The fact that Booker had been serving as the team's tech specialist for decades made it all the more amazing to Copley that no one seemed to have figured out who they were—what they were—long before he had. Copley had cracked all of Booker's passwords three months before he'd approached him with Merrick's offer, and even now, three months after everything had gone to shit, Copley didn't think that Booker had changed a single one of them.
Copley didn't make use of them very often. This was less out of some pious desire to respect Booker's privacy than it was out of an awareness that he was already too far in for his own good, and that the less time he spent trying to divine what the man might be up to, the better it would be for his own own health—mental or otherwise.
Not very often, of course, didn't mean never.
What Copley could prove, factually, about such a long life was astonishingly little. True, there was more of a paper trail for Booker than about any of the others bar Ms Freeman who—true child of the twenty-first century—had left behind her a digital comet's tail of social media profiles and music playlists and photographs.
But Booker's life could still be reduced to just a couple of notebook pages in Copley's expansive scrawl: the call number for a reel of microfilm sitting in the Archives départementales du Nord that preserved the baptismal record of one Sébastien Louis le Livre, born in Douai in the rainy summer of 1770. The transcription of an entry in the civil marriage register from Lille, dated to the month of Pluviôse in year VI of the Republic. The names and dates of birth and death of four children.
A reading list about life for soldiers in Napoleon's Grande Armée, half of the titles struck through. A handful of newspaper clippings.
The address of a ground-floor apartment in Paris; a lease dated 1923 for a bookseller's shop in the Marais which a number of academic studies from the 1980s onwards had linked to highly skilled forgeries of several antique documents; the records of a series of seemingly unrelated land transactions over several decades in the Lozère department that when put together created an estate as substantial as it was secluded.
This was what Copley could prove. But even then, the issue was that you could grub for facts all you liked: but what did that tell you about the man?
What he knew about Booker's life now—well, shocking wasn't the correct word for it. Unsettling, perhaps.
The others had told Copley about the judgement they'd passed on Booker. The expression on Andy's face had told him that she didn't want to even suspect that Copley had formed an opinion about it for the next fifty years or so. But when they'd moved on, Copley had kept track of Booker as carefully as he did the other immortals. After all, Booker was highly intelligent and impulsive and prone to acting in ways that disregarded his own well-being and the well-being of those around him. Copley knew all of this. It was how he'd manipulated Booker into working with him in the first place, and Copley wasn't so arrogant as to think that he was the only person who'd ever be able to do that.
Booker went to ground in Paris. Judging by the trackers Copley had planted, he hardly ever strayed more than a half mile from his apartment and was using the debit card of one Stéphane C. Durand to buy a steady supply of cheap alcohol from a nearby branch of Monoprix. Paris may have had far fewer surveillance cameras per capita than London did, but it was also a city teeming with tourists who tended to have their smartphones at the ready to record anything Instagram-worthy—and a drunk coming back from the dead would go viral very quickly.
And with the amount Booker was drinking, death seemed to be what he was courting. Copley didn't worry, exactly, but he did draw up a couple of contingency plans, just in case.
None of those plans involved Booker showing up on his doorstep one Tuesday morning.
"I didn't think you dressed like that," Booker said. He didn't seem or smell drunk, but Copley knew that appearances could be deceptive. The very fact that Booker looked sober probably indicated the opposite.
Copley looked down at his own outfit: a faded Georgetown t-shirt, an old pair of sweatpants, bare feet. His toes looked very fragile next to Booker's scuffed boots, which may well have been older than Copley was. He pushed the thought aside. "It's eight in the morning," he said pointedly.
"And?" Booker replied. "Not as if you've slept yet." He walked past Copley into the house, not in response to any invitation, though Copley knew he wouldn't be able to stop Booker if he made any objection.
Copley made them both coffee, setting out mugs on the kitchen table and steadfastly squashing the impulse to excuse himself, go to his bedroom, and put on a proper pair of trousers. He had indeed been up all night working on a side consulting project for a client. Although Copley'd made some good investments over the years, the sudden lack of income from Merrick Pharmaceuticals was a strain and he refused to live off any of Andy's money.
"Well?" he asked, sitting down opposite Booker. The kitchen tile was cool against his bare feet.
"I want something to do," Booker said, folding his arms.
Copley stared at him. "Are you looking for hobby suggestions? Or would you like me to put you in touch with a careers counsellor? Because—"
"No," Booker said. "Something to do, I can't just sit around and wait for..." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Let me be useful."
Copley sat back in his chair. "I don't think that would be wise."
Booker snorted. "I didn't say anything about wise. I just... I need something to do, and I'm in the habit of working with people now, I guess. And you know where I could do something. There's always going to be more than the others can take on themselves."
