at the place where the rope cut into the other man’s windpipe.

“If he’s smart, and I hope to God he is,” Andromache says, “he’ll play dead until the troops move on, then he’ll get himself down and go home.”

“Which means,” Nicky says, putting the pieces together, “that the only way to get to him now is straight through le Grande Armée?”

It’s a suicide mission, and a year into it, Nicky dies again.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Nicky can taste salt in the air, the smell of fish and gunpowder. He’s propped up on something, a set of stairs maybe. There’s voices around him, and Joe’s words come back to him, from long ago in Paraguay.

If you go down with eyes on you, you stay down.

He slits his eyes open, just enough to see through his eyelashes. He sees a ship, a decent sized boat bustling with screaming people. He’s within line of sight for too many, and his shirt front is saturated with blood. If he got up now, he would be seen and suspected.

Warm hands clasp his, a familiar scent of blood and sandalwood (a little luxury, Yusuf had said, spending a small fortune on the scent in 1511. Nicky had thrown his head back and laughed).

“Nico,” Yusuf says, voice hushed.

Nicky squeezes his hand three times. I’m here, and Yusuf releases a breath. He bends their heads together.

“Is it safe?” Nicky asks, his voice a murmur as he tries not to move his lips.

“No,” Yusuf answers. “Stay here.”

He pulls a broad brimmed hat off his head and places it over Nicky’s face, so he can grimace as the grapeshot is forced from his belly and chest in pieces. “Anne!” Yusuf calls, then he’s gone.

Nicky lets himself be charged over by people yelling in every language under the sun. His foot is crushed under a boot, but he stifles his cry. He can feel the ship rocking underneath him, and loud explosions of cannons.

Slowly, the noise lessens to quiet, until he can hear a voice talking about gathering the dead. Boots thud across the main deck, with soft dragging sounds, people talking quietly and not always in languages Nicky recognises.

A linen cloth is thrown over him, then his arms are being pulled until he’s hoisted off the ground and being carried like a babe in arms.

Sandalwood, again.

Yusuf, his lips brushing just the edge of Nicky’s ear as his head lolls against his shoulder. “Malta?” He asks, just the one word.

Nicky wordlessly shakes his head, and the lips are gone.

Instead of taking him to the makeshift morgue, Yusuf walks down a steep ladder into the hold, lit by a single oil lamp.

“Here you go,” Yusuf says, depositing him on a low bench. Nicky scrambles as he’s being dropped, and finds his arms and legs ache from being in the one position for so long. He rubs his eyes and takes in his surroundings.

For the first time that Nicky’s known him, Yusuf’s hair has been shaved short, with a short dark beard across his jaw. He’s somehow forced a gold loop through his earlobe and made it heal over to stay there. He’s barefoot, wearing loose pants that cinch tight below the knee and a brilliant red silk sash tied about his waist with two of each of knives and guns tucked into it. The shirt he wears cuts low down his chest and is stained brown, but his doublet coat is long and beautiful, finely made and decorated with shining buttons.

The effect is altogether both intimidating and attractive.

Andromache is wearing breeches and heavy boots, her long hair flowing under a knit cap. A belt is slung across her chest over a billowing shirt, with even more weapons hanging from it.

“Well, that was a bust,” she says. “Back to square one.”

Nicky looks around and smells fish and rum.

“So we’re pirates now?” He asks.

Yusuf grins and shrugs, then settles his hands on his hips, which does a lot for his dashing silhouette.

They smuggle Nicky off the ship by stuffing him inside a barrel, and end the day at a rowdy pub where they won’t be recognised, drowning their sorrows.

The year is 1581 and they are in Barbados, a small island off the coast of the New World. They’ve been crossing the Atlantic back and forth, keeping their ears open for any news of trawlers finding anything interesting, of the newly burgeoning fields of scientific research. The search for Quynh, it seems, hasn’t yet reached the point of feeling endless and awful. Nicky keeps his mouth shut.

The benefit of these new shipping routes is, of course, trade.

“Tomatoes!” Nicky cries at the market one day. “Fuck yes!” He puts a whole vine of them in his basket immediately. “I haven’t cooked with them before, but they make the most delicious stews and sauces.”

The merchant seems bemused at the Italian’s enthusiasm for the fruit, but is happy to sell them to him as much as he likes.

“Are my spices here?” Nicky asks Yusuf.

“Of course,” Yusuf answers. “We have quite the collection at the moment.”

And so Nicky cooks again. He practices what Kahula, their “little granddaughter”, taught him and experiments with what he has available. He cooks lots of fish as Andromache and Yusuf take the time to make new contacts and networks.

He gets good at deboning fish and develops a fondness for smaller knives because of it. Life moves quickly in these port cities on small islands, they move several times, trying to find the right crew, the right vessel to take them on board. They spend months at sea at a time, the boredom interspersed by good books they are able to find and read aloud to each other, and songs they pick up among different crews. At every port and people they meet, Andromache asks about strange noises from the deep, anchors that pull up bits of steel, listening for anything, any sign of hope.

Occasionally, pirates attack. More frequently, they are the pirates.

They take contracts on various pirate ships, bouncing between them so their secret isn’t discovered. More often than not the battle is won with just the black flag being raised, but when there is warfare, they let loose.

The flintlocks. The beautiful flintlocks. Yusuf is sporting a pair of them, gold inlaid and shinier than when he pulled them out of storage in Paraguay. They’re just as unreliable as the pistols in Russia, but the theatrics of holding a mini cannon are worth it.

Nile had teased them about it once. Her thick braids whipped in the wind as she practiced swapping between guns and swords. “You know, no one really uses both, right?” She’d teased.

But Nicky has now been to two different time periods over two hundred years apart, and they all swapped between them easily.

The bloodiest battles are fought over plunder that isn’t plunder at all. It’s people. These are the only fights that Andromache gives them permission to get up again and keep fighting, no matter who sees them.

“We understand the danger of a cage,” she says, as she pulls men, women, children from the hold.

On land, Andromache begins to fall apart. They find her at the bottom of her glass, yelling and drunk in brothels and taverns. They have to drag her back to their stuffy rooms, where she sobers up too quickly.

“The world’s going to shit,” she says. “We take out one slaver’s ship, and a dozen more will still be over the horizon.”

She looks completely lost.

“Nothing good will come of this New World,” she mutters.

That night, Nicky serves tomato soup with bread toasted by holding each piece on a stick over the fire until it becomes crispy.

It tastes like home.

“You should go to her,” Nicky says to Yusuf one evening.

Yusuf looks vaguely surprised at his words.

“She is grieving,” Nicky says, even as his gut twists onto a lump. “And you are constant.”

Nicky needs this to happen, he needs Yusuf and Andromache to fall into their role together. He needs to force the distance between himself and Yusuf. He’s getting attached.

Yusuf leaves him, and Nicky curls up into a ball for the night.

 


 

Years later, they sleep in swinging hammocks on rocky seas. Yusuf is sketching by the light of an oil lamp, charcoals smudging on thick paper in a leather book, and Nicky can’t sleep.

It’s been decades since Nicky has died. His sea legs are stronger than his land legs, and the melting pot of languages he’s surrounded by has quickly solidified his grasp of them all. Both Yusuf and himself have grown their hair out long in recent years, long enough that they tie it back with cords.

“Why is it always you?” Nicky asks.

The boat creaks around them and Yusuf hums a questioning noise from across the way.

“When I die and revive,” Nicky explains. “You’ve been there every time.”

“I am constant,” Yusuf says, easy as anything. The tip of his tongue pokes out the corner of his mouth.

“But why?” Nicky asks. “Why are you the one that’s always there, why not Anne?”

As if the words pierce through her dreams, the woman in question rolls over and releases a loud snore, and the men share a smile.

Yusuf folds his book closed, but keeps a finger in to mark the page, giving Nicky his full attention.

“We are bound together, Nico,” he says. “We have been, ever since we both died together in the Crusades.”

“You’re stuck with me,” Nicky says flippantly, trying to brush off the intensity of Yusuf’s gaze.

“No. I choose you,” Yusuf replies. “Every time, I choose you.”

“You mean that, wherever I go, you’ll always be there?”

“There can’t be a time we are separated,” Yusuf says. “I won’t allow it. Wherever you go, I am there with you. We were reborn together, surely we must die together.”

The next wave rocks the ship, and Nicky has to lie back down in his hammock to steady himself. He stays there, hidden from Yusuf’s view, and pretends to fall asleep.

 


 

Nicky turns a hundred years old on a merchant’s schooner within sight of his birthplace of Genova. Andromache declares him to be “such a baby!” and they celebrate so heartily the entire crew throw their hats into the sea and have to go on a raid to acquire new ones.

A few years later, in 1634, Nicky gets dismembered by a cannonball. They’re still looking for Quynh, still searching for any clue to save her. Nicky feels the ache of Quynh’s loss every day. This fractured family of his keeps on stumbling through, clinging to vain hope that Nicky knows is pointless.

He can see his arm thrown across the deck, the rip above his elbow, and a gap where his leg should meet his body. Blood has made the deck slippery already, thick and bright and coming out a lot faster than Nicky’s ever seen before. Yusuf is there immediately, pulling Nicky close before he has a chance to sink into the black. He’ll be here, for the next one, Nicky realises.

Wherever I am, you are.

 

 

 


 

 

 

A few more lives, a few brief years here and there, and Nicky wakes up in a fallen city.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Nicky wakes up with ringing in his ears. He’s disorientated, but that’s nothing new.

Rubble. Dust stinging his eyes.

Nicky is in a destroyed room, a hole in the wall opening to a view from a third story building in a war ravaged city. He can hear the sharp repetitive gunfire that means they are long past muzzleloaders and grapeshot.

Yusuf is there, sprawled on the floor and dead. Most of Yusuf.

“Oh, fuck. Damn it,” Nicky says, crawling over to him.

Yusuf’s legs are gone. Bloodied stumps are sticking out from under his tactical gear, and his face and chest are covered in burns.

“Wake up,” Nicky demands, crawling over to him. “Wake the fuck up, Yusuf.”

Something big happened here. An explosion that broke through the wall and killed them.

“Nicky?”

He hears a voice as though it’s speaking directly into his ear, but there is no one else in the room with him.

“Nicky, Joe, are you there?”

He jolts around, trying to place it. A woman’s voice, it sounds so familiar.

Joe gasps awake, his body arching off the ground. He reaches out for Nicky, his eyes frantic. Then he touches the bloody place his legs should be.

He groans, pinching his face shut as slowly, slowly, his legs begin to reform.

“Joe!” Nicky cries out. He cinches an arm around Joe’s shoulders and hauls him upwards to lean against the wall. “Your legs.”

“It hurts like a bitch,” Joe says. “I’ll be okay. What about you?”

Nicky’s skin is still stitching together, and his fingers are snapping back into place.

“I didn’t make it,” Nicky says.

Joe nods, his face pinched in pain.

“Nicky, Joe,” The voice warns in his ear again. “If you don’t check in, so help me God, I’m going to-”

Joe touches a small black disk on his neck then speaks. “We’re here, we’re healing. Just give us a minute, okay? I can’t walk, and Nicky’s got to reorientate.”

Nicky hears his voice double, and when he touches a finger to his ear, he finds a small device fitted inside, transmitting the voices directly to him. In his other hand he’s holding a folded up piece of paper.

“Stay put. We’ll come and get you out,” the voice replies.

Joe grits his teeth against the pain and gives Nicky the report. “It’s 2037, we’re in… well, the country hasn’t figured itself out yet, call it central Africa.”

Nicky is only half listening, pressing his hands hard onto the stumps to stem the bleeding. There’s so much blood, Joe’s face is ashen pale.

“Joe, tell me later, you’re hurt pretty bad.”

Joe grins. He’s wearing a brimmed cap, but backwards, and a tuft of curls pops out above his forehead.

“I’ll be okay,” he mumbles. “I’ll be okay.” And he leans his head back against the wall.

Another explosion lands nearby and rocks them, close enough to make the walls shudder. Nicky pauses to process what Joe said. 2037, a female voice being transmitted directly into his ear, a voice he couldn’t quite place. One he hasn’t heard for a long time.

“Nile!” He cries. “Joe, was that Nile?”

“On the radio?” Joe asks, gasping through a particularly rough regrowth. “Yeah. Nile’s here, down with everyone else on the street, we were providing cover-fire. The drones must have got lucky.”

“Nile’s here,” Nicky says, a soft smile on his face. He has so much to tell her.

Joe groans and reaches out a hand. He braces against Nicky, and his face twists into a grimace.

When the wave of pain finishes crashing, Joe grits out. “Andy’s laying the charges, Quynh is-”

“Quynh!” Nicky cries.

Joe looks startled at the exclamation, then a brilliant grin spreads over his face. “Yes, Nicky! Quynh! Quynh is here!”

There’s a sound like rushing wind in Nicky’s ears, the words Joe says are muffled.

“She got out, she found us. We have her back.”

It’s impossible. It’s incredible.

“Is she…? Is she okay?” Nicky can’t wrap his mind around it. Quynh! Here and with them, and Joe looks so delighted he gets to give Nicky the good news.

The search is over.

“She’s okay. More than okay,” Joe is crying, tears of happiness mixed with pain. “Want to speak to her?”

“I can do that?”

Joe presses a thumb to a disk on his neck, and his voice comes through the radio in Nicky’s ear again.

“Quynh,” he says, “I’ve got someone here who wants to talk to you... someone who didn’t think he’d get to see you again.”

Even though Joe is in excruciating pain and has only regrown his legs to the tops of his knees, he tenderly shows Nicky how to make the radio work.

“Press your thumb there to activate it,” he says, “it’ll pick up the conversation automatically.”

With trembling hands, Nicky does so.

“Quynh, are you…” His voice cracks. “Is it really you?”

A burst of static in his ear, and then-

“Sure is, hot stuff.”

Nicky gasps a sob and clamps a hand over his mouth.

“Where are you?”

“Down on the street below you.”

Nicky scrambles to where the hole has been blown into the wall and tries to look but sees nothing but debris and smoke.

“And you’re really… you’re really okay?”

He can almost hear the grin in her voice.

“I’ve never been better, dearest Nico. It’s good to talk to you.”

Nicky squeezes his eyes shut, but it does nothing to stop the hot tears from spilling over his cheeks. There’s noise beside him as Joe shuffles his weight across the floor.

“Why did you pull that out, before you died?” Joe wonders, holding the folded piece of paper Nicky had dropped. He passes it over to Nicky.

It’s a photo. He knows enough now to know what photographs are, and this one is even in brilliant colours. He studies it carefully.

It’s a photograph of all of them, dressed as finely as though for an appearance in a royal court. Nile is in a rich blue dress, her braids threaded through with gold and arranged artfully on her head. A man is pressing a kiss to her cheek, sandy hair flopping down to obscure his face. He can see himself and Joe, cutting fine silhouettes in their suits of burgundy and velvet blue, with matching black silk lapels.

In the centre, dressed resplendently, are Andy and Quynh. Andy’s face is lined and fearsome, and there are a few streaks of grey in her hair. She’s holding Quynh around the waist, tucked against her tightly, like she’s never letting go again.

“Is it worth it?” He asks, mostly to himself, but Quynh’s beautiful voice comes through the radio again.

“It’s worth it.”

There’s another barrage of gunfire down below. Nicky meets Joe’s shining eyes.

“I was so scared,” he says.

“Me too, Nico. We all were,” Quynh replies.

Whatever torment they go through, they end it together. They’re free and happy. It’s all worth it.

The guilt he’s been carrying, for half a century or more, the way he’s tormented himself for not doing enough...

“Would you change it?” Nicky asks impulsively.

Quynh, her mind always so quick, knows exactly what he means.

“And risk what I have now? Not one moment.”

A man’s voice comes onto the line, one he doesn’t recognise, it must be the elusive Booker.

“I’m not saying this just because I’m getting a bit misty,” he says, clearing his throat, and Joe stifles a laugh, “but if you could give us a little assistance that would be fantastic.”

Joe’s eyes go to the long black sniper rifle half buried in rubble, and Nicky pulls it free. Right. They’ve got work to do. It’s a beautiful weapon, and when Nicky sets it up through the gaping hole into their spot, a light up display gets projected in front of his face, showing people-shaped blobs of reds and oranges running through the smoke.

Joe shuffles forward, leaving smears of blood on the floor, but he has his whole knees now.

“Infrared,” he explains. “The heads up display shows the temperature of their bodies.”

He points out the blobs on the visual that are their people and which ones are enemies, and Nicky lays down cover-fire.

There’s so many of them now. It hardly seems possible. The little army of four on the ground, two from above, moves with fluid grace, attack-retreat-attack. The figure at the front moves with alarming speed and confidence, and when the smoke clears for a moment, he can see it’s Andy, and she looks happier than he’s ever seen her. She leaps over a burnt out car and settles into the cover it provides.

Andy touches the device on her own neck, and Nicky hears her voice over the radio.

“Alright, sound off for Nicky’s sake, would you change any of it?”

One by one, Nicky hears “no” in five different languages.

Nicky is openly crying now, his hands a little unsteady as he makes the shots from above. Joe leans close and wipes a tear from his cheek.

“You can relax,” Joe gently says, “you may live your life. What’s done is done, and we choose this. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Hope. Not vain hope, but certain. Nicky has seen it.

They really make it. There’s a home, a family, and it’s no longer fractured.

His family moves like artists across the battleground. Even as Joe’s legs are regrowing, he holds a spyglass to his eyes and spots for Nicky, giving clear instructions on when to fire, when to change target.

Even though they’re hidden behind the rubble, a bullet fired up from the street flies through Joe’s shoulder and he yells. It lodges in the wall behind him, and Joe grabs at the bloodied shoulder.

The bullet hole in the concrete blinks red.

“Fuck!” Nile yells. “They’ve made your position.”

“Hold your fire!” Andy orders.

But it’s too late. The flashing bullet is a homing beacon, and a tank fires straight at them.

The building explodes, and Nicky is thrown through a wall.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

He’s on his back on the floor, amongst dust and debris and the remnants of gas in the air. Joe is hovering over him, his face upside down and wincing, unable to look at whatever wound it was that killed him.

Instinctively, Nicky reaches for him and grasps the arms bracketing his head.

“Nicky,” Joe breathes.

“Ah, fuck,” Nicky groans. “My head.”

He half rolls over and puts his fingers to the back of his skull. He finds rough stubble, like his hair has just been shaven down, and his fingers squish against brain matter. He tongues the roof of his mouth and finds it raw and tender. Someone had forced a gun into his mouth and shot out the back of his head.

Joe buries his head in Nicky’s chest, releasing a long and shuddering breath. The open display of physical affection isn’t so unusual for them now, but the world-weary expression on Joe’s face when he pulls back is concerning.

“We can’t stop,” he says. “We have to keep pushing.”

“What’s going on?” Nicky says, thrown from one battle into another.

“Andy… she’s mortal.”

“Still?”

Joe looks at him peculiarly. “It just happened.”

Nicky scrambles to his feet and finds a gun by his side.

“Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Nile bursts through the doors of the laboratory, their saviour, and grunts as she catches bullets in her back, returning fire and slamming the door shut. Joe feels a wave of relief, then awful, all encompassing despair.

This day, this week, this life. It’s all been too much. He can’t possibly go on.

Nicky calls out to him, sweet, beautiful Nicky, one who sees him in pain and broken and who aches to fix it.

“I’m alright, Joe,” he keeps saying, as Nile releases their straps. “I’m okay.”

“Well I’m not!” Joe yells back. He collapses back against the bed, hands over his face.

Once released, Nicky goes to Joe, holds his hands and presses their heads together until they are breathing the same air.

“Every time,” Joe croaks. “All the short lives passed here, in between, I never understood. Well now I fucking do.”

“You gotta get up,” Andy orders. “You gotta keep moving.”

Joe is overwhelmed, he can’t think, can’t even understand the murmured words of Italian that Nicky is speaking, a language as natural to him as any other.

Amore mio, if we don’t go, we are trapped,” Nicky urges.

“I can’t, I can’t keep going.”

He has no strength left, all of it expended for Nicky, all lost in his own pain.

“Enough of this,” Nile says. She strides over to Kozak’s supplies and grabs a thick needle full of a clear substance. Without hesitation she jams it into Joe’s heart and pushes the plunger.

“Adrenaline,” Nile says, as every muscle in Joe’s body seizes up. “The hole in your heart will heal, and you’ll crash hard afterwards, but this will keep you going.”

After that, everything passes in flashes for Joe.

His boot on Kozak’s chest as he screams at her.

“You failed. He gave you a thousand chances from his kindness and you failed him.”

Then a smear of blood.

Moving as a team through the building, keeping both Nicky and Andy in central position to keep them covered.

Booker’s eyebrows pinched together.

Nicky finding the biggest guns and passing them over his shoulder to Joe.

Nicky catching a bullet for Andy, and Joe’s heart skipping a beat until he sees he doesn’t break his stride. He always keeps going.

Nile fitting in so beautifully into their dance.

There are no words that need to be spoken, they all understand the stakes, the strategy. Joe thinks of nothing but the steady beat of battle. He can’t afford to let his mind wander further afield.

Then, an explosion through a wall, killing him on the spot. He revives and sees Nicky, choking on air that suffocates, a Nicky that doesn’t even know when he is, fighting hard. He’s efficient, but he’s choking, as he grapples against the big man in a gas mask. Joe throws himself at the soldier, Keane, and rips off his mask, but he is still disoriented, and coming down from his adrenaline high, he’s struck back hard.

And then Nicky comes to save him, tackling Keane around the legs, but Keane draws a pistol and forces Nicky’s head and-

There’s an awful, loud gunshot, and Nicky’s mouth is slack, his eyes glassy, and blood is everywhere.

Joe scrambles over to Nicky, touching his face gently, unable to look at his dead eyes. It’s only a moment, then-

Nicky is reaching for him. That’s all Joe needs.

“Nicky,” he breathes.

Nicky inspects his own body, finding healing wounds, but Joe just collapses into him. He fists his hands on Nicky’s shirt, breathes him in, but the hesitant touch on Joe’s back gives him pause.

“We can’t stop, we have to keep pushing,” Joe can’t afford to fall apart now. There’s no time, no time for anything.

Nicky understands, he trusts Joe, takes his weapon, and they make their way to the bridge, where Andy is letting her rage out on a guard and slams him into the ground. Booker’s expression is still contrite as he approaches from the other side of the bridge, with-

“Nile!” Nicky cries. He rushes past Joe and wraps his arms around her, laughing. “I have so much to tell you.”

Nile looks more than a little freaked, stiff in Nicky’s hug, and bewildered.

