“Tinder cannot possibly be the only way to get the data we need from this guy,” said Andy.
Nile shared an apprehensive look with Joe and Nicky. They were on their third mission in as many months, and the pace was starting to wear on a now-mortal Andy, even if she wouldn’t admit it. It was clear to her team though, evident in the hollows under her eyes and the stiffness of her movements on early mornings and late nights, mortality setting up its home in her bones. When they’d taken the call from Copley and joined him in London, Nile had kind of hoped he’d have an easier job for them than bust an international weapon smuggling operation.
“It’s not the only way, no, but it is the easiest, and the one least likely to tip him off,” said Copley. “You just need to go on a date with him, get yourself an invitation up to his penthouse, and from there you can slip him a mickey and grab the data. He’ll wake up thinking he had a wild, excellent night with a beautiful woman, and then we’ll have everything we need to track down these weapons and break up the whole operation, with no one the wiser. This might not even need to involve any violence at all, depending on Martins’ data.”
It would sure as hell be a relief if it didn’t. Maybe Andy had no problem with dying for good in some battle or skirmish or another, but Nile didn’t want it to go down like that, and Joe and Nicky were low-key desperate to avoid losing Andy too. If they had their way, they’d be globetrotting and fulfilling anything and everything left on Andy’s bucket list.
But if Andy had a bucket list, she wasn’t sharing, and she seemed mildly suspicious of the prospect of a violence-free op. “If you say so,” she said.
“What happened to not leaving any digital footprints? I’m pretty sure a Tinder profile is a fairly significant footprint,” said Joe.
Copley shrugged. “It’s easy enough to delete as soon as we’re done,” he said, then cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably. “And your profile photos don’t actually have to involve much of your face. A little judicious photo editing, and I can make sure facial recognition algorithms will fail, without any detectable differences between Andy’s photo and in person. Also…” Copley trailed off awkwardly.
“Also what?” asked Nile.
Copley glanced at Andy with a sympathetic grimace. “Andy doesn’t need to be so diligent about avoiding digital footprints as the rest of you.”
Because she was just another mortal woman now, one who aged and who would die in years or decades, one who didn’t have to worry about her digital legacy betraying her a few decades or centuries down the line. Perversely, Nile was almost jealous, but the reminder of Andy’s mortality left her skin buzzing with a faint yet urgent desperation. Which none of the others felt, apparently, because they accepted Copley’s reminder with nothing more than solemn calm.
“So I’m the only one who can do this,” said Andy, her voice just chilly enough to make Copley straighten in his seat, his sudden, wary discomfort at odds with their well-heeled surroundings.
They were in Copley’s home office, which had become the team’s de facto base of operations. Copley’s wall of photos and clippings on Andy and the others had long since been taken down, replaced with the details of their current op, his dining room chairs had been repurposed to make the room a makeshift sort of conference room, and his guest room and living room were serving as the team’s bedrooms, like Copley’s house was just a slapdash Airbnb, or like they were all just crashing at a friend’s house. Nile wasn’t quite used to it yet, this succession of hotels and places to crash and safe houses; she couldn’t make herself settle on whether she had a new life or a new job yet, and the utter strangeness of her new circumstances hit her hardest in moments like this, when nothing ever matched up right.
“Well, Martins is straight, so that rules out me and Nicky,” said Joe, and just like that, the tension gathering in the room dissipated.
“Sorry, boss,” added Nicky, though the twinkle in his eyes suggested he wasn’t all that sorry.
“And based on an analysis of his Tinder activity, Nile is...not his type,” said Copley with another grimace, this one apologetic and aimed in her direction.
Nile raised her eyebrows. “You mean he’s racist and won’t go out with black women.”
“It appears so.”
“How do you even know we’ll—” Andy twirled a disdainful finger towards the screen displaying John Martins’ Tinder profile. “Match or whatever?”
“You’re exactly his type,” said Copley.
Andy narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips, and Copley visibly swallowed. God, Nile wished she could strike fear into the hearts of men with nothing more than a facial expression. It just seemed like a really useful skill to have. She wondered how long it would take her to develop it. A few decades? Centuries? The thought made an almost hysterical giggle bubble up in her chest, and she swallowed it down with effort.
“And what, exactly, is his type, Mr. Copley?” asked Andy.
Luckily for Copley, Joe threw himself on that possible grenade. “Tall, leggy model-looking types, apparently,” said Joe.
He held up his tablet so the rest of them could see it, and swiped through a series of photos of beautiful tanned white women with long legs and amazing boobs, nearly all of them with the exact same long, wavy hair style, the kind that took pains to look effortless but actually involved hundreds of dollars’ worth of highlights and some quality time with a curling iron. All the women were hot, sure, but in a bland sort of way, as if they were all working off of the same template. Instagram Hot, maybe. Nile looked at them and registered that they were pretty, but as soon as Joe swiped to the next photo, Nile had already forgotten what the woman from the last photo had looked like, her face blurring into the next woman’s, and the next’s. Even if Andy put on a wavy-haired wig, she’d stand out among this crowd, her beauty as keen and bright and sharp as the labrys she favored in battle.
Martins had a type, maybe, but Andy, the real Andy—Andromache—wasn’t it. And what about your type, Freeman? Nile thought, but she smothered that line of thought before it could catch fire.
Andy still didn’t seem sufficiently convinced that a Tinder date was the way to go. Copley was dogged though, and seemed determined to plead his case.
“Listen, we can break into Martins’ penthouse, sure. But his building has top of the line security. The other half of the penthouse floor belongs to a Saudi diplomat, and he has a full 24-7 security detail. It will take time we can’t afford to set up a break-in, and it would attract too much attention besides. They will have already moved or sold the weapons by then. This is the simplest and safest way to get in and clone Martins’ hard drives, given our current time constraints.”
“Alright,” allowed Andy with a sigh. “But even if I’m his type, I don’t see how I can guarantee that he’ll invite me up.”
“Are you kidding me?” said Nile, and when everyone turned to face her, she flushed hot. “I just—I mean, I’m pretty sure you can just show up wearing a skimpy dress and say ‘your place or mine?’ and he’ll take you to his, no small talk necessary.”
Now Andy’s eyes were crinkling with the barest hint of a smile, and Nile almost wished for a fatal heart attack to take her out of this mortifying moment. Sure, it was an objective fact that Andy was incredibly hot, but that didn’t mean Nile should have basically said it, to her face. Talk about inappropriate.
“I only meant that we should have a backup plan if the Tinder approach doesn’t work. But thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“We have the building blueprints, Nicky and I can work up a plan to infiltrate the penthouse,” said Joe.
“You should probably go on a few practice dates before you meet Martins, though,” Nile told Andy. “Just in case you need to do more than showing up and looking amazing.” A terrible thought occurred to nile. “Wait, have you even been on a date in, like, this century?”
“I’m not really a dating kind of person. Not that that’s been a problem for me, when it comes to finding some…release, let’s call it,” said Andy, a satisfied and wry curve to her lips. “But sure, I’ll go on some practice dates, if you think I need to.”
“Probably best to have a few practice runs, yes,” said Copley.
“Is this really how people meet nowadays?” murmured Nicky, and when Nile peered over at him, she saw that he was scrolling through Tinder profiles. “It seems rather...transactional. And shallow.”
“Not everyone can have a grand, fated romance,” said Copley, his tone weary and dry. “And yes, this is in fact how many people meet their partners nowadays.”
Nile felt an urge to defend her age cohort. “Yeah, but it’s not all on Tinder. Tinder’s more about hooking up, one night stand kinda stuff. There are other apps that are meant for actual, uh, romance.”
Not that Nile would know from personal experience. Everyone murmured in possibly condescending acceptance anyway, before Copley got back to business.
