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watch me beg to never let you go

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It takes Nile awhile to figure it out. At first she chalks it up to an age thing.

“Have you seen the boys?” Quynh will ask. After a few times, Nile learns that “the boys” means just Nicky and Joe. She guesses that it's because they became immortals later than Andy, Quynh, and Booker.

“Listen, we're going to have problems if you start referring to me as 'the girl,'” Nile tries to joke because she's now the newest. Andy shoots her an odd look.

It takes six months of this – something niggling just on the outside of Nile's periphery. It feels like she's missing something, but she doesn't know what or even how to ask.

Then, finally, one afternoon, she comes back from the store with Booker. When they walk in, they can hear Joe making some snide comment, Nicky laughing beside him.

“Booker!” Andy shouts. “Get your sons out of my hair!”

Booker tuts.

“How is that they are mine when they are annoying but yours when they are being brilliant with weapons?” Booker asks.

“I taught them how to handle weapons,” Andy begins.

Excuse me?” Quynh interrupts.

“You taught them how to be annoying,” Andy finishes.

“What am I missing?” Nile asks helplessly.

They're traveling to Rome. It's a time of art there, and although they're dedicated to making the world a better place – usually through violence – sometimes it helps to stop and see what the world has become.

They're traveling by ship, Booker and Andy posing as a married couple, Quynh as a companion to Andy. It's still a dynamic that Booker doesn't always know what to do with.

In particular because things like this tend to happen: the captain of their ship pulls Booker aside late one morning halfway through their trip and warns, “Sir, we're coming upon the wreckage of a pirate attack. The ladies might find the sight distressing. It would probably be best for them to stay in their cabins.”

Booker refrains from telling him that his “ladies” have probably sunk more ships than he's stood on. Instead, he nods his thanks and heads back over to Andy and Quynh who, naturally, heard the whole conversation anyway.

“Why, Sebastien,” Quynh drawls in a tease. “Will you catch me if I faint?”

“How could you handle his coarse, manly hands upon your delicate frame?” Andy says to Quynh, somehow both teasing and hinting at something sexual.

“My hands aren't coarse,” Booker answers with a frown, looking at his palms.

“No, it's true,” Quynh agrees. “His hands are softer than yours, Andromache.” She runs her fingers across his palms as if to illustrate her point.

The faintest of smiles creases Andy's face as she turns away from them, pretending to be annoyed. Quynh winks at Booker, and Booker smiles back. He's slowly growing to fit in amongst his sisters. The beginning years of his immortality had been fraught, Booker adamantly denying the truth for as long as he could. Andy and Quynh had been patient with him – surprisingly so now that he knows them better.

But there's just never any denying that it's been the two of them together for a long time. There are still plenty moments when Booker feels like he's on the outside of them, looking in. He's a part of them now, yes, but they were complete before him. They had tried to open themselves up to him, especially after Booker's spiral from losing his sons. But they're just so old that their own lost families are faded to them – their worlds revolve around each other. Booker is just somewhere in their orbit.

He's trying to find his place in this now long-lasting life. Some days he can find that satisfaction in saving the innocent. Some days he finds it in Quynh's laugh or Andy's begrudging pride. But there are still so many days when there's just yawning emptiness inside Booker that he can only try and fill with the swell of alcohol. It doesn't work. But still he tries – tries to achieve a perfect numbness where he ceases to exist because that's the closest he'll likely get to death for a long, long time.

Andy steps closer to the rail of the ship and frowns.

“Those boys are alive,” she says suddenly.

Booker stops his musing so he can see what she's referring to. In the tip of the waves beneath them, Booker can just make out the two boys that Andy is referring to. They're holding onto each other across a board of splintered wood. One boy is clearly older, and he seems to be doing most of the work to keep them adrift – the smaller boy perhaps not even conscious.

“Merde,” Booker breathes.

Andy is moving before he can fully process what is happening, striding across the deck to get the captain's attention.

“Poor things,” Quynh says softly as the two of them keep their eyes fixated on the pair as if they might slip out of sight if someone isn't watching for them. Because they just might. It's no small feat to rescue anyone out of the water, much less two small boys. Booker's throat tightens uncomfortably – how is that the world can bring them into alignment like this but probably for nothing anyway? He grows tired of all the ways his immortality has shown him how to be hurt.

The older boy's head dips underneath the waves.

Without thinking, Booker strips off his overcoat and shoes and dives over the side of the rail.

“Booker!” he hears Quynh call behind him, her voice full of worry – an emotion not usually exchanged between them.

Hitting the water is bracing – but at least he's not dealing with freezing temperatures. Booker breaks above the surface with a gasp and propels himself toward the boys. The older one is just barely above the water level again, choking and coughing up sea water. Booker heads toward them and hauls him up more soundly on the board.

The younger boy, as they had guessed on deck, is unconscious – pale enough that he's terribly sunburned. The older boy looks at Booker with wide, disbelieving eyes. They seem to be an unlikely pair, but, then, travel bring all manners of folk together, Booker supposes. It does leave him at a little of a loss as to what language to try and communicate in first.

The boy asks him a question in Arabic that is too quick for Booker to decipher. He winces a little, because his Arabic is rather simplistic. Seeing his expression, the boy changes to Italian, which Booker is better equipped to deal with, even if the language obviously isn't the boy's first choice.

