The first few weeks after Merrick, they decide to lie low in Germany. There are still too many loose ends to tie up, Copley tells them. There is no use taking on missions with a man compromised, he says, so they head east and stake out in an abandoned mining town not unlike Goussainville and let Andy rest.
Here, everything feels green and weathered and impossibly ever-growing. The shrubbery runs wild and untamed. It lays claim to their house’s skeletal frame as if to pull it back down to earth.
Within these four battered walls, Nile is left to grapple with her grief.
The thing is, they are all learning to let go of something. Nile knows this.
Newly mortal, Andy is subdued in ways she hadn’t been before. She is less reckless. The fight might refuse to leave her eyes, but she says nothing when Nicky and Joe stock the bathroom cabinet with bandages and antiseptic, or when Nile learns to disinfect the places Andy cannot reach, presses her palms gently against the training injuries that mar her back and tries, desperately, not to feel vaguely out of her depth.
The space Booker once occupied gapes wide. There are times when even Joe, who had borne his hurt more blatantly than any of them, seems to subconsciously seek him out.
Nile knows she doesn’t quite fit the same. She knows, inherently, that her grief is not new or unique.
But—she is only twenty-six. She will be twenty-six for the rest of her life, and she has never known the kindness of a shared death, not in the way Nicky and Joe have, and the first time she is reborn it is alone. The first time, she wakes up choking on air with a hand grasping at her throat.
In this quiet house, she wonders whether she will ever forget the feeling of bleeding out in Dizzy’s arms. Of being told, it’s okay, it’s okay, when it had been categorically not okay. Her first murder still feels fresh on her hands, and her body cannot carry scars anymore, but she thinks her palms might always be stained with the red of another’s blood.
During her service, Nile had gone to bed every night thinking: God, please let me wake up tomorrow. She no longer worries about waking up, but it doesn’t make swallowing down her grief any easier.
Sometimes guilt and grief are not so different.
They keep in regular contact with Copley. He’s busy covering their tracks and helping them do research, but he’s also agreed to keep an eye out on Nile’s family from time to time. The smallest piece of good news digs up such a sharp sense of relief that her knees can’t help but buckle a little bit every time.
Nile knows she shouldn’t worry so much, but her immortality has only made her more aware of a person’s limitations. Of all the ways someone can die. More and more, she finds herself praying. First for her family’s safety, and then for them to move on, to forget her, and then for the little things, hoping that her brother might soon find love, that their family might still grow and unfurl and one day outlive her.
One day, Nicky and Joe stroll into the living room as she is finishing up, and she starts to wonder about her conversation with Andy, back on the plane. Joe pulls Nicky down with him on their fraying sofa and peers over his shoulder as he opens a book in his lap, humming a quiet tune into the back of his neck.
“Do you guys still…,” she tries, assuming there is no agreed-upon etiquette for broaching the topic of religion with your 1000-year-old roommates. “I mean—Andy says she doesn’t believe in God, so I was wondering if...”
Joe looks up at her and rolls his eyes. “Don’t worry about anything Andy says, first off. She’s just old.”
Nile worries at her lip. Nicky exchanges a glance with Joe and hums contemplatively. “Yusuf and I...” he starts. “Yusuf and I have been alive for a long, long time. We’ve exchanged parts of our beliefs and learned others, discovered our own truths. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I guess—just, if we’re immortal…” It isn’t doubt curling in the back of her head, at least not personal. But she wonders how a person can live a thousand years and still hold onto all the parts that make them them.
“We cannot tell you what you should think,” he says. “Neither can Andy. You don’t have to believe in anything but what feels right, here, now, for you.”
He cocks his head, and Nile feels a little like he is reading through all of the haywire emotion churning in her stomach. “Does your faith help you feel less alone?”
Nile wants to say, well, yes, obviously. But she finds herself shrugging instead. The truth is, she hasn’t been able to piece together what aloneness really meant to her since London, since Merrick and jumping from that penthouse window.
“I’m not even sure I’m supposed to feel alone anymore,” she says.