“This is why we usually cover Nicky,” Booker says, the corner of his lips ticking up, when she looks at him desperately for help.

Nicky releases her. “What year is it?”

“2020,” she says, more than a little skeptical.

“Ah,” he says, stepping away. He assesses the man by Nile’s side.

“And you must be Booker,” Nicky says, holding his hand out, and clasps his forearm in the fashion of centuries ago. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” His smile is so open and happy, and Booker’s face is twisted.

And that’s it. That’s the end of the rope of Joe. He can’t cope with any more.

Joe is swaying on his feet as Andy drags the location of Merrick from the guard. They don’t have time for introductions, for explanations.

“Oslo, 67?” Joe asks.

“São Paulo, 34,” comes Andy’s answer.

“Boss…” Joe croaks. “I need this. Those bastards took everything. I need this kill.”

“I know,” Andy says, reloading her weapon. “That’s why we’re doing São Paulo.”

At the same time, Nile and Nicky ask what happened in São Paulo, and it would be cute if it wasn’t so devastating.

Booker is assigned to their arm of the attack, but Joe doesn’t have the energy to cast any vitriol his way as they take the stairs to the roof. Nicky is wowed by the tall buildings that stretch across the horizon.

“Are all cities like this?” He asks.

“Focus, Nicky,” Booker growls, as he ties the end of a rope around a stable anchor point.

Joe checks the ammunition in his rifle, before wrapping the rope tightly around his wrist. They’re all business. Another fucking Tuesday.

“I’ll make the breach,” Joe says. “Follow through the side entrance when you hear the signal.”

“What about me?” Nicky asks. He’s got two pistols pushed into his belt, and his shaven head makes his eyes and the line of his brow stand out even more than usual.

Joe pretends not to notice the way his hands are shaking. He knows Booker spots it.

“Go with Booker, he’s got you.” Joe levels a steady glare at the other man, to ensure he is understood. “He’s a fuck up, but he’s ours.”

Message received.

Joe braces his weapon against his hip and readys himself for the jump. He looks to Nicky and hopes for some words of comfort or of love from his everything, but Nicky’s expression is frozen in shocked confusion.

“Try not to kill yourself,” Nicky jokes weakly.

Joe gives him a nod. His own adrenaline is pumping now, as the toes of his boots go over the edge of the building. There’s nothing more to do but turn to Booker, say “get into position,” wait until they’re ready, and then jump.

It’s a perfect swing. The glass gives way to his bullets, and he shoots two soldiers before they can even react. He takes refuge behind some furniture as they return fire.

The glass is being forced from small cuts in his arms, and the wounds are closing. Good. He doesn’t trust anything he has usually stood firm on right now.

Andy and Nile explode the hallway door inwards, and the soldiers are surrounded.

The big one, Keane, comes for him, and Joe sweeps his legs to bring him to the ground.

“I’m after your boss,” Joe says, as the guns are kicked away and they get to their feet. “But I’m going to kill you too.”

Joe doesn’t consider himself a vengeful person. He seeks justice, and vendettas rarely make the world a better place.

But there is nothing merciful about the way he attacks Keane. The punches are solid, to his gut, the side of his head, aimed to kill. It’s retribution for every piece of nightmare Joe has experienced since Sudan.

Too quickly to be satisfying, Keane is swaying on his feet, dazed and confused, and Joe grabs him by the front of the vest.

“You people have no idea what you took from me. You shouldn’t have done that,” Joe says. And only because he has a more important target to chase, Joe kills him quickly. He flips Keane over his head and snaps his neck on the ground.

He gets to his feet with determination, leaving the body distorted without remorse.

“Where is he?” Joe demands.

“We’re clear,” Nile reports.

“Not here, either,” Booker calls out from another side of the penthouse.

“Booker,” Nicky asks, looking upwards, “what do these numbers mean?”

Booker follows his line of sight. “Shit,” he says. “Elevator! Merrick is getting away!”

Joe takes Keane’s rifle and is charging for the stairs before he even hears the others make a plan.

Between the two of them, Nicky has always been a better runner, and Joe only has fumes left. It isn’t long before Nicky is passing him on the stairwell, his weapon already drawn. Joe can’t stop staring at the smear of blood on the back of Nicky’s head, can’t stop thinking about the way his brains have painted this building.

They’re almost a dozen stories down, getting twisted and dizzy in the stairwell, before Joe huffs out, “I should have just jumped.”

“Don’t say these things,” Nicky admonishes.

Nicky doesn’t know why Joe is so urgent to see Merrick dead, and Joe’s not going to explain.

“We’ll get him, Joe,” Booker promises, boots thumping behind him. “He’s not getting away.”

There’s a god awful noise when they’re just two floors from the ground, and soon they burst onto the street. The twisted pile of metal there was once a car is at least easy to find.

“Nile!” Nicky chokes out, going to her quickly. Joe is still scanning the empty street, when Nicky fists a handful of his shirt. “This isn’t her first death, is it? She’s healed before?”

“She’s okay,” Booker reports. He’s leaning against the crumpled car, relieved to hear bones cracking back into place.

Nile groans and bends as she heals, staring at her own mangled hand taking shape.

“Merrick?” Joe demands, then he sees him.

The tiny form of the man that terrorised them looks even smaller in the ruins of the car. He’s already dead, Andy’s axe buried in his neck, his limbs disjointed.

Joe didn’t get to lay the final blow.

“You motherfucker,” he says, pulling a pistol from Nicky’s belt and placing it against Merrick’s glassy eye. “You insignificant worm. You don’t get to write the end of our story.”

Joe releases three bullets from the chamber, and Merrick’s face becomes a pulpy mess. He doesn’t have his blades, and Nile has already taken the labrys. There’s nothing more to be done to disgrace the body.

The show of violence over, Booker reaches out a hand and pulls Nile from the car.

“It’s okay, Nile,” Nicky says. “You’re going to be okay.”

She slings her arms over the two men’s shoulders, being helped to her feet. Their saviour.

Joe’s righteous fury has gone cold and stagnant in his gut, and he’s consumed in it until he’s drawn from his own head by a light touch on his arm.

It’s Nicky, looking at him with his kind eyes. “Are you alright, Joe? It’s time to go.”

Joe nods sharply and gets into the intact car with the others. He’s tucked into the back seat, Nicky pressed against his side, and without thinking or planning, he grabs his hand and squeezes it tightly.

 


 

Their London safehouse is an old building with narrow stairs up to the fourth floor for their apartment. Booker is full of shame, and the least damaged among them, so he gets to work bringing tubs of warm water out of the tiny bathroom not big enough for any more than one. They strip their bloodied clothes and use them as rags to mop the worst of the gore from their bodies, leaving the hot shower for Andy.

“I’ll get us some clothes, medical supplies,” Booker murmurs.

“No,” Joe says, steel in his voice. “You’re not stepping out that door alone.”

Booker spreads his arms helplessly.

“What do you think I’m gonna do, Joe?” He asks.

“I don’t know,” Joe says, honest in his assessment. “I don’t know any more.”

Booker looks as though he’s been struck, he swallows and nods, accepting. Joe watches him suspiciously, as Booker walks through the apartment, putting out glasses of water for their parched throats and turning on the electricity for the fridge. His shoulders are held in a tight line, waiting for a knife to be thrown into his neck, for punishment to be meted out.

There has been far too much talk of mortality for Joe to think about raising his blade against his brother today.

“For God’s sake, Joe,” Booker says, slamming a cupboard door shut. “Andy needs help. You think I’m just going to leave her like this?”

“You were going to leave us,” Joe shoots back. “One way or another.”

“What are you all talking about?” Nicky asks, and Joe turns to him, already riling up.

“Enough!” Nile interrupts. “I’ve had enough of this shit. We’ve got to talk about it, that’s fine, but we’ll do it after we’ve slept and eaten. Book, we got any food here?”

“Nothing particularly palatable,” Booker  mutters.

“Then I’ll go with you,” Nile decides. “We’ll get what we need.”

“Nile, I don’t mean to sound rude,” Nicky says, pointing to the fact that she’s sitting in her bra, with her shirt and jacket in a sopping, pink stained pile, “but I don’t think you particularly look suitable for public, even in the twenty-first century.”

She sighs, but there’s a small smile to it. “Booker, give me your jacket.”

It’s far too big on her, falling to cover a good chunk of her bloodied jeans, and the sleeves flop over her hands.

“There,” she pronounces, buttoning it up over her bra. “Grunge is back in.”

Booker gives an appreciative nod that is just a little too over-acted to be insincere.

“We got cash?” She asks.

Booker waves a wad of folded pounds he’s found in the drawer.

“Alright, shopping spree,” Nile says. “Besides, someone’s got to make sure this team has a sense of style. And that someone is going to be me.”

They leave the apartment, and silence descends, nothing but the steady flow of water from Andy’s shower.

Joe collapses.

He doesn’t fucking care that he’s broken habit and hasn’t asked about Malta. Joe has never experienced hurt this strong, and Nicky reached for him, after Keane shoved a gun in his mouth, so that’s good enough for him.

He wraps his arms around Nicky, burying his head in the familiar scent of his neck, and leans his whole weight on him.

“It’s okay, Joe,” Nicky says, even though it very much isn’t. “It’ll all be okay.”

Nicky bears his weight well. He always has.

Nicky ushers Joe to the lounge, where they arrange themselves so that Joe is lying down, curled around Nicky with his head in the other’s lap. They’ve both stripped down to their underwear, and there’s warmth in all the places where their skin touches. Nicky’s hand is hesitant in his hair, and Joe is taken back nine hundred years, to the second time he woke with Nicolò by his side, his hands stroking confidently through his curls as he revived among the dead.

Nicky has been with him since the beginning, and when he was at the end of his life, Joe couldn’t even touch him. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

“Whatever’s wrong, Joseph Jones, we’ll fix it,” Nicky promises.

It can’t be fixed. Time is unyielding and robust. If those were Nicky’s last moments, there’s nothing Joe can do.

Joe gets stuck on that one word.

If.

His grip on Nicky’s waist tightens.

If.

It wasn’t a good death. ‘I ended very well’, those were the words used. Nicky said they came from Joe himself. There is no way Joe, at the end of his own long life, looking back at all they had accomplished would consider what he saw today “ending well”. Brutal, perhaps. Ferocious. But never “ending well”.

Joe vows never to use those words to describe the thoughtless massacre by Merrick, at Nicky putting an overblown ego in its place while strapped to a table and spitting eternal truths.

There must be more. It cannot be the end of a life lived in full by the most incredible man who ever lived.

He should trust himself.

A future version of himself, old and full of years and knowing the pain of today, he knew what was ahead for Nicky. At some point in the future, Joe gave Nicky his blessing to continue on and die without him. It must have been worth it.

It’s a small sliver of hope, a crack in the heavy grief he’s been carrying.

It’s enough.

He releases a shuddering sign and nestles somehow closer, pressing his nose into the soft fuzzy hair of Nicky’s belly. Nicky stifles a yelp and takes that as acknowledgment that Joe has stopped sobbing.

“I’ve never seen you this way,” Nicky murmurs.

Joe works his throat and finds it stuck. “It has been a very long day. The worst of my life.”

“And you have had a long life. Longer than mine,” Nicky says. “My own day was quite strange in itself.”

Young enough to still be counting, then, or at least have an idea easily comparable to a thousand years.

Nicky picks his next few words carefully. “Andy’s mortality must come as a shock.”

Joe just grunts in response.

“It’s strange,” Nicky muses. “Mortal is how I met her. The first time I saw her heal was the real shock to me.”

What a strange inversion the two of them are.

Joe should pull back, give the other man space or explain. He does none of these things. The world goes hazy and he’s lost in the familiar scent of unwashed Nicky.

 


 

Joe wakes up to soft voices murmuring above him and rolls over. He leaves his head on Nicky’s thighs and blinks at the ceiling. Andy is out of the shower, her hair drying, and blood still seeping through the bundle of Nicky’s shirt that’s pressed against her wound. She was stitched up in the lab, of course, but the stitches tore during the fight.

Joe’s damnable body has healed back to its usual state, his muscles no longer complaining of the strain they’ve endured. Unlike the rest of him.

“I’ve filled him in,” Andy says. “That Booker set us up in South Sudan, you got caught. Tortured for medical research.”

Joe sighs and sits up, breaking physical contact with Nicky and sitting back against the lounge. Nicky touches his shaved head.

“I have been there before, haven’t I? Early on, when they shaved my head.”

“Yes. Many times,” Joe answers, and the pained expressions they shoot him turn his stomach.

“That’s why you were so upset,” Nicky surmises. He’s incomplete in his belief, but Joe isn’t going to explain right now.

“I want to hate him,” Joe says.

“Okay,” Nicky replies.

“I do hate him. I’m furious at him.”

“Alright.”

“How could he do this to us?” Joe bursts out. A few hazy minutes of sleep has rejuvenated his anger. “Why has this happened?”

“Everything happens for a reason, Joe.”

Joe doesn’t have energy to navigate the difficult landscape of arguing with a version of his beloved who is only a few milestones into his life.

“But I still don’t understand,” Nicky continues. “Why? Why would he do this thing? We looked so hard for him in Russia.”

Joe shrugs, dejected. “He’s nothing but a traitor.”

“Really? Nothing?” Nicky asks. He looks between their faces, sullen and withdrawn. “Over a hundred years I’ve walked on this earth, I’ve never met anyone who could be dismissed so.”

“He blamed you, Nicky,” Andy says, trying to provoke a response that more closely matches their despair.

“He asked you to go back,” she continues, “murder him in 1810 before he got conscripted. He figured if you stopped him from dying in battle, he would be different from the rest of us. He wouldn’t come back.”

“And I didn’t,” Nicky finishes.

“Of course you didn’t,” Andy says. “And so he blamed you.”

Nicky turns those piercing eyes to Andy and asks in a steady voice.

“Like you did?”

Joe has been on the receiving end of that gaze. It’s unnerving and unpleasant, even to the formidable Andy. She shrugs, apathetic as she has been these last few years.

“You don’t do favours and requests,” she says, even as Joe has reminded her year on year not to push Nicky into a version of himself that he is not. “You never do things like that.”

Nicky hums. “Perhaps you have been asking for the wrong things.”

It’s a very philosophical conversation to be had by grown adults in their underwear.

“I’m going to shower,” Joe announces, leaving enough of a lingering tone in his voice that Nicky may take him up on the invitation, but he doesn’t.

With the way their bodies heal, there’s so often a disconnect between what the body remembers and the mind feels. There is no physical relief tied to the satisfaction of a job well done. In order to achieve a facsimile of it, Joe has a habit of wearing his emotions openly. He winces at phantom pain when he remembers wounds, long after they have healed. He gives himself permission to laugh, cry, sing and dance when the mood takes him. There is something important about his flesh, after all, for God to create them in this way.

There is no one to watch him as he cleans himself off in the shower, but he stumbles and leans against the wall anyway, even though his legs are as strong as they’ve ever been.

His mind keeps circling the possibility that Nicky’s final hours could be somewhere else, somewhere better than strapped to a table in a lab.

If.

He could be with Nicky somewhere more wonderful and deserving, he thinks, as the water circles the drain. It’s possible. He’s clinging to it.

In the middle of his shower, the door is cracked open and a bundle of clothes are thrown inside. Joe takes his cue to leave the shower for someone else and follows the smell of takeout.

Nile is crouched on the floor by Andy’s side, dealing with the biggest wound first, while Booker and Nicky dish out the Indian takeout.

“Ah! There you are,” Nicky greets him with a smile. He’s wearing a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. The silhouette is a familiar one and much preferred to the stark baldness underneath.

“Nile said I may use the shower next. I confess, it has been a long time since I’ve had that little luxury.”

It’s a kind thing, for him to try and make him laugh, but the smile Joe returns is forced.

“But first,” Nicky announces. “Food.”

Joe serves himself up something rich and aromatic, and, while the others are distracted, reaches out across the table to touch Nicky’s hand. The fingertips along the back of his knuckles startles the other man.

“I wanted to ask earlier, but…” Joe shrugs. “Have you been to Malta?”

Nicky gives him a soft smile. “Not this time. Not yet.”

“Ah,” Joe withdraws his hand, still smiling, but something has shifted under his expression. “Soon, perhaps. It’s a very beautiful place.”

“So I’ve been told.”

Booker barely eats, picking at his curry and keeping his eyes down. He’s only said a handful of words since returning, existing at the edges of their group, trying to slide off completely. Even Nile, the new addition, seems like she fits in better than Booker does right now. Mostly because Nicky is trying to fill the silence with comparing the Vindaloo to the flavours of central America during his relatively recent time of piracy, and Nile is asking questions.

Nicky, ever the carer among them, also nudges them along by putting a comb with a pointed end in Joseph’s hand and has Nile, with her bloodied braids, sit on the floor in front of him.

“Joseph is wonderful with hair,” Nicky promises, and the soothing repetition of undoing Nile’s bloodied braids is meditative and exactly what he needs.

 


 

There aren’t enough beds.

Whenever Nicky hasn’t yet reached that particular milestone, Joe willingly bunks on whatever part of their safehouse looks least uncomfortable. He hasn’t needed to do that for a while, but this time they’ve also added Nile to their number.

Joe corners Booker while Nicky is in the shower, and the Frenchman raises his hands in pre-emptive surrender, placating him even at the perception of threat.

“There aren’t enough beds,” Joe says, keeping his conversation short and to the point.

“Nile can have mine,” Booker murmurs. “I’ll take the lounge. That should even us out.”

Joe’s eyes narrow, and he gets distracted off topic.

“You’re not sleeping on the lounge out here by the door,” he says.

“I’m not a fucking flight risk, Joe,” Booker grits out.

“Oh, now you want me to trust you?” Joe says, crowding him in. Booker has an inch or more on Joe’s height, but he always rounds his shoulders, and Joe towers over him.

“Hey.” A single word from Andy has them stop and break apart. She’s leaning against the doorframe, her wound freshly dressed, Nile looking at them warily from behind her.

“He’s not that dumb,” Andy says, staring Booker down. “He knows we’d find him.”

“Even without the dreams?” Nile asks.

Andy turns, grinning slyly. “We are all very, very good at our jobs.”

Nile keeps her own smile contained. “Right.”

Andy looks between the three of them and instructs her team.

“Tonight we sleep, we go to the pub in the morning, and… and we’ll decide there,” she says.

Booker nods, his eyes averted as they have been all day, like he’s scared of being seen, being known.

“Hey,” Joe says quietly, once Andy and Nile have turned away. He’s keeping his body relaxed and open, leaning against the kitchen bench to prove he’s not on the edge of murdering him. “We’re still short a bed.”

Booker pauses, running the numbers again.

“Nicky’s not…” Joe clenches his jaw and forces it out. “Nicky’s not there yet.”

It takes a moment for Booker to understand.

“But you’ve always been together,” he says.

“Right, like he’s always known you?” Joe points out, and that shuts him up.

“Nicky won’t object to taking the floor,” Booker says, like he knows the man. Like he knows anything. “But, Joe…” he shakes his head, and his hair falls out of place. “You’re a mess. You need a good sleep, and you, uh, sleep best when you’re holding on to him. Hell, if you’re deciding on my fate tomorrow, I’ll have to insist on it.”

It’s the kind of self-deprecating humour that usually gets a laugh from Joe, and gets him to throw an arm over Booker’s shoulders. But there’s a buffer between them now, one that has never existed before.

“Nicky’s not there yet,” Joe repeats dumbly.

Booker has always had the most expressive eyes, and they pinch in sympathy. How long has it been since Joe has read unbridled happiness on those features? How long has it been since Booker felt any joy or contentment but endurance with the weight of grief on his shoulders?

At this point, Joe’s not sure he ever has.

He missed it. He was so caught up in his own life and it’s struggles that he hadn’t noticed how close his best friend was to breaking down.

“Just because he’s not your everything yet,” Booker says, his voice rough, “doesn’t mean he doesn’t care for you.”

Joe sways slightly on his feet, and Booker pats him on the shoulder.

“Just ask him, mon ami,” he says. “I think he’ll surprise you.”

 


 

When Nicky emerges from his shower, Nile takes it, her hair all unplaited and swinging in a large bag of hair care products. She calls out that they shouldn’t wait up, she’ll be in there for some time.

The way Nicky’s face brightens when Joe finds him is terribly unfair.

“Nicky,” Joe says, his hands clenching. “May I sleep in your bed tonight?”

“Oh, of course,” Nicky says. “You can have it, you need it more than I do.”

“No, it’s…” How can Joe be at a loss for words? He’s asking his own husband and partner in everything for this small shred of needed comfort. “Please. I don’t want to sleep alone.”

Nicky cocks his head. “But Andy is-”

“Andy has her own demons to fight tonight,” Joe says. His eyes meet those he has loved for centuries. “Please.”

Nicky holds his gaze. “Alright.”

 


 

Despite the familiar smell, the weight of Nicky in his arms, sleep is elusive for Joe. They’re pressed together, as they always are, smelling freshly clean, but Joe has to bend his head further down to avoid feeling the unusual sharp prickles of Nicky’s shaved head.

His mind is racing, flitting between Andy, Booker, Nile and Nicky, even Quynh, everyone he loves so dearly, tracing back and forth through their timelines, but unable to stay in one locus.

Nicky was stiff as he lay down on the bed and Joe pulled him into position. His breathing was artificially regular for almost an hour, before he drifted off into sleep. Unconsciously, his hand came up to wrap around Joe’s wrist, the pressure a comfort.

Joe still hasn’t been able to rest properly and he needs it, needs everything to fall away and just relax with the love of his life.

He starts with the first. His first. 1099, Nicolò cooked him fish in the middle of the battlefield. It was summer, outside Acre. Yusuf was part of the battalion under General Iftikhar al-Dawl. Nicolo winked as Yusuf murdered him.

Joe goes on from there, reciting every major incident of his immortal life, in order with location and year. He traces his path through the world and history, in his mind at first, then in quiet whispers into Nicky’s neck after he’s certain his love has fallen asleep.

A few hours later, Nicky stirs.

“What was that?” He says, his voice thick with sleep. “What was that you were saying?”

“Nothing,” Joe says, nuzzling the back of his neck and stopping just short of pressing a kiss there. “Go back to sleep.”

“I heard my name.”

Joe hesitates, then releases the tight grip he has on Nicky so he can get comfortable.

“My life is a long one,” he explains. “And yours criss-crosses along it. What is passed and forgotten for me, may be fresh for you.”

“Yes, this I know,” Nicky teases.

Joe smiles ruefully in the dark. “I don’t want to forget. I want to be prepared for you, your recent life, whatever it may be.”

