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A gift, unhoped for

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Jackson was on the wrong side of forty and considering having a midlife crisis. Just a little one. Mom had been gone for six months - passed quickly and quietly in her sleep, thank goodness - but Jackson was feeling unmoored. His job at the CIA was good, challenging and well-paid, but as his kids grew he found it more and more difficult to ignore the voice at the back of his head which wondered if the people he worked for were also good.

Last night Annaliese had again raised the idea again of moving to back to Germany, living closer to her parents and giving the boys a chance to spend time in the country she was from. To be honest, Jackson couldn’t fault the idea - his mom had been a huge help with the logistics of raising two boys when both parents worked full-time, Annaliese had been wonderfully patient building a life in a country she’d never intended to move to permanently, and her gentle suggestions for future plans weren’t pressuring him, just...putting the idea out there. 

The main problem was work. Jackson’s contacts were all here, and he was old enough that he didn’t fancy the idea of starting a career from scratch somewhere else. 

That’s why the interview request seemed so providential. His boss had called him in just before lunch, handed him a packet of information. “Jackson, I’d like you to do me a favour and meet with an old friend of mine. I know Annaliese has been talking about Europe - oh don’t look worried, I hear things - and this is an opportunity that might suit you. They requested you specifically.”

Jackson had accepted, puzzled but happy to acquiesce, and found himself that afternoon in the living area of what was obviously a safe house in a central city apartment - modern and well-furnished, but sterile and un-lived in. The man who rose to greet him was an older Black man, handsome and exuding quiet confidence even though his short hair was entirely grey. “Mr Copley?” Jackson asked, stepping forward to shake his hand. 

“Please, call me James,” said Copley warmly, shaking his hand and gesturing Jackson to have a seat. Jackson, who had an ear for languages, catalogued the voice automatically: British accent, although at least one parent had spoken with an American accent. “Thank you for meeting with me at such short notice. Did you have time to read through the packet George gave you?”

“I did,” said Jackson cautiously. “It wasn’t terribly informative, I’m afraid. I understand you’re recruiting for an information and security expert in Europe, but I’m not sure who the employer is or the scope of the job.”

James smiled in wry apology. “I’m sure you understand that I cannot be entirely transparent about the employer or exact duties until I have a little more commitment from you. However, I can say that I’m looking for a replacement for myself; that it’s a role with, hmm, a high degree of flexibility in terms of location but that Europe is preferred; and that you come highly recommended from several sources. I’m given to understand that your background would be, potentially, an excellent match for the role and that you may be open to relocating.”

Jackson nodded. It was, of course, ridiculous to trust any situation with so little information, but he’d always placed a great deal of trust in his gut, more than he should have for a man who worked analysing and dissecting information, and his gut liked Copley. “It’s true, my wife is German and we’ve been considering a move over there. If you’re happy to share more I’d be interested in finding out about your job.”

Copley smiled at him with genuine warmth - a rarity in a field where smiles rarely reached eyes. “Marvellous! Well, if you can arrange it then we’ll fly into Paris tomorrow. You’ll need to meet the rest of the team, and I can use the flight to brief you.”

Jackson gaped. “Tomorr- sir, I’m not sure I can go on such short notice, my family...and planes surely aren’t secure for briefings.”

Copley waved away these objections. “George already approved it, that’s not a worry. It’s a private flight, so privacy isn’t an issue. And why not bring your family? We can drop them off at Berlin on the way past.”

“Of course,” Jackson said faintly. “Just...drop them off on the way past. As you do.” He worked with people who had resources, but not private jet and changeable flight plan resources. 

Copley chuckled. “I’m just calling in some favours from some old colleagues,” he said, and handed over an old-fashioned business card. “Here’s my number. Talk to you wife and let me know by tonight - we’ll fly out tomorrow morning.”

Jackson left feeling a little dazed and turned-around, but also weirdly optimistic. Opportunities like this were too good to be true - and he still didn’t know who the job was for - but he just...felt good about it. 

