They were moving fast, and their legs were longer.
Nile followed Yusuf (“call me Joe”) and Nicolò (“call me Nicky”) along a rocky mud path through a stretch of wet grass. A stroll, as it turned out, meant a swift uphill climb in a soaking spray of fine rain, pausing only to stash a few cans of beer in the dagger-cold water of a lochan for the return journey. When they’d arrived at the safe house, Andy had remarked that the island of Raasay—which was where they were, apparently—was lusher and even more magical than its larger, better-known neighbor of Skye. Nile didn’t have anything to compare it against: she’d never been to Skye, she’d never been to Scotland. Thanks to an abiding impression of all-pervading strangeness, however, she felt she could just as easily have been on the other side of the moon as the far northwestern periphery of Europe. For miles and miles there were no other human beings, only a vast, amorphous silence, fitting soundtrack to the wild mountain scenery jutting around them.
As they pushed on, each turn of a corner seemed to bring a new micro-climate, announced by a gasp of angular wind like a message from a spirit. The land was tough, gritty, awkward, dangerous—a place of primal, mysterious beauty. It occurred to Nile that the members of her new family possessed many of the same qualities as the island itself.
Between the three of them they had distributed Call-Me-Joe’s canvases, paints, and easel, which only added to the burden of trekking through such precarious terrain. Though if one of them tumbled down a cliff or fell into a ravine, the damage wouldn’t be permanent. Just another fleeting, forgettable death.
The downpour stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and a startling burst of sunlight turned the sea azure. The rough breakers crashed, glistening, across the sound. Nile lowered the hood of her jacket and looked back at the muddy ground behind them. The rain had erased all their footprints; it was as if they’d come from nowhere.
She started and looked round. It was the first time anyone had spoken since they’d set out from the house. Call-Me-Nicky had paused ahead of her, and he was pointing to the sky. Nile followed the direction of his outstretched hand and saw a golden eagle sail past, high above, its wings seeming to wave to them from the solitude of the sky before it disappeared behind a headland.
Nicky offered her a slight smile, then continued on.
They rounded a sheer mountain and found themselves before a tiny hamlet, an abandoned settlement of five or six homes. It was a lonely, haunting place, and Nile was surprised when Joe informed her they’d arrived at their destination. She followed them over to the largest structure, which still possessed an intact chimney gable and half a roof. A red-berried rowan tree was growing out of the rear wall.
“Keeps away witches,” Call-Me-Joe said in her ear.
Nile jumped; she hadn’t heard him come up behind her. They all moved silently like that—Joe, Nicky, Andy—and soon they would teach her, too.
“Sorry,” Joe said, white teeth flashing against his beard. “Didn’t mean to spook you. According to legend, trees like that one keep away bad spirits, that’s why they grew ’em right up against the houses. To protect the inhabitants from evil.”
Call-Me-Joe began to set up his easel and canvas. As she watched him take off his jacket and then his shoes, Nile began to wonder what sort of painting he intended to do. He wasn’t going to paint Nicky naked or something, was he? Surely they wouldn’t have invited Nile along for that? And Joe had notebooks filled with endless sketches of Nicky in varying states of wakefulness and dress, so it wasn’t like he needed to hike out to the middle of nowhere to make another, right?
Much to her relief, Call-Me-Nicky made no move to discard any clothing. He’d drifted over to the window and was gazing out at the yard. “We used to grow kale and potatoes here,” he said in his lilting accent. “To supplement all the herring.”
“Wait, you lived here?” she said, incredulous.
“Many years ago, yes. In the sixteenth century. We lived here with Andy and Quynh.”
“It was a very tempestuous time in our lives,” Joe chuckled. “The Renaissance was over, the Reformation had begun, and the earth wasn’t the center of the universe anymore.”
“We were trying to, ah, lie low.” Nicky shook his head, expression wry. “It did not go well. Four people squeezed into such a small croft with no privacy.”
Nile was afraid to picture it. The Raasay safe house afforded everyone a decent measure of privacy, such that she had not yet overheard or stumbled upon Call-Me-Joe and Call-Me-Nicky going at it, though Andy had warned her it was a hazard of the job and only a matter of time before she did.
