Nile came in from her jog to find Nicky and Joe sitting on the couch with recording playback equipment set up. She couldn’t read the expression on their faces which put her on edge. “Did I just walk on you guys watching your sex tape or something.”
Joe laughed and Nicky’s ears reddened.. “No sex tape,” Joe shook his head. “Such a thing would be exceptional but not really our style.”
“Then what’s all this?” Nile motioned to all the equipment.
Nicky patted the couch for Nile to come over and sit down between them. She did as he asked but couldn’t really settle. “Okay is this some sort of team building exercise? Are you going to critique my last mission performance?”
Joe put his hand on her jumping knee to calm her. “No. You were a badass, no critique required. But we did do something and we are unsure how to proceed.”
“Okay, I’m officially freaked the fuck out. Just tell me.”
Nicky turned his head to meet Nile’s eyes and nodded. He took a deep breath and then just barreled ahead. “We went to Chicago and had your mom record a message for you so you could hear her voice one more time.”
Nile gasped. “How?”
“Booker,” Nicky said with a sad smile.
“What?” Nile was not expecting that.
Joe picked up the thread. “After your conversation that day at the bar, Booker called Copley and told him your wish and to have Nicky ‘work his magic’. He made sure that Copley time-stamped the conversation so that we’d know it was before we rendered our verdict.”
Wow. She was touched that Booker would do that, but she couldn’t think about that right now. “Nicky’s magic?” Nile asked.
Joe continued. “Copley didn’t know what that meant either, but Nicky works with several veterans groups and one of them focuses on bringing closure to families who have lost loved ones to war or from gun violence. Normally, the videos also include testimonials from people their loved one served with to help the family understand that their sacrifice wasn’t in vain.”
“Obviously, we couldn’t do that in this case, so Joe came along to deliver that testimony in person,” Nicky explained.
Nile turned her head to Joe, her voice quiet. “What did you tell her?”
Joe met Nile’s eyes and took one of her hands in his. “I told her she raised an extraordinary young woman who put her service to others before herself. I told her how her daughter brought light and hope wherever she went and was able to help even the grizzliest of veterans find purpose,” Joe paused and changed pronouns. “I told her how you were a good soldier but an even better person. I told her you always stood up for what was right. And I told her how your quick thinking and sacrifice saved countless lives including my wife, who served as your interpreter.”
“That’s not true.”
Joe looked at Nicky. “Well, the wife part is obviously not true even if Nicky does have the legs to pull off a dress and high heels.”
Nile laughed despite herself. She knew what Joe was trying to do. “The other parts aren’t true either.”
Joe squeezed Nile’s hand. . “I promise you Nile. Every other word is true. We invented a wife so your mom would have a point of reference that would make sense to her. I couldn’t say that you take bullets and literally fling yourself at danger to protect your team.”
“You know that neither Joe nor I like to lie when not related to a job, but this half-truth seemed like the best way to to reveal to your madre the impact you make in the lives of others.”
The tears started to flow. “I don’t know what to say.”
Nicky took Nile’s other hand in his. “No need to say anything. But I can attest that Joe’s spouse does indeed believe every single word that he spoke to your mother.”
Both Nile and Joe smiled at that.
Nicky continued. “So how would you like to proceed? It’s set to play. You can watch it alone. You can watch it with us or with just one of us, if you prefer. Or if it’s too much, you don’t have to watch it at all.”
Nile squeezed both of their hands. She felt anchored by their presence. “Stay. Both of you.”
“You’re sure?” Joe asked before hitting play on the remote.
“Hell no, but I know I don’t want to watch it alone.”
He hit play.
The screen went from black to autofocus and there was Nile’s mom sitting at the kitchen table. She looked tired but determined, her hair in braids very similar to Nile’s. She was beautiful. Nile’s heart already ached and she hadn’t said a word. She watched as Joe directed her mom where to look and explained that they could set it up remotely if she would prefer to record it without an audience. She asked them both to stay. It made Nile smile that her mom made the same choice she did.
