They leave England behind, head to Amsterdam and then double back to Ireland, make their way to Spain to catch a flight that will ultimately take them to Corfu. They’re pretty sure no one’s following them, but none of them are eager to risk it. Copley says he’s watching out for them now, but it’s not like Andy, Joe, or Nicky are going to trust him. They’ll lie low in a safehouse in Corfu for a few weeks, Andy tells Nile.
“Why Corfu?” Nile asks on the plane. Andy put Nicky and Joe up in first class, gave them the comfy seats and the champagne and the semblance of privacy while she and Nile struggle for leg room back in coach. Nile hasn’t been to any of the places they’ve stopped in; she certainly hasn’t been to Corfu. She didn’t even know where Corfu was until Andy said they were going there.
“It’s one of Nicky and Joe’s favorite safehouses,” Andy says. She doesn’t elaborate, but Nile knows why that matters. It’s the same reason Andy insisted they go to first class. She’s hurting at how long they were in that lab, at how battered and bloodstained they were when they got to them, at the possibility of her not getting to them, the specter of the woman at the bottom of the ocean haunting her eyes.
They don’t talk much on the plane; Andy falls asleep, and Nile doesn’t know her—doesn’t know any of them, not really—but she has to guess that’s unusual. Mortality and a gunshot wound can do that to a person, Nile muses.
It’s not hard to see why this safehouse is one of their favorites. It’s secluded and quiet, right on the edge of the island so they can open the windows and smell the sea. The air is salty and heavy. The house itself is spartan, without decorations or comfortable furniture. But there are four bedrooms with doors that lock, and bathrooms and beds and weapons stashed in every single drawer Nile opens. Nile doesn’t care about any of it. She locks herself in one of the rooms and sinks to the floor, puts her head between her knees and tries to take deep breaths. She puts her phone next to her and pulls up the picture of her mom and her brother, just looks at it for a second and tries to remember how her lungs are supposed to work.
It isn’t very long before the door behind her trembles with a gentle knock. “Nile,” Joe says softly. “Don’t go to sleep without eating.”
“I’m not very hungry,” Nile tells him. It’s the truth. She wants to shower for twenty years, sleep for another forty. She’s never hungry after a firefight, but this is worse. She keeps feeling the swoop in her stomach as she went out the window, Merrick’s hands scrabbling against her in panic, the agony of her bones and organs knitting themselves back together. The fact that she can’t die, the fact that her family doesn’t know that and is probably already mourning her, keeps climbing up her throat.
“I know,” Joe says. “But your body needs it.”
She knows he’s right. She’s forced food down her throat more than once after seeing too much blood. She can do it again. She heaves a sigh that he must hear if he’s still outside the door. She knows he is. She can’t see him, can’t hear him, but she can feel his presence.
“I’m coming,” she promises, proud of how strong and even her voice comes out.
“When you’re ready,” Joe says, so he obviously saw through her. He walks away. She’d like to stay there, maybe let herself wither away, just to see what happens. Except she knows what happens. What happens is she comes back to life. Again and again and again. That will be what happens.
But Nile is a Marine. Was a Marine. (Always a Marine. Semper Fi. Oorah.) She can drag herself off the floor and out to the sparse but airy kitchen. She can sit beside three people older than she can comprehend and she can eat whatever food they found in a safehouse.
If she has to use the wall to get up and do it, well, no one can see her.
She’s expecting MREs. She’s expecting something stale, sustenance with no regard to flavor. She doesn’t know if it’s the battle weary feeling from all three of her new teammates or just the fact that she heard Andy say no one’s used this safehouse in a decade.
Instead, Nicky gives her a plate full of fish and rice and vegetables, the smell of the spices making her stomach growl despite herself. “Where did you get all this?” Nile asks.
“Joe just caught the fish,” Andy says. “I had a contact in town bring some food over before we got here.”
“You just…you just went out and caught some fish?” Nile asks. “I thought fishing took a long time.” She wouldn’t know. She’s never done it.
Joe raises his eyebrows. “Maybe for some people.”
Nicky snorts. “Do not feed his ego,” he says.
“You do that enough on your own,” Andy says.
Their words are light, teasing, but there’s something off. None of them are looking at each other and none of their smiles hit their eyes. It’s a show, Nile realizes. It’s a routine. They’re playing their roles, but they’re not into this. She notices Joe’s gaze flit to his left, the empty chair there, and he looks stricken for a second before he schools his face again.
Booker. It’s Booker. They all feel off without him, with the reminder of what he did. Nicky and Joe are probably also still recovering from the lab. Nile shivers a little. She doesn’t want to imagine what it was like, being strapped down, being cut open, being killed. And Booker did that to them. Someone they called their brother for two hundred years. Nile’s only had her brother for twenty years, and it would kill her if he ever betrayed her. She can’t imagine how they feel right now.
They all eat quickly and disperse. No one feels like lingering to talk. She doesn’t get any stories today about ancient Greece or the American Revolution or Joe and Nicky’s ill-fated attempt at factory work during the Industrial Revolution that led them to fanning the flames of a burgeoning union and a large-scale strike. She doesn’t begrudge any of that. She’s not feeling very up to sitting around hearing about life before her language was even invented.
“I’ll take first watch,” Nile offers. It wasn’t something she even thought about, but as she says it, she knows it’s the best course of action. Andy can’t do it; she’s practically weaving in her chair, and she won’t admit she’s in pain but she’s had a light sheen of sweat on her forehead since they climbed the hill to get to the house and she refused to let Joe carry her. And Nile thinks Nicky and Joe deserve a rest, time to cling to each other and sleep. Or not sleep. Whatever they want. Nile’s got experience politely tuning out sounds from the other bunk. At least they have separate rooms here.
“That’s not—” Nicky starts to say, but Joe cuts him off.
“Thank you, Nile,” he says. “I’ll take over in a few hours.”
“No,” Andy says. “Nile and I are splitting watch tonight.”
“You’re not in any better shape than we are,” Joe protests.
“My wounds are only physical,” she says dismissively. No one contradicts her even though there’s a short, heavy pause. Nile’s only known Andy for five days and she knows that’s complete bullshit. But this is triage right now. Andy can handle a night on watch, a night of normalcy.
Joe and Nicky are visibly fraying, even to Nile. Every muscle in Nicky’s entire body has been tensed since they got out of that cursed building, and Joe’s eyes keep going just slightly too wide if he’s quiet for longer than two minutes, and the two of them have kept their shoulders or their thighs pressed together the entire time they’ve been traveling. They walked through the airport like that, not holding hands but pressed together side-by-side like some kind of very intense three-legged race.
Nile hasn’t stopped to consider they were being held and tortured. For days. She hasn’t had time to stop to consider it, but she has the time now. She’s not naïve to torture. She’s known people who went MIA, who came back later, if they came back at all, with scars and haunted eyes that never quite looked the same. There isn’t exactly a healing manual to follow here. Maybe it starts with a night without having to take watch, a night where they can close themselves alone in a room and break down.
“Thank you,” Nicky says to both Nile and Andy.
He’s at Joe’s back, close enough that his chest is pressed to the back of Joe’s shoulder. Nile wonders why they don’t hold hands, wrap their arms around each other. They touch a lot, but usually fleetingly; a hand to a shoulder, knees knocking together under a table, brushing past each other close enough to touch shoulders. She’s never seen them hold hands. She would’ve thought it would be the first thing they’d want to do when they were free of the lab.
Nicky pulls a gun and an extra clip from the drawer beneath the oven and hands them over. Then he and Joe slip down the hallway, moving in sync as fluidly as she saw them move in battle.
