* * *
There are few certainties in a life counted in centuries; perhaps that is why, no matter how many times they gather themselves in any number of places and circumstances, Andromache of Scythia still feels a prickly rush of anticipation thrumming in her veins, in the hours before she sees her team.
Andromache, who has somehow shirked the unpleasant instinct of repulsion every time someone calls her by her most recent name, Andy, arrives in Morocco early. A redeye from the northmost reaches of Europe, where she had been enjoying an easy vacation, ratting out smugglers creeping across the Russian border, cleaning up the stragglers that the Sør-Varanger Garrison miss.
It’s a simple enough, never-ending job. With twice-yearly new conscripts, rotating guards and a grateful officer stationed at Storskog who asks very few questions, Andy has found herself gravitating to Norway’s mountainous north more and more in recent decades. The people are, for the most part, good. At least, as good as any mortal Andy has ever found. The language is easy, the climate reliable, and the scenery majestic.
She feels kinship with the clifftops and the fjords, the snowy crests of the mountains. They age, ageless, unbroken by the cruelties and kindnesses they bear witness to. As does Andy, who was Andrea, and Adriana, and Ada, and Ananda, and Andromache. Child of a world long since vanished.
Arriving in the harsh, sun-blistered streets of Marrakech, she immediately misses the crisp chill of Norway’s coast, buffeted by the North Sea and shaped by a rough tide that knows no master. The winds here are hot as dragon’s breath, nippy with dust and the colour of the sandy ground and buildings pervades like the worst of her nightmares.
She walks the streets, rediscovering the forgotten, exploring the new. It’s a leisurely sort of vigilance, not so much second-nature as first nowadays. She walks until she reaches the hotel address that she had been texted thirty-eight hours ago. It’s a plush building, the kind of place with security cameras that actually record the movements inside, and as such, is the kind of place she rarely frequents.
Tourists and business suits bustle and twirl and block up the elevators and she breathes very deeply, very slowly, counting down the seconds until she is safely hidden once more. She ignores the bright, muted television that displays the latest atrocity of the world. The tear tracks on children’s faces, the blood on their lips and under their fingernails.
The anticipation in her veins compounds into a vibrating energy she releases by clenching and stretching her fingers, which feel empty without a weapon. Everything feels so full here, so busy. The air is always loud, in a way so foreign she fears she shall never know true silence.
Six thousand years, more, and she’ll never keep up with the growing loudness of the world she inhabits.
Knocking on the hotel room door, like always, her breath is stolen from her for a mere second, and then –
“Salut, Boss,” a man says as he swings the door open.
“Booker,” she says, just to solidify his presence, a ritual only completed by the heavy grip of the hand he lies on her shoulder.
He hurries her into a vibrant, sumptuously dressed apartment. Luxury has been woven into the very cushions, and she eyes the decadence suspiciously.
Booker simply smiles and nudges her towards a fruit bowl full of temptations.
“Any trouble on the way?” Andy asks, plucking a ripe plum from the bowl and biting it all the way to the stone.
She is, quite suddenly, ravenous.
Booker shakes his head reassuringly. He’s always chosen gesture over speech when he can. Booker, once Sebastien, her dear, youngest counterpart. She knows every inclination of his head, every twitch of his fingers, every angle of his mouth. It’s Booker alone who maintains the upkeep of his knowledge of sign language, remnants of a life far out of reach, yet so unforgettable, when it resides in the sadness of his eyes.
His tall, stooping breadth has always been at odds with his quietness, but as he takes a plum of his own, eyes searching her face hungrily, Andy basks in his welcome presence. Already, her veins have relaxed under her skin.
“Joe?” she asks, the name stilted on her tongue, but before Booker can reply, she feels the shiver of movement in the air behind her, feels the heat of eyes on the back of her neck. She hears the voice behind her murmur: “Right here, Boss.”
Andy turns, attuned instinctively to his proximity. Almost nine hundred years since they first stood side by side, and he is the balm of warmth he always has been.
Joe. Josef. Yusuf.
“You cut your hair,” she tells him, her disapproval clipping her consonants almost as short as the sheared bristles on his head. His dark beard, like always, is thick and neatly trimmed, hiding his soft jaw line.
“Less room for the sand fleas,” he teases, not quite a joke, accepting the slap she gives his chest before dragging him into a hug. He lifts her with the sudden strength of his embrace, a half spin to make her smile, and she feels like a boulder chained to her limbs the heavy weight of the past fourteen months without seeing him, without seeing either of them.
Joe’s beard tickles her as he kisses her earlobe. In that momentary press of his mouth, she hears everything he doesn’t say.
The empty space of the shadow Joe casts on the floor is a choking, wretched thing to acknowledge.
So, like always, Andy simply doesn’t.
Instead, she bites at her plum and retreats to the chaise-longue to lounge back against the coarse silk cushions.
“Well, le Livre,” she drawls towards Booker, who has never enjoyed the way she purposefully mangles his old family name. “What do you have for us?”
Booker sprawls out beside her, taking up twice the room in order to press the line of his leg along hers. He’s a steely being, always has been. Warm, beaten metal that will never bend.
“James Copley,” he says, the same way he says things like French Fries, and Commonwealth, and Tolstoy. A curl of his tongue inside his mouth like sour grapes.
“No,” Andy replies. The word is out before the thought can truly form in her mind. “We don’t repeat clients.”
Exasperation bubbles under her dry, itchy skin. Joe’s eyes don’t leave her face, and she doesn’t look back, while Booker, torn in a familiar manner, tracks the space between them with his melancholy gaze. This can’t be all there is to it. He wouldn’t call them together for this, a swift rebuttal and three clenched jaws.
“I know, Boss,” Booker replies.
The name scrapes over her in a way not even Andy managed to, in the earliest days of its use. It’s a gesture of its own, a signifier of what she has become to these men, her brothers, her boys; one ageing into a warrior impenetrable, the other barely more than a baby.
Andy grasps the plum stone in her palm, rolls the wet strands of flesh clinging to the pit over her skin.
“I said no, the first time he contacted me again, last year,” Booker continues, and that gets her attention a whole lot better. Even Joe sits up straighter in his chair.
“He’s contacted a second time?” Andy asks, dragging her eyes over Booker’s angular cheeks, his downturned mouth.
“I said no the second time, too, Andy,” he mumbles. The words seem hollow, meaningless in their shared disbelief. “This is the fifth time Copley’s reached out. Same number. I didn’t even respond, the last time, but he’s still tried again anyway.”
An electric wrongness sits in Andy’s sternum.
Booker sounds as close to scared as she’s heard him in decades. He hasn’t spoken with such laboured breaths since that night in Moundou. Joe’s scimitar blunted at the edges with the crusts of blood it had accumulated. His voice lost in a language not even she could fully translate, while Booker, helpless, clueless, held him down with sheer weight and promise and grief.
“Do you think he knows?” Andy asks.
The notion barely has chance to fester before –
“I think he’s too interested in seeing us again to discount it. Every job he’s called about, it’s been – exactly the kind of thing we go for.”
Andy nods in acknowledgement, rolling his words over, his crooked English, the slip of French in the muttered putain that follows it.
“We’ll meet him. Hear him out.”
This, finally, sparks life and outrage in an otherwise silent Joe.
“Are you mad?” he spits, leaning into his knees. “Boss. It’s a trap.”
“We don’t know that,” Andy reminds him sharply. “And we need to find out. Because if Copley so much as suspects something, we need to know who else he’s told.”
An ugly scowl steals any remnant light from Joe’s eyes. There’s wild agitation in his limbs as he gets up, finding himself quickly at a loss to do anything other than pace. Booker’s eyes follow him; his hands ready and open on his knees, just to be safe.
“I won’t risk our secret,” Andy says, pretending just for a moment to worry that Joe might feel otherwise.
It works like a charm – Joe, her Josef, her Yusuf, is an instrument she is versed in. She knows his melodies and his sticking points. He looks to her, wracked and stung.
“I know. Andy – I know.” He speaks earnestly. She can see his naked grief with her waking eyes and, not for the first time, she wonders if he is so transparent to Booker, who has only had two centuries to map his facial expressions.
His joints bending with rusty unease, Joe retakes his seat, looking contrite.
“So, we meet with Copley.”
“We need to know what he knows, or thinks he knows,” Andy continues, and doesn’t even wait for the two men to nod before standing. “Booker, set up the meeting for this afternoon. We hear him out, and decide from there.”
“Where are you going?” Booker asks her retreating back.
“Yusuf and I are going to find us lunch,” she replies without turning around.
Andy smiles when she hears Joe’s large sigh, a smattering of Italian under his breath. She doesn’t check to see if he’s following, though.
She knows he is.
* * *
The markets are busy in the late morning hour.
It’s a more pleasant busy than the hotel lobby, at least. This isn’t cameras and security and television screens. This is people and fabrics and spices and vegetables. It’s chattering and haggling and arguing and blessing and it’s a fraction of a home she barely remembers anymore.
It’s easy to be heartbroken about all the ways the world has changed, but the truth is, it can be twice as painful, noticing the ways it has stayed much the same. Humanity is, for all its technological advancement, not so evolved as it likes to think. They love and lose and live, as they have always loved and lost lived.
Joe trails behind Andy at her six o’clock. He might be mistaken for a petulant child dragging his heels, if not for the vigilant darting of his eyes. He is keeping guard, as always; as if she might ever need his protection.
“You can stand down, good knight,” Andy says, just to catch the offended glower on Joe’s face. She smiles, reaching back to stroke his arm briefly. He catches up to her side with visible reluctance. “Relax,” she says, and can’t fault Joe for scoffing at her hypocrisy, though she won’t take it back.
It hurts, seeing him so anxious, as if he might fracture at too firm a touch. It’s been a long fourteen months for Joe, too, it seems.
It’s been a long forty-five years, more to the point.
Perhaps Joe sees it in her eyes. Four and a half decades of apology and regret. His hand slips into and over hers, warm and calloused and tight, his fingers looping over her thumb. His smile is very nearly real, makes her want to kiss his cheek, his forehead, the relentless crumple of his brow that deepens with every passing year. Instead, she latches properly onto his hand, and they walk side by side together through the market stalls.
“Where have you been?” she asks, because there is no use in asking what he’s been doing.
Joe stalls for a moment, inspecting a pile of beefy tomatoes with generous scrutiny even as his fingers remain tangled with hers.
“Northern Chad,” he says. “The border is suffering many cruelties, of man and nature. I met a woman, travelling by moonlight with two youngsters. She said they were her siblings, but that was shame speaking for her, I think. She couldn’t have been much older than twenty. I was able to escort them as far as the Djado Plateau. I offered to take her further, but she was reluctant. It feels like we cannot turn, for finding someone in need anymore.”
Andy knows exactly what he means.
It’s been weighing her down, too. It’s why she turns away from every TV screen, keeps herself blind to newspapers and the images glued to posts and walls. Desperation seems bred into the soil as it wasn’t, thousands of years ago. Or perhaps it was, and each pocket of the world, separate from the next, made it difficult to see suffering in its entirety. Now, she can stand on a street in Sydney, and hear about the rising rate of homelessness in Stockholm.
What was once her calling is slowly poisoning itself into a burden too heavy to carry.
After a pause, though, Joe’s mouth curls up at the corners, as he rips a piece of coriander a market seller has just handed him and sniffs it.
“But at the very least, there is always good to be done.”
“You don’t sound much like yourself,” Andy murmurs, through her own shreds of coriander leaf.
The words escape her before she can put real thought into the power of them, and it’s only because she’s still gripping his hand that she feels Joe flinch.
“Yusuf,” she says, without a follow-up and he must know it, because his forgiveness is a forced thing.
He rubs his thumb over her hand, lifting up an aubergine for her approval.
“Do you remember that beautiful meal, in Masulé?” he asks. His eyes glint with mischief, a grin playing on his lips that looks exhausting to maintain.
Andy knows the right thing to do would be to apologise.
The right thing to do for her brother, her boy, would be to make him put down the aubergine, coax him out of these pressing crowds, sit him down and tell him, once and for all: I know you are suffering. I know your suffering as intimately as my own. Let me help you. Let me bear it for you. You are not alone in this burden, Atlas.
But she doesn’t do the right thing. She is not truly Andy anymore to him. She is not Andromache. She is not the woman who would shove food into his hands and cloth under his sleeping head, and swat his shoulder when he would mutter nem ‘um, si madre, yes mother, under his breath at her.
She is Boss, now.
She replies, the way Boss would reply.
“We were so full we could barely fight afterwards, as I recall.”
Joe’s eyes still glitter at the memory. His warmth, somehow, has never dimmed.
It’s a miracle, he’s a miracle, and Andy treasures him as she treasures little else in this cold, sorrowful world.
“There is no time to make the lavash, but I smelled some excellent khobz the way we came in.”
It’s halfway between a request and an instruction, and Andy takes the bait willingly, knowingly. She nods, slipping her fingers out of his. She turns back, the way they came in, following her nose and ignoring the emptiness of the space behind her that Joe had taken up. Her sentry, her guard, her boy.
A thousand years and he’s still a child in so many ways.
What have you taught him, Beloved?
The smallest pocket of her heart asks her this, sometimes, when she leaves room for it.
It’s a voice she hasn’t heard for half a millennium; a voice she hears every time she closes her eyes. Time has muted it, mutated it, but it will never truly leave her. Quynh, Quynh, Beloved, her most precious self. The half she gave willingly, and lost unwillingly.
For hundreds of years Quynh has been an empty space in her shadow and now, now, looking at Joe, the empty space inside his own –
Shame creeps upon Andy, sometimes. It prickles like gooseflesh over her arms. Joe has lost, is lost, and he is coping with it the way Andy taught him to. She has nobody but herself to blame for the sharp angles of Joe’s cheekbones, the relentless crumple of his brow that no kiss will smooth away.
If ever that warmth of his spirit leaves him, she knows that will be her responsibility, too.
The bread, when she finds it, is beautiful. She buys too much, and returns quickly to Joe’s side and she hates the easy smile he offers her. Whatever wounds she inflicted with her words have healed as quickly as if she had sliced him open with the knife tucked into her boot.
“Shall we?” Joe asks, bags in one hand and holding the other out for her to take.
She does, gratefully, and they walk back to the hotel together.
“Wait,” she says, as they arrive on the final street. “Booker hated the food in Iran.”
Joe’s eyebrows rise momentarily, a look of such innocent surprise it makes her cackle with laughter.
“You menace,” she tells him, and this time, she really does kiss his cheek.
Joe chuckles, lightly, under his breath.
He doesn’t let go of her hand until their hotel room door is shut behind them.
* * *
James Copley has not changed very much in the years between their meetings – though he has certainly changed more than Andy, Booker and Joe have. He’s charming enough, in the way many handsome Englishmen are. He smiles politely without losing the seriousness of his tone, makes strong eye contact and keeps his limbs alertly relaxed.
The CIA agent in him has not entirely vanished, despite the years since he left the agency.
Andy had liked him plenty, the first time around. More than his counterpart, but less than the previous CIA agent they’d helped thirty years before him. He seems genuinely pleased to see them. Not too eager, not too suspiciously relieved. His manners mean nothing, though. He was a good agent, as hard a read as any they’ve come across.
She takes a seat to his left at the outdoor table of the café they have arranged to meet at. Booker takes the right.
Joe doesn’t accompany them, but is instead stationed at a nearby location, where he can maintain better visuals on their surroundings. He’s not a perfect sniper, but he’s the best they have and Andy’s never liked having all three of them out in the open together.
“I understand you’ve been – busy,” Copley says after they’ve politely exchanged half-sincere greetings. He looks to Booker on this last word, as if he is quoting Booker’s explanation for their previous refusals. It’s as good an excuse as any they’ll muster. “But I really think you are best qualified for this.”
Andy listens to his words – pleas, really.
There’s just enough sentimentality woven into his sentences to appeal to a better nature he cannot possibly understand she has lived without for some time. What good she does anymore, it is muscle memory at best. He shows them pictures. He paints a story of kidnapped women, girls, their vulnerability and the risk posed to not only their lives but so many more, without proper intervention.
It’s not hard to believe the truth of the story itself. Whether these exact girls are really in this location or not, at the end of the day, it’s certain that there are girls out there somewhere, locked in a facility, without hope of salvation. That is the way of this world, as everyone sitting at their table is all too aware.
So, Andy lets Copley weave his tapestry tale. She watches his eyes and his hands and his shoulders. She pays attention to which words he leans into and which he throws away. She scans every clue the meagre pictures offer. She asks about the facility and what he would propose they do.
She asks him what the plan for the girls would be, once they are released.
Copley was a good agent and he’s lost none of his sharpness, nor his stamina. He answers every question with the precision of a needle through the thin skin of a vein. Detailed but not flowery, succinct but not short.
Either he is telling the truth, or this is a plan so long in the making that it has become as good as, to his tongue and his heart. Neither version is a comfort.
Booker keeps his faithful silence, for the most part. He is little more than the mediator and Copley knows it. His answers are directed almost exclusively to Andy, barely sparing a glance for Booker from the moment they sit down.
Then, finally, Booker asks very quietly: “And why are we the better option, exactly?”
It’s so perfectly timed, Andy wants to shake his hand. She barely restrains herself from smiling it’s so wonderful.
Copley’s eyes widen, just a fraction.
Despite an incredibly swift recovery, followed by a very reasonable explanation by way of comparing this job to the one performed for him the previous time they accepted work from him, it is the longest pause he has taken before answering their question. His hand has slipped – he might know it, he might not, but Andy knows the slow nod Booker responds with isn’t meant for Copley, but for Andy. He’s noticed it, too.
There’s nothing more to be gained from this meeting. Further questioning would arouse suspicion and, in any case, Andy is ready to leave this man’s attentive, charming presence. Maintaining her cool veneer of implacability is getting difficult for reasons beyond the pressing afternoon humidity and the prickle of Joe’s watchful eyes.
“We’ll take the job,” Andy says, and the little gust of a sigh Copley lets out is hatefully believable.
“Thank you,” he says, all eye contact and gentility. Andy shakes his hand once. His palm is dry and warm against hers.
“Send us everything you have,” Andy says brusquely, already standing up. Booker follows suit, acting every part the humble second as he shakes Copley’s hand wordlessly. “We’ll be in touch.”
Copley smiles, thanking them again, and that’s it. They part ways with civility and calm and Andy grinds her teeth together as she makes her way in the opposite direction to their hotel. She has no idea if Copley has the resources to know where they’re staying already but she isn’t going to chance it.
Booker stays behind her right shoulder, his shadow merging with hers.
“Merde,” he whispers under his breath.
Andy can’t help but agree entirely.
They walk together, every bit the purposeful wanderers, until they reach their rendezvous point to find Joe loitering at a café with a piece of fruit in his hand, good-naturedly arguing with a young man who appears to be futilely attempting to take advantage of Joe’s goodwill and sell him something from a small cart.
Joe’s hammed up American accent is a thing of marvellous entertainment, and he caves into offering the boy some dirham with a familiar OK! OK! gesture that makes Booker snort.
“Fucking softie,” he murmurs as they walk through Joe’s line of sight, and Andy hums in agreement as they listen to the remnants of Joe saying farewell to the young man as he departs.
It’s another twenty minutes of steady walking and circling before they reach their hotel. None of them speak, or so much as look at each other, until they are safely ensconced once more within their apartment walls.
“Check everything,” she says, without a care for the fact Booker and Joe no doubt did so the first time they entered the room.
They sweep it entirely clean. Every fixture, light switch and cable is checked. Every window is covered, every crack and crevice investigated. Still, when they reconvene in the living space, Andy doesn’t feel quite as safe as she did here a few hours ago. Her restlessness is a living creature inside her, a compass and a guide. She needs to be out of this hotel, this city, this country, right now.
“We need to know who Copley’s been talking to. Who’s funding him. Where he’s getting any of this from. We need to leave Morocco now. I’ll arrange transport. Booker, you get to work on Copley, find what you need. Did you get a good enough look at the buildings in the photos? Joe, you’re on clean up. We’re out of here in sixty minutes.”
The double measure of Yes Boss that responds, followed by a flurry of limbs and hands and averted eyes, hurts more than she will ever admit.
* * *
There was a time, recent enough for her to still miss it, when arranging transport would have had Andy directing herself to some stables. Wrangling for horses, or camels, or perhaps if they were desperate, a donkey cart.
She misses the days of horses. She misses their smell, their bristly coats and tangled manes. The velvet nuzzling of their noses on her cheek as she bridled them. For all the convenience that modern aircraft has brought them over the years, the troubles that have followed suit are too many to really be worth the expedience. She was built for a week’s ride over dusty plains on horseback, not cooping herself up in metal shells that deafen its occupants, no more welcoming than as the gears and hinges they are made of.
Joe and Booker are quick to reach the airfield she directs them to: Booker reliably on his Harley-Davidson, Joe careening up the strip in a rust-bucket of a Vauxhall whose driver accepts every note left in Joe’s wallet when he offers it, before speeding away post-haste.
Andy beckons them to the freighter she’s managed to snag three spaces on. The pilot had laughed at her American accent, but looked pleased by her Arabic, softening up at the promises bestowed on him by her dear friend Hachim, whose knowledge of the comings and goings of Marrakech’s seediest undercurrent are unparalleled.
Now, the pilot, thirty-eight year old Nabil, gives a nod to Andy as she approaches flanked by her team. He rolls his eyes at the sight of the Harley, and grumbles in Arabic loud enough that he seems to assume Booker won’t understand – or perhaps simply doesn’t care. It’s loaded in all the same, stationed between two crates, the contents of which Andy could guess at, but won’t.
Joe, who gets a slightly more approving nod than Booker had, chats amicably with Nabil while Andy and Booker clamber into the main cargo hold, hunkering down between the few fixed seats closely enough for their knees to bump against each other.
You sure about this? Booker’s eyes ask her, while his hands curl around invisible weapons, nails scraping his palms over and over again. Andy merely blinks vacantly, her mind on the gentle widening of Copley’s eyes, as the engines begin to turn and thrum, trembling in their chests and stomachs where they sit.
Joe swings inside, the hold door sliding closed behind him. His face is set with a livid strain she had anticipated, but is never quite prepared for.
“I don’t like this plan, Andy,” Joe says quite simply, as he drops down beside them, gripping hold of a nearby crate for balance as the wheels of the plane begin to roll around. His voice is almost lost amidst the engine.
“What plan?” Booker scoffs, not quite playfully. “I don’t even know where we’re going.”
“Cairo,” Andy replies promptly. She leans back against a chair, settling in for at least three hours of pretending to sleep. “We’re going to Cairo.”
“Why?” Booker asks.
“Because we need a safehouse Copley definitely won’t be able to find.”
“What makes the one in Cairo so special?” Booker mutters, and Andy knows he’s thinking of the well-stocked apartment in Casablanca where they holed up for almost a month’s refuge, ten years ago.
Andy tries to keep her silence. She keeps her lips pressed together and hopes to no god that Booker notices the gesture, that he leaves it alone. She can feel two pairs of eyes on her burning, sandy face; one confused and the other, the other nothing but accusation.
“Andy –” Booker tries again.
Joe cuts him off, in a dreadful voice.
“Because the house in Cairo was bought in Nicolo’s name.”
Andy keeps her eyes closed, feeling her teeth bite through the inside of her cheek. Blood pools into her gums, the bites healing instantly, and she swallows it down with effort, feeling sick. She doesn’t need to look to see the betrayed anger in Joe’s eyes. It’s the same, every time he’s forced to say Nicolo’s name; just like the cavern that widens behind Andy’s sternum, every time she hears it.
Booker doesn’t respond.
At least, not in any way that can be heard.
* * *
When Andy briefly opens her eyes ninety-four minutes later, she sees Joe’s head resting on the back of Booker’s shoulder, his eyes shut too tightly to be sleeping.
Booker is staring blindly through her.
She wonders if he feels Nico’s absence the same way she does; if he has a hollow cavern in his chest, too.
* * *
They land half an hour out of the city.
Nabil is sweet, and helpful, and entirely lacking in curiosity.
Andy gives Booker the address, blind to the hardness of his eyes as he swings a stiff leg over his Harley and makes for the armed vehicles slowly reversing towards the freighter. Joe follows wordlessly on foot, already hollering in a rough, familiarly Egyptian dialect of Arabic to the closer truck.
The winds are tightly stretched over Andy’s face as the dust is scraped from the road in tiny whirls. The sun is distractingly clear, pulling her thoughts from the image of Booker’s clenched mouth and Joe’s hunched shoulders.
“Shukran,” she thanks Nabil, and he smiles at her with his hand over his heart.
Swinging her backpack over her shoulder, Andy starts walking.
Behind her, and before her, and all around her, the Sahara Desert hums a taunting lullaby. The soft, rich sand twirls and burns and Andy keeps a tight grip on the knot of terrible sorrow that lives inside her chest, lest it loosen enough to break free.
* * *
The safehouse in Cairo is an old building in the downtown area, a survivor of a terrible earthquake and countless raids. Andy’s feet remember the way, although it’s been decades since she set eyes on it.
By the time she gets there, by foot, taxi and more than one bus, the day has slipped away from her. At least she knows with cautious certainty she hasn’t been followed, though.
It’s Booker who lets her in, just like at the hotel. He looks greyer than he did stepping down from the plane, his upper back a little more curved. They share a grim smile as Andy brushes past him, following the natural route of the landing to a wide kitchen that’s a hell of a lot better stocked than she expected it to be.
She realises, too late of course, Joe has probably been here plenty of times in the last few years. He doesn’t have unlimited safehouses on this continent, and this is easily his northmost one.
“How are we looking?” she asks, fully expecting Booker to be bringing up the rear as she drops her stuff onto a chair beside Joe.
Booker doesn’t disappoint.
“I’ve got a signal. Data’s collecting as we speak. Nothing yet on who Copley spends his time with, but a few bits and pieces about the facility. Thought most recently to be used by a faction of ex-South Sudanese militia. It looks like they’ve been subcontracted by a company called Elit-Farms. They specialise in sustainable energy and windfarm production. Been branching out to solar energy, the past two years.”
“That’s no good,” Andy mutters.
“I know,” Booker says with conciliatory annoyance. “I’ll keep looking. We’ll find something.”
“Until then,” she says, but she’s cut off by Joe.
“You’re in the top room,” he interjects bitingly, not looking up from his phone. She wouldn’t be all that surprised if she were to look down at his screen and see he was playing candy crush.
He doesn’t offer to show her the way, and she doesn’t ask him to. She knows where it is, and she knows it is as clear and clean a punishment as Joe can manage in his current state.
“Get some sleep, Andy,” Joe continues. He even spares her and up-down glance this time. “I know you haven’t slept since Booker’s message.”
She doesn’t refute it. She just nods, reaching to squeeze his shoulder, then Booker’s upper arm.
She leaves them to it in the kitchen, stopping only long enough to root under a flight of stairs, where she knows she’ll find booze. A bottle of cognac is the only half-decent thing she finds, but it’ll do. She won’t sleep, and Joe knew that when he dismissed her. But he’d wanted her out of the room and it’s the tiniest gift Andy can offer him right now, so she gives it.
Her feet drag on the stairs, her eyes on the floor. The house seems huge in its emptiness. It feels like days ago she climbed aboard a plane in Norway. It’s barely been twenty-four hours.
The top room, as Joe had called it, is the only room on the top floor. It takes up most of the breadth of the house, with an adjoining bathroom and even a small balcony, though that’s been boarded off for years. It’s the master bedroom. A sacred place, which Andy has no interest in entering.
The door is shut, requiring at least some fleeting effort to enter. She wonders grimly if that was further spite on Joe’s part.
Taking a fortifying breath, Andy pushes open the door and steps inside.
She’s greeted by darkness, and the distinct scent of dust. The light is poor when she turns it on, casting pale shadows in the form of a tall dresser and several chipped sculptures strewn about the room. There’s a decrepit easel in one corner – destroyed, she realises upon closer inspection, by haggard cuts from a large blade. There’s a shredded canvas propped against the wall.
Andy’s breath catches in the back of her throat.
Her eyes sting and she thinks, for three steady heartbeats: Nicky, Nico, Nicolo, come back, come back to us.
The very notion of Joe and Nicky, of JoeAndNicky, has been stitched into the room. The paintings on the walls are all Joe, while the rugs are all Nicky. The bed is huge, piled high with variously coloured blankets and sheets – the dresser is open, revealing some haphazardly hung shirts and pants. She knows, if she looks, she’ll find half an arsenal under the bed.
Andy closes the door almost all the way behind her, allowing just a sliver of light from the stairs to leak in. A reminder, that this is not a tomb she has been locked inside.
It’s the work of moments, clearing the bathroom, using the facilities. The water she splashes on her face is tangy from the pipes, but gloriously cool. She runs her fingers through her short hair, swigs her cognac, and drops to sit on the side of the bed nearest the shuttered window.
There’s a cabinet with a lamp and a few assortments on top of it. She knows better. She knows better.
Dust lies over everything like an enchantment that is not hers to break and yet – and yet.
Andy picks up an envelope-sized rectangle of paper, turning it over in both hands. She bites into her cheeks again, tonguing the specks of blood that drip down.
Nicolo di Genova stares back at her, from over his bare shoulder. He’s smiling, just a little. The charcoal does not allow for the starlit glimmer in his eyes but Andy sees it anyway. She knows it’s there, and what’s more, the artist knew. Joe always knew. He looks young, so young; nothing like his nine hundred years. He looks alight, he looks alive.
That, she knows, is what haunts Joe’s face every waking moment.
Because this unnatural nature of theirs, this immortality they share in lieu of blood to forge a family fire. It has gifts and curses, both. They dream of each other, is the thing. They dream of each other forever, until they meet.
For three hundred years after she lost Quynh, Andy never knew for certain whether true and final death had found her beloved, from the day the cruel hands of mortal men ripped them apart. Cast to the seabed, unreachable and unforgotten, Quynh has lived and died and suffered in between ever since.
But then along came Booker, two hundred years ago. Booker, who was Sebastien le Livre, who dreamt of three fighting travellers, two men and a woman – Josef and Nicolas and Ada. And he dreamed of a tormented woman at the bottom of the ocean, screaming, and when he told her, Andy’s heart shattered into fragments inside her chest and was made whole again in an instant.
Because Andy is a wretched creature, she knows she is. She was relieved. She was relieved to know that Quynh lived still, that there was a chance they might yet one day be reunited.
And the dreams have never truly stopped. They have plagued Booker, driven him to sleepless nights and chasing a bottle more than once and still Andy can’t quite stamp out the relief, because as long as Booker dreams of Quynh, Andy knows she will find her again.
Now, Joe carries that torment with him. He wakes every day, not knowing whether Nicky is living or dead. Until a new immortal is made known to them, he’ll never truly know. He has only his faith, which has been rooted in Nicolo di Genova so long Andy doesn’t know how easily it will survive without him.
What have you taught him, Beloved? Andy hears Quynh ask her, as she sits on this empty bed, holding Nicky’s portrait, her breath clenched behind her teeth.
I have taught him suffering without end, she thinks to herself.
Shame envelops her.
Andy drops the portrait face down onto the cabinet once more. She can’t bear Nicky’s eyes on her, not even a charcoal rendering. Her brother, her boy, it claws her open too harshly to think of him often. Better to lock him away, with Quynh, that they might suffer together in the coffin of her oubliette mind.
She bows her face into her palms, her fingernails digging into her scalp and she breathes hard and slow, in and out, riding the tidal wave of emotion that has crashed so thoroughly over her that she can’t take it, can’t take the punishment from Joe no matter how she might deserve it for forcing him here, for forcing their company on him here, in a place that should have belonged to him and his beloved only.
Scratching the tears out of her eyes, Andy gulps more burning cognac, lies back on the bed and conjures to her mind James Copley’s face instead.
Does he know? It seems impossible, though she knows above all else there is no such thing. There is only improbable.
To what end does he seek them, then? To become one of them? Why, in that case, send them on a goose chase through Africa? If he knows of them, of their strength, their…endlessness, then he surely knows he cannot defeat them. Which leaves only capture.
A tremble runs decidedly through her body at the very word. It is, remains, has always been, her very worst fear. Even before she was forced, shackled, to watch men’s dishonourable hands on her Quynh as they dragged her away, the very prospect of a cage has terrified her. It did in her mortal life, too.
It’s about the only thing she brought with her, from one life to the next. That violent fear of imprisonment.
She does not know if it is the same, for Joe and Booker. She’s never asked. She’s never wanted them to ask.
I would never let them cage you, madre mio, Nicky whispered into the back of her neck, once, clutching her as tightly as cracked ribs, as stifled breaths, and still it was the safest place she knew in that moment. I am here, I am holding you, I will hold you for a thousand years.
Thank you, thank you, she thinks she might have sobbed into the gloom of the night.
Once dawn finally kissed their weary eyes, he never spoke of it again, and neither did she.
She never thanked him, never needed to but she should have done anyway. She should have told him: You saved me. Whatever fragments of me remained after Quynh, they remained only because you held them together.
Andy takes a shuddering breath, stealing back the trailing cobwebs of her thoughts with a sip of her drink. It spills over her cheeks, into the blankets underneath her.
She closes her eyes.
And, quite suddenly, she sleeps.
* * *
Sleeping pills don’t last very long on their metabolism, but a strong enough dose will put even Andy out for an hour.
She wakes up suddenly, coughing and spluttering, and she wakes up livid.
It sits inside her as she gets up, and takes a shower.
It festers as she washes the grime of travelling and sweating and worrying out of her hair and skin. She scrapes away a layer of it when she towels herself dry with one of the dusty bed blankets, but it’s grown back by the time she’s pulled fresh clothes on: a pair of her own jeans, and a shirt from the dresser she’s reasonably sure is Joe’s, because she’s angry but she tries not to be cruel.
There is food cooking by the time she gets downstairs.
Booker is still on his laptop, notes jotted on a thick pad of paper beside him as he quickly finds and deletes everything he needs in the hope of going unnoticed.
Joe is on a computer of his own, but seems to have either given up entirely or is waiting on further instructions from Booker, because he’s currently doodling Nabil’s face on a sheet of paper. He looks up when Andy enters, polite and concerned and full of utter bullshit.
“Did you know I’d go for the cognac, or did you just drug all of them to make sure?” she asks coolly.
She grabs a spoon from the worktop and eats a bite of the stew-like concoction bubbling in the pan. It’s furiously spicy and seems to be fifty percent peppercorns. Joe is unremorseful.
“I’ve known you how long exactly, Boss?”
She’s not sure if the words were meant to hurt, or if she’s just reeling from this asshole of a day they’re having.
“Booker, we need a location. How long until we have one?”
To her surprise, when Booker looks up, he’s got a doubtful crease in his brow. He glances sideways to Joe, then back to Andy. He licks his lips, nibbling on them before answering.
“That depends,” he says, with such a measure of caution Andy almost doesn’t recognise him.
She leans back into the heels of her hands on the kitchen counter, cocking her head in warning. Booker looks to Joe a second time.
“On what?” Andy asks, pushing the t out so hard with her tongue she nearly loses a few teeth, too.
“On the job Copley offered. That we said we’d take.”
No longer merely confused, Andy is downright baffled now.
“What do you mean? We aren’t doing the job, that was just a stall. You knew that, Booker. We all did.”
“And if there really are girls in that bunker?” Joe cuts in.
It seems to be more mercy for Booker than a desire to speak. Booker’s eyes are very round and very wide, spinning from one to the other as he tries to take both Joe and Andy in at once. Andy turns fully to Joe, who seems to be the sower of the seed of doubt that is germinating awfully quickly.
“There aren’t,” she replies. “Joe, you were the one who said it was a trap first.”
“Booker’s found evidence of three known traffickers making use of the byroads that lead to this place in the past year alone,” Joe says hotly. He’s no longer sketching Nabil. The pencil is clenched with deadly force in his hand. The crumple of his brow is deeper than ever. “There might actually be girls in there.”
“And?” Andy asks, the lingering headache from the sleeping pills gnawing at her.
She’s angry – angry with Joe for drugging her, angry with herself for falling for it. Angry with herself for not noticing the chemical taste in the booze and angry with Joe for knowing she’d be so thrown off by being banished to the master bedroom she’d think nothing of the alcohol she was knocking back like water from an oasis –
“And, if James Copley has the resources to pull us in, he’d have the resources to drag some innocent victims into the throng if it got him what he wanted.”
“I repeat, and?” Andy snarls, gripping the worktop tight to keep from finding something to lob at Joe.
Booker is completely silent, no longer even tapping on his laptop as he watches the volleying of Joe and Andy’s frustration. His mouth is shut, lips folded into his teeth as if it is a physical barrier alone keeping himself from trying to intervene. He’s learned, unfortunately, how that usually turns out.
Andy would feel guilty if she wasn’t so angry.
“So that’s who we are now, is it?” Joe scoffs, looking nothing short of disgusted. “We throw anybody in our path that serves to our benefit, no matter the cost?”
“We aren’t the ones throwing these probably fictional girls into harm’s way, Yusuf. Copley is. And if it’s a real job that he really wants done, he can find somebody else. We aren’t risking our existence over –”
“Nicolo would never risk the fates of children over his own.”
“And look where that got him!” Andy roars, her throat burning with a desperate rage that has nothing to do with the pills, and right there, in that precise moment, she watches, devastated, as the words carve ruin into Joe’s grief-stricken face.
She hears the tiny intake of Booker’s breath, sees the even tinier lift of his shoulders towards his ears.
Joe looks as if Andy has just shot him. Shot him and then slapped him, just for the pleasure.
A thrumming, horrible feeling that is awfully close to satisfaction ticks inside her to hear his silence. The rest of her, though, has never been so horrified. Andy licks her dry lips with a sandpaper tongue. She can’t suck any air into her shrinking lungs.
Joe’s eyes are spoiled with tears as the pencil drops out of his hand and in his blustering rush to escape the room, he overturns two chairs and with a slam of the door he’s vanished into the depths of the house.
“I didn’t,” Andy says, a meek thing inside her desert of a mouth.
She looks at Booker, who’s staring at his laptop keys. He nods anyway. When he lifts his hands and deftly tells her to follow Joe with his fingers, she takes the offer gratefully, stopping only to put her hand next to his on the table before following Joe through the unlit hallway.
She tries in every room, just to be sure. She doesn’t know why – she knows where he’ll be.
The top room door isn’t shut this time. It’s mostly closed, just like she’d left it, as if Joe had had the same desire as she did, to remember he hasn’t been locked in. Or maybe it was just the careless haste of his retreat.
Andy doesn’t knock. A knock is an offer, and Andromache of Scythia apologises so rarely that they are never offers; they are tokens forced upon their recipients with very little grace.
The bedside light has been turned on, but there’s no Joe on the bed.
He’s sitting on the floor, next to the broken easel. His back is resting against the shredded canvas, knees bent as an armrest with his head against the wall. If any tears have spilled down his face, they are no longer visible. It’s been a long time since Andy has seen Joe shed a single tear and she thinks, longingly, of how easily they once fell. How an injured dog, or a laughing child, or just the right smile, could tip him over the edge.
His breaths are soft and a little too even to be natural. It’s only once Andy moves to sit down cross-legged in front of him that he opens his eyes. She loves him. She loves him. If she ever knew how to tell him, she’s forgotten it by now.
After a generous silence, in which neither of them averts their eyes, Andy says: “I won’t lose you, too, Yusuf.”
She almost manages it – chokes on the final word, on his name. It’s a fitting enough hurdle to stumble over.
“I can’t. I can’t lose you both. You’re right. Nicolo would put any child’s life before his own. But he wouldn’t put anyone’s life over yours, and he’s not here, so I’m doing that job for him. I will keep you safe from everything. Even yourself. You did the same thing for me, when I lost Quynh. You both did.”
Joe closes his eyes again, opens them after a jagged intake of breath through his nose.
“I know,” he says, two cracked syllables that soothe Andy’s own burning eyes. “I know.”
He looks at her, wet eyelashes and dark eyes and dry cheeks.
“It never stops, does it?” he asks.
She wants to lie to him. She wants to tell him how time heals everything. How the days lighten and the nights soften. How one day, getting up from the ground won’t feel like pushing a boulder up a mountain’s cliff. She wants to lie.
He is hers, her teammate. More than that, her brother, her boy. She cannot lie to him. She cannot poison Nicky’s absence further with a falsehood.
“Never,” she replies.
Final, fleeting tremors escape Joe’s lips when he laughs quietly. Andy reaches over to rub the soft skin beneath his eyes with her thumbs and he takes hold of her wrists, kisses her palms one by one.
“Thank you,” he whispers into her skin. For what, she can’t bear to imagine.
“Come on,” she says, pulling him up by his grip on her arms. He goes willingly, following almost blindly all the way to the bed.
After only the barest moment of resistance, Joe allows himself to be pushed down onto the covers, lazily kicking his shoes off as he’s swaddled at the waist with loose blankets. As she turns off the bedside lamp, Andy thinks, briefly, of going back downstairs to Booker. To the food gurgling on the stove and the waiting laptops and the worries of what it is they’re going to find on James Copley.
Joe, however, has other plans. His fingers latch onto her, loose enough to be shaken off, as if she’d dare.
With a single tug from him, Andy folds back onto the bed, facing the door, so that their backs are pressed together, their spines aligned. He’s a warm, unfamiliar comfort. It’s been a long time since they slept like this. Joe reaches back, briefly, to put his hand on her leg.
“Thank you,” he whispers again, and she isn’t feeling mean enough to make the same mistake as she did in the market earlier: You don’t sound much like yourself.
Andy lies awake, for over an hour. Joe does, too. Their breaths are a unique rhythm, their combined warmth a degree too much in the dense air, though they daren’t move.
Eventually, there’s a creak on the stairs, the recognisable tread of Booker moving purposefully loudly, so as to be heard on his approach.
He nudges the door open, takes in the sight of them and huffs a near-laugh, shaking his head.
After a moment’s visible deliberation, Booker places his handgun on the bedside table nearest the door and lies down on the bed with his shoes still on. He must know they’re both awake, though Andy has her eyes closed and she knows Joe probably does, too.
“Elit-Farms was bought last year by Merrick Industries. They also own Merrick Health and Merrick Pharma. The pharmaceutical branch’s last major lawsuit was two years ago, when they moved a drug onto human trials without proper regulations. Two people died. Another is in a coma. It cost them millions in pay-outs and fines. Their stock prices recovered within six months.”
There has always been a soothing quality to Booker’s stubbornly maintained French accent. Some things, though, cannot be made softer by his lilting tongue.
