Booker had spent 250 where he had been haunted by dreams of the salt, insanity, and a dark and cold fury. He spent 250 years haunted by the spectre of Nicolo.
Then three months into his banishment after Merrick, on a random Sunday night and drunk in Paris, he didn’t dream of sea or salt. Instead, he dreamt of throwing off his salt-crusted rags and lying down, fingers unpruned and touching everything that they could. Look how green the grass was! He dreamt the sheer joy of having wind, instead of water, on his skin. He dreamt of the wonder of the sky and what felt like to not have the weight of a sea on his body. He dreamt of pulling at rusted shackles still attached to his wrists and ankles.
He dreamt that he knew what it was like to breathe and not have his lungs betray him as his family had done.
He dreamt of Nicolo.
Nicolo was free.
The issue with spending 500 years drowning is that you don’t have time to sleep. You breathe and drown, breathe and drown, with mere snatches of dreams. Nicolo knows of the sad French man, he knows of their newest family member named after a body of water (irony). He knows that time has moved on and changed
He has had snatches of Yusuf from their eyes.
Yusuf, who had claimed to love Nicolo, but who had been breathing air and who forgot about Nicolo, while Nicolo drowned. And drowned. And drowned.
When Booker was newly immortal he hadn’t understood his dreams, Quyhn had called it a gift, or destiny. Booker bitterly thought she wouldn’t say the same thing if she dreamt what he did.
Booker had been horrified when they’d told them the parable of Nicolo, and over the centuries Booker had come to see him as the literal monster from the deep. When they told stories of Nicolo, who had been kind and caring and who would have loved Booker, Booker never dared to tell them that the man he lost was probably dead. The man he dreamt of was no longer kind.
The man he dreamt of was sometimes even barely a man.
When Nile had joined them and dreamt of the mad man under the sea, Joe had stepped outside while Quynh had gripped Andy’s hand and told her the story of their long lost brother. Booker followed him.
“It’s been 500 years Booker, I…” he hadn’t been able to finish the sentence, not crying but only because he didn’t have any tears left. Booker had held him as he’d got himself under control and brought him back inside with the promised distraction of sports and football.
It went unsaid that Booker was closest to Joe. Not that Quynh and Andy didn’t care and love him, but Joe understood Booker in a way the others didn’t. He understood the cost and weight of immortality. He had argued with Quyhn and Andy for Booker when the Frenchman had said he was staying with his family, telling him to treasure the time he had left with his family before they died. He had held him close when Booker had rejoined them and mourned, and Booker had learnt for the first time that Joe was grieving and had been for almost hundreds years.
After Merrick, Andy and Quyhn had been furious and both women had wanted to stab him a couple of times, Nile was ready to forgive, but Joe had argued for fifty years. He passionately argued that they’d all made mistakes, Nicolo the ever-present ghost in the room, but that they’d all got out safely and with their immortality intact. He told them didn’t want to lose his brother as well, and the guilt tempered the women's anger.
As they’d left him on the side of the Thames, Joe had looked back and nodded, if not forgiving, at least understanding. Booker knew he’d broken his best friend's heart, but if anyone could understand why he’d done it, it had been Joe.
If you spent so long with only yourself for company… how do you know if you’ve
gone mad? What can you compare it to?
Booker sat bolt upright and swore to himself as he reached for his phone to call Nile. The number had been disconnected so he left a voicemail with Copley and wrote down everything he remembered.
He didn’t know where Nicolo was, but he wanted to find him. Booker had always felt an affinity with the man who had haunted their little family. It was hard not to have feelings for someone that you’d dreamt of for 250 hundred years. He was frantically trying to work out what type of grass he'd felt when an unknown number had come up and he’d answered it.
“Did you dream what Nile dreamt?” Joe said. There were no pleasantries. This was too important for pleasantries.
“He’s free,” Booker replied. Joe said something in a language that Booker didn’t understand,
“Nile doesn’t know where he is,” Joe said, sounding desperate.
“Put me on speaker,” Booker said, and Joe did it without hesitation. Nile had seen the same thing he’d seen. She’d also seen lights in the water and there were clouds in the sky, which according to the weather sites meant he was in France or Belgium, as it had been sunny in the UK coast that day. Nile had seen a building above a cliff face, and Booker had felt dunes with grass tufts as Nicolo had touched them, revelling in his newfound freedom. Neither of them mentioned what he had been feeling- they couldn’t do that to the others.
“Where are you?” Booker asked.
There was a moment's hesitation before Joe answered, “Victor safehouse.” They were in Vietnam. “We’re already packing up, we’ll be in Paris in 15 hours,” he continued.
“I’m in France, I’ll drive up to the coast and see if anything’s been reported. Get Copely on satellite images and research, and get him to call me if he picks anything up.” There was silence on the other end of the line. Someone wanted to say something.
“... Booker… if you find him…” It was Joe. Booker's heart broke, he could hear the guilt and pain that strained Joe's voice.
“I’ll tell him you’re coming. I’ll keep him safe and you’ll get him back. I promise Joe.” Booker said and he meant it. If he could do this, return Nicolo to them, then maybe it would start to make up for all the damage he had caused.
Booker took a car, gave his number to Nile and looked at his notes which he’d fastidiously kept for over 250 years. They were filled with scribblings of his dreams and any information they had on where Nicolo was. He’d done it in the vain hope that one day he might get a good night's sleep.
His notes contained the story of Nicolo. Five hundred years ago Nicolo and Joe had been captured in England while freeing women from the witch trials. They’d been tortured and separated, with Nicolo placed in the Iron coffin. It had taken Andy and Quynh 3 months to find and free Joe. They had searched for 50 years before Andy had dragged Joe away. When Booker had started dreaming, Joe had left them for a few years and kept searching before Quynh brought him back. Then every decade or so Joe would leave, but as the years had gone on his trips had become shorter and less frequent. He hadn’t looked for Nicolo in the last half-century, instead focused on doing the good that Nicolo would have wanted him to do according to Andy.
Until now they’d never found anything.
Booker drove to the coast like a man possessed until he came to a small cottage on the border of the Seine national park. It had served as a safe house for them in World War II, and many many years before that had once been his family home. Andy would have been furious to know that he’d kept it, but he had never been able to part with it. Joe knew of it, had helped Booker renovate and modernise it as he’d turned 200 years old. He had understood the need to keep it- told Booker that he had a similar place in Malta.
Booker didn’t normally go there. Too many ghosts, but it was the closest safe house he had near the French coast.
He looked over the information that Copely had sent, including numerous images of the Northern French and Belgium coast. With a coastline thousands of kilometres long it would be a hard slog when they had such little information to go on. Booker looked over them until he found the images blurring in front of him. Glancing at the clock he saw it was 11 pm, they’d land in nine hours. Booker desperately wanted to have something good to tell them.
He stood up and grabbed a sleeping pill from his bag. It was an extreme measure but it might give him something more to go on. He swallowed it and lay on the couch and waited for sleep to claim him.
Temperature is such a strange concept when cold is the only feeling you’ve felt for almost as long as you can remember. The night air isn’t as cold as the sea.
The body can die of the cold, starvation… a broken heart. It just takes a longer time to die than drowning.
Nicolo thinks he’s thirsty, or maybe hungry. It’s been so long he’s forgotten what it feels like. He has to remind himself that he can move.
Booker gasped awake and looked at the clock which read 2 am. The others landed in seven hours. He thought back on what he’d seen. Nicolo had been freezing but there had been the lights that Nile had dreamed off before, Booker thought it might be a seaport to the North of him. Nicolo had started climbing a cliff and heading through fields, passing an empty-looking farm building. Then he’d been so tired he’d found a low bush next to a road and crawled under it. There had been a discarded local Frenchnewspaper beside it.
Nicolo was in France, not Belgium.
Booker frantically started going down the coast until he found a port. By his estimations, the port had been 10km north of where Nicolo had been. Exactly 10km from the port of Saint-Jouin-Bruneval was a tiny village called Cauville-Sur-Mer, and just to the north of it was a road that went straight to the cliff top, and next to that was a farm.
Thank fuck for google maps.
Nicolo was there. He was less than an hour's drive.
Booker could finally do some good. Booker could find him before sunrise, and before the authorities would get involved.
Grabbing a couple of items he needed, he threw them into the back of the car and started driving. He left a coded message on Niles phone and made it to Cauville-Sur-Mer in record time, driving through the tiny provincial village straight to the coast.
As he got closer, he drove more slowly, parked up and walked the rest of the way. Nicolo had haunted enough of his nightmares for Booker to feel that caution was warranted. He jogged forward until he saw the bush. Heart pounding he kneeled.
“Nicolo….?” he said quietly as if waking a child.
There, partially hidden and barely more than skin, bones, matted hair and beard was Nicolo de Genova. Booker had never been a poster boy for immortality, but the man in front of him was a wreck. He reached a hand to help as two eyes blinked owlishly at him. Booker opened his mouth to say something, anything when Nicolo launched himself at Booker.
Booker died before he even realized it, neck broken.
How do you greet a brother you’ve never met before but has been your only companion for centuries? Whose miserable self-pitying existence has been your only relief from drowning?
Booker came around with Nicolo above him, one leg kneeling painfully on his chest, as his fingers gripped Booker's chin and moved his face left and right as if trying to recognise him. He didn’t seem surprised that Booker had come back from the dead.
“I dreamt of you,” Booker said, and Nicolo moved off his chest and watched him stand. Nicolo was shorter than Booker, he realised. It was an absurd thought. In Booker's mind, Nicolo had always been larger than life, the literal monster from the deep.
Now there was only a half-dead man with dark bags under his eyes standing in front him.
Booker tried to think of what to say, but he’d never had Joe or Quyhns flair for words. He’d always been the rougher one more prone to melancholy. He moved towards Nicolo and the Italian flinched, clearly not wanting to be touched. Booker gestured to the car and Nicolo stared at him, uncomprehending.
“I have somewhere safe for us,” he said in his rusty Italian. Nicolo nodded his head and followed behind him. Booker handed him over a rucksack from the trunk. It contained some water, food and clothes. Booker hissed in sympathetic pain when noticed that Nicolo still had the remnants on the rusty shackles around his ankles and wrists, the chain attaching them had long rusted or broken away. Booker noticed they were still clearly painful, causing cuts and bruises under them on his wrists and ankles every time Nicolo moved but healing immediately after. Nicolo didn’t seem to notice them.
“Let me see them,” Booker said and reached out to touch them. Nicolo immediately pulled his arms back, as if expecting Booker's touch to hurt. Booker raised his hands and backed away, “when we get back I’ll get them off you.”
Nicolo said nothing before he gave a slight nod and picked up the clothes. He put on the shirt easily enough but looked at the jeans strangely. Booker realised Nicolop had never seen a zip before so moved to help him. The entire experience was surreal, it was like dressing a child. Nicolo forwent the socks and shoes, enjoying the feel of the ground on his feet. They’d moved to the car and Booker had had to lean over and put his seatbelt on.
The entire time Nicolo said nothing, but his hands felt everything around him and Booker. His fingers ran across his clothes, the leather interior of the car. He jumped when Booker had turned the car on. He went through the bag and drank so very carefully from the bottle. He pulled an apple out of the bag and stared at it for a long time before tentatively biting into it.
It was gone within a minute. He then tore through the rest of the bag devouring the food that was in there. Booker tried to warn him to stop but Nicolo either didn’t understand or ignored him. His eyes suddenly widened, and Booker barely had time to pull over and scrabble over Nicolo to open the door before Nicolo leaned out and vomited up everything he’d just eaten.
“You need to go slowly, your stomach isn’t used to it.” Booker admonished, and Nicolo blinked up through salty matted hair and looked so angry that Booker had to look away. The car pulled away and he stopped at the nearest gas station to get food.
What did you even get a man who hadn’t eaten in half a millennia?
Booker settled on simple foods and came outside to find Nicolo wasn’t in the car. For one heart-stopping moment, he’d thought he’d lost him, but saw that he’d wandered over to a small patch of grass and was crouched down and running his fingers across the grass as if amazed by the feel of it.
It was incredibly.... innocent.
Booker waited until Nicolo wandered back to the car, and they drove back to the car in silence as Nicolo ate; slower this time. By the time they arrived back at the cottage, it was only 5. The others still didn’t land for four hours.
In three hours everything had changed. As an immortal, it was hard to fathom that everything could still truly change in the space of hours.
Booker went inside and waited for Nicolo to follow. Nicolo stood at the entrance to the doorway and seemed to steel himself before crossing the threshold. He stood in the hallway as if expecting the walls to come down on him and Booker realised he was shaking just slightly.
Booker turned all the lights on and jumped the thermostat up as high as it could go. It took Booker a stupidly long time to realise that Nicolo didn’t want to be alone as he followed Booker around the house. He tracked Booker and watched him closely, looming just out of touch and copying Booker in everything, finding electricity fascinating as he switched the lights on and off. He followed him into the kitchen as Booker rattled around in some drawers, looking for his old lockpicking set.
“Sit, we can get the shackles off”. He bent down under the sink to pull them out when he heard a sickening crack. He jumped up, horrified to hear a sound he was intimately familiar with. He saw Nicolo pull one of the shackles over his mangled hand and wrist that he’d broken so he could pull it off. Booker lunged over the counter.
“Stop!” He shouted. Nicolo flinched, grabbed and smashed a glass on a table, ready to use it as a weapon. “Please,” Booker begged, “I can get them off, you don’t need to do that. Let me help.” He reached forward, and tried not to gag as Nicolo's mangled hand healed itself, “you don’t need to hurt yourself”.
Nicolo glared at him and Booker had no idea what was going through his head. After a moment's tense standoff he moved the glass shard to Booker's neck and held the other arm out. Booker was careful, wary of the glass at his neck but made quick work of the shackles on his one hand and legs.
Neither said anything as they dropped to the floor and the red welts on Nicolo's wrists and ankles healed. Nicolo dropped the shard against Booker's neck, his hands shaking as he ran his fingers over the now healed skin. He didn’t say anything, instead focused totally on his healed skin. Booker took a gamble and put his hands on Nicolo's shoulders, not quite a hug but as close as Booker thought he could get away with. The Italian didn’t flinch as before but instead leant into it.
It was Nicolo's first human contact in 500 years.
Neither moved for minutes as Nicolo composed himself. Finally, he looked at Booker and tugged at his clothes.
“Do you want to wash?” Booker asked. Nicolo nodded and Booker took him into the bathroom.
Water is piped into houses now. There’s no escaping it.
Washing had been… an experience. Nicolo had been shocked by his appearance in the mirror, tugging none too gently on his hair and upset at what he saw. He had looked at the shower as Booker turned it on and shook his head. Instead, Nicolo went back to the kitchen. Booker had tried to give him privacy to wash, but either Nicolo didn’t care or didn’t want it. Stripping off perfunctory and washing with a cloth in the sink, before putting his clothes back on. Then he’d pulled a knife from a draw and cut chucks of dreadlocked and salty hair until Booker had intervened.
There wasn’t much that could be done to salvage his hair or untangle that matted mess of the beard. Instead, Nicolo had looked expectantly at him as Booker had taken scissors to it and he had been passive to the point of muteness. Neither had said anything as Booker had slowly cut away at the hair and the beard to reveal the man underneath it. It wasn’t great, but it was passable. Throughout it all, Booker fought back the double image of doing the same for his children when they were alive.
Afterwards, Booker pointed at the sofa in the kitchen dining room area, and in a mixture of bizarre sign language and broken Italian had told Nicolo to sleep there. The relief from the Italian was almost palpable as he’d sunk onto the sofa, bringing his legs up and curled up around himself to sleep against the armrest as if trying to take up as little space as possible. Booker had offered a blanket but Nicolo had pushed it away, so Booker threw logs onto the fire in the kitchen and started a fire.
As soon as the fire was lit, Booker sat down at the kitchen table and watched Nicolo sleep, his arms clasped around his drawn-up legs in a parody of a hug. He didn’t move or make any sound, but his chest slowly rose and fell and after a while Booker found himself dozing, the excitement of the last 24 hours finally catching up with him.
Sleep, true sleep.
They both startled awake to the shrill ringtone of Bookers phone. Booker swore in inventive French and pulled out the phone, still half asleep. He didn’t even look at the called ID before bringing it to his ear “..ello” he garbled down the phone.
Nicolo stared at him and the phone, looking ready to attack something.
“Booker…” it was Nile. Booker was suddenly wide awake.
“I have him,” Booker rushed out before Nile could say anything else. Nile said something to the group but Booker couldn’t hear them.
“Where are you?” Andy said, having taken the phone from Nile.
“The house near the coast, Joe knows where it is. It’s only two hours from the airport.” There was a commotion down the line but Booker couldn’t hear anything distinctive. Nicolo sat up and looked at Booker, as his mouth opened but nothing came out. He seemed surprised at himself, and repeatedly tried to speak, clearly becoming more agitated as nothing came out. He stood up and started pacing.
“Andy, I’ll call you back,” Booker said, as Andy barked at him to wait but he wasn’t listening and hung up the phone.
“Nicolo?!” Booker said warily, glad that the rural house didn’t have neighbours.
Nicolo stopped pacing and stared at Booker, clearly frustrated. He made a cutting motion to his neck and signed something that Booker didn’t understand. Exasperated, he took the pen and pad from the counter that Booker had used to make notes yesterday and wrote something down and thrust it at Booker.
What is that? He gestured to the mobile in Booker's hands.
“It’s a phone…” Booker racked his head to think of a way to describe it. “It means you can talk to people over a long distance.” It was a shit description but he couldn’t think of a better way to describe it in Italian.
Who wants to know where we are? Who is Joe?
Bookers head swam, of course, Nicolo wouldn’t know. Joe had only gone by that name for a hundred years.
“The others, they’re coming here. They want to see you.” Booker replied, he paused before continuing “You know who Joe is,” he said quietly.
Nicolo’s pencil stabbed at the phrase Who is Joe? Wanting confirmation.
“Yusuf, Joe is Yusuf.”
Nicolo reacted to the name as if he had been struck. The pencil snapped in Nicolo’s hand, and he looked furious. He made a cutting motion with his hand, and Booker didn’t need him to write it down to know what Nicolo meant.
He didn’t want to see Joe. He didn’t want to see the others.
“The others want to see you. They missed you and looked for you for years.”
Nicolo scrawled something on the paper and shook his head so violently that Booker was worried he’d hurt himself.
They stopped looking and I drowned millions of times. They left me at the bottom of the sea and forgot about me.
“No! Joe..” Booker said, desperate to try and make Nicolo understand.
Nicolo made a cutting motion with his hand, and Booker saw the anger and look of betrayal on his face. It was the same look the others had given him at Merrick. He didn’t need Nicolo to write it down to know what he meant. Nicolo stood and paced again, clearly agitated. After a moment he turned and scribbled something down and gave it to Booker.
I will see the newest one, the child named after water. Tell the others they are not welcome. I will not see Yusuf.
He didn’t wait for Booker to respond but walked outside too angry to stay in the same room.
It’s hard to talk when all you’ve done is scream for 500 years.
Booker had a drink before he made the call, not caring that it was barely morning because at his core he was still a coward. It was picked up after only a single ring.
“Andy’s driving so we’ll be there soon,” Quynh said as she answered the phone. Booker hated the tone, it was so hopeful.
“Quynh…” the words stuck in Booker's throat. She put him on speaker and he could hear the sounds in the car. They were silent all waiting for him to speak. Booker ran his hands through his hair, hating himself, “... you can’t come here. He doesn’t want you to meet anyone but Nile.” The silence on the other side of the line was deafening. “I’m sorry,” he choked out.
His heart broke for Joe.
“How is he?” Joe rasped broken sounding.
Booker wanted to hide them from the truth but he knew that wasn’t what they wanted. “As good as can be.”
