Actions

Work Header

Until the Sky Runs Out

Work Text:

The first time Nile asks about retirement, Joe figures it’s coming.

He’s seen the way Nile watches Andy’s gait, always looking for a hitch in her step, a weakness, some sign of the inevitable on its way. The old fears leave you quickly — death, consequences — but new ones haunt the spaces they left behind.

What if I hadn’t stepped in front of that bullet? What if that rebar drove through Andy’s ribs, not mine? Would it be a quick death? A slow one — a rush to the hospital? Would it feel the same as it always does, or is there something more?

“I don’t get it.” Nile still sits like soldiers do, knees wide for range of motion, ready to rock up onto the balls of her feet. Camo pants or chain mail, they all teach the same tricks. “She’s young. She could live — fifty more years, easy. I don’t —”

She stops.

Joe waits a minute, in case she wants to continue. Then he offers, “You’re talking about retirement.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?” Nile bursts out. “Six thousand years on the job or whatever — she never wanted to take a day off?”

That makes Joe chuckle. He dips his head, thinking of Nicolo’s face, impassioned, pale like the moon in that garden. Let’s go. We can leave. What can they do to us? If we’re going to live forever together — let’s live forever together in peace.

“Have you considered it?” he asks Nile. “Stopping?”

She opens her mouth and then closes it. “I’m a soldier,” she says finally. “I’m not — this is what I do.”

Joe shakes his head. “Soldiers retire. You would have finished your tour of duty; you would have come home. Then what?”

Nile stares at him with a furrowed brow.

“Forever is a long time,” Joe tells her gently. “We’ve all retired, more than once. You will too. It’s okay. Andy spent forty years in Australia, did you know that?” He puts a hand on her shoulder. “You can trust her. If she’s here, right now — it’s exactly where she wants to be.”

---

They go to America. To the border.

It’s a more sophisticated operation than Andy would’ve dared take on without Copley on board. Every kid in those camps has been fingerprinted. Photographed. Stamped with a label: illegal. They all need to wind up somewhere safe — with family, or someone who can find their family. There are hundreds of them. The logistics alone are monumental.

A bullet takes off a lock of Andy’s hair and just misses her eye. Another nearly hits a kid. Nile takes that one, square in the back.

“In addition to last night’s detention facility raid,” the radio news anchor is saying the next morning, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reporting a massive cyber-attack on their databases, destroying thousands of records. The status of those individuals remaining in other facilities appears to have been changed, in every case, to asylum granted…”

Andy smiles.

She thinks of seventeen pairs of shoes, in a pile on a floor in South Sudan, and wonders if Copley’s trying to send a message.

---

“Man,” Nile says, swinging into her seat, “you guys haven’t lived ‘til you’ve tried real Chicago deep dish. That crap in cardboard boxes, no thank you.”

Andy slides into the chair next to her. She doesn’t wince; a bruised tailbone, of all things. She doesn’t need any of them staring at her like she’s breakable.

“Six thousand years and counting,” she answers lightly. “I guess it was all a warm-up to this.”

Perks and pitfalls of working in the age of computers: Copley needs time to wrap up loose ends from the last two missions, to erase their footsteps, to dig up the next job. Take a vacation, he’d advised them. Go see the Grand Canyon. But Nile had gotten a particular look in her eye and Joe had scratched his jaw and said, You know, it’s been at least a century since we were last in Chicago —

Nicky studies the beer list. “My people invented pizza.”

Your people hadn’t ever seen a tomato,” Joe tells him.

Nile’s wearing a hat pulled low over her eyes. Bright bomber jacket anyone would remember instead of her face. She pulls her phone out of her back pocket, keys in the code, swipes between screens faster than thought. A moment later, she’s sliding it back out of sight.

“You okay?” Andy asks in an undertone.

“Yeah.” Nile’s face is set. “They’re still at the game, other side of the city. We should be set.”

It’s stupid, letting her come back here. It was stupid with Booker, and it’s stupid now, and Andy at least should know better. She’d expect this foolishness from her boys, but she’s supposed to be the unsentimental one. Maybe mortality means she’s losing her touch.