“Don’t take longer than your fair share,” Andy admonishes. “No noble sacrifice tonight.”
Nile could point out Andy taking watch at all is a version of noble sacrifice, but she doesn’t. She just nods. “Four hours,” she says.
“Four hours,” Andy echoes. She leaves Nile to the coffee maker and the silent kitchen.
This, Nile quickly learns, was a huge tactical error on her part. Silence means thoughts, and thoughts are not what she needs right now. Or they might be what she needs, psychologically speaking, but they are not what she can handle. She can’t have a breakdown when she’s on watch.
The problem is, she doesn’t know when she can have a breakdown. It seems selfish to do it while Joe and Nicky are recovering from being tortured. If anyone gets to have a breakdown, it should be them. Or Andy, who has to deal with being mortal for the first time in thousands of years. Or all three of them, because they got sold out by their brother.
They’re going to need a schedule or something.
Nile won’t slip her headphones in, not when she needs to be alert to any sound. She won’t turn her music on, even softly, because she doesn’t want to wake anyone. So it’s only her and the fact that she can’t die, can’t age, can’t go home. She wonders if Copley’s told her mom and her brother yet. Is her picture in her dress blues up on the wall next to her dad’s with the folded flag, part of her mom’s little shrine of grief? Pain stabs through her stomach at the thought, so visceral she almost checks for a wound.
Her hands shake as she stabs at her phone to bring up the picture of her family. She touches her mother’s face on the screen, the frozen smile made of pixels. The only way Nile will ever get to see her mother again.
She digs her fingernails into her palm and bites her tongue until the pain refocuses her. She can’t dwell on this. She won’t. She made the choice to come back to these people, and now she’s going to do her part. She’s on watch; she’ll watch.
She reads news articles on her phone, bookmarking things she wants Copley to look into. She avoids social media. She’s morbidly curious about whether anyone’s talking about her, but she knows now isn’t the time to look at it. She also knows avoiding her feelings isn’t the healthiest strategy, but again: she’s a Marine. Marines don’t exactly earn merit badges for psychological health.
Nile reads and she keeps an ear out for any sounds outside and she does not think about the fact that she will be 25 for a few thousand years. She waits four and a half hours, just because she knows there’s no way Andy fell asleep right away, and then she creeps down the hall.
Nile hesitates outside the door. Andy seems like a woman whose reaction to being woken up involves violence. Then Nile rolls her eyes at herself. It doesn’t matter. Andy could shove that big ass circular axe thing through her guts and Nile would be back up and at ‘em in under five minutes. So she pushes the door open quietly, conscious of Joe and Nicky a wall away, and touches Andy’s shoulder. She does stand as far away as possible to do it. It’s not fun to die and come back to life.
Andy doesn’t take even a second to wake up. She opens her eyes, a hand coming up to defend herself, but she catches on Nile and drops her hand. She nods wordlessly and starts to roll fluidly out of the bed. Until it pulls at her gunshot wound and her whole body crumples into itself and she gasps in pain.
Nile steadies her, gives her a minute to catch her breath through the pain. They don’t talk about it. Andy may have never been a Marine—not for real, anyway, though Nile’s sure she’s done a stint here or there through the centuries—but she is far more versed than anyone on Earth at not talking about the pain.
Nile goes to bed. She doesn’t let herself second-guess giving Andy watch duty. If Andy says she can handle it, she can handle it. Nile thinks it’s going to be impossible to fall asleep, but luckily she’s been awake for forty-four hours and even her immortal body has had enough. She all but passes out the second she lies flat, and she sleeps until morning.
Nile can hear quiet voices in the kitchen when she wakes up, the smell of cooking food waking up her stomach before her eyes are even fully open. It makes her feel like a little kid, waking up to her parents on a Sunday morning before they came in to wake her up for church, and she has to put her hands over her face for a second until the wave of nostalgia and longing passes.
She makes a pitstop in the bathroom, splashing water on her face and then just staring at herself in the mirror for a minute. She doesn’t look different than she did a week ago. She traces her unblemished neck, the spot the knife cut through. She pushes away Dizzy’s frantic cries for the medic and goes to the kitchen.
Andy’s still up, and Nile has a feeling she won’t go back to bed. She’s drinking coffee at the table, eyes unfocused as she stares down into the mug. The mug, inexplicably, has a picture of Barney the Dinosaur on it. Joe and Nicky are standing in front of the oven, and Nicky is feeding Joe little forkfuls of something that smells spicy.
They’re talking in whatever that language is that they use all the time—she recognizes a word here or there from the Italian lady who lived four doors away when she was a kid, but she’s pretty sure it’s some ancient kind of Italian that Mrs. Pacelli wouldn’t know, and sometimes she’ll hear a word she knows she’s heard in the desert but definitely doesn’t actually understand—and laughing at each other.
It makes her stomach hurt a little. Two days ago, they fought their way out of a lab where they’d been held captive and experimented on. Now they’re eating breakfast and laughing. She wonders if healing so fast for so long means they can heal from pain and terror and torture faster, too. She remembers Booker and doesn’t think that’s true.
“Good morning,” Joe says. It’s overly bright, almost forceful, and Nile has to fight a wince. Nicky doesn’t bother; he cringes away from Joe’s voice right at his ear and Joe pats the side of his head in apology.
“You’re a morning person?” Nile asks, dismayed. There are very few things worse in the world than a morning person, in her personal opinion. She’ll get up early if she has to and she can be fully awake at any time, but she’s not going to enjoy it.
“Not usually,” Andy mutters.
Nile’s about to ask if that’s some kind of allusion to Joe getting laid last night but she notices how tight the set of all of their shoulders is. Ah. This is another Booker thing, she thinks. She cannot fathom Booker as a morning person, but Joe seems to be trying to dissipate the tension they’re all feeling by talking.
Nile’s halfway through her eggs and Joe’s still going on about something—she lost the thread of his story ten minutes ago when he accidentally slipped into some other language for a little while. Nicky is the only one who seems to be listening; occasionally he’ll make a hmm noise or contradict something Joe said. Andy hasn’t even looked up from her coffee or her plate through the entire thing.
“And that’s why we avoid the state Montana on the American continent,” Joe winds down. Nile had no idea he was talking about America at all.
No one says anything for a moment. Nile’s afraid he’s going to start a whole new twenty-minute story, so she says, “I’ve never been there.”
“I liked the sky,” Nicky offers.
“Do you remember,” Joe starts, an almost frenzied tone in his voice as he launches himself off on another memory. Nile wants to sigh. It’s not that she doesn’t want to hear the stories. It’s just that he’s not actually paying attention to if she’s even listening, and he keeps changing languages, and he’s mostly talking to Nicky but pretending he’s talking to everyone.
Andy cuts through his fevered reminiscing of—Germany? Maybe? They all seem to forget to mention country names, which Nile guesses makes sense considering they’ve lived through the rise and fall of so many of them. Political borders are probably hard to keep track of after you’ve seen hundreds of them change.
“Joe,” Andy says. She looks up from her food. “I need you two to go on a supply run.”
“Okay,” Joe says right away. “We’re good on food. Weapons?”
“No, I checked the ammo; we’re okay.” Andy swallows. “I need—bandages.”
Nicky leans forward, concern on his face. “Andy.”
“I’m fine,” Andy says. “Nothing new. I just…I didn’t realize how long it takes to heal.”
Joe scratches his beard. He looks at Nile. “How long does a gunshot wound take to heal?”
