Nile’s mother always told her that the most important thing was to be honest. Her grandmother always told her that it was more important to be smart.
Sorry, Mom. She stares at the four oldest people on earth, sprawled on the Airbnb living-room floor. Nana wins this one.
“It has always bothered me,” Nicky is saying. He’s curled his body into a question mark, and Nile refuses to find it adorable. She herself is sitting backwards in an IKEA chair, which allows her to see the four of them as well as the windows. Just in case someone comes through. They aren’t actually in a home—someone is renting out this entire bloc of apartments, each one minimally furnished and the same as the ones on either side. It’s hard to tell if this makes them safer or not. “The way that the human toe looks. But ever since that day, I have truly been haunted by it.”
“That’s good,” Nile says. “Keep sharing nice, innocuous things like that, if it makes you feel better.”
Joe stretches out on the rug. “I don’t go for toes. So I am glad that you do not either, although, for you, I would make an attempt. Like I did with the—”
“That is not innocuous,” Andy interrupts. They’d given her the couch: she hadn’t argued, but she’d given a lot of those piercing looks. They seem to be one of her main methods of communication. And unfortunately, they’re very effective. Very effective. “Personal details make me uncomfortable, but I also love hearing them— shit, Nile, call Copley, ask him how much longer this is supposed to last.”
“They thought it would take effect while you were in the lab, so that shows how much he knows.” There aren’t many clinical studies on how a slow-acting truth serum is going to affect the immortal, self-healing body is what Copley had said the last time Nile checked. Though it will be a fascinating record for science and history, if you want to ask questions and take some notes. “The only important thing he said was that it would make you want to talk. This place isn’t big enough to separate fully, but maybe if we split up—”
“I don’t want to go.” Booker has his head on the desk, with his cheek pressing against a cheap spiral notebook that the Airbnb host had generously provided at no extra cost. It’s going to leave a print on his skin. “I’m terrified that if you leave I’ll never see you again, and that’s not what I want, that’s never what I wanted—”
Joe sits up. “I don’t give a shit what you wanted. I know why you did it, and you’re a coward— you weren’t alone. You had us, you had Andy—”
“If we talk about this I will cry,” Andy announces, which is absolutely horrifying because Nile has known Andy for, like, two days, and she’s learned that Andy is very strong and full of lots of fragile emotions and looks really hot wielding a labrys—but she doesn’t know her well enough to watch her cry over a betrayal that runs deeper than Nile can understand.
(Well. She thinks of Dizzy’s voice as Nile bled out. Her face a few hours later. Maybe she can understand a little bit.)
“I’ve always thought it would do you some good to cry more often,” Nicky says, and Nile clears her throat.
“Okay. We don’t want to say anything we’ll regret.” Or that will cause Nile to die of secondhand embarrassment. “So how about you all just… tell me your favorite food and we’ll go from there.” Nice. Safe. They can save the personal things for something normal. Like when they’ve all had just enough to drink that they can justify sharing. Or when they’re staring down potential death and feel the need to be Understood. Nile is great at making friends in both those situations.
“My mother made the most wonderful maqluba,” Joe says, lying back down. Nicky sort of snuggles in against his side, and it’s cute enough that Nile understands why Booker felt alone. “She’d make it with whatever was handy, but I loved it best when there was eggplant. I can’t remember the sound of her voice, but I remember that. I have ordered maqluba at every restaurant in the Levant, and it’s never just the same. I suppose hundreds of years of vegetable evolution are to blame, and the new versions taste better to me, but I miss how it was.”
Nicky sighs. “I tried to make some for you once. But it turned into such a mess that I thought it would make you more sad than happy. So I got a lot of beer instead.”
“I’d have been touched that you tried.”
“I think you two are very sweet, but,” Booker’s jaw tenses, and Nile is pretty sure he just bit his tongue. “I don’t have a favorite food. I do really like pizza. But not all pizza. I had some in New York once, and it was—I found it to be disgusting. Chicago, though. I thought, there is a city that knows what it’s about.” He waves a half-hearted fist in Nile’s direction. “I would love to visit your city again someday.”
It would be fun to take them all there. To see what history they know. To share her own. But she doesn’t think she could set foot in Chicago without wanting to go home, so maybe—maybe when her family is gone. And maybe Booker will be forgiven by then. Because they all got out of this alive, didn’t they? She can barely comprehend the length of time that these people have existed. Is this something that’s going to matter, long term?
