The sight of Copley's wall of photos had shaken something loose in Nile.
She's still thinking about it as they drive away from Merrick, crammed into the backseat of the getaway car while blood dries and flakes from her skin. Someday, she thinks, Copley might add her picture to the wall, might call her over to show her proof that what she's done today has made the world a better place. She knows she did the right thing. But sitting in the back of the car, clasping her hands together to force them to stop shaking, she can't seem to picture it happening.
"Where am I driving us, boss?" Joe asks.
As if she's reading Nile’s mind, Andy says, “We’re not leaving England until we find Copley." Her upper lip is curled and her fingers are tapping against the wounds on her torso like she's testing them. “Unless one of you happened to shoot his brains out in that lab when I wasn’t looking. But we’re never that lucky.”
“Uh,” Nile says, leaning forward from the back seat. “We’re not doing that.”
Andy turns her head just enough to cut her a look.
“We’re not killing him,” Nile continues. She glances at each of them - Nicky and Booker beside her, Andy and Joe in the front - but they're all looking carefully blank. “How do you think I knew where to find you guys?”
She explains Copley's change of heart as convincingly as she can, but when she finishes, Andy shakes her head. She sounds resigned when she says, “He knows too much.”
And Nile likes Andy – she really does, and she respects her too – but she’s had a long fucking day. “Enough people have died, Andy,” she says, annoyed. Nile can tell, even from just the sliver of Andy’s face visible from her angle in the car, that Andy is doing that twisted-mouth Ah, so young, she has yet to learn the depths of sadness that I have felt thing. It makes embarrassment curl hot in her stomach in a way she’s not accustomed to feeling. Maybe saying enough people have died does sound naïve when you’ve been around for a few thousand years and have lived through the Black Death. But that’s no reason for Andy to be a dick.
“He's not a threat," Nile insists. "You have to trust me on this. And anyway, we know where he’ll be. He’ll be in his house. If he is, it means he’s not planning to run and hide from us, right? So if he’s there, can we try talking to him before we shoot him?”
She glances to Nicky, sitting beside her with his shoulder pressed to hers, and Booker, on Nicky’s other side. Nicky is frowning to himself, but he says nothing; he's disassembling and reassembling the two handguns he pilfered from Merrick's soldiers. Booker hasn’t said a word since they left Merrick. Not much help there.
In the front seats, Joe and Andy are silent as well. It’s a heavy sort of silence, the type that speaks of refusal. Nile remembers Andy’s quiet rage – whatever it takes – and how bits of bloody tissue had been sitting beside Joe and Nicky in the lab when Nile had burst in. Maybe none of them are quite willing to forgive Copley.
But they hadn’t seen Copley’s wall like Nile had.
Nile clenches her hand and her jaw. After a moment, she says, quiet, “You guys said that you always try to do what’s right. Well, so do I. I haven’t lived as long as you guys, but I want to do right too, and I’m telling you to give Copley a chance here. We have to believe that people can change, and for the better. Or else, what’s the damn point?"
No one says anything for a long moment. The car is making a turn, and the signal click click clicks into the silence.
Andy’s head thumps back against her headrest. “Fucking hell, now there’s two of them.”
Nile’s not sure what Andy’s talking about, but Joe laughs, and the tension in the car eases. Andy twists in her seat to glare backward, but surprisingly she’s not looking at Nile; she’s looking at Nicky.
“This is your fault,” she tells him.
Nicky blinks placidly, dried blood still spattered on his face. “I have done nothing.”
“You know what you did,” Andy says. “You’re contagious.” She points at Nile. “If you start saying everything happens for a reason, I'm not letting you speak to Nicky ever again. I’m not dealing with two of you giving me lectures about some higher calling.”
Nile thinks about Copley’s wall again. Andy still hasn’t seen it, still doesn’t know about it. Maybe everything does happen for a reason, Nile thinks.
Andy must somehow read her thoughts on her face. Her scowl deepens.
“Fine,” Andy snaps. “You track down Copley. Find out if he’s still a threat, and I’m trusting you to make an objective decision. We need time to get new clothes and to ditch the car, and get some,” she waves a hand almost dismissively, “medical supplies.”
Nile feels the tension in her shoulders release; she leans back in her seat. It's not ideal - she'll still need to get Andy in to see Copley's wall herself at some point - but she's not going to push her luck right now. Copley’s been spared for the moment.
Still, the topic of Andy needing medical supplies has changed the atmosphere of the car. The silence returns. Nicky's shoulder is tense against hers. Andy gives Joe the directions to Copley’s, and they drive the rest of the way without talking.
Copley’s door isn’t locked. She thinks at first that he’s being too reckless with his own safety – who knows if Merrick has more connections that might now want Copley dead? – but after a moment Nile sees the handgun sitting beside him on the desk, his home security footage streaming on one of his screens. He saw her coming; he just didn’t respond to her like a threat. There’s still blood in the center of his living room. The wall of photos is still up, looming.
He turns to her as she enters. His face reads genuine concern when he asks, “You’re alone?”
Joe is in Copley's front lawn with one of Nicky's new handguns and Andy's axe. Apparently he's expertly found a camera's blind spot - Nile can't see him on the screens, but she knows he's there. Andy wouldn't let her go to see Copley alone, but Copley doesn't need to know it.
“The others are buying new clothes for us,” she says. It's not technically a lie. She gestures to her blood-stained, torn outfit. “We kinda ruined these ones.”
Copley’s shoulders relax incrementally. “And Andy?”
Nile nods. “Not feeling great after the gutshot and all, but she’s okay.” She wonders if Copley knows that Andy wants him dead.
Copley sits back down in his office chair, swipes a hand across his chin. “I’m glad,” he says, after a moment.
“Yeah,” Nile says. “Me too.”
Copley gestures to his computer, almost like he's just remembered. “I’ve accessed Merrick’s security footage. Luckily not too much was caught on camera – Merrick didn’t want his less savory dealings caught on tape, it seems. I’ve been deleting the footage that does exist, as well as any related CCTV footage. The police won’t find it.”