“Now, let’s set up Andy’s profile. Martins prefers fit women, but not ones that participate in any sports, so I’ll put pilates instructor down as your job—”
Once they set up Andy’s profile, the matches came in fast and hot. Andy was unimpressed by all of them.
“Okay, you have to swipe right on at least some of them,” said Nile.
“None of them deserve it,” Andy said, and swiped left again.
There was some real off with his head energy to the way Andy swiped left. And yeah, okay, fair, probably none of the bros on Tinder deserved Andy’s attention much less her interest. She was Andromache the Scythian, six thousand-something years old, what could any of these Crossfit dudebros who worked in finance or for vulture capital tech startups offer an ancient warrior like her? But this was about the mission. Andy didn’t have to actually like any of these guys, and forget about fucking them. She just had to have a reasonably successful date with them.
“True, but you do need to practice the whole Tinder date thing with at least a couple of them before you meet with Martins,” tried Nile.
Joe peered over Andy’s shoulder as she kept swiping left. “Are we sure this is even safe? Meeting strange men through the internet, I mean. They could be murderers for all we know, and yes, obviously, you can handle it, but I don’t see why you should take the risk.”
Of course Joe’s understanding of internet safety was about ten years behind reality.
“Yeah, now we use the internet to hire strange men to drive us everywhere and bring us food, so…that ship has sailed, pretty much. And it’s not like the old-fashioned method of picking up guys at a bar is much safer,” said Nile.
“It’s a lot faster though,” muttered Andy darkly, but she finally swiped right, and after a few more rejections, she swiped right again. “There. Now what?”
“You message them. Or you wait for them to message you.”
“Yeah, no, I’m not doing that part,” said Andy, and handed the phone over to Nile. “You talk to them. Just tell me when and where to meet them.”
Nile very dearly wanted to pass this task off to one of her teammates, because surely she wasn’t the most qualified for it. Except, she realized, she was, if only by default. Nicky and Joe were married and had been for literal centuries, so they knew jackshit about modern dating, or really, any dating at all judging by the stories she’d heard about their murderous meet-cute, and Copley was a widower who hadn’t dated anyone in decades, other than his late wife . Nile was the only one who could even truthfully say she’d dated sometime this century. Hell, she’d even used Tinder: just once, when she was on leave and desperately horny, but she’d done it, and she’d even gotten a decent one-night stand out of it.
So okay, sure, she could handle some light catfishing on Andy’s behalf.
And hey, one of the guys messaged Andy first! That was a good start. Nile tapped on the notification: hey read the message. Nile waited for about a minute in case more was forthcoming. But nope, apparently that was it. Just hey.
She sighed, and started typing a message back.
“You’ve got a date with Darren tonight at 8:30, and one with Mitch tomorrow at 8:00,” said Nile, handing the phone back to Andy. “You should probably read their messages, in case they mention anything from them.”
“Hmm, looks like some real scintillating conversation,” said Andy, glancing down at her phone with faint disdain, and Nile winced.
“They’re not the brightest crayons in the box, if you know what I mean. I did my best to work with what they gave me.”
Andy shrugged, and Nile caught a glint of mischief in her eyes. “At least they’re pretty.”
Andy had a point. Darren may have been dumb as a box of rocks, but he had a face and body that could’ve been sculpted by Bernini, and Mitch had cheekbones so sharp they almost made up for his total inability to maintain any conversation that wasn’t about himself.
“Don’t tell me your type is himbos,” said Nile, making a face at Andy.
“Himbos?” murmured Nicky, but before Nile could enlighten him, Andy laughed.
“It kind of is, yeah. At least when it comes to men. They just need to lie back and look pretty.”
Oh my god. Heat raced through Nile from her face right on down to her toes, which was dumb and embarrassing and ridiculous, because it wasn’t like Nile hadn’t heard women—her own squad mates, even—say way racier stuff than that. There were no shrinking violets in the Marines after all. And yet, when it was Andy saying it, that dangerous glimmer in her pale eyes, a too-knowing smirk on her lips—it felt different, was all. Plus, it got Nile thinking about beautiful men like Darren and Mitch, and Andy straddling them, taking what she wanted—right, no, that was inappropriate, totally inappropriate.
Andy is your CO, Nile tried to remind herself sternly, but the mental reprimand lacked conviction. After a year and change living this new immortal life, it was pretty damned clear that this wasn’t just a unit of elite warriors: it was a family. And not in that way where, like, businesses or whatever called themselves a family as cover for the fact that they were just exploitative and manipulative capitalist machines, no. This was a for-real family and Nile’s habit of treating it like a new assignment, like she’d just gotten a really weird transfer from the Marines to a new hush-hush unit, had mostly fizzled out around six months ago. Honestly, Andy and the others had been kind to humor Nile about it as long as they had.
But while Nicky and Joe slotted neatly into the role of older brothers or maybe uncles, Andy definitely did not give off a sisterly or motherly or auntie vibe to Nile. It was a problem.
“You’re scandalizing Nile,” said Nicky, with a smile that suggested he was joking.
“No she’s not,” said Nile reflexively, and then had to stifle a wince when she heard how childish she sounded. She focused on Andy. “Do you know what you’re gonna wear on these dates?”
Because now that Nile thought about it, outside of ops, she’d never really seen Andy wear anything that wasn’t some variation on jeans or leggings, plain top, and a jacket.
“What, I can’t just wear this?” said Andy, gesturing at her current outfit of dark wash skinny jeans, ankle boots, and a t-shirt.
“No,” chorused Nile, Copley, Nicky, and Joe.
Andy looked good, obviously, because she had the kind of body that made everything look good, but her usual wardrobe really wasn’t date night material. Not with straight guys, anyway, and not at the kind of places Martins liked to take women on dates.
“You can’t just go out on a date dressed like you’re running errands,” chided Joe.
“You absolutely need to dress up at least a little bit for your date with Martins,” said Copley. “Your current look isn’t exactly his type.”
“Fine,” said Andy, and got up. “Guess we need to go shopping then.”
“Yes,” hissed Joe, but Andy shook her head at him. “You two stay here and work on our Plan B. Nile, you’re with me.”
Andy treated shopping for a date night outfit with the same brisk efficiency as she did every other supply run. She let Nile choose the store, which felt like a test before Nile remembered that this was the kind of thing Andy didn’t give a shit about. Andy had strong opinions on weapon choices and the quality of your survival gear, not on this season’s fashion trends or designer brands. So Nile picked Zara, because it seemed about right for the persona they’d set up for Andy on Tinder, and Andy followed her inside with no objections.
The too-brightly lit store greeted them with a low pulse of classy EDM and an array of brightly colored outfits made of too-thin and sometimes too-sheer fabrics. Andy rubbed one diaphanous teal shirt between her fingers and snorted.
“So flimsy,” she murmured.
Nile didn’t disagree, though she figured they probably had different reasons for thinking so. Nile just hated how so many tops were basically see-through nowadays; Andy probably objected to how uselessly thin and lacking in durability most modern clothes were. Maybe Nile should’ve taken Andy to a fancier store, with better quality clothes.
“We can go somewhere else if—“
“No, this is fine.”
Andy’s attention moved on to a pair of high-waisted, fake leather shorts, the kind of thing that seemed like a terrible fashion choice, but that would probably look amazing on someone like Andy. Hell, Nile could work those shorts too, she thought, especially with the right pair of boots—which was not why they were here, focus, Freeman.
“I figure you can’t go wrong with a little black dress,” said Nile, and led Andy past all of the too-trendy stuff at the front of the store towards the slightly more sedate section that had more wardrobe staples than flashy statement pieces.
To Nile’s surprise and relief, Andy quickly plucked a couple of dresses from the racks, both of them black and short and tight. Nile grabbed a dark red one that had a plunging neckline that would surely spur any Tinder date on into inviting Andy to their place, then eyed a sparkly gold number on the next rack over. Nile liked it, but it wouldn’t go well with Andy’s coloring.
