Cleaned and dressed and safe again, tucked into the corner table of a bar they last visited some odd decades ago, the very last of the adrenaline drains out of Joe and leaves him with something twisted up and bitter in its stead, to address the question of what to do with Sebastien le Livre.
Nicky sits quietly as they discuss, a distance in his eyes that makes Joe’s very soul feel heavy in his flesh. It makes his anger stronger, makes him argue harsher punishment still, in the face of all of Nile’s protests (she’s so young, too young, with barely an inkling of understanding of what this all means) and all of Andy’s unspoken doubts (because of course she knows better than Joe; it’s just a matter of whether she’d say anything to prove it). Their drinks remain on the table, untouched, rings of condensation beading on the polished wood.
And then, in the briefest respite, a pause for breath, Nicky’s voice cuts through, quiet but with no room for dissent: “One hundred years. Alone. That’s it.”
They fall silent. Nile opens her mouth as if she wants to disagree; Andy catches her eye, shaking her head near-imperceptibly, and she sits back with a frown.
“One hundred years,” Andy echoes. Her tone is contemplative, but it’s clear she’s already made up her mind, or maybe she’s just too tired to argue any longer. Joe’s decided, too, the moment the words come out of Nicky’s mouth. “Okay.”
Joe wants nothing more than to wrap himself around Nicky and kiss the solemn, tight line of his mouth soft again, smooth the crease of his brow under his lips. But, well. Public space. Serious conversation. He has to settle with reaching across the table and folding his hands over Nicky’s instead. Nicky tangles their fingers together, rubs a thumb over a knuckle, gaze sliding from Andy to Joe.
He holds it there as he says, “He needs to learn how to be alone before we can trust him again.”
Nile’s frown deepens. She looks to Andy, her main concern at the moment clear. Andy doesn’t have one hundred years. If Andy has the same thought, however—and of course she does, Andromache of Scythia is anything but stupid—she refuses to voice it.
“I’ll tell him,” she says instead, turning her head to look through the window at Booker, hunched over the railing outside, whiskey glass held tight in one hand. There’s an air of shamed resignation about him that a more vindictive part of Joe finds satisfaction in.
He thinks, privately, that the French bastard could wallow in that shame for a thousand lifetimes and it still wouldn’t be penance enough.
A part of him, the part of him learned over the centuries from Nicky’s endlessly kind heart, frets that maybe that’s cruel. But the rest of him, that had made the decision one day a millennia ago that Nicolò di Genova was undeserving not only of even one more death by his hands but of any at all, and that anyone who violated this testament had committed the most egregious sin, knows otherwise. His anger is not cruelty.
Nicky in that cold, stark lab, a mere arm’s length away and yet hopelessly out of reach, choking back cries of pain through gritted teeth—that is cruelty. Nicky, stuck with steel and needles and spattered in his own blood drying rust red, falling limp against his restraints with a labored exhale that felt like death and maybe was, while Joe could do nothing but watch—that is cruelty.
One hundred years is a mercy.
Nicky, seeming to sense Joe’s thoughts in the way they’d grown to be able to, squeezes his hands in reassurance, a reaffirmation. I’m here. I’m okay. I am with you. I am safe. Joe shuts his eyes against the memory of Nicky, bloody and washed in cold fluorescent light, and opens them to the sight of Nicky here and now, expression earnest, golden in the afternoon sun filtering through the glass.
“I love you,” Joe says, because it’s easier than anything else he could say, easier than trying to parse the fury that makes his head buzz with white-hot static when he thinks of Booker’s betrayal, easier than allowing himself to ponder the implications and realities of Andy’s newfound mortality for even a second. “You are everything to me.”
It’s nothing he hasn’t said before countless times in infinitely more grandiose ways. But Nicky’s face shifts into something remarkably tender anyways, blue eyes warm with affection, though that distant look persists faintly underneath. Joe worries that it’ll linger for longer still. “I know, habibi,” Nicky murmurs. “And you are all to me.”
Nile pointedly averts her gaze as if to give them a sense of privacy, for all it’s worth. Andy rises to her feet with a mutter of, “I’m going to go talk to him,” too stilted to hide the conflict brewing under her cool, collected exterior.
He shot you, Joe thinks as he watches her make her way across the floor and out the door. There’s a stiffness to her stride that had never been there before. He was family, and he shot you. This should be an easy decision.
Cruel, again, the voice in his head that sounds like Nicky chides. He pushes it away.
“Joe,” Nicky says, “Yusuf, love, look at me.” Joe obeys, as he always does when Nicky pitches his voice soft and open like that.
