When they arrived at the safe house, Booker said, “I’ll ditch the car.”
For a moment, it look as if Joe would argue, bitter betrayal still simmering under his skin, but Joe put the car in park and said, “Fine.” He didn’t look at Booker as they traded places.
There many things Nicky should say—that they would need to mend what Booker had broken, that they would all be called upon to offer a measure of grace, that Nicky had been on that table same as Joe and watched as pieces of flesh was cut from him—but he was a truthful man, and a tired man, and so he said none of them.
He helped Andy from the car, accepting the weight she begrudgingly gave him. “Inside,” he said, “before the neighbors notice the blood.”
Nile glanced at the row of houses, and said, “Where are we?”
“Oakwood,” Joe answered. “We’ll take a few days here to rest up.”
Nicky caught Nile’s look, and said, “Did you think we only stayed in old churches?”
“I got that impression,” she said, making Joe smile and knock shoulders with her as Nicky dealt with the door.
“Sometimes,” Andy said as he finally shouldered it open, “we play happy families.”
Nile looked to where Booker had driven off. “Sure.”
Once inside she took over, guiding Andy to the threadbare couch. Dust rose as Andy sat, hand pressed to the hole in her side, head tipped back. Nicky had seen her in pain and in all the stages between alive and dead, but now there would be none of that sharp relief when the wound sealed itself and she could once more breathe easy. She would never have that again.
“Here,” Joe said, rummaging through the kitchen cabinets and coming back with gauze and disinfectant.
Nile took it from him, peeling back the bandage as Andy winced and then looked annoyed at having done so. “We’ll need more than this,” Nile said, head bent at she tended to Andy.
They’ll need quite a bit more, Nicky thought. Painkillers and antibiotics, clothes and food and water. All the various things a body needed to live.
“It can wait until tomorrow,” Andy said, gaze cutting to them. “You look like shit. Go get cleaned up.”
Nicky was abruptly reminded of the dried blood in his hair and smeared across his palms and up his arms. He desperately wanted to wash it away; couldn’t stand to have it on him another minute.
“We’ll be upstairs if you need us,” Joe said.
“I won’t,” Nile said, and it wasn’t a rebuke so much as a statement of fact. Andy had pulled her from an active combat zone, and while the bedrock of Nile’s world may have collapsed from under her, she was more than capable of rebuilding. Nicky had been a humbled witness to just that.
“Come find us after,” he said, and let Joe lead him away.
The house wasn’t large: a kitchen, a common room, one bathroom, two bedrooms, three beds. He couldn’t remember who bought it, Joe or Andy or even Booker when he’d been interested in real estate a few decades past, a bolt hole kept in all his favorite cities. It didn’t matter. They shared it all, in their own fashion.
He went in search of towels while Joe turned on the shower, letting it run so the water would warm. Would hopefully warm. It’d been some time since they needed to use this place, and with any luck the heater still worked. The towels were found in a linen closet, and he pulled out enough for him and Joe and Nile.
The bathroom was filled with steam, and Joe reached for him with shaking hands.
“Nicky,” he said, fingers soft and careful along the back of Nicky’s skull where the blood left his hair matted and stiff. Joe pressed down, as if looking for where his head been blown out, as if the bones hadn’t knitted back together and his brain respooled and tucked safe away once again. As if he weren’t here, alive. They were both alive.
Nicky killed enough men to know what a gunshot to the head did, how it scattered brains and fractured bones and always spilled blood. It wasn’t enough for the exit wound to close; everything from skin to hair to brain had to be made anew. It had been a thousand years since his first death, and he couldn’t say how much of that body still remained. It was, in the manner of such terrible things, a miracle.
“What are you thinking?” Joe asked.
He wrapped a hand around Joe’s wrist. “Do you remember the parable of Theseus’ ship?”
“Is that the one about the planks?”
“Yes. It’s been asked how many of those planks must be replaced until it is no longer the same ship. That is what I’m thinking.”
Joe tightened his grip, as if he were trying to hold Nicky together with nothing but his hands and sheer stubbornness. “I see this has left you in a philosophical mood.”
“It has been known to happen on occasion.” He turned his head just enough to press his mouth to Joe’s palm.
“The way I see it,” Joe said, “if enough of you has been replaced than that means you are once more untouched, and that means I have the fortune of being the first man you’ve ever touched with those virgin hands.”
Nicky laughed and kissed him, quick and closed mouth; they both still tasted of blood. “I suppose it’s not so bad when you put it like that.”
“No, not so bad at all.” Joe smiled even if his hands still shook. “You can have the shower first.”
“Not going to join me?” he asked, stripping off shirt and pants and underwear. Socks went last, and he balanced on his right leg and then his left, tugging each one off in turn.
“Too small,” Joe said, as if that had ever given them pause before.
“What a shame.” He stepped into the tub, dragging the curtain closed enough to keep the water from spraying everywhere but not so closed he couldn’t keep Joe, leaning against the skin with his arms crossed, in his line of sight. There were small shampoo bottles and a wrapped bar of soap sat along the edge, most likely taken from some hotel and left here. He grabbed the shampoo, and despite its age it worked well enough to wash the blood from his hair.
“You took awhile to heal,” Joe said.
Nicky turned his face into the spray. “Large wounds take longer, you know that.”
“I don’t like it.”
“I know.” He opened his mouth to wash away the taste of dust.