He heard Quyhn mutter something to Joe but didn’t pick it up. “We’ll stay nearby and send Nile by herself in the car,” Andy said, tone clipped in the way that she normally only did for the bad fights. With nothing else to say the line went dead.
Booker went outside to find Nicolo outside. “Nile will be here in a couple of hours,” he said to Nicolo, purposefully not mentioning the others. Nicolo looked at Booker and Booker recognised the look in his eyes. It was fear.
Betrayal stings more than salt does.
Nicolo paced around the house as they waited for Nile, ignoring Booker. He refused to sit still and kept stopping by the front windows as if Nile would magically appear. Just after midday, they both heard the car pull up along the driveway.
Nicolo moved to stand on the porch outside the front door as she pulled up with his armed folded, and Booker could see the white knuckle clench of his fingers. As Nile got out of the car and it became clear that she was by herself, Booker saw the tension leave Nicolo. He obviously hadn’t expected his wishes to be listened to.
“Nicolo?..” Nile asked, visibly unsure how to act. Nicolo nodded before moving inside, and Nile threw her bag over her shoulders as she followed them all inside.
They found Nicolo in the kitchen, banging around to try and find a drink of some sort for Nile. He’d been fascinated when Booker had shown him what tea was earlier. He handed one over to Nile and stared at her, clearly waiting for her to speak.
“It’s nice to meet you. The others are nearby if you change your mind,” Nile said, the unsaid spectre of Joe hung between the three of them. Nicolo scribbled something on the pad and handed it to Nile. “I don’t speak Italian,” she said quietly. Nicolo rolled his eyes and passed it to Booker.
They don’t need to stay. I do not want to see them. They left me to drown.
“They never forgot you,” she said earnestly and Nicolo underlined; they left me to drown. His feelings on the matter clear.
“What do you want to do?” she asked. Nicolo shrugged and wrote; What I have always done. I will endure.
“You can stay here as long as you need until you feel ready,” Booker volunteered. He felt awful for taking the space where Joe should be, but he could do this. Help Nicolo become accustomed to his new reality. Nicolo looked at both of them for a long moment before he nodded, accepting the situation.
Nile seemed heartened by their decision, “what can I do to help?” She asked. Nicolo seemed taken aback by her words, and turned and walked out. She went to immediately follow but Booker grabbed her by the arm.
“Don’t, when he gets overwhelmed he goes outside and wants to be alone.”
She sighed and sat at the table, obviously processing everything that had happened. “Why did he want to see just me?”
“I think… Because then he doesn’t have to dream about you, and see Joe and the others,” Booker replied. “How are they?” The implicit question of ‘how Joe was’ hung there between them.
“Not… great,” she said, clearly understating it. “But they’re happy that you're here for Nicolo. We’ve booked to stay nearby for as long as we need.”
“It could be months..” Booker trailed off. Nile shrugged, time was a lower commodity when you lived as long as they did. She stood up and glanced at the backdoor that Nicolo had wandered out into before she leaned into her bag and pulled out a sealed letter. The penmanship was Joes.
“Can I leave this here?” She asked. He nodded and she stood up. “I should probably go, I don’t think he wants me here.”
“I don’t think he knows what he wants,” Booker said, painfully honest. She left the letter on the kitchen table, hugged Booker and left. Nicolo only re-entered once he heard the car leave. He looked at the table and saw the letter, his face carefully blank.
He threw it on the fire unopened with his back to Booker and silently, they watched it burn.
Thank you for all the kind kudos and comments, I read every single one of them and they make me smile.
Also- this was entirely inspired by Crawl home (thanks for the person that reminded me in the comments. It's brilliant- so if you haven't read it I suggest you do that now!
Consider this an early Christmas gift
Fair warning- I can't personally sign, so if I've got it wrong in how I present it then I'm sorry.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
What’s the opposite of love? It isn’t hate or rage. They’re both different sides of the same coin, hate can easily turn into love. That’s exactly what happened between Yusef and himself.
The opposite of love is nothing. A void where the feelings once stood.
That’s what Nicolo wants.
The days after Nicky came out of the sea were long and stressful for Booker, but they were also some of the most rewarding days in a way he hadn’t felt in centuries. He hadn’t realised how jaded he’d become until he started seeing the world through Nicolo’s eyes, and realised that Nicolo was helping him just as much as he was helping Nicolo.
The afternoon Nile had left, Booker had received a single text from Joe; look after him. The desperation and sadness clear in every word. He didn’t enquire about the letter and Booker didn’t tell him.
The next day he woke to an email from Joe merely titled ‘Nicolo’. It was a long and carefully curated list of things Joe thought Nicolo would like, including; a love of cooking, that he was bad with money, that he would probably want clothes that were soft to touch and would enjoy rugby and American football because it was similar to Storico Fiorentino. There was also a long list of foods he had liked and suggestions for new foods to try, lists of books from the last five hundred years and hundreds of other small tidbits. Right at the end, it included links to articles about coping mechanisms and papers on how to deal with severe trauma. To Booker's astonishment, he saw that several of the papers cited work done by a Doctor Joseph Jones, one of Joe’s fake names.
He finished it by saying they were going back to Paris for a couple of weeks so they didn’t run into each other, but that if they needed anything, Joe would move heaven and earth to get it. Joe had hoped, studied and prepared. He just hadn’t prepared for this eventuality.
Booker pushed down the guilt that told him that he was taking the place where Joe should be.
The days after Nicolo joined him were a blur. Nicolo kept the strangest sleep pattern. He didn't seem to care where he slept as long as he wasn’t lying down or by himself. He took to napping during the day like a cat on the sofa in the sunlight and stealing Booker's phone at night to feed his growing addiction to candy crush.
He remained silent, not even bothering to try and speak after a few days. Booker assumed it was selective mutism, he’d heard about it before and with Joe's notes set about trying to understand as much about it as possible. It didn’t seem to overly concern Nicolo as far as Booker could see. He was happy to write things down and was impressed by modern pens and the ease of which people could access paper. Booker then introduced him to French Sign Language and the two had slowly taught themselves until it had evolved into a language of their own, full of stupid gestures, mimes and in-jokes.
He was as smart and clever as Joe described him, quickly adapting to parts of modern life, but he was a terrible drinker. Two glasses and Booker found him propping himself up with his hands and his head drooping. It was faintly adorable.
He also had a dark sense of humour that Andy had always spoken to fondly of. For the first week, he wrote in nothing but Italian, and Booker found himself frantically googling phrases and teaching himself when he had time. It wasn't until he found Nicolo looking at his very French bookshelf that he realised that Nicolo understood French. When Nicolo had realised he’d been caught and grinned and laughed. It was the first time Booker heard him laugh, and he told himself that he would do everything he could to hear it more often.
The house became louder with Nicolo in it, chasing old ghosts away, if only by virtue that Nicolo didn’t like silence. Whichever room he went into there was noise, be it the TV or radio (he became very interested in electro swing for reasons that were never apparent to Booker).
Nicolo didn’t talk about his time underwater. Booker had brought it up once and Nicolo had shaken his head and gone for a long walk in the countryside.
That had been a ‘bad day’.
There were moments during the first weeks when Booker realised would be reminded of just how long Nicolo had been underwater. The days Nicolo had seen a piano, or a train, or asked questions like ‘What’s Italy?’, it had struck him just how much the Italian had missed. Yet beyond their family, Nicolo didn’t seem to be angry at the wider world, instead, Booker realised just how earnest and kind Nicolo was. He always made enough tea for two, and there was always a cup ready in the kitchen the moment Booker stumbled out of bed. He had a continuing fascination with technology and movies, asking endless questions and had been so painfully careful and respectful when he’d come across drawings or things of Booker's family.
He seemed so different from the man in Booker's dreams.
The first week there had been a delivery of food, clearly organised by the others but Nicolo either didn’t realise or care and they didn’t venture outside. As the week passed Nicolo had become more restless and told Booker that he wanted to go out. They chose their first ‘outing’ to be a supermarket and the whole experience was… interesting. Nicolo had been frozen at the entrance, overwhelmed and shocked by it all. He had spent almost five minutes mouth agape at the fruit and veg section, picking and putting things down at random. He’d started opening packages to inspect the meat (which Booker had then had to buy), didn’t understand the concept of ready meals, and had thrown whatever bright packaging had caught his eye into the trolley.
The absolute worst has been when Booker had put some Baklava in their trolley. Joe had told him it was one of Nicolo’s favourites.
No. Nicolo signed.
“I thought you’d like it,” Booker replied confused. Nicolo had scowled, correctly guessing that Booker had been told by Joe. His hand had hovered over it, before picking it up and putting it back. They didn’t take any home that day, but they did take home the ingredients for falafel and hummus- another of his favourites according to Joe.
They bought far more food than they needed, and Booker had patiently answered all his questions. Nicolo was shocked when Booker told him you couldn’t haggle with the cashier.
Afterwards when Booker had asked what he wanted to do Nicolo signed for home, clearly more exhausted from the stimulation than he’d expected and they headed back. They arrived back and Booker took the time to call Nile, because the others hadn’t contacted him at all, giving them the space that Nicolo wanted. She’d answered quickly as if waiting for his call. She told him that when she’d returned she’d found Andy and Quynh wrapped around Joe, Andy holding him while Quyhn protected his back. Joe had looked broken. The next day he refused to talk about it and had sent Booker his list and told them they couldn’t stay here, so they’d all gone to Paris. According to Nile, Joe went out every day but none of them was sure where. Andy had organised to take a nearby mission, but Joe refused to join them. He told them he’d left Nicolo once, he wasn’t going to do it again. Andy had called him a masochist, Quyhn had hugged him close and called him an idiot but they hadn’t tried to convince him.
Booker text Joe afterwards; We went to a shop for the first time today.
How was it? Was the immediate response.
Tiring. I am not sure where to take him next.
Take him to the library, he’ll love that. Quickly followed by, thank you, as if looking after Nicolo was a difficult task.
Booker found Nicolo in the kitchen trying to cook with the music too loud, showing that he’d been actively not listening to the conversation outside. Nicolo loved cooking, just as Joe said he would, but he was terrible at it. He threw together the strangest mixes of food, seemed incapable of following cooking instructions and every day seemed to have a new favourite food. Booker had also started finding food stashed around the house in the strangest of places. The frozen peas in the bathroom had been particularly bizarre.
“What are you cooking?” Booker asked, already eyeing the food he was cooking warily.
Stew. You like this dish. I saw it when I was away.
‘Away’ had become code for underwater.
It wasn’t his favourite, but he vaguely remembered that he had seen Joe once eat something similar and he had particularly enjoyed it. He didn’t mention it though because he didn’t want to make Nicolo sad.
The dish was delicious.
The next day was a good day. Booker followed Joe's advice and took him to the nearest small town and its library. Nicolo had loved the contemplative silence of the building, and to him the breadth of the choice in the books was amazing. He had been torn over what to take back (and amazed that it was free), so Booker suggested a couple of titles from Joe's list and threw in a copy of Astrix because it was his favourite. Nicolo was in a good mood for the rest of the day which Booker found rubbing off on him. That evening he’d text Joe to tell him how much Nicolo had enjoyed the library and the book suggestions.
He’d immediately received; I’m glad you both liked it.
Everyone had access to the written word.
Maybe the world has got better.
Yet for every good day, there were the bad days. Over time, Booker started to recognise the signs. Rainstorms were never good, on those evenings Booker dragged a camp bed out and they both slept in the living room with Nicolo nearby. One particularly bad evening he picked up one of Nicky’s books and started reading aloud. Nicky hadn’t said anything but he had been calmer afterwards, so it became their little ritual. They slowly made their way through Les Miserables, and then moved onto the german translations of the Harry Potter series. English was a garbage language according to Nicolo.
After a particularly bad day in which Nicolo had struggled to explain why he was so angry, Booker worked with him to draw up a list of things Booker needed to know
-He liked to be warm (Bookers fireplace was constantly lit)
-He didn’t like to sleep alone
-He didn’t like the dark or silence
He wrote a final line which contained the word Yusef, and then furiously scribbled it out before Booker could read it.
There were also unmistakable scars from his time underwater. Nicolo wouldn’t get in the bath, he only drank tea, and would only have a shower when Booker glared at him and bluntly told him he was starting to smell, they compromised and kept the door open.
One evening they’d gone to a local town, and Booker had lost sight of him for a moment and panicked until he found him sitting on the river bank looking at the water with an unreadable expression on his face. Booker had sat down heavily beside him and waited for Nicolo to talk.
I grew up by the water. He finally signed. I learned to swim and sail before I was taught to read. He paused. I loved the sea then. Another pause. It’s one of the many things that the coffin took from me. He didn’t look at Booker, but Booker pulled him close anyway desperate to try and hide him from the pain. He didn’t ask what else the coffin had taken from Nicolo.
That hadn’t been a good day.
After a month of weekly trips to the library, Nicolo brought back a large pictured history book (Nicolo had a soft spot for encyclopedias and history books with pictures) to Booker. Nicolo was intrigued by America. It was the only continent he hadn’t been to and asked lots of questions about it. Booker ended up regaling him with a funny story of when he’d had to pretend to be married to Andy during the American civil war. Nicolo found it amusing and asked if Andy still made the same joke about their wedding night, just as she had with him in the 1400s when they’d had to pretend to be married during the time of the Holy Roman Empire.
She had made the same joke- it hadn’t been funny either time, but neither of them could stop laughing.
Booker had been ‘married’ to either Andy or Quynh more times than he wanted. It had taken Booker far too long to realise why he was always the husband, never Yusef. Neither Andy nor Quyhn were that cruel. Yusef hadn’t been celibate for the whole 500 years, but it had never been often. In the last 100 years, Booker had known Joe to disappear for a few days in the 1920s and then in the 1980s, but rarely beyond that, and each one had been his ‘type’ - in so far as they had a passing resemblance to Nicolo.
The first time Booker met them and told them about the dreams, he hadn’t realised what his comments had meant. Joe had looked devastated, thanked him, told him to stay with his family and left, utterly destroyed by the fact that Nicolo was still alive and still drowning 250 years later. Andy and Quynh gave a name to his nightmares, and in return, Booker had told the two women he wouldn’t join them while his family lived. He didn’t see all three of them again until the death of his last son. The Joe he met then had helped him grieve but veered wildly between unfathomable anger and a despair that scared Booker. He hadn’t understood why Joe, known as Joseph at that time, argued so strongly for the four of them to fight against the British and side with China in what would become known as the Opium Wars. They landed in Shanghai and made their way inland towards Nanjing. When they made it to Nanjing and heard that the British had already won and a peace treaty had been signed, Joe had disappeared into the underbelly of the city for a week, so broken and angry by the recent revelation of Nicolo’s continued torment that he’d sought whatever escape he could find.
Opium turned out to be a good distraction.
The two women had searched frantically for him, and Booker had been ready to give him up when Quynh finally found him, already having died half a dozen times from opiate use. Both women had masked their worry with fury, and within the evening they’d already left the city and headed towards America. They stayed in America until the civil war and beyond, ostensibly to fight but mostly to bring Joe back from whatever ledge he teetered over.
Booker didn’t tell Nicolo any of that.
She was Andromeda when we married. What was her name when you got married? Nicolo asked.
“She went by Andrea then.”
What about Yusef, when did he become Joe?
The question completely threw Booker. Nicolo had never asked, or even spoken about Joe, and Booker had purposely never pushed.
“1918. During a time called World War I.”
Nicolo didn’t say anything, but Booker could see him mouthing the word Joe, testing the name silently in his mouth. Suddenly he signed, I should have a new name. Nicolo is a very old name. Booker watched as Nicolo fingerspelled out several names, some long and short.
Finally, he settled on Nicky.
“How about Nicky Jones?” Booker asked. Joe had gone by Joseph Jones once long ago, but Nicolo didn’t know that, and Booker thought it would make Joe happy.
Nicolo, now Nicky, nodded.
Names have power.
Nicky will decide his own fate from now on. He will not be thrown into it again.
Slowly the good days started to outnumber the bad days. Having been locked up for so long, his appetite for new experiences grew by the day. He never seemed to want to sit still for too long, and would move from one task to the next quickly, desperate to learn and catch up as he saw it as if worried it could all be taken away. Booker would have thought it exhausting but it was fun to rediscover things again and he wanted to help Nicolo in any way he could.
One Sunday, Nicolo (now only answering to Nicky) had taken himself to the local church and while Booker had expected a bad day, he had come back quiet but ok. Booker knew that Nicky had been a priest once long ago, but it had been that same religion that had put him underwater.
Nicky didn’t go back, but the Church put him in contact with a local food bank that he started volunteering at. After two weeks, he offered to volunteer a couple of days a week over in Calais and Booker had the unenviable task of teaching him how to drive. Booker was amazed that neither of them died as Nicky lived up to every Italian stereotype when it came to driving.
With Nicky busier, Booker found himself checking in with the rest of the group more often. All of them were desperate for any news of Nicky. He texted them to let them know that Nicolo had chosen to go by Nicky and Andy sent him back a text to ask for a surname so she could source some fake documentation for him. He had privately texted her that his full name was Nicholas Jones (or Nicky Jones). She’d sent back nothing but clearly, she understood the implications, and Booker had called Joe but it had gone to voicemail. A week later the documents had come through, enough to apply for an ID card in France and a passport. There was a single page in Joes writing that slipped free.
Nicky destroyed it without looking at it.
As the months passed, the others seemed to forget that Booker had been banished, and contacted him over increasingly flimsy excuses to cover for the fact that they wanted to know about Nicky. The only one that never asked outright for information was Joe, clearly punishing himself. He’d send short texts with suggestions but he never asked about Nicky, so Booker sent him messages and photos. He might be helping Nicky heal, but that didn’t mean he’d forgotten his best friend.
He wants to learn how to shoot so he’s ripped up half the garden to make a shooting range. He has freakishly good accuracy.
He discovered Netflix and is currently binge-watching the entirety of Narcos. I’m worried he thinks it’s a documentary.
The locals won’t play card games with him anymore because they think he cheats. I’ve never met someone so good at gambling before.
He tried to keep all positive, and sometimes he would get a short response, but often he wouldn’t.
As the summer drew on, Booker and Nicky explored the local area and while Nicky remained quiet, his kindness drew people to him naturally enough. A local family offered them one of their old bikes in return for some vegetables that Nicky had grown and that weekend Booker found himself greatly amused and loudly laughing as Nicky tried to teach himself how to cycle on a quiet country road. He yelled out unhelpful advice and drank slowly from the beers Nicky had brought as part of the picnic.
It was a great afternoon.
After many falls and as the evening drew on, Nicky sat next to Booker who was leant up against a tree, frustrated but happy at his progress. He pulled out the thermos of tea and ate his sandwich (such a brilliant invention in Nicky’s mind).
“You are very stubborn,” Booker said good-naturedly. Nicky rolled his eyes.
I prefer the term hard working
“No- stubborn. You could probably out-stubborn Andy.” Booker said. Nicky gave a quiet smile.
Quynh and Yu… Joe used to say the same thing. Mentioning Joe's name was no longer likely to make Nicky angry just from hearing it, but Booker never proactively brought him up. I think that is because neither of them are very patient.
“I almost killed them once on a stakeout in Brazil a couple of years ago. There’s this stupid song called ‘baby shark’, and Quynh challenged Joe to learn all 150 verses to annoy us because she was bored.” he sang a verse and Nicky almost choked on his tea from laughing.
Have they told you the story about Spain? He asked. They had, but Booker wanted to hear it from Nicky’s perspective. Nicky’s version was very different from the one they had told him and involved an amusing anecdote of a bull, some tomatoes and all of them being very drunk.
...and then they almost ended up getting caught coming back to life by the locals so we had to hide in a barn for a week. I almost killed them again for not waiting.