“Are you real?” the boy asks.

“Si,” Booker answers. “Help is coming.” He points at the ship. “You must stay above the waves.” He doesn't know if the boy catches all of the words, but he nods, jaw fixed a line. He has to be exhausted. Booker wonders how long they've been in the water.

It takes time for the ship to get a rowboat in the water. Perhaps they wouldn't have bothered if Andy and Quynh had not been insistent. Booker keeps shouting out to them to try and help keep their location fixed, and he chats with the boy, pushing him upward and holding him a little when he seems likely to give to the waves.

Andy is in the rowboat when it arrives, and Booker wonders how scandalized the sailors are. It goes unsaid that the smaller boy gets passed into Andy's arms first, his head lolling a little. He is still breathing, though. Booker keeps a careful eye on the older boy at the same time, not about to lose him now that they've come so far. In turn the older boy is absolutely fixated on the younger one until Booker and Andy get him into the boat as well. He collapses against the bottom, obviously exhausted. Andy compliments him in Arabic as Booker is hauled into the boat as well. He huffs out a heavy breath and closes his eyes, able to feel his body beginning to heal his aches and pulled muscles.

He half listens to Andy as she chats with the boy, catching most of their conversation. The boy's name is Yusuf. The younger boy's name is Nicolo.

“How do you know each other?” Andy asks, still in Arabic.

The boy hesitates. Noticeably.

“He's my brother.”

Andy doesn't blink.

“Full or half brother?”

Another pause before: “Half.”

“Do you have the same father or mother?”

“Father.”

“What's your father's name?”

“Ibrahim.”

Andy hums but doesn't press further, likely because she feels she's made her point. The world has shown them stranger things, but it's pretty unlikely that any Ibrahim fathered their Nicolo. But there will be plenty of time for questions later when the boys have rested, been fed, and had water.

By the time the boat has returned to the ship, Yusuf is asleep as well. Booker carries him on board, Andy holding Nicolo. They retreat below decks, the ship's doctor following close behind them. The boys are put into Andy's cot, side by side, and they're brought plenty of fresh water and a salve for Nicolo's burns. Quynh smooths it gently over his reddened skin and the boy eventually wakes with a shake of his head, nose wrinkling.

He looks up at Quynh with a wide-eyed expression and then turns to find Yusuf in the bed behind him. His breathing slows momentarily and he reaches for Yusuf's hand before looking up at Quynh again.

“Tu chi sei?”

“My name is Quynh,” Quynh answers in Italian, pressing a hand to her chest. “And this is Andromache and Sebastien. You're safe.”

Nicolo takes them in with a calm gaze, his fingers tightening minutely around Yusuf's before he examines the rest of the room as well.

“This is a different ship,” he appraises.

“Yes,” Quynh answers. “Where were you going?”

It's Nicolo's turn to hesitate. He looks over at Yusuf again as if he's hoping that Yusuf will awaken and speak, but he sleeps on, too worn from hours keeping them afloat and alive.

“We were traveling to Yusuf's home,” Nicolo supplies. “Tunisia. Across the sea.”

“You were traveling with your fathers, perhaps?” Andy asks.

Nicolo shakes his head.

“Yusuf's father only,” he answers. A jolt goes through his little body as if realizing something. He looks around the room once more. “He's...?” The boy trails off in the question, the answer implicit even if he is too young to grapple with the enormity.

“Gone,” Quynh confirms, running her fingers through his hair as if to soothe him. He closes his eyes and they allow him a moment.

“Your family is in Genoa, Nicolo?” Andy asks.

“No.” It's Yusuf who answers, apparently awake once more. “No, he has no family.” Nicolo looks too quickly to Yusuf, the lie obvious between them. But Yusuf is looking to the three of them, continuing to read that they doubt what he tells them. He can see into the heart of people easily despite his youth, Booker realizes.

“His father is a cruel man,” Yusuf finally settles on, his voice all challenge. Booker cannot help but smile seeing so much from one so small who has survived such hardship already this day. “He cannot go back to Genoa.”

Nicolo looks at them and there's enough fear in his expression that they know they've hit the truth.

“We won't worry about such things now,” Quynh says, looking pointedly at Andy. “You need to rest.” She passes the water to them. They both eat a bit and then settle once again.

Andy gestures for them to step outside the room then.

“What a grand adventure our boys seem to have been having,” Quynh says immediately, the curl at the corner of her mouth indicating that she finds it wonderful that Yusuf has seemingly absconded with Nicolo no matter where they have ended up now.

“They can't stay with us,” Andy says flatly. She says this not to Quynh but to Booker.

“I didn't suggest such a thing,” Booker protests.

“You'll want to,” Andy warns. “And the answer is no. We'll find somewhere safe for Nicolo in Rome. And then we'll take Yusuf back to Tunisia. He'll have extended family or someone who knew his father who will be willing to take him in.”

“Separate them?” Booker asks, surprised. “Doesn't that seem cruel after everything?”

“Where do you know of that will keep them together?” Andy asks, some of her exhaustion with the state of the world showing through. “Where they'd be raised safely and as equals?” Quynh worries at her lower lip.