One last rinse of his hair, and he stepped out, leaving the water running. The towel Joe handed over wasn’t nearly as soft as he preferred, but beggars and all that. He tied it around his waist as Joe stripped with a slowness that for once had nothing to do with seduction. Joe wasn’t hurt—Nicky knew how he wore pain—but merely exhausted.
He cupped Joe’s elbow as he stepped into the tub, steadying him despite the rueful look that earned him.
“I doubt it will be a fall in the shower that does me in,” Joe said.
“What an undignified way to go,” Nicky agreed. “Will you be all right if I go look for clothes or are you going to fall asleep?”
“I’ll be fine,” Joe said, ducking his head under the water. “I don’t need your supervision.”
“But you want it.”
“That goes without saying.” Joe’s gaze slid to him, sly. “But go find us some clothes so we don’t scandalize Nile.”
Nicky privately thought it would take more than a naked man to do that, but he went anyway, trying first one bedroom and then the other where a chest of drawers sat in the corner. He came up with pants and shirts, even packs of underwear and socks that he ripped open with his teeth. There were even enough options for Nile and Andy to pick from. It would do until they could shopping.
He dressed and listened to the low murmur of Nile and Andy, too soft for him to make out any words, which weren’t meant for him anyway. They had come to an understanding, and Nicky hoped it would be one that took. Nile only knew Andy as she was now, after Quỳnh had been lost to her, and not as the woman she’d been before. That woman was lost to them, and Nicky still grieved her.
The water shut off, and Nicky tucked the clothes under his arm and let himself back into the bathroom. Joe was studying his reflection, head cocked to the side, humming a snatch from an old song Nicky couldn’t place.
He leaned against the door and said, “Thinking of shaving?”
“Maybe,” Joe said. He had a beard more often than he was clean shaven. Nicky adored him both ways. “Or perhaps you can make another attempt at a beard.”
“Oh, you’re trying to be funny.” His facial hair grew in infuriating patches before reaching what passed for fullness. He grabbed a spare towel and scrubbed it through Joe’s curls. “You like me with an attempted beard.”
“I do,” Joe said, eyes soft and fond, and when he pulled Nicky in his hands did not shake.
Nicky went, as he always would, and the kiss was soft and lush, indulgent. “Is that all?” he asked, laughing as Joe scowled and dragged him back.
There was no softness now, just Joe’s tongue rubbing along the roof of his mouth and Joe’s thumbs digging into the hinge of his jaw, and Joe murmuring Nicky, Nicky, Nicolò.
“Yes,” Nicky said, and dropped to his knees, fingers hooked into the towel knotted about Joe’s waist. Joe sucked in a breath as Nicky pressed his mouth to the soft pouch of his belly, digging his teeth in as the towel fell away.
It was no great effort to coax Joe to full hardness. They knew each other well, how to draw forth pleasure, slow and sweet. No time for either now, and he took Joe in his mouth too quickly, a twinge in his jaw from the stretch.
Joe’s fingers were back in his hair, spread along the curve of his skull. A guide, if Nicky allowed it. Of course he did, and Joe sighed his name, each vowel long and languorous as he fucked into Nicky’s mouth.
That was how he came, with Nicky’s hands on his hips and his hands twisted in Nicky’s hair and Nicky’s name on his tongue.
Nicky mouthed leisurely at Joe’s hip and belly, a slow drag over skin that still made Joe shiver despite the long years behind them.
“Up,” Joe said. “This isn’t doing your knees any favors.”
“My knees are fine,” Nicky said, the hoarseness in his voice already smoothing away. He let Joe pull him to his feet, wincing a little; he couldn’t die but his knees could still ache.
“Sure they are.” Joe thumbed the corner of his mouth before reaching for the button on his pants.
Nicky caught his hand. “Let’s save that for later.”
Joe’s eyebrows rose. “You want to wait?”
“I do.” He pressed a kiss to the inside of Joe’s wrist. “We have the time. And we shouldn’t monopolize the bathroom.”
As if summoned, Nile banged her fist against the door and said, “Are you done in there?”
“Did you do that?” Joe asked him, smiling.
“It appears so.”
Nile rapped again, and Joe said, “Yes, yes, one moment.”
“I brought you clothes,” Nicky said, nodding to where he had placed them on the counter. He rinsed his mouth while Joe dressed.
“Should I be insulted?
“You should,” Nicky said, and kissed him once more for good measure before opening the door to Nile’s unimpressed face.
She glanced between them, lingering on his hair, and Nicky resisted the urge to smooth it down, which would be more damning than leaving it as it stood.
“This going to be a thing?” she asked.
“You’ll get used to it,” Joe said, and stepped past her, Nile barely giving ground. Nicky really did like her.
“You told me to come find you,” she said.
“We did,” Nicky said. “There’s soap and shampoo in the shower. I left you a towel and a change of clothes. They should fit, but the pants may be a bit long in the leg for you.”
“I like you better than him,” she called to Joe.
“He is my better half,” Joe said, and Nile rolled her eyes.
“Leave these outside.” Nicky gestured to her stained shirt and pants. Everything would need to be burned. “We’ll deal with them.”
“Thanks,” she said, and they awkwardly shuffled around each other until they had reversed their positions, her within the bathroom and him without. Her gaze focused beyond his shoulder to where Joe was heading downstairs. “I heard Booker come back.”
Nicky sighed. “I’ll intervene there. Don’t worry.”
