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The Last Man on Earth

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1.

“Oh, nah, it won’t be in that closet,” Joe assures her.

“No?” Nile asks, already opening the door. Joe and Nicky’s place in Milan is cavernous, full of random closets, and she’s learned in the past weeks that while they claim to know where everything is, they’re absolutely fooling themselves.

He was right about this one, though. Definitely no slow cooker in this closet, just box after cardboard box, crammed onto each shelf from floor to ceiling.

Mildly curious to know if she’ll find another Rodin, or like, a book from the library of Alexandria, Nile glances over the labels, scrawled in sharpie on the side of each one.

The top left says ‘paesaggio’, which, after a few months of Italian, she can say probably means ‘landscape,’ or possibly ‘scenery.’ The next is ‘Andy,’ the one next to it: ‘Quynh.’

The rest of the boxes, probably about twenty in all, are variations of ‘Nicky,’ ‘Nicolo,’ ‘Nico,’ and ‘Nicholas.’

“Okay you were right, it’s just a bunch of Nicky’s stuff.”

“Aha! See, I may not know where things are, but I know where they’re not.” Joe ambles over to peek in the closet. “Nicky’s stuff?”

He scans the boxes, and winces. “Don’t tell Copley about this?”

“Why?” Nile asks automatically.

Joe slides one of the boxes free, setting it on the floor and opening it. “I guess it’s not a smoking gun blowing our cover, but seems like he doesn’t want images of us floating around.”

It’s Joe’s art. The entire box, packed full of paper. Glancing over the first few images she sees, Nile realizes that the label didn’t mean that Nicky owned the box, it meant that the box was all drawings of him.

Nile, disoriented, looks up at the wall of boxes. “Is this nine hundred years of sketches?”

Joe laughs. “No, probably more like seven hundred. It was hard to get ahold of paper in the beginning. And it’s not everything, of course. I lose drawings, I don’t keep warmup sketches...” he shrugs, like somebody talking about their record collection.

Nile grabs a handful of papers from the top of the open box. Nicky eating, Nicky gazing into the distance, Nicky’s eyes alone, Nicky with long hair, Nicky with a beard, Nicky sitting cross-legged against a tree, Nicky sitting cross-legged against a tree with his head at a different angle, Nicky sitting cross-legged against a tree with his hand on his chin. Some of the papers are so delicate against her fingers, she feels like she should be wearing gloves, like they do in museums.

There’s enough in the box at her feet to fill ten coffee table books, and this is only one of them.

How do you draw the same man for nine hundred years without getting bored? What happens if you have an awful fight around year four hundred?

Joe has picked up his own handful of drawings, and is leafing through them, misty-eyed.

Did he have that look every time he drew one of these? Don’t they get sick of each other, or run out of things to talk about and just want to be alone, or nurse habits that the other one hates?

“Oh,” Joe sighs, flipping over a page and showing it to her. It’s indistinguishable from the others.

Apparently not. Chalk it up to another thing about this life that Nile doesn’t get.

::

For all that Booker’s punishment seemed too harsh to her, it doesn’t really affect her at all. She’d known him for a few days, judged him to be a pretty cool dude, revised that judgement to a cool dude with an out of hand drinking problem, then revised that again to a dude who probably had the capacity to be cool, but it was hard to see, what with it being so dark down there at rock bottom.

When she remembers that she can never really see her family again, (which, even six months in, hits her like a freight train every other day or so,) she thinks about Booker, glassy-eyed across a fire and stinking like whiskey. Had he been like that for the last two hundred years straight, or did the build-up of sorrow fester for so long that it only got that bad right at the end? In her lighter moments, she thinks, I will never get like that, and in her darker moments, she asks herself, how long before I get like that?

If she looks at their group thus far, she seems to have a 50/50 shot for handling immortality okay. Booker and Andy fell into numbness, while Joe and Nicky seem pretty optimistic about the whole thing. She’d like to end up like them—see this as a blessing—but she still can’t really wrap her head around all of it.

There’s also one obvious difference between her and Joe and Nicky, which is that they found everlasting, star-crossed fairy tale love, while any romance she could hope to have is already destined to be tragic. She hopes that a relationship isn’t the secret key to being immortal without losing your mind, because then she’ll really be screwed.

Yet, when Booker shows up at their safe house in Istanbul, looking like a rat that fell into a brewing vat in a distillery and decided to stick around, she doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for him. He couldn’t even manage six months before tracking them down? So much for facing the consequences of his actions with dignity.

Then he moves aside in the doorway to reveal his companion, and Joe and Nicky gasp, and Andy honest-to-god sobs, and Nile puts two and two together about the Asian woman that everybody is really excited about, and figures that he made the right call.

Quynh making it to solid land explains the better sleep Nile has been having these past few weeks. They cluster around her like supplicants on the threadbare couch as she explains her escape, but most of what Nile remembers of that night, later, is Joe and Nicky clutching at Quynh’s hands like balloon strings, and the way that Andy never looks away from Quynh’s face once, not even when some drunk yells and throws a bottle in the street below, and the rest of them flinch. Nile realizes that she has never seen Andy not on high alert.

Besides the rough accounting of Quynh’s fate on the first night they met, the older immortals really haven’t spoken of her. Now, it’s really sinking in that the four of them were their own little family for centuries. She can’t imagine what that must be like; how much it must have hurt for them to talk about her.

She glances over at Booker, slumping against a stray kitchen chair they dragged into the living room. He never knew Quynh either. Nile raises her eyebrows at him. Can you believe this?

Booker smiles bemusedly and shakes his head.

There are three beds in the apartment, and two extra people who need to sleep. Separating Andy and Quynh is too ridiculous to even be suggested, and while Joe and Nicky are big boys who can sleep separately when the need arises, it feels weirder to ask them to split up so she doesn’t have to share a bed with Booker than it does to share a bed with Booker.

Only by a slim margin, though.

Booker makes some halfhearted noises about sleeping on the floor, but the sticky carpet is a biohazard, and besides, between the military and the older Old Guard’s casual attitude towards privacy, Nile is used to unconventional sleeping arrangements. The other four are sleeping in a single bedroom that has two queen beds pushed together, for God’s sake.

Booker pulls back the covers, climbing in with his jeans still on. Kind of gross, but Nile isn’t going to encourage him to take them off.

“They’re making you sleep on the sofa bed?” he mumbles, rubbing at an eye.

“Actually, usually Joe and Nicky take the fall,” Nile, in actual pajamas and her bonnet, thank you very much, slips under the blanket. “But I mean...” she waves a hand at the bedroom. It was pretty obvious the four of them weren’t going to be separated any time soon.

“Mm, chivalry isn’t dead then.”

“I guess not, but don’t let Andy hear you calling it ‘chivalry,’ she-“

Booker pulls a bit of a face. “Oh, I know. I have made that mistake.”

Nile leans back against the pillows. It had been a long day even before Quynh and Booker showed up, and she’s exhausted. She never gets a great night’s sleep to start with, since-

Her eyes snap open. “Oh, shit!”

Booker startles. Had he already been falling asleep?

“What? What?” he asks urgently.

“No, no it’s fine, I just realized, I’m not gonna get the drowning dreams anymore.”

Technically, the drowning dreams stopped a few weeks previous, replaced by incomprehensible flashes of color and noise as Quynh resurfaced and navigated through an overwhelming new world, but Nile had never really relaxed. She kept anticipating the crushing sensation in her chest, burning lungs, angry typhoons of bubbles, and that anticipation led into nightmares of their own, without any kind of supernatural influence. She kept waiting for the dreams to fade, like Booker said they would, but they certainly hadn’t shown any signs of stopping after six months.

Booker actually grins. She doesn’t think she’s seen so many of his teeth at once before. “I’ve slept better the past few days than in the last two hundred years.”

“Oh, sweet,” Nile says mindlessly, before she’s realizes what he’s saying. “Wait, don’t the dreams fade?”

The thin mattress amplifies every movement, so she can feel him tense. “Don’t tell Andy, or the others. Knowing about Quynh’s suffering...I thought it was better to let them believe the dreams stopped. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

As a former member of the US military, Nile has the uncomfortable knowledge that prolonged sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Sure, you can get a few hours in around the dreams, enough to function the next day with a strong cup of coffee, but two hundred years of never having a satisfying night’s sleep has to do a number on your brain. Booker would probably be in worse shape without his healing factor.

Even worse shape, she silently amends.

“Wow, that must have sucked,” she says lamely.

“Eh,” Booker shrugs. “Quynh also dreamed of me for two hundred years, so she knew how to find me, then get me to lead her to the rest of you. Maybe the bullshit had a point after all.”

He laughs, but it’s a poor excuse for one.

If Nicky or Joe were here, maybe they would say something optimistic about the nature of hope. But Nile isn’t sure she’s qualified to open that can of worms with Booker, so she goes with: “Guess it all worked out in the end.”

“Guess so,” Booker replies.

Through mutual silent agreement, they decide that’s the end of the conversation.

They sleep like the dead.

Booker sticks around for most of the next day, like the stray dogs that would sniff around their bases in Afghanistan. He’s not really supposed to be there, but nobody has the heart to kick him out right away.

If Booker were the noble, self-sacrificing type, he would excuse himself, maybe disappear mysteriously into the night, let his good deed stand for itself.

But he’s made it very clear that he isn’t, he’s more of the other-sacrificing type, so eventually Nicky, both the kindest and firmest out of all of them, pulls Booker into the other room. Nile overhears the low vibration of a tense conversation, and a few minutes later Booker emerges, makes his terse goodbyes, and leaves.

Nile watches him walk down the street through the apartment window. It still feels cruel. She digs her nails into her palm and reminds herself how Andy’s gutshot still pains her, remembers the neat little tissue samples lined up like gravestones on the lab counter.

God helps those who help themselves.

2.

Nile is officially sixty-five years old today.

She pokes her face in the mirror. “I look really good for sixty-five,” she comments to Nicky.

Nile has made this joke every year since she turned forty, but now that she’s officially of retirement age, she has full freedom to repeat herself as much as she wants. She can also get discount meals, if only she could convince the server she isn’t lying.

Nicky still plays along, standing behind her in the mirror and tousling his hair. “If we could bottle our elixir of youth, we would make a fortune,” he agrees.

“They tried that already,” Nile reminds him.

Nicky winces. “Eh, how quickly we forget. At least now we can joke, yes?”

Nile nods. She’s learned that the secret to not losing your mind to immortality, at least so far, is laughing at the absurdity of it.

And enjoying the good parts, like putting on the earrings one of her oldest friends has gifted her for her birthday.

Nicky has a terrible style sense, and Quynh’s is even worse, so she can tell that Joe helped with picking them out.

“They’re beautiful.” Nile pulls Nicky in for a hug.

“You look wonderful,” he agrees.

A thought occurs to her. “When did you realize you weren’t aging? You would have had to figure it out on your own, right? Did they even have mirrors back then?”

Nicky tilts his head ever so slightly, thinking. “I suppose it took about twenty years, to really be sure that we weren’t fooling ourselves.” He smiles sappily. “When we were debating the possibility, Yusuf would say that I would always be young and beautiful in his eyes. I think he was a little surprised when that actually came to pass.”

“Right, yeah, you’d already been together for a long time by then,” Nile muses.

“Twenty years felt like a very long time, then.” Nicky chuckles. “Now I round up by forty years and say that Joe and I have been together for a millennia.”

Nile shakes her head. “That is still impossible for me to wrap my head around.”

“It is for me as well,” Nicky admits. “But I had known Yusuf for a matter of months before I was certain we would be together for the rest of our lives, so,” he shrugs. “What was a little longer?”

They all talk like this: Joe, Nicky, Quynh, and Andy. Nile is never sure if she’s just wired differently from the rest of them, or if that kind of iron-clad certainty was more common centuries ago, when choices were fewer and you couldn’t look up one billion different clamoring opinions in a matter of seconds. Either way, Nile has always felt like she was navigating blindly towards something that she might never really discover.

But different perspectives are what make good friendships bloom. While she’ll never understand how Joe and Nicky can make it work the way they do, today, she has that magic to thank for a lovely birthday present.

::

“It has been exactly one hundred years, as of today,” Nicky announces, apropos of nothing.