Nicky is moving his head, Joe can feel it, turning to look at him even in the small sliver of light from the street coming in from between the curtains.

“After a few decades, I realised how close everything was to slipping away from me, so I practiced remembering. I kept adding to my recount, reciting our entire lives, as we walked along the roads of India and kept nightwatch in Constantinople,” Joe continues. “It used to be easier, when we travelled everywhere on foot or horseback, before we could just touch down in a new place,” Joe grunts as he readjusts himself. “Life moves so fast these days.”

“Those damned machines,” Nicky says, like he’s delivering the punchline of a joke without the set up. “Where were you up to?”

“Aleppo, 1850.”

There’s a long stretch of silence.

“That’s very kind of you, to think of me in this way,” Nicky murmurs. “It must be a lot of work, to do that for me. Thank you.”

“Of course.”

Joe readjusts his hold on Nicky, getting settled again and trying to sleep. The years after they found Booker turn to ash in his mouth as he thinks of them, so he breathes deeply and lets his body to compel his mind to sleep.

Just on the edge of consciousness, Nicky whispers something.

“You really care about me, don’t you?”

“Of course. I… you are…” Joe squeezes Nicky’s hand three times. “I don’t have words.”

Nicky huffs a laugh. “Really?”

“None you’re ready to hear.”

And that’s the last they speak of it, and they let the night take them.

 


 

Booker has always been a heavy sleeper. Even before his death and first revival, his wife Adèle would have to roll him out of bed in the morning to get him started on the day. But he’s had a fitful sleep and today he wakes up to Nicky swearing softly at a pot on the stove, fiddling with the dials.

“Ah, Booker,” Nicky says when he gets up off the lounge. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

The man is apologising to him, and Booker is already weary of the day. Booker just stares.

“This device is confounding me,” Nicky says, gesturing to the stove. “I have seen them used before, of course, but…” He shrugs, helpless.

“What are you doing?” Booker asks, as he turns on the stove and moves the pot onto the heating element.

“I thought I could make some tea, would you like some?”

“Why didn’t you use the kettle?” Booker asks, reaching over to flick it on.

“Ah,” Nicky says. “Another machine I have failed to understand.”

Booker smirks.

“To be fair,” Nicky continues, “the majority of the last century, I spent without electricity. You’re lucky I’m not building a campfire out of that broken chair.”

Despite everything, Booker’s laugh is small, but genuine.

“How do you like your tea?” Nicky asks, and Booker is again surprised he has to ask. Right. He’s young. Younger than Booker’s ever known him.

Booker and Joe are mates, and Andy is his leader and partner in everything, but Nicky… Nicky is the fulcrum around which the whole team swings.

They make tea together in silence, and Booker forgoes his usual habit of spiking it. He needs a clear head today.

“Oh, I wanted to thank you,” Nicky says, and the politeness and kindness is turning Booker’s stomach. “You bought me my sniper rifle.”

The connection doesn’t land for Booker.

“Yes?” He asks.

“Bitcoin,” Nicky says proudly. “Buy in 2011, sell in 2019, right? I need to remember correctly to get that beautiful weapon.”

A slow grin spreads over Booker’s face. “Right.”

When the tea is finished, they leave their mugs in the sink. The sun is just rising between the tall buildings, giving the city a hazy glow.

“Walk with me,” Nicky says, inclining his head at the door.

Booker releases a sigh. “If you’re going to kill me, Nicky, I’d rather you did it here.”

Nicky looks aghast.

“I’m not in the habit of killing my friends as soon as I meet them,” he says, then reconsiders. “Well, perhaps Yusuf, but I think that is different.”

Nicky looks over at him, his eyes as piercing as ever. “Out of all of them, I am the one that feels the least betrayal,” he says. “It would be good for us to talk.”

For a moment, Booker considers leaving a note, or swearing on the graves of his boys that he’s not running away, but decides he will just stay close to Nicky and let the chips fall where they may.

They’re walking down the street in the brisk early morning air, side by side. Booker has his hands stuffed in his pockets, and the weight of silence between them is crushing.

“So this is how we met, huh?” Booker says. “On the worst fucking day of my life.”

“I do not pretend to understand, or to know you, Booker,” Nicky says. “But I have no desire to judge a long lifetime by its worst day.”

“But you knew. Will know. Fuck,” Booker says, tracing over the last two hundred years he had called Nicky his friend. “Every time you looked at me, you knew that I’d do this, that I’d betray you.”

“Much like Christ and Judas, yes?” Nicky says with a wry smile.

“Why wouldn’t you stop me?” Booker demands. “Why let us go to South Sudan in the first place, if you knew what I was doing?”

Nicky stops in their walk and grips Booker’s arm.

“Would you change it?” He asks, his cadence strange, like he’s quoting someone.

“Yes!” Booker cries.

“Why?”

Booker rips his arm from Nicky’s hold.

“I could have killed her, Nicky!”

“But you didn’t,” Nicky says, so simply. “Who’s to say what would happen if I tried to change it? The things we could risk. Is that what you want?”

Booker recoils. He’s right, as he always is. He turns, keeping on trudging down the street, and Nicky follows closely behind him.

It doesn’t take long for the tears to start falling.

“I wish I never betrayed you,” Booker mutters around the lump in his throat.

Nicky slings an arm around his shoulders. “That emotion is important, I think.”

Once Booker stops openly weeping, Nicky begins to move away, but Booker links their arms together, unwilling to let go. They walk together, arm in arm until the sun has fully risen and the streets begin to fill.

“I have been learning about vaccinations,” Nicky says brightly, apropos of nothing.

A young woman gives them a concerned and alarmed expression.

“Oh?” Booker says with a grin, staring back at her as she passes by.

“Yes,” Nicky says. “A small amount of a disease, put into the body to prevent a worse infection from happening. It’s fascinating stuff.”

“Variolation was already a thing by my time, Nico,” Booker says, wryly.

“It is incredible that something painful and harmful can protect against something worse,” Nicky continues. He turns his head towards Booker. “So that a good thing may come from pain. Do you believe this?”

“If you’re asking if I believe the science…”

“No, no, Booker, that’s not it at all. Do you believe that something good can come from pain?”

“I have to believe that,” Booker whispers.

“So do I, I think,” Nicky says.

They walk for miles together through the city, Nicky staring, amazed at every sight they pass by.

“This is a very strange city,” he decides, and Booker coughs on his laugh.

Booker buys them egg and bacon buttys from a street vendor, and they take a seat on a park bench. A dog comes up to them, a wheezing bulldog that takes particular interest in Booker’s shoe. He gives the creature an affectionate pat before it’s called away.

“I never meant for everything to go wrong,” Booker mutters.

“We hardly ever do,” Nicky replies.

The words start tumbling out of Booker now.

“I made a mistake! The first one was so small, it was just… just picking up the phone when Copley called again, even though I knew we don’t do repeats.” Booker side-eyes Nicky. “You don’t even know who that is.”

Nicky shrugs, like his knowledge base is inconsequential. “He was important to you,” he guesses.

Booker nods. “We connected. I forgot what it was like, to feel grief as a mortal. Talking with him, it was the first time I could speak about my wife easily.”

Nicky gives him a gentle nudge. “What then?”

Booker sighs. “And then the mistakes just kept piling up.” He doesn’t want to say it, doesn’t want to put into words the actions he took, as though speaking them makes them real. “It wasn’t supposed to be any of you. It was just me. But Copley was smart, he’d done his research, found our footprints in history, by the time I got involved, they already knew about the whole team. They wouldn’t help me, without taking samples from you.”

His hands fist together.

“I swear, I didn’t think it would go that far. Before I knew it, I was in too deep. Thought the only way out was through, no matter the cost.”

Nicky nods, looking out at the park. “It must be a heavy cost. The burden you carry from it will not be easy.”

But when he stands, he reaches out a hand and helps Booker to his feet. They walk back the way they came, the noise of the city stopping them from talking much more.

The fourth church they pass has Nicky pulling Booker to a stop.

“May I tell you a secret, Booker?” He asks. “One I have never told a soul?”

Booker nods slightly, and Nicky breathes in deeply.

“Everyone keeps fucking telling me, that I’m kind, I’m good, that I’m the best of you,” he says. “But I don’t feel it.”

“We can all hope to be better than we are,” Booker says. “At least you get to know that one day you will be.”

“I did-” Nicky cuts himself off and tries again. “I did awful things to survive to the frontlines of the Holy Land. I was zealous and proud. A young man full of righteous fury.” He raises his eyes to the heavens. “I saw what my countrymen were doing to the people in the city and I didn’t fucking stop them. There are… many things I tried to ignore. The Lord judges us based on what we know, right?” He looks back at Booker with a raised eyebrow. “This is why I hesitate to judge you at your worst. My worst day was not that long ago, myself.”

It’s a comfort, to know he’s not the only fuck up.

“What would you recommend for punishment for a sin as egregious as that?” Nicky asks.

Booker sees through to the next step of the argument he’s making. “There must be penance,” he admits.

“And there must be hope, and mercy too,” Nicky says with a smile. “There is hope, Sebastien Le Livre. I promise you this.”

 

 


 

 

Nicky has tried to remain calm in this strange world he’s woken up in. He didn’t get a moment to breathe, after his brief, beautiful life in Central Africa, the hope he was given to see his whole family, stable and joyful. It changes everything, this knowledge.

He’d woken up with shooting pain in his head and blood smeared underneath him, but before he could even learn the year, Joe had broken down. Something big had happened here, something to seriously disturb the usually unflappable Yusuf.

Andy is mortal. It just happened.

Thrown from one warzone into another, Nicky was just following along, trying to keep up, but seeing Nile was a balm on his soul.

By virtue of being the only one who didn’t understand, who didn’t endure their particular brand of horrors, Nicky finds himself pushing the others along, giving them his strength, all the way through to the safehouse and holding Joe with all that bare skin.

Quynh is alive.

She made her choice, and she’ll be okay.

He keeps coming back to that. The hope that he saw.

The discussion at the riverside tavern is fraught, to say the least.

Again, even decades after Nicky said goodbye to Nile, and before she has even lived it, he can feel the pattern playing out again. Andy and Joe are their mentors, Nile and himself the students.

“I will not condemn a man I don’t even know,” Nicky whispers harshly. “All I know is his guilt, and that he fought to get us free.”

“After putting you, putting all of us in cages,” Andy points out.

“Is no one allowed mistakes? Madre di dio,” he swears, leaning back in his chair, “it feels my entire life to this point is nothing but mistakes.”

“He knew what he was doing,” Joe says lowly. “If you were older, you would say-”

“Do not presume to speak for me, Joseph Jones,” Nicky turns to him, eyes blazing. “I am right here, where I am meant to be.”

“He needs time,” Andy says. “We need time. Time enough to be in the world, to love it again. Seeing the worst of humanity, even if it’s in those places we can do the most work… it’s not good for the soul.”

“We all signed up for our wars,” Joe says quietly. “He didn’t. He was conscripted.”

“He needs to make his own choice,” Nile finishes for him.

The words of Father Giovanni come back to Nicky, as they had argued over the correct reading of Scripture pertaining to punishment of sinners within the church. He had been young and passionate, desperate to save every lost soul, and Father Giovanni had steered him rightly.

“The reason to cast them out of the assembly, dear Nicolò,” he had said, “is not to punish them. That responsibility lies only with the Lord.”

“Then what is the point?” Nicolo had asked, always indignant.

“Those who will not repent, will not repent. But the contrite will long for the gathering and change their ways.”

Nile tries to push for an apology, even though it was already given, a thousand times this morning alone. Nicky doesn’t even know what to think. Within the difference of seventeen years, everything is settled and better and worth it, so he hesitates to voice his knowledge by putting a number out there.

Nile goes out to the balcony to speak with Booker, and Andy goes to the bar to order another round.

Joe is watching Nicky carefully from across the table.

“I’ve been a mess today,” he says. “Thank you for bearing with me.”

Nicky gives a small smile in return.

“In truth, I am very glad that you are here,” Joe continues, “at the stage you are. You bring me, the team, you bring us clarity.” He sighs and leans back, filling the space easily.

“What do you mean, the stage I am?” Nicky asks.

“Your milestones,” Joe replies. “You’ve reached your second milestone. If I had to guess, somewhere not far after our few decades of piracy.”

Nicky can’t help his grin. “That was a long time ago for you, but you’re not wrong. What is this mysterious second milestone?”

“The one where you have purpose, you have hope, and you’re not as sad anymore,” Joe answers.

Nicky feels horribly seen.

“Then what was the first?” He asks, looking away.

“Where you understand what’s happening, you know us,” Joe answers, draining down to the dregs of his glass. “Neither of which I have seen unfold in my lifetime yet, by the way. We’re always living backwards, us two.”

“They’re not far off,” Nicky murmurs, looking out at Nile and Booker as they talk. “What is the next?”

Joe’s grin is half-hidden behind his pint. “You have so few surprises in this life. It would be a pity to take one from you now.”

Andy returns and passes out refreshments. She nudges Nicky and looks out the window at Booker.

“Will you be alright?” She asks. “Living with what you know?”

“It can be tough to forgive,” Joe says quietly, giving him an out to hold onto his anger.

“This is not forgiveness,” Nicky returns quietly. “Forgiveness is no longer wishing ill on someone, despite the hurt they have inflicted, to start wanting good for them. Forgiveness is living with the consequences of someone else’s error.” He looks aside at the profile of Booker as he squints into the sun. “This is something else.”

Joe finishes the thought for him. “How do you live with someone who has not yet hurt you?”

Nicky nods. He doesn’t have the answer either.

When Nile comes back inside, Booker catches Nicky’s eye and jerks his head towards the door.

“Excuse me a moment,” Nicky says and he joins Booker on the balcony. He doesn’t miss the way Booker’s eyes linger on Nile as she steps back inside.

They give each other a silent nod, then walk together down the steep steps to the river foreshore.

Nicky mind goes back to that photograph, of the six of them dressed in their finest, Booker kissing Nile’s cheek and holding her waist. He remembers a thick letter, pulled from a crate of antique guns, addressed to Nile Freeman.

Nile is his first friend, in any lifetime. He holds her so dearly, and he’s not going to take lightly a weak attempt at her heart.

On that pebbly shore, Booker stumbles through his words.

“I know I don’t… I don’t deserve anything, but, can I ask for a favour, Nicky?”

Nicky hesitates, before deciding he should at least hear the man out. “You may ask.”

“Nile’s too new to this life. She deserves more. All she wants is to hear her mother’s voice again.” There are tears in his eyes. “If people go knocking now, they’d get suspicious, but, if it was long enough ago that they forget…” He looks up at Nicky, his brow creased.

“Can you do that for me, Nick? When you go back, can you hide away just, just some part of her family?”

Nicky’s heart bleeds. “Where would I hide such a thing?”

Booker shrugs. “Our safehouse in New York. We almost always fly out of JFK when we leave the Americas. Should be easy enough.”

Nicky looks at him strangely.

“I’m sure it’s already there,” Nicky says. “You should go there soon and be the one to give it to her.”

Booker nods, cringing slightly but accepting. They stand side by side, watching the tide creep in.

There’s a call from the balcony, and Nicky turns to see Andy out there, waving him back in.

“I have to go,” He says lowly.

Booker nods. “Well. Next time you see me…” And he trails off, having no idea what that could look like.

“Next time I see you,” Nicky continues for him, “I will remember that you are a man like many others. A good man who has done awful things for understandable reasons.”

He clasps Booker’s shoulder in farewell. When he turns back to go inside, he grabs Booker by the arm.

“Whoa, I think-” his head swings left and right, taking in the river. “I think that’s the Devil’s Tavern.

“Even I think that’s a little melodramatic,” Booker grumbles.

“No! This is my haunt! We used to stay here a lot, every time we came from the sea, just a handful of years ago, 1600,” Nicky beams. He hadn’t recognised it from the street or inside, but the river doesn’t change nearly as often. “Fuck, it’s the best place to drop off smuggled goods.”

Booker can’t help himself and he laughs.

“Thank you, Nicky,” he says, ducking his head. “No matter what happens, thank you for being a friend, even when I didn’t deserve it.”

“We rarely get what we deserve, my friend,” Nicky says, his hand on Booker’s shoulder. “Either the good or the bad. All we have is a responsibility to do what is right.”

The judgement is made, and they walk away from Sebastien Le Livre.

 


 

James Copley, Nicky learns, is a highly intelligent man. Despite his failings in recent months in negotiating a safe plan with Booker, Copley has put together an incredible wall of information.

Copley has scraped through the annals of history and found their footprints everywhere. The wall is covered with clippings and photos and handwritten notes.

“Incredible, isn’t it?” Nile says, nudging Nicky as she stands beside him.

“Very much so,” Nicky agrees. “I don’t know if I should study it or look away.”

“Shit, that’s right,” Nile says. “You haven’t lived all that, have you?”

“Barely a tenth of it,” Nicky answers. He reaches out and touches a print of a wood-carving of Byzantine soldiers and smiles.

“There is so much here,” he mutters. Joe joins them at his other shoulder. “What would happen if I refused to do it?”

“What do you mean?” Joe asks.

“Say, this skirmish here,” he picks a random news clipping with a photo attached. “Say I refuse to go to Cuba, do this work, what would happen then? Would it vanish from this wall, as if it never occurred?”

“I don’t know,” Joe says, honestly. “Would you refuse to go there? Knowing the good you could do?”

Nicky recoils. “Of course not.”

With an easy smile, Joe cocks his head to the side. “Then why are you asking?”

Joe affectionately bumps shoulders with him, and a warmth curls in Nicky’s belly.

He’s not yours, he reminds himself. You don’t get to keep him.

 


 

There is more work to do. As much as Nicky needs to rest, to think and to understand the new role he has to play now that he knows this secret future, there are loose ends to tie up.

Merrick may be dead, but his company lives on, and some of their samples have already been secreted away. Every piece of evidence must be destroyed.

Copley traces the paths of the samples through various subsidiaries and shell corporations. He destroys as much digital information as he can reach, but the physical samples require them to all strap up and go to war again.

There’s no familiar rhythm or strategy to their attack on the heavily guarded research facility. Andy’s mortality is too fresh, the others don’t know how to react to it. Nile is new, Booker is gone, and Joe has been fiercely protective of Nicky lately.

Andy and Nicky sit together, checking their weapons before the mayhem starts.

“Are you okay?” Nicky asks quietly.

“I’ll be fine,” Andy says, not looking up from her work. “This changes nothing.”

“You are both correct and very wrong in that,” Nicky says with a smile. He checks his watch and numbers the few minutes left before go-time.

There’s enough time for him to say his piece.

“I wanted to say thank you,” Nicky says. “I never… growing up, I never really belonged. My family never harmed me, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t… they wished I would be different than how I was. Less peculiar. Then I came to be with you, and the team, and I was so angry and bitter for so long.”

He looks sideways at Andy. “I have seen enough of the bigger picture now. I know what it cost you, to keep the team together. You’ve built a family here, and it’s fractured at the moment, but it’s built on love. Thank you, Andy. For everything.”

“Aw, Nicky,” she says, teasing to make it less intense, “you’re making me blush.”

He huffs a laugh, then his mood turns serious again.

“I want you to know, as well, that I won’t get between the two of you.” The words come out stilted and forced.

Andy cocks her head. “What?”

“Joe. I understand how important he is to you,” Nicky grits out, hating her for making him put it into words. “He was all you had, after Quynh. I won’t get in the way.”

Andy is staring at him, incredulously.

“What?” He asks.

Andy looks away, muttering to herself. “All the forms of love look the same to someone who is unused to it.”

“I understand love,” Nicky defends himself. “I have seen the passion Joe holds for you.”

Andy cocks her weapon and stares at him, a slow grin creeping over her face.

“You are the dumbest fucking man I’ve ever met,” she says.

“Hey!” Nicky protests, but she shuts him up.

“It’s not me, you idiot. It’s you.”

His mind is spinning. The order is given, and they move in towards the facility, but his thoughts are racing.

He can’t concentrate on the mission, and it gets him killed.

But this is a blessing, because it takes him to where he needs to go.

Chapter Text

Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Kaysani, called Al-Tayibb, has never met a man like Nicolò. Over the century or more that he’s walked alongside the Genoan, he still hasn’t come any closer to understanding the man.

Nicolò is at times carefree and content in everything, and at others endlessly wise and profound. The worst part is when he is both these things within the same lifetime. At first, Yusuf is sure that it is all a trick, that the rage and fire he has seen directed towards himself twice on the battlefield is lurking under the surface, ready to explode if Yusuf says the wrong thing.

But it never happens. No matter how much Yusuf pokes and prods at the beast, Nicolò doesn’t retaliate. He is patient, and it’s infuriating.

The first few times Nicolò dies and revives in front of him unsettle Yusuf greatly. The first is, of course, when they first meet the women Yusuf has been watching in his dreams. The Greek, Andromache, first meets them, and, full of suspicion, buries her axe in Nicolò’s throat. Nicolò’s arms stay relaxed by his side, he doesn’t dodge the attack or draw his sword, just accepts the weapon coming directly towards him with the confidence of a man who knows he will get back up again.

Nicolò’s eyes open where he lies on his back in the dirt, and they immediately search for Yusuf. Yusuf’s heart starts beating again. He does revive, he doesn’t stay dead. Yusuf is not alone in this. What were those words Nicolò instructed?

Speak to me, tell me where we are, what we need, and I will follow you.

“Nicolò, I am here,” Yusuf rushes to say, the words thick like syrup. Andromache pulls her axe from where it’s embedded and watches as the man rises from the ground.

The one called Quynh huffs. “Really Andromache, was that necessary?”

“I don’t trust this,” Andromache replies.

Yusuf watches him carefully as he slowly gets to his feet. Despite the many pieces of evidence of Nicolò’s claim that he travels through time, seeing it happen in front of him is highly disturbing.

Nicolò looks around, muttering to himself as he takes in the three horrified faces around him. He looks far more world weary than he did a few minutes ago, wearing the same face with a different expression. His eyes land on Andromache’s bloodied labrys.

“What did I do this time?” He asks.

“What?” Andromache asks.

“Did I insult your horsemanship? Your hair?” He asks. “Why did you kill me?”

Andromache’s eyes narrow. “To see if you really were immortal.”

Quynh throws her hands up. “There are easier ways!”

“He’s not the same,” Andromache returns. “Not as you, or Lykon.”

“I tried to tell you.” Yusuf tells the women. “He claims that he dies and revives into different parts of his life. If he is to be believed, the man you killed is not the man who stands before you now. Older, or younger, perhaps.”

“You make an impossible claim,” Andromache says.

“Oh,” Nicolò says. “This the first time we have met, isn’t it?” A slow grin creeps across his face.

