Actions

Work Header

The Creature

Chapter Text

Three towns. Three lifetimes. And this one was coming to a close.

It had been three generations since Yusuf had fought against the invading Franks. Since he had been cut down by a beast of a man with sand-colored hair and sea-hued eyes, and had slain him in turn. He had awoken with his face in the dirt, his wounds healing. The body of the other warrior was gone. The battle was over. They had lost.

He made his way home, though it had taken two years. He didn’t know why Allah had spared him, why he had been chosen to survive. His mother had wept when she saw him return. He said nothing of what had happened to him. He dreamed of strangers, warriors, battlefields, but he tried to return to his normal life.

Twenty years passed. His mother died. His brother aged. Yusuf stared at himself in the mirror, waiting to see the gray in his beard. It wasn’t until he was traveling alone with a cart full of spices one day, when he was set upon by bandits, that he realized what was happening to him. He awoke for the second time in his life, covered in dirt and blood, alive despite a wound he should never have survived.

He did not return home.

He settled in a town by the sea. Claimed a new name, claimed he was younger than he had been even before he went off to war. They expected less gray in his beard, gave him longer to age. He missed his brother. His mother. His home. He dreamed of foreign women. He dreamed of Jerusalem. He did not age. He left. No one would miss him.

By the third time, he had stopped raging against his fate. The village that he chose was desperately poor, hot, and miserable. He helped where he could. He taught the children history and letters, when their parents could spare them from work. He led a group of men, and a few good women who fought harder than any of them, to free up a water source that was being hoarded by the wealthy. He worked the fields with the others, longer and harder than they could manage, learning from an elder who shouted and cursed, but took a shine to Yusuf. He cried when the old man died.

One of the girls he had taught when he first arrived was now taller than him. She was better with numbers than he had ever been, and she had designed a new irrigation system for the whole village to use. Children no longer carried water to the fields. She and her brother taught them math and letters. The Franks were moving south. Yusuf left.

He took up the sword again, outside a walled city. There were rumors of a beast with no face who destroyed anything in his path.

“It cannot be killed, they say,” whispered Mehdi. He was one of the younger men among the defenders. To Yusuf, he was a child.

“Perhaps it is a machine,” said Qasim.

“Perhaps it is a demon.”

Yusuf gripped the end of his sword until his hand hurt, and vowed that he would not let this creature hurt these boys.

On the first day, the Franks fought like normal men. Qasim suggested in a hushed tone that perhaps the rumors of their monster were an exaggeration.

“Or perhaps they’re trying to lure us out tomorrow,” Medhi said.

“You are far too young to be so cynical,” Yusuf told him.

Cynical he may have been, but Medhi was right. They were in the heat of battle the next day when Yusuf heard another man shout, and turned to see that the Franks had opened a massive cage just on the outskirts of the battlefield. Two men each held long poles, which were attached to either side of a collar. The collar was around the neck of a creature unlike anything Yusuf had ever seen.

It stood on two legs like a man, but it stood more than a head taller than the men who restrained it. Its face was gray and blank, no expressions or features, permanently fused into a snarl. Yusuf felt the cold grip of fear on his spine.

The handlers released the creature, pointing it towards the defenders, and Yusuf forgot whatever else he was focusing on. He raised his sword.

The monster fought with all the fury of a demon. Where a human might have hands, it only had blades, and it cut its enemies down without hesitation. Yusuf stepped between it and his men, blocking one of its blade-arms with his sword. It pushed him back as if it didn’t even see him. Up close, he could see the blood staining its clothes, much of it far older than today’s battle. Yusuf ducked under a blade and stabbed upwards, catching the monster in the stomach, slipping his scimitar under its armor.

The creature faltered. It looked down, as if it was surprised by the assault, but its face never lost that snarl. Yusuf barely had a moment to celebrate his victory before it struck him.

He dropped to his knees. He knew the blow was a killing one. He looked up at the creature that had killed him. It had eyes, under the gray face, and the skin around it was lighter, pale as the Franks’ themselves, and the eyes were the color of the sea.

Yusuf died.