None of them have ever needed to know that, Nile realizes. They have no idea. They were already immortal by the time guns hit the scene. Nile shrugs. “Kinda depends on your definition of heal,” she says. “You want to know when it’s gonna stop oozing? Or you want to know when it won’t hurt anymore?”
“Oozing,” Nicky echoes, brow furrowed. He wrinkles his nose in distaste. Nile could almost laugh. These people can deal with seeing their own organs, but pus is grossing him out.
“When will I be back to 100% battle ready?” Andy asks.
Nile blows out a breath. “100%? A few months with a bad gut shot like that, probably. Seems like you’d need physical therapy.”
“What is physical therapy?” Joe asks.
“You gotta do, like, strength exercises and stretches and all that. Get the muscles and tendons back to normal.”
“Healing doesn’t do that on its own?” Andy asks.
“Not really,” Nile says. “You don’t use them the same, so they get stiff in weird places. My brother had to do physical therapy after he broke his arm when he was twelve.”
“How long does a bone take to heal?” Nicky asks interestedly. They don’t stick around in the aftermath of battles very often, she’s coming to realize. Even the people they’d consider brief allies get left behind to do their healing on their own.
“He had a cast for six weeks,” Nile says.
“For a broken arm?” Nicky says, surprised. “So fragile.”
“A few months is not an option,” Andy says quietly. “That could be half the life I have left.”
All the air sucks out of the room. “Don’t say that,” Nile says. “Andy. Come on.”
“None of us can know when it is our time,” Nicky points out softly.
Andy nods. “I’ve lived a long time, Nile. I’m not worried about dying.”
She can say that all she wants, but Nile’s willing to bet at least part of her is. And besides, Nile wasn’t really thinking about Andy, which makes her feel shitty to realize. Maybe Nile isn’t ready to see Andy die. Maybe none of them thought about that. Maybe Nile wants one thing to stay the same for long enough for her to catch her goddamn breath.
“When it happens, it will leave a hole in the rest of us,” Joe says. “But we’ll be glad you found your peace.”
Andy ducks her head for a second, then looks back up and raises her eyebrows. “Assuming I do.”
Nicky lets out a quiet laugh. “Starting to rethink your ideas about the afterlife, boss?”
Andy flicks a piece of grapefruit at him. He catches it right out of the air and smirks at her. Her eyes move left, to the empty seat, and then the smiles disappear from all three of their faces.
It’s like he’s haunting them. Every time they have a happy moment, someone tries to look for him, and then the happiness is gone. Nile can see Booker’s side of things, sure; losing his wife and his kids and living for two hundred years through wars and fighting and blood and hatred. But she doesn’t get how he thought he was alone. They keep wanting to share their happiness with him. It’s their habit to do it.
Nile knows about team cohesiveness. She knows how seamlessly you get used to a person at your side, watching your six, jumping in when you need it. Then she thinks of Dizzy and Jay ignoring her, thinks of her pack all zipped and ready to go before she even got to it. She wonders if any of them keep trying to look for her. Do they even miss her?
Nile rubs her eyes and gives her head a little shake. The only way now is forward. Even that was Booker. Nile doesn’t feel the sting of his betrayal, not really, but she still feels his absence.
“We’ll get going,” Joe says.
“Actually, take Nile,” Andy decides. “Nicky can stay with me.”
“Good idea,” Nicky says. “She can work on her Greek.”
“I don’t know any Greek,” Nile says blankly.
Nicky looks surprised. “None at all?” He asks. “Schools don’t teach it?”
Nile snorts. “Not schools on the Southside.”
He blinks at her, then looks at Joe for clarification. Joe shrugs. “I don’t think her school was…wealthy?”
Nicky’s face clears. “Ah. Yes. Wealth disparity has always impacted education. Did you focus on Latin instead?”
“Greek isn’t actually a language people really speak outside of Greece anymore,” Nile tells them. She doesn’t actually know if people outside of Greece spoke Greek back in their day, either, or if Andy just made them learn it because she wanted to speak it or something. “And I sure as hell didn’t learn Latin. I took French in high school.”
Nicky brightens. He says something to her in French, way too fast. He looks a little dismayed when he can tell she didn’t get it. In English, he says, “Did wealth disparity affect your French, too?”
Nile decides this is not insulting. They’re like a billion years old and don’t get that public high school language classes in the US don’t mean shit. “Yes,” she tells them. “That’s the problem.”
Joe’s lips twitch like he’s starting to get that Nicky’s inadvertently casting aspersions on her intelligence. “Come on, Nile,” he says. “Don’t let Nicky bully you about languages. He just doesn’t like English because he’s bad at it.”
Nicky shrugs, unrepentant. “It is lawless gibberish.”
“I know,” Joe says condescendingly. “Maybe in another thousand years you’ll get the hang of it.”
Nicky rolls his eyes and mutters something Nile doesn’t need to translate to understand. Joe presses his hand to Nicky’s shoulder as he gets up, and then he and Nile set out for the little town two miles away.
“Have you traveled much?” Joe asks conversationally while they walk. “Besides Afghanistan, I mean.”
“No,” Nile says. “Nowhere. I don’t even have a passport.” Copley did something that made her military ID good enough to get her on the plane here.
“Book can—” Joe cuts himself off, nostrils flaring. He clears his throat. “I suppose Copley will keep helping us out with that.”
Nile doesn’t know what to say. She knows Booker forged all their IDs; she never found out if he got good at it after immortality or before, and she’s not going to ask now. She watches Joe swallow hard.
“Did you learn Greek as a kid?” Nile asks.
Joe laughs a little, though it’s not as boisterous as it would have been without his slip-up about Booker. “Oh, definitely not. Nicky and I didn’t learn Greek until we met up with Andy and Quynh. It wasn’t either of their native language, but they’ve always learned languages easily.”
A shadow passes over his face as he mentions Quynh. Another ghost. Nile wonders how many she’ll pick up before she eventually gets to die. Will there be a day a thousand years from now when she’s talking to some new immortal and frowns like that over the mention of Joe?
It makes her stomach lurch, even without knowing him very well. She isn’t sure if it’s the thought of losing someone who now counts as familiar or the idea of being alive in a thousand years.
“Why did Nicky ask if I learned it in school, then?” Nile asks.
Joe grins. “Oh, he was teasing you,” he says. “You know, he was—trolling, isn’t it called?”
It wouldn’t look weird to anyone passing by, Joe knowing the world trolling. He’s wearing jeans and a soft t-shirt and a backward hat, looking for all the world like some thirty-something on vacation. It gives her vertigo, almost. Joe can talk about civilizations that had already died down before history even took notice, he can speak every language she’s ever heard of and plenty she hasn’t, he can use slang from decades she didn’t even know had slang, and now he sounds like someone’s dad trying to sound cool by knowing internet lingo.
“What,” Nile says weakly, and she’s not sure if she’s reacting to Joe saying trolling or the fact that Nicky was doing it.
“He loves to do that,” Joe says. “No one ever suspects him.”
“He didn’t even crack,” Nile says.
“He was tortured for nine days during the Spanish Inquisition,” Joe says. “He knows how to keep a straight face.”
The vertigo’s back, or it never went away. The Spanish Inquisition. Joe says it with verbal quotation marks. He’s calling it that for her benefit. He doesn’t think of it as the Spanish Inquisition. Because they didn’t call it that when they were living through it.
What is Nile’s war going to be called in the future? Nothing flattering to the US, she knows that. An invasion, probably. Occupation. Something like that. Bile is threatening to make its way up her throat and she breathes out slowly to stop it.
“What’s your favorite language?” Nile asks, trying to find some kind of solid ground.