They’re on a job protecting UN humanitarian aid supplies from being stolen by government security forces, doing the usual hurry-up-and-wait that accompanies this kind of thing. Nile can’t imagine what about idling around in a blazing hot makeshift parking lot made Nicky think of it.

It’s wild to think about, one hundred years. Nile officially surpassed the oldest human on record a few years ago when she turned one hundred and twenty three, and she couldn’t believe how quickly and slowly the time had passed. She can still remember when turning sixty-five felt like a milestone, and now she’s nearly twice that old.

In a way, it reminds her of high school. In the first few miserable weeks, she couldn’t imagine slogging through the next four years. The four years themselves felt interminable, and yet, at the end of it all, she looked back and couldn’t believe how quickly it had slipped past.

Immortal mercenaries well into their second century still get surprise “naked on test day” nightmares, which is incredibly annoying, especially because complaining to the others nets only blank stares.

She shouldn’t be surprised that Nicky is thinking about Booker. The last few years, Joe and Nicky have been mentioning him more and more, sort of like parents excited for their kid to come home from college. Not long until he comes back—it would be great to have Booker around for this kind of job—when Booker’s around, we’ll really go overboard for the World Cup. They’d always eagerly pore over the updates that Copley, and now, several successors later, Sanchez, sent their way—just little notes: last seen here, doing this—but with Booker’s return looming more imminently, he floats to the tops of their minds more often. Even Quynh, who hardly knew Booker, gets swept up in the excitement.

“So like, does he text first, do we text first..?” Nile teases.

Joe shrugs cheerily, wiping his sunglasses on his shirt. “We should hear from him soon. Reception is shit out here, he might have already called.”

“We should all go to Seychelles, once we are all back together,” Nicky suggests. “So Booker can pet his tortoises.”

Joe laughs, and Nile rolls her eyes. They love to tell the tortoise story, and it gets more ridiculous with each telling. Maybe when Booker gets back, she’ll get to hear what actually happened.

Then Nile spots a plume of dust in the distance. “It’s go time, guys. Nicky, you on cover? Joe, radio Quynh.”

She hops into the cab of the Jeep and doesn’t spare another thought for Booker until two days later, when the chaos has finally died down and they make it to base.

It was a good mission. Like always, Nile pictures what Andy would have thought of it: Clean, casualties zero. Sloppy on recon, should have considered hidden entrances.

Everybody is going through their usual post-mission rituals. Joe is off taking the longest shower he can get away with, Nicky has melted into one of the rickety chairs and turned on one of the chatty podcasts he likes, and Quynh is rummaging through their tub of supplies for the sugariest food item she can find. Nile is still too keyed up to sit down, so she starts taking inventory. She’ll probably make it through their ammo stocks before she crashes.

Comms equipment: all accounted for, though one of the radios has dust crammed so far up its ass that it’s probably beyond saving.

Her hand pauses over one of the tablets. She unrolls it, letting the holo screen blink to life, and flicks her fingers through the air until the messages section pops up. Nile still has troubling handling these new screens, and she feels like her mom, squinting at her new smartphone and prodding it dubiously with one finger.

The messages for the team are pretty run of the mill. Their last confirmations with Sanchez, a payment that went through, something about taxes on one of their properties in Japan, a receipt for an order of self-heating thermal socks for Quynh—good call there.

Nothing from Booker, and Nile knows for a fact that he knows how to get ahold of them. He definitely knows about Sanchez, and even if he didn’t have Sanchez’ number, Nile has a suspicion that Booker still remembers Joe and Nicky’s habits. They don’t leave a paper trail, but memories run long.

Nile calculates the time difference and figures that Sanchez is probably awake.

>> You: Hey Sanchez, it’s Nile

>> Sanchez: Hey, how did op go?

>> You: Always room to improve. Got the job done.

>> You: Request for you-Booker status update?

>> Sanchez: wow I guess it’s time huh.

>> Sanchez: checking

>> Sanchez: sorry, takin a minute here.

A few minutes tick by, and Nile clicks her pen anxiously. Pens are a vintage affectation these days, but, like swords, the Old Guard still prefers them for reliability. Besides, nothing else has buttons as satisfyingly clickable anymore.

The last time they really checked in on Booker was six months ago. Helsinki, train ticket purchased. They could have dug further, properly put all of their espionage training to work and figured out everything about his life as it is now, but that felt like cheating. They were just keeping an eye out to make sure...well, to make sure that nothing like what happened at Merrick happened to Booker.

He hasn’t been up to anything particularly wild, as far as they can tell. Not even traveling much, except for the year that Andy, graying and cantankerous, tracked him down and they finally went on their sailing trip around the world. He’s switching countries every fifteen years or so, a pattern which Joe and Nicky identified as “sticking around as long as you can before people notice you aren’t aging”.

If he’s gotten himself into trouble, they can be wheels up in maybe two hours, but Nile is hoping it won’t come to that. Sure, Booker can never come to any lasting damage, but he can certainly give Joe and Nicky nervous breakdowns.


>> Sanchez: ok found him.

>> Sanchez: surveillance photo from a grocery store in Sörnäinen 2 hrs ago

>> Sanchez: u wanna see before I delete it

>> You: nah that’s fine

>> You: can you find a phone number for him

>> Sanchez: sent to ur contacts

>> Sanchez: hope t goes good!!

>> You: thanks, youre the greatest

Nile eyes the number sitting in her contacts. Booker might mean something by keeping quiet, sticking around in Helsinki like normal, or maybe she was right the other morning, and they’re just playing chicken to see who texts first.

She debates grabbing Joe or Nicky, but thinks better of it. If Booker wants to play low stakes, they can too. Time heals all wounds, and Joe and Nicky are so eager for the prodigal son to come back, and so bad at being casual about anything emotional. Nile kind of loves that about them, but if she hands the tablet over to either of them, one of them is going to use the word “brother,” or “forgiveness,” or “penance,” and that is just going to escalate way out of hand.

In contrast, she and Booker have as much of an empty slate as one could really hope for.

She drafts her message quickly, and sends it before she overthinks it.

>> You: Hi Booker, it’s Nile! Here are our coordinates. We’re here for the next two days, then we’ll be here. The gang is all looking forward to seeing you.

Quick and to the point. The guys can all weep manfully over each other when they meet in person.

“Good.” Quynh’s voice sounds behind her.

Nile starts. Quynh is the only person who can still sneak up on her.

She’s clearly read Nile’s message. “The boys would have gone overboard.”

“Yeah, exactly.”

Quynh tuts. “Men. They-“ she flickers a hand, then stops speaking. She does that sometimes, like something sparked and shorted out. But they determined long ago that Quynh isn’t hurting when she goes like this, so Nile lets her be, and waits for a response from Booker.

Late in the night, the tablet chimes softly, and Nile sleepily rolls over to check it.

>>Booker: I won’t be joining Give my best wishes to all. -Booker

She squints and re-reads the message. He can’t just make it easy, can he?

She blearily books a ticket to Helsinki. It’s going to be a nightmare of layovers; this had better be worth it.

::

He’s staying in one of the glass and steel high rise apartment buildings that were popping up like mushrooms back in the twenties. Nile used to think they were outrageously fancy, but they haven’t really held up to the passage of time, and nobody wants to pay window washers to scrub a forty story building, so the place looks pretty run down.

She sneaks into the lobby behind a resident, and is just checking her notes for Booker’s apartment number when she hears a surprised voice.

“Nile?”

It’s Booker. Looks like she caught him on his way out.

He doesn’t really look how Nile would have expected. To be fair, he’d been covered in blood and sweat for a solid fifty percent of their short acquaintance. Seems like the hazy mists of memory amplified that until she remembered him as a universally disheveled mess.

His beard has graduated from “hasn’t bothered with shaving” to “this is a beard I have on purpose,” his hair is tucked into a soft-looking knit cap, and his hands are folded into the pockets of a practical, if dorky, down jacket. He matches the picture of half the Helsinki urbanites she passed walking here.

He also looks warm, she realizes ruefully. She’s been regretting her choice of jacket ever since she left the airport.

“Hey Booker, what’s up?”

He huffs out a laugh. “We should...uh...let me take you upstairs, my neighbors gossip.”

Nile follows him to the elevators. They end up with one all to themselves. One of the wall panels is missing, revealing insulation and the hints of a few old wires.

“I, uh, suppose I can guess why you are here,” Booker says quietly.

If his apartment is bugged, now would be a good time to get a few necessities out of the way. She keeps her voice low, on the off chance that there’s a recording device in here, too. The hum of the elevator will drown her out.

“Is anyone keeping you here? Are you mixed up in something?”

Booker’s eyebrows rise in surprise, and Nile knows his answer before he says it. “Oh! No. I haven’t done anything like a job in...thirty years?”

“That doesn’t mean somebody can’t be giving you a hard time if they found out about you,” Nile presses.

He shakes his head. “I keep a low profile. I work at a housing nonprofit. At most, someone might notice me healing from a paper cut too quickly.”

Nile tries to picture Booker working at a desk job at a nonprofit and fails miserably. But then again, they’ve already established that she isn’t good at picturing anything about him. Still, she’s checked the most dramatic off of her list, so she allows herself to joke, “a paper cut? Must have been a while ago.”

She’s doing a textbook move, establishing common ground, and he knows it, but follows her lead anyways, shrugging ruefully. “It was. I miss them.”

“We still keep pens and paper with us,” Nile offers.

Booker’s mouth twists, but whatever he was about to say is interrupted by an ominous grinding noise from somewhere within the bowls of the elevator.

Nile swears and grabs at the handrail. She’s been caught in a falling elevator one other time, and isn’t eager to repeat the experience.

“Merde,” Booker hisses. “These elevators.”

There’s another, more definitive, clunk, and the elevator stops moving completely.

She spots only one button: an emergency call. Booker punches it with his thumb, and absolutely nothing happens. There’s a tiny TV screen embedded in the wall, the kind that might show the weather forecast, or in situations like this, an emergency announcement, but it seems long dead.

Nile squints at the ceiling tiles. She can definitely get out onto the roof of the elevator car if she has to, but it’s not appealing.

Booker follows her train of thought. “Oh, no, we don’t need to do that. These elevators break all the time.”

“Yeah? You’ve been stuck in here before?”

“Well...no,” Booker admits. “But the building forums have lots of complaints about this happening. They’ll get it fixed eventually.”

Nile grimaces. “How long is eventually?”

Booker shrugs in a very European way. “Too long for my neighbors’ liking? Nobody has pissed in an elevator yet, which gives me hope.”

Nile exhales heavily. “Not inspiring, but the last time I was in a stopped elevator, someone cut the cable and I fell twenty stories, so we’re already doing better than that.”

Booker winces. “Sounds like enough to break your spine.”

“You got that right.”

Silence stretches for a minute. Booker scans the front wall of the elevator as though a way out will appear that they hadn’t noticed before.

“So...” Nile muses. “Now seems like a great time to get the rest of an awkward conversation out of the way.”

Booker sighs, running a finger down the crease of the jammed doors. “I thought at least I could make us a pot of coffee first.”

“Yeah well,” Nile settles in, leaning against the cool aluminum wall, “I’m a fan of efficiency. Think of how nice it will be when we can drink coffee without an elephant in the room.”

Booker tugs his hat further down over his ears. “I don’t think I should go back.”

“Counterpoint: I think that you should,” Nile retorts.

Booker sighs. “Joe and Nicky are men of their words. I know that they are determined to keep their promises, but I don’t want to shove myself in where I’m not welcome.”

“So you’re just gonna float around alone in Helsinki for the next fifteen years with a bottle of vodka or whatever?” That came out a bit harsher than was probably wise, but she’s not exactly a therapist, here.

Wincing, Booker responds, “I don’t really drink anymore.”

Nile leans forward. “Really? That’s great!”

“Careful, don’t want to, eh,” Booker waves a hand, searching for a word. “‘Jinx it.’”

“Still, I’m happy for you.”

“I’m doing alright.” Booker copies her position, leaning against the opposite wall. “Eevi, my neighbor, sometimes invites me over for soup.” The corner of his mouth quirks. “She says I am a ‘very nice young man.’”