Nicolò goes to Quynh and takes her hand, pressing a kiss to it. “Yusuf, allow me to introduce my good friend Quynh, of the Red River Delta.”

Quynh snatches her hand back.

“How did you know that?” She demands.

“You took me there, some two hundred years from now. It is a beautiful place,” Nicolò says. He turns to the other woman. “And Andromache, the Scythian. She is the best warrior and horsewoman you will ever meet. But her secret pleasure is all things sweet. Particularly honey glazed, yes?”

Andromache readjusts her grip on her blade. “Who are you? How do you know these things?”

“I’ve lived many years by your side,” he answers. “Just not in the same order you will experience them.”

He looks between the three of them. “Test me, as you wish, or watch and wait. You will find I know things you haven’t yet told me or that I change slightly between deaths.”

It doesn’t do much to dissuade Andromache’s suspicion, and her reluctance to trust Nicolò causes Yusuf to become more wary. Of course, when he first learnt of Nicolò’s habit of wandering through time, it was no less fantastical than his own new-found healing and immortality. He had nothing to compare this strange new life to, but now he knew more, and it unsettled him.

Every time Nicolò revives, he searches for Yusuf, and if they are separated on the battlefield, he doesn’t stop until they are reunited. And every time he lives again, he looks at Yusuf with expectant eyes. A pregnant pause passes, like he’s waiting for Yusuf to do or say or ask something, but everything Yusuf tries is met with a small brief flash of something that may be disappointment, then a steady smile.

 


 

Now that they are four, they are a formidable army. They can get in and out of strongholds, their weapons twirling together, advance-retreat-advance.

It is different from the scrambling fights of just Nicolò and Yusuf, doing their best in a fruitless Holy War. Andromache has a strategic mind, she knows the battles that are best fought by them and them alone. Yusuf follows her into battle willingly, a worthy leader, and he does follow her, all the way back to Jerusalem.

It does, however, take a few years for Yusuf to be comfortable riding into battle with his former enemy at his back.

He asks him once, while their horses graze, and Nicolò works at fixing the leather of a bridle with his deft fingers.

“You are comfortable with all this?”

Nicolò’s eyebrows raise, but his fingers don’t stop their work.

“This killing of the invaders from your land,” Yusuf adds. “These are your countrymen, I saw them flying the banner. It could be your brother, your cousin under any of those helmets. Why are you so eager to take up the sword against your family?”

“Who is my family?” Nicolò puts down his work and spreads his arms, encompassing the terrain, Yusuf, the four horses, Andromache and Quynh descaling fish by the river. “Here is my family.”

The words strike Yusuf as discordant, they must be insincere, no man can change his allegiance so completely.

Nicolò must read his confusion easily, because he inclines his head.

“This is more to it than that, of course,” Nicolò says. “There has been great sin committed by myself, my people, in attacking this land. There must be penance and restitution.”

Nicolò, Yusuf decides, has a very strange devotion to his God.

 

 


 

 

It takes Andromache years and several lifetimes to give Nicolò her begrudging respect. He wins it first on the battlefield, his movement and ferocity an intimidating force behind his calm demeanor. He likes to spend a little too much time with Quynh, talking and training with her like he’s soaking her up. Andromache would be suspicious of his intentions with the woman, but for the way he sends Quynh back to her with a grin on his face every time. Like seeing them together is his greatest joy. She bonds with Yusuf over their shared suspicion and tries not to think of it as nurturing bitterness.

His casual reference to them as his family remains unnerving. Andromache was alone for so long, and there has been so few of them, can she really claim to know that time travel is unnatural?

Contrary to popular belief, Andromache wasn’t the first. She is the oldest, and she was alone, but there was another in her dreams for many centuries.

He was a warrior, old even before his first death. He was armed with a wooden shield and a long spear and he hurled it with pinpoint accuracy. His skin was dark, darker than Lykon’s, with a white, wiry beard.

He was the first person she dreamed of, the first proof that what she was had happened before. It took her a long time to figure it out, that the dreams were connected to a real person, particularly because the land he walked had its seasons inverted. She would go to bed shivering in the cold and dream of a hot sun, beating down on black shoulders and red sand.

It wasn’t until she started in Egypt and walked south for years, when she came to the very tip of Africa, that she noticed the seasons of her dreams matched up with what she lived. He was elsewhere. Somewhere south.

His country was vast, with fine red sand and bristled bushes, and at other times lush and wet and green. A nomadic people, then, much like her own used to be.

The dreams were her constant companion for hundreds of years. She was only certain they weren’t a product of her fevered mind because the animals he hunted and slaughtered were far beyond what she could imagine. Great, jumping beasts with long tails that carried their young as if inside their own stomach, long fat lizards and giant shaggy birds that were taller than a man. She dreamt of him since the first time she rose from death.

He was ancient, she knew it. He revisited a sacred stone he had painted as a younger man. The stone had grown over the top of his paint, tattooing the hand print into the rock. She wondered how long her own life would be and shuddered at the thought.

Andromache was alone for a long time. But he wasn’t.

He was surrounded by family in every dream she had of him. Generations of people who respected him and love him dearly. She saw nights of singing and music and knees bent in dancing, those strange animals being roasted over fires.

Her heart seethed with jealousy for the belonging and joy she saw.

It took decades for her to recognise that the dreams went both ways. She saw him painting on strips of pale bark with red paint. Her labrys, her horse. She hadn’t seen any horses in his land, it must mean that they dreamt of each other.

It was from him that she learnt how the immortality curse worked, that the dreams connected them. It was from him that she knew that there would one day be an end to her life as well. She went to sleep in the Valley of Peshawar and dreamt of open wounds that won’t heal.

She didn’t dream of him again.

Andromache doesn’t like to talk about it, but the story is dragged out of her around a quiet campfire by a river.

“I think he was the first,” she says, staring into the fire. Quynh’s hand is on her arm, a familiar, comforting weight. Yusuf’s expressive face is creased in sympathy, and Nicolò’s is inscrutable.

“I wish I could have met him,” Quynh says.

Andromache huffs darkly. “So do I. But I was too young, I didn’t look hard enough.”

“It would have been nearly impossible for you to find him, Andromache,” Nicolò says.

Andromache turns to him, her eyes cool and watchful.

“You were half a world away. That country is almost impossible to access at this time, even for the next few hundred years. You could have only made it through a string of tiny islands at the bottom of Asia, and even then,” Nicolò spreads a hand, “the land is vast. You may never have found him.”

Andromache scowls at him. “How could you know that?”

“Because we walked those same songlines,” Nicolò says, and Andromache recoils.

She hadn’t described the way the man sang as he walked, with generation after generation following the same path, singing the same songs through the land. They were beautiful.

She would like to know that land one day.

 

 


 

 

Yusuf doesn’t know when he fell in love with Nicolò. It was always. It was inevitable.

He was endlessly fascinated with the man, even from the earliest days. The strangeness of his insight and wisdom. Of course, the intrigue at first was tinged by suspicion, he watched Nicolò carefully.

He would groom himself like a prince, so different from the others of his people. But never vain, despite how well the clothes of the different cultures they pass through fit against his body. He bathes naked with men and women alike, with no shame or hesitation. He listens to Yusuf’s poetry, no matter how obscure the dialect, and comments on his artworks with a trained eye, despite claiming no such knowledge.

“I’ve been thinking I want to become a doctor,” Nicolò says one day, after they’ve traced a town’s illness to the water supply and destroyed the offending well in the dead of night. The town will do better walking to the mountain’s river for a few months.

“I know a good institution,” Quynh says.

“Oh, by the Lord Almighty, no, definitely not in this time period,” Nicolò rushes to say. “There are better times for me to study.”

And Nicolò cooks. Oh, how he cooks. It’s all consuming, sometimes, the focus with which Nicolò goes to the market, fiddles with spices and herbs, how he sings in Arabic to measure the time he stirs a hearty stew. Yusuf can hardly speak to him, sometimes, when he gets absorbed into his task. The words bounce off the back of his head until he turns a few minutes later, all smiles, and asks, “Sorry, Yusuf, did you say something?”

“I said,” Yusuf stresses, “why is it that you like cooking so much?”

“Ah,” Nicolò says, wagging a finger. “I was hoping you would ask that.”

He pricks the crust of the pie with his prong and touches the metal to test its temperature, then returns the pie to the oven to continue cooking.

“For most of my work, I never get to see it completed,” Nicolò says. “Progress is slow, sometimes non-existent. More often than not, I’m dead and elsewhere before the job is done.”

Yusuf nods slowly, not quite following his argument.

“But cooking is different,” he continues, taking a sharp blade to a zucchini. “I start the process, choose the ingredients. I get to make changes to the recipe, depending on what I want that day. And at the end, I see the meal complete, my people fed. Everything finished.”

He gestures broadly, as though imagining an entire feast laid out in front of him.

“Plus, I am very rarely killed while I make a meal.” He cocks his head and considers. “Well, maybe once or twice.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

In the year 1250, Nicolò di Genova is crushed under a falling building, trying to get children to safety during a siege. It takes them two days to get him out, and by the time they do, an infant has expired in his arms, but a four year old clings to his legs.

Yusuf is furious with himself when he can’t get through the fallen building to Nicolò. He broke his promise to always be there, but Nicolò was too quick on his feet, running headlong into danger. He’s making a habit of it, knowing that Yusuf will be close behind him.

Yusuf’s face is the first thing Nicolò sees through the hole dug through the rubble, and he chokes on dust.

“Yusuf!” He cries.

“We’re coming, Nicolò, almost there,” Yusuf calls.

Nicolò passes the dead infant through the small hole, but the four year old refuses to let go of him. A skin of water is handed to them instead. They both drink deeply, and Nicolò takes the time to wash the child’s face.

“Got to look handsome and brave for Mama, don’t you?” He says in Arabic. When Nicolò had revived under the stone, it had taken more than a few tries to find a common language with the child, not helped by the fact that he stayed mute the whole time they were buried. It was only the small twitch of recognition when Nicolò spoke Arabic that gave Nicolò a clue to their location.

When Nicolò is finally pulled from the rubble, his scrapes healing immediately, he’s pulled into a hug that must be Mama, because she’s sobbing and clinging desperately to the child. The reunion is full of tears, but eventually Nicolò is extracted from her, and Yusuf gets to link their arms together and they stumble together through the ruins of the city to find Andromache and Quynh on the outskirts. The battle is long since won, or lost, it doesn’t matter anymore. The women are hiding in a cave they have known about for centuries.

Quynh greets him with a hug, and Nicolò is captivated by her face, the first time he’s seen it since he died in the 1400’s without knowing her fate.

He doesn’t get long with her though, because Andromache slaps him in the face.

“You’re a stupid, stupid man,” she accuses.

The others exclaim their surprise, but Nicolò just rubs his cheek. “I know,” he says.

“You idiot,” she says.

“You have told me this,” Nicolò says. “And recently, in fact.”

His eyes slide across her shoulder to Yusuf’s face and linger there for a beat too long.

Nicolò clears his throat. “What did I do this time?”

“You didn’t evacuate,” Andromache says. “You knew the trebuchets were out and that buildings were going to start falling.”

“I did?” Nicolò asks.

“He died, Andromache,” Yusuf murmurs, trying to pull her back.

“You could have been buried for days, for months, Nicolò!” Andromache says, her eyes ferocious. “You wouldn’t have water, maybe even no air. Did you ever think of that?”

She doesn’t even know the reality of what a cage can do, but still she fears it.

Nicolò can’t answer for the version of himself that knows why he did what he did, but Yusuf comes to the rescue.

“I didn’t know you cared that much, Andromache,” Yusuf says, and that puts her on the backfoot.

“Yeah, well, don’t get used to it,” she grouches.

The relief of having him back is palpable, even for Nicolò who has just been thrust into this time. Yusuf won’t admit to it, but those two days Nicolò was trapped out of his sight were nightmarish. He hasn’t slept.

And he’s bundling up for sleep now, keeping close to the fire. Nicolò is on the other side of it, and he’s barely moved since he wolfed down the dried meats and hard cheeses they ate for dinner. Andromache and Quynh have pulled away, curling around each other like puppies.

The silence between Nicolò and Yusuf thrums, like a wire is attached end to end in their bellies and it’s been plucked, sending waves of connection across it and directly into their bodies. The firelight is flickering in Yusuf’s deep brown eyes.

Nicolò’s voice is a low murmur. “You haven’t asked me this time.”

“Asked you what?” Yusuf returns.

“If I’ve ever been to Malta,” Nicolò says. He pauses, the corner of his lips quirks up. “Every time I revive, you ask if I’ve been there.”

“How strange,” Yusuf says. “I’ve never been myself.”

The silence is broken only by the pop of wood in the fire. A few sparks fly into the air.

“I’ve heard it is a very beautiful place,” Nicolò says.

“We are in Fariskur, Egypt,” Yusuf tells him, “we could go to the coast, it’s not far. I’m sure there is a boat we could pay to take us there.”

Nicolò hums, his fingers active in twisting and untwisting the hem of his tunic.

“That would be nice,” he says.

They go to sleep on opposite sides of the fire that night, both dreaming of the possibilities that tomorrow brings.

 


 

Yusuf is right, travel to the Mediterranean coast only takes a day, the whole journey on foot. Quynh and Nicolò talk animatedly the whole way, even if he does yawn mid-sentence occasionally. Despite this being Nicolò’s first time travelling so far back since he was young in this life, he finds his stride with them easily. Yusuf watches him carefully from behind, both too hesitant and too bold.

Andromache and Quynh decide not to follow them to Malta, having been exhausted from recent events and in need of a holiday. For a moment, Nicolò fears losing them, but Yusuf happily explains the systems set up in the last few decades, notes left in prominent ports and cities to help them track each other.

The women promise to write of their movements, and the letters can be held in the main port until they have a fixed address. Nicolò and Yusuf embrace them as they depart, promising to meet up soon.

They barter their way on board the small vessel, a boat sailing through the night to deliver news of the battle to the Maltese chief official as soon as possible.

Yusuf finds Nicolò on the open deck in the dead of night, the salt wind pushing back his hair.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Yusuf asks.

Nicolò smiles ruefully. “Someone once called it ‘jet lag’. When I die, it’s not only the year that changes, it’s the season and the hour, too. I slept a lot under the building. I thought the long walk would tire me out, get me in sync, but it’s just made my body exhausted and my brain alert.”

“I know that feeling,” Yusuf acknowledges.

An oil lamp swings from where it is hung by the mast, but otherwise the deck is lit only by stars and a quarter moon.

“What year is it?” Nicolò asks.

“Sorry, I should have said earlier. It’s 1250,” Yusuf rushes to answer. Why is every interaction between them stilted? It feels like a game of Shatranj where the players have forgotten whose move it is.

“Ah,” Nicolò says. “One hundred and fifty years since our first death together on the battlefield, yes?”

“Yes,” Yusuf smiles. How could he smile at a memory such as that? “And you? How old might you be?”

The question catches Nicolò off guard. “A few years here, a few years there.” His brow furrows as he does the calculations. “You know what? I think I am about one hundred and fifty years myself.”

It startles a laugh from Yusuf. “Well then. We are on equal footing.”

“For once,” Nicolò returns, his smile hidden in the dark. “And perhaps never again.”

“This may be our only chance, then,” Yusuf says, rifling through the crates on deck. He finds the bag of knuckle bones and balls that the sailors were playing with before they retired.

“Our only chance for what?” Nicolò asks, bemused.

“A fair game,” Yusuf says. He fashions a table and chairs out of a crate and a few buckets. He tips the bag out and the knuckle bones scatter on the wood.

“You do play, don’t you?” Yusuf asks.

“Not since I was a boy,” Nicolò laughs.

“Good,” Yusuf grins. “Neither have I.”

Nicolò groans as he takes his seat. “We were boys a long time ago.”

“Let’s not think about it,” Yusuf says. “Let’s just play.”

It’s a strange way to pass a few hours of the night. The rocking boat makes for a particularly difficult challenge, with pieces falling off the crate, and more than once the waves leave them chasing the small ball in the dark, laughing as they dig through ropes and search blindly with their fingers.

They fill their minds with more pleasant thoughts together, and when Nicolò finally bundles into the swinging hammock, he sleeps the sleep of the dead.

 


 

They sleep and sail through most of the day, coming into port just as the sun begins to dip below the horizon. There is not much of a chance for touring, with the dark of night fast approaching. They find the first restaurant they can, and Nicolò orders two large bowls of aljotta.

The fish soup tastes amazing, and Yusuf, as charismatic as always, makes friends in loud, boisterous conversations with the locals. Nicolò watches from across the rim of his clay cup, trying to hide his fond smile. Before the evening is over, Yusuf has secured for them temporary accommodation upstairs and a promising bargain on a cottage perched on a cliffside, overlooking the water on the opposite side of the island.

“Is it everything you imagined?” Yusuf almost has to shout over the loud revelry.

“I don’t know what I imagined,” Nicolò says honestly. “And we certainly haven’t seen much of the island yet.”

“We’ve got time,” Yusuf says. “I was thinking we could have a break from warfare, for a while at least. We haven’t had much of a chance for that.”

“One hundred and fifty years, and you’ve never had a break?” Nicolò asks, bewildered. Even he has had chances to rest, touring through North Africa with Yusuf, his game of hooky with Nile.

“Oh, a little here and there,” Yusuf shrugs. “But always with the women. It hasn’t been just the two of us since those first few years before I met them.”

A particularly sloppy drunk bumps into their table, causing their cups to slosh over their sides. They rescue their cups quickly and laugh together at the man.

“Well, then, a holiday we shall have,” Nicolò proclaims, and they clink their cups together.

 


 

When Yusuf wakes, pretending to nurse a hangover that has already healed, Nicolò is still sleeping and dead to the world.

“Nicolò,” Yusuf whispers, rocking the other man’s shoulder. “Destati.”

Uncharacteristically, Nicolò groans and rolls over, covering his eyes with his arm.

His heart warm with fondness, Yusuf goes downstairs to speak with their host about the property he had mentioned. When Nicolò finally emerges, his eyes bleary, Yusuf can’t stop staring at him. His hair is rumpled, and he smells warm and of salt spray and spices.

They set out with their guide, who knows a cousin of the man who has been trying to sell the small farming cottage for over a year and would take any price. The island is small enough they can circumnavigate it on foot in a day, but they only need half that to find the cottage and assess it for quality and price.

When the deed is signed over to them, they wander down the cliffside to the town for supplies. They arrange for a cart to deliver their purchases up the cliffside and decide to waste some time by the village.

The people of Malta are an eclectic mix. Both of their native tongues are understood easily, and no one questions the two of them traveling together. Exploring the new culture delights them both, pointing out strange blends of their home countries’ cultures, of language and dress and food.

“I can see why it has come highly recommended!” Nicolò laughs, as two elderly grandmothers, one Muslim, one Christian, fuss over them at the market. Each playfully reports that their own soaps, perfumes and oils are higher quality than that of their neighbour’s. To put both at ease, Nicolò and Yusuf end up buying half of each lady’s stall, and deposit their baskets on the cart about to be taken to their new home.

As evening approaches, they climb up the rocky hillside to get a good vantage of the bay and the town as the sun sets over the ocean. The clouds become painted with beautiful streaks of red and pink, and even the town is glowing.

“I’ve always liked being high up,” Nicolò says, swinging his feet as they sit on the edge of a cliff.

The wind is ruffling Nicolò’s hair, and Yusuf can’t stop thinking about how soft it would be to touch.

“I can see the appeal,” Yusuf says.

Their legs are pressed together to fit on the little ledge, and it feels as natural as breathing.

Nicolò turns his head to face Yusuf, and suddenly they’re breathing the same air, faces close together.

They decide together. No one makes the first move, but their heads come together in the middle, their lips meeting softly and gently, like the finest of dancers coming into position.

Nicolò pulls away, his eyes squeezing shut. “No, Yusuf, wait.”

Yusuf’s heart sinks into his stomach.

Nicolò can’t bear to look at him, his own gut rolling. He slams his palm into the stone.

“Damn what I saw in the future,” Nicolò exclaims. “I will not have you settling for me, just because you feel there is no other choice. We always have a choice.”

“What are you talking about?” Yusuf asks. He’s confused about where this passion and anger has come from and shuffles back to see Nicolò more clearly.

“It’s a shitty life, what I have to offer you,” Nicolò says, looking out at the water. “My travelling back and forth, never knowing what you’ll get from me.”

“I know who you are, Nicolò.”

“Do you?” Nicolò challenges. “Because I’ve lived most of my hundred and fifty in the future, far flung from here, and very angry.” He gets up and takes a few paces left and right. Yusuf stands with him, waiting patiently for him to continue.

“There is a lot of pain ahead of us,” Nicolò warns. “You’ll have to live those years, Yusuf.”

“Then I’ll live them.” Yusuf shrugs. “I can be patient, just as you have been for me.”

Nicolò shakes his head. “No, you don’t understand what it’s like to be with me, Yusuf. We will never be able to build something together. I will disappear before your eyes, time and time again.”

“Aren’t we building something here?” Yusuf asks, desperation entering his voice. “Nicolò…”

“Just…” Nicolò turns away. “It doesn’t have to be me. You have freedom, to do what you want, make your own choice. I can be a friend to you, your brother forged together in the blood of that first battlefield, and nothing more.”

“You think…” Yusuf starts. “You think that it is just because we were abnormally born together, that is why we never part? No, Nicolò.” He reaches out to take Nicolò’s hands. “I choose you. Out of everyone, with every version of you I meet, I choose you.”

Nicolò releases a sob, and Yusuf holds him close with a hand on his waist.

“I have chosen you every day since the first time I asked you to journey with me.” Yusuf’s voice is a low murmur, almost snatched away by the wind. “I will choose you until the end of my days.”

Nicolò clings to him, his hands fisting in his cloak.

“You’re too much,” Nicolò whispers.

“You’re everything,” Yusuf returns. “You’re more.”

Their lips come together easily. Like they’re meant to.

The kiss is soft, and gentle, lips yielding easily to each other. Their bodies are pressed together, hearts racing in sync. It’s a meeting together of souls, on equal footing, willingly tying the rest of their lives to the other.

Their kiss and embrace soon turn passionate.

Yusuf breaks their lips apart and buries his face in the smell of Nicolò’s neck. Nicolò groans, clutching desperately at Yusuf’s back.

“How far?” Nicolò pants.

Yusuf hums a questioning noise that turns startled when Nicolò nips at his ear.

“How far to the cottage?” Nicolò finishes.

Our cottage” Yusuf growls.

