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Rules of Engagement

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The rules, Nicky will tell you, are quite simple. 

  1. Nicky does good things because he has a good man at his side, not because he is a good man himself.
  2. If you hurt Nicky, Joe will hurt you. 
  3. Do not let Joe get hurt.

He is asked once, by a drunken Booker, if he feels lucky that he got a loophole in his mortal days. Plenary indulgences to cover all sins; past, present, and future. Booker is the lucky one, though he does not realize it at the time, because he has been with them long enough for Nicolo to see how miserable he is, how much he hurts at the pain of losing his children, how bitterly he turns to whiskey and other drink instead. 

Were he to know Booker less, the response might have looked different. Harsher. He might not have cared to offer an explanation.

Instead, he answers simply. “It is neither the privilege nor burden of man to bestow forgiveness of sin.”

“Do you believe God forgives you?” asks Booker.

There is much more than one thing that Booker asks about, this Nicolo knows. “I do not believe there is anything to forgive when it comes to my love of Yusuf,” he says in return. “People are confused by many expressions of love. God is not. If the question is in regards to the Crusades…” His voice trails away as the sounds of Booker’s snores fill the air. 

Nicolo sits quietly in the small, dark room for a long time, until Yusuf and Andy come home from the small mission they had taken, and the house fills with laughter and noise and light. “No,” Nicolo says softly to the dark. “I do not think God forgives me for that.”

He doesn’t know, in the early days, how terrible he can be without Yusuf. 

He knows how he was before Yusuf, the horrors he was willing to commit in the name of a God who would never approve of the things they had done. 

Who he is after is a better man. But there comes a time when Yusuf is taken, albeit temporarily, and Nicolo learns just how terrible he can still be.

They are a powerful foursome, he and Yusuf, Quynh, and Andromache. All of them are a little weary of being soldiers in the wars of powerful men, so they seek other occupations, other ways to help. And the life of a soldier means many eyes, making it more difficult to explain living through a mortal wound. 

So they travel. They rid rural areas of bandits, rescue children and return them to their mothers, anything that keeps them moving and gives them purpose. Sometimes they stop for a year or two. They buy property here and there, making notes in Yusuf’s journal of the locations and details so they can keep the deed maintained through fictitious heirs, creating safe houses around the world. 

In the mid-14th century, they set themselves upon a mission to dismantle a particularly nasty group of bandits. It is a dark time in Europe. Despite the horrors of the Black Death, those who seek to take advantage are still rampant.

For cruelty knows no limitation and is particularly virulent in times of trouble.

This network of thieves is widespread and deadly, with a reputation for taking anything they set their eyes on. 

They’ve been successful in picking apart the network, finally bringing things to a head when just the leader and his men are left. It will mean an ugly battle, one that will bring much carnage. 

But as they sleep in the night, Yusuf is taken by surprise while on watch, knocked out and hands bound before he can sound the alarm. Without him, there is no warning of danger and the rest of the bandits move into the camp, quietly and swiftly slicing the throats of Nicolo, Quynh, and Andromache. 

He will learn later that the bandits took Yusuf instead of killing him too in an effort to gather information, wanting to be certain they knew all who were involved in taking down their operation. After all, no one could believe that a mere quartet, two of them women, could be taking down such a large company.

They live, of course, because dying is a familiar friend while death is but a shadow on a far-off horizon.

Quynh and Andromache follow him in the search for Yusuf, though he has little need for them. The bandits were not overly cautious in their departure, seeing as they did not see it as an escape. It makes for an easy trail.

He carves a path through the forest. Waiting for no one, stopping for none. He leaves litters of bodies in his wake, one singular thought on his mind. 

Save Yusuf. Save him and nothing else. 

The leader’s home is a small castle. Of course, Nicolo will think later. Of course, because in this time when the nobility should take care of their tenants, this one is robbing and killing his. He sweeps through in a fury, nothing but the song of steel ringing through the air before it cuts down those in his way. Yusuf is in a small dungeon under the foundations. Several thieves kick and beat him consistently, often enough that his accelerated healing can’t keep up. Nicolo can see the bruises and blood even in the dim torchlight, can see the way his Yusuf’s eye is swollen shut.

Nicolo screams, ugly and guttural.

And in a moment, he is the only one standing in the room. Yusuf uncurls from his fetal position. The thieves bleed and they bleed and they bleed.

It’s not until they are walking out that Nicolo realizes just what he has done. Realizes who he became to free his love. Who he is without Yusuf.

