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What God Gave You, He Gave To Me

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* * *

ANDY

* * *

Their names live inside her heartbeat, and the gaping spaces between.

Quynh. Beloved. Nicolo. Child.

Andromache of Scythia has drowned on dryland for five hundred years; tearlessly wept for forty-five. Failures are as fleeting as the lives who carry their weight, and she has walked this earth for almost seven thousand years. It is unthinkable, the burden of their losses. Her heart. Her boy.

That pitiless, lost child. How could she turn her back, even for a second?

The last time Andy saw Quynh, they were both screaming each other’s names. Blood in their mouths, reaching for one another, pulled into the orbit of their love, they shared between them every second of that fear, that loss, that devastation. They knew what was happening, every awful moment of it. It was a torment; one final, cruel gift.

And Nico?

The last time Andy saw him, he was on horseback, tall and strong. Chafed with the fine silk of Saharan sand, he had a little girl in his arms, her tiny hands clutching his shirt. Nico had stared back, oceans of fortitude in his eyes before he covered them. He had nodded to her, full of confidence in their mission, full of hope in their purpose. Full of trust in her, in Andromache.

She told him to move quickly. Then she slammed the door of the car and drove away as fast as she could.

There was no lasting look. No screaming reach for one last brush of fingers. She didn’t know. None of them knew.

Andromache has spoken more languages in her lifetime than some civilisations ever learned. Still, she does not know the words for what her heart hides.

Their ride is scheduled to land forty minutes outside of Landstuhl. The closest they dare, so near to US military, despite being on foreign soil. Even getting that close has cost them an arm and a leg.

The thought makes her laugh, darkly, from her seat behind the cockpit.

Nile, sitting opposite her, glances up at the sound. She seems to have been mid-prayer, judging by the tell-tale combination of her clasped empty hands and the far-off question in her eyes.

Andy shakes her head, dismissing the unvoiced look. From behind her, the pilot warns of their fast approaching landing.

By the time they arrive, it will be a little past seven in the morning, local time. If the alarm hasn’t yet been raised in London, it will be a miracle.

“You ready?” Andy asks, and doesn’t even have to force a smile at Nile’s nod, determination in every steel movement.

Andy likes her. She’s going to be a self-righteous pain in the ass, and might actually turn out to be even more stubborn than Yusuf, but that’s OK. That’s good, really. Andy’s never had much time for the ones that are easy to love.

Her loves have always been wretched; difficult and violent creatures. Discontentment and churlishness, greed and fury. Survivors, in their souls. Even the most tender viper still has poison in its kiss.

Yes, Andy likes her.

What’s more, she can tell the others like her, too. Even sourpuss Booker has warmed to her already, a hell of a lot quicker than he ever has to anyone else.

“There’s still time to change the plan,” Andy says, one last time, as the chopper jerkily descends, just to see Nile’s face scrunch up with the car crash of her disdain.

“I can take care of myself, Grandma,” Nile replies sweetly, flicking her braids over her shoulder with a salty flourish.

Andy laughs through pursed lips, kicking her first, then pulling her to her feet.

“People used to respect their elders, you know,” Andy scoffs as they make their way to the back of the chopper, where Joe is sitting silently between a conversing Booker and Copley. He watches her feet as she approaches, and slowly finds her face.

Andy wonders, indulgently, what Nicky will think, when he sees him. The narrow cut of his cheekbones, the loss of his thick head of curls. She knows what the Nicky of forty-five years ago would think.

All three men look up at their approach. Andy doesn’t think she’s ever been so aware of the space in her chest that her lungs take up.

Nico. Nico. Nicolo. Just a little longer.

“We find Nicky,” she says, a promise of ambrosia on her lips. “That is our aim. Everything else – data shoring, destruction, interrogation. It’s secondary. If all we manage is getting Nicky free, we’ve won. For now. We can spend the next fifty years cleaning up, if we have to. The next two hours are for Nico.”

She tries to look at them all, with equal merit. They all deserve her attention, her promises; even Copley. But Joe is looking at her. Joe, Yusuf, his child’s eyes and his empty shadow, and Andy simply cannot look away.

She sways, digging her heels in as the chopper lands hard. There’s a series of locks and clicks as they get to their feet, and make ready to depart.

Day has already broken, as they leap out onto their makeshift airfield. The sun still hasn’t topped the high risen trees, but their leaves are lined with bronze light, and the crisp, dewy air is slowly warming. They have a forty minute fast-paced walk ahead of them, and a mortal to account for.

Andy eyes her team, for perhaps a second too long, before calling a move out. She takes the lead, trusting them to follow.

They do. Of course they do.

They fall into line, and they walk, and the sun stains the sky rose and gold.

After ten minutes of trekking, Joe reaches her periphery. His nose is pink from the cold, his breaths long and too even.

She’s never grown used to seeing Joe on her right, knowing she won’t find Nicky to her left.

Your eagle and your falcon, Booker always called them, bringing up the rear, on the rare occasion they would move as a diamond unit. Yusuf, all strength, fearsome and present, as bright as the paintbrushes he has always preferred in his hands. Nicky, quick, a bullet of a body that they don’t see coming.

Her eagle and her falcon, maybe Booker was right. Her boys, her protectors. She won’t fail them again.

“You think she can do it?” Joe asks, quiet enough to be muffled by the rushing air in the conifers ahead.

Behind them, Andy hears Nile’s voice, and Booker’s chuffing laugh.

She replies: “I think I’ve spent three days underestimating Corporal Freeman, who’s more than proved she’s up for any task we set her. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Joe pulls a face of reluctant unease.

Andy sympathises, she really does, but now is not the time for doubt.

“If it weren’t for Nile, you’d already be back in Libya, Yusuf.”

Joe flinches hard, his face turned to his feet to watch his steps.

The time for softness is over. Andy grits her teeth, hating every bit of herself. She needs her eagle, her fighter, by her side. She’ll hatefully, gladly claw it out of him, even if it leaves them both bloody in the process.

“We need her. We need to trust her. We’ve been turning our backs on each other for too long. Nile needs us, and we need her. When we get Nicolo out, he’ll need her, too. You know this. Finding him is only half the job done.”

Joe’s breaths quicken, haggard in his chest as their steps take a slight incline. They’re almost at the slope that separates them from the hospital.

If she could, Andy would give him wings. She’d bear him far away from this bleak, beautiful place, where he can remain untouched by the horrors that await them. But she can’t do that. She can only hope she has taught him well enough to survive them.