“Wasn’t going to,” she said, but there was a tightness to the corner to edges of her mouth that suggested otherwise. One day, he will know what all her tells meant, like how he knew what Andy and Booker and Joe’s meant. He looked forward to the learning. “It’s going to be bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Nicky said.
Now it was her turn to sigh, such a heavy sound for one so young. “I’m going to shower. You leave me any hot water?”
She rolled her eyes again and shut the door in his face.
He followed Joe down the stairs, pausing at the couch where Andy, eyes closed, said, “They’re in the kitchen. You have time. The yelling hasn’t started yet.”
“Small favors,” he said and continued on.
The shouting hadn’t begun, but the scene he found was far from encouraging. Booker stood at the stove, spoon in one hand and head bowed, as Joe regarded him with a face hewn from stone.
“Booker,” Nicky said, one hand on Joe’s hip. It would do nothing to calm him, but it would let Nicky know if he planned to do something rash.
“Nicky.” Booker glanced down at the pot and gave it a stir. “I left the car at the train station. Picked up another on my way back. Not stolen,” he added quickly. “Bought it off a kid looking to make some quick money. It’s a piece of shit, but it’ll get us where we’re going.”
“You shouldn't have come back,” Joe said.
“Don’t,” Nicky said quietly. “It’s not the time.”
Joe’s gaze cut to him and then back to Booker. “Fine. But it will be soon. You know that.”
“I know,” Booker said.
Under his palm, Joe shifted, but it was not a herald to more violence. He turned his back on Booker and left the room.
Nicky watched him go, and said, “Before you explain why you did this, you should know I’m not interested in hearing your reasons.”
“Not even a little curious?” Booker said, a poor attempt at humor.
“They took spinal fluid from Joe,” he said. “And they didn’t want to waste any localized anesthesia.”
That flinch again, and Nicky nearly asked what Booker thought was going to happen, if he truly believed Merrick would obtain his samples and simply release them, if he thought there was any other way this was going to end.
But he was a truthful man, and in the end there was no answer that would set this right.
“He won’t forgive me,” Booker said, lifting the pot from the burner. There was an empty box of pasta on the counter.
“Not now, no.” He went to the nearest cabinet and found a set of cheap plastic bowls. He rinsed the dust away and laid them out in a row. “But he will, in time.”
“He won’t.” Even in better times, Booker’s smile was never without a measure of sorrow. “If it had only been him who was taken, or if it had been me or even Andy, that he could forgive. But not you. He will never forgive that it was you.”
Booker drained the pasta before pouring it back to the pot. A jar of pasta, probably well past its date, was added, and the entire thing was set back on the burner to warm. Booker caught his expression, and said, “You’ve eaten worse.”
“Depends on your definition of worse.”
He took Booker in, the slope of his shoulders and the familiar droop of his eyes. Just as Nile will never know what Andy was like before Quỳnh, he will never know how Booker was before that first death.
“You’re our family,” Nicky said, “and you turned us over to them. It isn’t me you should seek forgiveness for. It’s that.”
Booker portioned the pasta into the five bowls. “He will not forgive that, either.”
“As I said, he will in time. It’s fortunate you have that in abundance.” He collected three of the bowls, cradled carefully so they did not burn his bare skin. “Take that in to Andy.”
He was almost out of the kitchen when Booker said, “Nicky. I am sorry.”
“I know you are.”
“Don’t suppose that will make a difference.”
“No, it won’t,” he said, and not for the first time left Booker to his grief.
Joe and Nile had decided on the room with the two beds, and when he returned they were tucking in sheets and laying out pillows.
“Dinner in bed?” Joe asked, spying the bowls. “You spoil us.”
“You say that before you know what the dinner is,” Nicky said, passing a bowl to Nile, who had had changed into new clothes. He’d been correct about the pants; she cuffed the ends so she would not trip over them. Her feet, Nicky noticed before she tucked her legs under her, were bare. He got the feeling she might be like Joe and eschewed shoes and socks at the first opportunity.
“Looks edible,” Nile said, poking at the sad pasta.
“Ignore Nicky,” Joe said, shifting to the side so Nicky could sit. “He’s just a picky eater.”
“I am not,” he protested because Joe had been there for all of the regrettable things they ate to survive.
“You are,” Joe said. “I blame the priesthood. Gave you many bad habits.”
Nile’s eyebrows rose. “You’re a priest?”
“I was a priest,” he corrected. “My family owned some land and I was a third son with no hope of inheritance. It was not uncommon in those days.”
“So what happened?” she asked.
“The Crusades happened.”
“I happened,” Joe said.
“You happened,” Nicky agreed, earning a wink.
Nile reached up and touched the cross that hung around her neck, an absent gesture meant for comfort.
“Let me guess,” said Joe. “Andy told you there is no God.”
Nile tucked the cross under the collar of her shirt. “She give that speech to everyone?”
“It’s not personal,” Nicky said. “She was alive before the birth of Christ. It’s hard for her to have faith in things she can’t see.”
Nile made a face like she didn’t quite believe that. She took a bite of pasta and then made a face for a completely different reason. “Oh, this is bad.”
Nicky turned a triumphant look on Joe, who said, “Oh good, there’s two of you now.”
“We’ll go shopping,” Nicky said to Nile, who was frowning at the pasta as if it personally offended her. “Make a list.”
“Hear that, Nile?” Joe said, stealing a forkful from Nicky’s bowl. “He’s assigning us homework.”
“I do need new shoes,” she said.
Her boots were placed neatly at the foot of the bed. There was a bullet hole ringed with blood on the left one.