“What happened afterwards?” Booker asked, amused at the story. Nicky paused before looking away.
We had to split up and Andy told us to go to England to free people being punished as heretics. We arrived and I wanted to wait and learn more before trying to free them… but Yusuf didn’t want to in case more were hurt and I could never say no to him so we got captured and I paid the price.
Booker said nothing. It was the most he’d heard Nicky talk about the Iron Maiden coffin the entire time they’d been together.
Sometimes it is good to be stubborn. He finished the sandwich and went back to the bike.
He was wobbly riding it by the end of the day.
Nicky had so rarely denied Joe anything before he went underwater.
Everything he had was Joes; body, soul and heart.
But it still wasn’t enough.
Six months in and the two of them settled into a routine. Every day Nicky grew in confidence in himself, and Booker found himself like a proud parent. For example, when they went to Rouen and Nicky almost seamlessly blended in, that was until he saw a small dog and asked Booker loudly why people had rats for pets.
As winter took hold of the country Nicky had sat Booker down and said that he wanted to know his newest little sibling better, and could he put him in contact with Nile. Booker was happy too and had been about to ask about the others when Nicky had shaken his head. He just wanted to know his new sister. He felt he already knew everything that mattered when it came to the rest of them- they’d forgotten and left him.
Booker put the two of them in contact via email and left them too it, a week later Nicky asked what Booker thought about Nile joining them for a while. Booker had thought it was a great idea, and Nile was with them by the end of the week. She settled in quickly to their little family dynamic, slotting in seamlessly and answering all of Nicky's obscure questions about modern life that Booker had struggled with. Nile enjoyed showing Nicky the wonder of modern technology, and Nicky had been forced to practice his English.
She just made the room lighter.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t without its issues. One morning they’d been sitting around the table as Nile had been showing Nicky the wonders of Youtube in a mixture of Italian and sign language. Nicky complimented her on learning so much in just six months and without thinking she mentioned that it was only because Joe was such a good teacher, and that it had been fun to learn sign language and Italian with him.
Nicky had immediately frozen, got up and walked away from the table.
“I’m sorry,” she stuttered to Booker, he’d given her a quick rundown on Nicky’s unsaid rules but it had been an honest mistake.
“Joe’s teaching you sign language?” Booker asked he didn’t know why he thought it was surprising.
“He’s making sure we all learn it,” she said, staring back at the direction that Nicky had gone. The two of them only spoke in English and French to Nicky after that.
Another time, while watching a remake of the musketeers that was mediocre at best, and Nicolo had scoffed at some impossible move an actor did, he turned and signed to them; that would get his arm cut off if he did that for real.
“You know how to use a sword?” NIle asked, curious. Nicky stared at her, clearly surprised at her question. Of course, he signed. I died in the crusades, my weapon of choice is a long blade. Have you not been taught how to use a sword?
Nile looked over at Booker and both of them shook their heads. Andy used a labrys, Quynh had two long daggers and a sniper gun that she wielded with deadly accuracy, and Joe just used whatever was on hand. He was brutal in a hand to hand fight and was more than capable of using most guns. None of them regularly used a sword, and they’d never trained Booker or Nile on them.
We used them before I went away. A sword is useful in close combat. You have never been shown even the basics?
“Can you show us?” Nile asked Nicky excitedly. “I’ve always wanted to learn but Andy and Quyhn are terrifying teachers,” she didn’t mention Joe.
I do not have a sword, he signed, gesturing to the TV where the sword fight was still going on.
“And if I find one?” Nile asked and Nicky shrugged and nodded. Yes, if you find one, then I can show you enough not to stab yourself with it.
He turned back to the movie, but his attention was elsewhere. As the movie finished he turned to them, has Joe ever fought with a scimitar?
Nile shrugged, too new to have seen anything but Joe with guns and Booker shook his head. He had never seen Joe fight with a scimitar, “why?” He asked.
It was his favourite weapon. When we fought, I would fight with a shortened long-blade and he would fight with a scimitar. Booker didn’t tell him that Joe had probably put it away once Nicky had been taken, unable to bear looking at it.
Two days later, Nile disappeared for ‘an errand’ and came back with a long package that she laid on the kitchen table.
“Nicky” she yelled out to Nicky who was in the garden. “I have something for you.”
Nicky wandered in casually as Nile opened the box and carefully lifted a sword out of the case. It was beautiful and well maintained, Nicky froze at the door as he stared at it.
Booker knew that sword, he knew the importance of it. He moved in between Nile and Nicky instinctively, but Nicky was quicker and snatched it out of her hands, one hand gripping the blade and the other the handle. He opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out, and his face contorted.
“Where did you get the sword Nile?” Booker asked, keeping his eyes on Nicky, wary of what Nicky might do. He’d never seen Nicky so angry before. He looked wild and reminded Booker of the man who he dreamt of at the bottom of the ocean.
Nile looked confused between the two of them before she realised and her face fell.
“I’m so sorry Nicky, I swear I didn’t know. Please, I just asked for a sword, I had no idea what they’d send,” she rushed out, desperate to try and placate the furious Italian in the small French kitchen. Nicky was so distracted that he hadn’t realised that the hand tightly gripping the blade was bleeding.
For a tense moment it looked like Nicky might attack them, and Booker was already formulating a plan to do… something, he reached forward slowly and tugged the blade out of Nicky’s hands and handed it to Nile.
Get rid of it. Nicky signed furiously.
“I didn’t… They didn’t…” Nile stammered, clearly shaken and sounded like she wanted to cry.
“Send it back,” Booker said gruffly with his back to her protecting her from Nicky who looked like he wanted to attack something. She took the sword from Booker. Go outside, He signed to Nicky who was still staring at the blade in Nile's hands.
Nicky didn’t move so Booker moved to stand in front of the blade and the case, blocking it from Nicky’s sight.
He glanced up at Booker and left without a word.
“Book…” Nile trailed off.
“Stay here,” he said and followed Nicky out into the garden.
Nicky was furious. Did you recognise the blade? It wasn’t a question so much as an accusation. Booker knew that no answer would placate him so decided to be brutal with the truth.
“I know it’s yours. Joe kept the blade in Malta, but if we’re somewhere for a long time he always collected it and kept it with him.” Nicky looked like he wanted to scream. He paced like a caged animal and Booker could see him spoiling for a fight.
It didn’t make the first punch any less painful though.
Booker liked to think he gave as good as he got and landed at least one body punch that winded Nicky. But fighting Nicky was like fighting a tsunami, an impossible force. All the pent up fury seemed to make him invincible. Nile didn’t interfere, and Booker managed to at least break Nicky’s nose before his head snapped hard onto the ground and everything went black.
He came back to life with Nicky leaning over him, fear and apology clear on his face.
I’m so sorry, he signed. I don’t know what happened.
Booker sat slowly up and felt the back of his head where the hair was tacky with blood.
“It’s fine,” he said gruffly. Yet it was clear Nicky didn’t think it was. He hovered in the doorway and kept glancing at Booker as if expecting Booker to attack him in revenge. Nile had wisely moved both the box and sword away and handed a clean shirt to Booker wordlessly. Booker stalked past them and went for a shower to get the blood out of his hair.
If only Joe had looked for Nicky with even half the effort he had put into maintaining his sword.
But sins of the past do not justify cruelty in the present.
The next week was tense in a way it hadn’t been before and Nile decided that a change of scenery might help so suggested the three of them go to Paris. Booker had held his breath, waiting for the inevitable rejection but to his surprise, it never came. Instead, Nicky had nodded and Nile had given her biggest smile and promised to organise it.
They decided to go during the week, and Nile was excited to finally see all the tourist stuff that the others wouldn’t do with her. Going to famous museums was a lot less exciting when you were older than many of the exhibits. Booker booked a hotel, a single room for the three of them and ensured that they put an extra heater in there.
He left Joe six messages in the days leading up to it, but Joe never got back to him.
They got the train to Paris and by the time they arrived in the city, Nicky seemed to be in a better mode and declared that trains were vastly superior to cars. They checked into the hotel, and although the receptionist gave them funny looks when they confirmed they only wanted the one room for all three, it was a nice enough place with views overlooking the city.
The bags had barely touched the bed before Nile, with the patience of a millennial, had pulled them towards the Eiffel Tower. Booker got the feeling that Nicky was as unimpressed with the eyesore as he was, but it did mean Nile got a photo of the three of them with Nicky looking amusingly confused so Booker chalked the day up as a win.
The next day Nile had declared she wanted to go to the Louvre and asked Nicky to go with her. Booker had never been to Paris with Nile before, but he assumed that the rest of them still avoided it the Louvre its entirety, either because they were in a couple of the paintings (Andy and Quynh), or had known the painters and been present when they were painted (Joe), or were pretty sure a couple of their own frauds were in there (Booker). So when Nicky nodded and agreed Booker made his excuses and told them he’d meet them in the evening. He told them he was going to see some old haunts, both had immediately thought of his wife and asked no further questions.
Instead, Booker had gone straight to Joe.
The apartment had been Joes for a long time, it had taken Copley sending through tax returns and Booker going over them to realise that one building in central Paris was owned by Geona Ltd. The top flat with panoramic views of Paris and was leased out privately to Joseph Jones. Joe was many things, subtle was not one of them
Joe didn’t look surprised to see Booker standing outside his door.
“Paris De Germain are playing,” Booker said instead of hello. Joe hadn’t even opened his mouth but Booker answered the question, “Nile took Nicky to the Louvre”. The implication was clear- Booker was here for Joe.
The man standing in front of him looked almost the same as the man who had left Booker at the side of the Thames less than a year ago, yet there was also something different about him. He still smiled, but he looked tired and walked as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. He invited Booker in briefly as he gathered his things to head out and Booker saw several old boxes dotted about the apartment. A brief look inside them showed that they were full of all sorts of trinkets, books and other items. Booker wasn’t normally a gambling man, but he would have safely bet a large amount that all the items in the boxes were related to Nicky in some way.
On the coffee table in the hall, he saw the box that the infamous sword had been in, obviously Nile had sent it back to Joe.
“The bar downstairs streams the games,” the shadow of Joe replied as he pulled his coat on. He caught Booker staring at the sword box and shook his head, “Nile told me what happened. I should have realised, I’m sorry.”
Booker shrugged, “None of us knew.”
They went downstairs and watched the game quietly in the corner, both nursing drinks. He enquired after Andy and Quynh and Joe shrugged, they were in Greece helping with the migrant crisis. Booker desperately wanted to tell his best friend all the small details he could about Nicky, but he couldn’t muster the courage if it was just going to hurt Joe. Joe needed to ask the questions first, so they sat in companionable if awkward, silence. In between the first and second half Joe finally turned to him, “want to play darts?”
Booker grinned into his glass, “fair warning, I can play now. Nicky joined a local team and set up a dartboard in the kitchen, it’s how we decide what chores to do.”
For a second Booker worried he had gone too far, but Joe smiled at him “he always liked any game involving maths. Have you introduced him to poker yet?”
Booker grinned and shook his head, “you should have warned me how good he is at throwing things, I’ve done more chores in the last couple of months than I have in a decade,” Booker mumbled into his glass. Joe snorted and went over to get the darts from behind the bar, looking lighter than when they arrived.
Which is exactly when it all went sideways.
Booker was watching Joe argue good-naturedly with the barman when his phone went off. It was from Nile.
“He’s gone,” she said breathlessly down the phone, clearly running somewhere. “He was looking at some paintings and then I turned around and he was gone.”
Booker was standing and moving towards the door without realising it. Joe looked alarmed but didn’t ask any questions, grabbing their coats and following Booker outside.
“What happened?” Booker asked.
“Everything was fine. We were enjoying ourselves and he just left.” she said on the phone.
“He never does anything without a reason,” Booker replied. “What exactly happened?”
“I don’t know Booker,” she said frustrated. “We wandered into this temporary exhibition on climate change where he stared at a painting and then he was gone.”
“Maybe Copely can track him,” Joe said, all humour gone.
Booker swore and hung up on Nile. “We don’t need to, I can track him,” he said. Booker had given Nicky a mobile when he’d started volunteering. He remembered sitting him down as Nicky had stared down warily at the small black rectangle in front of him, it had taken a couple of days but Booker had managed to convince him to carry it around and call if he needed anything. It helped that Booker had downloaded Candy Crush for him to play. What Booker hadn’t told Nicky was he’d also downloaded ‘Find my friend’ for just such emergencies as these. He would have felt bad for tricking the 900-year-old Italian who didn’t grasp technology but he’d committed worse crimes.
Booker showed Joe where the dot on the phone was, “he’s at the Sorbonne, we went there once in the 13th century.” It was less than 10 minutes from where they were. Joe ran and they made it in 5.
The careened around the corner and Joe froze. He spotted Nicky immediately, who was sitting on one of the benches outside the building, and a sad smile broke out on his face automatically at the sight of Nicky, drinking in the sight of him. Booker stepped forward and Joe grabbed his arm and shook his head, “please Booker, let me talk to him”.
“Joe,” Booker warned, not wanting to see his friend hurt, “he killed me when all he did was glance at his sword. We have no idea what he’ll do if he sees you.”
Joe didn’t care, “I have to try. I can’t… I just want…” he trailed off, unable to finish the sentence and sounding devastated and disappointed all at once, almost vibrating with the need to go to Nicolo.
Booker sighed and stood back, “I’ll be in the corner” The best thing he could do was give them the semblance of privacy, but be in a place that allowed him to quickly intervene in case something went wrong.
Joe moved forward, eyes only on Nicky. It was only when Nicky finally looked up and seemed to recognise who was standing in front of him that Booker realised it was the first time they’d seen each other in 500 years.
Nicky stared at Joe and looked more vulnerable than Booker had ever seen him. Joe sat down on the bench next to him but made sure there was a gap between them.
Both looked at each other for a long moment and neither said anything.
Nile said that you had been learning how to sign, Nicky asked. Joe nodded and said something quietly, but Booker could barely hear him from across the courtyard but could read Nicky’s hands.
Why are you here?
“The others were worried when you left,” Joe answered.
No. Why are you here? He asked. Joe's shoulders tensed.
“You know why, but I will say it if you want.”
Nicky didn’t respond and the silence seemed disjointed and awkward.
Nicky ran his hand through his hair, clearly torn over continuing the conversation. I saw your painting at the Louvre. Joe looked at him, confusion clear on his face and Nicky waved it away, there was some exhibition about weather changes and paintings. They had a series of paintings of the English coast over 300 years to show how it had changed. They said it was a series of anonymous painters who passed the same technique down for generations.... It may have been half a millennia, but I can still recognise your paintings by brushwork alone.
Joe’s face fell and whatever he said back was obviously the wrong thing to say because Nicky’s face twisted into a scowl.
They were painted over 300 years. Why did you stop?
Booker knew the answer to that. Joe had never stopped truly looking, but there were only so many times he could flay his soul open through failure, but Booker didn’t think that would placate Nicky.
Joe said nothing, and the silence frustrated Nicky.
Below the waves you could not find me, and above them I cannot escape you. Please, if anything you have ever told me is true, give me time.
Joe looked crushed, but he nodded.
All I have ever wanted was your happiness. Where will you go? Joe signed, clearly unable to speak.
Nicky looked at Joe, and for a moment Booker thought he would pull Joe closer to him, but eventually, his hand settled next to Joes, barely touching.
Away- America maybe. It’s the one continent I haven’t been too.
Joe turned to face Nicky fully and whatever he said wasn’t heard by Booker but he saw Nicky shake his head and pull back. The conversation was over.
Joe walked over to Booker and turned away from Nicky, the mask fell and the devastation was clear on his face.
“Joe..” Booker said tentatively.
“Can you organise a plane to America?” Joe asked, voice raspy with emotion, shoulders slumped in defeat.
Booker nodded, “It’ll take me a week for the two of us to get tickets, and if Nile wants to come I’ll have to see if we can get her past TSA, but..”
“Alone, he wants to go alone.”
“Joe, he’s barely been out six months, that’s not a good idea.”
“Please Sebastian,” he asked, voice taking a desperate edge. Booker glanced over and saw Nicky staring intently at Joe's back, expression unreadable. Booker nodded. Joe gripped his shoulder and squeezed it once, before walking past him, around the corner and out of the sight of the two of them.
You ok? Booker signed across the courtyard. It was a stupid question, of course, he wasn’t.
Home. Nicky signed back looking exhausted. They met Nile at the hotel and left that evening on the last train back out to the countryside. Booker sent Joe the photo of the three of them at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower but got no response.
Joe hadn’t forgotten him. Joe had kept looking.
Nicky didn’t know if it was enough.
If you enjoyed, feel free to leave a comment- seriously they make my day!
Chapter 3!!! I hope that everyone had a good holidays and NYE.
Everyones comments and Kudos were lovely presents.
So this chapter is more focused on Joe- grateful as ever for feedback.
As always- this is based on the fic Crawl, so if you haven't read it I strongly recommend it.
Joe remembers that he once heard someone say that love was more necessary than air.
Joe knows that isn’t true.
Nicky had been quiet on the train home, clearly upset and abnormally still, as if moving meant it hurting more. Nile hadn’t asked anything and Booker had tried distracting himself by dropping emails to Andy and Quynh with a vague reference to Joe and emailed Copley to start the process of organising the trip.
Booker offered to stay with Nicky that evening but he merely shook his head and went into his room. The door closed and Nile dragged Booker into the kitchen.
“What happened?!” she asked, totally confused. Booker gave her a brief rundown and she gave a low whistle. The next day, Nile left first thing to go back to Paris, telling Booker that Nicky had Booker but Joe had no one. Nicky had looked sad when he’d been told but he said he understood.
The next few days Booker felt himself walking on eggshells, Nicky’s sadness almost seemed to border on grief, as if seeing Joe had finally forced Nicky to confront his feelings that he had pushed aside since he’d come out of the water. He took to getting up early and walking for most of the day before coming back, only seeming to be happy when working with Booker to organise his upcoming trip.
So Booker threw himself into helping Nicky prepare, and set about teaching him modern life, electronics and phones in earnest. He made sure that Nicky memorised as many phone numbers and emergency protocols as possible. Nicky had told him that as the older one he could look after himself, and Booker had just pointed at the smoking ruin where the microwave had once been and said nothing. Nicky smiled ruefully and signed touche .
The ‘introduce Nicky to America’ plan was simple; Nicky would fly to Alaska and slowly make his way South. Booker had tried to force him to plan a route and transport but Nicky had shrugged, clearly not worried and happy to go where he felt. The only complaint he had was that until he reached Mexico, he’d have to communicate in English- which he still maintained was a garbage language with no rules.
Booker dropped him off at the airport a week later. They had booked for him to go the long way to the Americas and it meant that Nicky didn’t have to be over any major body of water. It was longer, but it made Nicky happier. At the airport, Booker was fully aware he was acting like an absurd, overbearing and overprotective father figure, but he didn’t care. He loved his newly found brother, and he would miss him. Eventually, it came time to say goodbye and they stood at the gates, Nicky’s bag over his shoulder.
“What’s your name?” Booker asked for the hundredth time.
Nicholas Smith. Student. 32 years old. Nicky repeated with good humour.
“What do you do when you arrive?”
Get phone. Contact you. Emergency is Copley.
“If I don’t hear from you every week I’m coming to America.”
Thank you Booker, Nicky had signed and pulled Booker in close. He turned to go, before immediately turning back, fingers hovering in abortive moments- clearly wanting to say something.
Look after Joe.
He turned and walked through security without another word, leaving a stunned Booker behind him.
Booker had barely sat down in the car in the airport before he got his phone out and texted Joe all the details of Nicky’s flight itinerary- no doubt Joe would track it. As soon as he sent it he followed it up with: You and Nile should come and stay with me.
Moments later he got a reply.