“Nile, Copley,” she calls over her shoulder. “You’re up. Straight ahead, all the way to the gates. Booker, with us. We’ll meet you in the middle.”

Nile nods grimly as she passes them, leading the path ahead, while Copley wishes them luck.

Andy stares after the young woman, suddenly startled to realise it’s no longer just her boys, anymore. She is Andy’s, too; this ferocious, determined girl, this fearless, clever child. Andy’s to protect, to follow, to lead.

What will you teach her? She hears Quynh ask. Beloved voice, beloved soul. North star, before such a thing was ever known.

Better, Andy thinks to herself, and to her stolen heart. I will teach her better.

Nile and Copley soon disappear; in no time, the three remaining immortals near enough double their speed, south and west.

Merrick’s Outpost is well guarded, but it’s still, at the end of the day, a busy hospital and research facility, with hundreds of visitors and patients and subjects and guests a week, entering and exiting and staying and leaving. It might have the United States Military as its neighbour, but with independence as a contractor comes vulnerability as a standalone. There are no soldiers guarding their gates.

Andy’s eyes aren’t straying from the soft underbelly of Merrick’s sprawling back buildings. They might not have their best sniper with them right now, but they’re bringing him back. Joe is on her right, Booker to her left. They trudge, scatter and regroup, half a mile south, a mile west, and then – then –

“Here,” she says, pulling from her stash bag three earpieces before dropping the backpack out of sight, useless.

“Are these –”

“Ours,” Andy replies before Booker can even ask. “Are you kidding me? Nile has her own, I gave it to her back in the hotel.”

Joe is already resolved, but Booker looks torn between anger and amusement.

“Quite the understanding you and Mr Copley have reached, Boss,” he mutters as he fits his earpiece in.

Andy doesn’t quite roll her eyes. She’s more than used to the resentful curl of Booker’s tone by now.

“I trust he won’t purposefully betray us,” she says brusquely, checking her guns one last time. “That’s enough for now. Come on, we’ll be late for the changing of the guard.”

If Booker has anything more to say on the matter, he wisely doesn’t voice it, and instead falls into line as they crawl through damp grasses up to the ridge of the slope. On the other side, dawn has woken the earliest risers of Merrick Landstuhl Outpost. Somewhere on the other side of the compound, Nile and Copley should just about be reaching the front door, for a good old-fashioned knock and run.

“Go on,” Andy tells Booker, who leaves without a glance, circling around with a bag slung over his back and a gun ready in his hand. He lopes with an easy grace, carrying his weight in the hard dig of his heels as he goes.

Joe moves to head onwards, but Andy grabs his arm, tugging him back down.

“What?”

“You know what,” Andy says sharply, searching his face for – something, perhaps anything. Any sign she can, that she isn’t making a mistake here.

Forty-five years she’s been giving him what she thought he needed. If they get in here and find anything other than a whole, salvageable Nico, Andy knows with a sickly murmur in her heart, that she risks losing Yusuf forever. There will be no returning from this. His eyes are lit, and it’s as euphoric as it is terrifying, seeing wildness where there has been only resigned despair for so long.

If she loses him now, it will hurt more than ever before. She will hurt more.

She doesn’t know if she can bear it.

“Promise me that I can trust you,” she says.

Joe doesn’t even look hurt by it; not angry or offended or confused. There’s a dangerous ferocity that reminds Andy, painfully, of Quynh.

“Promise me, Yusuf,” she says again.

His mouth relaxes a fraction, and his hand finds her cheek, cups the side of her neck. The callouses on his thumb and palm, bare remnants of a life lost over nine-hundred years ago, do not belong to a warrior, but to an artist. The rough whorls of a painter’s hands.

“A thousand years, madre mia,” Joe whispers, and Andy’s heart is seized in a vice grip. “You have never failed us.”

It isn’t a promise. It is in fact the opposite of a promise. It’s two hands stretching, screaming for each other, in a final, lasting look. It is the hungry anticipation that she never gave Nico, the way Joe eats up her face with his eyes, and she, him. He will not leave this place without Nico, she knows.

And if Nico isn’t there?

He has to be. It’s the only way.

Joe reaches up to turn his earpiece on, and regrips his gun.

Andy wants to tell him, one last time, or maybe the first time. But she can’t. She can’t voice it.

She kisses his eyebrow, the deep furrow of a frown that was not there fifty years ago, and then she leads the way. Joe, Josef, Yusuf, at her six.

The fences are high; thin mesh, poorly covered by security. The cameras will catch them, but no matter. They’re unlikely to be noticed. Nile will see to that, all eyes on the dead girl walking.

Andy feels a thin shine of sweat at her hairline, cool as the dew underfoot, as they make short work of the east entry point. Joe slinks in and out of her shadow, silent and grave. Double doors left unguarded, a fire exit that requires a key card.

They stand, immobile, for all of three seconds before Booker turns the corner to join them. There’s a faintly vanishing bruise at the corner of his mouth, entirely gone by the time he’s flipped the key card twice in his free hand and then scanned it.

A blink of green light, the heavy mechanical sound of a lock, and together as one, they find themselves inside a long, brightly lit corridor.

It smells harshly of chemicals and floor wax. The walls are entirely bare.

In her ear, Andy hears a crackle from her comm. Static. Panic.

Then Nile’s voice, muffled.

Beside her, Joe stiffens, they check their ammo as –

“ALGERNON – BASEMENT – TEN O’CLOCK!” Nile bellows, sounding winded in their ears, before there is a keening crackle of a crumpled earpiece.

Above their heads, and all around them, an alarm starts shrieking.

Joe is running before Andy can say a word.

“Boss –”

“I know!” Andy snaps over Booker, taking off after Joe before he can entirely disappear through a left swinging door.

They’ve entered through the Warren-Ernst Building, south of Algernon, and connected only by two corridors according to Copley’s layouts. One at ground level, and the other two floors up.

Joe’s heading straight for the lower exit, that will take him most quickly to Algernon’s basement. It’s at least within the boundaries of their plan, but dread clutches Andy tighter than her hands clutch her gun, and she yearns angrily for her labrys.

“Take the top!” she shouts over her shoulder at Booker, and spares no further glance at him as she barrels through the doors after Joe.

“Yusuf!”

In the stairwell below her, gunshots are already firing, and the alarm is wailing.

“YUSUF!”

Fixed to the walls are three separate flashing alerts.

“YUSUF!”

