Nile wakes up gasping.
It’s not a novelty anymore. She used to sleep like a rock, lights out to Reveille. Now she has ghosts sharing space in her head: the man she killed, the quick, clean double tap, and Quynh, in the dark, screaming furiously against the water rushing into her lungs.
And now, apparently, someone new.
Great, Nile thinks. One more shitty thing about this whole shitty situation.
She levers herself up out of bed. There’s no point trying to get back to sleep after the dreams. And it’s not like she’ll be alone. Nile swears none of them have gotten a full night’s sleep in years, maybe decades, longer. Andy and Booker will pass out in a chair occasionally. She hasn’t seen Joe sleep in the whole three months they’ve been together.
Sure enough, Andy, Joe and Booker are in the living room, ranged around the television. Blue light flickers over them, eerie.
Nile takes up a spot on the floor and Joe hands her coffee in a chipped orange mug. It’s lukewarm and bitter but Nile appreciates it. Booker tips his flask to her silently, offering to make it Irish, and she shakes her head.
They probably go through a dozen pots of coffee a day, Nile thinks as she sips. There’s a tea kettle on the stove but no one ever touches it. And Nile didn’t think she’d given anything away but somehow they all seem to know she can’t stand to drink water straight for days after waking up dreaming of Quynh.
“OceanMap sent us the latest report,” Booker says. “They found a sunken ship at 47 degrees latitude. And maybe a new species of anemone.” No Quynh, he doesn’t say.
Nile has stopped being surprised by all the things they own. Safehouses in Lagos and Chengdu and Boston. Chateaus and townhouses, haciendas and bungalows. Sculptures by Rodin and paintings by da Vinci, a library of first editions. There’s a jar of gold coins so old the engravings have almost worn away sitting on a dresser the same way Nile’s mother kept out a cup for collecting loose pennies and dimes. An ocean mapping company, ostensibly founded for scientific research with a side in treasure hunting, that’s really a front for searching for Quynh, was the least surprising of the lot.
“I didn’t dream about Quynh,” Nile says.
Maybe it hadn’t been that type of dream at all. Maybe it had been an ordinary nightmare. But there had been the same hazy quality to it, a jumble of quick, strange flashes: white walls, a syringe of blue liquid, beeping monitors and the sound of someone praying, in Latin. Ave Marias.
Nile had felt it. A tug behind her breastbone. This was someone that she was supposed to know.
“It was a man,” Nile says. “He was praying.”
Joe turns to look at her fully. Nile remembers when they first met. “Eyes up here,” Nile had almost said, before she realized he was looking at her necklace, the small gold cross her mother had given her before Nile shipped out.
Andy had scoffed at religion. “I was once worshipped as a god,” she’d told Nile, the edge of her smile as sharp as a blade, and Nile had believed it. Nile has never seen any signs of devotion from either Booker or Joe, aside from the occasional half-hearted curse thrown up at God.
“You don’t think there could be someone newer than me already?” Nile asks. It feels like a ridiculous question. They’d all seemed shocked that she’d appeared, only two hundred years behind Booker.
Andy looks like she’s going to say something but then she looks over at Joe and goes quiet.
Joe stands up slowly. Nile’s noticed that everything about him is strangely deliberate, like he has to force himself through every movement. “Sometimes dreams are just dreams, Nile,” he says.
When he opens the door to step out into the night, Nile can hear the soft patter of rain against the walkway, but Joe doesn’t pause. The door closes behind him like the lid of a coffin.
Nile can feel her throat closing up. Booker won’t hold her gaze and Andy— Andy has tears in her eyes.
There’s something they aren’t telling her. Well, there are a million things they aren’t telling her probably. It all comes out in starts and stops when she hits on one of a thousand landmines lying in wait beneath her feet. Their bodies may regenerate flawlessly but there are certain types of wounds that don’t heal.