Gratitude swells in her chest; she hadn’t realized just how much of a concern that had been in the back of her mind, the idea that her family might see her on the evening news, falling out of a building and standing up again, pieces of broken windshield falling off of her like snow.
She’s about to say you didn’t have to do all that when she realizes that yeah, actually, he kinda did. He got them into this mess. It was really the least he could do.
Still. “Thank you,” she says, a little stiltedly.
"I also have these," Copley says. He swivels away from his desk and opens a safe embedded in the wall. He pulls out a handful of new phones, still with their factory screen protectors on.
They’re just normal iPhones, but, he informs her, extremely well encrypted and impossible to trace. He doesn't say it, but Nile sees what Copley is doing, between the phones and the deleted security footage. He's offering himself up. Look how useful I can be, he's saying. Look at what a powerful ally I could be. He's handing Nile a leash. But he's also handing Nile motivation for Andy to spare his life.
Nile rolls the new phone thoughtfully over in her hands. It's is a smart gift. In more ways than one.
Copley watches her until Nile haltingly pulls out her old phone from her back pocket. She's been hanging onto it since Andy gave it back - of course she has. But she's been worrying that it's traceable. And she's been tempted, the whole time, to hit the only two or three keys it would take to connect her to her mother's voice.
She knows she needs to get rid of it. Copley giving her a new phone is the perfect opportunity. She knows that.
“I want to…” she starts, then finds that she doesn’t know how to finish that sentence. She suddenly feels like she’s standing on a precipice. Her mom and brother look up at her from the cracked screen. If she takes a step forward, she will plunge down, and she will never be able to climb back up.
But that’s stupid, she realizes. She’s not standing on the cliff. She took that step already, when she made the decision to go back to rescue Andy. If anything, she's currently rolling down the hill at top speed. The choice was already made. It's behind her.
In a weird, horrible way, it's a relief.
“I want to save the pictures I have on this,” she finally says, gripping her old phone tighter. “It's my old phone. I need to get rid of it, but I... I don’t want to lose the photos.”
Copley watches her, and a long silence stretches between them. “The Marines have officially reported you MIA,” he finally says gently. “They think you’ve defected, though that part isn’t public yet.”
Copley must work fast; Nile’s pretty sure he didn’t know she existed until a few hours ago. He must have started doing his research on her as soon as he left her at Merrick.
“Well,” Nile says, pushing down her shame, “technically they aren’t wrong.”
Copley opens his mouth, inhales, ready to say something else – but he stops himself. He holds out his hand and Nile hands him her phone.
While Nile watches, he transfers her pictures and voicemails over to a flashdrive, and then a backup hard drive after that, and finally he uses his printer – the one he must have used to print all the photos of Andy and the others for his wall - to print out a few of Nile’s family pics. He does it without Nile having to ask, and when he hands them to her, he just tilts a sad smile at her, as Nile swallows.
From the glossy papers in her hands, a dozen pictures of her family, her friends in the Marines, herself as a child sitting on her dad’s lap. “I can never see them again,” she says, confirming what she assumes Copley already knows. She swallows again and keeps her gaze on the photos. “Booker says I shouldn’t see them because it would break me. Maybe he’s right. I don’t know. But the truth is, I know I can’t see them again because it’s not safe. I’m not safe for them.”
She smoothes out the edges of the top photo, a picture of her mom beside the Christmas tree. “What would I tell them? That I can’t stay with them because I’m off fighting with a secret army? Would I come home for Thanksgiving or call them on their birthdays so that someone can track me back to them?” The sight of Copley’s wall, and the sight of Andy’s blood steadily seeping from her, had cemented something for her. She was in this fight now. She would never be able to go home.
And. She thinks back on Booker in the cave, on Andy’s face after Nile’s dream about the woman in the metal coffin. She needs to protect her family from it. It’s better if they don’t know about how strange the world has become.
After a moment, Copley says gently, “I can make it so that it looks like you died in Afghanistan. If that’s what you want.”
Everything about the man is sad. He reminds Nile of Andy and Booker in that way.
It might be more than she deserves: a way to avoid the accusation of defecting. But her family deserves closure.
She nods, and Copley’s mouth twitches in the hint of an understanding smile.
After she returns to the car, she changes into the clean clothes that Booker hands her, scrubs the blood from her face and arms with a towel, and learns that this is the first smartphone that Joe has ever owned.
Nicky has taken over driving, and Nile is crammed shoulder-to-shoulder between Joe and Booker in the back while Andy snoozes with her head against the passenger window in the front. They’ve somehow managed to switch out their first getaway car for an even smaller one.
Nile’s not sure how she got stuck with the middle seat, but in a way she acknowledges the need for a buffer between Joe and Booker. Booker's fallen back into his silence since he handed her the clothes; he keeps his eyes hidden behind his gas station sunglasses and fixed on the scenery outside the car window. Nile doesn’t know Joe besides a weird dream, a single night in a safehouse, and a shootout/rescue mission, but even she can sense the tension radiating off of him when he looks at Booker. She doesn’t know any of them well enough to ease it.
Instead, she watches as Joe pokes at the iPhone provided by Copley. He’s figured out how to turn it on, but he has no intuition for navigating a touchscreen.
“You know,” Nile finally ventures, watching Joe somehow manage to activate the camera again by accident, “this is like the most grandpa thing you could ever do, right?”
Joe glances at her, a bit surprised. After a moment, his eyes brighten with amusement. “And who taught you to be such a smartass in such a short time?"
She’s glad that she didn’t miscalculate – it’s always risky to tease new acquaintances, but Joe seems to have caught her meaning and taken no offense. In a way, he reminds her of her friends in the Marines.
“Andy,” Nicky says. He looks at Nile briefly in the rearview window; she catches a glimpse of his green eyes. Nile realizes that he’s answering Joe’s question. Nicky shakes his head disapprovingly. “She’s a terrible influence.”
“This is true,” Joe says. “You know, Nicky was practically a saint before he met her. Angelic, you might say. Andy's presence in our lives changed all that.”