She won’t get an answer from him. There is only the thud and thump of feet, and bodies, and bullets, and her racing heart. Rage fires her on, burning in her gut, her lungs, her thighs. She will not lose him now, not like this, not today.

Vaulting over the railing, Andy lands smack amidst the scattered remains of five guards, and follows the sounds of a fight deeper underground, towards the basement. She can no longer hear Nile’s voice, and assumes the earpiece has been taken from her, or destroyed. There is no sound from Booker.

That’s OK – it’s OK ­– it’s part of the plan – the plan they agreed to – the plan they will follow –

She runs up on Joe, who is wrestling a guard against a bannister as blood congeals over his face and the guard yells at the snapping of an elbow, a kick to his knees. Andy shoots him in the head, and barely catches a glimpse of Joe’s ashen pallor before he’s replacing the clip in his gun and nodding to the door that the guard had been blocking.

It’s a paltry offer for her to go first, and they both know it.

“Joe –”

“Andromache.”

“We need to reach Nile first,” she reminds him.

He doesn’t acknowledge her, but he does follow her lead as she checks her own clip, inhales once, twice, and then kicks open the door, that will lead the way into Algernon.

* * *

The sand storm lasted for a week, and they didn’t leave their meagre shelter once.

They ate sparingly, that she remembers. Perhaps once a day, or less. Cans of tasteless sludge, using sour metal spoons. Hot bottled water, not a lick of alcohol between them to soften the blow.

On the first day, Joe was furious, and that fury scalded them all. It overflowed like explosive bubbles of lava from a freshly erupted volcano. Andy and Booker, both splashed by the burns of his hatred and frustration. The second day, too, was little more than harsh words and harsher fists.

By the fourth day, Joe had grown quiet, as had his anger. He did not speak, not once. He would look at them, dare them to utter a word with his eyes, and Andy could deal with that. She was content to close her eyes, and rememorise all over again the route back to where Nicolo had been. She could ignore the silence – though Booker, she thinks, struggled.

By the sixth day, Joe’s palms were open wounds, his fingernails buried almost to the bone. He did not look at them anymore. He did not even open his eyes, though Andy could see the faint flutter of his tongue moving inside his mouth.

Whether he was praying to Allah, or to Nicolo, she did not ask, nor did ever wish to know.

On the ninth day, when they emerged to a landscape they did not recognise, breathed air that was not full of dust and looked into a sky filled only with the crystal, piercing light of the sun, Joe fell to his knees, buried his bloodstained hands into the sand, and let out a single, earth shattering scream.

Andy turned to look, not at Joe, but at Booker, and her throat spasmed to see he was weeping, openly, for the first time in years, as he stared at his brother upon the ground. She watched, astounded, as he approached, without wiping the tears from his face, to pull Joe to his feet.

Joe let him, exhausted, and silent once more.

“We should try the town, first,” Booker suggested, his breath hitching.

Joe looked at him, as if he did not know the face before him. He reached up, and swiped Booker’s tears away with his thumb. Stripes of blood like warpaint on his cheeks.

“Have faith, Sebastien,” Andy heard Joe whisper, his first words in days.

Then he turned, kicking up a spray of dust and sand with his heel, and started walking towards the town.

But Nicolo wasn’t there.

He wasn’t anywhere.

And Andy hadn’t thought she’d given up, but, maybe she had.

Maybe she did.

* * *

Cold, is her first thought, as Andy reaches the Algernon Building through the basement. A cold she can feel in her spine, in her joints, in her lungs.

It’s an oppressive, false sort of cold. A cold not simply from a lack of sunlight, or heating, but from an active cooling system. It sets her nerves on edge – and Joe’s too, she can tell. He covers her back, as they emerge from a dimly lit corridor into an even more dimly lit hexagonal room, with a staircase at one side and a dozen connecting doors spread around, including the one they’re standing in.

At the bottom of the staircase, there lies a man, his neck obviously broken, and a pool of blood smeared around his cracked orbital socket. He’s armed, but he hadn’t pulled his gun during whatever fight had erupted, here. There’s nothing more to be gained from his corpse, so Andy leaves it be.

Ten o’clock, Nile had said, and Andy can only take one meaning from it.

“Ten o’clock,” she murmurs, to a nod from Joe, and they make their way directly to the door that stands at the ten o’clock of the room, according to the staircase, which they can only assume Nile entered from.

A shiver rackets through Andy as she keeps her breaths even and quiet. It’s unnerving, being unable to hear anything – not even from Booker, over her earpiece.

“Fuck,” she hisses, when she kicks at the door and finds it locked. It’s reinforced, not even a strip gap to see inside.

Andy damns herself for not taking the key card Booker had swiped.

Joe kicks, too, more out of frustration, she thinks, than a real attempt. There isn’t even a handle to shoot at blindly. Just a sealed door, with no visible way through. A keypad with no code to punch in. Joe kicks the door a second time, a flurry of curses flying from his lips. He’s scowling, blood crusting on his knuckles, bruises already disappearing.

“Booker, check in,” Andy says, but there is no response. His earpiece is off.

Or perhaps – No. No despair without reason.

His earpiece is off.

“I told you she wouldn’t –”

“Joe, stop it,” Andy says, and Joe’s words devolve into a snarl.

He slumps away, scanning the spartan nerve centre of the basement level for some sign of a different entry point, but there isn’t one. Just a staircase, the door they came through, and eleven locked doors.

The faint rolling wail of the alarm can be heard, still, but little is getting past the blood rushing in her ears.

Andy remembers, half a millennium ago, how she scoured each avenue of inquiry, following the cold trail of Quynh’s whereabouts. She remembers the vain, desperate certainty with which she knew, she believed, that when she found the indistinguishable expanse of water where Quynh was abandoned, she would just feel it.

They were connected. They knew each other. One soul, split between two beating hearts. She would feel Quynh’s presence, and fate would bring them back to each other.

She believed that, half a millennium ago.

She doesn’t anymore – but, oh, she wishes she did. She wishes she believed, she wishes it were true. That she could stand in the basement of Algernon Building, in Merrick’s Landstuhl Outpost, and feel Nico’s presence; know he’s close, because he’s hers. Her boy. Her falcon. Her Nico.

But she doesn’t. She doesn’t know that. Because burned as witches they might have been, but those are powers nobody possesses. Andy simply doesn’t know,

A door from up the stairs slams, and Andy’s gun is trained on the feet descending it instantly. Relief punches her sternum, when Copley appears, hands raised, pistol loose.