Annaliese was surprised but excited, having not seen her parents in person for two years, and all too happy for Jackson to investigate a job opportunity in Europe. She rose to the challenge of packing with admirable German efficiency, while the boys bounced off the walls and yelled and didn’t pack anything more than their portable game consoles. 

On the plane, flying out of a private hangar, Jackson’s family were settled at the tail end with snacks and movies for the boys, and a small but sturdy desk and noise cancelling headphones for Annaliese, who had deadlines. Jackson followed Copley into a small, private compartment behind the cockpit, nothing more than two comfortable seats, a small table, and a holo-screen. 

Copley handed over several documents. “Non-disclosure agreements, quite standard,” he said. Jackson pressed his thumbprint to them and waited. For all his confidence, Copley seemed to pause. “Actually, I’m not quite sure where to begin. You must understand, my employers’ privacy and confidentiality is of the highest priority, I’ve never actually told anyone this before.”

Jackson nodded and tried to look reassuring and trustworthy. 

“I work for a team of, well, mercenaries,” started Copley, and Jackson kept his expression politely neutral even while his stomach sank. This was not the kind of work he wanted to be involved in. Copley saw it anyway. “Oh, not - not guns for hire, really. They are a group of people with a very particular skill set, a very particular set of criteria for the jobs they’d select, and a very particular need to be kept off the radar.”

“What’s the criteria?”

Copley shrugged. “They’re the ‘good guys’. They go almost anywhere, but they...they make a difference. They help those who need it, are the tipping point in conflicts where, well, where you don’t want the other guy to win. They do extractions, intelligence work, disaster recovery.” He paused to bring up some articles on the screen. “You won’t read about them, but these are an example of incidents they’ve been involved in.”

Jackson leaned forward, reading with interest. One made him stifle an exclamation. “I worked on this one! We could never figure out how the target got out, there was nothing to find...”

Copley spread his hands self-depreciatingly. “Thank you; that was my work.”

“Scrubbing the evidence?”

“Among other things. My role - and potentially yours, should you be interested - is to ensure that all traces of the team are erased. No digital files - including photos and videos - should remain. Whatsoever. In addition, I monitor the intelligence community and other sources of information to locate the jobs that the team may wish to do. And there’s a little practical support- identities and so on.”

Jackson sat back and exhaled heavily. This was...well, it was kind of a dream job. He had always wanted to help people, started out wanting to join the police, but that was in the early 2020s and, well. Alternative career choices seemed prudent. He’d aced some aptitude tests and joined the CIA, and sure, he loved finding the patterns and connections in the data, networking with the right people, learning languages and putting together the facts and people that would fit, but he was working from behind a desk. It was so distant from people and communities – the idea of working directly with people who had the skills to deploy immediately and make that difference was tempting, hugely so.

“I have to admit, I’m intrigued,” he said. “What happens next? What’s your recruitment process?”

Copley sat back, satisfied. “I thought so - my contacts suggested you’d have the temperament to do well at this kind of job. Well, next I’ll let you read you some more information about the team – not everything, but enough to understand the scope of the role. Next, you’ll meet with some of them – and that’s a potential stopping place, I’m afraid; as much as I may like you any of them have veto power. Then, should you still be interested, and they’re on board, we can arrange the logistics of moving and training.” He reached forward to use his thumbprint to authorise the holoscreen to bring up a new set of documents, keyed it to allow Jackson access, then excused himself. As he left the cubicle, Jackson could hear the man challenging his older son to a video game tournament, and smiled to himself. Whatever else this job did, it didn’t leave someone grey and flat like some of the older agents he’d seen.

The information he read was both fascinating and frustratingly incomplete. The team had four members, plus another marked as being on “long-term hiatus”. The jobs they’d done – and Copley’s explanatory notes as to what he’d done at his end – were exciting, dramatic, the sort of thing a team shouldn’t have been able to walk away from, and yet the “Mission objective: successful” note was there time after time. Copley’s methods weren’t always what Jackson would have done, but overall the intelligence work was done well.

