Joe and Nicky, Nile discovers quickly, have the best safe houses.
This is at least partially because they have actual houses and not just caves and bunkers and warehouses. Nile spends the first two years of her newfound immortality traveling with Andy, and it’s educational to be sure — she learns more in the first six months than she did in her entire career with the Marines — but certainly not what she would consider comfortable.
They keep in touch, after they part ways. Every few months Andy gets a new text from a new number. Always brief, a word or a date and little else. Meaningless to anyone who cares to look, and to Nile as well, who peers over Andy’s shoulder and frowns at the message that simply says, Orchards.
Andy reads it and laughs. “Joe hates Finland,” she tells Nile as she deletes it. “Nicky must have really worked the puppy eyes this time.”
It makes it easy to track them down later, halfway through year three when Nile’s about to lose her goddamn mind if she has to spend one more night sleeping in the basement of a place that’s more ruin than structure. Andy isn’t offended when she announces she wants to see what Joe and Nicky have been up to; just tells Nile to have fun and not to get into too much trouble without her.
Nile finds them in southwest France, in a villa that looks old and well-cared for. The front door is unlocked when Nile tries it.
She leaves her bag in the foyer and follows the sounds of conversation and the scent of rich food until it leads her to the kitchen. Joe is sitting at the island counter and laughing as Nicky clears the remnants from their breakfast away mid-conversation. They both look up when she steps inside.
So far, the whole immortal thing has been a balancing act: an endless series of pros and cons that stack up faster than she can keep track of. Every time she thinks she has a handle on it, a feel for whether it’s good or bad, something new will happen to tilt the odds in the other direction. She gets what Andy means, now, when she says that the world moves too fast.
But this is something that will always push the scales towards good: the way they always look at her when they see her after some time apart. Nicky’s eyes go soft and warm; the wrinkles at the corners of Joe’s eyes deepen.
“Nile,” Nicky says. He leaves the dishes and goes to her, drawing her into a hug. Nile clings, just a little bit, because she forgets this every time: how grounded Nicky makes her feel, loved and cherished like something special.
He passes her off to Joe, who folds his arms around her and rocks them both, side to side, until she starts to giggle. She thinks he wants to do what he does with Andy, pick her up and twirl her, but Nile hates to feel small or manhandled, so he does things like this instead just to make her laugh.
“Welcome,” Joe says as they part. He rubs a hand down her arm before he lets her go. “How was Australia?”
“Terrifying,” she says. “And beautiful. Andy almost got into a fight with a koala.”
They laugh along with her, Nicky and Joe sharing a fond look as if to say, yes, that sounds right.
They try to feed her, but she ate on the way, so instead they shuffle her into a common room lined with bookshelves and a couch she sinks so far into she doesn’t think she ever wants to get up. She tells them about her time with Andy, where they’ve been and the things she’s seen. What she’s learned.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says as her stories finally wind down. “It’s been great. Andy’s been great. But I just…”
“Want to sleep in an actual bed for once?” Nicky prompts knowingly. Nile smiles, sheepish, and they chuckle.
Joe says, fondly, “We’ve known Andy a long time. A lot has changed since we met. Andy’s traveling habits are definitely not one of those things.”
“Immutable,” Nicky says, eyes twinkling. “A universal constant, if you will. I’m not sure she ever fully adjusted to sleeping in a bed.” Nile laughs. Nicky leans over to take one of her hands, squeezing gently. “Stay as long as you like. You’re always welcome, Nile.”
Nile arrives on a Sunday. By Wednesday, they’ve found a routine that works.
She gets up early, the habit too ingrained to lose now, but no matter what time it is, they’re always awake before her — for certain values of the term ‘awake’ as far as Nicky is concerned, anyway. She goes for a run, and by the time she gets back, Joe is mostly finished with breakfast and Nicky has had enough coffee that he’s stopped glaring at Joe as if his early morning cheerfulness is an offense to nature.
The first day, they stay in, and Nile explores the villa and the surrounding land. Nicky and Joe indulge her curiosity, telling her what they know about the history of the place, and offer no complaints when she spends three hours rooting through their artwork in utter fascination.
On the days after, they take her out and show her the nearby town. They eat at half a dozen restaurants, meals and snacks and treats and the best ice-cream Nile has ever had, and in the evenings they go to the local park and watch the children play, or to the beach where they can wade in and feel the water lapping at their skin.
On Thursday evening, settled into a comfortable armchair with a book in her lap and a glass of expensive wine in hand, Joe and Nicky gently bickering in the kitchen over dinner recipes, Nile considers where she is and what she’s doing.
She could get soft like this, she thinks. An eternity of indulgences and all the time in the world to try them, one by one, if she wanted to.
With Andy, she’s been learning to survive immortality. Joe and Nicky, it seems, are determined to teach her how to live through it.
On Friday morning, Joe wakes her up an hour before her alarm by ripping the covers off her bed. Nile already has a gun in her hand before she’s awake enough to realize who it is. “Up, tesoro!” He tells her, stealing her pillow when she tries to lay back down. “We have places to be!”
“The only place I need to be is my bed,” she whines, kicking him in the shin and scowling when it just makes him laugh. “Fine. Fine! I’m up. Go harass your husband, God.”