“When did that happen?” he asked.
“Was there a reason for that self infliction?” Joe asked, an amused curl to his mouth that Nicky hoped Nile took as gentle teasing and not mocking.
“To convince Copley,” she said, hint of defiance to the words. “It was easier than trying to explain.”
Joe laughed. “Direct action. She’s just like you, Nicky.”
“I think you mean like you,” Nicky said with a fond nudge to Joe’s ribs. “Eat your food.”
When they were finished, Nile collected their bowls to take down to the kitchen. Nicky waited until she was gone before saying, “We can’t hate him forever.”
“Maybe.” Joe settled back onto the bed, doing his best to punch the flat pillow into some shape. “But I think even you can manage one night at least.”
Nicky took in the dark smudges under Joe’s eyes and along the hollows of his cheeks, and thought of how Joe’s eyes had gone wild and terrified when the doctor pushed a needle into his spine. He could manage one night.
“I think that’s a lost cause,” he said, nodding to the pillow. He reached for a blanket, pulling it up as he lay down at Joe’s urging.
“I thought nothing was a lost cause.”
“I’m too tired to get metaphorical.”
Joe laughed softly and said, “No more metaphors. Promise.”
Nile was taking her time, and if Nicky listened closely he could hear the distant fall and rise of voices and then the slow, uneven footsteps coming up the stairs and into the room across the hall. By the time Nile let herself back in, he and Joe had arranged themselves into their usual position, Joe at his back and Nicky in front, a handgun within easy reach if he needed it.
“Andy?” Nicky asked.
“Helped her to the bed,” she answered, expression softening as she took them in. “Booker’s downstairs.”
Joe snorted, but only said, “Hit the lights.”
She did, and when his eyesight adjusted, Nicky watched as she turned onto her side, her back to them, the line of her spine relaxing by degrees. A baby, Andy had said, and that was true, Nile was still very young, but youth didn’t equate to weakness. Nile was, above all else, resolute.
He wrapped a hand around Joe’s arm and was on the verge of sleep when Nile said, “Was Andy really worshipped as a god?”
“Yes,” Joe said. “What else do you call a woman who doesn’t die?”
If Nile answered he didn’t hear it; he was asleep.
He woke up only once in the night, heart pulsing hard in his chest. There was shouting coming from the street. He reached for the gun.
“It’s okay,” Joe said. His hand had slid up under Nicky’s shirt as they slept, and it was spread large and warm over his stomach. “The kids next door snuck out. Their mother caught them trying to sneak back in.”
His voice was raised on the last part. Nile was awake. She had turned over in the night, facing them now.
“Did you ever sneak out?” Joe asked.
Nile shifted, as if startled. “Only once. My mom found out. Never did it again.” Her voice caught slightly. She rolled onto her back. “Have you slept at all?”
It took Nicky a moment to realize the question was not directed at him.
“Some,” Joe said. It was a lie.
“Go to sleep,” Nile said. “I’m pretty sure you’ve had a worse day than me.”
“Listen to her,” Nicky said. He traced Joe’s knuckles through the shirt. “She’s a smart woman.”
Joe sighed, and said, “I can’t sleep with you two talking, now can I?”
Nile snorted but obediently fell quiet. She tucked an arm under her head, and Nicky realized she had every intention of staying awake so that he and Joe would not be left defenseless. Resolute, indeed.
Nile keeping watch, they slept.
Nile was laughing, and Joe said, mock offended, “If you’re not going to help you can leave.”
“Yeah, like you want my help,” Nile said, which was followed by the sound of the door opening and closing.
Nicky turned his face into the pillow.
“I know you’re awake,” Joe said.
“I’m not,” he said.
“Did you learn the new trick of talking in your sleep? You still manage to surprise me.”
Nicky freed a hand from the bedding and flailed it in Joe’s direction only to be caught and a kiss pressed to his palm.
“I can see you smiling,” Joe said.
Nicky sighed and gave in. “What was so funny?”
“See for yourself.”
He rolled onto his back and reluctantly opened his eyes to the sight of Joe’s bed head. He laughed, despite himself.
“I see how it is,” Joe said, shifting back as Nicky retrieved his hand, pushing himself upright. “No sympathy for me.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, although he wasn’t. Half of Joe’s hair was flattened on one side and the rest had spun out during the night until it haloed his head. Nicky did his best to comb it into some semblance of order even though nothing but a solid dunking would tame it. “Still nicely tousled.”
“Liar,” Joe said, but the way the corners of his eyes creased belied any sourness. “Come on, get up.”
He made a face. “What time is it?”
“After nine. You’ve been asleep all morning.”
“It still is morning,” he said, but moved at Joe’s prodding. He lived for a millennia and he still hadn’t got the hang of mornings. He let Joe herd him to the bathroom where they did their morning ablutions and Joe did his best to wrestle his hair into submission.
“Nile is making us breakfast,” Joe said.
Nicky splashed water on his face. “With what?”
“I suppose we’ll find out. Don’t make a face. We both know you’re going to pretend to like it whatever it is.”
That was true, not that Nicky was willing to admit it, but it was a relief nonetheless to find Nile dishing scrambled eggs onto plates. There was even bacon.
“Booker went out,” Nile said before they could ask. “He even got coffee.”
Booker was nowhere to be seen, but there were two cups sitting on the counter. Penance, or a gesture of it. Anger or not, Nicky was not about to refuse coffee. After a moment of consideration, neither was Joe.