See you back at the house.
His darkest secret, the part of himself that he loathes and will never admit, is that the smallest part of him was glad when Booker and Nile told him of their dreams. Glad that Nicky had still lived - regardless of what it meant for Nicky because it meant there was hope he could return to Joe one day. That Joe could get Nicky back.
Joe despises himself for that. The guilt of his has eaten at him for half a millennia.
He does not deserve Nicky.
Booker pulled up to the house just as the other two arrived. Nile looked happy to see him, and Joe smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. He took them inside the house, and Nile went to go dump her stuff in the room that was now ‘hers’, while Joe stood awkwardly in the hallway. It was eerily reminiscent of when Nicky had first arrived.
“You can take Nicky’s room if you want?” Booker asked. Joe nodded and followed Booker who led him to the end of the hallway. Nicky hadn’t done anything special to the room, and in six months hadn’t accumulated many items. There were a couple of books carefully stacked on top of one another on the bedside table. Joe hesitated for a moment before putting his bag down by the end of the bed. He looked around as if trying to find any hint of the man who’d previously been here. After a moment he sat carefully down on the single bed, fingers digging into the duvet and said nothing.
“You’re welcome here as long as you want,” Booker said and left Joe to himself. He found Nile in the kitchen cooking up some food.
“Andy and Quyhn should be back in France next week,” she said as he joined her.
“So it seems like my banishment is over,” Booker said sarcastically.
“They hated the idea of it anyway, and you’ve done a lot of good with Nicky,” she handed over some potatoes that needed peeling. “Joe’s going to need all of us to help stop….” she gestured vaguely in the direction of the room, “whatever that is.”
“How is he?”
Nile shook her head, “honestly, I don’t know. I’ve tried to talk to him but he just goes quiet because he thinks I won’t understand. and he won’t talk to Andy and Quynh about it either because he knows it’ll make them sad,” she took the half-peeled potatoes out of his hands and replaced it with two plates of food and Booker realised the trap had been sprung just a moment too late. “So you go speak to him.”
Nile was learning to be sneaky like Quynh.
“I don’t think…” Booker started to say.
“Then just tell him about Nicky,” Nile interrupted. Booker did as he was ordered and walked back towards the room and opened the door. Joe hadn’t moved from the bed so Booker took the chair in the corner and put Joe's plate next to him on the bed.
“He didn’t leave much behind,” Booker said, not sure how to start speaking on such a difficult topic.
“He never really kept many things. When he was taken, I tried to gather everything of his that I could. I stole, bought and begged, and after everything his four hundred years could be kept in just a few boxes.”
“He just needs time Joe,” Booker finally said. Joe gave a wet laugh, it sounded more like a sob.
“I always told myself that one day, one day, we’d find him, and now he’s above the water and free, no longer suffering and I’m happy...,” Joe sounded so sad, “... and I thought I was ready to see in Paris...”
“The Nicky I know is just as good and kind as you always told me. ”
“Of course he is and I know I’m being pathetic, I have no right to feel this way after everything. But I don’t know this version of him, and he doesn’t want me to,” Joe picked uselessly at the food, “after he asked me to leave, I went back to the flat and I realised I’d started drawing him wrong. I promised myself I wouldn’t, but I’d started to forget him.”
“Give it time Joe,” Booker didn’t overpromise or give false hope, that had never been his role. Joe had always been the eternal optimist.
“You don’t get it, Booker. He took my place. Those racist religious fucks hurt me more and Nicolo hated it. When they came for us, he forced them to pick him because he loved me and didn’t want to see me hurt anymore. He drowned for 500 years because he was protecting me, and I failed him.” Joe said anguished. “I don’t know how to fix this, or even if it can be. I don’t know what to do.”
“He asked me to look after you,” Booker interrupted. Joe glanced up, clearly surprised. “At the airport, that was the last thing he said to me. So have a little hope, Joe. Do you want me to tell you about the time he got chucked out of a nearby shopping centre?” Joe smiled and nodded, it wasn’t his normal fox-like grin but it was a start, and Booker started to tell his stories.
Joe tells himself that it was a wonder to be loved by Nicky at all, and even though he may no longer have it, the fact that he ever had it at all is a gift he will always treasure. Better to have loved and lost, then never had loved at all.
Fucking Tennyson- British prick.
The first text arrived as promised when he landed, and a week later a postcard arrived at the same time as Quyhn and Andy returned back from Greece. Nicky told them that he had settled in Alaska with the intent of making his way slowly through the continent, he continued to complain bitterly about the English language but sent updates and photos sporadically to Booker and Nile via his phone.
He never sent anything to Andy, Quynh or Joe and he never asked about them.
Andy had been in the house for a day before she glanced meaningfully at Quynh and announced that they had a mission in Indonesia. Joe had opened his mouth to protest and Andy had told him it would be supporting locals against illegal deforestation, an issue long close to Joe's heart. Joe was coming, she said, it was a big job and needed all the help they could get. She'd found a mission and picked it for him specifically.
Booker had assumed that he would be left behind due to his continued banishment, but Quyhn had told him they needed his technical skills. It had all the subtlety of Andy and Quyhns normal plans, and yet still they managed to convince all of them to go.
Booker let Nicky know that his contact would be more sporadic but Nicky said he understood and sent increasingly artful photos of Anchorage and wrote about going hiking for a couple of days, clearly enjoying himself and the city.
The hours in Indonesia were long, hot and sweaty and seemed to be the perfect distraction for Joe. All of them threw themselves into the task of teaching local conservation groups how to sabotage the logger's equipment and then melt seamlessly back into the overgrowth. They had been in Indonesia for two months when Booker and Andy found Nile outside the shed they had been calling home, angrily wiping away tears.
“What’s wrong?” Booker asked worriedly. She shook her head and mumbled ‘nothing’ under her breath, but Booker just waited her out. He wondered if Nicky’s attitude was rubbing off on him. Finally, she told them that Nicky had contacted her and told her that he was near Chicago and if she wanted him to do anything, or get anything for her. He’d even offered to surreptitiously stop by near her old neighbourhood.
Nile hadn’t expected that kindness, and she hadn’t even thought it a possibility. She’d been so overwhelmed she’d found herself crying and missing her family in a way she hadn’t for a very long time.
Andy had smiled her small smile, the one Booker considered her real smile; “that’s just who Nicolo is, a man who is good for no other reason then he can be. I wasn’t lying when I told you he was the best of us.”
The man Joe knew was still there.
“Be careful, but tell him if you want something, I trust Nicky to get it done right.” Andy finished, it was as close to a blessing as Nile was going to get. She nodded and wandered outside as they went inside, fingers distractedly tapping on her phone, clearly thinking on what to say.
“You sure that’s a good idea boss?” Booker asked when Nile was out of earshot.
“No,” she shrugged, “but I trust Nicky.”
Nile came back in a couple of hours later. “I gave him my mum's address, he’s going to see what he can do. He’s already sent me photos of Chicago. He’s going to see my mum and my brother, and I’m going to hear their voices one more time…” she looked like she was going to cry, something he’d never seen her do before.
“Take whatever time you need, the others will understand,” Andy said kindly.
They didn’t see Nile for two days but when she came back, she was the same strong woman Booker had always known. “He told them he was attached to our unit as an attache from NATO. He recorded it all and I heard their voices. They’re mourning, but they’re going to be ok.”
Booker got a message from Nicky asking him if Nile was ok, obviously worried he’d overstepped. You did good. Booker sent through to Nicky and got a smiling emoji back.
The next day, Nile announced she was going to the nearest city and came back the next day with a small rucksack. She walked into their little hut where the others were playing a card game and dumped its contents of 3 phones on the table. “I convinced Nicky to set up a group chat, these are your phones. It’s as secure as I can make them.”
There was complete silence in the room as they stared at the phones. Booker saw the same desperate look on Joe's face that he had seen Sorbonne. Joe tentatively took one from the table, as if expecting it to suddenly disappear.
“He’s sure about this?” Joe asked. Nile nodded.
“Don’t respond unless he asks a question, but he wants you to know he’s ok,” she said, clearly having negotiated hard with Nicky for it. Maybe seeing Niles' family had changed something in Nicky.
“It’s secure?” Andy asked, always worried about her little families' safety.
“As much as I can make it,” Nile said, “as long as we don’t send photos of ourselves or talk specifics we should be fine”. Clearly having gone through the various security issues with Copley.
Joe didn’t hesitate and turned the phone on, his hands weren’t shaking but it was close. Joe's face was bathed in the dim light of the phone as it chirped and received a message, Booker heard him take a sharp intake. Booker looked down at his own phone and saw a notification from Nicky.
Moving on from Chicago. Hope Indonesia is going well. It was sent to all of them. It was swiftly followed by a photo of Chicago, not artfully taken but similar to the ones Booker had received before.
Joe put the phone down and picked up the cards and dealt the other hand, it was clear he wanted to respond but he did nothing. Just as Nicky had asked.
After that, the updates were sporadic and general, but Booker knew that Joe kept the phone nearby and charged at all times, and one evening he noticed that the background on Joe’s phone was the first image that Nicky had sent. Booker kept Nicky updated on the mission and Nile gave him recommendations for America. There were never any major revelations or point to the updates from Nicky, but all of them, especially Nile, enjoyed his continued swing between confusion and child-like enjoyment of America.
The mission came to its natural end with the authorities having been told that 5 foreigners were working with locals, which brought an increased amount of unwanted focus on the groups they were supporting. They left with the promise to help and advise where they could and went to the capital to lay low for a few weeks before leaving. By this point all conversations with Nicky from Nile and Booker were done on the chat, so the others could see his responses. One evening, they collectively received a message from Nicky and a picture of a faint outline of mountains in the distance.
They reminded me of the time we were at Taurus mountains. Nile and Booker looked at each other, they had never been there with him.
“We went there in the 1100s,” Joe said quietly. The implicit understanding that it had been before Andy and Quynh had met them, and was therefore clearly a message just for Joe was obvious to all of them.
Before anyone else could say anything Joe thumped a reply, they have more snow then the Taurus mountains.
They didn’t get a response, but Booker counted it as a win when Nicky sent another text about something entirely different the next day.
It was slow, but it was progress.
When Andromache had told him of Nicky’s fate, tears had streamed down both her and Quynh's faces- Joe hadn’t believed them. The hurt was too much for him to fathom, and a numbness that lasted decades had settled over him as they’d begun their search for him. The agony of being told that Nicky was still under the water 250 years, and then 500 years later broke him.
He endured that. He will endure this.
A couple of months later, back in France and in between jobs, Joe was staying with Booker while the ladies went on a summer tour of the nordic mountains. Nicky had by this point headed further South, bitterly complaining about the midges and the state of motels, but stopping off at every ridiculous sight he could find, the 100ft ball of yarn in the middle of nowhere (for reasons Booker could never understand) had been his favourite.
One evening when it was barely past 8, Booker had been surprised to get a call from Nicky, something he had never had before. Photos and messages yes- but never a call. He picked up and realised that it was 2am where Nicky was.
The other end of the line was silent.
“Nicky?” Booker asked, and got a quiet sigh.
Nicky was having a bad night.
Without thinking, Booker wandered over to the bookshelf and pulled out Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, they’d been reading it before he’d left, and sat down to read down the phone. He’d been reading for an hour when he heard a shift and guessed Nicky was better. There was a rustle and he got a one-liner text that said Nicky was going back to bed.
“Call me if you need anything,” Booker said down the line before hanging up.
Over the next few weeks, Nicky called at random times, and Joe had also got increasingly quiet. One day he’d found Joe in the kitchen, staring off into the garden which he’d been looking after in Nicky’s absence, hands resting in the sink in the middle of washing up as the water tap kept going and threatened to overflow.
“Joe!” Booker said rushing over which brought Joe back to himself and he hastily turned the tap off before the water got everywhere.
“Sorry,” Joe let a slow breath out, “I thought I would be more prepared for this, but I’m not. It’s coming up to a year, and I hoped I would be a big enough man to make this hurt less.”
The first anniversary exactly, Booker had got the call he’d dreaded but expected. Joe had left Booker to it, going for a long walk. Booker had spoken for most of the night before finally falling asleep in the early hours of the morning. The next day there had been a large glass of coffee and Bookers favourite pastry waiting for him as he’d stumbled into the kitchen.
The other three had swiftly come back to France, ostensibly to lay low, but in reality to support Joe. Quynh had pulled him close when she arrived, shoved a wrapped gift in his hands and muttered something to him that had him hug her tighter. Day’s later Booker came down to find Joe speaking quietly into a small old dictaphone in Arabic while reading from one of his notebooks. It wasn’t a dialect that Booker recognised (although his Arabic was appalling), but the tone was soothing and melodic. He glanced up at Booker and nodded and as he finished a section switched the device off.
“It’s old poems he used to like,” he said, carefully closing the book. “I used to read them to him when he couldn’t sleep. I know he’s been calling you and I thought it might help.….” he paused, collecting himself, “... I thought he’d rather have a recording then hear from me directly”. Booker felt a lump in his throat and nodded, closing the door and hearing Joe's voice quietly through the door.
The next day they sent it along with a podcast recommendation from Nile about art history, a quilting set from Quynh, and a cookbook Andy.
Nicky didn’t call Booker again.
Joe knows that Nicky is a fighter. It’s the man he met on the battlefield all those years ago. It’s why Nicky survived the waves, and why he’ll survive being out of them.
With the first anniversary behind them, Nicky had continued his journey through America, sending messages riddled with disbelief and wonder; the beauty of Yosemite, incredulity at the portion sizes, and a newfound fascination with cowboy boots. He made his way towards Austin and complained to them that it was almost as hot as the dessert he originally died in.
Saturday evening, as they argued good-naturedly over which film to watch, Booker arguing strongly for ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’, Andy’s phone rang with Copley’s ID flashing.
No one ever called Andy unless it was an emergency.
“Copley?” She asked, face expressionless. Booker didn’t hear the other end of the conversation but saw Andy’s forehead pinch. “What happened?” She asked. There was another burst of noise down the line. “It’s Nicky…” Andy said to the group. Suddenly, whatever Copley said down the line made her smile.
“...What did they expect? It’s Nicol… Nicky.” She said. “Get him out, send over the bill and we’ll cover it,” she hung up the phone.
“Boss?” Joe asked, concerned as Andy chuckled to herself.
“He’s fine Joe. He did a Milan ‘98 and got arrested for his troubles outside of Austin. Don’t worry, Copely says he has a friend who he can bail him out and who can cover for us. Turns out he’s still the same Nicky,” she said. Joe smiled and even Quyhn laughed at whatever it meant to them.
“What happened in Milan 98?” Nile asked.
“In Milan 1498,” Quynh said, “someone took offence at me not being white and was vocal about it, and when they wouldn’t apologise after Nicky asked, he punched them.”
“Many times,” Joe quipped.
“He got himself arrested in Austin after disagreeing with some white supremacist group,” Andy said. “Turns out they were harassing someone. So Nicky asked them to stop and when they didn’t, he beat the shit out of them. Seems he remembers lesson one- if you have the chance to punch a nazi, do it.”
“I never understood why people always think he’s the nice one,” Quynh said to the group, “the little mouse is a pit viper in a battle.”
“You two should have seen him in a fight,” Joe said to Booker and Nile smiling at a memory, “truly spectacular”.
Booker snorted, remembering just how angry Nicky had been in his dreams. The following morning, Andy got a call up from Copley who said that Nicky had been released and wouldn’t face charges, and hours later they all got an update from Nicky.
Thank you for sending Michael to get me out. The legal system in America is very confusing. I have asked Michael to help three other people that I met inside who I believe are also innocent. I am leaving America and will head further south to Mexico. They have much better food there.
Queen laughed when she saw it, “trust Nicky to set up a legal aid office by mistake”. Nicky kept them updated as he travelled south via a motorbike he’d procured from somewhere, declaring it now his favourite mode of transport. He had just crossed over the border into Mexico when he suddenly went quiet.
After two days with no contact, Joe became increasingly uneasy, and by day five even the rest of them had started to worry. However, Nicky had been clear, he was to contact them not the other way around. Booker felt absurd in his worry, Nicky was over nine hundred years old and could look after himself, and before he’d come out of the water sometimes it would be months between them all seeing each other.
But Booker would be an idiot not to think that this was different.
The evening of the sixth day they all sat in the living room, Joe didn’t even bother to hide his concern while his knee bounced up and down, something Booker knew he only did when there was too much nervous energy in him.
“Tomorrow it’ll have been a week,” Joe said, and Booker could already see where he was going in his head.
“No, Joe,” he said.
“You told him every seven days,” Joe replied, and he was right. Booker had told Nicky contact every seven days or he’d jokingly follow him.
‘Joe,” Andy said warningly, it was a bad idea.
“There’s a flight to Mexico City that leaves at 4am tomorrow, there are still tickets,” he explained and looked pointedly at Booker. “It doesn’t have to be me. Booker could go.”
“He asked for space,” Quynh said kindly.
“And he can have it,” Joe said quietly, “but I- we- just need to know he’s ok. He doesn’t even need to know we’ve been there.”
“He’d know. You know he would,” Quynh replied, “he’d never forgive us.” The bounce in Joe's knee became more pronounced.
“Boss?” he looked imploringly at Andy.
“It’s a bad idea, Joe. Deep down you know we’re right.” Joe sagged as if all the fight had left him and left. As soon as he was out of earshot Andy turned to Booker, “drop Nicky a line, he doesn’t respond in 24 hours I’m going to Copley”, he nodded and sent one that evening.
They all got a reply the next morning.
Sorry. I have been busy here. I’ve decided to stay longer in Mexico and have been looking for lodgings.
Booker immediately knew something had happened, he could see it for the evasion it was. Nicky, what’s going on? He messaged privately. He was left on ‘read’ (thank God Nicky hadn’t realised what that was) for three hours. Finally, he got a response.
I’m fine but there was an incident a few days ago. It’s all fixed now but I’m going to be in Mexico longer than expected.
I did what you all do, I fought for something I believed to be right. It just took me longer than I hoped.
Are you ok?
I am, and I like Mexico. I think there’s a lot of good here and work to be done. I think I will stay for a while, maybe even study and take classes in modern history. Booker grinned to himself, good to know Nicky's sense of humour was there. Please let the others know that I’m ok, I’m sorry if I worried anyone. Joe wasn’t mentioned, but Nicky’s meaning was clear.
Feeling bold Booker replied; You could tell him. He was worried.
Not now. Maybe in the future.
Booker wondered if he’d pushed too hard so changed the topic; let me know if you need help forging academic papers . He then headed downstairs, where he found Quyhn and Nile looking out the window and grinning.
Never a good sign. “What happened?” he asked.
“Andy phoned Copely to find out what actually happened and it seems that Nicky started, and won, a fight with a local cartel in Mexico. He’s fine.” Booker looked out the window to see Andy and Joe fighting, labrys to scimitar.
“And…” He asked, waiting for an explanation.
“Joe’s pissed so Andy’s said if he beats her in a fight she’ll let him go to Mexico. Otherwise, he has to stay.” Quynh said disinterestedly, already knowing that Joe would lose. “What did Nicky say to you?” They'd all reached the same conclusion. His sisters were always smarter than he was.
“That he’s sorry for worrying us and wants to stay in Mexico,” Booker replied. He didn’t think Joe would win either. Outside Andy ducked low and turned quickly while slamming her axe forward which forced Joe to drop his scimitar and fall to the ground. “He’s going to take classes in Modern History.”
Quynh looked at him in surprise for a moment before she laughed and shook her head. “Only Nicky,” she muttered to herself. Andy leaned over Joe, labrys to his throat. He scowled, threw her off and walked past the garden out of sight to cool down.