*

When he awoke, the battle was over. The Franks were milling around outside of the walls, looting corpses. They had moved the body of the monster he had killed off of him. Yusuf gritted his teeth, reaching for his sword, when a boot came down on the blade. He looked up into the sallow face of one of the invaders.

“We’ve got a survivor!” the man shouted in his foreign tongue. Yusuf cursed, rolling away, but he was grabbed before he could get a weapon.

It took two men to hold him down, and he did manage to stab one of them in the leg, although he doubted it would be fatal. The commander looked down his nose at Yusuf, who was cursing and spitting and railing against his restraints.

“Throw him to the beast, it deserves a reward after today,” he said.

One of the two men holding him laughed. The other looked pale.

They dragged him to the cage. It was massive, the size of a small room, and strapped to the back of a wheeled cart. Yusuf barely had time to wonder if they had a second beast before they were opening the door. A third soldier stood by with a crossbow in case anything was approaching the door. The black cloth that covered the cage and the dim of the evening made it impossible to tell for certain if anything was even in there.

“Dinner!” the laughing soldier called out. With a shove, they forced Yusuf into the cage. The last thing he saw was the pale soldier pulling the cloth over the outside before he was alone in the dark.

He could hear something moving in the darkness. A rattling of chains. He moved towards the bars of the cage to protect his back, when he collided into something cold, metal, and moving. He didn’t have time to react before he was stabbed through the heart.

When he woke up again, he could hear those chains dragging against the ground. He held as still as he could, trying to hide his breathing. His eyes began to adjust to the dim light that was filtering in from outside.

The beast was facing away from him. He couldn’t tell if it was the same one he had fought before- but no, he had struck a killing blow, he was certain of that. The Franks must have more than one.

It was scraping its bladed arm against the floor. Yusuf tried to move as silently as possible to see what it was doing. Was it sharpening the blade?

No, he could see now. The blade was growing out of its arm. The beast almost seemed to be trying to remove it, like it was a splinter growing in reverse. But worse, it heard Yusuf move, and turned towards him.

Yusuf held very still.

In the shadows, even the frozen rictus of the snarling face was hidden. The beast crouched in the corner and watched him. Yusuf had no doubt that it knew he was alive. Slowly, he pulled himself up. It jerked backwards, deeper into the shadows. Raising his hands, Yusuf retreated to the far corner of the cage. The beast didn’t exactly relax, but it didn’t attack him either.

Yusuf didn’t sleep that night. As near as he could tell, the beast didn’t either. There was enough light coming through the cloth covering of their cage that he could tell when the sun rose. Not long after, a hatch in the ceiling opened and food- bread, some kind of dried meat, and two apples- was thrown down unceremoniously. The beast seemed prepared for this, as it backed up out of the way. A bucket of water was lowered more slowly, though still with enough carelessness that some of it slopped out of the sides. Then the hatch slammed closed.

He could tell why they chose to do it this way. The top of the cage was high enough and whoever had thrown in the food had been far enough back that they were in no danger from the chained beast. But it also meant that they couldn’t see into the cage to identify if the prisoner they had thrown in the night before was still alive.

The beast moved forward, dragging its chains behind it, and shoved its face into the bucket. Water splashed to the sides, and Yusuf could hear slurping. He looked away. When it pulled its head out, it was gasping for air. It stabbed a blade into one of the pieces of meat, bringing it up to its mouth and ripping at it with its teeth. Yusuf’s stomach growled.

It looked at him. He pulled himself back further into the corner to try to stay out of its way. Slowly, the beast lowered its arms. It pushed an apple towards him.

Yusuf looked up at it. “For me?” he asked, although he had no reason to believe that the beast could understand him. It grunted and took another bite of the meat.

Yusuf picked up the apple. When the creature didn’t lunge at him immediately, he bit into it, savoring the sweetness. He ate far faster than he normally did, but he had no way of knowing when he would next get food.

When he finished, he saw that the beast was watching him. “Thank you,” he said.

It pushed the bread towards him.