Maybe it’s a kindness not to learn so many tragedies too quickly, Nile thinks, and lets the dream fade away.
It’s a blessing and a curse equally that everything should remind him of Nicky. Dreams and memories are the only places Joe can be happy now, but it’s a double edged sword, with grief biting all the worse when he comes back to himself. When he comes back to find himself alone.
Perhaps it’s selfish, but nine hundred years wasn’t enough. Joe would die a thousand deaths to see Nicky smile one more time, to hear him speak or sing or pray.
“Who should I thank for giving me you, if not God?” Nicky used to say when Joe teased him for keeping to his devotions, so many years after the rest of them had lapsed.
Joe remembers it with a pain like a lance carving through his heart but still it’s better than forgetting.
There are six billion people on the planet now. Joe expects at least half of them are praying or weeping at any given moment. There’s no meaning in the fact that Nile dreamt of someone performing such a mundane task. From the cross around her neck, Joe imagines she has many memories of such prayers, free to float through her mind like jetsam in the night.
He wishes she had said nothing. Left them to the numb grief they’ve perfected instead of ripping open something fresh.
Nicky would chastise him. Nicky would have made Nile chamomile tea to help her back to sleep, instead of giving her the coffee the rest of them use to keep themselves awake, devoid of dreaming. He would have asked her questions about her dream if she’d needed to speak to exorcise it.
There are many things Nicky would do if he were still alive to do them. If Joe hadn’t lost him decades ago to war and fire and carelessness.
Joe, Andy, and Booker had only been gone for an hour on reconnaissance, leaving Nicky to tend the wounded in the makeshift infirmary. They’d come back to find it gone. A smouldering ruin, down to the cornerstone.
All that was left was ash, and Nicky’s sword, still hot to the touch. Joe had cut his own throat with it, and when he’d come back, he’d wept and burned himself on the steel over and over just to feel the pain until Booker had taken it from him and Andy had pulled him to her breast.
Joe keeps Nicky’s sword hidden away beneath their bed. He still cleans and maintains it, somehow both religiously and perfunctory. It's the same way he maintains himself, forcing himself to eat and shower and do the good in the world that Nicky would have expected of him. All Joe has left are the things that Nicky loved and left behind. The least he can do is take care of them.
He’s been doing a poor job with their family, Joe thinks, pained. And that was the thing Nicky loved best. He would have loved Nile too.
He’ll be kinder, Joe resolves. He’ll find baklava for Andy, even if it’s just from the grocery aisle. He’ll go with Booker to the football games he likes. He’ll teach Nile how to drive off-road on their motorbikes and, next time, he’ll ask about her dreams.
Joe presses a kiss to his forefingers and raises them to the sky. Maybe Nicky will smile down on him from his heaven.
Nile dreams about Quynh twice before the new dream comes again. The same white room. The flash of a silver scalpel. Nile feels it cold and sharp against her chest.
The picture turns and she can see the man’s face. His large, grey eyes are surprisingly calm. He’s speaking again but this time Nile doesn’t recognize a prayer. Yusuf, per favore perdonami per esserti separato da te, amore mio.
Nile wakes up weeping.
She scrubs the tears from her cheeks and washes her face before she pads out to the kitchen. Somehow, Joe still sees it on her.
“Bad dreams?” he asks, softer than she’s ever seen him. He took her to the coast the week before and taught her to drive off-road, plumes of dust kicking up behind the wheels of their bikes, and Nile hadn’t known what to say. He’d seemed satisfied, before, to leave her to Andy and Booker.
“Yeah,” Nile says, pulling out one of the stools at the kitchen island. Joe puts the orange mug—Is it her mug now? Have they achieved that level of domestic communal living?—in front of her.
It’s tea. Nile almost spits it out she’s so surprised.
“You made tea?” she asks, more suspiciously than is probably warranted, but there are comforts in the house that, by some tacit agreement, none of them touch. A soft throw blanket folded neatly over a chair. An olive green jacket beside the door. The tea kettle.