“Then maybe we should--” Booker starts, aware that he should be annoyed that he's played so quickly into Andy's hand, but he's not.

“No,” Andy repeats. “What kind of life could we give them, Booker? With what we do?” She pauses and then takes the killing blow, cruel even though she doesn't intend it to be so. “What do we do when they notice what we are? Could you possibly deal with giving them up? Watching them die? They can't replace your sons, Book. You'll just lose them too.”

Booker flinches despite himself, physically drawing away from Andy. There is hurt in her eyes too, but her jaw is set.

“Nicolo stays in Rome,” Andy says finally, once more. “Yusuf will go back to Tunisia.”

The rest of their journey is, thankfully, much calmer. The boys are cautiously wary of them at first, as if aware that Andy's plan is to separate them once they reach land again.

After the initial bout of information, they refuse to volunteer anything else about themselves, their families, or, exactly, how they came to meet. Yusuf has a protective streak a mile wide that Booker can't precisely fault him for, because it did keep them alive. Nicolo is simply quieter than Yusuf, but he takes guidance from the older boy in all things.

They spend most of their days above deck, walking around where they can, holding hands as if one is still in danger of sinking into the sea without the other.

Booker becomes unofficially responsible for their well-being – making sure that Nicolo isn't in the sun too long and making sure they get enough to eat. He bribes them for their trust by beginning to share some of the stories of the constellations when it's dark at night.

By the time they disembark to their villa in Rome, the boys are at least willing to hold his hand if they're still together.

Quynh smiles when she sees this, but Booker can still feel her and Andy's worry. They're concerned he's getting too attached.

The worst part is that they're right.

They are strange, even for adults, Yusuf thinks. He does not think they're dangerous – not to him and Nico.

Still, after they beieve he and Nico are in bed, Yusuf will sit up and listen to them from the bedroom. Most nights, he has little idea what the three of them are talking about – names and places that Yusuf has never heard of. He grows bored quickly on those nights, falling asleep leaned up against the wall, usually waking when Nico comes to bring him a blanket.

But tonight, the topic is them – him and Nico.

“A seminary? Really, Andromache?” Yusuf can practically hear Quynh's nose wrinkling. In response, his own stomach plummets. He chances a glance back at Nico in the bed, but he's still asleep.

“What doesn't the Catholic Church control right now?” Andy asks, exasperated. “We're in a religious time. This is the world's reality right now. It would mean an education, home, and a vocation. Besides, this pope isn't as bad as the last.”

“Do you even know who's pope right now?” Booker asks. His voice is a huff of breath, which Yusuf has learned to mean that he's frustrated but trying to hide it. Yusuf desperately hopes that he will say more – that he will at least tell Andy that he and Nico need to stay together if not with them. But he does not.

“Don't give me that look, Booker,” Andy says tartly. “Once they're on this side of things, they can't go back to the normal world. You make their community and lives small like that. They'll be lonely. Be pissed all you want now, but you'll thank me in 50 years.”

Yusuf doesn't know what that last part means, but it doesn't particularly matter. What he now knows is that it's time for him to start planning their escape. Supplies and food should be easy to procure at least. Yusuf suspects that he will not be able to collect for long, though, without the adults noticing – particularly Andy. He will have to move fast.

On instinct he looks back at Nico, expecting to see him still sleeping, void of concerns. Instead, he sees those light-colored eyes watching him with owlish curiosity. He already knows – knows that Yusuf will be leading him away.

Yusuf has had his moments of doubt. Perhaps it was wrong of him to take Nico from his family. This is not the trip he bargained for – a cautious sea journey with the welcome of home at the end. He had been so excited to show Nico his home, for Nico to learn what it is like to be loved by a father. His baba had been shocked to find Nico upon their ship, but it had been too late to take Nico home by then.

Yusuf's throat swells with hurt when he remembers his own father. He keeps swallowing it down because there is too much to do to protect him and Nico.

Nico reaches a hand out for Yusuf, and Yusuf takes it and crawls back into his spot in their shared bed. The action assuages Yusuf's worst worries. Nico has never once asked to go home. He only clings to Yusuf, only tells him in all his quiet ways that he's glad to be with Yusuf.

Together they will stay, Yusuf determines.


Two nights later, Yusuf is pleased with their cache. When he hears that Booker and Andy are going out for the night, leaving just Quynh, Yusuf decides it's time to go.

Nico knows without being told. He climbs into bed but stays awake, honed into Yusuf the entire time. Yusuf gets them up and dressed again as quietly as possible, handing Nico the things he'll need to carry. They're just about to make their departure when the villa is rattled by Booker and Andy's return.

He and Nico stand on opposite sides of the entrance to their bedroom, leaving them with a good view of the main room as Andy drags Booker inside. The acrid smell of smoke reaches Yusuf before anything else.

Quynh jumps to her feet, exclaiming in a language that Yusuf doesn't know. She hurries to Booker's side, taking half of his weight. He barely seems to be conscious, much less holding himself up. He's blistered with burns, skin a seething shade of red. His breath rattles unevenly in his chest as Andy and Qunyh lay him out.

“What happened?” Quynh asks, kneeling beside Booker as she looks up at Andy. Andy is burned too, though not nearly as badly as Booker.