Carefully, Yusuf moved closer to it, not standing up. It pulled back, watching him warily, but he only took the bread and split it in half, putting one end carefully on the ground and taking the other.

They ate in silence. There was enough morning light coming in through where the covering had hitched up that he could see the beast a bit more clearly. It was shaped more like a human than he had previously thought. In fact-

“You’re human,” Yusuf whispered.

The beast- the man- stiffened. But now Yusuf knew it was true. It was human- or at least, it had been. What Yusuf had taken for scales covering its body was actually armor, deeply worn and caked in blood. It- or rather, he, Yusuf supposed- had light-colored skin where the armor didn’t cover the ends of his arms. His arms simply stopped just after the elbow, skin growing over long blades which replaced his hands. The lion’s mane was long, matted hair, which clearly hadn’t been washed in some time. And the terrifying snarl was nothing but a mask.

Underneath the mask, Yusuf could see his blue-green eyes. He knew suddenly that this was the same man he had killed on the battlefield yesterday.

“You’re like me,” he said, more certain now. “You can’t die.”

The creature that had once been a man watched him. Maybe he couldn’t understand him. But he didn’t pull away.

Yusuf inspected the mask. It was strapped to his face with tight leather straps. There were holes for his eyes, wide enough to not restrict his vision, and a painted snarl on a snout that, now that he was close to it, was clearly just for decoration. The hole for his mouth was smaller, just enough to get food in and allow him to breathe. With whatever had been done to his hands, no wonder that he drank so desperately.

Carefully, Yusuf cupped his hand into the water and held it up. The man stared at him, tracking his movements, but did not move. Yusuf drank out of his hands, demonstrating, and then, dipping them again in the bucket, held them out to his companion.

The man moved towards him carefully, without standing, chains dragging behind him, his whole body tense to run or fight if he had too. Yusuf held very still. When the man fell on his water, it was sudden, and he drank greedily, his tongue lapping at it like an animal. When he’d finished all Yusuf could hold, Yusuf scooped out another handful, holding it out again. They did this three more times before the man seemed satisfied.

“What’s your name?” Yusuf asked. The man’s eyes flicked to his face and then looked away, but he didn’t answer.

There was still some water left in the bucket, so Yusuf washed his face. After a moment of consideration, he removed his shirt, scrubbing at where the blood had dried on his skin. He could feel his companion’s eyes on him, but the other man didn’t move towards him.

They spent most of the day in silence after that. There was no much in the cage besides each other, and Yusuf wondered what it had been like for the man, how long he had been here. The rumors of the beast fighting alongside the Franks had seemed recent, only a year or two, but even the thought of that long in this cage, with no human companionship, made Yusuf shiver. The heavy chains that were attached to the thick collar around his neck made the man stoop whenever he tried to walk, weighed down by their bulk.

The rest of the army didn’t notice he was in there until the sun was setting. The caged man looked at the light, then huddled in the center of the cage, making himself as small as possible. Yusuf, who was leaning against one of the sides, frowned at him.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

The rattling of a sword against metal answered the question for him. He jumped back, away from the bars, just in time to avoid being struck. The door opened, the spear striking in. The man wielding it was accompanied by another man, holding a crossbow, and the commander. All three of them stopped when they saw Yusuf. Then the commander’s face twisted in rage.

“Kill him,” he ordered.

Before Yusuf could react, one of the crossbow bolts struck him in the chest. He fell backwards, in time to hear the other man roar in fury, leaping towards the door, only to be beaten back by several guards.

“Unbelievable,” he heard the commander complaining. “It was trying to keep a pet.”

They were gone when he woke up, and the cold metal flat of a blade was pressed against his chest. Yusuf held very still so that he didn’t flinch. He realized that this was one of the man’s arms, or what passed for them. He was… stroking Yusuf, and making a soft whining noise in the back of his throat. Maybe he was trying to keep Yusuf as a pet.

Yusuf got up carefully. He had been rolled over, the bolt had been pulled out of his chest, although how the man had managed it, it was hard to say. The man rocked back on his knees, giving him time to adjust to being alive again. Now that he was sitting up, Yusuf realized that the other man was covered in blood- both of theirs, from the look of things.

