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

Nicolo is not, generally speaking, a drinking man. He's not opposed to it, necessarily, but he doesn't much care for the feeling of being drunk.

Tonight, though, he is willing to make an exception.

He'd awoken earlier with the knowledge that Yusuf was already gone. He's not entirely sure where his certainty had come from, considering he'd expected that Yusuf would at least wait until the afternoon to leave, so as not to raise any eyebrows, but there wasn't a doubt in his mind as he rolled out of bed that he was gone. He'd felt as though he was walking through a fog the entire day.

There had been a brief reprieve - one moment of wild, desperate, devastating hope, when he had spotted Oliver in the marketplace. He was purchasing something from the baker, and Nicolo's heart had flown to his throat. If the boy was still there, then perhaps Yusuf was also… He didn't even finish putting the thought together before noticing the way Oliver was pouting. The sour purse of his lips told Nicolo everything he needed to know, and his heart dropped. His instincts had been correct. Yusuf had left.

Oliver's presence had raised yet more questions about Yusuf's departure. Nicolo had thought the two of them close, and abandoning a friend wasn't something he'd thought in character for Yusuf. He had considered, briefly, asking Oliver what happened, but he quickly decided that it was probably best that he didn't know. He bought a mango and proceeded to wander the stalls, contemplating what supplies he needed to buy before he left town. A new shirt, perhaps, and some soap. He eyed the bowyer's shop thoughtfully - he's always been interested in archery, and now seems as good a time as any to learn. Directly next to the bowyer was the blacksmith, and Nicolo has been meaning to replace his whetstone for awhile now. He decided, though, that he would hold off on making any purchases today. He didn't trust his judgment at the moment, his mind still on Yusuf, on Oliver. He'd left most of his money in his room at the inn, anyways.

He'd wandered into the tavern and asked for a drink, craving the intoxication, the way alcohol blurred his thoughts around the edges. He was sitting alone, grimacing into his glass, when Alastair dropped into the seat beside him.

They sat in silence for awhile, until Nicolo muttered, "Yusuf is gone." He heard the petulance in his own voice. Humiliating.

"Would you like a distraction?" Alastair asked, easily. He'd become accustomed to Nicolo's mercurial temperament when it came to Yusuf.

Nicolo had nodded.

That had been his first mistake of the evening.

Now, he's staring at the bottom of his third glass of ale. He asks for another and curses his tolerance for alcohol. He wants to be far, far drunker than he is. Perhaps, then, he would be able to ignore Alastair's most recent story. The twelve labors of Heracles. He wishes, bitterly, that the man didn't have such a talent for allegory.

To hear Alastair tell it, Heracles had been cursed by Hera, queen of Olympus, with a madness. In his mindlessness, he had slaughtered his wife and children. When he regained his mind, he was tormented by his own actions, horrified, and went to the Oracle of Delphi to seek answers as to how he might atone.

Nicolo snorts. "Your subtlety is unparalleled, my friend."

Alastair gives him a flat look and ignores his remark, resuming his tale.

The Oracle had told Heracles that he must serve the king of Tiryns for twelve years, doing whatever was asked of him. He did not relish the task, but he followed the advice anyways. The king had given him a list of seemingly impossible tasks - ten of them. Slaying or capturing mythical creatures, performing ludicrous chores, stealing legendary relics. He completed task after grueling task, succeeding time after time. Once he'd completed his assignments, the king informed him that two of his triumphs were discounted - he'd had help from his nephew when slaying the Hydra, a monster Hera had raised specifically to kill him, and he'd accepted payment for cleaning Augeas' stable. He was given two more labors, and upon their completion, he was finally released by the king.

As the story draws to a close, Nicolo gives Alastair an assessing look. Alastair mirrors him, with a slightly smug twist to his mouth.

"Are the tales you share always so pointed, or is receiving those a privilege exclusive to me?" Nicolo asks, eyes narrowed.

Alastair grins. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Bastard," Nicolo grumbles, though the insult lacks any real bite. He knows that this particular torment is, ultimately, well deserved.

Alastair grabs Nicolo's shoulder, friendly and easy. "You have a lot to think about, friend. I am trying to offer stories that may help you do that. Like…" he trails off, searching for words. "Like your Christian parables. That's what the stories of the gods are, really. Lessons. Mostly, I share them for fun. But for you, Nicolo, I try to remember ones I think may be helpful."

Nicolo is, perhaps, a bit too drunk to come up with a response. He's town between gratitude and frustration. Before he can say anything, though, someone drops heavily into the seat on Alastair's other side.

"Yusuf is gone," the newcomer announces, a perfect echo of Nicolo's earlier remark, and he desperately needs another drink, because there is only one person that could be.