That was true. Copley did not think this would be a winning point with Andy and her friends, who didn't know that he'd been keeping tabs on Booker at all. "My former employers are always looking for subcontractors. If you don't mind the occasional—"
Booker shook his head. "No. Not for anyone—anything else."
"And you're perfectly capable of making decisions for yourself," Copley continued.
Booker met Copley's gaze directly for the first time, a flicker of a glance, before looking away again. His jaw clenched. Ah. Copley had meant a tweak, perhaps, but not a low blow.
"If," he began, holding up a finger when Booker sat up, all eagerness, "if I agree to run ops for you—"
And Booker, of course, had spent two centuries in the company of Andromache the Scythian, which meant that for him, an if was as good as a yes.
It all went smoothly at first, which was enough to make Copley wary.
And of course he'd risen as high as he had as quickly as he had in the CIA for a reason.
Things went wrong for the first time on an operation on a rundown industrial estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Normally Copley advised from a distance, but this particular op needed two pairs of hands to pull off. And so he found himself at three on a rainy March morning with Booker's bloody head in his lap, watching in nauseated fascination as Booker went from a body to a shattered, panting thing and back to a whole person once more.
Copley had seen it happen, but only in video footage, which had allowed for a tiny, primordial part of his brain to reassure itself despite all the evidence to the contrary that this unnatural thing he was seeing was just a special effect, the product of some clever CGI trickery. Now muscle fibres grew and tendons realigned in three dimensions, and Copley realised that everything he'd seen before had failed to capture the sound of it all: wet and animal.
Copley realised that he was close to hyperventilating, and would have put his head between his legs if not for the fact that Booker was bracing himself against Copley's thigh, teeth gritted against the pain.
"It's okay," Booker said, his voice a rasp. "Another five, five minutes, maybe."
"Are you trying to reassure me?" Copley asked in disbelief.
"I'll be fine," Booker said, staring at the ceiling, throat working.
"I can see your spleen," Copley said, appalled.
They set a fire before they left in one corner of the main warehouse space. It blazed large enough to remove any blood evidence and to make the facility as a whole unusable for at least the next several months, but not so big as to be worthy of anything more than the local news. A good balance, Copley thought, scrolling through the headlines on his phone.
They left Scotland separately, Copley by car and Booker by means that Copley didn't inquire too closely about. But before they parted, Booker handed over an external hard drive. Where he'd hidden it until that point, Copley couldn't even begin to fathom.
"Oh, and this," Booker said, digging in his jeans pocket and producing a crumpled and bloodstained PostIt note. "It was stuck on the computer monitor."
Copley held it between thumb and index finger and peered at the now-blurred writing. His eyebrows rose. "You're telling me that a major international crime syndicate has been using qwerty123 as its password?"
In between his jobs for Andy's crew and the work that Her Majesty's Revenue was aware of, Copley managed to find the time to help Booker work on dismantling this particular syndicate piece by piece. The information on the hard drive was invaluable—and astoundingly well organised, given that it had been in the possession of someone with a password that terrible. Copley planned each mission in a way that could be done quietly and well, without Booker ever needing to encounter a single guard or trip an alarm.
Yet over and over, Copley found himself watching on hacked security camera feeds as Booker took a bullet to the shoulder in Bradford, or fell off a gantry in Leeds and broke his back, or in Glasgow was kicked in the knee so hard that his leg bent in an unnatural way and his tibia shattered. Copley watched all of it with his jaw tight and his fists clenched, providing a steady stream of intel through Booker's earpiece and never once letting himself ask, "Are you okay?"
It took fourteen months before the syndicate was fully taken down. The members against whom they had solid evidence were delivered to HM Crown Prosecution Services, with the paperwork equivalent of being tied up in a bow. Copley was on the receiving end of some very curious looks when he handed the intel over, but he made no attempt to explain how he'd got it—which, after all, was the easiest way to make other people think he'd rejoined the CIA after all.
As for the other syndicate members: well, Booker had opinions about human traffickers and ways to make people vanish. Copley found that he didn't particularly care what Booker might have done to them. It was possible, he thought, as he archived the syndicate files and poured himself two healthy fingers of Scotch, that his chosen profession had somewhat warped his moral compass. He laughed, and downed the whiskey with a shaking hand, and fell asleep on the couch.
Copley woke the next morning to find Booker sitting across from him, staring at him with an oddly blank look on his face.
"Just because I've invited you in before doesn't mean you can walk into my house whenever you want," Copley grumbled, hauling himself up to sit hunched over, head in his hands. He hadn't had that much to drink last night, all things considered, but his head still ached. There were some paracetamol in the bathroom, he thought, bought in the aftermath of Angie's most recent anniversary.
"I've been thinking," Booker said.
Copley slanted a look over at him, hoping that he came across as sardonic as possible without moving his head so much as a fraction.
"I think we should...." Booker trailed off.
There was silence for a long moment, but just as Copley got curious and frustrated enough to say, "We should what?", Booker was moving.