“There was a fire,” Andy says. “And kids. And Booker went in.” Booker rattles another unsteady breath.

“He's not going to make it,” Andy says, shaking her head. “His lungs are too damaged.”

Yusuf turns toward Nico, startled by the indifference with which Andy speaks. Quynh doesn't react at all either – neither of them move to help or comfort Booker, and Yusuf is at a loss as to what to do. His young years haven't prepared him for this.

Booker wheezes once more and then goes silent. Nico is barely more than three feet from him and that suddenly seems dangerously far. Yusuf aches to reach for him, but he's afraid that he'll draw Andy and Quynh's attention.

“Why does fire never get any easier?” Andy asks, twisting her arms around to look at them. Yusuf is too in shock to put together what he's seeing: the red easing from Andy's skin, the blisters smoothing out.

On the floor, Booker suddenly gasps and then begins to cough wickedly. He rolls to his side so that Yusuf and Nicolo can see the black gunk he brings from the back of his throat.

“Get it out, Book,” Andy says. “You're all right. Kids too.”

Booker inhales raggedly and raises his head. When he does, he's looking directly at Yusuf and Nicolo. The burns are gone from his face. They all stare at each other.

Andy curses. Yusuf doesn't know the language, but he knows by her tone of voice that it's a curse. Nico reaches for his hand and Yusuf takes it tightly.

“Come on out then,” Booker says, gesturing for them with a wave of his hand. His voice is still awfully hoarse.

They do, holding tight to one another, but that is nothing new. They sit when they are guided to sit.

“Do you understand what it is you've seen?” Booker asks.

“You died,” Nico supplies, cutting to the heart of the matter in few words.

“Yes,” Booker answers.

“And then you came back,” Nico adds. He looks to Andy and Quynh as well. Booker nods again.

“You are...?” and for the first time, Nicolo falters in his words. All of them watch him try to grapple with this revelation and the knowledge he already has in his short life. He strays toward his Christian upbringing for understanding, but still doesn't find the right term apparently.

“We don't really have a name,” Booker supplies after a moment. “We just don't die. We use that to try and fight to make the world a better place, but it scares a lot of people, so we must also keep it a secret. You understand this?”

Yusuf suspects he should be trying to pick apart this explanation, to find the parts that don't match with the logic of the world. But for some reason … it just makes sense. The pieces of it click together in his mind, making sense of the odd behavior he's seen from their rescuers. Nico is already nodding, reaching the same conclusion with the same apparent ease.

Booker takes each of their hands in one of his.

“You will have to help protect us now, yes?”

Yusuf nods while Nico answers with a solemn, “Yes.”

“Good boys,” Booker says with a small smile for both of them, his voice near normal again.

“We will stay with you now?” Nico asks, bold enough to find the words where Yusuf still can't.

Booker doesn't let go of their hands as he looks up at Andy, waiting for her determination.

“Yes,” Andy says, with only a little pause this time. “Yes, you'll stay with us now.”

They leave Rome shortly after that and retreat to the French countryside, where Nicolo and Yusuf spend the majority of their childhood. They are not so far from civilization that the boys are separated from the swell of humanity, but Booker, Andy, and Quynh still handle most of their eclectic education.

Unsurprisingly, they are astonishingly well-versed in history and languages. They have a better understanding of geography than most of their time – with the exception that they don't always know where current countries are delineated. Numbers would, perhaps, be something of a sore spot, but Yusuf already had a good head for them, having learned a decent amount from his merchant father and that carries them on well enough. Yusuf has an ear for poetry, Nicolo for cutting to the heart of a matter in as few a words as possible.

They are reared like they might be sent into battle even if their guardians are overly protective of them. They ride well and can use axes, swords, and bows and arrows with equal deftness. Andy finds them both passable in hand-to-hand combat – marks lessened by the fact that they easily dissolve into playfully wrestling with one another. This habit only grows worse the older they get.

Yusuf is so often the one who will tempt Nicolo to distraction – but Booker knows that it's better to be wary of Nicolo's endeavors, for he is much better at evading notice when he sets his mind to mischief.

If they need to pass in society, they resort to the adage of Booker and Andy being a married couple, Nicolo their son, Yusuf their ward. They never encourage the boys to pretend they're brothers ever again.

Quynh is amused and endeared by the inevitability of their love. Andy warns her not to press them, to let them figure out things on their own. But she needn't worry. Whatever is between them evolves effortlessly as they grow older. They move from holding hands to soft kisses to flush faces. There's a perilous few months where they skirt around the new sexual edge to their relationship, during which Quynh, Andy, and Booker try to be patient and take a step back.

It doesn't take long for their little home to feel a bit crowded with this development. It's not uncommon for them to walk in on Yusuf and Nicolo in a state of undress, pulling away from each other, mussed and so obviously caught.

“I'm too old for this,” Andy decrees. “I can't be here for two boys' age of exploration.”

Quynh snorts.

“Meet us in England in five years,” Andy decides. “We'll start traveling together as a family after that.”

The five years pass fast for the immortals, slow for the boys. Five years is so long for them even if they spend those moments wrapped up in each other, dreaming of the new places they will get to see – places they've long heard about from their guardians. The world is so big to them and they hunger for it, knowing how little time they will have in comparison.