Nile frowns. “Wasn't he, like, in the Crusades though?” She can’t imagine a less angelic backstory.
Nicky glimpses at her again, but it's Joe who answers. He waves a hand dismissively. “Details,” he says, and Nicky chuckles from the driver’s seat - a quiet, breathy sound, but unmistakable.
A slow grin spreads over Joe’s face and he’s watching the back of Nicky’s head like he’s savoring the laugh, or busting with pride over earning a barely-there chuckle. It reminds Nile of the looks the men were shooting each other over dinner – wild that they could still be in love after living for like a thousand years. Have they been in love that whole time? Maybe they’ve only been in love for 200 of those years. Wild. The longest relationship Nile has ever had was three months.
Joe blinks and his attention is back on Nile. He hands her the phone. “Show me then, wise Nile. I’m ready to learn.”
It feels a bit like he’s making fun of her, but she shows him how to navigate the home screen and a few of the touch controls anyway. “I miss the ones with the little keyboards that popped out,” he says a bit forlornly, when she shows him how to swipe over the keyboard to make words. “They were so adorable.”
“I don’t think they make those anymore,” she says.
“He knows,” Nicky says, with another glance in the rearview. He sounds amused, but his eyes are as opaque as ever. The guy is incredibly hard to read.
“Are you good with iPhones, then?” she asks Nicky.
She watches his shoulder rise in a shrug. “Good enough.”
Informative. She glances to Booker, wanting a bit of help, but Booker is still looking resolutely out the window like he’s pretending he’s a thousand miles away. Selfishly, Nile wishes he’d snap out of it. Despite the sadsack vibe he's got going on, he’s closest to her in age, technically, and actually pretty easy to talk to. She wonders if he would commiserate with her over Nicky’s inscrutability, or if after two hundred years he’s cracked the code to understanding him. She knows that Booker can use technology, and she wants to ask why he didn’t teach Joe to use a smartphone, or how he feels about technology in general. But he’s withdrawn into himself so far that she knows she isn’t equipped to get him out. Even if she could, she doesn’t think the others would want him to come out.
“Actually,” Joe says, still poking at his phone and bringing up random apps, “it’s quite fashionable to like old-fashioned things. I’m doing it on purpose. It’s retro. Quite cool.”
“It’s very important for us to be considered cool at all times,” Nicky says solemnly. After a moment, he glances back at Nile and says, almost apologetically, like he’s not sure she picked up on the sarcasm, “I’m only joking.”
Yeah, Nile thinks, I got it that time, and forces herself to not look pointedly at Nicky’s haircut.
Nicky continues, “It's not that we dislike technology. We have to prioritize certain things. We prefer to keep up with military technology. We learn most of it with mercenary groups these days. We learn whatever they happen to give us.”
“There are always new ways to learn how to kill people,” Andy says, like she’s translating. “Smartphones and laptops tend to take a backseat.”
But Nile had noticed, even in the short time that she’d known them, that Booker was definitely computer literate. She had realized early on that he was the “tech guy.” Maybe it wasn’t that they didn’t care about technology, but that they just assumed that Booker would take care of it all for them. Kind of like how Nile’s grandpa used to always call Nile when he couldn’t get the pop-ups off his computer.
Nile glances over at Booker again, but he doesn’t say anything to defend technology. He doesn’t say anything at all.
She turns back to Joe, who has opened Safari and found Google. He says, victoriously, “Oh! The internet!” He flips the phone around to hold between the front two seats. “Look, Nicky.”
Nicky hums, his lips just barely quirked. Joe takes the phone back and Nile watches him as he painstakingly types "cute sheep pictures" into the search bar. As the pics pop up, he holds the screen back up to Nicky. He says again, “Look, Nicky.”
“Jesus Christ,” Andy says, somehow both long-suffering and full of affection, her head still resting against the passenger window.
Nile coughs out a laugh. She surprises herself with how loudly it comes out. But she can’t help it – her life is insane.
They ditch the car in a parking lot and take a train to a small city not far outside of London. Nile assumes that they’re heading to another of Andy’s safehouses, but instead Andy puts on a beanie and leads them from the train station to a small hotel. It’s just a regular place, with a host behind the front desk and florescent lights and everything, and the shock of normalcy is somehow stranger to Nile than many of the other things she’s seen today.
Before they had gone in, they had broken into two groups without even exchanging words – Andy and Booker and Nile, and Nicky and Joe. Nile assumes it’s to be less conspicuous; a group of five adults checking into a hotel together would look kind of weird. She assumes that she and Booker and Andy look weird enough together as it is. What are they supposed to be, like a fucked-up throuple out for a vacation? But the man working behind the desk doesn’t give them a second thought as he gives them a key to a room with two beds, and they take the elevator up to their room in silence.
Booker falls back onto the far bed almost immediately, tosses his cheap sunglasses haphazardly to the floor, and produces a bottle of vodka from a plastic bag he’s been carrying since he bought the clothes. He’s still wearing his boots and they’re leaving mud on the comforter. He unscrews the bottle and just goes for it. It’s a weird reflection of what Nile saw Andy do on the plane, when they first met.
Andy disappears into the bathroom and closes the door behind her. Nile takes a careful seat on the edge of the other bed and watches Booker as he stops drinking and stares at the wall.
Finally, still not looking at her, Booker speaks up, his voice gravelly. “You should be angry with me.”
“Who says I’m not?” Nile asks.
Finally, he does look at her.
“Copley told me what you did,” she continues. “We had a nice long talk when we were driving to Merrick.” She puts her elbows on her knees and lets her head hang. “I don’t pretend to know what you’re going through or whatever, but man. If you wanted to kill yourself, why’d you have to bring the others into it?”
Booker works his thumbnail under the label of the bottle, carefully flaking bits of it away. “I didn’t want to,” he says quietly.
“What, didn’t want to kill yourself?” she asks. “Or didn’t want to bring the others into it?”
“The latter,” he says.
“Well,” Nile says, “you managed to really fuck that up, then.”
Booker goes back to staring at the wall, like he’s not even really seeing it. He takes another swig of the vodka.