Nile gets it. Clinging to steady mediocrity, even steady “okay,” in the name of not rocking the boat in search of something better. Everybody does that sometimes.

“Good of her to look after the youth,” Nile observes wryly, before wrenching the conversation back towards the topic at hand. “They want you back, really.”

Booker gives her a kind of condescending look that rankles at her. “And so they sent you?”

Ah. In the same way she still thought of him as a sloppy mess, he still thinks of her as the shiny new baby of the team.

She gets a bit of satisfaction out of responding, “I sent myself, actually. They don’t know I’m here.” She says it in perfect French, too, mostly because it’s fun to catch him off guard.

He does look surprised at that. “Why...?”

“I meant it, Booker, they miss you. If I told them about your message, Nicky would start canning tomatoes again from the stress, and Joe will make a teary-eyed speech about how he’ll respect your wishes, and then crack and show up here in a week. I figured, well,” Nile lifts a shoulder in a shrug. “It might be less pressure if somebody more objective came to visit.”

“More objective?”

“Joe and Nicky love you. Me, I mean, we hardly know each other. I’m not going to overwhelm you with a hard sell.”

Booker is quiet for a long moment, arms crossed over his wide chest. “What is your sell? Your medium sell?”

She could talk about how she knows Andy would have wanted him to come back, or about how it feels to be part of a team that’s like a family: Nicky’s thoughtful support, Joe’s enthusiasm, Quynh’s clever little presents, snuck into your hidden pockets so you don’t find them until days later. The feeling of being with the only other people in the world who understand the life you’ve lived. The steady flow of stories that Joe and Nicky tell about Booker, the fondness in their voices.

But. Booker knows.

Instead, she says, “I think we all belong together.”

It’s the truth. It’s why she travelled for nearly twenty-four hours straight to track down a man she hardly knows or remembers. He isn’t her family, but he could be.

Booker nods. “Fuck.”

He has a point there. “Yeah.”

“I’m not ready.”

“Sounds to me like you’re as ready as you’re gonna be, you’re just scared.” Something about speaking in other languages makes her bolder. She isn’t likely to find exactly the right word with exactly the right nuance, so she can just come out and say stuff.

Booker rubs his chin pensively. “Five years,” he bargains. “By then, the beard will no longer be enough to convince people that I am aging. I’ll have to move along anyways.”

Joe and Nicky would never let him get away with this, but she promised the medium sell.

“Deal. But don’t screw me over and back out five years from now.”

He laughs, and she knows she’s got him.

“Deal.”

Nile smiles. “Gimme your phone, I’m putting in my number. No more of the weird encrypted messages through Sanchez’ server.”

He does, and she does.

On the plane back, somewhere over Moscow, her phone pings with a message.


>> Booker: Five years should be enough time for you to learn proper French instead of that Quebecois bullshit. -Booker

3.

Everyone is gathered in the living room of the loft when she gets back from dinner, and they all perk up when she comes through the door.

Honestly. You’d think they could find something more entertaining than her dating life. It’s the twenty-second century: there are people straight-up having sex on prime time TV, getting scored by judges.

“She hasn’t had sex,” Quynh announces helpfully. Anybody could make that assumption based on Nile’s early return home, but Quynh would know whether she had sex no matter how subtle Nile was being. A talent you pick up after the first thousand years, apparently.

Joe and Nicky groan sympathetically, and Booker pretends to be engrossed in reading something on his tablet.

“But how’d it go?” Joe asks encouragingly.

“Did he look like the picture?” Nicky pipes in at the same time.

They’re enthusiastic about her dating life in the way that only long-married couples are. Never mind that unless she wants to cause herself some serious grief, she can never get into anything too serious.

That way lies madness, so Nile firmly redirects the train of thought.

She flops into an armchair. It’s very comfortable—this is one of their nicer hideouts. “He was so too young for me it wasn’t even funny.”

Joe, Nicky, and Quynh nod knowingly in unison.

“I know, I know, I know,” she groans. “You warned me, but it’s not like any of you have gone on a date this millennium. Or last.”

It had snuck up on her, was the thing. She used to be able to have the occasional fling with a normal person without the age difference getting weird. She’s still got the body and energy of someone in their mid-twenties, and when you’re just keeping things casual, that used to be enough.

“I swear, it’s like I turned seventy, and now I can’t listen to a guy in his thirties talk without rolling my eyes. And older guys are even worse, because they’re the kind of guy who wants to date someone who looks half their age!” she rants.

They’ve heard it all before, but they tut and hum in sympathy. Except for Booker, who suppresses a laugh and studiously scrolls through his tablet. She thinks he might still feel a little out of place; he doesn’t offer nosy advice the same way the rest of them do.

“Remember Hiroshi? I don’t think I could ever date a mortal person for that long anymore.”

He has four grandkids now. Nile still looks him up sometimes—their two years in Osaka were a lot of fun.

“This is why you should just fuck them and that’s it,” Quynh points out bluntly, passing her a piece of candy.

“Yeah, well, that was the plan,” Nile grumbles. “I just wanted to be classy and have dinner first, get to know him like a little bit. I was pretty much a sure thing! He just had to start talking about how his mom pays his neuro-link bill...”

She rubs a hand over her face, probably smearing mascara, but the night’s over with anyways.

“On the bright side,” Nicky says serenely, “this means that now we all watch a romantic comedy and eat ice cream, yes?”

::

There are a number of reasons why Nile doesn’t like this plan:

#1) She doesn’t like humidity. Sure, “island resort” sounds nice in theory, but it’s not so nice when it’s ten at night and you’re still sweating just from sitting down.

#2) This particular group of drug runners is really unpredictable. She and Booker can tiptoe around and set up their secret identities and carefully poke around looking for clues, but she’s still thinking there’s a twenty percent chance these people straight up put their meth lab in the basement of the resort, and they’re gonna blow the whole place up by accident.

#3) Couples-only resorts were weird and outdated when Nile was mortal, and they’re even weirder now. Why do couples need to be surrounded by only other couples? Do single people hamper their enjoyment of fruity cocktails?

#4) If she allows that they do need to infiltrate the resort in order to investigate the cartel that’s using it as a cover, (which is debatable,) why do she and Booker have to be the couple? The Old Guard has a bona fide adorable couple already available. Yes, Joe and Nicky have actual restaurant experience, so they’re more prepared to blend in with the staff, but she’s pretty sure they could have fudged their way around that. (She would make an argument for Quynh, who is definitely more visually age-appropriate for Booker, but Nile can’t actually make a good-faith argument for forcing Quynh to handle crowds, or an undercover persona.)

She gets outvoted.

“If anybody calls me your ‘exotic piece of arm candy,’ or anything like that, I am out,” she grumbles to Booker as they drag their suitcases out of the stuffy resort shuttle.

“Ah, of course my love, anything for you,” Booker replies, imitating Nicky’s accent perfectly.

“Aw, sweetie.” Nile bats her eyelashes. “You’re so good to me. Look, you’re even carrying my bag!”

She drops it on his foot.

Nile can usually count on Booker to be a good sport, and sure enough, he slings it over his shoulder and carries on gamely.

Palm Breeze Resort looks just like one might expect from a mid-tier couple’s resort that doubles as a cover for a cartel, which is to say, it’s just a little bit dingy. Beats a few of the literal caves she’s stayed in, though.

Their room is nice enough, tropical-themed in a way that’s too on the nose, but with a view of a few palm trees and the pool. The bed is a king, so plenty of space for them to share it without getting all up in each other’s space.

“Well, at least it’s not heart-shaped,” she remarks.

“Of course not, that would have cost extra,” Booker responds, checking the edge of the mattress for bed bugs. He’s gotten them a few times over the centuries and earned a healthy fear of them, Nile knows.

“Cost extra like, the cartel didn’t want to buy expensive furniture for the rooms, or cost extra like, a heart-shaped bed would have been an option if we got a more expensive room?”

Booker smirks a little. “I’ll never tell. Be glad I did not choose the one with a jacuzzi right next to the kitchenette.”

Nile grimaces.

They shuffle around, half-heartedly unpack, hide guns under the bed, the usual stuff.

In that quiet that results once there isn’t anything else to fiddle with, Nile realizes that this job is going to be the longest period of time that she and Booker have spent alone together. They’ve seen plenty of each other over the last few years, but almost always with Joe or Nicky or Quynh around.

Nile falls back on an old standby, asking, “Did you bring any throwing knives?” in the thickest Quebecois accent she can muster.

Booker groans theatrically. “I can’t understand what you’re saying,” he shoots back in French.

He has an accent, too. You can’t find any modern Frenchman who talks the way he does. Nile can’t quite pick up the intricacies of it, but she imagines it’s a little like meeting someone who still speaks English like an actor in a 1940s movie.

“You’re gonna leave me defenseless because you’re stuck up about my accent?” Nile whines.

Booker shakes his head disapprovingly, but tosses her one of the sheathed knives, which she stashes in her nightstand.

“Woah!” she crows, making a discovery. She pulls out the copy of the Kama Sutra tucked in the nightstand drawer. “This is not a Gideon Bible.”

“Hmm?” Booker walks a few steps closer to read the title. “Oh!”

Between his wide eyes, the beak of his big nose, and the startled shape of his mouth, he looks like a ruffled bird. Nile knows that Booker has kept up with the times, but when it comes to sex, his first reaction always defaults to Victorian. Or, slightly pre-Victorian.

True to form, he quickly smoothes himself over, the picture of a blase twenty-second century man. “What’s the Gideon Bible? I haven’t heard of that translation.”

“Oh, it’s an American thing,” Nile explains. “The name for the Bibles they put in all the hotel drawers.”

A look of recognition dawns on Booker’s face. “Ah, I have seen this before. I thought it was unique to that hotel. I didn’t realize it was a common practice.”

“Well, it was, but I don’t think it’s common anymore. I haven’t really looked for one in a long time.”

Nile has a faint recollection of being a kid, delighted by the novelty of staying in a hotel room, opening every drawer and cabinet in search of secret treasure. Opening a drawer and actually finding something was very exciting, at the time.

She flips open to a random page and makes a thoughtful noise. “How good are your knees?”

Booker scowls, and flops onto the armchair in the corner, which creaks under his weight. “This resort is creepy, and I would think that even if they weren’t processing black tar heroin here.”

“Aw, c’mon, it’s educational!”

They spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the resort, doing their best impressions of a couple on a honeymoon.

“Wow, babe, these flowers are so pretty!” Nile coos, patting the planter and surreptitiously setting one of Quynh’s tiny cameras at the base of the orchid’s roots.

“Almost as pretty as you, babe,” Booker replies placidly.

They turn to head down the set of steps leading into the restaurant area. Booker holds out a hand.

Nile looks at it blankly, then glances at the ground, wondering if he dropped something.

“For- for the stairs,” Booker explains.

“What?”

“You know-“ he grabs one of her hands, holding it lightly in his, as though he’s a gentleman about to help her step over a puddle.

Nile cocks her head at him. “You’re gonna help me down the stairs?”

“Yes. Of course, you’re my wife, I’m helping you down the stairs.” Booker isn’t even teasing. He seems surprised that she would even ask.

She lets him guide them both down the stairs. This move definitely made more sense back when women wore huge ballgowns instead of novelty Hawaiian shirts, but honestly, she doesn’t hate a bit of pampering. Andy definitely would have, but Nile feels a little bit like a princess.

A princess walking into an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, that is.

::

The nice thing about this job is that most of the work is already done for them. They know there’s a cartel, they know where they’re based. Now, all they need to do is figure out the cartel’s patterns, then get enough intel to take the thing down. Recon work.

Humidity aside, Nile thinks, sipping on ice cold mango juice by the pool, this is some of the best recon work she’s ever done. She can sit out here all day, with a view of the entrance just past the palm trees, and nobody would think to question it.

A delivery truck trundles in, and she jots a coded note down in her tablet. To the untrained eye, it looks like she’s highlighting random words in her novel (The Passions of the Duke—probably hilariously historically inaccurate, but she doesn’t want to hear it.)

“I found snacks,” Booker says, coming up from behind her lounge chair and dropping a bag of sour cream and onion chips on the side table. “And my swimsuit!”

