It’s two months since London, give or take, by the time the toll comes due for everything Nile’s been putting off since the day she first died.
They – her and Andy, Joe and Nicky – spend seven weeks cleaning up the mess Merrick left, with Copley’s help. After Copley tells them they’re in the clear, at least for now, they go to ground in one of Joe or Nicky’s more comfortable boltholes on the Dalmatian coast. Nile’s cautiously aware they’re taking pains to create a welcoming environment for her in particular, in their isolated cottage by the sea. They tell her the Mediterranean is, with the exception of each other, the one thing that feels like home for the both of them.
The house itself is a spacious, two storey cottage built of limestone, the roof clad with terracotta that glows in the light of the sunset as it sets over the western sea. It looks like something from a travel website, the kind beyond Nile’s budget.
Nile learns she loves the warm and shallow water, the rockpools, the smell of seaweed, and the colourful fishes, though she’s starting to have opinions about sea urchins. Booker was right. Just because she heals, doesn’t mean the spikes don’t hurt. She thinks Andy chafes at the inaction and the realities of life without instant healing, but Andromache of Scythia still spends the afternoons swimming in the sea with the rest of them and the nights drinking them under the table. Joe and Nicky get to show off their cooking skills in their well-appointed and spacious kitchen, returning from the local town market with fish fresh from the sea and herbs grown by one of the neighbours higher up the beach. In this, as in seemingly everything, the two are a team, although once they get to the kitchen itself things are significantly more likely to devolve into flirting and bickering than they are in the field or out in the town. So far, Nile has watched Nicky chase Joe from the kitchen with a wooden spoon four times, and they only settled in six days ago. It’s cute.
So yeah, it’s the kind of holiday Nile never thought she’d have, a private beach in the fancy part of Europe, time to stop and enjoy herself. Time, unfortunately, to allow everything she’s been holding off and refusing to think about to rise up and knock her on her ass.
Nile has spent the afternoon alternately, sunning herself on the rocks, diving off the rocks, reading up about some local history, and practicing her languages with Andy but now, as evening draws in, she’s out on the bleached wooden deck around the back of the house. Someone has fitted it out with benches and chairs draped with heavy striped cotton blankets. Perhaps they’re homemade; who knows what skills her new family have picked up over the centuries? The sunset sky is painted in yellow and lilac, as bright as the lavender that grows on the hills, and warm as the jars of honey in the markets. She’s reclining, her feet propped on a low table, balancing her chair on two legs, her shoulders resting against the wall.
Nile’s hair is wrapped up with a deep conditioning mask. If they stay here too long and keep up the daily swimming she’s decided to get her hair re-done in a protective style. She’s gotta remind herself to ask about the protocol Andy must have for visiting salons when you’re immortal and on the run. Swimming is glorious, but right now she feels like she spends as long rinsing her hair as she spends in the water. She’s thought about buzzing it short, but she prefers it long.
It had been a source of amusement back on tour. Jordan – J – used to tease her for her braids.
“Buzz the shit out of it, it’s the way forward!” she’d say, keen and cajoling, lying on her stomach in the next bunk, running her palm over her own fuzzy head. “Think how much easier it would be! Saves time!”
“Hell, what else am I doing with my time?” Nile had asked. “We’re in Afghanistan, we’re at work.”
“Oh, I find ways, Freeman, I find ways,” Jay had promised, batting her eyelashes over those big, black eyes.
“Oh god, don’t remind us,” Dizzy had groaned from across the room, and of course then J would inform them in great detail about the things she’d persuaded one of the translators to get up to, and where, exactly they’d gotten up to it.
After Nile was promoted, it wasn’t quite the same, and then… And then…
Alright, so she’d died. But she’d been terrified, and her friends had looked at her with fascination and then fear. Dizzy had packed her bags, no-one had said anything. Too odd, too much trouble, too difficult to understand, and Nile had found herself in the centre of a growing circle of silence and suspicion. At the most vulnerable point in her life, Nile had been surrendered to a higher authority, to be removed from sight. In those few minutes before Andy had knocked her unconscious and kidnapped her in a stolen jeep, it had felt more like being sacrificed than being given a set of orders. Nile was to leave, to keep the peace.
You find out you belong, but only with conditions. You belong, until your presence is inconvenient to everyone else. You belong and then… you don’t.
Nile feels sudden grief like a bullet to the gut, a knife to the throat. It steals her breath, tightens her stomach, and she rocks forward in spasm. The two front legs of the chair thunk onto the wooden boards of the deck, and she doubles up over her knees. She digs her nails into her scalp, through the wrap. Her head feels like it’s going to burst from the pressure of the grief forcing its way up her gullet and out of her throat. She brings one hand to the cross she keeps around her neck, and squeezes tight.