“Well, Arabic comes easiest,” he says with a shrug. “My first language, and it’s not quite the same as how they’re speaking it now, but close enough.” He smiles faintly. “I do love to hear Nicky speak Genoese.”
“Is there a language you don’t love to hear Nicky speak?” Nile asks, rolling her eyes. This is definitely solid ground. Joe’s lovesick ridiculousness may be deeper than anyone Nile’s ever met, mostly by virtue of lasting the longest by a margin of several hundred years, but she’s still seen plenty of that in her life.
Joe laughs, a real laugh this time, bright and open-mouthed. “No,” he says contentedly. “I can’t imagine there ever will be.”
“Can I ask you something about you and Nicky?” Nile asks. She’s pretty sure he’ll say yes, though she hopes he won’t regret it.
He looks at her for a second while they walk, one eye narrowing a little. “Alright,” he says cautiously.
“That’s kinda what I’m wondering about,” Nile says, gesturing over at him. “You guys get kinda…I don’t know. Suspicious. And you don’t hold hands or anything.”
Joe’s face softens. “We’ve met many people who don’t…” He tips his head. “Appreciate our love.”
“Yeah,” Nile says, thinking about them living through times when they could be put to death for being together. Not that it would take, but still. “I can see that.”
“It isn’t that we’d ever want to hide it,” Joe starts.
“I don’t know that you really could,” Nile tells him. Sure, she hasn’t seen them hold hands, but she can’t think of a time they aren’t looking at each other, checking in with each other, smiling at each other, teasing each other. Even if Nicky hadn’t told her Joe was the love of his life within ten minutes of meeting her, she’s pretty sure she would’ve figured it out by the end of the hour.
It makes Joe laugh again. “I’m sure you’re right. I wouldn’t want to, anyway. But we have to guard it, a bit, I suppose. Nicky and my feelings for him are the most precious thing in the world to me. I don’t like to hear people scorn us. We were so surprised the first time it happened. Discomfort with men touching is kind of a modern thing. To us, anyway.”
“Wait, really?” Nile asks. “I thought we were supposed to be the most progressive time or whatever.”
Joe’s snort isn’t quite condescending, but she’s pretty sure he’s thinking about how young she is. They all do that. “I suppose it depends on your definition of progressive,” he points out. “It wasn’t often that people were unhappy with us sharing a bed or even certain kinds of kisses before the second World War. I can still kiss his cheeks and his brow openly in other places than your country without even thinking anything of it. But even aside from all that, our more intimate touches are for us. I don’t need to hold his hand in front of people to feel him with me.”
Nile kicks a rock and watches it skitter down the hill. “I’ve never been in love,” she says. Then she realizes, “Now I never will.”
Joe stops and takes both her hands into his. “Don’t say that,” he says. “You can still love, you know. You may have to be careful, and it may be short-lived in our lifespan. But love doesn’t have to be immortal to be real.”
“So I’m supposed to love someone and then leave them behind?” Nile asks skeptically.
Joe tips his head. “I admit, it sounds terrible. And I really don’t think I’m qualified to give advice here. I’ve never had to do it.”
Nile huffs and they start walking again. “No one before Nicky?”
He smiles. “It has always been only Nicoló. My parents did want me to marry, before I went to war.”
“You didn’t want to?”
Joe shakes his head. “I wanted to make my fortune. I’m not sure what fortune I thought I was going to make,” he adds with a laugh. “I felt no pull toward marriage or family life. I thought war sounded so romantic and exciting,” he adds, mouth twisting bitterly now. “Defending our Holy Land. I saw myself as some kind of noble warrior. I ran to the battle as fast as I could without any idea what I was running toward.”
“And then you met Nicky,” Nile supplies.
“And then I met Nicky,” he echoes fondly. “And the sun burst through the clouds and my eyes were truly opened for the first time.”
Nile raises her eyebrows. “Do you write this shit down?” She asks. “Do you practice it or something? You got a book somewhere full of poetry about Nicky?”
Joe’s laughing again, head thrown back and everything. “Some poetry,” he admits. “Mostly drawings. Even a few paintings.”
“You paint?” Nile asks, a spark of excitement zipping down her spine. She used to try, before she joined up. Sometimes she still draws, but she hasn’t shown any drawings to anyone in a long time.
Joe tips his head. “I gave it a try, in Venice,” he says. “Leonardo was such an insufferable braggart about it, I had to prove he wasn’t as good as he thought.”
“Leonardo,” Nile says slowly. “You are not telling me you took up painting to dunk on da Vinci.”
Joe gives her a little sideways glance, mouth turning upward, and then bursts out laughing. “No,” he admits. “Leonardo was a friend of ours while we were there. I did start painting with him, but I prefer charcoal.”
“So you and Nicky are both trolls,” Nile says.
Joe guffaws. “Well, this safehouse doesn’t have a TV. We have to get our entertainment somehow.”
“I can’t believe you were friends with Leonardo da Vinci.”
Joe shrugs. “I’ve been friends with many people. He was always jealous, though. He wanted Nicky to model for him so desperately.”
“Nicky only models for you, huh?” Nile asks.
Joe huffs. “It’s nothing so romantic,” he assures her. “Nicky hates sitting for portraits. I’ve done most of my sketches of him candidly, or from memory. He has the patience to sit for hours, of course. But he finds it horribly embarrassing.”
Nile thinks about that. “Yeah, that would feel really awkward,” she says. “I think now you’d just take a picture of someone so they wouldn’t have to sit there for the whole thing.”
Joe looks at her, eyes going soft and kind an a little sad. “If you have a picture you’d like me to paint, I’d be happy to do that for you,” he says gently. “In case something happens to your phone.”
Nile gets a lump in her throat immediately. Andy hasn’t commented on the phone again, but Nile knows it’s risky not to ditch it. She just hasn’t been ready yet. “Um, thanks,” she manages to mumble. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He nods, evidently not expecting some kind of big reaction. They walk in companionable silence for a while, until Joe says, “Well, Nile Freeman, tell me about you.”
Nile shrugs. “My life isn’t a quarter as interesting as yours.”
Joe raises his eyebrows. “You were born into the internet age, weren’t you? That sounds very interesting to me. We kept waiting for the internet to die out, a fad like so many others we saw. But it stayed, and now we don’t quite understand it. I think it’s fascinating.”
Nile snorts, thinking about that old dial-up modem her dad was so proud of. “I gave my parents’ computer a virus when I was nine because I was trying to pirate a Destiny’s Child song off a site my friend’s big brother told me about.”
“Is that the sort of thing you could get in trouble for?” Joe asks, concerned. “I’m guessing based on the vocabulary, but pirating seems illegal.”
He’s completely serious as he says it, like he’s worried Nile is a wanted criminal because she just had to have Independent Woman right then and couldn’t wait for her mom to take her to the mall.
Nile can’t help it. She cracks up laughing. It’s the hardest she’s laughed in what feels like years even though it’s been less than a week. Joe huffs, confused about why she’s laughing but seemingly glad to hear it anyway. Nile isn’t sure this lightness will last, but right at this moment, she feels okay to be hanging with a guy about as old as the dirt she’s walking on.
They settle into a routine. They’re more than roommates, but Nile wouldn’t really call herself part of the team just yet. They start her on a kind of bootcamp. She does language training after breakfast; Andy’s mostly in charge, but Joe and Nicky offer commentary and sometimes helpful advice, especially with languages Andy’s forgotten or never bothered to learn. She only learned the languages she needed for jobs or laying low in some village. Joe and Nicky have spent time actually traveling, just for fun, and have picked up languages just because they wanted to.