"I'd noticed," Alastair says. Nicolo swallows the rest of his ale and signals that he would like another.

Oliver takes a long drink himself, bringing the glass down to the table heavily. "He did not tell me that he was leaving," he says. Nicolo still has not turned to look at him, but he can hear him pouting.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he says, as kindly as he can manage. Suddenly, the patterns in the wooden table have become terribly fascinating. He begins idly tracing his fingers over them as Alastair and Oliver talk. The alcohol has finally hit him, thankfully, because he's not sure he could stand the sound of the boy's voice otherwise.

He falls quiet, letting Alastair carry the conversation with Oliver - if one could even call it a conversation. It's more of a monologue, if anything. The kid is barely letting Alastair get a word in. Nicolo half listens, mumbling responses when prompted, and lets his mind drift.

Nicolo is baffled. Yusuf spent months traveling with this boy. Months. Sitting here, listening him talk, Nicolo almost can't believe that. Oliver's not a bad person. Admittedly, right now, he's particularly grating, but given that he's drunk and terribly maudlin, anyone in a similar state would be equally unpleasant, if not worse. Nicolo can tell that, under different circumstances, he'd be perfectly fine company. But that's just it. He would be perfectly fine, and nothing more. He's not especially smart, or witty, or even interesting. He's also a bit self absorbed, immature, and ignorant. For Yusuf to have spent so much time with him…

Oh.

Nicolo is overcome with the realization that he too is self absorbed, immature, and ignorant. He has been so caught up in his own self pity that he has not thought about the fact that Yusuf is in much the same predicament. That he traveled with Oliver for so long speaks to the fact that he, too, must be desperately lonely.

That thought - that Yusuf is like him, isolated and lonely and desperate for human connection - almost knocks the wind out of his chest. He knows there are more like them, two women who he sees in dreams just as he saw Yusuf before they met. They ride together, they fight together, they fall asleep with tangled fingers and gentle smiles. They are not so painfully alone. He does not know where they are. The ice and mountains that he sees when he dreams of them are entirely unfamiliar. He hopes that, perhaps, they will find Yusuf in their travels. He does not deserve to be so alone. And maybe one day, Nicolo will be a good enough man to join them.

Today is not that day, though.

Today, Nicolo is realizing exactly how similar he is to the boy who is still whining about Yusuf leaving him behind. He grew up with privilege. He felt entitled to do whatever he wanted to, whatever he convinced himself was right. He felt like he could treat people however he wanted. He thought he could treat Yusuf how he wanted. And even if after realized that wasn't the case, even after he resolved to learn to be better, he was still so focused on his own desire to deserve Yusuf that he didn't consider the state Yusuf would currently be in.

If Nicolo is lonely, Yusuf is too. And, as nice as the thought is, the likelihood of him finding the women seems fairly low. Perhaps Nicolo deserves to be alone while he needs to learn, but Yusuf shouldn't suffer for his crimes.

Oliver is talking about his father, now, about how he thinks perhaps he will return to the family business. It pays well, apparently, and he will still get to travel, just without the danger. He is laughing at the irony, that he will be the one to be hiring mercenaries to guard him.

Nicolo feels sick to his stomach. The ease with which this boy is regressing into the man he was before he met Yusuf, returning to the safe, comfortable, easy life he lived, the privilege he was raised in… It's all too easy for Nicolo to imagine himself doing the very same thing, had he survived the war. If Yusuf had never killed him, and he had somehow survived, he would have returned home to his own easy, comfortable life. If Nicolo had lived a different life, he would, indeed, be Oliver, and he would remain the petulant, entitled child he had been before.

The thought disgusts him. Yusuf being forced to travel with this man out of sheer desperation for someone to talk to rips his heart in two.

His decision is made. Next time he runs into Yusuf, he decides, he will ask to stay with him. He may not be a good enough man, but he can work to become one with Yusuf, if he'll allow it, and Yusuf won't have to be alone. Nicolo may not be the best company, but he isn't someone that Yusuf will have to leave, have to lie to, have to make excuses with.

"The two of you were friends, yes?" Oliver's voice cuts through his drunken reverie. Nicolo grimaces and turns to find that Alastair has vanished and Oliver has taken his vacated seat.

"Hmm?"

Oliver gives him a disgruntled look, seemingly only just realizing that Nicolo hadn't been paying attention. Nicolo wonders how long ago Alastair left, how long Oliver has been talking at him before realizing he wasn't listening at all. "You and Yusuf. You were friends?"

"We have a.. complicated relationship," Nicolo says, carefully.

"Yusuf told me that the two of you were friends, but you had a falling out."

Nicolo fights to keep his surprise from showing on his face. Friends? Yusuf considered them friends? Though, he supposes, it was likely just a lie to explain away the way the two of them stared at each other. "I guess you could say that."