They lie together in the darkness, three lost souls with ageless bodies. Pressed together in night’s embrace.
Andy feels a tremor of something unnameable in her heart. Some animal instinct to run, run far away, that has served her well for almost seven thousand years. Against her back, she feels Joe’s returning shiver.
“I know where Copley lives,” Booker continues, seeming untroubled by the lack of verbal response. “I think our best bet is to go straight to him.”
He must take their silence for what it is: agreement.
With two hard flicks Booker kicks his shoes off and turns his back to Andy, so he is facing the door as well, within reach of his gun. For a little while, there is just their breathing and their heartbeats; the relentless sound of Cairo at night coming through the walls.
Then, stretching out with all four limbs across the mattress, Booker lets out another little huff of laughter, just like the one he made when he entered the room.
“Christ alive, Joe. You guys need a bed this big?”
Feeling raw and turned around by the day, not to mention her argument with Joe, Andy freezes at his words. Joe, on the other hand, actually chuckles a little. Despite the smallness of the staccato sound, it’s as brilliant as birdsong to Andy’s ears.
“We’re very athletic,” Joe replies dryly.
Booker laughs, too, who retorts with Yeah, I remember, and suddenly Andy is laughing, too, and the air is still full of dust and dismay but somehow it is just that little bit easier to breathe. Andy pushes one foot backwards, to rest again Joe’s, while the other moves forwards to meet Booker’s.
She remembers these moments from the years following Quynh’s loss, too. When things were abruptly alright, for a fleeting moment. She remembers the violent wrench of guilt that would follow, every time.
With Booker facing the door, Andy allows herself to fight every piece of her instinct and turns around on the bed. She moulds her body against Joe’s back, her hands sliding over his torso, her knees tucked into the back of his. Clutching his abdomen, she feels the clench of a stifled sob, her nose pressing into the nape of his neck.
Joe shakes, silently, and when he moves his hands she feels the rustle of paper in them, clenched tight. His bristles of short hair tickle her forehead, and her lips touch the bony knob of his upper spine. She clutches him, as Nicky once clutched her, and tries to breathe his words into Joe’s trembling body.
I am here. I am holding you. I will hold you for a thousand years.
Eventually, Joe slips into a restive sleep. Andy follows, unsure if Booker has done the same or not.
Dreams claim her, violent and gruesome and more frightening than any she has experienced in two hundred years.
* * *
Specifically, one dream.
* * *
Andy tears herself awake, choking on blood that isn’t her own. A terror that isn’t hers, either, grips the last vestiges of her mind trapped in that waking nightmare.
On either side of her, Joe and Booker are doing the same. Their hands touch their necks, as if they’ve each been slit.
“Free – something,” Booker says, instinctively, the exact same nametag Andy had seen in her dream.
A woman. Black, younger than thirty. Frightened, frightened and brave. Blood pouring out of her throat. Panicked and surprised and angry and confused and –
Joe’s already slid off the floor. He’s grabbed a pencil from who the hell knows where, and is scribbling haphazardly the picture of a woman’s face on the back of the small portrait of Nicky that Andy had left on the cabinet. Already, Andy recognises the shape of the woman’s eyes, her mouth, her angles and lines.
“Another one,” she says, if only to make it real.
Booker’s nodding, frowning, clearly astounded. He’s never met a new immortal before – two hundred years and already he’s no longer the baby.
Joe, though. Andy looks at him, scrawling and scoring the shape of young Freeman’s youthful face. She can’t be much older than twenty-five– quite literally, the youngest of them, too. And Joe’s eyes are bright, and glossy, and lit with a fire she hasn’t seen in years. In forty-five years, to be exact.
“Another one,” he says, and he almost smiles.
Andy takes a deep breath, and tries not to think how this girl sure has the worst timing in the world.
Or, quite possibly, the best.
* * *
** I think “Boss” is the saddest thing to ever call someone you’ve known for hundreds of years. It upsets me on a visceral level. So, I made a thing of it.
**Putain: Whore (French)
** Masulé is a city near the Caspian Sea in North Iran.
** Lavash is a traditional Iranian bread.
** Khobz is a traditional Moroccan bread.
** Merde: Shit (French)
** Shukran: Thank you (Arabic)
** I don’t love explaining stories (I’d rather you take what you want from them, for better or worse) but I feel like I should reiterate: this is a Joe without Nicky, an Andy without Nicky, a Booker without Nicky, and as such, they are purposefully not identical to canon. I hope, though, they are somewhat believable versions.
** I am trying to avoid using much Arabic dialogue, because it’s my understanding that what I research is likely to either be an overly formal sounding “Standard Arabic” that is usually only written, not spoken, or, possibly an incorrect dialect. I’m using it sparingly, but also don’t want to ignore it. Again, I will never, ever be offended by advice on fixing any stumbles I make in the language department. (Although please be polite about it, I’m a ready learner.)
Chapter 2: ONE: NILE
Grief that is not lanced will harden even the softest of hearts, my love, her Mother had warned her, wiping her tears away and kissing her cheeks, in the weeks and months after her father’s death. Never hide from it. Never deny it. It shall stay with you, wherever you go.
She wonders, what becomes of the softest heart, after grieving for forty-five years?
What becomes of it, after five hundred years?
I am astonished, completely astonished, by the response to this story. Honestly, I've been blushing for a week. You're killing me.
Please have this gift as my thanks. It's non-refundable angst, so, you know. Proceed with caution.
Love love love,
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
* * *
Corporal Nile Freeman wakes up with a shortage of air in her lungs, too many thoughts in her scrambled head, and, worst of all, no scar on her neck. Her palm rubs over the smooth skin of her throat in a motion already tiresome and habitual.
Because two days ago, a man slit Corporal Nile Freeman’s throat. She died, bleeding out on the floor next to her killer, while Dizzy, dear Dizzy, her friend, her comrade, her sister in arms, tried to palm the blood back into her body, her eyes full of tears and her mouth full of orders.
Nile Freeman died.
Then she woke up.
She sits on the edge of her bed, her hand on her neck, gulping air into her lungs.
A voice behind her says: “Rest up, Freeman. You got a game to get to?”
A shaky smile tugs weakly at Nile’s mouth. She twists around, takes in the troubled face of Jordan Hurley, her wrung hands twisting together in front of her. Jay smiles back, just as small, just as frightened.
“Hey, girl,” she says, taking a step closer.
Nile wishes she hadn’t moved her hand from her neck, but there’s no use in pretending otherwise. Jay’s seen her bare, unscarred throat. Her eyes are wide.
“Where’s Dizzy?” Nile asks. The words come out roughly. For one hysterical moment, she wonders if the knife is still in there, somewhere, scratching her words on their way out.
Jay comes to sit beside her on the bed. She’s picking at the cuticles of her thumbs, the way she does on the bad nights. Must’ve been doing it for a while, because there are bruises around both nails, tiny rips of skin where she’s bitten at them. Nile wants to take hold of her hands, give her fingers a rest. She doesn’t dare reach out, for fear of what Jay might do.
“She’s, uh,” Jay tries, failing to come up with a believable excuse. There wouldn’t be one, anyway. Diz and Jay are rarely out of each other’s sights. It’s been that way for as long as Nile can remember. “Anyway. Thought I’d come spring you. Doc said you could leave, right?”
Her eyes drift to Nile’s eerily smooth neck as she says it. She lifts her hand, reaching to touch, and Nile braces herself, allows it with her lungs constricted and her stomach in knots.
Jay’s fingertips run over the side of her neck.
“Damn,” she whispers. “I don’t know who’s looking out for you, Freeman, but I hope you put in a good word for me.”
A shaky laugh tumbles out her Nile’s mouth. Jay pulls her hand away quickly, and though the suspicion hasn’t quite left her eyes she still yanks Nile into a ferocious hug.
“I thought your Mom was gonna get a second flag, jackass. Don’t do that to her.”
Nile doesn’t bother trapping the chuckle-sob that escapes her. She buries her nose in Jay’s shoulder, tears squeezed out of her eyes, and hugs her tight to herself. For the first time, the weight of her close escape feels like a breath of fresh air free of Afghanistan sands. Her Mom. What will she think? What would she say?
Jay lets go, pulling her up to standing and tugging her towards the exit.
“I gotta warn you,” she says and she leads the way out into the blistering sunshine. “You got a few of us freaked. That was a crazy close call.”
Nile hums, feeling a thousand eyes on her face as they pass fellow soldiers through the camp – faces she knows, faces she doesn’t, all looking at her, looking at her like they know, they know what happened.
Nile Freeman died. Then she woke up.
The Doctor knows it. Her Sergeant knows it. Dizzy knows it, it’s why she didn’t come to medical to see her.
Even Jay knows it, really. The bruises on her thumbs are sign enough.
Nile Freeman died, and woke up, and what does that make her now?
She clutches at the cross she wears around her neck. Tries to ground herself to the earth under her feet, the clouds above her head, the woman walking in front of her, whom she loves as deeply as she loves her brother, who’s safe back home in Chicago. She breathes. She lives.
She ignores the silence that pervades the bunks she passes, on the way to her cot.
Exhausted, she lies down and falls asleep.
* * *
This is Nile Freeman’s dream:
A man, crouched on a dusty floor. Unknowable yearning aches like a wound, his lonely tears are hot and sticky and –
The grip of a woman’s arms around his body. Intimate and unsensual, it is the grip by which a mother clutches her child to her breast, and his aches are her aches, for they are the same, and they breathe together –
That same woman, alcohol scorching her throat. She’s full of a fire of fury that does not belong to this world. Her eyes on –
A man, another man. Tall, strong, melancholy. Guilt-ridden and wine-sodden and death-evading, his feet fall heavy on the floor –
A bed beneath them. Twelve limbs three hearts their bodies are a tangle of empathy and longing and a rush of water fills her lungs as a fluorescent light in her eyes burns her retinas and she scratches and scratches and scratches –
* * *
“Hey, hey, Nile!”
She sits up so fast she headbutts Jay in the face.
“Fuck!” Jay gasps, and Nile feels sweat drip down her neck and she chokes, reaching out but three other soldiers are already grabbing Jay’s arms, pulling her up.
“Careful!” one of them shouts, and Dizzy’s eyes are dark and distrustful over Jay’s shoulder as she glares at Nile. Glares as if she thinks Nile could ever harm her on purpose…
“Jay?” Nile asks, breathless, wiping her upper lip and stares horrified at the trickle of blood seeping out of Jay’s nostril. She smears it away with the back of her hand, leaving a line of crimson streaked across her cheek.
“No harm done,” she blatantly lies. There’s forgiveness in her eyes, and no small measure of fear, too. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” Nile tries to respond, but Jay’s being crowded and buffered by countless shoulders. Everyone wants to make sure she’s OK, that she hasn’t been irreparably damaged by the strange changeling that used to be Nile Freeman, before Nile Freeman died and then woke up.
“You should get checked out, in case it’s broken,” Dizzy says, her hand on Jay’s cheek as she tries to inspect the damage.
Jay waves her off playfully, but allows the attention with embarrassment. Her eyes find Nile, briefly. Nile doesn’t look back long enough to read the morphing of her expression though. She doesn’t want to see anything else in Jay’s eyes, wants to cling to the forgiveness while it lasts.
Breath frosts and bites her lungs as she sucks in another mouthful, all but forgotten in the wake Jay’s bloody nose.
Nile looks up at the women closest to her. Their faces and voices as familiar as her own. There’s nothing she hasn’t shared with them. They have fought together and known all along there’s a chance they might die together but Nile didn’t do that, did she? She died and then woke up and now, they don’t have space for her living death.
They know her wrongness. They sense it.
Jay’s been bustled halfway to the bunker door, egged on by worried sisters who want to keep her whole and safe from demons, and Nile hurriedly tugs her gear on, barely manages to lace up her boots in her haste to escape the stifling loneliness she suddenly finds herself drowning in.
The faces from her dream feel different from every other dream she’s ever known. She hadn’t seen them, hadn’t watched them. She’d felt them, every part of them. As if her soul had detached from her material body, just for a moment, in order to latch onto something else. Something she’s terrified to name.
The morning is bright, all azure and gold. There is no such thing as a quiet army base, if you know how to listen.
Once, the noise and movement had been a homely distraction, a welcome reminder of her place in this oiled machine.
Now, she feels like a piece of rust clinging to a metal joint.
“Freeman!” she hears from her right, as she squints up at the sky and not even her self-pity can prevent the snap of her heels at the sound of that voice.
“Yes, Sergeant,” she says to the man who approaches her.
His face is gruff, impassive in a way most others haven’t been. When he tells her that she’s being relocated to Germany for further testing, he doesn’t look sorry, but he doesn’t look pleased either. It’s a small, appreciated mercy.
“But I’m fine,” she tries to insist. She wants to shove her bare neck at him, pull down her collar and shout Look! Look at me!
It’s no use.
Surrounded by fellow soldiers, under God’s watchful eye, the Sergeant pulls her dog tags out of his pocket and hands them back to her. She hadn’t even realised they were gone.
“Didn’t think you were coming back,” the Sergeant says.
Nile thinks to herself, against every shred of self-preservation she possesses, that she might have been better off if she hadn’t. Jay certainly would be, she thinks a little bitterly.
With a half-turn, torn between her Sergeant’s orders to get packing and the war raging in her heart, she catches sight of Dizzy’s angry face as she stands in the open doorway to their quarters.
Her face, her lovely face: Nile’s looked at her countless times, laughed with her, kissed her cheek and slapped her head and shoved her shoulder and hugged her arm. Dizzy, who palmed the blood back into her neck with tears in her eyes and yelled for a medic and promised Nile she’d be alright.
Only, Nile is alright, and it’s a slight against Dizzy’s nature that has ripped apart whatever threads once tied them together.
The salt-sand breathlessness of Nile’s dream returns in full force. The sun is hot on her head, a thick-fingered breeze tickling the back of her neck. She bites deep scores into her tongue and stalks away in the opposite direction. She hopes she at least looks purposeful but the truth is, she hasn’t a clue where she’s going.
She can still feel the hard squash of Jay’s face bashed by her forehead. The slice of the blade in her own throat. That stranger’s grief, and anger, and terror.
In moments, or perhaps minutes, she finds herself sitting on a crate behind a storage unit. Her knees jiggle where she sits, her fingernails biting into her thumb cuticles in poor imitation of an anxious Jay.
She wishes, mournfully, she’d brought her earphones with her, so she could block out the stormy clatter of the day with some peaceful Frank Ocean.
Nile closes her eyes, nails meticulously ripping at her thumbs, teeth burying into the meat of her tongue.
She imagines herself lying on that bed, in the dark, somewhere between those three strangers.
She imagines the warmth of their skin. She imagines the synchronicity of their breathing. She imagines their scents: cognac, she thinks, and mint, and dark wine, and cool water, and graphite. She imagines being cocooned in their presence, with the taste of saltwater in her mouth, and her eyelashes gritty with sand, and that strange hard light.
She imagines –
“Corporal Freeman,” a voice says and she looks up to see two men approaching. One of them she knows, tries to smile reassuringly, tries to look for a reassuring smile in return but there’s nothing, nothing at all, she’s alone all alone she’s alone and she’s –
The attack comes from her right, and without warning.
The men are on the ground before she can do more than snatch up a handgun that’s crashed to the floor. There’s a shape, an attacker, dark hair and a thin face but even as Nile stands straight the gun is twisted expertly out of her hands.
Nile stares, confounded, first at the gun being pointed directly at her face.
Then, at the woman holding it.
Already her face has been torched into Nile’s mind. It’s the same face as the woman in her dream. Pale eyes, a narrow face, a wicked unsmile.
Nile thinks, a little hysterically, that she might smell of mint and cognac.
“Who are you?” Nile asks, her mouth managing what her disparate thoughts can’t.
For the brief second that remains before she’s knocked unconscious, Nile almost thinks she hears the woman reply: “Andromache the Scythian.”
Before she can laugh, however, the gun strikes her across the temple, and she is out cold.
* * *
Nile Freeman wakes up, breathless, and it’s a little bit like the last few times she’s woken up since she died: she gasps, and coughs, and her heart races.
Apart from that, though, it’s nothing like the other times.
This time, she’s not in medical, or her bunk, surrounded by doctors or accidentally headbutting a bewildered Jay. This time, she’s sprawled in the back of a moving vehicle as it rolls over a desert dirt track, miles of nothing in every direction around her.
For the space of a heartbeat, she lies on her back, staring up the metal roof of the car, filled with an absurd embarrassment. Twenty-six years old. A US Marine. A grown-ass woman from south Chicago.
What the actual fuck.
Nile stares down the length of her body, towards the back of the driver’s head. The woman’s dark hair is a little sticky with sweat, her arms wrapped in leather that covers her from her knuckles to her elbows as she palms the steering wheel and eats bites of something pastry-like and sweet smelling.
They’re moving at speed, unheedful of the uneven terrain. The gaps in the backdoor of the car reveal slits of bright sunshine and dusty road. Nile hasn’t a clue how long they’ve been driving for. Long enough for her smashed head to have stopped hurting. She looks again at the woman’s head, at her mucky surroundings. She’s got her uniform, her dog tags and her phone in her pocket. Not even a weapon to speak of.
Cursing to herself, Nile decides it’s worth a chance. She raises her foot and kicks hard, one, twice, three times at the latch of the back door. The mechanism jams, springs, and quite suddenly she’s tumbling out of the vehicle and rolling painfully over sandy, grit-biting road.
With her hands protecting her head and face, she barely has a chance to gather her bearings as she hears the car tyres grind and squeal to a halt. Giddy and aching, what bare skin has scraped over the ground stinging, Nile scrambles to her feet and starts to run. She runs with everything she’s got.
Her heart pulses sluggishly in her mouth, she can do this, she can run.
She can die and wake up again. She can sure as hell outrun a devil –
* * *
She doesn’t hear the bullet leave the gun. It’s already ploughed through the back of her head.
* * *
For the second time, Nile Freeman dies.
And, for the second time, she wakes up.
* * *
Nile wakes up, groaning and startled, with blood smeared on her forehead and clumped into her braids on the back of her head.
The woman is standing over her. There is, disturbingly, something almost like amusement in the shape of her face.
She’s attractive, in her forties, perhaps. Tough-looking. Nile still remembers the quiet rage from her dream.
“Did you just shoot me?” Nile asks.
Her fingers run over the back of her neck, where the blood has dribbled down; up over her soaked braids. God, she hopes it’s blood. She really, really hopes it’s blood. The ground barely seems to hold her as she sits up, squinting at the sharp angled silhouette before her.
“Yes,” the woman replies. “I’d rather not have to do it again. It’s a waste of time having to wait for you to wake up.”
“This is a joke,” Nile splutters, shaking her head. She tries to stand, but only gets as far as her knees before she’s laughing painfully, a howl like a coyote as a litany pours from her: “This is sick. A sick joke. This isn’t – this isn’t happening. This is not happening.”
“This is happening, Nile,” the woman says, sounding closer to impatient this time. Nile can’t even bring herself to be surprised she knows her name. “You can’t die.”
“Don’t tell me I can’t die!” Nile shrieks, scrabbling desperately with her hands until she’s on unsteady feet, swaying and gipping.
The woman rolls her eyes, holding out the gun she’d snatched out of Nile’s hands back at the camp.
“Go ahead. Try again, if you think I’m lying.”
Nile grabs the gun with a greed she didn’t know she possessed. The metal is hot in her palms. The woman is waiting, still amused, her lips actually twitching now as she watches Nile lift the gun in something like the direction of her own head.
She thinks, terribly, of her mother’s face the day her father died.
Nile huffs a sob of anguish, clenches her jaw and shoots the woman in the shoulder instead.
She doesn’t even flinch. She actually sighs, looking down at the bloody hole in her tank top.
Nile watches, utterly horrified, as the woman nudges the material out of the way just quickly enough for Nile to watch the skin knit back together, all the way, until the crumpled bullet is forced out of her body and onto the floor.
As if that might not be proof enough, the woman bends down, picks the bullet up, and hands it to Nile with a grim smirk. Nile lets it roll to the floor, repulsed, wiping her hand on her trousers.
“I get it,” the woman says, and for all the sarcasm she layers over the American drawl that Nile is almost certain is fake, she sounds quite genuine. “You have a lot of questions. I can answer them. But right now, we’re wasting time.”
“Who are you?” Nile asks for a second time.
“You can call me Andy,” the woman says. “I am the leader of a group of immortals. Warriors. Fighters. Like yourself. There aren’t many of us out there. We can help you. But right now, I need you to get back in the car.”
The woman, Andy, doesn’t even give pause after her speech.
She turns on her heel and walks – no, swaggers, that is one sassy swagger – back in the direction of the car without a care for the fact Nile is still holding a loaded gun in her hands, could shoot her again just to watch her heal, just to watch her come back to life, apparently. Perhaps it’s that bizarre, assuming display of trust that breaks through the first layer of Nile’s suspicion.
Andy climbs into the driver’s side of the car, she revs the engine, and only has to wait a moment longer before Nile runs towards her, away from the camp that was full of questioning eyes, looking instead to the woman who might have the answers.
“OK,” Nile says shakily as she slams the passenger door and Andy starts driving again. “OK. Immortal. Right. An immortal warrior called Andy.”
Andy, who doesn’t seem offended, waggles her fingers at a slim box on the dashboard that Nile now realises is full of some variation of elephant’s ears, judging by the twists of fried pastry inside it. The smell of pistachio and rose is overwhelming. Nile picks one up, dropping it into Andy’s palm, then helps herself to three, because the least this Andy creature can do is feed her after shooting her in the back of the head.
With a mouthful of gosh-e fil, Andy says: “And an immortal warrior called Nile. Weird, right?”
Nile doesn’t want to, but she finds herself giggling a little as she crunches on her pastry. Maybe there is no suitable or unsuitable name for an immortal warrior.
“You said a different name, when I asked you before.”
She can’t remember the answer, distracted as she was by the fighting and the kidnapping and the being knocked unconscious.
“Yes, I did,” Andy agrees unhelpfully. “Eat up. We won’t stop for food until we get there.”
“Get where?” Nile asks.
She shouldn’t bother being annoyed when Andy doesn’t respond.
* * *
The next thing the reticent immortal warrior Andy actually deigns to say to Nile is this:
“Are you praying?”
By the time she asks it, the drug runner’s hangar craft they drove to is high in the air, and Andy is a quarter of her way through a bottle of vodka she’d fished out of the Russian pilot’s stash. She hadn’t responded to Nile’s question about the kinds of people she associates with, or where they were going, and why the hell she can’t die.
So, lacking answers from the voice of mankind, Nile had done what she’d always been taught to. She clasped her hands, bowed her head, and whispered the secrets of her heart to God.
The plane isn’t so much flying through the air as wheezing and rattling, held together by shoestrings. Nile’s seatbelt is fastened, while Andy isn’t even sitting down. She’s standing in front of her, swigging her vodka like a sky pirate and clutching a handle in the roof.
She’s wearing that awful wry amusement, the same she’d shown at the sight of Nile’s blood splattered corpse.
“Are you praying?” Andy eventually asks, laughing nastily, and when Nile looks quietly up at her, she says: “God doesn’t exist.”
“My God does,” Nile retorts, because she will stand for many things, but she won’t stand for disgrace in the face of her faith. It is hers, it belongs to her, and maybe not much else in this world does anymore, but what she carries in her soul belongs to her and God alone.
Not even this immortal warrior called Andy can taint it.
“You know, I was once worshipped as a god,” Andy teases, and she visibly means it.
Nile refrains from blasphemy, not because she’s above taking the Lord’s name in vain, much to her mother’s chagrin, but because she won’t let Andy drive her to it. Won’t give her the satisfaction.
“Why is this happening to me?” she asks for a second time.
This time, Andy does respond.
“I wish I knew,” she says.
“You said you had answers.”
“I didn’t say you’d like them.”
* * *
“Where are we going?” Nile asks a second time, too.
There’s blood in her mouth, but the cut has already healed. There isn’t a mark left on Andy’s face from their fight. It had been brutal, and incredibly quick.
“Paris,” Andy replies. “Get some sleep.”
The while you can is silent.
And, somehow, deafening.
* * *
These are all the things Nile Freeman knows about Paris:
It’s in France. It includes, among other touristy sights, the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge, and a huge church called the Sacred Heart. It’s where the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables are both set. It’s apparently renowned for its bad drivers, or angry drivers, or crazy drivers – something about the drivers. It’s called the City of Light by romantics.
Most importantly: it’s a city.
Where Andy takes them to is very much not a city. It’s a grubby backroad full of overhanging green branches, at least four dead rabbits on the roadside, and the only buildings for miles are broken down houses, an abandoned grocery store and a boarded-up church.
Nile climbs stiffly out of the car – or, would climb out stiffly, but is somewhat astonished to realise being cooped up inside a cramped Ford Fiesta for over three hours hasn’t left her stiff and uncomfortable at all.
Some of her surprise must show in her face as she shakes out her shoulders, because Andy’s mouth does that not-smiling thing again.
Nile wants some answers. She wants some proper sleep. She wants a shower.
The blood has long since been washed out of her hair with bottled water, and she even magnanimously was handed a pack of baby wipes to scrub down with once they left the hangar for the car, but she feels further from clean than she’s felt in years. She’s no longer wearing her marine clothes – bundled up as they are in the gifted backpack slung over her shoulder – however, the new clothes Andy had tossed her way hadn’t exactly smelled fresh. They’d smelled sandy, and hot, and dusty.
The church looms through a ring of thickets and brambles, old, so old and yet, Nile realises with a jolt – probably not as old as the woman standing next to her.
Andy has tucked the car almost entirely into the lush green bushes, out of sight, and leads the way between the gravestones to a side door, which she dutifully knocks on, shouts something in what sounds like French, and then enters.
“This is Goussainville,” Andy told her when they arrived. “It’s been abandoned for fifty years.”
Nile had been saved from asking why when, in that moment, a plane passed by so low overhead that any question she might have voiced was lost in the scream of the engines.
Inside the church, despite its imposing exterior, however, Nile finds herself immersed in the heady heat of warm food and the crackle of a fire. Instantly she smells woodsmoke, and herbs, and wine. Her eyes sting with the force of the sudden welcome, and the deep breath she inhales is so large she chokes on it.
She sees, beside her, Andy’s shoulders lower just a fraction.
“Welcome home,” a grumbly voice says, thick with a French accent.
Nile turns to see a tall man – another familiar sight from her dream. He’s got a thick head of goldish hair, a slightly grizzled beard, and the roundest, saddest eyes she’s ever seen. Even his smile is sad, as he takes a step towards her, lifting Andy’s backpack from her shoulder before offering the same for Nile.
“Thank you,” she says, automatically, and it’s only once the weight is gone she realises she has just handed over absolutely everything she owns except the borrowed clothes on her back.
“My name is Booker,” he says, and she replies Nile, then feels foolish, because if Andy knew that, that probably means this Booker knows, too. He doesn’t quite laugh at her for it, though. He nods agreeably, and says: “It’s a pleasure, Nile.”
“You must be hungry,” another man’s voice says, and there he is, the other face from her dreams.
This man isn’t quite so tall. His dark hair is shorn close to his head, and his beard is neatly trimmed. He looks tired, tired in a way his companions are not. It shows on his face more clearly; smudges under his eyes, a crease in his brow.
While Andy’s anger seems inescapable, and Booker’s sadness hangs like a shroud, this second man’s eyes are full of something that feels to Nile just out of reach. Some heavy combination of his two counterparts.
“Joe,” he says before she can ask. “Please, Nile. Come eat. You must be hungry,” he repeats.
“Starved,” she admits, to a chorus of chuckles, and she is soon bustled to a table, laden with some sort of stew, bread and overflowing wineglasses.
It feels dramatic to think it’s the best meal she’s ever eaten – nonetheless, it’s a repeated thought, as she scrapes her bread through the mulch of carrots and potatoes and other hearty chunks of vegetables.
It also doesn’t escape her notice that while she by far eats the most, her three hosts drink a hell of a lot more than her. She wonders to herself if they metabolise it quicker, the same way they heal.
She wonders quite a lot of things.
Their plates are mostly empty by the time she asks, though.
Andy, whose eating has remained as birdlike at the table as it was in the car in Afghanistan, is pacing the rectory kitchen where they’ve hunkered down to eat. Sparing the etiquette of the two men, she’s been gratuitously sipping from a bottle of whisky for the past hour.
Booker is still making his way slowly through his food. He looks, Nile thinks, like he is savouring every single bite as if it might be his last, or his first. Every few mouthfuls, he sinks half a glass of wine like mother’s milk.
Joe had eaten his food quickly, cleaning the plate with his fork and hastily pushing it away. He’s been nursing the same drink for most of the hour. His eyes have almost never left Nile’s face, which is disconcerting to say the least.
Nile waits until she’s down to the last three chunks of bread before she finally says: “I dreamed about all three of you.”
Andy’s roaming eyes catch all three of them as she makes another vulturelike circle of the room.
Joe snorts indelicately.
Only Booker nods, mumbling into his food: “We dream of each other until we meet. Then the dreams stop.”
“Why?” Nile asks.
“So that we might find each other,” Joe explains. His hard voice seems at such odds with the warmth of his eyes. Andy’s eyes are sharp as they flick over him.
“Like some kind of fates and furies shit?” Nile asks with a helping of scorn.
“More like misery loves company,” Booker interjects a little louder, and Nile thinks it might be an attempt to cover the strange way Joe moves, then. Almost a flinch.
“Or destiny,” Joe mutters into his cup.
“And what do you think?” Nile asks Andy, tracking her around the room.
Andy seems reluctant as she pulls up her seat and sits back down. She sighs, eyebrows quirked.
“What he said,” she grumbles, lips to her bottle, and points to the empty chair between Booker and Joe. Nile doesn’t think she imagines the look Joe and Booker share, then.
“Booker’s the baby,” Joe explains, folding his arms on the table and throwing the other man a loose grin. “He joined the party in 1812.”
“You serious?” Nile exclaims, to sad smiles and more.
“Holy Mother,” she sighs disbelievingly, to a round of chuckles and smirks. It only hurts a little, imagining the smack her other mother would give the back of her head for that one.
This is what Nile learns:
Booker’s name is, shockingly, not actually Booker, but Sebastien le Livre. He died in the Napoleonic wars. He has the saddest eyes in the world.
Joe, whose real name is Yusuf al-Kaysani, died during the First Crusade, almost a thousand years ago, defending his homeland from foreign invaders. He is a confounding mix of warmth and hardship.
Andy, Andromache, the fuck, is the oldest. She is old the way mountains are old. Angry the way storms are angry: by nature, not intent.
Nile learns that they cannot die, until, one day, they will.
One day, our wounds just stop healing, and it’s our time to die.
That’s how Andy puts it, at least. The way she says it, with such knowledge, such resignation. Unlike Joe, who looks frightened by it. Unlike Booker, who looks mournful. They give Nile the space, after that, to digest all the fragments of their existence that have been thrown at her.
Booker continues his methodical eating, Andy her methodical drinking, and Joe his borderline intrusive staring.
While Nile sits, mulling over the deafening thunder of her own existence.
She can die. She can die. In a few hundred, perhaps few thousand years. Before that, she will live. She will live over and over again. She will live, maybe, probably, surely, with these three other immortals. The only three people in the world who will know her deepest secret. Who will know her, know her the way family –
Her family. Nile’s breath feels too quick in her chest. Her little brother, her Mom. What will they think?
And Jay, sweet Jay. Blood speckled on her cheek and fear in her eyes – Hey, girl, she’ll never sling her arm around Nile’s neck again. Never smack her stomach when she’s taking a sip of beer or make kissy faces across the room when Nile’s trying to get her flirt on.
She won’t see her little brother graduate; won’t be able to help him with his homework, or talk to him about how to treat the girl he takes to prom. She won’t hear her Mom laugh loudly through the open kitchen door when she burns the eggs again and has to smoke out the whole room.
Nile drops her fork onto her plate with a clatter, feeling so utterly alone in the world in a way she never has before, not even as the dark closed around her and Dizzy was yelling for a medic and she thought, knew, in her heart, that the medic was never going to get there in time.
A hand rests on her shoulder, and she flinches.
“Merda,” Joe hisses across the table, while Booker coaxes Nile out of her seat. “You should rest, Nile. We are sorry. This has been a long day for you.”
Nile can do little more than wobble and nod, guided first by Booker’s hands, then Joe’s, as together they coax her through a wide archway, until she finds herself being pressed down into a musty, surprisingly comfy bedroll laid out on the floor, as far from the boarded window as is possible.
A hand strokes over her trembling face, but she doesn’t quite succeed in opening her eyes. She thinks it might be Joe.
Their voices mingle and mutter, French and American accents, a smattering of Italian and French and Arabic that lulls her only further across the tide that separates her from these strange creatures, who cannot possibly know her the way her family knows her. Whose arms around her will never carry the same loving weight as Jay’s, or Dizzy’s, or Lewis’.
She shudders, burrowing deeper into the pillows under her face, curling up tight as a pill bug, with her back to the two men standing above her. She sleeps, because her body demands it, even as her mind races.
She sleeps, her body unmoving, while her mind races on.
* * *
This is Nile Freeman’s dream:
Salt spray salt water choking salt choking water fight fighting the salt fighting the water wrenching the water swallowing it spitting it out eating the salt as it rips open wounds inside her belly inside her lungs strangling her she’s strangled by water by salt by the salt in the water –
Dark. Quiet. Sweet remnants of a sleep that was a lullaby sleep that was bliss sleep that was endless boundless drifting like the sea –
Wretched lungs burning salt the water full of salt and her lungs full of the water and her eyes bitten out and her teeth rotted in and her hands, bleeding, the salt in the water the salt in her cuts the spikes in her face the iron in her skin the salt in her lungs –
She’s still drowning.
* * *
Nile tears awake, hunched over her belly as if to expel an entire ocean of saltwater.
She’s shuddering, and there’s the clamour of movement behind her, around her. She’s cold. Cold and sweaty and the dream is vibrant behind her closed lids so she opens them, wipes the sweat from her cheeks and the instinctive tears from her eyelashes and she says: “Sorry, sorry. It was a bad dream.”
By the time she looks up, Andy has hidden whatever weapon she grabbed and is standing in the doorway. Across the room, Joe is sitting up, frowning deeply. Booker doesn’t seem to have moved, other than to grab his gun, which is now resting on his stomach.
Nile takes another breath to rid her lungs of the memory of the water.
“Just a dream,” she says.
She catches the way the other three look at each other as she says it.
Perhaps there will be no such thing as just dreams anymore.
Joe swings his legs off the side of the cot he’s lying in, his hands clasped between his knees.
“Tell us,” he says, and Booker shoots him a worried look but Joe’s stare is fixed on Nile, just like it had been over dinner. So is Andy’s.
Nile tries to conjure it: a sense memory, as close to visceral emotion as it was to sight and sound and touch.
“I saw flashes of it, before, with you all. But it’s clearer now,” she begins.
Clearer, she realises, because she has met the rest of them.
“A woman, locked in some sort of metal coffin. Under the sea. Drowning, and coming back to life, over and over. Even as she drowned, she would fight, with her hands and her knees until they bled. But every time, she lost. She was like – a caged animal. Insane and furious. I was frightened – of her, and for her.”
Nile swallows dryly, looking up at the others for some sort of confirmation, though of what, she can’t be sure.
Andy has made a quarter turn away. Her profile is silhouetted by the light of the room she came from. There’s a muted TV flickering, a steaming mug, an open book, as if she had not been sleeping at all. Her head is tilted back, exposing her long throat as if, Nile thinks with some cruel irony, in prayer.
Booker’s sad eyes flit between Joe and Andy quickly. The strangeness of his torn gaze, Nile realises, is that she’s never seen it in a grown man’s face before. It’s the look she recognises from a child’s lost expression, staring back and forth between two parents, waiting for one of them to tell him what to do.
Booker’s the baby, Joe had said, over dinner, and maybe he hadn’t just meant it in one way.
Nile looks at Joe last. His head bowed; his hands curled like claws over the back of his head. For a second, it looks like his shoulders are shaking.
“Her name is Quynh.”
It’s Joe that speaks, muffled into his knees, though he repeats it, sitting up. His eyes are a little redder than before but there’s no other outward sign of emotion.
“She is one of us. The first other immortal Andy ever met.”
There’s something in the way he says her name – both their names. Quynh. Andy. There’s a reverence there that makes Nile remember: I was once worshipped as a god.
Ignoble, awful, true.
“She’s been lost, now, for many hundreds of years.”
Nile looks at Andy again. The tip of her head, the round of her chin, the line of her body. Lithe and lethal, how is she standing?
It’s not Andy whose breath shakes, but Joe’s, and Nile wonders if he knew Quynh, too.
Andy turns away. Steps out of sight and maybe she’s left the church or maybe she’s standing directly beside the doorway, it’s impossible for Nile to tell. She looks to Booker for answers, but he’s looking at his gun. To Joe, but he’s looking at his hands.
“So, there are actually five of us?” she asks.
She doesn’t really mean for it to be a question, which makes it all the more disconcerting to be wrong.
Joe, again. That crystal toughness in his voice, that does not match his eyes. His clasped hands are pressed bruise-hard to his forehead. He does not react to Nile’s gaze on his face, nor Booker’s.
“There are six of us.”
Booker’s teeth worry at his lower lip. When Nile tries to catch his eye, his averts his gaze, strangely shy.
Joe takes a large gulp of air and stands, suddenly, looking twice as tall as he did earlier. His eyes are burning that same, woodsmoke warmth. When he smiles, it trembles over his face, as if it is a weight. He says:
“If you ever dream of sand, instead of water. You must tell me.”
The words are a command, but his tone is a plea. Nile’s heard it so many times before, so many desperate voices. In the outskirts of Kabul, in southside Chicago. Desperation finds its way to every pocket of the world, to a crevice in every soul. Nile feels the press of Joe’s wish upon her heart, which breaks just a little when honesty pours from her like blood from a wound.
“I was a Marine in Afghanistan. I always dream of sand.”
The shine in Joe’s eyes when he nods might be nothing more than the haze from the fire embers in the grate.
Nile doubts it.
Joe walks out, quickly, as if chased by a storm. Nile thinks she hears Andy’s voice, right before there is the snickering shut of a door that isn’t quite slammed. Alone with Booker, the weary exhaustion of her dream sinks through her, and she thinks on Joe’s words, his voice, his eyes.
Booker pushes himself up to sitting, swapping his gun for a hipflask, which he drinks liberally from before finally looking up at her. She tries to speak, but her tongue feels glued to the roof of her mouth.
“His name’s Nicky,” Booker says. “Nicolo.”
Funny, and tragic, Nile thinks. Booker says it exactly the same way Joe spoke Quynh’s name. As if Joe’s loss of Quynh might be likened to Booker’s loss of this Nicky. Which, she supposes, makes Joe –
“They found their immortality together,” Booker explains. “Terrible story, really. They would always try to make it sound romantic. But they killed each other. That’s how they met. Enemies. Until…”
He shakes his head. Drinks from his flask. Looks at Nile, with the very visible wish in his face that he could just impart his knowledge without ever having to speak it aloud. Across the room, the grate hisses a little louder. A small log breaks in two, sending thin sparks up into the air.
“Nicky used to look at Joe as if he had seen the face of God,” Booker says, the sentiment spoiled by a tiny roll of his eyes at the end. He clears his throat thickly. “I used to hate it.”
Nile frowns her curiosity, her head tilted as she leans back into her pillow, closer to Booker’s face.
“My own loneliness never felt more inescapable, than when it was set against the backdrop of their adulation.”
His words are bitter, regretful. He drinks again – perhaps doesn’t even realise he’s doing it; lost in a memory he seems barely able to whisper.
“Forty-five years ago, we were in southern Libya. People had been going missing – children, men, women. They were being taken. Trafficked. Harvested for their organs.”
Nile lets out a sound of revulsion that is too reactive to keep in. Booker hears it; hears it and agrees, by the dark look in his face as he sips his flask and offers it to her. She shakes her head, urging him instead to continue.
“We tracked a convoy moving towards the border of Chad. The winds were strong. Joe and Andy were in a truck – Nicky and I were on horses. Poor beasts. The only thing we could find quickly.”
Something untold about it makes Booker laugh, a sadder sound than any he’s made so far. He pushes himself higher up the wall he’s leaning on. Scratches at the beard prickling his jaw.
“In the chaos, three children had been separated from the group. Joe and Andy had gone ahead with as many as they could fit in their vehicle. There was a storm coming. The horses were terrified. We were terrified. Nicky turned back for the missing girls. He told me to go ahead with the others, follow the road as best I could. He told me he would find the children, and bring them back.”
Nile recognises, then, the blue longing in his eyes, solves some piece of the guilty puzzle buried in his drinks, and his wonky mouth.
“I shouldn’t have listened to him. But he was gone, and there was a pregnant woman in the group. Two of the children – bébés. I gave her my horse. Led him by the mane, guiding them all from the back as the storm – the dust grew too large. I could barely see my raised hand in front of me. By the time Joe and Andy found us, we were hopelessly lost. A young man and a small boy had been cut off, and I couldn’t find them.
“It took everything Andy and I had not to let Joe go after Nicky, when he realised he hadn’t returned.”
Nile can’t help it. She rolls, lying on her back instead to stare vacantly at the varnished wooden beams lining the ceiling.
If you dream of sand –
“The storm?” she asks.
She already knows.
“It lasted almost a week,” Booker says.
Nile thinks it’s entirely possible she’s going to throw up all that nice food they fed her earlier.
What a waste.
Sand. Sand. Saltwater and sand, is this what she’s going to dream of, now? Will she be plagued by this – by Quynh, by Nicky, by the suffering of those she does not know, and somehow, feels this terrible yearning for?
She turns her head to look at Booker. His eyes are closed.
“We searched. For months. We found the remains of a horse, eventually. Buried in a dune. And two children. All over a stretch of so many miles. The landscape, it can be so harsh – it can change. It does change. Except briefly for our jobs, Joe hasn’t stopped looking. He travels the desert. Helps people. Borrows and buys and steals equipment, but it will only possibly pick something up if Nicky –”
“If he’s still alive,” Nile finishes for him, her stomach dropping like a fall in a dream. Of course. She thinks of the desperate look on Joe’s face, the disappointment in his eyes when she told them she’d dreamed of Quynh.
If Andy and Booker and Joe have all met Nicky, then…they don’t even know, for sure.