In the space of a breath, Booker was across the room, his hands pushing at Copley's shoulders and forcing him back against the couch. Copley went with it, startled, and thoroughly confused by the contrast between the desperate, hungry look on Booker's face and the soft, urgent way that he was saying, "It's all right, just let me, let me take care of you."
Copley had no idea what was happening, and then Booker was on his knees in front of him, pulling his sweatpants down so that they were halfway down his thighs and his boxers were tucked underneath his balls. Copley hadn't had sex with anyone since Angela had died, hadn't even tried, and he'd never been with a man. The shock of this now made his breath stutter: the way Booker's big warm hands were stroking over his stomach and petting his thighs.
"It's okay, I need to, let me," Booker said, leaning in and opening his mouth, and Copley was startled to realise that he was hard—when had he—and Booker's breath was hot on his cock and then there was tongue and heat and Copley was staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. Booker grunted and took Copley deeper and it was messy and this was crazy and the most turned-on Copley could remember being in years. Bewildered, he reached out and let a hand drop onto Booker's head, fingers tangling in the fine, slippery strands. Booker went still for a moment and then, with a tremendous shudder, he was moving again. It was fast and unrefined and all at once Copley was on the verge of coming.
Copley pushed against Booker's shoulder, trying to warn him, but Booker just leaned into it, opening his mouth impossibly wider, one big hand holding Copley down by the hip and Copley didn't understand what was going on and all he could do was let go, coming hard, a release that had him gasping and sweating.
When the last of the orgasm had rolled through him, Copley found himself gaping inelegantly up at Booker, who'd risen up on his knees and had one hand shoved down his trousers, and Copley shook his head at that.
"No, come here," he said, hauling at Booker by the shoulders and somehow, inelegantly, getting him to straddle Copley's lap. As his own cock slowly softened, Copley unzipped Booker's jeans and pushed down his underwear, enough to let him wrap a hand around Booker's erection.
Booker gasped softly as Copley began to work him—inexpertly, he knew, more groping than anything more skilled, and the angle was awkward, and the sensation of having another man's cock leaking against his hand, his wrist, was strange. But Copley found himself oddly determined to see Booker come, staring enthralled at his face as he screwed his eyes closed and muttered to himself and fucked Copley's fist, chasing orgasm like it pained him to do so.
Copley reached out with his free hand and gripped Booker's hip and finally, finally, he was making a stifled, anguished sound and shuddering his way through his release. His come spattered against Copley's own cock and the sliver of his stomach where his t-shirt had been rucked up, and Copley found himself staring down at the sight, dazed.
"Okay," Booker said, as casually as if he was noting that a rain shower had stopped. He stood and tucked himself in and zipped up, and then made to leave.
"Don't take this the wrong way," Copley said, struggling to get up off the couch and make himself somewhat decent, "but what in the merry fuck was that?" If there had ever been a time in his life where he hadn't felt off-balance all the time, he couldn't remember it any more.
"You don't need to worry about it," Booker said.
"I think I—"
"It's okay," Booker said again, and there was a fiercely earnest tone to his words that took Copley aback. "I can keep this secret. I can keep you safe."
And then he was gone.
Booker showed up irregularly after that. Sometimes in the aftermath of an op they'd run, sometimes for no reason that Copley could fathom. Once, unnervingly, at Copley's hotel room when Copley hadn't even told him he was going to Liverpool.
And they would—well, not to put too fine a point on it, but they had sex.
They never talked about it. Copley wasn't sure he even knew how to start. Every time he tried to think about it, he ended up going around in circles: Copley was almost certain that he wasn't gay, except for how he was starting to develop a Pavlovian response to the sight of Booker in a doorway, so maybe he was?
He'd never thought of men that way before this, but now he found himself furtively opening private browser windows and searching for videos of men fucking men. Sometimes they turned him on and sometimes they didn't, and Copley didn't know which results told him more: the times when his cock barely twitched, or the times when arousal was so swift it was almost painful and he came so hard it left him breathless.
In mid December, Copley met up with Lucy for lunch in London. She'd been the oldest of Angie's nieces, and the closest to her, and the one who'd stayed in most contact with Copley over the years. Now she greeted him with a hug and a delighted cry of "Uncle James!" and she looked so much like Angela—Angie as she had been in her prime, young and healthy, laughing at him at the Halloween party their first year together, a crown perched in her hair—that Copley realised all over again just how bottomless grief could be.
It took Lucy all of the starter course to fill Copley in on the various family dramas which had taken place over the last six months or so, and most of the main course to detail the ups and downs of her second year at university. One of her cousins was experiencing what Lucy called "serious relationship drama", while one of her lecturers had what sounded like a terribly unfortunate case of halitosis.