She watches Joe and Nicky, bickering comfortably across the table. Her body aches. She is, now — breakable.

But she wouldn’t trade this. Not for safety, not for anything. However much time she’s got left — she wants to spend it like this. With the people she loves.

Later, Nicky shows Nile how to sight through his sniper scope. Her mom and her brother, chatting across the kitchen table. Her own photograph beside her dad’s on the wall.

“It feels weird,” Nile says, “watching them through the crosshairs.”

Nicky puts on arm around her shoulders. “Don’t think of it like you’re going to shoot them. Think of it like you’re going to shoot anything that comes to put them in harm’s way.”

---

Nicolo di Genoa had never been anywhere when he first met Yusuf. Or rather, he’d been exactly where you would expect.

Rome. Clermont. Constantinople. Nicaea. Antioch. Jerusalem.

Yusuf Ibrahim Muhammad Al-Kaysani, the merchant’s son, had been everywhere else.

“I put myself in your hands,” Nicky told him, and Yusuf took him at his word.

They stayed at fondaci in Cairo. Rhodes. Mahdia — where Nicky loitered at a market until Yusuf walked out of his family home, grim-faced, with the news that his father was dead. When Nicky reached out, Yusuf knitted their palms together. Then they boarded a ship to Venice. Then Palermo, then Marrakesh.

They wore disguises. Language was easy; Nicky had the Latin of clerics, and Yusuf spoke the trader’s quicksilver tongue. 

Nicky dreamed of two figures following them. Hoods drawn deep over their faces. Cairo. Rhodes. Mahdia. Speaking with shopkeepers; passing coins from palm to palm. “Maybe it’s a message from God,” he told Yusuf, who had the same dreams. “We will always be followed, here. We must leave the lands we know.”

So they traveled east. They visited the battlefield where they’d first killed each other; Nicky kissed Yusuf down to the blood-stained soil. They pressed deeper into Anatolia, passing among forests of ancient cedars, drinking from clear streams. They starved in the mountains of winter and feasted in spring.

Andy and Quynh found them north of the Caucasus. The steppe was green and blooming, like nothing Nicolo had ever seen.

And then there was a woman on horseback. Two women. “What the fuck,” said Andy, “are you two doing?”

Yusuf, whose water skin had been empty for days, gave her a glorious smile. “We’re going to walk until the sky runs out.”

“Trust me,” said Andy, “it doesn’t.”

Then she stabbed herself, just to make things clear.

---

Nicky wants to go to Fargo, North Dakota. He refuses to say why.

“Are you — a fan of the TV show, or something?” Nile asks.

“TV — it’s a movie.” Joe turns to Andy in appeal. “It’s a movie, right? Fargo is a movie.”

Andy responds with a slow blink.

“Frances McDormand,” Nicky agrees. “Mm — huge fan. We’ve never been this close before.”

“Is that the one with the wood chipper?” Andy asks, relenting.

“That would be a new one, we’ve never done that before —”

“Yeah,” says Nile, “no wood chippers, okay?”

Fargo is okay, she guesses. Pretty much like any other small city in America. They do not encounter any wood chippers.

Nicky disappears for a few hours, though, and when he gets back to the hotel, he’s carrying a small cardboard box and wearing challenge in his smile.

“Oh, no,” Andy says.

Joe leans close to Nile’s ear. “Baklava. Andy has a thing for it; Nicky’s been trying for centuries to find one she can’t guess. Usually — well, usually Booker would bet him on it, but —”

For a moment, as Andy takes the gift, sadness hollows her face.

Then it’s gone. She opens the box carefully, eyes its contents before taking a bite.

Her eyes widen. “It’s good,” she says in surprise. “Cardamom, rose water, lime — Kurdish? Here?”

Nicky takes a bow. “The family from that job in Erbil — they emigrated. I told you I wanted to go to Fargo.”

That night, Copley calls with news of a human trafficking ring running through the port of Seattle. They’ve got the car; they’re practically halfway there. It seems dumb to charter a plane now.

So they drive west — across prairie that grows wilder and lonelier, past little ponds that explode with ducks in flight. Theodore Roosevelt National Park reads the exit sign as the late afternoon light starts slanting in through the windshield. “Teddy!” Nicky exclaims. 

