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one burning candle, one wind-whipped flame

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The first time he dies, his life ends in flame.

Yusuf wakes naked and burned, skin as scarless as it hasn’t been since he was born. He looks up: the sky is dark. His hands feel strange and soft and smooth. He stands up, and stumbles out of the ruined mosque he’d died inside, ripping ashy strips of cotton and linen off of corpses and winding them about his body. 

Outside, the city is ruined as well; dust and flames and smoke still hanging thick over the buildings that Yusuf loves.

His family is dead. His sisters, his brother, his mother: Yusuf knows they are no longer in this world. He’s seen his mother and brother and two sisters die with his own two eyes, and there’s no chance that his last sister- sweet, sweet girl- survived the collapsed building over the local market.

He takes the first sword he finds, wipes off the blood with a scrap of cloth, and sets off into the desert.

Nobody survives the desert without a camel or a horse, and Yusuf has nothing but patched-together clothes and a stolen scimitar.

He still crosses it.

He dies, three times over that week: once of dehydration, once of suffocation from shifting sands, and once when the sunstroke finally makes him collapse. But by the end of it he’s tracked the people that killed his family down to a large town that Yusuf’s never heard of. Yusuf watches as they embrace their children and wives, remove their turbans, reveal their faces. He memorizes them.

For the next three years, slowly, methodically, Yusuf kills all sixteen men.

It’s on the sixteenth man- the man that began this, the man that Yusuf loathes above all others- that another man shows up. 

Yusuf has become better and better with a sword over the years. He’s grown muscle and learned languages. His heart feels heavy; he’s so tired. But he saw his mother and his siblings die down to the littlest one, too young to even escape a burning building, and there is something that has allowed him to survive it all. He believes it is for this: to end it all. After this- perhaps- perhaps-

(Yusuf will not kill the family of the man that he once named father. 

He has that much of kindness left in him.)

There are no collateral damages- a phrase that will come into being only centuries later, for all that the actual damage has been and will continue to be done for all of those centuries- that Yusuf allows himself. Only sixteen men. Only sixteen deaths. 

But his father sold his village out to the raiders from the north, the fair-haired men who bear a cross and swords of shining steel. Yusuf’s father sold his own blood and kin for silver- not even gold, the absolute fool- and then abandoned them to rebuild another family with a younger wife and less competition in the spice market. Perhaps he doesn’t know that Yusuf has killed the fifteen other men that set fire to Yusuf’s home, slowly, methodically, stripping his father of friendships and connections bit by bit by bit.

But Yusuf hopes he does.

He unsheathes his sword and steps forward, out into the sunlight. His father sees him, and goes white under his beard.

“Fight me,” says Yusuf. “Bare your sword.” When his father does not move, Yusuf lifts his own. “Bare it.”

“No,” whispers his father. “You are- you are dead. I saw you-”

“-die?” Yusuf bares his teeth. “Yes. But I came back. Perhaps by Allah’s will. I do not know. But I am here, Father, and I will kill you tonight, whether you unsheathe your sword or not. For the man you once were to me, I will offer you the chance to die with dignity.”

It’s such a beautiful day; a brisk wind, a sun partially obscured by clouds. Yusuf has waited for such a lovely day to kill his father.

And then there is a shout from the back of the crowd gathering around them. A pale-skinned man bursts forwards, and he takes in the scene: Yusuf with a bared sword, Yusuf’s father looking like he’s seen a demon, the silent, seething crowd waiting for violence with bated breath.

“Enough,” he says, in thickly accented Persian. “You, go home. You- come with me.”

“I think not,” says Yusuf, and chops down with his free hand, hard, in a move that he learned from a dark-skinned man from India, at the slope of neck and shoulder. The man crumbles without a further word, and Yusuf advances on his father. 

“You should not have killed Minu,” he tells his father softly, and plunges the blade between his ribs.

A moment later, he feels a ripping pain through his own gut. Yusuf turns to look, startled, and sees the man that he’d hit, struggling upright, sword extended and clearly embedded into Yusuf’s own body. He is light-limned and looks even more golden than before, features unimportant; body as beautiful and unearthly as angels.

The world goes dark, and Yusuf welcomes it.

He wakes up, again, to sun and an empty courtyard and a golden-haired man kneeling over his father, trying to save him. 

Yusuf laughs and gets up. 

“I aimed for his heart,” he says, when the man leans back, defeated and unable to find a pulse. “He is dead.”