They can hardly keep their hands from darting below each other’s clothes to press against warm skin. When they finally stumble into the farmhouse, Nicolò presses Yusuf up against the doorframe.

“This first time, Yusuf, I would like there to be a few less clothes,” he mutters, diving in to kiss Yusuf’s open mouth again.

“This first time?” Yusuf repeats, breathless.

“I will have you again, and again,” Nicolò vows. “For a millenium. Two millenia.”

Nicolò is nowhere else, the world and his years and twisted life don’t matter, all that matters is diving his tongue into Yusuf’s warm mouth, his beard tingling his skin. Yusuf presses his broad hands to the planes of Nicolò’s chest.

They rock into each other, desperate to please, working in partnership to rid themselves of clothes, and fall into the soft sheets of the bed. They press their hips against each other. It’s not frantic, not clumsy, but passionate, and promises so much more.

 


 

When the night and the two of them are spent and the oil from the market has been used liberally, Nicolò and Yusuf lounge together on the bed. Yusuf sits cross legged on the bedding, cutting open a loquat into slices. Nicolò is sprawled on his back, his hand resting on Yusuf’s thigh.

“I was an idiot,” Nicolò says.

“Really?” Yusuf says, feeding him another slice and catching some errant juice from Nicky’s cheek on his finger.

“I thought that you belonged with- belonged with another,” Nicolò says.

“I could never belong to anyone but you,” Yusuf vows. “How could you think such a thing?”

“Reaching for unattainable things feels safe,” Nicolò murmurs. “I was not… in a good way, when we first met. From my perspective, that is, it’s many centuries ahead for you. There was a lot I had to learn, and to unlearn for that matter.”

“You are not the only one who has changed over the past hundred years,” Yusuf scolds playfully, bending to kiss Nicolò’s slack mouth again.

“You’ll have to be patient with me,” Nicolò warns. His fingers trace the contours of Yusuf’s face with reverence.

“I can do that,” Yusuf says, grinning down at him. “You will have to do the same.”

Nicolò holds the back of Yusuf’s neck and pulls him down into a more thorough kiss as they roll onto their sides.

“This is our joining place,” Yusuf says in a whisper into the shell of Nicolò’s ear, their hips rocking together again. “This island, this cottage, this is where we decide to be each other’s, forever.”

“Malta,” Nicolò returns. “Our milestone. If we’ve been here, then we know each other in this way.”

“What way?” Yusuf teases.

Nicolò shows him.

 


 

The candlelight burns low, and Yusuf gets up to find the fresh candles made from local beeswax.

“I have a secret to tell you,” Nicolò whispers conspiratorially, as the candles are lighted. “This was not my first time.”

“I was not a virgin either, Nicolò,” Yusuf teases.

“Well I was, before you,” Nicolò says, and his fingers dance over Yusuf’s skin. “But this was not my first time… with you.”

A big grin spreads over Yusuf’s face.

“When?” He demands.

Nicky turns his head into the pillow, flushing to the roots of his hair. Yusuf wrestles with him, pinning him down with his wrists by his head, demanding answers and laughing all the way.

“When?” Yusuf growls out again. “How?”

Nicolò refuses to answer, straining away from the sweet torture of Yusuf’s thighs pinning him down, the tickle of his beard.

“Just before I woke up here in the rubble. 2080,” Nicolò gasps.

“That’s not a real year,” Yusuf says. “It cannot possibly-”

“It is,” Nicolò returns. “You asked again, as you always do, if I had been to Malta.” He groans as Yusuf mouths the inside of his pinned wrist. “I was so curious and I had a hunch, so I lied. I said yes.”

“What happened next?” Yusuf’s eyes are heavy with desire, even though they have only just finished wringing each other out.

 

 


 

 

In a hotel room, in a skyscraper in the year 2080, Joe has Nicky stripped down and stretched out under him on a soft bed.

“Have you been to Malta?” Joe repeats, surging up to capture his lips in another kiss.

“Uh-huh,” Nicky grunts.

Joe’s grin when he pulls back is wicked. “You’re lying.”

Nicky feels caught and pinned. A creature ready for dissection.

“How did you know?” Nicky breathes.

Joe chuckles, running a hand up Nicky’s side. “You’re trembling. From my lightest touch.”

It’s true. Every muscle Nicky has is vibrating where he feels Joe’s skin, and it’s even worse when he pulls away.

“And you told me,” Joe says. “You promised me that I could have you.”

Nicky’s brain has turned to mush. Joe is relentless.

“I have been waiting for this day for eight hundred years, Nicky,” Joe murmurs into the fuzz of Nicky’s belly. “That is a lot of time to dream, to plan.”

A full body shudder wrecks Nicky at the first touch of Joe’s fingertips.

“It’s like-” Nicky breaks off, his mouth uncooperative. “It’s like my body knows yours.”

Joe is over him now, staring down with a smile that promises so much it’s intimidating.

“It does.”

Nicky whimpers helplessly.

 

 

 


 

 

Yusuf’s chest is tight, as Nicolò tells parts of the story through his blush, at times unable to make eye contact.

“It was… a hell of a week,” Nicolò finishes.

“A week?!” Yusuf exclaims, and collapses onto him. “Madre di Dio, Nicolò, you’re killing me! Shy and blushing, a virgin Nicolò di Genova, captured in my bed and at my mercy for a full week!”

“I was not shy,” Nicolò says petulantly.

“Why not longer?” Yusuf demands. “I do not think I would relinquish my prize so easily.”

At this, Nicolò truly does become embarrassed. He half-muffles his answer in the pillow. “My legs were weak, I slipped down some stairs. Cracked my head open.”

Yusuf’s brow furrows in worry. “Your legs were weak? Did you stop healing quickly? Was your body aging?”

Nicolò can’t bear it. He pushes the words out through gritted teeth. “It was very, very good sex.”

That startles a laugh from Yusuf, and they roll around the bed together, both trying to pin the other to steal deeper and longer kisses.

“A week,” Yusuf says again, goofily smiling at the ceiling. “That’s what you meant when you said ‘now we’re equal’.”

Nicolò sits up and peers down at the beautiful face bathed in candlelight.

“What do you mean?” Nicolò demands.

“A few days before the siege,” Yusuf says. “I knew I was in love with you.”

Nicolò’s eyes widen. Yusuf has none of the same propriety or shame of speaking of passion.

“I wanted you, but you kept pushing me away, saying it wasn’t time yet.” Yusuf turns his dark eyes to meet Nicolò’s. “But when it was, oh, you took me apart, Nicolò.”

 

 


 

 

A week or so ago, in the city of Fariskur, Yusuf is sitting on a bed, clutching the hair of a kneeling Nicolò di Genova.

“Nicolò, your mouth…” Yusuf gasps. “Where did you learn-”

“Years,” Nicolò punctuates his sentence with a kiss to Yusuf’s thigh, “decades,” another kiss, “centuries of practice.”

Yusuf’s thighs shake, but Nicolò keeps pulling back. He leans his head against Yusuf’s knee, watching the tight whine get dragged out of him.

“Please, Nicolò, I need you,” Yusuf . “I need you now.”

“That’s it…” Nicolò sighs, smiling as he soaks in the visage of Yusuf, desperate and trembling.

“Please,” Yusuf repeats.

“Oh, Yusuf,” Nicolò scolds gently. “Pazienza, pazienza.

 

 


 

 

Nicolò’s heart is racing hearing the pleasure that an older, more experienced version of himself had wrought from the other half of his heart.

“We only had six days, before the siege started,” Yusuf says. “A day less than you did, but-”

“How old was I?” Nicolò demands. “How long do I have to wait?”

Yusuf laughs helplessly. “I don’t know. You didn’t say.”

Nicolò swears and buries his face in Yusuf’s belly. “At least you have a timeline, Yusuf! I have no idea how long I have to wait!”

Yusuf is totally unsympathetic, and they roll on the bedding together, limbs tangling and untangling.

Yusuf chuckles. “The love of my life has been ruined for all the passions of the flesh,” he says, “and I have only myself to blame.”

“Ourselves to blame, it seems,” Nicolò returns. “We are as guilty as each other.”

“Now we’re equal,” Yusuf says, teasingly affecting Nicolò’s accent.

Nicolò nips at Yusuf’s fingers. “Yusuf, it was a wild few days, of course. Thrilling to the end. But that’s not what I want to build with you.”

Yusuf nods. “I couldn’t understand what you were waiting for, at first. Why you held back. But for this,” Yusuf clasps their hands together, “for coming together on equal footing. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

“We shall build that experience together.” Nicolò vows.

The sky is just beginning to show the haze to foretell the coming morning. Nicolò draws the thick curtains and returns to the bed, ready for sleep. He turns on his side, and Yusuf pulls him close.

Yusuf wraps his arms around Nicolò and pushes a knee between his legs.

It feels like coming home at last.

Chapter Text

A priest walking through the Hôtel-Dieu, dressed in black with a sombre expression, is a common sight. To some, the priests visiting the wards of the hospital is a welcome relief. Other patients resent the implication that a priest might be needed at all.

Jean-Pierre rouses slowly, as he always does these days, and sees the priest sitting by his bed. He sighs.

“That bad, is it?” He asks.

The priest turns the page of a book in his lap and hums a questioning noise.

“Am I that near the end that I need the priest already?” Jean-Pierre’s voice is bitter and strained.

“Only God sets the day and the hour,” the priest says. “I only wanted a quiet place to read my book. You didn’t seem to mind.”

He looks at Jean-Pierre and quirks a small smile before returning his eyes to the page, seemingly disinterested in Jean-Pierre’s deathbed.

“If I knew you were already dying, I wouldn’t have stopped by the bakery,” the priest says after a little while. He offers Jean-Pierre a sticky honey roll and rips the other into pieces to eat it. It’s disarming, and Jean-Pierre huffs a laugh.

“What’s an Italian priest doing here?” He asks, picking up on the man’s accent, as he rips into the roll with his teeth.

“Trying to escape my parishioners,” the priest answers. “You have no idea what it’s like.” He closes the book, marking the page with his thumb, and gives it a wiggle. It’s not a Bible; it looks like some historical or political memoir, maybe even a novel. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, not at all,” Jean-Pierre says. It’s been so long since he has been able to have a vaguely normal conversation. Everyone he knows it’s dead or dead to him, and the nurses only talk about his pain and toileting. “Is it a good book?”

“It’s not the good book,” the priest says. “But if you like, I have many chapters memorised, and could present them in any language of your choosing.”

Despite everything, Jean-Pierre smiles. “That’s a good trick.”

They sit in silence, only broken by the sound of pages turning, Jean-Pierre’s wheezing breaths and the noise of the sisters distributing medicine on the wards.

Another jolt of pain surges through Jean-Pierre’s gut, and he seizes up, coughing. The priest puts his book down and holds onto Jean-Pierre’s shoulder as he gets through it.

“Easy, easy, there we go,” the priest says, as Jean-Pierre settles back into the bedding.

“Maybe it’s a good thing you’re here after all, Father,” he says. “I don’t think I have long in me.”

The hand stays on his shoulder. “Is there someone I can call for?”

Jean-Pierre shakes his head, his throat thick with emotion. His brothers are dead, from war and rebellions and disease. His wife died of typhoid fever only a year into their marriage. He has nothing.

“What is it you want, Jean-Pierre?” The priest murmurs.

“Nothing you can give me,” Jean-Pierre says bitterly. “I want to live.”

“One could say that the message of the gift of eternal life is one of the only things I can give,” the priest says dryly. “But you don’t want to hear about that.”

Jean-Pierre stares up at the plaster ceiling until it starts blurring.

“I’d wager you don’t want me to talk about the Father’s love either.”

“A gambling priest?”

“I’m not very good at it,” the priest shrugs.

Silence follows before Jean-Pierre grits out. “My father hates me. He wants me to die.”

“Ah, is he the cancer in your gut, then? Is he poisoning your food and taking a knife to your throat?”

It’s unnerving, the way the priest stares at him with clear eyes. “No,” Jean-Pierre replies.

“Then what proof do you have that he’s trying to kill you?”

“I didn’t say he’s killing me,” Jean-Pierre says. “He could save me, but he won’t. He’s leaving me here to die.”

“Could he, now?” The priest asks. He doesn’t sound shocked. Jean-Pierre supposes he’s heard it all before. “And he is the type of person to withhold good from those he cares for, is he?”

Before the bitterness kicks in Jean-Pierre’s instinct is to refute it, like he never grew up from the grubby little kid idolising his father and so relieved to see him back from the war. “No.”

The priest hums. “But the feeling is there all the same.” Absent-mindedly, he begins to stroke Jean-Pierre’s lax hand. It feels nice.

“My father is not a good man,” Jean-Pierre says.

“Find me a man who naturally is. I’m not good at gambling, but I’d wager you can’t,” the priest says. “I have a complicated relationship with forgiveness and inevitability, myself.”

“Yeah? And what do you do with it?”

“Living with the consequences of someone’s harmful actions is never easy, I would never say that it was. But something that helps is to try and see things from the other’s perspective. What would you do if it were him on this bed instead of you?”

“I would do everything I could to save him.”

“And did he?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, if he’s to be believed,” Jean-Pierre admits.

“There is so much uncertainty in life,” the priest muses. “But still we must find our way without clarity.”

They sink into silence once more.

“It’s good that you’re here, Father.” Jean-Pierre whispers. “Will you stay?”

A warm hand is placed on his head.

“Until the end.”

The priest doesn’t leave his bedside for the full day it takes for Jean-Pierre's health to rapidly decline. He administers laudanum and does everything he can to make the dying man comfortable, even speaking of love and forgiveness.

The evening of the next day the priest performs the last rites, and stays until the light has faded from the other man’s eyes.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Camille Freeman likes the reporter immediately. He’s a strange sort of man with floppy brown hair that he’s obviously not used to, judging by the way he pushes it back from in front of his face with frustration. She doesn’t think he’s used to the mustache either, but with it he reminds her of her second grade teacher.

He’s working on a documentary, and they speak on the phone several times before he arrives at their home one day in 2004, carrying an impressive video camera, much better than the “straight to minidisk” camcorder they use for family videos.

“It’s unlikely to be released, I’m afraid,” he says, as he sets up the microphone attachment. “But I’m going to try my hardest despite that.”

“Not much of a market for stories of black families from Chicago,” Camille guesses.

“That’s not going to stop me,” Pietro the reporter says with a smile. He puts the camera on a tripod and spins it slowly around the room, before it stops pointing at Camille where she sits on the good couch.

“Just so I can get levels, why don’t you tell me your normal weekday routine,” he says, fiddling with the camera.

Camille does so. She finds it easy to talk in front of an audience and thinks he’ll interrupt when he’s got the settings right, but he lets her talk out a whole day of her boring, domestic life. She gets to the end and raises her hands, laughing a little.

“I know, probably not thrilling enough to make the final cut,” she says.

“No, no,” Pietro rushes to say. “This is exactly what I’m here for. We often say history is written by the victors, but so often history is just written about what people think is interesting enough to record. There is value, I think, in documenting what we consider to be the hum-drum of life.”

It’s an interesting thought, that some historian hundreds of years from now might be interested in her family and how she gets the kids ready for school.

Pietro sits to the side of the camera and thanks her for her time; then he  starts asking questions about all manner of life. He’s remarkably easy to talk to, and Camille finds she forgets the camera and is just talking about life and her history, her family and struggles. Partway through they break for him to replace the battery and she offers him fresh lemonade and cookies.

“Ginger?” He asks, breathing it in deeply.

“My mother’s recipe.”

He takes a bite. “Ginger cookies have grown on me, over time,” he says with a smile.

She talks to the camera some more, and Pietro has started asking more probing questions.

“What hopes do you have for your children?”

“What mother doesn’t have high hopes for her children?” Camille laughs. “I want them to have the world and go to the stars!”

Pietro grins at that and silently gestures for her to continue.

“But I also want them to be content in the small good they can do. Not everyone can be the leaders of the world, in fact not everyone should be,” Camille says. “If my Nile and Travis grow up to be good people who fight for justice and do what they can to make the world a better place? That would be enough.” She looks out the window. “Yeah, that would be enough.”

She must have struck a chord with Pietro, because his eyes are shining, and he clears his throat before he asks his next question.

“If you had any advice for your children in the future, what would it be?”

Camille takes a moment to think. “Be true to who you are. And if who you are is causing trouble and hurt, then be better.”

Pietro nods, then startles as the front door bangs open.

“Speak of the little devils,” Camille sighs and gets up to deal with the kids.

Nile is first through the door, ten years old and her hair in twin puffs on top of her head. She’s fairly disinterested in Pietro, who is polite like an old gentleman towards her. She refuses to show her room to the camera, but stands at the doorway and gives snarky comments as Travis shows all his legos to Pietro.

They both sit obediently on the lounge while Pietro interviews them. They talk about their friends, their church and sport and even talk nicely about each other, until they start bickering and rough-housing. Pietro keeps the camera rolling through the whole wrestle-fight until Nile pins Travis face first into the lounge, then climbs off him and lets him win the next round.

The one thing that makes Nile’s face light up to show the reporter is her clay models. A dozen painted and glazed little monsters line the windowsill.

“That girl has an imagination,” Camille says, folding her arms.

“Creativity is closely linked with problem solving,” Pietro says thoughtfully.

He gets a few more shots around the house, filming the family photos on the walls of the staircase as Camille explains distant family relations and history.

There’s a key in the lock and the front door opens behind them.

“That would be my husband,” Camille says.

There’s something militaristic about the way Pietro holds himself as Anthony enters the house. Camielle has seen it in junior Marines on base when they meet him, full of respect and awe at his service record.

“It’s an honour to meet you, sir,” Pietro says, holding out his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you. From Camille.”

Anthony is a bit tired and stilted in front of the camera, but sparks up when Nile crawls into his lap and tucks herself under his arm. Not too old, yet, to have snuggles with her father.

After a few hours at their house the kids are getting ratty, and Camille apologies for the noise, but Pietro stands up and starts packing up his equipment, apologizing for having been there so long.

He shakes all their hands warmly, even Travis’s, and his eyes are sincere as he thanks them for their time. He makes no promises about when the documentary might be released and apologizes for the fact.

“Not all at!” Camille says. “It was actually fun to go through all that family history.”

The footage from their interview is never released as a documentary. Instead, it is placed in a box in an apartment in New York City, with “For Booker, post 2020” written on the top. And eventually makes its way to the one who needs it most.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Kaysani is already seated at the gate when the strange merchant comes to their city.

He is dressed in the clothes of the region and wears them easily, he speaks the language of Ibrahim’s people as though he had been raised in it, but his skin is pale like any Frank’s, and the sword at his hip has a strange straight blade. Of all the men there, he addresses Ibrahim.

“Excuse me, Sayidi, I am looking for a merchant by the name of Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Kaysani,” the trader says. “He has been much recommended to me.”

“You have found me,” Ibrahim says, cautiously. “What is it you want?”

The trader takes a moment, looking over Ibrahim. His gaze particularly lingers on Ibrahim’s eyes and nose, then he smiles.

“Of course you are him,” he says. He presses a hand to his heart. “My name is Nicolò. I have some trade that I believe will interest you.”

He pulls a necklace from under his tunic and passes it into Ibrahim’s hands.

“A small sample of my wares.”

The cord is commonplace and rough, but the gemstone that hangs from it is incredibly large and bright. It’s cut into a brilliant square shape, and placed into an intricate gold setting. The style and symbols are completely unknown to Ibrahim, who does not consider himself ignorant of the style of lands both far and wide.

“This is incredible,” Ibrahim says, holding the stone up to his better eye. “Flawless.”

“I knew you would recognise quality when you saw it,” Nicolò says. “I have fifty more pieces I wish to discuss for trade. However, I am not in the practice of trading with a stranger by the city gate, as I’m sure you can agree. I find it better to live with a man in order to trust his business acumen.”

“Yes, of course,” Ibrahim agrees offhand, still examining the jewel.

“Excellent!” Nicolò claps his hands together. “It is settled then. Please, Sayidi, lead the way.”

Ibrahim looks up, startled. “I beg your pardon?”

Nicolò is nonplussed. “To your house. I’m afraid I am new to your city and do not yet know the way.”

“My house?” Ibrahim repeats dumbly.

“Of course,” Nicolò says with an easy smile. “You offered accommodations while we get to know each other, prior to a business deal being reached.”

“I did?” Ibrahim asks. The trader looks at him placidly. “I mean, yes, clearly, come with me.”

Ibrahim shows Nicolò through the streets to his modest house in the centre of the city, praying Soufia won’t be too mad at him for bringing home a stranger with no notice. Several people greet him along the way, and that makes Nicolò smile.

“You are greatly respected by your people,” Nicolò says.

Ibrahim inclines his head at the praise, but his suspicion grows. He’s a kindly man, but he doesn’t trust that easily, particularly foreigners who masquerade in his culture’s clothing and language. One or two of his more suspicious neighbours eye Nicolò as they walk along the road.

“They don’t know what to make of you, though,” Ibrahim says.

“Oh?” Nicolò asks.

Ibrahim stops and stares at the young man. “Surely you must know that there is an invasion going on.”

“Oh, the fighting won’t reach you here,” Nicolò says, but his gaze traces the battlements with the appraising skill of a warrior. “Not for a couple hundred years.”

“Well, we have reason to be concerned about deserters,” Ibrahim says. “They bring trouble.”

“Me?” Nicolò exclaims, all wide eyes and innocence. “Do I speak like a Frank who is here to claim land not his own?”

Ibrahim isn’t so easily dissuaded. “You called yourself Nicolò. That is a Ligurian name. One of the coastal states, I would suspect. Your accent is slight, but present.”

Instead of being ashamed at being caught out, Nicolò is pleased. “Ah, very good, Sayidi Ibrahim! I thought I was doing very well with my accent. I am Nicolò di Genova.” He bows with a flourish, and Ibrahim notices that his foreign accent has thickened somewhat, as he drops this pretense.

“You should disguise your name,” Ibrahim warns.

“I often do, but not here,” Nicolò says.

It’s a curious thing to say, but Ibrahim cannot question him on it further, because they have arrived at the house.

“Oh, dearest wife!” Ibrahim calls and he’s in trouble before the words even leave his mouth. There’s a loud thud as something is dropped onto the bench in frustration. “Look as pathetic as possible,” he mutters. “My wife has a warm heart for lost creatures.”

“What is it now?” Soufia demands, appearing at the doorway.

“This is Nicolò, a poor traveling merchant with no place to rest his head,” Ibrahim says, his hand on Nicolò’s shoulder. “We were hoping to discuss business, but he is tired from his journey. He needs a place to stay.”