“Where’s Andy?” Nicky asked, picking up a plate so that Nile did not have to carry them all to the table.
“She said she didn’t need any help this morning,” Nile said. “So she’ll probably make it down in the next hour.”
“You’re not cute,” Andy said from where she was indeed slowly making her way down the stairs.
“Need some help, boss?” Joe asked, pulling a chair out for Nicky and then for Nile.
The look she shot him was poisonous, but Joe just grinned in response and kicked out a chair for her when she finally hobbled over. “Where’s Booker?” she asked.
“Outside,” Nile answered. “I already took a plate out to him. How’s your side?”
“It hurts,” Andy said, “but I’ll live.”
They ate their breakfast, and Nicky cleaned up as Joe and Nile fussed over an increasingly annoyed Andy. There wasn’t much to do after that. By quiet agreement, they decided to wait a few days until Andy had healed more before moving on and dealing with Booker.
Nicky had never been good at purposeless waiting. He was not like Joe, who was content with his charcoals and the various books he kept at their houses. Nicky needed a reason to train his body to stillness, an end goal to work towards.
After his third circuit around the room, Joe said, “Nile, did you finish your homework?”
She glanced up from her place on the couch. Andy had fallen asleep next to her, head awkwardly pillowed on one arm. Her neck would ache if they did not bid her to move soon. “Oh, you mean the list,” she said.
“The list,” said Joe. He had taken the chair in the corner, and he smiled as Nicky paused next to him. “Go to the store. Take Nile with you. I’ll stay with Andy.”
Through the window, Nicky could see Booker seated on the back steps, head bowed and hands hanging loose between his knees. He couldn’t spot a bottle, but with Booker that had always meant very little.
“Don’t worry,” Joe added, following his gaze. “I’ll leave him be. Go on, before you drive me crazy with your pacing.”
“We’ll be back soon,” Nicky said. He leaned over and kissed Joe before collecting the keys, the money they kept in each safe house in case of emergencies, and Nile, who finished lacing up her boots and followed him out.
The car was, as Booker so aptly described, a piece of shit, but the engine turned over and the steering stuck only a little as Nicky turned them in the direction of the nearest Asda.
“Didn’t pick you for the restless type,” Nile said, fiddling with the radio.
“I don’t like waiting with nothing to do.”
She found a station and turned the volume up. “So, what, you don’t do vacations?”
“That’s different. On vacation I can do J—”
“Okay,” she said loudly, smacking his arm. “I get it. You two are in love or whatever.”
“Or whatever,” he agreed.
“It must be nice, having someone else for this shit.”
You and Nicky always had each other, Booker had said, and he wasn’t wrong. It was them, had been from the first death, but that didn’t mean they didn’t need their family.
“You have us,” he said firmly.
“Yeah,” she said, “I guess I do.”
Asda, like every big box store, was crowded even during working hours, and they were forced to park further from the door than Nicky would have liked. What he did like was how Nile squared her shoulders before grabbing a cart and striding through the door as if she were going into battle.
It wasn’t an inaccurate comparison, and Nicky followed in Nile’s wake as she pushed her way through the crowd, heading towards the medicinal section where she proceeded to consult the list in her hand and the wide array of items before her. Bandages and gauze, disinfectant and triple antibiotic ointment, all went into the cart.
“We’ll have to order a suture kit once we decide where to settle,” Nicky said when Nile had paused, frowning.
“You know how to stitch someone up?” she said, eyebrows raised.
“Just because we don’t require care doesn’t meant we don’t help those who do.”
Now she looked embarrassed. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“It’s still new to you.” He picked out a box of plasters with cartoons printed on them because it would make Andy smile. “Although between me and you, Joe’s stitches are neater than mine. Now,” he added when she smiled, “what’s next on your list?”
What was next was personal products—toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo and conditioner, that pomade Booker favored—and a box of tampons that Nile tossed in with a dry, “Apparently I have this to look forward to forever now.”
“I'm afraid so,” he said, because that had been one of Andy and Quỳnh’s constant complaints through the centuries, that their fucking uteruses never took a month off.
“That sucks,” she said with feeling, and Nicky took advantage of her distraction to pluck the list from her.
Underneath tampons, Nile had written food? in neat block letters.
“We can still starve to death you know,” he said.
“I meant,” Nile said with a roll of her eyes, “what kind of food you all like.” She paused and then said, “Did you ever, you know, starve?”
“A few times,” he answered. “There were lean years.”
“There still are,” she said, the words a bruise Nicky knew better than to press on.
Instead he nudged them down the crisp aisle, taking note of the flavors she chose before getting the salted brand Joe liked and popcorn for Booker and Andy. They also bought a loaf of bread and some more pasta, canned vegetables, shelf stable options that would keep until they had passed through Oakwood once again.
As they rounded the aisle, they nearly ran into a group of young women, who smiled when Nicky murmured an apology. They were unmistakably American, the way their mouths shaped crisps and biscuits and chips, laughing as they went. Students, most likely, spending a semester abroad.
Nile tracked their progress, and he did not know what her expression meant, if it was longing for what she lost or believed to be lost: her home, her family, her youth. He remembered what it was to be young, to be truly young, the years his to idle away.
“How can you stand it?” Nile asked, quiet. “All this time we have.”