Nile busies herself with the chip bag. She’s not sure if he knows this is her favorite flavor, or if he just got lucky, but she’s all about it. “You wanna cover yourself in chlorine, be my guest.”

“Hmm, that reminds me,” Booker muses, “do you think the ring will tarnish in the chlorine? Maybe I should take it off.”

“Maybe, I mean they’re the cheapest things we could find, so if you don’t wanna turn your skin green-” Nile looks up at Booker, gets the full view of him in his swimsuit, and has to put a lot of effort into not trailing off in distraction. “Uh, so uh, yeah, I can hold onto it for you.”

Booker shrugs, pulling off the decoy ring and handing it to her.

She shamelessly watches him walk to the pool. It’s in character.

She’s definitely seen him shirtless before, but now that she thinks about it, he’s usually covered in blood, or guts, or shadow. Clean, content, and with the late morning sun shining bright and happy on him? No, sir.

Nile shouldn’t be surprised. He has broad shoulders; of course that means there was muscle under there.

Booker turns to lower himself down the ladder leading into the pool. He isn’t dehydrated, movie-star ripped, but when he grips the handrails, the muscles in his arms bulge, and a crease appears between his generous chest muscles that she’d really like to press her face into. There’s just enough squish there that she thinks it would feel really nice. He’s big like somebody who has muscles for a reason.

It’s not lost on her that technically, her dating pool is now exactly one person, if she wants to be with somebody who won’t die on her. Still, “you’re my only option” is miles away from being a good enough reason to give it a shot, not when the risk/reward calculation is so uncertain, so she’s been conveniently ignoring the whole situation.

Now, Booker has upgraded to “you’re my only option, and I’m pretty sure you could pick me up and fuck me against a wall,” which is a compelling image, but obviously not enough to tilt the scales.

Doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy it though.

“Damn, Booker!” she calls out. “Now flip your hair around like you’re in a perfume commercial!”

Booker rolls his eyes at her. “Are you objectifying me?”

“No, no,” she assures him. “I’m appreciating you as a full and complete person who also has biceps the size of my face.”

He shakes his head at her and drifts into a back float.

She knows he has to have made a similar calculation in the past few years they’ve known each other. Nile had been a little wary around him when he first joined back up with them for this reason. She has over one hundred years of experience being a woman, and she knows how cloudy a man’s wishful thinking goggles can get. Way back in the Marines, you could hand a certain type of guy a water bottle and he’d convince himself that you were gagging for his dick.

But Booker didn’t disappoint her. He never got weird or sleazy, or made pointed comments about her looks, or stood too close. The Old Guard is a touchy bunch, but Booker never really tries to touch her, unless they’re in a group hug or something.

By now, she trusts him and likes him—she’d be up for the occasional hug, but she also kind of respects that he’s sticking to it. It’s why she feels comfortable catcalling from the edge of the pool; she knows he won’t take it and run with it.

Damn, but a hug from those arms would probably be really nice. He could give Joe a run for his money.

“Can I interest you in a cocktail, ma’am?” a familiar voice asks.

She grins, twisting to take a sweating pina colada from Nicky’s tray. “Oh thank you, sir.”

Nicky tilts his head to read her notes, so she turns the tablet his way. Nothing interesting enough to draw a conclusion yet.

The drink is stingy on the booze, but earns back points for the curly straw. “I think I owe you an apology for all of my complaining about this job.”

Nicky’s mouth quirks. “Is that so? I am very excited for spending the next eight hours in and out of the hottest kitchen on earth.”

Nile grimaces. “Yeah, you may have drawn the short straw.”

Booker rights himself from the back float, standing in the water to give Nicky a small wave and wipe the hair out of his eyes. The view is even better when wet.

She can feel Nicky following her gaze. “So I have. Well, enjoy,” he says wryly.

Nile raises her glass to him. “I am.”

Nicky heads back to the inferno of the kitchens, and Nile tries to slip Booker’s ring onto one of her fingers for safekeeping. It’s too big for all of them, even her thumb.

Seems like out of the two of them, she’s the one enjoying some arm candy.

::

It takes about a week to get enough intel for them to strike. Nile will kind of miss Palm Breeze. She hasn’t had to crouch on a snowy bluff for hours, or escape through sewer tunnels, or hold her guts together with her bare hands even once.

The job has been good bonding for her and Booker, too. She’d been waiting for them to hit a wall and get sick of the close quarters, but they’ve carried on pretty well, especially once they found a truly ridiculous reality show to watch together in the evenings. As a bonus, since they’ll be taking the whole operation down at the end of the week, they aren’t too worried about the final bill, so they’ve explored most of the room service menu, which, while not exactly gourmet, can be eaten in a terrycloth robe, which definitely improves the taste.

But the resort restaurant contains Joe and Nicky, so they do have to put on their grown-up muumuus and linen pants and trudge down there from time to time.

“3 AM?” Nile confirms softly with Joe as he refills their water glasses.

He nods, slipping a sheet of paper with the details under her plate before bustling away.

“We had better turn in early, then,” Booker suggests.

Nile agrees, “Yeah, rest up.” They both sleep like rocks, passed out on either side of the bed. A shared habit developed after long periods of disturbed sleep.

Booker sips on his water and looks out over the sea of plastic, faux-rattan chairs. “I think I will miss this place.”

Strange words from a man with a parrot-themed light fixture hanging over his head, but she gets what he means.

“I’ve had fun,” she agrees. “You make a pretty great husband.”

He laughs. “I have to uphold my reputation.”

Nile leans forward, squinting. “Are you- are you blushing?!”

“No,” Booker says, straight-faced and pink-cheeked.

“I can be even more sincere if you want.”

“Oh, please do not.”

“No really, I think I can get you way more embarrassed if I try hard enough.”

The sound system squeals, and they both look over at the little stage at one end of the dining area.

“Alriiiiight, island lovers! We hope you’ve been having a fabulous time with your Palm Breeze family this week. My name is Enrique, and I’m your MC for the evening.”

Nile looks around the room and spots a sweaty guy leaning heavily on some sound equipment in the corner, speaking into the microphone with an impressive amount of enthusiasm that completely belies his exhausted slouch.

“I’m proud to introduce you to our band, the Parrot Playerrrrs!”

The small band on the stage plays a quick riff, and she hears Booker quietly groan at the corny name.

“Tonight is the steeeeaaaamiest of nights at Palm Breeze, that’s right, it’s Spicy Salsa Niiiiight! So please, step right up to the dance floor and join us for an evening of dancing...and passion!”

The Parrot Players strike up some jaunty music, and the gray-haired contingent in the room starts tottering towards the dance floor.

Nile grins at Booker with all of her teeth. “Honey! We’ve gotta!”

It’s not just to embarrass Booker. Nile loves to dance, and even better, she knows how to salsa: one of the cornucopia of random skills you pick up when you have unlimited time.

Booker puts up no argument, smoothly pushing back his chair and offering her his hand. He thinks he’s calling her bluff, but he’s in for a surprise.

They march to the dance floor, stepping onto the springy plastic surface just as the first song is winding down.

She takes one of Booker’s hands and places it on her shoulder, then grabs the other and holds it up and out to their sides.

“You can put your hand on my waist too, if you want, but this was the first way I learned it,” she explains to him.

“Hmm,” Booker hums thoughtfully. “I prefer to start in the fan position, but we can do it your way. Do you prefer to break on one or two?”

He shifts his weight, settling into a textbook-perfect starting stance.

She widens her eyes at him. “Booker, you sneaky fucker-“

The next song starts, and Booker takes the lead, pulling them into a quick and tidy basic step.

Salsa is a versatile dance, which is part of why it’s so popular. The older folks on the dance floor can follow a few gentle steps back and forth, sway a bit, and be good as gold; the lovestruck honeymooners can press together an inch apart and gyrate to their hearts’ content; and two competitive immortals can pull out all the stops they can to one-up one another.

Booker adds some fancy little extra steps on the downbeat, so Nile starts spinning and twirling wherever she can, then Booker throws in a jaunty kick when they pass each other, so Nile has to do one herself to match, and one thing leads to another, and a widening circle is forming around them on the floor- their fellow dancers are in danger of being hit by a spin or a kick gone too wide.

It’s pretty hot; Nile isn’t going to lie to herself. Booker isn’t shy about doing all of the proper body movements, twisting his hips and shoulders to the beat. The linen pants and neo-Tommy Bahama style shirt take away from the effect some, but Booker’s a guy who knows what to do with his body, a fact that is usually only relevant in combat situations when Nile doesn’t have the time to appreciate it.

He also manages to smell good, despite sweating through the humidity all day, which is frankly ridiculous. Probably some kind of animal attraction pheromone musk foolishness.

They transition into the embrace position for a change of pace. This puts Booker behind her, in a good spot to lean in and murmur conspiratorially into her ear, “You know, you’re really good at this. Did you know that actually, salsa was invented in New York City in the 1960s by Puerto Rican immigrants?”

Nile cackles. They developed this inside joke over the last week. Ever since Booker defined a neuro-link for her as if she’d never heard of one, and she gave him a hard time about it, he’s been finding more and more basic information to mansplain to her. This morning, it was the North American Smoke Belt.

Three more songs play, and Nile is sweating through her bra, and Booker is panting, but they’re having too much fun to stop, and besides, neither of them can cave and be the first to wave the white flag.

Nobody can beat Joe and Nicky’s ability to be in sync, but she and Booker are getting pretty good at reading each other. As the latest song winds down, he quirks an eyebrow at her, offers an arm, and he lowers her into a spine-bending dip.

She was never good at dips, could never really relax her muscles and drape herself over somebody’s arm like a limp coat, but Booker won’t drop her, so Nile lets herself melt like jelly and her hair dangle nearly to the floor.

One of his enormous hands is cupped around her ribs, and, wildly, Nile thinks of soft-mouthed dogs, animals gentle enough to hold an egg between their fangs without cracking it. She isn’t delicate—she’s literally as unbreakable as they come—but he’s still holding her like she is.

The song ends, and he slowly lifts her back up, like he doesn’t want her to get a head rush.

Then, quickly, like he’s hardly thinking about it at all, he presses his lips to the back of her knuckles before returning her hand to her.

From anyone else, it would be eye-rollingly cheesy, but Nile knows he isn’t doing it as some kind of chivalrous play-acting.

She always thought of hand-kissing as a bloodless, historical artifact. Fusty, formal, perfunctory.

It’s not.

“So, uh”—she’s glad it’s really hard to see her blush—“is that a move from Ye Olden Days?”

Turns out that was exactly the wrong thing to say. Booker’s eyebrows furrow, and he keeps looking at her, but stops looking at her.

“Yes, it is.” He clears his throat. “I used to dance as often as I could, as a young man. It was how I met my wife.”

They dance through one more song, but even though Booker keeps up with the motions, she can tell she’s lost him to some shadowy place in his mind.

“Hey, uh, you okay?” she asks as they walk back to the room.

Booker’s gone somewhere else entirely, examining the dinged-up baseboards in the hallway like they have something interesting to say. “Hmm?”

“I kind of lost you there. Are you alright?”

“Yes, fine, fine.”

“Are you sure?”

She can see the exact moment when he decides to shut her out.

“It’s fine, Nile.”

When they get back to the room, he silently sinks onto his side of the bed and falls asleep almost immediately, not even bothering to brush his teeth.

This is one of the bouquet of reasons why she knew they would never work out in real life, but for the first time, Nile isn’t smug to be proven right.

4.

Pulling the turkey out of the oven, Nile nods to herself in satisfaction. It may have taken a few years, but she finally has the hang of lab grown turkey.

“Alright guys,” she settles the turkey at the center of the table. “It’s officially Thanksgiving.”

Quynh applauds, and Joe raises a glass.

Besides the turkey, their spread doesn’t resemble anything like a traditional Thanksgiving, but it’s enough to put all of them into a food coma, which fits the bill.

Booker reaches for a samosa, but Nicky interjects, “Wait a moment, Booker, we all have to say what we’re thankful for.”

“It’s not really like grace,” Nile points out. “You can eat through this bit.”

“Very American,” Joe chuckles.

“Well perhaps I do not want the sound of chewing to interrupt my speech,” Nicky says calmly, the corner of his mouth twitching.

Booker begrudgingly leaves the samosa alone.