After lunch, they do combat training. At this point, Andy’s mostly watching and calling out instructions. Nile can’t wait to learn from Andy for real. Joe and Nicky are amazing to watch, and Andy has even more experience than they do.
Nile knows what she’s doing in a fight. She already proved that to them with Merrick. But they’re teaching her how to use a sword. Nile doesn’t have her own sword, and she can’t imagine ever picking up Nicky’s or using Andy’s labrys in a fight, but she’s not going to complain about using a sword. She’s never felt more badass in her life.
“You are very open here,” Nicky tells her, pointing to her left side. “You think you will be stabbing with the sword, nothing to worry about from your opponent. But a longsword has much room for him to get in and stab you, as well.”
“Oh,” Nile says. She hadn’t even really considered that.
Nicky nods, like he knows what she’s thinking. “It is like a dance. You parry, you thrust, you move away.”
Nile’s arms are shaking from holding the sword. It’s heavy as fuck and it’s not like she’s been lifting lately. She wishes immortality came with superstrength, the way it usually does in movies. She swipes sweat from her forehead. They’ve been in Corfu for three weeks now. It’s beautiful, and she’s definitely learning a lot, but sometimes she wishes they’d gone somewhere colder. She’s tired of being sweaty all the time.
“I think that’s good for today,” Andy says. “Her arms are done for the next ten minutes. Might as well stop.”
Nicky nods at her while he takes his sword. “You did good.”
“Thanks,” Nile says, envious at his ease with it. He lifts it like it’s nothing, does a few lazy swings that would leave her gasping for breath.
Nicky smiles. “I have much practice,” he reminds her. “You can get there someday.”
“Did you train Booker with your sword?” Nile asks without thinking. She could kick herself. They’ve had two full days without Booker’s shadow falling over them, and now Nile went and ruined it.
“Yes, he did,” Joe says. “And then Booker betrayed him anyway.”
“Joe,” Nicky says quietly.
“Sorry,” Nile murmurs, watching Joe stomp away.
“This is not your fault,” Nicky promises her. He gives Andy a nod and then follows Joe.
Nile sighs and tips her head back to look at the sky. “I’m an idiot.”
“Yeah,” Andy says. “But that’s okay. You’re young.”
Nile snorts. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“You’re doing great,” Andy tells her, sincere now. “And don’t worry about Joe. He’s not mad at you.”
“Oh, I didn’t think he was,” Nile says. “I just don’t want to remind anyone.”
Andy smiles bitterly. “We could never forget.”
Nile wonders if she only means Booker or if she means all three of them—Booker, alive but lost to her, probably, before she dies; Quynh, trapped in the bottom of the ocean and out of reach; and the first immortal family she lost, before she even knew it was possible for them to die. Lykon. Nile’s only heard his name once, though Andy talks about him sometimes without using his name. Nile knows saying someone’s name, knowing they’ll never answer to it again, can be the most painful part of losing someone.
Knowing what Andy’s lost, the years she’s carried so much pain with her, Nile doesn’t understand how Booker could so willingly add to that. She can’t figure out why he would hurt someone he loves so much.
“I just don’t get how he could do that,” Nile says, coming to sit on the garden wall beside Andy. Andy clasps her hands between her knees, staring at her fingers. She has a scar on her left hand that’s been fascinating her for a week. I don’t know where it came from, she’d said, sounding almost delighted.
Andy sighs. “Booker was hoping they could find a way to end our immortality. Let us die.”
Nile absorbs that for a second. “But…” She thinks for a second. “That could’ve taken decades. Even longer. He was okay with being trapped and tortured that long?”
Andy doesn’t say anything for a second. “I don’t think he thought it would be like that. Torture. I think he convinced himself it was different. They were scientists, so maybe they’d be considerate.”
Nile thinks of that scientist cutting chunks off Nicky and Joe, a little surprised by how angry it makes her. Not just because it was wrong to do to anyone; she’s specifically angry that they did it to Joe and Nicky. She’s protective of them now, the way they are with her. “He was wrong.”
“I know he knew that, deep down,” Andy says. “He decided it was okay. He was in so much pain, and I…” Andy shakes her head. “I forgot how long two hundred years can feel, when you’re young. I thought he’d get over it eventually. I should’ve done better. I failed him. I failed them all.”
“But pain’s not an excuse,” Nile counters, keeping her voice gentle. “Everybody goes through pain. It was his own choice how to react to it.”
Andy looks over at her with a faint smile. “You’re a good kid,” she says.
“Booker said the same thing,” Nile says. Andy seems more open to talking about Booker, even though he shot her to capture her, could’ve actually killed her once and for all.
Andy tilts her head. “Well, he can use his brain sometimes.”
“Do you think he’s going to be okay?” Nile asks. “Alone for a hundred years? Doesn’t it seem like being alone is the last thing he needs?”
Andy looks out to the sea, taking a deep breath of the salty air. “I don’t know,” she admits. “But I had to decide who to take care of, Booker or Nicky and Joe. And Nicky and Joe were the ones he sold out to get captured.”
Nile nods. She had some authority in her unit, so she knows leadership is no easy job. She thinks of Andy’s guilt over not looking for Quynh anymore and knows it was the same kind of thing. She doubts Andy really needs her opinion, but she gives it anyway. “I think you made the best decision possible.”
“Thanks,” Andy says. “It doesn’t make it okay.” Her eyes scan over the water, like any second she’ll see a big metal coffin and can race out to it.
“No,” Nile agrees. She’s never had to make a decision like that, a decision to leave someone behind to protect the ones still there. That was never Nile’s final decision to make. “But you couldn’t have found her.”
Andy swallows. “I threw myself into the sea once,” she says softly. “If I couldn’t find her, I wanted to drown with her. But Joe and Nicky wouldn’t let me. Nicky jumped in after me and pulled me out, and Joe tied up me up in the hold of the ship until I stopped fighting.”
Nile watches her for a second, chest aching at that visceral kind of pain. She knows it too well. She and her mom and her brother had each other to keep going after they lost her dad. Andy had Joe and Nicky. She wonders if Booker knew about that. If he knew Joe and Nicky jumped into the ocean to bring their family back, and if for some reason he thought they wouldn’t do that for him, too, in a heartbeat.
“I’m glad they did,” Nile says.
“Some days, so am I,” Andy says. She even gives Nile a smile that makes Nile feel better after that declaration. “Maybe most days,” Andy allows, her smile growing a little when Nile’s does. Andy rolls her eyes, but she doesn’t say anything else.
They sit quietly after that, watching the sun dip below the horizon. Nile’s sweaty and hungry and thirsty, but Andy doesn’t seem like she’s going inside anytime soon. She may be a few millennia old, but Nile still thinks she deserves some company as she watches the sunset and blames herself for impossible choices.
“Nile,” Nicky says softly with a warm hand on her shoulder.
Nile wakes up with a sharp inhale. She has to take a deep breath to get her bearings. She was dreaming of the desert and blood and Dizzy turning her back and slipping under the sea and turning into the woman in the coffin. But it was a dream. Nile’s in the safehouse in Corfu. Nicky’s waking her up for her turn on watch.
Joe told her they don’t usually keep watch at night in the safehouses. But with the ambush in Goussainville, they’re not taking any chances. They’ve been rotating for the entire month and a half they’ve been here. Nile wonders if they’re going to get comfortable again so they can stop doing this. But she looks at Nicky, almost ethereal in the dark, and considers what she would do if she saw someone trying to gas him and capture him.
Yeah, they’re not giving up watch anytime soon.
