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The Most Beautiful Thing on the Black Earth

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The first month after Nile’s death wasn’t so bad. There were too many loose ends to clean up—first, there was the Merrick aftermath and Copley, followed by getting the hell out of Dodge and then Booker’s judgment. It was overwhelming and a complete mess, but it felt chaotically familiar, like just another SNAFU while on deployment. Nile could handle catastrophes.

The next month—that was a lot harder.



They ended up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, Canada, after hitching a ride on a trans-Atlantic freighter and then purchasing a series of used and battered looking cars in cash, trading one after another like they were nothing more than playing cards. Andy drove them down a long dirt road, stopping in front of the only house for miles: a pitiful-looking house, peeling paint and first-story windows boarded up haphazardly, looking like it should be torn down or condemned for its own good.

“This is where we’re going to stay?” Nile asked when she emerged from the car, trying to find some benefit of doubt within her. The house looked even worse close up. In several places, it looked like someone had tried to take a sledgehammer to it.

“Yeah,” Andy said and didn’t wait for Nile to ask anything else before heading to the front door. That was a thing of Andy’s, Nile had learned, the refusal to hand-hold. Nile hadn’t yet decided if she wanted to be coddled or she preferred Andy’s form of tough love.

Nicky gave Nile a sympathetic look and then cocked his head at her to indicate that they should just follow Andy. He always seemed to do that—soften Andy’s edges and normalize the situation. Joe was right behind Nicky, an eyebrow raised in amusement that he shared with Nile, which made her feel like at least she wasn’t crazy. She wondered if they had done some version of this when they’d found Booker. It almost felt like a well-rehearsed play, everyone’s lines all memorized except for Nile’s.

She’d figured it out really quickly—everyone seemed to have their place within the group. Andy was the undisputed leader of the group. Nicky and Joe were the heart of the team, as well as their demolitions and operations experts. Booker had been the communications and technology expert, the right-hand man to Andy. Nile didn’t know what they expected of her.

So Nile hitched up her backpack and followed Andy into the house. On the inside, it looked surprisingly reasonable—light coming in from the second-floor windows and plenty of non-moldy and very comfortable furniture sprawled everywhere. Andy was even disabling what appeared to be a very nice-looking security system. Just past the entrance and living room, there was an open plan kitchen with some softly gleaming marble counters. They seemed surprisingly unlike Andy.

“I bought the house about twenty years ago from a former doomsday prepper,” Andy said without looking up. “I’ve made some upgrades since then.”

“Yeah, I can tell,” Nile said, looking around and then let Andy direct everyone upstairs to the available rooms.

Andy took the bedroom right off the stairs. Joe looked over at Nicky but Nicky just shook his head slightly. Nicky and Joe took the room next to Andy’s and Nile took the most secluded bedroom, down the hall.

After she closed the door, Nile left her backpack on the ground and then dropped onto the mattress, staring up at the pristine, white ceiling. She willed her body to relax but got nothing but the thrum of alertness that she always had on a mission.

“This isn’t a mission,” she told herself. “This is forever.” Her body seemed skeptical of that assertion and Nile wasn’t all too sure it was wrong.



That night, after dinner, they sat around the coffee table as Nicky and Joe tried to teach Nile a game with something like a tarot deck that was similar to hearts and yet nothing at all like hearts. Despite Nicky’s and Joe’s copious help (“No, you want to play your Magician then,” Joe said as Nile tried to figure out which card was the Magician and which was an Angel or the King), Nile lost badly and it was a relief when Andy won and Joe dealt out a hand to just him and Nicky.

“Is this where you guys always come after a mission?” Nile asked.

Joe shook his head. “We’ve never been here—normally we separate after a mission. Nicky and I head off in one direction and Andy and Booker go off in their own separate directions. We all go to ground. It’s safer that way.”

Nile opened her mouth to ask why they’d stuck with Andy and Nile this time then and then shut it abruptly. Nicky gave her a sharp look. This time was different because this time Andy was dying. Maybe.

That was another thing that Nile wasn’t sure about. Andy’s gunshot wound had taken a while to heal, but it had healed alright, much faster than a non-immortal’s wound would. Was Andy dying? Or was her body still figuring things out?

Nile had so many questions—the team, Andy, Nile’s life. Andy had made it clear that certain things were off-limits and Nile was wary of stepping onto a new mine as she oriented herself on the field. She went for a softball.

“Tell me about some of your previous missions that you’ve done,” Nile said. “Copley’s serial-killer wall was insane.”