Copley hadn't seen most of Angie's family since the funeral, and had only hazy, decade-old memories of the passel of young cousins who were now grown-up and making lives and mischief for themselves in equal measure. Still, it was good to remind himself that there were people out there who had claims on him that weren't all to do with grief and blood and failure. As far as Lucy was concerned, Copley was just her workaholic Uncle James who'd given her and her pre-teen sisters a karaoke machine one Christmas and thus earned her parents' enmity for a solid month.
"Well," Lucy said, once the waiter had cleared away their plates and they were waiting for dessert to arrive. "What is it?"
Copley blinked at her.
"You normally take me out for tea on my birthday and Aunt Angie's anniversary, regular as clockwork," Lucy said. "This year, not a word from you for either but you do ask me out for Christmas lunch. And don't get me wrong," she continued, gesturing around them, "I'm not objecting to the setting, but this is definitely more than a few steps above a Wetherspoons."
"Ah," Copley said. There was a reason Lucy was reading Psychology at Birkbeck, he supposed. He looked away for a moment, out across the rest of the restaurant. This close to Christmas, the place was busy: small groups of women who'd like to be ladies-who-lunched taking breaks from their shopping; tables pulled together here and there to accommodate office parties, some of whom were wearing paper crowns. A few years ago this would have seemed entirely normal. He turned back to Lucy and flashed her his most disarming smile. "Would you believe me if I chalked it up to a guilty conscience?"
Lucy looked closely at him. "Maybe," she said eventually, and the look in her eyes was far sharper than Copley liked.
She always had been the most like Angie.
"I want to be good for you," Booker murmured, "let me be good for you." They were in Copley's bed, the sheets tangled around their legs, and Booker was sleepy and pliant in Copley's arms. Pressed so close together, Copley could see every line and feature on Booker's face. Copley was six months older now than Booker had been when he'd died for the first time. They looked roughly of an age for the moment but that would change soon enough. Copley would age and his hair would grey and Booker would be a fixed point and perpetually two hundred years older than him.
There was actually something reassuring in the thought, which Copley knew wasn't healthy and which he very firmly put to one side and refused to think about. Instead he pushed Booker onto his stomach and held him there, one hand planted firmly in the middle of his back, while he got more lube out of the bedside table. They'd never done this before—it had all been blowjobs and handjobs and fumbling frottage—but Copley felt that by now he'd done research enough to have some understanding of the right way to go about things.
Part of him expected Booker to react... well, he didn't know how, exactly. Not like this. Booker'd been around for centuries, he'd started all this, he was the experienced one. But beneath Copley, he was sweating and trembling, eyes wide and moaning. His hands clenched and released against the sheets. The noises he made when Copley fucked into him for the first time—the way he gasped as if the sensation of Copley's cock splitting him open were a new one—had Copley squeezing his eyes shut and going slower, slower, so that he wouldn't embarrass himself by coming right away.
"Move," Booker was saying, canting his hips, "please, please," and Copley moved slower again, grinding his hips forward so he was hitting that was one spot over and over until Booker shuddered, all the tension leaching out of the muscled lines of his back and Copley bit him hard on the shoulder and came.
This was how things went between them for a while. Copley mostly spent his days alone. He slept alone, he ate breakfast alone, he sat at his computer and fed Andy and the others new skeins of information while patiently unravelling any evidence that they'd ever been anywhere at all. But every so often Copley would come across something that would seem better suited to Booker's skillset, or he'd get a message from him looking for help with something that required stealth, or he'd just walk into his kitchen in the morning and find Booker fiddling with the French press.
Occasionally Copley would go into the field with him. It wasn't what he was specifically trained for, but sometimes another pair of hands was needed, and that meant that Copley got a front-row view of all the incredibly stupid ways that Booker would risk his life. At first, Copley tried to force himself to be rational about it, because Booker was immortal and Booker healed with a speed that even now Copley found astonishing and Booker's nervous system was never going to betray him into a slow and hideous death.
But it didn't get easier, seeing Booker dart in front of Copley to take a bullet. Copley found himself incapable of growing jaded at Booker's determined self-disregard.
"Would you ever just fucking... stop?" Copley snapped at him one evening. It was raining, again, and the streetlights made the puddles shine a flat and unnatural orange. There were two new bullet holes in Booker's coat and a blank look on his face, and Copley's relief at having gotten away sat uneasily with his awareness that this wasn't the first time he'd seen a bullet work its way out of Booker's flesh.
Booker didn't say anything, but when he reached out to touch Copley's face it was with shaking fingers.
Copley hadn't even realised that he was bleeding.
Walking through the streets of Havana made Copley feel like he was in the worst kind of spy novel, but the weather was fine and the café Andromache had selected for their meeting served excellent coffee, so he didn't care overly much. Copley watched the ebb and flow of the people in the square while he waited for her to show. Once, he caught a glimpse of braids that made him think of Ms Freeman, but it wasn't her. He didn't catch sight of any of them, in fact, although he was sure that Nicky must have the sight of a sniper rifle trained on him right now.