“For me, or for you?” asked Andy when she followed the direction of Nile’s stare, her lips quirking up into a tiny smile.
Nile handed her the red dress. “You, of course.”
“Don’t want to get something for yourself?”
“I’m not the one who’s about to go on a bunch of dates.”
There wasn’t much call for nice dresses in Nile’s life right now anyway.
Andy hummed. “The gold one would look good on you,” she said, then looked down at the dresses she was holding, a sort of wry resignation on her face. “I’ll go try these on.”
Nile trailed her to the fitting room awkwardly, unsure if she should follow at all. This wasn’t like a shopping trip with her friends from high school, where they’d all pile into the fitting room, talking and laughing, ready to show off clothes they had no intention of buying. Hell, this wasn’t even like a shopping trip with her mom, trying on prim dresses her mom wanted her to wear to church or some family event or another. This was…something else.
Once Andy went in, Nile lurked around outside the dressing room, and after a few minutes, just as she was about to ask if Andy needed her to grab another size for her or something, Andy came back out, wearing the same clothes she’d walked into the fitting room with.
“This one,” said Andy, holding up the dark red dress Nile had picked out. “And one of the black ones as back up.”
“You tried them on that fast? And you didn’t let me see?”
Andy just breezed out of the fitting room, heading straight for the registers. Over her shoulder, she said, “You should get that gold dress!”
Andy spent what couldn’t have been more than a grand total of fifteen minutes getting ready for her date, and when she came out of Copley’s guest room, she looked obnoxiously amazing. The dark red dress clung in all the right places, and everything else about her from her hair to her makeup looked effortlessly gorgeous.
“I can’t believe you can get ready so quickly,” said Nile, her tone falling a little too close to accusatory, but seriously. It was downright unfair.
“Practice,” said Andy. “Also, it helps that I don’t care about this date, so I don’t need to obsess over what shade of eyeshadow I’m wearing or whatever.”
And yeah, okay, fair enough. Though if this was what Andy looked like when she didn’t care about how she looked, then Nile wasn’t sure she wanted to know what she’d look like if she did care. Like the most beautiful woman in the world, maybe. The leather jacket she slipped on got her a good part of the way there, and the gun and knife she tucked into the inner pockets didn’t hurt any either.
She did a brief twirl for Nile, and said, “So? Do I pass muster?”
Oh my god, Andy’s ass in that dress. Her legs, with the high heels. Nile ruthlessly swallowed down a sudden, helpless whimper of lust.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, you’re good. You look, um, really good.”
“Thanks,” said Andy, and okay, what the hell, was she doing that sexy smoldering at Nile on purpose?
Probably not, right? This was just what Andy looked like, basically.
“Have fun!” called out Nicky as Andy damn near catwalk strutted her way out of Copley’s house.
“Be back by midnight!” said Joe, and cackled when Andy just flipped him off.
Andy was back way before midnight. She was back after less than two hours, even, which didn’t exactly bode well. Just getting to the bar and back would’ve taken half an hour or forty-five minutes, and that wouldn’t leave all that much time for a date.
Nile exchanged a concerned look with Nicky and Joe, who were still working on the back up plan.
“So?” asked Nile. “How’d it go?”
“Not well,” said Andy, with a slight frown.
Andy shrugged. “I think I intimidated him. Also, he was very dumb. How’s the back up plan going?”
The next date with Mitch didn’t seem to go any better, judging by Andy’s harried expression and the sharp smell of alcohol clinging to her.
“What happened?” Nicky asked.
“He spilled his drink all over me. Three times,” said Andy, and now that Nile looked more closely, she could see a couple of even darker patches on her black dress.
“So he’s clumsy, that’s not terrible,” said Nile, though three spills was pretty bad.
“He also wouldn’t shut up, ever. And then after the third time he spilled a drink on me, he went to the bathroom and left.”
Fled in shame and embarrassment, probably. Nile couldn’t exactly blame him, because even secondhand, Andy’s annoyance and disapproval were making her faintly nervous.
“Well, better luck next time, maybe?” said Joe.
After the third Tinder date was also a failure, Nile decided it was time to intervene.
“Okay, what is going on during these dates?” she asked, because seriously, this should’ve been simple.
Surely all Andy had to do was show up looking incredibly hot and feigning some minimal interest in these dudes, and they’d invite her home, right? Was Nile underestimating the emotional needs of dudebros here, or was she overestimating Andy’s appeal? The latter didn’t compute, so it had to be the former. Maybe Andy was being too mean to them, or too standoffish or something.
“Nothing!” said Andy. She folded herself into one of the armchairs in Copley’s living room, now thoroughly taken over by their current op, kicking off her heels as she did. Her short dress rode up to reveal a truly distracting amount of pale, toned thigh, and it took all of Nile’s effort to keep her eyes on Andy’s face. “I show up, we have a couple drinks, talk a little, and they make their excuses and leave.”
Nile narrowed her eyes at Andy, skeptical that this terse description was an accurate representation of events. Maybe Andy was committing some big faux pas? Andy moved through the modern world with ease, her age almost never showing in the thousand little habits and gestures that made up anyone’s path through the world. But social cues were tricky, changeable—even between people close to the same age, as Nile had learned in the Marines, where one person’s good-natured shit-talking was another person’s fighting words. Maybe Andy was inadvertently being too blunt for these English dudes.
“Okay…so, how do you usually pick people up? When you, uh, want some no strings attached sex or whatever?”
“A lot of significant looks, if I recall correctly,” said Joe.
“And innuendo. Don’t forget the innuendo,” added Nicky, and both he and Joe just grinned cheekily when Andy gave them an I’m not amused look.
“Nowadays, I just buy them a drink and ask if they want to fuck. Which I guess is not a thing you do on these Tinder ‘dates’? Because you’re supposed to pretend to care about their dumb hobbies or whatever?”
“I mean, you can do that, but that’s not really what we’re aiming for with Martins,” said Copley. “This is supposed to be more of a, shall we say, honeypot operation.”
“Hm, okay. Well, I’d prefer not to fuck him, so—“
Copley looked mortified. “You don’t actually need to—you know—“
Andy raised an eyebrow. “Thought that’s what a honeypot op was,” she said.
“In this case, you only need to, shall we say, charm him enough to receive an invitation.”
To Nile’s amusement, Copley sounded more and more prim and proper the more flustered he got.
Before Copley could spontaneously combust out of sheer embarrassment, Nile said, “How about we stake out your next Tinder date, see what the, uh, problem might be?”
“Sure,” said Andy. “But I really think it’s a them problem, not a me problem.”
After eavesdropping on one of Andy’s Tinder dates, Nile was forced to conclude: the problem was Andy.
Nile knew Andy was only human, as imperfect and fallible as anyone else: Nile lived and trained with her, saw her with bedhead and bleary eyes, heard her snort with laughter, felt her fierce hugs. She was ancient and wise and often inscrutable, but she was also just Andy. Andy who loved baklava, Andy who could ride a horse like she’d been born on one, Andy who was a good cook but a horrible baker.
Here in this dimly lit, classy bar though? None of Andy’s sweetly human foibles were in evidence. Instead she sat at the shiny chrome high top table like it was a throne, like she was a goddess, like the man approaching her with wide eyes and nervous hands was a supplicant who she could choose to destroy with one wave of her fingers.
Hadn’t Andy said that she’d been worshipped as a goddess once? Nile had honestly kind of dismissed that as hyperbole, but now, she wasn’t so sure. Command was sure as hell effortless for Andy, and as casual as the way Joe and Nicky called Andy boss was, there was a truth to it, a bedrock certainty. Even Copley did it more often than not now, and Andy had no real claim over him, no bond of immortality or centuries of leadership.