Andy walked back in, kissed Quynh briefly and turned to Booker. “Tell Nicky to use an old property in Monterrey. It’s nearby to where he is now, defensible and given what he’s been up to I’d say he needs it.”
“Does it even have running water?” Nile asked glibly. Booker had never been there, he hadn’t even known they’d had somewhere in Mexico.
Quynh had obviously been there and looked concerned, “what if he doesn’t want to go there?” She said something else in an ancient tongue long lost to anyone but Andy.
Andy said nothing for a moment, “it’s the safest place for him, and if we don’t do something Joe is going to do something he regrets”. Booker nodded and sent the message and address through. Nicky, clearly feeling chastised, agreed to lay low there.
In the early evening, Joe came back to the house, Andy and Quyhn were sitting on one of the sofas and Quyhn had her feet buried under Andy’s legs because they were always cold.
“You sent him to the Monterrey safehouse?” He asked Andy, squared up as if looking for another fight phone clenched in one hand.
“Just because we can’t be there, doesn’t mean we can’t help him,” Quynh said, trying to diffuse the situation. Joe said something back in a language Bookers didn’t understand and Andy looked away.
“It’s a risk worth taking,” she replied quietly.
“Let’s be clear Boss, you aren’t risking shit,” Joe growled, “he won’t even take a goddamn letter from me, and you’ve just sent him to a house where I lived for a decade. It’s full of my things, my paintings, my books, my whole fucking life. He specifically asked for time and space and to be somewhere I wasn’t, and you’ve just gone and sent him to my fucking house.”
“Have a little faith Joe,” she said kindly.
“Fuck your faith, Andy, we both know exactly when I lost it,” he replied, clearly furious.
“Joe…” Quynh said as the man turned and stormed away, Andy put her hand out to stop her and shook her head. Joe needed time.
“Andy?” Booker asked.
“It’s the right decision,” she said, sounding more like she was trying to convince herself. “If I’d warned either of them or told you, he wouldn’t have gone”.
A while later Booker went to find Joe, and found him, obviously distracted, sitting outside in last of the evening air, while absentmindedly picking the label off a now warm beer. “I didn’t know Joe,” Booker said, bringing Joe back to himself.
“I know.” Joe sighed, “I hate this entire fucked up situation… I just wish…” he trailed off quietly,“.. fuck, I suppose I just wish for a lot of things.”
Joe's phone interrupted whatever Booker was about to say. Booker glanced down and saw it was from Nicky, who had sent it directly just to Joe. Booker knew with bone-deep certainly that it was the first time Nicky had spoken just to Joe.
Your home is beautiful.
I didn’t know Andy was sending you there. Joe replied.
I know. You would have tried to stop her.
Consider it your own home for as long as you want it. I’m happy you like it.
Thank you, Joe.
Joe sometimes wondered if he was more in love with the memory of Nicky. Then he saw Nicky and realised it was the opposite, that time had dulled this feeling and reduced it just to love.
Nicky was everything and more to Joe.
Nicky chose to stay in Monterrey and enrolled in a local college to study Modern History. The others offered useless tidbits on history to amuse him, and he asked increasingly ridiculous questions to wind them up.
Andy- Have you ever used a corset as a weapon, I feel that whale bone would make a knife. She’d worn one once.
Quynh- Did you ever meet Cheng I Sao? She hadn’t but Andy had. Cheng I Sao had got Andy so drunk she’d woken up on a frigate halfway out to sea and worked for her as a second in command for a few years.
Joe- Is this photo of you smoking weed with Dali? It was.
Copley sent details of a possible job in Guatemala to them, and Joe agreed to do it before Andy had vetted it, his reasoning painfully clear when they landed. It might still be over 500 miles, but at least it was on the same continent as Nicky. The mission wasn’t easy and took two weeks but it left Quyhn complaining that she wouldn’t be able to look at a rainforest again in quite the same way for years.
The day after the mission had ended, Joe had come downstairs in the morning with a small bag packed. “I’m going to Mexico, I’ll be back in two days,” not explaining himself further. The four of them all shared a look, but Joe's face was clearly not welcoming questions. As soon as he’d gone, Booker had sent a quick message. He knew Joe would never go unless invited, still- none of them had been expecting it.
Did you know Joe was coming to visit you? He asked.
Yes, we speak a little. Nicky didn’t elaborate further and Booker didn’t push. There was radio silence from the two of them and two days later Joe had returned, subdued but lighter.
“How was it?” Andy asked as he walked through the door, all of them unsure what to expect.
Joe shrugged, “He likes Monterrey and he enjoys being a student”. It didn’t answer the question, but then Booker didn’t think they’d ever get one. Booker sent Nicky a text later that evening, here if you want to talk . He didn't get a response and didn't push. Again, if Nicky wanted to talk then he would.
They went back to France and all four came to Booker's home, now their unofficial first choice safehouse between missions. A few days later, they got a postcard. It was written in what looked like a mixture of Greek, Latin and Arabic and addressed to Joe. He smiled as he read it, and asked Nile if could help set up a Skype account. Nicky wanted to talk to Quynh and Andy. Quynh had laughed and grinned and even the stoic Andy (normally so reluctant to use technology) had smiled.
The process of actually setting up an account, downloading it, and then using it correctly was painful. The ever-patient Nile had had to talk to Nicky for hours down the phone to get him to set it up correctly. But it was worth it when they finally managed to get it all working, Andy and Quyhn were smiling as his face came up on the screen.
For a long time, all three of them stared at each other.
“It’s really good to see you,” Andy said softly, and Quynh gripped her hand tightly under the table, too overcome to say anything. Booker wasn’t close enough to see the text box but Quyhn smiled at whatever Nicky typed. Joe stayed out of camera-shot.
Nicky still didn’t talk and typed infuriatingly slowly, but his signing was clearer and interspersed with American and Mexican sign language. After a couple of minutes Booker, Nile and Joe left them to it. A few hours later the two women had joined him. Andy looked fine but Booker could see Quyhn had been crying.
“He wants to talk to you,” Quynh said happily to Joe, pulling him close, “he’s going to call Sunday.” Joe grinned and relaxed into her embrace.
From there, Nicky called like clockwork every Sunday just after dinner to speak to Joe. In the hours leading up to the call, Joe would always stay close to the laptop and he turned down any work or missions that might have meant he wasn’t around for the Sunday. Sometimes the others would say hi briefly, but the conversations were clearly for Nicky and Joe. Booker had never known Joe to be as happy as he was after the calls.
Booker didn’t know what they spoke about because Joe would take the laptop to a room and close the door, sometimes they would hear his voice and laugh muffled through the walls.
It finally felt like things were getting better.
Joe’s broken too many promises to Nicky, he will not betray that trust any more.
Joe went missing on a Saturday.
He’d gone out to a new art exhibition he wanted to see and wasn’t back by the afternoon, but none of them were too worried at first. Joe was a grown man and could do what he wanted. By the evening they were slightly concerned, and by Sunday when he wasn’t back they all went out to look for him.
According to the CCTV footage they finally cajoled out of a terrified security guard, he hadn’t even made it to the art gallery. Instead, they watched on grainy footage as a woman spoke to him and he followed after her down a street before being jumped and bundled into the back of a car.
Copley was running the plates and had a lead that had Joe and the mysterious van back in the UK. Then he confirmed the news that made Booker’s heart sink. Doctor Kozak had him. They may have destroyed Merrick Pharmaceuticals, but the doctor still lived and clearly had been looking for them.
Copley gave them a possible location and they drove straight to the outskirts of a business park in Surrey where he thought Joe was being held. By the early hours of Tuesday, having staked the place since Monday they had a rough estimate on the layout, the number of guards and enough information to be certain that it was where they were holding Joe. Andy pulled them back and told them to regroup at Copley's. They’d gather all the weapons they needed from a nearby cache and go in to get Joe. It was a solid plan.
It all went to shit when they pulled up outside Copleys house to find Nicky sitting on the stoop outside the front door. Booker almost jumped out of the car while it was still moving.
In all the confusion and action he hadn’t thought to contact Nicky.
Nicky had a bag and what looked like a music case at his feet. Booker opened his mouth to explain but Nicky cut him off.
“What happened to Joe?” He asked quietly in heavily accented English to the group.
Nicky could talk.
Loving Nicky is the easiest thing Joe has ever done.
So- this was only going to be like 1000 words, then it grew like a weed and I've decided to cut the final chapter into two. Sadly the final chapter is by far the hardest to write, so it'll take time. In the meantime, leave comments and let me know what you think (they always make my day).
Next chapter should be far less angsty. (Maybe- I mean it's me so who knows...)
Also- soft characters that go feral for loved ones is a trope I adore... so that's going in this chapter
Joe had promised.
He’d promised to be there.
Nicky didn’t know what he’d do if Joe had forgotten, again.
Booker gawped at Nicky, as the others got out of the car. Andy seemed to take it in her stride and walked into the house past Nicky.
“What happened to Joe?” Nicky asked, turning to Andy and following her in. He ignored the others.
“He was taken.”
“Who?” Nicky’s voice didn’t sound raspy from disuse but was heavily accented. He had the long music case secured over his back like a satchel.
“A bitch called Doctor Kozak,” Quynh said, following after Andy. They walked through the house, both seeming unsurprised at finding Nicky there and talking.
“What does she want?”
“Us,” Andy replied. She glanced at Quynh, they had an entire silent conversation in less than almost the blink of an eye. Booker had seen them do it before, but it still remained impressive. Nicky opened his mouth and Andy shook her head. “No Nicky, you’d just be a liability,” she said bluntly.
Nicky scowled. “Why did they take him?”
“Because they know he’s immortal, and they want to find out why,” Copley said, appearing behind them all. Nicky looked at him confused for a moment, then suddenly many things made sense to him.
“Cazzo...'' he muttered to himself in Italian before taking a breath and looking straight at Booker, “Joe said that you felt the need to atone as he did, but he never said why. It’s because you were going to give them up to Merrick,” it wasn’t a question, it was an accusation. He looked at Copley, “you told them what we were, and now Joe is in a cage because of it.”
Copley had the decency to look ashamed, and Booker found all the words catching in his throat.
“How did you know to find us?” Nile asked.
“No one answered when I called, so I knew to come to Copley,” Nicky said, he looked at Booker again, expression unreadable, “I remembered the protocol”.
“We’re getting him back Nicky,” Quynh said quietly, laying a small bag she’d pulled from the car on the table and pulling out weapons.
“I am coming with you.”
Andy shook her head, “can you even use a gun?” She asked. Nicky stared at her before picking the glock off the table, taking the magazine out and reloading it while never looking away from her.
“I am coming with you,” he repeated firmly.
“Good to see America wasn’t all just cowboy boots” Quynh joked.
Andy looked at him, considering the man standing in front of her and clearly running through the various scenarios in her head. “This could go wrong. We could get taken.”
Nicky shrugged, “we won’t,” he said easily. And that was that. He was coming with them.
Quynh smiled her mean smile. “We’ll be back in a bit, we’re going to pick up the rest of the weapons,” she said, pulling Nile behind her and they left.
As soon as they were gone Andy jerked her head towards Copely, “you been properly introduced?” she asked. Nicky nodded, face carefully blank. Whatever Andy saw made her sigh, and motioned for Nicky to follow her upstairs. Booker wasn’t sure what they were going to discuss but it was clear that neither Copely nor Booker were welcome. Booker dismissed the feeling of dread in his gut. He’d never told Nicky what had happened, it wasn’t that he had been actively hiding it… it had just never felt like the right time. Now it didn’t matter either way.
“Is that him?” Copley asked when it was just the two of them. “The one that was…. Gone.” Booker nodded, “he seems so…. Normal.”
“What do you mean?” Booker asked, hackles rising and ready to defend his brother.
“It’s just… he was underwater for so long. Most people… they wouldn’t…” he trailed off, clearly unsure what to say.
“Most people aren’t Nicky,” Booker growled. “When did he arrive?”
“An hour ago. I went into my study to find him standing at my desk going over what I’d found.” Copley paused, “he pulled a gun on me without even looking up and he started asking questions. He was so calm, but there was something…” Copley trailed off, but Booker's mind conjured the word; feral. There was currently something wild and dangerous in Nicky, barely controlled.
It terrified him.
Suddenly they both heard a thump that came from upstairs. They ran up into the study and found research papers on the floor and a furious Andy holding a calm Nicky against a wall.
“No,” she growled out.
“They don’t know me. It’s the smart move and you know I’m right.”
“The longer we wait, the longer they have him.”
“Absolutely fucking not.”
“Andy!” Nicky hissed, “I didn’t escape that fucking coffin to leave him in a cage.”
“I promise you we will get him back,” she replied angrily, “whatever it takes, but not this way.”
“Just like you promised to protect me all those years ago,” he asked sarcastically, Andy took a step back as if Nicky had struck her.
“Nicolo,” A voice behind Booker said. He turned and saw Quyhn and Nile behind him, he hadn’t heard them return. She had a large duffle bag in one arm and walked past him into the room, dumping it at Andy's feet, “I know you're hurting so you get a free pass this time. There won’t be another.” She turned to Andy, “but his tactics are sound and he is right, my love. It is our best move.”
Andy punched a wall in frustrated acceptance and Booker suddenly understood.
“What is he right about?” Copley asked, confused.
“I’m assuming when you were researching us, you didn’t come across Nicky?” Quynh replied.
“No, nothing concrete.”
“If you didn’t know, then neither does Merrick. So we should use that to our advantage. One of us gets ‘caught’ by Nicky, which gets us in the building and then we find Joe. The others cause a distraction,” Quynh told the group.
“I’ll go,” Booker said before anyone else could volunteer. Booker had got them into this mess, he’d get them out of it as well.
“We’ll go,” Andy said with a finality that brooked no argument. “We get caught, Quyhn and Nile go in guns blazing to save us, and we’ll use the confusion to find Joe and get out.” She looked directly at Nicky, “I have a promise to keep”.
Nicky looked at her, expression unreadable and nodded before turning to look at Copley “are you willing to betray us again?”
The new world that now was so different from the one he remembered.
And yet too much of it remained the same. People will still hate and hurt things they didn’t understand. Will still commit horrific acts if the ends justify the means.
Nicky knows hatred, under the ocean, sometimes he wondered if that was all he was capable of feeling, as if the seawater had washed away everything else.
And then he’d seen Joe again.
The rest of the day passed in a bizarre mirage, going both infinitesimally fast and slow. Booker seemed to blink and caught the sun setting outside where only moments ago it had seemed to be high in the sky.
In their time together they had done far less hazardous missions, but this one felt different- Nicky seemed to bring a different energy with him; inpatient with a hint of feral desperation. It reminded Booker of 1971, when they’d been in Vietnam and Andy had been lost for 6 hours in between bombings and in no mans land, Quyhn had given off the same vibe then.
He found Nicky outside, casually perched against the fence, his head tilted up as he took in the sky above him. It was a sight that Booker was familiar with from their time together in France. Nicky had once told him- he hadn’t seen the sky in 500 years. He liked it, saying that when he looked at it, it kept him grounded and reminded him that while everything else had changed, some things remained constant. Booker had always been welcomed to interrupt him before, but he didn’t know if he was welcome now.
He hesitated and watched Nicky take a deep breath, before turning to look at him, blue eyes piercing deep into Booker.
“No,” he said calmly to whatever he saw on Booker's face, “you do not run from this.”
Booker desperately wanted to turn tale, but Nicky’s gaze held him, and almost against his wishes, he felt himself taking a step forward until somehow, inexplicably, he was alongside Nicky.
“I recently discovered the little mermaid,” Nicky said offhandedly, taking Booker by complete surprise. “... the movie is very different from the book.” Booker had no response. “I remember watching the movie and thinking… no… at that depth there is light. Then when I read the book I thought- you immature child.”
“And then…?” Booker asked, bewielded.
“Joe came to visit,” Nicky answered nonsensically before he continued “why did you do it?”
Booker knew exactly what he was asking, he considered lying for a moment, but the truth won out “because I am a coward, and I looked at the others, at what the years had taken from them,” he didn’t say Joe but his spectre hung between the two of them, “and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face eternity like that.”
Nicky hummed quietly in understanding, tilting his head back to look at the sky.
“I thought you would be angrier?” Booker pushed. He’d expected Nicky to be angry for risking their family, risking Joe, for something that they all knew Booker wouldn’t get.
“I am angry, furious even... but not at you Booker.”
“My actions risked our entire family, and I got Joe taken. Again.” Booker wasn’t sure why he was pushing, it was as if he wanted to be punished as some sort of perverse penance.
“Then you need their forgiveness, not mine,” Joe replied, reaching forward and finally looking back at him. “I know the feeling you speak of, when I was underwater in the brief moments I was aware, I wished for death so many times. You didn’t betray me to Merrick, so from me, there is nothing to forgive.” Booker felt the sharp sting in his eyes as he blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. “Do you still feel the same way?”
Booker gestured back into the house, “I dislike them, and Copley's shrine boards are invasive but… they are persuasive.”
Nicky hummed non-committedly, “they are very strange- but they are also powerful. All of you have done a lot of good. It is nice….” he paused again and looked up again, gathering himself “.... to know that I wasn’t left for no reason.”
“They never forgot you. Ever.” Booker said firmly, ready to defend the others and go over this well-worn argument between them. Nicky shook his head, he was done talking about it and Booker wasn’t enough of an ass to push, instead asking, “how did you know something had happened?”
“Joe missed our call on Sunday. I wanted to surprise him by talking to him, so I made him promise to be there. When he wasn’t, for a moment I thought he had forgotten, again...”his hands unconsciously clenched into fists, before he took a deep breath and forcefully relaxed them. “But then I couldn’t reach any of you and I knew something was wrong. I just wish it was not this reason.”
“When did you start talking?”
Nicky gave a half-smile, “A couple of weeks ago in Mexico, I didn’t want to get an American accent,” he joked.
Nicky tilted his head, pensive in his answer, “Nothing in particular, but I am tired of the scars the ocean left. I wanted to be my own man. I wanted...” he stopped as if sounding out the words carefully before he said them, “I wanted to remind the others of who I was before the coffin. That I wasn’t some broken ghost or perfect memory. That I was just… me.”
“If I could survive 500 years under the water, learning how to talk again was… difficult, but not impossible.”
“The others didn’t seem surprised.”
Nicky huffed out a quiet laugh, “you need to pay closer attention, they were.”
Booker pushed his luck, “Joe will definitely be surprised.”
Nicky shrugged, “what Joe chooses to feel is not something I can control… but I had hoped to speak to him again under circumstances.”
“Why are you here?” Booker asked, trying to understand.
Nicky said nothing for a long moment, he opened his mouth but no words came out, eventually he muttered, “the same as you. I want to save Joe.”
“Why?” The question hung between them and went unanswered for what seemed like an eternity.
“No man should be in a cage.”
Nicky really was the best one of them all.
-- Nicky’s reasons for fighting have always been complicated- remorse, recompense, a desire to do what is right. Except when it comes to Joe. Nicky has, and always will, fight for Joe.
They knew the guards changed at 20:00, which brought all the normal confusion that came with it. It didn’t matter if it was the year 1821 or 2021, guards always wanted to leave before their shift was over, and the new ones never wanted to start on time. Those golden minutes in between had seen armies fall, so that’s the time they chose to exploit.
Copley called Keane the evening with locations on Andy and Booker, telling him that Booker had been in contact- a good con was always interspersed with the truth. The betrayal this time cost Merrick £100,000. Nicky joked that it was more than the thirty pieces of silver he’d expected. Andy and Booker would go to an abandoned farm to be the ‘bait’, while Nicky would stay just outside it to provide cover. As they’d packed to leave, throwing weapons in a duffle bag, Nicky had pulled out the long case he’d arrived with, inside it was a sword that he put in the bag with the rest of the weapons. Booker recognised it as the one that Nicky had killed him over all those months before. You didn’t forget that kind of thing. Joe had obviously given it to him in Mexico. Booker didn’t know what to make of that.