“So, if I don’t dream of him –”
“Don’t, Nile,” Booker says, louder than anything else he’s said so far. He looks angry, then, for the briefest of moments. “Don’t carry the weight of the dead and the dying. Don’t let Joe make you carry it. We don’t know with certainty how or why any of this happens. Don’t try to reason with the unreasonable.”
He seems so genuinely worried, Nile feels oddly touched. A warm, soft centre to a harsh demand, a display of care she doesn’t know if she’s earned from this stranger, yet.
“He’s been looking for forty-five years, all by himself?”
Booker huffs, tossing his empty hipflask away as if suddenly realising it is filled with poison.
“I join him, sometimes. When he allows the company.”
Booker’s lips twisting are an answer of their own.
Then again. Nile looks back at the ceiling, and recalls with perfect clarity the inhale of seawater from her dream.
Hundreds of years, Joe had said.
She can’t fathom it. She can barely believe the start of it.
Beside her Booker shuffles an inch closer. He smells of whisky and tea and smoke. Nile has to hold her breath, to keep the sob trapped in her lungs when he places his hand very gently, very briefly, on her arm.
Outside, she hears a man, shout something.
She hears Andy’s voice, saying Yusuf, over and over, until they are too far away to discern.
* * *
This is Nile Freeman’s dream:
Darkness. Darkness that pierces. Darkness that invades. Darkness that pervades. Darkness that is pain darkness that is terror darkness that is anguish darkness that is loud darkness that is bright and vivid and angry and vengeful and dark so dark why is it so dark where are the lights where is the light where is the sun the sun the sun has gone dark there is only the darkness there is darkness that pierces it invades it pervades it is pain and terror and anguish it is loud it is darkness –
* * *
When Nile wakes up a second time, gasping, there is nobody around to hear it. She breathes a sigh of relief, and can think of only one important thing: she hadn’t dreamt of sand.
For the first time in her life, she wishes she had.
* * *
This, Nile learns the next day, is what happened to Quynh:
Quynh and Andromache took it upon themselves to present a united front against the witch trials of England in the sixteenth century. They fought, killed, saved, survived, side by side, as they had done for millennia.
Until, one day, they were captured. Until, of course, no hanging could slay them. No sword and no herb, no rope and no wheel. No pyre could burn the flesh from their bones for long.
So, the men who called themselves servants of God took it upon themselves to quench the fire of their unity.
Quynh was locked in an iron maiden, sailed out to the open sea, and dropped into the water.
She’s still there, to this day. Screaming, and drowning, to be heard only by Nile Freeman, in her dreams.
“Holy shit,” Nile says, ignoring the cursing voice of her mother in the back of her head for the slight.
Booker, who is sitting behind her on his laptop, doing things she’s pretty sure are so far from legal she doesn’t want to know, turns his head in amused surprise.
“What?” he asks, concerned when Nile’s expression morphs into horror.
“You’ve never met Quynh,” she says.
Booker shakes his head, the expression on his face so reminiscent of Jay’s duh, dumbass look that it causes a pang in Nile’s heart to look at him.
“You still dream of her, after all this time,” Nile adds.
Booker sighs, nodding, and returns silently to his work. They don’t talk about it again.
* * *
Lunch, the day after Nile is brought to a decrepit church to meet two immortal warriors, one of whom she quite likes and the other she is a little bit frightened of, consists of leftover stew, almost-fresh bread, and an assortment of fruits that Joe drops onto the table in a bag with such informality, Nile is pretty sure he just wandered the nearby fields thieving from them.
Not that she minds, per say. The apples are just the right side of not-yet-sour, and the raspberries are so ripe the juice bleeds onto her fingers even as she picks them out of the bowl.
Fed, watered and curious, she finally asks the one question that’s been burning a hole in her tongue.
“So, do y’all sleep in regular houses sometimes, or is it strictly creepy old churches for the living dead now?”
It’s not that Nile considers herself a total crowd pleaser. Nevertheless, she really did think that one was worth more than the dry huff she gets from Booker, along with dark glowers from Joe and Andy.
“We’ve been compromised,” Andy explains, half a strawberry in her hand, because she really does just seem to eat like a bird.
“Compromised?” Nile says, slowly, because she knows what that means but she really, really doesn’t know what that means, right now.
Joe mutters darkly under his breath, which at least gives some indicator of the graveness of the situation, however is otherwise unhelpful at this time. Nile has decided, in light of Booker’s tale, to give Joe some slack in the formalities department.
“Andy told you already, about the sort of jobs we take,” Joe eventually says, to which Nile gives an encouraging nod. “Well, someone tried to set us up on a job. We have strong reason to believe it was a trap, meant to either capture us, or expose our…natures, to the world.”
There’s no interpreting the look that passes between Joe and Andy this time. Determined not to follow Booker down the child-of-divorced-parents routine with his grave, back and forth expressions, Nile decides to ignore it.
“And you really thought now would be a good time to bring me into the fold, when you’re running scared?”
This, she directs at Andy, who cocks her head and eats two more strawberries before responding.
“If Copley does suspect us, or know about us, it was even more important we pull you in swiftly. He’s ex-CIA. If he’d heard so much as a whisper of a soldier supposedly surviving a slit throat without even a scar to show for it, he’d have snapped you up in no time.”
“But what does he want?” Nile asks.
“We don’t know,” Andy says, plainly, all the more frightening for it. “We’re going to find out.”
“How?” Nile asks, thinking on Booker’s laptop, his keen grin, his innocent shrug when she scrutinised him.
“We’re going to catch a train to London. Rent a car. Drive to his charming country home in Surrey and we’re going to very politely ask him what his game is.”
“Politely,” Nile says dryly. “Sure. We’re just going to London? I’m dead. We’re all dead, how do you guys even –”
Which, of course, is when Booker sees fit to drop a passport onto the table, right next to her plate. Nile glances between it and him, suspicious as all hell. She flicks through it, quickly, curiously –
“Oh for,” she cries, and then lets out a laugh that is just a bit too hysterical to pass as amused.
“Nina Foreman?” she says, shoving her picture in Booker’s face with disdain.
Booker just shrugs, looking overly innocent.
“Cherie,” he says with such an extra accent her laugh really is a bit amused, that time. “I thought you’d at least appreciate a name as similar to your own as I could manage.”
“I suggested River Ferman, but Andy said that would be poor taste,” Joe says with a flash of a sharklike grin.
Nile shakes her head, can’t quite rid her face of its smile as she drops the passport like hot coals and helps herself to the final few raspberries.
“Nina Foreman is fine,” she says, neither a lie nor a truth. It just is, isn’t it? It’s another piece of her life she’s going to have to suck it up and deal with if she wants to avoid going completely insane.
“Excellent,” Booker says with false joviality. “We will take a train from Gard du Nord tomorrow morning, early. Make sure to pack in plenty of time.”
Nile throws a raspberry at him, and it smacks him on the nose, leaving a red stain behind that even makes Andy smile.
Booker responds with a blackberry of his own, but projects his movements so cautiously that when he throws it, Nile is able to lean back and catch it in her mouth. She’s applauded by a crowing Joe, and a flash of Andy’s teeth is revealed in her widening grin. Booker nods his head in noble defeat.
They finish the rest of their meagre meal quietly, quickly. Joe follows it up with a round of tea poured from a heavy copper kettle into little glass teacups. It’s a dark redcurrant colour, sweetly floral smelling. Andy is the first to raise it, with a ritualistic quality that Nile instinctively knowns better than to do anything other than copy.
“Salute,” Andy says, looking across the table at Joe.
“Salute,” Joe and Booker repeat, and Nile follows a beat behind.
They sip their tea, their eyes on the kettle steaming in the middle of the table.
It’s only then that Nile realises – there are two empty chairs at the table.
It feels purposeful. Powerful. A lump thickens in her throat that makes it hard to swallow her tea, which isn’t as sweet as it smells. It’s soothing, like the warm milk and spoon of honey her grandmother used to mix for her when she couldn’t sleep.
Before she can think of a way to break the misty silence that has fallen like a blanket of crisp fresh snow over them all, Andy does it for her.
“This is what we know,” she says, turning to Nile with the same pragmatic coolness in her eyes that she had in the plane that took them halfway across the world. “Copley is well-connected and rich, but he will have a backer. He’s not just doing this without a purpose. Our best lead is the conglomerate that owns the facility we were directed to: Merrick Industries.”
Nile raises her eyebrows. Even she’s heard of Merrick. They supply half the military’s medical gear. One of the only friends she kept in touch with after signing up even managed to get an internship at a Merrick laboratory in Princeton, after graduating college. It had been a pretty big deal.
“Why would Merrick be involved?” she asks, to which Joe throws in an indelicate scoff.
“Why would a company involved in healthcare and pharmaceuticals be interested in three immortal people who will recover from any injury inflicted upon them? I wonder indeed.”
The notion sinks to the full pit of her stomach, mixing badly with the tea still clutched between her fingers.
Across the table, she sees a frown darken Booker’s face as she stares into his tea, looking uneasy. She doesn’t blame him. The idea makes her feel physically sick.
“Oh,” is all she says, looking back to Andy, who is the only one to have fully mastered an expression of dispassion.
“From what we’ve found,” she continues in the same trite voice. “We can only place Copley and the CEO Steven Merrick in the same place at the same time during one conference, but it’s enough. If we’re wrong, we’ll find out, but Merrick fits the profile. His grandfather founded an empire out of a single private hospital. By now, he’s on his way to monopolising healthcare across multiple continents. He still operates from a UK base, but he’s branched out a lot. He knows he can’t really compete with a national healthcare system in his own country.”
Nile’s thoughts are still lingering on Frances, and her internship. She’d been so excited, so deserving. Nile wonders if she’s still with the company.
“What if he’s not being funded by Merrick?” she asks, and tries not to sound like she’s being hopeful.
By the disdainful frown on Andy’s face, she’s failed miserably.
“Then we’ll find out who he is working for, and go from there,” she says flatly.
Nile doesn’t bother asking how she plans on extracting that information exactly. Baby steps, she’s been telling herself, every hour or so, since she willingly got inside that car next to a woman who had just shot her in the head.
Andy takes another sip of tea before pushing the dregs away. She reaches into her pocket and holds up –
“My phone!” Nile exclaims, reaching to snatch it, only for Andy to stretch out of reach. “Hey, look. I’m not going to –”
“No, you’re not,” Andy says sternly, still keeping the phone aloft behind her shoulder. Nile feels like those pale eyes might cut her if they keep staring so hard. “You can’t, Nile. It’s not safe. It’s not safe for you, it’s not safe for us, and it’s definitely not safe for whoever it is you’re wanting to talk to.”
“I know, Andy, I’m not an idiot,” Nile retorts hotly, feeling the heat of embarrassment at Joe and Booker playing spectators.
“Boss,” Booker says, silenced by the sharpness of Andy’s returning glance at him before she turns hawklike back to Nile.
“I know you’re not an idiot,” she says like she’s never meant anything less. “You’re a kid who’s been thrown into the deep end of a shitstorm. You’re with three strangers who you’re going to have to trust with your life and who need to be able to trust you, too.”
A thousand angry retorts wrestle Nile’s tongue into a pretzel behind her pursed lips.
She wants to shrink into her chair and she wants to explode in every direction, shatter their glasses of tea into shards as small as she feels right now. Because Andy’s right. Nile feels alone – Nile has never felt more alone in her life, and it’s going to take a strength she doesn’t know if she really has in her reserves to take back that phone and not immediately call her baby brother, just to hear his voice, just to tell him she’s safe.
God, what have they told her family? What will they think?
She doesn’t have a clue what it is Andy reads in the heart of her anger, but it must be something good, or perhaps simply pitiful. Andy offers her the phone, holding it in a loose grip.
Nile takes it back reverently, thumbing the keypad to see the background of her Mom and Lewis, smiling proudly at her. It’s been charged since Andy stole it from her pockets. The battery is full, and it’s been set to flight mode.
Taking a shaky breath, Nile nods, turns the screen off again, and slips it into her pocket.
“I understand,” she says. “I’m not going to do anything to endanger us. To endanger them.”
“Good,” Andy says with a nod. “Get some sleep, Nina. We’ve got an early start tomorrow.”
“Oh, shut up,” Nile says instinctively, and Andy looks so close to surprised that it prompts a round of laughter from the table that sounds like birdsong on a new spring day.
Joe starts gathering the teacups and kettle, and Booker collects the plates. There’s a rhythm, already close to familiar, to these movements that Nile allows to comfort her for the briefest of moments.
She catches Andy’s eye, and tries for a weak smile.
Andy places a hand on her arm, holding her in place for a single heartbeat. She feels, against all the odds of the world, strangely safe here, in the company of these strangers she thinks she might trust with her life.
She goes to bed, curled up and staring at her phone’s lock screen.
* * *
The is Nile Freeman’s dream:
Burns. Burns in her throat. Salty metal in her throat. Teeth in her throat. Her lungs, her lungs. Her lungs are gone they are ripped out of her she is outside of herself inside the ocean of –
She can smell the iron in her blood, the iron in her flesh. She can taste the metal of her cage, her cage. Her eyes are ripped out her – her eyes they are burnt, they are burning they are –
Drowning salt airless metal inside she is frozen by the – darkness. Invasive. Invaded.
“Svegliati, sorella,” a voice commands her, a voice, a void, rusted over with –
* * *
She wakes up alone.
* * *
They travel together, but not entirely, on their way to London.
“Usually we would split up. Take very different routes to ensure we aren’t tracked,” Booker explains to her as he drives the car.
Joe and Andy are finding their own way to the city, apparently. Nile has stopped trying to interpret their silent conversations. They’ve had a thousand years of practice, after all.
“Why aren’t we doing that now?” she asks, watching the pre-dawn grey of the scenery shiver past. It’s a showery morning already, the sky peppered with rolling, grumpy clouds that far too accurately reflect their mood.
“No time,” Booker says. “And, well. You are very new.”
He manages to say it without making it sound like an insult, which is more than can be said for Joe and Andy.
Not that they’ve been impolite in person.
(Well, Andy had shot her, and kidnapped her, and knocked her out, and punched her in the face, and –)
In fact, Joe had been increasingly charming, as yesterday went on. He’d been more attentive, less distant, had even made a point of asking her personal questions, stopping when she started to get too shaky about answering, choosing instead to regale her with a few embarrassing tales about Booker and Andy, to lighten the mood.
Nile watches the puddled fields they pass slowly swell with inky water, and thinks on the conversation she had overheard last night, when she woke from her latest, confusing dream.
She’s sure she hadn’t meant to hear it – she’d probably have been noticed if she’d so much as sat up in her bed, but she hadn’t. She’d merely lain awake, gathering her scattered flashes of others’-memories back to her, bit by bit. In the silence of her concentration, she’d heard it.
Joe’s voice, roughened with emotion, and a helping of whisky, too.
“I promised you I would see this business with Copley through, Andy. What do you think I’m doing? But you can’t ask me to stay. You can’t.”
“Yes, I can,” Andy had retorted. Her voice was clipped, as if speaking the words had been like spitting staples from her mouth. “Nile is brand new, Joe. She needs all of us. She needs all of us if we’re going to show her how to survive. How to live like this.”
“Live? Like this?” Joe spat in return, an ugly sound that did not suit him, had made Nile flinch even from the next room over. “What joy can I possibly show her of this life, when mine has been torn from me?”
For a moment, Nile wondered if Andy was ever going to answer, or if maybe her reply had been too quiet for her to hear. Only, before she could move a muscle to satiate her curiosity, she’d heard an angry, animal sound from through the open door. Joe’s voice was tangled, mangled, a hyena’s laugh of dismay.
Andy’s voice had barely reached Nile’s straining ears:
“Then show her your love, Yusuf. Your resilience. You have never lacked either. Nicolo would do it. You know he would. He would do a better job than any of us.”
Nile had rolled over, then, to face the wall. To press her nose to the cool stone and ignore the rawness of the voices that were speaking, not for her but for each other. Two aged beings beyond her reckoning, propped up together by a terrible fate.
Now, leaning towards the passenger window of the car, away from Booker as they cut through the sheets of rain, Nile feels something akin to hurt in her stomach, to think Andy would use her as an excuse to keep Joe close. That she could throw Joe’s love in his face like that, just to win an argument.
Grief that is not lanced will harden even the softest of hearts, my love, her Mother had warned her, wiping her tears away and kissing her cheeks, in the weeks and months after her father’s death. Never hide from it. Never deny it. It shall stay with you, wherever you go.
She wonders, what becomes of the softest heart, after grieving for forty-five years?
What becomes of it, after five hundred years?
She takes in Booker’s profile. His eyes, which are somehow sadder than both Andy’s and Joe’s. What has he lost, that the world would be so colourless to him, too?
Will she share his vision of the world, one day? In two hundred years? In twenty? In two?
“What is it, la petite?” Booker asks, and the rain splashes above them, around them, about them, and he is lovely and sad and handsome and Nile thinks if she asked him anything right now, he might tell her.
So she asks him: “What does svegliati mean?”
Booker’s hands twitch on the steering wheel, just strongly enough for them to weave towards the centre of the road. A frown buries itself into his forehead as he glances at her, his lips parted.
“It’s Italian,” he says, more than nonplussed.
“I guessed,” Nile retorts.
Booker’s frown doesn’t quite vanish entirely as he says: “It means, Wake up.”
Nile nods, and finds herself unsurprised by the knowledge.
“I thought so,” she even says, because she had, hadn’t she?
She’d woken up.
“Where did you hear it?” Booker asks. Nile isn’t close to knowing any of her fellow immortals wells enough to read their every intonation with any accuracy, but she’s certain she can detect a hint of franticness to Booker’s voice.
“In my dream,” she confesses. “Last night.”
“You dreamt again last night?” Booker asks, his tone riddled with accusation, and Nile doesn’t blame him.
Why didn’t you tell us? His tone demands. Why didn’t you tell Joe?
“I dreamt of darkness,” she says, warily, unnerved by the swivelling of Booker’s neck as he tries to watch the road and scrutinise her face. She’d be worried about whiplash, if it were anyone else. “And pain. But, Booker.”
She looks at him, tries to convey the troubling fever in her gut. His eyes find hers in a flashing turn, retreating to the road ahead before she can read the broiling emotion behind them.
“I didn’t dream of sand.”
The idea might haunt him, as thoroughly as the dream haunts her.
He doesn’t ask her any more questions, or speak at all, until they are deeply embedded in the traffic of Paris in the morning rush hour.
* * *
Parisian drivers are, she finds out for herself, bad, mad and angry. She asks Booker, but apparently he isn’t actually Parisian himself.
It’s just a coincidence that he drives like one.
* * *
Gare du Nord is a large, decorative station in the upper heart of Paris’ busy centre. It takes no time for Nile to find herself alone at a café table, abandoned by her travel buddy with nothing more than a Here is your ticket, and some euros. Buy yourself a coffee and do your best to look bored.
This last seemed like a rather personal slight against the wide-eyes wonder with which Nile had been drinking in the sights of the city waking up as they snaked through Paris’ pale, colourful streets. She had huffed at Booker’s smirk, grabbed the money from his hand and scrambled quickly from the car to the station without looking to see which way he drove off.
She enters the station through a cloud of smoke from clusters of early arrivals hovering in the doorways, cigarettes between their teeth as they hunch against the downpour painting the streets all violet and grey.
Nile does as instructed, making her way through the security line with her head mostly down and her shoes scuffing with bored energy on the floor. She gives the passport control officer an early morning smile as he inspects Nina Foreman’s ID, and holds in the automatic sigh of relief that swells in the back of her throat when she’s nodded through.
After that, it’s simply a matter of finding a coffee and pastry stand surrounded by metal chairs and tiny tables with a good view of several platforms, as well as the upper deck. She buys herself the largest, strongest coffee that the polite, helpful-English-speaking server can offer, upends a pile of sugar into it, and takes a seat that looks reasonably out of the way.
From what she can make of the blinking screens, her train won’t get its first call to board for at least forty minutes.
Nile leans back in her chilly chair, tracking various individuals as they bustle through and around, some on their phones, some chatting to each other in pockets of sleepy travellers.
In fact, they are so distracting that to her alarm, she doesn’t even sense someone approaching her before a voice says, half-behind her: “Cette place est prise?”
Nile flinches, turning frantically, only to see Joe standing beside her, looking sweetly amused.
Pulling a grumbly expression, Nile makes a shy shrug as she replies, stilted, as if to a stranger: “Um, you can have it,” nodding at the chair he’s pointing to with obvious intent.
Rather than dragging it away, however, Joe simply slides into it, a coffee of his own in his hand while he drops his bag under the table next to Nile’s.
Nile glances self-consciously around her before murmuring under breath.
“Is this safe?”
Joe exaggeratedly looks around, too, and it’s a little mean, maybe, but it’s also quite funny, the way he replies in a hushed voice of childhood dares and secrets.
“Safer than leaving an infant to fend for herself.”
Nile rolls her eyes, sipping her coffee.
“I am twenty-six,” she says, which – right. Joe’s eyebrows lift pointedly. What is a quarter of a century to a millennium? She tries again: “I’m a US Marine.”
As she says it, though, the words taste ashy with lies and she has to look away, embarrassed. Joe kindly doesn’t correct her to the past tense, as he probably should.
“I see,” is all he says, delicately unfolding a paper bag to reveal two almond croissants, one of which he pushes to her side of the table. “And does the US Marine Corps make a habit of sending new recruits into battle without backup?”
Nile chooses to nibble at her croissant rather than answer. It’s flaky, disgracefully sweet and utterly heavenly. She picks off a few individuals almond shards, dusty with icing sugar from the top and eats them one by one.
“Oh, and I have a gift,” Joe adds, reaching into his pocket and pulling out –
“Oh my God, what?” Nile cries, grabbing the unopened pack of earphones greedily. “Thank you. I mean, thank you.”
She rips them out of their plastic confines with more haste than she’s shown since opening Christmas presents as a child.
“You millennials,” Joe sighs dramatically. “You seem to loathe the sounds of the world.”
Nile can’t even bring herself to be embarrassed.
“Excuse me?” she scoffs. “You’ve clearly not heard any Frank Ocean before. That man is the soundtrack of my life.”
Joe bites his lips together, hiding behind his pastry.
“Joe. Thank you. This was really kind of you.”
For some reason, that steals some of the happiness from Joe’s eyes.
He drinks his coffee, his gaze lingering on the wires Nile has wrapped like boxing tape around her knuckles. She’s not sure how to take it back, or what it even is she should try to take back. When he sighs, it’s the sound of the wind on the sea: ancient, tired, endless.
“You’ve not known our kindest,” he says, and already she recognises that rough voice for what it is.
Nile feels a sinking in her chest. She understands, now, and leans forwards into her hot coffee, into the cold table edge, into Joe’s saddened periphery. For a second, she wonders if she’s really going to do this, here now, in an echoing station, surrounded by moving strangers, who are clueless to the immortals they pass.
Then she remembers, from back home in Chicago.
Sasha, who was her best friend, for a summer and more. The soft, exciting intimacy of a friendship overflowing with admiration, and perhaps something else, that wasn’t spoken.
Sasha was loud, and bright, and happy, and there was that McDonald’s, two blocks from school, that was busy every hour of the day. They’d share a happy meal and sword fight with the chicken nuggets and Sasha would sometimes say something, so out of the blue, so personal, and when Nile asked her why, Sasha would shrug, and tell her, fingers sticky with salt and ketchup: “I like crowded places. Secrets seem so much smaller, when you’re surrounded by people who aren’t listening, aren’t even looking at you.”
Nile thinks, surrounded by Parisian commuters and travellers in Gard du Nord, she finally understands what Sasha had been talking about.
Across the table, Joe’s far away eyes are like a lighthouse, calling to her.
Nile says: “Booker told me about Nicky.”
It looks like an instinct, like a call and response, the way Joe’s smile lifts at the man’s name.
“Yes,” Joe says, because he’s known all along, or assumed, or hoped. Nile remembers how relieved she’d be, to realise when someone already knew her dad was dead, because it saved her the trouble of saying it out loud. She imagines it’s something like that for Joe; that Booker telling her the story had been as much a gift for Joe as an explanation for her.
Nile refrains from an apology. They’re wasteful things. She knows that first hand, too.
“I think I dreamed of him, last night.”
Either Booker has somehow gotten to Joe first since their conversation in the car, or Yusuf al-Kaysani has the most powerful self-control in the world, because he barely so much as blinks. Joe takes a long, measured gulp of coffee, never quite looking away from Nile with a calculating gaze. He narrows his eyes, eventually, looking thoughtful.
Overhead, an announcement jingle bounces through the air.
“Did you see him?” he asks.
“I didn’t see anything,” Nile admits without losing her resolve, despite the pierce of Joe’s eyes. “But it felt like my other dreams, and it definitely wasn’t of Quynh. It was entirely dark, and cold, and painful. Like I was lying on something hard. A voice said: svegliati, sorella. Then I woke up.”
It’s not until she repeats the Italian that she gets a reaction from Joe.
His gaze drops to his cup, which is a little more crumpled in his hands. The permanent crease of his brow momentarily deepens. He takes a loud, fortifying breath before he whispers: “Wake up, sister.”
Nile nods, even though Joe isn’t looking at her.
She’d mostly guessed the second word, from the tone as much as anything. Hearing it in English, though, from Joe’s lips, Nile is suddenly startled by the intimacy of it, the softness, the kindness. Sorella, the voice called her, a name she hasn’t come close to earning. She still feels like this is all some bizarre fever dream, half the time.
Joe must see something of her doubt in her eyes, because his hand slides over the table to wrap around her fingers.
“This would have been so different,” he promises, and the rest sticks in his throat but Nile hears it anyway. Upturning her palm, she takes hold of Joe’s hand, too.
“How do you do it?” she asks, and the uptick of his mouth, of his eyebrows, it must be the weight of the world, judging by the wells of his eyes yet he doesn’t ask her to clarify. He doesn’t ask if she means how does he keep searching, how does he go on, how does he sleep, how does he get up again, how does he keep breathing, every day.
She thinks she might mean all of it, and more.
“What else is there?” Joe asks, simply, and he sounds right.
There is nothing else, she realises, but to search, and go on, and sleep, and get up, and breathe.
“When this is over, I’d like to help you find him.”
Joe laughs, a little coldly, shaking his head and pulling away as if burned.
“Andromache would kill me if I dragged you into my search.”
The very literal implication of his kill me conjures a hot flash of impatience in Nile’s gut.
“Why?” she asks hotly. “Because she doesn’t look, I can’t either?”
Joe grimaces, turning away, and Nile’s scalded annoyance curdles to guilt in her squirming belly.
“I’m sorry,” she says, truthfully.
It’s not her place, she knows it’s not, but she’s never done well with helplessness. She is trapped, and here is one of the only other people in the world who is standing on the same side of the impenetrable glass that has so suddenly separated her from the rest of the world.
Joe doesn’t say anything at first. His chest’s movements alone show the labour of his breaths.
Nile recalls that first night, after Joe left the church. Andy’s voice coarse in the night’s gloom, shouting Yusuf!
She nudges the last of her croissant away, feeling nauseated.
Joe still doesn’t quite look at her when he speaks, so softly Nile has to lean closer to catch the strained melody of his voice.
He tells her.
He tells her, in no uncertain terms, why she is wrong. He tells her about Nicolo di Genova. He tells her about Quynh, about Andromache. He tells her that the bond of centuries is ferocious thing, to be coveted. He tells her in words that sound like an inclusive promise, as if he is really saying: We were a family. We are a family. You are part of this family, too.
He tells Nile of Andy’s heartbreak, and of his own, and then he tells her:
“I don’t ask her to search. I don’t want to torment her grief. Nicolo wouldn’t want it, either.”
Joe meets Nile’s eyes, dry and calm, and carrying a peace that engulfs her whole.
“Neither would he want me to take advantage of your good heart.”
“Well, tough,” Nile retorts, simply, and is pleased by the surprised laugh that it prompts, weak as it is coming from Joe’s half-smile. Even the smallest of victories should be celebrated, sometimes. “This good heart is going to help you. Why else am I here, Joe?”
She swivels her hand aimlessly as she says her, her earbuds bouncing on her wrist.
Joe looks as if he’s staring at the sun. A strange wonder, youthful yet aged, lies like a ghost over his face as he watches her. Nile feels hot and embarrassed, draining her coffee hastily to avoid saying anything potentially more foolish.
“We should go,” she mumbles, gathering her things.
She’s barely stood when a hand clasps her wrist.
Joe swings her with momentum into a tight embrace, so sudden it springs tears in her eyes. She feels like she’s been waiting to be hugged for days, for weeks, can barely in this moment recall the feel of Jay’s arm around her shoulders.
She squeezes back, smiling into his shoulder, and allows herself to be guided by his gentle hands to a queue for the next train to London St Pancras, which is slowly filling up with people.
* * *
Nile commits the words to memory as best she can. Brands them in her mind, in Joe’s lilting voice. A rasp of an ancient tongue hidden in the vowels of his otherwise believable American accent.
This is what Joe tells her, what she carries with her into her dreams for years to come:
“When we found the women from our dreams: the pit viper, Quynh, and the battering ram, Andromache. I was happy to find them, to find kinship. I enjoyed their company. Being part of a team again, after decades with only one other person; even if that person was everything to me. They knew us immediately, had watched us through their dreams just as we’d watched them through ours. I was glad. I settled, I think, in ways I hadn’t done since the invaders came to the Holy Land.
“But, Nicolo. He blossomed. His gladness became pure joy; his calm became true contentment. We had found a world in each other’s presence, loved each other against the odds of our very lives. But it wasn’t until Andromache and Quynh that we had – family. We found people to share that love and trust with. I knew it for what it was already. I had lost it the first time Nicolo’s sword cut me down. I didn’t recognise Nicolo’s surprise for what it was, how unsure he was of the way they welcomed us.
“Andy saw it, first, I think. She was teaching us survival, in and out of battle, but in those first years, I slowly noticed the way she and Nicolo would travel together. They would venture into towns, share stories, and songs, and bites of the same fruit. Nicolo – he had grown up in a monastery. Left as an infant for the mercy of the monks there and raised on a doctrine that told him the Word of his God was all the family he needed.
“He went to war, for a God he put his livelihood into, not because he had been shown the divinity of the world, but because that was all he knew. When he lost his faith in a crusade that he came to understand was the greed of men, and not the will of God, he lost whatever understanding of family he had. So, when we found them – these warriors to teach us, these sisters to protect us, these mothers of our fate…I hadn’t realised.
“But Andy saw. She knew what to do. Andy grew to love Nicolo as if she had birthed him, I think. After the storm, we looked together. For weeks, then months, until more than a year had passed. But I saw the toll it took on her. I had lost my heart, my world, there was no question of stopping. But Andromache lost her heart five hundred years ago. And then she lost a child; one she’d raised, in her own way, for over eight hundred years. From a lost, furious, hurting man into the kindest soul this undeserving world has ever known.
“So, no. I don’t ask her to search. I don’t want to torment her grief. Nicolo wouldn’t want it, either.”
* * *
On the train, Joe coaxes Nile into a window seat, eyes routinely scanning their surroundings as he takes the aisle seat.
“Alright then. Frank Ocean, you said?” he drawls, holding out a hand.
Nile beams, feeling very patronised and downright thrilled as she hands him an earbud and plugs the headphones into her phone.
“Just wait,” she says with exaggerated relish, laughing.
They sink back together in their seats, a three-hour journey ahead of them. At one point, Andy trails past on her way to her own seat down the carriage, a pair of sunglasses shoving her hair off her face and a thin jacket covering her shoulders. Nile’s certain she sees her roll her eyes at the sight of them.
“This is my favourite,” Nile whispers to Joe, right before Godspeed starts playing.
Joe smiles, closing his eyes, and mouths along to the words, as fluently as if he’d written them himself.
Nile bursts out laughing, shaking her head at his audacity.
Then, grinning, she closes her eyes, too.
* * *
This is what happens, as they eventually drive out of gloomy London, south and west and south some more.
Joe and Andy bicker fiercely in a language it seems not even Booker speaks. Nile carefully wraps her headphone wires around her phone, meaning to slip it into her bag but she just ends up staring at the background photo of her Mom and brother.
Booker catches her staring and does nothing more than shake his head in warning, as if he knows she’s been rehearsing a speech inside her head for the last hour.
It isn’t raining, but the roads are wet.
Andy is driving, and Nile feels sick every time she snaps at Joe. Booker makes several aborted attempts to interrupt.
Nile doesn’t recognise any of the words, but the tone is as familiar as a native tongue of its own, one she’s spoken many times herself. It’s the language of frustration, of impotent grief.
When they finally detour off-road, and find themselves within sight of a sleekly modern, isolated house between thick maple trees, Andy asks: “Is everyone clear on the plan?”
This is smart phrasing, Nile concedes. She is indeed clear on the plan. She doesn’t like it. She doesn’t agree with it. Nevertheless, she is clear on it.
It seems her sentiment is somewhat shared by Joe, who is scowling.
Booker’s feelings are, not for the first time, anyone’s guess.
Andy’s posture is as rigid as the lines of the gun she pockets when she starts distributing weapons from the trunk of the parked car. Nile’s pretty worried she’s going to break something important if she doesn’t ease up.
Nile accepts the handgun she’s offered automatically. Her hands know this routine, even when her mind is at war. She thinks, once, of Lewis, and where he is right now. Tucked up safe in bed in Chicago, she imagines.
Then she packs up all her scattered wishes into a lockbox in her mind, returns the nod Booker gives her, and walks northwards behind Joe, to take the far side of the building with him. In her periphery, Nile can easily notice the difference in his angles, the sleekness of his movements.
This is not the same man who slumped in his Eurostar seat beside her, listening to Frank Ocean. It’s not even the same man who had been arguing with Andy moments ago. This is a man who can fight, who learned to fight so long ago it’s as natural to him as breathing is to Nile. He moves with the sort of stealth and alertness that Nile still has to work hard to consciously maintain, which she does now with a vengeance.
She remembers Andy’s words from the night before, spoken with such promise: …show her your resilience.
Nile understands a little of what Andy had been talking about, now. Whatever fire of distress had coloured Joe’s voice in the car, it’s long left the lines of his body now as he circles the building, covering Nile’s back with ease as he guides her in through an archway to a backdoor.
He spares her one look of concern, checking her safety, checking her readiness. Nile nods reassuringly, and so does Joe.
Then, on the count, he kicks in the door.
* * *
“You’re gonna be OK Nile – you hear me? You’re OK you’re gonna be OK I promise – MEDIC! – OK it’s OK Nile – We need a medic in here now! – Nile stay with me, you hear me? Stay with me –”
Was this really the last thing Dizzy said to her, without that horrible shade of distrust in her eyes? Was this the last thing she’ll ever hear Dizzy say, desperate and scraped out of her, panic-stricken – an awful, unnecessary goodbye.
Nile misses her, dearly, dreadfully.
Nile misses them all.
* * *
James Copley, it turns out, is a well put together man in his forties, who is able to maintain an impressively level head even when he has four guns trained on him. He keeps his hands visible and his eyes, unsurprisingly, on Andy. He knows how to recognise the alpha of a pack when he sees one.
To his credit, he doesn’t bluster with false astonishment or accusations. He allows himself to be escorted slowly up the stairs of his house, to a wide-open living and office space that’s all whites and cremes and luxury that makes Nile even angrier about being cooped up in a rotting church house for the last two days. Bleak, cloudy sunlight bleeds through the huge windows.
Copley stands in the middle of the room, out of reach of everything, and says: “How did you know?”
“We’re not here to answer your questions,” Andy replies, standing directly in front of him while Joes circles to stand behind him. Booker takes his left, and Nile easily slots to the right. She can see faint beads of sweat on Copley’s temple.
At least he seems to understand just how much shit he’s in, even if he’s barely showing it.
“What would we have found if we’d walked into that facility in South Sudan?” Andy asks, and Nile sees it, then. Really sees it.
Andromache of Scythia.
I was worshipped as a god, she said, and she meant it, and Nile believes it.
She speaks with a command Nile’s never heard a living person use.
“An armed guard, to ambush you,” Copley replies immediately, only proving Nile’s theory further correct. Even Copley seems a bit shocked at himself for answering so readily. “Cameras, to record what would happen next.”
“And what is it you expected to happen next?”
“For you not to die,” Copley says simply.
A harsh, coyote-like laugh echoes out of Andy. It’s the ugliest sound Nile might have ever heard.
Andy says something then, in what sounds like Italian, to which Booker and Joe mutter a series of short answers. Andy turns her gun to her right, trained directly at Booker, and shoots him in the temple.
Copley’s shout of alarm and horror is a staggered sound.
Booker drops to the floor in a crumple, blood pooling into a halo and spoiling the lovely carpet beneath him, and while Andy and Joe don’t so much as flinch, Nile has to fight hard to keep her cool as she watches the hole seal up quickly, Booker’s blank stare turning quickly into a blink, and he clambers to his feet, shaking himself out like Andy had done nothing more than push him over.
Copley’s eyes are wide as she stares back and forth between Booker, whose hair is now matted with blood, and Andy, who looks like a Grecian statue. The thought nearly startles a laugh out of Nile.
“We’re not bulletproof,” Andy replies. “We would have died.”
“And then you’d have come back,” Copley says breathlessly, sounding astounded, for all it’s the final proof of his theory. He sounds excited, too. It rakes a shiver down Nile’s spine to hear it.
“Oui,” Booker replies coolly. He doesn’t seem very aware of the blood and clear fluid dripping down the side of his face.
Nile wonders, momentarily, if there’ll come a time when she isn’t bothered by that sort of thing either.
Probably, she realises, as Copley takes a greedy lungful of air to sigh out in relief.
“You don’t understand.”
“I understand more than you’ll ever know in your tiny existence,” Andy snarls, refixing her grip on her gun as she takes a menacing step forward.
Instinctively, Copley steps back only to remember there’s someone behind him, too. He flinches on all sides in near comical sequence. Caged, the way he had intended for them to be.
“Who’s funding you?”
“Merrick Industries,” Copley replies, perhaps because he’s a disloyal piece of vermin but perhaps, Nile thinks, because he is just a smart man who knows when he’s been beaten. Nile’s known plenty of smart men and women in her life. They are, in their own way, slightly less dangerous than stupid ones.
“They know about us?”
“I needed more proof,” he explains, his shoulders creeping ever closer to his earlobes. “You don’t understand. What could be learned, from you – from your DNA. You could be the answer to ending suffering for so many –”
He chokes on whatever was to follow. Andy cocks her heard, not budging an inch. Copley looks to his right, directly into Nile’s eyes, and finally seems to realise he doesn’t recognise her. His eyes are tracing her when Joe’s gun kisses the back of his head.
“You were saying?” he asks, driving the metal hard enough to force Copley to look away from Nile or end up concussed.
Nile feels a rush of gratitude for the ferocity of Joe’s voice, the instinct of his protection to shield her, even from a stranger’s eyes.
“My wife,” Copley says in fragments. “She had – ALS. She couldn’t breathe, by the end. She suffered, terribly, and I watched her succumb and I could do nothing. Medicine, science, it needs your help. Don’t you realise –”
“So you’d have us locked up, for your science experiments. You want to trap us in cages like lab rats. That it?”
“It wouldn’t have to be – you could – if you’d just agree to –”
It’s Joe’s turn to laugh, then, reminiscent of Andy’s own cackle. Nine hundred years together, Nile thinks with jarring hysteria. The gun feels sweaty in her grip, in a way no weapon has since her basic training days.
“You think that’s what this would be? You cannot be so naïve,” Joe spits. His gun keeps tapping the back of Copley’s head in tiny reminders. “You cannot possibly think this would be civilised.”
“Steven Merrick understands what this could mean for the world!” Copley insists, sounding for the first time close to frightened. “He wants to provide some good.”
“He wants to make a greater fortune than he already inherited,” Booker replies before Joe can say something worse.
“Show me a true altruist in this world and I’ll align myself with them gladly!” Copley hisses back. “Yes, Merrick wants to make money, but at least he wants to make money helping people. His company has advanced medical science in multiple fields over the past fifty years at an astonishing rate, in ways that could go even quicker with your help.”
Andy makes a disgusted noise, taking another step to block Copley in and he makes a dizzy, aborted movement, reaching towards Nile, who holds her ground even as three other guns converge angrily on the man.
“No, wait!” Copley shouts, withdrawing his hand and pointing instead to something behind Nile. “Let me – let me show you.”
For a moment, Andy looks like she’s going to refuse. Her stony face is merciless, her body lethally carved around her weapon.
“Please,” Copley adds, quietly.
When still Andy doesn’t do anything, Nile takes a slow step sideways, offering him the space to move past her. He gives her a grateful look that she refuses to respond to.
Copley walks slowly to the wall, which is covered by some sort of material. Projecting every movement expertly to remain as unthreatening as possible, Copley grasps a corner and pulls away the cloth to reveal a series of boards that are covered in scattered images and documents.
Nile tracks the few closest as best she can, instantly recognising the side of Andy’s face in black and white as she carries a small child up a smoky slope.
She sees their faces all over it, separate and together. An ID bearing Joe’s face: Doctor Josef Jones. Booker, uniformed, carrying a rifle and standing beside two laughing soldiers. Andy – Joe – Booker - Joe – Joe and Andy – Booker and Joe – Andy – Booker and Andy – Joe and –
A man’s face, one she doesn’t recognise, the same one in two pictures side by side, dated more than forty years apart. In the later, faded but tinted with colour, his hair is a light, nutty brown, and his eyes pale as a shallow sea –
Nile notices with a sickly jolt in a stomach, and turns to see Joe’s eyes fixed on them. The flushed angry colour of his cheeks has vanished.
“What do you know of this man?” he snarls, and Copley actually flinches at the harsh thorns of his tone.
“Joe!” Andy barks in warning, but Copley’s already answering.
“He disappears from any records I could find, some time mid-20th century,” he says. “I couldn’t find much on him. I wasn’t sure –”
“Fuck!” Joe growls, and Booker murmurs something in French as Andy drags Copley’s attention back to herself.
“You showed this to Merrick?” she asks.
Copley does a nod-shake of his head that in other circumstances might be laughable.
“Not all of it,” he says. “Just – enough. Enough to get him interested. He asked for further evidence.”
Andy is clearly too disgusted with him to ask a follow up.
Joe is too distracted by the photographs of the man who has to be Nicky, while Booker is trapped between them, as he always is, and that is the moment things click together in Nile’s head. Somewhere between fear Andy’s going to lose her temper catastrophically, and concern for the colourlessness of Joe’s cheeks, and sympathy for the worry in Booker’s eyes, Nile understands.