It's what Copley would have advised himself, after all.
As Andromache sat down opposite him, she asked the waiter for a coffee in Spanish so flatly American-accented it had to be deliberate and slid Copley's newspaper over to her side of the table in one fluid motion.
"Hiding in plain sight?" Copley asked her.
"Something like that," Andromache replied. She was smiling faintly, but Copley couldn't tell if the expression reached her eyes—she kept her sunglasses on. Her hair was cropped shorter than Copley had ever seen it.
"Well, once it works for you," Copley said. He took a sip of his own coffee and then nodded towards the newspaper. "Crossword's on page thirty."
Andromache flicked through the pages to glance at the crossword, its squares already filled in with neat Cyrillic characters. One eyebrow rose above the frame of her sunglasses. "He's working with you?"
"It's possible that I also know Russian," Copley said.
Andromache said something that even a non-Russian speaker could tell was quite rude.
"I think 'consults' might be a better word than 'works with'," Copley said, after a moment.
Copley spent the afternoon sitting out in the garden with a cup of tea and a novel his sister had given him for his birthday three years ago. The garden had always been Angela's domain and although Copley paid for a gardening service, it was obvious that the plants were tended now more with efficiency than with affection. He alternated between reading a page or two and contemplating the greenery around him. He could tackle that bed over there as a pet project, make it come alive the way Angie had. Or he could decide to finally cut his losses and sell. After all, they'd bought this place thinking they'd raise a family here. It had always been too big for the two of them, and now it was just him rattling around.
The sun was just starting to reach the tops of the trees to the west when Copley heard footsteps, deliberately loud on the gravel path behind him. He turned his head to see Booker approaching, a duffle bag slung over his shoulder.
"A day off?" Booker asked.
"Something like that," Copley replied.
Booker made a noncommittal noise and looked around them at the landscaping. Much of the form of it was still the same as it had been when the house had first been built back in the Sixties, an attempt to make its modernist lines blend in and stand out all at once.
"Nile sent me a message," Booker said eventually, setting down his duffel bag and sitting on the bench next to Copley.
Copley hadn't expected that.
"You're angry," Booker said, his tone pitched somewhere between an observation and a question.
"No more than you, I think," Copley replied.
Booker huffed a painful sounding laugh, staring down at his hands where they rested limp in his lap. "Fair. I, I should go—"
"No," Copley said, a little more loudly than he'd intended. He studied Booker's face in profile for a long moment. It was familiar to him now but it was still, in so many ways, opaque. But the interesting thing, Copley realised, was that there was part of him which wanted to figure Booker out—not because it would help him solve some bigger puzzle, not because it would result in some medical breakthrough. Just for its own sake.
Before he could think better of it, Copley reached out and took Booker by the wrist. Booker slanted him a sidelong look out of the corner of his eye, wary, and Copley leaned in and kissed him.
It wasn't that they'd never kissed before, but never like this: a kiss for the sake of a kiss, out under the sun rather than in Copley's bed or arching up from his couch. It was good, Copley realised. It was good.
Booker stayed to dinner, which was a stir-fry made up of whatever in Copley's fridge was still edible and a beer each. They talked about nothing much—soccer, which interested Booker far more than it did Copley, and a documentary series Copley'd been watching, which vice versa—and once all the dishes were stacked in the dishwasher and the counters wiped down, Booker took Copley's head in his hands and tugged him close and kissed him, hot and pushy and clumsy.
Was this what it was to want? To want for its own sake? Copley had almost forgotten, and Booker was hardly giving him the time to think it through. He was fumbling with Copley's belt, getting his hand on Copley's stiffening cock, letting out a harsh, satisfied grunt at how Copley had to brace himself against the kitchen countertop just to keep himself upright. Neither of them lasted long but that was okay.
"I mean," Copley said as he hauled himself to his knees, "we're neither of us as young as we used to be."
They looked at one another for a beat, and then in unison they cracked up. Copley didn't think he'd ever heard Booker laugh before, but the sound was startled and deep and infectious and before Copley knew it, they were sagging into one another, laughing and laughing and laughing. There was more beer in the fridge and Copley had nowhere to be in the morning so he pulled out another six-pack and they split it between them. By the time they finally got up from the kitchen floor, they were both as steady on their feet as young giraffes and Copley's stomach muscles ached.
When Copley woke up the next morning, head throbbing, it was to find Booker still asleep next to him. And that was new too.
They fought over the job in Kazakhstan. Booker thought that he could get out of the facility with files about both projects and still have enough time to set the charges needed to seal the cave entrance off for good; Copley insisted that all the intel suggested that the radiation levels were far too high for that to be wise.