Joe also told her they don’t usually stick together for this long after a job. He said they used to, in their earlier days, used to travel together more often than not and occasionally break apart when they had something specific they wanted to do, but then sometime after Kuwait in the 90s (the 1990s, he’d clarified, because for him, that’s something that needs clarification) it flipped the other way. He seems glad to flip it back.
“Okay,” Nile breathes. She nods at Nicky. “I’m good.”
He squeezes her shoulder and leaves her to it. Nile heads to the kitchen. There’s a mug of coffee on the table that Nicky must’ve left for her. He doesn’t drink coffee on watch, only tea. She takes a sip and nods appreciatively. Cream, no sugar. Just how she likes it.
She checks her email while she drinks her coffee, scrolls idly through Twitter on her new account under a fake name. She reads a chapter in the Italian coursebook she’s using. About an hour into her watch, she hears footsteps behind her.
Nicky comes back into the kitchen and sits at the table with her. At her questioning look, he shrugs. “I could not sleep,” he says. “I was moving a lot. I didn’t want to wake Joe.”
Nile nods. She gets up and flips the switch on the kettle, pulls down the sweet-spicy smelling box of tea he keeps in the cupboard above the stove. There’s also a set of throwing stars in the box with the leaves. Just in case, apparently. She packs the leaves into the little ball thing that strains them, just like she’s watched Nicky do. She pours the water over it and adds honey.
“Thank you,” Nicky says quietly, taking the proffered mug. He smiles at her.
She inclines her head. “Thanks for the coffee.”
He toasts her with his tea. They sit quietly for a while. Nicky starts sharpening a set of knives they keep taped under the table. The rasp of the knives on the stone is soothing, a familiar sound that means preparedness and safety.
But Nicky seems restless, tense and shifting around, and it’s rubbing off on Nile, making her a little anxious. She’s not going to say anything; she’s on watch, which always makes her just a bit jittery anyway. He notices anyway. She should’ve known he would. He notices everything.
“I apologize,” he says. “I can go to the back garden.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nile says. “It’s dark out there.”
He shrugs. “I lived in the dark far longer than I’ve lived with electricity,” he points out.
She rolls her eyes. “You telling me you’d willingly give up electricity?”
He smiles big enough to make his eyes crinkle. “Maybe electricity,” he says. “But certainly not indoor plumbing.”
She laughs. “You want to talk?” She asks.
Nicky regards his knives. “I was having troubled dreams,” he admits softly. He laughs a little. “They started with my childhood, of all things. You would think I’d forget by now. I’ve forgotten most of it.” That makes Nile’s breath catch, the thought that someday she could just forget her mom, her dad, her brother, the house she grew up in. Her best friend across the street who had a scar on her knee from when they fell out of a treehouse they tried to make together. Nicky sees her dismay. “You don’t forget it all,” he promises. “Some days you just remember things, even if you haven’t thought about it in hundreds of years.”
His mouth twists, making her think that’s not always a good thing for him. “Was your childhood…bad?” Nile asks cautiously, feeling out of her depth. She doesn’t know what counts as a bad childhood in the Middle Ages. It all sounds bad to her.
Nicky doesn’t look at her. He goes back to sharpening the knives. “I ran away to a monastery when I was a boy,” he says, more focused than he needs to be. “To escape a cruel uncle.”
Nile frowns. That sounds bad. “You still have nightmares about it?” She asks.
“Not often,” he says. “Very rarely, actually. I don’t know why tonight.”
“Some kind of anniversary?” Nile ventures.
Nicky laughs. “I couldn’t possibly remember the dates,” he tells her. “We didn’t even keep track of the dates like you do now.”
He looks up from the knives. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I wasn’t meaning to laugh at you.”
“No, it’s okay,” Nile promises. “I guess I don’t know as much about history as I always thought.”
Nicky smiles a little. “You can ask anything,” he tells her. His smile turns into a smirk. “If there’s anything left Joe hasn’t already told you.”
They both laugh at that. Joe is certainly a lot more talkative than Nicky. That makes her think of something. “Did you take a vow of silence or something?” She asks. “In the monastery?” She hears about monks taking vows of silence all the time. Isn’t that who lives in a monastery? Monks?
The look on Nicky’s face makes her think he’s trying not to laugh again. “Did Joe tell you that?” He asks. “He used to tell people that so I wouldn’t have to talk if I didn’t want to.” He shakes his head. “No vow of silence. But in my uncle’s home, my opinions were…not appreciated. And in the monastery, we spent much of our days in silent contemplation. By the time I left for the battlefront, I’d spent more of my life quiet than talking.”
That makes Nile feel very sad. Nicky can phrase it as nicely as he wants, but she can read between the lines. He went most of his life being told to be quiet. He didn’t have anyone who wanted him to speak. He was probably punished for speaking up. It’s surprisingly easy to picture him as a child; he’s lived for centuries, and he doesn’t look young, really, but somehow she has no problem imagining it. She can just see a little boy with big, solemn eyes, looking around at everything.
Her chest aches a little. Her little brother was a quiet kid. He could talk; he asked for things, when he needed them. But he was usually more interested in observing than joining in any conversation. He started talking more and more over the years, until Nile used to joke she wished he’d go back to being quiet.
Nile swallows hard and focuses back on Nicky. She thinks about how he loves music now, with absolutely no sense of discernment. If music is on, he likes it. “And then you met Joe,” she says. She thinks about how talkative Joe is, how he fills silences the second they start feeling uneasy. Maybe he learned to do that because Nicky couldn’t bear tense silences. Maybe it’s another way Joe protects Nicky.
Nicky huffs a little laugh. “And the first thing Joe did was learn my language so he could spend the next nine hundred years trying to get me to talk.”
Nile smiles at his fond smile. “So you guys couldn’t even talk at first?”
Nicky shakes his head. “He knew a very few words in Italian, because his parents were merchants and he worked in the ports. He even sailed before we went to battle. I only did to go fight. He knew more of the world than I did. But no words that were useful to us.” He laughs again. “Nothing to say why won’t we die.”
“Did you guys get together before you could even talk to each other?” Nile asks. She doesn’t know how that would work. Unless it was just sex, maybe, but she’s not going to ask that.
Nicky tilts his head. “You mean sex?” He clarifies, cutting right through her awkwardness. She nods and shrugs, a little embarrassed at how nosy and rude she’s being. Her mom would be pissed. Nile doesn’t just mean sex, but she does wonder how quickly they went from killing each other to having sex.
Luckily, Nicky doesn’t seem the least bit offended. “Not at all,” he tells her. “We made a truce, as much as we could without words, after a month of killing each other and not dying. But we were not comfortable together. It took, I’m not sure, months before we would even sit near each other without our swords at our sides. We became friends slowly, and we had been traveling together for maybe a year before we started courting.”
Courting. It sounds so sweet. She’s picturing a lot of blushing, sitting under a tree somewhere and taking walks hand-in-hand. “What did courting look like back then?” Nile asks.
“He slaughtered a goat for me,” Nicky says. “I killed three men who killed him.”
Yeah, Nile thinks, she probably should’ve expected something like that. “When did you realize you loved him?” She’s always been a bit of a romantic. It makes it hurt worse to think she can’t have someone, not like they have each other. Not unless some new immortal wants to shake a leg and get here fast. Sure, her eyes catch on Andy’s arms while she’s holding her labrys, but Nile’s not looking to be a stand-in for any ghosts.
“The three men who killed him,” Nicky says, brow furrowing at the thought even after centuries. “We were traveling, and they were, ah.” He searches for the word. “They guarded their village up ahead, in case people were coming to steal.”
“Guards?” Nile tries. Nicky tips his head this way and that, so it’s obviously not the word he meant but will do.