Tonight’s Tinder date—Matt, did something boring in HR, had the actually kind of interesting hobby of being an ultramarathon runner—was clearly overawed and overwhelmed, his steps slowing the closer he got to Andy, until he reached her table and squeaked out, “Um, Annie?”
In retrospect, Annie was a very bad cover name for Andy. Andy did not look like an Annie. Annies were approachable, cheerful, probably even bubbly. They were not statuesque and intimidating warrior goddess women.
“Yes,” said Andy, and did not stand from her seat. “Matt?”
“Uh huh,” he said, voice still wavering, his eyes wide as he took Andy in: the wine red dress, her effortlessly upright posture, her cool expression. Even Nile, sitting slouched at the bar a few feet away, felt small, and poor Matt visibly quailed at the prospect of joining Andy at the small high top table. “Um, did you want a drink? I can bring you a drink.”
“That’s so sweet. Vodka, neat.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Matt, and instead of the flirty tone that would’ve made ma’aming Andy even slightly acceptable, the words came out sounding downright fervent, to Matt’s obvious mortification.
Nile glanced across the room at where Nicky and Joe were cozied up together in a booth, and when she met their stares, it was clear they were all on the same yikes wavelength.
“So? What’s the verdict?” asked Andy afterwards, when they were back at Copley’s house.
Nile attempted to convey with her eyebrows that perhaps her elders should be the ones to handle this, and that, specifically, sweet-natured Joe who Andy was usually happy to indulge should be the one to do so. With a scrunch of his nose, Joe allowed that this might be so.
“Now, obviously, I am not particularly well-versed in the ways of modern courting, or even courting women in general, but—well, I couldn’t help but observe that you didn’t seem particularly approachable, boss.”
“Maybe try being a little friendlier?” suggested Nicky with delicacy.
“Even just some small talk would help,” said Nile, though she honestly wasn’t certain that it would.
Andy accepted these criticisms and suggestions with only mild annoyance. “Fine,” she said. “When’s the next date?”
“So….the weather. Is fine.”
Oh no. Did Andy not know what acceptable small talk was in the 21st century?
“Yes. Which is, ah, quite a rarity in London, ha ha,” said Ashok, admirably game.
There was a lengthy pause.
“Do you—whiskey,” tried Andy. “You’re drinking whiskey, right?”
“Yes. Whiskey, which—I quite like. Do you also like whiskey? I mean, you’re drinking—gin, is it?”
A long, long minute of silence. Nile texted Andy’s burner phone: MAKE SOME CONVERSATION. ASK HIM ABOUT HIS SUCCULENTS. Andy peeked at her phone, which, shit, just made her look like she was checking the time.
“You, uh, have succulents!” announced Andy.
Ashok brightened. “Yes, yeah! I like—plants. Tiny ones, you know, with the—“ He made a gesture that was, perhaps, meant to evoke the small and waxy leaves of succulents. “Don’t have to water them much?”
After this promising potential opening for some deeper rapport, Andy and Ashok took sips of their drinks in unison, and the brief spark of conversation sputtered out again.
Nile sighed, then flagged down the bartender from the other end of the bar. In the mirror over the bar, she could see both Andy’s booth and the booth across from her, where Nicky was slowly shaking his head in disappointment, and Joe’s forehead was on the table, his shoulders shaking.
When the bartender reached her, Nile said, “Shot of vodka, please. Wait, a double, actually.”
“So, maybe we need to go with Plan B,” suggested Copley after Andy struck out with poor, sweet Ashok too.
“No, no, I can do this. I just need to try the direct route, none of this small talk bullshit,” said Andy.
They all took a moment to collectively envision that. It would probably end in some version of that Bill Hader meme: well mark me down as scared and horny. Given Andy’s everything, scared had about a 70% chance of winning out.
“How are you so bad at this,” marveled Nile, and Andy narrowed her eyes, glaring.
“I am not bad at this,” she said, like a proclamation. “I have fucked more people than you can even imagine!”
Which, yeah, probably, and Nile could not think about that in detail right now.
“Hmm, yes, of course,” murmured Joe in soothing tones. “…mostly women though, no?”
Oh, that didn’t make it easier for Nile to handle. That didn’t make it easier at all, thinking about the ‘unimaginable’ number of women who Andy had—
“And not in this century,” added Nicky.
Andy’s ferocious glare subsided some, and she tilted her head and shrugged a shoulder to allow that this might be so.
Nile gathered her courage and said, “And there’s a big difference between dating and fucking.”
Nile wasn’t the most experienced in that kind of thing, not with guys or girls. There wasn’t exactly much time or opportunity while deployed, and before—well, Nile had kind of been a late bloomer. And she’d never been in love, not really. But she’d been on dates, and they’d gone pretty well, most of them. Her stomach sank and then lurched, as badly as it had when she’d been on that plane with Andy, diving towards the ground, because was she ever going to go on a normal date again? Was she ever going to fall in love?
She forgot sometimes, that she’d died. For real. And she was alive now, sure, but there was a whole life she’d lost, and—
“Alright, fine,” said Andy, and Nile’s free-fall spiraling thoughts came to a halt, climbing back up to a bearable altitude. “Teach me then. Show me the ways of 21st century dating.”
“What, me?” asked Nile.
“There’s no one else here with that experience, is there?”
Nile cast a somewhat desperate glance at Copley, who put his hands up. “I last dated in the 20th century,” he said.
Right. He’d been a married man, Nile recalled, and married date nights weren’t exactly like Tinder dates.
“I mean, I don’t have a ton of experience myself,” said Nile.
“However little experience you have, it’s more than any of the rest of us,” said Nicky.
“So take me on a date, Nile,” said Andy, with a damn near flirty tilt of her head. “Show me how it’s done.”
Oh, what the fuck, thought Nile. Now Andy was managing to be all seductive and shit with the curve of her smile and her sexy low voice and the challenging glint in her eye? Where had all this energy been during any of those Tinder dates?
“Like, going undercover?” said Nile.
Andy’s smile grew, dangerous and lovely. “Sure, you can think of it like that.”
Versus thinking of it like what, Nile couldn’t help but wonder, and she met the challenging look in Andy’s eyes head-on, the same way she did when they were sparring.
“Alright. Tomorrow night at eight.”
Nile went back to the store and got the gold dress, of course, and she spent a lot longer than fifteen minutes getting ready. She maybe obsessed over her shade of eyeshadow, fully aware that Andy almost certainly wouldn’t care.
This isn’t a real date, Freeman, she thought, and picked a shimmering, dusky gold shade. Even if Andy didn’t care, surely she should still put the effort in. That was professionalism or whatever.
She reserved most of her effort for her hair anyway, getting her braids into a style that was less practical than her usual tidy bun and more pretty, which she hadn’t had cause to do in a long time. She was out of practice, and suddenly nothing looked good; she remembered again why she hadn’t minded the USMC-approved cornrows so much. Eventually, she settled on a sufficiently flattering style, and a resolution to make an even bigger hair change soon, which she probably should’ve done after dying and going AWOL anyway. Copley had made a few pointed suggestions to that effect already, unimpressed by the disguise potential of switching from cornrows to braids.
Andy hadn’t said anything though. She picked her battles better than that, reserving all her tough love for training, for teaching Nile how to fight like someone who had no fear of death, how to cast off a lifetime’s worth of instincts. Nile didn’t quite have the hang of it yet. She suspected that once she did—well, then, she’d still be Nile Freeman. She always would be. But she’d be a new Nile Freeman.
This Nile in the mirror, wearing a flashy gold dress and the kind of big and bold earrings she’d always wanted to try, so that she could go on a fake date with her teammate…she wasn’t the smooth and confident immortal Nile yet. But she was getting closer to it, Nile hoped.