Words spill out of the other’s mouth as he scrabbles away, gaping. It isn’t Yusuf’s language, but something from the north. Yusuf buckles his father’s sword to his own waist, nods to him- he doubts it’ll register in the poor man’s head, but courtesy is courtesy- and walks out of the city.

...

Ten days later, he dreams of golden hair and eyes green as a palm frond, spread wide and welcoming to the sun. He wakes with sand between his teeth, hands clutched so tight on the hilt of the sword there are bruises on his palms. Eleven days later, he dreams of screaming and blood like a waterfall. Twelve days later, he dreams of an angel with feathers fluttering away as they fall to the earth. All the feathers shine the same shade as the strange man’s eyes, green and eldritch and so fucking hopeful-

Thirteen days later, Yusuf makes his way back to the city.

...

(They tell everyone about the times that they kill each other. Nicolo and Yusuf, enemies with a river of blood singing between them: this is what Andy knows, and this is what Booker is told, and this is what Nile learns.

But never once do they consider telling anyone that before ever they killed each other, they saved each other.)

Yusuf drags the man out of the city and props him up in the shadow of a nearby dune. He’s healing, too, and faster each time. 

“Yusuf,” he tells him, pressing a hand to his chest.

The man presses up against the stone at his back, eyes flaring wide, and says something very loudly. Yusuf thinks the impromptu rant has something to do with demons- and devilry- and-

“Yusuf,” he says again. “Al-Kaysani.”

He falls silent. Then, almost-silently, he whispers, “Páppa?”

Well. Yusuf understands this, at least. He swallows. “Yes. He was.”

“Perché?”

“Because… I could not stand by and do nothing.” He shakes his head. Points at him. “You?”

“Nicolo,” he says, after a long pause. “Nicolo di Genova.”

Yusuf nods, and hands him a blanket, and curls up to sleep. 

When he wakes up, he’s got a stab-wound in the shirt across his chest, one water canister, and no sword. For a long moment, he can’t believe the audacity of the little shit, stealing from and killing Yusuf after he saved him. 

Then he laughs.

This desert is his, and no invader is going to escape him in its sands, no matter how gold and beautiful their hair shines.

It’s not quite the hundreds that they tell Nile, but Yusuf has easily been slaughtered seventy-four times by Nicolo’s hand. 

It becomes something of a game to them, before long: to get the drop on the other, when they are guard and civilian, when they are librarian and scribe, when they are merchant and thief. Yusuf dies of sword, axe, blood-loss, poison, dehydration, a truly filthy infuriated falcon attacking and scratching out his eyes, which then get infected; arrows, drowning, stabbing. He kills Nicolo in just as many ways, and if, in the meantime, he gets some of the others trampling over his homeland without care and without mercy, Yusuf doesn’t lose any sleep over it.

It would be an even seventy-five, but he’s uncertain whether that time that he died of cholera is because Nicolo mixed the infected water with his own drinking supply. There’s a chance that it’s an accident, but the outbreak had been in the north sector of the city and Yusuf’s been in the east the entire time; and he wouldn’t put it past Nicolo. 

He doesn’t ask. 

If Nicolo has done it, then it’s about as embarassing for him as it is for Yusuf, the depths that he’ll stoop to. But if he hasn’t, then Yusuf’s left being a paranoid bastard who gave himself cholera poisoning and then blamed his lover for it.

There aren’t many mysteries left after a thousand years together. He’s content enough for this to remain one.

The thing is-

The thing is, the first few times they kill each other, they keep it impersonal. Arrows, thrown daggers, a heavy sword between the ribs. Belladonna, bitter in Yusuf’s morning tea. Hemlock chopped and served with Nicolo’s chicken. That time that Yusuf managed to get Nicolo to choke on a carrot hard enough for him to suffocate.

But then Yusuf wakes up to a shadow trying to slit his throat, and he thrashes, every inch of his body flexing, straining. He twists, catches Nicolo’s wrist and slams it into the bedframe- hears the knife thunk to the floor- feels the lick of fire from the candle that the bastard’s dropped onto his sheets- rolls-

He ends up pinning Nicolo to the ground, top to toe, foreheads smashed together and an arm pressed tight against Nicolo’s throat. 

For the first time, Yusuf actually sees the light drain from Nicolo’s beautiful, beautiful eyes.

They learn each other’s languages- Nicolo out of pure survival instinct- and Yusuf because he likes the slip and tangle of Italian in his mouth. There’s something that darkens in Nicolo’s eyes when Yusuf speaks the tongue of his homeland, like a firestorm being damped by rain. Yusuf rather likes the way that Nicolo looks, when he does that: flushed and uncomfortable, and uncomfortable with the discomfort as well.