Following final checks with Quyhn and Nile they headed off, and when they arrived Nicky moved quietly into the surrounding bush, unseen. Andy and Booker settled in to wait, and not long later they heard the telltale sign of a heavy vehicle pulling up, a quick couple of chirps on the radio from Nicky told them that there were at least 15 capable ‘defence contractors’ outside.
“Remember,” Booker said sarcastically as Andy picked up a rusted fire poker stick from the floor, “we actually need to be captured, so don’t kill all of them.”
Andy shrugged, “gotta make it look realistic though.”
They only killed six of them before being ‘taken’ to the truck. As they were dragged onto the back of the truck shackled and handcuffed with Andy helpfully playing ‘dead’, Booker glanced out of the corner of his eye to see Nicky impassively standing outside by the truck, already in some guards uniform. The dark colours hiding where the bloodstains would have been.
Amateurs. In their haste to exploit capturing Joe they’d brought together a team that didn’t know each other.
All the guards but one sat in the back of the vehicle with Andy and Booker, while Nicky got in the front compartment. The guards had their fingers close to their trigger fingers as Andy screamed at Booker for his betrayal, helpfully distracting the guards as Booker broke his thumbs and slipped out of the handcuffs. Five minutes later, a slam from the front compartment was the signal, and both of them launched themselves at the faceless guards, killing them swiftly. Afterwards, they went through the bodies, causally inspecting them for any weapons they could take and hide on themselves. Booker had never truly gotten used to this part of missions- the casual desecration of the dead.
But then they’d taken Joe- so fuck them.
As they pulled up outside the facility they got a double tap from the front where Nicky was driving. They’d arrived.
Booker and Andy took their positions, weapons carefully hidden.
“Who the fuck are you?” One of the gate guards asked as Nicky pulled up. Booker had no idea what his reply was, but it was convincing enough to get them on base. They pulled to a stop, and as the doors swung open, Andy and he were greeted with the sight of 10 guns trained on them and a cocky Nicky standing in between them.
“Get out,” he said. Andy opened her mouth to say something and Nicky shot her in the shoulder. She hissed and grimaced. “I will not repeat myself,” he said calmly.
Andy swore and stood up, hands out in the front of her, palms open. She wasn’t putting up a fight. She jumped down and Booker followed. A moment later he felt the weight of Nicky's gun pressing into his back. “Move.”
Keane came outside and swore at the sight of all the bodies.
“Get’em inside,” he ordered, ‘doctor wants to see them.” Nicky stepped back and grabbed their bag from the front. In the confusion, no one seemed to notice or care. They were pulled into a large room with doors leading off in random directions. As Booker tried to get his bearings, Dr Kozak strode through.
“Nice to see the nose healed since the last time we met,” Andy grinned at her, distracting her. The doctor scowled and said nothing. “Where is Joe?” Andy asked, pulling on her restraints. Booker was worried for a moment that one of the guards would shoot her.
“He is helping us here to advance medicine. Just as you will. Together we can save millions of lives.” Good, he was still in the building.
“Just need to torture us first to get it?” Booker asked. He couldn’t believe he’d once believed them.
She sneered, “the ends justify the means.” Booker saw Nicky grip his rifle, but otherwise, he gave nothing away. “Split them up,” Kozak hissed to Keane, “I won’t have a repeat of last time.” Andy glanced at Booker. It seemed like their good luck had run out.
Except, at that exact moment the whole building shuddered. Quynh and Nicky had arrived. The emergency alarm started blaring from somewhere in the building and they all heard a second explosion.
“Fuck! The others are here,” Keane swore, he pointed randomly at half of the guards in the room, “we need to move them and the other one,” he gestured to Nicky, “take five men and get take these two to the loading bay, we’ll buy time and get the other specimen on a truck.”
Nicky bristled at the word specimen but nodded. He pulled Booker back the direction they’d come, with the other guards in front. As soon as they were out of sight of the others he pulled his gun up and shot four of them cleanly in the head. With the fifth, he shot him in the leg. The guard screamed and fell to the ground, Nicky kicked the fallen man's weapon away, dropping his own bag and bringing out a long serrated knife seemingly from nowhere, and slammed it into the soft spot between the guards body armour in the shoulder.
“Where are they holding Joe?” Nicky asked, twisting his knife. The guard grunted and said nothing. Nicky put his weight behind the knife. “I do not have time for this,” he said. The guard wheezed. “The man you brought here and you have been torturing. Where. Is. He?” When he didn’t get a reply, he scowled and viciously twisted the knife. The guard screamed and coughed up blood.
“It’s on the second floor. Room 215…. Please… I have a wife…” Nicky grunted as he pulled the knife out and slashed the guard's neck, blood pooled around his feet. Booker said nothing, refusing to be moved by the casual violence. Andy didn’t flinch.
Nicky looked up and Andy nodded “second floor, far south corner,” she said, having memorised the floor plans. She pulled a gun from the bag and handed Nicky his sword, who clipped it to his side. They were ready in moments and moved as one through the building. Nicky led as if pulled by some invisible force. Andy followed close behind and Booker came up behind, desperate to protect both of them.
As they made it to the second floor, they moved down the eerily silent corridor, passing room 201, 202 and 203 until they came to 215. As they came to the end of the corridor, they found a solid metal door with 215 stamped onto it.
No noise was coming from the room.
“Pronto?” Nicky asked, glancing back at them. They both nodded.
Nicky smiled. It was savage. He put the dead guards pass against the door and it pinged green. They moved as one.
Nicky moved in the room first, with Andy closely following behind. He seemed to not acknowledge Joe on the table in the middle of the room, instead, his sword sung and cut down both Kozak and two guards without hesitation before moving forward to the back of the room to the only other door, leaving Andy to untie Joe.
Like last time they were held, Joe was bolted to the table, and covered in dry blood. To the side on a small surgical table were several samples, lined up in small neat and labelled tubes.
It made Booker want to vomit.
Joe didn’t say anything, focusing entirely on Nicky, turning his head to track Nicky as he moved about the room, disbelief clear on his face at the sight of Nicky.
Happy that no one else was coming from the other direction, Nicky finally glanced back at Joe, sheathing in sword, his eyes flicked to the side and took in the surgical table, eyes taking in the various surgical trays and pieces of ‘samples’ that had been taken from Joe. But, he didn’t go to Joe. Instead, Andy walked forward, and she undid the straps that held Joe down and helped him sit up. Booker remained near the door, gun pointed back the direction they’d come, covering their escape.
“We need to move,” Andy said, handing him a gun. Joe looked imploringly at Andy, about to speak. “Later,” she said quietly. He glanced at the back of Nicky, with a mixture of confusion and hope, clearly wanting to reach out to him, before nodding and taking the gun.
“We can not leave these here,” Nicky said to them, gesturing to the samples and tests. At Nicky's words, Joe almost dropped the pistol he was holding in shock, and the gun fell down at his side, almost forgotten. In the two hundred and fifty years Booker had known him, he’d never known Joe to fumble with a weapon.
“Nicolo,” Joe breathed, completely thrown.
Nicky shook his head. “Please Joe. Not now,” Whatever Joe saw on Nicky’s expression was enough, he gave a small nod and stood, clearly ready to fight.
“You brought your sword,” Joe said, voice hoarse from unsaid emotion.
“I told you, they are better in close combat fights than modern guns,” Nicky said with a small smile as his hand lightly touched the pommel. Clearly, there was an in-joke there and Booker wasn’t privy to.
“There’s a gas line down the corridor.” Andy said, cutting in before Joe could respond, “put the C4 there and set the timer, it’ll look like a gas leak. You three lay the explosives, I’ll clear the exit route and you come find me when I give the signal. Then we get to Quyhn and Nile,” Andy ordered.
“Are your signals as loud as they used to be?” Nicky quipped, Andy grinned and looked genuinely happy at that moment.
“They’re bigger,” Joe answered for her. She snorted and handed Joe more ammunition. Booker felt something settle in his chest. It felt undeniably good in the moment, they were outnumbered, outgunned and at horrific risk of exposure, but Booker trusted his family to see them through.
They stood at the doorway and exited as one, Andy took the first turn and Booker could hear intermittent gunfire as they continued down the corridor. Booker led the three of them down the other corridor, swiftly followed by Nicky and Joe led rear.
They reached the non-descript room with little trouble and laid the charges, setting the timer for five minutes. It would be tight but it was enough to get them out. He looked up to see Nicky and Joe guarding the only entrance and exit into the room. Joe kept glancing at Nicky, as if in disbelief that he was there.
Suddenly, the sidewall exploded and threw them all to the ground. Booker could feel blood seep down his legs and knew he’d broken at least a couple of bones in the blast. He tried to pull himself up but his legs weren’t working. So he slowly, and painfully, pulled himself towards the charges to delay them at least a minute so that the three of them wouldn’t get caught in the blast. He saw a man in a gas mask step through the large hole and recognised Keane. Nicky, who had been closer to the door and was less injured, hauled himself up before half tackling the man, pulling the mask off and trying to give Booker the precious seconds he needed.
Booker dragged himself back to charges and set about delaying them as he heard Joe coughing and move to support Nicky. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two of them fight almost seamlessly together, forcing Keane to go on the defence against the two of them. To gain the upper hand Keane threw Nicky back into the ground. Joe gave an almost animalistic shout and slammed himself into Keane, protecting Nicky. The man landed on his knees and Nicky didn’t give him time to recover before coming up behind Keane and putting him in a chokehold. Keane reared backwards, using his slightly bigger frame to slam Nicky back into the wall. Nicky slid to the ground and Keane took a step back, breath ragged as he turned and pulled his gun on Nicky and fired his full clip at Nicky.
There was a blur and Booker heard a choked off cry from Nicky. Somehow, almost faster than Booker could comprehend, Joe had launched himself across the room, his body coming between Nicky and Keane as he protected Nicky from the bullets.
Joe was dead instantly. His body slumped forward towards Nicky before gravity pulled it down to the floor.
For a second, an awful silence descended in the room. Nicky looked down at Joe at his feet, one hand shaking slightly as he tried to reach for Joe.
Then his face contorted into something furious and he launched himself at Keane. The ex-special forces mercenary hadn’t stood a chance. He tried to block the punches, but Nicky fought with the repressed anger of having drowned for 500 years. Keane fell to the ground dying, and Nicky knelt over him and didn’t stop, landing brutal punch after brutal punch until Keane’s face was an unrecognisable bloody pulp. Nicky’s own hands were covered in blood, and he was hitting with such intensity that the skin on his knuckles split and rehealed almost instantly. Each blow sent specks of Keane's blood onto Nicky's face, but Nicky was so caught up in his revenge, he either didn’t notice or care.
Nicky was so distracted that he didn’t hear the wet breaths of Joe coming back to life, or stop as Joe rolled over behind him and coughed up blood. Joe pulled himself up and looked around blearily, the same way they all did when they came back from a violent death, to take in the scene in front of him. Within a second he realised what was going on, and immediately reached out to pull Nicky against him and away from the corpse who had once been Keane; his arms came around Nicky, trapping him, He half dragged Nicky from the bloody corpse on the floor, until Joes back hit the wall but Nicky continued to struggle, clearly not realising where he was. For one terrifying minute, Booker thought that Nicky would fight Joe, but Joe just pulled him closer and hooked his head over Nicky's shoulder while repeating “sono qui, sono qui,” until Nicky slowly came back to himself and stopped fighting Joe.
Booker pulled himself up, finally healed, and out of the corner of his eye thought he saw Nicky turn his head slightly and bumped his forehead against Joes, eyes closed, grounding himself. The angle should have been awkward but Joe leaned in and it clearly calmed Nicky down. For such a brutal moment with both of them covered in blood, it was still strangely intimate.
Booker didn’t want to interrupt, but they needed to move. He stepped over the bodies and held a hand out to pull Nicky up. “We need to go, now.”
Nicky nodded and stood, he blanched at the sight of the body on the floor and picked up the sword that he’d dropped beside the corpse. Joe kept one hand lightly on Nicky's back, helping to steady him. Nicky opened his mouth but nothing came out.
Lead. Nicky quickly fingerspelled to Booker. Booker glanced over to Joe who nodded, “I’ll take rear,” Joe said.
Booker moved down the corridor, he worried they wouldn’t make it out in time but as they moved through the building they came across only dead guards. Andy had been as thorough as always.
As if thinking of her, summoned her- he turned a corner to find her at the end of the corridor.
“Everyone still with me?” She said, glancing over all of them as they came up.
Yes. I’m fine. Nicky signed with one hand.
“Joe?” She said, glancing down meaningful at his bullet-riddled top.
“Very pissed off,” he replied
She nodded and led them out the building and through the massive hole where the fence should have been. They made it through the trees to the van where Quyn and Nile were waiting just as the explosion went through the building.
Andy and Booker got into the back. Nicky went to follow when Joe touched Nicky lightly on the shoulder. He opened his mouth but Quyhn beat him to it, “sit upfront, there aren’t windows in the back” she said. Nicky hesitated and Quyhn wordlessly handed over a jacket to cover his top and got in the back, making the decision for him. He nodded and moved upfront. Joe also clambered into the back, closed the doors and as the van moved off they were plunged into semi-darkness.
Joe took a deep breath and put his head in his hands.
“Joe?” Andy asked, concerned.
He shook his head, “you shouldn’t have let him come,” he muttered.
“Either he came with us or he was getting you out himself,” Quynh answered, handing over a bottle of water that Joe drank greedily from, “we couldn’t have stopped him if we tried.”
“How bad?” Andy asked Booker and Joe. In the half gloom, Joe looked like he either wanted to punch something or cry. It was answer enough.
“Why did you tell him?” Joe asked the three of them, “he wasn’t ready.”
“We didn’t,” Booker replied, passing a second bottle at Joe. Torture was always dehydrating. “He knew something was wrong the moment you didn’t contact him on Sunday.”
Joe took a deep breath, and looked down, clearly trying to get himself under control, “he told me he had a surprise,” he said quietly, “when they took me, all I could think about was that I’d let him down, again.”
“He doesn’t blame you. No one would,” Booker said kindly. If anything, the only person that deserved blame was Booker. He had been the one that had originally betrayed them to Merrick and now it had got Nicky caught in it’s tangled web.
“The only people to blame are dead,” Andy said as if reading Booker's mind. “ Whatever happens next we will deal with together.” Quynh put her hand in Andys.
“Boss…” Joe said imploringly.
“Together Joe,” she reassured him.
Suddenly the van pulled to the side, all four looked at each other questioningly and Booker reached for his weapon. The back doors swung open and as Booker raised his weapon Joe immediately yanked it down, recognising a silhouetted Nicky with a street lamp behind him before the rest of them did.
“We have a problem,” Nicky said.
Sorry it took so long; life has a habit of getting in the way and then I just kept writing more and more. Plus point, this is the longest chapter by far, so yay. Turns out I'm very good at angst, less so on the warmer stuff- but hopefully you will enjoy.
As always, thank you for anyone whose previously commented. They're always a joy to read and if you like this story feel free to leave a comment or kudos- they make me smile!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sooooo I apologise for the length of time it’s taken me to update- this chapter took on a life of it’s own.
Turns out I can write angst easily, but reconciliation is harder! As always, comments and kudos are always appreciated
Nicky had been underwater and alone for so long, he'd forgotten what it felt like to want to protect someone.
It was as scary now as it was then.
"They got Copley," Nicky said.
Nile appeared behind him, "He's ok, but police are watching his house. They don't have enough to raid, but we can't go back and get anything. He wants us to lay low and get out of the country. He'll get back in contact when it's safe."
There was silence as they all digested the information. "I hate this fucking country," Joe grumbled. Booker was inclined to agree, and not just because he was a Frenchman.
"We need to ditch the van," Quynh murmured, already forming the plan to help them get away. "Border force will be on alert, so we won't be able to fly. That leaves us with France or Amsterdam?"
"Amsterdam would be the smarter choice. We've been in France too much recently," Nile replied.
Joe glanced at Nicky, who was silent, "not Amsterdam," he said to the group. "We go to France and then inland from there," Quynh was about to question him when Nicky finally spoke up.
"Nile is right. Amsterdam is better." he looked at Joe, "you will all be safer there".
"Absolutely not," Joe looked horrified, understanding something that the rest didn't, "you are coming with us".
Nicky shook his head, "I will go North- Scotland maybe, I can lay low there until it is safe enough to leave, but none of you can stay here. I will be fine."
All of them almost shouted over each other to disagree with Nicky, but Joe's voice was the strongest. "I will not leave you here. Either you come with us, or I go with you." Nicky glared at Joe in the face of his threat.
"Tonto," he hissed at Joe before he started speaking rapidly in a mixture of Spanish, French and Arabic. Joe replied in the same non-language. Booker didn't catch every word but understood some of it; Nicky didn't want to leave if it meant going near the sea, but Joe was adamant that he wouldn't leave him, not caring about the consequences. Finally, he said something that made Nicky look away, but Booker didn't understand. Joe followed it up with something that sounded like a plea.
"It will not be easy," Nicky replied in English.
"It does not need to be easy, as long as you are safe. I cannot leave you here again. Ask anything of me but that." Joe begged.
Nicky sighed, resigned. "France… not Amsterdam,"
"Why?" Nile asked.
Nicky looked uncomfortable, and Joe spoke for him, "Amsterdam is a canal city". Nothing more needed to be said.
Andy looked at Joe, "you still have any boats near the coast?" Joe shook his head and avoided looking at Nicky. Booker knew he'd sold the last one in the late '60s. Joe had told him that he'd hire one next time he went looking. It went unsaid at the time that he wasn't looking enough to warrant a full-time property.
Nicky said nothing.
"There's a small cove west of Hastings that was often used for smuggling in the 1800s. It's mostly just small trawlers these days that don't want to pay mooring fees, but we could steal one; no one will probably notice for a couple of days."
Nile nodded, plan decided, and she and Nicky closed the doors, leaving the four of them in the back of the van as they pulled away.
"If we get a boat across," Quynh said into the dark. "Nicky…" she trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.
"He might never forgive me after this, but he'll do it," Joe choked out.
"Because I asked him to."
Booker hated England.
And Nicky still can't say no.
They arrived towards the coast by late afternoon, pulling into a small town, they wouldn't leave until the turning of the tide, and it would take most of the night for them to cross. They split in pairs as they headed into town. Nicky and Joe stayed with the van, and as they left the two of them to gather supplies, Booker glanced back to see Nicky murmuring to Joe, who looked serious but nodded at whatever Nicky asked.
They didn't return until the early evening by unsaid agreement, giving Nicky as much time as possible. They arrived back, there was a tension in Nicky that hadn't been there before. He kept glancing in the direction of the sea hidden by the horizon as if expecting it to suddenly appear. Andy and Quynh arrived just after them, returning with a full rucksack of medication they wordlessly handed over to Nicky. He pulled it open, glanced inside and nodded.
"We should go," Nicky said quietly. Andy reached out a hand to put on Nicky's shoulder, but he shook his head and took a step back from them, clearly not wanting to be touched. "This will not be easy," Nicky told them all. "You may need to…" he trailed off, but the words hung out there anyway; control, subdue, restrain. None of them liked the idea.
"I promise, whatever you need," Joe replied. Clearly, they'd been discussing options. With that, the rest of them clambered in, and the van slowly pulled away, tension building as they got nearer the coast.
Once they made it to the small bay, Andy and Joe left to scout a boat, leaving the other four on a quay. "Do you still carry your knives?" Nicky seemingly asked out of nowhere to Quynh. She nodded, and he held his hand out as she wordlessly gave him one. "Just in case," he said.
Andy appeared out of the gloom, "We'll take a fishing trawler, Joe's disabling GPS and will bring it around."