“What,” says Nile, “did you guys know him too?”

“He hated that nickname,” Joe puts in, face creased with reminiscence. “Come on, boss — let’s see what Teddy’s park is all about.”

Andy’s expression tightens a little as the road begins to descend — or maybe she’s just squinting into the glare. There are badlands rising around them now, crumbling faces of ochre-stained clay, eroding pinnacles crowned with lush grass. “Oh, shit!” Nile exclaims suddenly. “Is that a bison?”

It is. There’s a whole herd of them, grazing in a creek bottom. “Andy,” says Joe suddenly, “look — wild horses.”

They’re scattered on the far hillside: gray and roan and dun. One lifts its head to watch them pass. Andy’s eyes meet it, lingering — long enough for them to waver in their lane. A semi blares its horn.

“Jesus.” Nile clamps a hand to her armrest as Andy rights their course. “You, uh. You like horses?”

The exit sign appears ahead of them. Andy glances in the rearview mirror and flips her turn signal on. Her voice is distant. “Yes.”

Joe leans forward from the back seat. “Horseback riding? She invented it.”

“I didn’t invent it.” She corners hard, braking to a halt at the stoplight. “People are dumb. They’ll try sitting on anything.” Then, pulling into the lot of a kitschy Western-themed motel: “I think this is as good as we’ll do.”

A life-size silhouette of a cowboy is mechanically doffing his hat by the door to the office. An air conditioner hums. The woman at the desk is middle-aged, brown-skinned, wrapped in a brightly colored sari. She looks up from a crossword puzzle as they enter. “Hey,” says Andy. “You got two adjoining rooms?”

---

Nile hears the mattress creak around one in the morning. By the time she’s blinked awake, the door to the room is closing; she catches an impression of Andy shouldering a jacket on.

She sits up. She gives the alarm clock a baleful look; its soulless red numbers glare back. “Motherfucker,” she says, and gets up to follow.

The car is still in its parking space. Nile glances up and down the road and sees a lithe figure moving quickly. She follows.

Andy picks her way a block down, turns left at the stoplight, crosses the river, passes under the freeway bridge. On the other side, she ducks through a barbed wire fence and starts up a ridge.

Nile hesitates. Should she alert Joe and Nicky? She checks her pockets and realizes she forgot her phone.

Andy’s already out of sight. Nile curses and ducks through the fence after her.

She takes the slope at a jog, and by the time she reaches the top, she’s breathing hard. She pauses to wipe sweat off her brow — and freezes when she sees Andy below her.

She’s standing in the moonlight, hand outstretched to a gray horse. It ambles closer, turning its head left, then right, then wickers softly and puts its nose in Andy’s palm.

Nile watches Andy press her forehead against the horse’s and feels calmer. She descends the slope slowly, hands in her pockets. When she’s ten yards away, she says softly, “Hey.”

If Andy’s surprised, she doesn’t show it. She turns her head without lifting it. “I wasn’t sure if — if this would be gone, too.”

“Why would it be? You’ve got all your other skills. You learned them; nothing supernatural there.”

“Yes,” Andy agrees, but her voice sounds distant.

“This is what you were the god of,” Nile asks, “isn’t it?”

Andy laughs softly. The horse shifts against her, and she reaches a hand to scratch behind its ears. “Sounds stupid, right?”

“Nah.” When Andy turns to look at her, Nile raises her eyebrows, then her chin. “Go on.”

Andy hesitates.

Then she turns back to the horse. She murmurs something to it — words Nile can’t make out. She runs a hand down its neck to its withers, says something else, and swings like silk up onto its back.

The horse startles. Andy doesn’t; she’s still murmuring, fingers combing its mane, face bent low to its ear. Her knees are clamped; her hips are fluid. The horse sidles left, then stills.

“What do you think, girl?” Nile hears Andy ask. “Want to look for the wind together?”

There’s a ripple of something — a tensing of muscles — and the next moment, they’re motion made flesh.