Nicky laughed at that, the smile lighting up his face and Joe moved in closer, until they were touching, even as he continued looking at his hand of cards.

Nicky wrapped an arm around Joe and then started. “There are so many. It used to be harder for us to find places where we were needed. We’d hang around in major cities, looking for news. That was always a good bet. Sometimes, it would be, ‘Oh, the Dutch are revolting.’ We’d head there and go for Brielle, finding the Dutch rebellion and working with them. Sometimes, it would be a rescue of someone who had been kidnapped.”

“We’re soldiers and we like to fight,” Andy said.

“She’d have you believe that all of our missions were brutal and bloody battles,” Joe said. “But I certainly remember the time that we spent two weeks tracking down a flock of lost sheep and their guard dog.” Andy tried to glare at that admission, but the corners of her mouth turned up. “Andy felt particularly bad for the little boy because he said that the guard dog was his best friend.”

Nile laughed at that, a deep-belly aching laugh like she hadn’t in longer than she could remember.  

“In my defense,” Andy said, “that family barely had enough to survive with the flock.” But she was smiling too now, her eyes crinkling up at the memory that they all shared.

Joe launched into a different story about another dog rescue that had Nicky and Andy howling, and so Nile excused herself to go into the kitchen. She stood there for a long minute, hands on the marble counter, just breathing. She missed her family so much that it hurt. She missed her troops. What was she doing here?

“It will get better,” Andy said from the back of the kitchen. Nile stood up to face her. Neither one of them said anything for a second and Nile found herself tracing the lines of Andy’s face. She was beautiful—objectively so—and all the more so because she knew how to use every part of her as a weapon. And yet, Nile had the outrageous desire to reach out and curl her hand around Andy’s arm, to be Andy’s shield—to be a weapon for her. She shook her head at herself, no wonder her team was so devoted to her.

“Do you have stuff for hot chocolate?” Nile asked.

Andy raised a skeptical eyebrow. “As long as you don’t try to make it with Nestlé.”

“What’s wrong with Nestlé?” Nile said, affronted, as Andy opened up one of the many kitchen cabinets to reveal cocoa powder and chocolate.

“You are in for a treat,” Andy said and then—of all things—winked and it eased the pain in her chest, even if it was temporary.



It quickly became apparent that there was nothing to do in the middle of nowhere, Canada, leaving Nile with nothing but time to think about all of her questions. Andy ruled out going anywhere with any major population or somewhere they would likely end up on CCTV or video. Nicky and Joe backed her up with the natural ease of NCOs falling in line and if Nile chafed at that, at least that was the one thing that felt familiar.

And just like the military, it was all hurry up and wait. They needed to rush to get to Andy’s safe house. But now that they were there—they were waiting for something to happen—some undefinable signal that it was ok to start moving around in the world again. In the meantime, there was fuck all to do. Which meant that Nile had plenty of time to think about just how drastically her life was going to change.

Copley reached out to Nile to confirm that he’d set up the software programming and facial recognition to wipe the group’s images from recordings. They both knew that there was no way to completely erase the give of them, but it was certainly better than nothing. Copley also reminded her in that gentle but firm voice that she needed to make a decision soon.

“You’re still on the record as going AWOL,” Copley said. “Your mom and sister will be notified soon. The window is closing pretty quickly to turn that into something else.” Nile had thought about her mother and sister every day since she’d died, Booker’s words ringing in her ears. Would it be more painful for them to mourn her or to know that she would never change, watching them grow old as she never did. She’d written out lists and tried to imagine all the myriad possibilities and was no closer to an answer.

“Understood,” Nile said. “I’ll have an answer for you soon.”

“Soon,” Copley warned and then hung up.

“What did Copley want?” Andy said, settling into the chair opposite Nile out on the deck of the house, and Nile forced herself to not full-body flinch at the surprise of it.

“He’s closed out everything from Merrick. He’s got his software up and running and its combing through everything it can find.”

Andy nodded once, briskly. “Good.”

“Are you going to,” Nile casted about for the right word, “take jobs again? Do your rescue thing?”

“Do our rescue thing?” Andy said, her voice bemused.

Nicky came outside, sunglasses on, his face tilted up to the sun, catching the end of their conversation. “She’ll say ‘Oh no, we need to lie low.’ But then, as soon as we find out about a bad situation that we can help, she can’t resist. She’s got a bleeding heart.”