Booker entertains nearly any whim that they want to learn – painting and cooking and music. He finds them teachers for anything and everything, and they work through everything with frenzied passion and curiosity.

Booker is terribly in love with them and how much they enjoy the world. Everything seems fresh and anew when seen and experienced through his boys who find joy and kindness so easily. Through their mortality, they show Booker the benefits of his immortality that he's never been able to see before.

They're so good. They're voracious in their enjoyment of life, but they still are ever aware of ways to serve. They've taken care of sick and lost and hungry children, passing on what was given to them.

Booker knows they're eager to fight too, but Booker is now scared of that. He wants to keep them in this soft world of childhood that they've built for them. He knows it can't last though and, despite himself, he's mourning the way it fades as Nicolo grows taller and Yusuf develops crinkling laugh lines around his eyes.

They grow out of their teenage years. They head to England.

Andy and Quynh are not in their English home when Booker arrives with Yusuf and Nicolo. At first, he thinks nothing of this. Dates become a little loose between them, particularly when travel can be so unreliable.

Yusuf and Nicolo are clearly disappointed, missing their “aunts.” But they're also bubbling with excitement over a new place.

The flurry of their arrival is cut short when Booker hears the rumors surrounding the witch trials. It's an ignorance that Booker is easily irritated with, so it's not surprising that Andy and Quynh would take a stance against it as well.

What is surprising to hear is that they've been captured.

It doesn't take much to put the pieces together: two women who had defied the noose, both strange in their ways. With growing worry, Booker listens to the list of ways they've tried to kill Andy and Quynh without success, the fervor of the religious fanatics only growing with each failed attempt.

“We are going to have get them out,” Booker warns Yusuf and Nicolo. He feels their youth as he speaks to them, and it pulls at him. They're concerned and serious because they love Andy and Quynh, but they're unexperienced, coltish in their approach even if they have the best intentions. And, of course, Booker can't forget that Yusuf and Nicolo will not slip any noose in the same way. If they're caught, it will only be an end of suffering.

It isn't difficult to learn where Quynh and Andy are being kept. It seems as if the entire city knows. They head down amid the churning crowd to spy and figure how they are going to break Andy and Quynh out. Worry runs Booker ragged. He's never had to make such a monumental decision without input from Andy and Quynh. They just seem so well guarded. And everyone's fear is blazing.

Yusuf leans in to Booker to murmur his thoughts. Nicolo is silent on his other side, still watching the masses.

Without warning, one of the great doors is flung open. They can see into the dreary interior, where Andy, dirty and bloodstained, is chained to one of the walls. Their captors have gathered Quynh up and are moving her toward--

Booker's throat spasms when he sees the iron maiden. His mind goes utterly blank.

Quynh is thrown into the thing, screaming for Andromache. Her call shatters Booker's heart. He has never heard her sound so small and scared before – the bravest women that Booker knows. Andy's answer is a wail.

The iron maiden is locked and the men begin the arduous process of wheeling it back toward one of the ships. Nicolo figures out what is happening before either of them. Yusuf is staring open-mouthed beside Booker.

Nicolo flings himself through the crowd.

“Scusi, scusi!” He lands in front of the men with an obvious desperation on his face, his arms thrown out in beseeching.

“Please, signori,” he begs. “You cannot throw a witch of her power into the ocean. It will spit her back out after your departure. She will be free and back upon dry land by nightfall.”

His appearance has at least thrown the men off balance. They're staring at him as if not sure what to make of him. Nicolo presses his right hand to his heart.

“I am Father Nicolo di Genova,” he says. “I am trained in the manner of such extraordinary witchcraft. I came as soon as I heard of the creatures you captured.” The men look amongst themselves now, obviously weighing whether or not they're going to trust him.

“Please,” Nicolo says, nearly bowing his head before them. “I know of the good you are doing for this world. It is merely my desire to help.”

“What must we do?” asks one man near the front.

Booker and Yusuf can both see the bob of Nicolo's throat – almost unnoticed to anyone else, but a true sign of how nervous Nicolo is to the two of them.

“We must bury her in ground soaked in holy water with certain verses read over it,” Nicolo says finally. “On the outskirts of town. Such ground will hold her in her iron coffin. But we must mark it so that others do not walk above her. Her ill spirit may infect others.”

Inside, Quynh strikes up a shrieking wail, louder than before. It's enough to convince the men that the priest in front of them is speaking truth.

“Lead the way, Father,” the man in charge allows.

“The more witnesses we have, the stronger our faith will be,” Nicolo says, looking about the crowd. “Please. Be with us, brothers and sisters.”

Nicolo leads the majority of the group away, looking, for all intents and purposes, like he was made to be at the head of a congregation.

Yusuf's mouth is still hanging open as Nicolo disappears out of sight.

Almost everyone has gone to watch the spectacle, leaving few people guarding Andromache who still keens in mourning.

“Let's go,” Booker commands. He knows that half of Yusuf's mind is with Nicolo as always. He also doesn't like the idea of leaving Nicolo almost entirely on his own to deal with such a threat, but they will never have a better opportunity to free Andy.

They're inside within mere moments, working quickly and silently. Andy's face is still frozen in horrified fear even when she realizes it's them.