“I want to say—Nile, do I hold my glass for this?” At Nile’s shrug, he raises his glass. “I would like to say, I am very thankful for all of you. For so many years, we were...separated, or new to one another, and while we will never stop missing Andy, I feel as though we have finally found a...”

Nicky breaks off, muttering something to Joe in their ancient shared language.

“Equilibrium?” Joe suggests in English.

“Yes, an equilibrium,” Nicky agrees. “Quynh, with us again, like old times, Booker and Nile, the babies, the dream team,” he teases, “and of course Joe, love of my life.”

Joe beams and kisses Nicky on the cheek.

“It is such a difficult balance to strike, when there are so few of us, but I think we finally found it. I am hopeful for many more years just like this,” Nicky finishes.

Nile hopes so, too. Warm and happy around their little family table, she knows that the most important thing is to not mess this up.

::

Nile wakes up in a box.

Something is.

Something is wrong with her legs.

She scrabbles at the walls around her.

Her hands are wet.

It’s so small, she can’t move, she’s curled up into a knot, the walls are crunching into her shoulders, she can’t straighten her neck, she’s a crushed spider circling the drain.

Nile is hyperventilating. She has tools for panic, honed over a century: sharp and fine, but she can’t find them.

They are going to bury her.

With a sick roll in her stomach, she realizes they might have already.

She tries to stop her breathing, listen for clues. She thinks she catches the knife’s edge of a voice, but it could be the sound of her own terror echoing back to her against the metal walls.

She pounds her fist against the wall. There’s hardly enough room to pull back, so she can only manage anemic little taps.

The traffickers don’t know she’s immortal, not unless something major slipped past her and Booker when they staked out the job. They just have to come see what’s making the noise and she can surprise them-

Quynh screamed and screamed and screamed when they drowned her. Nobody showed her pity. She died over and over again in bone-numbing cold; Nile will die over and over again in sweaty, cramped, heat.

Little creatures began to grow on Quynh, in the deep, pitch darkness. She would wake, brush them away, but they would come back again and again until she didn’t bother anymore.

Will this tiny metal box protect Nile from that?

“Booker!” she yells, whacking her hand against the wall pitifully. “Booker!”

Did they put him in a box too? Nile took the lead on this mission; it would be her fault.

It was just the two of them raiding the traffickers’ hideout—the rest of the Guard won’t know they’re gone until they pass check-in. They won’t know to look for a disturbed patch of earth in some lonely field until grass has grown over it, and Nile has lost her voice, and Booker-

Hasn’t he been through enough? Haven’t they all?

The traffickers’ probably have a place for disposed bodies, some forsaken graveyard. Her neighbors will be skeletons who were luckier than her.

“Booker!” she sobs. She can’t hear anything but echoes.

A part of Quynh never returned from the depths of the ocean. Quynh still goes back there when her eyes settle in the far distance, when she forgets how to speak, when the noise and lights of humanity are too much.

Then Andy died, and another chunk of Quynh calved away.

Nile believes in justice, but she knows that justice isn’t the world’s natural state. Sometimes something awful happens, sometimes several times in a row. You search for meaning, a reason why it all went wrong, the crime you committed to earn the punishment. You can ask God, but the truth is, the dice roll just didn’t go your way.

Cold comfort in a squalid metal box.

What was the last thing she said to them? Nothing worth remembering; this mission was supposed to be routine. Just another one-off job for her and Booker, the kind the two of them have been knocking out for years, ever since Palm Breeze. Nicky told them to stop for croissants on the way back. Quynh probably said something cryptic.

And Booker- the last he heard from her was probably a scream.

She could run out of time, in this little coffin. Die of suffocation and never wake up again. It could be a mercy, unless she has to live as long as Andy did before it happens.

Nile lets out a wordless scream, knocking her head up against the ceiling above her. It’s a deafening gong. She does it again. If she’s lucky, she might even knock herself out.

She jerks her head again, but the gong doesn’t sound.

Nile pauses, panting. Is she hearing things already?

Another loud, metallic noise. A gunshot in a warehouse.

“Booker!” she screams, redoubling her efforts. “Booker!”

Another shot rings out, then more, until she’s deafened by the orchestra of a gunfight.

It only took one clever shot to take her out and stuff her into a box. It will only take one for him, assuming the noise even is Booker and not some snit between hyped-up criminals.

Being next to a fight but unable to do anything about it is unbearable. Her cramping muscles strain against themselves, searching for somewhere to go.

What if she somehow escapes, but they take Booker? Even if she can find him, he’ll never really come back from that.

“Booker!” she hollers again. “You can’t leave me alone! Bastard!”

She returns to slamming her head against the wall, desperate to get out, desperate to do something, desperate for-

The metal shudders, and then blinding light cuts across her vision.

Nile reflexively puts her hands up, elbows protesting as they move from their calcified position inside the box.

Large, familiar hands wrap around them and pull her upwards.

She can still hardly see in the light, but a choked sound crawls out of her throat, and she scrabbles at him, clutching at a canvas jacket, a triangle of muscle at the base of his neck, the strap of a gun.

Booker’s arms wrap around her waist and hoist the rest of her out of the box. It hurts, prompting another wet sound from her. They broke both of her ankles to better fit into the box. She can tell from Booker’s quick intake of breath that it must be bad—she thinks her feet might be pointing in the wrong directions.

He readjusts, bending to hook an arm under her legs and pick her up. It’s not a good tactical choice, holding her like this. He should do a fireman’s carry, keep a hand free for his gun.

She forces her eyes open, looking over his shoulder and squinting around the warehouse. “Threats?” she gasps. She spots one body on the ground but is too unraveled to properly scout the area.

“No, no,” Booker mutters urgently. “I killed them.”

Nile isn’t proud of the surge of satisfaction that pulses through her.

She winds her arms firmly around his neck. It’s the courteous thing to do; it takes some of the weight off of his arms, but that’s fourth down on the list of reasons why she’s doing it.

“Are you alright?” he asks, tense.

She buries her nose in the cave between the collar of his jacket and his neck. “Fine.” Her voice cracks. “You?”

His arms tighten around her. “Fine.”

He always smells good. Maybe she isn’t an objective judge.

“Christ, that box,” he whispers.

Reluctantly, Nile turns her head to look at it. She’s owned larger laundry hampers. A shudder runs through her.

Booker takes a small step back, as though the box might lunge after them.

She looks up at him, and gets a good view of his face for the first time.

It’s almost as if he’s wearing face paint, there’s so much blood. Normally, with his high cheekbones and goofy nose, he looks like he belongs at a cafe, smoking cigarettes and writing pretentious poetry. He’s nearly unrecognizable. It isn’t the kind of splatter you get from shooting someone; there’s too much.

“What happened?”

Nile almost brings a hand up to try to wipe it away, but her own palms are bloody too.

Booker looks at her. They’re so close that their noses almost touch. She’s seized with an impulsive urge to kiss him, like she’s a heroine in a romance novel who doesn’t have to worry about things like consequences.

He must be thinking something similar, because he turns his face away sharply, then rotates so that she has a better view of the warehouse.

Overkill.

She saw Nicky do this once, to a group of men who were training child soldiers. It isn’t pretty, killing someone and then beating them once they’re down. They like to think of themselves as better than that; arbiters of justice, not revenge killers. But sometimes rage takes over.

A lot of the bodies don’t really have faces anymore.

“Oh.”

“I wasn’t sure where they’d taken you.” Booker swallows. “You were so far away, I couldn’t tell if you were dead. They thought you were acting alone, so they would have tied you up-“ he breaks off.

Unfortunately, their experience gives them a vivid imagination when it comes to this kind of thing.

It’s a coward’s move, but she presses her face back into his neck, closes her eyes. The adrenaline comedown is making her shaky. Even if her ankles were where they were supposed to be, she wouldn’t be in a great state to walk.

“Let’s get out of here.”

Booker carries her out. The path is labyrinthian, but there are smears of blood to mark the way—morbid Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs.

Once, on a quieter job infiltrating a hospital selling organs, she and Booker got lost in the windowless maze of basement labs and morgues, and really did start dropping breadcrumbs from the sandwich in Booker’s pocket. That was a good job—they didn’t have to kill anybody, and they spent a long time sitting in the car after, snickering and eating stolen chocolate pudding cups.

By the time they reach the woods at the edge of the property, her feet are pointing in the right direction again, and she can finally wiggle her toes.

“Okay, I’m good to go.”

Booker’s hand twitches against her ribs. “Are you sure? It’s unsteady footing from here.”

She doesn’t really want to stop clinging to him, thankful for his presence, his breath, the two of them upright and inhaling clean outside air. They never do this—he’s her best fucking friend and they’re shoulder-clap people—Nile isn’t ready to let go of her excuse yet.

But, clutching at his chest with her mouth brushing against his neck, she’s quickly careening towards a place where she won’t be able to walk any of this back.

Gingerly, she eases herself down. “Yeah, exactly. You’d be off-balance carrying me.”

Booker keeps a hand on her back, steadying her. She’s fine, she’s always fine.

He sticks close when they start navigating through the forest, making their way to the car they hid about four kilometers back. He had a scare, too. Nile knows she must have looked awful—she can feel dried blood crisping up in her cheeks where she was clutching at her face.

She clears her throat. “That was a rough one.”

Booker hums in agreement, then makes a sound that’s sort of like a laugh, except he clearly doesn’t think anything is funny. “They would have killed me if you got lost on my watch.”

“It’s not like Joe and Nicky killed Andy, when Quynh-“ Nile still isn’t really able to say it out loud.

Booker doesn’t say anything. It’s different for him; they both know it. He would be forgiven eventually, of course, but she doesn’t want to picture what kind of vicious jabs would be hurled in the first blurry moments of horror.

Nile brushes past it. “Anyways, good thing you were there.”

“Yes.” He inhales like he’s about to say something else, but stops.

“You know, I was thinking about how it would have gone if they got you instead,” she offers. “It would have really sucked.”

“Aw, cherie, you really mean that?”

He’s trying to lighten the mood, but Nile doesn’t really want to.

“Yeah, really. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

Booker rubs his nose, an anxious tic of his. “You’re a good friend, Nile.”

“That’s right, and you’re lucky to have me.”

“I am,” Booker answers, sincerely.

Nile gains some sympathy for him, then, because she really doesn’t know how to handle that kind of sincerity either.

They make it to the car and collapse inside. Booker makes no move to turn it on; they’re both so exhausted they would be a threat to public safety on the roads.

“Oh,” Booker rummages in the center console, scavenging two granola bars and handing them both to her.

“You want one?” Nile asks, already tearing into the other. These are the good ones Quynh discovered a while back—they have almost a day’s worth of calories and are the quickest way to feeling normal after a death. Even beats a chocolate pudding cup.

“No, there’s more in there,” Booker waves a hand, rooting around for their water bottles in the backseat.

Nile gorges herself on the second bar, then melts back into the seat. “Jeee-sus,” she says, drawing it out like her mom used to. “I could use a long break after this one.”

Booker makes a small, surprised, sound, and Nile raises an eyebrow at him.

“Nothing, I’m only surprised. You do not normally like long breaks.”

She shrugs. “I guess not; it sort of feels like there’s too much to do.”

“I admire that about all of you,” Booker says offhandedly.

Nile frowns. “You don’t feel that way?”

Booker shrugs, leaning against the car window. “I care about the people we help, of course. But the fire, the urgency...” he rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t have it.”

Nile shifts in her seat to get a better look at him. “I’ve never heard you say that before.”

He shrugs again, looking out the pitch black windshield as though there’s something to see out there. “I am not proud of it. The rest of you were...warriors when you came into this life. I was just a guy who got into fights. I think that has something to do with it.”

“You’re still out here, though, doing the work.”

“Of course. For a long time, though, it was the because this work was the only option presented to me, and I wasn’t creative enough to think of anything else,” he says ruefully.

“And then?” Nile prompts.

“And then.” Booker shakes his head. “Then I made a lot of selfish decisions in a row, until I had to fend for myself.”

