Not long after London, Andy tells her that time stretches out for them, that she'll end up marking it differently.
Nile doesn't really understand it, and lets it slide to the back of her thoughts as she begins to get used to her new life. She wakes up one day and Joe passes over an envelope to her from the sheath of junk mail scooped up in his hands, “From Copley.”
The freelancer is true to his word and sends a copy of the letter delivered to her family reporting that Nile Freeman was killed in action. She carries it with her for a few weeks, tucked in her jacket pocket, until it feels a little lighter as they circle back around to Andy’s cave. She puts it in a plastic tupperware box and leaves it beside the Rodin statue and a trunk full of old swords.
She dithers a few times later that night, and then buys herself a burner phone, walking back to the hotel slowly while counting off the time difference on her fingers.
Then she calls home for the last time, a deal to herself and a silent promise to her mom. The line rings twice, thrice, and then is picked up. “Hello? Hello...who is this? You’ve called the Freeman’s, who's there?”
Nile breathes in sharply, trying to fix the sound of her voice in her mind, and comes to a dead stop in the middle of the empty street.
She bites her lip, forcing herself to stay quiet.
“Alright, I’m hanging up now.”
There’s a click and then the dial tone blares in her ear, and there’s a hundred, thousand things that she knows she wants to say but she can’t. In the end, she holds the phone between her hands and whispers, “Night mom.”
Nile gets her chance to breach first the next mission, and then again and again. Each time Andy follows, with a bulletproof vest on and her axe swinging powerfully, aim as straight and true as if she’s the dictionary definition of it. Nile had to argue hard for her to wear the vest, because for all the when it's time, it's time talk, Nile isn't quite ready to let her go.
Not so soon. It wouldn't be fair.
After all, there's a patchwork of good that Andy's left behind her, and Nile wants to hear in her own words, from the memories she has. There's a lot to learn from it all, and she wants to listen to tale after tale; São Paulo, Murmansk, Yunnan, Brisbane, Luzhi, Sarajevo, Mosul, Constantinople, and try to really get to the what - what do you do now?, which would lead her through the fog.
But the time comes and Andy lies on the ground with a smile, hands resting lightly on her front over the wound that won't stop bleeding, having given her vest to the girl in the last room they cleared who was shaking so hard that she couldn't stand.
"Take it." Andy had told her, unclipping it and holding it out, "You'll be safe with it on. I promise."
The girl's hand reached out to cling onto it, and then she finally allowed Nicky to drop it over her head, before taking his hand and following him and Joe out. Nile had wanted Andy to go with them, but she had been adamant to stay and clear the final room, just in case anyone of the other girls had been separated from the main group.
It had been a stray shot, one Nile couldn't block with her own body, and it hit Andy right in the centre of her chest. With her own heart in her throat, and bullets plinking out onto the floor from her own side, Nile quickly pulls Andy out, dragging her back to safety and the boys had arrived not long after.
"You hang in there." Nile presses down frantically on the bullet hole, feeling the thudding of Andy’s heart quieten under her hands.
"It's time." She says, gasping out around the words before letting a smile settle onto her face. "Peace."
Grief is a funny thing, it swallows her whole in a way she doesn't expect it to, not from knowing someone so briefly. Nile takes it as it comes and throws herself into the work.
Copley continues to send them around the world, a helping hand or fist wherever they need to be. They drop into impossible situations and walk out alive, bloody and bleeding and healing.
When she gets some downtime, Nile takes the axe down to the cave. She puts it down in the trunk before emptying out her pockets of a meagre few belongings that Andy had carried around with her; a necklace, her earrings, two rings and a small wallet that contained some old photographs that had been scanned and rescanned again over the years.
They carry on, the years pass.
Her face doesn't change but she feels herself grow in different ways. No matter how she wears her hair, or experiments with make up or new fashion trends, underneath it all there were some unchangeable things, the things that made her Nile.
She walks in her own footsteps, returns home in the only way she can. Hovering like a ghost in the alley opposite the church, Nile watches her brother walk out with his wife, arms looped together and the brightest smiles on their faces.
Her mother's face is wet with tears, her smile never wavering, and there's multicoloured confetti raining down on everyone as they pile out of the church behind the happy couple, hugs and handshakes abound as the photographer documents every happy second unfolding.
From where Nile stands, her brother looks older. The laughter lines are deep today, and there's a touch of grey at the temples, just natural ageing, nothing noting old age just yet, but still makes her self-conscious enough to touch her own face and wipe away her own happy tears.
Her mother passes.
It's a cool autumn morning as she's laid to rest in the same plot as her father and Nile watches the graveside service from as close as she can.
Which is a parked car on the opposite side of the road with a pair of binoculars.
It doesn't hurt as much as she thought it would, which makes her feel even more like a ghost.