Joe frowns. “There’s coffee too if you don’t like it.”
“No,” Nile says, tea clutched protectively in her hands. Her aunt used to make tea. She used to let Nile put in as much sugar as she wanted. “It’s nice. Thank you.”
“Do you want to talk about your dream?” Joe asks. “Was it Quynh again?”
“Why—,” Nile starts and then shuts her mouth tight. Why are you being so nice to me? isn’t a kind thing to say when someone’s being kind to you.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been good to you,” Joe sighs, shaking his head. “You don’t even know what you’ve lost. I’m a poor stand-in.”
Nile has always felt somehow like she’s only seen half of him. But Andy too is unknowable, and even Booker, a bare two hundred years Nile’s senior—“They consider us contemporaries, you know?” he’d told her, smiling, the least sad smile she’d ever seen on him—is full of gaps and shadows.
“I don’t understand,” Nile says.
“I know,” Joe says. “But do you want to tell me about your dream?”
Nile takes a sip of her tea. It needs more sugar but it’s warm, soothing as it goes down her throat. “I saw him this time. The man I heard praying. He’s in a white room. Something medical. He shouldn’t have to be there.” The spark of anger she feels surprises her.
Joe nods and Nile takes a deep breath. “I couldn’t understand what he was saying. It wasn’t in English.” She closes her eyes, trying to remember the sounds. They come back to her with unexpected clarity and she repeats as best she can, tripping a little over the long vowels, “Yusuf, per favore perdonami per esserti separato da te, amore mio.”
The cup in Joe’s hand clatters to the counter and Nile’s eyes snap open.
“It’s not possible,” Joe says. There are tears standing in his eyes. Nile wants to put a hand on his shoulder but she’s afraid to touch him. “Nile, did you see him? Did you see his face?”
“Yes,” Nile says, concerned. Her hand rises absently to her chin, forefinger tapping the lower right corner of her jaw. “Joe, are you okay?”
Joe launches out of his chair and rifles through Booker’s library on the coffee table until he comes up with the sketchbook Nile’s seen him with sometimes, the pages always hidden from her view. Now he practically shoves them at her.
The man from her dreams is staring up at her, perfectly rendered in pencil and ink.
“You know him,” Nile says. “You know him. Who is he?”
“Nicolo,” Joe gasps. “My Nicolo.” Something about him breaks like a wave, his back curved down in a bow as he weeps into the palms of his hands.
Nile stares at the outpouring of emotion in shock. She fumbles for the burner phone Andy gave her with its shitty one inch screen and contact list of exactly three people. “Pick up,” she mutters. “Pick up.” What is she even going to say? Nile wonders desperately. Hi Andy, I think I broke Joe?
“Nile,” Andy answers.
“You need to come home,” Nile says. “Andy, you need to come home right now.”
Yusuf, please forgive me for being parted from you, my love.
It’s such a Nicky thing to say. Never mind that in the thirty seven years they’ve been parted, Joe hasn’t even been looking. He shouldn’t have believed that Nicky could be reduced to ash. That Joe’s time would have diverged from his. They’d always known their final deaths would coincide, the same as their first.
“Nile,” Joe says, urgently. “Where is he? What else did you see?” It’s one thing to know that Nicky is blessedly alive, it’s another to find him, to hold him close and smell the sweetness of his skin. Quynh is alive too, but she’s still lost to them.
A white room, Nile had said. Something medical. Joe flips to a new page in his sketchbook. “Was it a hospital? A lab?”
Nile closes her eyes to remember, brow furrowed in concentration. “A lab, I think,” she says. “He was on a stretcher. His hands and feet were cuffed.”
Joe can barely stand to draw it; Nicky restrained, held away from him. “What else?”
“They— they were cutting him,” Nile says, hesitantly.