Andy stood at that and her smile was so fond as she reached out to pull Nicky over and tousle his hair. She let her hands linger at the back of his neck. “Oh, I’m the one with the bleeding heart? How did we end up in Omsk again? I could kill you for Omsk alone. Or what about the time that we watched a pair of orphans for six months until we could track down their missing aunt? Six months. Whose fault was that?”

“But you got so good at knucklebones,” Nicky said, not at all inclined to move out of Andy’s grasp. Andy was so hard and tough all of the time, and Nile knew all about being hard and tough for your fellow troops. It felt almost embarrassing, too intimate to see the hints of softness underneath. Nile wondered how soft Andy had been with Quynh.



Nile scrupulously kept up her training even though there were no marines to go back to. It felt wrong somehow to give up the hard-fought conditioning for her body even if she no longer needed all of its advantages. Every morning, she got up and started with a run, and then spent the rest of the morning lifting weights, running through exercises—sit-ups, push-ups, burpees—until lunch. It had the benefit of eating up a solid third of her waking hours.

After about two weeks of working out on her own, Nile came back from a run one morning to find Andy waiting for her outside the house.

“It’s time that I started teaching you how to fight,” Andy said.

“I already know how to fight,” Nile said. “That was literally my job.”

Andy rolled her eyes. “Ok, then, soldier, come at me.”

Nile was one of the better fighters that she knew and even with that, it took every scrap of her ability to even keep up with Andy. Andy fought with a strange mix styles—some of which felt familiar, Brazilian jiu-jitsu creeping in at the edges of Muay Thai, but underneath it all, something that seemed like Sayokan.

Finally, Andy pinned Nile—Nile panting like she’d just run a marathon, sweat pouring off of her—and smiled, although it wasn’t the triumph that Nile expected to see.

“You fight well, Nile,” Andy said approvingly. Nile only managed a grunt which made Andy smile as she pulled back and helped Nile up. “I mean it. But for what we do, you’ve got to expand your creativity. There’s always room to grow.”

Nile sighed. “Alright,” she said and tried to play it cool despite the rapid beating of her heart. She couldn’t tell if it was from the sparring session or Andy’s body pressed against her. It was from the sparring. It had to be.

Andy smiled again, a shark’s smile, her teeth gleaming. “Excellent.”



Joe came out later, just as Andy was demonstrating again a move that she’d used five minutes earlier to break Nile’s nose. Nile gritted through the pain, trying to focus when Joe laughed.

“Oh, she got you with that one?” Joe asked. Andy ignored him. “It’s not fun to be on the receiving end, but it’s a good move.” He stripped off his sweater and came to join them, delighting in running drills with Andy. The next day Nicky also showed up after Nile’s run and after that, training and sparring became part of the daily routine.



A few weeks in, Nile crept out of the window of her room, climbing up onto the roof from the overhang next to the window. It was dangerous, but only in the sense that it would be a pain to break her back if she fell and even more painful to heal it. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but she took her phone with her and let herself stare at the picture of her mom and sister.

Nile did almost fall off the roof and break her back when Andy said, from next to her, “You should call them.” Nile managed not to scream or flail thanks to the thousands of hours of training that she’d had, but it was a close call.

“I thought you said that I shouldn’t call them,” Nile said.

Andy shrugged. “I think that it’s a terrible idea, but it’s not my call to make. You want to call them.”

Nile thought about it for a few minutes. “Would you call your family?”

Andy laughed but it was a dry, humorless sound. “My family was not like your family.” She gestured her arms around her. “This is my family. It’s Booker, Nicky, Joe and now you. It was Quynh and Lykon. My biological ties are irrelevant.”

Nile looked down at her hands, watching the moonlight glint off of her skin. She opened her mouth to ask Andy what her biological ties were before thinking better of it and changing tact. “How can you say that so easily? You’ve known me for a month.”

Andy lay back on the roof, looking up at the bright night sky. “How long did you dream of us?”

Nile shrugged. “I don’t know. A while. Just bits and pieces.”

“How did it feel when you met us?”

It felt like an old key fitting into a disused lock—a lock that had been forgotten, one that no one thought would open. “It felt right,” Nile said.

“I don’t know if there is a god or gods,” Andy said and Nile shot her a look, ready to be angry at Andy’s mocking, but Andy’s eyes were soft and there wasn’t meanness in her words. “But there is something that connects us. I wish I knew what it is. But call it destiny or fate or any other word, but we are meant to be together. We are family.”