She waits, but Booker says nothing. They can hear the water of the shower running in the bathroom. Nile twists her necklace in her fingers, the smooth metal of the cross familiar and comforting.
“What’s going to happen to you?” she finally asks.
He rolls his head to look at her. His mouth twists into the vague shape of a smile. “I have no fucking idea. They’ll have to do something with me, or do something to me, but I don’t know what it’ll be.”
The memories of the woman in the metal coffin, screaming in the bottom of the ocean, come unbidden to Nile’s mind. She fights back a shudder. They wouldn’t do that to Booker. She knows Andy wouldn’t do that.
Booker clears his throat. “While you were in with Copley,” he says, “they discussed it a bit. Said they would decide tomorrow, after some sleep and some food.”
“What can they do to you?” Nile asks, hoping for some insight. But Booker just shakes his head and takes another drink.
Nile bends down to untie her boots. There’s still a bullet hole in the left one. She kicks them off. Her left sock is brown with dried blood.
“I am mad at you,” Nile says. It’s a miracle that Andy isn’t dead, and it was Booker who put her there, in that position, giving her an unloaded gun, for God’s sake. A sleazy, cowardly move. “But I meant what I said in the car about Copley,” she adds. She looks up at Booker, but he’s still not looking at her. “People can change, man. I have to believe that.”
He blinks rapidly. He takes another drink, and when he speaks, his voice is rough and hollow but his eyes are dry. “Maybe. I don't know, Nile. Maybe.”
Eventually, Andy emerges from the bathroom. She’s wearing the same clothes she walked in with, sans beanie and shoes, but her hair is wet and her skin is pink from the shower. Nile has found a channel airing reruns of Parks and Rec, and she and Booker are pretending to watch it in silence while Booker drinks himself deeper into oblivion.
Andy walks straight over to Booker’s bed and snags the vodka from him, taking a few long pulls herself. She turns and lowers herself onto the bed beside Nile, falling into an identical lounging position against the pillows.
Nile watches Andy drink for a few seconds and says, carefully, “You know your liver isn’t gonna regenerate anymore, right?”
Andy cuts her a sharp look. “Oh yeah? Thanks for reminding me, Nile. You know, I had forgotten for a second there.”
Nile isn’t particularly insulted; she has a feeling that Andy had kind of forgotten about liver damage and is just covering it up.
Nile holds up her hands. “I’m just looking out for you. I mean, do you remember what a hangover feels like?” She looks over at Booker. “Can we get hangovers?”
“No,” Booker says.
“See?” Nile says. “Don’t cry to me if you puke all over the carpet because you forgot what hangovers are after ten thousand years.”
Andy is staring at her, her eyes flashing a bit with humor. “Are you mothering me right now?”
Nile scoffs. “I’m no one’s fucking mother, okay?”
“No, by all means,” Andy continues, waving a hand. “This is great. Are you going to remind me to wear my seatbelt too? Wear a helmet?”
Nile snatches the vodka from Andy and takes a mouthful. She can’t stop herself from cringing as it slides down her throat; it kind of tastes like bad medicine. Jesus, who drinks vodka straight?
She coughs and points at Andy. Her voice is slightly hoarse when she says, “You’re not allowed to make fun of me. I saved your life today. That’s earned me, like, at least a week of no insults.”
Andy is smirking, but there’s affection behind it. “I’ll give you three days,” she says.
“Deal,” Nile says.
Andy's gaze turns to Booker. She watches him for a few seconds, but Booker is pointedly staring at the tv. Finally, Andy just says, not without softness, "Take a shower, Book." After a moment, Booker hauls himself up and shuffles into the bathroom. When the door closes, Andy snatches the remote and flips through the channels until she finds some 80’s movie that Nile doesn’t recognize.
Nile watches the Andy, but Andy is pretending not to notice.
"Is he gonna be okay?" Nile asks. She sounds a little doubtful even to herself.
Andy takes another drink - a small one - and then sets the bottle onto the side table. "We'll talk about it tomorrow," she finally says, her voice tight.
Andy falls asleep only a few minutes later, despite all the lights in the room and the tv still being on. She even seems to sleep through Booker coming back from his shower. Nile knows it’s been ages since she herself has slept properly, but her muscles won’t seem to relax.
She flips through some news sites on her phone, even checks what’s trending on Twitter, but there’s no mention of Merrick anywhere. Nile wonders at it; has Copley managed to hide the whole ordeal? She assumed that he would erase their part in it, not erase the entire event. How did he pull that off? Maybe he told the English government that it was a top-secret CIA op or something.
She’s even checking Facebook when there’s a quiet knock at the door. Nile sits up and grabs the handgun she placed on the side table.
Andy opens her eyes but just rolls over onto her side, her back to Nile.
“It’s Joe and Nicky,” Booker says, slurring the words a bit, back in his reclined position on the bed.
She tucks the handgun into the back of her jeans as she approaches the door, but the sight through the peephole reveals that, yes, it’s Nicky and Joe.
How did they even know what room to find them in?
Nicky holds up a bag as Nile opens the door. “I brought dinner,” Nicky says.
“I hope you like Indian,” Joe adds over Nicky’s shoulder.
They’re both freshly showered but, like Andy, wearing the same clothes Booker had bought them earlier. Once inside the room, Nicky starts to pull out boxes of takeout and arrange them on the small hotel table.
Joe wanders over to Andy and asks, aiming for nonchalant, “How you feeling, boss?”
She opens her eyes just enough to give Joe a look. In response, Joe holds up both hands placatingly and shakes his head, amused and innocent.
Andy pushes herself upright, a slow and jerky series of movements. She gestures toward Nicky, who obligingly puts a container of some kind of meat into her outstretched hand. She starts popping pieces of the meat into her mouth using her fingers.
As Nicky opens more containers of food, the smell of spice blooms. It smells incredible, and Nile is suddenly aware of how hungry she is.
“I’ve never had Indian food before,” she admits. Nicky’s head snaps towards her; his eyes are wide. He says something briefly in Italian, some kind of exclamation.