He looks deeply unimpressed, as he steps over the body at the bottom of the stairs. There’s a cut on his arm, where his shirt has torn, and marks around his jaw, but he seems otherwise unhurt – physically, at least.

“Do you have an access key?” Andy asks.

She hasn’t a single care for any mortal’s hurt feelings. Copley pulls a round piece of plastic out of his pocket, eyeing Joe’s prowling form warily.

“I don’t enjoy being blindsided,” he says, disgruntled no doubt Nile’s rather hard line approached.

“Nobody does,” Andy agrees coolly, snatching the fob from his fingers. “How many did you see go with her?”

“Two doctors, four guards,” Copley replies, despite his bruised ego.

“Then we’ll expect double,” she says, turning to Joe, who is flushed with impatience. “Quetta, twenty-nine?”

Joe barely nods, but it’s enough. Things went smoothly in Quetta, ninety years ago. They might, just might, not go horribly, now.

“Copley, follow us.”

With that Andy cocks her gun and gets ready to swipe the door open. Before she can, though, she hears it.

The thin, reedy whistle in her earpiece, followed by Booker’s voice. He’s breathless, and he’s terrified. It rattles in Andy’s bones like a sandstorm.

“Il est là . I found him. Je l’ai trouvé . Joe. Il est là . I found him. Algernon. Dépêcher-toi. Mezzanine. Hurry!”

“Yusuf, no!” Andy screams, swinging around, but it’s no use.

“I’m sorry, Andromache.”

Joe is running up the stairs, a thousand years of war in his voice, as he is gone from her sight.

“Fuck,” she snaps, and gestures to Copley to get behind her.

With a violent stab she flicks the fob so the lock clicks, and kicks open the door with a yell.

The bullets spray, as men fall to their knees in her path, and all the while, her heart is screaming.

He’s here.

* * *

NILE

* * *

Andy’s lingering voice is a balm; a barrel of water in a desert, as Nile forges on towards Merrick Outpost with James Copley at her side. She can feel the weight of all that rests on this plan, all of this plan that rests on her, as surely as the line of Jay’s arm slung over her shoulders.

The bony embrace of the last time she saw Lewis. The kiss on her nose that her Mom gave her before she left. Her family, her dearest; she misses them with every breath.

Five hundred years. Forty-five years. She reminds herself, again and again.

There will be a time to mourn her losses. She will have so many moments to devote to them. This moment, right here, she can gift wrap for others.

The next two hours are for Nico, Andy had said.

What’s two hours, in the fathomless depths of her future?

She thinks of Joe, searching and grieving and hoping for decades. By the time she was born, Nicolo had already been missing for almost twenty years.

Yes, she can spare two hours of single-minded intent.

“I’ll give you a two-minute head start,” Nile says, when they find the off-road footpath that will take them directly to a busy Main Entrance. “Whatever happens, just follow the plan Andy gave you.”

Copley nods, eyeing her with the bold curiosity she has come to expect from him.

Unsurprising, really, to find that an ex-CIA operative would be left reeling by the prospect of not knowing everything.

When he opens his mouth, Nile cuts in impatiently: “I don’t know what Andy promised you, but I guarantee it did not include the right to my personal information. You get us in and out of here safely, without the world caving in on us, then you can grill me on my tragic backstory. Capisce?”

Copley looks momentarily incredulous, before letting out a throaty chuckle.

“Fair enough,” he agrees.

The morning is rapidly heating up.

Two cars pass them on the road, pulling into a staff car park up ahead. There are signs written in German and English, explaining the public layout of the hospital, which takes up almost half of the entire complex. Nile takes in the gleaming, grey glass and concrete monstrosity that looms ahead.

There’s a prisoner in there, she thinks, astounded.

What kind of audacity – what kind of inhumanity – can allow a person to tear one man apart, while still maintaining compassion for the patients they are hoping to cure, less than a hundred metres away? Would those patients feel justified, feel grateful, to know the suffering bedrock their health balances on?

She wonders, too, if she’d have ended up here anyway, if Andy hadn’t come for her.

She wonders if her Sergeant knew what he was talking about, when he told her to pack up her things.

A shudder, clutches her spine, so she ignores it, and trudges on hurriedly.

There is security at the gates when they approach, but they are helpful, monitoring-only guards, who slouch in their chairs, and talk with their hands and eyes. They direct newcomers to a wide set of doors revolving automatically beneath a large blue and white sign that states: EINGANG/ENTRANCE. It’s all very pleasant. It’s all very normal.

Nile reaches into her backpack, pulls out the cigarette pack and lighter Booker had supplied her with and peels away to the designated smoking area. Copley walks on, without acknowledging her.

In the enclosed area are several people already, individuals and clusters, all puffing out dragon smoke and cupping their hands.

A nurse wearing pale, patterned scrubs with her hair failing out of a loose ponytail smiles at Nile through a poorly stifled yawn.

Nile can’t bring herself to smile back, as she lights her cigarette and takes a shallow drag.

Despite knowing categorically she no longer has to worry about lung cancer, Nile has to force each inhalation with a disguised grimace. She’s never understood the appeal of smoking, especially not pre-rolled cigarettes. They taste of dirt, and coat her mouth in a funky ash-like film that spoils anything else she eats or drinks for the rest of the day.

Still, it’s a useful timer, sucking the cigarette to the filter and scrunching it out with a stab.

When she goes to leave, the smiley nurse is also done, and they almost walk into each other.

“Oh,” Nile gasps, flustered by the polite, startled “Sorry!” the nurse offers.

Nile gets a wide-stared look at her face, so close their arms are brushing. There are heavy bags under the nurse’s dark eyes, and glancing down, Nile realises her scrub pants have little ducks on them, that wouldn’t be out of place in a paediatric ward.

“Sorry,” Nile replies instinctively, and has to take a breath, while the nurse, unperturbed, goes ahead hurrying back into the hospital, to her job.

Nauseousness churns in Nile’s throat, worsened by the nasty nicotine flavour coating the back of her teeth.

Who was she? Nile can’t help but wonder, frozen. Does she know who she’s working for? Does she know, somewhere in her place of work, a man is tied up and suffering, too?

Nile clenches her teeth, and forces herself to keep walking. She is not thinking about that.

And she is not condemning every person she comes across from hereon in. There is so much badness in the world. She knows that, she’s seen that, but Nile cannot, will not, must not, believe that true and inherent evil is so commonplace that she will find it in every corner. She has seen what that sort of faithlessness does to a person – the granite of Andy’s eyes is as frightening a fate as any Nile could imagine for herself.