What she had seen was Nicky and Joe sparring on the beach yesterday—she’d been invited to observe for her own edification. They were jaw-droppingly skilled, cycling through different styles—different eras—of hand-to-hand combat too rapidly for her to recognize more than a handful of maneuvers from aikido, jujitsu, capoeira. It had made her impatient to start training with them. But she hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that she was practically watching them have sex. Or something. Neither had so much as taken off his shirt, but the singular focus they brought to the exercise felt charged, crackling with an undeniably erotic energy. Well—they’d met cute on a battlefield, so maybe that was inevitable. Just another of their many love languages.
They scared her, almost more than Andy scared her. Which didn’t make any goddamn sense, because Andy was older and deadlier. But Nicky and Joe’s two-in-oneness made them alien, inscrutable. They’d unlocked the greatest secret of the universe—love—and remade it in their image. They were ancient, they were anachronistic; they were extremely competitive. Joe was stronger but Nicky was faster, so their match on the beach had ended in a draw, the pair of them going down together in the freezing water. They’d come up laughing. Nicky had pulled a piece of seaweed from Joe’s hair and Joe had kissed Nicky’s blue lips, and Nile had felt such bone-deep loneliness that she wanted to curl into a ball and cry.
Now she watched Call-Me-Joe settle into his work. Barefoot, stripped down to his t-shirt and jeans, he seemed to be method-painting, swaying and rocking and feeling with the elements. From where she stood, she couldn’t see whatever was taking shape on his canvas, but she was pretty sure it wasn’t Nicky, unless Joe was painting from memory. Nicky himself was on his knees before the fireplace, rummaging through the rubble, shifting around stones and rapping his knuckles against the mortar. It was utterly baffling to Nile.
“…Hey guys?” she asked, after a reasonable amount of time had passed. “What am I doing here?”
“Aha!” Nicky cried out. He extracted a recurve bow from the fireplace and brandished it triumphantly. “Yusuf, look, I found it!”
“So you did!” Joe peered round the easel, smiling fondly. “Will you look at that.”
“Is that one of yours?” Nile knew Nicky had been an archer before the advent of guns, but this bow looked wrong in his hands, too small for someone six feet tall, unless it was some sort of model she’d never seen before.
“It belonged to Quynh.” Nicky passed the bow to Joe, who handled it reverently, running his fingers along the limb.
“Nico remembered that we’d stashed weapons here long ago, and he thought to recover something of Quynh’s for Andy,” he explained.
Well, that was… sweet, Nile supposed. “So that’s why we came here, then?”
“Among other reasons, yes,” Nicky replied cryptically, and made no attempt to elaborate.
Nile sighed gustily. “Guys…”
Joe set Quynh’s weapon aside and picked up his paintbrush again. “We asked you to come up here with us, Nile, so we could have a conversation about us.” He gestured between himself and Nicky.
“About you.” She blinked at him.
“Andromache told us it wasn’t necessary, but we talked it over between ourselves and decided that it was.”
Nicky said something in rapid Italian. Joe smiled. “Fine, I thought it was necessary. Nicolò disagrees, he says you won’t be pleased and I’m just going to make an ass of myself.”
For one wild, vertiginous second, Nile thought they were about to proposition her for a threesome.
But then Nicky said, “Back at Merrick’s lab…” and she realized she was in for something else entirely.
“Before you came to our rescue, the four of us spent a few very tense hours strapped to those beds,” Joe said. “There was a lot of shouting—”
“You shouted, love.” The corner of Nicky’s mouth ticked upward.
“Fine, I shouted, and in the ensuing discussion, it was made clear that Sebastien—Booker, that is—blamed us, Nicky and me, for what he had done. At least in part.”
“He blamed you,” Nile repeated, baffled. “How? Why?”
“He said that Joe and I had always had each other. That we made him feel alone.” Nicky shrugged one shoulder. “He was very distraught.”
“All the usual self-pitying horseshit,” Joe said brusquely. “But the implication was that by being so in love, the two of us had made his eternal life fucking miserable and driven him to end it the only way he could think of.” Joe squirted a large dollop of yellow paint onto his palette and glared at it. “Stupid, selfish motherfucker.”
Nile was at a loss. Did Joe and Nicky think she, too, would one day betray them out of a misplaced sense of jealousy? She remembered the moment on the beach yesterday, when she’d wanted to cry after watching them together. Was that why Booker had done it?
