Andy thinks of Nicky as the softest of them, something she would never say out loud. Not soft in terms of fighting, or the ability to endure pain, or to be as ruthless as needed whenever it’s needed. Soft in a good way, in a way that cares. Nicky knows when a moment of stillness, gentleness, even peace is needed. And he will put his foot down to insist on it.
Which he does after London. “Pick a place,” he says, handing her a list written in his spidery, clumsy hand. He didn’t learn to read or write until well into his immortality, and while he had had plenty of time to become a polymath and scholar, he had never found any ease with ballpoint pens. “They’re all the right type, just pick one.”
The right type. Plains, grasslands, steppes, whatever they were called in their local vernacular. The names on the list were of rental properties, in those places, with a house and a stable full of horses and caretaking staff guaranteed to provide only discretion and privacy.
“I’m fine, Nicky,” she tries, holding the paper back out to him. “I need to heal up anyway, I might as well do that here as anywhere.”
His hands stay at his sides, the paper waiting in the air, refused. “Of course we’ll wait until you’re well enough to travel. But you need this, like you do every so often. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I gave up shame a very long time ago.” She hears Nile and Joe snort in unison, which—how has the new kid figured her out so fast? “Really, we don’t need to.”
Nicky changes tactics as smoothly as he does in battle. “Even if you insist on pretending that you don’t, Joe does. Pick a place, Andy.”
She sighs and looks at the list. She knows perfectly well that Joe is indifferent to these little pauses in their work. He doesn’t dislike them, but he doesn’t need them. The breaks he needs are the ones where he and Nicky vanish off somewhere alone for a year or ten, weaving themselves deeper into each other, eliminating any hint of a gap between where one ends and the other begins.
Still. If Nicky wants this so badly, she’ll do it. Maybe it will feel good after all. Sometimes it does.
“Montana,” she says, choosing one from the middle of the list. “Go ahead and set us up for Montana.”
Nicky smiles and takes the paper back, heading off to the laptop that he doesn’t use nearly as well as Booker did. Nile will probably end up helping him make the arrangements.
At the moment, though, Nile is lingering. “You want to tell me what’s in Montana? It didn’t sound like he was talking about a job.”
Andy snorts and shifts in her chair, trying not to gasp at the pain in her side. “Definitely not a job. Forced emotional recuperation, which I do not need.”
“Emotional?” Nile blinks. “I didn’t think any of you…”
Joe smiles faintly, and Andy echoes the expression. “Still had emotional needs?” Joe finishes.
“There’s a reason I stopped talking.” Nile shakes her head. “Sorry about that. But why Montana? What’s there?”
“Open land,” Joe says softly. “Open sky, and empty grassland, and horses.”
Nile’s eyes widen. “Horses? What? What do horses have to do with anything?”
“Andy’s a Scythian,” Nicky calls from the corner.
Nile still looks blank. Joe takes pity, picking up the thread with ease. “She was in the saddle before she could walk. Training her own colts from birth when she was knee-high to her family. It’s good for her to be around them. To be somewhere like where she came from, for a little while.”
“The Scythians were fascinating,” Nicky says. “I’ll get you a book about them.”
“I’m sitting right here,” Andy says. “Don’t talk about me like I’m a museum piece.” She looks at Nile, making a face. “Nicky was a city boy, but horses were part of city life in his time, too. And Joe’s people were riders. Booker… well. Him too.” It still feels strange to not account for all three of them, smoothly, in a row. “It’s a little bit of going back to the roots for all of us.”
Nile’s expression is flat. “I’ve never seen a horse in person. This isn’t going to do much for me.”
“That’s fine,” Nicky says. “The house is wonderful, you’ll be able to relax there. It has a professional-level gym! And a hot tub!”
“Dibs on the hot tub,” Joe says dreamily, and Andy closes her eyes, fighting a smile, as Nile bursts out laughing.
They fly to Montana once she’s well enough to ride. She knows her body, after all this time; she can’t do all the tricks a Scythian warrior knew by heart, but she can ride. No leaning down from the saddle to pluck a flower from the ground with her teeth; no leaping from the saddle to the ground and coming up with sword ready; no leaping from the ground to the saddle and swinging herself around to shoot arrows without her horse breaking stride. But she can ride.
The three of them ride out together in the afternoon, while Nile stays at the house with the first go at the hot tub that Joe gracefully ceded after they finished laughing. Andy and Joe have the muscle memory of people who were born with horses dozing either in the tent with them or just outside the wagon. Nicky has a thousand years of practice to make up for the childhood gap. They all move easily, breathing deep, bodies matching their mounts as easily as water to water.
Big Sky Country, the murals in the airport had declared, and Andy appreciates that. The grass isn’t the same, but the sky is itself everywhere, and she tilts her head back often as she rides, losing herself in endless azure. It soothes the hurt so deep inside her that she usually forgets it’s there. Fuck Nicky for never forgetting.
They don’t speak, just ride, moving their horses up to the steady ground-covering trot of cavalry on the go and then faster, faster, into the full-out gallop that’s dangerous as hell but just as fun. Then back down to a walk, letting the animals’ breath and heartbeat steady out, while the three of them lock eyes and laugh together.