She pulls from her pocket the earpiece Andy gave her, keeping it safe in her loose fist, as she walks through the revolving doors and into a loud, bustling lobby.

Aside from the obvious signage, it really isn’t any different from the general hospital she’d visited back home. There’s a front desk, with pretty, probably plastic plants, and friendly posters depicting happy people washing their hands, and it’s so normal, so ordinary, it steals Nile’s breath.

How, how, could this be right?

Her eyes burn, as she approaches the desk, without looking for Copley. She can only trust he has found his way.

She walks straight to a young man sitting at a computer at the reception, and when he smiles pleasantly at her, asking in both German and English how he can help, Nile responds, confidently:

“I need to speak with Dr Meta Kozak.”

For a fleeting, faltering moment, a glaze of confusion taints the man’s expression. He licked his lips, a crease of concern between his eyebrows as he tilts his head.

Nile’s stomach drops. Had Copley been wrong? Had Copley lied?

“Dr Kozak is not part of our practicing medical team,” another voice interjects.

It’s one of the man’s colleagues. An older woman, standing at a printer behind him. Nile looks up at the woman, whose eyes are scrunched with suspicion – her entire face, in fact, her nose wrinkling and her mouth pursed. Nile returns her attention to the man impatiently.

“Can you contact Dr Kozak?”

“Um, yes,” he replies, a little nervous now.

“She is not –” the woman tries to say, more forcefully this time.

Nile doesn’t look back at her again.

“Call her, now,” she demands. “Tell her that Nile Freeman would like to speak with her.”

There is a micro-moment, a shard of time separate from the rest, when Nile is entirely convinced that merely uttering her name will conure a full scale assault; split the heavens, or the earth beneath her feet. She is frozen, burning, drowning; one endless instant.

It passes, as quickly as it arrived.

The young man, confused and chastised and distinctly uncomfortable, picks up a phone, checks his directory, and types 0943 into his keypad.

“Dr Kozak. You have a visitor. Yes, I understand. Her name is Nile Freeman.”

The man flinches, then. Violently. His darting eyes scrape over Nile, and when he speaks again, it’s in rapid German that she can’t follow. It takes every ounce of Nile’s courage not to stare helplessly around herself, or even to bolt out of the doors entirely.

The sterile echo of the lobby is so loud, a dreadful clamour. Her earpiece is securely tucked up her sleeve.

You stay calm, Andy had told her. You stay calm, you go where they tell you to. They won’t make a fuss in public. They can’t afford to, she had promised.

Their attention will be diverted, and we will come for you.

The man is still talking, his restless gaze furtive. He looks frightened.

He looks –

“Corporal Freeman.”

Behind her. A man’s voice. English, hard-edged.

She turns around, to take him in. Tall, uncompromising, dressed in obvious tactical gear and flanked by three other, equally broad shouldered men. His smile is vacant, when it appears on his face.

“You’ll come with us, now,” he tells her, confidently, surrounded by innocent, curious bystanders.

Behind the man there is a short, angry-looking woman, wearing a lab coat. No – not angry. The look her eyes isn’t anger, but furious excitement. Beside her, a bearded man, also wearing a white coat, shifts his weight.

Nile doesn’t even acknowledge the brawny bulk, pleasantly assured to realise she doesn’t feel the least bit intimidated by them. They’re visibly ex-military of some kind, from their postures to their haircuts; she knows their type all too well. The woman, though. The woman, she thinks, could turn out to be very frightening.

“Dr Kozak,” she assumes, walking towards her. All four guards react instinctively, closing in. Nile smirks. “Shall we do this more privately?”

Dr Kozak’s smile isn’t vacant, like her bodyguard’s. It is brittle, full of ice.

“Perhaps you think you are brave, too,” the woman says. Her voice is horribly warm; curious, like a child’s. “Henry, go ahead without me. I need a word with the Corporal.”

Her fellow lab coat turns on his heel and stalks away, as if glad to be gone – and with him, one of the guards. Dr Kozak’s flinty eyes sparkle as she beckons for Nile, and her remaining heavily armed trio, to follow.

“Come with me, my brave little soldier.”

Her amusement is of the distinctly cruel kind.

Nile walks, her feet numb, her heart racing, and a prayer lodged in the back of her throat.

* * *

Jay never listened to music. Not any kind. Not the charts, the classics, country, disco, golden oldies. Not some background jazz or electrohouse or folk dance. Nothing. Didn’t even tap her foot when Bohemian Rhapsody came on the radio. It was unthinkable, a fucking tragedy.

“Unconscionable!” Nile shouted, once, with a laugh so loud it almost distorted the word beyond recognition. “Who doesn’t like music?!” she demanded, and faithfully continued to demand an answer for the entirety of their friendship.

Music had populated Nile’s life like an additional loved one. Music had been as healing as medicine, as comforting as a soft blanket, as necessary as food and drink. Music had been her mother’s humming, her father’s old records; Lewis’ dancing and her friends’ partying.

Music had been a hand holding hers when she was lonely, advice in her ear when she had no one else to turn to.

Nile had a song for every person in her life, a whole host of loves; a grandma original for her mother, Marvin Gaye for her father, Frank Ocean for Lewis. Then there was Dusty Springfield, Fleetwood Mac, Cardi B, Nina Simone; Kanye and Kendrick, Gaga and Beyoncé, Lizzo and Earl Sweatshirt and Fine Young Cannibals –

Except, for Jay. What was there?

Nothing. She didn’t like music.

“Do you even have a soul, Jordan Hurley?” Nile asked, despairing, and Jay shrugged, flashing all her teeth before downing half a bottle of Budweiser in one go.

She closed her eyes, casting her delighted, lovely face up to the punishing sunshine that splashed over her like water over a cliff, and replied with a meditative calm: “The soul helps the body, and at certain moments raises it. It is the only bird that sustains its cage.”

Nile had tried to conjure a snort, or a jest, but none had come. Jay’s cheeks were blushing, her smile dazzling, and Nile was struck not so much by the words as by the sheer pleasure speaking them had brought her friend.

At Nile’s questioning look, Jay added: “Victor Hugo. I majored in French Literature.”

“Why?” Nile scoffed, before she could stop the obnoxious sound from tumbling out, and she smacked her open mouth in shame. “Oh – I’m sorry! I didn’t –” she cried.

Jay only laughed radiantly, finishing her drink, and scratching momentarily at the bandage over her newest tattoo.