There are no living bodies to pass in the halls. The stone floors are slippery with blood as they walk. Quynh and Andromache wait silently at the top of the stairs. They do not wear expressions of judgment, they would never. All of them are deadly warriors in their own right and none shrink at the sight of death. 

But this?

There is death and then there is carnage.

It is Nicolo’s turn to need support as he reels to the side and upheaves at what he has done.

“Hush, Nicolo,” whispers Yusuf in soothing turns, guiding them out the castle behind the women, his strength returning steadily. 

Nicolo closes his eyes and lets Yusuf lead him instead. They wait at the gate for Andromache to find one of the hiding servants, one of those who did not get in his way. They are terrified, but she assures them that they will leave now, and they are to tell no one what transpired this day. The evidence against the lord of the manor is clear, should anyone in the area care to make an inquiry, and Nicolo has no doubt that Andromache is giving detailed instructions on how the servants can take what they need and disappear, rather than stay in this bloodshed.

Neither she nor Quynh speaks to him when they return. They take the lead again and Nicolo wonders if he has just changed everything.

He has and he has not.

He and Yusuf have several talks. Andromache but observes. Quynh assesses in her own way and seems content with what she sees.

They are a team, first and foremost, one that Nicolo doesn’t try to change. No matter how much he may wish to wrap Yusuf tightly in his arms and never let him be harmed, this is unfair. And impossible, Yusuf would never stand for such a thing. He is a warrior too.

But there is a shift made, in the fighting style, in their actions in danger.

Andromache is the leader as usual. 

Nicolo and Yusuf fight as one, as usual. 

Quynh moves with a speed and precision the others can only dream of.

Beneath it all, they protect Yusuf first. To lose Yusuf would be to lose them all.

In the beginning, Nicolo killed Yusuf several dozen times without ever recognizing him as the same man. He did not fight with the presupposition that there were people at the other end of his blade. People who were like him once, with families and friends, and a purpose that didn’t hinge on destruction. 

He’s not sure if he left Genova with that mindset. It was so long ago and as Andy is fond of saying, it’s not what time erases, but what it leaves behind. 

Perhaps he was more innocent once upon a time. Perhaps there is some tragedy that even now his mind cannot remember, something that inspired him to take up the sword. 

Dwelling on the perhaps does not bring healing. It does not move you forward and make you better. Yusuf taught him that. Teaches him that.

Nicolo didn’t find out until years later, when Quynh and Andromache found them in the 1130s, just how many times he had run his blade through Yusuf without ever recognizing him. Joe was so angry when Quynh made the joke about them skewering each other one way or another, but at least the new way wasn’t full of blood and spilled intestines. 

He had been so confused by the attempts to quickly quiet them. He had killed Yusuf four times that he knew of. Once as just another enemy combatant in his path. The second was hours into the massacre of Jerusalem, for indeed he could not refer to it as anything but that. His mind suddenly registered that this man seemed familiar, though how could that be? Nicolo killed him, jumped and shouted profanities when the man got back up and came at him, killing him again. 

The last time was a mistake. He had stopped near the end of the day to finally reach for his waterskin and take a drink. 

The ground shifted beneath him and he looked down, surprised at the unsteadiness. What lay beneath him was not the ground at all, but the bodies of the dead. Blood made his feet slick and Nicolo looked around and for the first time, registered the depths of the atrocities he had committed that day. He saw, finally, not soulless enemies, but people.

Most of the faces he saw were not the faces of soldiers. But he had killed them anyway, with malice and hatred in his heart. 

He sank to his knees, sick with despair. Who had he become?

When a voice sounded behind him, Nicolo had turned, seen the man he killed, and in surprise, ran his sword through him. 

It would be the last time he did so.

In the dark of night, when he could be assured of a chance to escape the city walls, Nicolo shed his armor and slipped away. He did not expect to get far, a Frank in enemy territory, but he sought death, and hopefully, somewhere on this road, death waited for him. 

The first person he came across was the soldier from Jerusalem, resting under a tree out of sight of the road, near a small spring. “You!” he exclaimed. “I killed you!”

“Not very well,” came the response. A corner of Nicolo’s mind wondered at the stranger’s skill with his language, but he did not dwell on it. 

“Would you like to try again?” asked the man. “You might be better at it this time.”

Nicolo shook his head. “I cannot. My actions condemn me to hell, I do not need more weight against me on the scales.”

They are quiet for a time. Then Nicolo had a thought. “Would you kill me?”

“Why? It seems unnecessary now.”

“It is necessary. What if I become that man again? I cannot be that monster. You can kill me. Surely one less of my people is a good thing?”