“Quynh...?” she asks in a broken voice between cracked lips.

Booker hushes her while Yusuf works at picking her locks.

“Our Nicolo is saving her,” Booker says. “Be still, ma sœur. We will all be together again by nightfall.”

They clean Andy's face the best they can, helping her into one of the guard's clothing and cutting her hair short so that she can passably pass as a man if no one is looking too closely. They return quickly to their home where they are able to perfect the disguise and get water and food. Haltingly, she goes over the story of what happened.

They are quiet then, the hours dragging on. Andy, in particular, isn't made for this sort of inaction. It is a Herculean effort for her to sit when two members of her family are in danger.

Yusuf is restless as well, pacing the house and looking out the windows and doors. He has never been separated from Nicolo like this before.

“I will go look for them,” Booker says finally. “Stay here.” He directs this more toward Yusuf because he doesn't precisely know what to expect from him in this circumstance. Normally, he has no doubt that Andy would have traipsed out to find Qunyh already, but Andy's reappearance anywhere will put Quynh in further danger. She will be still because that gives her love the greatest chance.

It is dusk when Booker takes to the streets. The crowd is streaming back into the city, so Booker is able to follow it backward until he finds the spot where Nicolo and several of the men are finishing up the “burial.” He looks so at ease with these villains of men. Nicolo effortlessly tracks him from a ways out. He must make his goodbyes to the other men because he comes to meet Booker. His back is still straight, everything about him steady, but Booker can read the anguish in his eyes by the time they're near. He badly wants to hug Nicolo, but he doesn't dare do anything to damage the rouse right now.

“They'll be gone within the hour,” Nicolo murmurs to Booker, turning them so it seems that they're heading back to the city along the road.

They go a little ways before dipping off the road and into some trees and bush – they'll be able to see when the men leave Quynh's grave, but they'll be unseen themselves.

Only once they're hidden does Nicolo let out a shaky breath and bury his face in his hands.

“I wasn't able to think fast enough,” he says, voice begging an apology. “She'll suffocate so many times before we rescue her.” He kneads his knuckles into his eyes.

“Hush,” Booker says. “We know where she is, and that's a sight better than where we would have been. If they had dropped her in the ocean, we would have never found her, Nicolo.” He gently rubs the back of Nicolo's neck. “You did well. You probably saved her. A few hours of suffering will mean little. You'll see.”

“Andy is safe?” Nicolo asks, pulling his hands away from his face so that he can look at Booker.

“Yes. She's with Yusuf. We'll all go as soon as we have Quynh. Far away from England.”

They pass a cold, terse hour together. Booker can see the way the despair weights on Nicolo. He continues to drop his face into his hands. Some tears track down his face until – finally, finally – the men retreat.

Booker, perhaps, would have had them wait a little longer to be sure, but as soon as the men are down the road, Nicolo is up and moving again. Together, they tear through the disturbed earth, palmful after palmful until the iron maiden is revealed to them. Nicky had taken the key for the locks at some point and, with now shaking hands, he opens it while Booker tries to get dirt away from Quynh's mouth so she can breathe again.

She is still raggedly coughing up dirt when Booker and Nicolo pull her from the grave. She is wide-eyed at the sight of them, as if she doesn't necessarily trust what's happening yet.

“Perdonami,” Nicolo whispers as soon as she's breathing normal again, still looking otherworldly for the muck covering her skin. “Perdonami.”

“Oh, my Nicolo,” Quynh murmurs, gone soft in the face of his pain – as they all do, even Andy, for either of the boys. She wraps her arms around him and pets at the back of his neck, which he bows to her shoulder.

“I thought you were a delusion at first,” Quynh confesses. “How tall you are now! How handsome.” She pulls back, smiling her teasing smile, and pinches his cheek. “You would have been so wasted as an actual priest.”

She looks over to Booker.

“Please,” she says, “take me to my Andromache.”

They flee England that night. The hunt has already begun again for Andromache, but no one has yet gone back to Quynh's grave to dig it up and find the iron maiden empty once. It goes unsaid that Yusuf and Nicolo will never be able to return here within their lifetimes. It would be too risky with how Nicolo drew attention to himself.

Yusuf can't say he entirely cares as he watches Andy and Quynh remain close to each other, reassuring one another that they're okay – they're alive, they're still free.

They have been raised not to be jealous of their guardians' immortality – to drink deeply from their own cups of life and be grateful for it. For the most part, they're good at that. They're young enough that they don't think of death frequently – not just yet.

But when they stop again, as Yusuf climbs into bed with his Nicolo, he has a pang of longing. Nicolo is off to sleep quickly, exhausted. Yusuf noses at the back of his neck, taking in the smell of him, feeling the tickle where his hair is a little longer than normal.

“I wish I had a millennia to love you, my heart,” Yusuf whispers, the words unheard by anyone but himself.

They head east. They visit Quynh's homeland – stopping near every major port and city in between, giving Yusuf and Nicolo so much to marvel over. There are plenty of wars and battles that could demand their attention, but Booker, Andy, and Quynh stick more to the outskirts of things for now, helping in smaller ways. Somehow, that feels safer to bring Yusuf and Nicolo into. Because they are now insistent that they can help – for what were they raised if not to better the world with the skills they've gained?