“I’m going to live in Paris one day. When this is far behind me. I’m going to sit in a café by the Seine and read Hugo. Nobody will know me, and I will be happy.”

Nile thought, in that moment, how awful that sounded, and how much she loved her friend anyway, while Jay’s thumb toyed with the scar on her ear, lost in reminiscences of a future yet unlived, smiling at the taste of French Literature on her lips, washed down by cold Budweiser.

“OK, fine,” Nile said, throwing her arms up into the air. “I’ll learn some Les Mis for you. How about that? DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING – LA LA LA-LA LA-LA LA-LA!” Nile serenaded into the air, her own half-empty bottle a microphone, while Jay, mortified, tried to slap her down over and over again.

“Freeman! Stop it! Freeman! He didn’t even write the fucking musical you goddamn heathen!”

She was hysterical, and brilliant, and Nile loved her anyway – learned it, anyway. Word for word, the whole damn thing, and she enjoyed Jay’s reluctant smirk whenever she heard it being hummed.

She was like that – they, were like that.

Nile misses her.

Fuck.

Nile misses her, maybe most of all.

* * *

It happens very quickly.

Nile is following Dr Kozak through the very public hospital, flanked by several heavily armoured tank-men. They exit the main hospital building through a private backdoor, turn east, and walk into what Nile’s memorised head map tells her is the Algernon Building.

They’re immediately in a wide, empty atrium. There’s an overhanging mezzanine, with blacked out windows, and in the centre of the floor, an ominous looking, descending staircase without bannisters. Nile has little more than a single sweeping view to check the exits – of which there seem to be none ­– however, before she is suddenly, painfully, on the floor.

Her ankles are swiped out first, and the heels of her hands crack painfully when she lands. She has a fleeting sight of Kozak, walking away down the cut-in stairs, before a hand tries to clamp her ankles down. She kicks out, rolling, and she hears a grunt.

It’s the scrappiest fight she thinks she’s ever had.

The men don’t seem to fear hurting her, but she equally has no such fears in return. The man holding her ankles loosens his grip when her heel catches his jaw, and she claws just far enough to roll over.

One of the guards gives chase, but a step left puts him in prime view of the stairs and Nile kicks his chest with all the force she can muster, and he stumbles, toppling back out of sight, down the staircase. From below, there is a yell of surprise.

Nile’s breaths are heavy. She’s on her knees, on her feet. She struggles up and the leader grabs her arm but either he hasn’t cottoned on yet, or he’s already forgotten, because with a deep breath of anticipation Nile wrenches out of his twist hold with a horrific snap of her own wrist.

She can’t quite hold in her cry of pain, but it doesn’t slow her subsequent roundhouse to the man’s head, and then, she’s out.

Nile runs.

She runs hard down the stairs, as bullets start flying after her and one sears into her shoulder but she weaves ahead, leaps over the man lying crumpled at the base of the steps, and finds herself inside a clockface of closed doors – with the exception of one.

Kozak’s wide-eyed, livid.

She smacks at something above the entry keypad and the air splits with an eruption of an alarm. Nile isn’t even entirely sure she’s successfully turned her comm on as she fumbles with it, darting after Kozak and there’s already a guard loudly in pursuit, but she has to try.

This is her last chance.

She holds the earpiece close to her mouth and screams into her hand “ALGERNON – BASEMENT – TEN O’CLOCK!” before another bullet hits her spine and she crumples, with barely a single spare thought, to wonder if Andy and the others made it in.

Then the world goes dark.

* * *

Nile Freeman dies, again.

And again, she wakes up.

* * *

Nile wakes up zip-tied to a chair, in the company of Doctor Kozak, her esteemed lead bodyguard, and the remaining member of his crew. She inspects her extremities first, pleased to realise she’s fully healed; displeased to see Kozak’s man is holding her crushed earpiece, looking disgruntled.

Nile rolls her neck, and does her level best to remain outwardly calm as she takes in the sparse office room.

Andy is coming for her. She swore, she swore, she would come.

You just need to draw their firepower long enough to give us a chance, she’d said, back in London.

Except, Nile is quite clearly not in the same room as their other test subject, as they’d hoped might happen. She’s alone, with a purse lipped doctor and two pissed off guards, and if it came down to it, to choosing, the others wouldn’t choose her, would they?

Doctor Kozak pulls up a seat, dangerously within spitting distance of her new subject.

“I had thought we would never meet, Nile. You vanished so quickly,” she says in that same, discomfiting voice of curiosity as before. “The other one was quite adamant I wouldn’t find you.”

Nile tugs idly at the plastic ties cutting into her wrists.

Svegliati, sorella, he had whispered in her dreams, and she did.

She fucking did.

“You didn’t find me, though,” Nile points out in an arched tone. “I found you.”

Kozak’s smile is ugly, smug and indulgent when she replies: “Merrick Industries acquired one of you almost fifty years ago, when tracking people down was not half so sophisticated as it is now. Even if you had succeeded in your little smash and grab, do you think there is any place we cannot hunt you to?”

This time, Nile doesn’t say anything. The room they’re sitting in is somewhere between an office and an operating room. She takes in the desk, the cabinets; the metal gurney, all with equal unease.

Frustrated, maybe, by Nile’s apparently indifference to her threats, Kozak continues.

“The other one –”

“He has a name,” Nile growls, before she can contain it.

Disgust bubbles sluggishly in her gut.

Kozak, however, looks amused.

“He did, once,” she says, before rooting through the backpack in her hands.

It’s Nile’s; a wasted effort. Beyond ammo and clothes, she was intentionally not carrying anything. She hadn’t even taken her phone back, when Booker had offered it to her. She’s relieved, now. She hates the thought of Kozak getting her greedy, spindly fingers on it.

Suddenly, there is a distinct BANG from through the open doorway behind the guards, which seems to lead to a brightly lit corridor. It’s faint, but very much there.

Nile flinches in surprise.

So does Kozak, who looks at her guards with alarm.

“Keane,” she says, and Mr Head Honcho sneers as he stalks away, beckoning for his lackey to follow. They vanish into the corridor, as there is a second BANG, and Nile’s heart soars.

There is a third BANG, even louder than the previous two.

She can’t see it, but she knows what it is, anyway. What it means. She knows.

She smiles back at Doctor Meta Kozak, who is looking a fraction less confident than before, all of a sudden.