“We were surprised. We were putting out the fire to start the day’s travels and then they came from nowhere. They killed Joe and then they said things about him. They called him…” He clenches his jaw. “They called him savage,” he spits. “They said I was his captive; they were saving me. They were so proud of themselves. But they didn’t know him. They only knew hate. I knew him. I was an invader, I killed him, and he forgave me. He talked of his family often, and he loved them deeply. He shared any of his food with me, and he learned my language because I had trouble learning his own, and when we passed through villages he went out of his way to be kind to children. He has always been so kind, so quick to help others. They killed him without knowing if he was peaceful, only because of his looks and his prayers. It was the same thing I did, when I thought I knew so much. I had learned I was wrong, and then they did it so proudly. I felt…” Nicky touches his chest. “It was so much rage. I had never felt it before.”
Nile thinks about what he just said, about how he went his whole life to that point without anyone wanting him to speak, and then she thinks about how Joe immediately made sure he could understand Nicky. Joe was probably the first person to ever listen to Nicky, she realizes. He was the first person to ever love Nicky. And then Nicky watched men kill him and hate him without knowing a single thing about him. She’s mad, thinking about it now. She knows how it feels to have people judge her just from looking at her. The fact that Joe made a truce with Nicky after all that already says a lot about him, and it isn’t hard to imagine why Nicky would want follow him to the ends of the earth.
“What did you do?” Nile asks.
“I killed them,” Nicky says, like it’s obvious. And yeah, he did tell her that. “And then I held his face and waited for him to come back to me.” He smiles at the memory. “He woke with me pressed to his body and he said ah, finally, Nicoló, I was waiting for you to catch up.”
Nile snorts. That sounds like Joe. “That sounds nice.” She knows she sounds wistful. “Um, besides all the killing stuff, I guess.”
Nicky shrugs. “I will always kill anyone who harms him.”
There’s a weighted beat of silence. “Booker,” Nile ventures. It’s not like Nicky wasn’t thinking about it. He gets a look when he thinks about Booker. Andy and Joe do, too. Nile’s seen the looks enough to pinpoint them now.
Nicky’s eyes narrow. He goes back to sharpening the knives, which seems like a bad sign for Booker. “I will not kill Booker,” Nicky says, almost reluctantly. “If no other reason, it would be pointless.”
“Are there other reasons?” Nile asks.
Nicky sighs. “He is our family,” he says softly.
Nile traces a pattern in the grain of the table with her finger. “If Joe hadn’t been in the lab with you…would you be ready to forgive Booker?”
Nicky presses his lips together. “I don’t know what Joe says about me, to seem such a saint,” he says dryly. “I would want Booker punished for my own sake. I had no family before Joe and Andy and Quynh. We opened that family to him even after we lost Quynh. He did not honor it.”
“Right,” Nile says. “Yeah.” She has a hard time imagining it; someone she loved selling her out like that. She shivers. Hopefully she never finds out how it feels. It was bad enough to see the suspicious looks from her unit after she came back to life.
“But yes,” Nicky says. “For myself, maybe I could forgive Booker sooner. A decade or two, if he made me think he was very sorry.” A decade or two is an awfully long time. At the look on Nile’s face, he reminds her, “Two decades is not long when you measure your life in centuries.”
He has a point. She’s still struggling to remember that, to hold that in her mind. “So two decades for you and eight for Joe?” She asks.
“Joe would be ready after half a decade, I think,” Nicky says. “He would forgive even quicker if it had been him alone, the romantic. He forgives too easily.”
“Does he?” Nile asks. “He seems so angry still.”
“It has still only been a short while,” Nicky points out. “And he is always loudest when he’s feeling the most. He is too passionate to hold a grudge for himself for long. He would bring Booker back sooner, take pity on him and let him come home. So I have to make sure Booker does not take advantage. He must be punished properly.”
“But…why?” Nile asks curiously. If Joe would be ready before the hundred years is up, and Nicky would be ready before the hundred years is up, she doesn’t get why they both agreed on a hundred years.
Nicky sets the knives down. There’s no use sharpening them further; he’ll only nick the blades. “The scientist was harsher with Joe. Different from me,” he says. There’s a quiet, burning anger in his voice that Nile thinks she’ll hear for the rest of her life. “Like those men who killed him. He looks different, and she punished him for it.” He shakes his head. “Booker lived through too much of mankind’s cruelty not to know that could happen.”
Nile feels sick. She saw the pieces of tissue on those tables, saw quickly-healing cuts and bruises. If Nicky’s going to need two decades to forgive Booker for what they did to him, how horrible were they to Joe that it’ll take him eight to get over it?
“Do you think Booker did that on purpose?” Nile asks, voice small. She can usually clock a racist pretty fast; she’s had a lot of practice. She didn’t get that vibe from Booker.
Nicky shakes his head. “I think Booker was careless and selfish,” he says bitterly.
“He’s sorry about it,” Nile says, not sure why she’s acting like she’s on Booker’s side. She’s now spent way more time with Joe and Nicky than she did Booker; if she had to choose, she’d choose them. She just thinks a man in that much pain might get worse if he’s alone.
“He was sorry when Andy didn’t heal,” Nicky points out. “He was sorry when they put him on the table, too. If he had known Andy couldn’t heal, would he have let her come for us? No. He would have left us there. Forever.”
“Sorry,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to argue or like…invalidate your anger.”
“It’s okay,” he tells her. “You are trying to understand it all.” He taps a finger on the table. “There have been many times in our lives when people wanted to punish us,” he goes on quietly. “Sodomites. We were almost caught more than once. And there are many like us who do get punished. The things they do to people just for loving…” He swallows hard. “Booker did not think of that, either. He did not think it would always be him last. First it would be Joe, it would be me, it would be Andy.”
“Me,” Nile points out. She’s been trying not to think about it, but it’s impossible to ignore. Nicky meets her eyes. He nods.
“You,” he agrees sadly. Then he shakes his head. “I shouldn’t be saying these things,” he murmurs. “We should not think these dark thoughts.”
“Can I ask something else?” Nile asks. She knows her voice is small, maybe even childish, especially to him. But Nicky just nods. Joe once said Nicky has infinite patience; Nile is glad for it. “Booker acted like it’s easier for you and Joe. Because you have each other.” She didn’t actually phrase it like a question, but Nicky gets her meaning.
He nods. “I am thankful every day that I wake up in his arms. I can withstand any pain with him at my side and he reminds me of the beauty and the love in this world. Every time I die, I am reborn in his arms. His kindness keeps me tethered to humanity.”
If this were a lighter moment, Nile might ask if that’s something Joe said first or if Nicky just saves up his poetic speeches because Joe usually does them so often. This isn’t a light moment, though. His words are making her heart pound, a mixture of longing and pain that she won’t feel that.
“So Booker was right?”
Nicky looks at her for a minute. “Do you know how many times I have watched Joe die?”
It startles Nile. “How many?” She braces herself for some impossibly high number.
The smile Nicky gives her is so full of heartbreak and pain it hardly deserves the name. “I don’t know,” he whispers. “I would like to say I’ve counted every death, but I can’t. It is too many to keep track. Thousands of deaths, waiting for him to wake up. Thinking this time…” He stops himself from even voicing it. “You know how painful it is. I watch him in that pain and there is nothing I can do. I have touched his literal heart. I have held his brain matter in my hands. Do you know what that’s like?” Nicky’s eyes are out of focus, and Nile thinks she knows now what his troubled dreams were besides his childhood. “Do you know how it feels to have my love’s blood splattered on my face and his entrails in a pool at my feet? Do you know how it feels to hear his screams and smell his flesh burning?”