They are good. But they are young and carefree and can make Booker's heart stop like nothing else. He is so grateful they have one another because while they might not be as careful with themselves as he would wish, they always have an eye on one another. They are fluid with each other in a fight as only those trained at the feet of Andromache and Quynh could be.

It's a decade before they turn back to the west. Their boys are definitively no longer boys anymore. They're men. Strong, capable, and happy.

“We should go back to the Mediterranean with them,” Andy says.

“Malta,” Quynh suggests.

“Yes,” Andy agrees. “Malta.”

“Papa!” Yusuf calls, sing-songy and shit-eating at the same time. “We are going out for the afternoon!” It is still widely regarded as a joke when Yusuf or Nicolo refers to them as parents or aunts. Booker does not mind: he knows that Yusuf missed his father terribly after the shipwreck. Nicolo still does not talk of his biological father, though he has shared the few memories he has still of his mother who had died when he was quite young.

“No son of mine would speak French so poorly, Yusuf!” Booker calls back without thinking. He hears Nicolo laughing as they shut the door.

Booker will spend decades regretting that those were the last words he said to them that afternoon.

Booker dozes near the open window, enjoying the afternoon sunlight. A book is sprawled open on his chest, and he can just hear Quynh and Andy murmuring to each other in the next room.

His nap is disturbed as an explosion rocks across the island. Booker sits up sharply, blinking. He looks out the window and can see smoke pluming in the distance. Dread curdles his stomach.

“What was that?” Quynh asks, exiting the bedroom only half dressed.

“Explosion,” Booker supplies, not able to provide more detail than that. He whips about to look at her. “Where did the boys say they were going?”

“To walk near the college,” Quynh says. Her answer is already guarded, as if she's rebuking what Booker is implying.

Booker looks out the window again, calculating how close that puts the boys to the explosion. Too close. Too fucking close, he decides.

He's racing out onto the streets before he can stop himself, running as fast as he can manage toward the scene of destruction. Andy calls after him, but he doesn't stop for them.

It doesn't matter, because they follow close at his heels, arriving only a few moments after him. He takes in the scene with growing desperation. It's no different than so many they've seen before – the gunpowder factory has exploded, badly damaging the college and church adjacent to it. The buildings are partially reduced to rubble and, in between blocks of stone, are bodies of people unlucky enough to have been caught in the blast.

It won't be his Nicolo and Yusuf, he tells himself. There are so many people in this city. Just being in this area isn't enough to have necessarily put them in the blast radius. Still. Everything inside of him is screaming differently. He walks slowly. He tries to think of this like any other mission they might undertake: there are people here to help, so Nicolo and Yusuf will come here anyway. They will find each other, and Booker will make sure he tells them he loves them again tonight.

This imagined reunion is immediately dashed.

The very first person he steps up to help is Yusuf. He's half buried underneath a pile of rubble, face white with the dust from the debris. He's bleeding badly from a head wound, and blood trickles from the corner of his mouth.

Booker immediately chokes back a sob.

Yusuf's eyes flutter at the sound, and Booker goes to him. He kneels beside him, taking Yusuf's hand into his – the only comfort he can see to offer, because it is obvious that Yusuf is dying. His breaths come too wet, his body shattered beyond repair.

“Where is Nico?” Yusuf asks weakly. The question is so predictable. Booker smiles wetly at him and smooths his curls out of his face, mindful of his injury.

“He's fine,” Booker promises him. “We have him.”

Andy and Quynh converge around them as well.

“Tell him I love him,” Yusuf says, more blood flecking his lips.

“Of course, mia caro,” Booker murmurs. “Of course.”

Yusuf smiles at him, the warmth still reaching his expressive eyes even though he must be in so much pain.

“Rest now, our Yusuf,” Andy says. Her voice is steady but her eyes are wet.

Yusuf nods the little he's able to. And then stops breathing.

Everything inside of Booker breaks. He keeps holding tightly to Yusuf's hand and lowers his head to rest against his still chest. The pain roils through him, and he lets himself cry in huge, wracking sobs. Andy's and Quynh's hands are upon his back, sharing in his grief. He can't help but think back to when Andy had told him that he would thank her in 50 years. He's had little more than 20 with his boys. Two decades. What is that worth? To see these beautiful lives snuffed out so quickly? The randomness of it tears at Booker.

“Come, Booker,” Andy says. “Let's get him out. And then we'll find Nicolo.” From her voice and the plan itself, Booker knows that she does not expect to find Nicolo alive – not here, not when Yusuf has already gone. He tries to console himself with the fact that they would probably prefer this, being together into eternity.

It's slow work to move the rubble out of place so that they can retrieve Yusuf's broken body. Quynh tears at the rocks as if that can alleviate her hurt and anger. Andy is stalwart again, but Booker cannot stop his tears.

They pull Yusuf free and Booker collapses beside him while Quynh and Andy begin the arduous process of finding Nicolo.

Booker is numb to the chaos around him, head in his hands as he continues to stare at Yusuf's face. It is wrong for him to be so still. He remembers the little boy fighting against the waves, the child who had torn across the countryside, the man who had developed a searing wit and unparalleled penchant for the romantic.

Gone. Just gone.

