as icarus loved the sun (too close, too much) @artemiscrock
Chapter Four

Oliver seems like a good man. Nicolo would probably like him, he thinks, were it not for the fact that he absolutely hates him.

They haven't spoken much - the boy, no older than twenty three, spends much of his time all but glued to Yusuf's side, making it near impossible for Nicolo to learn much about him. He knows that his father is a merchant, and that he was set to be one as well, before he abandoned it to become a mercenary. He knows that he is French, and good with a sword. He also knows, from the cross that hangs from his neck, that he's Christian. That is the entirety of Nicolo's knowledge of the man. From what he's seen, Oliver is friendly, kind, and generous. He seems like a good man. So Nicolo has no idea why just the sight of him makes his blood boil.

He's currently in front of the tent he shares with Yusuf, looking at him with a broad, dopey grin on his face. It's an odd expression to see in contrast with the long, ugly gash in his leg that Yusuf is carefully cleaning and redressing. The caravan had run into a few crocodiles earlier that day, and one of them almost got a bite of Oliver before Yusuf managed to kill it. He's tending to the wound carefully, saying something in a hushed tone that makes Oliver's smile grow fonder still.

Nicolo really hates him.

"What do you make of those two?" one of the men asks, nudging Nicolo with his elbow.

Nicolo blinks, realizing he's been staring at them for several minutes. Alastair and a couple of other men are watching him, curious.

He decides his best bet is to feign ignorance. "What do you mean?"

"They seem very close," the man replies, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.

"I suppose they do," Nicolo says with a shrug. He has absolutely no desire to speak about the two of them, ever. But he especially does not want to talk about it with these people he hardly knows.

"Do you think they're… together?" the man asks.

Nicolo is preparing to say that he does not care when Alastair, thankfully, speaks up. "I don't think that's any of our business, friend. Unless it would change how you think of them?" he says, the lilt to his voice turning ever so slightly threatening.

The man turns almost comically pink. Alastair is a kind man, but he can be very intimidating. Everyone knows not to cross him. He starts backpedaling, eyes wide. "No, no, I just -"

"If you truly take no issue, then I suggest we find something else to talk about."

There's a tense moment where no one speaks, but then someone else starts talking, telling a story about a time when they almost incited a riot at a fish market by accident, and the mood shifts easily, the tension melting away. Nicolo finally chances a glance back at Yusuf, who has finished dressing Oliver's wound and is now laying down, arms crossed beneath his head as he watches the sky. He's not yet asleep, Nicolo knows, because he is intimately familiar with what Yusuf looks like in sleep. The boy is saying something to him, and he nods lazily in response. Then, he sits up for a moment and glances around the camp. Nicolo recognizes this from their journey to Cairo. He's cataloging the area, making note of where everyone is and looking for access points for attackers. It is always the last thing he does before sleeping, and it's a habit that Nicolo picked up from him. His eyes lock on Nicolo's for a moment while he surveys the area, and -

And everything comes to a screeching halt. The whole world stops, and the past, present, and future collide. Yusuf's face cycles through a dozen emotions, and Nicolo is sure his does the same, because a million things seem to pass between them, unsaid. And Nicolo feels young and frightened and old and weary and terrified and safe, all at the same time.

Yusuf tears his eyes away, and the world starts to move again. But Nicolo can't shake the feeling that somehow, everything has changed.

Suddenly, he feels exhausted. He turns to Alastair to tell him he is going to sleep. Alastair follows his lead, and as they're about to lay down, he says quietly, "For what it's worth, Nicolo, I do not believe that Oliver and Yusuf are involved."

"It is none of my business," Nicolo replies stiffly. "The two of us are not even friends."

Alastair says nothing, letting silence fall heavily between them.

Several minutes later, Nicolo whispers, "They spend a great deal of time together." It's almost too quiet to be heard, and Nicolo feels smaller than he has ever felt in his life.

"Oliver likes him very much," Alastair agrees, "but it does not seem to me that Yusuf returns his affections."

Nicolo's brow furrows. "How do you know that?"

"There is no way to be certain. But I have seen many people in love. Yusuf does not look, to me, like a man in love," Alastair says with a shrug.