“I don’t know why this happens,” he said, finally. “I died during the siege of Jerusalem, and I got back up. It’s happened a few times since then. It’s happening to you too, isn’t it? And they took advantage of that.”

The man was silent now. As Yusuf had become accustomed to, he just watched him. He thought he was getting used to those blue-green eyes on him.

“If they come in here and see me alive again,” Yusuf said. He paused, looking at the pale skin between the armor and the blades. “You were one of them, weren’t you. And they did this to you. What would they do to me, if they found out?”

He still had no way of knowing if the man understood him. But he didn’t look away.

“I need to get out of here,” Yusuf said. “You could come with me. We could escape together.”

The man looked away. He made a soft groaning sound under his mask, some half-remembered pain coming to the surface. He pulled at the chain around his neck.

Yusuf inspected it. The collar was thick, solid metal all the way around, with hooks on either side for the poles they had used to control him and keep him at a distance. He wondered how they got those on the man without risking their own, far more fragile, lives. Did they kill him, like they had done to Yusuf? Or was he simply too tired to fight?

No, Yusuf could see the way the man’s eyes followed him. They were sad and pained, but there was a spark- he had to believe that his companion still had some fight left in him.

The other end of the chain was welded to the floor of the cage. It was short enough that the man couldn’t reach the door. But Yusuf could see a clasp attached to his collar. Of course. Why bother with a lock if you needed to be able to release the man before he woke up? It wasn’t as if he had hands to undo it himself.

Carefully, Yusuf moved towards the man. He backed away. Yusuf held up his hands in what he hoped was a pacifying gesture.

“I can get you out of those chains,” he said. “Would you like that?” There was no response. “I don’t know if you can understand me,” Yusuf said. “But I can’t leave you like this. I wouldn’t condemn an animal to be treated this way, much less a person.”

For the first time, the man looked away. But he leaned in, baring the back of his neck where the latch was.

Yusuf moved slowly so as not to startle the man. He brushed the long, matted hair out of his way. It took a moment for him to undo the latch, but when he did, when the chains were lowered to the ground, the man looked at him again, and nodded.

When the soldiers came back, the two of them killed them quickly and quietly. Yusuf marveled at how well they worked together, as if they had been destined for this. They stole two horses and set the others free. The man paused at the edge of the camp.

“We need to go,” Yusuf whispered.

The man dismounted his horse with some difficulty. He shouldered his way into the nearest tent. The occupant didn’t even have time to scream. Yusuf heard breaking glass, and looked around nervously, in case it was enough to wake any of the sleeping men, but no one stirred.

After a moment, he smelled smoke. He wasn’t sure how far the fire would spread, but his companion, when he exited the tent, might have looked pleased with himself under the mask. Yusuf helped him mount his horse again, and they killed the sentry before he could shout, and disappeared into the night.

Chapter Text

They rode through the night, and into the next morning. Finally, around midday, they came across an empty farm. It had clearly been abandoned with some haste, although there were no human corpses, Yusuf was relieved to see. They left their horses in the stables, and found the farmhouse. It had been looted, and the door kicked in, and there was no food, but there were walls and a roof.

The man looked around as if he wasn’t entirely sure what to do.

“Do you want me to take off your mask?” Yusuf asked.

The man’s head jerked backwards in surprise. But then he sat down on the floor, leaning his head forward to give Yusuf access.

Yusuf found a knife that had been left behind. He knelt besides the man, carefully cupping his hand behind the blade as he slipped it under one of the leather straps. He paused, half-expecting the man to attack him, but he didn’t move. With one quick slice, he cut through the strap, then severed the lower one too.

The man gasped when he pulled off the mask. The skin under the harsh metal was pallid and wrinkled, and clearly had not seen the sun in some time. He worked his jaw carefully, and Yusuf realized that the mask included a mouth piece that held his tongue down. It looked extremely painful.

Under the mask, there was no question that this man was human. His eyes were wide and staring, the color slow to return to his face, but he was human. And Yusuf recognized him.