"Is that the only reason you watched us?" Oliver says, with a coy smile. Or at least, Nicolo thinks that he's attempting a coy smile. He's a bit too drunk, though, his eyes slightly crossed and his lip curling in more of a sneer. He leans into Nicolo's shoulder and flutters his eyelashes. It is perhaps the least appealing thing he has ever seen.

He pushes the boy away as gently as he can. "I think you have had too much to drink," he says, carefully avoiding the question.

He pouts, eyes wide. "You don't want me?"

"No," Nicolo replies.

"So you only want Yusuf," he says, suddenly accusatory.

Nicolo feels his cheeks heat, and his throat is suddenly very dry. "No," he says, again, though his voice is thin and his teeth are clenched.

Nicolo has a lot of things he wants to say, but he settles on, "You're drunk, Oliver, and I have to be awake early tomorrow. I think it is time we both leave." And Oliver seems hopeful, again, somehow, so Nicolo adds, "Separately."

He crumples into the seat, and Nicolo almost feels bad, leaving him here, but he really does need have an early morning. Wasting time trying to cheer this moping, entitled child is not what he is going to do.

He wanders out of the tavern, towards the inn where he's staying. He wanders towards his room and notices the lights on in Alastair's. Nicolo makes a decision and knocks on his door.

"Yes?" Alastair answers, rumpled, and there appears to be a woman in his bed. Nicolo apparently missed a lot in his drunken stupor, and he wants to ask about it, but he can't let himself get distracted.

"There is another caravan leaving for Cairo tomorrow afternoon," he says, "and I am leaving with them. I thought you deserved a proper goodbye."

Alastair looks briefly surprised, but he settles on a slightly sad smile. "I will miss you, my friend. Just know that you can always call on me, if need be," he says, and Nicolo smiles, even though he knows that he can never see Alastair again. "I likely will not wake early enough to see you off," he says, glancing back at the woman in his bed. She smiles and waves a hand in greeting, and Nicolo can't fight his grin.

"I wish I was staying long enough to hear this story," he says, "but I won't waste any more of your evening. I just wanted to say goodbye, and to wish you safe travels."

Nicolo cannot help but reach out to wrap Alastair in a quick embrace. He has been a good friend, and Nicolo will miss him dearly. Alastair returns the gesture, and then they separate.

"Goodbye," he says, finally, with a small wave to Alastair, and one more to his lady friend. He then continues to his room, just down the hall, and falls into bed. He's asleep before his head hits the pillow.

============================== 

Nicolo wakes up, bone tired and hungover, and packs his few belongings into his bags. He needs to eat and run a few errands before he leaves.

"You look like you need it," she says, smiling kindly.

He's too tired to argue, otherwise he would insist on paying. So, this one time, he smiles gratefully and says a quiet "thank you," and continues on his way.

He makes his way to the blacksmith and buys a whetstone, as well as a small dagger. He loves his sword, but he wants something small and quick, for tight situations where sweeping strikes aren't really possible. Then he stops at the bowyer, and has a long conversation with him to decide on a bow. Luckily, as he has been working a lot and spending very little for five years, he has enough money to purchase quality goods. He settles on the one that the bowyer assures him is the best - made from yew wood, which he purchased from a Frank trader. He speaks with him about how best to care for the weapon, and purchases a few arrows, a second string in case the one he is using breaks, and a quiver.

He wanders over to the area where members of the caravan have started to congregate, turning the bow over in his hands. One of the other mercenaries approaches him, brow quirked.

"You're an archer?" he asks.

"Not yet," Nicolo replies, cheeks flushing.

The man smiles at him. "I'm Akil," he says, and something about him makes Nicolo feel unsteady on his feet. He thinks back to Oliver, last night, insinuating that he may be… interested, in men. He hasn't thought about it much before, really - he'd entered the clergy early, and taken the oath of chastity. There was no space to consider relationships, of any sort, but the way Akil's brown eyes are glittering at him makes him think that Oliver had maybe picked up on a part of him that he himself hadn't even noticed. "I'm fairly talented with a bow and arrow. I could teach you, if you like."

He nods, not quite trusting himself to speak.

Akil is looking at him, expectantly, and Nicolo's mind is blank. "And your name is…" he says, brows quirked, and Nicolo blushes further as he realizes he hasn't introduced himself.

"Nicolo."

"Nicolo," Akil says, as if he's testing the name. He's smiling, and Nicolo's heart is beating harder, and as he looks at Akil he notices that -

Oh, no.

He looks like Yusuf. Perhaps a bit younger, with shorter hair and a longer beard, but the eyes are shockingly similar, especially the lines that appear around them when he smiles. It's not an exact match, but it's close enough, and Nicolo's heart is in his stomach.

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