He always lashes out with knife and sharp steel when Yusuf laughs at him, but it’s well-worth the pain.

(Oh, if Yusuf had ever been afraid of pain- 

It burned away with the first of his deaths.)

Thirty years later, they are in Baghdad. It is by accident; Yusuf is completing a trade contract for a caravan, and Nicolo is trying to extricate some ancient Christian object, and Yusuf sees his distinctive golden hair in the corner of his eye, and is hard-pressed to continue focusing on his bargaining.

That night, as Nicolo closes the door to his rented room, Yusuf pins him against the door. 

“Guess who,” he breathes into Nicolo’s ear.

He goes stiff, rolling a shoulder, trying to jab an elbow into Yusuf’s sternum. “Fuck off,” snarls Nicolo. “I’m doing important-”

“-you didn’t see me in the market? I’m hurt.”

For a long moment, Nicolo doesn’t speak. Then he says, quietly, almost too quiet to be heard- he wouldn’t be heard, if Yusuf hadn’t plastered himself to his back: “I dreamed of you. The green arches; I knew you would be here.” He pauses, then continues, “I’d like to sleep tonight. If you’re going to stab me in the back, please do it now.”

“Oh, come now,” says Yusuf, before he turns Nicolo around, swift and easy. In proper, Genovesian Italian, he says, “I only ever aim for the heart, Nicolo.”

The room is dim; it would be the one thing that he’d change, if he ever got the chance to do this again. 

(Oh, he does, he does, he does-)

But there’s the barest sliver of moonlight, and Yusuf thinks he can see the expression on Nicolo’s face shift, from impatience to something softer and more open, relenting into warmth like a cloudy morning giving way to the desert sun.

“Will you kill me, Yusuf Al-Kaysani?” he rasps out.

The heat settles low in Yusuf’s belly, and he steps closer, lets the knives in his hands prick Nicolo’s skin, just enough to scrape skin. He remembers the fire of his death, the pain and the breathlessness and the way flame had shone as bright as the moonlight off Nicolo’s hair, and thinks: What a way to die.

“Yes,” says Yusuf, and kisses him.

He kills Nicolo that night, but he leaves the bloodied knives on the tableside before he leaves. Four months later, Nicolo uses them to slit his throat, and calls them even.

Not quite a year after that, they’re hired to guard the same caravan, from Damascus to Tripoli. Yusuf starts smiling when he sees the sleeping area set aside for the guards and cannot stop, not even when he bribes the overseer into changing his schedule to matcho Nicolo’s for the full trip there and back, not until he sees the carefully-hidden dismay on Nicolo’s face when he sees the set-up.

“We’ve dealt with worse,” he says cheerfully.

“Is that the only bunk left?” demands Nicolo.

“Yes.”

“I’m not sleeping there!”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to spend the next months getting my throat slit in the night!” he hisses.

“Oh, don’t underestimate yourself,” says Yusuf, leaning back on the low cot on his elbows, quite enjoying himself. “I’m sure you’ll be slitting my throat as well.”

“I don’t want-” Nicolo pulls away, breathing harshly. Yusuf feels a twinge of something in his breastbone- what doesn’t Nicolo want? To see Yusuf? To do this? To be themselves?- but before he can say anything, he continues: “I need sleep.”

“Then let’s make an agreement.” Yusuf holds out a hand. “We don’t kill each other. For the length of this assignment. No more, and no less.”

Nicolo snorts. “You can stop yourself from stabbing me for that long?”

“I’ve signed up not to stab everyone else here,” retorts Yusuf. “Believe me. I can manage.”

They clasp elbows. It’s the first time that Yusuf’s held someone since he died for the first time without wishing vengeance or blood, and he relishes in the warmth of the skin under his fingers, the bone, the delicate spur of skin pressing against the pointed bone.

“This is going to be difficult,” mutters Nicolo, setting up his materials right next to Yusuf, between the wall and Yusuf’s bedroll. 

Yusuf taps the hand that had held Nicolo’s against his own knee. “No,” he says thoughtfully. Nicolo’s gaze jerks to meet his own, and Yusuf smiles at him, wide, unabashed. “I don’t think it will.”

They set a guard together, facing away from the fire to watch into the darkness beyond. Yusuf swallows, and stares at the stars.

“Do you miss them?” he asks. Nicolo turns his head, but not the rest of his body. “Your family, I mean. The ones in Genova.”