“We’ve met before,” he said. The man turned his head to look at him, frowning. “Outside Jerusalem. We killed each other there- it was the first time, was it not? I have never forgotten your face.”

If the man understood him, he didn’t answer.

“What should I call you?” he asked.

The man wasn’t looking at him, was working his jaw still, but after a long moment, staring at the floor, he whispered “Nicolò.”

“Nicolò,” Yusuf said. The man shivered, as if the name had a physical impact on him.

“Please,” Nicolò said. He held up his arms, where they melted into blades. He didn’t have to say anything else.

Yusuf hesitated. “I don’t know how to do that without hurting you,” he said. We could wait until we get to the next town, I could buy some… opium, perhaps, something that would dull the pain.”

Nicolò shook his head, and gestured with his arms again.

“I don’t know if that would allow your hands to regrow,” Yusuf said. “I’ve never had an injury so severe. I don’t know that you would heal.”

“Please,” Nicolò repeated, and Yusuf’s resolve broke.

He didn’t like to think about the struggle to get the blades out from where the skin and bone had fused to them. He certainly couldn’t forget the noises Nicolò made. But later, after the bleeding stopped, when Nicolò lay down in the middle of the floor, not bothering to find a bed, exhausted from his ordeal, Yusuf quietly stepped out through the broken door and vomited.

He managed to get himself together and explore the rest of the farmhouse while Nicolò napped. There was a metal tub in one of the back rooms, and a well that still had water in it. One bag of grain was still in the cupboard, but it was rotten, and Yusuf threw it out. Maybe tomorrow he could build some traps and try to catch some dinner for them, but right now, the idea of food seemed spectacularly unappetizing.

By the time Nicolò woke up, his hands were mostly regrown. He had long fingers, and he flexed them like he didn’t quite remember how to use them.

“How long did they keep you like that?” Yusuf asked. Nicolò looked away and didn’t answer.

He was still clumsy and unsure, needing Yusuf’s help to take off his armor. He stank underneath it, and his flesh was softer then it should be. Yusuf was about to help him take off his shirt when he realized what he was doing. Nicolò didn’t try to stop him, but looked up when he backed away.

“There’s a tub in there,” he said, indicating the room. “I’ll get some water from the well, and you can use it to clean yourself off.”

Nicolò nodded obediently and went into the next room. He waited there, watching Yusuf with those pale eyes, as Yusuf brought the bucket to him. He didn’t say anything when Yusuf left, closing the door behind him, but Yusuf suspected he might not have said anything either way.

Yusuf found a trunk that was mostly empty, and put Nicolò’s armor and swords away. He would worry about washing them later. He found them clean clothes, which would be too tight on him and too short on Nicolò, but at least didn’t smell of blood and imprisonment.

Nicolò came out of the wash room slowly, eyes darting around the farmhouse looking for a threat. Yusuf instinctually raised his hands in a placating gesture.

“I left your armor and weapons in that trunk,” he said. “I found us some clothes.”

“Thank you.” It was hard to tell whether Nicolò’s voice was soft from disuse, or whether it was always like that, or whether he was still whispering. Still, he shed his bloody rags, not bothering to move them from where they dropped at his feet, and dressed in the clothes that Yusuf had found. As predicted, the trousers were far too short for him, making him look impossibly young, but there was a decent coat that he was able to wrap himself in.

He looked up. “You- will you not be cold?” He gestured at the coat.

Yusuf shrugged. “It’s warm enough here until nightfall, and I found some blankets. You looked like you might need it more than me, anyway.”

His companion seemed to consider it, but didn’t resist. Instead, after a moment, he asked “will you cut my hair?”

In all honesty, Yusuf had been eyeing it since they had arrived. Nicolò’s hair was long and impossibly matted, and it could not be comfortable, especially when it had been trapped under that mask for so long. He found a knife in one of the drawers, and gestured for Nicolò to sit down. He knelt behind him, taking the hair in his hands, and cut, letting it fall to the ground between them. It was almost meditative, and he could see the way that Nicolò relaxed a little more with every tangle that he cut through.