“Oh, Nile,” he says, switching to English. “This must be rectified. We are rectifying this for you immediately.”
It makes Nile laugh, to see him so expressive; she’s never seen Nicky in any way other than placid and stoic. She guesses that she’s found his passion.
“I thought the United States was the, the… melting pot?” he says, using a plastic spoon to put some rice and some kind of meat-and-marinade mixture on a paper plate. “Did Indian food not make it to the United States yet?”
He puts a piece of flat bread on the plate before handing it to her. She sits at the foot of her bed, balancing the plate on one hand. “I mean, it has,” she says, thinking back to a restaurant her bus used to pass on the way to school each morning. “I just never got a chance to try it, I guess.”
The first bite is something of a revelation; it’s crazy flavorful, the spices bursting on her tongue all at once, somehow both familiar and like nothing she’s ever had before.
“Holy shit,” she says.
Nicky is watching her, but he suddenly leans away and makes a fwah sound. He puts his hands on his hips like he’s disappointed or upset. He says something in Italian, mostly to himself.
Andy is smirking. “You’ve insulted him now, Nile.”
Worry spreads in Nile’s gut. She barely knows these people – what did she do wrong?
But Joe is grinning, one hand extended toward Nicky. He says, “No, no, no, it’s okay!” as Nicky replies with something in Italian, frowning.
Andy explains, still looking amused, “He’s upset that you didn’t react this strongly to the meal he made for you.”
Nile turns back to Nicky. “What meal?” she asks. She tries to think back, but Nicky interrupts her thoughts by throwing his hands in the air.
“’What meal?’ she says!” He devolves into more Italian, but Nile, to her own relief, realizes that he’s playing it up. Joe and Andy are laughing, and even Booker is hiding a small smile behind the mouth of the bottle he's reacquired.
“No, no, wait!” Nile says. “The meal last night! When I first met you guys! You made that?”
Nicky has a hand over his heart. “Oh, Nile, you have wounded me. I shall not recover.”
“It was delicious!” Nile insists. “I swear! I was just kind of distracted by, you know, meeting you all, and the immortality thing.”
Nicky collapses backward to lean against the wall of the room. “This will be the wound that finally kills me."
“You guys are so weird,” she says, laughing.
Nicky grins at her – it’s the first time she’s seen him do it, a real smile. He grins at her like they’ve got a shared secret between them, and Nile realizes that Nicky may not be so hard to read after all.
Nicky prepares plates for all of them, even Booker, who takes it with a nod. Nicky doesn’t quite look at him as he hands it over. As they eat, Nicky shares the history of Indian food in England. Apparently the English love Indian cuisine so much that they made up their own Indian dishes and named one of them the national dish. Nile had thought the national dish was fish-and-chips her whole life.
“So, food really is, like, your thing, huh?” she asks.
“One of them,” Nicky replies. After such a long dissertation on the history of English food, she expected a longer answer, but Nicky provides nothing more. Happy to talk about food, reluctant to talk about himself, she's realizing.
It’s Joe who says, “Food is so deeply connected to cultures, how could we not find it fascinating? Cuisine travels and spreads, it unites people. It tells a history of a place or a family. It’s constantly changing, and yet some recipes remain unchanged for hundreds of years. And it's not something we take for granted. Food has improved a lot in our lifetimes.”
“Well said,” Nicky says, with one of those tiny smiles that Nile is more used to seeing from him.
“And anyway,” Joe continues, putting his hands behind his head as he leans back against the wall. He had taken a seat beside Nicky on the floor to eat; they both have left Booker alone on his own bed. “Nicky really is a fabulous cook. He is unrivaled.”
Nicky shakes his head.
Nile says, “Your food really was good last night. Amazing, even. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything.” Her mom raised her to be polite, after all. She’d be disappointed to hear that she didn’t compliment her host on his cooking.
“See?” Joe says, turning to Nicky. “I told you.”
“You’ve found the key to Nicky’s heart,” Andy says, poking a toe into Nile’s back. Andy, after finishing her food, had gone right back to lounging on the bed. “Compliment his cooking and you’ll never be rid of him.”
“I mean,” Nile says, scooping up her last bites of food, “you keep cooking like that? I’m okay with that.”
They clean up as best they can and she takes her own turn in the bathroom. Before she takes off her clothes, she empties her pockets: the photos, the flash drive, the hard drive, and a small wad of cash that Copley had given her, and both her old and her new phone. She lines them up on the counter and stares at them. She could have given the old phone to Copley, but it felt too personal. And she trusts him, mostly, but maybe not enough to hand him a list of her closest contacts. Even though he probably knows all of it anyway.
She clicks the side button of her old phone, and the screen lights up. It has 4% battery.
She showers, dries off as best she can, and pulls the clothes back on. She replaces all of her belongings to her pockets. She brushes her teeth by putting toothpaste on her finger - it's the best she can do - and wonders while she's doing it if her teeth even can rot anymore. She rushes to finish and hurries back out to the room.
To Nile’s surprise, Nicky and Joe have just hunkered down on the floor between the beds like they’re planning to sleep there. And after a few moments, she realizes that they are. She knows they showered, so they must have booked a room somewhere in the hotel, but there they are, just laying down on the carpet between the beds talking quietly to each other like it’s no big deal. She wonders if they’re worried about Andy and that’s why they're staying, or if it’s that they don’t trust Booker. Or maybe the group just always sleeps in the same room? She's only been with them for two nights and they've all slept in the same room both times. She doesn’t want to ask. That's a question for another day.
She takes her place beside Andy on the bed and then waves at Booker to get his attention until he blearily blinks at her. She gestures down at Nicky and Joe, but Booker just looks at her like she’s crazy. Finally, she just says, “Give them your extra pillow, man.”
Booker obediently tosses one down.
She and Booker flick the bedside lamps off, and the room is plunged into darkness. Nile can hear cars driving by the road outside, all the murmuring sounds of a city. It’s been a long time since she’s slept in a city, even a small one - not since her last leave. She’d come home to Chicago and stayed in her childhood bedroom. But by that point, she had spent so much time overseas sleeping in barracks that her mattress and the sounds of Chicago were alien to her.