Nicolò plays his part well, ducking his head so his clear eyes peer from under his headdress. Ibrahim almost falls for it himself.

“Please, kind Sayidati,” he says. “It would mean so much to me.”

Soufia melts. “Oh, you poor thing. Come inside at once.”

Chayma and her children have taken the guest room, so the only place the man can be given is Yusuf’s room, mostly untouched since he left for Jerusalem several months ago. Once Nicolò is settled in, Ibrahim remembers the gemstone on the corded necklace and tries to return it to him.

“It’s yours,” Nicolò says, only half paying attention as he looks carefully at every piece of furnishing and decoration. He shakes his head as if clearing cobwebs. “Keep it, Hadretak, as a measure of my good will towards a successful deal and as payment for my food and accommodation with you.”

Ibrahim is flabbergasted. “But this could easily pay your living for a year!”

He doesn’t understand the smile Nicolò gives him, but feels it spells trouble.

“Not so much a poor merchant if he can afford this!” Soufia exclaims quietly, examining the gemstone.

“Poor in the sense of pathetic,” Ibrahim mutters, and Nicolò laughs.

“And you have more pieces like this?” Soufia asks. Ibrahim glares at her, but Nicolò just smiles and unshoulders his pack.

“Many, Hadritik,” he says. “But that is a discussion for another time.”

 


 

Soufia is always a wonderful host and takes the duties of hospitality seriously. It isn’t long before they are sitting around the table, laughing and talking easily. No further mention has been made of trade, because every time Ibrahim brings it up, Nicolò waves it off for later. He is charming and disarming. He listens with rapt interest at their fussing over a goat that has gotten sick.

“You have the air of very caring parents,” he says. “Do you have children?”

“Two,” Soufia beams. “All grown up now.”

“I would like to meet them,” Nicolò says, and there is deep sincerity in his voice. “The measure of a man is seen in the character of his children, wouldn’t you agree?”

Ibrahim preens. Soufia has often scolded him for his boasting about his children, Yusuf and Chayma, but he is very proud of them, the fine people they have grown up to be.

“Our daughter is-” Soufia starts, then cries out in joy as a young boy with thick black hair streaks into the room and collides with her lap.

“Oh, Lotfi!” Chayma scolds, chasing after her youngest boy. Nicolò stands immediately when she enters.

“Our eldest,” Ibrahim introduces. “Chayma, this is Nicolò, he is a trader, he might be staying with us for a while.” He tactfully ignores Soufia mouthing ‘a while?!’ at him.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Chayma says.

“The pleasure is all mine,” Nicolò returns.

“Chayma and her children are living with us for the moment,” Soufia says. “While her husband is away.”

There is a strange stiffness to Nicolò’s back and voice as he asks his next question.

“Do you not have a son?” Nicolò asks.

Ibrahim sighs deeply. “His name is Yusuf. My son has gone off to fight in this war. If he does not return, there will be no one to carry my name.”

Those bright eyes are intimidating as they turn to him and he speaks.

“May God bless your name, and the name of your son and ancestors, Sayidi Ibrahim Al-Kaysani, to stand for many thousands of years.”

It sounds like a promise when he says it.

 


 

The morning comes, and there is still no talk of trade. Nicolò begs another day of rest, and they cannot refuse him. They are finding they like the man, the easy way he fills the space left behind in Yusuf’s absence, the way he takes their minds off the stress of imagining the horrors of war so far away. Despite his claims to need more rest, Nicolò immediately sets upon finding jobs around the house. He fetches water and chops firewood without being asked. In fact, he takes over most of the tasks that have languished since Yusuf’s departure and the home is quickly transformed into one without so much of the ache of his loss.

Ibrahim tries to push along the trade deal, but at every turn Nicolò redirects his energy and they end up discussing genealogy, or travel, or art. Nicolò is particularly interested in the art that is displayed in their home, pieces collected from cultures both far and wide. There are mosaics, sculptures, paintings and glasswork. Most importantly, there are the geometric sketches and calligraphy, produced by Ibrahim’s own son, given pride of place, and these are the ones Nicolò lingers over.

Nicolò claims to have had no formal instruction in art, but he critiques and comments like the most accomplished of students. Yusuf’s sketches, however, he can only praise.

“I wish your son could be here,” Nicolò says, “as I am sure he would as well.”

“He definitely would love to be home,” Ibrahim says. “But he is a young man of duty and responsibility.”

Nicolò hums like he agrees and turns his gaze back to the sketches.

A week goes by, and on Friday he is ready by the door before Chayma has gathered the children to go to Mosque.

“You are Muslim?” Soufia asks, arching an eyebrow.

“I would like to worship God with your family. If you would rather I didn’t…?”

“Nonsense,” Ibrahim says. “All are welcome.”

The next day, Ibrahim presses the issue of discussing business, but Nicolò begs him off.

“Only, allow me a little more time with you and your family, Hadretak,” Nicolò says.

The young man will not promote his own business, but is very interested in Ibrahim’s. He asks pointed questions about how supplies are chosen and traded, how far Ibrahim’s influence reaches, and what greatest joy he has in his work. Ibrahim does not often share details easily, he has always been a shrewd businessman, but Nicolò seems far more interested in learning from Ibrahim’s wisdom, and he is very willing to teach.

 


 

Nicolò is a very strange houseguest. Any other man would be luxuriating in the privileges that come with being served, but Nicolò seems more intent on being a servant. He seems to get joy out of merely existing alongside Soufia’s family, and she has never known a man to spend so much time in the kitchen.

“I simply must know how to cook your pastilla,” Nicolò says, seated at the kitchen table and grinding almonds into a fine flour. “I have always found them so finicky.”

“You mean you wish to teach your wife?” Soufia says. Over the several weeks he has lived with them, she still knows very little about the man. She’s not above fishing for information.

“No, no wife. Just my beloved,” he says and leaves it at that. “But I do so enjoy cooking. I would love to learn every favourite meal from you.”

Soufia hurrumphs. “Cooking may only have joy because you don’t have a family to feed,” she says, wiping sweat from her brow before she returns to kneading the dough. Nicolò scrapes the flour into a bowl and takes over the hard labour of throwing and pushing the lump of dough over and over again. A beloved, he had said. Not a wife. Soufia stores that information close to her heart.

“Unless, you do have children?” Soufia asks, fishing again.

“No, but I do have a family,” Nicolò says, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the dough before him. “It was my older sisters who collected the items I intend to sell to your husband.”

“You did ask their permission, didn’t you? I will not have my Ibrahim working with stolen goods!”

“No, no, I did ask their permission,” he insists, then he cocks his head and allows, “Albeit retroactively. We were not quite… on speaking terms earlier this year. But they read my note and gave me permission.”

There’s a funny sort of structure to his sentences, like he’s dancing around the truth.

Nicolo takes some parsley from where it hangs on the kitchen wall and begins chopping it.

“Ah,” Soufia scolds, “too much knife work, Nicolò!”

Nicolò shrugs. “Knife work comes easily to me.”

“And you only do what comes easily, eh?” She says sharply. “How can you know what is on your dish if you do not feel it with your fingers?”

She takes a few leaves and begins ripping them into pieces into the simmering pot. Nicolò ducks his head, appropriately chastised, and somehow, strikingly, he reminds her of Yusuf. Something in his mannerism, the way he waves his hand.

Nicolò is a good cook, that much is true, and he learns from Soufia’s hand easily. He works with couscous like a natural, and more than once he prepares an evening meal for the entire family by himself. Chayma is grateful to be relieved of kitchen duties, and even more when Nicolò takes all four of her boys out to walk and teaches them geometry and mathematics. Because of this, she is able to concentrate on the shop for the first time in months, and she finds some glaring accounting errors that she could have only missed due to her stress. She gets her first full night’s sleep in months when he does a night lesson on astronomy and the movement of the planets.

He’s also a strange man in his education. He is at some points a scholar, some points a labourer. When Lotfi comes down with an illness, he insists on caring for him first before the doctor is called, and the young boy makes a full and quick recovery.

Life has been difficult since Chayma’s husband left with Yusuf to defend Jerusalem, and Nicolò has been a welcome addition to the home.

 


 

The problem with Nicolò is that he has integrated himself so easily into their family and does more than his share of household chores, that Ibrahim becomes reluctant to press him again on the prospect of trade.

“Do you think we are being scammed?” Soufia asks, standing at the window and watching Nicolò in the back garden.

“I took the gemstone to Azdine, he said it was real,” Ibrahim answers. “And the most exquisite and exotic setting he has ever seen, possibly from far east Asia. He said he would pay us seventy five dinar for it.”

“What is a Frank doing in Africa with jewels from far east Asia?” Another confusing layer to the puzzle. “And have you seen any more of these stones he claims to have?”

“Yes! Many,” Ibrahim says. “His pack is filled with them. That man is sitting on a fortune that would make him richer than the emir. And here he is chopping our firewood!”

“Perhaps he is waiting on a chance to steal from us,” Soufia says.

“In my experience, thieves are far more lazy,” Ibrahim answers. He watches as Nicolò stacks another load of firewood against the side of the house. “He has had chance enough to steal from us already. What would he have to gain from hanging around here, playing with the boys?”

“What indeed,” Soufia says.

 


 

Two weeks turn into a month, turn into a several, and still Nicolò hasn’t moved on or brokered a deal with Ibrahim. He approaches Chayma and asks her if there is any hope for his hair.

“I don’t like my head shaven,” he says, “but this tonsure growing out is not the most flattering look for me. I don’t suppose…?”

Chayma tuts and takes him to her sister-in-law’s place for a haircut. He endures the teasing and poking of all of Chayma’s friends, and by the end of it they name him Akhi, brother, and proclaim him handsome enough.

“I am spoken for, I am afraid,” he says when they tease him. That leads to some tittering, but Chayma narrows her eyes. She asks him, later, as they walk along the way.

“Your wife lets you wander so far from home?”

Nicolò, she has learnt, is so often measured and careful in his words. “My beloved knows the life I must live,” he releases a sigh. “But it is difficult to be so far from home for such a long time. I am very honoured by the generosity your family has shown me.”

He asks for the date. She gives it, and his mood turns somber.

“And yet I cannot stay forever. My time here is running out,” he says. “I have work to do.”

“You haven’t even done any work here, Nicolò,” Chayma teases. “My father is still making excuses to us about why he hasn’t traded for those jewels you have. I think he’s more fond of you than the prospect of profit.”

Nicolò quirks an eyebrow at her. “As I am, too, okhti.” He turns his gaze to the road ahead.

“I have a pressing appointment to meet. I shudder to think what would happen if I was late to it.”

“With your beloved?”

Nicolò smiles at that. “In a way.” He turns to her, and his expression is incredibly fond. “Thank you, for accepting me into your home these last few months. I am saddened that I cannot have more time with you.”

Chayma huffs and waves a hand. “You can come back any time.”

There is a sad smile at that. “No, I can’t.

 


 

Ibrahim is no stranger to nighttime wanderings. He likes the peace that darkness brings, and has made a habit of thinking through his business in the middle of the night when he’s alone. So he’s surprised to see a light burning in the kitchen when he wakes.

“What are you doing here, Ibni?” Ibrahim scolds gently. “You’re not in the habit of lurking in the dark.”

“Unlike you, ’Ami?” Nicolò returns with a smile.

How close they have gotten these last several months, that they refer to each other as such. A far cry from the bizarre young man who sought him out at the city gate.

“I needed to think,” Nicolò says. “Will you join me?”

Ibrahim sits across from him and studies the young man’s face in the flickering candlelight.

“What’s on your mind, my son?”

It’s a long time before Nicolò answers.

“I have lived with war before, we are old friends,” Nicolò says. “There are the common adages about war, but the one I keep thinking about is the waiting and the uncertainty.”

Ibrahim hasn’t heard any news from the siege in weeks. That’s probably why he’s up and pacing.

“It’s awful,” Nicolò voices. “And with the uncertainty comes suspicion and misinformation. It can be hard to know what is the truth.”

He looks up at Ibrahim with hooded eyes. “Do you trust the man you raised?” He asks.

Ibrahim releases a startled laugh. “Where is this coming from?”

“If your son, Yusuf, was given two impossible choices,” Nicolò continues, “what would he do?”

Ibrahim doesn’t understand why this young man would be asking after his son, but the answer comes easily.

“The right thing,” he says. “Yusuf always tries to do the right thing.”

“Would you still believe that? Even if word came to you that he had done evil? Even something traitorous?”

This line of logic is fast losing Ibrahim’s good humour.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to insinuate here,” he growls.

“I mean no disrespect, Hadretak,” Nicolò rushes to say. “I’m only… I’m considering my own family. What they would do, if they heard the worst about me.”

All of Ibrahim’s hot air seeps out of him. A lost little boy, that’s all.

“Tell me what you would do, if you were told something awful, about Yusuf,” Nicolò begs.

It’s small and sad, and it cannot possibly really be about Ibrahim’s son this man has never met.

“I would try to find the truth,” Ibrahim says carefully. “Hear it from Yusuf, if I could. I am not a stranger to the horrors of war myself, you know.”

Nicolò nods, but still looks thoughtful and concerned. Ibrahim reaches across the table and places a hand on Nicolò’s shoulder.

“A father’s love can look past many sins. Perceived or true.”

“And would you still hold to that hope? If the rest of the world, your people, believed the worst?”

“If word came to me that Yusuf had abandoned his post, betrayed his people…” Ibrahim says slowly. “I would endure whatever scorn was thrown at me willingly. I know my son, I know his character. He would not do an awful thing without good reason. Always so kind, to the last.”

He gazes out the window at the cool light of the moon.

“You miss him,” Nicolò murmurs.

“Every day.”

“I’m sorry.”

The words hang there in the dark of the night, and they are silent for a long time.

“The night goes on,” Nicolò says. “You must be getting tired, ’Ami.”

Ibrahim nods, getting up and giving Nicolò his space to think.

“Writing by candlelight is possibly not the best for my eyes,” Nicolò says. “But there is something I need to write. May I have paper and a pencil?”

“Of course, you know where they are kept. Everything that is mine is yours, Ibni,” Ibrahim says, and presses a fatherly kiss to Nicolò’s forehead.

“And the same for you, dear ‘Ami.”

 


 

The next morning, Soufia rises to find the house empty of the strange songs Nicolò often sings as he works. Songs in a strange language with fast words and a strong beat. She can’t find him anywhere, and voices her concern to Ibrahim, thinking him ill in bed. Together they knock on the door to Yusuf’s room and find it slides open, having not been latched.

The bed is made neatly, and Nicolò’s pack is gone. On the linens of the bed is a strange assortment of gemstones, jewellery, golden coins with unfamiliar carvings. Amongst them all is a note. Soufia unfolds it with shaking hands. The script is neat and clear, a hand well-used to writing in Arabic.

 

To my dear ‘Ami and Khalti,

It gives me great sorrow to leave this beautiful home and family. You have all been so kind to me, and I will treasure each memory for the rest of my life.

I knew that goodbyes would break me, so I have left in the night. Do not worry for me and do not worry for your family. You will all be blessed by God and live long and happy lives.

Forgive my duplicitousness. As you may have guessed from my lack of mercantile skill, I was never looking to trade. I was looking for a worthy family to gift my treasures to. That’s what these are. A gift.

I knew that you would never accept them without proper payment - another reason I had to leave without saying goodbye - so you cannot refuse them now. They are a gift to support the ones you love in the trying times ahead.

As news comes from the siege, I beg of you to keep your promise, to trust the best of Yusuf and even myself. You are wise judges of character, please remember that war has many impossible choices.

I will be going to where the fighting is thickest, and should I find there a man of good character and standing, named Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Kaysani, I promise to protect him with all my strength and pass on your deep love for him.

 

May God bless and protect your family.

Nicolò di Genova

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Algiers Herald

14th of May, 1969

LANDSLIDE REVEALS HIDDEN TREASURES

 

A landslide in Algeria has exposed a series of caves and ancient treasures in the Babor Mountains in the Tell Atlas range. The caves were identified by national park workers in the area, who found the items and reported them to the Archaeological Museum of Cherchell.

“It’s truly a remarkable, once in a lifetime find,” Professor Touati, who is leading the excavation, said. “We are absolutely thrilled to begin cataloging these pieces.”

The archeological find includes several weapons and pieces of armour, as well as coins, pottery and scraps of fabric.

“We suspect the caves were used as housing and storage for bandits who attacked people on the road,” Touati continued. “It’s our only explanation for the variety of objects. There are artefacts here from as far away as Vietnam and as far south as what is now Nigeria, and some of the coins date back to 200CE. No one group of people could have travelled that far and wide.”

Mysteries abound, and the one most people find intriguing is a message carved into the cave wall. Translated from Ligurian, it reads: “Took jewels as dowry, will repay” and signed with the very confusing “XOXO -N.”

“Obviously it seems to be a very modern inscription,” Professor Touati said. “But as good historians, we have to put things in context. The letter X was commonly used in the Middle Ages to sign documents as it meant faith and fidelity, representing the cross.”

And of the O’s? Professor Touati had a theory about that too.

“I think it might just be a pretty pattern,” he said. “Perhaps even artwork. It may be how the writer signed his name. Certainly, though, it doesn’t mean ‘hugs and kisses’.”

 

 


 

 

The newspaper is slapped down in front of Nicky’s face on a kitchen table in Laos as he sits translating the Sermon on the Mount from Lao into Vietnamese.

“You got an explanation for this?” Andy says, her hands on her hips.

They’ve evacuated fourteen families to Laos during the Vietnam War and are enjoying a much needed respite from the mud and violence. Nicky peruses the article with great interest.

“How interesting,” he says, a glimmer in his eye.

“What’s this?” Joe asks, scrubbing a towel through his curls after his shower. He stands behind Nicky and rests his wet beard on his head as he reads the article.

“I plead a nonlinear life,” Nicky says dryly. “I have no idea what that’s talking about.”

Andy throws up her hands. “There was a fortune of jewellery in there! Quynh, Lykon and I had used those caves since Emperor Caligula!”

“Clearly not too in use,” Joe says, draping his arms easily over Nicky’s shoulders and leaning his whole weight on him. “If you never read his note in person, you mustn’t have visited.”

“Thank you, darling,” Nicky says, pressing a kiss to the bicep next to his head.

“We lost the entrance in a rockslide,” Andy defends herself. “Sometime around the time we found you two.”

Booker saunters over, holding a five month old girl one-handed like a natural. “We’re almost out of food for the babies,” he says. He peers at the newspaper they’re all huddled around and chuckles softly. “Nice one, Nicky.”

“Just be thankful the internet isn’t really a thing yet,” Nicky says. He taps on the grainy photo of his inscription on the wall. “They’d have a blast with that.”

“What does it mean,” Booker asks, “‘took as a dowry’?”

“It means I get to keep my promise,”  Nicky says with a smile. “According to Joe, there is about a year of my life unaccounted for, between when we killed each other and when we journeyed together. We’ve often theorised, but…” His fingers brush the edges of the newspaper. “I’ve never known for sure.”

“May I?” Nicky asks. Andy raises an eyebrow, so he continues. “May I take the jewels?”

“Apparently, you already did,” Booker grunts, swaying the baby slowly as he reads the article again.

“I would like your permission,” Nicky says, watching Andy carefully.

She sighs. “It’s my own damn fault for not going back there earlier. After Lykon, it was… unpleasant.”

“Where was the cave hidden?” Joe asks.

“Start at the grotto with the pointed mountain,” Andy starts, “and go south until you hit the river. Go upstream and find the cliff with the lion’s head and follow its nose to the base of the big oak tree. The entrance should be around there.”

There’s a beat of silence. Booker breaks it with a laugh. “Right, then. I’ll just add ‘atlas of Africa’ to the shopping list then, shall I?”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Nicolò leaves Tunisia in the dead of night, crying as he walks, and makes his way to the battlefields of the Holy Land. He is slain by the sword outside the gates of Jerusalem, a young soldier he had befriended by the name of Ansaldo di Traverio shouting after him.

In 1994, Nicky wakes up disoriented, because Joe is dragging his body to safety by the back of his tac vest. Bullets are firing around them, and Joe catches one in the shoulder, as they hide behind a fallen car.

“Ah, damn it,” Joe says, pressing a hand to his shoulder to stop the bleeding. “Nicky, I’m here, I’m here.”

“I’m okay, Joe,” Nicky gasps out.

There’s dust and smoke and noise of gunfire everywhere. They look at each other. Joe’s face is smudged with dirt and his eyes are worried. Nicky can’t help himself, it bursts out of him.

“Ibrahim has tea with goat’s milk when the sun goes down and has an ongoing feud with his neighbour about how tall to grow the lemon tree.”

The world narrows to Nicky and his words.

“You can’t leave out a plate of olives for cooking, because Chayma will eat them all before you start,” he keeps saying. “Soufia’s fingers always smell like saffron. And your nephews, oh, Yusuf, they are amazing.”

An explosion rocks the street, and Joe braces an arm against the car.

“Tell me everything,” Joe begs.

But they don’t have time, because Booker scrambles up beside them, his face creased in worry.

“You okay?” He asks. “You got hit and didn’t get back up.”

“I’m fine,” Nicky says. “I missed you, Book.”

Booker turns away; he always tries to shrug off open words of affection.

Nicky looks back at Joe. “I just have a lot to say.”

“Well, can it wait? We’re in a sticky situation here,” Booker grunts. He gets up on his knee and lays down cover fire over the car.

“We’ll have time,” Joe promises.

They take up their weapons and go to war.

 


 

When it’s over, when there is a break in the violence, they regroup and dust themselves off.

“How are you doing, Nicky?” Andy asks, watching him warily.

“Better for seeing you,” Nicky says. “I just came from the Crusades, filling in that missing year after the first death.”

“Then you’ve been alone,” Andy surmises.

“Not alone.” Nicky shakes his head. “I went to Yusuf’s family.”

Joe’s eyes are shining. Booker leans forward with interest.

“Finally paid that dowry, huh?” He says. “How long were you there?”

“Several months. A year away from you, all up.”

Joe can’t help it, he pulls Nicky into a tight embrace. Nicky clutches him back, hands fisted in his shirt.

“Thank you, thank you,” Joe whispers.

Andy and Booker make eye contact and go back to their drinks. When the couple have pulled apart, still touching each other’s faces, Andy clears her throat.

“I’m sorry, Nicky, Joe. I shouldn’t have taken us to this part of the war,” Andy says. “It was too dangerous, we hadn’t even celebrated yet.”

“Celebrated?” Nicky asks.

“It’s 1994, we’re in Yemen,” Joe explains. “You’ve just graduated as a doctor.”

“It was supposed to be a quick, in and out mission,” Andy says. “We were going to party.”