She realises that two hundred years, a thousand years, several thousand years, is so long to be alive.
It’s so long that none of them, not Sebastien le Livre, not Yusuf al-Kaysani, certainly not Andromache of Scythia, can quite comprehend how absurd their existence is anymore. The fact of their immortality, whether a blessing or a curse, a miracle or a plague, has been a fact of their consciousness for so long that they no longer have the means to realise how stupid it sounds.
But for Nile, for Nile Freeman – for a twenty-six year old Corporal whose head is still reeling from her new reality even with the empirical proof of having come back to life twice already – it’s obvious. It’s sitting there, a duck on the horizon for shooting.
“He believed you?” she asks, and her voice is either loud enough or simply unexpected enough to draw all four pairs of eyes on her.
Copley frowns, confused.
“Yes, within – within reason.”
“Reason?” Nile repeats derisively. “You showed Merrick a bunch of photos, which could easily be forgeries, or, or fucking deep fakes or whatever, and he gave you a blank cheque and said sure, give me more?”
Copley, if anything, looks more confused. Even Andy sounds impatient when she asks: “What are you saying?”
“Merrick has been told there’s such a thing as immortality, and he takes some stranger’s word for it off the back of a few photos?”
Early comprehension flickers in Booker’s eyes; in Joe’s and in Andy’s. Copley, for the first time, looks doubtful.
“He had faith in me –”
“That is not faith,” Nile spits, the word tasting poisonous on her tongue. She won’t let him sully the word, this faithless, selfish man. “That is –”
And that is when the second realisation smacks Nile, so hard in the chest the air is punched from her lungs and a great well of panic opens up inside her chest. Someone’s hand is on her arm, suddenly. She can’t breathe.
The past fifty years, she hears again in Copley’s pleading voice.
And in Booker’s, sullen and distorted with whisky and wine: Forty-five years ago, we were in Southern Libya.
She hears Andy’s voice speaking, but she can’t make out the words. Nile shakes her head, tears filling her eyes and she blinks them out without bothering to wipe them away. She doesn’t recognise her own voice when finally she manages to get the words out.
“Why would he believe you?” she begs of him, wants an answer more than anything because the alternative, God above, the alternative… “Why, unless he already knew it was possible?”
Her eyes find Joe, then. Who else can she possibly look at, in that moment? The man who has scoured the desert for forty-five years. The man who told her, If you dream of sand, but she didn’t, did she? She didn’t dream of sand. She dreamt of cold, and metal, and blindness.
She dreamt she was lying on hard ground – not ground –
She dreamt she was lying on a table.
She dreamt of –
“Why, unless he already had hold of someone else who was immortal?”
Copley’s brow is furrowed, but Nile isn’t looking at him. She isn’t looking at Andy, who is silent, or at Booker, whose breaths are harsh as they wheeze in and out of his lungs.
Nile is looking at Joe.
Joe, who looks back at her, cold and empty. He looks back with the picture of devastating terror in his eyes as comprehension steels every muscle in his body and when he opens his mouth, the noise that tears out of him is inhuman, and so awful it will follow her for years to come. It will be the sound by which all other noises are measured in Nile’s heart.
Joe, Josef Jones, Yusuf al-Kaysani. The roar of his realisation and he holds the gun to Copley’s face like he’s going to cave it in and Andy’s arms clamour him away, reactive, while Booker tries to grapple Joe backwards and Nile instinctively steps in front of Copley, can’t let this sheer engulfing hatred in Joe’s wordless cry be the end of the road and Joe, Josef, Yusuf –
Blocked from the object of his vengeance, ravaged with the sort of incriminating grief Nile can only pray she never knows, Joe doesn’t even wrench himself from Booker’s grip before he lifts the gun in his hands, shoves the barrel into his own mouth and shoots himself into oblivion.
The bang echoes through them violently. Booker cries out, a wail as he struggles to catch Joe’s sudden, bloody weight and Nile flinches as hot tears spill painfully down her cheeks and Andy whispers the name on all their tongues, and it sounds like an apology. It sounds like ten thousand years and an ocean laid to waste.
“Nicolo,” Andy says, quiet and cracked.
Nile can’t help but wonder, in the ensuing silence, at how very young the word makes her sound.
* * *
** Reading Jay’s uniform in the film was tricky, but I’m 90% sure it says “Hurley”. Please tell me if I’m wrong!
** One of my biggest complaints about the whole film is I just don’t believe every single person in the entire camp would suddenly and completely turn on Nile for a freaky incident. So, I made Jay less of a bad cop. Nile deserves at least one loyal mortal friend, OK?
** I couldn’t seem to find a reliable internet answer on whether gosh-e fil (“elephant’s ears”) comes from Afghanistan or Iran originally. The only place I’ve ever had them was in an establishment that marketed itself as Afghan, however I realise that makes it 2% believable because UK restaurants are shocking. However, it seems to be eaten in both Afghanistan and Iran, so I hope it is acceptably placed here.
** Merda: Shit (Italian)
** La petite: little one (French term of endearment, typically familiar, literally “the little”)
** Have I slightly finagled the design of Gard du Nord for story purposes? Yes. Yes I have. Is this the second story I’ve written that includes people who are on the run taking advantage of the quite frankly astonishingly lax security aboard Eurostar trains/stations? Yes. Yes it is. Will I do it again some time? Probably.
** Cette place est prise?: Is this place taken? (French)
Chapter 3: TWO: BOOKER
I’ve lost him, he thinks, suddenly, clearly; crystal clarity like little else in this transient universe. More surely, more permanently, than they ever lost Nicolo di Genova, Booker realises. He has, in this exact moment, lost Yusuf al-Kaysani for good.
He thought he’d known devastation before, but he was wrong. He was so wrong.
Thank you so much, again! I can't believe it! I really, really hope you continue to enjoy it. You will notice I added a chapter. I've done a bit of rearranging, and it's ended with me splitting some stuff up.
Have more angst. Includes some additional, creative-licence backstory for Booker. Also, high warnings for self-pity, because Booker.
On a more serious note, please be aware of references to racist regimes and police brutality. They are not explicit, but are overtly mentioned.
As usual, extra explanatory notes at the end. Thank you so much.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
* * *
When Booker texted Andy and Joe requesting back up for a job offer in Marrakech, this is not exactly how he expected things to be going, five days later.
“Here,” Copley says, holding out a damp cloth from a safe distance.
Or, what he believes is a safe distance.
Booker stares at it blankly for a moment before returning his attention to the computer screen in front of him and, likely to Copley’s distress, continues typing on the keyboard with his sticky, bloodstained hands. It’s an insignificant pleasure, dirtying this man’s pristine surroundings in some smallest of measures. Whatever marks Booker leaves on Copley’s home now, they will be nothing to what will be left on his life by the time they’re through with him.
When Booker doesn’t take it, Copley folds the square flannel twice and leaves it on the desk.
Behind him, gun waving idly in her hands, Nile poorly hides her hungry smirk.
“Tell me how to access your backdoor to Merrick’s servers,” Booker says calmly.
In the angular reflection of the eastmost window, in refracted colours dancing with the leaves from the outside, Booker can see Andy and Joe kneeling on the floor across the room, their foreheads together, whispering, as they have been doing since Joe woke up. At least, Andy has been whispering. Joe hasn’t made a sound since he shot himself in the mouth, as far as Booker’s heard.
“I can –” Copley gestures, while Booker smears dark blood into the varnish of the table.
“Tell me,” Booker says, less politely this time.
It’s helped by the earnest way Nile adds: “Just do as he says, man.”
Booker doesn’t thank her, but he should, later. They all should.
Dead-not-dead less than a week and she’s already a shade of magnificent Booker recognises from the glint in Andromache’s eyes.
She’s a good kid, too. Helpful and kind and brazen; Booker likes her, a hell of a lot more than he expected to ever like a new one, whenever they came along.
Copley is still hesitant, though.
Booker doesn’t have it in him to appeal to a better nature that might not exist. He hasn’t pleaded for anything from anyone in decades, hasn’t pleaded with a mortal in far longer still. When he speaks, he does it with the knowledge of over two hundred years of experience with human nature at his disposal.
“You have a way in. You wouldn’t handcuff yourself to anybody without a way to check their dirty laundry first. Tell me it, and by the time we leave, you might still have all four of your limbs.”
From across the room, Joe finally breaks his silence to spit violently in harsh Italian: “Non fare promesse che non posso mantenere, le Livre!”
Don’t make promises I can’t keep. Booker almost laughs, almost throws up, can hear it in a very different voice, a very different tone. Christ, forty-five years absent and still he intrudes on every goddamn conversation –
It’s followed by several foul threats in Genoese that are certainly not idle, and need no translating, because Copley flinches anyway and –
“Yusuf, Yusuf,” Andy says, her hands taking hold of Joe’s face, forcing him to look back at her.
Joe pinches his mouth shut, his nose squashed into Andy’s cheek as he breathes her in, his hands gripping bruises into her forearms.
Booker watches their reflection, a bitten ache in his chest, until he realises Copley is watching, too. Hot, possessive defiance ignites in Booker. Copley has no right to it, no claim to the intimacy he is witnessing and Booker has to fight to refrain from doing worse than clicking in the man’s face to retrieve his attention. A tiny fleck of Joe’s blood flies from his hand, landing on Copley’s shirt.
“I looked already,” Copley says, and his voice is level, while his eyes are restless. “There’s nothing. I don’t think –”
“Copley,” Nile warns before Booker can say something else.
She looks afraid, now, deep in her eyes. That fear from their first dream of her; fear of the inevitable. It had been her own death, that first time, but now it’s Copley’s. She knows, or at least suspects, how precariously the thread of Copley’s life hangs. She is still mortal enough to care, more to the point.
Booker almost envies her. He’s forgotten what that feels like.
“Alright,” Copley concedes, some of the fight dropping from his tense shoulders. “There’s a weak spot in their communication security.”
Booker immediately gets to work. The hush of Andy’s rustling whispers a lullaby in the background.
He’s grateful that Nile stays close, that Nile has taken charge of Copley Watch. He’s sure she’s the only one who can look at him without her trigger finger twitching.
There is, still, a small part of Booker that hopes she is wrong about Nicky. It is the part of himself that he knows is most cowardly; the part that can only be drowned and numbed by the alcohol currently burning a hole in his pants through his flask. Because, the truth is, he doesn’t want her to be right.
He doesn’t want to have to look Joe in the eye and see forty-five years of looking in the wrong place, the wrong continent.
That is a burden Booker knows none of them can bear gracefully, not even Andy, with her Atlas shoulders.
He’s flicking through digitised archives in less than half an hour.
Copley has, with Nile’s resistant permission, taken a chair not-quite-next to Booker, guiding him through the more combative firewalls. At their collective sigh of victory, Booker hears Joe and Andy venture closer, watching over their shoulders.
Nile sensibly inserts herself between them and Copley.
The very world has quietened all about them. The house is holding its breath in anticipation. If he looked outside, Booker is sure he’d find the trees have grown still.
He tries to wet his lips, but his tongue is sandpaper, scraping over chapped skin. He hasn’t felt this coiled tight in – in forty-five years, maybe.
A weight suddenly grips the back of his chair. It takes a great deal of willpower not to reach back and take Joe’s arm in return.
With a deep, fortifying breath before the dive, Booker chooses a random file and clicks it open to find a report on blood cultures dating early last year. A second on methotrexate dosages in second-round chemotherapy procedures. A third on a non-approved drug for treating osteoporosis, including next steps for gaining approval.
File after file, chosen at random or in sequence, reveals nothing of import, beyond perhaps some questionable directional flow of funding, which is hardly surprising.
“You see,” Copley tries to say, only for a metallic thump of a handgun clocking the back of his head to silence him.
“Andy,” Nile says with disapproval.
The leather back of Booker’s chair squeaks in protest under Joe’s vicious fingers.
He feels it, too. He can taste the bloody thud of his heart in the back of his throat. He’s starting to feel that hopeful nausea, that maybe, just maybe, they won’t find anything. That’s Nile’s dreams will be wrong, that her clever intuition will be wrong, that –
This time, Andy doesn’t smack Copley for speaking.
Booker sees it, as well. A lockbox; a safe little pocket so innocuously buried in amongst other data he might not even –
Do you think, one day, we will all carry little machines around with us? That we will master technology to our disposal the way we have mastered weapons, and fire? Nicolas asked Booker, once. Do you think that, Bastiano? How much do you bet?
Every time Booker picks up his phone, any phone, he thinks about that laughing face, and it’s like opening his eyes underwater: a blurry, stinging fog.
He breaks through the protective barriers sealing the file.
“Donor Eight,” somebody reads.
Nile, Booker thinks but he can’t be sure because a deep-rooted instinct, somewhere between predator and prey, is telling Booker not to click on that folder. He can feel the heat of Joe’s breath behind him; Joe’s blood sill flaky on his fingers from catching him as he dropped.
Copley is leaning forward and Booker’s stomach rolls.
Inside, clicking at random, the first thing he sees is a video file. The digitising date is 24/12/2005.
A rabbity sympathy in Booker’s hindbrain latches onto Christmas overtime at Merrick Labs and he clicks on it before he can decide if he wants to and the screen seems so big so big so bright and just there – there –
It is as if the room, the house, perhaps the entire county of Surrey, has been sucked into a vacuum.
There he is.
A cry punches out of Joe. A strangled, terrible sound.
Booker feels the computer mouse start to splinter in his grasp.
Copley’s gasp is ugly and audible and so fucking unbearably believable.
There he is.
“Nicolo-cuore mio-per favore-Nicolo-no-Nicolo-”
Joe’s whimpers are buried into the back of Booker’s head, an obscene mockery of words and affection and Nicky. Nicolas. Nicky.
Nicolo do Genova is right there, lying on an operating table, strapped down at all four limbs; another belt over his hips and one over his forehead. Naked and small, a lithe, skinned cat pinned down, declawed.
His eyes are open, staring at something off camera. For a moment, the screen seems frozen, or the file corrupted.
Then: Nicky blinks, and his mouth twists into a terrible approximation of what was once his lovely smile.
Booker’s stomach flips again, realising right before it happens that he’s going to hear Nicky’s voice.
“Doctor Shadwell,” Nicky says, and it’s bright, loud, alive.
It wrenches five separate sounds from the people crowded around the screen, each one more pained than the last.
Booker thought he remembered the exact cadence of Nicolas’ voice, but he didn’t, he didn’t at all, or maybe it’s been twisted out of him differently by years of sterile rooms like this one he’s lying in, some time before Christmas 2005.
Out of the corner of his stinging eyes, Booker sees Nile move an inch closer to Andy.
A disgruntled man comes into view, in his fifties perhaps, followed by a much younger man.
“And associate,” Nicky adds with a cold charm that is utterly unrecognisable.
Booker clenches his fist around the mouse, the plastic creasing and splintering.
The young man seems perturbed to be spoken to, but Doctor Shadwell ignores Nicky entirely, setting up a table of instruments that glimmer, a mean looking silver in the unforgiving fluorescent lights of the room.
“Session X.7,” Shadwell tells the camera.
He’s interrupted from anything further by Nicky again, who asks pleasantly if he had a nice trip, and how his daughter’s wedding was.
A sour expression spoils Shadwell’s calm, and when his young co-worker says ‘Doctor’, uncertainly, he snaps back: “Ignore it. The paralytic will shut it up soon.”
Booker grits his teeth, a shiver clutching his spine at Joe’s low, animal growl.
“Bambino. Hey, bambino,” Nicky continues anyway, still looking at the young man, who seems to be finding it hard not to look at Nicky, despite his superior’s orders. “Could you do me a favour?”
God, Booker knows that saccharine tone. It makes his neck bend and his hands flinch, hearing it. He knows that question, in that voice, that sugary do me a favour, usually followed by something absurd, or occasionally obscene.
Do me a favour? Succhiami il cazzo, Nicky used to murmur sweetly at him over a radio, when he was finding Booker particularly irritating.
When the boy looks at him again, Nicky’s expression remains light and innocent.
“Could you move the camera for me? Just to there?”
He points with his eyes, restricted by the band cutting into his head. The boy looks over, to the other side of the room, frowning.
“Why?” he asks.
“Matthews!” Shadwell barks, but it’s too late. Nicky is smiling at him like a shark in shallow water.
“I’ve been reliably informed my chin looks better from the left.”
A choking, surprised laugh bursts wetly out of Joe, and even Andy. Booker feels his own smile tug weakly at his expression, to hear Nicky’s biting vanity, his dry humour, his wonderful, wonderful –
The needle in Shadwell’s hand jams so hard and so fast into Nicky’s throat, it knocks a retch out of his open mouth. He hisses, squirming at the shoulders, until his entire body goes lax, his eyes slack and sluggish.
“Prep him quickly,” Shadwell tells a wary Matthews, who’s now looking anywhere but at Nicky’s paralysed body. “We’ve got a second surgery in OR6. We’ll need a kidney, too.”
Booker clicks off the video so quickly, the mouse finally cracks all the way in his hand.
The screen goes blank as his lungs contract, airless and ever shrinking and his insides are drying up. He hears Nile, her voice, her young and lovely voice.
“Organs,” she says, and it takes him a moment to realise she’s repeating his word from before back to her.
We were in Southern Libya, he told her. The first, the very first person he’s ever told, ever had to tell it to, what a terrible weight it’s been and –
“Josef,” he cries out, swinging hastily to reach behind him, but he’s too late.
Joe’s already walked out of the room.
* * *
YOUNGEST CEO IN HISTORY: STEVEN MERRICK SET TO INHERIT HIS FATHER’S PLACE IN THE MERRICK CONGLOMERATE FOLLOWING THE TRAGIC DEMISE OF HIS PARENTS LAST MONTH. MERRICK INC, FOUNDED BY SIR STEPHEN MERRICK (OBE) IN 1962, HAS TRAILBLAZED MEDICAL PROCEDURAL DEVELOPMENT FOR OVER FORTY YEARS, BEGINNING WITH MERRICK SR’S EARLIEST WORK, INCLUDING HIS INVOLVEMENT IN THE FIRST HUMAN TO HUMAN HEART TRANSPLANT IN CAPE TOWN IN 1967.
There is a photo included. Three, actually. Of young Steven Merrick, of his father James, and of his grandfather, Stephen.
Booker reads the article, numb with shock.
His gun is, quite suddenly, twice as heavy in his hands.
* * *
There is an agony unique to waiting idly, with nothing to do but maintain a façade of patience.
Booker has known it before, many times over.
He knew it as a mortal man under Napoleon’s flag; one of those thousand, thousand boys, with their frozen fingers and noses and dicks and toes, waiting to plunge deeper into the wasteland of Russia that would be their doom. He knew it as a grieving parent, helplessly watching his youngest son succumb to consumption, all the while blaming his devil of a father for failing to pass on his gift of youth and wellbeing.
He knew it in Libya, sitting inside a battered shack that provided little shelter from the rage of the sandstorm refusing to dissipate; Andrea sitting across from him and Josef between them, his prayers shaken out of him with a faith Booker never had, not even as Sebastien, who had been God-fearing from childhood.
This, Booker thinks, sitting in James Copley’s beautiful house, simply waiting for nightfall to creep closer, is among those worst of all his waitings.
Joe and Andy have been outside for the past eighty-six minutes, and by the sounds of it, they aren’t even close to being done.
Andy is as close to noiseless as she has always been in battle, so their fight can only be measured by the grunts and snarls of Joe, repeating his attack over and over again. It’s rare that any of them have bested Andy hand to hand, but Joe can usually manage it on occasion. He hasn’t even come close, this time, too blinded by the thoughts she is trying to exorcise from him with a few rounds in the gardens outside Copley’s mansion.
Booker bows his head, leaning into his mucky hands.
The kid is standing guard while Copley puts gathers them some supplies: clothes, he’d said, and fresh ammo to spare.
She’s still the only one who can do it without her hands flexing around her gun.
Booker rubs his tired eyes, ignoring the constant buzzing in his head, reminding him just how much easier this would be with a drink in his hand. The sick ache in his gut yawns wider as he scratches his fingers through the tacky blood matting his hair, sticking to his ear. There’s blood on his arms, too, and his shirt, but it’s not his own.
The memory of Joe’s gun rammed down his own throat makes Booker wince painfully. It’s been a long while since he’s seen that.
It’s not a sight he’s missed.
Outside, a new spar begins all over again. Even through nothing more than the cracked open window, Booker is attuned to the melody of their fists, knees, feet, elbows. The smack of their skin, the rip of their clothes. It’s been a quiet comfort among few to be found in the past two hundred years.
Booker winces at the sound of Joe’s back hitting the ground again, the air blasted from his lungs.
“Enough,” Andy growls, her fourth attempt.
Booker clenches his teeth and doesn’t listen for Joe’s response, which is a lot easier when he’s speaking Arabic. It’s been hard, keeping up with so many languages with so much time spent on his own. He’s never been a natural student, and without Nicolas’ bullying efforts and gentle bickering…
The wall of photos before him blurs momentarily. Booker listens for two sets of footsteps across the house, Nile’s clipped voice, Copley’s nervous responses. The reassuring knowledge of her proximity.
Good kid, he thinks again. Magnificent kid. He’s never exactly been the poster boy for a healthy immortal existence, and he never thought he’d be glad to see another soul condemned to this unending cycle, but if it had to be anyone, well. He’s goddamn glad it turned out to be Nile Freeman.
“Yusuf, for god’s sake,” Andy yells, and –
Booker gets up quickly enough for the computer chair to roll back several metres, all the way to the wall. He stalks deeper into the house, where he can’t hear them anymore. His ears are ringing, his head reeling, his stomach rolling. There is no part of him that does not share some measure of the torment that lingers, spectrelike around the house, now.
Finding Nile and Copley is easy enough, not least because they’ve tracked the edges of bloodstains from their shoes over the thick crème carpets, all the way to the kitchen. Booker is faintly amused by Nile’s innocence, but mostly distressed by the thought that just because he’s got a good sad-boy expression, that doesn’t mean she should be letting Copley around a set of steak knives.
“I’ve moved the sharp objects out of the way, Booker. Are you kidding me?” Nile drawls with a pointed eye roll, when she catches sight of Booker looking around.
Booker doesn’t have it in him to be embarrassed. There’s not much to be embarrassed about, after the first hundred or so years of life.
Copley is sitting very calmly at a large island in the middle of the room, his hands resting in a friendly, open manner on the worktop while Nile pours some juice into a shatterproof, reusable takeout cup. She puts it down in front of Copley, before pouring herself a glass and leaving the carton out on the side for Booker.
She holds out her gun for Booker as she approaches him. He takes it warily.
“Typical bachelor over here has a lot of frozen pizzas, if you’re hungry,” she says, jerking her thumb at a flinching Copley.
Booker’s not sure if she’s saying it to wound him, or if she’s already forgotten he’s actually a widower, not a bachelor. For the first time, Booker has to bite back the urge to actually defend the man. Nile, he reminds himself with placating gratitude, doesn’t know how unimportant things like decent food are, when your wife is dead and you are not.
Booker knows, though. Booker thinks, if he understands anything about James Copley, it’s what the barren state of his fridge will be; what the worn corners of the photos in his wallet will look like.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
Nile pauses in the doorway with a shrug.
“I have washed using only rain and baby wipes for three days, Booker. I’m making use of the undoubtedly unbelievable water pressure in this place before we head for London.”
Booker should tell her: It’s too dangerous right now. Or maybe, You should get used to it, kid, or, Wait until Joe and Andy are back inside at least.
However, she’s probably right. The water pressure will be unbelievable. The water itself will reach scalding levels of hot, if he wants it to. He’s suddenly hyperaware of the brain-blood-gunk mess on the side of his face from where Andy shot him, earlier. The all-over stains of Joe’s blood, too. So instead of a reprimand, or a warning, or an order, Booker just says:
“Get on with it, then. I’m going after you.”
Nile flashes him a grin and a cheeky salute before ducking out of the room.
Booker smiles after her, for just a brief second. Then, turning back, he realises he’s alone with Copley.
Copley has realised this, too. His eyes don’t stray far from the gun in Booker’s hand, even as Booker walks over to the carton of juice left on the side. Orange and mango, rich and thick and full of additives.
He considers drinking it straight from the carton, just to be extra rude, but decides against it. He pretends it has nothing to do with the barrage of Italian insults he automatically hears at the thought of it: a snickering porco schifoso and a smack around the ears to go with it.
With a glass of juice in one hand and a gun swinging lazily in the other, Booker helps himself to a chair at the island, keeping two spaces between him at the wide-eyed Copley. He sips quietly, gulp after gulp, until there are only dregs left, before speaking.
Copley visibly braces himself.
“I believe you,” Booker says, with his finger still resting on the trigger.
He’s impressed, perhaps even surprised, to realise Nile has kept the safety clicked off.
Copley sinks into it like Booker’s words are pure absolution, and not the basic equivalent of lacking doubt. It’s not even trust, merely a lack of active distrust. Yet Copley’s smile weasels over his expression, his shoulders sagging as he leans into the table
“Thank you,” he says, earnest and childlike, and he tries to continue but Booker can’t hear it.
“I don’t care,” he tells him, truthfully. “I believe you didn’t know about Nicolas. I believe, maybe, you thought humans would be able to maintain some basic semblance of humanity, when faced with something they don’t understand. Trust me when I say, Mr Copley, that that is not a compliment. It is the poorest form of naivety.”
Copley grimaces, clutching around his own cup. He tries to take a sip, but either changes his mind or realises it probably won’t stay down because he shoves it away quickly.
“I just wanted some good to, to come of it,” Copley says in a pleading voice, one that Booker recognises from his own mouth.
“No good comes of death, James,” Booker says. “Your wife died. She suffered, and she died, and you are still suffering.”
Copley bows his head, hiding from the truth of Booker’s words. He knows the pain of hearing them; he knows, because he hid from them, too, when Joe first spoke them to him. He’d had much longer to wallow in his pain, then, than Copley has had now.
“My – friend,” Booker stumbles, frowning, because that isn’t right, not right at all. “My brother, is suffering; has been suffering, for a very long time. You are going to help us bring him home. You are going to make amends for your wrongs. And so am I.”
Copley’s eyes are red rimmed, full of confusion as he looks up, then.
“You?” he asks.
Booker’s back teeth ache for a sip of whisky. He grabs Copley’s orange juice and drinks it down greedily, just to pretend.
“Me,” he replies, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
From across the house, he hears a door open, as Joe and Andy come back inside. Booker grits his teeth, the memory of Nicolas’ slack body seared into his memories, spoiling every other thought from now until they find him, however long it takes.
“Kitchen,” he says, loud enough that he knows he’ll be heard.
Then he waits, dread eating his lungs from the inside out.
* * *
They take it in turns to shower, and Nile turns out to be quite right. It’s the sort of shower that, once upon a time, he’d waltz out of, butt naked, whip Joe across the ass with his towel and tell Nicky he’d just had a religious experience, like that bathroom in Zagreb after a bad job, when the bruises disappeared instantly but the hurts took days to fade. It had been good, despite their wounds. They had laughed, they had taken care.
Now, Booker towels off quickly, unashamedly steals clothes from Copley’s wardrobe, and heads back downstairs.
“Next up,” Andy says at the sight of him, kicking Joe’s calf.
Joe, unsurprisingly, obeys with a word. He looks awful, mucky and tearstained and feverish. Booker feels a dreadful urge to reach out, to take hold of him. He must show it in his face, or body, because Joe skirts around him like a stray cat darting through oncoming traffic.
Booker doesn’t take it personally. He’s rebuffed comforts in far crueller ways in his time.
He takes a seat in the kitchen, which is full of the slimy cheese stench of poorly made pizzas. He grabs the nearest plate with a half-moon of pepperoni and begins to work through his first slice with a vengeance.
This isn’t the time to be picky. Who knows when their next meal will be? Or where, for that matter.
Andy looks ruffled, exhausted. Any bruises left by Joe’s strikes are long since vanished, leaving only the shiny grime of dirt and sweat behind. Copley doesn’t seem to have left his seat once, still sitting with docile innocence at the island, nibbling little bites of pizza.
Nile isn’t anywhere to be seen.
For a while they sit in peace, eating their tasteless food, drinking the tasteless booze Andy has reliably sourced from somewhere. You drink too much, they tease each other, sometimes, but the joke seems ill-fitting to mention here, now. That is, it seems to fit too well.
Booker has wondered, sometimes, what things would have been like, with Nicolas around this past half century.
He’d be better at Arabic, for one; he’d have made a lot more money out of their stupid bets, for two.
It’s an indulgent, impractical thought, one that he would never in a thousand years have voiced. Nonetheless, it looms over him now. It looms over Andy, too. He can see the shadow of it in her face.
“It’s not your fault,” he tells Andy, and she blinks, startled perhaps by the words, more likely by the Genoese dialect it’s spoken in.
They don’t talk much in Genoese anymore. It feels like a forbidden language; a disrespectful one.
Copley looks up with a frown, before seeming to realise better than to try to understand them, retreating hunched to his food in silence. Andy, meanwhile, paints a coarse grin over her scowl.
“We killed those traffickers,” she reminds him delicately. “We didn’t even think to chase after their buyers. If we had, we’d have found him.”
“Maybe,” Booker interrupts gruffly. He can’t stand the self-recrimination in her face. “Maybe not,” he adds in English, after.
Maybe, maybe not. It’s chased them all along, since before Booker was even born.
It occurs to him, suddenly, that Andy never asks about Quynh and his dreams anymore. He can’t remember when she stopped.
Andy purses her lips and takes a swig of beer.
“Andromache,” Booker says, quietly.
It arrests the attention of both Andy and Copley better than anything else he could have said. They stare at him, both of them, their mouths hanging open. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Nile walk in. She’s still wearing her clothes from before, but they smell a bit cleaner, overly chemical; as if they’ve been aired out and smothered in deodorant.
“Booker,” Andy says, sharply. “What is it?”
Booker puts down the slice of pizza, feeling sick to the stomach as he wipes the greasy tomato sauce off his fingers. Andy’s unflinching in her attention. Alert, lionlike, as she hadn’t been moments before.
“I think I know why Merrick has Nicky.”
He’s not sure whether it comes out in English, or Genoese, or even old Provençal, until he catches sight of Nile’s worried eyes, wide in her surprised face.
Booker tucks one fist inside the other, a pauper’s prayer, remembers it from his schoolboy stubbornness. Feels stained and bloodier than he did before his shower.
“I think it’s my fault,” he murmurs, and he looks to Andy for an answer, or a question. He looks to her for absolution or condemnation, always has. Andy’s brow is furrowed, hurt, confused; she gives no answer, asks no question. She doesn’t absolve him, or condemn him.
It’s worse, far worse than that.
A voice behind him, cracked wide open; that forty-five years of looking in the wrong place hits Booker like a bullet in the back.
Joe asks, from the doorway: “Why is it your fault, Sebastien?”
And Booker, Sebastien, turns on his chair to face him. To look him in the eyes.
Hanged a coward, endure a coward! Joe roared once, his scimitar bloody and his jaw broken and Booker holding him down, gritting his teeth against every weeping insult he could muster.
Joe says: “Sebastien?”
How much do you bet, Bastiano? Nicolas would ask, laughing, smiling, living.
Sebastien tells him.
* * *
They’d already stayed in Cape Town three days longer than they’d agreed.
Booker had given up asking Andrea for a decision. She had that dangerous glower in her eye. The one that preceded bloodshed nine times out of ten. Booker wasn’t sure why she was bothering. Between extended police powers and every white woman over the age of eighteen carrying her own nifty bottle of tear gas next to her perfume, Booker couldn’t fathom an end in sight for this unjust and terrible apartheid.
He hated it here. They all hated it here.
Even passing as an immigrant American on business, Josef had been subjected to three rigorous interrogations on what he was doing in South Africa already, and was currently holed up in the apartment getting angrier by the day about the delay to their exit. The others were being treated, if not with hostility, at least with attentive suspicion.
Booker tried to be understanding, but he was sure Joe’s temper had more to do with the difficulties he was having bedding di Genova since they arrived, as opposed to having any real frustration of empathy for a country being cloven in two by sheer hatred.
The problem, Booker was growing to realise about places like South Africa, was that it was incredibly hard to feel like any good was being done, when no matter what they did, every day a protest would end with a spray of bullets into children’s bodies; and police officers were raising wicked weapons against the desperate and defenceless.
At a loss, and unable to take more of Josef’s griping, Booker made for the heaving bar of a nearby hotel, where a football match was being shown on a tiny, mounted TV screen.
The majority of the voices around the room were Dutch and English. Booker slipped easily enough into a rusty, tired sounding Flemish, ordered a sequence of whiskies and prepared to settle in for a few hours.
If only he should be so fucking lucky.
Less than an hour in, the alcohol coursing through his blood as the bottle he’d waved off the worried bartender dried to nothing, he had the misfortune to hear a tall, beefy man mutter several foul, utterly unsolicited comments to his nearby companion about the young man sitting two tables away, who Booker had turned to see was speaking to his friend.
No – signing to his friend. There was an unfamiliar, flesh-coloured plastic device hooked around his ear.
It was all the excuse Booker’s poorly contained frustration needed.
There was little to be said for the haze of mist that descended, thick and scarlet over Booker’s vision. One moment he was sitting on a stool clutching a tumbler of Jameson’s, the next the man’s face was dented into his knuckles and he was being dragged up by the elbows.
“I’ve got him, boys, I’ve got him,” a voice was saying, and Booker slackened his weight, letting whoever had supposedly got him take charge, if he was so fucking competent.
Someone was shouting for the police, and Booker laughed, the glitter-dazzle light of the room spinning around him.
Yes, please, let them come, he thought. He could burn out the last of his swollen drunken hangover on them and their batons and their bullets.
“Don’t worry, boys. I’ve got him.”
The man was English; Oxfordshire, by the sounds of it, and an education to boot. He was strong enough to sling Booker’s arm over his shoulder and shoehorn him through an angry crowd, which was impressive. Booker blinked hazily, trying to catch a glimpse of the boy and his friend, but they’d disappeared.
“Here we go, nice and easy,” the stranger said, then to a following waitress: “Oh, get us some tap water and a glass of ice. Do you have a good medical bag somewhere? I doubt he’ll need stitches, but a bit of cleaning wouldn’t hurt. Thank you.”
The words rattled nonsensically as Booker allowed himself to be pushed into a chair.
They were alone in a grandly decorated drawing room of sorts. Gilded picture frames shone in the light scattered by the ornate candelabras, and the high ceiling was painted in decorative pastel shades. The man with him was not very tall, but lean as a runner, with a thick head of hair a shade lighter than his nicely trimmed beard.
He was wearing a casual suit that would have been nice, if not for the blood splatter Booker was fairly certain had come from his nose.
A young woman appeared with a tray and bag, which she left with a fearful smile on the table before dashing away, quick as she dared.
“Don’t worry, I’m a doctor. Now, let’s see about that hand, hmm?”
Panic suddenly flashed like gunfire through Booker, as he realised. He could already feel his broken nose had healed, but at least a sudden stop of bleeding could be explained. Not like –
He tried to pull away, but it was too late. The doctor had seen his unblemished knuckles, which only a few seconds ago had been cut to ribbons and bright, bruising blue. They froze together, both of them, doing more than staring at Booker’s unhurt hand.
The ice cube in the doctor’s had slipped to the floor, thin trickles of water licked down his pink, cold fingers. His blue eyes were big and round, the corners of his mouth sucked into his cheeks.
Booker felt furious fright consume him.
He was alone – all alone here. He didn’t tell Joe where he was going, and even refused to wait for Nicolas or Andrea to return. Would they even know? Or would they assume he’d fucked off without them, again, like he already had done too many times before?
The doctor took a breath before turning on his heel and walking across the room.
Was he calling someone? Where the police there already?
The room was still a spinning carousel. The fight was bubbling up in Booker even as it was draining heavily out of his limbs. He was so tired, so drunk. He couldn’t –
The doctor was abruptly back, dragging a seat over the thick carpet, and when Booker looked up, it was to watch the man uncorking a red wine. He poured two generous glasses.
“To your ongoing health and good fortune,” the doctor toasted, clinking their drinks together and handing Booker a glass.
He drank, and so did Booker, too, battling to keep the confusion from his face.
The doctor seemed entirely unperturbed by whatever had just occurred. There wasn’t a trace of it in his large, blue eyes.
“What’s your name?” the doctor asked.
“Lucas,” Booker replied automatically, before something stupider could fall out of his mouth.
“Well, Lucas,” the doctor said. “Now we’re safely out of earshot, I wanted to thank you. You did what I’d been wanting to do for quite a while. Pair of absolute arseholes, the both of them.”
He chortled, good-natured and proud as he spoke, sipping his wine. He looked about the age Jean-Pierre, Booker’s youngest, had been when he died.
“Animals,” Booker spat in agreement, drinking again to wash the taste from his mouth.
He wiped at the blood smeared over his cheek with his shirt sleeve, feeling distinctly dirty next to this pleasant doctor’s clean smile.
“What was it exactly that prompted your – er, outburst, shall we say? I’m afraid I had long tuned him out by then.”
The man looked concerned, so humanly concerned. It widened the ache in Booker’s heart.
“He said –” he tried, but he didn’t want the words inside his mouth. He grimaced, disgraced. “The young men nearby, they were speaking in sign language. It was cruel, and rude, what he said of them.”
“Ah,” the doctor said, nodding. “I see.”
He didn’t, though. He didn’t at all. Booker squeezed his glass, and looked at this kind doctor, who didn’t ask impossible questions. Who had concern in his eyes and sympathy in his brow. Who might, just might, understand, if he listened.
“My son was deaf,” Booker said roughly. “My eldest. He fell, as a boy. He bled for days, and slept for longer. And when he woke, he couldn’t hear my voice, or his mother’s. He couldn’t hear anything.”
The doctor nodded again, and put his hand on Booker’s arm for a fleeting second.
“There is so much in this world we still don’t understand,” the doctor said, a truth too perfect for this precise moment to do anything other than prompt a laugh in response; quietly at first. Then louder, until the doctor, bemused, asked: “Am I so amusing? Share the joke, Lucas, please.”
Booker wiped his face again, blood and salt and wine.
“There is so much you don’t understand,” he agreed, with such aggressive envy, he felt filled with the very cardinal sin itself. “A woman, mocked a life created by man and wrote a ghost story to scare the children of science. Did she not realise, a hundred and fifty years later, we would be just as clueless? Or maybe she did know. Maybe she saw what would become of the world. None of you understand. How can you? Your lives are so transitory. So vibrant. There’s nothing to understand.”
Booker lifted his hand, inspecting the sparkle of what he realised was a small shard of glass embedded deep in his palm. He dug his thumbnail into the skin, wiggling the wound open where it had tried to heal, sealing itself around the fragment. When his skin ripped, it released the intrusion as well as a thick glob of blood that poured like the wine out onto the carpet.
Then, the gash was closed.
The doctor made a startled, celebratory sound.
Booker sank his wine, trying to conjure that same joy. He had it, once, surely.
Before this un-life. Before they strung him up from a gibbet to reek and die and wake and shriek and die, alone upon his own calvary, for days on end. Before Napoleon ever set his sights on lands he had no business taking. Before É tienne fell from that horse because his Papa was too distracted to catch him – bleeding and screaming, while Louise bellowed his name and poured hot water into her newly stitched blankets for bandages.
Before the curse of suffering could ever touch him, perhaps he knew that sort of joy.
The doctor’s hearty sigh was full of sorrow, then, seeing Booker’s downturned mouth. The wine glugged and giggled as it was poured.
“You are older than you seem, my friend,” he said gently. “Your eyes carry years that your face does not.”
“Too many years,” Booker whispered into his wine.
His head ached terribly. He thought, sluggishly, he should probably leave.
“Perhaps you need a friend who can help you,” the doctor suggested. “Someone of knowledge, of science, who can relieve you of your burdens.”
Booker laughed callously.
“Are you offering?” he jested.
The doctor didn’t laugh, though. The doctor looked solemn, and full of promise, and the thought of it – the very idea. It was a thought, a temptation, the like of which Booker had never known, never allowed himself to conceive of until that very moment. A hundred and fifty years with a threadbare noose around his neck and just maybe –
Fate, however, had other plans.
Before either of them could say more, the door opened and the waitress appeared, looking apologetic. She wasn’t alone. Behind her, a figure emerged from the shadows, stepping out into the light, a dusty tan on his face and a ready laugh in his mouth.
A policeman, perhaps, or otherwise –
“Fratello, you lousy pig! I’ve searched the whole continent for you. Here I find you, a drink in your hand, bothering the locals.”
Nicolas’ voice was loud and lively, full of a good cheer that didn’t match the harried look in his pale eyes as he took in Booker, and the stranger beside him. He was quick to snatch the wine from Booker’s hand; quicker still to shake the doctor’s hand a little too vociferously to be polite.
“Thank you, for taking care of my hoodlum brother,” Nicolas said, all his borrowed Italian charm at his disposal. “Mr…”
“Oh, just Stephen, please,” the doctor insisted. “It was no problem. Lucas here was barely scratched. Quite a miracle! We were just taking a quiet moment, away from the crowds.”
Booker smiled weakly, and did not enjoy Nicolas’ suspicious stare.
He thanked Stephen again, and hoisted Booker up noisily.
“Well, fratello. Shall we get you home?”
There was no room for argument, so Booker simply tipped an invisible hat to the doctor, smiled at the waitress, and allowed himself to be coaxed by Nicky’s gentle, livid hands, out into the humidity of the night.
* * *
By the time Booker finishes his tale, the very air of the kitchen is so thick with tension, he’s surprised he can still breathe it in.
He doesn’t mention the walk back to the apartment. He doesn’t explain his fight with Nicolas, his own cutting tongue and Nicky’s glassy eyes, the flush of his cheeks. What use would it be? Just further pain for a man already in agony.
Joe hasn’t moved at all from his place in the doorway. He’s taken in all of Booker’s confession with such impassivity, he might be mistaken for being disinterested.
Booker tries to covertly glance around the room.
Nile is watching Joe, pointedly not look at Booker; Copley is inspecting his thumbnails with expressive interest.
Andy stares back when he finally meets her eyes, and the condemnation etched into them is a greater shame than Booker’s ever known.
“The original Dr Stephen Merrick, I presume,” she says, when nobody else speaks.
Booker nods. He can feel icy sweat on his cheeks, on his neck.
“I didn’t know,” he mumbles. “I didn’t, Boss. It was just – a moment. A moment of weakness. I didn’t even think anything of it, at the time. Nicky arrived and afterwards I never even considered –”
He sees Andy’s eyes widen in shock. He sees Copley lean back. He hears Nile shout “Joe!”