“Nile, baby. Wow, this is harder than I thought,” Her mom said to Nicky behind the camera. They had obviously kept the raw footage.
Nile could hear Nicky’s gentle tone as he responded. “Take your time. If you need to stop just let me know.”
Nile’s mom nodded. “I’m good. Thank you.” She took a deep breath and started again. “Nile baby, I feared this would happen. You knew that, but you were steadfast in your need to serve just like your father. I take comfort in the fact that your daddy was there to meet you in paradise.
From what these men tell me, you saved many innocent lives. I would expect nothing less from you. You were a warrior from the day you came screaming into this world. Whether it was fighting me over not wanting to eat your peas or standing up to the bullies picking on your friends at school. You never backed down from a fight and it makes my heart swell,” her mom paused and took a deep breath. She wiped her eyes and continued. “That you fought for what was right till your dying breath.”
Nile watched as Joe walked over with a box of tissues and a bottle of water. Her mom wiped her face and took a drink of water before continuing.
“Now don’t you worry about me and Gris. We’ll take care of each other. Although with this scholarship paying off his tuition, it seems like you are still taking care of us. We love you.” Nile’s mom paused again and then looked directly in the camera as if she was speaking directly to Nile on the couch. “I’m so proud of you, baby girl. You rest now. And I promise that I’ll do my best to keep fighting the good fight until it’s time for me to join you and your daddy. Give him a kiss for me.” She blew a kiss at the camera before the screen went black.
Nile was sobbing, her body curled up into itself. Both Joe and Nicky rubbed comforting circles on her back. “Deep breaths, Nile,” Nicky said. “In. Out. In Out.”
After a few minutes, Nile sat back up. “She’s proud of me,” Nile said quietly.
“Of course she is,” Joe said. “She knows the daughter she raised.”
Nile took a deep breath and wiped her face with the tissues from the box on Nicky’s lap with one hand as she still clutched Joe’s hand tight in her other. “She was so angry when she found out I’d be going to Afghanistan. But even though she was mad at me,” Nile touched the cross at her neck. “She gave me this cross to keep me safe right before I shipped out.”
“She wasn’t mad at you, Nile,” Nicky explained. His tone, quiet but kind. “She was scared. She loved you and she was scared.”
“I think deep down I knew that, but I was afraid I had disappointed her.”
“Oh Nile,” Joe said, squeezing the hand he was still holding. “We spent a day with her and you and your brother are her proudest accomplishments. She could never be disappointed in you. The only disappointment she feels is that you left the world too soon.”
“Did you guys meet Gris too?”
Joe nodded, a sly smile on his face. “Oh yes, he was not a fan at first. Accused us of trying to scam your mom.”
“Well in his defense, we were strangers,” Nicky said, meeting Nile’s eyes. “He wanted to protect your mother from getting hurt again. An admirable trait.”
Nile smiled. “That’s Gris. He’s quiet and analytical but you threaten or hurt the people he loves and he’ll fuck you up,” Nile said. She turned to face Nicky. “He reminds me of you in that way Nicky.”
“I’m honored to share those traits with him,” Nicky said, meeting Joe’s eyes. “Joe has a question for you.”
Nile turned to Joe.
“Your mom mentioned that you and your brother were supposed to be named Tigris and Euphrates. How did you end up as Nile?”
Nile felt calm enough to let go of Joe’s hand. She settled back into the couch, happy to share the tales of her blood family with her new one. “My dad had a thing for the cradle of civilization. He had wanted to name his kids Tigris and Euprahtes and my mom loved him so she said okay. But when I was born, my dad supposedly held me in his arms and said, oh no, he was wrong, Euprahtes wasn't grand enough. That I required something even more special so they called me Nile after the longest river in the world.”
“That is a beautiful story. And you are that special.”
“Thank you. When Gris was born five years later, he came three weeks late. My parents thought naming him Tigris was ironic as Tigris means.”
Joe finished for her. “The fast one.”