There was a time when Nile had never seen magic. She’d never watched her own bones knit back together; she’d never spit out a bullet or felt a mortal wound heal over and smooth. She’d believed, yes — but only in things she’d never seen.

You’re already on board with the supernatural, Andy told her once.

But she’s never seen magic like this before.

A part of her brain is screaming at her to stop them. This horse is wild, or something close to it; has it ever been ridden before? It takes years to train them, Nile’s pretty sure. And Andy’s so fragile, so human — could break so easily under those hooves —

It doesn’t matter.

They’re one animal, woman and horse. They’re up the ridge and they’re gone, flying, moonlight catching on a silver tail. Nile hears a whoop, high and wild, that raises the hair on her arms; it’s otherworldly. Neolithic.

Then there’s quiet. The grass waves gently in a warm breeze. A night-flying beetle buzzes past Nile’s face, and she bats it away.

Worry starts to seep in. If Andy’s been thrown off — if she’s lying, hurt and gasping, in some draw — can Nile find her in time? What if she can’t? What if —?

Then, the pounding of hooves; dust trembles around Nile’s boots. And Andy is there.

She looks larger, somehow, than she did before. Sweat on her face and a light in her eyes, creasing the curve of her mouth. She vaults from her seat without hesitation, spinning in the air, landing on both feet inches from Nile’s face. Her horse thunders to a halt.

Nile can’t breathe. Andy reaches to tuck her braid behind her ear. “And if you were a Thracian,” she says, grinning, “there’d be a blade between your ribs.”

Nile catches her wrist. “If I were a Thracian,” she counters, “I’d stab you right back.”

Andy laughs out loud. She slings an arm around Nile’s shoulders as they start back. She’s leaning on her a little bit — limping ever so slightly. “Have you ever bruised your goddamn tailbone? Hurts like a motherfucker.”

Nile slows so she can take Andy’s weight as she traverses a rock. “Nope. Can’t say I have.”

---

Quynh didn’t like horses, when she and Andy first met.

Part of it was some kind of elephant superiority complex. Part of it was sheer orneriness. Part of it was that she liked pissing Andy off.

She also, Andy figured out eventually, hated being bad at anything.

Quynh was the type to disappear for a year to some sanctum in the mountains to master a new weapon. Accepting help was out of the question; she’d shove away anyone who got too close. She always said she liked to be alone.

“No, you don’t,” Andy told her quietly one day. “No one likes being alone. Not like we were.”

She thought sometimes Quynh hated her for knowing that. Most of the time, though, it was love.

And she learned horsemanship, eventually; learned it so well she could unseat Andy. Once the point had been conceded, she studied with a single-minded focus. She became the best there’d ever been — as she usually did.

Quynh didn’t die very often.

Andy remembers that, sometimes, now. Whole centuries passed when Quynh took barely a scratch. There’s no reason Andy can’t live out her own days just as she always has. No reason she can’t be mortal.

It had been just the pair of them for so long, it was strange when they found Joe and Nicky. Two infants: ignorant of the world’s long life, awash in their love for each other. Sometimes Andy wanted to tie them up and leave them for the vultures. Other times she wanted to ask them how they did it. She couldn’t remember ever being that young.

Nicky and Joe took decade-long vacations to read poetry, or pose for paintings, or whatever it was they did. Quynh and Andy couldn’t stand to be still for that long. Maybe they’d used it all up in their younger years; maybe they were just a pair of bitter old women. Grow old enough and even peace begins to feel like work.

They had a routine: meeting places. Every ten years, without fail. Some quiet seaside or ruined citadel. And even before then, when Andy and Quynh were near Mosul or Florence or Constantinople, they might stop by. The four of them would spend a day or a week together laughing and drinking and telling stories that didn’t feel that old. It was — nice. Having a family.

But they were alone at the witch trials.

Something broke in Andy after that. It wasn’t a dam; there was no flood behind it. Just a brittle sort of snap, and then nothing. Emptiness. She learned she wasn’t too old for stillness after all.

But Nicky brought her baklava, and Joe coaxed her thoughts from her head. They let her go when she needed to go and come back when she had to come back. New continents bloomed like wounds on the map, astonishing, and they went to walk them: the three of them. They watched their own people — what had once been their people — unleash floods of hurt and horror no immortal soldier could stem.