Constantly, she wonders what she is to do with this gift if she cannot be grateful for it. Whether the gift is to inevitably become a curse, and if so, when it will happen, and whether she can stop it.
Nicky says nothing for a few moments. Joe’s arms encircle his waist and the press of their bodies feels like something so natural it must have always existed this way. She fears that the only answer to her question—to staving off the lack of purpose—is what lies in front of her. These two arms joined together. These tangled limbs promised to each other for eternity.
“You’re a very noble person, Nile,” Nicky tells her gently. “But let yourself have time.”
How can I not?, Nile wants to scream. Sometimes when they tell her things like that she is hit with the realization that she has barely lived through a lifetime—not even a normal, mundane, regular person’s lifetime. Even though Andy is infinitely more vulnerable than her now, even though Nile has a thousand more deaths left in her, Nile has only just felt the burn of growing up. While Nicky and Joe’s origins have shifted, taken on new names, expanded and shrunk and reshaped, Chicago is still Chicago to her, and it will stay that way for a long time.
Nicky and Joe have Nicolò and Yusuf and this millennium stretched between them. Andy has even more; under the weight of her guilt, there is still the thrill of having lived.
Nile only has these twenty-six years.
“Okay,” she says, because she doesn’t know what else to fill the silence with.
Nicky smiles and asks if she would like some chocolate cake baking in the oven.
The problem is, Nile thinks she can understand why Booker felt the way he did. So irreparably alone, flayed and bare with no sense of family to direct him. She is torn between wanting her family to forget her and never wanting her memory to escape them. The fear that she might one day seek the same ends as him is enough to shake her.
Nicky and Joe take to their imposed break better than any of them. They are accustomed to the wait and the lounging. Nicky likes to say that they have a lot of experience doing nothing; Joe tries to tell them that transforming the art world is not doing nothing, and Nicky had never seemed to mind at the time, especially during the 16th century. At night, Nile watches Nicky touch foreheads with Joe and tut, asking, “Did you really have to break a man’s spine for me?”
It is probably the fourth time they’ve brought this exact topic up in the last week.
Each time, Joe grins, full-teeth. “I would do it all again and more, my love,” he announces.
When she and Andy meet eyes over this flagrant display of affection, she marvels, just a little bit, at the weight of forever.
Nicky bakes her Italian sweets and dives into meticulous detail about the sordid histories of her favorite authors with her. She expressly does not think about how many of these tortured artist souls he and Joe probably knew, probably biblically. Joe recites old poetry, lyrical, soft as always, and gets excited over her favorite art pieces with the kind of vigor she’d always wanted to share with another person; quietly, it pleases her that they can still look back. Nile has an unused Art History degree that has taught her to remember, to peer into the past. She is the endpoint of a family tree, of the branches that have preceded her, that have curled and stretched to get to this point.
She is still learning how to preserve that history and look this indeterminate forever in the eye at the same time.
Without having to say it, Joe and Nicky seem to understand. The truth is that they are kind and weird and surprisingly mundane when they want to be. They nurture her how she knows she needs someone to but doesn’t have the courage to actually ask for.
At night, Nicky and Joe lie together and listen to her tell them about Chicago and her family. It still hurts to think about them, but sometimes excising these memories helps. To keep their outlines sharp and tangible, Nile must make someone else bear witness to them.
“We did Chicago a few times, didn’t we?” Joe says. Nicky smiles from where his head is resting on Joe’s chest, a faraway look on his face. “Nice city.”
They have stories for days, but not all of them are of the fight. Each one of them comes from war, Nile realizes. Even her. But Joe and Nicky have memories of softer days, too, and they are happy to rest in her more benign recollections, of the city that had always been home, of college and how she and her brother grew up and of losing her father and how her mother held them steadfastly together. Nicky has been to college in New York before. They reminisce about how, somehow, higher education in the United States has always been like that, and it amuses her, given that she’d been eighteen—doing a daily two-hour commute to UIC, not sure what the future held—and he’d been a fully-fledged immortal pushing one-thousand masquerading as a Linguistics TA.
“Have you guys ever gotten married?” Nile can't help but ask.