They catch a train that goes inland. Nicky falls asleep ten minutes in; Joe seems delighted at the prospect of being a pillow for the trip. Nile stares out the window and watches countryside turn to farmland, then to suburbs, and finally a cityscape. Neither of them will tell her where they’re going.
She figures it out easily enough when they get there.
“Laser tag?” Incredulous, but also maybe a touch excited. Joe beams.
“They didn’t have anything like this the last time we were here,” he says, and sets one hand at her shoulder and the other at the small of Nicky’s back to usher them both inside.
“Is this what you guys do?” She asks Nicky, after Joe has paid and they’ve been led into a room that’s a poor approximation of a militaristic locker room. The vests are one-size fits all and therefore too big for her. The weight of it is nothing compared to the gear she’s lugged in the desert on foot, but Nicky, ever the gentleman, helps her into it and fastens the Velcro straps around the back for her anyway.
“You know. Just.” She waves a hand to encapsulate the three of them, here, doing this. “Rotate through places, checking out all the stuff that wasn’t there the last time you were around.”
Nicky hums thoughtfully. “When there is no work to be done? Yes.” He pauses. “Well. Mostly.”
Nicky’s eyes slide meaningfully to Joe and linger. Nile rolls her eyes and laughs, even as she knocks into his shoulder and tells him to stop being gross.
The last time Nile played a game like this, she was in 5th grade and attending Amelia Crowley’s birthday party. Playing with Joe and Nicky is a far cry from playing with a bunch of clumsy eleven-year-olds. Nile feels a little bad for the other players, but not quite enough to override her competitiveness — especially when half of them are snotty teenagers that keep up a steady stream of trash talk that even Nile, whose French is not that good, understands well enough to be irritated by.
They play four rounds and wipe the floor with the competition in the first three. During the fourth, a family of three — a mother and her twin daughters — join the game, and Joe and Nicky mysteriously forget how to aim any time they cross paths with either of the children.
“I’m telling Andy you guys lost to a couple of six-year-olds,” Nile tells them, exasperated, when their final scores are released.
They get lunch at a small cafe nearby and eat at one of the tables outside. Joe and Nicky eat off each other’s plates and hold hands under the table; Nile pretends to be disgusted and steals the last bite Nicky’s cake in retaliation for them making her sit through it.
They spend the afternoon at an art museum. Nile loses herself in the paintings and sculptures, taking the time to read every plaque and card. She falls just as easily into the history as she does the colors and canvases. Joe finishes half a sketchbook as they wander from exhibit to exhibit, the pages slowly filling with loose drawings. Nicky takes an audio tour with Nile and offers anecdotes and history corrections as they take in each presentation.
She buys a book on the history of one of the artists from the gift store (in French, because she needs the practice) and dozes off on the train ride home mid-page. When they finally get back to the villa, she helps Nicky fix dinner and lets him teach her the proper way to julienne carrots and caramelize onions while Joe disappears into the library.
Over dinner, they tell her stories: about themselves and Andy and even bits about Booker and Quynh. Joe makes her laugh so hard she thinks she might be sick when he talks about the last time they were in Ecuador. Nicky gets tipsy on the wine for about ten minutes before his system burns through it, which is more than enough time for him to go off on a rant about South American cuisine that Nile only understands every seventh word of.
She’s the best kind of exhausted when she finally falls into bed that night. When she drifts off, she doesn’t dream.
She sleeps in on Saturday, because it’s the weekend and she’s immortal and why the hell not, and when she finally drags herself out of the bed at midday, she finds the kitchen empty and dark. The sound of the television leads her to the den. When she steps inside, she laughs.
Joe and Nicky are still in their pajamas — Joe a pair of flannel pants, Nicky a t-shirt that was obviously Joe’s first and sweatpants — and have taken over the couch. Joe has his sketchbook in hand, pencil lightly scratching over the paper. Nicky cuddles into his side, watching the TV with rapt attention. He has a bowl of cereal in his hands; it’s the most unsophisticated thing she’s ever seen him eat.
Nile has seen them do impossible things. Kill men without hesitation, love each other without fear. She’s watched them be shot and stabbed and killed and revived. And now she’s watching them watch Saturday morning cartoons in their PJs.
It’s ridiculous. They’re ridiculous.
She loves them so much.
“Good morning,” Nicky says, when a commercial comes on. “Did you sleep well?”
“I did,” she says, and then, glancing down at her jeans and tank-top, “I feel overdressed.”
“Saturdays are for being lazy,” Nicky tells her. “It’s tradition. Now you know better for next week.”
Joe grins at her and holds an arm out in invitation. Nile hesitates only a moment before she slips into the spot on his other side.
“Nicky takes cartoons very seriously,” he warns her once she’s settled. “He throws pillows if you talk during them.”
“That is only at you,” Nicky retorts idly. He finishes the last of his cereal and leans forward to set the bowl on the coffee table. When he leans back, he presses all the way into Joe’s space and rests his head on Joe’s shoulder. “You are a menace. Nile is not. I will not need to throw anything at her.”
“A menace,” Joe echoes, laughing and squeezing Nicky a little closer.
“Shh,” says Nicky, as the commercial break ends.
Joe catches Nile’s eye and gives a knowing wink. She laughs, quietly, and slides a little further under his arm to watch as Tom chases Jerry across the screen.