Nicky feels bad for her, at first.
He always has. That’s his thing - he’s an empathetic person. Joe calls it ‘unfair kindness’ and kisses him when he frowns. But Nicky had learned kindness over the years - learned it from Joe, and the way he was open-handed with affection, learned it from Quynh and Andy and the bubble of their laughter around the fire, and that kindness is a part of him, now. It’s why he recommended a hundred years for Booker instead of the thousand he wanted, and why, when he heard Quynh was back and gunning for a fight, he had sent up a prayer instead of swearing.
Because he does he pity her. It’s horrible, what she’s been through, unimaginable for him. Being locked in a coffin on the bottom of the ocean is bad enough; the drowning, the dying over and over again, the water flooding your lungs - it would be enough to drive anyone crazy. It would have broke him long, long ago.
So he had held off judgement - but only until now. Because now they’re on a boat, and it’s been three days since Quynh had taken Booker, and a good chunk of that time Booker had been tied up underwater, drowning and drowning and drowning, for hours, only occasionally let up towards the motor, which would hack at his ankles and wrist, force him to breathe in his own blood.
Because now they’re on a boat, and Booker’s disappeared to god knows where, and Andy’s bleeding from a bullet to the shoulder, slamming her way through a thicket of guards with her ax; because now they’re on a boat, and Nile’s fighting off what sounds like an entire battalion on the other deck of the yacht, and Nicky is in the middle of a throng of five men, all of them armed with machine guns, him weaponless, trying to break free.
But most of all, because now they're on a boat, and Quynh has Joe on the floor by her feet, a bullet through his temple. And she’s tying him up with rope. And she’s dragging him towards the side of the boat.
Because Quynh is going to throw Joe overboard, chained; so he, like her, can get lost in the ocean to drown on loop, forever.
The hatred that sweeps Nicky as soon as he realizes this is almost as strong as the terror. He has no sympathy for Quynh, not anymore.
“Andy!” Nicky yells, as he headbutts the man in front of him. The man crumples to the ground, but another takes his place and lands a well-placed elbow to Nicky’s gut. “Nile, she has Joe!”
“Fuck,” Andy spits from somewhere to Nick’s left, but she’s busy, too, and Nicky hits out with renewed vigor. he manages to get a knife off a utility belt and stabs two of the men in the neck before he gets shot in the stomach and falls to his knees. Between the men’s legs, Nicky can see Quynh, with the held of one of her soldiers, heaving Joe up to the railing. Joe is awake now, and struggling; his eyes meet Nicky’s, wide and terrified. And then he is overboard. There is a great splash.
Quynh, Nicky decides, will not survive the night.
One of the soldiers surrounding Nicky stabs him in the shoulder and Nicky uses the opportunity to lift the knife and slice through their femoral veins. He doesn’t wait to watch them fall; he heaves himself to his feet and sprints.
“Booker,” Andy is yelling, when Nicky runs past her, “Portside!”
Quynh is smirking. She makes no effort to stop Nicky’s run. “Good luck finding him,” she says, and Nicky wants to rip her head off her shoulders then and there, but he has more important things to do; he sails right past her, and dives.
As soon as he hits the water, he realizes the waves are unusually rough. The water is murky, too, clouded in the faint light of night. Nicky keeps his head down and kicks as hard as he can towards the bottom of the bay. Joe has already been in the water for several seconds, now - he will have fallen down, and the waves might haves swept him in a strange direction. If Nicky can just catch a glimpse of him, get an idea where Joe is -
But there’s nothing but dark grey water, and Nicky can’t see signs of Joe anywhere, no dark hair or patches of tanned skin. He can barely see his hands in front of him, in this light. Eventually, Nicky is forced to surface, and he takes a breath as quick as he can before diving back down, but he loses his momentum without the jump from the ship. He fumbles around in the dark of the water, hoping he’ll hit on cloth or skin, but again there is nothing.
By the second time he needs to come back up, he is starting to get desperate. When he surfaces, he finds Booker in the water. “I’ll take left,” Booker says, and dives right back down. Nicky follows suit. Once more, twice more he goes under, and the pit of dread in his stomach grows deeper and deeper with every failed attempt. He’s also forced to resurface sooner each time, his lungs low on their backup supply of air, but the waves are strong and still shifting. Joe could be anywhere, by now; soon he could be washed out of the bay entirely, towards the open ocean, and then Nicky would never find him again, would never hug him again, would never kiss him again - nobody would ever find him, and Joe would be stuck, in the silt in the bottom of the ocean, gagging on seaweed and saltwater and dying forever, always -
Nicky’s hand settles on a shoe.
