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Progression (Years 25, 26)

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It’s not exactly dark here by the sea. The moon is nearly full — two days to go, Nile checked — and reflecting on the calm water. Even at night, there’s plenty of light to see by. They’re all supposed to sequestered up in the safe house, or what’s currently passing for a house but is really just a single room with an icebox in one corner and a beat up couch sagging sadly in another. After the last job, they agreed it was safer to stay indoors for a while, no matter how stir crazy they all went living literally on top of each other. There’s a heap of blankets on the floor and couch now where Nile and Andy were, and Nicky’s undoubtedly awake and listening for them to return. He’ll probably wake Joe and come out to get them if they’re gone too long, but he still pretended to sleep when Nile slipped out after Andy.

Andy’s flat on her back just beyond the lick of the waves. She’s got one hand tucked up behind her head, the other trails a line through the sand at her side. She’ll probably spend the entire day complaining about her back aching as if they didn’t all insist she take the couch (though the couch can’t possibly be much more of an improvement with the way it’s nearly collapsing in on itself). For now, she’s watching the stars. Nile shuffles up beside her, being as loud as she can in case Andy wants to send her away before she even sits down. Andy doesn’t and Nile tucks her knees up under her own chin next to Andy’s thighs. They’re quiet for a while, just listening to the wash of the ocean against the beach.

“How much longer do you think I have?” Andy finally asks. There’s less and less pretending they can do. Andy couldn’t lead this job, running out of breath far more quickly than she used to. Joe had taken point with Nicky bringing up the rear. None of them talked about how often Joe and Nile had checked over their shoulders to see Nicky propping Andy up several meters further back than was strictly safe. (Joe had been absolutely radiating nervous energy the entire time; for all that he was relentlessly concentrated on the task at hand, Nile knows he couldn’t focus all his energy on the job with Andy falling behind and Nicky at her side.)

“You’re more recently mortal,” Andy continues, “you’ve seen people get old more recently than we have. How much longer, do you think, before I can’t stand without aching, or before my eyesight starts to go, or before I can’t hear you guys in the next room over?” For someone who hasn’t seen people age recently, she certainly has a grasp on what’s coming. There are wrinkles actually deepening the creases of her face now and Nile suspects all three of those things are already happening.

“Maybe ten, twenty years,” Nile says, shrugging a little. “My grandmother rode a motorcycle until she was 87. My grandfather was in a wheelchair by 71. It’s hard to pin down.” She knows there’s a reason Andy is asking her, beyond just the most recently mortal thing.

Nicky is the picture of understanding, steady and deliberate as always. He’s patient and level-headed at every step, gentle in how he coaxes Andy to relax her body in ways she still hasn’t gotten used to after so many millennia of bouncing back. Nile knows he’s the one who’s been casually leaving printouts lying around and walking away from the laptop with websites open detailing the newest technologies available to slow certain steps in the aging process. (It’s comforting to see that the flurried burst of advancement Nile had been used to from her own childhood hasn't waned yet.) But sometimes his endless well of unflappable kindness can get suffocating, and he makes himself scarce when Andy looks ready to rip his throat out because he knows this, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to not be gentle. Nile wonders if he’ll make it there before the end.

Joe, on the other hand, is in denial. Or, at least, doing an admirable job of acting like he is. When he’s not taking point on their jobs, an ever more frequent occurrence, he’s completely ignoring that anything is out of the ordinary. He’s cheerful as ever, always going for a laugh out of all of them, but Nile can see the cracks in the foundation. (She’s gotten to know them well enough now to see the way Joe fakes his smiles, and the way Nicky watches him like something is going to snap sooner rather than later.) Where Nicky’s softness can sometimes get suffocating, Joe’s optimism is almost always exhausting now. They can’t pretend everything’s just the same as always, and even if Andy said this changes nothing, the change is becoming too obvious to ignore now. It wears on all of them that Joe refuses to acknowledge it.

So Andy is here with Nile. Because Nile is just as scared as the others, just as unsure, but she didn’t have an unbreakable Andy for 900 years. She had an unbreakable Andy for barely more than a day (and she’s worked out by now that she was the very last person to wound Andy in her immortal state). Her reality is Andy getting older, Andy spending the necessary weeks to recover from stray bullets, Andy slowing down. She takes it in stride just like she might’ve taken her mother’s aging in stride, an expected, inevitable normalcy.

They’re quiet for a bit and Nile wonders if she should offer to help Andy sit up. Andy’s still too proud to ask on her own, but she’s begun to take the help more readily. So far, Nile seems to be the only one who’s found the balance of when to offer and when to just wait. (Nicky offers every time, but has the decency to look chagrined when Andy snaps at him; Joe almost never offers, even though they can all see how he wants to.) In the end, she just keeps talking.

“A healthy diet and regular exercise can keep your body going for years,” she says. “As long as everything remains in working condition, you might be able to move around on your own for another twenty years, thirty or forty, even, depending on how old you were when you first died and whether or not our bodies suffer long term effects from all the breaking and healing. And they might be annoying, but you can get glasses for your eyesight. Regular appointments will keep them up to date and you’ll be able to see clearly still for several years. Hearing aids these days are getting better and better, too. Most are barely noticeable anymore and the controls are more accessible than ever. There’s ways around these things.

“They’re band-aids, though,” Nile admits. “You won’t go on forever. And that’s not taking into consideration your mind. Best case scenario, you keep running jobs with us for a few more years until you finally admit your failing stamina is too much of a hindrance in the field and gracefully live out the rest of your life waiting for us to come home.”