They don’t talk about his exile a lot. It would sort of be like pointing out that the sky is blue. But now that Nile thinks on it, she knows Booker wasn’t picking up their usual type of job while he was on his own. He was an EMT for a while, a forger of green cards, a housing advocate by the time she caught up with him in Helsinki. Slow work, nothing like the flash-bang of the jobs the Guard takes. There were probably a few years of drunken malaise mixed in there that he didn’t want to tell her about, too.

“You were still doing good work.”

“Work anyone could do.”

“But you were the one doing it. So what if you weren’t regrowing limbs and spitting out bullets while you were at it?”

He chuckles. “This is exactly the pushy attitude that convinced me to come back.”

Nile rolls her eyes. “As if me and my medium sell could have made you do something you weren’t already gonna do.”

“Well, no,” he allows, “but you know what I thought? I thought, this woman is centuries younger than me, and she is already handling this life so much better than I ever did.”

He rubs a hand through his hair thoughtfully. He’s been keeping it short lately, so it stands up in ruffles like he just got out of bed. “I had been telling myself that of course Joe and Nicky were happy, they had each other, and Andy was miserable for most of the time I knew her, which made perfect sense to me, because so was I, and Quynh- I had known her for hardly a few days and didn’t know what to make of her. I thought that ennui was the natural tax that we pay for the ‘gift’ of immortality.”

Nile raises an eyebrow skeptically. “And I turned all that around during twenty minutes in a stopped elevator.”

Booker spreads his hands in defeat. “You inspired me.”

“Jeez, Book,” Nile says softly.

“So there, you are not the only one who can embarrass people,” he points out dryly. “You still inspire me.”

“Oh God.” Nile covers her face. She hasn’t felt like this since Quynh told her she was the little sister she never had.

“Eh, oh no, are you crying?” Booker’s voice is threaded with worry—he’s realized his mistake.

Nile sniffs. “Only a little bit. Play with fire, Booker...”

“Ah, I think there’s-“ Booker pulls a towel from the backseat. It’s meant for blood, but he offers it like a handkerchief.

She takes it, dabbing at her eyes and getting most of the blood off of her hands while she’s at it.

“We’re just gonna crash here for a few hours, right?” she asks.

Booker nods. “I’m a bad enough driver when I’m not exhausted.”

There are a few ratty blankets in the back, and the seats lower almost completely flat, which makes the car a practically luxurious sleeping space.

She falls asleep immediately, waking up again only when the first whispers of sunrise are cracking through the trees.

Booker is still dead asleep, and she knows from experience that it takes a lot to wake him, so she opens the center console again, searching for something like breakfast.

The console comes up clean. Booker had lied about the extra nutrition bars and gone to bed hungry so that she would eat them both without guilt.

This fucking guy.

5.

A Long Time Ago

It’s the height of sweltering Chicago summer, and Nile would be bemoaning the heat, especially in her black clothes, except she can’t really feel her body anymore.

Only Quynh is with her—they determined Nile would be less noticeable if only two of them went. She wraps a steadying arm around Nile’s shoulders.

Nile has found a lot of blessings in this life, but it’s hard to remember any of them now, standing two hundred feet away from her mother’s funeral, pretending to mourn over a stranger’s grave behind a wide black hat and sunglasses.

She can just make out her brother’s shape in the crowd. He made it to Colonel, joined up as early as he could and became a lifer. Nile cried when she found out he enlisted. She, her father, and her brother all fought in the same war. If she had been around, she could have told him what she thought of it. What she learned, after she left and wasn’t determined to ignore uncomfortable truths. Was he the last of them to break her mother’s heart?

They begin to lower the coffin into the ground.

“Quynh,” Nile chokes, “does it ever feel okay again?”

More than any of them, Quynh knows what it’s like to lose someone she loves.

Quynh’s hand tightens on Nile’s shoulder. When she looks over, she sees Quynh’s eyes are tight with tears and rage.

“No.”

::

“Motherfucking shit shit shit!” Nile shouts as soon as she regains her breath.

Their only saving grace is that the iced-over pond isn’t much deeper than they are tall, and isn’t far from the safe house. This fact doesn’t stop her teeth from chattering hard enough to bite through glass.

Booker only groans, wading through the frigid water towards shore. It isn’t an easy task— the temperature is well below freezing, and the pond ice is thick enough that they’d walked on it unknowingly for several yards before falling through. Booker has to break through the ice and bat away the layer of snow on top to move through it.

Nile trails closely behind him, trying her hardest not to slip in the mud below and bring the both of them down again. The water droplets on her coat are already beading up into ice; she isn’t eager for another plunge.

“This pond was not here the last time,” Booker grits out through shuddering breaths. “I am sure of it.”

“Could be-“ Nile’s teeth are chattering so hard that it’s actually difficult to get a word out. “Could be that you don’t remember, after two hundred years?”

“N-nonsense, my memory is perfect,” Booker jokes faintly.

“Better be, because I don’t wanna wander around in these woods trying to find the safe house for a minute longer than I have to.”

They’re losing daylight as well, which ticks off another square on their “hiking disasters” bingo card. Nile sure was a lot happier (and dryer) when hiking was just a distant, goofy hobby for white people.

She and Booker usually take jobs in warmer climates when they can—they both hate the cold—but sometimes duty calls, and sometimes Booker makes a tempting suggestion regarding the very nice ski resort they could visit after the job is done. The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.

“It’s probably two kilometers away now?” Booker pants, sloshing ashore and offering her his hand to pull her out.

Nile thinks back to a session with Andy regarding some particularly grim survival math, makes a few estimates based on their travel time in the snow, the distance, the temperature, and their soaked clothing.

“Aw fuck, we’re both fully gonna have hypothermia by then,” she hisses.

::

There’s an old skeleton key secreted up in the eaves of the safe house, but neither of them can move their hands enough to retrieve it, let alone turn it in the lock, but Booker finds some promising wood rot at the hinges of the door. With a few inelegant heaves, he breaks the door down.

The place is dark, and despite electricity existing by the time it was built, is too far from anything like a grid to be wired up, so Nile can only blink into the unfamiliar darkness.

Finally inside, the door wedged back into the jamb behind them, Nile is too foggy to know what to do next. She knows it’s a symptom, but the knowing doesn’t seem to help.

She’s stopped shivering, which she remembers is bad, but not why. She’s so tired, she wants to just curl up and die, and wake up when her clothes are dry.

Booker stumbles to the other end of the small room, where there’s a crusty brick fireplace. He pats around in the dark, triggering a clattering avalanche.

Firewood.

Nile wills herself to move. If she sits down now, she’s not going to get back up.

The two of them pile wood into the fireplace with as much speed as their sluggish limbs will allow. It’s odd for them to spend so much time in silence, but Nile can’t bear the thought of wasting her energy on something as stupid as moving her tongue.

Booker rubs a hand over the top of the mantle, then sighs in relief, retrieving a truly antique set of matches.

He drops it immediately. He can’t close his hands anymore.

Nile can’t remember what it felt like to be warm. It seems ridiculous to her that she used to complain about a silly little thing like humidity.

She grabs one of his hands. It hardly feels like human flesh anymore, it’s so cold, but her hands are also numb past reasoning. Still, she can manage to rub her palms over his fingers. They just need enough blood flow to grip a match, strike it-

Booker joins in, breathing over their joined hands. The air is so cold that half of the heat dissolves away before it can even reach them. They struggle together until eventually he nods at her, and she lets him go.

Flattening the pack of matches against the ground with his other frozen paw of a hand, he grasps one of the matches between two fingers.

Nile lets out a soft laugh of relief. Her definition of victory varies a lot depending upon the circumstances. In this moment, the bar is low and the thrill of victory is high.

Booker presses the hopeful little light into the cluster of twigs at the base of the log pile, and, miracle, they catch.

Nile sags. She could crawl straight into the hearth, she’s so cold.

But she can’t. She knows her sodden clothes are killing her. But the idea of removing them is worse—the opposite of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

She hears a thud behind her. Booker, on his knees, has crawled to the sitting area—draped in ghostly sheets turned gray—and knocked open a cedar chest. He drags out a blanket, then another, then another.

He’s so good to have, Nile could cry. She shakes off her water-heavy coat, kicks away her dripping boots. She fumbles with the zipper of her under-jacket, and commandeers Booker’s one mobile hand to un-zip it.

She can’t prioritize, tearing at her clothes, Booker’s clothes, the blankets. Everything needs to happen at once and yet is taking so long.

Her bare feet touch the frigid floorboards and she gasps. It’s so cold it’s almost like water itself.

Booker, also caught between the temptation of the blankets and the wincing necessity to take off his soaked clothing, grabs within the cedar chest one last time and drags out an enormous fur.

It’s too stiff to work as a blanket, but Nile catches his meaning when he slides it towards the fire. An honest-to-god bearskin rug. It screams Andy.

Nile falls onto it, giving up the fight to remain upright as she kicks off her pants—tactical elastic waistband, no need for Booker’s assistance. The fire is just catching enough that she can feel the first lick of warmth against her bare skin. She could almost sob.

With the luxury of heat looming, she can convince herself to retain a shred of dignity and keep her damp underwear on, but she jettisons everything else to a faraway pile, finally wrapping herself in one of the dusty flannel blankets.

It’s the terrible, scratchy weave of fabric from before cheap, soft, polyester was invented, but it’s in one piece despite its age, and it cuts out the chill of the room behind her almost immediately.

Booker, also down to his underwear, falls to a seat next to her, gathering up one of the other blankets to pull around his shoulders.

She looks at him desperately, and he opens his arms, the blanket like welcoming wings. Needing no further invitation, she burrows herself into his chest, shoving her nose into his skin, clutching an arm around his back, curling her legs as close into their combined warmth as she can.

For his part, Booker starts gathering the blankets over her back, his shoulders, their heads, until there’s no risk of a stray movement breaking open the cocoon of blankets.

They’re both so cold and clammy, Nile imagines this is what it feels like when two frogs try to cuddle. She shivers, finally, and counts that as a win.

She hasn’t actually died of hypothermia before, never gotten this close. She knows Booker got uncomfortably familiar with it back when he was fighting for Napoleon and proving once again that nobody should engage Russia in a land war in the winter.

As if on cue, Booker shivers too, rumbling under her cheek. It means their bodies are fighting for them again, struggling to warm them up.

Before long, they’re two dice shaking in a cup, rattling uncontrollably under the blankets. Nile’s muscles start to ache, realizing their uncomfortable position, so she forces herself to move, pulling her face away from Booker’s chest and turning so that she can lean back against him like a chair.

One of the blankets slips as she does it, revealing a precarious amount of boob, and Booker averts his eyes, like they aren’t basically cuddling naked in a bearskin rug anyways.

Nile isn’t particularly interested in modesty. They know each other well enough at this point that quibbling over exactly which square inches of skin they’re supposed to see and which ones they aren’t feels like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

That’s not exactly true. She knows she’s going to have a lot of feelings about this once she’s unthawed enough to care about something besides raw survival. Booker will too—the gentleman in him will want to apologize for the way his arms are wrapped around her rib cage, just brushing the underside of her breasts, his chest pressed against her back like wallpaper, his ice-cold face tucked into the side of her neck. Nile isn’t interested in hearing it, not when this is what they both need.

He’s so uncertain of his welcome, even after all this time.

Nile mindlessly rubs his arm where she can reach, hoping that the friction and motion will heat both of them up. There’s a dirty joke there, if she had the energy to make it.

Eventually—she has no way to estimate the time—they stop shivering. Her feet are still blocks of ice, and she thinks she would still be in danger of losing her ear to frostbite if she couldn’t heal, but they’re getting there.

The last dregs of sun are well and truly gone, leaving their little patch of firelight as the only bright spot in the room.

Booker clears his throat rustily. Nile braces herself—she doesn’t want to let go yet, but she isn’t going to drag him kicking and screaming.

“How are you feeling?” he asks softly.

“Better, you?”

He nods, brushing the side of her face with his beard. “Better. I don’t handle cold well.”

If she didn’t already know that, she could guess by his firm grip on her. “Could have gone worse,” she points out.

He huffs in agreement. “Could have gone worse.”

He doesn’t say anything else, surprising her. Nile relaxes against him. Now that her muscles aren’t tense from shivering, she just wants to melt into a puddle.

She’s putting her whole weight on him, but Booker holds her steady. Even when she fully slides to the floor, he follows her, clinging to her.