The tip of Joe’s pencil breaks against the pressure of his hand and he throws it away to grab another. He’ll kill whoever they are, and they won’t come back. “Was it clinical?” he forces himself to ask. “Sterile?” It’s terrible that this is the best option. Joe doesn’t know what he’ll do if Nile says someone is hurting Nicky out of sheer sadism.
Nile nods. “They had gloves on. Those blue latex ones.”
“What else?” Joe prompts again. It isn’t enough. There are millions of labs, in every corner of the world.
“He has grey eyes,” Nile says, quietly.
“I know,” Joe says, equally soft. He’d always been captivated by Nicky’s eyes, even as he’d killed him. “His smile is like the sun after bitter winter and his heart overflows with the kindness of which this world is not worthy.”
Nile looks at him in surprise. “He’s your—”
“Everything. Nicky is my everything,” Joe says. “I need to find him, Nile. What else did you see? Was there anything with writing? Pictures? Did you hear anyone else speak?” It took them years to find Booker, Joe remembers with hollow desperation. Years, even with all three of them dreaming.
“Can I?” Nile asks, gesturing for the pencil. When Joe hands it to her she traces three copies of the same odd shape. Triangles with rounded corners. “I don’t know if it means anything.”
The door slams open and Andy and Booker rush in, guns drawn in ready position. “Nile,” Andy says and then she looks at Joe and her eyes widen.
Joe can only imagine how he looks, wild-eyed and desperate. “Nicky’s alive, Andy,” he says.
Andy shakes her head. She looks so old. “Joe, you know he’s not.” She glances at the cups on the table and Joe feels a flash of regret.
Those first few years, after he’d given up on killing himself, Booker had shown him how to get properly grief drunk and then Andy had had to deal with it. “Where’s Nicolo?” Joe remembers himself slurring, over and over, like it might get him a new answer. “I need him.”
“I know,” Andy always said, before helping him to bed, her hand cool on his forehead.
“Andy,” Nile says. “I’m dreaming about him.”
Booker is looking at Joe’s sketch; Nicky strapped down to the cot, his eyes calm and pleading. Booker stares at the row of shapes Nile traced onto the edge of the paper. “Were these blue?”
“Yes,” Nile says, surprised. “Light blue.”
Booker pulls up a picture on his smartphone and shows it to them. Three blue triangles with two words printed underneath them: Merrick Pharmaceuticals.
Joe is going to burn them to the ground.
Merrick Pharmaceuticals has thousands of labs, but it’s a place to start. A company isn’t half so deep as an ocean and there’s bound to be a more widespread paper trail than a single, lost captain’s log.
“Let me check into it,” Booker had said, booting up his laptop. He hadn’t looked any of them in the eye since he’d seen Joe’s sketch.
“Tell me about Nicky,” Nile says to Andy. She thought she’d understood that there was a person-shaped hole missing from their ragtag family. It makes so much sense now to learn that there are two. Three even, if Nile counts Lykon who Booker told her about when he was drunk one night. It’s how Nile gets a lot of information.
Andy’s eyes are fixed on a picture of Nicky in Joe’s sketchbook. Not the one of Nile’s dream. In it, Nicky is smiling, his face alight. Andy traces the curve of his jawline, smudging the ink.
“Nicky was— is the sweet one,” Andy says. “When we find him, he’ll say there’s nothing to forgive.”
“What would there be to forgive?” Nile asks. “You thought he was dead, right?”
Andy favors Nile with an almost soft look. “He’ll love you.”
“Is Joe going to be okay?” He’s been locked in the bedroom for hours. Nile’s not sure what that means.
“Joe’s going to be fine,” Andy says. “As long as we find Nicky.”
“So they’re married, right?” Nile asks. Every word out of Andy always feels like it only comes loose with a pry-bar. Nile stopped being self-conscious about guessing shit months ago. And it’s barely a guess anyway. Nicky is my everything, Joe had said, and waxed poetic in a way that could only mean love.