Yusuf had not looked pleased about the idea in general, but after Nicolo begged for hours, he agreed. They had tried many, many things. He lived through all of them. Even when beheaded, it took a good deal of time, but his head and body reattached and he woke again.

Eventually, Yusuf had enough and tossed his weapons aside, sitting at Nicolo’s side and waiting for his wounds to finish healing.

“It does not work,” Joe had finally said in his continuously decent command of Ligurian. “Death will not take you and I grow tired of watching more death, even if it is just you dying over and over. It seems it is time for you to try another way.”

“To die?”

“To live,” replied Yusuf, his tone firm and full of unearned kindness.

“I do not think I deserve to live,” Nicolo had said. How could he, after the lives he had taken?

Yusuf had sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder, his touch grounding him more than Nicolo could have believed possible. “I am not sure you do either. I am not sure either of us does, but your God and mine seem to see it differently. Now get up. You can do some good.”

It would become his mantra. His words of advice and comfort and reassurance, just as they were to him when Joe said them so long ago. “We can do some good.”

Time passes. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Always Joe at his side.

Nile joins them and Booker leaves and Andy seems to be on a path to exit and Nicky wonders if this is the moment the world changes again.

There are very few moments that his world has changed. The world itself is everchanging and will continue to do so for as long as it exists. But his? No, his world can be narrowed to a handful of moments.

The first came many centuries ago, as he stood within the walls of Jerusalem and knew that God was not with him here. God could not forgive this.

The second, within weeks of the first, as he sat down beside a dying Yusuf, killed at another’s hand instead of his for the first time. Nicolo looked into kind eyes and a quirk of a smile and he knew that God still loved him. He must, to give a gift such as Joe.

His world did not change when Quynh and Andromache joined them. It seemed natural that they should be more than two and his strongest input was that they seek what is right and honorable and protects those who have no protection.

Quynh’s capture and disappearance...this was a moment. They were four and then they were three and nothing would fill the void of Quynh. Booker would matter later, of course, he would matter, but he could not take the place of a woman like Quynh. Before...before they were immortals. After they were Andromache and Nicky & Joe and then Booker. They became isolated.

He wondered as they lay on the hospital-like beds in Merrick’s lab, if this was to be a moment, one he just did not recognize yet. Andromache’s mortality, Booker’s betrayal, Nile’s newness, and uncertainty...these were all things that signaled great change, and yet at that moment, he did not sense that this was one to note.

Later, he would see that the moment was coming. It would happen when Nile came through the door with a drunk and bleeding Booker on her shoulder, Quynh holding up the other side of their brother. It would be when Andromache’s smile reached her eyes, for the first time in nearly 500 years. It would be when Quynh lashed out, angry and home and conflicted, striking a killing blow across Andy’s torso. Andy would rise mere seconds later, completely healed, and they would look at each other and realize oh, we belong again.

They were once more a true team.

It’s a few years later that Nile learns the rules. She’s picked up on them, noticed the way the others never let Joe take the rear in a fight. Notice sleeping arrangements. 

And it will be Nile who changes them all, in ways they never thought it possible to change.

They’re back in America--a dangerous idea considering Nile’s family and friends are still alive--but the war rages across the country and people need help. Joe is grabbed in a particularly nasty firefight, his hands zip-tied before he can break free, and Booker’s shout of “Get Joe!” at Nile isn’t quick enough.

Nicky shifts. 

He knows what the others see. Knows what Nile now sees. The monster he is when he does not have Joe. 

He doesn’t care. The fight turns far deadlier as he dispassionately kills the fascists in his path, set only on the mission. The last soldier sees Nicky coming for him and puts a bullet in Joe’s head just before Nicky’s blade slices across his throat.

Joe wakes, he will always wake, until the day death claims them as one. 

Nicky sees the soldiers coming at them again, sees their eyes on his beloved, and he rises to meet them, the fury of the devil himself in his eyes. 

But it’s Nile who stops him, Nile who steps in his path instead of at his back, the way the others do. “No. This is not who you are, Nicky.”

“They hurt Joe,” he snarls at her.

“They did,” she agrees. “He’s fine now, but yes, they did. They hurt him.” She motions at the others around them. The people, the citizens, who have been fighting back, protecting their own. “We can wield death as though we are God,” she says, “or we can do some good.”

“We can do some good,” she repeats as Nicky looks and listens. “You, Nicolo of Genova, can do some good.”

So he does.

Some rules change.

  1. Nicky is a good man, because his family and his beloved show him he can be.

Some don’t.

     2. If you hurt Nicky, Joe hurts you.

     3. Don’t hurt Joe.

Some are added. 

     4. Wherever they some good.