“It is not so different than what you had before,” Nicky said, which earned him a curl of her lip. “Did you know where you would be ten years from now? Twenty? Fifty? It’s still the same. We go forward as always, only now we have the time to do everything we ever wanted.”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
“You could go to school, if you wish.” He followed her towards the clothing section. “I have several degrees. The last one was in chemistry, but that was thirty years ago. I’m sure most of what I learned is outdated, and I’ve never been good keeping up with journals.” She looked thoughtful, and so he leaned in close and said, “My classmates thought I was Joe’s kept man.”
She laughed and said, “And were you?”
“I was. I am.”
Joe had asked him the same thing one night, pressed warm and lazy all along his back.
“I could be kept better,” he’d answered, and Joe tucked his laughter into the back of Nicky’s neck and gave him what he needed.
“It’s something to think about,” Nicky said, and Nile shrugged again, although this time her gaze on the women was thoughtful instead of envious.
While Nile shifted through the racks, he went to pick out clothes for everyone else. It was easy to shop for them, as he had long since learned their preferences: dark colors for Andy that was easy to move in; shirts and trousers made of sturdy material for Booker; Joe liked jackets with deep pockets that would fit his notebook and pencil or Nicky’s hand, wrapped in his own.
His part done, he was content to trail behind Nile, making note of what she preferred: reds and vibrant pinks, track pants and jackets, material that was soft to the touch.
“You know you’re being creepy, right?” she said, glancing over her shoulder.
“I'm just trying to learn what you like,” he said.
“Okay, weirdo,” she said, smiling to take the sting out of it as she added one last shirt to the cart. It wasn’t exactly unabashed fondness, but it was a foundation to build upon. “I’m going to look for shoes.”
“I’ll meet you at the front,” Nicky said. “I want to pick up a notebook for Joe.”
She waved him away, and so Nicky went to pick his way through the small selection of stationary, deciding on a simple black notebook that would fit in the new jacket’s pocket. It wasn’t quite to Joe’s standards, but it would, like so many things, do for now.
Nile was not waiting for him at the front, but he found her in the jewelry section, staring down at two sets of earrings: gold hoops and silver studs.
“Dress code was strict,” she said to him. “I was only allowed my necklace.”
The cross sat along her breastbone. The marines were another part of her life that was gone now, another bit for her to mourn.
“I like the hoops,” he said. “Gold suits you.”
“Yeah, I think it does,” she said, and added the earrings to the cart.
They had nearly reached the house when Nile said, “Andy says there has to be a price.”
He had been expecting this, and was only wondering if would be him or Joe she would talk to. Booker, by his own deed, was not an option.
“Yes,” he agreed. “For what he did, there is a price.”
She made a noise in the back of her throat, neither agreement nor derision. “So what is it going to be?”
“I don’t know.” He slowed the car. “We’ll have to decide.”
“We, huh? I’m included?”
“You’re one of us now.”
That noise again. “Booker said Joe won’t forgive him.”
He loved Andy and Booker still, despite everything, but they were not the best suited to easing Nile into this; Andy who lacked faith and Booker who had too much.
“Joe does not suffer betrayers,” he finally said. “Will not suffer.”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
She turned thoughtful. “And will he tell me if I ask?”
Nicky smiled; she learned fast. “He will, at some point.”
“Are we talking days or years or decades?”
“Fuck off,” she said, and hit him in the arm.
He turned onto their street and could make out Joe smoking while he waited on the front steps. Joe only smoked when in England.
“Do you know what I think?” Nile said as Nicky brought the car to a stop.
“What?” he asked.
“You didn’t look at Booker when we were getting out, and you’ve barely spoken to him. I think it’s not just Joe that has a problem with betrayal.” And with that she opened the door and was out of the car, calling out, “Come help us take all this in.”
“She’s very demanding,” Joe said, holding the car door open for him and giving him a concerned look when Nicky didn’t immediately move.
“Very perceptive, too,” Nicky said, and took Joe’s offered hand.
“Joe, seriously,” Nile said, a bag in each hand, “a little help.”
“You’re not going to make Nicky help?” Joe asked, relieving her of her the bags.
“Nicky did the shopping, and I like him better than you.”
“What a coincidence,” Joe said with a sly smile, “so do I.”
After everything was brought in and put away, Nicky found Andy on the couch, flipping disinterestedly through a book, a bottle of vodka at her side.
“Don’t you dare,” she said when he made to move it away.
“You’ll no longer come back from drinking yourself to death.”
“Guess I have to give a shit about my liver now.” She winced as she shifted, hand going to her side before she could help herself.
“You may even have to eat the occasional vegetable.”
“Well, fuck.” She tipped her head back, breathing deep for a long moment. Nicky fished out more painkillers, passing them over. She dry swallowed them. “Where’s the kid?”
“Upstairs with Joe,” he answered. “He’s helping with her hair.”
There were limited hairstyles permitted by the marines, and since she wasn’t one anymore, Nile insisted on a change.
“What do you know about hair?” she’d asked when Joe volunteered his services.
“I had three sisters,” he answered. “And I’m a quick learner.”
Nile had shrugged and let him tag along.
“Where’s Booker?” he asked.
“Sent him to my room to get some sleep.” For just a moment, she looked the age of all her years. “We’ll have to decide on that price.”
When Nicky had been actually young instead of just appearing it, he had believed truly and completely in the grace of God, for though it had brought him to war it had delivered him unto Joe. It was by grace they had found Andy and Quỳnh and, later, Booker, who they broke bread with and tried to shoulder his sorrow. And even though Booker had delivered them to cages, there was still an echo of that same grace that brought him to their family.