It’s all the warning he gets before he’s slammed headfirst into the kitchen worktop.
Blood sprays out of his nose and he scrambles to catch his balance. He feels his two front teeth chip, their roots driven deeper into his gums as Joe drags his head back by his hair, only to smash it down again in a second, dizzying blow.
There’s the scraping clatter of chairs flying back as people leap to their feet. The hoarse bellow of Arabic and Italian and English. Booker tries to find his feet while his hands slide through the blood on the worktop but Joe expertly kicks them out from under him and with a third crack of his face against the granite surface, Booker feels his cheekbones shatter.
“Joe, please!” he hears Nile beg, and he collapses into himself when Joe lets go, a single vicious kick aimed directly at his kidney before somebody tackles Joe back, out of the way.
Booker groans uselessly. His face is pounding, his skull might be cracked. He can feel blood pouring out from multiple parts of his face and he curls in towards his legs, his entire body throbbing with pain and disgrace.
“You traitorous bastard!” Joe howls from under someone’s arm – Andy’s, surely, but Booker can’t see through the mess. He can feel a hand rubbing circles on his back, but there is nowhere to hide from Joe’s accusations.
Even if there was, they would still be true.
“I’m sorry,” he tries to whisper, but he doesn’t know if he manages it. “Mi dispiace. Désolé. Je suis navré, navré. Perdonami. Mi dispiace. Pardonne-moi.”
He pushes the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, feels the heated crack of the healing slowed down as he shoves the injuries back out of place. It’s grounding and frightening. Nile is tugging at his arm, as if she knows what he’s doing.
Andy is shouting, too, now, and Booker thinks about Nicky, Nicolas, Nicolo. Lying on that table, with his icy tremor of a smile, cracking jokes, the same ones he did when he was something other than it, than Donor Eight in a Merrick Lab. He thinks about Nicky, Nicolas, Nicolo, his arm around Booker’s back as he guided him through the pitch streets of Cape Town. His softness, his sharpness, his kindness – his forgiveness.
What little of the pizza he’d managed to swallow down comes surging back up, and he barely manages to shove Nile out of the way to get up, rushing to sink and vomiting blood and bile in a wet splatter.
“All this time!” Joe’s shouting, in every language they share, the words echoing back tenfold across the room. “All this time Andromache he’s there he’s been there they’re hurting him Andromache they’re hurting him –”
Booker bows his head, his hands resting on the cool edge of the sink, as he feels his face mould slowly back into its normal shape. His tongue runs over the new lines of his teeth uneasily, spitting more globs of blood into the sink and running the cold water to splash over his face. It trickles down into his shirt, and he shivers.
He hears Copley and Nile, barely, beneath Joe’s mantra that sounds muffled, now. By Andy’s hair, maybe, or her collar bone. Her throat or her stomach. He doesn’t want to look around to check.
Booker runs his fingers over his face with the cool water, through his hair to tug it off his forehead. When he glances outside through the window above the counter, he realises the sun is finally dropping in the sky. It will be night, soon. Time enough for them to make their way to London. To make their way to Nicolas.
But first, before any of that.
He turns around, catching sight of Andy pulling Joe back up to his feet.
She looks – frazzled, he thinks is the word for it. It’s difficult to interpret. She’s never looked frazzled before.
“We know they’re keeping him in London,” she says. She’s still got one hand on the back of Joe’s neck. “Copley can help get us in.”
She barely even graces the man with a glance, but he nods anyway.
“We’re going to get him out,” she says, a promise, a pact, one that she directs at the top of Joe’s bent head. When he doesn’t respond, she adds: “Joe, we will find him. But it’s going to take all of us. Do you hear me?”
Joe doesn’t look up until she gives his neck a small shake, and when he does, Booker feels it like another blow to the head. Whatever version of empty Booker thought Joe had been before, it’s nothing on the lifeless stare he fixes Booker with now.
I’ve lost him, he thinks, suddenly, clearly; crystal clarity like little else in this transient universe. More surely, more permanently, than they ever lost Nicolo di Genova, Booker realises. He has, in this exact moment, lost Yusuf al-Kaysani for good.
He thought he’d known devastation, but he was wrong. He was so wrong.
“We’ll stay here and finalise the plan,” Andy says, instead of waiting for Joe to speak – or, hoping to prevent it. “Booker, take Nile with you to the lakehouse. We’ll be in contact for a rendezvous and recon by ten.”
Booker scrubs his face with his hand, already missing the tender bruises of his cheeks. He nods obediently, gesturing for Nile to follow him while Andy bodily shoves Joe out of the doorway and further into the kitchen. She’s already moved her attention back to Copley, questioning him on his physical access to the labs in London. All that fight and fury, boxed up away in her head to deal with later.
He’s always envied that about her most. The way she just carries on, in ways neither Booker nor Joe ever quite manage to. She just carries on. Maybe that’s what real immortality is. Enduring, the way only the very earth can endure.
To her credit, and good grace, Nile doesn’t speak as they walk out of the house.
She doesn’t speak in the car, when Booker stalls the engine twice in his haste to get away from the gloomy twilit silhouette of Copley’s shitbrick mansion. She doesn’t speak when the tyres squeal back onto the main road picking up speed, nor when Booker opens all the windows to let freezing air and specks of rain rush inside.
This morning in Paris feels like a lifetime ago. Booker measures each breath by the sting in his throat, doing his level best to keep from making so much as a sound.
The ghost of Joe’s anger, and Andy’s shock, and Nicolo’s spectral absence, fills the spaces of the car.
At the first Guildford junction, Booker takes the London centre turnoff.
Nile glances at him, clearly torn between maintaining the vigil of their silence and asking for further clarity on their haphazard plan.
Booker swallows down the lump in his throat to answer the unvoiced question.
“Lakehouse just means lie low. We find supplies wherever we can. We’ll need better clothes, and we should book out a hotel suite, just in case.”
“You guys don’t have a safehouse in London?”
Nile sounds so unimpressed it almost makes him smile.
“We do,” he says simply. “But if we still have Copley’s claws in our backs by then, there’s no sense burning it just because we weren’t prepared.”
Nile shrugs, conceding the point and looking displeased about it.
The seal of conversation broken, she sinks back a bit in her seat. She closes her own passenger window, while the rest stay open, whistling in icy breezes. Nile sighs, letting some of the tension bleed out of her rigid muscles.
Booker wishes he could do the same. He feels waylaid, entirely displaced. From the very second he’d seen a photo of young CEO Steven Merrick’s face, back in Cairo, he’d had an inkling of a thought. A strange sense of familiarity, like a flicker of light in the corner of his eye –
But it wasn’t until he saw Nicolo, spread out on that table like a lab rat, that he remembered it. The hostile happiness of that doctor’s kindness. The shortness of Nicky’s patience. And the article, laid out in black and white so clearly, so obviously.
Did Nicolo recognise him, when he was taken? Did he believe Booker had left him, led him, purposefully, to be caught? Snatched out of the desert like a gruesome fairy tale, a traitor in his midst, wearing the face of his brother.
The thought makes Booker want to pull over and throw up all over again on the side of the road.
Surely, Nicolas wouldn’t think it.
It was a moment. A moment of weakness.
And such weakness it was, such unforgivable weakness. The price so high, to be paid by all of them, none more than Nicky. None more so than Joe.
Booker tightens his grip on the steering wheel, flexing his stiff knuckles and wrinkling his healed nose. There’s blood crusting in his nostrils.
“If we need to swap, I can probably handle driving on the wrong side of the road,” Nile offers.
Booker tries for another smile.
Good kid. Magnificent kid.
“That’s alright, la petite,” he says.
Nile scrunches her face up at the name, just like she did last time. She watches the blinking traffic they pass, full of grumbling commuters escaping London for the day, the last stragglers of post-rush hour blues.
“Are you OK?” she asks, not looking away from her passenger window.
It’s a false image of privacy Booker doesn’t need; flayed open and bloody, he’s more exposed to her right now than he might ever be, should they live another thousand years together. She hasn’t had space yet, to learn there is little privacy in the close quarters of this life.
“If Joe buries me in the Sahara for the next forty-five years as recompense, it will be a lighter sentence than I probably deserve,” is all he can think to say.
What else is there?
He was reckless, and lonely, and desperate. Drunk and sad and a stranger reached out and instead of realising he had everything he needed at his disposal, he sought more, at the risk of others. Less than a decade later and he got his wish, didn’t he? No lovestruck tomfoolery to embitter him; no starry-eyed Nicky gazing across the room at Joe’s poetic proclamations.
Just Joe; quieter, angrier, lonelier than Sebastien le Livre could fathom because he’s spent two centuries bemoaning the loss of seventeen good years with his dearest Louise, but Joe, Josef, Yusuf. Almost nine hundred years beside one man; who was Booker to begrudge them their peace of mind?
Were they not ever thoughtful, ever generous?
Did Nicolas not spend just as much time trying to distract Booker from his misery as he did bestowing grace and love on Joe?
It wasn’t until that generosity, that attentiveness was vanished that Booker recognised it for what it was.
“He’s upset,” Nile says, good kid, magnificent kid, naïve kid. “But it was a mistake, Booker. He knows that. He’ll understand. Just give him time.”
Booker remembers it: day three of company in the ice burn blizzards. Nicolas’ pink, wind-chafed face, offering the last bite of salty meat from his pack. Smiling with his eyes, piercing between frozen eyelashes. He remembers lashing out, he remembers being scolded and coddled and lectured and loved. Will he ever know it again?
It’s not just Joe, though. The memory of Andy’s face, her tragedy, her disappointment – it was a visceral thing, an irrefutable thing. He risked them, all of them, and that is a crime with no befitting punishment. He’s always known this. He doesn’t think he’s ever felt so stupid.
The streets get busier as they crawl steadily into London, claiming a little more of Nile’s attention. Taxis and buses block up most of the main routes, but London never changes as much as it thinks it does. Booker still remembers the quickest ways through this gaudy, suburban metropolis.
The night ahead looms, gargantuan in its obstacles to be overcome.
“Destiny certainly chose a strange time to bring us together, Nina Foreman,” Booker says after a while, whistling through his teeth as he bypasses the blockade around Waterloo Station.
Nile huffs breathlessly.
“You really think destiny’s had a hand in this?”
Booker thinks back on their first meal together. This perplexed young woman, a new born holding her own proudly against three aged immortals.
“Nicolas would say yes,” he mutters instead of his usual mantra.
Nile’s expression is hard to miss, even in peripheral view.
“Tell me about him?” she asks, and why wouldn’t she?
In a single afternoon she’s seen the tight bonds of their existence laid to waste over this one man; this one man.
Booker sucks in air through the corners of his grimace. Tell her about Nicolas? Tell her what, exactly? How on a job he could lie still in a sniper’s nest for hours, but condemn him to rest for more than ten minutes and it would be like watching a man make a bed in an anthill?
How he was ruthless, and hellfire; a godless creature in a fight, but show him a cut on an innocent’s hand and he’d stitch it back together with the reverence of the divine?
Booker sighs deeply.
He tells her:
“A year to the day after my last son died, Nicolas showed up at the tavern I’d exiled myself to, bathing in the violent self-pity that was all I felt I deserved. He paid my debts to the barkeep, slung my drunkard corpse of a body over his shoulder, and staggered out all the way to a nearby brook. All the while, the things I said – the things I called him. If I’d heard another man speak such things, I’d have cut him down, tongue first.
“Nicolas simply dropped me in the water, threw a piece of soap at my head, left a pile of new clothes nearby and told me to get washed, to be quick about it. I was barely dressed when he returned, all mother’s scrutiny, checking behind my ears and between my fingers. He took me to the churchyard. The blossoms were bright. He sat with me, at my son’s grave, which was full of daffodils that I hadn’t planted.
“He sat with me, for hours. He confessed to me that he’d managed to pass himself off as a priest, for the first time since his mortal life, in order to be there, holding my son’s hand when he passed. My son, who had cast me aside over this living death I had been cursed with. But he had not died alone, as I had imagined. Tormented myself with the idea. Nicolas had been there. For me, and also for Jean-Pierre.”
Booker pauses. He clears his throat, glancing briefly at Nile, to see if she understands.
Her eyes are wide, her fingers tight in her lap.
“That is the sort of man Nicolo di Genova is,” Booker says quietly, as he pulls into a tiny cramped parking space on a side street. “He is kind, and patient, and he does good things because he believes we are here to do good, irrespective of the costliness to ourselves. He believes that alleviating the suffering of one is as important, as godly, as saving the lives of thousands.”
A tiny smile ticks up Nile’s mouth. Booker pulls out his wallet, fishing for UK sterling, and finds a few crisp twenties. He hands them over, pointing to the turn off for the main road of Oxford Street.
“The shops will still be open. Well, some of them. Buy clothes – men’s and women’s. Dark, practical. Anything you think is essential. We’ll find a hotel north of here and double back to Merrick once we hear from Andy. Keep your head down.”
Nile nods, dutifully folding the money into her pocket. Before she leaves, she pulls her phone out of her jeans and hands it over.
“What for?” Booker asks, confused.
When he inspects her face, her eyes are glassy with tears.
“Because, if I get a second alone, I’m gonna call my mom. OK?” she says, the barest fracture in her young, frightened voice. “And I can’t. I know I can’t. So just keep it for me. Please? Just for now. Until I can. You know.”
Booker nods, a rush of affection that he’s steeped in obliterating all else. Magnificent kid.
“Bien sûr,” he says, and Nile tumbles out of the car, slamming it shut without another word.
She vanishes quickly around the corner, her head tucked in to her neck, as if she was avoiding the cold. Booker lets out a long, drawn-out breath. Glancing down at the phone in his hand, he sees the lock screen has lit up. A woman in her fifties, and a teenage boy bearing a more than passing resemblance to Nile grin up out of the photo. Booker feels a twinge, little more than the pinprick of a dart, of sympathy for them both.
He can only hope they never see their daughter, their sister, again. For all their sakes.
When he closes his eyes, and breathes in through his nose, he’s sure he can smell the lilacs that Louise planted, outside their kitchen, two-hundred and twenty-three years ago.
* * *
The hotel, a two-star suitably grimy enough for Andy’s sensibilities, is a little busier than would be ideal, but finding an empty hotel in London any time of the year is a hopeless task, never mind in the early climb of flash-summer heat they’re fast approaching. They change their clothes in separate rooms, and Booker cleans away a smear of blood he’d missed from the side of his ear earlier.
Andy’s text, when it arrives, is a gust of relief.
24 hr security on 5 entrances. Load in bay covered by cameras but access via courier might work. Sourcing a medical vehicle. Late night drops infrequent but allowed. Copley sorting advance paper trail. Text pick up in 80 minutes.
Booker zips up his jacket and knocks on Nile’s hotel room.
“We’ve got seventy minutes to spare,” he tells her, followed by everything she could possibly need to know about what’s going to happen next.
* * *
Merrick Labs are at the heart of a series of clustered offices between Bank and Liverpool Street. An unfortunate area, well covered by cameras and close enough to several pockets of London nightlife that make it routinely patrolled by the police, too.
Booker clambers in to the chilled back of the courier van that supposedly contains medical supplies, and adds it to the list of questions he won’t ask Andy about her friends in odd places. Copley, donning a neutral uniform and lanyard, is driving, which feels like an incredibly foolish amount of trust to put in the man so soon.
“We’ve reached an understanding,” is all Andy will say on the matter, though.
Booker doesn’t dare question further. Her eyes are steel traps in stone, and besides, he doesn’t want to start handing ammunition to Joe about who’s the least trustworthy among them these days. Joe himself is riding up front with Copley in a matching uniform, complete with a cap that’s pushed too low over his eyes for Booker to get a good glimpse of his face before getting inside.
As they wind through the streets, Booker, Andy and Nile positioned readily in the armed back for any possible ambush, Booker is increasingly aware of the gnawing, hungry anticipation in his gut. Adrenaline seems to be leaking out of his ears as he mulls over the plan, but more than that: the goal.
It doesn’t feel real yet.
They’re going to find Nicolas. They’re going to find him.
It’s too sudden, too unexpected for him to get to grips with.
Forty-five years of hopelessness. It’s hard to pitch against this gloomy London night, crouched in the back of a van, gun in hand, a brand new immortal beside him and in front of him, always, Andy. Andromache. Her stoic steady lead. He’d follow her to all ends; he has done, and will do again.
It’s in his nature.
The kid looks nervous, but not shaky. Her jaw is clenched, her dark eyes focused. Booker sees, not for the first time, some of the Marine in her coming out, filling the gaps of her gentility, her softness. She’s tougher than anything she’s shown so far, that much is clear.
When the van pulls to a stop, they hold their breaths, listening to the muffled sounds of Copley’s voice, and a security guard’s conversing, probably through an open window. A smattering of chuckles and banter: the long, late night haul shift, a mutual exhaustion and a desire to just get it over with.
Rookie error, for Merrick like so many others. Underpaying their night guards.
After a few minutes, the engine kicks in again, the sound of a creaking metal barrier rolling back, and then they are moving inside. From the separating wall, they hear Joe knock twice: Stay put. The car doors open and slam, and voices are tossed back and forth.
Andy is coiled tight. Booker feels his own readiness knotting his muscles.
They hear Joe laugh. Copley says something.
And then –
There is no sound of a struggle. Joe is too good for that. So, probably, is Copley.
A hand raps on the side of the van in warning not to shoot before the doors open, revealing Copley, looking relieved. Behind him, Joe is lying a third unconscious person safely on the ground to zip tie them.
“Booker, Copley: security and archives. Scrub it clean,” Andy says. “Nile, Joe, with me.”
There’s an odd, painful moment of confusion, watching Nile slot into Andy’s left, replacing him easily, that makes Booker grimace. Then he remembers, that slot only became available for him at all forty-five years ago. The rightful placeholder will return, soon, to claim it back.
Nicky will be back soon.
The hurt is replaced by a charged thrill of excitement, at the thought.
Copley, smartly, seems to be waiting on Booker’s signal.
A decent gesture, but a foolish one.
“Lead the way,” he says gruffly, because Copley and Andy might understand one another, but that doesn’t mean Booker’s having him at his six.
Copley moves well. Years of surveillance gigs haven’t slowed him down, and Booker tries not to be too grateful or impressed as they make their way down the right-hand exit, which leads directly into an upwards-only stairwell.
His heart is in his throat, adrenaline pulsing in sickly throbs through his veins. He can’t help but keenly feel the exile of these pairings, no matter how sensible they are. He and Copley are the best versed in technology. Of course it falls to them to find the central nervous system of the laboratories, to focus their destruction on the computers and not the labs themselves.
It still feels chilly as a cold shoulder, clambering up the spiralling stairs behind Copley, knowing all the while his team, his family, are moving in the opposite direction. The swelling in his throat hardens, like a peach stone, bruising his soft palette.
They aren’t wearing any comms. At such short notice, it’s not always a guarantee and it seems if Copley had any to offer, this understanding he’s come to with Andy hasn’t extended to trusting him enough to use his tech. Still, Booker feels vulnerable, without her in his ear. He doesn’t like being cut-off so completely, not inside the dragon’s lair.
He doesn’t like being so far away from them.
The labs are eerily empty. Corridors upon corridors, stairs upon stairs, of nothing.
Trouble, when it does show its face, arrives in the form of a single guard who looks downright alarmed to run into two armed men. His shock is an almost incapacitating surprise of its own. This facility should by all rights be crawling with security, considering what, considering who, they have contained within these walls.
Only, then the guard calls halt, and produces – a baton, and a taser.
He’s not even properly armed.
Booker feels as close to guilty as he has done in years, when he shoots the guard in the head.
Copley, who seems similarly perturbed by the unprepared state of the security, throws Booker a glance that is equal parts reproach and gratitude.
They step over the pooling halo of the guard’s blood, and Booker tries not to get a look at his face. Unfortunately, he ends up looking instead at the man’s hand; at the wedding ring sitting there, glinting dully on his fourth finger. An unpleasant war of emotion breaks out in Booker’s gut.
This is wrong, something is wrong.
Even without suspecting an assault, he’s never seen a facility containing precious assets so poorly secured.
“This is it,” Copley murmurs, indicating a locked room, which beeps open at a touch of Copley’s lanyard.
Booker follows him into a room full of screens, ticking slowly through security feeds that cover the entire building, and his stomach promptly drops into his shoes.
On a screen labelled LAB8, he can see Andy, Nile and Joe congregated in a familiar looking operating room. There are two doors visibly open. In one, Nile looks to be standing guard, but she’s distracted. Her face is scrunched up, like she’s holding her breath.
In the other, Andy is staring inside the adjoining room, her weapon forgotten, hanging by her side. And Joe…
Joe is in the middle of LAB8. There is no sound, but Booker can see his mouth howling. He’s shouting, bellowing, and he’s kicking down cabinets, he’s smashing the glass to pieces, shredding his hands in the process and neither of the woman are stopping him, they’re just staring. Staring at Joe, staring into that unknown other room.
“Non,” Booker whispers. “Non.”
It can’t be. It just can’t. They can’t be late. Nile dreamt him. She heard him.
Svegliati, he told her. Heaven above, and the Devil below, Nicolas.
Booker can feel Copley hesitating beside him, but he can’t turn. He can’t wrench his eyes away from Joe’s open mouth, his dark streaming eyes.
“Booker,” Copley says. His voice is lined with panic.
Booker wants to shoot him dead. He wants to plant a bullet in his head, wants to plant in bullet in twenty heads. Why is he all the way up here? He shouldn’t be here. He should be with his family. He needs to be there, with them.
“Hurry,” he chokes out, and he’s not sure if he’s shivering or shaking but either way his fingers are stiff as they start hammering at a keyboard. He sniffs, blinking away with itch of his eyes. “We need everything. Scrub the tapes. I’ll download –”
Copley’s already moving; Booker glances towards the LAB8 screen, caught between the data he’s extracting and the sight of Andy approaching Joe, her hands raised with expert caution, the way she did with agitated horses, years ago. Powerful, and soothing, and gentle, and strong.
“Booker,” Copley tries again.
“Non, no,” he snarls back. He can’t hear it. He can’t say it. They need to get this done. He needs to get this done, so he can leave this wretched place. So he can be in the same room as Andy again, and Joe, and Nile, the people who matter, not this horrid, selfish, bitter man, who –
Nausea rises through Booker as he stamps the thought away. No. That’s not it. They’re not – they’re not the same. This isn’t the same. This isn’t it, the end, the end of everything. He hasn’t lost them. He hasn’t. They’re there, right there, and when he’s done this one thing, he can come back. This isn’t what it looks like. This isn’t – abandonment.
“Booker, the twelfth floor,” Copley says, urgently, and Booker looks up wildly. Two screens to the left of Joe roaring silently at Andy, two more security guards are making their way down a corridor looking, if not hurried, at least suspicious.
“Merde!” Booker snaps. “Avez – merde. Are you done?”
“Almost. I can finish here. Go, after them.”
Copley tips his head to the screen, but Booker shakes his head.
Frustration creases Copley’s expression. He waves his hand exasperatedly and when that does nothing to budge Booker an inch, he turns pleading instead. His shoulders drop in defeat, and his eyes are meek when they meet Booker’s. He says:
“I’m making amends,” he says. “Like you said. I swear, this was never my intention.”
He’s a skilled liar. They both know it, and Booker’s already proven himself to be a poor judge of character at the very worst of times, but he remembers Andy’s fierce expression. Her confidence in their understanding of each other. Booker might not wholly trust Copley yet, but if he doesn’t trust Andy, he can’t trust anything.
So, he nods once. Checks his gun, one bullet down, and makes haste for the twelfth floor.
It’s a frantic labyrinth, this twisting prison of glass and locked vaults.
Booker moves quickly, hardly aware of his surroundings; dangerously so. His heart is five floors away. Four floors. Three floors. Two. One.
He bursts out of the stairwell onto the right floor just in time to hear four loud gunshots echoing through his breastbone. Booker steels himself as he breaks into a run. He barely has the forethought to shout out a warning of his approach, in French first, and again in English, over the tumultuous bellowing he’s approaching.
“C’est moi. It’s Booker, don’t shoot!”
He’s skids to the doorway of LAB8, ready to join any fray he finds.
Any fray except, perhaps, the one he finds.
He’s much too late to head the guards off at the pass. They’re already inside.
At least, one certainly is. He’s now a mangled mess on the floor. His limbs are bent out of shape and his face is cratered with bullet holes. Nile is staring at the corpse with abject horror, and she flinches at the sight of him, despite his shout of warning.
Joe is also staring at the corpse, only he’s also shouting at it; a flurry of Arabic too swift or possibly too ancient a dialect for Booker to coherently follow.
Andy is nowhere to be seen and for a second Booker panics, only then –
The door Andy had been looking through, on the screen, is closed. From inside, he can hear a man wailing.
“Josef,” Booker says, too quietly to break the flow of Joe’s tearstained monologue. He tries again, louder: “Yusuf! What happened? Where –?”
Joe’s words stopper up, corked as he stares back at Booker. For a single terrifying heartbeat, Booker thinks he’s going to turn his back on him. Nile bites her lips together nervously, and glares over her shoulder at the muffled screams of torment Andy is extracting.
Joe takes a step forward. Then another.
Booker holds his ground. He promises to himself and to whatever God his Louise prayed to that he’ll take his punishment graciously, doesn’t even wince when Joe reaches out with both hands. Booker closes his eyes – weak, too weak to look condemnation in the eye
Hanged a coward, endure a coward! Joe howled against the shrieking of a dust storm that had settled months before.
Hands, tender, holding Booker’s cheeks. His posture bends as he’s pulled forwards and he feels Joe’s forehead pressed against his own. Joe moves his hands with loud movements, until one is cupping the back of Booker’s head and the other is curved over the ball of his shoulder, careful not to let his hands touch Booker’s neck.
Two hundred years. Forty-five years looking in the wrong fucking place and still he remembers not to touch Booker’s neck where the noose froze against his skin; a three day burn he’ll feel his whole eternity.
Booker exhales shakily, gripping Joe’s upper arms.
“I’m sorry I struck you,” Joe whispers in old familiar Provençal, which is as much an apology of its own as the words themselves. “You would not. I know you would not.”
Guilt boils in Booker’s stomach, for all the relief he wishes he could enjoy. He wouldn’t – he wouldn’t. He didn’t. He hasn’t.
But how many times has he thought about it?
How many more temptations might he have resisted, before despair drove him to foolishness that would doom them all?
Joe strokes down his hair twice before letting go.
Behind the closed door, the squealing man falls silent.
“Everything is gone,” Joe says gruffly, returning clumsily to English. “This was the only secure enough lab. And there’s –”
He glances at the door, but cannot finish. Whatever room they found, fit for storing a prized prisoner when not carving him up, it provoked the violence in Joe that laid this whole room to waste.
Nile is still staring at the door. Booker catches a glimpse of her expression, and grimaces. She’s not a fan of Andy’s methods, by the looks of things. That’s going to be quite the conversation. He only hopes she continues to show enough tact to wait until after they’ve found Nicky. He doubts it’s going to be pleasant from here on out.
“What’s –” a voice says and all three of them have trained their guns on Copley before he can say another word. “Jesus! Sorry. It’s me. It’s just me.”
He hefts the laptop bag with the hard drives higher onto his shoulder, breathing hard.
“We really need to go.”
Before anybody can reply, the other door opens and Andy stalks out. Her hands are soaked, as are her tac pants. Booker catches one glance of the red lake she’s left behind of the second guard and promptly sidesteps, trying to shield Nile’s vision.
She throws him a challenging, loathsome look, but says nothing. Naïve kid. Good kid.
“They moved him four days ago,” Andy says, pulling out her gun and motioning for a move out.
“To where?” Copley asks, because Nile seems incapable of speech and, Booker thinks, he’s the only other one who doesn’t realise that if Andy had a location on Nico’s whereabouts, it would have been the first word out of her scowling, flat mouth.
“They don’t know. None of them even knew about Nico. Just that four days ago, the security of this facility was downgraded and a research group was escorted by their top team off premises for a new project.”
Booker glances at Nile, who’s frown has softened dramatically to one of confusion.
“That’s the day after I died. Right?” she asks, as if she isn’t all too sure anymore.
Copley’s eyes are huge in his curious face. Wisely, he keeps his mouth sealed shut.
“You’ve got us rooms?” Andy asks, ignoring Nile entirely.
Perhaps Nile hadn’t known better than to say something, before Booker arrived.
When they reach the loading bay level again, it’s a matter of two brutal heartbeats as Andy shoots all three guards who are tied up neatly. One bullet for each head where they lie defenceless, still unconscious on the concrete.
“Fuck!” Copley hisses, and this time Nile’s resolved mouth breaks.
“For fucksake, Andy, you can’t just –”
She’s silenced by Andy whirling around. Her face is ashen, and blood-soaked as she is there’s a feral quality to the poorly contained rage she’s simmering with. When she speaks, every syllable is sharp as a knife as she says –
“There might one day be a time when I’m interested in a morality lecture from an infant, but let me tell you this, Nile. If you don’t like how things are done here, I will gladly leave you at our nearest safehouse and continue without you. I do not have the time, patience, desire or even inclination to babysit you while my Nicolo is being torn apart and tortured. You will not speak until we are inside and I am asking you questions that needs answers, do you understand me?”
Nile leans ever so slightly backwards, and Booker can see the war within her, suppressed by her shock. The furious, righteous woman and the obedient, disciplined soldier. She seems to appease both aspects of herself, when she successfully remains silent while also pursing her lips, a slow blink of utter disdain shuttering her narrow eyes.
Andy takes it for the bare minimum compliance that it is, as she makes for the van.
“Copley, is the security footage dealt with? You drive. You know where the second car is? Good. Nile, you’re with him. Keep your head down.”
As far as tactical retreats go, it’s not Andy’s smoothest. Booker clambers into the back of the van after her, Joe bringing up the rear, and the van engine is revving within moments, almost as harsh as Andy’s breaths as she leans back against the closed door, her teeth grinding.
There’s a momentary hesitation, as the van starts moving, before she finally lets out a controlled, savage: “Shit.”
Booker wants to reach out to her, but he feels like there’s an entire chasm separating them. If he were to extend his hand out now, he might vanish, into that invisible void. He looks over to Joe, who’s own violence seems blanketed by the worry masking his expression.
Unlike Booker, he seems unafraid of the chasm. He reaches over and takes hold of Andy’s wrist, very lightly, stroking his fingers over her pulse. She doesn’t relax at all, but she doesn’t throw him off, either.
Joe very, very nearly smiles, his mouth twisting around odd tasting words before he finally speaks, in a low, generous murmur.
“Just so we’re clear, though. He’s still my Nicolo.”
Booker doesn’t try to contain the snort of amusement. There’s some of an old Joe in the uptick of his voice, rough and cluttered with emotion as it is. Some familiar kind of dry humour that Booker hadn’t realised he’d started to forget ever existed. It’s been so long since laughing, even smiling, didn’t come with a bad taste in his mouth.
Andy doesn’t laugh, or even smile, but she does open her eyes, looking over at Joe with that extraordinary softness she hides so well. Booker is by nature an envious man, always has been, always will be. But he’s never envied that look on Andromache’s face, when it is turned to Yusuf. It’s something they share, that Booker has reminded himself, over and over again, he never wants to be part of.
“She’s a baby, Andy,” Joe whispers.
Andy nods, sliding her hand down to squeeze Joe’s fingers, before reaching over and taking hold of Booker’s, too. He’s surprised by the sudden contact, a flush of warmth in his chest that causes him to squeeze back too tightly in return. He can’t meet Andy’s eye when she looks at him, so he looks at their joined hands, only to realise she hadn’t done a very good job wiping the guard’s blood away.
Their skin is stained crimson, a livid aftermath. Booker sympathises with Nile, he really does. But he knows Andy will never feel the need to defend herself. He understands that, a pocket of hatred inside his own heart, too.
There is nothing he would not do, either.
The van comes to an abrupt halt, and after a moment there’s the slap on the door of warning before Copley opens it up. They’re parked in a dark street, and they make short work of moving their gear to a new car, while Copley pours an eye-watering amount of bleach inside every corner of the van, the best they’ll get at such short notice.
Things are so much easier in the corners of the world where they can just set fire to an old vehicle, and trust it won’t be found immediately. He can’t wait to get out of London.
The new car smells very clean, all leather and carpet cleaner, and despite the pleasant amount of legroom it’s entirely too small to cope with the uncomfortable tension that sits thickly between them all as they slump in their seats and snake through busy, twinkling London. The clock on the dashboard reads quarter past midnight. Time is crawling, and yet, and yet – so little of it left.
How long before the early day shifters reach Merrick Labs?
They’ve been so hasty. They’re burning through their chances and they were wrong, they can’t afford to be wrong again. Booker tucks his chin towards his chest, leaning against the window with Nile’s shoulder pressed to his own.
Andy’s driving, with Joe in the front beside her.
“Take the exit for New Oxford Street,” Booker warns, as they approach it.
Andy does so in silence, his fingers flexing violently on the steering wheel.
Beside him, Booker hears Nile let out a tiny, wistful sigh.
* * *
Sneaking past the front desk of the hotel is an awkward, shoulder-hunching affair.
Nile walks in first, and she flinches to realise a heavy-coated Andy is suddenly at her shoulder, holding her elbow. Andy steers them away, and Booker watches them make for the stairs with their heads down, leaning together.
He’s curious, for all of a moment, before he decides to simply be grateful he isn’t a fly on that wall.
He meets Joe’s gaze, and, acting on absolute instinct, a need as instinctive as drawing breath into his lungs. Booker takes hold of his hand, and doesn’t let go until they’re safely behind the closed hotel room door.
* * *
Booker has always felt a torn sense of otherness about his choice of name.
It was a joke, at first. Coined by Andrea, who would become Andy. Then, Boss.
“To keep you safe from the English,” she said with a slow, sly smile, which Booker laughed at, because truly, his love for the English was as sour as the English’s love for the French, then and always. He did not understand, at first, why the joke dimmed Josef’s smile, and caused Nicolas to turn his face towards the wall.
He did not understand, then, that keeping safe from the English was a biting reminder of three hundred years past, when one of their own had been taken by religious agents of the shopkeeping nation, during the height of their witch hunting days.
Despite this, the name stuck, and Sebastien slowly became Booker, more and more. A splintered phantom of the man who died in Russia, because he loved his family more than his Lord.
He’s not entirely sure whom he’d prefer to be, anymore.
Sebastien, who was loved by Louise. Who doted on his children and shouted obscenities at the chickens when they got under his feet; who tacked the horses who steadied best under his strong hands, and who tended the garden when his wife could not. Sebastien, who failed to come home unchanged. Hanged a coward, endured a coward; resented by his dear youngest son and cast aside as a stranger to his kin.
Is Booker any better a man to be?
Booker, who took those he loved for granted. Who preferred the company of other lonely strangers to the contented, basking glow of those who knew him best; the dear warriors by his side, who saw the charred remains of his soul and embraced him, angry words and all, as one of their own?
Sitting on the edge of a tightly made hotel bed, James Copley in the squeaky chair at the cheap desk tapping his thumbs together, while Joe clips at his beard over the bathroom sink with jerky, ruthless movements, he wonders if it’s time for a new name. If starting again will help.
A fresh clean page with a new title at the top of it.
He always did like it, when Nicky called him Bastiano.
Before Booker can conclude his wondering thoughts, the hotel door opens, and Andy slips inside. Nile doesn’t follow her in, as expected.
At the questioning look Booker offers, Andy gives a half-hearted shrug.
“Until we can come up with a new plan, the best thing Nile can do is sleep, and hopefully have another dream that might tell us something.”
Booker lets out a heavy sigh, and does not envy the kid one bit.
He watches Joe swipe his fingers over his beard, the last hairs falling into the pile in the sink. It’s shorter now than it’s been in a while. It only seems to better display the slimness of his face. He cleans out the sink and splashes his face with water, leaning in the doorjamb to look over Andy, who’s always washed herself down. Her hair is still damp, slicked back off her face.
“We’ve played our hand, Boss,” Joe says, because it’s his place to. Nobody else has the right. Not here, not now.
Andy shakes her head anyway.
“Not yet,” she says. “We still have time, Joe. We just need to find where is best to look.”
At this, her eyes find Copley, whose thumbs have picked up a steady rhythm that seems to be All Along The Watchtower. On the desk, his open laptop is busy, the screen muted.
“I’m running the data, but quite frankly, it could be days before we find anything substantial. We’d be guessing at best. Other than London, Merrick’s top research strongholds are a remote facility in Romania, a private hospital in Japan, and university funded labs in New Jersey.”
“We can’t hit the US, Andy, it’s too risky. You know what –” Joe says, looking his drained. His knees bend, until he’s squatting tiredly on the floor, his shoulder still wedged into the doorframe. “Even with Copley’s contacts we’d be too exposed.”
Booker looks to Copley, who’s frowning thoughtfully, his eyes on his thumbs, as if mentally running through his options. Booker wonders if Copley is naturally gifted at just tuning things out, or if perhaps he is simply so attuned to Joe and Andy’s arguing that it’s simply all too impossible for him not to respond.
He watches the creased angles of Andy’s mouth. The way her hands close and open anxiously as she talks.
They don’t look at each other, sometimes, and Booker thinks they don’t even notice they’re doing it. Talking to each other’s shadows, like avoiding mirrors in every room to hide from bad luck. It’s unnatural. Even forty-five years later, it’s unnatural to witness.
Booker closes his eyes, and can’t help but flinch when his thoughts are flooded with the memory of Nicolas, shaking that doctor’s hand in Cape Town. The pale glimmer of his angry eyes, the strength of his fingers digging into his ribs as he pulled him away. Fratello, I’ve searched the whole continent for you, he teased, and Booker took him for granted, took everything for granted, he didn’t realise, he didn’t know –
There’s a bang, as something hits the hotel room door that Andy’s leaning against.
She’s backing up immediately, gun cocked, and Joe’s too. Copley and Booker are barely a fraction behind her. Booker holds his breath, his heart in his throat and one eye on Copley’s laptop and he barely has time to click off the safety on his gun before – “Guys, it’s me. Open the freaking door. I need to talk to you.”
Andy huffs loudly, holstering her gun.
She swings open the door to let Nile in, half an admonishment already coming out but Nile isn’t paying attention. She walks straight into the middle of the room, her eyes fixed on Joe, and she says:
Booker’s stomach drops, as he sits back down on the bed.
“You had a dream?” he asks. He’s shocked. The dreams are not reliable in the slightest, they never have been, and Nile’s barely had time to even fully drift off.
Nile glances around. Her eyes are blown wide, and her breaths are irregular, quick as nightmares.
“No,” she says with a fast shake of her head. “I didn’t even fall asleep. But I remembered something. Or, I realised it. I think he’s in Germany.”
This last, she says to Andy this time. Determined, and high-shouldered, and full of confidence.
“Why?” Is all Andy asks.
Nile takes a deep breath, clearly torn between Andy’s authority and Joe’s right to know.
Booker sympathises entirely. He pats the other corner of the bed; Nile looks harried and grateful as she takes the hint, perching on the edge of the mattress.
“Merrick is a supplier of medical equipment for the US army. It’s most of what I know about them.”
There’s a round of nods from the room. Booker can see Joe flexing his knuckles, tucked into his sides. Impatience is emanating from his every pore. He hasn’t looked so urgent in years.
“Right before Andy came and – got me, in Afghanistan. My Sergeant had just told me I was being transferred to Landstuhl, in Germany, for further testing. It’s where so many of us get sent after severe injuries, I didn’t think anything of it. But, there’s a Merrick Lab there. Isn’t there?”
At this, she turns to Copley, whose mouth dropping open is all the answer they really need.
“Yes, it offers surplus operating services to the regional hospital,” he says.
Booker’s heart is a rattlesnake, battering his ribcage. He can’t even begin to imagine. He can’t even think it.
The timing, it’s too perfect.
“They were sending me to Landstuhl, but I don’t think it was to the army hospital. I think it was to the Merrick Labs there. If they had somebody on the inside, enough to hear about me. They’d want to check, right? And, and if they did, they’d take Nicky to the lab, to – to compare us.”
Her voice seems to disintegrate behind her teeth, trailing off at the end. Perhaps it’s out of respect for Joe, but perhaps it’s simply in horror at the narrow escape of her own fate, if she turns out to be right. Booker sucks in a huge, steadying breath, waiting for someone else to break to crystal sharp silence that Nile’s words have left behind.
When nobody does, however, he reaches over to take Nile’s arm.
“Can we check those records at all?” he asks, his eyes on Copley, even as his thumb presses reassuringly into Nile’s arm. She hadn’t looked like she was shaking, but he can feel the thrumming vibration of her nerves under his palm.
Copley is already typing, and makes a distracted sound that seems to translates into a deep well of I hope so.
Joe is speaking with Andy, in quick Arabic that Booker struggles to follow. Nile, it seems, is entirely lost, and she lets Booker grab her attention easily enough. Her glassy eyes are full of questions that do not translate into words. Booker knows them all, or at least most of them. They’re the questions he contained, poorly, within himself for years, following his own immortality’s realisation.
Is this how Nicky felt, looking at Booker, then? How Joe felt, and Andy?
Did they feel so helplessly inexpert?
It’s a strange wonder. Booker’s always struggled to see them as anything other than entirely omniscient, but they’re not, are they? They are all as helpless, and clueless, as each other, sometimes.
He thinks about Joe’s hands on his face. I’m sorry I struck you.
How does Booker ever repay an apology? How does he ever say, I’m sorry I opened the door, for evil to walk through our home.
Nile smiles, shakily, bravely, and Booker smiles weakly back, because she deserves that much.
Good kid. Goddamn magnificent kid.
“You have saved us, Nile Freeman,” he says, very quietly, his eyes burning as painfully as his lungs.
Glossy tears shine in Nile’s eyes, as she shakes her head in denial.
“Booker, I need you to help Copley,” Andy barks abruptly in English, breaking mid-flow from Arabic with enviable ease.
Booker thinks, one day, he’ll have the courage to ask Andromache of Scythia outright what language she thinks in, if she thinks in one at all. He remembers asking Nicky once, but he had been drunk, and so had Nicky, and Nicky had responded in a language Booker couldn’t speak.
Which might, come to think of it, have been the answer in the first place.
Booker pats Nile’s arm once, before making his way to Copley’s side, to do as he’s told.