Nile smiled. “Yes. And my brother has never been on time to anything.”
Both Joe and Nicky chuckled.
Nile leaned forward again and looked from Joe to Nicky. “Wait. What was my mom saying about a scholarship?”
Joe and Nicky had a conversation with their eyes before Joe answered. “We set up a fund so your brother could finish college debt-free. It paid off all his previous students loans and will cover graduate school.”
Nile didn’t understand. “Why would you do that?”
“Why wouldn’t we, Nile?” Nicky replied. His eyes met hers. “They are your family, so they are our family.”
“But his tuition is crazy high.”
Joe laughed and raised an eyebrow. “Nile, we’ve been around for nearly ten centuries and while you are new to this life and haven’t had a chance to acquire much wealth. We have. We don’t take jobs for the money.”
“But we take the money,” Nicky finished. “We have more money than we could possibly spend.”
“Or give away. Though Nicky does like to try,” Joe said with an indulgent smile. “He even gave away his shirt and shoes one time.”
Nile looked at Nicky.
Nicky shrugged. He would never be ashamed of helping someone in need. “Joe had a coat I could wear and my socks were quite thick.”
Joe continued. “Today, he starts and funds foundations to do good works all over the world. I buy real estate and invest in alternative energy sources. Plus we got in really early on Apple.”
Nile took a deep breath. “I don’t know what to say.”
“There’s nothing to say. We’ve spoken to Copley and he’ll keep an eye on your family and if they need anything, he’ll let us know.’
“You’re welcome. But thanks are not necessary. You didn’t have a choice in becoming like us, but we can make sure the people you love are taken care of.”
Nile had seen all the good her team had done throughout time laid out on Copley’s walls, and she’d felt their everyday kindness, but this was so much more. This was who they were at their core. “Did you do this for Booker?”
Nicky nodded. “We did.”
She was beginning to understand why Booker’s betrayal was so devastating. They led with love. It made her wonder. “Does Andy know?”
Joe nodded, “Of course. She approved our plan.”
“We asked her to be here today but she didn’t want to overwhelm you,” Nicky explained with a look that said Andy was afraid she’d be the one overwhelmed.
Nile was quiet for a minute and then asked, “So, you didn’t go to Malta? What about your holiday?”
Nicky shook his head, “Malta will always be there. Instead Joe got to eat his fill of deep dish pizza.”
“And Nicky got to watch the jellyfish dance gracefully around him at the Shedd Aquarium,” Joe said with a smile. “I’ll show you my sketches later. Plus we ended up being there on Fat Tuesday, so we brought Andy some paczki.”
Nicky caught Nile’s attention with his eyes. ”But most importantly, we got to meet and hopefully provide some comfort to your mom and brother.”
Joe leaned over and kissed Nile’s temple. “And to you, Neilos.”
Nile nodded. “You did,” She was aware of Joe and his tendency to use nicknames but she didn’t know this word. “Neilos?”
“It’s Greek for Nile “ Joe said.
Nile smiled. “I like it. And again, thank you. You gave me my mom and I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.”
Nicky stood up and pulled Nile into a hug. “No payment required. You are our little sister now Nile. You’re stuck with us.”
Joe stood up as well, clasping both Nicky and Nile’s shoulders. “To be clear, he means that to be comforting not threatening, Joe said, with a wink.
Nile laughed. She took a step forward and then turned to face both of them. “It is. Can I get the recording saved to my phone?”
Nicky nodded. “Of course, and it will be saved and archived in several places so you’ll always have access.”
“You guys are the best. I’m honored to be your little sister.”
“We are the lucky ones, Nile,” Nicky said with a smile.
Nile knew Nicky meant what he said, but she didn’t feel like she’d made the same contributions. But maybe that didn’t matter. These men went out of their way to make her know they were her family now. They gave her mom back to her and that might just be the greatest gift she would ever receive. She may not feel worthy, but Joe and Nicky think she is, so she’ll just have to do her best to live up to that promise.