"Do we need to swim to it?" Nicky asked, his tone seeming as disinterested as if he was talking about the weather.
Booker had no idea how he looked so calm.
Nicky has never been more scared in his many, many years.
When he looked back on it in the future, Booker would only ever remember snatches of the journey across the sea. He would remember how none of them had spoken over the engine of the boat, the way Nicky had got on last and shook his head when asked if he wanted to go below deck. He would remember how white Nicky's fingers were as they held onto the side of the boat, and that his eyes never left the slowly shrinking coast as the ship navigated out into the open water. Joe had been torn between giving him space and wanting to protect him, but as they pulled away into the open water, Nicky had merely glanced at him, and whatever Joe had seen on his face made him give control of the boat to Andy and go straight to him. Standing next to him but not touching.
Booker would forever remember the way all of them said nothing as Nicky's breathing became more hitched. How he had stared at the horizon before turning into Joe, saying something that made Joe wrap his arms around him before carefully pulling him below deck.
None of them went down, and over the chugging of the engine, Booker thought he heard the faint sounds coming from below deck; sometimes they sounded like a thump, or moan, or a sob.
Booker hated it.
They landed in the early hours of the morning, and Booker stuck his head down in the berth and saw Joe holding Nicky close in the corner. Nicky had all but crawled into Joe's lap, who was sitting up against the side, and Nicky was sleeping curled into him. His head was buried in the space between Joe's shoulder and neck, while Joe's fingers curled possessively around Nicky's neck, holding him close. One of Nicky's hands was clasped tightly around Joe's shirt as if worried about letting go; the other was loosely wrapped around a sheathed knife. Joe was quietly humming some tuneless song, barely paying attention to anything else around him that wasn’t Nicky. Booker glanced to the side of them and saw a mostly empty bottle of pills. Nicky had taken enough to kill himself, and all it had done was make him drowsy.
Joe looked up as Booker came down and nodded. His hand came up, and carefully took the knife before moving slightly to say something quietly to Nicky and wake him up. Nicky came awake slowly, blinking at Joe, unfocused, semi-drugged and clearly confused as to where he was. In that moment, before he seemed to remember where he was, he gave a small smile to Joe, muttering some endearment quietly in Arabic before resting his head back against Joe. Joe's eyes widened in surprise at whatever the phrase was, and he carefully put his hand over Nickys, fingers running absentmindedly across them. Nicky muttered something else, but whatever Nicky said was lost to Booker. Joe looked down at Nicky and hummed in agreement, before carefully and gently pressing their foreheads together.
At that moment, Booker felt like a jealous voyeur, watching an intimacy that he'd only rarely seen between Quynh and Andy. The way Joe was looking at Nicky, was a look that could only be borne from a love that had endured for hundreds of years. He wondered if Joe had ever felt like this after Nicky was gone and before Booker had joined them. It was a horrible feeling, so he left them below deck and went to help Andy secure the boat to the dock.
As soon as the boat was secured, Nicky and Joe appeared, with Nicky leaning heavily against the side, stepping drunken-like onto the dock and clearly still feeling the effect of the drugs. Joe didn't help him, and Nicky didn't ask; whatever truce or moments that had existed in the stern of the boat was clearly over.
They stole two cars and swapped the number plates. Nicky, still half asleep, crawled into the back of one with Andy and Quynh. Joe joined Booker and Nile in the second stolen car. They hit the highway, and Booker turned to Joe, who was quiet and staring into the distance, and asked the question that had been burning at the back of his mind.
"How is he?"
Joe sighed and looked down at his lap. "I don't know."
They drove through the day, following some mystery path that Andy set and stopped every couple of hours to ensure that they weren't followed. Nicky hadn't moved from the back of their car.
"Boss?" Booker asked after the second stop in another nameless and forgettable village, and still no sign of him.
"He's fine. How's Joe?"
Booker thought for a second before answering. Joe seemed fine. He argued with Booker over the choice of the radio station in the car, joked with Nile and almost convinced her he'd once died from petrol station sushi. But in the moments when he thought neither of them would notice, he'd stare off out the window as the countryside passed them by, fingers playing with the rings on his hands. "Surviving."
Two days later, and a detour through most of western Europe, they arrived in Florence at one of Quynh's houses. It was a villa on the city's outskirts, set away from the other houses for privacy and routes in and out if they needed to move quickly. It was also one of the few houses that Nicolo had been to before he'd been taken. Booker remembered the three of them talking about their time here with fond nostalgia before they'd found Nicky.
They quickly settled, and Booker shared a room with Nicky, while Joe had preemptively dumped his stuff with Nile. Andy and Joe left to do a supply run, and the others settled down. They came back, and Quynh, the natural cook of their team, found a helpful and curious sous chef in Nicky. The others settled next door, and Joe pulled a book out from the shelf and settled himself on the sofa nearest the kitchen.
Booker noted that he barely read a single page but glanced into the kitchen when he thought no one was looking, seemingly acutely aware of every sound and laugh coming out it.
A little while later, Nicky and Quynh brought out the food, and they all settled around the table. It was simple but delicious, and the conversation flowed naturally enough with Quynh good-naturedly teasing Nicky about his cooking skills and thinking capers would be suitable for the recipe.
"Maybe it is because my salt tolerance is higher," Nicky replied deadpanned.
For a moment, there was an awful silence at the table. The colour drained from Quynh's face. Before Quynh could stammer out some awful apology, Nicky grinned. "You are as easy to wind up now as you were then."
"Asshole," she smacked him on the shoulder good naturedly.
The dinner continued uninterrupted, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Joe replied easily to every question, laughed at every joke but something, and Booker wasn't sure wholly what it was, but it was off. Nicky clearly seemed to notice as well because as soon as Joe disappeared into the kitchen with the plates to clean up, he got up and followed. The other four looked at each other and moved just slightly closer to the door.
The other two would move if they genuinely wanted privacy.
"I know this is hard for you," Nicky handed over the dirty plates. "I'm sorry. I had forgotten what it was like, to be with you all."
"I can leave for a while. Find somewhere nearby, or further if that's easier."
"Joe- this is your family."
"I've had them for 500 years. It should be your turn."
Andy scoffed quietly to herself and moved to stand up and interrupt them, but Quynh put a hand on her arm and shook her head.
"That isn’t necessary, we need to learn to live around one another," Nicky argued.
"You'll stay?" Joe asked, sounding desperately hopeful at the prospect.
"For a while- until it's safe. Let Copley do…" Nicky flicked his hand away, "whatever it is that he does."
"I don't get all the things he does either."
"It is all so complicated now. If you had told me that in the future you could travel around the world in less than a day, that there were machines to keep food fresh and that with a button you could make light. I would have called it a magic heaven. But it also makes everything so… hard." Nicky said. "Sometimes it feels like it's all…" he trailed off, unsure of what to say.
"That it's going too fast." Joe finished for him. "I feel that way sometimes as well," he said as if admitting a secret. They finished putting away the dishes in companionable silence after that, and the rest of the group looked guiltily busy when they came back into the room.
How do you live with your family if all you've done is die for 500 years?
They fell into an uneasy rhythm, with an unwelcome tension among them as the others tried to learn how to live around Nicky. It wasn't uncomfortable, but it was clearly there. There was a space between them and Nicky, as if each side was unsure how to treat the other. A few days later, Copley got back in contact to tell them that the police found nothing linking any of them back to the explosion at the warehouse. He suggested they stay out of the UK for a while and that he'd be in contact if anything changed.
All of them seemed happy with the developments, but it left the elephant in the room. There was no reason for Nicky to stay. No one brought it up, but later that day, Booker checked on Nicky and found a half-packed duffle on the bed as Nicky routed around the room.
"Are you going back to Mexico?" Booker asked, and Nicky looked at him confused before Booker gestured to the partially packed bag on the bed. Understanding dawned on Nicky's face, and he shook his head.
"I thought I might stay for a while. Maybe explore Europe."
"What about school?"
Nicky shrugged, "I have time. I can go back later. I didn't know how long I would be gone when I came to England, so I just left."
Booker very purposefully didn't glance down the corridor to see the Joe shaped shadow loitering at the end. "Where do you want to go?"
"Local for a while, I would like to see what still remains from my memories", he paused, and a mixed look of amusement and frustration flashed across his face, "Joe, any suggestions?!" he shouted out of the room and into the corridor.
Joe cursed quietly at having been caught and joined them. "Nile found a local cooking school," he said in the doorway, careful not to cross the threshold. “Quynh really wants to go to Berlin with you- she thinks you'll like it there." Nicky nodded and left to go find Nile, and Booker turned to Joe.
"You know we can still die from food poisoning, right?" He asked Joe. Joe grinned.
"But we come back, and I mean, how bad could it be."
The worst part was, they were all trying so hard.
Bad. It was very bad.
Booker didn't know how Nicky could mess up such a simple dish- but he did. Booker had to applaud Joe's efforts, everyone else scraped it away, but he gainfully ate most of it.
It didn't kill him- but it was close.
Nicky had forgotten.
He'd forgotten how easy it was to be around them.
If only it was that easy to forgive.
With Nicky agreeing to stay with them and the recommendation to lay low from Copley, they fell into a more stable routine.
Slowly, they got better. The awkward silences and half glances as they all told their stories reduced or vanished entirely. Andy and Quynh no longer second-guessed themselves when they started to tell a story to Nile in Nicky's presence. Booker and Joe would argue passionately over football matches with Nicky playing referee. They enjoyed showing him games long past, while Nile and Nicky bonded over a shared obsession of Angry Birds and all things modern as far as Booker was concerned.
Booker noticed that throughout the entire time, Joe didn't loiter or suddenly spend every moment with Nicky, but with Nicky choosing to stay with them, he seemed to take it as permission to be 'present'. He never pushed Nicky but seemed to be constantly aware of where he was at all times as if reassuring himself Nicky was there. Nicky was the same. It seemed like some strange dance between the two. One where only they knew the steps while everyone else watched.
Booker realised just how much Nicky had come to trust them again, when one afternoon, following another round of training (known as murder tag by Nile), they came back to find Nicky curled asleep in the armchair in the living room while Joe completed a puzzle in the kitchen with the radio playing music quietly.
As they came through the back, Joe motioned for them to be quiet, never taking his eyes off the puzzle. Even Andy looked chastised. They all knew how hard it could be for Nicky to sleep at times. As the afternoon drew on and it got slightly cooler, Joe pulled out a blanket and carefully covered Nicky so that he wouldn't get cold. Nicky slept through.
He'd never done that before.
One evening Booker came back with Andy from the cinema, indulging her Marvel obsession in the way that Quynh never did; to find Joe, Nicky and Nile sitting around the table as Joe tried to teach them 'modern' Italian. Nile was playing judge and jury to Joe and Nicky as they argued good-naturedly over the history of some grammatical point. Nicky was smiling as he poked Joe in the chest over some convoluted syntax point while Joe grinned and quickly responded.
Nicky threw his head back and laughed at whatever Joe said while Nile, head-turning in between the two, looked like she was watching a fascinating tennis match. Booker and Andy sat down and joined them, and Quynh followed shortly, giving an example of Nicky's random grammar point that was so dirty and rude that Nicky choked on his tea and Nile blushed. Andy laughed at all their red faces and threw an arm around Quynh while Booker poured them all the next round of drinks. Even Nicky was drinking.
Nicky seamlessly followed Joe's bizarre conversation logic in a way none of them ever could. As the night continued, the conversation flowed from Italian grammar to theology, from theology to space exploration and Joe’s obsession with Star Wars; then onto space exploration and also somehow managing to provide amusing anecdotes from twelfth-century Arabic poets and everything else in between. Booker had never seen Joe, in all the years he'd known him, smile and laugh as much he did that night.
It was one of the best spontaneous evenings Booker could remember in a long time. Joe was on perfect form, relaxed around Nicky in a way he hadn't been before. There wasn't anything forced, but the energy was high, the laughs often and the stories amusing.
As the evening drunkenly lurched into the early morning, Joe tried (and failed) to hide another yawn as Nicky continued ranting about the absurdity of the concept of 'Italy as a nation state' to Nile after she'd asked a naive but well-intentioned question, about pasta.
Nicky stopped mid-rant placing his half-full glass down on the table, and turned to Joe, eyes slightly glazed, telling him in Farsi to go to bed. Joe smiled but reached over to pour himself some more and shook his head.
"No." He didn’t pout but it was close.
"Yusefffff…." Nicky drawled, accent heavier with the wine, "tomorrow, you and Andy are playing..." he looked at Nile for affirmation, "...murder tag?" she smiled and nodded. "She will not go easy on you because you are tired and hungover. Go to bed. I can prove you are wrong about the 'hundred years war' tomorrow."
Joe suddenly sat slightly straighter. "Do you promise?" he asked.
Nicky looked at him, confused.
"To be here tomorrow?"
"Yes, I promise," Nicky half-whispered.
Joe nodded and drained his glass, standing unsteadily to his feet. As he turned to go, he looked back, "for tonight, I would fight someone as terrifying as Andy a thousand times." He left the room and stumbled slowly upstairs, bouncing his way up there.
As soon as Joe was out of sight, Nile took Nicky's hand as he stared after Joes retreating back. "Want to sleep outside tonight?" Nile had introduced Nicky to the joys of hammocks, and Nicky had taken to sleeping outside more days than not. Nicky nodded, and the two of them disappeared outside.
It left just Andy and Booker, Quynh snoring lightly on the couch, unable to hold her booze very well even after three thousand years.
"I couldn't do it," Andy admitted to Booker when it was just the two of them, and she looked back the way Joe had gone. "I think about what Joe went through, and I couldn't do it," she poured herself a bigger glass, as if steeling herself, "Quynh and I were supposed to go to England, but we were so tired. The years were hard, and I wanted to go East. I was done with Europe and its petty infighting. So Joe and Nicky volunteered to go even though Joe hated the weather and Nicky hated the food."
Booker hadn't known that.
"I remembered when we found Joe, and when Quynh came back from the dock with news of that happened to Nicky, and then I remembered Lykon, and it hurt so fucking much. That 'whatever power that be' had decided to take someone so young… again. I never understood how Joe did it. How he got up day after day. If someone had done that tu Quynh..." She sighed and drained her glass, "the world would be a very different place."
Booker didn't doubt that. Andy's love was as certain as the rising sun, and a singular constant as everything else around her had changed irrevocably. It served as her strength, and was a bedrock that had carried the rest of them all during times that would have broken anyone else.
"I thought Nicky had died, we all did, and then you came, and he wasn't. He was just suffering some endless torment that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, let alone someone as good and kind as Nicky."
“You’re not to blame for this boss.”
“Aren’t I?” she asked rhetorically. “Joe hated me for years, and then he just felt guilty all over again. It was a shitty time for everyone.” Guilty admission over, she stood up and prodded Quynh, who muttered something under her breath half-asleep before Andy pulled her up to take her to bed. "Don't stay up too late, Book. We've got 'murder tag' tomorrow,"
None of them were awake in the morning.
Booker had taken the sofa and woke to the thumping of feet as they rushed down the stairs. He opened his eyes to a wild-eyed Joe standing in the kitchen, in sweat pants and a t-shirt with only one sock on.
"Where did he go?" Joe asked frantically, hair sticking up in all directions, clearly having just woken. "He said… but he's not … I need … he needs to know…. Damnit Book where is he?!". Booker grunted and gestured vaguely to the back door that went out onto the patio, but Joe understood and disappeared out the door.
A few moments later, Nile wandered in from the outside, feet dragging slightly, having only just woken up and looking worse for wear. She flicked the kettle on, and Booker barely managed to move his legs in time before she collapsed onto the sofa.
"I'm too hungover for this," she muttered as she relaxed onto the sofa. Instant healing couldn't fix all things.
"Them", she gestured in the direction of the garden where Nicky and Joe were. "Joe knows he overstepped, and when he couldn't find Nicky this morning, he thought he'd forced Nicky away. So he's currently apologising, and probably offering to leave again or something else, and it's all very awkward, and I'm too hungover, and it's too early for me to deal with the two of them."
"He really thought Nicky would leave?" Booker asked, bewildered.
She shrugged, "Joe isn't rational when it comes to Nicky."
The shrill of the kettle forced a groan out of Nile as she shuffled back into the kitchen, and the smell of coffee brought Andy and Quynh (who both looked completely fine to Niles disgust) downstairs.
"They outside?" Andy asked as she pulled out the swords onto the table, getting them ready for training.
Quynh nodded as she looked out the window. She was the best lip reader out of all of them. After a moment, she turned to Andy, eyes shining and smiling widely, "we need to postpone training". Andy looked at her and didn't ask any other questions but put the swords away.
Nicky and Joe came back in after an hour, and everything appeared normal between the two of them.
They didn't train that day.
Joe is still the most eloquent man Nicky has ever met.
No one else has a way with words the way he does.
A while later, on some national holiday that Booker couldn't be bothered to remember, they all headed into the city to join in the celebrations. They quickly found a large open-air market with an empty square for performances, and Quyhn pulled Andy to look at some trinkets while Nile bought some sweet drink and handed it to Booker. Nicky loitered behind them, still not entirely used to the crowds. "Want to find somewhere quieter?" Joe asked. Nicky shook his head but stayed beside Joe as he chatted good-naturedly with a food market stall owner before Quyhn came bounding back, eyes lit up with excitement.
"They're doing a re-enactment," she said excitedly, handing over some churros she'd got for everyone. "It's something to do with the Medicis and jousting! Someone even mentioned a medieval archery competition!" Nicky looked at Joe for an explanation, but he just shrugged because how was anyone supposed to explain Quynh's strange obsessions with re-enactments. "Come onnn.." Quynh almost whined, pulling Nile along with her. "Andy's getting us good seats. Joe, you're on booze duty. It starts in 15 minutes," she half yelled as she got lost in the crowd.
Booker grinned at Joe; both knew just how quickly it was going to become a shit show. Booker had vague memories of them getting asked to leave a medieval re-enactment fair in the 1990s somewhere in Europe after they'd turned it into a drinking game where they drank every time they saw some inaccuracy. Andy had been mainly indigent over the festival's interpretation of courtly dress, while Quynh had confused some poor man pretending to be a Smithy, and her points had made Joe and Booker almost cry from laughing.
"We're going to need something stronger," Joe muttered and wandered further into the market. Nicky looked between all of them, thoroughly confused, but followed obediently behind Booker, who tried and failed to explain and forewarn the poor man.
They found the others tucked in the corner, close enough to see but far away for their comments not to carry. Quynh was almost bouncing with excitement, and Andy eagerly grabbed the drinks when Joe turned up. Nicky sat in between Joe and Booker, behind the ladies, as Quynh started playing the 'spot the inaccuracies' with Nile and had already spotted eight.
"Prepare to go through a very strange time machine," Joe said to Nicky as he handed him his spiced rum. What followed were some of the most amusing two hours of Booker's long life. Andy and Quyhn, as expected, found the entire event hysterical. And as it continued, everyone ended up getting involved, including Nicky.
"Cod-pieces weren't a thing then."
"What is she wearing on her head!?"
"Why is his horse so fucking big?"
"That's not how you load a musket!"
"Joe, that is not how to use a sword. You could have killed him in 10 different ways by now; the man is an idiot. We should show the people here how to actually fight" Nicky tried to stand, but both Joe and Booker automatically pulled him back down. Andy, being the little shit she was, reached behind her to refill his glass.
It got progressively sillier from there, and by the end, the performers were side-eyeing them with disdain. Nile then turned to Quynh and uttered the fateful words, "you know that medieval-themed restaurants are a thing?" Booker, Joe and Andy collectively groaned. They'd managed to keep it a secret from her for forty years, but now it was out.
"Andy?!" Quynh said excitedly.