His fingers stray, absently to his flask of whisky, but he tightens his grip on his feeble will. He remembers Nicky’s gentle, livid hands on his ribcage, that night in Cape Town, over fifty years ago.
He doesn’t take a sip.
* * *
** I made up some Booker backstory. Also, I couldn’t find his wife’s name? So I called her Louise, but if she actually has a name, please tell me it.
** Non fare promesse che non posso mantenere: Don’t make promises I can’t keep (Italian)
** Nicolo-cuore mio-per favore-Nicolo-no-Nicolo: Nicolo-my heart-please-Nicolo-no-Nicolo (Italian)
** Succhiami il cazzo: Suck my dick (Italian)
** For those interested, Cape Town is in fact where the first human to human heart transplant took place, in 1967. It was not, thankfully, performed by Stephen Merrick.
** Fratello: Brother (Italian)
** Porco schifoso: Lousy pig (Italian)
** In terms of practicality of having a deaf son, it’s unlikely Booker’s eldest would be able to continue his schooling outside of home after. The first school that fully accommodated deaf children in France was established in 1760, but that was in Paris. It’s likely Booker would have at best been able to hear of/seek out help in establishing sign language with his son, that would have been tailored specifically to their communication, rather than official Old French Sign Language, which was developed in the 18th century.
** Mi dispiace. Perdonami: I’m sorry. Forgive me. (Italian) Désolé, Je suis navré, navré. Pardonne-moi: Sorry. I’m so sorry, sorry. Forgive me. (French) (Désolé – sorry as an apology; Navré – sorry overwhelmingly to the point of heartbreak.)
** Bien sûr: Of course (French)
** “Nation of shopkeepers” is a quote attributed to Napoleon about the English. Take my use here with a pinch of salt, though, because it’s highly unlikely he actually ever said it.
Chapter 4: THREE: GERMANY
“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.
I'll say it again and again and again, you are all astonishing with your enthusiasm. Thank you so so much!
I'm sorry this is a week late. I had to do some fixing and I ran out of time to complete it and post it. Should only be a week's wait for an update, this time!
Seriously, just, thank you. I really, really hope I can continue to live up to your high praise.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
* * *
* * *
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
In the stairwell below her, gunshots are already firing, and the alarm is wailing.
Fixed to the walls are three separate flashing alerts.
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.
“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.
* * *
* * *
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 –
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.
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.
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.
* * *
* * *
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 –
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.
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.”
* * *
** Polaris/the North Star, wasn’t catalogued until 169 AD. It seems presumptuous to assume documented and discovered are the same thing, but I liked the sentence, so I kept it.
** Il est là. Je l’ai trouvé. Dépêcher-toi: He’s here. I’ve found him. Hurry! (French)
** The nurse says “Sorry” and not something in German. Experience and research have both led me to understand in Germany, you are as likely to hear someone (including a German native) say sorry in English in this sort of instance, and not another word. If I’m drastically wrong, please do offer an alternative! Everything I found, two seconds later another site told me it was archaic and never used.
** The Hugo quote is in fact from Les Miserables, though that’s just a pretty darn good guess from Nile there.
** Anglais: English (French) Américain: American (French)
** Mon Dieu, mon frère: My God, my brother (French)
** Fratello: Brother; Amore mio: My love; Sei qui: You’re here. (Italian)
Chapter 5: FOUR: NICOLO
Nicky swallows down the involuntary whimper that’s pawing at the back of his tongue. He won’t. He won’t.
He is Nicolo di Genova. He is nine hundred years old.
He will not be broken by a child’s ruthless tantrum.
Gosh golly goodness, sorry it took so long to get here! I had some editing to do, because Nicky's voice was very difficult in this and I wasn't happy at all, especially with how generous you are all being with your gorgeous comments and kudos (THANK YOU AGAIN!)... And I'm so sorry I haven't been able to reply to your lovely comments yet from the last chapter. Just know they were read and loved and squealed at and blushed at and I am so grateful, but it's just been a lot to handle and I haven't managed to respond yet. I'll try my best to soon.
Here it is. Nicolo. I hope I got him at least sort of right. I'm so so so nervous.
A few of you will probably be absolutely livid with me when you realise what this chapter is...but hey ho, I can live with it, because I'm an awful tease.
Please be aware, there is what could probably be considered a lot of graphic description in this chapter. Nicky does not have a good time. There is also some explicit description of a child death. Originally, this chapter was a lot longer and a lot more gruesome, but honestly, most of it felt like a totally seprarate story, so it might all come out as a one-off within this universe later on, if I can stomach it.
Thank you so bloody much for your continued support, every last one of you. It's made a hellish end to a hellish year that bit more bearable, you beautiful beings. In particular, I want to thank the wonderful franci and Lilynette for your language advice and corrections. I'm so lucky to have such thoughtful, generous readers!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
* * *
Sharp bright pain every inhale every moment muffled relentless and piercing and pointless it hurts it hurts it’s vicious it’s torment it’s a grinding thing and a screeching thing in his teeth in his belly in his eyes in his eyes be still be still don’t flinch bursting tear ducts scraped corneas don’t breathe don’t whisper not worth it not worth their satisfaction don’t cry don’t salt the wounds don’t whimper don’t move –
The foamy muffle of sound comes out first.
Fumbling fingers touch the shells of his ears and he tries to rear back but the pain is sharp and the pain is bright, startling, inexorable. A man’s hands, familiar hands, whose hands? Not Gold’s. Not Christophe’s. Not –
The blindfold is second.
Those clumsy hands touch the metal clips, and the barest pressure of their weight is cruel agony, he has to swallow the scream that burns in his teeth. Drops it all out of him, don’t push, don’t fight. Push and they push back. Don’t give them the satisfaction. The spikes tug out of his face, replaced by stinging cold, chemical air.
A voice whispers, mangled through horror and pain. Clumsy fingers touch his cheeks. The bite marks heal, the tears spring loose.
A voice whispers, mangled through awe and despair:
“Nicolas. Nico. Nicolas. Nicky.”
His name. His name.
Ten thousand yearning moments he’s longed to hear it spoken out loud.
And that voice, that lovely voice. Fear and joy collide, engulf him. Clumsy French fingers and clumsy French vowels.
“Mon frère. Mon Dieu.”
Slowly, wondrously, Nicolo di Genova opens his eyes, and looks up, into the face of salvation.
* * *
It began with Eisha.
She was eleven years old. Her dark skin was cracked and dry, torn by the sand and the wind. She was so small. She was so small, Nicky would have thought she was seven or eight, if she hadn’t whispered her age in his ear when he asked it, at the gates of the compound he’d pulled her from.
He was looking for her, and her protector, Raina: thirteen years old, tall and angry; all jaw and cheekbones. They had gone missing, cut off from the rest of the group as they struggled across the Saharan plains to safety, under the swelling threat of the dust storm.
When he found her, Eisha was kneeling in a pit of dust, a speck on a vast, skyless horizon. Nicky charged for her with burning knee joints and stinging hands. His loyal, exhausted mare, Zaya, had fallen a mile and forty minutes of staggering ago. When he reached Eisha, he could see the dust-clogged tear tracks on her face, but he couldn’t hear her cries over the screeching of the wind.
He tucked her face into his neck, her limbs clutching him like a matchstick koala. He cradled her head, her bony hips, and his heart clenched as he scanned the poor view of ten feet in every direction he could see.
Raina was nowhere to be found, and he despaired to think of abandoning her, but it was already going to be impossible to find his way back, with Eisha alone, and no Zaya to carry her.
His feet could barely escape the sucking, hungry sand with every step, but he bent double into the shredding wind and kept moving, all the same.
Eisha was shivering, crying and overheated, her damp face pressed against Nicky, finding the thin strips of exposed skin beneath his ear, his jaw. His knees buckled, more than once. He felt blisters burning, popping, healing, over and over again, in his shoes, at his shoulder where the medical satchel was digging into his muscles.
When he slid down again, he felt the rip of quads in his left leg and buried his yell of pain into the top of Eisha’s head, a wave of sand scratching over him.
He tried to heave in a breath, as Eisha’s fingers dug into his spine and he realised, realised with staggering, burning shame: We aren’t going to make it.
He forgot, forgot, for a moment, for an instant.
Tears spoiling his gritty vision, he kissed the girl’s head.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, in every language that came to mind, as his calves sank deeper into the ground, his back bent, his face burning. “Perdonami, tesoro, amore, perdonami.”
The sky was dark. The world was vanishing.
Sand in his throat, strangling his heart; beautiful Eisha’s tremors violent in his arms.
“Yusuf,” he whispered, for courage.
The very letters of his name were a burst of light, and Nicky let out a desperate, primal scream as he scrambled to his feet once more, while Eisha’s weight seemed to triple, as her limbs lost their rigidity and she almost slipped from his grip entirely.
“No, Eisha, Eisha!” Nicky bellowed, trying to tug her closer to his chest. “Per favore, per favore,” he begged into her forehead.
Another wrench in his knees.
Nicky wailed, as the very air engulfed him, and the light of the world was extinguished.
He died, and died, and died. An onslaught the likes of which he had not known for over eight hundred years.
He died and he woke. He woke and the air was filled with sand, and in the midst of the storm, Nicky tried to make a hollow pocket of air between his tucked chin and his chest.
He wrapped a length of cloth over Eisha’s head, shielding her face, and felt her hot breath, shallow on his sternum. He felt the wet stain of her urine as she started screaming, and panicking. He was reminded, feverishly, of Antonio, ten steps from the gates of Jerusalem, slung wet and trembling over Nicky’s back, almost nine hundred years before.
Per istam sanctan unctionem et suam pisiman misericordiam, indulgeat tibi Dominus… he whispered into Eisha’s head, as all other words vanished from his tongue. Delirious, frightened, the both of them, together. A man barely shy of a millennium, and a girl hardly more than a decade, clinging to each other in the eye of a relentless cloud of sand.
His fingers were lightly pressed over her humming carotid artery. He whispered, and choked, and promised, and prayed. She shuddered, buried into his arms, and she wept, and he felt every moment of her suffering.
He felt her die in his arms. His grief was loud as the storm, inhaling dust and losing water, and he died, too, with an eleven year old ragdoll cracking in his frantic arms.
Keep my heart safe, he begged of Yusuf, and of God, and of Andromache. Touchstones of a faith he could never wholly abandon.
He died, again and again and again. The crust of the earth his bed, his grave, his cradle.
By the time his congealed eyelashes peeled apart, and he saw the faint light of torches through a loud, perpetual gloom, his arms had broken and re-healed, misshapen around Eisha’s body.
He would later recall rough hands, and the cruel snap of his elbows shattering from brute force. The weight of Eisha was one loss too many, and he tried to buck and scream, but the sand tore him from the inside out, and he died in agony, without a clue he was anyone but the man who let that poor girl die.
He would later recall fingers, scraping mouthfuls of dirt out of his throat.
He would later recall a lot of things.
Later, when –
When Nicky woke up, finally, he was in an iron-gated cell.
He could only assume the barbed wire wrapped around the bars of his prison were more of deterrent than a real threat of any kind, and it was rather pitiful, all things considered. The cell itself was, he guessed, slightly shorter than himself; half as wide as he was long, and entirely made of cement on all sides but the gated one.
From the faint traces of smells and the dark, stained quality of the floor, he was not its first occupant. From the size of it, it was built to uncomfortably contain a tall adult, or perhaps it was built for a child. The thought, more than any other, stirred wildly in his heart.
Nicky stared innocuously out at the four semi-automatic rifles trained on him. The men holding them were afraid – afraid of him. Afraid of him, despite the bars and barbs that separated them.
Nicky knew the hearts of many mortal fears. He had succumbed to them himself, when he was young, and unwise, and unkind. For nine hundred years he had been atoning for them. He was intimately familiar with the depths of those men’s fearful eyes and when he smiled at them, and they tightened their grips on their weapons in response, he was struck with an ache of pity and amusement.
Slowly, he rolled onto his knees.
“Stay down!” the guard on the furthest left called out. He was English; hadn’t quite managed to rid the north-west leaning of his accent, though it was a good effort.
Nicky kneed forwards, the prowl of a lion in long grass, as sweat trickled down the face of the man standing half a step further away that his fellow guards. He reached out with both hands to take hold of the bars, careful to puncture both palms with the spiny barbs of the wire. Wrinkled his nose, as blood wells up into the wounds, trickling visibly down his bare arms.
It was then that he realised, for the first time, that he was naked, as if that might deter him. As if he required clothes for dignity, in the company of godless strangers.
One of the men made a guttural, frightened sound.
Nicky could feel a sharp needle of steel digging into his cheek, too. A hot, bloody tear opened and healed around it, and the coldest, cruellest shards of Nicky’s soul rejoiced at the way two of the most perturbed guards recoiled uncomfortably at the sight of him.
Nicky asked, softly, in clunky, ugly English for the prominent, sweating leader: “Do your loved ones know where you are?”
The man’s hazel eyes were red and sore looking. His mouth was little more than a thin white strip of clenched skin. Nicky remembered, painfully, the nip of Eisha’s fingers into his spine as she clung to him, and he pushed harder into the prison bars, blood pouring down to his elbows, over his jaw.
“Would they search for you?” he bit out, his eyes stinging.
His arms felt empty without the weight of that poor, brave little girl. Did they just leave her out there?
Will the others find her? Will Yusuf return her body to –
No. Nicky wouldn’t despair his name. He refused to.
The guards shifted, and a door swung open behind them, and in walked a very familiar man, one Nicky should have known, should have known, he would see again, one day.
The man laughed jubilantly at the sight of his prisoner, clapping his hands twice then slapping the thin-lipped English guard on the shoulder.
“Oh, very good, Spencer,” the man cried, in a voice of old whisky drunk often and first edition classics read rarely. Nicky did not need to know his name to know all the most important things about him, but the man gave it anyway, eagerly, downright proudly. “I’m Dr Stephen Merrick. Do you remember me?”
Did Nicky remember him? Of course he did. How could he forget?
He remembered the vulnerable stoop of Sebastien’s posture, the shy downturn of his wet eyes and the blood on his hands. The way this man had smiled poisonously at Nicky’s little brother, shook Nicky’s hand like he was testing it for fractures.
Nicky should have given into his basest instincts and stabbed him in the eyes, then and there. It had been less than ten years since they crossed paths in Cape Town, but already the first signs of ageing were laying claim to Dr Stephen Merrick. The thinning of his hair at his temples, streaks of grey in his neatly kempt beard. Crow’s feet buried dep into the corners of his intrusive, blue eyes.
Repulsed, Nicky offered him nothing but his silent, captured stare.
Perhaps Doctor Stephen Merrick never intended to require an answer. More likely, Doctor Stephen Merrick was not used to being refused anything, even a basic yes or no answer, because he snorted impatiently through his nose, crouching to Nicky’s eye level to continue.
“I remember you very well. I remember your fratello, too. A curious name. Not much family resemblance, is there? Except…”
He tailed off, his eyes tracking the blood that had spilled down Nicky’s face, hungry, like he was going to lick it right off, and Nicky tightened around the barbed wire in response. The steel ends hooked close to the fine bones of his hands. The pain was grounding, reliable. It stilled his frayed nerves.
“He gave you to me, you know,” Doctor Stephen Merrick continued breezily. There was an excited gleam in his eyes. Nicky felt a fleeting wrench jar his very soul, tear a hole in his insides that he might bleed out from within, before reason took hold, and he remembered. He remembered, and he reminded himself. He raised his eyebrows in an overt display of curiosity, while Doctor Stephen Merrick boasted: “He offered you up like a sacrificial lamb. Your fratello.”
The English accent does spoil everything, Nicky thought to himself as he breathed slowly, and deeply. He’d rather Sebastien’s messy French lilt over this man’s stodgy vowels a thousand times over. Sebastien, Sebastien, his fratellino.
He hadn’t intended to speak, but as a smile split his mouth, and a rivulet of blood snuck into the corner of his lips, Nicky couldn’t help himself. Patience personified, Yusuf always called him, but the truth was, Nicky’s fight with his impulse control was an eternal, exhausting battle.
And in that moment, he gave in. Sitting in a dirty, terrible cell, looking through spiny bars at a wretched, repugnant man, he gave into it.
“What is his name?” he asked, slowly, and the Doctor Stephen Merrick’s eyes widened minutely.
It was a mistake, keeping himself so close to his prisoner. It was a mistake for many reasons, not least of all because the man hadn’t had centuries to perfect his poker face, and even the roaming of his eye was a reveal to Nicky’s advantage.
“Tell me his name,” Nicky repeated, more clearly, so that the guards could hear him as well.
Doctor Stephen Merrick sneered, loudly, brightly, terribly.
“You expect me to call him Lucas?” he scoffed, as if insulted. Honestly, Nicky hadn’t expected anything, but it was interesting enough that Merrick would think so. “I know that is not his name. His name is Matthew Livingstone, and he sold you out, Nathaniel. What do you say to that?”
His eyes were shiny, and triumphant, and Nicky could feel the skin of his face splitting and healing, over and over, as he leaned his weight into the bars, while bubbling up his throat he felt it: a terrified, relieved laugh. It dropped out of him, rainfall from a thick cloud, and he licked the blood from the corner of his mouth and he laughed, and Doctor Stephen Merrick stood up, angry and impotent and so very, very small.
“His name is not Matthew,” Nicky spat, incensed with insult and so happy he could cry, a grin bursting through his snarl. “He did not betray me. You betray yourself, with your lies, Doctor.”
When Doctor Stephen Merrick spoke, Nicky did not hear him. He let go of the bars of his cage, sliding back, away, to the wall on the other side, still chuckling. He thought only of Sebastien, of Andromache. He thought of Yusuf. He could see them searching, in his mind’s eye, and he was comforted by the mere thought of their presence.
He closed his eyes to his captor, closed his heart to his fear, and he waited, patiently.
He waited for the right moment to strike.
He waited, for a very, very long time.
* * *
It didn’t happen all at once.
Little did, Nicky found.
He waited. He watched. He waited.
He stayed awake for three days, sustained on a single bottle of water. His lips were dry. His tongue, his hands, his eyes. The headache was constant, like forty days in the unrelenting, blinding desert.
He didn’t speak, and neither did the people who came and went, with guns, with clipboards, with food, with averted eyes.
On the fourth day, Nicky allowed himself to wonder, for the very first time: Does Yusuf know where I am?
Nicky didn’t know where he was. His skin burned. His heart yearned. He counted the guards. The hours of their shift rotations. Which ones looked at him, and which ones couldn’t. He memorised their faces, the patterns of their tells. He made promises to himself, and to Andromache, and to God.
Nicolo di Genova and God had not been on the best of terms, lately. It hadn’t worried Nicky in centuries, the bouts of distance between them.
The first time he had woken up and could not feel the steady grace of his own faith, he had wept more terribly than he ever remembered before. He knew better, now. He knew they would find their way back to each other, in time.
There was only space for so many eternal constants in Nicky di Genova’s heart, and there were four who needed his constancy more than God, those days.
Sitting in his cell, waiting, however, he prayed nonetheless. Not for answers, or guidance, or mercy.
He had not needed his God for those things in years.
He fell asleep, with the thudding of his heartbeat loud in his ears, throbbing in his cut jaw, and the clench of his fists.
* * *
Awake, brother. Awake.
* * *
It’s early morning. Too early for the butterflies, and the hummingbirds who frequent the border peonies outside the kitchen windows. Sunglow is kissing the low hanging clouds, gold fingertips stroking the garden, and Nicolo’s face where he stands at the sink.
It’s full of scalding, soapy water, steam rising up to flush his face, as he scrubs at a plate with a coarse sponge.
Last night’s sauce had been perfect, but the hard crust it has formed in thin slices over everything is stubborn. He scrapes and swears, his fingers red raw and smelling of the warring clash of garlic and orange blossom.
Nevertheless, Nicolo is smiling, unbothered by the laborious chore, because he isn’t standing alone.
Yusuf is standing behind him.
Standing unhelpfully close, in fact. His hands are cold, sliding over Nicolo’s hips, pinching softly at his belly and sides; Nicolo yelps and squeaks, his shirt a mere obstacle to be overcome by the fingers whirling circles into his ribcage. He squirms, ticklish, and Yusuf’s teeth close lightly over the back of his neck. One brief taste, with a wet stripe of his tongue.
“Menace!” Nicolo chides, laughing, arching back into the tightening grip holding his steadfast.
“Me?” Yusuf enquires, innocent as sin, shocked to be thusly accused. He kisses Nicolo’s earlobe in retaliation. His hips push forward, trapping Nicolo to the worktop. “You wound me, Nicolo,” Yusuf murmurs, skimming a thumb indelicately over Nicolo’s belly button.
“You tease me,” Nicolo snips back, jolting, his hands splashing as he drops a pan into the water in surprise.
Soapy froth slaps upwards in a tidal wave, soaking his front.
Yusuf tuts, sounding all too smug.
“What a mess,” he sighs. “It’s unsalvageable, love. We should just take it off.”
“Don’t you –” Nicolo cries in a half-muffled whisper, but before he can properly protest, Yusuf is wrestling his t-shirt off him, and Nicolo is wriggling, chiding, giggling.
Nicolo bats at Yusuf’s face blindly, fingers tangling full of bubbles in his thick curly hair.
They might have only met a week ago, for all the stuttering Nicolo’s heart does to look at this man, as if he hasn’t had over eight hundred years of shameless staring. Yusuf’s smile catches Nicolo’s; open, and loud, and Nicolo holds him, clings on, doesn’t deny himself a single second of –
“Hold the charge!”
“Fuck – Doctor –”
“Regular sinus rhythm – he’s –”
“Blood pressure stable –”
Nicky bucked up into the restraints. His lungs were on fire, heavy and burning, like they’d been filled with sand. There were faces, masked, peering backlit by bright white lights. Blood on their gloves. He let a roar tear out of him, no use in containing it because his body –
His body was open – something was ripped open and it wasn’t healing.
Nicky howled every insult against the doctors above him, and their mothers, and the goats they had copulated with. His body was stretched to breaking, trying to heal, trying to mend itself around the metal clamps and he could only imagine what else was holding him apart
His arms and legs wrestled and fractured. His throat scratched out vowels that could not be concealed.
He was awake, and he couldn’t heal, and Doctor Stephen Merrick pulled down his mask to reveal a boyishly gleeful grin of insolent greed.
“So, it is true. You don’t just heal, or endure, do you? You resurrect.”
Nicky spat a glob of bloody saliva in the man’s open eye, before a gas mask was wrenched onto his face, and unconsciousness claimed him, mercifully quickly.
* * *
This was how it unfolded.
Doctor Stephen Merrick and his merry troupe of learned scholars were cautious, to a point.
They poked and prodded and operated and tested to their shrivelled hearts’ content. Sometimes Nicky was asleep. Sometimes he wasn’t. Until, that was, they were removing a chunk of Nicky’s liver, hoping to watch any sign of immediate regeneration. Mid-procedure, Nicky awoke, just enough to flinch at the proximity of the cold scalpel to his steaming insides, and half a second later, his hepatic artery had been severed in two.
He bled out quicker than his body could fix it.
He came back to life before the doctors could even try, much to their astonishment, their wonder, their glee.
They were less cautious, after that.
* * *
Thirty-eight years later, Doctor Meta Kozak applied for a research assistant position at Merrick Inc.
Four years after that, she was appointed the primary doctor of the Donor Eight programme, affectionately known amidst the researchers as Octo.
A further three years after that, a US Marine died in Afghanistan, in the arms of a fellow soldier. Then she woke up.
* * *
This is how it happens.
* * *
She’s dying. She’s dying. She’s bleeding she’s dying –
Cold, cold air and hot blood and the humidity or is that breath on her face – she’s dying – she’s cold – she’s sweating – she’s bleeding – she’s dying.
“You’re gonna be OK Nile – you hear me?”
A voice, she knows that voice she adores that voice she trusts that voice she’s dying. She’s dying.
“You’re OK you’re gonna be OK I promise – MEDIC! – OK it’s OK Nile –”
She tries to speak but her eyes are glazed and she tastes tears that aren’t her own she’s dying she’s bleeding she’s dying –
“We need a medic in here now! – Nile stay with me, you hear me? Stay with me –”
The salt water pours in and she dies.
She dies and she –
* * *
It’s just a dream.
It’s just a dream.
* * *
Nicky wakes up retching.
The sound of his choking yelps bounce back against the close walls, familiar and unkind.
His fingernails scrape over his throat that was cut open, but there is no wound. He grasps for the crying girl who had been holding him, but he is alone. He reaches for the dusty ground he had been dying on, but there is only chilled tiles. He’s in the cold box again.
Nicky rolls over to his side, pushing himself shakily onto his knees, and tries to regain some semblance of the dream. The air is harsh with chemicals, but he’s more than used to it, and gulps in lungfuls, his forehead pressed momentarily to the icy floor, before he sits back onto his heels, fingers tucked trembling into his abdomen.
The lights are off. It’s pitch black. No matter. He knows his way, shuffling ten inches back until his toes touch the wall, so he can lean his clammy back over the tiles.
It had been real. He knows it was real.
Somewhere, out there, in the Middle East perhaps, there is a girl, a young woman, a soldier –
Nile. That was it. That was her name Nile. She’s dead. Nile is dead.
A spiny lump swells in the back of Nicky’s throat, as his chest fills with the pounding of the girl’s terror, her shock, her grief. He shivers, blinking rapidly, his eyes stinging as tears spill unbidden over his face. He presses his hands hard into his cheekbones, as a half-formed sob heaves out of his mouth. Then another, and another.
The piercing knowledge of the girl’s death is like the heavy ringing of bells in his lungs, a clanging of iron that knocks the breath from him body, and as he cries into his hands, Nicky feels a beaming, terrified smile breaking out across his face. His sobs stutter into something that might be laughter, and it’s loud. Loud in the darkness.
He laughs, and weeps, scratching through the skin of his neck, pushing his salt stung tears back into his eyelashes. His mouth clasps sluggishly around her name. Nile. Nile. She’s real. She’s real. She’s real and she’s brave and she’s dead but she’ll live again. Soon, she’s going to wake up.
The girl, the woman, the soldier – Nile is going to wake up, and she’s going to be so frightened, so lost, so alone. She’s going to be confused. Perhaps she will be angry, or overjoyed. Perhaps she will believe herself to be a blessing, or a curse. Nile – she is a miracle.
Nicky’s laughter scratches up his dry throat. He can hear the hiss of the vents above his head, low on oxygen and high in nitrous oxide, as he’s come to recognize. He inhales deeply anyway, no sense in delaying the inevitable. The darkness is penetrating, sometimes he can’t be entirely sure he hasn’t lived in the pitch of night his entire life. The vents open a little wider, exhale a little louder.
Nile is going to wake up, just like he did. He remembers it. The confusion, and the awe, and the horror. An all-consuming sense of wonder and disgust and betrayal and divinity. He knows what she will feel, this girl, this Nile, this brand new sister, and his heart is heavy with hope and worry for her, for himself, for the loves he has locked away in his heart.
His breath swells in his lungs. He blinks, though it makes little difference but for the bright spots of dizziness that dance beneath his eyelids. Nicky sinks back into the cold wall, keening leftwards as he lets his weight pull him. He thinks he might still be smiling, when the last vestiges of wakefulness eclipse from within.
* * *
It’s just a dream.
It’s just a dream.
* * *
It’s on again – it’s biting into his temples into his eyebrows into his cheekbones it’s clamped down on him in him around him it’s inside his eyes it’s on and it’s burning burning him cutting him cutting burning piercing.
Nicky wakes up, a heartbeat to match a dead girl’s final thoughts, tasting her blood, the sand kicked up by her struggle, the heat of the daylight. His tongue is dry, chemicals and spit. He rubs the back of his teeth and tries not to gag. Tries not to move, because moving like breathing like thinking like anything is just another reminder that it’s on –
Biting it’s biting him it’s biting him apart, teething him from the inside he can’t move he can’t think he can’t see –
He feels the moment a sound finally breaks past the barrier of his clenched teeth. There’s a quiver of terror, his own, the dead girl’s – what was her name? – still locked in his wrists that he tries to flex out, but the manacles are as tight on his arms as the slipped crown of thorns that’s eating into his eyes. It hurts. It hurts.
Nicky swallows down the involuntary whimper that’s pawing at the back of his tongue. He won’t. He won’t.
He is Nicolo di Genova. He is nine hundred years old.
He has drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, starved in the Gobi Desert; he has been hanged and he has been burned, he has been stoned and he has been crucified, he has known suffering that this world has long forgotten, and he will not submit to the wretched whims of just one more doctor in a long line of the children of science who hunger for that which they do not understand.
He will not be broken by a child’s ruthless tantrum.
He is Nicolo di Genova.
He thinks it, every time he wakes up. Reminds himself of who he is. Taps it, in dots and dashes, over the surface of the table he’s lying on. A promise, to himself, and to those he loves most.
It’s too soon, he realises, as he breathes very slowly, very quietly, sinking into the quiet depths of his still, untouchable mind, as far away from the pain as he can hide. He shouldn’t be out yet, it’s too soon. He can still feel the grumbling patchwork of his body healing, knitting itself together in fine threads of spider skin.
Nicky bites down on his next breath, turning his fists slowly in their cuffs, testing the give of the metal. There is none.
Suddenly, he hears the flick-swish of a page being turned, and it takes everything in his power not to startle.
He isn’t alone.
It happens again, and a third time. A finger idly sliding over a sheet of paper. He can picture it perfectly: the cheap paper, the blue clipboard it’s pinned to, the neatly manicured finger that flicks it.
She’s old fashioned that way, is Doctor Meta Kozak.
Hearing the change in his breathing, or perhaps noticing his movement, Kozak finally lets out an audible hum. There is the sound of her clipboard dropping onto a desk. A pen rolling over a tabletop. Soft-soled shoes scuffing on the floor. Nicky steels his jaw, and does not flinch when he feels a pair of hands come to rest, upside down, on either side of his head.
“I know you are awake, Octo,” Kozak says.
She doesn’t like being ignored, however much she’s enjoyed ignored Nicky, over the years.
Nicky smiles tightly, trying to clutch a tight enough grip on his voice that it won’t shake before he speaks.
“Are you still angry with me?” he asks in German, her native tongue, as politely as he can manage while his lungs are so tight, while the pins are deep under his eyelids, and he knows the answer is yes, she is still angry with him.
She doesn’t need to admit to it. All she needs to do, and all she does, is place her hand very lightly on Nicky’s face.
He tries not to flinch. He tries. But even her light weight on the blinder is sharp, brutal, and Nicky barely catches the sound that swells in his chest. She feels it – she must do. Her breath is stuttered, like a caress of a laugh, over his nose.
He remembers her first day here. He remembers how timid she didn’t realise she was. He remembers how good she thought she was.
They all think they’re good, at first.
It’s how humanity has not crumbled under the weight of its own horrors. People exist under the wretched delusion that they are good, and do not question it. Nicky knows that much to be true – Nicky had the veil lifted from his own eyes almost a thousand years ago, and found what he had thought was his own piety was in fact nothing more or less than vindictive, selfish ignorance.
Everyone thinks they’re good, just as Doctor Meta Kozak thinks, in her own way, that she is good.
A finger taps lightly on the metal blindfold, and Nicky jerks away, a deep-rooted hng of sound buried into his clenched teeth. He breathes through it, the nausea and the fear that ricochets through his body every time. He hadn’t noticed, in all his long years before this timeless, laboratory existence, how pain never seems to lessen, no matter how often it is doled out.
His body heals the gravest of injuries like water sliding over worn pebbles, but it never seems to grow accustomed to the process. The blindfold is as all-encompassing in its agony as it was the first time Kozak strapped it on him.
Does she know that? Nicky wonders, as he sucks in another deep breath, and chokes on the remnant scent of her perfume on his tongue.
Kozak laughs again, softly, before moving away. Nicky follows the sound of her footsteps: back, left, back, left. She crosses to the other side of the room. Opens a drawer and closes it again with a rolling snap. There is paper swishing, a long sigh through pursed lips.
Nicky retreats, into his thoughts. The pulsing ache in his eyes is duller, here, where he can hide.
He conjures the sense memories of his dream. The sandy ground, the girl’s dark tearstains.
(Burning cutting piercing it hurts it hurts him he’s burning he’s –)
Nile. Her name was Nile, yes, he remembers it now. Her terror. Her bravery. Her loneliness.
Where is she? Has she woken up yet? Has she realised the truth of her new, relentless life?
Have they found her?
Nicky shies from the thought, even as it swells, a hopeful bud blossoming in the early March dew, when the equinox is approaching, and the frosts are clinging to the newest of the leaves. They will find her, they will –
Andromache. Sebastien. Yusuf.
(Burning cutting piercing it hurts it hurts him he’s burning he’s –)
Nicky’s tongue curls in his mouth with the impetus to speak, as it does every time he dares to think of them. They reside in coffins he has plunged into the depths of treasured fears, where they cannot be stained by his waking hours. For so long, the images of their faces brought him courage, but it has been so many years.
They haven’t forgotten him. He knows they haven’t.
But, ever more and more, Nicky worries that he is forgetting them.
(Burning cutting piercing it hurts it hurts him he’s burning he’s –)
Andromache, la madre, shield and scythe in one. She’s lost so much already and he left her to a grief-stricken existence. Four hundred years and more spent looking into the horizons and finding them wanting for warmth. He promised, he promised her. Is she eating? Is she resting?
Sebastien, dear Bastiano. Nicky can only hope he found his way back; that he listened, that he obeyed, that he didn’t follow Nicky out into that arid wasteland nightmare. Is he safe? Is he alone? Has he forgiven himself?
And Yusuf. Yusuf.
The very letters of his name are knives under his skin. Joe. Josef. Guiseppe. Yusuf.
We go together.
Nicky daren’t think it too loudly. He can barely picture his beloved’s face.
(Burning cutting piercing it hurts it hurts him he’s burning he’s –)
“Hurry back to me, moonlight,” Joe begged of him, when Nicky was saddling his horse in preparation for the gruelling journey ahead.
He spoke in old Greek, their first common tongue. Lingua Franca of their first three decades, when Yusuf stubbornly deafened himself to all syllables of Zeneize, and Nicolo struggled to grasp the finer nuances of Arabic.
Their alliance was a thing of torment, at first. Mutually assured destruction, when going their separate ways proved futile, and isolation no less painful than the company of an enemy. So much has changed, since those terrible years. Everything, and yet.
“Keep my heart safe,” Nicky begged of Yusuf in return.
Their oldest languages always tasted best on his tongue; like a familiar recipe, using ingredients of centuries past. Herbs untainted by the chemical tint of pesticides, vegetables ripened by sunshine and good earth alone. Nicky would cook the same dishes in the same cities, testing the produce, even if sometimes decades had passed since they last visited.
The apples were sweeter in 1784, he complained once, of the orchard behind the Indigo house in Bulgaria. Joe would only bite a slice of syrupy, roasted apples in response, deliberately chewing loudly and proclaiming them Finer every time, oh, your magic fingers! A golden touch; Midas of the kitchen, my love! Then he would kiss the taste into Nicky’s teeth, laughing and teasing and loving, in equal measure.
(Burning cutting piercing it hurts it hurts him he’s burning he’s –)
There was no ominous foreboding when Nicky kissed Yusuf for the last time. Off-centre, tasting the corner of his lips, his coarse stubble; sand and salt and skin.
It was a kiss, no more tender or heartfelt than every kiss that came before it.
Nicky hoisted himself onto the back of Zaya, that poor, faithful mare, squeezed Yusuf’s hand, then took off, shouting at Booker to keep up, the layabout that he was.
He didn’t glance back; only nodded at Andrea, who told him to hurry, and took off into the dunes.
He should have looked back.
It steals his very breath, to remember it, now.
Burrowing metal termites in the thin skin of his eyes, he yields to the want of Yusuf’s presence. Lets it consume him, just for a moment, before –
“GET HENRY IN HERE NOW!”
Kozak’s voice is loud, livid; so abrupt that Nicky is wrenched body and soul from the memory of his beloved’s warm hands covering his own so violently it drags a keening grunt out of his belly. He wrestles against the instinct to move, as the searing pain robs the final vision of Yusuf’s eyes and Nicky roars, furious suddenly, impotently desperate as he hasn’t felt in so long. So long.
It’s been so long and it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. He’s so alone and it’s been so long and out there, out there is a girl who is dying and waking and living a nightmare these animals in here cannot possibly comprehend. He is Nicolo di Genova and he is so angry.
Hands plant down on his twisting arms and shins. He can hear shouting, in broken English and a smattering of German that makes him seethe and hiss. There is movement around him, under him, above him. He tries to make out anything more of the words being shouted in the hurricane of his rage but the blinding pain keeps sense at bay. He cannot calm it, not now it has been unleashed.
The dream – Nile’s dream – has conjured an animal whose forced dormancy cannot be sustained any longer. He is angry. He is Nicolo di Genova. He is angry.
Nicky feels a hand push down, hard, onto his face. He feels the blood burst out of him, as iron teeth grind down through skin and bone, and, screaming with the force of a Saharan storm in his dry, gasping lungs, Nicky succumbs to the empty void that awaits him.
* * *
Wake wake up wake little one wake suffer and wake little one hear me see me little one wake I can feel your cold hands I can hear your cold tears falling little one wake little one whisper little one let me let me see let me hear let me in let me wake wake up little one rest little one rest in me in mine you are mine you are ours you are despair don’t wake wake up don’t despair little one whisper little one breathe the sky little one breathe the ground little one hear me wake wake up and rest your cold hands your cold tears falling little one wake –
* * *
The spikes are out.
It shouldn’t feel like a gift – it shouldn’t – but the relief is a fresh spring in a desert. Nicky breathes easier immediately, sinks into his chains like sinking to his knees at an altar. He could weep.
There’s still a bruising rod of metal cuffed to his face. He thinks there might have been a time when he hated this, too, however he can’t conjure the same reaction, though. The spikes are out. That’s all that matters.
He’s lying on something softer than a table, harder than a bed. There is the smell of leather; carpet cleaner and cold, over-ventilated air. The purr of powerful engines, cutting through thin resistance. A plane, then.
Nicky fans out his fingers, slowly. He’s been half-covered by a sheet, protecting a strange, humanizing modesty he has no use for. The gesture is soft, welcome all the same. He licks his lips, tastes bloody flakes, and when he shifts a hand touches the crook of his elbow, holding an IV pin safely in place.
Be careful, the fingers warn, through circling callouses.
Nicky almost, almost, laughs.
“Keane?” he asks.
“I’m here,” a familiar baritone voice says.
He shouldn’t be glad – he shouldn’t. He knows better, has always known better, and yet. And yet.
“What’s the view?” Nicky asks.
Keane’s fingers vanish from his arm. It’s a striking loss.
“There was a cloud a few miles back. Looked like Italy put its boot on backwards,” Keane replies.
“And the sky?”
“Pale. Almost white.”
Nicky smiles, picturing it clearly. The puffed up chests of the barrel clouds, thinning into wisps across the peach soft sky. The sun, blister-glistening in the distance, climbing up, high out of reach. It could be a lie; however, he thinks ex-Major C. Keane of the Royal Marines is not a liar. He is not, strictly speaking, good, but he does not lie, that Nicky can tell.
“Where are we going?”
Keane sighs pointedly, a puff of air that tickles Nicky’s bare shoulder and earlobe.
“You know I can’t –”
“S’il vous plait, Christophe.”
Keane isn’t good at refusing sincerity, Nicky has discovered. Particularly in his mother’s native tongue. There is a gruff tenderness to him, which reminds Nicky for more than one reason of Sebastien.
Keane sighs again, longer this time. Colder.
“Germany,” he says, so quietly it barely scrapes Nicky’s ear.
It’s all Keane offers, and it could just as easily be the extent of Keane’s knowledge as it might be all he’s willing to divulge.
For a while, there is silence. Nicky indulges in free air not poisoned with anaesthesia and listens to the loud thrum of his own heartbeat. Keane, for his part, makes no attempt to reignite conversation. He rarely does, anymore. Not since his first slip up, what must be going on three years ago by now.
Eventually, the plane tilts at a slight angle, and Nicky follows the movement. He waits, and breathes, and rests. He tries to recall some of the shouting he had heard in the lab. Kozak, shrill and volatile; a flurry of vowels and consonants. It’s a nonsensical slur in Nicky’s memory.
Something has happened, this much he knows.
Something has changed. Only –
Nicky feels his heart stutter and jump.
Something has changed, hasn’t it? He already knows, and yet –
That can’t be it. It can’t be. Because how could it?
How could they know? How could they –
“Hey, hey, ssh,” Keane murmurs, the back of his hand brushing over Nicky’s.
He’s worked with horses, this man, this mercenary. It isn’t the first time Nicky’s thought as much. That is a voice that is practiced in settling spooked horses. He recognizes it, from another voice. A voice he hasn’t heard in many, many moons.
Nicky leans into it, the touch, the voice. Filled to the brim with the caught-breath sense memory of a girl’s dying panic, Nicky leans heavy into the closest thing to comfort he can reach, though he knows better, or he did, maybe, once upon a time.
A warm knuckle on his wrist bone. A sandpaper voice hushing his stirred thoughts.
“Nearly there, nearly,” Keane whispers, before the weight of his hand vanishes and there is the clucking of movement nearby.
A man’s voice interrupts: American, nasal, dry. Doctor Henry Gold.
“Yes,” Keane replies, and his voice is decidedly cooler, all of a sudden.
Nicky bites on the tip of his tongue. The sting is grounding, not enough to counter the slice of sharp fear that has slotted itself neatly between his ribs where he lies. It’s different, being sightless around Gold than it is Kozak. He’s had a long time to grow accustomed to the woman’s whims and moods, the uptick of her interest and the backslide of her frustration.
Gold remains an anomaly. It’s been less than six months since he joined them, Nicky knows that for sure. He hasn’t shaken the edge of awe that lines the veteran doctors of Merrick’s staff. Kozak is as immune to Nicky’s immortality as she is to the colour of his blood, but Gold, Henry Gold. Oh, to Henry Gold, Nicky is still a lump of ore mined from El Dorado.
Without ceremony, the IV is ripped from his arm. The sting is non-existent, unlike the ghost of a hand touching his forehead, a brush and then a tap. A warning he does not need.
“No more yelling, understand?” Gold says, and Nicky smiles sweetly at him, teeth and all.
“Does it upset you, Henry?” he asks, and doesn’t even mind the hard knuckle shoved into his temple for a retort.
There’s a sound, an exhale, that might, just might, be Keane laughing.