She hadn’t known them long, but already she felt a powerful tug of loyalty towards these two strange, kind, earthy, eccentric, deadly, deathless men. Awe and fear, tempered with the knowledge that Joe frequently wore mismatched socks and Nicky was prone to sporadic malapropisms in English because he “hated the fucking bastard language” and was still in denial that it had become “the new lingua franca of the globalized world.” They were also stupidly attractive: between Nicky’s heartbreaker eyes and Joe’s infectious grin, Nile honestly thought she was more in danger of developing a debilitating crush on the pair of them than she was of betraying them. She felt the same about Andy, which was its own problem.
“I know I’m still new here,” she said, “but I don’t think I could ever hate you guys for being happy. I mean, I get why you wouldn’t trust me on—”
“No, no, this is not a warning—on the contrary,” Nicky interrupted.
“Here’s the deal, Nile.” Joe put down his brushes and came around the easel to take Nicky’s hand. “Nicolò is the love of my life, my soulmate, my husband, whatever you want to call it. We don’t know any other way to be. We came into this life together, and we will leave it together. We’re a nine-hundred-year fact. And we won’t apologize for enjoying one another’s company in the bedroom.”
“Or out of it,” Nile muttered.
Nicky burst out laughing, a rich, full-bodied sound. It occurred to her that she’d never heard him laugh like that before. Joe was the voluble, expressive one; Nicky was all stillness and reserve. Nile discovered that she quite enjoyed being the cause of his delight.
“That too,” he acknowledged, flashing her a toothy smile. “Even after all these years, we are—what is the word?—incorrigible, yes? Which is all to say, Nile…”
“If you’re unhappy, please come to us and tell us about it,” Joe said firmly. “Booker, he always wanted to keep his sadness to himself. He wouldn’t allow us to be his brothers, his family. And his resentment built up, for two hundred years he resented us and our love until he finally pulled that shit with Copley and Merrick. Just because Nico and I are what we are to each other—” Joe swung their clasped hands to and fro “—doesn’t mean we don’t have room in our hearts to love you, as we love Andromache. As we loved Quynh and will love Sebastien again when he’s ready. Don’t let us become a cause for your sorrow, okay? We want you to tell us when you’re sad and when you’re lonely and when you miss your first family. And though we may not be able to fix it ourselves, we will love you and hold you in our hearts and do what we can to make you feel less alone in this life.”
Nile didn’t realize she was crying until Joe’s arms were around her and her face was crushed against his chest and a damp spot was forming on his t-shirt. It was ugly crying, with snot and big heaving sobs. Grief—for her mother and her brother, for her long-buried father, and for the person who had been Corporal Nile Freeman—wracked her entire body.
She felt a warmth at her back and realized Nicky was there, too. He stroked her hair gently, murmuring to her in several different languages, none of which she understood, though she was pretty sure the last one was Japanese, teo torriatte konomama iko, aisuruhito yo, yeah, that sounded like Japanese—
“Wh-what?” she hiccupped, face still hidden in Joe. “W-what does that mean?”
“He says, ‘let us cling together, my love, as the years go by,’” Joe translated. “He’s also—” he snorted with sudden laughter; startled, Nile stumbled back into Nicky, who caught her easily, “—he’s also quoting—” Joe could barely get the words out, he was laughing so hard, “—the lyrics from a Queen song.”
“What?” Nile spun Nicky’s arms to stare at him. “Are you for real right now?”
“They are very pretty words, no?” Nicky ran his thumbs along her cheeks, wiping away tears. “And he sings them with such tenderness.”
“You quoted a Queen song at me? I didn’t think you guys were up on, like, cultural stuff…” Tears forgotten, she looked from one to the other in fascination.
“Joe and I are—how do you say?—very hip, Nile,” Nicky informed her.
“Yeah, we’re totally down.” Joe grinned.
“Despite our age, we are not Luddites,” Nicky said archly.
Nile didn’t know what a Luddite was; she assumed it was something old that disproved the very point Nicky was trying to make.
“Okay,” she said, skeptical. “So you know your shit, huh?”
They both nodded solemnly; “We know our shit,” Nicky confirmed.
She narrowed her eyes. “What about Frank Ocean then?”
“My guy pretty like a girl / and he got fight stories to tell,” Joe sang, batting his eyes at Nicky, who swatted his arm.
“That’s cheating,” he said. “Nile, we heard the music playing from your room the other day, and we used the Shazam app to identify it. Because we want to know what you like so we can enjoy it with you.”
Well if that wasn’t just the sweetest damn thing.