"Fine", she huffed, "Nicky will come with me." She turned around smiling, and Joe automatically put a protective arm in front of Nicky.
"Absolutely not, Quynh. You'll both get arrested, and we'll have to do a Vancouver '65."
Nicky turned to Joe, "Why? It would be much simpler this time. We can just ask Copely to bail us." For reasons that weren't clear to any of them, it all made them howl with laughter.
Booker knew they'd all be in silly jester hats somewhere in Utah by the end of the year.
After the very historically inaccurate and non-Italian jousting, they wondered, drank and ate some more until they ended up at the archery stall. Quynh bounded excitedly over, pulling Nicky with her and convinced the stall owner to let them have a small competition. "Bet you can't beat me again?"
He looked at one of the 'authentic' bows dubiously.
"You didn't beat me last time", he replied, confused. He looked down at the monstrosity that the stall was calling a bow, but after a moment, gainfully picked one up. "this should not be called a bow," he muttered under his breath.
"Winner gets to be called 'Best Archer'," Andy yelled over the railings as they set up, and Joe put his head in his hands.
"Why are you forcing them to get competitive Andy…?" he groaned.
"Because it's funny," she said, swigging straight from the wine bottle, glass now utterly forgotten.
Joe turned to Nile and sighed good-naturedly, "those two get stupidly competitive if you let them. Last time we had an eating competition, they wouldn't give up until they were both sick, and then they argued over who won for days."
"Thirty euros and a week of no murder tag on Quynh!" Nile shouted.
"Don't make it worse!" Joe squawked.
"Hundred on Nicky," yelled Andy. Quynh turned around indignant, "either you win, and I'm happy, or you lose, and I get money."
"One fifty on a draw," Booker grinned. He always did like shit-stirring.
"Fine", Joe said indignantly, throwing up his hands, "All in on Nicky, I've got…." he rummaged around in his wallet, "One seventy-five in euros and three thousand Mexican pesos."
With bets placed, Nicky turned to Quynh and fired without looking at the target. It landed dead centre.
"You didn't win last time," Nicky said. Quynh smiled.
"Oh, you're going to lose."
From there, the game seemed to descend into a mixture of technical brilliance but utter farce. With both of them able to make such easy shots, Andy and the others started yelling out increasingly ridiculous positions, which the two of them gainfully tried. Niles' suggestions of shooting after spinning in a circle five times was particularly inspired.
As they came to their final arrow, Andy pulled Joe up alongside her; "Constantinople '23, you get to distract Quynh, I get to distract Nicky," she held out her hand, and Joe shook it.
Quynh pulled her shot, and Joe shouted out something in Turkish that Booker vaguely understood to involve a bathing house, Andy and something about Baklava. Quynh laughed at his words, and her arrow landed off centre.
"Yusef- how dare you!" She said in mock indignation.
He laughed, "all's fair in love and war, and although I trust Nicky, I have no wish to be a poor man tonight." Nicky turned around and smiled, and Joe winked at him. As Nicky knocked his bow and prepared to lose it, Andy yelled out a quick sentence in Arabic that neither Booker nor Nile caught. There was a pause, and Nicky's arrow went flying.
It missed the target entirely.
Quynh threw her head back and almost howled with laughter. Nicky turned around again, and Booker saw that he was furiously blushing, mouth opening and closing as he was clearly processing what she'd said and trying to formulate a reply.
"ANDY!" Joe shouted, a look of sheer mortification on his face as he turned as red as Nicky.
"Eight hundred and fifty years I've sat on that knowledge," Andy crowed.
Quyhn wagged her finger at Joe, "you two were quite the dream makers." She looked expectantly at Nicky, who although blushing, fell to one knee and dramatically called her the best bowman before Quynh threw her arms around him in a hug, almost pushing them both over onto the ground.
Booker just looked at Joe, who handed his wallet with one hand while taking Andy's wine bottle with the other. "I can't believe you," he hissed.
"Until we meet in person, Yusef, we dream of each other. It's not my fault I saw it." She grinned.
"What did you say…?" Nile started asking, and Joe just held one hand, palm up, to her while taking a large chug of the wine.
"Little sister, there are some things that you do not need to know," Nicky said to Nile as he joined them, "Well played, Andromache. That was… an unexpected memory to remember."
"All's fair in love and war," Quynh sing-songed as she joined them, having handsomely overpaid the man running the archer stall. She took Joe's wallet from Andy's hands and the money from everyone else, "come on, I want to celebrate being the best archer in the world…"
The rest of the evening passed in a blur. Quynh seemed set on spending all her winnings in one night. By evening the festival got into full swing, with stages and bands playing throughout the square. Nicky seemed amazed at it all, eyes constantly turning to take in the sea of people. The others ensured they stayed to the edge of any dancing so that Nicky never felt overwhelmed, and every once in a while, one would pull him aside under the excuse of needing something. Late into the evening, Booker glimpsed Joe and Nicky talking heads close together, and Nicky laughed at whatever Joe said and looked away, and Joe looked at him with such naked adoration and love that Booker didn't know how he could stand it.
By the early hours of the morning, as things were winding down, they, along with everyone else, started to make their ways back home. They managed to catch one of the last trains back out to the suburbs and piled into a compartment, there was just enough room for all of them, and Nile drew the door closed.
Joe sat closest to the window and rested his head against it. Nicky took the seat next to him while Andy and Quynh sat opposite. Nile and Booker took the seats closest to the door. As soon as the train left the station, Nile and Joe quickly fell asleep whilst the others talked amongst themselves.
Nicky moved slightly so that Joe's head now rested against his shoulder instead of the window. "He never used to sleep so easily," Nicky said absentmindedly, looking at the top of Joe's head.
"He's probably catching up on lost sleep." Quynh yawned. Nicky looked at her confused, and Andy unsubtly kicked Quynh’s ankle. None of them said anything, not wanting to ruin another perfect evening, but what Quynh said was true. Booker had never known Joe to be a deep sleeper. In the two hundred years he'd known Joe, he'd known the man to exist on just a few hours of sleep a night.
"What else about him has changed?" Nicky asked, not taking his eyes off Joe.
The two women looked at each other and clearly didn't know how to answer, but Booker knew the truth as they did. Too much. The man in Florence was so different from the man that Booker had spent the last two centuries grieving with.
"Our Joe has become quite the hoarder," Andy joked, trying to lighten the mood. Which was an understatement. Joe had collected everything he could that reminded himself even a little of Nicky. Booker remembered a six month trip to Egypt in the 1890s when Joe had heard rumours of a book about the 'friendship' between a crusader and moslim from the first crusade. It had turned out to be false, and Joe had been devastated.
"I like the renaissance stuff myself," Quynh said gently, taking pity on the sleeping Joe.
"Where does he keep it all?"
There was a long pause. "Malta," Booker finally replied. Malta was sacred to Joe. Booker didn't know why- but he did know that. During the second world war, when they'd been in Italy, as soon as Joe had heard about the siege in Malta, he had turned around to Andy and told her he was leaving. Booker had expected Andy to be furious because they were in the middle of a mission, but she'd merely nodded and told him to come back when he could.
Andy and Quynh braced themselves as if the admission would turn something ugly in Nicky. But nothing happened. Nicky rested his chin slightly on Joe's sleeping head. "It always was beautiful, even with its temperamental weather," he muttered.
Nothing more was said.
Of course, it was Malta.
A place of treasured memories.
Surrounded by the sea.
Time drifted past, almost unheeded as it always was by the immortal family. Instead, they marked it with things that mattered. Nile and Nicky finished their culinary course. Booker learnt new forging techniques. Nicky's culinary skills improved enough that meant they only faced death by food poisoning once a week.
Nicky and Joe had their first sparring and sword match.
It had been beautiful to watch. It had the same air of a dance that Quyhn and Andy had when they fought. Nicky refused to let Joe go easy on him, and while Joe had held back at the beginning, whatever insults Nicky muttered under his breath got to Joe because within 5 minutes, he wasn't holding back.
The rest of them came outside to watch as the match continued long past what would have broken lesser warriors. Andy assessed them for any weaknesses that she could later train out of them.
"He's favouring his left side," Quynh said, standing alongside her. Nicky twisted left and under Joe's sword, bringing his own sword dangerously close to Joe's ribs. Andy hummed in agreement, "he needs to use his wrists more and be lighter on his feet".
"Joe needs to be careful," Andy muttered, "he's about to be pulled..." Nicky stepped back from Joe's wide swing, "...off-balance", flipped his sword quickly between his hands and turned low, swinging low with the sword and nicking Joe's ankle.
Jow went sprawling across the grass and lay there for a moment as his body healed, starfishing out as his chest heaved to catch his breath. Nicky seemed equally exhausted, hands on his knees, almost folded in two, sword loosely in his grasp as he caught his breath. Joe looked back at him and smiled, and Nicky grinned before reaching down to help pull him up.
Joe clapped him on the back and went inside, off to find the shower and lick his wounds; he joked over his shoulder at the rest of them.
Nicky didn't take his eyes off Joe’s back as he disappeared inside. Andy and Quynh shared a knowing glance at each other.
That evening after a passable dinner made by Nicky and supervised by one of them to ensure none of them died. Joe cleaned up in the kitchen while humming some tune that had Nicky smiling, and the others all settled in the living room. Andy dealt out cards for bridge, and Nile, Quyhn and Nicky joined her. Booker pulled out his laptop to check in on a couple of things Copely sent. They might be on an impromptu break, but that didn't mean there weren't things they could still do.
Nestled among the emails from Copely was one from the university that Nicky attended, and Booker had helped set up. It was a follow up to an earlier phone conversation Nicky had obviously had with them, stating they were looking forward to welcoming him back two weeks and wanting to confirm some details.
Booker read it twice, first in disbelief, and second in resignation.
Nicky was leaving them.
Logically, Booker knew that their time as a family in Florence would always eventually end, but he'd enjoyed the time Nicky had been with them, and he didn't want Nicky to go.
Joe was going to be devastated.
Booker decided to rip off the bandaid.
"Your university emailed," he said to Nicky, interrupting the card game.
Nicky looked at him, confused for a moment before his eyes widened in understanding. He sighed as he ran his fingers through his hair, clearly annoyed, and swore inventively under his breath. The sound brought Joe from the kitchen, and he leant against the doorframe, dishcloth thrown over his shoulder.
"This is not how I wanted to tell you," he said as an apology to them as they all waited for him to explain. He looked directly at Joe, taking a deep breath to steel himself, "I am going back to finish my studies."
No one said anything for a long moment.
"When?" Joe asked, eerily calm.
Nicky put the cards down carefully, "two weeks."
"As long as it is needed. There is still so much I have yet to learn."
Joe nodded and walked back into the kitchen. After a moment, they all heard the sound of the tap turned back on. Then off. Then they heard the back door opening and closing.
Andy took Nicky's cards and started to shuffle them in the pack, "go". Nicky immediately followed after Joe. She turned to Booker, "we're going to need more wine."
Booker wandered into the kitchen, and he really didn't mean to overhear, but in his haste to follow Joe, Nicky had left the back door open.
"Joe, wait. I'm sorry. I wanted to talk earlier, but..."
"You never have to explain anything to me, Nicky," Joe sounded drained.
"But I want to," Nicky's hands gestured wildly to cover his nervousness. "I wanted to talk earlier, but you were with Nile, and then Quynh was asking your advice, and then Andy was there as we made dinner, and you seemed so happy, and...." he continued to list excuses before slowly trailing off. "...but if I am honest, it is because I am a coward and I did not want to upset you".
Joe looked at Nicky softly, anger forgotten, "you are many things, but you have never been a coward, Nicolo de Genoa," always willing to defend Nicky, even if it was only from himself.
His words seemed to give Nicky the courage he needed, and before it failed him, Nicky stepped forward and kissed Joe chastely on the lips, pulling back a moment later. His actions speaking for him where words could not.
There was stunned silence from Joe, who stared wide-eyed at him, shock clear on his face. Slowly, the tips of his fingers traced his lips as if he was worried he'd hallucinated Nicky's lips against him, just to convince himself it was real.
Nicky looked worried, scared he’d overstepped. "Come with me. I do not know many things, but I do know I want you by my side. I am done being angry all the time, I want to be the person you remember, I want to be your equal when I stand beside you. It will not be easy, and I don't know wh...
"Joe," Nicky said exasperated, "let me finish."
"Where you go, I go," Joe said with complete seriousness, "nothing else matters."
"Joe, I cannot promise we will ever go back to what we had."
"I don't care."
"Joe, you should care. The sea took so much from me. I will have days where I will be cruel and angry and nothing of the man you know. I cannot promise anything.."
"I don't care," Joe repeated forcefully, stepping closer to Nicky and taking his hands in his. "I knew you back when all you were was angry, and even then, I could not be parted from you. You have always been my equal, the sea never took that. It is the greatest honour in the world just to stand by your side. We have time for everything else."
Nicky didn't pull hi hands back, "you are an incurable romantic," he said, sounding flustered.
"If I am, it is only because you have made me that way," Joe brought Nicky's hands to his mouth and kissed them gently, "you are everything and more Nicolo- that has never stopped."
"There will be so many challenges," Nicky said gravely, voice hoarse with emotion.
"Then we will face them together."
"Even if it's your hoarding tendencies?" Nicky joked, his voice holding the edge of a laugh but warm regardless.
"Especially if it's my hoarding tendencies!" Joe smiled back, almost unable to contain his happyness.
He gently kissed Nicky, just becuase he could, and marvelled at finally being able to it that after so many years, and Joe pulled him close. Finaly, finally able to hold Nicky again.
He looked like he’d come home.
"Do you know, I was thinking about Malta," Nicky muttered quietly to Joe, almost embarrased, "we should go back there."
Joe nodded, eyes wet, "I'd like that."
Booker quietly closed the door to give them privacy and went back to join the others, taking Nicky's place.
"Niles is moving your stuff into her room," Andy didn't look up from her cards as Quhyn dealt a new hand.
The two of them left for Malta the next day.
Two weeks later, they went back to Mexico.
Loving Joe is inevitable. It's like trying to fight the water.
Except for this time, it doesn't feel like losing.
Three years later, Booker and Nile worked a long job in Cote D'ivoire while Andy and Quynh did some work in the Sahel region. Booker took to the role of being a morally grey businessman with dubious links quickly, while Nile used the time to perfect her French. She joked that Booker's cover was more like a calling, and together they sent information and supplies to Andy and Quynh as they needed it.
Nicky and Joe had been gone for three years, all of them had gone to visit Nicky, but Joe was the only one that stayed, forgoing missions to spend time with Nicky, who was still studying, and who by his own admission, 'wasn't ready yet'. Earlier in the year, Nicky had finally finished his studies, and Joe had sent photos of them from the graduation ceremony, Joe smiling wildly with an arm slung around a clearly embarrassed Nicky.
They had looked so happy.
Afterwards, they had gone quiet for a bit, clearly travelling before joining the others. Booker didn't know what they had planned, but he looked forward to seeing them again soon. One evening, after a day of having to gather intelligence to help Andy and drink watered-down whiskey with some of the lowest scumbags on the earth, Nile had declared that she wanted to 'get clean' so they'd headed to their favourite place on the beach next to the sea. A small local beach house that doubled as a restaurant when the owner felt like it.
When they arrived, they were told that their friends had already arrived and were waiting for him. They walked through outside to the veranda to find Joe and Nicky sitting at Booker and Niles' usual table and lounging around like they owned the place. Nile grinned and ran up to hug Joe. Nicky handed Booker his favourite whiskey. You couldn't get it outside of Scotland.
"Gentleman," Booker said kindly. Joe grinned.
"How long are you two here for?" Nile asked excitedly.
Nicky started speaking, "Andy sent word that armed forces are harassing unofficial refugee camps on the border between Burkina Faso and Mali, so we thou.."
"Nicky was bored," Joe said, interrupting him and giving the biggest shit-eating grin, fingers interlaced behind his head.
"You were also bored," Nicky said, smiling, clearly rehashing an old argument.
"Never denied that." Joe said, he turned to Nile, "we're going to do some good, just as we always have. We'll be here a few days before we go."
"We also wanted to know what you two had heard," Nicky added solemnly. Nile immediately went into business mode, succinctly briefing the two of them of what they knew. It was a lot for just 6 months of work, and Booker felt it was primarily down to Nile. She was a brilliant addition to their family.
By the time she was done, they'd all finished their various drinks, and Joe turned to Nile; "come on, let's get a drink while the 'old men' chat," Booker laughed, and Nicky gave Joe the finger. Joe winked and left.
"How are you?" Booker asked when the two of them disappeared towards the bar. Nicky shrugged. "We can move elsewhere," Booker continued, glancing back towards the beach and sea.
Nicky smiled, "we don't need to."
"Are you sure?"
"Do you think Joe would have sat out here if he thought I couldn't handle it?" Nicky asked rhetorically, and Booker couldn't argue with that logic.
"And everything else?"
Nicky hesitated, "there are good days and bad days. Joe and I are both learning to live around each other again. It is not without its challenges, but we face those together". He considered his following words carefully, "but I am happy and more sure of myself, and I cannot imagine feeling this way without him. He makes me… better."
Booker grinned into his drink, "Joe always said the same of you."
Nicky gave a small smile. They glanced at the other two across the room. You ok? Joe signed without pausing in his conversation with Nile. If Booker hadn't helped come up with half the language, he would have completely missed it. Nicky gave the smallest of nods, and Joe focused back on Nile.
"And you?" Nicky asked.
Booker shrugged; he was happy. It finally felt like some sort of light had broken slowly but steadily through the cloud that for the last two hundred years had hung over him.
"Joe worries about you," Nicky said conversationally, catching Booker entirely off guard. "Worries that he was too focused on himself, on us, and that he doesn't do enough to help, that his own grief blinded him from seeing yours. I've tried to tell him that I know he shouldn't. That what I saw couldn't have been stopped," he shrugged, "but we both know how stubborn Joe can be about those he loves."
Nicky was living proof of that.
"He doesn't need to," Booker replied quietly.
"Yet he always will," Nicky replied. "Joe made something for you, but he's worried about giving it to you, and he's too stubborn to say it," Nicky said, reaching across the table and pulling something out of Joe's bag and handing it over.
It was a small notebook. Booker slowly opened it and started looking through it. They were flawless drawings of his family. Specifically, they were moments that meant the world to him. They were moments when neither Joe, Andy or Quynh was there.
One Nicky would have seen them.
Only Nicky would have understood how much they meant.
Nicky looked out over the sea, giving Booker time to compose himself. There was something to be said for having spent two hundred years in each other's heads. "There is no word I know in the twenty-three languages I speak that can thank you for what you did for me, Booker. You kept me sane when the water took everything else from me. You made me remember what it was to be human when I had forgotten. You looked after Joe when I could not, and you were there when he needed it most. Joe is the love of my life, but you are our brother. This is less than a tenth of what you deserve, but it is a start."
Booker barely heard him over the roar in his ears. He felt grounding a hand on his shoulder. "Breath, brother," he heard Joe mutter as he put a drink down in front of him and pulled his chair closer to Nicky before sitting in it.
Booker closed the book and tried to think of a witty response, something to break the tension, but Joe shook his head, already knowing what he was going to say.
"Thank you," Joe said instead, a thousand words unsaid but understood. He reached over and rested one hand lightly on Nicky's, who immediately turned his hand and interlaced their fingers as if the movement was as natural as breathing.
Booker's fingers clenched around the book as Nile joined them and broke the tension with a funny comment that made Joe laugh, Nicky smile and Booker snort.
Their family was going to be ok.
Annnddd we're done.
Fun extra facts
- Writing Andy when she isn't cynical is fun!
- Quyhn was alot more fun to write this time then other times.
As always, comments are lovely to receive and let me know what you enjoyed.