For the scarcest of moments, Booker thinks he sees motion near Yusuf's legs, but he chalks it up to his expectations from centuries of watching Qunyh and Andy knit themselves back together. But as time passes on, it becomes more difficult to deny what he's seeing: bones moving back inside skin, intact once more, flesh and muscle and tissue reverting back to their original shape instead of flattened and damaged.

Last, Yusuf takes that gasping breath that they're all so familiar with. Booker stares at he sits up.

He's seen so many resurrections. This is the only one that's felt like a miracle.

Yusuf looks about himself, his gaze snagging on Booker. They look at each other helplessly, trying to sort out what just happened.

“I died,” Yusuf says, the statement really half question – he's asking for confirmation from Booker, and Booker nods mutely.

“And I came back?” Yusuf says, still in that same dazed voice, still pleading for understanding from Booker. And Booker nods again, throat too choked with emotion to manage any actual words.

He throws his arms about Yusuf's shoulders and pulls him in tight, holding him close while he shudders through uneven breaths. Despite what he's just seen, it feels like too much to hope for – that he might get to keep his Yusuf for – for so long.

“Where is Nicolo?” Yusuf breathes. When Booker doesn't answer, he pulls back to repeat the question: “Where is Nicolo?”

Booker shakes his head and watches as grief and fear and anger crash into Yusuf's expression.

“You said he was fine,” Yusuf says hysterically. “You said you had him.”

“You were dying, Yusuf,” Booker says, his own voice torn. Yusuf stumbles to his feet and stares at the wreckage surrounding them. He rocks himself back and forth a little, both of them knowing that Nicolo is likely dead in this mess. Both of them knowing that it seems foolish beyond belief to hope that Nicolo will come back too.

Yusuf continues to move unevenly, so Booker stands to help him, guiding him until they find Andy and Qunyh. Andy stares in shocked awe when she sees Yusuf, and Quynh also bursts into tears. She throws herself at them, wrapping her arms around both Booker and Yusuf. Andy joins a moment later, encompassing all of them in her arms. They are thick with emotion.

“Please,” Yusuf begs in the midst of them. “Please, I need Nico.”

They dig – they dig for hours before they find him, just when they are losing the light of day. It is Quynh who finds him. Andy tries to grab Yusuf to stop him from seeing, but he cannot be stopped when it comes to Nicolo. He throws himself into the rubble where Nicolo is splayed, eyes unseeing, chest crushed, and he wails. In the symphony of grieving around them, Yusuf's voice is a singular, piercing note.

“Yusuf, Yusuf, come,” Booker begs, trying to draw him away so that Andy and Quynh can finish uncovering Nicolo – so that they can take their other boy home no matter if he's alive or dead. Yusuf presses his forehead against Nicolo's and continues to weep.

“The world cannot be so cruel to take him from me and curse me to remain,” Yusuf begs as he finally allows Booker to lead him away. He's pleading in Arabic as if the words are a prayer. Booker does not answer him, because he knows well that the world can be, and often is, that cruel.

He holds Yusuf and watches with willed numbness as Andy and Quynh manage to free Nicolo. Booker can't help but wince when he sees the battered lower half of Nicolo's body. Yusuf must feel it. He tries to turn, but Booker holds his head in place. He doesn't need to see this – if this is to be his last memory of Nicolo, he doesn't need to see this.

Exhausted, Quynh and Andy carry Nicolo away from the rest of the crowd, putting him to rest on cleared ground. They all wait. Each minute is grating, a brutal lashing upon all their souls. As Nicolo remains still and broken, Booker thinks that surely it's been too long. He has to watch Andy instead, because he knows that Andy will be the one to call it; she loves Nicolo as well as the rest of them, but she is the one who will be able to remain almost mathematical about their timeframe.

Yusuf's tears grow. He keeps tugging against Booker, trying to turn.

Andy pulls out her pocket watch. Booker's heart thuds in his ears – he wants to plead with her, as if she's the one making the decision.

On the ground, Nicolo arches with a gasp. Yusuf tears away from Booker before Booker even realizes what's happened. Yusuf kneels beside him, sobbing and pressing his forehead to Nicolo's once more. His hand scrambles for one of Nicolo's.

Nicolo looks up at them, dazed.

“It hurts,” he says, thickly, trying to look down at his legs.

“It won't last,” Yusuf promises. “It won't last, Nico. Just give it a moment.”

Nicolo pets at him, hushing him as he does so.

“Such tears,” Nicolo murmurs.

Nicolo says more, but Booker doesn't catch the words, because he is too overwhelmed. He has lost them. But they are back. This is the family he has built. This is the family he gets to keep.

He remembers, back when the boys were nearing adulthood, they had explained to them what it was like to become immortal and how he had dreamt of Andy and Quynh until he met them in person.

“To bring you together,” Nicolo had said at the time. “Like destiny.”

Booker had had his doubts. How could he believe in destiny in a world that has been so ruthless with his heart? But he can't help think of those words as he looks at Nicolo and Yusuf embracing now – that something had brought them all together, knowing that they would need one another even before Yusuf and Nicolo happened into their own immortality.

“Come on,” Andy says, pulling first Yusuf and then Nicolo to their feet. “Let's go home.”