Joe decided to take a break from painting then, and Nicky laid out their provisions: a thermos of mint tea, a bottle of whiskey, and a wedge of chocolate cake. The three of them sat cross-legged on the dirt floor, eating the cake with their fingers and swigging directly from the bottle. Nicky and Joe sometimes fed each other bits of cake, which was cute if needlessly messy, and Nile marveled that they still took such pleasure in one another’s company after all these years.
“You guys really don’t get sick of each other, huh?”
“Never,” Joe said; “Constantly,” said Nicky.
Joe’s mouth fell open in mock outrage, and Nile hooted with laughter. Joe flung an arm around Nicky’s shoulders, pulling him close and delivering a smacking wet kiss to his cheek. Nicky winced as he overbalanced. He pulled a handgun from the back of his jeans and laid it on the ground before settling back against Joe.
“Seriously?” Nile demanded. “You brought a gun to a picnic?”
Joe chuckled. “In the event that I am set upon by a gang of art critics, and he has to protect me.”
Nile hadn’t thought to bring a gun or a knife or any sort of weapon along, which had been stupid of her, in retrospect. “I should’ve…”
“It’s okay, Nile,” Nicky assured her. “We are quite safe up here, though we like to remain vigilant. Next time,” he added, in mild rebuke, which still made the back of her neck prickle with shame, “you will know better.”
“I will,” she said firmly.
Joe defused the momentary awkwardness by launching into a comic tale involving Quynh, Nicky, and one particularly obstreperous sheep, which Nile only half-believed, though Joe insisted that every word of it was true. Nicky refused to confirm or deny, though the corner of his mouth kept twitching and his large, expressive eyes danced with glee.
“So you were last here in the 1500s?” she asked eventually, trying to wrap her mind around their chronologies.
Nicky and Joe exchanged a look. They had an infinite catalogue of looks and glances, those two, but she had begun to recognize this particular look as one they shared when they were deliberating how much to disclose.
“We came back in 1947,” Nicky said.
“With Andy and Booker, or—”
“Just the two of us,” Nicky said. “We had argued with Andy and Booker about a mission. In the end, we did not accompany them, and we came here instead.”
“What was the mission?”
“Palestine,” Joe said shortly.
“It seemed to us like another crusade, and we had no wish to return to the Holy Land under those circumstances. The partition was wrong, the occupation was wrong, and we could not fight another war of faith.” Nicky rested his elbows on his knees, his long, elegant fingers steepled under his chin. He was looking at her earnestly. “We could not do it, Nile.”
“The first half of the twentieth century brought so much carnage,” Joe said. “Life and death came cheap in an era of gas chambers and nuclear bombs. We were at a loss, all of us, wondering what four people could do against such fucking… horror. And it seemed like the wrong time for Nicolò and me to relive the circumstances of our meeting.”
“Long ago, I traveled across land and sea to kill this man—” Nicky placed a hand on Joe’s thigh “—men like this man, for reasons that were… obscure at the time and despicable today. Yes?”
Nile nodded, hesitantly. She didn’t want Nicky to think she judged him for his actions in the eleventh century—the eleventh century, Lord have mercy, she could barely fathom it—even though she generally felt the Christians had been in the wrong. Besides, back in Goussainville she’d gotten the impression that it had become a punchline between them, how they’d met. We killed each other. Many times. Joe had laughed, Andy and Booker had laughed, and Nicky had smiled his cryptic smile.
Now she realized that the Crusades had been their Afghanistan.
“I know what that feels like,” she said. “I joined the Marines because my dad was a Marine, but… I didn’t feel great about all the reasons we were still in that war. Being there just felt wrong sometimes, like we weren’t actually helping anybody. Least of all the Afghan people.”
“You are wiser than I, at your age,” Nicky told her. “I had to fall in love with Yusuf before I could accept that he and his people were not bloodthirsty savages.”
Joe leaned in and kissed him, hand lingering on Nicky’s jaw after they drew apart. Nile felt her face heat up at the intimacy of it. But Nicky caught Joe’s hand and held it tightly, and she thought perhaps Joe was offering forgiveness—or a reminder of forgiveness bestowed long ago.
“Based on how everything turned out between Yusuf and myself, it would have been easy to lose my grip on guilt,” Nicky continued, still holding Joe’s hand against his face, though his voice was calm as ever. “But after the Second World War, there was one truth that I clung to, which was that greater crimes did not excuse my own. When the killing of one man no longer matters, civilization is extinct. Shame is the last vestige of honor in a vicious, barbaric and fucked-up world.” He shook his head and gently pushed Joe’s hand away. “Or so it seemed to me in 1947. Grim thoughts, no?”
