It's been years since he's spent so long with his feet on solid ground. After disembarking from his latest trip, he had initially planned on taking another job aboard a ship, but Alastair had mentioned that he had a friend who would be in need of some competent guards in a few weeks' time. Apparently, the job was difficult, meaning the pay would be excellent. Nicolo had agreed - in retrospect, this may have been his first mistake.
It is two days before the caravan leaves, and Alastair is guiding him to a tavern. They're set to meet the men they'll be working with, to have a few drinks and a meal and get to know each other. The tavern is a big, warm room filled with laughter and delicious smells. Alastair calls out to the proprietor, apparently a friend of his, who gives him a smile and a nod in acknowledgement. Nicolo follows Alastair to a few tables in the corner that are particularly loud. Most of them seem to be focused on one man, telling a story and gesticulating wildly.
Nicolo can't move.
He knows that voice. Would know it anywhere. He had grown familiar with it in whispered threats with a blade at his throat. Then, he'd heard exhausted requests for a truce. Tense, frustrated attempts to communicate. Pained, furious yelling. Hoarse sobs. Quiet, polite, efficient communication. And, finally, he had heard it say a quiet goodbye. He has never heard it like this, though, loud and warm and full of laughter, telling a story about a fight with a crocodile that has the crowd entranced.
He turns, spots Nicolo, and freezes for a moment. A million emotions seem to chase each other across his face, too fast to make sense of, before he offers a smile that doesn't entirely meet his eyes and invites him and Alastair to sit. He gets back to his story, his voice is just the slightest bit thinner - something Nicolo is certain only he notices, because he is sure that none of these men know Yusuf as he does - but he follows it through to the end. Then, he falls quiet, and Alastair steps up to fill the space with the tale of Hephaistos. The man seated next to Yusuf whispers something to him and Yusuf smiles, the slight tension that had entered his shoulders when he'd spotted Nicolo melting away. The two of them speak very familiarly, though Nicolo is not sure why he notices that.
Some time later, once most of the men are either drunk or well on their way there, Yusuf excuses himself from the table. He makes brief eye contact with Nicolo and walks out of the tavern. He catches his meaning and waits a few moments before following.
"Nicolo," Yusuf says. He offers a wary smile, waiting for a response.
Nicolo takes a deep breath. He has a hard time meeting his gaze, still so wracked with guilt, but he forces himself to make eye contact and tries to smile in return, though he worries it may look more like a grimace. "Yusuf."
"You look well."
"As do you," he responds, letting go of a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. There are a million things he wants to say, questions he wants to ask, but if he has learned anything these past few years, it is to choose his words carefully.
They both break off. Yusuf chuckles, a little nervously, and gestures for Nicolo to speak.
"I can turn down the job, if you would be more comfortable that way," he says, voice soft.
Yusuf's smile loses it's fearful edge, growing slightly kinder. "If you take no issue with traveling with me, I see no reason you should not take the job. We can work separate shifts. We will hardly even need to speak."
That is... not what Nicolo was expecting to hear. He had been preparing for yelling or sneering, perhaps contempt. It's no less than he would deserve. But of course, Yusuf is still fundamentally a kind man, in all things.
A kind man who is currently watching him with a thoroughly confused look on his face. Nicolo's face flushes under his gaze, and goes warmer still as he realizes that he has been standing in complete silence for several minutes now.
"That sounds..." Nicolo begins, then trails off. He hadn't been prepared for this gentle civility. He's happy, of course, though Yusuf's earnest insistence that they needn't speak to each other stings in a way he is choosing not to think about. "If my presence will not bring you discomfort, I think I would like to accept this job," he finishes, awkwardly.
Yusuf smiles and gives him a firm nod before returning to the tavern. Nicolo remains outside for a moment. Maybe it's better that they don't speak, actually. Yusuf is far too good a man, and Nicolo may be better than he was when they last met, but he still could not hope to be worthy of spending time so close to him. He goes back inside, takes his seat next to Alastair, and listens to someone who is bragging about the time he hunted a lion. The man's friend elbows him, tells the group about how he had actually fled, screaming, and everyone laughs. Nicolo can pick Yusuf's laughter out of the crowd with disconcerting ease.
He watches as the man Yusuf had been speaking with earlier reaches out and touches his shoulder gently. They stand up and he follows the man out of the tavern towards the nearby inn. Their shoulders brush and Nicolo feels like he's burning, another feeling he is carefully avoiding thinking about. Alastair, who apparently knows everyone, asks how he met Yusuf. Nicolo gives a vague response about traveling along the same road. then asks about his friend. Apparently, his name is Oliver. He's a Christian merchant's son from France who took up work as a mercenary not too long ago and quickly gained an excellent reputation. Nicolo takes a long drink of his beer and settles in, letting his mind drift as the conversations continue around him.
There's a loud, high pitched scream.
Adrenaline rushes through his veins as he rushes towards the sound, hand on the hilt of his sword. He turns the corner, ready for a fight, but no one seems alarmed. He looks around to find the source, confused.
The voice comes again, only it's not screaming. It's giggling. He turns towards it and -
And his mind freezes, for a moment, because he sees Yusuf holding a little girl, no older than five, on his shoulders. She's clinging to his head for dear life as he turns around and around, loudly wondering where she could possibly have run off to.
Yusuf wanders over to the man he'd left the tavern with last night - Oliver - and asks him if he's seen the child. He coaches his face into a deadly serious expression as the little girl delightedly shushes him and offers Yusuf a blank shrug, though his eyes are smiling. Yusuf then asks a woman who must be the girl's mother, who smiles broadly and tells him she hasn't seen anything at all.
Nicolo's heart clenches - it's been a very long time since Nicolo has been around anything even remotely resembling family. This moment is overflowing with a sort of comfort and joy he hasn't felt since the day he died. Probably since well before that, actually.
When Yusuf turns again he sees Nicolo and his eyes are glittering and bright and full of laughter and Nicolo feels like he is staring into the sun and he is reminded of the feeling of falling, of drowning in sand, and he forces himself to remember how to breathe. Yusuf asks him if he's seen a lovely little girl hiding anywhere, and Nicolo can't stop himself from looking up at the girl with a helpless, fond smile on his face. Yusuf follows his gaze, looking up and feigning shock at seeing her laughing down at him, then grabs her and lowers her to the ground. He asks how she managed to hide up there and she laughs and points at him. He tells her that it is a ridiculous accusation, and he will be having words with her mother. She grabs his hand and starts to drag him away, Yusuf glances over his shoulder and levels Nicolo with one final, perplexed look before following the girl over to where her mother has been watching him, looking utterly besotted. He looks over at Oliver and sees a similar one. He wonders what his own face must look like when he sees Yusuf.
He turns away, finding Alastair not far off, carrying both of their gear, ready to join the caravan.