It hurts more.
The mourners leave slowly, her brother and his family; his wife, son, and daughter, leave last. More than anything, Nile wishes she could walk up and embrace him, rest her cheek against his shoulder and feel the comfort that only her family could offer. She can't remember their last conversation anymore, only the smile on his face as she had ended the video call.
What I wouldn't give to speak to you again, she thinks as she watches them get into their car and head home.
But she can't, and it hurts more than any broken bone or cut she's suffered over the past few years.
She waits until it's dark and then walks down to the grave. She's walked across the world in these boots, only to come back to Chicago. The smell of overturned earth is strong, and the drizzle from earlier on means that her boots squelch into the soft mud, leaving imprints as she steps close to her mother's final resting space. She walks there unarmed having left her gun and knives in the car, wanting to feel like her old self for a few minutes.
A handful of damp dirt falls through the air. "I miss you mom. I love you so much."
She presses a kiss to each of her parents' headstones and then walks away.
Eventually she returns to the cave and leaves behind her old dog tags and a scrap book filled with photos that she had taken off her phone, the last pieces of her old life that she could finally lay to rest.
Her mother and brother, standing with big smiles, arms looped around each other.
Her father standing proud in his dress uniform.
Her family at her graduation meal, caught between laughter and conversation.
Her friends after shipping out for the first time, sunburned with dusty fatigues, relaxing under the harsh, foreign midday sun.
Andy, Nicky, and Joe caught from a doorway with a disposable camera, slumped on the sofas, tired but for once not from fighting.
"You're lucky, you know." Nicky tells her, watching as she heaved the plastic box down onto a mostly flat surface. The thump echoes loudly off every single rock in the cave. "You get to keep their faces, I've forgotten my family."
"Small blessings." She quips back, hand lingering on the lid before she steps away.
But not before passing on the mantle to two bright-eyed, bushy-tailed recruits. She visits his home to meet them in person, curious to see who he's handpicked as his replacements.
Nile sits opposite, scrutinising the two of them. One is a ginger haired boy plucked fresh from university, and the other a young girl straight from the streets around Shanghai's super-port. "So, you're a librarian. And you are…?"
"I mean, a digital archivist. There's hardly any libraries around, like there would have been in your time."
The girl grins, but she’s not blinking properly, too transfixed by Nile’s presence. "And I'm a fielder, my specialities in linguistics."
"What do you know, so far?" Nile asks, turning to the girl and watching as she wiped her rough hands on her trousers.
"That you saw the millennium in. That you won't die properly for a really long time. That you will depend on us, to erase any footprint of you and arrange things so you can do your job...to help people."
Copley nods, and sends them off, but not before the boy stands and steps forwards. "It's an honour to work with you."
Nile nods back and lets them go, and Copley takes her down to the kitchen to fix them up some tea. "I see that look in your eye. I didn't put words into his mouth. They’re just eager to help."
"You have a good memory."
He sees her hesitation, "They're good. I trust them."
"I don't doubt you. It's just...they're young." She finds herself surprised at her own surprise, but less so when he laughs, shoulders shaking violently.
It takes him a moment to compose himself again, wiping a stray tear from the corner of his eye. "They'll do their best."
She's lost for a moment, suddenly feeling the future rolling out in front of them, this baton of protection for their small group being handed forwards across the years. It makes her heart clench, not with fear, but with something she's still not managed to give a name to. Maybe Andy did, maybe the others have.
Nile makes it a point to remember and ask the next time they're together and turns her attention back to the present.
"You did, Copley."
After that, it feels like a new era and Nile spends the next three decades in Europe when she's not on a mission, flitting from country to country to country and then back again.
Nicky and Joe make it a point to cross paths with her every now and again, stopping for Carnival in Venice, taking her on a road trip across Portugal's lush coastline, hiring out a boat to sail around Croatia's sun drenched islands. They show her all the safe houses, and she practises her newly learnt Greek, Latin, and Sumerian with them, lapsing back into a more casual French or Mandarin to trade jokes.
In his twilight years, Copley still gets in touch every so often, sending her snippets of things he's come across his ever-continuing research; a photograph of Andy in a crowd at the turn of a century, a suspected sighting of Joe in an old film reel, a likeness of Nicky in an artist's sketchbook.
It strikes her deeply when he sends a scan of a diary fragment in a memoir that matches Andy's description all too well recounted from a grandparent's bedtime story.
History is littered with their silent mentions. Whatever price it had demanded from them, or whatever it had taken from Andy and the others, it still kept fragments that would linger on, long after she was gone.
Not long before his death, Copley sends through a link to a news story about a scientist who had discovered the solution to a mathematical problem that had stumped generations. Attached to the message Copley had written a note, remember Basra?