When her father died, Nile’s pastor had sat beside her while she cried, and told her that grief isn’t something that can be prayed away.
“Child,” Pastor Debbie had told her, her voice warm and deep. “Greif is like the ocean. The waves crash over you, and they recede, and then they rise up and swallow you all over again. And it hurts, Lord, it hurts. But grief isn’t something that can be cast out by the power of the Spirit,” Nile huddled in a pew and clutched her knees to her chest. “Nile, your sadness is not wrong, and loss isn’t a sickness to be healed. All you can do, when the waters come, is stay standing.”
Nile had looked up at Pastor Debbie, who had once buried her own teenaged son, and probably dozens of congregants in her time, and whose wrinkled face was kind.
“How?” Nile had asked.
“You just do, sweetheart. You’ve got your mom, and your brother. You’re not alone. And you live. Some days the waves overcome you. That’s okay. Some days will be better. You just ride those waters, and know you’re not alone. And that your daddy is proud of you.”
Now, over a decade later, Nile knows the truth of that. The ocean thing, anyway. Her feelings about God right now are, perhaps, one existential crisis too far, at least for this holiday. She spares a thought for Booker, wherever he is. She wonders whether he, too, is having a day where the waves are winning.
“Ah, shit,” says Andy, jogging up the wooden steps from the beach. Nile raises her damp and burning face, trying desperately to stifle her weeping. Andy has thrown a loose buttoned shirt over a swimsuit and rolled the sleeves up to the elbows. The sand clings to her shins, and she hops over, takes a seat on the table and looks up into Nile’s eyes.
“I’d ask you what this is about, but I’m aware that’s a stupid question,” says Andy, kindly.
Nile laughs, and hiccups. Andy takes her hand and sighs.
“Do you remember," asks Nile, "when you found me?”
“You were in the army. I hit you in the head.”
“Fuck you, the Marines are the Navy,” says Nile, automatically, for what must have been the thousandth time in her short career. ‘Civilians,’ Dizzy would have said, and meant every syllable with disdain. Nile feels sick. And angry. So angry. She’s nauseous with sadness and rage.
“Dammit,” she chokes out, “they were family. When you join up, the whole process, it’s this… They tell you there’s this bond. And there is. They said we were family. And my father already… And when I was dying, they held my hand. And when I woke up, it was all different…”
She breaks down crying again. Andy must be hating this.
“Oh, kid,” sighs Andy, as if reading her mind. “You really don’t want me for this kind of thing.” She picks herself up, then slumps on the chair next to Nile’s and reaches her arm around Nile’s shoulders. “Well, ordinarily I would tell you that you are, in fact, family, that none of us will ever betray you, that it’s you and me, kid, plus those two back there,” Andy jerks her head back towards the house. Her smile is bitter and bright. “But it turns out I don’t know as much as I thought I did, so…” She shrugs and pulls out a bottle from under one of the chairs. “Drink?”
It’s maybe an hour later.
The sun is well on its way below the horizon by now, the mellow pastels of earlier ripening to deep oranges and reds, the rocks and hills behind them already dark with the purple of night. Nile and Andy are drinking in pools of shadow cast by the dying sunlight. Nile’s long since stopped crying, but her eyes itch with tears and she’s still wearing the hair wrap. Also, her throat is burning from the liquor.
“Semper Fi, my ass,” snorts Andy, toasting the night air with the bottle of whatever local distilled hooch she’s managed to get her hands on now. Nile tuts at her.
“Give me that, your liver can’t regrow every night anymore. You’re not Prometheus. Those eagles in that bottle are going to kill you.”
“You will pry these eagles from my cold dead…”
“Yes! That’s my point! Give it here!”
They’re scuffling and Nile’s grabbing for the bottle, while Andy laughs and fends her off with the ease of millennia, when the lightbulb hanging from the porch suddenly illuminates the table. It lights the way for Nicky who arrives holding a plate of what looks like tiny donuts.
“Alright, back off, back off, Nicky is bringing us gifts,” orders Andy, and shoves the bottle of spirits back under the table. She shifts over, onto one of the benches. Nile makes a mental note to confiscate the bottle later, for all the good that’ll do.
“Fritule. A local speciality,” explains Nicky, sliding the plate on to the low table. “For Christmas, ordinarily, but I thought we could stretch tradition under the circumstances. I doubt we’ll be here in December.” The smell of hot greasy batter, sugar, citrus and not a small amount of rum wafts up from the table. Nile’s stomach gurgles and Andy snorts. Nile kicks her none-too gently in the shins.
“He doesn’t want you to find out they originated in Venice,” adds Joe, leaning in behind Nicky, who scoffs and, without looking behind him, lands a light, back-handed smack on Joe’s shoulder. Joe shuffles backwards with a laugh.