“I wish we didn’t have to,” he said.
“There’s no one else to do it. And don’t say God. You know I hate that divine judgment shit.”
“But you like having God to blame,” he pointed out.
“I suppose He’s useful for that.” She scooped up the bottle. “Kid has an eye for art. She spotted my Rodin immediately.”
He allowed the change. “Joe will finally have someone to match his appreciation.”
Andy snorted. “And it keeps him from bothering us.”
“I don’t mind,” he said loyally. Andy raised her eyebrows. “But I suppose it’ll be nice for him to have a new audience to discuss art with.”
“Lecture at, more like.” She nudged his leg when he frowned. “Don’t be like that. You know he has opinions.”
Nicky sighed. “He does.”
She smiled. “I’ll drink to that.”
“One drink,” he said. “We’re minding your liver.”
“Cheers,” Andy said, and drank straight from the bottle.
This was what he kept secret, even from Andromache: it was Yusuf who came before him with hands empty of any weapon, an offer of peace. But it was Nicolò who picked up a sword and sliced open his belly so that Yusuf’s empty hands were put to work holding in the loops of his intestines.
But Yusuf would still try again and again, suffering the edge of Nicolò’s sword every time. It would be another year before Nicolò, sword falling from his hands, went to his knees before Yusuf and said, “Please. I’ll go with you. Please.”
It was always Yusuf who carried God’s grace.
He cracked the door to find Booker sleeping on his back, mouth open and fingers twitching. It was a position he favored when he drank too much, and it usually fell to Joe to roll him onto his side; they all knew how much Booker feared death by asphyxiation.
Nicky closed the door and left Booker to his dreams.
He crossed to the other bedroom, taking in the state of the two beds. Nile had neatly and precisely folded her clothes while Joe had left everything strewn over the bed. Nicky was halfway through tidying when Joe said, “You know I like to lay everything out.”
“You like to make a mess.”
“It’s lived in.”
“I thought you were helping Nile,” he said instead of retreading the well worn argument.
“I outlived my usefulness. But between me and you, I think she was sad and wanted a moment alone.” Before Nicky could do more than glance towards the bathroom, Joe said, “She’s not like Booker. Sometimes we just need to be alone with our sadness.”
“Yes, I know,” he said, twisting a shirt before smoothing it flat. “I just—”
“Worry, I know. Come here.” Joe tucked himself against his back, hands on his hips. “You’ve too kind a heart.”
“Not that kind,” Nicky said.
“I beg to differ,” Joe said, and kissed his neck, mouth open and lush. He pushed up Nicky’s shirt, hand splaying over his belly.
“What are you doing?” A shiver worked its way down his spine.
“I still owe you,” Joe said, slipping the tips of his fingers underneath his waistband. “Don’t you want to collect?”
“On what?” Joe found the spot behind his ear, and Nicky didn’t quite bite back a soft sigh.
“On whether you locked the door.”
“Do you know, I can’t remember,” Joe said, and popped the button of his pants.
“You bastard,” Nicky said on a laugh. “This will definitely scandalize Nile.”
“Only if she walks in on us.”
There wasn’t much use to arguing, not when Joe pulled the zipper down, and so Nicky didn’t. He let his head drop back on Joe’s shoulder and said, “Make it quick.”
“If you insist.”
He knew Nicky well, his hand warm on his belly and the other quick and perfect on his cock, and Nicky let himself go breathless, trusting his weight to Joe, who accepted it as easily as he accepted everything from him.
“Oh,” Nicky said, hips pushing up. “Yusuf.”
Joe bit down hard enough to bruise, and Nicky came, gasping.
“Quick enough for you?” Joe asked once he caught his breath again.
“Smug does not suit you,” Nicky said, with no intention of moving.
Joe shifted behind him, and then Nicky hissed as he was gently cleaned and tucked away again. He could feel the bruise on his neck already healing.
“I think it does,” Joe said.
Nicky laced their hands together and said, “Booker was right, you know.” Joe tensed, and Nicky squeezed his fingers. “It’s always been me and you. We never had to face it alone.”
“Neither did he,” Joe said, an exhaustion to the words, as if he had already argued this out with himself. “He had us.”
“It’s not the same.” Outside the mother was calling after her children in maternal disappointment. “I think I would have gone mad if it weren’t for you.”
“It doesn’t change anything.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he agreed. “How many planks do you think Booker has replaced?”
Joe kissed the edge of his jaw. “Not enough to be remade.”
He closed his eyes as Joe held him. Whatever remained of him from that first life, it was all the parts made to find Joe.
Joe shook him, and said, “Nile will be done soon.”
Which was when the doorknob jiggled and Nile said, “Did you lock me out? Oh, you better not be having sex on my bed.”
“I think you did that this time,” Nicky said, taking his weight back as Joe stepped away with a sigh.
“I think she just waits to make an entrance,” Joe said, but unlocked and opened the door to Nile, who good naturedly scowled at them.
“You hair looks nice,” Nicky said. She had decided on twin braids that framed her lovely face. “Was Joe actually helpful?”
“He’s got potential,” Nile said.
“I see how it is,” Joe said, falling back onto the bed and over the clothes. “You two teaming up on me.”
“You should probably get used to it,” Nile said. “I think it’s going to happen a lot.”
And then, brazen and sweet, she winked.
(When Nile finally asks, Joe will tell her that he had three sisters, but he also had a brother, once. And then one day his sisters were dead and his brother was no longer his brother. There was no grace for betrayers.)
