Nile has been crammed in the back seat in between Booker and Andy for what feels like hours, although it’s probably more like twenty minutes, while Joe takes a circuitous route out of the city. She kind of wishes he’d hurry it up, but on the other hand, getting pulled over in their current state would be a lousy end to what's already been a pretty bad day.
Booker’s legs don’t really fit in the cramped back seat, but he doesn’t really seem that put out about the way he’s got one knee twisted up under the door handle and the other jammed into Nile’s thigh. His hand is across his face like he’s dozing. On her other side, Andy has her head tilted against the window, hair leaving smears of blood on the glass, to all appearances genuinely fast asleep. Up front, Joe is talking with Nicky in Italian too quick and soft for her to follow.
The whole vibe is unnervingly reminiscent of late-night bus trips home from her varsity soccer games. Other than the fact that they’re all liberally smeared with blood and gore. Nile can feel something horribly chunky dribbling down the back of her neck every time she moves, and she has an awful suspicion that it’s bits of her own brain from that last shotgun blast she took. She’s trying very hard not to think about that mostly because this is all disgusting enough without adding vomit to the mix.
“We’re here,” Nicky says suddenly in English, and Nile lifts her head, blinking dazedly, as the little safe-house comes into view. Joe brakes gently into the driveway, which turns enough that the tall hemlocks lining the road block them from view of anybody who might be out driving by.
Andy is up by the time they come to a stop, going from sleeping to waking in the blink of an eye. She shoves the door open and offers Nile a hand out; on the other side, Booker groans as he unfolds himself out of the car.
Nile’s shirt sticks to the back of the seat like it’s glued before finally peeling away. “Dibs on the shower,” she mumbles, and Andy laughs. “What?”
“It’s a big shower,” Joe says over his shoulder as he climbs the steps. Nicky pushes the door open while she’s still blinking about that, and holds it open for the rest of them to slip inside.
The rest of them make a beeline to the bathroom, shedding clothes as they go, and Nile pauses in the doorway, letting the door fall shut behind her. “Wait, are you serious?”
“What, you never shared a shower before?” Booker asks absently. He’s focused on the buttons of his shirt, which are tacky with blood.
Nile rolls her eyes. “I mean, yeah, but not with four other people.”
“We should all fit,” Joe says through the open bathroom door. He’s naked already, which at least answers the question of whether they’re leaving their underwear on as some kind of awkward nod to modesty. It’s probably just as well. Nile took a couple of bullets to the chest and she’s pretty sure the underwire is popping out of her bra from how it keeps jabbing at her. Nicky kicks his pants off too and leans around him to start the shower, and Nile sighs, shakes her head, and gives up.
“Fuck it. Fine,” she says, and reaches up to start unbraiding her hair. She realizes her mistake a moment later when she gets a handful of—something—slimy and squishing, and she gags before Andy steps close and grips her wrist firmly, bringing it down.
“Let me do it,” she says calmly. It doesn’t come out like a question, exactly, but she waits until Nile nods before moving around behind her to start undoing her braid, matter-of-factly pulling out bits of gore and God knows what else. Nile closes her eyes and breathes in through her nose, then out, waiting for her gorge to settle. When she opens them again, Booker is crowding into the shower after Nicky and Joe. Nile watches long enough to see him catch an elbow to the midsection from the latter that doesn’t look entirely accidental, then closes her eyes again.
“If you’re not comfortable with it,” Andy says from behind her as her fingers work, “I’ll kick them out.”
The thing is, Nile knows she’d do it, just like she knows that all three men would comply without complaint. It’s that, maybe, that makes her shake her head. “No, it’s fine. Not like we need to be tracking more blood all over the place anyway. Besides, none of you got anything I haven’t seen before.”
Andy laughs softly. “Fair enough. There, you should be good.”
“Thank you,” Nile says, turning back toward her. She looks like some sort of elemental, shirtless and smeared with blood, but there’s a gentleness about her expression all the same. A kind of calm that leaves Nile space to settle.
“You’re welcome.” The corner of her mouth tilts up, and she bends down to unzip her boots, adding, “Better hurry before we run out of hot water.”
“There’s plenty,” Nicky says from behind the shower curtain. And then, “Joe, here, let me—”
“Thank you, habibi.”
Andy tugs her blood-drenched jeans and underwear off, leaves them in the heap that Nile is pretty sure they’re going to have to burn, and climbs into the shower. There’s a rustle behind the curtain, and Booker yelps, “A little warning next time, boss? I really don’t want to die again tonight from slipping in the bathtub.”
“Oh, don’t be a baby,” Andy says, and Joe snorts, and Nile finds herself grinning as she pulls off her clothes and follows.
Inside is cramped and steamy, a wet tangle of limbs, but Joe was right; they do fit, just barely. Nicky is under the spray, rinsing soap out of his hair, a pink-tinged trail of suds sliding down his shoulders and back. Booker’s hair is covered in soap too, but when Nicky ducks out from under the water he catches Nile gently by the shoulder and steers her under it, and Nile lets herself be steered. Lets the warm water sluice over her body for a moment, then takes the washcloth Nicky passes her and runs it over herself, rinsing away the blood and other things better left unmentioned. “Anybody seen my shampoo?”