The corner of Joe’s mouth quirks up at the question. He shrugs. “A few times.”
Nicky gestures at Joe in exasperation. “This man has proposed to me more times than I can count.”
“You have, too!” Joe retorts petulantly.
“I wasn't complaining.”
Nile has to say that she’s a little surprised, mostly because she’d kind of thought of Joe and Nicky as the type of people to say things like, You know, marriage is just an institution, because they’re, well… old. But it feels rude to bring that up. She stays quiet and watches as they exchange memories of their most extravagant ceremonies.
“Love never stops being worthy of celebration,” Nicky concludes, face pensive. “Even if someone cannot promise you forever, do not feel that you cannot celebrate it.”
His hand meets the jewelry that adorn Joe’s fingers. With a gentle motion, his index finger begins to gently trace at their outline. Joe winks at him.
Andy rolls her eyes from where she is polishing her axe at the dining table.
Maybe Nile doesn’t really understand them, but she thinks it’s nice, in a way. How they hold each other with all the tenderness in the world, as if they haven’t been struck by each other’s blades before, fallen at each other’s hand—how they touch as if each death might be final. As if this might really be their last life, and they have to preserve every inch and minute of it.
The nightmares never leave.
Night after night, she wakes up gasping, her hand feeling for a phantom gash at her throat. Each time it comes back clean, and each time Nicky is there by her side, inviting her to speak of the hurt.
He brews her chamomile tea and watches as she takes tentative sips. She wills her heart to still. Nicky is a warrior; Nile is a girl who—most likely, if she were to dig deep into her psyche—just wanted to honor her father’s memory. She does not think them the same.
“Do not cast your hurt aside like that. Do not think it undeserved,” he assures her. “Nothing good comes of war.”
“Well,” she tries, cocking a head in Joe’s direction. He shakes his head.
“There will always be different circumstances, Nile. The Crusades were one, yes. But the circumstances change and fade. We would have found each other anyway. The same way we would have found you, and Booker, and Andy and Quynh, one way or another. No matter how long it takes.” He sighs. “All we can really hold onto is our belief in each other. That’s how destiny works.”
He looks down then. Starts to absentmindedly trace over a line on his palm.
“Yusuf and I have had a millennium to reconcile our pasts, but I will never forgive anyone who has done him harm. And I have done him harm, more times than I can count. That hurt cannot leave me. All I can do is keep going, and know that there are other ways to fight. Do you understand?”
Nile nods. She feels so, so tired. She is only twenty-six, but she has already died, again and again, and she has killed, again and again. She wants her hands to stop shaking when she falls asleep. She wants to close her eyes and not see red.
But she wants to live, too.
She can live, too.
When Nile watches Joe and Nicky, she thinks: how can two people spend an eternity together? How can someone, unbreakable in ways they cannot change, bear to keep going? When Nile watches Joe and Nicky sway together under their flickering kitchen lights, she marvels at how they’ve managed to learn this same dance. At how they’ve learned to love in each other’s tongues and exchange sweet words in all the others.
At how they hold on and fall apart and come back together, again, again. Again.
They are not gods but they must endure anyway.
It’s been a month. Copley reaches out with news of their first assignment, and soon they’ll be back in action. Andy’s wounds have finally healed. She only bears fading bruises from sparring practice, from when she'd aggressively threatened Nile to not go easy on her.
“You ready, boss?” Joe asks. No one mentions how they all seem to instinctively wind around her. She is still their leader, and they will keep her by their side for as long as possible.
Andy exhales and folds her arms together. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess," she says, turning to watch Nile pack her things. There is a soft cadence to her tone when she asks, “Nile?”
Nile straightens up. Maybe it's true that she's only had twenty-six years. Maybe these years are nothing to Andy and Joe and Nicky’s centuries upon centuries, to their millennia. She will probably never share a dance like Nicky and Joe's. She will probably never feel what it is like to entwine your soul with another's for a thousand years, two thousand years, to speak their language as intimately as your own. But she still has time.
She is learning to live with that.
“Yes," she says.