"Is it Yusuf you watch, or Oliver?"
The caravan has made camp for the night, and Alastair and Nicolo are sitting by one of the small fires set up around the area. The sun has not quite dropped below the horizon, but the warmth of the fire is a comfort nevertheless. Nicolo considers, briefly, feigning ignorance at the question. He knows where this conversation will end, and it's one he has avoided having with anyone for five years. But Alastair is an astute man, and a stubborn one. He will know if Nicolo attempts to lie, and he will continue prodding until he gets an answer.
"Yusuf," he sighs.
Alastair watches him carefully, cautiously. "You needn't explain to me if you would prefer not to, but I can see something weighing heavily on your mind, friend."
Nicolo watches the flames, gathering his courage, before he whispers, "I have done terrible things."
"We have all done terrible things, Nicolo," his friend says, gently.
"Not like this. Not…" he breaks off, his throat tight. "I fought in the invasion of Jerusalem," he says, his voice carefully measured. "That is where I met Yusuf. I hurt - killed - innocent people. They were only defending themselves, and we… We wrapped ourselves up in righteousness, in our supposedly holy conquest, but we were monsters. Demons. But Yusuf and I managed to abandon the fight." Nicolo's stops for a moment, throat tight and eyes wet. His fists are clenched so tight that his nails are digging into his palms harshly enough to draw blood. If he loosens his grip just a bit, the wounds will heal over quickly. He tightens it further instead.
Alastair is silent, his face and solemn, eyes thoughtful. Nicolo cannot tell what he is thinking, but there's no going back after what he's confessed, so he swallows harshly and continues.
"We decided to go to Cairo. We… We did not get along. I was so arrogant, so cruel, even after we began traveling together. I - I pushed him. I did not know what to do, how to feel, I was lost and hurt and I did not want to hurt alone, so I hurt him. And still, he traveled with me, treated me with far more courtesy than I deserved. I have done things for which I can never hope to be forgiven," he finishes, voice soft. "There is blood on my hands, that will remain until the day I die. To see him again is to be reminded of the evil I have done. The pain I have inflicted on good, kind, innocent men."
"Ah," Alastair begins. He seems to be considering Nicolo carefully, figuring out how to respond. "I confess, I do not know exactly what to say. That is certainly far worse than I would have expected of you."
Nicolo chuckles, but the sound is hollow. If nothing else, he appreciates the man's candor.
"I've neither absolution nor consolation to offer you. These things will be with you for the rest of your life, and they should be."
Nicolo nods. "Seeing Yusuf again has reminded me of all of the things I have been, and all the things I can never be."
"Never is a very strong word. You are still a young man, with a long life ahead of you," Alastair says, and Nicolo grimaces, "You cannot change who you have been in the past, or what you have done. But you can decide who you are and who you will be."
"Perhaps," he allows. "But I will never be able to be good."
"Good is not a thing you are, Nicolo. It is a thing you do. A decision you make. And if you decide that you can never be good, then you will, of course, be correct."
He contemplates this. "This is the first time I have spoken the words aloud," Nicolo admits, voice far weaker than he would like. "It is also the closest I have come to giving confessional in all this time."
"I'm no priest," Alastair responds with a wry grin.
Nicolo asks, "Do you think differently of me, now?"
"Yes," he says simply.
"I think differently of the man you were, of course. You knew I would. As you said, you have done terrible things," Alastair says, and Nicolo hangs his head, bracing himself for the worst. "But I do know that you have a good heart. And I know that you have potential to do good in this world. Your slate cannot be wiped clean, true. But if that is your primary concern, then you are a far more selfish man than I thought."
"What?" Nicolo asks, looking at him blankly. He can't imagine how wanting to right his wrongs could be called selfish.
"If you only want to do good to alleviate your guilty conscience, that is an entirely selfish act. It means your primary concern is your own self image. Some things truly can never be forgiven. Therefore, you should not be motivated by seeking forgiveness - either from your God or from anyone else - but by wanting to be a better man than you've been in the past."
"I had never thought of it like that," Nicolo admits. "I have been lost, ever since I met Yusuf. Our fates are entwined, his and mine. I am certain of it. But he does not deserve to be subjected to the man I am."
Alastair looks at him, thoroughly unimpressed. "So become a better man. I believe you can, and Yusuf clearly does as well."
"How do you know that?"
"If he did not, he would not have agreed to stay on this caravan with you."
A fair point. Yusuf had been right that they would not need to speak to each other - in fact, he rarely even sees Yusuf, aside from when they make camp in the evening and resume their travels in the morning. Yusuf and Oliver have been staying at the back of the caravan, and Alastair and Nicolo have been assigned to the front. But even with the separation, if Yusuf had believed him a genuine danger, he would have accepted Nicolo's offer and told him not to accept the job.
"Thank you, Alastair. You've given me much to think about," he says earnestly. "It is getting late. I'll take first watch. You should sleep."
He receives a long, thoughtful look in response, before the man nods and heads off to his bed roll.
He's drowsily watching the stars when it happens. An arrow flies straight at his head, and time is almost standing still. Somehow, he senses it when a small piece of wood is tossed to him from somewhere off to his right, and he catches it and holds it in front of his face until he feels the arrow lodge itself firmly in his makeshift shield.
"Nicolo, come," Yusuf says urgently in his ear, "and wake no one." Then he grabs the wood from his hands and using it to guard his head as he approaches their attackers, scimitar in hand.