“His name,” Nile says, deliberate, sharp; emboldened. “Is Nicolo di Genova. I have never met him, but I should have done. I will do. You have kept him from us for a long time, Doctor.”

Kozak mouth twists, bitter as a lemon, but before she can speak, there is the smashing sound of a door bursting open, follow by the chaotic scattering of gunfire and shouting. Kozak blanches, as Nile’s heart pounds euphorically in her chest.

Men’s voices, a wailing of pain and a hail of bullets. Kozak’s chair clatters to the floor as she stands, toppling and stumbling away until –

There she is, as she always has been, and never has before, Nile sees her. Andromache, the Scythian.

She is bloody, and valiant, and victorious, tall and fierce and Nile is almost, almost afraid on the Doctor’s behalf. Behind Andy, Copley appears in the doorway, panting, not even bothering to raise his gun as he brings up the rear. After a moment to purvey the room, he is at Nile’s side in an instant, clipping her free, but Nile only has eyes for Andy.

Andy. Andromache. Pale and furious, a thunderstorm in a soul.

I was worshipped as a God, she said, and Nile understands why. She feels safe, right here, in this woman’s shadow.

Kozak, meanwhile, is wild with terror, as she lets out an ungainly bellow, shrieking: “YOU ARE –”

But Doctor Meta Kozak, with her excited eyes and her cruel mouth, gets no further.

Andy shoots her, just the once, directly through her eye, and Kozak drops gracelessly to the floor, dead. And Nile does not mourn her passing, even for a moment.

“I have no interest in your words,” Andy tells the corpse at her feet, before gathering Nile with an arm and ushering her out. She’s running hot as a fever, and her words are hoarse. “Quick. With Copley, to the transport. I need you to clear a path for us to escape. We’ll follow.”

Nile’s stomach drops, realising there is no sign of the others in the main hexagonal chamber. Only the dead guard, crumpled at the bottom of the stairs.

Andy’s hand is tight on her upper arm, her eyes vivid and damp.

“But Nicky –”

“Booker found him,” Andy says, and Nile could swear her voice sounds different. Brighter. Lighter. “Go. Now. Before they can mobilise.”

Nile nods, and runs, and breathes, following Copley down a long corridor that leads to another building.

She waits for them to follow.

She can only pray that they will.

* * *

BOOKER

* * *

Andromache tears after Joe, and Booker is not surprised, not by any of it.

It might have hurt under any other circumstance, the snarling way she snaps I know at his timid acknowledgement, or the haphazard bellow of “TAKE THE TOP!” she throws over her shoulder without so much as turning back. Only, this isn’t Andy choosing. Not really, not in any meaningful way.

If anything, it’s flattering, because Joe might be seven hundred years Booker’s senior, but he is clearly the liability of the three of them right now. Maybe even more so than Nile, who’s just a kid. Just a good kid who’s in danger, danger they put her in, danger she dove into, darling girl, lovely warrior, that she’s turning out to be.

Booker can’t enjoy the feeling of trust Andy shows, leaving him to it. He can only withstand the mighty temptation to follow his team downstairs, and instead take the higher, longer route, alone.

He turns off his earpiece, after the third scream of “YUSUF!” from Andy, high-pitched, frantic.

Using his thieved key card, room after room he sweeps is eerily clear. Some are empty wards, others hospital labs, but there isn’t a soul to be seen. It crawls over Booker’s skin like a chemical. There are familiar machines, unfamiliar machines. The stench of bleach. The twinging flicker of fluorescent strips.

Eventually, he jogs up the final stairs that lead only to a skywalk, which connects Warren-Ernst to Algernon.

The sudden sunglow from the golden dawn after endless rooms of harsh white lights is startling, and for a single moment Booker’s attention is stolen by the far stretching plains and hills that lie to the south of Merrick Outpost. They are vast and promising, rich green in the dewy early morning, and it hurts. It aches.

Nicky, Nicolas, Nicolo, trapped inside these hard, concrete walls when so close, the world mourns his absence, and the sun kisses the ground.

There has not been a day in forty-five years that Booker hasn’t thought of him at least once. His friend, his brother.

A shout from the Algernon side of the skywalk brings him back into the pounding of his heart, and he has only a second’s warning before the shadow of a guard becomes a solid figure, who raises his gun and shoots, clipping Booker on the arm.

Booker hisses, his aim thrown just long enough for the guard to dash out of sight again, and he swears, before pelting after him.

A man is shouting, and Booker instinctively ducks as he turns the corner, the next fired bullet soaring high over his head.

He shoots back, blind at first, a bullet in the wall, in a window, then in the guard’s leg. He buckles to the ground, groaning, and Booker kicks the gun out of his hand before he can raise it again.

“Bitte! Bitte! Halt! Bitte!” a man is shouting, and Booker looks up to see a bearded man in his thirties, wearing a white lab coat.

The guard tries to snatch for his gun, but Booker crushes his knuckles with his heel, his own glock aimed at the doctor, who tries to splutter out more German pleas, but the words are mangled with hysteria, his accent atrocious. It is not his native tongue.

“Anglais?” Booker asks, aiming another stamp at the guard’s jaw. The guard’s neck snaps, and there is the crunch of teeth under his foot. He smiles pleasantly at the doctor, whose eyes widen, horrified. “Américain?”

“A-American,” the man stammers pitifully.

There’s a key card in his hand, the other clutching the handle of the door behind him with a trembling grip.

Booker allows himself a moment to take in his surroundings.

There are windows all along one wall, perhaps blackened, or one way mirrors. Through them, he can see down into a large atrium. The mezzanine they are in is sparse, only a blank wall, with a single door behind the shivering American doctor, and one at either end: one that leads to the skywalk, and the other, presumably, down to the atrium.

The sweaty American licks his lips nervously, his gaze torn between Booker’s gun and his dead bodyguard.

“Where is he?” Booker asks.

He does not offer hope of a way out, the way he had for Copley, back in his home. That is not a promise he will impose upon Joe. It is not one he could impose upon himself, either.

The doctor looks down at the dead guard for another second, then back up at Booker, at his gun, at his face, at the bloody tear in his sleeve. A steely, frightened resolve seems to overcome whatever else had been running through his head. His mouth twists in a sneer. There's a strange, bluish green bruise under his jaw.

“You must be Sebastien,” the man says.

American indeed – front of the mouth, East Coast, Booker thinks. He’s always been shit with English language accents.

Booker’s stomach shrinks, taking most of his other internal organs with it.

When he doesn’t reply, the doctor continues: “You don’t look like a Yusuf.”