God, she hoped so. Because the last thing she wanted was for Andy to look at her the way she’d looked at all of her himbo Tinder dates: with a kind of chilly and only slightly fond condescension. What she actually wanted…keep a lid on it, Freeman.
Nile and Andy were meeting at the trendy restaurant Nile had chosen, the better to approximate a real date, and regrettably, just like a real date, Nile had an entire garden’s worth of butterflies fluttering in her stomach as she walked into the restaurant. The lighting was warm and golden, the music a subtle and sexy pulse of sound that served as a backbeat to the murmur of low voices and delicately clinking cutlery. This was the classiest date Nile had ever been on by far, and the cool and appraising stare of the waiter who showed her to her table had Nile wishing she’d chosen a more low-rent location than this.
Most of her reservations dissipated when Andy greeted her with a warm and damn near sparkling smile, and they somehow managed an utterly natural exchange of cheek kisses in greeting. Nile could just imagine Nicky smiling and saying something about how they’d make a passable European out of her yet.
Already, this date was going better than any of Andy’s Tinder failures, by sheer virtue of the warm welcome she’d given Nile. Nile almost said as much, before deciding she’d leave that for later.
“Hope I’m not late,” Nile said.
“No, no, you’re fine, I’m just early. I was right, by the way. That dress looks amazing on you.”
“Thanks. You look gorgeous too.”
Mindful that this was, technically, supposed to be an educational kind of fake date, Nile infused her tone with flirty warmth, and if she didn’t flutter her eyelashes, she got damn close. Andy’s eyes narrowed a little bit, a silent I know exactly what you’re doing, and Nile responded with a slight lift of her eyebrows, an implied challenge.
It worked, apparently, because Andy took the lead with an only somewhat commanding conversational opener.
“So, you like art,” she said.
“I do. Was planning to major in art history in college,” Nile said, then added, pointlessly abashed because it wasn’t like it mattered now, “Along with business or something more practical, of course.”
“Passion makes up for practicality sometimes,” said Andy, before a waiter came to take their drink orders.
“Still have to make a living though. What about you? Are you a pilates instructor for passion or practicality?”
Nile leaned in closer to Andy, maintaining eye contact in a hopefully flirty way, so she saw it when a grimace flickered over Andy’s expression, there and gone in less than a second. Pilates instructor was Andy’s cover for this op, chosen specifically because it was the kind of thing that would appeal to Martins and guys like him, and Nile was just trying to stick to the cover, but now she wondered if she’d fucked up by bringing it up at all.
“Definitely practicality,” said Andy drily.
“So what would you do if you could follow your passion?” asked Nile, and god, she should’ve made it sound coy and seductive, because that was the point, right? That was the kind of performance Andy needed to give in her future date with Martins, but Nile couldn’t quite manage it, too honestly curious.
“I’m not sure,” said Andy thoughtfully. “I don’t mind my life the way it is now. I have my family, they’re what’s most important to me.”
Nile didn’t doubt that was true, because everything about Andy’s expression warmed when she said it, no trace of any of the chilly reserve she’d shown on her other dates.
“Apart from them though. Just—what would you do with your life, if you didn’t have to worry about money or anything but making yourself happy.”
This seemed like a pretty standard getting-to-know-you first date question to Nile, and more importantly, it seemed like the kind of thing Martins would ask, if only as a prelude for bragging about himself or making big promises.
“I like horses, I guess. I spent a lot of time with them, when I was young.”
“We had a lot of them, a whole herd. To—” Andy paused, seeming to consider her words, before settling on a careful half-truth. “For the—ranch. They weren’t pets, obviously, they were working animals, but still, I—they were like family to me, or partners, maybe. Sometimes, it felt like I spent more time on horseback than I ever did on my own two feet. Now though, I don’t know. They’d be more like pets, I suppose, and that seems to…lessen their dignity, somehow.”
“Hey, it’s not too late. You can still be a cowgirl, you know,” said Nile, not even teasing.
If Andy wanted to spend the rest of her days roaming some prairie or field somewhere, just her, her horse, and some herds of animals, there was nothing wrong with that. Nile didn’t know all that much about Andy’s early years, but she’d done some furtive googling, and she knew Andy’s people had been nomadic, roaming the plains of Europe and Asia on horseback. Maybe Andy wanted to return to her roots, so to speak.
“It’s definitely tempting,” said Andy, her eyes creasing up into a smile that made her practically glow in the restaurant’s dim lighting. Their bare knees brushed against each other under the small table, and Nile’s face went hot as Andy’s focus on her seemed to sharpen. “Not just yet though.”
“Me, the only time I ever rode a horse was at the county fair. And it wasn’t so much riding a horse, as it was someone sticking me on a pony to take a picture.”
Real smooth, Freeman. You definitely want to remind Andy about your embarrassing childhood photo opps.
“Cute,” Andy declared. “And you’re missing out. We’ll have to go riding some time.”
Now Andy was getting the hang of this, thought Nile.
“Yeah? You gonna teach me to ride?” asked Nile, smiling slow.
If she was really trying to teach Andy something about 21st century seduction, she should have made the words come out low and heavy with innuendo, an obvious invitation, if not for the sexy kind of riding, then at least for another date. Instead, the question came out too soft, too wanting. Too real.
Because she wanted it. She wanted Andy to teach her this thing that connected her so strongly to her past. And hell, she just wanted to spend the time with her too.
“Of course,” said Andy, and then their drinks arrived, along with the dinner menus. Nile busied herself taking a sip of the too-expensive cocktail, racking her brain for an appropriate date-night topic, but before she could come up with one, Andy continued, “You said you’d major in art history if you could. Why art history instead of art?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I’m not really the artsy type,” demurred Nile.
“You could be,” said Andy. “You’ve got time.”
It should’ve been a thrill, remembering that, shouldn’t it? And it did make her stomach swoop, but not with giddy anticipation; no, this was just stark terror. Yeah, Nile had time. Decades and centuries and maybe even more, and Andy didn’t. Nile didn’t say it, but the flash of grim yet warm acknowledgment in Andy’s eyes suggested that she heard it all the same, and she didn’t mind. Well, it wasn’t for Nile to be the one getting all dramatic about Andy’s mortality, even if the prospect was scary. And anyway, Andy was here now, and would be for a while yet. That was what was important.
So Nile lifted her chin and said, “Yeah, I do. All the more reason to start with art history.”
“I can take the time to learn it all, you know? Really understand everything that’s possible with art, from the Chauvet cave paintings all the way to, like, Banksy.”
“Overachiever,” teased Andy.
The waiter returned to take their orders, and Nile hastily chose something from the bafflingly minimalist and poetic menu—she hoped a memory of the fields was good—and then Andy’s attention was back on her.
“The Chauvet cave paintings, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Nile. “They’re just so alive—wait. Don’t tell me you—“
Andy gave her a disbelieving look. “I’m not that old. They’re from, what, 30,000 years ago? I’m not from the Stone Age, you know. But I understand what you mean. I’ve seen photos, and the art still has such a sense of movement.”
“Exactly! 30,000 years ago, and those paintings are still showing us how our ancestors saw the world. It’s worth studying, along with all the other art people have created.”
“It is,” said Andy. Her eyes creased and sparkled with unexpected playfulness. “Maybe I’ll join you in getting a degree. Literature, maybe. That’s something I never got much of a chance to pay attention to, it was always Booker’s—“ Andy stopped, swallowed hard, and Nile reached across the table to take her hand. Andy’s grip was fierce, and Nile clung on just as fiercely. “Anyway. I think I wouldn’t mind that.”
They moved on to lighter topics after that, and then their exquisitely plated, minuscule food arrived, and to Nile’s relief, at no point did their date devolve into the kind of awkwardness Nile had seen on Andy’s Tinder dates. Andy could be pretty reserved, sure, and intimidating, but here and now, she was relaxed, happy to smile and laugh and talk, to lean in towards her and take hold of Nile’s hand tightly and brush her legs against Nile’s under the table.