Andy snorts, amused. “At least a dozen times over. I’ve been to three of their weddings myself.”
Nile tries to imagine Andy in a bridesmaid’s dress, bouquet held in her hands as easily as her axe. The image shudders always before it forms.
“They’re two halves of a whole,” Andy says, quietly. “I could barely stand to look at Joe for years, after. But he needed us.” She looks up at Nile. “He still needs us. Maybe you most of all.”
It feels ridiculous that the best way Nile can help is to sleep, but she’s willing to try. She lies down on the couch, punching the pillow into shape for her head. Nile is used to sleeping when time allows. She’s already half dozing when a blanket drapes over her. It’s soft beneath her fingers, the same crochet pattern as the one folded over the chair in the corner, the blanket that no one ever touches.
It belongs to Nicky, Nile knows, with sudden surety. Like the jacket by the door and the tea kettle. She tries to think of his face, the smile in Joe’s sketch, as she lets sleep pull her under.
“I know where he is,” Booker says.
“Where?” Joe demands. Nile is asleep in the bedroom again. She’s taken to sleeping pills in her desire to help, but no new dreams have come.
Joe’s already planning the plane flight. He’s had his go-bag packed for days, full of fresh rounds of ammo, the blade of his sword honed to a deadly edge.
Andy puts a stilling hand on Joe’s arm. “What makes you think so?” Joe doesn’t know what makes her ask, but she’s always been able to read Booker better than him.
“What does it matter?” Booker asks, defensive. “We should go. Now.”
Wow, red flag, Joe thinks. Booker is the only one of them with more than rudimentary skills in modern tracking technology and Joe knows he can generally come up with perfectly compelling lies. Booker was the best double agent of all of them when they’d needed someone to play the role.
Andy’s eyes go hard. “No,” she says. “Tell us how you know.”
“I— I have a contact there,” Booker says. “Copley. He found out about us, after Surabaya. Was offering to act as an intermediary with Merrick to do testing on our genetic code.” Booker looks at them with his dark, pain-filled eyes; his grief is always so near the surface. “I thought maybe they could figure out how to fix it, to let us rest in peace.”
“Oh, Book,” Andy says.
“It’s what you wanted. It’s what we all wanted,” he says, and it isn’t untrue.
But it’s not true anymore. Not now that Joe could have Nicky back.
“We didn’t know about Nicky,” Booker says, before Joe can accuse him. “But Copley did some digging. There’s a whole file on him. They call him Subject 155.”
Like he isn’t even a person, Joe thinks, anger burning through him. Nicky, his Nicky, who plays the harmonica, badly, in the evenings and leaves out milk for stray cats. He’s just a lab rat to these people.
“Whatever they’ve been trying to do with Nicky isn’t working. Merrick wants the rest of us for comparison.”
“Well,” Andy says, picking up her labrys. “They’re going to get us.
Joe only gets to shoot two guards.
It’s not even close to assuaging the bloodlust he feels. Joe would have the fire of vengeance kindled in his chest no matter where Nicky was being held, but there’s something truly gruesome about this crisp, clean, mundane office building housing a torture chamber for Joe’s heart on the fifteenth floor.
Andy has ceded her ‘I always go first’ rule and let Joe take point so he can be the first to Nicky. Nile is sandwiched in the middle of their formation, protected.
There are thousands of glass beakers, pipettes and flasks on the counters lining the rooms. Joe wants to sweep them all to the floor, leave everything shattered the way he was shattered for decades.
He swipes the keycard Copley got them and opens another door. How many fucking doors is he going to have to walk through until he can finally see—
“Nicky,” Joe says. The word feels punched out of him. Nicky is on a stretcher, hands and feet held in cuff restraints, just like Nile’s dream.
There are pieces of Nicky outside his body. Jars of blood set on a silver tray table. Perfect circles of soft tissue in petri dishes. And even that is not enough. A woman is driving a needle into him. Nicky’s back is arched in pain, his eyes clenched shut.