Fingers clench, suddenly, in Nicky’s hair and he holds back his hiss, though he drops his saccharine grin, too. There is a face very close to his own, and he wants to remind Gold what happened to the last person who got too cocky about not giving Octo his personal space without appropriate safeguards in place. A growl rests, in his soft palette, safely at his disposal.
“We found one of your friends, you son of a bitch. Did you really think they could hide from us forever? In the US fucking Marines, at that?”
He shakes Nicky’s head as he says it, and Nicky frowns, spittle wetting his forehead as he tries to make sense of the plummeting of his stomach, the confusion, the instinctive dismay that guts him so quickly and thoroughly he’s surprised there’s no wound to show for it. His thoughts are in disarray. The Marines? The –
“We’re going to bring her here, and lock her up in her own Cold Room, right next to you. Won’t that be nice? Maybe we can schedule you some surgeries side by side–”
The hot flash of rage is stronger than the fear drying Nicky’s tongue, stronger than the metal gripping his head. With a wordless shout of refusal Nicky smacks his head blindly upwards, and feels the satisfying thunk of metal on bone, feels it reverberate through his forehead and without waiting for a better reaction, he opens his mouth and bites down on whatever piece of flesh he can snatch at.
Blood spurts out of the heavy clench of Nicky’s teeth – forearm, maybe, fleshy, bare, stupid boy – and Gold tries to writhe away, smacking and flailing at Nicky’s head.
Keane bellows at him to let go, panic in the thready fibres of his voice, and his hands are recognisable as they scrunch tightly into Nicky’s hair, fingers scrabbling at the side of the metal blindfold and between one moment and the next, as Nicky reminds himself with pure relish how very much he loathes every single person on this plane, the seam of the blindfold opens, and a thin, needle row of spikes drive themselves deep into his eyes.
The pain is absolute, his blood scalding, but his jaw locks down tight on his prey.
Gold passes out before he does.
That much, at least, Nicky knows to be true.
* * *
Breathe in and in and in and out and out and out and bleed in and in and in and out and out and out and breathe and bleed and breathe and bleed little one hear it the breath the blood hear it and feel it and smell it and see it I can hear you and see you and smell you and feel you I know you I know you little one your breath your blood your love I know it I carry it it is with me I am with it you are with me with me always I am here –
* * *
Sister my sister I hear you I know you I bleed you I see you breathe my air breathe my lungs know me know my blood my breath my heart sleep sleep sister sleep and dream sweet sister hear my breath –
* * *
Nicky wakes up, and sleeps, and wakes, and sleeps, and dreams.
* * *
The sun is cruel, vicious. The ground hot, the wind hotter.
Eyes on her back. Eyes on her face. Eyes in her dreams. Eyes in her periphery.
“Hey, girl,” a voice says. A voice she loves. A voice who loves her. An arm, a hand, an embrace. Lips on her forehead, damp, motherly, sisterly. Thumb on her ear, a slow rub, a cautious touch. “Don’t you –”
Eyes. Watchful eyes. Accusing eyes. Fearful eyes. Eyes she loved. Eyes who loved her, once.
The sun. The ground. The wind. Her heartbeat.
Faces – two faces.
They cry out to her and her soul cries out to God and the men fall to the ground in a swooping fell of an unseen enemy and a gun – a gun in her hand – a gun out of her hand – a gun in her face.
“Who are you?”
Pale eyes. Pale skin. Dark hair.
Lightning in a snowstorm. A hurricane in spring.
“Andromache the Scythian.”
* * *
Nicky wakes up with a harsh, grating laugh in his throat.
Her face. Her face. Burning into his retinas – how could he forget any angle of her vengeance? Magnificence in her every move, madre, Andromache, who else, who else?
Nicky tries to choke back the chuffing birdsong jittering in the cage of his mouth but his relief, his terror, his love, shall not be silenced. Not this time. Not for her. Not her Andromache. He loves her. He misses her.
He misses the charm of her rare laughter and the glimmer of her eyes when he pulls pistachios and honey from a shopping bag and tells her to clear the table. He wants to hold her wrist and feel the palm of her hand on the nape of his neck. He wants to tell her she’s doing well, doing right; that he hasn’t for one second felt forsaken, because he knows she is alive, and won’t let any harm come to the others.
He wants to take the gun from her hand and replace it with tea. He wants to tell her to rest, it’s his turn to take watch.
He wants her to forgive him, for ever forgetting, even for one second, to keep fighting.
A monitor is screeching somewhere close, almost as loud as the thrashing of Nicky’s voice, and there is shouting: English and German, furious. Impatient, so petty, so small.
They are so small, they are so cruel, and Nicky has been good, has been quiet, and why? What has it granted him?
He feels the thrum of unfamiliar fire glowing in the kindling of his dry bones. It’s hope. It’s a hope that has unwittingly grown stale in the long intervening years of his solitude, but no more – no more –
He is Nicolo di Genova. He has the love of millennia in his grasp, in his soul. He has a reason to fight. Five very good reasons to fight, and fight he will. He’s waited. He’s waited.
Hands grapple at his fracturing joints; a needle dislodges itself from his hand. He feels the single droplet of blood that escapes trickling down between his knuckles before the skin seals up behind it.
He is Nico, Nicky, Nicolo. He is still alive; he is still fighting. He has a brand new, frightened sister and she’s safe, she will be safe; Andromache will see to it. And soon, surely, they will be together. Young Nile, and war-torn Andromache, and dear Sebastien, and –
The sparkling fluorescent lights are sharp, the voices shrill. Blood in his mouth, in the back of his throat. A thumb digs into the soft pouch of his eyes, and Nicky pulls back but there’s nowhere to go. Just metal table and latex-skin.
A searing pain in his retinas, in his nerve endings, in his spine.
“We need him awake, Gold!”
Nicky bares his teeth at the name and bites at the air, lets out a chirrup of the crowing laugh on his tongue. It’s so bright in here.
The thumb slips, pushing too deep into his eye socket and he hisses in fright, but the hand pulls away, and when it comes back gentler it’s odd, like an apology, like a soft, soothing –
“Doctor Kozak, we –” and the rest is lost to the monitor and Nicky screams with frustration, he wants to sleep. He wants to sink into the inky depths of dreams where he can wander through the eyes of someone else, where he can see her, see Andromache again, see her piercing eyes. And maybe, maybe next time, he’ll see –
“Please, please, please,” a voice wails, over and over, and it’s only when he runs out of breath that Nicky recognises it as his own. He can’t remember the last time he begged. Did he ever? But it’s there, right there, spilling out of him in aftershocks of grief, “Please. Please.”
He speaks it in every language he knows, every language he knew. Gracious Zeneize and bastard English and lazy French and softest of Arabic. The tongues of his every love, the tongue of his childhood, salt-spray from the coast of the Ligurian Sea. He squeezes his eyes shut and snarls at the hands that grip his face. He feels the creak of the restraints around his wrists. He tunes out every voice, static like the crack of the ocean against the sharp rocks of Genova’s outermost edges.
“For the love of God, someone shut it up!” Kozak shrieks, and a fist tugs his hair and in the second before the metal touches his face, Nicky hears a tiny hiccup of breath, of fear, that doesn’t come from himself.
* * *
The blindfold was Kozak’s idea.
She, like all her predecessors, underestimated her subject’s concentration and state of consciousness for a very long time, before she cottoned on to just how much he heard, and retained. She tried earplugs, at first. They all did, at some point.
She, unlike all her predecessors however, eventually noticed how quickly her subject could simply slip into a comfier state of mind when cut off from the disruption of the noisy world. An unthinkable, accidental gift, to drift upon the tide of tranquil near-silence, unattended to.
The blindfold, when it made its first appearance, fixed that problem right up.
Distractingly deep, yet almost shallow, grazing bone and cartilage, nicking his irises. Nicky can’t retain a thought for too long, when its teeth are in his corneas.
Kozak clapped, the first time she pulled it from its box and it corked up the snide hissing of Nicky’s snarling mouth.
He wasn’t afraid of many things, anymore, but the blindfold was a villain of its own significance. He hated it. He hated the way it sliced the threads of his thoughts. Tore him from half-formed memories he couldn’t fully submerge in.
She was good at her job, was Doctor Meta Kozak.
Nicky told her, once, as she raised a scalpel over the blank canvas of his abdomen.
It was the only time he ever truly saw her flinch.
* * *
Germany is a much more haphazard state of affairs than London.
It occurs to Nicky, as he tugs idly and repetitively at the straps on his wrists, making the intern with the heavy fringe and the thick glasses grimace at her computer, that he’s allowed himself to just get too comfortable with the laborious routine of his existence.
The Cold Box. A day on the table. Drugs and pillows for a few precious hours. Tests. Samples. The Cold Box. Rinse and repeat and repeat again.
It occurs to Nicky, not for the first time, that he isn’t very sure how long he’s been in Merrick’s clutches for anymore.
Great stretches of time have been torn far from his comprehension. He’d counted an estimate of years based on the lines of Stephen Merrick’s brow, at first. But Stephen Merrick died, just like Nicky promised him he would. Furious spite, new liver new lungs new heart, and just as nasty as the day Nicky woke up to barbed wire and rifles and all sense of self left behind in a desert storm.
“A golden goose is all very well, Doctor Merrick,” Nicky said, the last time they ever spoke. “But it cannot share the secret of its wealth, no matter how many feathers you pluck.”
It’s been harder to keep track, since then.
Merrick’s son, James, was more absent than his father. A businessman, not a medical man, and present only in name and the fat pockets of even the most doubtful of employees.
The grandson, Steven, is an odious boor of a boy. Nicky has met him twelve times, that he can recall. By the eighth time, he’d started to miss the grandfather’s clinical greed.
Now, he is no longer moved from operating chamber to lab to Cold Box and back again. He’s in one room, occupied predominantly by a whimpering, tail-tucked Henry Gold, and occasionally, a furrowed-brow version of Doctor Meta Kozak. They haven’t even stooped to blindfolding him in almost twelve hours, that he can tell.
There is a lot of shouting and not much operating, and Nicky doesn’t need to wonder why.
They’ve lost her. The new girl – frightened, brave Nile. Young, lovely Nile. She is free of their clutches. She is safe, with Andromache.
Nicky’s heart sings to think it.
He tugs the manacles again, and the intern flexes her jaw. She almost looks up, but remembers herself at the last second and continues to staring at her computer. Nicky lets out a tiny snort.
Another tug. Another clink. Another tug. Another –
It doesn’t come from the girl.
Nicky blinks in surprise, and listens to footsteps sliding purposefully from the doorway around into his line of sight, where Keane stares at him with a flinty impatience that Nicky is all too familiar with. The intern needs nothing more than a warning tilt of his head to vacate the room, carefully closing the door behind her.
They are alone, breaths rough, the manacles clinking, and then –
Nicky flinches, his eyes clenched tight. It’s unexpected, and close, a fist, punched hard into the metal table, barely an inch away from his head. He stops the movement of his hands on instinct, and before he can remember otherwise, a pair of hands close viciously around his knuckles, holding them down. He’s caught in a dizzying desire to struggle and an inherent, terrible fear of what will happen when he does.
Keane leans close. Nicky can feel his breath, and he opens his eyes to take in his stony anger.
“Stop it,” he says again, lower, and slower, and he means it, means it with every fibre of his body.
Nicky shivers, and he doesn’t know exactly why.
Keane lets go of his hands, fingers hovering just long enough to make sure Nicky is going to pay attention to his warning, before standing back upright, nodding his appreciation.
He’s jittery, Nicky realises, as he watches Keane circle the room once and come back to stand near the top of the table. His jaw is tight, the way it is what he talks to Gold, when he’s holding the blindfold, when he’s –
“Where are the others?” Keane asks, through his clenched teeth. The words come out tart and short, and Nicky’s stomach clenches. Kozak has sent him. Of course she has. Viper in her nest, she knows which fights she cannot win for herself, so she sends her biggest dog, instead.
Nicky scoffs, and shakes his head incredulously.
“Christophe,” he says, gently, and Keane’s eye twitches. “You do not think you are the first to ask me, do you?”
Keane’s fingers are curled into fists. He isn’t so much looking at Nicky as he is watching his profile. It’s been a while since Nicky’s seen him properly, and he takes in all the little changes with hungry curiosity, mapping them out in his head. The thin beginnings of crow’s feet at his eyes. The flatness of his mouth. The salt specks in his hair.
“They’re going to find her,” Keane says.
It isn’t a threat, only a promise, a certainty that Nicky pities, because once upon a time that sort of certainty applied to all sorts of lies; that the earth is flat, or that man was built from red clay, or that the Holy Land was being held hostage by savages. Nicky knows those sorts of certainties.
“They will try,” Nicky agrees, lightly, closing his eyes against the harsh fluorescent lights surrounding Keane like a halo.
A bull snort of a sigh. A shiver of movement in the air. Frustration like a cloud obscuring everything.
“They’re going to hurt you.”
Nicky opens his eyes, and looks up at the boy standing over him. How old is he? Forty, maybe? Younger? It’s so hard to tell, when his eyes are so dark with fear and his mouth lined with anger. Pitiful child, he was probably a good soldier. A good man, once.
“What do you think they do, every day, Christophe?” he asks.
“It’s not –”
“You think pulling a man’s lungs out of his chest to give to someone else isn’t hurting him?”
Keane flinches, and Nicky is reminded of that day in New Jersey, three years ago, or more.
A younger Christophe, a softer one. Newly recruited and rough around the edges and It’s cutting into me, do you mind? It hurts, Christophe, and I suppose, I don’t, I might – and six men died and two never recovered and Keane probably should have been fired but Nicky didn’t care because he got forty-eight seconds of sunshine before they took him down and it was the closest to escaping he’d ever come and he knows, he knows in his soul, there is a tiny part of Christophe Keane that regrets aiming his tranquilising dart so well.
“Ah,” Nicky continues, when still Keane doesn’t respond. “You mean to say, they will make you hurt me. And that is different, isn’t it? It will be harder to tuck your daughter into bed at night, after you have tortured a man–”
“STOP IT!” Keane roars, and he kicks the table and turns away but Nicky sees the tremble of his hands before he does, and Nicky smiles coldly at the back of his head, before looking up at the corner of the room, to the security camera behind which he would be very surprised if Kozak is not watching.
“You think I make friends with them because I’m lonely, Doctor?” he asks, simply, the bladed edge of a laugh scraping his throat.
He hears the cock of Keane’s gun, and the growl of his betrayal. Smells his fear like a shark in the water. The gun is rammed through his smile, almost to his throat, and the bullet goes straight through him before he can even taste the metal on his tongue.
* * *
He doesn’t see Keane again.
* * *
The first death took the longest to heal. That was the nature of things, he would later discover.
As it was, Nicolo never found out exactly how long it took for him to wake, the first time.
This was what he remembered:
A blade cut him down. A deep, wide gash, off-centre across his middle. He fell to his knees, his blood soaking the ground beneath him. He inhaled dirt in mouthfuls. He tried to roll onto his back, to steal one last glimpse of the untouched, unspoiled sky, but his eyes were sightless before he could.
Then, he woke up.
He woke up with an arm wrenched out of place, his limbs crushed, and his chest, too. He woke up, and his first breath was full of the sweet, putrid stench of the dead. Buried in carcasses, severed limbs and the fragments of bodies who were once men, he retched and struggled against the onslaught: weight, stink, slime, terror, filth.
He was the living among death, and his thought, one of terror, and longing, was: His Kingdom come?
It was a rotten, greedy thought.
His second thought was: Do the dead often dream, as I have dreamt? Of faces I do not know, and words I do not have the tongue to speak?
He wept, and coughed. Wriggled out from beneath swollen corpses and his shoulder cracked back into place. He vomited more than once, and touched the smooth, soiled skin of his stomach, which was untorn. He wondered, frightened and pious, if he had been blessed by God.
Six deaths later, four at the hands of the same man, he decided it must, in fact, be a curse.
* * *
Burning biting bright (tiger tiger in the -) sharp teeth in his thoughts eating up the words it’ll hurt it’ll ache it’ll screech through him like an owl hunting in a moonless night he won’t sleep he won’t remember he won’t think he won’t breathe he can’t he can’t he mustn’t –
Wake up, sister, he whispers, over and over and over and over and over, until it sticks.
* * *
The church has long lost the smell of incense, but the stone is still rough with old prayers. The fire is hot and small and constant, the food thickens the air with steam just as the wine thickens the voices of those sitting around the table. She’s alone and yet stifled with company. These strangers, these intruders upon her grief, with eyes that seem to see her as she has never been seen before, not by anybody.
A woman, dark hair, sharp angles. A bird, a hawk, perched on a winter-picked branch, cool eyes surveying her landscape. A man, stooped, cautious in every movement and slow to speak but sincere when he does, even when he’s being wry. Another man, shorter, even quieter, somehow rougher yet softer, staring that should be predatory but isn’t, it’s awestruck, it’s divine, it’s something she doesn’t have a language to comprehend.
Two empty chairs at the table as they eat and drink and –
“Booker’s the baby,” with a cheers of clinking cups and the rosy scent of tea and the coarse blankets and the dense air and the woman’s voice, piercing the night, a hawk’s cry, “YUSUF!”
She lies in an unfamiliar cot with unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar world that is hers now, hers to fear and inhabit and bend into the shape of something she can withstand for an eternity that might never feel right she’s alone and stifled and the church is dark and there are tears in the man’s eyes when he sips from his flask and says…
“His name’s Nicky. Nicolo.”
* * *
When did he stop believing they would find him?
He doesn't know. He doesn't remember.
It hurts. All of it. All of it hurts.
* * *
He’s awake, cold, on the table.
He wakes up to new bleach on every surface, stinging his nostrils, his gums, his eyelids. Fresh as lemons and thrice as strong. There’s an extra bar over his throat, just shy of constricting his breaths. They haven’t used it since the incident with old Doctor Shipley, years ago. Must be desperate, pulling out old tricks.
Nicky can taste blood on the back of his tongue, flakes congealed behind his teeth.
Doctor Meta Kozak is at his feet, one hand on his shin, the other clutching her prized blindfold.
Her sneer is tight, stretched painfully across her tired face.
Nicky sucks in a gulp of sterile air. Tells her:
“The first Merrick called me his golden ticket to a Nobel Prize, everlasting life, and a better knowledge of the universe. He would cure cancer, eradicate disease, change the world. The second Merrick called me a mouse in his cage, the first brick that would grow his empire. The third Merrick didn’t call me anything.
“Whatever you thought I would give you, in all these years we have spent together, I can’t say. But you won’t find what you seek, just as you will never find the girl.”
Kozak purses her lips and pulls from her coat pocket two foam earplugs. She steps closer, in line with Nicky’s chest. Under her generous douse of pearly deodorant, her sweat is sour and dry. He wonders how long it’s been since she slept.
“Arthur told me he heard you praying, once,” Kozak says, delicate as a cuckoo at a nests’ edge.
Nicky smiles grimly, and does not laugh.
“You think God will save you?” Kozak asks, as if offended by the very notion. As a believer or a cynic, it’s impossible to tell. They are so very similar in their righteousness.
Nicky smiles grimly, and does laugh, this time. Quietly, pityingly.
“I do not pray for my soul’s salvation,” he tells her. His breath is cut by the bar against his oesophagus. Hers is cut by her fear. “I pray for yours.”
The twist of rage in her face is all he sees before the world is black, and pain.
It’s the last thing he ever says to her.
* * *
She leaves him, deaf and blind and shivering.
* * *
Twenty-nine hours later, Sebastien finds him.
* * *
Bastiano’s silhouette trembles and blurs into focus, through a crimson glaze of tears.
Nicky tries to reach, to touch the coarse scruff of his beard, the thin bruises of his eyelids, the bloody tinges in his hair, but the manacles around his wrists are too strong. He tries to laugh, but the sturdy collar around his throat is too tight. It steals his breath, and his dry mouth burns.
“Nicolas,” Bastiano says, chokes on it like a brand new word in a brand new tongue.
Nicky feels his heart pouring lifeblood through him, wine of the covenant, the first taste of spring. His savaged eyes can see, see more clearly than he ever remembers. He sees Bastiano, Sebastien, Booker. His melancholy, his adoration; that perfect shade of regretful blue in the flecks of his irises. A hand, soft over Nicky’s cheek, tentative as a moth that dares to brush through a beam of light.
Apologies are spilling out of Bastiano unfettered, incomprehensible and Nicky loves him, loves him as he has done since he was a frightened, feral boy in a Russian blizzard, spitting spite and crow feathers and shaking too hard to put up any sort of fight against his saviours.
I know, I know, you are forgiven, I know, Nicky wants to say, but the air in his throat is full of bleached needles and it stoppers up against his teeth. He heaves in as thick a breath as he can, and says, only, lovingly:
Tears roll down Booker’s cheeks, into his beard, and he sobs, just once, very loudly.
Behind him, a shadow stumbles into the open doorway.
He’s wild, and breathless, and his hair is too short and his beard is matted with blood. There are smeared remnants of fighting across his face, his arms, his neck, and his eyes are incautious, tormented, he looks tired, tired as he has not looked in almost a thousand years but ten thousand more could pass and Nicky would know him, love him, see him in every beautiful thing.
Yusuf, ashen and brave, all things good and wonderful.
“Love,” Nicky cries out in a whisper, body and soul, he has waited, he has survived, for nothing more or less than this precise moment, he has endured, and would again, a thousand times. “You’re here,” he says, and Yusuf nods, violently, tearfully, loudly, a hundred promises in his eyes and mouth and heart. “You’re here.”
The restraints hold him down and catch his air between his mouth and his lungs but for the first time in he doesn’t know how long, he cannot feel it. Yusuf is walking towards him, staggering, the weight of himself crashing into Bastiano’s swift arms and then he is close, close enough, close enough to –
His hands are firm, familiar, strong, curving perfectly to fit Nicky’s cheeks. He’s salt and sorrow and sheer glee, smells of sweat and blood and cotton, nose to nose, brow to brow, they are pressed together, and Yusuf’s tears pour down Nicolo’s cheeks, and for one hollow, whole moment, they are the only two people in the entire world, once more.
“Love, my love, I’m here,” Yusuf promises. “Nicolo. My Nicolo. My heart.”
Nicolo sobs, laughing, at peace.
* * *
** Mon frère. Mon Dieu: My brother. My God. (French)
** Perdomani, tesoro, amore: Forgive me, treasure, love. (Italian)
** Per istam sanctan unctionem et suam pisiman misericordiam, indulgeat tibi Dominus – the Latin first few words of the Extreme Unction, or Anointing of the Sick, the Last Rites of the Catholic Church, to the best of my knowledge, as an ex-Catholic who left the church behind quite a while ago.
** Per favore: Please (Italian)
** S’il vous plait: Please (French)
Chapter 6: SIX: JOE
Readers, dear strangers who are friends. Thank you.
A few things:
1) It is my absolute undeniable headcanon that Nicky & Joe wouldn’t speak in English to each other unless they had to (e.g. for Nile’s sake) however, that level of intricacy when I’m not actually good enough at the language is too much for me as a writer, and too much for me to expect of a reader even if I could write it justifiably well. So, please allow me the licence to have written far more conversations in English here on the page than would take place in actuality. Honestly, that goes for the whole story.
2) There are some numerical dates scattered in this. They are written the British way, Day/Month/Year. I struggle to keep track when it’s written the American way. I think it’s arguable whether Joe would write them one way or the other, anyhow.
3) This chapter has been reformatted, split up and rewritten in the past week, because I'm freaking the fuck out about how much people are loving it, and it's making me love it even more. Might have to add another chapter at this rate, because I can't keep it out of my head for long. I'm barely getting any work done.
You make my heart shine with gratitude, each and every one of you.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
* * *
Sixteen thousand days. More. Joe has felt each and every one of them as keenly as the knife that separated him from his first life and the one that followed. A deep cut upon his skin in another sunrise without him, and another after another after another. Nico. Nicolo. Nicky.
Stretched out and clamped like an animal for the slaughter, bones and skin and soul laid bare.
His eyes, stained glass running crimson but a thousand years Joe has known them, will know them for ten thousand more, whatever the miles that separate them, and for the thousandth time since that wretched video flickered to life on James Copley’s computer screen, Joe reminds himself: seventeen times, seventeen times we were in the same city, less than a mile apart, and I did not know it.
“Nicolo, Nico, Nico,” he whispers, lips to cheek, nose to brow. Sour blood and skin.
Nicky’s breaths are short, sharp, that bastard collar cutting his oesophagus. Joe tugs at it once, a futile pawing, before he senses Booker moving around behind him, looking for keys. Joe threads his hands into Nicky’s hair, short, crunchy with dried sweat that’s left salt licks up his face.
His mouth gasps around his words before, dry and raspy: “Your hair.”
Joe laughs, a sparkling sound that scrapes out of him painfully, of course, what else?
Sixteen thousand days, more, and he’s still indignant about Joe’s hair.
There’s the scratching across the floor of Booker kicking something out from under his feet in frustration, and a smattering of French as he raids through shelf after shelf and Joe should help, should let go, should turn away, but if he does this godless place might steal Nicky away again, and he can’t risk it, can’t risk it for anything. His hands on his face, in his hair, smoothing down his earlobes, rubbing the stains from his temples.
“I have so much to tell you,” Joe whispers, and Nicky’s lips twitch in a smile. His lips are cracked, but they don’t bleed.
“Tell me?” Nicky asks, faintly, repetition and request in one, and there are so many things Joe could say, so many things he should say.
So many things he has seen and done and accomplished, with Nicky in the forefront of his screaming mind, but none of it comes to his tongue; not the children he’s saved, not the animals he’s tended, not the houses he’s built or the battles he’s fought.
Instead, Joe tells him: “Italy won the world cup twice.”
Booker swears loudly, the memory of it still a blight on France’s honour, and the split sound of simple joy that bursts out of Nicolo’s cracked, bloodless mouth burns tears out of Joe’s eyes that sting his cheeks.
“Voilà, whoreson,” Booker says roughly, thrusting a metallic pin into Joe’s palm, while he gets to work on Nicky’s ankles.
The metal collar buckled around Nicky’s neck is thick, and attached into the table with severe locks. It unpicks easily enough, but it takes both of Joe’s hands and all of his effort to prise it open, leaving a momentary, livid purple stripe across Nicky’s vulnerable throat. At his first true gulp of air, Nicky chokes and coughs, his face scrunching up with displeasure as he tugs at his wrists, eager to be free.
“Alright, it’s alright, it’s alright,” Joe whispers, again and again, scrambling at Nicky’s left wrist, then his right, while Booker pulls the bulky bar off his midriff.
The indentations and bruises are quick to fade, but Joe will remember them for a long time to come, those violet tiger stripes littering his Nico’s body.
Nicky tries to push himself up, but he’s wobbly as a new born calf, elbows and knees trembling, and Joe catches him around the abdomen before he can slump back to the table and bang his head. The blood over his face is sticky, like a thick smear of warpaint across his eyes and he rubs at them, hard, too hard, the heels of his hands digging into the sockets as if he might shove them all the way into his head.
“Nicky, Nicky,” Joe chides, nearly chokes on his name, to whisper it, to whisper it and be heard.
His heart is a hummingbird trapped in the cage of his body.
He tries to pull Nicky’s hands away before he can hurt himself, but Nicky flinches back, instinctually at his touch. Joe bites his lip, a sound of dismay trapped in his gut before it can do more damage, just as Booker comes around the table, holding a pale blue pair of doctor’s scrub pants. The wreckage he’s left of the room in his uprooting is thorough, and very welcome.
“Here, let me help,” Joe says, the words coming out jumbled, perhaps in a language Booker does not even know, judging by the flicker of confusion on his face as he lightly cups the back of Nicky’s head.
Nicky understands, though. He has always understood.
He shifts and slides, his heels dragging on the table, and Joe lifts each foot through a trouser leg, gently tugging them up his too-thin legs, over his bony hips. Booker has an arm around Nicky’s shoulders, holding him upright, and Joe doesn’t miss the way Nicky’s head drifts to Booker, so that his forehead can brush against Booker’s cheek.
Joe can’t remember the last time Booker’s mouth trembled like that, but he recognises the fearsome grip he has on Nicky’s upper arm from the force of his own trembling hands.
“How are we doing this?” Booker asks, without letting Nicky go.
Joe reaches out to cup Nicky’s jaw, pulling his focus, and his eyes drift with hazy exhaustion, blood-soaked sea glass, glimmering and tired. His hands are limp at his sides. Could he even hold a gun right now?
“Don’t even,” Nicky slurs, determined all the same.
Sixteen thousand days. More. He still knows the lightning strikes of Joe’s ideas as if they were his own.
“Moonlight,” Joe says, hoarse wonder, a thumb dipping at the corner of Nicky’s mouth. “Consider this recompense for Tibet in eighty-eight.”
Nicky’s smile is weak under his thumb, but his fingers have strength in them, when he reaches up to grasp Joe’s wrist.
It’s dire circumstance alone that keeps Joe from falling to his knees there and then. The warmth of his grip, Joe has imagined it every waking moment. A phantom over all four limbs, this is what he endured it for. Sixteen thousand days. More. For this, this moment. This soft, sturdy touch.
Booker chuffs a laugh at the incoherent grumble that follows.
“Front or back, Nicolo?”
His voice breaks over his name, a tide over sharp rocks yet to be smoothed over by time and wear.
Nicolo squeezes Joe’s wrist and says, “Gun?”
Joe pulls one from his calf: light, an easy grip, familiar enough despite the years between then and now. Only a few bullets left, but with any luck, it won’t even need to be fired. He uses both hands to wrap Nicky’s fingers around it, though they mould like clay, strong even when they are not.
“At the risk of untimely jealousy,” Booker mutters, as he slots between Nicky’s dangling legs and turns his back to face Joe. “Use your thighs, Nicolas.”
Joe laughs wetly, checking his own ammo, and sees Nicky whisper something that makes Booker chuckle, mouth wobbled by a fresh onslaught of tears.
He hoists Nicky onto his back, testing his grip, and nods for Joe to leave first, which he does, or he would, only –
The world disintegrates and reforms around her, standing before them through the open doorway.
Joe feels the tattered cloth of his heart set alight. Her voice, ruined by surprise, by joy, by grief. You have never failed us, Joe had promised her, and he meant it, but he could barely speak it. She has borne his ire and his desperation for so long, for sixteen thousand days, and more.
Andromache, bloody and tall, half anguish, all wonder. A gun in her hand, rips in her shirt.
She opens her mouth to say something else, but it twists at the last minute with a grimace, a frown: “No time,” she says, a warning to them, or maybe even a reminder to herself. Harsh as the sunlight of her wet eyes. “Copley and Nile are waiting. Hurry.”
Andy turns her back, and Joe falls behind, so there is only the bare expanse of Nicky’s skin, his to protect, his all to protect, as pale and smooth as it was forty-five years ago, but for the same red slash of a scar above his hip from his boyhood, and the mountainous lines of his ribs pressing up against his skin. Joe wants to lay his palm over his spine, but he keeps only close, covering Nicky’s back, and Booker’s, too.
They move quickly, steadily, uninterrupted but for the line of bodies that leads them out onto the mezzanine, and down a half-spiral of stairs into a wide, blood-splattered atrium. Andy in front, Andy leading, always leading. Joe thinks he might have forgotten, until this very moment, how far he will follow her.
When Booker pauses to hoist Nicky higher, there’s a startled gasp that fists Joe’s heart, but he keeps his eyes on the doors they leave behind, the dead men in their wake.
He wants to pour gasoline over them, over everything. He wants to burn this entire compound to the ground, to erase every speck of its memory. Scorch the earth until the ruins are beyond salvation, and nothing green shall ever grow again. He wants to pour the fire of his hate, sixteen thousand days and more of mourning and dying and viciously hoping, into the merciless void of this place.
But he can’t. He can’t. A burn mark on his soul.
There is a hospital here.
A very real hospital, with very real patients and very real doctors. Not merely the monstrous lab coats who spilled their evil into and over his heart, but good women and men, innocent women and men, maybe even children, and Joe cannot forget that. He cannot forget the soft bright moonlight in Nicolo’s eyes, almost a thousand years ago. That first cautious, lopsided grin when he whispered: You are always the better man, aren’t you?
He isn’t, he isn’t. Joe doesn’t have the words for it. Nevertheless, he’s spent a thousand years trying to live up to that assessment, and he won’t let this place be the thing that proves Nicolo wrong.
Andy was right. There will be a time to clean up, but this isn’t it. This is survival. This a rescue, and Joe won’t risk his chances of Nico getting as far away from this place as he can for anything, not even the volcanic desire for vengeance in his fingertips.
The atrium echoes with their footsteps, with the distant wail of an alarm. Joe feels it on the back of his neck, the creeping disquiet of the facility. They have minutes, perhaps only seconds, before someone else crosses their path. There is violence in his knuckles, in his teeth. He wouldn’t need a weapon, should anybody try to stop them. Let them come, there is no force on earth or beyond that will keep him here.
“On my count,” Andy warns, and Joe glances past her to the emergency door she’s aligned with.
Booker steps back, once, and Nicky is so close Joe’s elbow brushes his lower back.
Blood and fear start to rumble in Joe’s ears, a steady roar that quickens his breath. Andy counts, and kicks, and –
“GET IN!” he hears Nile shout.
Joe’s stomach twists, and then he is running.
The sunlight is dazzling, already the morning is close to hot.
There is a large black van with a side door slid open, and the passenger front, too. Copley is behind the wheel, bellowing for them to hurry, and Nile’s eyes are so big in her face, all worry and relief. There’s a trickle of blood on her forehead, with no wound left to run from.
Andy leaps into the back, but Booker knocks his head forwards at Joe, who flounders for all of a second before realising, and scurrying in after her.
Booker turns, backing to the open door, and Joe reaches blindly to wrap his arms around Nicky’s waist. He’s cold, and clammy, and he’s pressed from head to toe against Joe for the first time in forty-five years. Sixteen thousand days, more, and his weight is a blessing, a wanted, unwasted thing. Nicky’s arms loosen from around Booker’s neck, just as shots start to ring out. Voices are shouting, and Nile swears loudly.
She fires back, and Booker, flinching, does the same. He pulls out of Nicky’s hold, and shoves wordlessly at Nile for her to get into the back, too, before leaping in beside Copley.
The doors roll and slam.
The wheels of the van screech thunderously in a swerve that topples both Joe and Nicky, and Joe clutches him tight, one arm cushioning his head before it can hit the floor of the van. There is no way of knowing what is happening outside, save for the clattering of gunfire, but Joe can’t fix that. All he can do is press his face into the back of Nicolo’s head, his eyes clenched tight, and breathe him in.
“I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
He murmurs it, over and over, as Nico shakes violently all over. He retches, twice, and Joe pulls him upright to keep him from choking but there’s nothing coming out, there’s nothing left for his body to give, and the dry sob that heaves out of him is so painful that it conjures one from Joe, too.
Nicky. Nico. Nicolo, hurting.
“Mia, mia,” Nicky cries out, but he gets no further.
The van crashes through something fast, and Joe’s hold loosens as they bounce and jolt and then Andy is there, Andromache. Her arms. Her hands. Her fingers.
Andy scoops herself around Nicky as if they had been carved that way from marble. Her palm slides firmly over the back of his neck, the other flat against his back, and while half his weight never leaves Joe’s legs, the other half is lying over Andromache’s front. His face is hidden beneath her jaw, where he is safely hidden. His fingers hook into the ripped holes in her shirt.
Joe brushes his hand over Nicky’s hip, down his leg, and feels another fracture of his soul settle, to see them embrace.
It’s not that he had thought he was lying to Nile, when she asked, when he told her, back in that busy station in Paris.
And it’s not that he had ever forgotten how much Andy cared for Nico, either.
Only that, over the years, or maybe all along, she’s been so good at shielding the most vulnerable of the defences that surround her heart. It’s easy to ignore grief that hides in the shadows. Starved of sunlight, Andromache has let it fester, and he knows it was for his sake, and he’s grateful. He knows he could not have borne seeing Andromache in such pain, too, all this time.
Now, as she murmurs in low undertones that Joe makes no intrusive effort to overhear, Andromache breathes deeper than Joe ever remembers her doing, her eyes closed, blind to everything, deaf to everything, except the man in her arms.
Through the wall of the van, Joe hears Booker swearing. They can’t get far like this. His stomach flips with worry, and it must show in his face, because when he catches Nile’s watchful gaze, she offers him a tight, reassuring smile. Her eyes dart back and forth to Nicky, who’s still hidden under Andy’s strong arms and lyrical whispers.
The van bumps over something hard. Nicky yelps is surprise, drawing back from Andy and into Joe’s waiting arms.
Joe tucks his nose behind Nicky’s ear, hands clasping over his chest and stomach, thumbs stroking his sides.
He takes over Andy’s steady stream of murmuring, tuning out Nile and Andy as they talk through their escape in half formed, breathless sentences. Joe’s ears are too full of Nicky’s shuddering breaths for anything else. Each drag of air into his lungs is fast, a gasp of panic held too long before a violent exhale. His fingers scrabble at Joe’s arms.
Joe feels him, suddenly, slip out of time and place.
“Nico, Nico, it’s OK, it’s OK, please, Nicolo, please,” Joe begs.
Worry dries his mouth and throat, words cracking as they reach his teeth.
Nicky’s hands are buried in his eyes again, rubbing them uselessly, too powerfully, and Joe tries to pull them away from his face, even as Nicky lets out a cry of distress. Joe doesn’t know what they’ve done to him, what drugs are coursing through him or what memories are washing over him, but he’ll be damned if he lets Nicky hurt himself any worse when he’s finally out of that place.
“I’m here. Sono qui. I’m here. ‘Ana huna. I’m here. Eímai edó. I’m here,” he promises, a flurry of English, of Greek and Italian and Arabic, his scratching voice filling the back of the van as it revs and charges. There is no more gunfire, but they are travelling at speed. It can’t be sustained for long, not if they want to be unnoticed.
Nicky rolls suddenly around in Joe’s grip, so his face is pressed into Joe’s chest, and whatever jumbled words come flying from his mouth are too muffled to be understood, their vowels piercing Joe’s heart nonetheless. His fingers are brutal, biting into Joe’s ribcage as he clutches him with one hand, the other wrenched hard at the cloth of Andy’s trousers.
Joe catches Andy’s gaze, but she looks none the wiser, her hand cupped over the back of Nicky’s without trying to pull him away.
The van jerks, and Nicky yelps, and they struggled to remain sitting upright as it makes a sharp turn.
Copley and Booker are shouting – at each other, or something else, it’s impossible to make out.
Joe tugs Nicky close, despite the wriggling of his frame as he struggles to be free of his cage, even the cage of Joe’s arms, and Joe feels all the hissing relief of the past twenty minutes bubble up into a spiral of despair again.
“Nico, Nico, it’s me, it’s me,” he tries to say.
“Calmati, Nicolo,” Andy says, once, twice, again, the blade of her voice sharpened with worry.
Her other hand comes to rest on Nicky’s back, but this time he flinches away from her touch.
He shouts something that’s mostly hard consonants into Joe’s stomach. Joe is certain he can feel the damp of his tears soaking through his shirt. Please, he says, louder, louder, and then –
A small voice. Unsure, but true, the emphasis haphazard, unusual in her mouth.
Nicky stills, almost immediately. His lungs are still working desperately, his breaths coming hard and large and quick, but his fingers lose their dagger grip on Joe’s sides. He doesn’t try to wrestle away, and only shifts, slightly. His face is tucked, chin to shoulder, to he can stare behind himself, and Joe doesn’t need to see properly to know he has made eye contact with Nile.
Nile is leaning back against the door, one hand gripping a strap hanging from the ceiling, the other a clenched fist punched into the floor beside her knees. She makes no move to touch Nicky. Only stares back, with an open face, so young, so young.
Joe wonders if she knew that word already, or if she looked it up.
There is a single, rattling moment, as they all hold still and silent.
“Sorella?” Nicky whispers, in wonder, in surprise. His entire body seems to sink, weighty, over Joe’s. “Tu? Sei qui?”
Nile, blessed girl, miraculous girl, glances self-consciously up at Joe, as if wondering what to say.
Joe simply nods, for Nile to copy, which she does beautifully, a fragile smile on her face as her hawklike attention returns immediately to Nicky. More confident now, she nods, and says, “Yes,” so softly it is almost unheard above the grinding of the engine.
Nicky takes another confused breath, blinking and turning to look up at Joe.
Joe puts a hand cautiously on the side of Nicky’s face, and feels the draw of his own damp smile. Glass pane eyes, lost and hungry, roaming Joe’s face. Joe will wait, for as long as it takes. His thumb brushes lightly at a smear of blood across Nicky’s cheek, back and forth. It’s too dry to be rubbed away so easily.
Nicky’s brow twitches, confused, then pained, then hopeful, and Joe is ravenous for every expression that passes over his face.
“Amore,” Nicky says, barely audible. Then, that daring not-yet-smile. “Italy won twice?”
Joe beams down at him, pressing his nose into the bridge of Nicky’s to laugh, as Andy scoffs and Nile looks incredibly bemused.
“1982 and 2006,” Joe replies, and puts his lips gently over Nicky’s eyelids, one by one. Nicky winces, but doesn’t pull away, leaning into the heat of Joe’s face.
Before anyone can say anything more, however, there is a jerking screech as the van comes to a sudden, grating stop. Joe tightens his grip momentarily, but releases his arms from around Nicky before he can be fought off again.
“Time to change,” Andy says gruffly, still holding Nicky’s hand to her leg, and nods for Nile to get out first.
Andy goes next, while Joe coaxes Nicky into rolling over. By the time they’ve shuffled to the open door, Booker is there, with his arms out.
Nicky is a little more reluctant this time, but he tentatively accepts Booker’s hands pulling up into a mockery of standing. Joe slides out behind him, and almost headbutts Nicky when his neck is suddenly tilted back, face to the sun and his eyes wide open, glittering opals in his pale, stained face.
“Il sole,” Nicky murmurs, and Joe feels it cleave his chest apart, his reverence, his delight, at nothing more than the sun on his face.
How long has it been?
The very thought of that answer is too much for Joe to think on, right now. He gathers Nicky’s weight from Booker, who relinquishes his grip with only a little reluctance, and looks around at the abandoned warehouse parking lot they’ve ended up in.
Copley is already moving to another car – an unremarkable enough, dark red SUV – while Booker joins Andy in emptying several gallons of gasoline all over the van.
“Can you walk?” Joe asks, simply, and Nicky looks uneasy as he takes a wobbly step.