Being a part of the Old Guard led her to do more history research than she was ever motivated to bother with as a mortal. Napoleon spent less than six months in Russia, and left with hundreds of thousands of his men dead, and that was just the French side. They outnumbered the Russian army to start, but starvation and cold ate away at the men until even Napoleon’s iron power cracked.

Nile has trouble wrapping her head around it. Wars just aren’t fought that way anymore. That’s not to say that they’re better. She never got hungry or desperate for shelter when she was a Marine in Afghanistan, which was its own kind of injustice—that they could watch YouTube at base while civilians watched their families die, one by one, over the course of decades. But she can’t picture what it would be like, watching every last member of her battalion freeze to death. How could you ever forget what it felt like, to be that cold?

Booker tucks the flannel blanket tighter around her, and Nile supposes that you really don’t.

Nile has her hang-ups, too. She can’t stand the smell of pork cooking anymore.

She squeezes his hand, running a finger along the joint of his thumb. This is the point, though, isn’t it? They take care of each other.

::

Nile drifts awake with great annoyance. It’s still fully dark outside, and she’d like to sleep fully into the afternoon, if she can manage it.

Ah, it’s too dark. The fire has run too low, and she’s been woken by the encroaching chill.

Like hell that’s gonna happen. She wriggles free of Booker’s arm and the nest of blankets, careful to replace them over his chest, then grabs at the pile of logs to one side of the fireplace.

She regrets leaving immediately, huffing an irritated breath at the chill immediately raising goosebumps on her arms. It really seems like she should have earned some warm air by this point. Luckily, the embers are still glowing, so it only takes basic prodding to coax a few cheery little flames to life.

Booker’s fingers brush against her bare back. He’s more than three-quarters asleep still, reaching out for her blearily.

“We’re good, I’m just doing the fire,” she whispers in French, hoping that it will be easier for him to fall back asleep if he doesn’t have to spend energy on translation.

Booker sighs gustily, mumbling, “Would kill for a radiator, even a loud one.”

“Tell me about it,” Nile says softly. “Go back to sleep.”

“Come back t’bed,” Booker counters, rubbing his cheek sleepily against the threadbare granny square blanket under his head.

It’s a phrase pulled from a different type of life. She’d call Booker Sebastien in that life. They would have met through a dating app, (or whatever the kids are using these days,) since there’s no other way they would have crossed paths. Nile would have had a stroke and decided to go on a date with some middle-aged white guy for whatever reason, and then been charmed by the way he pulled the chair out for her at a mid-tier fusion restaurant that served great craft cocktails. She’d have thought, hell, let’s give this a try, because all that was at risk were a few hurt feelings, and then she could choose to never see him again if she wanted. But instead, they’d go on another date, then another, then rent a vacation cabin—their first weekend away—and light the fire for the ambiance. Her mother didn’t get it at first, but now she thinks Sebastien’s great, just what you need, he takes such good care of you. Come back to bed.

Nile comes back to bed. Ducks under his arm, nuzzles into his chest, facing him.

Booker dutifully tugs the blankets in behind her, and Nile winds closer, edging a leg over his, curling her toes around his ankle. It’s dark, she loves him, what else can she do.

Booker makes a soft little noise, impossible to hear if she weren’t right there. She’s pressing her boobs into him like she’s trying to get a free drink, it’s too much, she should-

He clutches her more tightly, softly stroking between her shoulder blades with his thumb. Alright.

She squeezes the perfect handful of muscle that runs across the back of his ribs. He snakes his free arm under her waist, hooking her in closer. She presses into the meat of his chest, feeling for his heartbeat.

It’s a very soft dance—they keep knitting themselves closer and closer together, rubbing against each other; not enough to qualify as grinding, but not enough to plausibly be for the sake of warming each other up, either. Maybe if they just hugged each other on normal days with no near-death experiences, they wouldn’t be hungry like this. She wants to devour him.

He rolls them so that she’s lying on top of him, like she took him down on a hunt. Booker doesn’t do this kind of thing accidentally, and she knows she isn’t imagining the look she catches in his eyes sometimes.

How long can they do this before it’s too much? It’s so dangerous, and it’s so good.

Maybe if they stay quiet, don’t look each other in the eyes, they can get away with this. Chalk it up to the kind of casual, “we survived” sex that normal people probably have.

It feels so good to have him under her, trapped between her thighs. How funny that all of Booker, his sorrows, his laughter, his sense of duty, his mistakes, his victories, all lives in this one body that she can frame between her hands, pin down.

How does he always smell so good? He should smell like musty fabric and pond water, but even the skin around his armpit smells good. Nile can’t put a name to it; it’s just that it’s him, she knows it.

She grips at his bicep. She can’t even get her whole hand around it.

It would be so good, she knows it would be. He would do whatever she wanted. Even now, holding her tight enough for his fingerprints to be visible on her skin, Booker treats her like something precious.

Nile shifts, sliding down Booker’s body an inch or two. Yeah, he’s hard. It would be so easy, just slipping away two scraps of fabric out of the way.

Booker squeezes her hip, tracing the shape of her pelvis with his thumb.

He can probably go for a really long time. It would feel so good, to just take him inside, get him where she wants him. Love on him.

They could just do this once. Enough to scratch the itch, appease some curiosity. Like a one-night stand—Nile’s had plenty of those. You fuck, you have some fun, squeeze a cute butt, wink if you happen across each other in the street someday.

She glances up, and finally catches Booker’s eye.

His eyebrows, always so sorrowful, are quirked up helplessly. His mouth is the slightest bit open, like he can’t get enough air. Booker’s looking at her like she’s a piece of art, or a miraculous vision. It’s too much, she doesn’t know where to put it all, they shouldn’t be doing this-

Booker gasps raggedly. “We shouldn’t be doing this,” he whispers, even as his hand tightens on her hip.

Nile can’t help but laugh. “You know by saying that, you just made it like ten times hotter,” she says ruefully.

His hips actually buck involuntarily underneath her. It’s a wide open window into what it would feel like to ride him, and she has to grit her teeth to stop herself from actually moaning, in pleasure or frustration, she isn’t sure.

“It’s...the...” Booker blinks hard, staring at the ceiling. He’s clearly doing his equivalent of mentally reciting baseball stats. “The hotness is not the problem.”

“Yeah,” Nile says reluctantly, easing off of him, “yeah I know.”

She settles in at his side instead. Sweat is starting to dew up on her back—she could probably separate from him completely, but she’s not quite up for going cold turkey yet.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” he assures her, like she hasn’t known he wants to since she spilled water down the front of her white shirt in Nagano five years ago and he practically ran out of the room. “It would just be too...”

He trails off. She gets it. It’s like trying to eat only one chocolate truffle.

“You know,” she murmurs, “I was thinking of what it would be like if we met in, you know,” she waves a hand like that could encompass everything. “Real life. Where we could do this normally.”

Booker furrows his eyebrows, turning to look at her. “How would we ever meet in real life?”

“You have to fudge the details.”

“I..” Booker rubs a thumb across his forehead like he might iron out the line there. “Forgive me, but I can’t imagine why, if you had other options, you would choose to be with me.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the fantasy, isn’t it?” she whispers. “If I had other options, and chose you, then I’d know for sure.”

Booker smiles sadly. “I think we both know what the answer would be.”

It’s self-deprecating to the point of melodrama, but Nile knows he believes it. “I don’t know about that, Book. Maybe?”

“You could do better than me, I don’t think that’s up for debate,” Booker points out.

Nile doesn’t want to tell him he’s right, but the truth is, she doesn’t know. There is no “better than” or “worse than.” There’s only the two of them.

“I’m not really...worried about that,” she says truthfully. “I think about what could happen if we gave this a shot, and it didn’t work out, and that terrifies me.” She huffs a disbelieving laugh. “I’d give my left arm for us to just fuck and for it not to be a huge, eternal deal that’s gonna hang over us for literally centuries.”

Booker makes a disbelieving noise. “I think we could get over having sex once—we’re adults,” he says, like he wasn’t the one who hit the brakes first.

“Yeah, but it wouldn’t just be sex,” Nile points out softly.

His eyes soften, and he can see her gaze flick down to her lips. “No, it wouldn’t,” he agrees.

“So where does that leave us?”

Booker shrugs helplessly, staring at the ceiling. “The same place as before, I guess.”

He’s right. No matter how much Nile wants it to be true, nothing has changed: she’s still terrified. She doesn’t know if she could ever commit to loving someone for eternity, even if she loves him now. Their family is too small and precious to endanger with something so big and so breakable. If he ever died on her, she would never be herself again. She might as well tattoo it on her wrist, she’s repeated it to herself often enough.

“Same place as before,” she agrees.

Nothing has changed. She just has to convince her lungs of that, and then they’ll remember how to breathe again.

“But, just for tonight...” Booker murmurs slowly.

“Yeah?”

Turning to look at her again through lidded eyes, he asks, “Tell me about the fantasy. How did you ‘fudge the details’?”

He’s tossing them both a life raft.

Climbing onto it, Nile whispers, “I think we must have met through an app. You would hate them, and have like one picture, but I probably said I liked art on mine, so you’d send a message about how you used to make fake IDs, and it takes a lot more art skills than people think-“

Booker laughs out loud, showing off the whole top row of his teeth.

Yeah, they’ll be okay.

+1

She finds Booker out on the porch, trying to soak up the dregs of Ukrainian summer sunshine filtering through the green trees.

“I have great news,” Nile announces, settling into the lawn chair beside him.

Holding her tablet out to him, she lets him read it for himself.

>>Sanchez: found a pic of B that was too good to erase right away. File will delete 30 secs after opening. 1986.

Booker’s eyebrows furrow, and he rubs at the stubble over his jaw. “I don’t know what this could be, but I’m worried.”

A few years ago, Nile would have said something like: aww, you know I’ll love you no matter what. But she’s trying not to do that anymore.

Instead, she says, “Let’s see,” and clicks on Sanchez’ attachment.

It’s definitely 1986. Booker’s wearing one of those oversized pastel suits with the sleeves rolled up, pleated to heaven and back. He’s caught in the background of someone’s vacation picture, mid-bite of street taco. But the best part-

“That mullet! Wow!”

It’s a feathery masterpiece. He looks like a villainous new-age businessman from one of the movies of the era.

Booker groans, “Give me that—let me send that picture to hell.”

“No!” Nile cackles, wrenching the tablet away from him. “I only have thirty seconds with it! I need to cherish it!”

“I was undercover at the time!” Booker protests weakly.

“Oh sure, everybody knows mullets are required for undercover work.”

He makes another weak lunge for the tablet—easily thwarted.

“How will you ever respect me again?” he asks, in a voice that he would never call a whine but definitely is.

“Oh, please- aw, man, there it goes.”

File not found. Small blessings for Booker.

Pouting exaggeratedly, Nile says, “If only I could take it with me to Beijing, I’d put it by my bed every night to scare away bad dreams.”

Then she rubs a hand through her hair, glancing around. “Did I leave a mug of tea out here?”

Booker doesn’t respond for a long minute, then says softly, “I didn’t realize you were going back to Beijing.”

Okay, maybe Nile had been putting the announcement off. It was kind of obvious that she’d have to go back—more and more people are getting kidnapped for brain farms every day, and she and Quynh were only making a dent—but she might have been a little evasive about her plans when she’d shown up to surprise Booker earlier in the week.

“Oh. Yeah. I mean. Didn’t I say?”

He gives her a look like she should know better. “No, I think I would have remembered that.”

“Well, okay,” Nile says defensively, “I didn’t talk dates or anything, but obviously I’m not gonna just stay here in Ukraine with you forever. I don’t know anything about setting up schools for refugees.”

Booker nods slowly. “Obviously,” he repeats. “Except you ‘obviously’ weren’t telling me on purpose. Since when do we leave it to unspoken assumption that we’re going on jobs?”

He’s absolutely correct; it was a weird move on her part, but she isn’t interested in admitting that.

“Yeah but you always get so twitchy when I visit you here and then have to leave; I was trying to postpone the conversation for a bit.”

“I’m capable of having a conversation—I’ve grown up that much,” Booker says reproachfully.