Booker shrugged and folded his arms. "I've timed it. In and out, fourteen minutes. Even if I die and have to come back, that's seventeen max. Not that serious."
"It's radiation poisoning," Copley said, enunciating his words with maximum care. "Don't you know how much that would hurt?"
Booker blinked at him, slow and deliberate. "Yes."
The job went off without a hitch and Booker retrieved all the information that Copley needed to make life very complicated for a number of particularly nasty Russian oligarchs and several of their American colleagues besides. But despite it all, Copley was so angry when Booker showed up at the rendezvous site in Istanbul that he didn't know what to do with all of it.
"I'm fine," Booker said, leaning against the hotel room wall. And he looked fine. Not a scratch on him.
Nausea roiled the pit of Copley's stomach.
"I know it's... different for you," Copley said, with what he was aware, in a detached way, was a substantial amount of understatement. His hands were clasped so tightly in his lap that he could almost hear his joints protest. "But I need you to stop trying to get killed."
There was that opaque look on Booker's face again. "I can do the work."
Copley squeezed his eyes shut, and remembered the first moments after hearing Angie's diagnosis, knowing that she was already facing down a road that he couldn't travel with her. Copley had had to watch someone he loved die once, and the aftermath of it had broken him: shown him that he was capable of a heedless, grasping desperation that shamed him utterly. He knew that whatever this thing was between them, he couldn't sit by and watch Booker die over and over again.
He couldn't let Booker think that that was why Copley wanted him.
"I have no doubt," Copley said tartly. "But this"—he gestured at the space between them—"this is something that works, too. I'd rather not... well."
Booker looked deeply uncomfortable. Copley could empathise.
After he checked out of the hotel, Copley stopped by a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop and knocked back a whole cup of strong, dark Turkish coffee in two great swallows—something he hadn't done since he'd been getting down to the wire in his Master's programme. He sat ram-rod straight and wide-eyed the whole flight home.
"There's something you need to know," Booker said, sitting down opposite Copley. It was raining hard outside, drops battering against the caff's window, and water dripped off Booker's rain jacket and pooled onto the table top. Copley hadn't told Booker that he was going to be in London today, but he wasn't particularly surprised that Booker had found him anyway.
Copley pushed the half-eaten remains of his breakfast to one side. "What is it?"
"Quỳnh," Booker said. By now, Copley knew that name—little else, but the brittle look on Andy's face and the muscle that had twitched in Joe's jawline when Quỳnh had first been mentioned had told Copley more than enough. After all, he was an old hand at grief. "She's back."
That was a surprise, but somehow the rest of Booker's story was less of a shock: Quỳnh had been free of her watery grave for a while, and she'd found Booker months and months ago. The hollow look on Booker's face had told Copley from the very first moment that his day was going to be even less enjoyable than he'd thought it would be when he'd stepped onto the 05:51 to Waterloo.
"Well?" he prompted, when Booker seemed unwilling to continue. "There has to be a reason you're telling me this now and not last year." Copley couldn't decide if it was more ironic or hypocritical, that he was angry with Booker for keeping something back for him.
Joe would probably be quite happy to clarify.
The look on Booker's face was one of pure misery. From his coat pocket he produced an unfamiliar phone with a shattered screen and pushed it across the table. "She's planning something."
There was no point in trying to get a message to Andy and the others.
"Quỳnh's working with people," was all Booker would say, tight-lipped, and Copley could extrapolate from that: that Quỳnh had collaborators who had money and technical skills and the ability to wiretap, and who weren't going to need a lot of time to carry out whatever she had planned.
Copley booked their flights on his phone on their way to Heathrow, and gritted his teeth as Booker fidgeted for the entirety of the hour-long flight to Cork.
Copley had fewer contacts in Ireland, and Irish restrictions on firearms made weaponry a little more difficult to come by. A little more difficult, however, wasn't the same as impossible. Booker took the rental car and vanished for six hours. He shook his head and said, "Not with your accent," when Copley offered to go with him. When Booker returned, it was with two substantial black duffle bags in the car boot and a shopping bag full of food.
"Silly to go back out tonight," he said, tossing a sandwich and a bottle of juice at Copley, "and we'll have to be on the road early in the morning."
They left before the sun was up, but even with that and with Booker somehow knowing the twisting roads of west Cork better than the GPS did, they heard where the others were before they saw anything. The noise of the first blast was like a distant rumble of thunder that had Copley peering out through the windscreen in confusion at the cloudless sky in the split second before the second blast hit. The force of it made the car rock and Booker slammed on the brakes.
"Shit," Copley said, "What was that?" Away to their right, maybe a mile or so, a plume of dark smoke was rising steadily into the morning air.
"Found them," Booker said, sending the car hurtling on down the road at a speed that had the rental's engine whining in protest and Copley desperately hoping they didn't meet another car coming towards them.