What Jackson couldn’t figure out was what made this team so special. The skills listed – firearms and other weapons competencies, martial arts, languages spoken, driving and piloting abilities, and other practical skills – were impressive, but not unique. Jackson assumed this was something redacted from his information packet, and shrugged. He’d find out – or not. Eventually.

With Annaliese and the boys happily deposited in Berlin, it was only a short flight to Paris. Jackson gathered his bags while Copley finished a phonecall. “Right,” said Copley. “Beer?”

“I-“ Jackson started, confused. “I thought I was going to meet some of the team?”

“Indeed – but I’m sure you’ll understand if I don’t take you to our secure base. So, beer? Or coffee, but it’s a bit late in the day, but we can go to a café if you prefer.”

“No, beer’s fine,” said Jackson, rapidly mentally re-evaluating his ‘make good impression at interview’ plans.

The bar was old – low, heavy-beamed ceilings, mis-matched tables and chairs, half-flights of stairs off the main bar area leading to other seating areas at odd levels as the building had expanded organically over the centuries. It felt older than anything in the US, and Jackson immediately loved it. Copley collected a couple of foaming glasses and nodded for Jackson to follow him through two rooms to a nearly-private nook at the back. They settled in, and Jackson was casting around for a topic of conversation before two people sat down without asking, carrying their own glasses and pushing a refill over to Copley.

“Good flight?” asked the woman, tall and white with short dark hair, talking to Copley but leaning forward to frankly examine Jackson. He examined her back, mentally running through the anonymous profiles in the dossier to see if he could figure out which one she was. The man, dark haired and Middle Eastern, maybe North African, sat back, assessing.

“No issues,” said Copley. “I brought back some of that vile American candy for-. Well. You know.”

The woman snorted in amusement. “Yeah, I don’t get it either. The chocolate tastes like soap.” Jackson was cataloguing details – and this woman’s accent was flawless American, none of the slight twists on vowels that usually betrayed even the most fluent foreign speaker, but something about the way she said that made him think she wasn’t actually American. That bit about the chocolate was clearly bullshit.

She directed the full force of her attention to Jackson. “Tell us about yourself, Copley 2.0,” she said.

“What do you want to know?” Jackson said, wondering if they wanted a resume. He hadn’t bothered with Copley – it was safe to assume the man would have already done a thorough personal and professional background check on him.

“Tell us about your family,” the man suddenly spoke up.

“My family?” Jackson frowned. “Well, I’m married – my wife’s German, she’s over there now with our boys. Josh is twelve, Niles is ten. They’re-“ Jackson didn’t think he’d missed the flicker of glances between the woman and man when he’d mentioned his sons.

“No,” interrupted the woman. “Where you come from.”

“Oh? Well, Chicago. Born and raised. My dad was a Marine, died when I was a little kid – to be honest, I don’t really remember him.”

“Did you want to follow in his footsteps?”

Jackson shook his head, then reconsidered. He had the feeling that it was important, in this moment, to be fully honest. “Well, when I was a kid, kind of. Not seriously, but I liked the idea of being a soldier like Dad. But then my big sister, she did join the Marines, and she was killed in action when I was eighteen. After that, Mom refused to hear of me joining up too – we didn’t have any other family, it was just the two of us. I went into law enforcement instead, the CIA found me and now…here I am.”

“Hmm.” The woman sat back. “What do you think your sister died for?”

What?” Jackson was honestly baffled. The pain of her death was muted after more than twenty years, but God, it had been hard. Mom never really looked happy after she died, not until the boys came along, at least. How this was relevant to a job interview…

The two newcomers just looked at him, steadily, waiting. “She died for…our country, I guess?” The woman’s expression shuttered, and he could see her start to lose attention. “At least, that’s the flag she fought under. She…” He thought about some of the emails she’d sent, that he’d save and read and re-read over the years. “I think she was proud to be an American Marine, like Dad, but she served everyone. I remember her writing about the women and children she’d helped, the new places she was seeing. I think-“ He felt choked up for a moment. “I think she would have done great things. I wish my sons could have met her.”

“What else do you wish for your sons?” asked the man.