“After Jerusalem,” he said, combing his fingers through Nicolò’s hair, “I went back to my hometown. I didn’t know why I was still alive, how I had come back after I had been killed. I stayed with my mother for a while. She was the most amazing woman. She wrote poems that were talked about from towns over. My father was a more practical man, he was a merchant. He taught me math, although I never had the knack for it that he did.”

He kept talking while he worked through the rest of Nicolò’s hair. He told the other man about his family, about his brother, his memories of his hometown. He had just reached the part of the story where he left his home when he finished.

“All done,” he said. Without thinking, he ruffled Nicolò’s shorter hair.

Nicolò turned around and looked at him with wide eyes. Yusuf cleared his throat and stood up.

*

They didn’t stay for long at the farm. Both of them were looking over their shoulders for someone to come and drag them back. They traveled for months. If you had asked Yusuf, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you where they were going or why he was still traveling with the Frank, the man who should be his enemy. Nicolò did not ask.

When they encountered the women they had been dreaming about, it was an accident, and Yusuf almost missed it. He only noticed the woman in the market because she was so tall, almost as tall as Nicolò. It wasn’t until nearly an hour later that he realized he had seen that face in his dreams. He stopped.

The woman was gone.

When he stopped searching and returned to their camp, he heard voices. The two women turned to him without him giving any signal that he had arrived.

The shorter one broke out in a wide smile. “Brother,” she said, and she stepped forward and embraced him.

Yusuf returned the gesture, confused. “Who are you?” he asked, once she pulled away. “I’ve seen you in my dreams, how can that be?”

“We are like you,” said the tall woman. She was standing close to Nicolò, but his companion wasn’t flinching away from her like he did strangers.

They talked for hours, though the night until Yusuf was ready to collapse from exhaustion. They learned the names of the two women, Andromache and Quỳnh, and where they had come from. They had been in this state for centuries, undying, immortal. They knew the answers to every question Yusuf could think of and more.

The next morning, Nicolò shyly asked if they knew how long it would take his arms to heal.

Yusuf frowned. “Have they not healed?” he asked. He knew Nicolò well enough by now not to reach for him unannounced, but tried to inspect the other man’s forearms from where he was sitting.

Nicolò shrugged, not looking at any of them. “They still hurt from time to time,” he said quietly. “I can bear it.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” said Yusuf. “You should have told me. I do not like to see you suffer, my friend.”

“What was done to you?” asked Andromache.

Yusuf looked at Nicolò. Their eyes met, and Nicolò nodded. “He was taken by the Franks to be used as a weapon,” Yusuf said. “They removed his hands and replaced them with swords so that he could not escape, and could never put down his blades. After we met, we removed them, and his hands grew back, Alhamdulillah. He did not tell me they still pained him.”

The two women looked at each other.

“I have seen this before,” said Quỳnh. “In a sense. Those who have lost a limb sometimes still feel it, still feel the pain. It is as if their minds remember the way their bodies used to be, and feel the same sensations even if the physical form is gone. But none of us have ever had such an injury last long enough for that to be a problem.”

“None of us?” Yusuf asked. “There are more than just the two of you?”

Quỳnh looked away. Andromache answered for them both. “There used to be,” she said. “We had a third companion, Lykon. But he was killed in battle, many years ago, and did not wake.”

“I thought we could not die.”

“All things die,” Andromache said. “We never know which death might be the last. What would kill an ant would not kill a human, and what would kill a human would not kill us, until one day it does.”

Nicolò looked up. “Are we not human?” he asked. “What are we then?”

If the women noticed his anxiety, neither commented on it.

“This has been a long debate between Andromache and I,” Quỳnh said. “Long ago, she was worshiped as a goddess. And she has never quite forgotten it.”

“Not true,” interjected Andromache, but she was smiling.

“For myself,” said Quỳnh, “I believe we are human. Different, yes, but human.”

Nicolò didn’t respond. Yusuf wanted to reach out, to take those too-pale hands in his and to give this strange, wild, aching man some comfort. He wanted it with an intensity that startled even himself.

He left him be.