It was a good date, maybe the best Nile had ever been on.
Too bad it wasn’t real.
Not like you didn’t know the score, Freeman, she told herself. If she ordered dessert just to stretch the date longer, and just to have the pleasure of watching Andy savor the dense and rich raspberry torte, well, whatever, that was only for Nile to know.
“See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” said Nile with only somewhat forced cheer as they left the restaurant. “Act like that on your date with Martins, and he’ll definitely invite you up to his penthouse.”
“If you say so,” said Andy.
“What? What’s with that skeptical tone?” said Nile, and glanced over at Andy.
Andy shrugged. “He just seems like a pretty shallow guy. All the other guys did too. Not sure deep conversation is what does it for guys like that.”
Nile grinned, pleased at the implicit compliment to her own conversational skills. Though Andy had a point.
“Okay, yeah, sure, you probably shouldn’t get too real with them. But you still have to make some connection with them, be a little more approachable. Martins wants at least a little romance, otherwise he wouldn’t bother with the date at all, he’d just arrange for a hookup or find an escort or something.”
“Him hiring escorts would at least be more honest,” said Andy with a scoff. “The whole date thing, wining and dining, that’s all performance, when it’s with a stranger.”
“That’s kind of what dating is, yeah. The goal is to push past that with someone you really like, and build something more real, I guess.” Like we just did, Nile thought but didn’t say. “But in this case, you just need enough of a spark for a one-night stand.”
Another sidelong glance from Andy, and maybe it was just the reflection of the streetlights, but Nile thought she caught a flash of something there, a spark even, of some private pleasure or joy.
“Like tonight?” said Andy, then she raised a hand for one of the omnipresent black cabs, which stopped immediately for her, of course. She opened the door for Nile as she gave the cab driver Copley’s address, and Nile slid in, wanting to believe, for at least the length of a taxi cab ride, that this was an actual date, that the something real Andy had just alluded to could actually grow between them.
It was too easy, with the way Andy sat close to her.
“So. Did you have a good time?” asked Nile, making sure to sound just wry enough that Andy wouldn’t think she was taking this fake date too far.
“Yeah, I did, actually. Thanks,” Andy said. “But fuck, the portions at that restaurant were tiny. I’m still starving.”
Nile laughed, equal parts relief and delight, because for all the food had been delicious (and so expensive Nile had deliberately avoided doing any currency conversion in her head), there really hadn’t been much of it, and she was still kind of hungry too.
“Yeah, me too,” admitted Nile, and Andy grinned at her.
“Let’s stop somewhere and get kebabs,” she said, and then the cab driver insisted he knew the perfect spot.
So they stopped at some hole in the wall kebab joint, where Andy regaled Nile with maybe-tall tales of Joe and Nicky’s adventures with Shakespeare until Nile was crying with laughter.
Not a real date, Nile had to remind herself, over and over. This is just—team bonding.
When it came time for Andy to meet with Martins, Nile went along as backup, just in case, while Nicky and Joe stationed themselves at Martins’ building in the event they were needed there. The bar was crowded tonight, and Nile wasn’t sitting close enough to Andy to make out her whole conversation with Martins clearly, but their body language was telling enough, both of them leaning in towards each other, Andy’s smiles and laughs lacking their usual blade-keen edge, sharing the occasional flirty touch. The sight made Nile faintly uneasy, some bitter and roiling emotion simmering inside her until Nile recognized it for what it was: jealousy. Jealousy and a hefty helping of disquiet, to see some of her own mannerisms mirrored back at her, as if Andy had spent their entire fake date carefully cataloguing Nile’s every move and stashing the knowledge away for later use.
Which had, of course, been the whole damn point of her fake date with Andy.
Nile almost laughed at herself then, because what the fuck. What did she even have to be jealous of? She knew this was all a con, that this version of Andy who laughed with throaty abandon and smiled sweetly wasn’t real. Martins would never know the real Andy, would never see even the barest hint of Andromache of Scythia. But Nile had, and Nile would see more still, and that was enough to shut up her dumb hindbrain.
After a couple more drinks, Martins unable to take his eyes off of Andy the entire time, he beckoned Andy closer, leaning in to speak directly into her ear. Andy cut a satisfied glance Nile’s way, so Nile could guess what Martins was saying: some variation of wanna come up to my penthouse? When Andy nodded and stood, taking Martins’ hand, Nile knew she’d succeeded in getting the invite up to Martins’ place.
Nile waited for them to walk out, then she got up to follow them. She couldn’t follow them into the building itself—that would arouse suspicion and attract attention from building security—but Nicky and Joe’s stakeout van was waiting and Nile joined them there.
“Seems you’re a fine teacher,” said Joe when she got in the van. “Andy had no trouble with Martins?”
“None,” reported Nile, and then they waited for Andy to check in.
After a few minutes, Andy texted them: met a guy, gone to his place. ;)
“Who taught Andy about emojis?” muttered Nile, and Nicky grinned.
After another fifteen minutes, Andy called them.
“He’s out,” she said. “I’m getting the data now….it’s transferring. Should take just another ten or fifteen minutes.”
The sound of Andy’s heels clacking on the floor came through the phone, along with some faint rustling and crinkling noises.
“What are you doing?” Nile asked, a little nervous, because for all that Andy’s tone was nonchalant and unbothered, this whole thing could still go south if Martins wasn’t as safely knocked out as he seemed.
“Just setting the scene. I want to make sure he wakes up with absolutely zero suspicions.”
“You’re gonna have to new phone, who dis him when he inevitably texts or calls you,” warned Nile.
“Not sure what that means, but I told him I was leaving the country soon.” The faint sound of a pen on paper came through the speaker phone. “There. Now he knows our night of passion will forever be in my thoughts,” said Andy, her tone drier than the Sahara.
Nile winced, because that definitely wasn’t the kind of thing your average millennial said, at least not without it being ironic, but decided to let it go. Who cared if Martins thought “Annie” was a weirdo, so long as he didn’t suspect her of stealing his files.
“And you’ll always be the one that got away,” said Nicky, then added, “Make sure the doorman doesn’t see you on your way out, in case Martins asks him about you.”
“Good point,” said Andy. “Alright, files transferred. I’m on my way out.”
Andy left Martins’ apartment and then the building without incident, and joined them in the van.
“Huh. That was easy,” remarked Joe with a brief glance back at them before he started the van and got on the road.
“Not every mission has to end in shootouts and explosions,” said Nile.
Andy grinned, already kicking off her heels and letting them clatter onto the van’s floor. “Sounds fake, but okay,” she said, and seriously, just when the hell had Andy started catching up with memes and the language of the extremely online?
Thanks to Martins’ data, they had enough intel to take the entire weapon smuggling operation down with a few well-placed tips to the authorities and a bit of judicious hacking, plus a couple of stealth raids to blow up some of the weapons caches.
Andy sighed happily as they watched a warehouse blow with a deep, concussive whoof noise.
“There’s just something about explosions,” she said, and Nile thought yeah, there is, as she watched the light of the flames flicker and dance in Andy’s shining, pale eyes.
“It’s the sense of closure, I think,” said Joe, contemplative. “Like it’s a kind of, you know, full stop, only it’s an exclamation point. Very satisfying.”
“Explosions can also just be cool, you guys,” Nile said, and smiled as her team laughed.
In moments like this, the decades and centuries of life stretching out before her seemed more exciting than terrifying. She’d lost a lot, for her immortality. But she’d gained a lot too, and today the balance seemed fair.