She considered giving up on humanity. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.

By Australia, she was alone again. Her own choice. A hunter for hire. It seemed like a place that would suit her: a colony of sinners, free of any saints. Instead she found Achilles, who wasn’t either.

They built their house in the shadow of cliffs, among eucalypt trees. They stole horses and bathed in waterfalls. They searched for years for a passage west, and found it; they came back. A tree limb had fallen through their roof. They repaired it. It was home.

Every ten years, Andy would think of Joe and Nicky waiting for her — the agreed-on spot. She’d feel guilty, but not as guilty as she might have imagined. She’d remember Lykon and test the palm of her hand with her knife.

Then came 1812, and new dreams.

She resisted at first. A lot can change in a few decades; it wasn’t her world anymore. Sebastien le Livre spoke the language of gunpowder, of steam, of chemistry and combustion. He could teach the others. It was time for her to fade away. Retire.

But the dreams didn’t only bring her Booker.

There were Joe and Nicky: her boys. She found that she missed them, like a limb, like a lung; like water. They were nearing eight hundred now. Lykon hadn’t been much older when he died. If their wounds stopped healing and she wasn’t there to say goodbye —

“She’s alive,” she heard Nicky say once, with pain in his voice, and another time, “No. If Andy’s found peace in Australia —”

Sometimes she’d wake from those dreams and take off into the bush — run for miles. Achilles couldn’t keep up anymore; she’d leave him for days, sometimes. He’d never ask questions when she returned, not even when she spat and hit him, just watch her with patient, rheumy eyes.

She loved him; God help her, she did. Grow old enough, though, and even peace begins to feel like a war.

It was sunny, the day he told her to leave. They’d fucked that morning and the night before, and Andy felt still inside her skin — whole and clear. She hadn’t dreamed. Maybe that’s why he chose that day; so she’d understand.

The journey back was a long one. She dallied and detoured. Shipwrecked in South America; spent a year making her way north to Buenos Aires and passage across the Atlantic. But in the end, the dreams led her to Booker, ageless and grieving at the bedside of his son.

He didn’t jump when Andy sat down next to him. After a while, she said, “I wouldn’t have let you do it.”

He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah.”

She put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on. Let’s find the others.”

She wasn’t sure they wouldn’t hate her — she’d done plenty to to earn their hate — but Nicky just hugged her and Joe smiled his easy smile and said, “So, boss. What do we do now?”

Andy sat them down. “What we always do. There are slave rebellions brewing in Brazil; there’s a six-year-old emperor who might do some good someday. If he can survive his regents. This fucked-up world needs us. It’s time to stop fucking around.”

So they did. Mostly.

It still took her a while to believe her own bullshit. The better part of two hundred years. It took the aid of an enemy, and a bullet from a friend, and the faith of a girl who could have left them all behind.

Immortal or not, Nile said, you made a promise.

Grow old enough, Andy’s learned, and you just might find the war that feels like peace.

---

The four of them drive through the park the next morning. Nile and Andy are quiet, shadow-eyed, and Joe assumes he missed something; he doesn’t press. He and Nicky man the map from the back seat. “We’re going to find the prairie dog town,” Nicky tells them.

They find the prairie dog town. “I’d call it more of a city,” Joe observes.

Nicky squints. “It’s like Cappadocia.”

It sprawls out as far as the eye can see: dusty mounds and short-cropped grass, little tan animals darting between burrows. They look sort of like squirrels. Sometimes they stand on two legs and emit a shrill chirp of alarm.

“Oh, my God,” says Nile, pointing, “there’s a baby.”

There are two babies, barely bigger than mice, poking curious heads up into the world. Their mother hurries out of the burrow after them, chirping agitatedly until she can corral them back inside.

It’s early; they’re the only tourists there. Joe walks with Nile along the path, skipping from mound to mound — pointing, exclaiming, hurrying on. When he glances back, the car is small against the sky. Nicky’s sprawled on his belly a few yards away, chin propped on his interlaced knuckles, staring down a prairie dog burrow with all the focus he would a rifle sight. Andy’s right beside him, in the same pose. Joe smiles.