 “To give them a better world,” he said, without hesitation. “To do whatever is in my power to make things better. To see them grow up into good men, knowing where they come from, what faith they serve, what land they stand on and who built it for them.”

“You’ve thought about this,” the man said, smiling slowly. He leaned forward to whisper in the woman’s ear. Her eyes on him were bright again. She nodded.

“I trust your judgement in this matter, Copley. He’ll do. You can complete the briefing and bring him around tomorrow.” The two left as abruptly as they’d arrived, and Jackson sat back, feeling winded.

“That was it?” he asked.

Copley shrugged. “They are – with very, very few notable exceptions – excellent judges of character.”

“What happens when they misjudge?”

Copley smiled humourlessly. “Story for another time, perhaps,” he said. “Can I offer you another beer?”

The next morning, Jackson woke feeling excited. Slightly hungover, sure, but mostly excited. Copley picked him up personally in an anonymous sedan, and took him to an anonymous multi-story building, the kind that hovered between residential, business and industrial districts. Copley led him to an unlabelled, empty office mid-way up the building, ‘For lease’ sign still outside, and sat him down at a table before handing him a folder.

Jackson started to flick through – mainly photographs; some originals, others photocopies. Newspaper articles, reproductions of older art or etchings. He looked through them quickly at first – his habit, to let his mind unfocus, get an overview of what was presented to him, and trust that he would see the pattern, find the things to hone in on.

It takes him a few minutes, then he saw it – the woman who he met yesterday, profile striking in a hundred-year-old photo. Once he looked for it, he saw her again, then the man from the bar yesterdy. There were two other men as well, all of them appearing in images spanning decades or – if you believed that the sketches and paintings were the same people – centuries. Jackson took the magnifying glass Copley offered, and looked closely. Whoever did these was very good – there was none of the usually tell-tale line of pixels on the photoshop, and the light and shadows matched up perfectly. Of course, he couldn’t quite tell what the point of it was.

He looked up quizzically at Copley, waiting for the joke to be revealed. “They’re not photoshopped,” the other man just said, tone even.

Jackson bent back over the images. These people were identical. “Is it…some kind of family thing?” he asked.

“No.”

“….time travel?” he asked, even as he was regretting how foolish that sounded.

“No, but that’s a good one. I’ll tell Andy, she’ll get a laugh from that.”

Jackson rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Are these photos actually meant to be of the same people? Are you building them a reputation based on, I don’t know, reincarnation or vampires or something like that? I mean, I don’t quite get it, but…”

Copley sighed. “Jackson, you are a man of faith. I’m not, but I can respect that about you. I need to ask you to consider the fact that the Lord works in ways more mysterious than you have previously been privileged to know.”

Jackson felt his stomach start to churn nervously. This sounded like a bad movie script, except for the part where Copley was, to all appearances, a solidly trustworthy man, and he sounded entirely serious.

Copley paused. “Last chance,” he said. “If you’d prefer to not know, you can leave now, join your wife on vacation, and return to the States. We won’t bother you again.”

“You mean, you won’t ask again,” said Jackson. He looked at one of the pictures. It showed four people, outlined by fire and devastation, walking towards the camera. They were carrying children to safety. “Tell me,” he said.

“The people I work for are immortal warriors,” said Copley.

Jackson blinked at him.

Copley waved a hand. “I know how that sounds. Nevertheless, that’s the truth. These people cannot die, no matter the injury. Or rather, if they are killed, it doesn’t last. You would be responsible for putting them into situations where others would perish, letting them do what only they can do. They were alive before you were born, and will live on after you are dead. It is not explicable by any science. What they have is not transferrable, you would need to accept that if you – or your family –“ Jackson swallowed, mind already racing to the implications “-were in a situation where you were trying to save them, this immortality isn’t a resource you can steal.”

“Can you…can you prove it?” he asked through a weirdly dry mouth.

Copley nodded, and raised his voice. “Joe? If you would?”

The man from last night must have been further back in the office, because in a moment he joined them in the empty conference room. “Ah, I’ve seen that look before,” he said cheerfully. “Are you at the ‘proof of your own eyes’ stage?”