Nile watched Andy and then stretched out next to her, letting her body adjust to the hard shingles of the roof. When she had stopped moving, Andy said, “I’ll tell you this: if any of Booker’s children or his wife were alive today, even knowing how angry they were at him, their bitterness, he would call them in a heartbeat to hear their voices.”

Nile mulled that over, letting Andy’s words run against the thrum of yearning that she had for her family. There was nothing that Nile could say to that so she didn’t try, just lay there next to Andy, the heat of Andy’s body a small furnace in the night. It could have been five minutes or an hour later when Nile asked, “Are you really going to go a hundred years without speaking to Booker?”

Andy laughed at that, a deep, full-bodied laugh, lighting up her face and Nile thought, gorgeous, before she wiped that away.  “Ah, Nile,” she said. “You are so young.”



A few days later, Joe and Nicky went to go get some supplies and fresh produce from one of the farmers in the vicinity, leaving Andy and Nile to spar by themselves. Nile pinned Andy to the ground and Andy smiled in satisfaction at Nile, her lips quirking up and Nile’s gaze went to them.

When she forced her eyes back up, Andy’s eyes had gone serious, watchful, her gaze absolute. “I—” Nile started, but what could she say? What was there to say? In for a penny, in for a pound, she thought, and then slowly leaned in towards Andy.

They both knew that if Andy really wanted to get up, there was almost nothing that Nile could have done to stop it. But still, Nile stopped just before she kissed Andy. “Is this ok?” she asked. Andy nodded once and Nile took her chance, pressing her lips gently against Andy’s.

“Is that the best you’ve got?” Andy asked and Nile smiled against Andy. This time, when she went in, she went in with full intent and Andy gave back as good as she got it.

If Joe or Nicky noticed Nile sneaking into Andy’s room that night, neither one of them said anything.



Every week, Nile talked to Copley—mainly to get a state of the union, but also for the sheer joy of talking to someone that wasn’t Andy, Joe or Nicky. Someone who wasn’t expected to live for thousands of years. It helped keep perspective because Andy, Joe and Nicky seemed to forget that from time to time.

“Nile, you need to make a decision,” Copley said at the end of their call. He didn’t need to specify what the decision was.

“I’m going to contact my mom,” Nile said. “But please have me listed as KIA.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Copley asked.

Nile shrugged even though Copley couldn’t see her. “Probably not. But I would regret it if I didn’t. Can I give her your information if she needs to get in contact with me?”

Copley sighed, a long-suffering noise, but it seemed mostly for the drama of it rather than due to any real protest. “Yes,” he said.

“One more thing,” Nile said.

Copley sighed again. “Yes?”

Aware that she was treading on shaky ground, Nile plunged forward anyways. “Do you have Booker’s contact information?”



That night, Nile didn’t bother with the pretense of going to her own room. If Nicky and Joe hadn’t yet figured out that she was sleeping with Andy, she didn’t really care that they did now. For a while, Nile let herself get lost in Andy, her sweet curves and warm touch, until they were both sated and drowsy. Nile ended up half draped on top of Andy, breathing in the comforting scent of jasmine and pine and Andy as she made a decision.

“I’m going to call my mom,” Nile said and Andy raised an eyebrow. “I think that you were right.” Andy let out a little huff at that and then started to close her eyes.

“That’s good,” Andy said. “And if it’s not, you’ll deal with it.”

“You should call Booker,” Nile said. Andy tensed at that, like a cat about to unfurl her claws and attack.

“Booker made his decisions,” Andy said and slipped out from underneath Nile, turning her face away. Nile looked at Andy and tried to think how to best reach her. She’d thought Andy was so hard, but now, in the darkness, she could see the soft vulnerabilities of Andy, the love that she gave out, the people that she cherished.

“Booker is your family. And you are his family. You might not be there in a hundred years to meet him,” Nile said quietly. “You told me that Booker would give anything to have one last conversation with his family. I think that you’re included in that.”

Andy didn’t say anything in response—the line of her back rigid in the darkness and Nile carefully ran the back of her fingers down Andy’s spine and then gently kissed the back of her neck.

“Goodnight,” Nile said. Andy’s posture relaxed softly.

“Night,” Andy said.



In the morning, Nile took her phone and a new sim card and went to find a spot to call her mom. She wasn’t sure what she would say exactly, but she’d figure it out as she went. After she unlocked the phone, she checked the email to see if there was anything from Copley. There wasn’t, but instead there was an email from an address that Nile had carefully memorized. Booker. The email only said, “Thank you.” Nile smiled, something lightening in her chest, as she carefully dialed her mom’s number.