“What would you do,” Nile asks after ten minutes or so, “if you knew you were going to die?”

He takes her hand and swings it. “I am going to die. Someday. I’d do exactly what I’m doing right now.”

Nile hesitates. “What if you knew Nicky was going to die?”

Joe squeezes her hand. It’s not as though he hasn’t thought about it. He can only give her the truth. “I’d hope he’d wait for me.”

By the time they get back they’re deep in conversation, enough that they almost don’t notice Nicky gesturing them to stop. He’s exactly where they left him, motionless on the ground, except for the frantic, minute hand signals; Andy’s still beside him. Joe feels Nile’s surge of fear at the same instant as his own. Then it ebbs.

There’s a prairie dog nose to nose with Andy, sniffing her hair.

Her ribs are shaking with repressed giggles. The prairie dog noses closer, stands up on its hind legs, and places one tiny paw squarely on her eye.

She squints it closed, biting down on her lip to stifle a laugh. The prairie dog cranes higher, investigating, and then in an instant it’s scrambling up onto the crown of her head.

Andy bursts out laughing.

The prairie dog leaps comically away. It lands in an undignified heap on the ground. Then it lets out an alarm chirp and it’s off and running, back to the safety of its burrow; Andy and Nicky are in conniptions. Gasping for air. Nicky rolls onto his back, still laughing, head tipped back and his throat bared to the sun, and Joe can’t help himself. He’s striding forward, dropping down to one knee at Nicky’s side.

It could be any year, anywhere. Any sun. The walls of Jerusalem at his back. There could be a sword in his hand; he could be sinking it through Nicky’s heart. He could be dropping it, for the very first time.

Nicky half-opens his eyes. He doesn’t push himself up to a sitting position, just loops his arm around Joe’s neck and lets Joe pull him into a kiss. “Incurable romantic,” Joe feels him murmur, and he kisses him harder and pulls back. “Yeah.”

Nile’s got her hands in her pockets, a look of incredulous amusement on her face, studiously looking past them out across the plains.

Andy sits up and props her arms on her knees. She gives Joe and Nicky a speculative glance, then looks up at Nile and grins. “Ignore them. They’ve always been like this.”

“I can’t imagine,” Nile answers, voice dripping tolerant sarcasm. “You think they’ll notice if we drive away?”

“Hey,” says Nicky, “we’ll notice,” but he kisses Joe again anyway.

---

The port of Seattle is a sprawling wasteland of cranes and shipping containers, improbable airstrips, warehouses converted into nightclubs, weedy lots crowded with derelict semi trucks. They roll in two days late, and Copley meets them at the hotel. It’s where the industrial river flatlands roll into the city proper, just on the fringe of downtown.

Copley holds the door for them, not-smiling. Andy flicks him on the nose.

“One thing you’ll learn if you keep hanging around immortals,” she tells him. “Timeliness is relative.”

That cracks him; he laughs and shakes his head. “I guess it doesn’t matter. All right — so they’re moving in a shipment tomorrow night —”

Nile watches as they shift into their familiar rhythms, slide into chairs. Nicky sitting in stillness, taking it in; Joe scribbling notes. Andy at the center of it all, eyebrows drawn together, her gaze roving the room.

What would retirement look like anyway, for someone like them? A little house in the country; a stylish penthouse somewhere in the Seattle sky?

Nile thinks of her mom and brother, grieving, laughing; of the picture of her beside her dad’s on the wall. Someone must have come to the door, taken off their hat and held in their hand. Killed in Action, they must have said. It isn’t even a lie.

Soldiers retire, Joe told her, but they don’t really. Nile knows enough — knew enough — of her dad’s old friends to see through that one.

There are things besides fighting, though, that you can leave behind.

“No, hang on,” she says out loud. She swings into the seat next to Andy. “We don’t gotta take out the alarm system — I can put it in test mode. I used to work security. It’s easy; those things are all the same.”

Andy glances over at her. A smile curves the corner of her mouth. “All right,” says Copley, rotating the blueprints, “what route would you take?”

Nile leans in. “You got a pencil?”