Chapter Text

They let Quỳnh guide them, going nowhere in particular, only far away from the Frankish armies. Nicolò had a tendency to bed down too close to Yusuf, in a way that made his breath come too quickly and his heart ache to reach out. It took all of his restraint to stay where he was. He pictured Nicolò in that cage, and when that didn’t damp his growing affection, he pictured him recoiling from Yusuf’s touch, disgusted, or worse, holding still, too afraid to pull away.

That was enough for Yusuf to hold back. Instead, he sparred with Andromache, he learned Quỳnh’s sly sense of humor, and he talked endlessly at Nicolò as the other man remembered how to speak.

The first time Yusuf heard him laugh, at something Quỳnh said when they were all gathered around the fire one night, he nearly jumped out of his skin, thinking the other man was choking. It was terrifying. It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. Andromache took one look at his face and broke down in laughter, which set Quỳnh off again, and before he knew it, all four of them were giggling like children.

When they stopped, Nicolò was smiling at him and him alone, and Yusuf felt a heat in his chest that had nothing to do with the fire.

A few weeks later, they stopped at a town by a river. The women had gone in alone since they knew the area and spoke the language, leaving Nicolò and Yusuf to tend to the horses. Yusuf was just in the middle of brushing his, humming slightly under his breath and paying no attention at all to his surroundings, when he sensed Nicolò standing close behind him.

He turned around, the question in his eyes. “Yusuf,” Nicolò said, and then he kissed him.

Yusuf returned the kiss without a thought. Nicolò’s mouth was warm against his, and his body was a firm, solid presence. Yusuf moved his hands, one of them against Nicolò’s back, the other cupping the back of his head, threading his fingers through his hair, and Nicolò moaned. It wasn’t until the other man’s hand touched his cheek, cold fingers against his skin, that Yusuf realized what was happening and jumped back.

Their eyes met. “Nicolò,” said Yusuf.

Nicolò looked at him, then at his own hands. He flexed his unfamiliar fingers, then looked up at Yusuf with wide eyes.

“I’m- sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have- presumed, I- sorry.”

“Nicolò, no!” Yusuf grabbed his wrist to stop him from turning away. Nicolò turned his hand reflexively, and Yusuf took the opportunity to lace their fingers together.

“You presumed nothing but the truth,” Yusuf said. “But I don’t want to hurt you. After everything you’ve been through, the last thing I would want to do is to hurt you.”

“Yusuf. Have you ever known me to be fragile?”

Yusuf nearly laughed at the thought. Nicolò, who could cut down half an army on his own, who could set fire to a camp full of his tormenters with nothing but cold calculation in his eyes, but who would share his meagre rations with a desperate prisoner, who laughed with their friends around the campfire. “Of course not,” he said. “But Nicolò, after everything you’ve been through- if I did anything to cause you harm, I could not tolerate it.”

“Then don’t hurt me,” Nicolò said. He took a step closer, but did not move to kiss Yusuf again. “You’ve killed me, what is it, twice? Three times? But one kiss from you is worth a dozen deaths.”

Yusuf was kissing him nearly before he finished speaking. Nicolò pulled him closer, bit his lip, and laughed when Yusuf whined.

*

Andromache laughed at him for almost an hour when she got back and saw the two of them together. Yusuf just grinned, letting them both tease him, leaning against Nicolò. Yusuf hesitated again that night, but Nicolò didn’t pause before moving closer. They slept pressed up against each other, neither quite holding the other, but with their backs against the other’s back, and it was the warmest Yusuf had felt in a long time.

Traveling with the others was easier in almost every way. Andromache and Quỳnh knew how to find work for their swords that would line their pockets, knew more stories than Yusuf could imagine gathering, even in his eternal lifetime. He loved listening to their voices by the fire at night, loved watching Quỳnh braid Andromache’s hair in the mornings (she threatened to do the same to Nicolò, whose hair was growing longer by the day, and he laughed), loved the wild whoops that Andromache let out as she raced ahead of them when the sun was high.