Joe shoots her through the heart. An eye for an eye.
Nicky’s eyes flash open. “Yusuf,” he says, his voice full of relief and joy and love.
Joe is at his side in seconds. It’s the only place he’s ever wanted to be. He unclips the strap across Nicky’s chest and takes Nicky’s face in his hands. “Nicolo,” he says, drawing their lips together.
Nicky opens to him the way he always has, with exquisite trust. Joe presses kisses to Nicky’s cheeks, to his closed eyes, against his temples. There are so many missed kisses to make up for.
“I knew you’d find me,” Nicky whispers.
Joe chokes on a sob. “I thought you were dead, Nicky. I thought you’d left me.”
“No, amore mio,” Nicky gasps. He strains against the cuffs on his wrists, trying to reach for Joe, and Joe makes quick work of them. “I am so sorry,” Nicky says, wrapping his arms around Joe’s shoulders, his head resting in the crook of Joe’s neck, the space that has been too long empty.
“They took me from the infirmary before they burned it,” Nicky says. “There were rumors I suppose.” Joe remembers the knife Nicky took to the side, how many people had witnessed it, only to see him walking the streets as good as new the next morning. They should have been more careful.
There’s the sound of a buckle clinking and Joe turns to see Andy uncuffing Nicky’s ankles. “We need to get out of here,” she says. Her voice is unwavering but Joe can see the glimpse of tears in her eyes.
“Andy,” Nicky says, his hand extended to her.
Joe is loath to give him up, but he lets Andy take his place. Nicky has been her cherished little brother for centuries and she hugs him with all the gentleness they’ve always had for each other.
Nicky hugs Booker too, harder than Andy because sometimes too much care unmans him, cracks him open, and Booker doesn’t like it. Then he turns to Nile. “You were in my dreams,” he says. “What is your name?”
“Nile,” she tells him, smiling. “I’m so glad to meet you.”
“Nile,” Nicky repeats. He opens his arms to her for the same kind of soft hug he shared with Andy. “Grazie, Nile. Grazie mille.”
“I told you, you didn’t know what you were missing,” Joe says, as Nicky steps back to his side. Nicky was always the one who gave out easy hugs and made tea when they couldn’t sleep for memories.
“I am sure you have taken good care of her,” Nicky says, forever the optimist. Joe had done all right at the end there. He’s sure Nicky will count that.
“Yeah,” Nile says, not giving Joe up. She smiles at him cheekily. “He’s all right.”
Andy gives them an exasperated look. “Can we leave now?”
“Yeah,” Joe says, tangling his fingers with Nicky’s. He only needs one hand for his gun to cover them. “We can leave now.”
“It isn’t just relief,” Andy says, watching Nile watch Joe and Nicky. “They’ve been like this for centuries.”
“Seriously?” Nile asks. She’s never seen a more apt description of honeymooning. Nicky is tucked up against Joe’s side on the couch, Joe’s hand resting casually on his knee. They’ve been staring into each other’s eyes for hours, faint whispered endearments just making it to Nile’s ears.
“Yes,” Booker confirms from where he’s packing C-4 bricks on the kitchen table.
Nicky’s rescue was phase one. Phase two is retribution and Merrick Pharmaceuticals is about to lose a lot more than their prize test subject. Booker taught Nile how to short their stock and projected they’ll make millions to add to their already impressive treasure hoard.
“Unbelievable,” Nile says, but it belongs in the small bunch of good unbelievable things that have come after Nile became functionally immortal. Like seeing Andy’s hidden Rodin and the feel of the crisp pages of the first edition War and Peace Booker let her borrow.
Nile still dreams about Quynh, pressure filling up her lungs until she can’t even gasp, but she’ll take this victory. Maybe soon they’ll have another. Maybe there’s hope in all the vast horizon ahead of her.