Nile draws the image closer, zooming into the face of the women accepting a shiny glass award. There was something around the eyes that reminded her of a man she had pulled out from the rubble of a collapsed building.
Two or three generations down the line, she hears the words echo in her memories, and briefly wonders if he's continued on with the wall detailing their adventures and misadventures in some shape or form.
If he has, she's glad to have a small corner on it.
A century turns.
The four of them return to the pebble beach. It's quiet, like the silence before dawn or before a flash bang is thrown across the line. There's a full hundred years between them and his betrayal, of time spent stewing and regretting and learning to forgive.
Joe and Nicky greet Booker first, slow approaches but old familiar phrases. It's like walking over ice, slowly but surely, and the three test to see if their bond is still as strong or if it’s still snarled up in recent history. Nile hangs back and smiles to herself, glad that there's a way back for him. Then she follows them up the ramp to a small bar tucked away on the second floor of a high rise overlooking the water.
They drink long into the evening catching each other up on the time passed, and then it’s just Nile and Booker nursing their whisky as the other two call it a night. He looks at her over the top of his glass, dark eyes a little hazy with the drink and chuckles, "Last time I was on that beach, Andy said that you would have let me off with an apology."
"Yeah, it would have had to have been a good one."
"I don't buy it. Even you could see what I had done."
Her answer was plain, because even after all this time, she could recall his exact words, almost feel the horror of his loneliness even if she didn't fully comprehend it at the time. The words had stuck to her or maybe she had stuck to them in the time that passed, something so formative about the betrayal and the fight to remain free. "I remember what you said, in the church. About how you watched the people you love die. About how it hurt to see their deaths and not be able to help."
"That's an awful lot of empathy for an infant." There's sourness in his low voice, but no bite, so she lets it slide.
"Maybe...you're just too old, and it all comes full circle."
"Maybe." Booker repeats before tipping his glass at her and then downs the rest of the drink. "But you've got a fraction of the understanding now. You won't know how it feels like, until you do."
"I guess, I understood enough back then. Anyway, they're older. You're the infant to them.
“Well, a hundred years has been a while. I've had some time to think."
"Has it done any good?"
"I know I'm not like Andy, I can't see it the same way she could, in the end. I wanted my time to come around a long time ago. I'm trapped, cursed, overstayed my welcome, whichever way you want to call it." Booker waves his hand at the waiter, silently asking for a top up before sighing heavily and leaning back, trying his damndest to look nonchalant.
"No, that's true. But doesn't it mean there's hope?" Nile lays her hands flat on the table, feeling the warmth in her palms reflect back off the wood, but it does little to ground her. Somehow the perspective shifts in her head, like a rolling stone rolling right off the edge of the earth.
She shakes her head, "So what are you going to do now?"
Booker leans across the table, folding forwards like all his years had piled themselves on top of his shoulders. "There was something."
Later, Nile thinks it's the whiskey that must have to his brain for him to have gone so still, having sunk down glass after glass at twice the rate.
"She saw something in you, at the start." Booker says, switching track and then stares back, blinking dumbly. "I wouldn't mind sticking around if you're looking for an extra pair of hands."
She sees the desperation in his eyes, of wanting to have purpose again, of daring to hope, of belonging in their odd family again, and so she does what she thinks Andy would have done, and reaches a hand out across the table and the lost years; no man left behind.
"We'll be leaving tomorrow morning, if you're willing to fly with a hangover."
The years pass quickly, then slowly.
Her faith waxes and wanes.
Her favourite songs become classical music and her favourite clothes belong in a museum.
Battles break her every limb, and she bleeds out in the desert, drowns in an ocean, falls off a cliff and is captured in war.
Humans fight pointlessly, and she follows her family into the flames, holding her gun and sword high. There are small wars and great wars, wars that finish brutally, and one that seems to drag on endlessly until she thinks she could be done with it all.
"It'll pass, it always does." Joe tells her, crouched a bunker. The surety in his voice is of little comfort to her until reality catches up with his words half a decade later.
Scientific breakthroughs, human persistence, and curiosity still leave her in awe. There is always a new frontier to breach, and space beckons the brightest and boldest to adventure on. Technology becomes a double-edged sword, capable of miracles they could never imagine, yet the threat of becoming known only grows with every passing decade.
Nile travels on earth, one foot behind another, allowing the current to take her, until it suddenly doesn't.
Until it feels like the world has stopped turning and time has frozen, until it was all compacted in a heartbeat of a moment that makes her question everything.
Until love creeps up on her.
It captures her heart, breathes life into it in a way she thinks it might just burst.
And then it leaves her, just as she knew it would.
She had told herself from the start not to regret it, warned herself in every fashion, tries to guard against the inevitable pain.
Eventually she learns not to.