Or is it more like when she first said she was thinking about enlisting, and her brother screamed that he’d never speak to her again, and Nile had screamed back that that was fine with her? They’d maintained the silence for four days before pretending that it had never happened.
That fight hadn’t gotten people killed, though.
Nile had seen the bodies in the church, the men and women in uniforms and tac gear, and thought of Dizzy, of Jay, of her father. Amazing, how quickly Merrick’s guys went from people to a faceless enemy she had to gun down: but they had families, too. The others have centuries of blood on their hands, and she’s not sure she can handle the last few days.
Does it get easier?
Andy makes it look easy. But maybe she was always like this.
Or maybe mortal lives start to look very pathetic, after a while.
Nicky raises his hand from where he is still lying on the floor. “Italy is— wow, I truly cannot lie. In my opinion, Italy is the only place to get a pizza. There was always food on bread, but I sometimes regret that I was away when it truly began to evolve. I would have liked to see it, I think.”
It’s a little unfair, Nile doesn’t say, that you get to be immortal for the invention of pizza, and I get to be immortal for global warming.
The past is full of horrors. If the good always balanced them out, Andy wouldn’t have given up on humanity. Booker wouldn’t have sold out his friends for a chance to die.
“I saw it,” Andy says without opening her eyes. “It wasn’t much to talk about, but one of the women who made it was. I can’t remember her name.”
“But did she remember yours?” Booker asks, and when Andy opens her eyes, she’s looking at Nile.
“For a while.”
Is that a flirtation, or is she just looking for a reaction?
Nile has never been good at this. Especially with older women. Especially with older women who have been alive for untold millennia but are now suddenly mortal, when Nile is, suddenly… not.
It occurs to her that she could ask Andy how old she is, and finally get an answer.
“Best sex of her life, I assume,” Nicky says.
“I would like to think so,” Andy says carefully, and Nile is glad that she wasn’t dosed because now she doesn’t have to admit how much more information she wants on this subject. She doesn’t get off on having her arm broken, but she’d felt Andy’s muscles, and now that things are calm—
Well. Now that she’s on her own, with her friends and family thinking her dead, and she’s staring down thousands of years of life, it’s almost impossible to imagine that a week ago she was worried about Dizzy’s bet with Marrell over the Giants game. Whether she’d be promoted. The fact that she and her brother had bought their mom the same book for her birthday, and he should be the one to change presents because she is in Afghanistan, and a little bit busy—
And will never get to give her mom the present anyway because she’s legally dead and is never going to see her again.
Nile would much rather think about Andy’s legs. And arms. And face.
“…best sex we ever had was near Italy,” Joe is saying, and Nile decides to make Meaningful Eye Contact with Booker instead. “They had these drinks, I don’t remember what, but there was a four-poster bed, see, and we realized you could—”
Nicky claps a hand over his mouth. “I am worried that Nile will never speak to us again if you continue talking. She looks embarrassed. I would not like to discuss the weather, but I think it might be a good idea.”
“I hate the snow,” Andy says. She does not elaborate on this. Did the serum affect her differently now that her body has changed, or is it because she’s trained herself out of talking much a long time ago?
“I hate this wallpaper.” Without lifting his head, Booker picks at it. “It looks—I think it looks like it tried to be tartan, but somewhere along the way, it lost its will to live.”
“Every time you speak I remember Nicky dying and you nearly killing Andy and the only thing preventing me from killing you where you sit is that I am tired and do not want to get up off this floor to do it.”
“I think…” Book stops himself from replying to Joe with visible effort, and Nile remembers him sitting by a fire. Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting. “I think overcast is the best weather.”
“I like the sun,” Nicky says.
“The sun is the best. Oh!” Joe sits up. “That was a bit of a lie, because the sun cannot objectively be the best. I hate—” his mouth works for a second. “Ah. Still not entirely worn off. But it is progress!”
“Your optimism is endearing,” Andy says. “Merrick looked like a frog. Nile is hot. Fascinating.”
“Before we could only say things that were true. Now it seems we can also say things that we believe.”
“You believe I’m hot?”
“Yes.” Andy frowns. “Direct question.”
Right. She has no choice but to answer those. “Sorry.”
“Save further inquiry for when these drugs have worn off and I haven’t been shot recently.”
Joe whistles, and Nile grins. “Okay.”
(A few hours later, after Booker can say Fifty Shades of Grey was a masterpiece of literature without choking and Andy claimed to be five years old, they bump ‘making sure all of Merrick’s formulas are destroyed’ up the to-do list.)
(A few days after that, Nile looks at Andy, eyebrows raised. Andy smiles back.)