“Ah. Them.”

“That answers my question.”

Nicolo sighs. “No, no- I love them. Of course I miss them. But how can I go back? My own brother would be older than my grandfather- if he still lived. The others would be long gone. My sisters married, my parents dead… and I knew when I left that I would never see them again.” There’s the faintest of smiles on his face. “They knew that, too. Such is the life of a crusader.”

“Crusader,” says Yusuf, rolling the word around his mouth. It tastes thin, like the blades he’s seen from France, and salty, like bloody sweat rich on his tongue. “Is that what you are?”

“What I was,” he corrects. “Now, I am- nothing. Or no one. Just another man, trying to make enough money to survive.”

“Ach, but you are not, are you? Nicolo di Genova, just another man who cannot die.” Yusuf peers at him.

Nicolo flushes. “And what of you? And your family?” He pauses, then says, deliberately, “Have you killed them all?”

Yusuf snorts, gripping his sword tighter to keep his voice light. “Only my father. The rest- he killed the rest. Which was why I killed him.”

“Oh,” says Nicolo, and doesn’t speak for the rest of the night.

Three days later, on their next guard-duty, Nicolo speaks first.

“I thought you a merciless killer,” he says.

“I am,” replies Yusuf. “Have you learned nothing from the times I’ve killed you?”

“It is different when you know I shall return.” Nicolo stretches his feet out, and then he smiles, one side of his mouth tipping up crooked and wry. He looks surprised himself to smile, as if he’s forgotten how. “And it is different when you are killing your father for crimes he committed against you. Tell me, Yusuf, how many others have you killed?”

He shivers; he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the way that Nicolo says his name, accented, the vowels drawn out. “Apart from those that burned my village? On guard-routes, when people tried to steal my things- perhaps twenty.”

Probably less, but he’s not in the habit of counting.

“I’ve killed more,” says Nicolo slowly. “And I sat here, thinking you the cruel one. The one to be redeemed. The one to be saved.”

“I don’t think we can save anyone,” says Yusuf, just as slowly. “Just live here, on the earth; just survive it. But… is that why you kept coming after me? To save me?”

“Well- why’d you keep coming after me?” asks Nicolo.

Yusuf leans back, back against the sand, and stares up at the stars. “I dreamed of you,” he says, quietly. “Of your death.” 

Of your eyes. 

Nicolo leans over him, and his eyes glimmer in the night like the dimmest and furthest of stars, far and beautiful for their distance. “Redemption,” he whispers, and leans forwards, forwards, forwards-

But no, those aren’t stars in Nicolo’s eyes, it’s a fucking fire-

Yusuf rolls away and lunges to get a waterline started to damp it- to detach the wagon from the rest of the caravan- to minimize the damage-

He doesn’t get a minute of free time until morning, when they’re called before the overseer. 

“You two should have seen that fire before it took any wagon,” he snarls, and throws their bedrolls at them, and then proceeds to throw them out of their caravan.

“Baghdad’s not too far,” muses Nicolo as they stumble back into the sands.

Yusuf goggles at him. “It’s in the opposite direction! Have you even seen a map?”

“Oh. Is it?”

“I know now why you have not returned to Genova,” declares Yusuf. “You are clearly incapable of following a map-”

“-shut up-”

“-do they not teach geography in Genova?”

“Shut up!”

Nicolo gets him to shut up an hour later by wrestling him to the ground and then kissing Yusuf until they’re both panting, faces dirt-streaked and sand gritty in every last crevice of their clothes. Yusuf insists on stripping off and trying to shake the sand off- he knows how bad it’s going to chafe if left alone, and his dignity’s not worth the discomfort to come. They find a little privacy in a nearby sand-dune, and Nicolo promises to watch the road and stop anyone coming in.

But when Yusuf turns around, Nicolo’s eyes are definitely not on the road.

They’re darker even than when Yusuf speaks Italian to him. Then he lifts his eyes to meet Yusuf’s gaze, and that’s him gone- his mouth goes dry; his heart skips a beat; he steps forwards and clutches Nicolo close, and the kissing is so much easier without clothes in the way- the skin, the warmth and give and flex of the muscle-

“Not here,” says Nicolo, pulling away. 

He’s wonderfully disheveled. Yusuf growls and tries to move forwards, but there’s nowhere to-

“Not here,” repeats Nicolo. “A bed. A warm bed, with sheets, and privacy, and- and-”

“You are not getting more privacy than the middle of the desert,” says Yusuf.