For a split second he thinks it’s just some trash, something lost in the waves. But then he shifts his hand up and it lands on the bone of an ankle, and then the thick muscle of a leg, and when Nicky pulls the body closer, there he is: Joe, face pale, eyes closed. The ropes are wrapped tight around his chest and the skin of his hands is burned red from struggling.
Nicky’s breath is running out, but if he leaves Joe behind to go get more air, he might lose him again, so he does the only thing he can. He pulls Joe upright and, with all his strength, kicks. They don’t get nearly as far as they need to, and the world is fading into black at the edges, but Nicky isn’t losing Joe, not like this, and so he kicks again, again. By the time he surfaces, his limbs are screaming and his head feels light as a balloon, but he has Joe in his arms, still limp and sagging. Nicky gives several great, hacking gasps, by which time Booker has risen from the depths and spotted them. He swims over quickly and the two of them together tug Joe towards the boat.
Joe wakes up halfway back with a gasp that almost rips his body out of Nicky’s hands. “Hey,” Nicky says, but Joe just coughs, water leaking out of the corner of his mouth and back into the ocean. “Hey, it’s me,” Nicky rasps. This time Joe hears him, and his wild eyes land on Nicky’s face. “I’ve got you.”
Booker climbs up onto the lower deck of the boat first, and he helps Nicky pull Joe onto board. “Do you need -“ he starts, but Nicky waves a hand and he takes it as his cue to disappear - back to the fight, Nicky thinks, though the sounds of gunfire have faded to low voices.
“It’s all right,” Nicky says in Arabic, as he works at the rope around Joe’s chest with trembling fingers. “You are okay, I found you. Shh. It’s all right.” Eventually, he manages to get the wet rope undone and throws it aside, into the water, where it lands with a splash. “You are okay,” he says again, and Joe leans over, over the side of the boat, and vomits up seawater.
Nicky splays a hand over Joe’s back. “Okay,” he says, “Yes, good, get it out," until Joe finishes gagging.
Joe slumps back, then, half-against Nicky and half-against the side of the boat. He looks sick and exhausted, but still, he croaks, “We should -“
But just then Nile interrupts, her voice echoing from the upper decks. “Nicky, Joe, you guys okay?”
Nicky glances at Joe. “All good here!” he calls.
“Good.” Nile appears at the upper railing. “Andy’s got Quynh all tied up and all her guys are dead, so things are all settled.”
“Good,” Nicky says, gaze flicking back down to Joe’s pasty face. “We’ll be up in a minute.”
“Take your time,” Nile says, and then disappears again.
As soon as she’s gone, Joe sags fully into Nicky’s chest. “Hey,” Nicky says, but Joe just shakes his head, temple to Nicky’s collarbone. Nicky cups his head in one hand, places the other on Joe’s hip.“You’re okay,” Nicky says, more to himself than Joe. He ducks down and presses a kiss to Joe’s hair. “You’re okay,” he says again.
“Thanks,” Joe says, after a minute. “I really thought, for a moment there -“
“I came after you as soon as I could,” Nicky says. “I promise. I will never leave you behind.”
Joe pulls back just enough to meet his eyes. He gaze flickers over Nicky’s face. “I know that,” he rasps. “Nicolo.” And Joe just drowned a few dozen times, and then puked up all the contents of his stomach, so maybe they shouldn’t be doing this, but when Joe leans in, Nicky meets him with a kiss. Joe’s skin is cold, and his lips taste like saltwater and bile, but under it, there is the familiar flavor of him. “Habibi,” Nicky murmurs when Joe pulls back, and Joe rests his forehead against Nicky’s.
“We should go back up,” Joe says, “See if they need help -“ But Nicky shakes his head, presses a kiss to the corner of Joe’s jaw.
“Just one more minute,” he says. “Please.” And Joe only glances at him for a moment before he sinks back into Nicky’s arms without argument.
“One more minute,” he agrees, and lets Nicky hold him beside the rocking waves.
(Later, they will go up onto the deck, and find Quynh tied up, under Andy’s hand. Nicky will grit his teeth, and half-want to go grab her to throw over too, but he will be stopped by Joe’s hand on his arm. “Calm,” he will caution, the mantra of Nicky’s kindness, and Nicky will remind himself of that mantra, too. It will be nothing, in the end, compared to the all-encompassing terror, the fury Nicky had felt when Quynh had thrown Joe overboard; but Joe, there, warm at his side, will be enough. Nicky will wrap an arm around Joe’s waist, and Joe will, for a brief moment, rest his head against Nicky’s shoulder, and it will be enough, Nicky thinks, forgiveness or not.)