About a half mile from the site, the one-lane road turned into a unpaved track too rutted for the car to manage. Booker and Copley piled out, Booker pulling weapons and ammo from the boot and Copley gaping in astonishment at the smoke and noise.
"What the hell is she using?"
Booker shrugged a shoulder and shoved a handgun into his waistband. "Sounds like short-range artillery shells."
Copley blinked. They were fifty miles from a city in a country that wasn't at war, on the edge of a patch of land that until a few minutes ago had held a two-storey farmhouse that was a little younger than Booker. "Is she mad?"
Booker offered another handgun to Copley and picked up an assault rifle for himself. "I think so, yeah."
They ran up the track towards the ruins of the farmhouse, Copley acutely aware of how little actual backup he could provide in a situation like this. He wasn't a soldier and he was closer to fifty than he liked to think about and most of the others could walk off anything short of an A-bomb—and honestly even then, who knew?
What Copley could do, though, was shoot out the tires of the Jeep behind a woman who must be Quỳnh. She was firing something—a kind of hefty rifle that Copley didn't recognise but that screamed experimental weapons tech—at the rubble and Copley could see how you could mistake its effect for having been caused by artillery shells. Pebbles and the dust of pulverised stone littered the ground. He could feel the concussive force of the blasts in his ribcage and he was glad when Booker peppered her with bullets in the arms and shoulder and forced Quỳnh to drop the rifle.
"Stop it!" Quỳnh screamed when she whirled around to face Booker. There were tears running down her face and the sight made Copley's stomach lurch worse than if she'd been coldly furious. "Stop, you want this too, don't tell me you don't!"
Copley ducked around the Jeep and opened the passenger door with shaking hands. There was a laptop sitting on the seat, open and running a script that was transmitting something. Copley didn't have the time to sit and read through the code, figure out what exactly it was doing, but he could guess. He fumbled in his trouser pocket, pulled out a USB stick with a couple of his pet programs on it, and stuck it into the laptop's port. He siphoned off what info he could before aiming his gun with a sweaty hand and shooting twice, three times, into the hard drive.
All around him, the battle was still going although now it was clearly as much of words as of bullets. Copley raised his head just enough to be able to see out through the Jeep’s window. Nile was staggering out from behind the ruins of one of the farmhouse's walls, looking for all the world like something out of a horror movie: limbs hanging at impossible angles, every part of her resetting itself of its own accord while she steadily, implacably, painfully hauled herself forward towards Quỳnh.
"Shit," Copley muttered and was trying to think of what else they could possibly do—no firepower enough to end this, no way of reasoning with a woman who'd spent half a millennium drowning, and no way of stopping some member of the Irish police force somewhere from noticing that the equivalent of a small bomb had just gone off in their back garden.
Well, in for a penny, Copley thought to himself, rather nonsensically. If he had neither firepower nor rationale, all he had left was himself, and that would have to be enough. He took a deep breath, stood, and smoothed out his shirt. Then he walked over to Quỳnh and tapped her on the shoulder. "Excuse me, madam, but might I have a word with you?"
Quỳnh blinked at Copley in bemusement for just long enough that Nile managed to get the weapon away from her, and Andromache was standing in front of Quỳnh with a look on her face so raw that it made Copley feel like an embarrassed schoolboy to see it. A moment later it was all over.
Bar the tears and the shouting, of course.
"She could have killed you, you know," Booker said, after a while.
They were both leaning against the boot of the rental car, several miles further west and much nearer the coast. Joe and Nicky were orchestrating a clean-up back at the farm. Copley had sent off a series of messages to some contacts of his who could arrange for quiet passage out of Ireland for them under a different set of names, and for this rental car to meet with an unfortunate accident. From where they were standing, Copley could see the ocean in the distance: a grey blur that didn't seem particularly enticing.
"What, about any of this," Copley said, "strikes you as rational? What about—" He was suddenly, furiously, blazingly angry—the kind of fury he hadn't thought he was capable of any more, not since the first terrible weeks after Angie's diagnosis. "What part of—what part of you throwing yourself off cliffs, metaphorical or otherwise, what part of any of this is logical? I get to see you die over and fucking over and it never makes any more sense, it never—"
He broke off, unable to speak because of the sudden surge of bile, cloying and acid at the back of his throat. Copley had to pause, squeezing his eyes shut and fighting it back down.
"But dying's the one thing I can do," Booker said. He broke off, muttering something too fast for Copley's schoolboy French to follow, although he understood the word connerie just fine, before he continued, "And you don't understand. If you—if—I've got guilt enough already, I'd never—"
"Yes! Exactly!" Copley yelled. "What do you think I've been trying to tell you?"
Booker gaped at him, and then a taxi was pulling up, the driver asking if they were the lads who'd rang for a lift to the airport, and it would all have to wait until later.