“Yeah,” she said. He’d given her goosebumps.
“It was a shitty time all around. If you think Andy drinks too much now, you should’ve seen her and Booker after Poland,” Joe said. “And things weren’t much better in the Pacific. So we split up. Andy and Booker went off to Palestine to help carve a Jewish state from Arab land, and Nico and I… we hunkered down here. Herding sheep and pissing each other off and having a lot of angry sex.” His grin was a little crooked.
TMI, Joe. Nile wrinkled her nose. “Is that something you do often?” she wanted to know.
“Angry sex?” Joe’s laughter boomed through the cabin. “I mean, I like to think not, but—”
“No!” she exclaimed. “I mean, do you do that a lot, like, breaking with Andy and sitting out a mission ’cause you object morally?”
“Only this once,” Nicky said. “It is not in our nature to… stay on the sunny side of the street when the rest of the world is in shadow, and pretend the clouds away.”
Nicky turned an odd metaphor sometimes; uncertain of his meaning, Nile looked at Joe.
“He means we don’t usually bury our heads in the sand,” Joe explained. “This time we did. We’re not proud of it, that we sat on an island and screwed each other’s brains out while the Middle East exploded, but when you get to be as old as we are, well… Allahu a’lam, how do you even know what’s right anymore, or who? Nico and I needed to take a step back and figure out if we could still afford to be idealists.”
“And could you? Can you? Can we?” Nile asked. She recalled what Nicky had said that first night, we fight for what we think is right.
“Andy has some choice words for idealists,” Nicky said dryly.
“‘God save us from idealists! They dream of a world without injustice, and what crime won’t they commit to achieve it? I swear to god, I’d settle for a world with good manners,’” Joe quoted, brandishing the whiskey bottle in a remarkably keen impersonation.
“…But Andy has terrible manners,” Nile said.
Joe chortled. “Terrible. She’s a fucking menace.”
As they finished eating, Nile finally asked Joe what he was painting.
“This place, of course, didn’t I say?” He raised his eyebrows, and she shook her head. “No? Well, Andy will not be recovered enough from her injury to make the hike up here before we leave Raasay. I thought I’d paint it for her…”
“…so she could see again the last place she had known happiness in Quynh’s company,” Nicky concluded.
Nile felt her eyes sting, because she understood then what they were doing. The bow, the painting—with quiet generosity, they were attempting to infuse the end of Andy’s life with sweetness and echoes of lost joys.
“You’re really good people,” she said.
Nicky simply shook his head, expression wistful.
Joe resumed painting, and Nicky used a chamois cloth to clean the dirt from Quynh’s bow. Nile rested her back against the wall and slipped into a meditative reverie of her own until suddenly the weather changed again. Thick, grey clouds gusted across the mountaintops, and the view vanished in a haze of mist.
“Yusuf!” Nicky called warningly, seconds before the downpour hit.
They were all three immediately drenched. Joe swore in what sounded like Arabic, shielding the canvas with his body as he bundled it towards the fireplace.
“Yalla, yalla!” Nicky shouted over the pounding rain, gathering their backpacks and tossing Nile her jacket. She scurried to help; yalla was probably the first Arabic expression she’d ever learned, basically amounting to move your ass. Joe stashed his canvas in the fireplace, turning the painted side away from the elements.
“It’s really pissing down, isn’t it?” he said.
Nicky tilted his face up. “We are in for a pleasant stroll back,” he concurred.
He really had the wrong idea about what a stroll entailed, Nile thought, as she resigned herself to a thorough and prolonged soaking. “Can we go somewhere warmer, somewhere drier, on our next holiday?” she asked plaintively.
“Alas,” Joe said, folding up his easel, “this life of ours requires many sojourns in miserable northern climates. And let me tell you, Nile, as a fellow African, I—”
“Fellow African my ass, I’m from Chicago,” she said, flipping him off.
“Then this should feel like home!” Joe cackled.
Nicky led the way out, but Joe didn’t follow. “I forgot to do something!” he bellowed, going back to fiddle with his canvas. “I’ll catch up with you.”
Nicky nodded and went on ahead. Nile’s curiosity got the better of her, though, and after Joe had finished, she doubled back to inspect what he’d done.
A message had been scrawled across the back of the canvas in red paint:
Back tomorrow! اتمنى لك يوما سعيدا
love Joe Nicky Nile
Nile laughed and ran after them.