With a successful op under their belts, and nothing on the radar that urgently demanded their particular skills, it was time to return to Nile’s training. The team lived a pretty nomadic lifestyle, as far as Nile could tell, and their latest safehouse/base/home was a rented villa in the Spanish countryside, on the outskirts of Jerez. The rolling golden hills and green fields were home to vineyards and cattle and horses, and it was quiet, nothing more than the occasional bus of tourists rumbling by, a life lived at the pace of the vineyards that produced grapes for wine and sherry.
At least, that was the life lived by everyone else. In their little villa, they had a stricter schedule. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as boot camp, but it was still a fairly grueling daily syllabus of PT and weapons training and language learning. Even making lunches and dinners were lessons: fun cooking lessons, but still lessons, Joe and Nicky teaching her history along with cooking techniques and a dash of Spanish and Italian and Arabic.
After a couple of weeks, Nile had achieved the welcome milestone of not dying during every sparring session, and if the success hadn’t been satisfying enough on its own, Andy’s pleased smile would have been.
“Well done,” she said.
Nile tried to keep a poker face befitting a Marine at first, acknowledging the praise with a brisk nod, but then she realized: she didn’t have to, and why the fuck should she? So she just grinned, and when Andy opened her arms for a celebratory hug, Nile stepped into it gladly, happy to feel the wiry strength of Andy’s arms tight around her.
“Thanks,” Nile murmured.
“Let’s add something new to the syllabus. I promised you some horseback riding, didn’t I?”
Nile was about equal parts nervous and dubious about learning how to ride a horse. Nervous, because horses were big and Nile had no real idea of how to ride one, and dubious because how much utility would this even have in her immortal life?
“Don’t think I don’t see that skeptical look on your face,” said Andy during the drive to wherever the horses were. A stable? A ranch? Nile wasn’t sure about the terminology. She was a city girl, okay?
“I’m just wondering how often riding horses comes up in modern life.”
“Maybe not much, now. But it’s something you ought to know how to do in case this fancy post-industrial society of yours collapses back into the bronze age.”
“And how likely do you think that is?” asked Nile, alarmed.
Andy shrugged, far too casual for having just raised the specter of a post-apocalyptic life. “Anything could happen. I’m not trying to scare you, but when you live long enough, you see empires rise and fall, and sometimes the fall comes fast, and ends in a hell of a crash. Best to be prepared. We’ll do some wilderness training this fall and winter too, in the Altai.”
“Sounds like I’m gonna be a real Girl Scout,” said Nile, and Andy glanced sidelong at her, eyes narrowed.
“And we’ll do the Sahara sometime too, don’t think I’ve forgotten about how you tried to run off on your own in the middle of the damn desert back in Afghanistan. Joe can help with desert survival.”
“Okay, but I’m not totally clueless, you know. We got this kinda training in the Marines.”
“That’s a good foundation,” allowed Andy. “You need to know how to live off the land more longterm too though. For now, we’ll start with horses.”
“Alright. Can I get an, I don’t know, equestrian badge for this?”
“Why would you need a badge?” asked Andy, baffled, and Nile laughed, then explained the Girl Scouts to her.
It took a full week before Andy would even let Nile get on a horse.
“I want you to know how to take care of your horse first,” said Andy. “When you’re riding, your horse is your partner, not just your beast of burden.”
Which, yeah, alright, fair enough. Once Nile had all the care and feeding of her horse partner basics down to Andy’s stringent satisfaction, they worked on the actual horseback riding together. Nile was stiff and awkward about it for a good week’s worth of lessons, unused to the rhythm of it and the way even her sweet bay mare’s gentle trot rattled her bones. Also, horseback riding required a surprising amount of core strength, to say nothing of her thighs. As sedate a ride as her mare Rosa was, Nile still found herself struggling to maintain the proper posture while in the saddle.
All the bone-rattling trotting was worth it to experience a true, ground-eating gallop though, because that felt like flying. The only possible response to a full-speed gallop on horseback was to lean into it and laugh, and let the wind steal the sound. And almost as thrilling as her own ride was turning to see Andy, ferociously alight with joy, utterly and entirely in her element, her beauty piercing Nile as surely as a thrown spear.
After a few weeks of near daily instruction from Andy, Nile figured she was doing well enough to earn an equestrian badge. She’d never have Andy’s ease on horseback, because Andy rode as easily as she walked, literal millennia of experience in her every movement, but if society did collapse and all vehicles stopped working, Nile now knew enough to manage alright on horseback. She and her horse got through the little obstacle course Andy had set up well enough, anyway, even if Andy thought the obstacles were too easy.
Thankfully Joe and Nicky, who’d come along to spectate and/or offer moral support along with their heckling, talked Andy down from trying to teach Nile any Olympic-level equestrian skills. Or rather, any Scythian-level equestrian skills.
“All knowledge is worth having, but I don’t believe Nile will have as much need of our level of skill on horseback,” said Nicky. “The time for such things has passed, I think.”
“She ought to be able to fight on horseback,” retorted Andy, and Nile had visions of herself doing some real Lord of the Rings level shit with a sword while on horseback, which was a nice fantasy that was immediately replaced with far more realistic visions of herself getting run through with a sword while on horseback, or even more likely, falling off the horse and onto her own damn sword.
“Perhaps,” said Joe, patting Rosa’s forelock with a smile. “But she won’t be learning them with these gently bred horses. There’s not much call for warhorses, nowadays. Better to prioritize a little more, I think. Wilderness training will stand Nile in better stead in the years to come.”
“True enough,” said Andy, accepting with equanimity the implicit truth that Andy wouldn’t be around for most of those years.
It gave Nile the contrary impulse to insist on combat training on horseback, to agree with Andy, to ask Andy to teach her every single thing she knew about fighting while riding, as if that would stave off death.
But the conversation had already moved onto preparations for heading to the Altai, Joe regaling Nile with poetic descriptions of Lake Baikal’s beauty, how deep it was, how blue.
“Sounds beautiful,” said Nile, her eyes not wavering from Andy’s.
“We’re going back to the stables?” asked Nile, recognizing the winding country roads Andy was driving down, familiar from the weeks of training at the stables. “I thought my horseback riding skills passed muster.”
“They did,” said Andy. “This is something else.” When Nile squinted suspiciously at her, she added, “Something fun. I hope.”
“Alright,” said Nile, and hoped Andy’s idea of fun aligned even a little bit with her own.
They did end up back at the stables again, and they took their usual horses out, Nile taking the placid and agreeable Rosa, while Andy took Tito, the feisty chestnut stallion she favored.
“This isn’t a lesson,” said Andy, but as she packed Tito’s saddle bags with whatever mystery things she’d put in the trunk earlier, she apparently couldn’t help a mini-lecture on the appropriate balancing of a horse’s load.
Nile listened, of course, and didn’t complain when Andy peered at her appraisingly before setting a floppy straw hat on her head, to guard against the heavy heat of the late summer sun.
“Adorable,” she declared, and Nile scowled, but then Andy pulled another big floppy hat out of her bag to wear herself, and alright, yeah, adorable was the right word for it, at least until Andy’s habitually composed expression did its usual magic trick and turned the ridiculous hat into high fashion.
Once they were packed to Andy’s satisfaction, they were on their way, following one of the trails that led into the low hills near the stables. Everything was quiet on the trail, save for the gentle, living hum of late summer—insects and birds and the breeze through the trees—and the rhythmic clop-clop of their horses’ hooves.
“We headed anywhere in particular?” asked Nile, after a pleasant fifteen minutes of calm near-silence, and Andy glanced back over her shoulder with a smile.
“You’ll see,” she said.
After another hour and a half of pleasant riding, Andy guided her horse to a barely visible path through a copse of trees, almost overgrown and pleasantly cool for it, the branches snagging on Nile’s braids when she took her hat off. Nile thought she could hear the faint burble of some creek or stream, and the deeper into the trees they went, the louder it got, until the trees gave way to a small meadow, green and lush and lovely, and all surrounded by trees that let just enough dappled sunlight through to turn the meadow into a jewel, a perfect emerald of a wooded clearing.