“Yes, I remember,” Nicky looks away, thoughtful. “We feasted in Delhi in the 1700’s instead.”

“Doctor Smith,” Booker salutes with his glass.

“Well, we have a few things to celebrate, then,” Nicky says, clapping his hands together. “You all put up with enough of my frustration through those exams. Let me put on a feast. Booker, would you please book some flights to Tunis?”

“Tunis?” Joe asks, “Darling, we don’t have to-”

“You want me to cook your mother’s tajine with ingredients this far from the Mediterranean?” Nicky says, an eyebrow arched. “No, we’re going to Tunisia.”

 


 

Joe soaks up every word Nicky has to say about his time with Joe’s family. He’s listening intently for an hour before he realises he should be recording, gets a cassette tape and makes him say it all over again.

“And was there still the little apple orchard, near the gate?” Joe asks.

“Yes! The children could hardly be dragged away from it.”

“Tell me more about Chayma’s children.”

“Madani, the eldest, was ten years old. Such a serious boy. So respectful, I could hardly crack a smile from him. Trying to be the grown man of the house. Rabah is smart, so smart. I could not think of puzzles and equations fast enough for him. He will take over the business one day, I am sure of it.”

If Joe closes his eyes, he can see them in his mind, their round faces and curly hair.

“Haithem is always building something, making and breaking little cities out of clay and mud. He’s always playing at war,  idolizing his wonderful father and uncle. And Lotfi, sweet Lotfi. You cannot pin the boy down, and he doesn’t know when to stop, but his heart is so pure. He will follow his brothers to the ends of the earth if he has to.”

And on and on Nicky talks, and Joe’s memories come flooding back. They are equal parts bittersweet and delightful, and Joe’s heart surges to hear it all. But most of all, he is overflowing with love for Nicky, the man he is and the precious gift he gives. Joe makes sure Nicky knows it, with soft words, gentle touches and declarations.

When they get to Tunisia, Nicky gets to work putting together a party. He waves off any help, wanting to put something together special to celebrate coming back to them. He puts Joe in charge of the music though, finding the tastes and technology far too difficult to keep up with at this point in history.

Nicky cooks for a whole day, Joe stuck to his side, smelling and taste testing. Andy makes a game of it, walking in and out of the kitchen with her eyes closed, sniffing the air and naming all the spices he’s using. Booker is, at least, a happy drunk this time, grooving slightly to the beat of the music and laughing easily.

Finally, the spread is laid out on the table, more than the four of them could ever eat.

“Bon Appétit,” Booker says, raising his glass. Joe takes his first bite and cries.

“I feel like I’m a young boy again,” he says through his tears. He grabs Nicky’s face and kisses him, murmuring softly, “thank you, thank you.”

“I made a promise to send you their love,” Nicky says.

Even Booker is blinking away tears at the sight.

The night goes on, and the room becomes stuffy from dancing and hot food, Nicky takes a minute out on the balcony to cool off. He’s nursing a red wine, and Joe slides up beside him, snaking a hand around his waist.

“You okay?” He asks.

Nicky presses a quick kiss to Joe’s jaw. “Just thinking, about all the things we leave behind.”

“Too somber for such a party, my dear,” Joe scolds gently, giving his hip a squeeze. “I’m thinking instead about all the things we carry with us.”

“Too true, my love,” Nicky says.

They stand together in the Mediterranean breeze for a long time. There’s a crash from inside, then a whoop and holler from Andy and Booker.

“That’s my cue,” Joe says. Nicky is so warm beside him. “You coming in? I’m going to get Booker started on his Les Misérables rant. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but lately there’s been a new development.” He waggles his eyebrows.

Nicky smiles. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Joe squeezes Nicky’s arm and lets his touch drop.

In the cool of the night, in 1994, Nicky stares over the balcony and to the west, in the vague direction of America, of Chicago.

“Welcome to the world, Nile Freeman.”

Chapter Text

The whole drive from their base in Paraguay, Nicky is vibrating with energy. He keeps glancing up with fervent looks, gaze bouncing between the other three in the car. It’s his first mission, Joe reminds himself. There’s nothing of his usual still calmness and peace that precedes the storm. Nicky’s knee is bouncing up and down, and Joe longs to reach over and place a hand on it.

But Nicky’s not there yet. He’s not even anywhere close.

It’s been bizarre and more than a little fascinating to see small glimmers of his personality shine through the roughness and anger of this young version of Nicky. The pain of being dismissed and hated by his love these last two years was soothed by those small moments. The way he walked out of the bedroom without socks, sat with his legs crossed on the floor, his stillness in the grey pre-dawn light and small acts of kindness.

Very little of that kindness has been directed towards Joe.

He’s not jealous. He’s not.

Those first few days of new life had been rough. It’s not exaggerating to say that Nicky hated him and every attempt of connection that Joe had offered, so he had backed off, tried to aim for a relationship dynamic that was more distant but helpful. Joe tried to be a teacher, and nothing more.

He wouldn’t have survived if not for Andy. She had been his rock, and he had slept in her bed almost every night and more than once cried into her collarbone while she had stroked the nape of his neck.

He can be patient.

While Nicky had secreted himself away in his room, keeping distant and translating the Spanish Bible into his own Ligurian, Joe had penned letters to the man he loves. There’s a fat stack of them, hidden under the pillows of the pull out lounge, ready for whenever Nicky’s next death comes. Joe tries not to think of it as being morbid, and more hopeful.

Two years on, and now Nicky at least tolerates him. He doesn’t shy away from touches, from any of them. But he doesn’t initiate many either. Joe is a hugger, he has been all his life, but Nicky was a solitary boy, he needed time to learn to accept physical affection, and he’s slowly learning it now.

Andy really is pulling double duty in being both teacher to the younger immortals and the locus of Joe’s restless need for physical touch.

Joe looks away from Nicky’s jittery knee and is saved by Nile asking for some music.

“It’s like you guys have never done a good old American road-trip before, honestly!”

“Do stagecoaches count?” Andy asks.

“No, stagecoaches don’t count!”

And Joe grins despite himself.

“What stereo system we working with here, anyway?” Nile asks, leaning over to inspect it.

“This is a cassette deck!” She groans. “Lord, save me from these immortal idiots. You bought this truck when we landed, how did you not at least spring for MP3s? An aux cord? Bluetooth?”

“Booker is still personally offended by the decline of the vinyl record, and don’t get me started on CDs.”

Nicky leans forward. “Has my grasp on the English language failed me, or are you two just speaking nonsense?”

Joe grins. He’s still a cheeky son of a bitch.

“I’m a millennial, Nicky!” Nile groans. “I’m not meant to go more than twenty seconds without an excess of sensory stimulation.”

“Again, I beg you,” Nicky says dryly, “I have only been learning this garbage language for two years. And I only speak it out of love for you, Nile.”

Andy, matching his teasing tone and keeping her eyes on the road, switches to Ligurian.

“She wants music,” Andy says. “Think you can give us a tune?”

Nicky, with no shame or hesitation, bursts into another rendition of the Chimney Sweep, and the affected gravelly voice he adopts for the innuendos does funny things to Joe’s gut. It’s been a while, alright? By the end, even Nile has caught the lyrics, and they sing their way towards their mission with passion and an ease that surprises Joe.

It’s a long drive, several hours to the spot on the map Mrs Villabla from the bakery had pointed out. It’s barely accessible by road, so they find a small clearing, park the truck and go the rest of the way on foot.

They meet with Mrs Villabla’s grandson, and he gives them the background and lay of the land, describing the armed militia and their demands. Andy looks to Nile to hear her first gut response of a plan. It’s decent enough, needing some tweaks and details, but it’s solid.

The first two or three phases of the plan fail to resolve the situation. The militia are being paid far too high of a price to terrorise the town for access to their water supply to back off at their de-escalation tactics. Andy, coming to grips with her mortality, lets Joe and Nile take the lead. Both Andy and Nicky wear Kevlar reinforced tactical vests, having the most to lose, but Joe needs the flexibility to wield his sword, and Nile is buzzing with excitement.

Nile and Nicky talk animatedly, hands waving as they plan for the next phase, and Andy is watching them with a smile like a proud parent.

“Do you remember what it was like?” She asks Joe. “To feel remarkable? Invincible?”

Joe folds his arms and watches the two young immortals. “I do now.”

They enter into talks with the locals, putting options on the table for how to protect their river and wells from this corporate-hired militia. They discuss every option, the risks and dangers. In the end, they decide to evacuate most of the village, and the able-bodied and willing stay behind to help them fight. Nile tries to dissuade them, saying that their team alone will get the job done, that they don’t need to risk more lives.

Andy stills her with a hand on her shoulder.

“This is their home,” she says. “Would you walk away while strangers defend it?”

Nile relents, and both Nicky and Andy surrender their Kevlar to people who are staying behind. They set up their plan, scoping out the best vantage points and predicting the enemy movements.

“Can I use my sniper rifle?” Nicky asks, a little too enthusiastically.

“Take the ridge,” Andy says. “Joe’s your spotter.”

“I don’t need babysitting,” Nicky protests, always bristling when he’s young.

“That’s not how this works,” Andy says and leaves no room for debate.

And that’s how they end up, lying on their bellies among the greenery, watching the road for movement. It’s familiar; it’s different. The silence between them is not yet comfortable. It’s barely palatable.

Nicky’s hands shake a bit as they re-adjust his position.

“You okay?” Joe asks.

“I guess, with all this training, I never thought about what I was working towards, killing people.” Nicky says, then allows. “If it comes to that.”

“You’re a soldier. You’ve killed before.” Joe cocks his head and considers. “You’ve killed me before.”

“That was easy,” Nicky says off-hand.

Joe lets his voice go flat. “Easy, was it? To walk into a land not your own and kill those who live there?”

“We were-” Nicky stops, his expression shifts and he opens his mouth to say something in return, but then snaps it shut. After a time, his brow furrows in thought. Nicky must be reconsidering his motivations in the Holy Land, maybe for the first time. They don’t talk again until the militant’s helicopter flies overhead.

“When the fighting starts,” Joe says, pointing at the centre of town below them, where they’ve chosen to make their stand, “I want you staying up here, pick them off from above.”

“I’m going in to fight,” Nicky says.

“You don’t have your Kevlar. I don’t like you going in unprotected.”

“I thought you’d be thrilled to get an older version of me,” Nicky says archly, “someone less incompetent.”

“I never said that,” Joe protests.

“But you were thinking it?” Nicky challenges.

“It’s not what I want.”

But they can’t keep arguing, because the militants arrive on the scene, and the guns start firing.

It doesn’t take long before Joe is sliding down the embankment, his sword drawn. They’re not trying to make waves here, just muscle out the hired muscle. It’s more a show of force than a total decimation. Joe is cutting down the belligerents that run at him, but letting the ones that run away escape. He’s lost in the beat of the fight when he spins and finds Nicky at his side.

“I thought I told you to stay on the ridge,” Joe grunts out.

“Do I always do what you tell me?” Nicky asks with a raised eyebrow.

That gets a smile from Joe. “If you know what’s good for you.”

Nicky pulls a pistol from his thigh holster and, even though he’s overly rigid with how he wields it, fires two warning shots over the head of one attacker who drops his rifle and runs away.

Nicky breaks formation - he doesn’t know the patterns yet, Joe reminds himself - and is just too far away when Joe calls out to him.

“Nicky! Look out!”

Nicky turns to him, and puts his back towards the other gunman. There’s the awful double sound of twin bullets entering his back.

Nicky drops to his knees, and Joe’s heart sinks.

He dispatches Nicky’s murderer with a shot between the eyes, then his world is all Nicky. The colour is quickly draining from his face, a bullet must have caught his heart, he’s losing blood too quickly. Nicky sways on his knees, and Joe’s running to him. Nicky’s lip twitches in a small smile and his eyes glaze over just as Joe reaches him.

“No, no, no,” Joe says, catching Nicky around the waist and stopping him from falling face first into the dust. “Nicky, Nicky, I’m here. That’s it, I’m here.”

His eyes are open and glassy, his head slack as Joe cradles it. He’s a dead weight in Joe’s arms, their bodies pressed together from their thighs up, Joe bearing his weight.

“Nicolò, come on, Nicolò,” He murmurs. This is the worst part, the waiting.

Those sea-glass eyes blink, and Nicky comes back to life.

He clutches at Joe, gasping and blinking rapidly.

“Yusuf,” he sighs.

“I’m here,” Joe says, “I’ve got you.”

The tension releases from his body, from both of their bodies.

“When?”

“It’s 2022, Paraguay.”

“Andy? Nile?”

“Yeah, both here.”

Joe sees another man approaching, knife drawn, and grips Nicky tight. He pulls them into a roll out of the way, and Nicky goes with him willingly, like the perfect dance partner. And Nicky plays his part well, sweeping his legs at their attacker’s ankles and knocking him to the ground. Joe pins down the hand wielding the knife, and Nicky throws him a gun that he catches and fires straight into the man’s head.

They slowly get to their feet and catch their breath as they stare at one another.

“No Booker?” Nicky hazards a guess.

Joe shakes his head, confirming Nicky’s fears, then asks, “Malta?”

A big smile creeps across Nicky’s face. “Yeah.”

Joe wastes no time. He lunges at Nicky, cupping a hand around his jaw and finally, finally, kisses him. He doesn’t care about the rest of the world, the gunfire around them. He has Nicky back, and he needs this.

Nicky is pliant and willing and soft under Joe’s lips, everything he wasn’t just minutes before.

Then he is very, very active. Nicky kisses like rain, like the downpour that soaks the parched earth, and Joe is drinking deeply. They open to each other without hesitation, Nicky clutching his back, and Joe’s hands trembling as they trace his short stubble.

“How long has it been?” Nicky asks against his mouth.

“Two years.”

Nicky hums and teases, “You’ve gone longer.”

And as they are at almost every reunion, they are interrupted by shouts and gunfire. Nicky whips his head around, surveying the battlefield.

“Oh, this is Paraguay Paraguay,” he says.

Then they move and fight, and it’s a dance together. They’re an unstoppable machine, easily moving in sync and without hesitation. Within minutes, they’ve killed and maimed enough to send a clear message, but let those who didn’t want to fight run away, their tails between their legs. Nicky and Joe get to the other two quickly, finding them deep in the village wrapping up loose ends. Nicky beams when he sees them.

“Hi, Nile.”

Nile stops in her tracks and looks him up and down. “Whoa. That’s weird.”

She must see it too, the change in Nicky. Nothing has overtly changed in his appearance, his clothes, hair and beard remain the same, but the difference is there. There’s a peace that’s settled over him, a personality change, something in the way he holds himself. To Nile’s eyes it must look like a stranger is standing in front of her.

Andy strips a jacket from the body at her feet and throws it at Nicky. “I don’t know what colour your shirt is supposed to be, but those gunshot wounds are visible.”

As soon as he’s covered up the blood, Andy embraces him.

“You okay?” She asks.

“More than okay,” he answers.

Nile looks shaken. “You weren’t ready,” she murmurs. “We never should have taken this mission. This is my fault.”

Nicky looks between them. “What are you talking about?”

“This mission,” Nile says, her voice quavering. “It was my idea. Joe said you weren’t ready, but I pushed us to go. I got you killed.”

“Oh,” Nicky says, his brow furrowing as he searches his memory for the events of yesterday evening, “and I refused? Was dragged kicking and screaming?”

Nile pulls a face. “No. You volunteered.”

“Ah,” Nicky smiles. “Then it seems blame rests on me. Besides, if the way Joe kissed me when I revived is any indication, it was probably a good time for me to go.”

Joe’s cheeks colour a little.

“Alright,” Andy says, smirking fondly. “Let’s get you two boys home.”

They finish talks with the people from the village that stayed behind and give them a plan for if their river gets targeted again. Joe doesn’t let go of Nicky’s hand once.

Driving the truck back, Joe and Nicky stay pressed together in the back seat, hands intertwined.

“Hey,” Nicky whispers.

“What?”

“I cooked you fish.”

“Aljotta?”

Nicky shakes his head and leans in close. “The first time.”

Joe frowns, not quite able to connect the dots.

Nicky grins like he’s enjoying it. “It was very sexy of you, the way you killed me.”

Joe squeaks out an embarrassing noise and buries his head in Nicky’s shoulder.

“You winked at me!” He laments.

“Did I?” Nicky asks dryly.

“Yes!” Joe hisses. “It was very confusing! This stranger who knew my name, let me kill him then winked at me!”

Nicky laughs and kisses his forehead, then holds him close all the way back to their compound.

 


 

Joe and Nicky are sickeningly sweet all that evening, barely letting each other out of arm’s length.

Nile pulls a face. “I’m getting whiplash,” she says, putting her socked feet up on Andy’s lap.

“Hm?” Andy doesn’t look up from her book. Nile wiggles her toes at the other lounge.

“They were barely speaking to each other this morning,” Nile says. “Now look at them.”

Joe and Nicky are bundled up on the lounge together, legs intertwined and breathing each other’s air. They’re murmuring sweet nothings to each other, and every now and then one will chuckle, or kiss the other’s wrist.

“Disgusting, isn’t it?” Andy says. “You’ll get used to it.”

“It’s the only way to survive us,” Joe says, as Nicky kisses his neck.

“I dunno, it’s weird. Isn’t it weird?” Nile says. “I know it shouldn’t be, but you’ve been all touchy feely with Andy all year, it’s weird to see it suddenly switch to Nicky.”

Joe nods, half listening, then his hand freezes in its stroking down Nicky’s back.

“Wait…” He says, as the pieces fall into place. “Wait, wait, wait.”

Nicky sits up. His eyes are a little frantic. “Joe, its-”

“That’s what it was?!” Joe demands. “You thought I belonged to Andy?!”

Nile sits bolt upright now, and blindly brings her wine glass to her lips as she watches this drama unfold.

“You-” Nicky starts, but Joe is louder.

“Andy, Nicky. Andy?!” Joe waves his hands. “Really?”

“I’m right here, you know,” Andy says dryly. “I can hear you.”

“Help,” Nicky says, his eyes pleading with her.

“Don’t look at me, I kept your dirty secret.” Andy lifts her hands in surrender. “I was planning to drop that bomb on my deathbed and leave you to deal with the fallout.”

Nicky slumps. “And I was doing such a good job of hiding it. Thanks a lot, Nile.”

“What did I do?”

“You tipped him off.”

“To what?!”

Joe jumps up, suddenly full of energy. “For the first one hundred and fifty years of his life, Nicky refused to even consider me, us. I almost forgot, you said there was someone else, didn’t you? I just assumed you were picking up on my longing for you and thought I was grieving or something. But, Andy?!”

“Again, I’m right here.”

“What’s the big deal?” Nile asks.

Nicky sighs. “Ever heard the phrase ‘never live it down?’ Now imagine you’ll live for thousands of years.”

With that, Joe stops pacing and smothers a smirk before his face goes deadpan.

“Of course, you’re right, Nicky. How could I not have seen it before?” He kneels in front of Andy, his expression all earnest.

“Dearest Andromache. Nicky has opened my eyes,” he says, his voice flat. “I burn with passion for you. Clearly you are the one for me.”

“Babe,” Nicky laments. “C’mon.”

Joe holds out a hand and pulls her to her feet. Andy is immediately in on the joke, she jumps and wraps her legs around his waist and he only just catches her.

“Take me, you animal,” she says, similarly deadpan. “Take me now.”

Joe affects a growl and bares his teeth. He swings her around and she lets out a very un-Andy like squeal when he drops her onto the lounge.

“Oof,” she says. “Don’t threaten me with a good time.”

“That’s it!” Nicky pushes between them. “Andy, I hate you, I love you. Excuse us.”

He drags Joe away by the arm, Joe grinning goofily over his head like he got exactly what he wanted.

 


 

The next day, Joe’s hair is thoroughly tousled and he’s smiling like he hasn’t in years. Andy pours his breakfast tea, and he kisses the air in her direction.

“Thank you, sweetums,” he says.

She leans down and presses a wet, sloppy kiss to his cheek.

“Anything for you, love of my life.”

“Honey bun.”

“Sweet cheeks.”

Nicky sighs into his coffee. “Really?”

“How could you ever doubt our love for each other?” Andy says, her hand on Joe’s heart.

Nicky points his eggy fork at her. “Don’t touch what’s mine.”

Nile snort laughs, and that just spurs Nicky on.

“Besides, Joe,” he scolds. “I thought you of all people would be careful to use the nickname ‘honey bun’.” His tone drops to that of a warning. “I’m not going to be the one with the incident with the bees.” Then he smiles brightly. “Can you get me more eggs?”

Joe’s cheeks pink and he rushes out of the room. Nile leans over.

“The incident with the bees?” She repeats.

Nicky casts his gaze about, sees Andy is similarly distracted and leans in conspiratorially. “Wanna know a secret? There is no incident with the bees. I made it up in 1891, just something to hold over his head for the next few hundred years.”

Nile’s jaw drops open. “Nicky!”

His eyes light up. “Brilliant, isn’t it? I haven’t used a specific date, so he’s forever living in fear. Sometimes I hide a speaker in the walls and play a buzzing noise.”

“You are evil, Nicky.”

He shrugs. “I had to have something. It’s only fair, considering we both know I’ve been fucked to death.”

Nile’s coffee comes straight out of her nose. She makes a series of syllables that sound vaguely like, “Fucked to death?!”

Nicky waggles a hand. “He hasn’t experienced it yet. Cause of death was related, not direct.”

“I don’t think that makes it better, Nicky,” she leans her head back and stares at the ceiling. “Is this really my life now?”

He clinks his cup against hers.

“You’ll love it.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

The noise is the first thing Nicky perceives when he comes to. A wailing siren sound, piercing his ears, then he notices red flashing lights against his eyelids as he squints and blinks, cupping his hands over his ears.

His limbs feel sluggish and strange, but that’s not unusual for coming back to life.

He’s gasping awake. He feels like he’s drowning, he can’t breathe. He’s sucking in lung-fulls of air but he’s not spitting up water, he’s not wet.

Abruptly, the siren noise stops, and his ears rush. Joe is there beside him, unconscious or dead, his eyes shut, colour returning to his face.

He’s not touching the floor. Neither of them are. Nicky jolts, reaching out a hand to grab onto something, but they’re floating above - actually, Nicky’s not entirely sure where the ground is, it might be over his head.

Another alarm sound, and part of the white wall pulls away.

Nile comes through the hole, flying towards him. Literally, flying through the air, on her belly without touching anything.

“I’m sorry! Sorry, Nicky!” She blurts. She floats forward and collides into him. They go careening backwards but don’t stop or slow until they hit the wall.

“You okay?” She asks.