“I am also getting sand up my arse,” says Nicolo. “I will trade one for the other. Without hesitation.”

“Bah,” snarls Yusuf, turning away, and managing to get his robes on without looking at Nicolo. Then he does, and sees the helpless, delicious desire written stark across Nicolo’s face, and shakes his head. “Two more nights until we reach a good town. And then- then I’ll make you regret delaying. See if I don’t.”

Their first time isn’t- grand. More pain than he’s expecting; more discomfort. Yusuf’s sore in a manner that he’s never been before, but also sated in a manner that he’s never experienced before. He falls asleep tangled on a rickety bed, limbs wrapping around Nicolo’s bare, warm chest. For the first time in years- decades- he doesn’t dream.

Yusuf wakes up the morning after and finds a place with the best faloodeh that he’s ever seen, and packs an extra before he can talk himself out of it. It’s the first meal that they’ve properly shared: sugar and mint and the faintest hint of ice on his tongue, which dissolves into heat as soon as he kisses Nicolo again.

“Tell me about your home,” he breathes against Nicolo’s mouth.

“It is- beautiful,” Nicolo tells him, and drops back, flat on the bed, mouth lush and gaze as shining as the green stained glass in churches. “Genova. My home: my father kept the most beautiful gardens. Roses- other flowers. I don’t know their names. But in the summer, it was the closest I thought we could get to heaven on earth.”

“If it is half as beautiful as your face,” says Yusuf, pressing a kiss to Nicolo’s collarbones and then up his jaw. “I would be happy to live there the rest of my days.”

They change their names multiple times over the years. They lose weaponry- Yusuf’s father’s scimitar, the knives that once slit both their throats, a bow made of the sweetest, smoothest wood that Yusuf’s ever seen. They adapt to different clothes and different cultures. 

When Andy and Quynh meet them, they fall in together with an ease that Yusuf hasn’t felt since he stopped dying. It’s easy to continue on a path of changing the world when in Andy’s blazing, furious sense of purpose; Nicolo- Nico, now- is drawn in inexorably to them, and Yusuf lets himself be pulled forward with it.

The first time they need to be separated for an extended period of time, Yusuf is in Venice to speak to a translator who’s been doing some shit with translating manuscripts from Arabic to Latin, and he barely sleeps for the days leading up to the actual meeting, because he keeps seeing Nico when he closes his eyes, and Yusuf misses him so badly that it hurts his stomach when he wakes up.

He learns to paint during that time: sketches, suggestions of movement, the curve of Nico’s smile, and doesn’t sleep until he’s done with the assignment. 

Three days after that, he’s killed the translator, taken care of the arsenic that the man had been feeding him since Yusuf arrived in Venice, and retrieved the original manuscript of interest.

Here’s the thing: Yusuf doesn’t abide traitors.

Here’s the thing: Nicolo believes himself to be a traitor to his own faith.

They go to Malta; they go to Paris; they go to America. They laugh and eat and fuck and sing and kill. Yusuf, who has never returned to his home because there is no home to return to, does not mind taking assignments that cross over the land where his family’s bones might still lie. Nicolo, who has never returned to his home because of reasons he’s never told to Yusuf, very much minds taking assignments that might ostensibly cross into Genova.

When Andy asks him to watch over a low-level captain in the Ligurian Sea, Nicolo refuses. Andy pushes- because that’s who Andy is- and it’s the one and only time that Yusuf ever sees him yell at her. 

“Get him to change his mind,” she snaps at Yusuf, after he storms away. “This can change the goddamn world.”

Yusuf goes up to the roof. Sits, feet dangling off the edge, and waits.

“I’m not doing it.”

“Nicolo.”

“I’m not,” he says grimly. “I don’t care if that means we don’t save the world.”

“Nicolo.”

“I’m not going back!”

“Nicolo,” says Yusuf, one last time, and extends a hand.

He shudders, and bends forward, so his wrist brushes Yusuf’s fingers. “Yusuf,” he says helplessly.

Yusuf moves swiftly: up, around, over, knees flexing and hips rolling so in a flash he’s wrapped around Nicolo. Into his ear, he whispers, “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“I cannot go back.”

“I got that,” mutters Yusuf, slumping back, though he keeps his arm tight on Nicolo’s chest and draws him back too, so they’re prone on the ground. “But why, Nicolo? Why?”

“Because-” An aborted shudder, the flinch of Nicolo’s shoulders that he manages to muffle before it can shake, “-if I go back- it’ll all be gone.”

“All? All what?”