Jackson looked at him, trying to see if he looked like someone who was humouring an odd delusion in Copley. Weirdly, the cheerful matter-of-factness made Jackson believe more than earnestness would have. Jackson was going to answer, but the man – Joe – was already pulling a flip knife out of his pocket. Before Jackson could protest, Joe was briskly drawing a line across his palm, holding it out so Jackson could watch the flesh close and skin heal, not even a scar remaining.

“My God,” he breathed.

Joe wasn’t finished. “Now, N- one of my teammates told us that there are highly realistic prosthetics out there now. So, to be sure it’s beyond doubt-“ He unbuttoned his shirt, baring the top of his chest, placed the knife in front of his shoulder, then paused. “Always stings like a bitch,” he said. “Copley, would you mind?”

Copley rolled his eyes, but casually leaned over and gave the knife a shove. Jackson shouted a protest – what the actual fuck, you can’t go around stabbing people! – but Copley was already sitting back in his chair while Joe, wincing but not seeming worried, pulled the knife out. A trickle of blood followed, but it healed, just as fast as the cut on Joe’s hand.

Jackson closed his eyes tight, and gave himself a moment to pray. Then he looked at the two men. “That wasn’t a trick.”

“No.”

“You live forever-“

“Near enough.”

“-and heal from any wound. What if something is…cut off?”

Joe snorted. “It’s not pretty. But neither is it permanent.”

Copley leaned forward. “It’s possible – unlikely, but possible – that a new one may occur during your tenure. The last time was twenty years ago, but there’s no way of knowing who, or how, or when, or why – but sometimes someone will die, and then wake up again. You would need to fake their death – their permanent death. Their family would grieve, and you would be the cause of that grief. Do you understand?”

Jackson nodded slowly. “It’s necessary, right? If this is so secret?” This was just….ridiculous. Science-fiction, comic book stuff. And yet, despite himself, he found himself believing. Almost.

As quick as he could – for someone who was a desk agent and went to the gym three times a week – he grabbed the knife and stabbed Joe’s hand where it rested on the table.

“I let you do that,” said Joe, grimacing and pulling out the knife. Like the other wounds, it bled and healed.

“Fuck,” said Jackson. “Fuck it. This makes no sense, but God help me, I’m in.”

The rest of the team were in what was apparently one of many safehouses across the continent. The three of them drove there together, Copley behind the wheel, Jackson nervously rubbing his hands against his pants, Joe using the knife to clean his nails. He kept catching Jackson’s eye. Eventually he leaned forward and smiled. “I like you,” he said. “Copley and – others – vouch for you, and I believe that you could suit our team very well. But I feel I should warn you that, should your actions cause any of us to come to harm, should you betray us or act maliciously in any way, well….” The knife glinted. “You should know that we know many, many ways to dispose of bodies. Even some where you don’t need to be entirely dead at the start of it, and how painful those may be.”

Jackson swallowed. “I’ll remember that, thanks.”

Copley chuckled in the front seat. “Stop scaring him, Joe,” he said easily, as if Joe had been joking. Joe winked at Jackson and sat back with a smile, but Jackson felt deep-down sure that Joe had been quite serious.

The safehouse was a non-descript house on a lifestyle block – not far enough to be out in the country, but at a comfortable distance from the city. “So there’s two more to meet, right?” Jackson said. “The other men from the photos?”

Joe shook his head. “One of those men is…how did you put it, Copley?”

“Hiatus,” said Copley. “Long-term.”

Joe clicked his fingers. “Hiatus. The other man is my Nicky.” His expression softened a little.

“The fourth, then?” asked Jackson. Copley and Joe exchanged a look.

“You’ll meet her inside,” said Copley.

“All right,” said Jackson, and followed them in.

The house was, he thought, actually used. It didn’t have the faceless sterility of the CIA safehouses – maybe not actually lived in, but people came through here, dropped things off. There were bags dumped in corners and doorways, a pile of books here and a – was that a sword? – there. There were voices coming from the back of the house where it let out into a lounge area. He could hear the voice of the woman from yesterday, a man – European accent, Italian, maybe? - and, quietly, another woman talking to them.