Booker feels the frown twitch on his face, and not for the first time, he envies Andy’s blank canvas eyes. He’s never mastered her power of absence, when it comes to revealing his emotions. Everything feels so plainly written on his face, in comparison.

“A bit racist,” he mutters, rather than acknowledge the frightening reality that this doctor knows their names.

Was it Copley? Have they been fools, to believe him, so desperate to find Nicolo that they overlooked the grass snake in the garden so soon?

The doctor must see some sort of question in his face, because his hand tightens on the doorhandle.

“It’s amazing, what the human mind can conjure, three weeks into a high-grade, meningitis fever. He really thought you were there, that time.”

Hot, sickly rage scorches Booker before he can truly grasp the filth that spews from the doctor’s smirking mouth. He must know, must suspect, he will not walk away from this. He can only throws this one final, wounding barb, and Booker feels his eyes burn with tears as he shoots again and again, until his clip is empty, until he is firing nothing but simply squeezing the trigger, over and over. Impotent, useless, useless like forty-five years in the wrong fucking place.

A trapped wail bubbles out of him, and when he feels himself stumble he barely catches himself on the wall before he kicks the guard’s ribs three times, and he screams. Screams for Nicky, feverish Nicky, lost Nicky, weeping Nicky.

My Nicolo, Andy called him, Joe called him.

My Nicolo, too, is all Booker can think, now, wildly, furiously. My Nicky, my brother, my brother.

Booker’s breaths cut into his lungs, and he lets out a reckless, restless sob as he swaps his clip and checks his gun over.

Pulling out his stolen key card, he swipes at the door, but there is the angry red blink of a refusal that makes him growl.

His hands are shaking, and he struggles to get hold of his temper as he stares instead down at the open mouthed shock on the doctor’s splattered face. His own key card is loose in his grip, and Booker snatches it up, hitting the door panel several times before it clicks open.

He steps deliberately over the doctor as he pushes the door open, and finds himself in an expansive, well stocked operating room, not unlike the ones he had passed through earlier. Except, this one does not have the stale, bleachy smell of abandoned wards.

This is fresh. This is sharp, like lemons, like copper, like the sea.

He chokes on it, inhaling and coughing, and he sees a second door, with a strip of glass running through the centre of it, and through that glass he sees – skin.

Booker is moving before he can even think it.

He pushes at the door, punches and kicks it in his desperation only to remember the card in his hand.

He smacks it again and again until there is a click, until he can burst in, hanging off the handle when he tumbles in his haste and then he’s inside and the smell hits him first and the sight and the sound and the crashing of forty-five years, forty-five years looking in the wrong fucking place because that storm, that fucking storm swallowed him up with nothing but a parting I will follow you, Bastiano, and Sebastien has ached, he has yearned, every day –

Nicolo.

Booker almost throws up from the horror, and from the relief.

Nicolo, his Nicolo, their Nicolo. Nicolas, Nicky.

There is a man, with Nicolo’s nose, his chin, his hair, his mouth.

He’s lying on a table, with bolted cuffs around his ankles, his elbows, his wrists, his knees. A bar over his hips, and another, worse, over his throat. His breathing is scuffed, stolen little sucks of air, inflating his chest. He’s bones, all bones. Booker could run his fingers over each rib individually, and the spaces in between.

There isn’t a mark on his body, but his mouth is fluttering as he struggles for each sip of oxygen, and Booker must say something, must say his name, in one language, in every language, but the man with Nicky’s face doesn’t even flinch. He doesn’t acknowledge a thing.

His eyes are hidden, by some kind of gauze, a stripe of bandage wrapped over his face, and when Booker comes closer, tremors taking him, rust in his joints, he realises there are plugs in his ears.

His ears.

Seized with the realisation of his own silence, Booker fumbles with his earpiece, and says, quickly, or slowly, or quietly, or loudly, he doesn’t know, all he knows is that he says:

“Il est là. I found him. Je l’ai trouvé. Joe. Il est là. I found him. Algernon. Dépêcher-toi. Mezzanine. Hurry!”

He doesn’t even wait to hear a response.

He drops the comm to the ground and then his fingers are at Nicky’s ears, he’s touching Nicky’s ears, and Nicky flinches and Booker tries to apologise but everything gets stoppered up in his heart, his throat, bitten into fragments by his chattering teeth.

Nicolas flinches when the earplugs are removed and then Booker flinches, when he pulls back the gauze to see it was simply masking the real blindfold beneath. A metal strip bites into Nicolas’ face, his darling face, there are bruises spreading out from it and drops of blood oozing at the sides.

It unclips easily, and Booker’s stomach flips, when Nicolas’ body surges, every piece of him fights it, just for a second, before going lax, before submitting, and his breaths stagger in his mouth when the metal is pulled back, and with it, suddenly, horribly, blood is pouring down Nicolas’ face.

“Mon Dieu, mon frère,” Booker whispers hoarsely, and he stares, horrified, at the small, sturdy spikes that cover the inside of the blindfold, each one sticky with blood, before tossing it away, feeling contaminated even to have touched it. “Nicolas, Nico, Nicolas, Nicky.”

He can’t say his name enough, can’t say it softly enough, can’t say it well enough. Mon frère, my brother, my God.

And Nicolo, Nicolas, Nicky.

The wounds in his face seal up, the rivulets seeping away into crimson tear tracks. For a moment, there is fresh, stained skin, and then –

His eyes open.

“Nicolas,” Booker murmurs, with a hand on his brother’s cheek.

Nicky blinks, slowly at first.

His eyes are pale, the shallow waters of his childhood reflecting, blue and green, and Booker sobs out a mangled something – his name, perhaps, or an apology. It is all the same. His Nicolo, their Nicolo. He’s here.

Nicky stares up at him, his breaths catching again and again, and the fresh tears that spill over his temples clear thin lines in the bloody mess of his face.

“Fratello,” Nicky whispers, painful as a bruise that’s forty-five years deep, and Booker could collapse at his feet, his brother, his God.

Before Booker can respond, though, Nicky’s eyes slide past him, to something across the room, and Booker knows, knows what Nicky is looking at, who Nicky is looking at, even before a faint crease of what was once a smile pulls at his chapped mouth.

“Amore,” Nicky whispers, and Booker hears Joe’s tears like the pealing of the Notre Dame bells. Nicky smiles again, and again, and again. Radiant, and pale, and alive. “Sei qui,” he whispers. “Sei qui.”

* * *