He does not have time to think about how Yusuf had noticed the attackers while he hadn't, nor the sound of his voice whispering in his ear, nor the shiver that ran up the back of his neck at the sound. He has his sword and is following Yusuf within moments. He remains as quiet as possible - waking people at their camp would be unwise. If either of them were to die in front of such an audience, they wouldn't be able to explain away their resurrection.
He catches up to Yusuf just as he cuts down the archer who had fired that first arrow. They know she cannot be alone, but her accomplices are not immediately visible. He's slowly turning and finds a small man wielding a vicious looking dagger running right at Yusuf, who is facing away from him. Nicolo steps in front of the would-be attacker, getting a dagger in the arm for his trouble. He returns the favor, though, plunging his sword through the man's stomach.
Yusuf turns just in time to see the man crumble to the ground. He spots the already healing wound on Nicolo's arm and says, softly, "Thank you." His eyes snap to focus on something else, behind him. "Brace yourself," he grits out before moving forward, pushing Nicolo out of the way to handle the two very large men approaching them. He manages to take one down, but the other man is fast and strong and carrying a wicked spiked mace. He swings it and it connects with Yusuf's abdomen with a nauseating thud. It does not kill him, despite the blood dripping from the points where the spikes made contact, but it stuns him enough that the man can grab him across the chest. Yusuf's scimitar drops uselessly to the ground, and the bandit grins menacingly at Nicolo, the implication clear. Any move he makes will result in the man killing Yusuf. A half dozen bandits suddenly show up, surrounding him.
He looks to Yusuf and sees that the wounds on his stomach are almost fully healed, and his eyes are flickering around, processing their situation. Then, he looks Nicolo dead in the eye, and Nicolo understands. He returns his sword to his belt and allows the bandits to approach. He knows Yusuf has a plan, but he does not know what it is.
Yusuf waits a few moments for them to get closer, then quickly crouches down, shifting his weight and leaning forward quickly to fling his captor over his shoulders, leaving the man flat on the ground. His friends are distracted, giving Nicolo the opportunity to draw his sword and take two of them down quickly. He rushes forward, grabbing Yusuf's scimitar to hand it to him, and they stand back to back as they prepare to deal with the last four. There's no need to speak. He somehow knows what Yusuf will do before he does it, and Yusuf knows the same of him. They dispatch the last of the bandits quickly, Nicolo utilizing wicked stabbing motions whereas Yusuf is more efficient, quicker. More merciful, perhaps, if such a thing is possible. He slices at their thighs - the blood flows quickly from there, their deaths quick, far easier than falling to stab wounds, a fact that both Nicolo and Yusuf are quite familiar with.
They stand, breathing heavily, eyeing the bandits that lay still at their feet. There's movement - the one who had grabbed Yusuf stands, glaring at them. Yusuf had only stunned him, and now he is preparing to take his vengeance. Nicolo feels a surge of anger, burning hot and bright, and thrusts his sword through the man's stomach. He watches, satisfied, as the man falls to the ground. He generally does not take any pleasure in violence, but something about this man has sparked an anger in him that he hasn't felt in a long time.
Yusuf looks at the man, then at Nicolo, an inscrutable expression on his face, before he takes his scimitar to the man's thigh. He's dead in a matter of seconds, a fate far kinder than he deserves.
"Thank you, Yusuf," he says, meeting his eyes.
"Of course," Yusuf smiles thinly.
"Are we -"
Yusuf cuts him off, "I still am not - I have many feelings about the way in which we met. What you did. My entire world was destroyed, Nicolo."
Nicolo says nothing. There is nothing he can say, here, so he just looks at Yusuf, helpless.
"I can see that you are trying to be a better man. That is good. But I still… I lost my world to your Crusade, and then my life to your blade. And then I came back to life, and the ground fell out from under me. You are improving yourself, but I do not have it in me to be your friend now."
"I understand," Nicolo says. There is nothing else to say. He sees the pain in Yusuf's eyes and it hurts far worse than anything the bandits had done. He commits this moment to memory, takes in every detail of Yusuf's face and of the atmosphere of the air between them. This - this is a moment he will carry with him, always. There are many of those. The battlefield, the day he left it, strewn with bodies of innocent men. The fury on Yusuf's face the time when Nicolo had tried to condescend to him about the necessity of the Crusade in their early days. The sound of him sobbing when he thought Nicolo asleep. Things Nicolo will never let himself forget. They're echoes of the man he was. The man he needs to be better than.
"Maybe some day," Yusuf says, quietly. The words seem to surprise even him. "It seems that our lives are to be very long, and I do not know what lies in store for us. But if it is to happen - I will need time."
He can only nod. The two of them seem to have an infinite amount of that, and more than that, Nicolo knows he will give Yusuf anything he asks. The thought is frightening, but he knows it's true.
"Let us return to camp. We should sleep, and I believe it is Alastair's turn to keep watch."
Yusuf nods, walking beside him. "We will need an explanation for our torn clothing and lack of wounds."
"The bandits were inept," Nicolo says loftily, "inexperienced. They were not prepared to fight skilled mercenaries, and could scarcely get near us. They only ever managed to catch their blades on our clothes."
Yusuf huffs a quiet laugh, almost reluctantly. "Ah yes, of course. And all of the blood belongs to them. They were more an inconvenience than anything else, ruining a pair of perfectly good shirts."
"I am sure if we tell our tale of woe, someone will gladly wash our shirts for us," Nicolo counters mildly. The conversation between them is easier than anything they have had before, and Nicolo realizes that he desperately wants this, someday. Just this, speaking lightly and casually with Yusuf, easy as breathing. He will wait as long as he needs, and during that time, he will try to become a better man. A man good enough to be his friend, to deserve to be by his side.