“Stop,” Nile breathes. Her stomach rolls, the phantom smell of Bravo company’s charred Humvee filling her nose. She’d found a tooth in her bootlaces and had thrown up everything she’d eaten for three days. She’s pictured how her dad died a handful of times. He would’ve burned, too, and she hates that she’s intimately aware of what that would look like, sound like, smell like.
Nicky’s eyes snap back into focus, go right to her. “Nile,” he says softly. “Forgive me. I am so sorry. You are no stranger to war and loss.”
She nods, breathing shakily. He slides his tea over to her. It’s cold, and she still thinks it has an underlying taste like grass, but it settles her stomach. “I guess Booker didn’t think about that part,” she says weakly.
Nicky swallows convulsively. She thinks maybe he needs the tea back, but there are tears in his eyes. Tea’s not going to help with his heartbreak. “We loved Booker as family,” he says. “He wouldn’t accept that. He rejected it. He still believed he was alone. He thought we had never lost family before and couldn’t understand. He let his pain and his selfishness blind him.” He blinks away his tears. “That is what we’re trying to forgive. That is what will take so long.”
Nile watches him for a minute. His talk of forgiveness sparked something in her mind. “When you went to the monastery, did you become a priest?” She asks.
He nods. “It was required.”
“So you didn’t want to?” That doesn’t seem fair.
Nicky shrugs. “It was what I had to do.”
“So were you happy when you got to go fight instead? Is that what you wanted more?”
Nicky shakes his head. “There was nothing about want. I did what I thought my God ordered me to do. I did not know wanting, before. I knew need. I needed food, I needed shelter, I needed protection.”
“Are you saying Joe’s the only thing you’ve ever wanted?” Nile asks. There’s a limit to how much romantic bullshit she can take. That’s too much.
Nicky shakes his head again, almost frustrated now. He glances back toward the hallway like he wants Joe to come out and explain it for him. “No, but I did not know…how. I was not allowed want, not before my first life ended. Joe taught me how. Joe taught me God did not want me to only have the bare requirements to be alive.”
Nile grew up going to church. She grew up mostly with the New Testament idea of God, the God who was your benevolent father who loved you and wanted good things to happen for you. She can’t imagine being told her entire life that God wanted her to suffer as a way to show her devotion.
“Do you still believe in God?” Nile whispers. She almost doesn’t want him to answer. Belief and faith and religion have been mixed up in her head and her chest for a long time, since her dad died. She’s been holding onto it when she needs it, but her grip’s getting slacker by the day. And now? Well now it’s all just a huge mess.
“I do not,” Nicky tells her solemnly. “Not as I did before. I no longer believe in following anyone I have never met. I followed a God I did not know, interpreted by a man I did not know, and they led me to invade and to kill others only for their worship. They have been doing that for a long time. Even longer than I’ve been alive. They used their interpretation of my God to send Quynh into the ocean.” He shakes his head. “I will not let anyone else choose how I use my abilities anymore. I will not swear allegiance to anyone who has not earned it.”
“Do you believe in…in something?” Nile asks desperately. It all seems so bleak, a seemingly endless life with nothing to believe in, nothing to hold onto.
“I believe in love,” he says steadily. “I believe in protecting the innocent, doing good. I believe in Joe and Andy. You.”
“Me?” Nile asks. She’s never felt more insignificant as she has since she died. In the face of their lifespans, in the face of all the good they’ve done for so long, she’s nothing. She’s a speck of dust. She’s a baby, a baby who knows nothing and offers nothing.
“You did not know us,” Nicky says. “But you came back to help us. You had no reason out of loyalty or law.”
“It was the right thing to do,” Nile says. It was the only thing she could think of. She couldn’t leave Andy defenseless like that, no idea the guy she thought had her back was turning on her. She couldn’t leave Joe and Nicky to be captive forever with no hope of rescue once she realized Andy wouldn’t be able to help them.
Nicky smiles at her. “Yes. And I believe in you for that. You have a good heart,” he says softly. “Do not lose that, Nile. Please.”
“How?” Nile asks. “How can I do that? Look at Andy and Booker. I think they have good hearts, too, but they’re so…” She trails off. She doesn’t know the word for it.
Nicky nods. “They are tired,” he says simply. “We all are. But Nile…” He tries to find the words. She wishes her Italian were good enough for a conversation this heavy, just for his benefit. “There is much cruelty and pain in this world. But there has always been good, as well. There is beauty. There are always people who will help others. Always. You have known love and family. Let it be a strength, not a burden.”
“And always do what’s right,” Nile says. Her dad used to say it to her and her brother every day when they were leaving for school. She can still hear it in his voice. Always do what’s right, he’d say. It’s not easy. But it’s what we do.
She’s lived her life trying to make her dad proud. She just never expected her life to last so damn long.
Nicky nods. “Always do what’s right,” he echoes. He smiles at her and says it in Italian. She tries it out, hoping her tongue will move the right way. His smile widens, soft and proud. “Very good,” he tells her.
“And we still have family now, right?” Nile says. It feels kind of pathetic to say it how she did; it’s more than half questioning. She wants him to reassure her she’s part of their family now. That’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to know, or someone is supposed to offer to you. She’s not supposed to ask.
But Nicky doesn’t seem to mind. He takes her hand. “We are a family,” he assures her. “We are lucky to have you in our family.”
Nile has tears in her eyes. He just told her he’d never had a family. He still hasn’t gotten over losing a member of his family over five hundred years ago. He’s still reeling from Booker, the last person he let into his family, betraying him, throwing his love away like it meant nothing.
But here he is, opening the circle to her. Letting her in. She’s felt unmoored the last month and a half, steeped in loss. She lost her mother and her brother, her unit, her best friends, her life as she knew it. Her chance to die, even.
She told Andy, at the beginning of this, that there were no positives to this situation. Nile’s not ready to say anything outweighs losing her mom and brother. That’s still a wound she’s shying away from pressing on.
But she has Andy and Joe and Nicky. She knows she’ll have Booker someday. She has people who know how she likes her coffee and are willing to patiently teach her how to ask for directions in just about every language the world has ever seen. She has people who want to watch her back and keep her safe, want to guard her life and her heart. She has a chance to protect people who can’t protect themselves. She can do good in this world. She can always do what’s right.
There are positives. They might not outweigh the negatives. But maybe they don’t have to. Maybe all she needs is those good things to hold onto, those reminders of beauty and love and hope. She smiles at Nicky, and he smiles back.
They watch the sun rise together quietly, one of those reminders of beauty as it bursts above the line of the ocean. Joe comes out in the early rays of dawn, presses himself against Nicky’s back for a second and plants a soft kiss to the back of Nicky’s neck, whispering his good mornings into Nicky’s ear. He yawns and tugs playfully at the end of one of Nile’s braids, takes their discarded mugs to the sink and starts pulling eggs and cheese and peppers out of the fridge. Love. Andy appears when the food is ready. She sits at the table and laughs with Joe and Nicky and Nile, seemingly older than time itself but still looking at her family fondly, no longer immortal but still devoted to doing her part for as long as she can, ready to teach Nile and pass on her knowledge into the future. Hope.
Nile watches these people around her, her team, her new family, and she feels things slot into place in her chest for the first time since everything stopped making sense. It’s not so different from what she had before, in the grand scheme of things. A family. A team. An unknown number of years to live her life. The unknown got bigger, but it’s not endless. Not actually. She can do this. And she chooses to do this. They are her family. She will protect them, and they will remind her that she is human and she is loved and she is important.
Together, they will do what’s right. For as long as they have.