“Last time I visited, you disappeared for the last two days I was here!” Nile retorts. “How ‘grown up’ is that supposed to be?”

“Work was-“

“Oh bullshit about work, don’t lie to me! The whole year you’ve been here, whenever I visit, you get huffy and obnoxious to be around at some point, and eventually, I noticed a pattern.”

Her heart is beating way too fast. They don’t need to be having this conversation the way they are: Booker with his arms crossed, Nile with her fists clenched in her lap, but he’s just so stupid, and such a dick, and if he can’t be normal, then she’s not going to turn this train wreck around.

“You don’t have to tiptoe around me; I don’t need to be managed,” Booker shoots back.

“Oh believe me, I don’t want to manage you! I don’t want to be thinking about you all the time, but, but,” Nile runs out of words. “Here we are!”

Booker hisses in frustration. “If it’s so difficult for you to come here, you don’t have to do it.”

“Yeah well, if you would just take a normal job with the rest of us, I wouldn’t have to do this...whole...thing!”

She can’t find the right way to say it- he’s just so- it’s all so- if he could just-

“You supported the idea when I first came here!” Booker points out, talking faster and faster. “Talked about how we don’t have to do splashy, violent work to make a difference, said you were proud of me-“

Nile seizes onto that. “Yeah, and then I found out the whole program was being funded by the Department of Homeland Security! We know that’s some kind of shady shit—why are they paying for a school for refugees in Ukraine?”

“I’ve been to the schools, Nile,” Booker says, exhaustion in his voice like he’s explained it to her a million fucking times, instead of just once, six months ago, when she very calmly brought up a few valid, well-thought-out concerns. “They’re normal schools: alphabets and math and football games-”

“-And American propaganda, and hundreds of thousands of exobytes of data on those kids getting poured into an algorithm somewhere for god knows what-“

“There is no such thing as a perfect job. We all know this, everything is gray, all I can hope to do is get some children through school so they have a fighting chance at becoming something-“

Nile cuts in over him, “You don’t want to look at it that closely! You want to believe the best in someone because then you don’t have to do your due diligence. Someone could take a student for ‘medical experiments,’ and you’d just-“

Booker inhales sharply. Yeah, that was a low blow.

“I have learned a few things in the one hundred and fifteen years since then, Nile,” he says, low and controlled. “You think I didn’t spend the first few months looking for the cracks? Do you really think I’m that stupid?”

No, but her blood is boiling too hot to say it.

“You just won’t trust that anything the United States does can be more good than bad,” he carries on. “You do this: you get burned, go too far the other way so you won’t have to take a risk again-“

Nile balks. “I don’t want to hear your pseudo-psychological analysis of me, just because you were a social worker fifty years ago-“

“It’s because I know you better than-“

“Well I don’t want to hear it! That’s not your job!”

Booker inhales unsteadily, looking away from her and out over the yard. He nods silently to himself, stands up, and walks back into the house.

She has probably two minutes before she starts feeling really shitty, so she tries to hold onto the rage for a moment longer, justify it to herself. They’ve never fought like that before, but now she’s realizing that it’s been brewing for a while.

They both had good points, Nile just doesn’t understand why they both got so emotional and everything got so out of hand so quickly.

That’s not true. She does.

She sighs, then stands up. Looks like she did leave her tea out here—it’s at the base of her chair, now ice cold.

There are some apologies to make. Might as well do it while the iron is hot.

It’s a farmhouse—the door opens directly into the kitchen, where she finds Booker. He hadn’t gone far.

“I’m sorry,” she bursts out.

Booker hands her a mug of tea. It’s the same blend she abandoned outside, but warm and fresh-brewed. “For you.”

He’s good at that—little gestures. Ever since they stopped being strangers, she’s never been concerned that he doesn’t care, even though he rarely says it.

“I took that conversation really out of hand-“ she begins.

“-I said a lot of things I regret-“ he says at the same time.

“You go first-“

“Sorry, you-“

They blink at each other for a second, caught in a stalemate.

Nile goes first. “I shouldn’t have brought up Merrick, that was so out of hand, I know you wouldn’t let something like that happen again.”

He was the one who raised the alarm when they were all raring to go on that job in Lagos. Booker knows better than any of them how to notice when you’re taking a job because it makes you feel good, not because it’s a good idea. In the heat of the moment, all memory of that flew out of her head.

For his turn, Booker says, “You were right, I had been acting strangely around you, and it was, ah-“ losing the word, he switches to French. “It was disingenuous of me to pretend I hadn’t been.”

“Still, you had a point,” Nile counters. She wants to right the wrongs of everything she said, work backwards through the checklist of their argument, uncrossing every box. “I was dancing around you instead of just telling you how I was feeling, which was shitty of me-“

Booker laughs darkly. “Well, I was being shitty. And when you brought it up, I got shittier and started making stupid accusations about you just to make a smokescreen.”

“I’m not really that worried about the school,” Nile confesses. “I’m a little worried, I think I always will be, but the stuff you said last time we talked about it made a lot of sense to me. I just really wanted to be right.”

Booker steps forward, like he can’t help himself. “I was doing the same thing, dredging up anything I could, whether I really believed it or not.”

Nile clutches the mug of tea Booker made her against her chest. “We’re too goddamn competitive. This is like skeet shooting all over again.”

Booker’s mouth twitches. “Or our bets on the winner of Sweden’s Strongest Man.”

“Or salsa,” Nile adds.

That was so long ago now, but she still thinks about Spicy Salsa Night or whatever the hell they called it. In salsa, one person always steps forward, and the other back, then they switch roles. Sometimes they’ll dance side-by-side for a few beats, but it always settles back into that basic push and pull.

They haven’t danced together since that night, but they also haven’t really stopped.

Booker’s eyes soften. “Or salsa.”

She’s forgiven.

The tea has cooled enough to drink. It’s the fruity, flowery kind that only she drinks. Booker keeps a box of it for her.

“I would act huffy when you went back to Beijing because I didn’t want you to go,” Booker admits.

Push.

“I know.” She appreciates hearing it aloud, though.

Pull.

“And because I had no business being territorial about your time—I was also kicking myself for being an ass.”

It’s classic Booker, finding a way to drag himself down.

“I think the reason I got so nasty with you out of nowhere earlier is because I’m mad that you’ve been avoiding me,” she offers, knowing it to be true as soon as she says it.

Push.

Booker leans against the cabinets, playing with a dishcloth older than most senior citizens. “That wasn’t the only reason I took this job, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t think we needed some breathing room after that night with the pond.”

Pull.

Breathing room. All they do is give each other breathing room, and all it’s done so far is allow more oxygen for flames.

Nile steels herself, gulps, decides not to say anything, reminds herself that she’s jumped off of literal cliffs before, she can do this, and asks, “Can I give you a medium sell?”

Booker cocks his head, smiling faintly.

“You know, the reason I’ve always given myself for not...” she gestures between them. “Is that the risk/reward ratio didn’t make sense. And what if we got into some kind of horrible argument and didn’t know how to make it right?”

Booker looks straight at her, hand clenching restlessly on the oven handle. If the nervous tension in the room weren’t so high, she knows he would make fun of her for saying something as American as risk/reward ratio.

Her heart is beating so fast that it’s choking her. “But now we’re fighting because we aren’t doing this, and it turns out we’re pretty good at making up, actually. So, that says to me that the ratio has changed. I think we could figure it out. And if we really didn’t work out, we could figure that out, too.”

Nile looks up at him hopefully, thumb dancing nervously over the handle of the mug.

Push.

Booker rarely smiles. He smirks, or looks ruefully amused, or quirks his lips in mild amusement.

Nile’s been treated to the occasional Booker smile in the past. After a particularly good joke, a World Cup win, and, memorably, a surprise push into a lake.

She’s never seen him beam before.

“Yes.”

Pull.

She nearly knocks him to the ground, she jumps on him so hard.

Booker catches himself with a hand on the counter, wrapping an iron arm around her waist to keep them both upright.

Afterwards, he’ll say that he kissed her first, which is absolutely not true, because Nile was clearly on her way to kissing the bejeezus out of him—he just got there first, cupping a careful hand around the back of her head and pressing her against the fridge with his whole body.

Nile has spent a fair amount of time thinking about kissing Booker, but she’s never been able to really enjoy it, with the steady beat of I should knock this off in the back of her head. Now, standing firm with the decision to throw caution to the wind, she doesn’t know how she managed to hold back so long.

He’s always been taller than her—he’s taller than most people—but she’s never been able to appreciate it quite like this. She has to get onto her tip-toes to reach him, relying on the grip of her arms around his neck and the strength of his wide shoulders to keep her from toppling over.

Then Booker sucks on her bottom lip, and she can’t help but stumble. Pulling free for a dizzy moment, he assesses the situation, nods dazedly to himself, and lifts her up onto the counter.

Always good at taking strategic advantage, Nile wraps her legs around his waist and clings to him so closely that the cracked countertop tiles are hardly carrying her weight.

She kisses him, kisses him, kisses him, and when she realizes he’s smiling, she kisses the smile too.

Andy told her once that growing as old as they do, you live entire separate lifetimes that your past self never would have dreamed of. At the time, the idea made Nile uneasy—the thought that someday in the future, she could be someone, do something completely unrecognizable to herself. Now, drunk on excitement, kissing the one person she told herself she never would, she gets it.

::

They agree that they should take it easy and not have sex right away. Then Booker does something with his eyelashes and breathes on her neck, and they throw that plan right out the window.

She was right—it is really good.

For years, she’s been shoving every Booker-related feeling into a mental filing cabinet, cataloguing like a scientist, keeping on her latex gloves and goggles, avoiding any contamination. Now, she’s ripping the papers out, upending the cabinet, and rolling around naked in the mess. It’s overwhelming.

Maybe they should be moving slow: reverent, soft gasps, and gentle motions, but they can’t seem to manage it. Save that for round two.

He’s between her legs, right where he needs to be, warm and solid and moving with focused dedication. In their hurry, he hasn’t even taken his sweater off yet, and she’s entranced by the thick fabric bunched up around his forearms, straining against the muscles jumping in his wrist. A tendon in his neck is straining—she wants to bite it. His cheeks are turning so pink—she rubs her face there to feel the warmth. He takes advantage of the closeness and catches her mouth.

They can’t seem to stop. She’s only managed to shove his pants halfway down his thighs, and she’s still hooked into her bra for some reason, and they should really be on a bed instead of half-falling off the closest couch, but every time they try to get back on track, she’ll get distracted by his cheekbones, or his hair will flop into his eyes, and she has to put it back-

Booker’s leg slips off of the couch completely, banging into the corner of the solid wood coffee table. “Ah!”

“Oh shit- are you-“

He straightens up, bending his knee experimentally. “It’s okay, it just caught me in the soft spot under my kneecap-“

“We should really just get in a bed-“

“We should,” Booker agrees, “I only need to do one thing-“

“What’s- oh-“ Booker makes it pretty clear that she’s the one thing. Nile melts back into the couch. “I mean, yeah, gotta keep your priorities straight...”

He finally gets a hand free to unhook her bra, but Nile is too busy running her hands over his stubble, his hair, to loop her arms through, so Booker just shoves the offending mess of elastic and fabric out of the way so that he can get his mouth on her. Nile twitches under him—she’s done this very thing before, why does it feel so different now?

She shoves at his pants roughly with one bare foot, trying to inch them further down, but she’s at a disadvantage, so she twists, tries to get some leverage-

They both fall straight to the floor this time. Luckily, there’s a rug.

“You are trying to kill me,” Booker wheezes. “You went for the long game, I respect that.”

“Just a little death,” Nile says in French, winking.

The pun elicits a groan from Booker, but he’s distracted just enough that Nile can gather the wherewithal to finally get his clothes off. She flings the tangled corpse of her bra across the room.

“We,” she decides, “are not gonna make it to the bed.”

Booker agrees wholeheartedly.

They both get an outrageous amount of rug burn, but hey, it’ll heal.

After, Booker retrieves his crumpled sweater from underneath the coffee table and slides it under her head for a pillow. He has her chest to serve as one, so she’s pretty sure he’s getting the better end of the deal.

With both of them well settled, he fumbles around blindly until he finds her hand, kissing her knuckles.

Yeah, they can figure this out.