Nile stops by the New Orleans safe house to pick up her new papers. Technically things had moved on since passports and photo cards, but the word was still rooted deep in her head even as she turned over the glossy black ID band and slipped it onto her wrist.
"It's all set up and ready to go. Just need your fingerprint here, and here."
She follows the instructions, eyeing the young man with the nervous foot tapping habit as he registers her biometrics onto the global database, a new shadow for an old soul, Booker had laughed over the comms line.
"Isn't that what people used to say?"
"Before my time."
She caught how his face fell before he turned away, fumbling with his own embarrassment. "But try it out on Nicky."
They dream of a new one.
She's small, with bird bone wrists and screams until her vocal cords rip as she falls, and falls, and lands and dies, and then breathes.
She's a fighter and wastes no time in picking herself back up and walking back into a burning building to rescue her family and neighbours.
One by one, she hauls them out, skin blistering and burning and healing over and over. Then she turns and runs, unable to look at the dent in the pavement she had left behind upon impact.
Nicky finds her first, and Nile arrives within the hour to see Joe talking her through the basics. Booker takes a land train and arrives the next morning, and then there's five of them in total, after so long.
It's two weeks later when Joe pulls her along for a late-night walk and when they sit on a bench, shoulder to shoulder, he pulls out a knife and rests it on his thigh. "I haven't stopped thinking about it, since I dreamt of her."
He swallows nervously, "I haven't said anything to Nicky, how could I? But when we dreamed of you, that was when Andy…"
"And you're the oldest."
He nods slowly, and speaks slower. "I'm the oldest now."
"It might not mean anything. So, Aish is here." Nile shrugs, "Andy was much older. To the point she couldn't even remember. Why now?"
"I see Nicky looking at me, out of the corner of his eye. He's worried, I don't want him to be."
Nile smiles, and her hands find his. "So, we're here now. What do you want to do?"
He squeezes her hand back once, and then moves to pick up the knife. Bracing himself, Joe draws a single cut across his palm. Under the clouded moonlight, they watch with bated breath as his blood oozes out from the wound to pool in his palm.
A moment passes.
The skin begins to knit itself back together and in less than a minute there's no wound at all. "It's not my time." He exhales loudly, a sigh of pure relief, and she echoes the noise, allowing her back to rest against the bench and her jaw to unclench.
Joe wipes the blood off on his trousers, lets Nile take his hand again, and they sit for a few more hours on the bench to watch the stars come and go behind the thick grey clouds. When the sky lightens and turns a burnished gold, she finally speaks the question that had been turning over in the back of her mind.
"What would you have done if it was?"
"We have spent lifetimes together, and it will never feel like enough." He falls silent for a while, "I would treasure every second with him, until my heart stops beating."
His smile is soft and bright, and it always astonishes her, the way they orientate themselves around each other, towards each other.
A jogger runs by, a seagull pinwheels above, screeching loudly before swooping back down to the water.
"I'm glad. Because we've still got things to do."
Nile nods, feeling the heavy weight of her own relief. "They'll always be things to do."
They prefer to meet in places that the modern world has left mostly unmarked, in the heart of a forest or halfway up a mountain.
They meet again in the Scottish Highlands, and Nile sits down on a lichen covered rock to look out at a sea of thistles waving gently in the wind as the sun slowly begins to rise over the mountain range before them. "It's beautiful here."
Booker grins, just for the hell of it, and Joe and Nicky exchange a certain smile that has a whole larger meaning behind it, and she clocks it a fraction of a second too late. "Yeah, yeah, okay I get it. You've been here before."
"But you haven't, or her." Nicky says sleepily, "Sometimes it's nice to see things through new eyes."
Aisha had decided earlier that morning that she was going to hike up a mountain to catch the sunrise, while they had all preferred to have the lie-in instead.
"I get what she meant, a bit more anyway. "
"Of what?" Joe asks, laying out the bread to toast over the grill.
"Feeling adrift in time. It's like you've been set out at sea without an anchor."
"Unmoored and unbound...until you find your own anchor." Nicky muses, rolling onto his side on his sleeping bag to reach out a hand and touch Joe's shoulder.
"It's...mundane and sublime. All at the same time." Booker nods, eyes staring off into the distance, thoughts hauling memories further back in time.
"Hark at our philosopher here!" Joe says as he chucks a slice of toast at him.
Nicky yawns and sits up, "When Aish marched off this morning, and guess what she said, who knows when I'll get the chance to come here again."
"Ah, to be young and dewy eyed again." Joe grins, poking at the fire to send a shower of sparks to the ground. They glow brighter than the sun and then disappear into the dirt and stones around the firepit.
"She'll figure it out with time." Nile replies, tipping back to look up, feeling grounded as the years spool out before her under a clear sky.