Everything is alien to her now. A few days ago, she was just doing her job. She had her friends, her family. She thought she knew her purpose.
She wonders if she’ll go to sleep and wake up back in her old life. She’ll close her eyes and open them in the barracks in Afghanistan, and Dizzy and Jay won’t hate her. They’ll all go to the mess together and maybe afterwards she’ll call her mom real quick, just to hear her voice, and to tell her about the crazy-ass dream she had.
It’s a nice thought, but when Nile closes her eyes she just sees the blood of the people she shot today. The shocked whites of their eyes as they went down. The feeling of Merrick’s body crumpling and breaking beneath her in the moment before they both died.
She knows she did the right thing. If she had to choose, she would do it again. But she feels cheated somehow. The military did so much to try and desensitize her. To make it part of her job. To teach her how to aim, where and when to shoot, and to feel pride when she shot someone in the name of her country. But instead of pride, she just feels sad and scared and kind of sick.
Some desensitization, then. Real effective. Maybe it’s a good thing that she isn’t in the military anymore.
When she saw Copley’s wall, she recognized it for what it was: their calling. There had to be a reason, after all, that all of the immortals were warriors. She doesn’t know Andy’s backstory, but she knows that Booker died fighting in Napoleon’s army, that Nicky and Joe died fighting in the Crusades. She died fighting in Afghanistan. Obviously, they weren’t chosen because they were meant to be pacifists. They were chosen to use their skills to protect others. Andy had been right all along. They were meant to be fighting.
It’s just unfortunate that killing people, even bad ones, sucks so fucking much.
Nile will do it, though. It’s not so different, really, from what she signed up to do when she enlisted in the Marines. She knew that her job might require her to kill people. Well, wasn’t this the better way to do it? Comfortable in the knowledge that the world was getting better as a direct result of her killing people?
It seemed like a dangerously arrogant line of thinking. Like she was God’s chosen warrior, or something. She wasn’t so sure about that – she didn’t know how comfortable she was thinking that God was saying it was okay for her to shoot people. But it did seem like there was… something. Some guiding hand. Copley had the evidence – it was doing good for the world, in the long run.
God’s chosen warrior. Wasn’t that the shit they believed in the Crusades? She definitely learned about the Crusades in her 10th grade world history class, but she can’t bring up many facts beyond the basics. Did she even get the timeline right? It was about a thousand years ago, right?
She grabs her new phone from the bedside table and pulls up Google. The Wikipedia page on the Crusades confirms that they started about 900 years ago, but they apparently lasted a long time. A whole series of them, lasting hundreds of years. In high school, Nile had learned about it mostly from the Christians' point of view: that they believed that God wanted them to kill Muslims and spread God's word. It's so easy, Nile thinks, to accidentally do the wrong things for what you think are the right reasons.
She commits herself to giving the article as much focus as she can, trying to memorize place names and a few key dates. It’s easier to focus on this than to think of anything else, and she falls asleep in the middle of the second Crusade. If she dreams of anything, she doesn’t remember it.
She wakes up to the sound of Nicky and Joe leaving the room. It’s morning, and she’s lying beside a still-sleeping Andy. She does not wake up in Afghanistan. She does not wake up in Chicago.
Nile gets out of bed.
She leaves a note for Andy on the bedside table, just in case, and makes sure she's got all of her possessions in her pockets.
The street outside is already starting to bustle; it’s about 8 am, and people are driving to work. It rained sometime in the night, judging from the puddles on the ground, but the sky is fairly bright. Nile puts her hands in her pockets and starts to walk.
She’s driven by the desire to feel more like herself. It’s been too long. Years of wearing combat fatigues and doing her hair according to the military’s rules. And the last few days, only wearing clothes that Booker and Andy found for her. She’s tired of wearing someone else’s clothes.
She walks until she finds a coffee shop – the coffee is, she is disappointed to find, pretty bad in England – and then walks until she finds a department store that’s open. The store isn’t any different from the ones in America. Big signs advertising sales, mannequins wearing outfits that no human being could ever quite pull off. She’s not sure why she expected otherwise, except that her life has gotten so weird lately that now it’s normalcy that discomfits her. The normalcy of the hotel, the normalcy of the department store. Maybe it’s no wonder that Andy likes to sleep in caves.
She picks out some clothes and goes to try them on. It’s a relief to find jeans that fit her comfortably, and to buy boots that don’t have a bullet hole in them. She sees some hoop earrings on a display; she was never allowed to wear earrings in the Marines, and she’s missed them. She puts her fingers to her earlobe, suddenly wondering – but yes, her ears are still pierced, the holes not healed over. Weirdly, she has the sudden urge to cry. She had gotten her ears pierced as a thirteenth birthday present. Her mom had taken her to get them pierced at a kiosk in the mall. It had been a moment of pride; she had felt like she was growing up. Officially a teenager, and able to wear real earrings now. Her mom had been excited with her, had helped her clean the piercings after they got home, had shown her how to dab at the new wounds with a q-tip.
She pinches her earlobe until she no longer feels the urge to cry, and grabs the hoop earrings from the display.
With her new clothes acquired, there’s just one more thing to do. She uses Google to find a hairdresser; she’s not expecting to find one who can do her hair, but she finds a few in London. She’ll have to wait, then, but it’s good to know that there’s a possibility. She needs to convince Andy to go back to London anyway; she needs, with a bone-deep surety, for Andy to see Copley’s wall. She hasn’t told Andy about it yet, but she will. It’s Nile’s goal for the day: get Andy back to London, get her to see Copley’s wall.
And get her hair done.
As she approaches the hotel, the bag of clothes swinging from her hand, she’s surprised to see Andy sitting out front. She’s wearing Booker’s cheap sunglasses and the beanie again, but it’s unmistakably her, sitting on a half-wall just outside the hotel door. She’s not even doing anything – she’s just sitting there.
Nile stops in front of her. “You waiting for me?” she asks.