“Oh wow,” said Nile, trying to take it all in at once.
“There’s some good mushroom foraging around here,” said Andy as she dismounted, leading Tito towards the babble of the creek, and Nile followed her to another break in the surrounding trees, where a narrow silver stream burbled away. They tied the horses’ leads to nearby trees, and Tito and Rosa grazed and drank happily enough beside the stream as Andy began unpacking some of the saddlebags.
“Is that why we’re here? Mushroom foraging?”
Andy turned back to her with a smile, and tossed one of the bags to her.
“Nah. Though while we’re here, we might as well, Nicky loves wild mushrooms. No, we’re here for a picnic. Can you lay out the blanket please?”
Nile couldn’t help but suspect that there was still some kind of lesson or training afoot here, but she laid the blanket out on the soft grass of the meadow anyway, making sure there were no rocks or pointy twigs under it. Andy brought the rest of the bags over, and began unpacking the makings of a fancy picnic: cheese and crackers, fresh fruit, some cured meat and crusty bread, cookies. And a bottle of wine too, or wait—champagne.
“Wow, you went all out,” said Nile.
“What is it you youths say? Treat yourself?” said Andy, her customary dry as dust tone making the words sound incongruously hilarious. “I figured we’ve earned it.”
“Well I’m not complaining,” said Nile, popping a juicy grape into her mouth, relishing the tart sweetness. “Thank you, this is really nice.”
“You’re welcome,” said Andy.
The late summer heat hadn’t yet eased, but here in this little meadow, surrounded by green and with a stream nearby, the air was almost cool, and it was kind of like they’d slipped through a portal into another world. They served themselves and each other, Andy popping the cork on the champagne and pouring it into plastic champagne flutes, Nile slicing the cheese, and soon enough they were munching and sipping happily.
“Is it just me or does picnic food always taste better than food eaten indoors?” asked Nile, because seriously, she was pretty sure cheese and crackers had never tasted better, even if this was fancy European cheese. “Doesn’t matter what the food is, if it’s a picnic, it tastes better.”
“It’s the combination of being outdoors and leisure, I think,” said Andy thoughtfully as she assembled herself a sandwich of cheese, meat, and, weirdly enough, slices of plum. “I’ve sure as hell eaten plenty of terrible food while traveling on horseback, and not even the beauty of the Greek coastline or whatever made hard tack palatable. It’s this whole lounging around thing that makes everything taste better.”
“True,” said Nile, thinking of MREs eaten while out in the field, and then watched as Andy took a bite out of her sandwich, her eyes fluttering closed as she savored it.
The sunlight dappled Andy’s face with gold and green, as if the leaves of the trees surrounding them were stained glass, softening some of the harder angles on her face. Although, Nile realized, the often stern lines of Andy’s lovely face had been soft more often than not, lately. Maybe it was the certainty she now had, thanks to Copley’s sleuthing: her life had meaning, her long years had saved countless people. Or maybe it was her new mortality, the knowledge of finally reaching an end. As much as it made her heart ache, Nile couldn’t really begrudge Andy the peace of that.
Whatever the reason for Andy’s softening, Nile was happy to see it, because Andy seemed happier and less brittle now than when they’d first met.
They chatted idly as they ate, about everything and nothing: Andy’s funny stories about wild mushroom foraging, Nile’s story about the single, hilariously disastrous time she’d gone camping, how they’d get to the Altai in a couple months.
Andy pulled out even more food, this time some flan—Spain’s baklava was nothing to write home about, apparently—and offered Nile a laden forkful of it, the rich caramel smell downright intoxicating. Nile took a bite from the fork Andy offered, then she reached out to take the fork, assuming Andy would pull out a fork of her own, but no—Andy just kept offering Nile forkfuls, taking a bite herself every other time, her pink lips closing around the creamy flan and the tines of the fork slowly, like she really wanted to linger over every mouthful. With the rich and sweet taste of the flan still on her own lips and tongue, watching Andy eat it was just as good as eating it all herself. Even if sharing a fork like this seemed too intimate by half, but what did Nile know. Maybe this was normal when you were old as balls.
Eventually they finished the flan, and Nile, feeling very full and a little overheated flopped down on the blanket with a happy sigh, indulging in the brief fizzing tipsiness from the champagne that would dissolve soon enough.
“So, how’d I do?” asked Andy.
Nile turned her head to see Andy lying down beside her, her arms behind her head showing off the taut muscles of her biceps. “How’d you do what?” asked Nile.
“At this dating thing. It’s no Tinder date at a too-expensive restaurant, I know—”
Nile sat up so quickly it made her still-tipsy head spin. “Wait, this was a date?”
Andy propped herself up on her elbow, smiling in a way that was almost cocky, holy shit. “If you’re alright with that. No hurt feelings if you’re not, but I thought—well.” Andy reached out to tuck one of Nile’s loose braids back. “You’re lovely and brave and—I’ve spent so many years just surviving, getting by. You’ve—shaken me loose of that, I guess. And I’ve been lonely for a long time, I think.”
The sun was still shining down on them through the leaves of the forest, and for a moment, Nile felt like all that sunlight was pooling inside of her, turning her golden and warm and supple. Had she fallen asleep, she wondered? Had she eaten too much and fallen into a brief food coma? Also, oh my god, Nile was a dumbass, she should’ve realized this was a date around the time Andy hand-fed her some flan.
“Okay, if you’re this smooth now, how were you so bad at those Tinder dates?” demanded Nile, which way to go, Freeman. That was definitely the right thing to say after Andy bared her soul to Nile.
Thankfully, Andy just tipped her head back and laughed, seemingly delighted, and then she leaned down over Nile, sparkling and mischievous and as bright as the damn sun that shone behind her.
“What can I say, I’m bad at faking it,” she said, and then she leaned down and kissed Nile.
Sweetness was the first thing Nile registered, the taste of their shared flan still heavy on their lips, and then with gentle inexorability, Andy coaxed Nile’s lips open, and okay, wow, yes, Andy was unsurprisingly very good at kissing. Nile had half-imagined Andy kissing like she fought, with a kind of brutal genius, but no, she kissed with firm, steady confidence instead, and Nile could only sigh and wrap her arms around Andy, and let Andy in.
They kissed and kissed, leisurely, thorough; Nile reveled in it, so different from the series of rushed hookups she’d grown used to. This was kissing for its own sake, not as a kind of obligatory foreplay, and it was better than a drug, to sink into someone like this on a warm summer afternoon, both of them burning as hot and steady as sunshine.
“You ever fucked in the open air?” asked Andy between kisses, her voice a gloriously low and rough murmur, and Nile shook her head, going nova hot at the mere thought of it. “It’s like we said about the food: it’s better outside.”
“Show me,” said Nile, and Andy smiled down at her, as triumphant as she’d been after their first fight, and oh, she showed Nile.
Andy showed Nile with her lips and her tongue and her fingers and her hands, their skin bare to the sun and the air and the dappled green all around them that breathed with the cool breeze. When Nile came, again and again, shaking and sighing, and when she got Andy off, marveling that just her mouth and fingers could put that expression of lax ecstasy on Andy’s beautiful face, it felt like part of the natural rhythm of the world, as inevitable and necessary as the way the grasses grew and the stream flowed.
“You were right,” said Nile eventually, as they dozed amid the lengthening shadows in the cooling meadow. “It’s better outside.”
“Just outside?” asked Andy, sly, and Nile grinned up the sky, before she turned and kissed Andy in answer.
It was better with Andy too, of course. Hell, it was probably best with Andy. And maybe Nile should have been worried about the heartbreak she was setting herself up for, but fuck it. Nile was pretty sure it was going to be worth it.