Hours pass; Andy has a sense of how far they are from the wagon—the house, she reminds herself wearily—and finally pulls her mare to a halt. “You two should go back,” she says. “You’ll be just in time for dinner. And Nile won’t wonder if we’ve decided to ditch her, or been kidnapped by another pharma asshole, or something.”
“You could see a pharma asshole coming for miles out here,” Joe says.
“Won’t help if they come in by helicopter.” She rolls her neck slowly, surprised by the lack of tension in it. “Anyway. Go on back.”
“You’re going to do your thing?” Nicky’s always so polite about it. Andy puts her hand on the blanket roll tied behind her saddle and rolls her eyes at him.
“Obviously. Go on, go back. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“All right, all right.” He smiles at her, then pivots his horse and holds his hand toward Joe in challenge. “Race you to that hill?”
They take off in a thunder, and Andy’s mare shifts unhappily under her. “Shh, love,” Andy says, falling back into a language that’s long gone from the earth. “I know, you don’t like being left behind. I understand. But it will be all right.”
The mare settles once the other horses are well out of sight. Andy dismounts, strips off the saddle and replaces the bridle with a halter. She brought hobbles, too, and buckles them around the mare’s hind legs, so she can graze and move around in the night without deciding to hare off back to the stable. Andy brought two jugs of water in her bedroll; she cups her hands and waters the mare from one like that, before taking a few swigs from the other herself and starting to set up her little camp.
Bedding unrolled, grass trimmed and ground cut up to allow for a very small fire—she brought a block of artificial long-burning carbon for that. No need to haul wood behind her saddle, or walk the plain collecting dried animal shit, if she doesn’t have to, these days.
She sits by the fire, opens a MRE, and lies back on her blanket to watch the sky fade dark enough to show the stars.
The old stories are still there, clusters and patterns that hold prompts to remember. Andy doesn’t smile, but her chest feels warm, looking up at them. They’re still there, even after all this time. Just like her.
She wonders, vaguely, if she could still fashion a sling and hunt down the small animals of the grassland, if she needed to. Could she still take some wood and horn and sinew and turn it into a hunting bow? A war bow? Could she still shape arrows? Do her hands still know how, do those skills still linger in her mind under layers of Russian court etiquette and maps of pre-industrial France and how to pay proper honor to a Diné elder?
No way to know unless she tries it, and she won’t, not tonight. Probably not any time soon. Maybe she’ll see before she dies. Have Joe bring her a fresh-killed cow and see if she can still make use of every part.
But not now. Not tonight.
Andy closes her eyes, and sleeps.
When she gets back to the house in the morning, one of the discreet staff appears out of nowhere and offers to take care of the horse.
“I can do it,” she says automatically, offended on behalf of the girl-child who raised her mounts by hand from the moment they fell from their mother to the grass.
“Of course,” the young woman says, her mouth curving in a smile that doesn’t meet her eyes. “I just thought you’d like to get inside and have breakfast.”
Andy can see the truck parked by the barn that she must have taken to work this morning; the stickers on the back windows declare Native pride, and that she’s from the nearby rez. Ah. Of course. As far as she’s concerned, Andy is a spoiled white woman who went for an early-morning ride and threw off the feeding and barn chores rotation.
“That’s very kind of you,” she says, handing over the reins and touching the mare’s neck in soft thanks and blessing. “Thank you.”
Inside, she finds Nile curled up on the couch, cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other. Andy squints at the cover, trying to see if it’s more on the Scythians.
“Crusades,” Nile says, mouth twisting in a half-smile. “Figured it was only polite to be able to make conversation with Joe and Nicky.”
“They’re not so much into the broader politics of it.” Andy flops down in the armchair. “But if you want to hear about life on the ground, they’ve got all of it. And of course if you want to hear the details of how they met. They’ll tell that for days.”
“I accidentally got them started over dinner.” Nile slips her bookmark in place and sets the book aside. “They’re awake. Or at least, Joe came out, got two cups of coffee, and went back in the bedroom, so they’re awake but maybe not available for conversation yet.”
Andy waves her hand. “I don’t need anything from them today, I don’t think. They can enjoy the break, too.”
“Was your ride helpful? And sleeping out all night?” There’s no judgment in Nile’s voice, no eye-rolling. Of course not, she’s a warrior, too.
“It was, actually. I feel…” She always hesitates to say better. “It was good.”
“I’m glad.” Nile stretches her free arm, balancing the coffee in her other hand carefully. “You should grab some coffee and breakfast.”
“Should I? Why’s that?”
“Because I want to check out that gym, and I’ll need a spotter.” Her grin is quick and bright as she meets Andy’s eyes. “Think you’re up for that?”
Andy laughs despite herself. “I thought you were going to say you wanted to spar. Was going to beg off due to bullet wound, again.” She stands up and offers her hand, pulling Nile to her feet when she takes it. “But spotting, I can do. Let’s go, kid.”
The windows are closed, but she can still hear the wind whistling over the grassland outside. It’s a good sound, she thinks, letting Nile lead her to the kitchen. It makes her think about being safe, and surrounded by family.