“That’s what I told the boys,” Andy says. She seems to be just watching people walk and drive by. “I needed some air.”
Nile leverages herself up on the wall beside Andy. The view really isn’t that great, to be honest: it’s just a gray street and some shops, and not particularly pretty ones.
“Please don’t ask me how I’m feeling,” Andy says. “That’s why I’m out here. I’m avoiding the concerned gazes.”
Weirdly, Andy’s statement only makes Nile suddenly feel concerned. Nile shifts against the concrete beneath her, trying to get comfortable.
“I feel like I chose the worst time to join up, huh?” she says.
Andy smiles at her. “I swear we’re not all usually this fucked up.”
“I’ve only known you guys for like three days and already I feel like that’s not true,” Nile replies.
Andy smirks at her, amused.
“To be fair,” Andy says after a long moment, “for me you chose the best time to join up. I guess that’s pretty selfish of me to think, huh?”
Nile swallows. It’s probably the nicest thing Andy has said to her, even including the stuff she said at Merrick.
“Yeah, well,” Nile says, as a statement. She has nothing more to add. She clears her throat. “The guys are driving you crazy?”
“It’s hard for them,” Andy says. “I wonder if it would’ve been better if I had just died quickly, all at once. But I know it wouldn’t have been. It might have been easier for me, maybe. But not for them.”
“Yeah,” Nile says. She watches Andy, who is watching people pass by. “For the record, I’m glad you’re still here.”
Andy quirks a smile at her. “It figures that I would find my purpose again just when I start running out of time. But I guess this is how normal people feel. I’d forgotten, you know.” Andy flexes her fingers, holds her hand out to Nile to show off her bruised knuckles. “I punched a guy at the church, two nights ago. Look.” She opens and closes her hand, marveling. “Still hurts.”
“Yeah,” Nile says. “They do that.”
Andy goes back to watching the cars. After a while, Nile says, “You seem like you’re doing okay. As well as you could be, I mean.”
Andy shrugs. “Never got much into the psychology shit. What do they call it? Coping?"
“I have no idea,” Nile says honestly.
"Anyway," Andy says, an edge of softness in her voice, "it's not death I'm scared of. And it's not me I'm worried about."
Nile swallows, watching Andy's profile.
“Well, it’s only been two days,” Andy says. She claps Nile on the shoulder. “Give it time. Maybe I'll have few breakdowns at some point. That might be fun, huh?”
She hops off the wall, just barely failing to hide the twitch of pain at the impact. Her gunshot is still healing, and she’s just walking around. Nile shakes her head.
She follows Andy up to the room; Nicky and Joe have returned with a large bag of pastries for everyone. Nile’s not going to let Andy accuse her of mothering again, not if Nicky and Joe keep showing up and insisting on feeding everyone every two seconds. Not that Nile is complaining.
The atmosphere in the room is tense again. She wonders if the three of them have been arguing while she and Andy were gone, or if they were just sitting in awkward, masculine silence.
Sometimes she's found herself to be a little jealous of the connections between the others. They’ve all known each other for so long, and Nile is undoubtedly the fifth wheel. But she wonders if her unfamiliarity with them is actually a bit of a blessing in this circumstance. Without the weight of knowing Booker for two hundred years, his betrayal doesn’t feel personal. She’s the only one who can look him in the eye, anyway, so that’s something. The only other one that can come close is Andy, and she just looks at him like her heart is breaking.
As they start packing up their things, Nile says to Andy, “We need to go back to London.”
Andy quirks an eyebrow at her. “I thought you said that Copley wasn’t a threat?”
“He’s not,” Nile says. “It’s kind of the opposite. I think he can help us.” She catches Andy’s eye so that Andy will know she’s serious when she says, “He has something that you need to see.”
“Yeah?” Andy asks.
“Yeah,” Nile says.
Andy watches her for a few moments; Nile has no idea what she’s thinking. Finally, Andy says slowly, “All right.”
“All right?” Nile repeats. She’s starting to feel like a parrot, but she really didn’t expect Andy to agree so easily.
Andy shrugs. “I want to judge for myself if he’s worth keeping alive. And if he’s not, I’m going to let Joe chop his head off.”
Nile glances at Joe; he’s looking steely. Nile has seen the same look on his face when he looks at Booker.
Nile’s stomach drops. She knows that Joe and Nicky were kept in that lab, and that some tissue samples were taken. She had seen the samples, had seen some of the blood smeared on their bodies when she broke into the lab. But she doesn’t really know what they went through in there. She had assumed, actually, that it hadn’t been that bad. They hadn’t been in there long, and neither of them looked really broken-spirited when she found them. She can’t say if they’ve been acting different from usual since then, as she barely knows them, but they had seemed mostly okay.
But Joe’s face isn’t the face of someone who’s okay.
Damn. Nile knows very well how easy it is for people who go through trauma to hide it. Nicky and Joe and Andy, they’ve all been laughing and joking and eating. But then, so has Nile.
Coping, Andy's voice whispers in her head.
Damn. They really are all fucked up.
Nile nods at Andy. “Fair enough,” she says.
They take the train back to London. Beside her, Andy falls asleep again, her head tipped back against the headrest and gently swaying with the movement of the train. Joe and Nicky sit facing them. Nicky is looking out the window, watching the scenery go past. Joe is tapping at his iPhone, still trying to get comfortable with it.
Booker had boarded with them and then disappeared once the train started moving. Nile doesn’t know where he’s gone, but no one seems concerned. And he’s an adult, so she doesn’t worry about it.
Joe asks her for help with the phone. “I know you can get books on it,” he says, “so where are they?”
She helps him find the app and guides him through downloading some free classics in a few different languages. He furrows his brow as he scrolls through the options.
“So Nicky’s thing is cooking,” she says. “Is this yours? Books?”
“No, no, no,” Joe mutters humbly, eyes still on his phone.
“He reads plenty,” Nicky says, “But in his heart, he’s an artist.”
Nile perks up. “You are? What kind?”
Joe smiles. “I like charcoal the best, at the moment. I like oil painting as well.”
“I studied art history in college,” Nile says. “I can’t make art very well, but I like studying it.”