Copley was no less busy once they got back to England. Booker had vanished into the crowds at Heathrow, with no more explanation than that he needed to tie up a few loose ends. There was no point in Copley trying to stop him, so he took a mini cab back home, spent several hours triaging as many of the problems the last few days had caused as he could on his end, and then when he couldn't make himself work anymore, staggered down the hallway to his bed and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
He woke a few hours later, disoriented and uncomfortable from having passed out while still wearing jeans, and desperately confused until he realised that the noise that had woken him was his doorbell. When Copley opened the door, he found Booker standing there, dark circles under his eyes and a crusted-over gash on his cheek.
"I didn't know if—" Booker started, but Copley was already sighing and hauling him inside. The display on the oven in the kitchen glowed orange, 04:33, but Copley decided the hell with it and flicked on the kettle. There was no chance that either of them would be sleeping one way or another.
Booker watched, wary, as Copley added several teabags to the pot and set them to steep before getting some mugs out of a cupboard with just a bit more clattering than was strictly necessary. "What you said before—"
"We don't have to talk about it," Copley said stiffly.
"I think maybe we d—"
"If nothing's going to change, we don't—I can't—"
"But I don't—you're—" A look of surprise passed over Booker's face and then he was standing, hauling Copley up out of his own seat and kissing him, fierce and hot. Behind Copley, the chair toppled over with a crash but he couldn't find it in himself to care, not when Booker was kissing him like this, sloppy and biting, his stubble catching against Copley's own.
"I would like for you," Copley said, when the kiss finally trailed off, Booker's forehead pressed against his, "to stop thinking that you throwing yourself on every sword you can find has no lasting effect."
"I can do the work," Booker said. His hands against Copley's back were trembling. "If you—"
"I'm not saying this because I doubt you," Copley said. "I'm saying this because you keep being careless with your life because you told yourself long ago that was what you wanted—and I'm terrified that you're going to die in some pointless, awful way right in front of me and I'm—" His breath caught, painful in his chest. "And I'm going to have to watch it happen again."
"You matter to me," Copley said, wrapping one hand around the nape of Booker's neck and shaking him, ever so gently. He struggled to find the words to say what he meant when he hardly knew it himself—when saying it meant acknowledging that he'd made a place in his heart for someone even more stubborn than he was himself.
If there really was an afterlife, Angie was laughing her arse off at him right now.
"You... You matter to me," was all he could manage in the end. "Do you get it? You—"
"Yes," Booker said. His voice was hoarse, and he shifted, pulling Copley closer and kissing him and kissing him. They were still kissing as the sky outside the kitchen window began to lighten, their arms wrapped around one another.
"We'll be late," Booker said.
"We will not be late," Copley said, hunting through another of the many stacks of books that all but hid the surface of the coffee table from view. It honestly verged on the ridiculous—there were floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the room they'd turned into a study for Booker and yet the books liked to colonise every surface in the house.
"It's 11:15 now, and with traffic—"
"We will not be late," Copley said, before finally finding the receipt he needed being used to mark the page in a book on the Aztec Empire. He held it up with a look of triumph on his face, and slipped it into his wallet while Booker rolled his eyes and pointed at the door.
They were five minutes late. There was maybe some irony to the fact that of the two of them, the one who was antsy about it was the one who might easily live another thousand years—an irony that Copley would have to think about later, because he'd caught sight of the others. The day was drizzly and grey, the kind that kept most sensible people off the Epsom Downs and gave Copley and Booker the opportunity to meet the others without too many eyes on them.
"You wanted to talk?" Andy asked. She had some grey coming in at her temples now, much as Copley himself did. It was an odd sensation, to see signs of change on a face that Copley had tracked, unchanging, across centuries. This wasn't the first time they'd met since Ireland, but it was the first time that Andy had lost some of that pained, braced set to her shoulders. Copley wasn't surprised to see that Quỳnh was hanging back with the others, half-hidden behind Joe. He couldn't read the look on her face at all.
"There's been some chatter lately," Copley said, turning his attention back to Andy. "I—we—thought you should know about it."
Copley took the envelope out from his inside jacket pocket and handed it over to her; Andy opened it and flicked through the pages inside without a change of expression, though when she reached the final page she let out a hefty sigh. She passed them back to Nile, who took them with both eyebrows raised.
"Nothing's happened yet, and maybe nothing will," Copley continued. "But we thought if you—"
"Lowering the risk," Booker said, cutting in. He was looking away towards the low, grey horizon, the way he did when wanted to appear alert rather than anxious. "So no one—no one gets hurt."
One corner of Andy's mouth quirked up. "We'll see about that," she said dryly, but Copley—Copley reached out and took Booker's hand in his. They'd see, but when he looked over Booker was watching him with a look on his face that was more knowing than not—and Copley was glad to be known.