“Perdonami, tesoro, but it is the truth, and you know it.”
“Joe is unfortunately correct,” allows Nicky, with an awful glare towards his other half that’s tempered by the merest upturn at the corner of his mouth, “but the Croatian recipe is much better. Joe, be useful, bring us drinks.”
“Of course, my everything,” says Joe, with a wink, and disappears into the cottage. Andy and Nile roll their eyes in tandem and Nicky huffs at them, waving his hands indicating they should eat.
“While they’re still hot, please, take them,” he says, and Nile needs no more encouragement than that. They taste as they smell: comforting and perfect.
“Oh my god,” she mumbles, through a mouthful of hot, boozy, doughy goodness. Next to her, Andy is making exaggerated noises of satisfaction and dramatically draping herself across the bench. Nicky looks pleased, and Joe returns with a bottle of white wine and four glasses.
“A success?” asks Joe.
“It seems so,” says Nicky, taking the glasses and passing them around. Andy rights herself as she takes one and sticks out her tongue at Nile. Joe uncorks the chilled bottle and pours. Nile takes another donut.
“So, Nile,” says Nicky, not nervously, but seriously, as if the answer matters. “What do you think?”
“I think you can make me pastries any time,” she tells him, grabbing another one. “These are delicious. And I love your home, and your cooking, and your sea. Ya’ll are generous hosts, and I’m grateful.”
“It’s not our sea,” argues Nicky, until Joe tugs on his hand, interlacing their fingers.
“Hush, Nicolò,” chides Joe. “He means, ‘thank you,’ Nile.”
“You’re welcome, now we should maybe stop emoting before Andy, I dunno, passes out from the warrior’s vapours or something.” Nicky barks out a laugh, and Andy scowls.
“Yeah, I’m going to hurry that along,” says Andy, reaching down getting a grip on the neck of the bottle by her feet and chugging back what must be a burning mouthful.
“Give me the bottle,” growls Nile.
“No,” says Andy, grinning.
“Never,” says Andy, springing to her feet. She vaults over the rail onto the beach, and takes off into the dark, whooping as she goes.
“Asshole!” yells Nile, and follows, running down the smooth wooden steps, bare feet slapping on the damp sand as she nears the water.
Behind her, she faintly hears Nicky say, “We should make sure they don’t…” before he and Joe are racing along behind her. Joe overtakes her with a shout of triumph, and chases after Andy who’s still ahead of all of them. Nicky curses in some language Nile can’t decipher but, whether by cautious design, or genuine limitation, remains a few paces behind her and doesn’t try to race Joe, who’s now caught up to Andy and is feinting and reaching for the bottle. Nile barrels right in there and manages to get her hand around the thing before Andy’s elbow digs her in the ribs, and she peels off, yelping. Nicky arrives, and stands watching, breathing hard and laughing as Nile, Joe and Andy dance around each other in the surf, two-on-one and still outclassed. Nile quits before Joe does; he’s got Andy around the waist from behind and is lifting her up and swinging her around and around while she kicks and laughs and pinches his fingers. The bottle lies abandoned in a shallow puddle; Nicky swipes it and hides it behind his back. When Nile looks, he raises a single finger to his lips and shushes her theatrically. Nile steps over to his side and watches with him as Andy throws Joe over her shoulder and he falls protesting into the sea while she chuckles.
Nile watches, feeling Nicky shake with laughter at her side.
She huffs, a sad exhalation into the night air.
She’s cautious; she’s not labelling this yet, her probably inevitable bond with these people around her, her place in this little group, not when they’re still so wounded and uncertain, with Booker somewhere across the sea, and Quynh – the woman drowning in her dreams – still under it. Nile knows her newness is part of it too, and Andy’s mortality, which appears to have Nicky and Joe easily spooked and exchanging cautious looks when they think Nile and Andy aren’t looking. Nile supposes that for them, all of this is its own kind of grief.
But no one is telling her what these connections mean. She’s building them herself, with people who are themselves reaching out to her. And she’s got time, now, to find out.
The bottle of whatever it was has long been lost to the surf and the sand by the time Andy and Joe quit fooling around, and Nicky complains that he’s getting cold, and that Nile needs to fix her hair, and that there’s meatballs and gravy in the warming oven. Andy gives Joe one last shove in the chest before striding up to join them, and throwing a salty, sticky arm around Nicky’s neck. Nicky squeezes a hand at her waist and turns to haul his boss towards, "real food, Andromache." Joe lopes on over, grips Nile’s shoulder and grins. She smiles.
Together they make their way back up the beach guided by the light from the porch, the soft shushing waves of the Mediterranean lapping the shore behind them.