“All the things that I loved.”

“Then… it doesn’t matter, does it? If everything you remember’s gone, why are you so worked up about going back there?”

“-Yusuf!”

“What?” Yusuf laughs, nudging him on the back of his knee with his own knee. “Tell me it doesn’t make sense!”

“You’re an utter bastard,” says Nicolo, but he gives his own laugh, tired and small, and finally relaxes into Yusuf’s embrace. “No. No. I- I don’t miss them. I didn’t lie to you back then. But there’s a difference between leaving something behind and knowing it’s gone forever.”

Yusuf rubs at the slope of his shoulder, digs his fingers into the knots of muscle until Nicolo hisses out. “I doubt you’ll even recognize it. Cities change- so fucking much. All the time. The streets might not even be the same.”

“Genova doesn’t change so quickly,” sighs Nicolo, pulling Yusuf’s hands down to his waist. “It will still be there. Everything I knew. If my father had enough luck- probably those gardens remain, too. If some descendant came along who loved them enough. It will all be there, and I will have to see it, and- and I will never be able to undo it.”

“Oh, Nicolo,” says Yusuf quietly, and doesn’t say another word, not until long past the sun’s gone down.

When they do go down, Andy looks at him expectantly. Yusuf shakes his head, and it’s one of only a handful of times that they refuse a mission that Andy’s fully vetted.

Then Quynh- well- dies, or disappears, or at least as close as they can get- and Andy goes off the rails, and the world goes to shit in a handbag. 

The only sane person in Yusuf’s life is Nicolo, now. 

They disappear into the remotest part of the Pacific islands in response, and stay there for a hundred years. It’s the most peaceful that Yusuf’s ever known in his life: ninety-four years of uninterrupted, blissful joy in Nicolo’s arms. He thinks, for a long time, that he’s given up the anger and hate that once ran in his veins as thick as blood. 

But when Andy returns with Booker- hair chopped short, dyed black, eyes shining like twin fucking lamps-  and hands him his sword, it slots into Yusuf’s hands like it’s never left.

“Come on,” says Andy, and holds out a hand.

The next time Andy takes a break is a century and a half later. It’s rather nice, their year off; Nicky takes the time to learn how to sing in seven different styles, and Booker takes off to Belize for warmth and sun, and Joe- well. Joe follows Nicky, though he doesn’t have any kind of a singing voice, and he adjusts to the sound of scales running up and down in gradually more complex patterns from sunup to sundown in their homes, and sketches whenever he gets the itch running beneath his skin.

Nile, and Copley, and that fucking Merrick- Joe takes it all in with relative calm. 

Until Booker betrays them. 

His father, his family, fire and flame and the dryness of a throat that’s just been burned alive: Joe is the one who wants to lock Booker in a box for the next hundred years. Nicky’s all for banishment, and Nile for forgiveness, so it’s Andy who casts the deciding vote.

“Harsh but fair,” mutters Nicky, in Italian, and Joe laughs.

“Isn’t she always?” he asks, turning his back on the dark, smudged image of Booker’s bowed head on the beach.

After it all, Nicky takes his hand in the night. Runs his nails across Joe’s smooth palm. It’s too dark to see each other, and Joe remembers the first time they’d kissed, in a room of rickety wood and moth-worn curtains, too dark to see the other’s face.

He doesn’t need light to know the planes of Nicky’s face now.

“I think,” says Nicolo, so quietly that Joe can barely hear him, “I’d like to go back to Genova.”

“Now?” asks Yusuf. He’d be startled, but he’s too tired for it; there’s only room in him for a dull, rounded sort of fondness, familiar and comfortable and comforting in equal measure. “I think there is a flight that we can take. If you want it.”

“Not now,” he says. “In a few months. For summer.”

“Why?”

“Booker said-” Yusuf makes a half-annoyed sound, and Nicolo laughs, pushing him back, “-he said things that are important. Even if you don’t like him any longer. He was right.”

“In fucking what?”

“That we are not alone. That we have never been alone.” Nicolo bears him back, and kisses him until there’s only noise and white light sparking over Yusuf’s eyes. Then he breathes into his ear: “There is a courage when we are together.”

It takes him a moment to gather the words. “And you call me a romantic?” demands Yusuf.

“Come to Genova with me,” says Nicolo, and Nico, and Nicky, and all the roles that they’ve played over the years, all the people they’ve been and all the identities they’ve worn. Yusuf cannot see him, but how does that matter when they’ve spent a thousand years together? “Let me show you where I was born.”