Nile clears her throat and excuses herself to the bathroom, cursing under her breath when she stubbed her toe against the table leg in her hurry to shuffle away. “I’m just gonna– I’ll be back in a few,” she mumbles with something halfway between a smile and a grimace. Nicky nods at her gratefully before fixing his eyes back on Joe.
“You’re angry,” he says. Just a statement. And yet.
“Are you not?” Joe asks, maybe snaps. Already he finds himself having to consciously keep his voice low, the fuzz of anger, the sharp pain of betrayal bubbling up in his chest. “Think of what he did, what he let happen to us. Of course I’m angry, Nicolò—”
“Yusuf, I know,” Nicky interrupts, firm but kind, always kind. “You think I’m not angry, too? I’m not an ignorant child. But spare him some amount of empathy, or sympathy at least.”
No, never, Joe’s spite hisses first, before any other part of him can catch up, he’s proved himself entirely undeserving of it. But Nicky continues—
“Booker was right, about one thing at least.” He tightens his hold on Joe’s hands, darting a glance down at them then back up to his face. “We’ve always had each other. From the first death—to our last, I like to imagine.” Joe feels like the quiet half-smile that flits across Nicky’s lips at that is rending his heart open. “Booker, he… we never had to watch our family die like that, Yusuf. We don’t know what that’s like, to be alone like that.”
“We’ve been alive so long I don’t know if I even still remember my mother’s face,” Joe growls. “We’ve been alone longer than he’s been on this earth.”
“Exactly.” Nicky’s tone picks up a sense of urgency as he leans in closer, brows furrowed. “He’s young, Yusuf. He doesn’t realize, he doesn’t know. Can you really spite him for that?
Joe hears everything he says quite clearly, even allows himself to understand some of it, for all he doesn’t want to concede even the faintest glimmer of the idea of forgiveness to Booker, not yet. But he can spite him for that, still, absolutely he can. “You still suggested we send him away for a century.”
Nicky withdraws a little as he speaks, then, “Well, yes. He still did something horrible to us, there needs to be a price to pay. It’s just… time and space for him to think. To learn. And I—I don’t know what else to do. I think, maybe, we…” He gestures almost helplessly to the two of them, together, the space between. “I wonder if we made it worse for him. And I never thought about it before—”
“Nicolò,” Joe says sharply. The corner of Nicky’s mouth twitches. “Are you blaming yourself? Blaming us for Sebastien’s own fuck-ups? Would you rather we had hid away our relationship for his comfort—”
“You know that’s not what I mean.” Nicky drags a hand down his face in something like frustration; Joe feels a pang of guilt at that, at causing his beloved any distress at all. “I have never been ashamed of us, there is nothing about us I would change. I just…” There is a terrible, momentary flicker of uncertainty in his expression. Joe decides he should be allowed to skewer Booker, just once at least, for everything that has led to that second of pained self-doubt on Nicky’s perfect face. “He felt so alone, enough to betray all of us for the slightest chance to end his own life, Yusuf.”
“We were family. We were always there, if he felt he was so alone—”
“And he didn’t realize. You have to understand, my love, how young he really is, how very little this life has left him. We are all he has, and if we failed him, somehow, for him not to see…” There’s a ferocious sort of emotion gathering in the lines of his forehead, the curl of his mouth, a cocktail of worry and guilt that shouldn’t be his to bear.
“I love you, Nicolò,” Joe says in a whisper, like a prayer, a revelation. It isn’t quite awe, but something like it, flooding his lungs as the fierceness of Nicky’s ceaseless compassion washes over him. “Your heart still amazes me, every day even after a thousand years.” Nicky’s brow softens, the frustration in his eyes melting away a little, almost enough. “You extend a goodwill to a world that will never know how to return it, even to those not worthy of it. Your heart is the most generous there ever has been or will be, amore mio. I worry that it harms you.” He brings Nicky’s hand to his lips, brushes a kiss over each knuckle. “I worry that you give yourself grief for what you cannot control because of it.”
“Maybe,” Nicky replies, voice barely a breath. “Or maybe not. I’ll take the risk, if it lets me continue to believe in what we do. The world is still good, I think.” His gaze drifts towards the window; Booker isn’t there anymore, probably having migrated to the stony riverside below to sulk, but his presence still lingers. “Our Sebastien is still good.”
Joe follows his gaze outwards. Seagulls cut shadows across slowly sinking sunbeams, flags fluttering distantly in the wind. The world continues on as they watch.
“It wasn’t our fault,” Joe says, moreso for Nicky to hear it out loud than anything else. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Nicky sighs, “Okay.” Not I know, not I believe you, but Joe knows it will come to him in time soon enough. Sooner, if Joe has anything to say about it.
If nothing else, they have time, the two of them.