“Are you sure?” the first woman was saying. “You say so, we stop now. It’s your call.”

“No, I’m…it’s good,” the second woman said. American accent, and something about the tone of voice made Jackson’s heart pound.

Jackson didn’t quite know why, but he felt sick with nerves. For a moment he didn’t want to see what was through that door – like his gut knew something he didn’t. Joe put a hand on his shoulder. “You okay?” he asked quietly.

Jackson shook his head to clear it and stepped through, following Copley who was saying “May I introduce, for those who don’t already know him, Jackson Freeman, my replacement.”

He thought maybe he had known, had put the pieces together at the back of his head when he heard that familiar voice, the part of him that saw patterns and put together puzzles. It was still gut-wrenching, though, to see his big sister standing there, hands twisting in the way they always had when she was nervous, like when she told Momma she was joining the Marines, biting her lip and eyes shining as she looked at him hungrily.

Jackson put a hand over his mouth to stifle the sound that wanted to come out, half laugh, half sob. “Oh God,” he said. “Nile, is that- you look just the same.”

Nile laughed, the shaky kind where it’s either laugh or cry. “Jackie, you’ve gone grey!” Jackson was vaguely aware of the others quietly leaving the room, leaving him and Nile alone. He fumbled behind him for a seat, sinking into a sofa, not taking his eyes off her, afraid that this was a hallucination or delusion.

“Nile, you’re dead,” he said. “I named my son after you. I-“ He was aware that tears were streaming down his cheeks – a combination of grief, joy and – yes, just a little bit – fury. “Momma died last year, did you know that?”

Nile walked forward cautiously and sat next to him. “I know, I know, I’m sorry. I visited her grave, I did. The day after the funeral. And Copley should have explained how-“

“It’s necessary. I know. Oh, shit, Nile. Is this real?”

“It’s real, baby brother. I never…I never hoped to have this. I really didn’t. Then Copley was looking for someone and your name came up – not even from me, you really were the best person for the job. I figured, maybe it was a gift, you know?”

Jackson couldn’t help it, he let himself slide over and put his head in Nile’s lap, the way he used to when he was little, when Momma was out working late and it was just him and Nile and home together. She would let him fall asleep against her while she watched TV and did her homework, and with his eyes closed Jackson could just about believe he was back there. Never mind that he was a full-ass grown man with little boys of his own, Nile smelled the same, sounded the same, her hand lifted to stroke over his hair the way it always used to.

“I’m sorry that I surprised you,” said Nile softly. “I just couldn’t figure out how to tell you, and I didn’t want Copley to break the news. And I’m sorry that you grieved for me, that I missed seeing your kids and wasn’t there when Mom…well. I can’t even begin to tell you what the last few years have been like. I don’t know why this happened to me or what it means, but…” He heard her sniff. “I sure am grateful for this.”

“Me too, sis,” said Jackson. He sat up, and scrubbed his hands over his face. “I mean, you owe me-“

“I know, I owe you so much – please just give me the chance-“

“No, I mean – remember your phone broke just before you deployed that last time and you borrowed my new one, leaving me with that shitty old 4th gen? You promised you would buy me a new one next time you were back.”

Nile leaned back and started laughing. It was exactly the way he remembered her, twenty-seven, free-hearted and open, laughing with her whole body. “Oh, no, I’m sure there’s a statute of limitations on that?”

“Nope, holding you to it. And I gotta tell you, job like mine, I need top of the line.”

Nile reached over and ruffled his hair, the way she did when he was a kid and he’d always hated. “Little brothers are the worst,” she said, but she was smiling at him.

Jackson laughed back at her – not because it was particularly funny, but because he was just so fucking happy. Sure, there was still a lot to unpack – so much to unpack – but, here was a gift. Unhoped for, unlooked for, possibly with complications he hadn’t thought through yet. But, in the face of his big sister’s joy, none of that really mattered.