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a nice story

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“Do you need any help?” Nile asked Nicky, one afternoon. He had sent Joe out for groceries that afternoon, an abstracted expression on his face as he poked through the kitchen drawers of the apartment they were renting, and now the kitchen looked like the site of a very controlled tornado. He seemed to be enjoying himself, though.

“You can help with the dishes afterwards,” he said, not looking up from whatever he was whisking in a pan. That was Nicky all over; he never softened things like that, just accepted or declined. “But for now, no. Though I do not mind if you want to keep me company.”

“I’ll just stay here, out of your way,” Nile said, leaning against the doorway. She’d spent all morning with Andy, learning to strip and reassemble some more obscure models of rifle that Andy thought she might have to use someday, and was glad to be standing. The kitchen was deceptively small; she could go a step or two further in, but she’d be blocking the fridge or the sink, wherever she stood.

“Good plan.” Nicky shot her a quick smile. “I do not know if you have noticed, but between Joe and I, he is much more the forgiving one. I tend to chase people out, if they are making it difficult. Booker used to…” His smile grew thin. “Anyway.”  

He turned back to his pan. Nile bit her lip, and debated whether she wanted to say anything at all. Standing there in the afternoon sunlight, his shirtsleeves rolled up, smears of flour on his dark jeans where he'd obviously wiped his hands on them, Nicky looked completely normal. The book Copley had lent her seemed unconnected to him.

And yet; she’d been sitting with this in the back of her brain for two months now. It reared up whenever she saw him with his longsword. Or on their last mission, when he had killed the last escaping guard with a near-impossible headshot with a pistol, then turned and casually asked Nile how she was liking South-east Asia. She knew her new family were all intimately familiar with violence, all experts at it. In that respect Nicky was no different from Joe or Andy. They didn’t set out to take lives lightly, but none of them flinched, when they decided it was necessary.

But it had proven impossible to reconcile the vivid history she’d read of religious oaths and massacres and even cannibalism with quiet Nicky. The only thing left was to ask.

“About that,” she said, taking a deep breath. “When I met you guys, Joe said you met in the Crusades.”

“That is correct,” Nicky said, leaning across to grab milk from the fridge, then splashing it into his pan. “What they call the First Crusade, in these days.”

“Were you, uh. Were you there the whole way?”

“From Constantinople, all the way to the walls of Jerusalem.” Nicky added more milk to the pan, his whisk never stopping. “Ask me what you want to ask, Nile. It’s all right.”

“But it’s not,” Nile said, feeling a tightness in her chest, like she was stepping out on a tightrope, like the first time she’d been sent into someone’s home in Afghanistan. “I was – Copley lent me a book, because I was curious, I wanted to understand where you guys came from. Uh, not that – I’m sure you all know way better than a book, because you were there –”

“Not necessarily.” Nicky shrugged. “We are only human, and information did not travel as fast for most of our lives as it does now. I was not at Claremont when Urban called men to the cross. I could not tell you if the reports of what he said are true, exactly, or which ones are most true. I only know the word that came to Genoa.”

“Right, but I didn’t want to have to be asking you dumb questions all the time.” Nile found she’d straightened, like she was talking to her sergeant; she made herself lean against the doorway again. “Like, I knew about the Holy Land, and I’d heard about the Crusades, but I didn’t know where the people that went were from, or why then, or any of that. So it was good, I guess I learned that stuff, but I wasn’t expecting the, uh…” She gave up. “The cannibalism? And what happened when you took Jerusalem? That was all – those are goddamn war crimes. They teach us, you know, about how that stuff happens, but I always figured it would be more…I can't make it make sense.”

Nicky had paused, to look back at her; he met her eyes for a long second, then shook himself, and started whisking again, muttering something under his breath. “It didn’t make sense at the time, either, if that helps. It was…a very long sort of nightmare, for us, and then how much worse again for those whose lands we were marching through? Nobody sets out for those things. And yet, they happened, and in the end – I will say this, the stories about blood ankle-deep in the streets, they are…not precisely true. But it was the kind of siege, or that kind of end to a siege, that causes people to write stories like that.”