“I’m sure you’re more talented than you claim,” Joe says, completely sincerely. He’s also completely wrong, but it’s a nice sentiment.
“So then you guys aren’t only keeping up with war technology,” Nile points out. It had bothered her a bit, what they had said yesterday in the car. Like nothing else mattered except war and battle. “Obviously, you care about more than just fighting.”
“Very much so,” Joe says. “Life would hardly be worth living if we only spent it fighting.”
“So you do find time for, like, hobbies and stuff?” Nile asked.
“I’m worried that you might have gotten the wrong picture of us,” Nicky says, frowning slightly.
“We’re not warmongers,” Joe says. “We fight when we’re needed. There’s plenty of time for less violent pursuits, if those are your interests.”
“No one is going to force you to fight, Nile,” Nicky adds.
“I’m not worried about fighting,” Nile says quickly. She’s not. She’s a Marine. Fighting is - was - her job; she wouldn’t know how to give it up even if she wanted to. “I’m just glad to know that it’s not all there is.”
“No,” Joe says, his eyes soft, “there’s plenty more.”
He's not looking at Nicky, but somehow they all know he's talking about Nicky anyway.
Nile opens her phone, suddenly inspired - she’s going to find the best art apps and maybe buy a Wacom and show this man that technology can be for more than just sheep pictures - but when she pulls up her browser tabs it shows her one she left open: the Wikipedia article about the Crusades. She looks up at Joe and Nicky. She wonders if they’d shame her for knowing basically nothing about the Crusades, if they knew. Personally, she blames the US education system.
“Hey,” she says. Both Joe and Nicky look up at her. “You said you met in the Crusades. Which one?”
Joe says, “We met outside Jerusalem in the year 1099. Those were the first Crusades.”
One-thousand-ninety-nine, Nile repeats in her head. Jesus. So they’re over 900 years old.
“You were both soldiers?” she asks.
“Certainly,” Joe says.
Nile frowns, thinking it over. After a moment, Nicky says, “If you have questions, you may ask.”
Joe adds, “We don’t get to tell many people about how we met. The last one was Booker, and that was a long time ago.”
Nicky’s mouth twists a bit, dryly amused. “Joe will convince you that our meeting was one of the great romantic moments of time. He will leave out the parts about the blood and the brutality and the horror.” Weirdly, he sounds fond when he says it.
"Our eyes met over the battlefield..." Joe begins, like he's narrating a movie. Nile can't quite tell if he's joking.
“I,” Nile starts. “I mean, I am curious about how you met, and I want to hear the story sometime, but that’s not what I was thinking about.”
“Oh?” Nicky asks.
“I was thinking more about…” She trails off. When she looks up, she meets Nicky’s eyes. “You were fighting because God told you to, right?”
Nicky’s eyes flicker down; Nile realizes that he’s watching her roll her necklace in her fingers. She releases it to fall back against her neck.
“That is what they told us,” Nicky says slowly.
“Did you believe it?” she asks. She doesn’t know how to ask Nicky, do you still believe in God? If she were honest with herself, she might admit that she’s afraid to hear the answer.
“At the time, I believed it with my entire soul,” Nicky says. “I thought that marching on Jerusalem was the only way I would cleanse myself of sin. I believed this because I was told it was so. Now, it feels foolish to think that I believed so wholly the word of someone who claimed that he spoke for God. But at the time, yes. I did believe it.”
Without consciously deciding to do so, Nile’s hand has made its way back up to gripping her cross. “But you said,” she pauses and tries again. “Andy said that you say things like everything happens for a reason. Do you believe that?”
Nicky blinks; his gaze is unreadable. Nile misses the moment from the previous night, when Nicky seemed human and animated.
“Are you asking if I still believe in God?” he asks.
Nile feels her cheeks heat up. She doesn’t know why this feels so important to her. But she needs an ally in this, she thinks. She needs something beyond Andy’s broken-hearted nihilism, and Booker’s melancholy grief. She needs someone, other than Copley, who thinks that all of this is more than just an accident and a burden.
She doesn't want to accidentally do the wrong thing for what she thinks is the right reasons.
“I guess so,” she says.
Nicky breaks his gaze from her. He looks up at the roof of the train car.
“I don’t claim to have any authority on God," he says finally. "But I can tell you that, though I have lost faith in man’s ability to interpret or speak the word of God, I have not lost faith in God Himself.”
Nile lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.
Nicky continues, “I believe that we were destined to have this immortality and destined to find each other. It's no accident that we dream of each other before we meet, and it's no accident that each of us are good-hearted people who are willing to fight. I don't know the shape of God, or why things happen the way that they do. I don’t think it is for me to understand. I am content to focus on doing what I think is right.” He spreads his hands. "That's all I can do."
Nile suddenly wants to cry. She hadn't realized just how scared she was to lose her faith. But Nicky has said exactly what Nile needed to hear. She’s not alone, being immortal does not mean she needs to lose her faith, and killing has not yet made God abandon her.
She swallows to stop herself from crying.
Beside her, Andy says, without opening her eyes, “I thought I forbid you from talking to him.”
Nicky and Joe smile affectionately at her, but Andy’s eyes remain closed.
Nile turns to Joe. “Do you believe all that too?”
Joe smiles self-deprecatingly. “I do. But my faith is not as unshakeable as Nicky’s. I’m working on it.”
Nile looks down, thinking of Copley’s wall. “I think I know something that can help with that,” she says. She looks at Andy. “It might even be enough to convince you, Andy.”
Andy’s eyes open a crack, two twin slivers of blue. “Oh yeah?” she says. Her lips twitch up in a smile. “All right. Bring it on.”
The window above Andy's head is open on an angle, just a bit. Nile pulls out her old phone. When she clicks the side button, the screen stays black. She turns it over in her hand a few times before she leans up and slips the phone between the open crack of the window; it falls and disappears into the moving landscape as Andy and Joe and Nicky all watch.
Yeah, Nile thinks, falling back into her seat, as the train carries them forward, forward, forward. Bring it on.