“Here,” Joe says, and leans between Nicky and Andy to pass her the shampoo bar. Nile takes it gratefully. That’s the nice thing about this being an actual safe-house instead of some random hotel room: her stuff is here, and she’s not stuck trying to wash gore out of her hair with some shitty hotel soap.
She moves out from under the spray to start working shampoo into her hair, section by section, and Andy pulls Booker under it. “You have brains in your hair,” she says, working her fingers through his soapy hair with the air of a mama cat forcibly bathing her kitten. Nile snorts out a giggle, feeling dazed and punch-drunk. Gunshot-drunk. If that’s a thing.
“I think we all had brains in our hair after that.”
“Except maybe Nicky.”
“Hmm,” Nicky agrees. He’s running a cloth over Joe’s back and shoulders with careful focus as Joe leans against the shower wall, wet curls falling into his face, eyes closed. “I did avoid that. Although I’ll admit that decapitation is still not my favorite way to go.”
“Especially when they use a dull machete,” Joe mumbles into the crook of his arm, not asleep after all.
Nicky drops a kiss on his newly clean shoulder. “Well, we can’t all be dashing warriors with a shamshir.”
Nile peers at him, suds running down her elbow to drip on the tile floor. “Wait, is this another one of your murder-flirting things, or…?”
“Asqalan,” Joe says, still into his arm. “What a fucking mess that was.”
Nicky kisses his other shoulder with an air of apology. “It was.”
“You’re done,” Andy says to Booker, elbowing him out of the way to step under the spray herself, tilting her head back. Rivulets of water cut through the blood caked on her skin, pooling around her feet. Nile finishes with her hair and leans past Andy to get the shower gel and another washcloth, which she wets and passes over to Booker.
“Thank you,” he says, with a brief smile. Andy is already scrubbing herself with a handful of suds, balancing gracefully on first one foot and then the other to get at the blood that must have dribbled into her boots. When she finishes, she draws Nile back under the water with a gentleness that Nile would never have thought her capable of when they first met.
This is up there with some of the more casually bizarre situations she’s been in since she died and woke up for the first time, especially if she discounts all the ones that involved getting murdered, but it’s… nice. It’s really nice, actually.
She finds herself sitting on the edge of the tub some time later, detangling her hair with her fingers while Nicky and Joe sway together under the spray in what looks like something between a slow-dance and a half-conscious effort at staying upright. It should feel uncomfortably intimate, but instead Nile just feels warm and loose and relaxed for the first time in hours. Maybe weeks. There’s something peaceful about it, the familiar scent of coconut as she works conditioner through her hair, the warm patter of water on the tile floor, long-since rinsed clean, the little human noises of all of them together.
“Okay, I’m getting us clothes before we all fall asleep in here,” Booker mutters eventually, and slips around the two of them to climb out of the tub. Andy huffs laughter and smacks at his hip without looking up from where she’s scrubbing blood out from under her nails; Booker ruffles her wet hair, tips Nile a grin, and then is gone.
He’s back a few minutes later, dressed, with a stack of towels and four piles of pajamas. Nicky and Joe move aside to let Nile under the spray to rinse out the conditioner, and by the time she shuts the water off, warm and clean at last, she’s alone in the shower.
The others are already dried off and dressing when she climbs out onto the wet floor. The coolness of the room is a shock, and she huddles gratefully into the towel that Booker drapes over her shoulders. He got her pajamas and one of her head scarves, a gold-and-purple one she found somewhere in Marrakesh. She smiles up at him, and he squeezes her shoulder and says, to Andy, “You have a visitor.”
Andy groans. “If it’s Copley, I’m going to shoot him. Or maybe myself.”
“You just got done washing the blood off,” Booker points out. He nods toward the living room. “It’s not Copley.”
“Oh,” Andy says. She tugs a t-shirt over her head, peers out through the doorway, then lets out a word that might be a curse or a prayer in a language that Nile doesn’t recognize, her face going soft. “Oh.”
“Who—” Joe begins, peering after her. Nicky cranes his head as well. “Ah.”
“You’re just going to keep the suspense going, huh?” Nile asks. She pulls on her shirt, then follows the rest of them out into the living room, scarf in hand and still-damp hair dripping down her back.
Perched on the sagging couch is a woman that she’s seen only once outside of dreams: this afternoon, spinning a path of destruction through the mercenaries who had them pinned down inside the warehouse with the fearless grace of someone who cannot die. She vanished before any of them could follow, and Andy was white and wordess all the way back to the car.
She’s cleaned up sometime between now and then, dressed in jeans and a wool jacket wrapped tightly around her even though it’s not at all cold in here. Her hair is braided out of her face and her expression is impossible to read, her eyes fixed on Andy.
“Quynh,” Andy says, a soft exhalation. She’s gripping the door frame like it’s the only thing holding her upright.
Quynh inclines her head slowly. Out of a fight, there’s something cautious and rusty about the way she moves, like she’s still remembering how to exist in her body, in the world. “Andromache.” Her eyes move over the rest of them, dark and wary. “Nicolò and Yusuf. And you’re the new one.”
“Yeah,” Nile says. She has no idea what to do with this frozen standoff, but it’s clear that none of the rest of them are going to make a move, and anyway her mother raised her right. She steps forward, holds out her hand. “Nile. Nile Freeman. It’s nice to meet you.”
There’s a sound like a choked laugh behind her, but after a long moment Quynh smiles slightly and reaches up to clasp her hand.