Before Joe can decide whether or not he really wants to force Nicky’s hand and scoop him up – which he will, he has done before and will do again, he will, because he’s here, he’s here, he’s here – Nile appears on Nicky’s other side. She’s smiling, still, that loveliest, most hopeful smile of hers, and holding out her hand in an offer.
Nicky, to the firework stuttering glee of Joe’s hummingbird heart, takes it willingly, putting a little more of his weight to the left.
“Grazie, sorella,” he hears Nicky murmur, as they make their way towards the SUV, and even at the fraction of a glance Joe spares for Nile’s face, he can see the brightness of her grin, the protective clutch of her hands around Nicky’s.
It’s only as they reach the open door of the car that Joe notices a second black van, identical to the first one, parked a little behind it. He’d forgotten. His heart seizes up in his chest, and he tries to shepherd Nicky in before he can notice but it’s too late.
Hungrily staring at every surrounding his starved gaze, and his sniper senses no duller for their disuse despite his momentary lapses in lucidity, Nicky has already seen it.
“Yusuf,” he says, his voice cracking.
There’s the gritty roar of the fire being set alight behind them.
Copley’s already climbing into the front of the second van.
Andy has her hand on the driver’s side door when Nicky finally understands.
“No, no, ANDROMACHE!” Nicky shrieks, and Joe barely manages to hook his arms around Nicky as he wrenches his hands out of their grips. Nile tries to grab him back, too, but he’s a wildcat in Joe’s arms. “Andromache-mia-madre-mia-Andromache-no-no-ritorno-Andromache-ritorno-per-favore-Andromache! Non lasciarma, per favore, Andromache! Ti prego!”
Andy pauses for barely a moment, her eyes wild, caught on Nicolo wrestling to reach her.
“Nicolo! Fermati! Nicolo, per favore, Nico, Nico.”
Joe presses the words into the nape of his neck as he hauls Nico backwards, but it’s no use.
Andy’s expression hardens all over, and for a single devastating moment it’s like staring back into the face of five hundred years ago, alone and shackled in a witch’s cell, before she tears away her gaze and clambers into the car without a word.
“Booker!” Joe shouts, clamping down Nico’s jabbing elbows and praying for forgiveness, because Nicolo’s fighting with everything he has but it’s barely a fraction of the strength Joe is used to from him.
His heart in tatters, he hoists Nicky up and Booker is there, creased with his own anguish as he easily grabs Nicky’s legs, and together they heave him into the back seat of the car while Nile leaps into the driver’s seat. The van is already little more than a flurry of dust, and all the doors of the SUV are barely closed as she turns the ignition and takes off in the opposite direction, heading towards the highway.
Nicky doesn’t have the voice or breath to keep screaming, but every exhausted sob that wrenches out of his chest is another knife in Joe’s soul. There are hot, sticky tears running down Nicky’s cheeks, smearing the bloody mess around his eyes and forehead into pink streaks. He pushes his face into Joe’s stomach without another word and cries, open mouthed and heaving, into his abdomen, stretched out across all three seats with his legs over Booker’s thighs.
Nile is distracted, glancing every other second up into the rear view, but she keeps to an even speed, her fingers drumming a familiar tune into the steering wheel, and Booker –
Booker has his arms around Nicky’s calves, and his forehead is pressed into his knees like a child wrapped around a parent’s legs. His shoulders are hunched to his ears.
Nicky, even amidst his rocking cries, has buried one hand in the thatch of Booker’s hair and is holding onto him, as if he is afraid Booker will disappear, too.
From the front of the car, there’s a hiccupping hitch of breath from Nile.
Joe strokes his hands over every sharp angled piece of Nicky he can reach. His hair, his neck, his ear, his shoulder, his side, his hip, his back. He shudders in time with his grief, each whimper a bruise Joe can’t find the strength to heal from, as tears of his own slip past his jaw.
“She’s coming back,” he says, every few minutes, though he’s certain it’s meaningless to Nicky, no matter which language he tries it in.
As the adrenaline slowly begins to tremble its way out of Joe’s body, a bone deep, forty-five-year-old exhaustion takes over.
Sixteen thousand days. More.
Nicky’s featherweight in his lap is too much, is not enough. He wants to stare at him for another forty-five years, just to catch up, without blinking, but he can’t keep his eyes open. Nicky’s ragged breaths are an ebbing reminder of his presence, and Joe tucks himself around him a little better: a hand on his chest, another on his crown.
He strokes his thumb over the bumps of his ribs, and whispers promises into the thrumming heartbeat of the car.
He sinks into a restive, trembling sleep, with Nicky under his hands, and Booker silent beside him, and Nile watching from the front of the car.
* * *
Joe wakes up all at once, and knows these three things for certain: they haven’t stopped driving, Andy hasn’t checked in yet, and Nicky is here.
Nicolo. Nico. Nico.
Joe has to clear the thick wedge of honest adoration from his throat as he looks down at his shadowy, thin face. He wants to stroke the line of his nose, dimple the mole on his cheek, follow the contour of his brows, but he daren’t disturb the serenity that has lodged itself decidedly onto Nico’s face in slumber.
He hears Nile’s voice, low, almost under her breath, say: “We’re at the last stretch before Munich.”
Munich, it hasn’t even been four hours yet, then. They’ve got a long way to go, more than twice their journey so far before they can expect to hear from Andy and Copley, wherever they might be.
Joe grimaces, remembering the scramble to heave the strength of Nicolo’s feeble limbs out from under him, the agony in his scream as he cried out not to be separated once more. He knows, rationally, with rest and time, Nico will understand why. He won’t hold it against Andy, or Joe, or any of them. It’s a poor comfort, all the same.
There’s a rustle of movement that drags a frown over Nicky’s face. He tuts in a state of half-sleep, before Booker’s voice, stifled by Nicky’s leg where he’s still wrapped like an octopus around him, says: “You have to let me up at some point, di Genova.”
The corner of Nicky’s mouth twitches playfully, and he tugs at Booker by the fistful of hair he has had hold of all this time, by the looks of it.
“Succhiami il cazzo, porco schifoso,” he mumbles.
Like the first split of sunlight through nought but stormy clouds, Joe feels the smile break over him, his mouth, his face, his whole body, beaming. He laughs, and Nicky startles like a bird, but only succeeds in burying himself deeper into Joe’s embrace, hiding that precious smile lingering on his lips.
Joe slides a hand over the side of his head anyway, and leans down to kiss the delicate shell of his ear.
Nico releases Booker from his stronghold, instead threading his fingers into Joe’s hair –
Or, he tries to, but it’s so short his clumsy grasp slips right off his head. Nicky huffs into Joe’s stomach before rolling back to stare crossly up at him. Joe could kiss that false rage for days.
“Your hair,” Nicky says again, before making use of both Joe and Booker’s available arms to hoist himself into a more upright position. His legs flop down, and he leans heavily into Joe, but Joe wouldn’t complain for anything – will take every touch Nicky can give him, just to know for certain he is there.
Nicky rubs at his eyes again with his knuckles, and Joe feels a stab of worry, but it’s merely a sleepy gesture, followed by a wide, lion’s yawn, and a shiver.
A soft brrr sound has barely tripped off his teeth before Nile is reaching with one hand for a backpack from the front seat, which she pulls up and hands over to them.
“There’s a sweater in there,” she says, and when Nicky stares at it a little stupidly, as if wondering what to do, Joe takes it from her and sets about pulling a cosy piece of teal cotton blend out.
“Here, love,” he says, and tries not to fuss too much as he manoeuvres it over Nicky’s head. His worries are unfounded, however, because it seems Nicky feels as incapable of dressing himself as he looks, and allows the attention with barely a twitch.
It’s not just a sweater, as it turns out. Soon, Nicky has been bundled into the sweater, a thick pair of socks, some soft plimsoles and even a thick scarf which, in spite of the thick sunshine pouring like butter through the windscreen, he huddles around himself more than once before sinking back under Joe’s open arm. His feet, he presses against Booker’s thigh, and Joe doesn’t miss tiny swallow of a sound Booker makes, as he puts his hand with frightening softness on Nicky’s ankle.
The very air of the car feels fragile, suddenly.
Joe thinks, with little more than a word, he could burst into tears, and almost does, when he glances sideways and catches Booker staring at Nicky with wide, disbelieving eyes, not even blinking as he takes in every detail.
Nicky takes a huge breath, and Joe feels it in his own lungs, staggering through him.
“How long?” Nicky asks.
Joe’s mouth clamps down so hard on the strangled thing that nearly bursts out of him, he hears his teeth grind, and he knows Nicky does, too. His hands are so tentative, lying in Joe’s lap. He’s staring at the back of Nile’s headrest.
After two failed attempts at prising his mouth open without risking something ugly and awful spilling out of him, Joe looks to Booker for help, which feels cruel, because it’s always been the other way around. Joe’s always been able to give voice to Booker’s thoughts, when the words have grown quiet in his mouth. But this, it’s so large, it’s so long, and it isn’t fair to keep Nicky waiting for an answer but Joe knows if he opens his mouth the only thing that will come out is Too long, too long, forever, the longest death I’ve ever known. Sixteen thousand days. More.
Booker’s voice is odd; tender and strangled when he says, “Forty-five years, last month.”
For a moment, Nicky merely stares at the car seat in front of him, unseeing. His thumb twitches limply against Joe’s leg in an aborted squeeze of comfort. To give or to receive, it’s impossible to guess. Maybe both. Then he nods, slowly, very small.
“That sounds right.”
It’s a quiet, defeated sound, doesn’t sound real in Nicky’s voice. His Nico, his Nicolo. Relentless, shining Nicolo, moonlight in the darkest of winter nights.
Nothing more is said until they reach the outskirts of Munich, to a gas station with a small car park.
Nile pulls in carefully, at the furthest pump, and after a brief argument mostly using their eyes in which Booker assures Nile that he’s going to do it because it’s safer for him to be caught on camera than her, and not because he doesn’t think she’s capable of putting gas in a car, Booker climbs out into the breezy sunshine.
With the door still open, Booker leans in for a moment, his fingers still attached to Nicky’s abruptly tense leg, and after pulling his attention to him, he signs: I’ll only be a minute.
With Nicky’s face pressed close to his throat, Joe feels the burn of embarrassment redden Nicky’s cheeks, but there is no unkindness in the sweeping gestures of Booker’s hands, and Nicky does, for all his blushing squirms, relax a little as the car door shuts.
Booker makes quick work of it, disappearing into the shop while Nile reverses into a secluded parking space. After checking for nearby cameras, she slides out and scurries around to take Booker’s seat, careful to sit as polite a distance from Nicky as she can manage in the back of the car, what with Nico’s feet still resting in a tight curl beside him.
There’s an unusual shyness to the way she looks over at them, taking in Nicky through her eyelashes, followed by Joe, who wants to say something, anything, to this wonderful, miraculous woman who has come into their lives with all the vibrancy of spring blossom after a century of frost.
What can he say?
It’s Nicolo who says it. Of course it is – This would have been so different, Joe promised her, and he meant it, and he was right.
Nico turns his head, and takes in Nile’s features with methodical attention, and his voice is hoarse but his words are clear.
“Thank you, Nile. Without you, who knows how long we would have suffered the wasteland of these years.”
Joe takes his fingers tightly, and can’t bring himself to let go of them until Nicky tugs away. He ducks his head in apology, pressing it briefly against Joe’s temple in reassurance.
There are tears glittering in Nile’s eyes, though they don’t fall.
Just like before, she holds out her hand in solemn offering. Nicky takes it, with both of his own. He pulls her to knuckles to his forehead, then to his mouth, before letting go again.
His voice is thick with rust as he murmurs: “I’m tired, Yusuf,” in jumbled, half-hush Zeneize.
Joe curls him around, so his head is tucked into the crook of one arm, and he can sleep undisturbed.
“Sleep, love,” Joe replies, looking up to see Booker loping towards them with a plastic bag swinging in his hand, his sunglasses slipping down his nose. “We have a long way to go.”
“She’ll call?” Nicky asks.
The English, when it comes, sticks awkwardly in his mouth, as if he does not enjoy the taste of the vowels.
Joe strokes his face, the new angles of his gaunt cheeks.
“She’ll call. I’ll wake you when she does.”
Nicky nods, beads of sweat glistening on his brow though he doesn’t relinquish the scarf from around his neck.
Nile slowly pulls his feet into her lap, the way Booker had, glancing at Joe as if for permission. He smiles at her encouragingly, while Nicky stretches out a little better, snuffling and shuffling until he’s all but crawled inside Joe’s soul.
Booker’s quiet when he closes the door, and starts the engine, the rustling bag on the front seat beside him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he murmurs softly, in a song of a voice. “We have lift off.”
Nicky is asleep before they’ve circled around Munich.
Joe is quick to follow.
* * *
He doesn’t need to wake Nicky when Andromache calls, in the end, because Nile can barely get the word Andy out before Nicky is awake with such violent alertness, it’s as if he hadn’t been asleep at all.
It’s an eerie, unpleasant similarity to Nicky’s usual swift wakening, tinged with an aggression, a panic, that Joe isn’t used to. His eyes are wide, his skin pasty, and within moments he’s back to denting his eye sockets with the heels of his hands.
Joe touches his wrist, in a silent plea for him to leave it, but this time Nicky rears back entirely, out of the way.
“She’s safe,” Nile says, as soon as the call has ended. “They’ll meet us there. Might even beat us to it.”
They’re through the Austrian border, on a long road through Innsbruck to change vehicles, before turning south for Bologna. It’s Joe’s turn to drive next, and he’s a little worried about letting go of Nicky for that long, but it’s only fair. With their added detours, it’s an almost twenty-hour drive straight, assuming they get through each border check clean.
“Where are we going?” Nicky asks, finally.
Joe rests his nose against Nicky’s cheek, prickled by the dusting of stubble just starting to show.
“We’re going to Monica’s house.”
He kisses the indent of Nicky’s smile, when it dimples his face.
* * *
They found Monica’s house in the late seventeen-forties. It has never, to their knowledge, been owned by a Monica.
However, after discovering the collected, heavily redacted histories of Nicolo the Roman and Yusuf the North African – neither of whom were particularly fond of their titles, being only half-accurate and vaguely assumptive – the man who had sold them the property had decided to weave them an inexplicable account of how this house had been built on the very site where Saint Monica died.
Nicolo, who was growing ever tired of the long, gnarled tooth of Christianity, had considered this a reason to abandon the purchase entirely. He had no interest in living anywhere that claimed to be a holy site, even one that almost certainly wasn’t.
Yusuf, on the other hand, was ever ready to fall in love with a tall tale, and had persuaded his reticent love to accept it for the charming fiction of a hopeful salesman that it was.
“He would charge us triple for the honour of sleeping in her grave,” Nicolo had said with a reluctant pout, even as he eyed the lemon trees in the orchard longingly.
Yusuf scoffed jovially, stroking a finger over Nico’s Adam’s apple, to the sweat collecting in the hollow of his throat.
“Don’t be so silly, Nicolo,” he replied gleefully. “He said she died here, not that she was buried here!”
Nicolo had rolled his eyes, and made quite the fuss about it, but Yusuf knew he had been persuaded when he reached up and plucked a ripe lemon from a branch, pressing it hungrily to his nose and making noises about having a better place to grow basil this time.
“I will not live in another bastard townhouse with four measly hours of sunlight a day!” he had bellowed, after leaving the first house they had found.
They bought it for, if not quite triple its worth, then probably at least twice.
Nicolo grumbled the whole time, and bad temperedly spent the first four days fixing the garden and back orchard, all the while getting repeatedly burnt to a crisp in the scorch of August but stubbornly refusing to cover his pale-blistered-pale-again skin.
Yusuf, for his part, had painted using the new oils Nicolo had given him, which he had done so along with a peck on the lips and a demand that Of course I don’t need your help. You killed my rosemary, Yusuf Al-Kaysani. Do you know how aggressive rosemary is? It’s unkillable, and you killed it.
It’s been crumbling and getting rebuilt ever since, Monica’s house. Lovingly restored, again and again. They aren’t even sure how much of it is the same house they first paid for, anymore.
The original lemon trees have long withered. Nicolo wept when they returned to find the final one cracked by recent storms, but there are others, now, that Yusuf had bought and then generously not attempted to plant. Lemons, and pears, and olives. The herbs grow wild and free, the rosemary safe and huge, and every wall of the house both inside and out has been subjected to mural upon mural of Yusuf’s creative boredom.
It is home, as much as any home ever is, when it must be abandoned at a moment’s notice.
It is their home.
* * *
They arrive in Ostia, on sea-kissed the outskirts of Rome, shortly before six in the morning.
The sun has broken the horizon. The sky is awash with pink clouds that cut through a pale, yellow and blue sky. Life has already sprung through the streets, the first signs of markets and shops. Two cafes already have their chairs arranged outside, scattered around closed parasols. There are trucks unloading goods, and the voices of early rising workers are carried on the wind.
Monica’s house is closer inland than the main town, a stone’s throw from Antica – Exactly, Nico had huffed, after the pushy salesman had left them to discuss buying it, Saint Monica did not die so far from the sea, who does he think we are? – and Joe presses a hand to the window, as if he might touch the old stones, drawing warmth from their history, and the lengthy memories he has of exploring them over the years.
He looks down at Nicky, whose eyes are closed, but his lips are thin, pressed together as he lies curled on his side with his head on Joe’s knees.
The car has been silent for almost an hour: Booker in the driver’s seat for the final stretch, Nile beside him. In the back, Nicky is taking up the width of the car with his long legs, arms looped between Joe’s knees. It’s unclear, how lucid he is, but he certainly hasn’t slept since they crossed the border into Italy.
The house is secreted away at the end of a thin, meandering road that cuts through the neighbouring farmland like a rugged, abandoned snakeskin, roughly ripped and bleached by the sun. It’s a bumpy final mile, and Booker chooses haste overcaution as he approaches the mouth of the gaping driveway.
Sunshine has painted the house’s aged face pale. On the doorstep, her elbows on her thighs and looking in dire need of a bath, is Andy.
Joe rubs Nicky’s shoulder, coaxing him up to peer through the window.
Sure enough, the sight of her seems to dispel some of the pensive storm clouds gathering in Nicolo’s face.
Booker yelps a string of incredibly poor French when the door opens before the handbrake Is even on, and Andy is on her feet in an instant.
Nicky scrambles out of the car, all limbs, Joe following with his heart bursting painfully at the tickle of laughter in Andy’s throat, which escapes her as Nicky is checking her over for injuries with his hands and his eyes. He’s so wobbly on his feet that he nearly drags the pair of them to the floor as he keels leftwards.
“No, no,” Joe says, gently, catching Nicky around the waist.
“I’m alright,” Andy is saying, repeatedly, in a voice that actually sounds like she means it. “Nico – Nicky – Nikomachos. I’m alright, I’m –”
The words fall apart in her mouth as she takes him in. Joe sees them, broken consonants like candle smoke on her breath.
Andy hauls Nicky into herself, and Nicky melts to her will. Joe tries to step back, trusting Andy to keep Nicky standing, but before he can move, two arms are yanking him in. Andy fingers are digging between his shoulder blades, while Nicky’s palm is wide over his hip, and Joe breathes in deeply only to catch the air in the back of his throat, surprised, though he shouldn’t be. He can feel them, and he can smell then. Beneath the blood and the sweat and the car-smell of travel, they are there.
Joe tries to blink back the tears in his eyes, even as they spill treacherously down his cheeks.
“You didn’t go in?” he asks, palming them away.
Andy shakes her head, holding out the key to him.
“Didn’t feel right,” she says, and Joe doesn’t question the multitude of her meanings.
The truth is, being here at all in the last forty-five years hasn’t felt right.
Joe takes the key, pulling back and catching sight of Nile and Booker near the car. Her hand is on his arm, almost as if she’s about to hug him, or has just done so. The look between them is a private thing. He does not pry, grateful, for them both, the fact of them, their places here, beside him, and beside each other.
A cold, familiar hand slides int Joe’s, and he looks down at their interlocked fingers, his and Nicolo’s.
It’s right. It’s good. It’s natural.
Sixteen thousand days. More. They are still Nicolo, and Yusuf. Their souls still know each other, as they have always done.
Nicky smiles at him. Blood on his face that hasn’t been washed off yet. Hair short and matted. Wearing a teal sweater and blue doctor’s scrubs and a chunky marron scarf. Alive. Here.
The moment feels golden, and crystal. Preciously preserved in Joe’s bursting heart. Forty-five years he has waited for this, and like the first taste of a new harvest it’s sweeter than he even could have imagined.
“Welcome home, moonlight,” he says, his palm sweating against Nicky’s.
Then he unlocks the door, and leads them inside.
* * *
Sixteen thousand days. More.
In a safehouse – Naamcha, perhaps, or Cairo – Joe sat down with a brand new notebook.
It was a cheap, ugly thing; entirely apart from the leather bound gifts Nicolo would leave for him to find, wherever they went. The lines on the pages were dark, heavy, close together. Too angry a hand or too sharp a pencil would puncture it quickly.
He opened a brand new pack of blue pens, even cheaper than the paper.
He started on the top of the inside cover of the front, and wrote on every line of the eighty pages, side after side, until he reached the bottom on the back cover.
It was 2009, and he needed to rest. But not that night. This was more important than rest, and far better for his aching soul, if not for his weary body.
The first line read:
Everything I must tell you.
* * *
On the twenty-sixth line:
11/07/1982 – Italy beat West Germany in the FIFA World Cup Final. I was in Argentina, because I knew that is where you would have wanted to be. I stayed with a man and woman, Nicolas and Martina. They had very little, but they had each other, and they were happy. I was sad to leave them.
* * *
On the thirtieth line:
09/07/2006 – Italy beat France in the FIFA World Cup Final. I was at the match, in Berlin, with Booker. He lost €600 in our bet, plus another €300 for Zidane’s headbutt. I spent it all buying Italians drinks all night.
* * *
“Someone has been in here.”
Nicky’s voice is sharp. Piercing. It might be the loudest he’s spoken that wasn’t a yell yet.
His shoulders square up as he stares around the entrance, barely soothed when Joe rubs them with his thumbs.
“Si, yes,” he says, forcibly switching them back to English, if only for Nile’s sake. “I pay someone to come in, twice a year. To clean, and fix things, if I cannot.”
Because I could not do it anymore, he does not add, though it seems he does not need to, because Nico’s stare creases softly, and the corners of pale, chapped mouth twitch unhappily.
“Someone…comes inside? Alone?”
Joe knows his fears. Understands them, as he does his own. He places his hand on Nicky’s cheek.
“Trust me,” he says, a reminder, not a request.
It has been a long time since they had to ask for each other’s trust, much longer than forty-five years. Merrick might have taken a great deal from them, but Joe refuses to believe that they could take that.
Nicky takes his wrist, and smile again. It’s a polite, forced expression, but no less genuine for it. Joe takes it for the acceptance it is, and leads them further into the house.
“Wow,” Nile says, in a voice so exaggerated Joe thinks she must be teasing them. However, when he glances over his shoulder, it’s to see her face alight with awe, staring up and around so quickly, he might have to worry about giving her whiplash.
Booker, he’s surprised to notice, has a hand on her shoulder, guiding her a little from behind. The calmness of his eyes, when they catch gazes momentarily is not the melancholy Joe is used to seeing. He’s startled, and pleased, and he feels a quick flurry of guilt that he has to smother before it can ignite. He has been neglectful, these past forty-five years. He knows he has.
Moreover, he knows that Booker forgives him for it, and Andy, too. Joe will not be so forgiving of himself, all the same.
A tug on his hand pulls him forwards, and Joe returns his attention to Nicolo, who is looking suddenly very worried as he marches directly through the house, all the way to –
“Love, love,” Joe says with bitten laughter. “I promise, it’s OK. They took care of it for me. I didn’t touch a single plant.”
“Not even the rosemary?” Nicky retorts archly.
And that is the moment, precisely, when Joe knows his misshapen, weary soul has found root inside his body once more. His smile will not be removed, his love will not falter, his spirit will not wane. He is here, alive, and so is Nicolo, his Nicolo.
Nicolo, irate over his rosemary, shoving his way out of the backdoor and into the garden and falling to his knees in the overgrown herbs as if he might follow Daphne into the flora and sprout leaves himself.
“Not, even, the rosemary,” Joe replies, standing on the patio tiles they laid together, almost a hundred years ago. Moss-eaten, and weather-beaten, but strong, sturdy beneath their feet.
Nicky has a fistful of rosemary in one hand and a clenched bunch of basil in the other. He’s holding them tightly to his chest and breathing in their combined scents as the sun splits a new rainbow over his beautiful face.
The others are following, but Joe cannot look away from the starlit gleam in his eyes, the lines of his cheekbones cutting around them.
Another breath, and another.
Nicky heaves a mouthful of air and it traps itself, quite suddenly, in his lungs. He shudders, as tears spoil his eyes and the bright glow of his grin twists, panic-stricken.
Joe’s heart lodges itself in the back of his teeth.
“Nico, Nicolo,” he says, skidding to his knees amidst the herbs and clutching Nicky’s face as he pulls in more and more air, a pitchy, scratched record sound skittering out of him. His eyes squeeze shut, and he brings his wrists to them, hasn’t even let go of the plants as he rubs and shakes, his body folding into itself, into the earth, disappearing before Joe’s very eyes. “Nicky, Nicolo –”
“What’s wrong? What is it?”
Andromache. Her shadow, her knees, and then her hands, her face. She’s crouched on Nicky’s other side, a hand hovering over his neck before laying over his nape. Other than another gasping sound, he doesn’t seem to notice.
“He’s just – you’re OK, my love. Nico? I know, I know it’s – Nicolo, you’re –”
Joe presses his face close to Nicky’s head, cradling him, shielding him, and that’s when he hears it. Barely audible beneath the loud warble of his breath’s Nicky is whispering, in a constant stream of hissing vowels.
Joe can hear the others, the underwater mumble of their voices, their movements, but it’s nothing to that whisper. That violent, sudden plea, as quickly as if a switch had been clicked off in Nicky’s head. Joe can feel his own panic growing thorns, vines up his throat, blocking his airway. He feels helpless, impotent to do anything more than stroke Nicolo’s head and call out his name.
“You’re awake, darling, you’re awake. You’re here, you’re here, I’m here,” he says, or he thinks he does. It’s garbled mess, like chips of broken teeth loose on his tongue.
Hands are on his shoulders, tugging him upright.
“Joe – Joe – Joe.”
It’s Booker, or Nile – both of them. All his strength is burying itself in Joe to keep him up, while she passes him with the grace of a hand on his shoulder. When she crouches, mirroring Andromache, her lips are near Nicky’s ear, her voice too quiet for Joe to hear it over the thundering of his own heart still clobbering his molars.
“Don’t – Book, Book,” Joe tries to insist, but he feels his fight against Booker’s coaxing wane, even as he tries to push past him, back to Nicolo.
“They have him, Joe. They have him. You need to calm down.”
“I am calm!” Joe yells, flinching at his own volume.
Booker, kindly, doesn’t say anything more. He only stands there, on the patio, sun-dappled and sad, with his hands raised before him, and shakes his head.
Joe hears Nicky let out a loud retching sound, and Nile says something gentle over his groaning, and Joe’s fingernails dig into his palms.
“Calm,” is all Booker says, again. Stern, cool – odd, Joe thinks, like a father, to a child, and for one moment he considers saying something to that effect, or worse. It would certainly knock Booker out of his way better than a dagger only – no. Joe wipes his face and banishes the thought before the words can touch his tongue.
Pain will not make him cruel, not his own, not even Nicolo’s. Not to Booker, not to his brother.
His breath hitches, but the next gulp of air he sucks in is cool and filling. He rattles down his windpipe easier, and the next, and the next. Booker watches him, afraid yet resolved, while behind him, Nicky is coughing and mumbling something archaic enough to make Andy chuckle.
Joe lets the sound ground him, anchors himself to that snicker, that soft Greek, so ungainly in his mouth even after almost a thousand years.
The sun shines on, ignoring them, and casting long shadows over the enclosed garden. When Joe looks over Booker’s shoulder, behind the gated fence, he can see a few lemons ready to pluck.
When he gets a third, generous breath in without stuttering, Booker steps aside.
The urge to collapse at Nicky’s feet is overwhelming, and useless. Joe fights it with everything he has, and instead takes his hand, which is covered in soft needles of rosemary, to pull him up when he starts to stand.
For a moment, Nicky eyes his shoes, looking ashamed. There are so few expressions of Nicolo’s that Joe would forbid, if he could, but that is one he cannot bear to see. With the lightest brush of his fingers, he taps his jaw, asking him to look up. It almost works, but for the frown dipping int Nico’s forehead, too.
His eyes are grey in the shadow of the wall he stands near, and darkened with nameless things.
They wait, patiently, for almost a full minute, before Nicky licks his lips.
Joe sees it, and hears it, like a voice in his head, and in his lungs. He knows exactly what Nicky is about to say, and he can’t stomach it. Unwilling to actually stifle his words, however, Joe is left with only one option.
Nicky opens his mouth, and so does Joe, and at the exact same moment, letter for letter, they both say:
It works. Like heaven splitting the skies, it works, a ray of light. Nicky, embarrassed to be caught out, blushes, and though he purses his lips a smile steals over his face. The glance through his eyelashes up at Joe is quick, and bashful, before he shakes his head at the ground and lifts his own hands to cup them around Joe’s head, his fingers meeting in his hair.
One tug, and their foreheads touch. Nicky’s hands smell of rosemary, and basil. Nicky, smells of rosemary, and basil, and soil. Blood and sweat and travel.
When Nicky speaks, Joe feels it on his mouth.
“This is real,” he says.
“Yes,” Joe replies.
Nicky nods, their noses bumping together in the process.
“I am here, with you.”
“Yes, si, yes.”
Nicky’s hands slide down to his neck, cradling his throat loosely, frightened to touch, maybe.
“You are here, with me.”
“Yes, Nicolo. I am here, with you.”
Sixteen thousand days. More. Forty-five years since Joe kissed that smile, but he knows even without doing so it will be nothing more or less than the simple comfort it has been for a millennium.
It’s Nicky who leans in. Joe feels like marble, or cast bronze, frozen in wait, without breath.
Nicky, his eyes, his smile. His love.
He leans in, body and soul, and kisses him. Not for very long, little more than a peck, lips brushing lips by chance through the air. Coarse dry skin, and the rust of old blood.
Joe’s arms circle him. Encase him. Hold him. Rosemary and basil and soil.
Somewhere nearby, Andromache ushers the others inside.
The sun shines on, ignoring them. Creeping over their faces with her own, warming kisses. Nicky’s hands slide around his waist, and hold on tightly. They are pressed together, an embrace cast in bronze for all eternity. Joe feels warm tears on his neck, silently falling, but he says nothing about it. Neither does Nicky, who surely feels them, too.
* * *
On the eighty-ninth line:
January 1998 – I sat in a cinema, and watched the most important film of the year. La vita è bella. I imagined your hand in mine. Your thumb wiping away my tears, quietly teasing, as you pretended not to notice the ones in your own eyes. I watched it three times, that year. I have not watched it since. I won’t, without you.
* * *
By the time they go inside, the heat of the day has started mounting considerably.
The house is eerily quiet. No trace of three other people hidden in her walls to be seen or heard. They walk side by side, through rooms and up flights of stairs. Nicolo’s energy is lagging, and Joe is not faring much better either. They share weight, one being with four unsteady legs and two pinching hearts.
They need sleep, need rest, need the comfort of soft mattresses and cool sheets to soothe their aching bodies.
Before anything can be done about that, however, Joe needs to help Nicky wash. If nothing else, he has to get that wretched blood of his face, using soft cloths and warm water. Whatever it takes, as long as it is far as he can make it from the harsh antiseptic wipes Booker had picked up at a rest stop. Airing the smell out of the car before Nicky would agree to get back in had been their only real delay throughout the journey, and Joe’s stomach twists to remember the pained look on his face as he’d retched into the layby.
The journey through the house feels alien, entirely new. Yet, a comfort, a motherly embrace.
They pass the north facing bedroom with the creaking wall of shelves – Booker’s room.
Andy’s, with the tall windows and the low sitting bed.
Nile must have been shown the east sunroom, which has been little more than a storage room with extra furniture until now, because the door is unfamiliarly closed when they pass it on their way up to the second storey.
Joe does not pause at any of them, nor does Nicky show an inclination to. They make their way up to the master bedroom, with the westward view of distant buildings; fields and sunlight and sky.
“Come, love. Here. Yes.”
It’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed at the mere miracle of Nicolo, here, in their bedroom. Ushered to the bathroom. Staring around, taking in all the changes, large and small, that have been made in the intervening years of his absence. Joe simply rides the breathless tidal wave that sweeps over him at the sight, nudging at Nicky to stand near the far end of the wet room.
He’s silent, pliant as Joe strips off his shoes, his socks; unloops the sweat-soaked scarf from his neck. It’s only when Joe takes the hem of his shirt that Nicky reacts, jerking back into the sink behind him. His frightened eyes find Joe’s. His hands have grabbed Joe’s wrists, stopping him, and though he softens his touch in realisation, he doesn’t let go all the way.
“Do you want to do it?” Joe asks.
Nicky’s answer is plainly written on his crumpled brow, unusually transparent.
No, and I don’t want you to, either.
Nicky hesitates a moment longer, before unplucking his fingers and half-raising his arms.
It’s a bowed-neck, defeated gesture. Resignation to actions beyond his control, so quickly conceding that Joe feels a hot flashing urge to not do it. To instead cover Nico in layer upon layer of clothes. Let him be hidden, forever, never vulnerable again as he was, naked, stretched like an animal for the slaughter.
At the same time, though, putting it off won’t help. And who knows how often Nicky was able to bathe, or the manner of it when it did happen.
He will feel better for the run of warm water over his skin. Soap in his scalp. That wretched blood off his face.
Joe pulls Nicky’s shirt off, followed by his pants. He does it swiftly, but personally. Lets his gentling touch linger on Nicky’s ribs and knees. Safe, intimate touches.
Nicky’s hands wave loosely for a moment, then cross awkwardly over his stomach. His eyes are shiny, and averted.
“It’s all…” he says, shrugging dismissively, hiding the most protruding of his ribcage with his hands.
“Beautiful,” Joe interrupts, looking into his face, even if he won’t look back. “You were beautiful then, and you are beautiful now.”
He wants to say more, but Nicky’s stiff headshake, the bitter line of his flat mouth, silences him.
Instead, taking off only his shoes and socks, Joe gets into the shower, warms the water with a great deal of tap-negotiation, then pulls Nicky under the spray.
Nicky’s sigh of abrupt contentment is a blistering truth.
Joe scrubs his hair for him, and watches him with relief as the remnants of blood slide off his face in coppery rivulets. Down his shapely neck, his chest. All the way to their feet, where the water swirls in dirty puddles, easily drained away, forgotten as quickly as the bruises that so briefly mar their bodies.
After a few minutes of still hands and running water, Nicky pulls at Joe’s shirt with a shy, hopeful smile.
The permission is as heartening as the water. Maybe more so. Joe grins, hastily shedding his clothes and dumping them in a soaked pile on the tiles across the room. The hands tracing his skin conjure goosebumps, soon soothed by the heat of the shower.
Nicky’s touch is surer than the look in his eyes as he roams Joe’s body, as if rememorising his shape. There is wonder, there. Caution, too.
Joe feels his cock twitch, traitorous in its own enthusiasm, but he says nothing, and Nicky’s fingers do nothing more than skin the thin skin of his groin on their way to his hips. Joe sighs happily, hie forehead coming to rest against Nicky’s, whose own body is reacting to Joe’s, too.
Nicky snorts, somewhere between embarrassed and impatient, and chastely kisses the smirk off Joe’s lips.
Despite the weary slowness of his movements, Nicky insists on washing Joe’s hair, too. Kissing the back of his head and rubbing circles into his scalp that draw gut deep groans from his mouth.
The shower gel Joe squeezes into Nicky’s hands next is mint and tea tree flavoured, and Nicky inhales it so deeply Joe is almost worried he’s going to eat it.
They use the whole bottle, and soon enough the froth of bubbles gathering like sea foam over their toes is pure white.
Joe reaches behind Nicky to twist the taps, surprised and thrilled when Nicky takes the opportunity to kiss the apple of his cheek. His hands come up to rub the water from his eyes, and he lists a little to the right, but Joe is there, and Joe catches him, and Joe guides him steadily away from the wet, soapy end of the room.
In his haste, he’d forgotten about towels, and Joe swears distractedly.
“Wait, just wait,” he says, a kiss on Nicky’s shoulder, before scampering naked and soaked back to the bedroom to root through the drawers. He gets through five towels before he finds one appropriately soft enough and large enough. When he returns to the room, Nicky is standing right where he left him –
Nicky’s hands have returned to his face. Flat, with his palms stifling his mouth and the tips of his fingers pressed roughly into his eyes. He’s trembling all over, and there’s a murmur of a voice coming from behind his hands that Joe can’t make out.
“Nicolo, Nico, Nicolo!” Joe cries, and in his hurry he all but body slams Nicky with the towel, wrapping it around his shivers.
Nicky struggles, for all of a moment, before sinking into Joe’s embrace.
“Nico, it’s OK, I’m here. I’m here,” Joe reminds him. “What is it? What happened?”
Nicky presses his face, still covered by his hands, into Joe’s neck.
He shakes his head, and pushes his entire body forcefully into Joe’s, as if they might merge entirely.
“Tiles,” Joe thinks he hears Nicky say.
Joe doesn’t know what that means, exactly, but he does know how to fix it. Taking Nicky by the arms, he leads him out of the bathroom and into the bedroom, where the floor is not tiled but instead dark hardwood, with a huge rug that they are soon standing on.
“There we go, no tiles, no tiles,” Joe says, desperately, using a corner of the towel to swipe the wet hair off Nicky’s face. “Nicky – Nicolo. Look at me. Darling, please look at me.”
It takes an age for Nicky to remove his hands from his face. When he does, his eyes are bloodshot, but still clear. He sniffs, clutching the towel around himself. His keeps his gaze fixed on the rug, toeing the curls of fuchsia amidst the royal blue colouring. It had taken almost two years of arguing for them to pick it, and a smile almost reaches Nicky’s lips, as if he’s perhaps remembering the day he finally won Joe over.
Joe lightly covers Nicky’s shoulders with his palms, coaxing them down from his earlobes.
“Better?” he asks, despite himself, and Nicky’s shy nod is not easily endured. He pretends otherwise, for both their sakes. “Good,” he says, lightly. “Good. Clothes. Right. Yes. Here.”
Joe can’t remember the last time he felt flustered by Nicky’s presence, if he ever really did. There was hatred, and there was mistrust. And then there was comradeship, friendship, and, ultimately, everything. Whatever lingered between them, however, Joe always understood it. He recognised it for what it was: resentment, admiration, adulation, love.
Now, he feels awkward, encumbered by his own worries and griefs, attuned to Nicky’s every shift and move with the tautness of a violin’s strings. And, worse, he doesn’t know what Nicky is thinking. He doesn’t know what’s going on in that quiet head of his, where he stands, staring at his toes, and holding the towel to his body like it’s pure silk.
There is nothing for it. There is no direction but forwards, and Joe can’t falter, not for a moment.
Nicky is here. He’s here, Nicolo. Sixteen thousand days, more. He has not lasted only to fail him, now.
He makes short work of finding soft clothes – a worn cotton shirt, sweatpants, socks. Nicky takes them quickly, fumbling his way into them almost before fully drying, and Joe follows, boxer shorts, a t-shirt, the towel abandoned on a radiator.
The bed welcomes them. Envelops them in her cool blankets and cradles them. With the shutters closed, the sun is mere slits of warmth, and Nicky burrows his face deep into the blankets with timorous sighs that take root in Joe’s heart.
It feels unreal, unimaginable. Joe can understand perfectly Nicky’s sudden collapse, in the garden. He can barely allow himself to blink, for fear of this oasis vanishing before his eyes.
Nicky. Nicolo, Nico. Here. Here.
Nicky rolls over, so he is facing Joe on the bed. His eyes are still red, tear-filled. His fingers tremble as they clutch at Joe’s shoulders and neck. His feet snake around Joe’s ankles, cold and familiar even through a pair of socks.
“Yusuf,” he whispers, a rusty sound that Joe heeds like a command, as honest and open as the sky.
“Nicolo,” he replies.
It can’t be spoken. This hollow, piercing thing that exists, between them and about them. Rent apart and asunder, two torn edges of a wound that won’t close. Sixteen thousand days. More. Forty-five years of it, absence and wishes and prayers. What voice could do justice to it?
Certainly not Joe’s. A thousand years of poetry in his veins, but this is so much more than that. The sea storm glimmer of Nicky’s tearstained eyes. They lie together, chest to chest, barely breathing, barely seeing.
Joe thinks, at first, he might never sleep again, but his body proves his mind to be full of folly.
Sleep comes, in drifts like wood scattered along a battered shore. He holds Nicky through it, the ebb and the flow.
The sun shines on, ignoring them.
Sixteen thousand days. More.
For the first time in forty-five years, happiness rests in the thrum of Joe’s beating, bursting heart.
They fall asleep, and do not stir, as the daylight grows, and slowly fades to dusk.
* * *
On the one-hundred-and-twelfth line:
Sometimes I wake up, and I am so angry at you that I cannot even think your name.
* * *
** Nikomachos is, to the best of my knowledge, among the oldest forms of Nicky’s name, coming from Greece. It’s the masculine combination of Nike (“victory”) and Mache (“battle”) and sums up Nicky so well I can’t really explain how much I love it. Please forgive an author her indulgences.
** Sono qui (Italian) ‘Ana huna (Arabic) Eímai edó (Greek) are all variations, that I could best figure, of “I’m here”.
** Calmati: Calm down (Italian) It’s my understanding this isn’t the most gentle way you can say it, but then again, Andy is rarely the most gentle person, so that’s intentional.
** Fratello: Brother (Italian)
** Sorella? Tu? Sei qui?: Sister? You? You’re here? (Italian) I realise “Tu” is a bit familiar perhaps for two strangers meeting but…they’re not really strangers, are they?
** Il sole: The sun (Italian)
** Grazie, sorella: Thank you, sister (Italian)
** Ritorno: Come back/Return; Madre mia: My mother; Non lasciarma: Don’t leave me; Ti prego: I beg you; Per favore: Please; Fermati: Stop (Italian)
** Succhiami il cazzo, porco schifoso: Suck my dick, lousy pig (Italian)
** Destati: Awake/Wake up (Italian)