“Worst case, I take a stray bullet and put all of us out of our misery,” Andy mutters. It feels like ice water down her spine anytime Andy says something like that, but Nile’s gotten good at suppressing the shiver. This may be normal to her, but hearing Andy’s nonchalance, and thinking about losing her so quickly, still makes Nile’s heart race sickeningly.

“Nah,” she replies instead of scolding like Nicky or going silent and suddenly dark like Joe, “you’re too proud to let some baby take you down. I mean, imagine I put a bullet in you. How fucking sad would that be?” Andy snorts.

“Pretty fucking sad,” she agrees.

They’re silent again. The tide slips infinitesimally further away.

“I’m not ready to go,” Andy says finally. “It’s a sort of novel experience and all, and it’s not so bad right now. But I’m not ready to just… leave.” She shifts in the sand and Nile offers her the crook of her elbow. Andy grasps it and levers herself up.

“I thought I wanted to end it, you know?” she continues once she’s caught her breath. “I was just so fucking tired, so over it. I didn’t really think about leaving them.” She nods back to the house. Nile looks over her shoulder. Nicky and Joe are sitting on the step watching them. They’re too far away to really see clearly, but Nile knows that Joe is drifting off on Nicky’s shoulder and jerking awake every time his head slumps forward while Nicky just holds still as a statue and waits them out.

“I know you want to keep fighting to the very end,” Nile says, “but if you want as much time as possible with them, you’re going to have to stop. Grandma fought to keep her license for years, but she quit riding bikes when Mom broke down in tears and begged her to stop tempting fate. Some sacrifices are worth it to stay with your family.”

“I want to last long enough for Nicky to prank me again,” Andy murmurs. “Shit, kid, you don’t even know them. You don’t know how Nicky likes to just pick some corner to go all sniper in and wait until everyone practically forgets he’s there before purposefully dropping something heavy. He used to sneak up on me. I caught him a lot, but the times when he got me… you’ve never really heard him laugh, Nile, not like he does then.”

“He’s probably scared he’ll give you a heart attack,” Nile says. Andy laughs wetly.

“Meanwhile he should be pressing his advantage,” she says. “My hearing isn’t going to get better.” Nile leans her shoulder into Andy’s side.

“What about Joe?” she prompts. Andy shudders out a sigh.

“I want to see Joe soft again,” she says. “After particularly grueling jobs, after Nicky dies one too many times or just a little too violently, or when he’s just as fucking worn out by all these centuries as the rest of us, he gets just… soft . Goes a bit fuzzy at the edges, dims and fades a bit. He’s been keeping it together for you, I know he has, and,” she breaks off with a slightly frustrated noise, “you don’t know, Nile. I hate that you don’t know. The times when he doesn’t even try to, when he just lets everything go, but not just around Nicky, around all of us. It’s all quiet murmurs and gentle little touches and, and softness . I just want him to let go. I want to catch him, just one more time.” Nile blinks away tears.

“I want to see those things, too,” she says. Andy sags against her a little more.

“You will, kid,” she promises. “In time, you will.” The moon sinks lower in the sky. Nicky and Joe haven’t moved.

“I want to see Booker again,” Andy whispers. “And Quynh.” Nile sniffs, wonders if she should finally tell them that she isn’t drowning in her dreams anymore.

“If you’re willing to entertain religion again, there’s maybe some sort of afterlife where you won’t be alone,” Nile says after a while. Andy squeezes her arm a little.

“Yeah,” she says. “See my sisters again. My mother… Lykon. Nice to imagine.”

“And they’d get there, too,” Nile says. “Eventually.” Andy turns to look over her shoulder finally and she smiles a little. She shifts again and withdraws her hand from Nile’s elbow. Nile takes the cue and stands. Andy pushes herself to her feet.

Nile turns to head back up to the house. Nicky is on his feet, mostly holding Joe upright but looking like he’ll drop him to come help Andy if she seems like she’ll need it. Andy catches Nile’s arm and Nile looks at her. Her eyes are fixed on Nicky, so mournful it hurts, but she tears her gaze off him to look Nile in the eye.

“It’s you, too, you know,” she says. “I don’t want to leave you either. I want to last long enough to know you like I know them. I want to have something more to miss when I go.” The tears threatening to fall all night finally escape and Nile tries to smile shakily. Andy smiles back. “They probably tell you this all the time, but you are family, Nile. And I fucking hate that this was supposed to be the option of not seeing your family die so soon.” 

Nile doesn’t hesitate. She wraps her arms around Andy’s shoulders and pulls her in close. Andy is still strong and warm and undeniably alive as she curls her arms around Nile and holds on. Nile shakes a little and Andy still holds her up.

“In the morning,” Andy says in her ear, “we can talk about my options on the sidelines. I can’t be useless.”

“You won’t be,” Nile says fiercely, “not ever.” Andy nods at lets her go, stepping back to look her over. She squeezes Nile’s shoulder and leans in to press a kiss to her forehead.

“I love you, kid,” she says.

Something in Nile settles. She didn't need the confirmation, but hearing it from Andy is a balm to something she hadn’t known was burning. She knows it won’t be the last time, not now that Andy’s thinking about it. Andy will want them all to know. Nile will talk to Nicky and Joe, on their own, maybe help them see. There is a joy in this mourning, the quiet peace that comes with knowing you’ll be together until the very end. Grief is no place for regrets, and Nile won’t let any of her family carry more of those than necessary.

“I love you, too, Andy,” she says softly. Andy smiles.