Nicolo frowns. He is not sure he trusts Alastair's judgment, but he also does not want to speak about this further. "We should sleep."

"An excellent idea," he replies easily. "Good night, Nicolo."

"Good night, Alastair," he says, laying down. He falls silent for a couple of minutes, before he mutters, "And thank you."

==============================

They will arrive at their destination tomorrow. Most of the group is cheerful - it's been a long two weeks, and the idea of being able to get at least a few days' rest is a welcome relief.

Nicolo, however, does not share their enthusiasm. He knows that once they are done, Yusuf will disappear, just as he had in Cairo. He'll likely take Oliver with him - whatever the nature of their relationship, they seem close. Once he leaves, Nicolo has no idea what he'll do.

He does know he must part ways with Alastair soon - he is a good man, a good friend, but it won't take long for him to notice that Nicolo never seems to get wounded. Such is the nature of his - gift? Curse? Ability? He still does not know what to make of this seeming immortality. The only thing he knows about it with any certainty is that it is terribly lonely. He can never stay with anyone for more than a few months, at most.

The only person who could understand is Yusuf. Yusuf, whose presence, even if he is not speaking to Nicolo, warms him from the inside out. Yusuf, who shines like the sun, sharing warmth and light and life with everyone he comes into contact with.

Yusuf, who still sometimes flinches at the sight of him. Who needs time. Who Nicolo does not deserve to be around.

Nicolo watches with gritted teeth as Oliver laughs at something Yusuf says, leaning into him, a lot closer than seems necessary. Yusuf is smiling indulgently, an arm around the boy's shoulders.

He's not entirely sure why it bothers him so, to see that Yusuf has a good friend. He realizes the hypocrisy - he himself has made friends, traveling companions in the time they've spent apart. And it's not as though Nicolo himself has any claim to Yusuf. They aren't even friends. But still, seeing him smile at someone so freely makes him feel as though he's swallowed a rock.

The way he knows Yusuf is strange. He's aware of that. He knows him in anger, in fear, in grief - in death. Nicolo can read tension in him in a way he knows no one else will ever be able to. But he has never known him in joy, or peace, or laughter, or comfort, and that someone else gets to have those moods of his sits heavily in his chest in a way that he is growing increasingly familiar with.

It twists the dagger that he sees echoes of himself in Oliver. He's studious and quiet, more content to listen than to speak. He even looks a little bit like Nicolo - slightly taller, and with lighter hair, but still, the two of them could almost be brothers. He's also Christian. That's the worst of it. He is Christian, and he and Yusuf are friends.

Nicolo's Christianity is at the very core of why his relationship to Yusuf is in the state that it is. It is what Nicolo studied his entire life, it is what drove him to take up arms and go to war, and it is what drove him to kill innocents - to kill Yusuf. Over and over again. He is no longer sure what he believes, because those actions were certainly not Godly. And if they were - that is not a God he will follow.

But Oliver believes in the same God. He believes in the same God whose will Nicolo believed was doing. Oliver didn't join the Crusade, doesn't have blood on his hands, and he is friends with Yusuf. And Nicolo could have been him, if -

If he hadn't become a priest. If he hadn't gone to war. If he had listened to the dreadful feeling in his stomach before his first battle and deserted the army. If he had been a different man.

The problem, though, is this: had he not made those choices, he never would have met Yusuf. He never would have died, and he never would have lived again. He never would have seen what he had been doing wrong, or been given the chance to do it right. He would be a different man than he is now, and he knows he would be worse. His mistakes will haunt him forever, but through them he has been given a gift - the opportunity to help people. To be a better man, and to, hopefully, be able to put more good into the world than he ever did evil.

He knows all of this. But still, when he looks at that boy watching Yusuf with stars in his eyes, and sees Yusuf smile at him and throw his arms around him and laugh, he can't ignore the bitter taste in his mouth, because that could have been him.

1. Prologue 1192 0 0 2. Chapter One 1010 0 0 3. Chapter Two 1478 0 0 4. Chapter Three 2412 0 0 5. Chapter Four 1733 0 0 6. Chapter Five 2894 0 0