It was two more days before they piled into the car and drove to The Prospect of Whitby, Booker in front with Andy, and Joe sandwiched between him and Nile, who was wearing the gold hoops. Nicky was right; gold was her color.
Nile took in the pub, lingering on the sign. “Five hundred years,” she said.
“Older than me,” Booker said, already waving at the bartender, ordering five pints of whatever was on tap.
“Pretty sure there’s a lot of things historically older than you,” Nile said. She slanted a thoughtful look to Andy. “What about you? What’s older than you?”
“A lot actually,” Andy said.
“Just a few cave paintings,” Joe said, smiling even as Andy punched him in the arm.
The smile fell away soon enough. They were here for a purpose other than to drink.
“I’ll leave you to decide,” Booker said, and took his pint outside.
“We deciding on the price?” Nile asked when he was gone.
“There has to be one,” Andy said.
“No.” Nile’s gaze alighted on each of them in turn. “There doesn’t have to be. We can choose that.”
“Kid,” Andy said.
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped. “I was a goddamned marine, and it was me who came and fucking got you out.”
“Nile,” Nicky said, gentle. “You rescued us, but Booker was the one to put us there.”
Her jaw worked. “So, what, you’re going to punish him?”
“That’s the idea,” Joe said. “I say we shut him in a box. See how he likes it.”
“No,” Andy said.
Joe shrugged, although his grip on his glass tightened. “So let’s throw him in a pit instead. Bury him deep.”
Nile made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat, and Nicky turned the glass between his palms and said, “He should be alone.”
Andy sucked in a quick breath, but it was Joe whose eyes widened in surprise. “You want to leave him?” Joe said.
“Dizzy and Jay,” Nile said, hands flat on the table, “they were my girls. We were going to serve out our tour together. Dizzy held my throat together when—” She broke off, gaze trained out on Booker. “They couldn’t look at me, after. When I was ordered to Germany, they made sure my bags were already packed.”
“Kid,” Andy said, and then shook her head. “Nile. This is different.”
“Sure,” Nile said, and stood so abruptly it sent the glasses rattling. “I don’t know if I get a vote, but you shouldn’t send him away.”
And then her piece said, she went outside to stand shoulder to shoulder with Booker.
Andy sighed and finished her drink. Nicky pushed his glass towards her. “We’re not meant to be alone,” Andy said.
“Then he shouldn’t have turned us over,” Joe snapped.
“How long?” she asked.
“A thousand years,” Joe said, but he didn’t mean it. He wanted to be to be talked down.
Andy obliged him. “Fifty.”
“That’s nothing.” Joe drank. “Seven hundred.”
“You’re not even trying,” she said, which was true. “What about you, Nicky? Want to throw a number out?”
Nicky, who was once Nicolò, said, “However long it takes to replace all the planks of Theseus’ ship.”
“He’s been in a philosophical mood lately,” said Joe.
Andy sighed, exhausted. “And how long is that going to take?”
Nicky shrugged. “Depends on how fast Booker works.”
“Five hundred years,” Joe said magnanimously.
They were still arguing when Nile came back and said, “Whatever penance he’s going to serve should be a fair one.”
Joe refused to go lower than three hundred years of solitude, but he once came to Nicky without weapons in an attempt to make peace and received a sword to the gut for his faith, and he wanted to be convinced.
“Yusuf,” Nicky said, because Joe always loved the shape of his name in Nicky’s mouth.
Joe scrubbed a hand down his face. “Fine. A hundred years from today.”
Nile touched her cross, and said, “Who’s going to tell him?”
“I will,” said Andy, who may have not have loved Booker well but she had loved him best, her grief finding refuge in his.
They waited on the steps, him and Joe and Nile, as Andy delivered the sentence to Booker on the edge of the Thames.
“You should say goodbye,” Joe said.
Andy and Booker embraced, his hand cupped protectively around the back of her head. They will have buried her by the time his penance was complete.
“No,” Nicky said, the word weighing as heavy as his sword.
When Andy returned to them, she had blinked the tears from her eyes but they still tucked her within their group as they climbed the stairs and left Booker behind them, alone.
Nicky fell back to walk even with Joe. Nile had taken point, a protective shield in front of Andy, who allowed it with a rueful twist of her mouth. Nile would be good for them. Was already good for them.
There will come a day when it will be Nile who is the first one in, Andy’s labrys slung over her back. But before that there will be mornings when he will wake to Joe and Nile praying side by side in accordance to their faiths, and there will be a day when he’ll let Nile convince him to accompany her to church. And Joe will take Nile to museums in every country and will share his art with her, the faces he had drawn through the long years so he will never forget, and in return Nile will tell Joe of her brother and mother as he helps with her hair. And on those nights she dreams, Nicky will sit with her and talk of how fierce Quỳnh was in love. There will come a time when Andy will join them, though her memories will remain bittersweet, and in the end she will say, “Quỳnh would have liked you.” And in a hundred years, when his penance is complete, Booker, made anew, will take return to the space they left for him.
And through it all there will be Joe. There will always be Joe.
“What are you thinking?” Joe asked, taking his hand.
“Sad things,” Nicky answered. “And good things.”
Joe tucked their hands into the large pocket of his coat. “What do you think Booker will look like once he’s replaced all his old planks?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I think it will be worth the wait.”
And then, hand in hand under the clean blue sky, they followed Andy and Nile to what came next.