“I want you to tell me you ran away,” Nile blurted out. “That you and Joe killed each other, and you realised what was happening, or – something. Anything.”

“That would be a nice story,” said Nicky. More milk. “I told it to myself, many times, over the years after. What if I had left at Antioch, or after Ma’arra, what if I had risen from the battlefield at Jerusalem and tried to save somebody. Anybody. What if. But I didn’t; I ran because I did not know what was happening to me, and I thought maybe if I killed Joe enough, it would…stop.” Nile must have made a noise, because he shot her another pained smile. “I know. It isn’t a nice story. Stories have meaning.”

They both stood there in silence for another minute or two. Nicky stopped whisking, and turned the element off. A larger pot of water at the back of the stove was beginning to boil; he began to add his freshly-made pasta to it.  

“Okay, here’s the thing,” Nile said, when she’d composed her thoughts. “The big stuff, I don't know, there wasn't - anything that obvious, when I was in Afghanistan. But you do get to know, okay, when you serve, what it looks like, the guys who…the ones who have a little too much fun with it. The ones who like putting the boot in, the ones who count up their kills. They’re not all loudmouths, either. But you know. And you’re not that. I’d have seen it by now. So why? If you live long enough, does it change who you are that much?”

“No,” Nicky said. “It doesn’t. The why, Nile, is that I believed I was doing the right thing. I believed that there were fellow Christians in the Holy Land who were being martyred and oppressed, that they could not worship in Jerusalem as they pleased, and that we would be freeing them and making it possible for others to make pilgrimages to the place where our Lord had died and risen. I believed that this made it right for us to continue, no matter the cost. And then at some point, I believed that we had done so much, if we did not free Jerusalem…how could we justify what we had done?”

He sighed. “And I was wrong; I was wrong about what I thought I knew, and I was terribly wrong about the worth of continuing on, and I killed people trying to make those wrongs into rights. Nile, over your life, very likely you are going to kill a lot of people like I was, who are wrong and are hurting people and will not back down. And you will not be wrong to do it.”

“So you’re saying…Joe was right to kill you, the first time. You just couldn’t stay dead. And then neither could he.”

“You know, I thought I was in Hell, for a decade or so,” Nicky said, conversationally, like that was a normal thing to say. “I couldn’t die and I couldn’t change anything I had done, once I came to understand the weight of it. Yusuf – Joe did not have a great deal of patience for that, though, and when we finally met Andromache and Quỳnh, they had a great deal less.”

“Andy told me I was gonna carry all of them with me, everybody I killed. Every one. She was right. Sounds like you’re carrying a lot.”

“Yes, and no,” Nicky said, lifting the pot of boiling water and pasta off the stove. “Pass me that colander – yes, thank you.”

“Yes and no?”

He drained the pasta into the colander; for a moment, steam billowing around him, he looked like a stranger, or a ghost.

“I carry them, yes. But you cannot – you cannot live all the hundreds and thousands of years ahead of you doing right to balance your own wrongs. That is selfish in its own way. We have to do it because it is right for others. The people we can help.”

Nile let out a long breath. “How long did it take you to get to that?”

“A couple of centuries or so.” Nicky started assembling the lasagne. “Not so bad, on the scale of things.”

Nile couldn’t help laughing at that. “On the scale of things, huh?”

“You’ll get used to it.”

“Uh-huh. Okay.” Nicky smiled at her again, not easily but inviting her to share the joke of their shared immortality; Nile felt the tight thing in her chest ease, a little. “Okay. Thanks.”

“We can talk about it again, if you need to,” Nicky said. “There’s time.”

Nile nodded, slowly. “I’ll think about it.”

“How’s it coming along, hayati?” Joe eased past Nile in the doorway with a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Do you need any help?”

“I need you out of my kitchen when I’m cooking,” Nicky said, mock-severely. “You know the rules.”

“Do I?” Joe made a show of inspecting all the pots, catching a drip of the sauce from the outside of one and licking it off his finger. Nicky chased him out with a teatowel, as Nile ducked out of the way, laughing.