“Nile, what-?”

Joe gasps awake. He throws his head in all directions, orienting himself, but Nicky can’t understand it, because Joe is now floating upside down. He reaches for a strip of material, something tied around his waist that Nicky now realises is tied around his as well, connecting them.

“We had to drain the pod of O2,” she says. “The inner hull burst here, you and Joe jerry-rigged it.”

“I don’t understand a word you just said, Nile.”

Joe grabs a handle on the ceiling and spins in mid air without effort, so he’s looking Nicky in the eye.

“Hayati, are you alright?” He asks.

“Joe, you’re floating.”

Joe smiles, and it lights up Nicky’s world.

“Malta?” He asks.

“Yeah, of course.”

Joe waves a hand at Nile. “You want to do the honours?” He asks. His curls are floating in the air like he’s underwater, but they’re keeping their soft ringlets. It’s giving him a halo.

Nile grins and puts a hand on Nicky’s shoulder. With a single gentle push she has him spinning on the spot. Behind him, there’s a large circular window, and it takes a long time for Nicky to understand what he sees.

There’s a blackness, speckled with dots of light. In the top half of the window there is an arc of something, something beautiful and blue with white swirled like marble curves across its surface. He has no sense of scale, but he’s humbled by whatever it is he’s seeing.

Nile thumps him on the chest.

“Welcome to Space.”

 

 


 

Nicky doesn’t consider himself young anymore. He’s dotted his way through a good chunk of human history and woken up in all sorts of strange and weird situations.

Floating in a metal tube, hovering above a planet he’s only fifty percent sure is Earth is easily the weirdest he’s experienced. He’s totally disoriented by the way there is no real sense of up and down, and every time he tries to move his stomach turns over. Joe holds him with an arm around his waist and carries them effortlessly through the air with a single push, and they glide.

“This is going to be weird,” Joe warns.

“Everything is feeling strange right now, Joe,” Nicky remarks.

“This ladder takes us to the outer circle. We use centripetal force to simulate a gravitational pull.”

“Joe.”

He grins and shrugs. “In this tube you’re weightless, everything floats. Up there, we can walk. It’s not quite like normal, but it’s close.”

“C’mon, I’ll show you,” Nile says, as she flips upside down, pushes her feet into the hole and grabs the ladder. “Take it slow at first.”

She demonstrates, then Nicky has the distinctly peculiar feeling of looking up at someone standing upside down and waving at him. He’s faced down armies before. He can do this.

True to their words, as he descends the ladder, he feels the pull of gravity take him, his feet feel heavy and they touch the ground. Not quite as heavy as normal, but at least he doesn’t float up here. Down here. Here. Whatever.

A familiar face pops out from under a panel full of wiring. “Heard it’s your first time in space.”

“Booker,” Nicky greets with a smile. “You look... different.”

He swipes a hand through his sandy hair.  “I’m not aging, if that’s what you think.”

“Not, it’s…” Nicky takes him in. He’s loose limbed, but not the heavy way of being drunk. His eyes are clear and sober, but still he’s relaxed. “You look good,” Nicky finishes.

“Right.” Booker gives a crooked smile. “I’ll take that as the backhanded compliment it is.”

In Nicky’s defense, he had come from the early 1900’s and he’d died in the Great War, before Nile, and when Booker was deep in his grief and his cups. Seeing him this at ease and holding Nile’s hand is a balm to his soul.

Nicky casts his gaze about, taking in the bizarre scene of the so-called space ship. It is tidier than any of their safehouses back on Earth, everything locked away, everything new. Not one ancient artefact or keepsake to be seen. He’s not sure it’s an improvement.

“I think I need to sit down,” he says.

Joe ushers him over to a low bench and stretches him out there. He cards a hand through Nicky’s brown hair until Nicky looks up at him from hooded eyes.

“So. Space, huh?” He says.

Joe’s heart swells with fondness. “Yeah. Space.”

“Well,” Nicky says. “That changes things.”

“Oh, you have no idea.”

“So,” Nile says, clapping her hands together. “I figure this is actually good timing.”

“Really?” Nicky drawls.

“Yep!” She says, popping the ‘p’. “We have nowhere in particular to be, and the ship is actually in pretty good condition at the moment. Perfect for practicing and learning.” She shoots Nicky a grin. “Welcome to Paraguay part two, motherfucker.”

Nicky lets his head thump against the wall. “Lord give me strength.”

A sudden chill comes over his body, and he notices Joe’s fingertips are blue.

“We should get you warmed up,” Booker says, bringing over a couple of blankets. “You weren’t quite exposed to the vacuum of space, but near enough.”

This, at least, is familiar. They’ve huddled for warmth and recovered from hypothermia more times than can be counted.

As Nicky pulls the blanket tight around his shoulders he feels a small lump in the flesh of his bicep.

“What is this?” He asks, pressing his thumb into the skin and feeling the lump move.

“Tracking beacon,” Booker says. “It’s small, but powerful. My invention.”

Nicky’s never known Booker to be an inventor, but there’s a definite thread of pride in his voice.

“Are we being hunted?” He asks.

“No, it’s for us.” Joe says. “It was Quynh’s idea, before she passed. The black of space is vast, and if we’re jettisoned, we need a way back home.”

“Isn’t that dangerous? Anyone could find us,” Nicky protests.

“The signal is scrambled, encoded,” Booker explains. “Bounced off half a dozen satellites. No one can read that unless there are any other coders out there who are fluent in old Ligurian.”

That settles a peace into Nicky’s bones. “What does it say? The signal.”

Booker smiles. “It reads ‘get me home’.”

 


 

Paraguay on Earth was distressing for all parties, but the learning process for Nicky to get the basics on space travel is a nightmare.

“Do me a favour, Nicky,” Nile says after a particularly awful lesson, “get just like, any mechanical or electrical engineering degree sometime after 2100.”

“I’m trying my best,” Nicky protests.

“Yeah, but there’s a big information gap I’m working with here.”

With Joe’s help, they manage to get themselves some neat, bite-sized pieces of information, just the most essential things.  “Red is dead,” Nicky murmurs while watching the instruments as he fixes the wires. “Green is lean. Blue is good for you.”

The principles of their lives out of atmosphere are the easiest to learn, because once he gets the basics, Joe tests both his dexterity in zero gravity as well as his problem solving by floating just out of reach and slowly stripping when Nicky gives a right answer and boy was that an experience.

Technology has, at least, lost its twenty-first century obsession with touch-screens and gestures and assumed knowledge. Everything is buttons and switches and dials. There’s a lot more working with hands, even if those hands are fixing machines.

“Once the advertising bubble burst, a lot of those big tech giants went under,” Booker explains. “For a while we thought that meant space travel was off the table for good, but with the resources being drained, being able to repair became essential again. That’s just what was needed to raise the general education level for regular space flight to be possible.”

Nicky learns the symptoms of a thousand ways he could die out here in space, as well as the settlements on various planets they’ve got connections with, and he learns how to revive and fix it as quickly as possible. Air seems to be the main problem, but radiation, being stranded and lack of nutrition are all fairly high on the list as well.

Everything on the little craft they call their home has a mechanical basis, mostly fixable without needed to dock for supplies. He gets the basics of how to survive, what systems need to get online in what order and how they impact each other.

Booker and Nile are so relaxed together. They have the easiness that only comes from knowing the other inside and out, and the fondness towards each other that comes from decades, centuries of caring more for the other person than for themselves. Nicky loves watching the two of them interact.

His favourite thing to do, however, is go to the green room.

The green room is where they grow their plants and most of their food. It’s clinical, in that each plant has a scientifically determined space and growing schedule, but life isn’t nearly that neat. The vines and roots entangle and spread, and Nicky gets a lot of joy from tracing them with his fingers and breathing subtle changes in scent in the air.

Joe’s art has had a transformation over the last century or so. Gone are the reams of paper and charcoal, too heavy to lift out of atmosphere and too crumbly to risk getting caught in the air filtration systems. Instead, Joe uses a complicated set of screens and pens and works in 3D space within virtual reality. He moves his pen through the air while he wears his helmet, lost in his own world, and Nicky makes him yelp when he walks past and gropes him without warning.

Eventually Joe lets Nicky try on the helmet and see what he’s been working on. It’s a 3D rendering of their home in Malta. Nicky can walk through the doors and see the grain in the wood of the windows, he can almost reach out and feel the texture of the bricks. It’s not realism, that hasn’t been Joe’s artistic style for a while, but the experience is so evocative of the place Nicky was enjoying just a few years ago.

“That’s the worst part of being out in the black,” Joe mutters to him, as Nicky marvels at the way he’s captured the autumn breeze. “The places we leave behind, not being able to take them with us. We can go back, but… it’s more difficult.”

Nicky shrugs. “We did the same when we got access to the New World.”

Joe’s chuckle is dark and smooth. “Too true.”

Nicky kneels down in the virtual reality and inspects the flower pots by the front gate. It’s like a fractal, every inch has hidden depth, and when he zooms in he can see the familiar swirls in the clay. It’s mathematical and geometric, not unlike the first sketches that were displayed in his childhood home.

“I know it’s got nothing on the real thing, and it’s a work in progress-”

“It’s perfect,” Nicky interrupts. “You’re perfect.”

He removes the helmet and strokes the backs of his fingers down the side of Joe’s face. “I won’t lie, these new worlds and ways of living we will explore are terrifying to me. But I am so glad I’m here with you.”

Joe reaches up and holds Nicky’s hand to his face. “To the very end,” he swears.

 

 

 


 

 

 

In 2026, Nile comes to Nicky one morning in Mozambique. She’s brewed fresh local coffee and presses a mug into his hands before he’s even aware she’s out in the kitchen.

“You’re not usually up this early,” he notes. Nicky is almost always the first to rise, especially these days when Andy takes more rest to recover from their missions.

“I had a dream,” Nile says. “Couldn’t get back to sleep.”

Nicky drops his eyes. He’s the only one she’s confided in about the toll it takes on her, dreaming of Quynh over and over again.

Nile is a bit twitchy, in that way she gets when she wants to bring something up.

“Can I ask you something? About the dreams,” she says.

“I don’t get the dreams as you do,” he reminds her.

“But you’ve been into the future? Further than this year, I mean?” She asks. Nicky nods. “Because I should only be dreaming of Quynh, right? Her life, what she sees? But last night I saw Booker.”

“Oh,” Nicky says, then smiles and teases, “perhaps you are dreaming of him for, shall we say, other reasons?”

She thumps him on the shoulder, and he laughs. Her and Booker’s semi-regular phone calls and long letters to each other are a bit of an open secret among the team of immortals. Andy occasionally passes along messages by saying ‘could you let your pen pal know…’.

“I’m serious. I saw Booker, and Quynh. They were on a mountain somewhere.” She looks away as she retraces her memory. “There were goats. I mean, maybe it was just a nice dream my imagination cooked up, but it felt like the others. Why would the dreams change like that?”

She looks up and back at him. Nicky, usually so careful with his expressions and secrets of the future, has clasped a hand over his mouth to stifle his sob.

Nile’s heart stutters.

“You know?” She demands.

“I know many things,” he says, trying to be flippant, but he can’t help the smile breaking out across his face.

“Why haven’t you said anything? We have to go to them!”

“Nile,” he says, “do you think that people of their abilities would not be able to find us if they wanted to?” He raises his eyebrows when she cannot answer. “You have said it yourself, healing needs to be done.”

“But she’s out. She’s really out, Nicky.” Nile slams the table. “We have to bring her home.”

Nicky pins her with his gaze, and before he even speaks, she knows she’s beaten. “If you had the chance to return to your family, would you do so at your lowest point?” He asks. “Or would you want to give them the best you can be?”

Nile frowns and looks away.

“Andy doesn’t have forever,” she says.

“Booker knows this,” Nicky replies. “She has enough.”

 


 

They agree to keep it between the two of them before Andy and Joe wake up. Nicky pulls out his Swahili Bible and notebook. Since Nicky’s first experience in language learning in Paraguay, he’s asked Booker to keep every safehouse stocked with the Bible in the local language, and it’s held true for the last two hundred years. He acclimatises to each culture best when he studies the language, particularly for those times where he wakes up and has to feign the competence a previous version of him had demonstrated.

Joe emerges, scratching his belly, and flops down next to Nicky. He puts his head onto the table next to Nicky’s books and makes the grunting noise that means he wants his head to be scritched.

Nicky obliges absentmindedly.

“Nile, dear,” he says. She narrows her eyes at him immediately. “How’s your Swahili?”

“About the same as yours, I think,” she says. “Why?”

“I’m partway through the second letter to the church in Corinth. Would you give this a read and see if it’s an accurate translation?” He slides the book over to her, then puts both hands to work in Joe’s hair. Joe makes some very appreciative grunts.

Nile takes the books suspiciously and bends her head over it to read it.

The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.

She looks up at him.

“I think it’s said well there, don’t you agree, Nile?” Nicky asks.

She looks at him with the ghost of a smile. “Yes, Nicky. I agree wholeheartedly.”

 


 

A year later, Nile stands up in a living room of a hotel and clears her throat. She’s clutching a note in her hand, and Nicky can just see the edge of Booker’s fine script from under her fingers.

“I have something to say,” she announces.

Andy raises her eyebrow and gestures her to continue.

“I told Booker where we are,” she says. “He’s coming here.”

Joe sets down his beer.

“He’s still got a long time to go before he hits a hundred years, Nile,” he says. “What’s this about?”

“It’s important.”

“Anything more specific?” Andy asks.

“Yeah,” Nile says. “He’ll be here in two minutes.”

Andy stands. “That’s a lot to spring on us without notice, Nile. We usually discuss these things as a team.”

Nile holds her ground. “I know. I made a call.”

“I know you care about him,” Joe says. “But there’s a reason we do things this way.”

“Yeah, well,” Nile shrugs. “There’s a reason I do things, too.”

“What do you think, Nicky?” Andy asks. “You’ve been awfully quiet.”

“I think Nile is very wise,” Nicky says. “Her heart is full of goodness and kindness.”

Andy rolls her eyes. “Poetic, and entirely unhelpful, thank you.”

There’s a knock on the door.

Nile steels her spine. “That’s who we’ve been waiting for.”

They all stare at each other.

“Andromache, I think perhaps you should get the door,” Nicky says.

She doesn’t bother with the peephole, she knows who it is, or at least, she thinks she does.

Booker’s face is creased as usual, his expression fraught.

“Hey, Boss,” he says. “Got something for you.”

With that, he steps to the side, and it’s-

“Quynh.”

The word is pulled directly from Andy’s heart.

“Andromache,” comes the hushed response.

Joe starts forward, his mouth agape, but Nicky stills him with a hand on his chest.

The two women fall into each other’s arms, then to the floor. They’re sobbing, holding each other and touching each other’s faces.

“Is this real?” Andy forces out. “Are you real?”

Quynh smiles through the tears rushing down her cheeks.

“I’m here,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Joe’s hand is trembling when it clasps Nicky’s.

“She’s free,” he breathes. “She got out. She’s her own saviour.”

Nicky smiles softly and rests his head against Joe’s shoulder.

“Always has been.”

 


 

It’s a good thing they got the deluxe hotel room with the large living room space, because when they get everyone inside, Andy is wrapped around Quynh on the lounge and she’s not letting go. Joe has a hand pressed to Quynh’s head and is bowed over her, praying or thinking, but overwhelmed either way.

Andy peers over Quynh’s shoulder with red rimmed eyes and reads something in Nicky’s expression.

“You knew,” she says.

He cocks his head and considers.

“After a while,” he admits.

“You knew she’d come back, that I’d have her again, but you let me rage at you and hate you for centuries.”

His smile is small but speaks to a life lived in twists and turns.

“It is a burden I was glad to carry.”

 


 

They need time. All six of them, together, they need time to heal and be a family again. Andy knows just where to take them.

There’s a region in the northwest of Australia that remains almost entirely untouched. It’s called the Kimberly on most maps, but from time immemorial, it was the Country of the Wunambal Gaambera people.

She talks to the Rangers and Elders of the Wunambal Gaambera, and the rising and falling tone of their words is so achingly familiar to her. It’s snatched right from her dreams.

Forty thousand years of continuous, living, breathing culture, and Andy suddenly feels very small and young.

They give permission for the team to walk through the wilderness of that country. There are very few settlements in that area, but they are a group well accustomed to carrying everything they need on their backs and foraging for the rest.

Quynh is utterly delighted to see the land she’d heard about, fantasized about, for so long. And its beauty is unmatched.

Soaring cliffs with fat boab trees, sparkling rivers and muddy mangroves. Every inch of the land is beautiful, but what makes it perfect is that they’re together.

The first time the group comes across a river at the top of a rock hill, Nicky drops his backpack and proclaims it the perfect place for a post-hike swim. Andy and Joe freeze to the spot and their eyes dart to Quynh with their hearts in their throats. Surely with her trauma and past she wouldn’t cope, they assume, with anyone willingly submerging themselves in water.

Instead, Booker strips down to his underwear and wades into the river up to his knees and holds out a hand. Quynh throws her pack and dress to the ground and tugs off her boots and socks. Her toes are tentative as they enter the water, but she grabs Booker’s hand confidently. Together, they step slowly into the cool fresh water, keeping their eyes on each other and smiling softly, until they are floating together, paddling slowly to keep afloat.

“Ready?” Booker asks quietly, and Quynh nods. He places a hand on the small of her back and she leans backwards until she’s floating and looking up at the brilliant blue sky. Her fingers dance on the top of the water, her hands flitting back and forth. Then, without warning, she splashes water over her own face.

Andy makes a choked noise and starts forward, but then she does it again, and again, and she’s okay. Quynh then pulls into a ball and slides under the surface of the water, totally submerged, then she breaches the surface again, kicking her feet and laughing into Booker’s chest.

Merci cher frère,” she says, thank you, dear brother. Booker’s expression is entirely soft and fond.

Quynh pulls away from holding onto him, keeping herself afloat, and looking entirely relaxed, just like she used to in the Red River Delta.

Andy reaches out a hand and grabs the nearest one of her family, which happens to be Nicky.

“She used to love the waters” she murmurs.

Nicky smiles his soft smile. “She does again.”

The six of them hike up craggly hills and dive into the hidden rivers they find there. Quynh hunts lizards with her bare hands and they roast them over an open fire. Nicky proves himself to have the patience of an expert fisherman, but he hardly needs it because the waters are teeming with life.

The air is dry and hot, and they aren’t even close to the height of summer. Nile loves swimming, she strips off every chance she gets and sinks into cool clear rivers.

“Can this wilderness be entirely untouched but still have a bar right here?” She asks, floating on her back, miles from anywhere. “Because that would be perfect.”

Quynh is sitting on the red rocks, dangling her feet into the water, her long hair wet back from her face. “I got Booker mostly sober, unfortunately, so no alcohol there,” she says. “I was watching him, these past two hundred years. It broke my heart to see him hurt himself so.” Quynh casts her gaze to the other side of the creek where Booker is grinding roots to make a paste bread. “I loved him before I even met him. There was a lot of bleed over, between the two of us.”

“That must have been strange,” Nile says, finding a perch on a rock under the water.

“It was pleasant to dream,” Quynh answers. “And very thrilling when I began to dream of you, as well.”

Nile ducks her head and blushes. Quynh’s presence is a powerful, unnerving force. She’s more than a little intimidated by her fond expression.

Quynh leans forward and smirks. “Tell me, did you really learn and train alongside our Nicolò when he was young?”

“Yeah. He was so distrustful at first, but eventually warmed up to us. It was nice, and very special.”

“Hm, I can imagine. I only spent a few decades with a version of him before he had purpose, had Yusuf. I can’t say it was easy, but it was interesting.”

“Oh!” Nile gasps, swimming up to her and grinning. “Do you know why it took him so long to be with Joe?”

Quynh shakes her head.

Nile leans close. “He thought Joe was in love with Andy!”

Quynh clasps a hand to her mouth. “No!”

“Yeah!”

“Is he blind? Yusuf wasn’t particularly subtle, even in the early days.”

“Well, they didn’t exactly have the same early days,” Nile allows.

“True,” Quynh allows. “But he’s not going to live it down either way.”

 


 

There are no predators in this part of the world, no wars. There’s no reason to sleep in shifts and have a nightwatch, and the weather is too perfect to worry about shelter and temperature, so the six of them make camp wherever they please.

And the stars. Oh, the night sky is exactly how they remember it from before the cities were lit up by electricity. The Milky Way spreads out like a blanket above them.

“It’s almost an invitation,” Nicky says, his palm spread out and tracing the galaxies.

Nile hums, half asleep. “I would love to go out there one day.”

Nicky smiles and holds Joe close. He’s propped up against a red rock, Joe’s head in his lap, and he watches over his team, all splayed out around their camp.

He watches the stars and planets move together through the night, and sometime past midnight Joe stirs and looks up at him.

“What are you smiling about?” He asks, his voice thick with sleep.

“This. Us, here,” Nicky answers, pressing a hand to Joe’s chest. “I caught a glimpse of it once, a long time ago. I’ve been waiting a long time for all of us to be together like this again.”

“You knew it was coming,” Joe says, closing his eyes again.

“This is what gave me hope,” Nicky says. “My second milestone.”

Blindly, Joe gropes around for Nicky’s hand and kisses his wrist. “My soul feels settled,” he says against the pulse point.

And the last vestiges of tension is released from Nicky’s body.

“Mine as well, my darling,” he says. “Mine as well.”

 


 

They live out there in those ranges for several months, walking and scavenging and learning to live as a family for the first time all together. As the weather turns unbearably hot, they decide to make their way towards the coastline.

Andy brings up the rear as they crest over a hill. Before them is the entire ocean, spread out with clear blue stillness. Quynh blows a jaunty kiss at it, and Nile laughs.

“Did we ever tell you the songs we used to sing as pirates?” Nicky asks.

“No,” both Quynh and Nile say.

“Oh, you would love them,” Nicky says, and Joe doesn’t need any more encouragement to jump right in with his deep baritone.

In Andy’s mind’s eye she can see a different family, one from her dreams, walking this same route down towards the ocean, singing as they go.

They’re all laughing as they trudge down the hill one by one, calling out jokes as they sing.

“I did it. I made it,” Andy says softly into the air, speaking to the one who taught her, once, long ago. He taught her without words that there could be hope and family and a reason to their long lives.

Nicky turns around, grinning widely up at her. “C’mon, Andy! You know this verse!”

She chuckles and readjusts her pack and strides down after them.

Yeah. She made it.

Chapter Text

“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.

“Hey.”

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?”

“What?”

“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.

Ah, Shin.

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?”

“That’s it.”

“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.

“What?”

“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.