But his favorite part of the day was always the night, just before they bedded down, when Nicolò was tired but not yet ready to sleep, and rested his head against Yusuf’s shoulder, his breath light against Yusuf’s neck. Sometimes he would make a little happy noise, like a cat purring, and Yusuf could feel his chest vibrating with the sound.

Just when he was beginning to chafe at the lack of privacy that came with traveling in groups, Quỳnh suggested they split up.

“Just for a few months, of course,” she said, sipping her drink. “Andromache believes that she can climb a mountain faster than I can, which is nonsense of course. There’s a good one just to the east of here that I’d like to challenge her to. I’m afraid you two would only slow us down.”

After the past few months, Yusuf wasn’t going to argue with her on that. “Should we meet back here?”

“Let’s stay,” suggested Nicolò. “Find a place in town, and live life for a few months.”

Andromache grinned at them, and Yusuf was all too eager to agree.

They found a house where they could stay for a while. It was little more than a hut, really, but it was more than enough. The night after they said goodbye to their companions, Yusuf lit a candle, feeling oddly nervous. Nicolò was sitting at the wobbling table, smiling at him.

“We should-” Yusuf began, but was interrupted by Nicolò standing.

Today, Nicolò kissed with a purpose, with intention. His kiss was insistent, hard, and passionate. Yusuf thought this kiss might kill him. He decided he was okay with that.

When they pulled apart, Nicolò’s eyes were bright with desire. Yusuf swallowed.

“Nicolò,” he said.

Nicolò closed his eyes. “If you ask me if I’m sure I want this, Yusuf, I am going to drag you to the top of that mountain and bury you in the snow.”

Yusuf couldn’t help but laugh at that. “I don’t want to hurt you, is all,” he said. It had become a familiar refrain, and Nicolò rolled his eyes.

“Then don’t.” At first, he seemed like he might give up on the conversation and kiss Yusuf again, but instead he sat back down.

“Why do you think my companions had no hesitation in caging me as an animal?” Nicolò asked. “I was already unnatural in their eyes, even before I became undying. I left the priesthood because of this preference of mine. For men. The possibility of having my sins forgiven by coming to the Holy Land was too much to resist. Of course, after what they did… well, I don’t believe the same things, about sin, or about myself.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Yusuf. He tried to pretend that he hadn’t thought about it, hadn’t wondered if Nicolò had ever kissed someone before that day by the river. He thought about Nicolò, young and desperate and charging into a war he didn’t believe in for a chance at salvation, and instead finding himself more caged than ever before.

But now, in the candlelight, Nicolò was smiling at him. “The point is, you are not my first, although you are more special to me than anyone else I’ve ever met,” he said. “I want this. I want you.”

Yusuf kissed him.

They made their way to the bed. Nicolò was pressed even closer to him than he ever had been on the nights before. They undressed quickly, and Yusuf was already hard and wanting even before their clothes were off. Nicolò grinned at the sight.

“Let me touch you?”

Yusuf nodded. He felt a little silly at his own desperation, but Nicolò looked pleased as he put his hands on Yusuf’s chest. His hands were still soft, gentle against the thin hairs there, and he kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.

Feeling as though he had regained his footing a little bit, Yusuf broke the kiss just enough to press his mouth to Nicolò’s jaw, his teeth to the side of his neck. He reveled in the little gasps and noises he wrung out of the other man, his big hands flat against Yusuf’s back as his hips bucked.

“Please,” Nicolò gasped.

“Anything,” Yusuf promised. When no specific demands came, he continued mapping his route, down Nicolò’s broad chest, along his stomach, and down, down, down to where his legs spread and his cock was flushed and leaking.

He shouted when Yusuf licked at him, his hands going down to clasp at Yusuf’s hair. For a moment, Yusuf thought that Nicolò was going to push him down, but instead, those gentle fingers combed through his curls. Nicolò’s hands were warm against his scalp, and Yusuf couldn’t resist a pleased hum as he wrapped his lips around the head of Nicolò’s cock.

The sounds Nicolò was making as Yusuf sucked him were more than Yusuf had ever dreamed of. He wished he could catch them in a jar to open and relive whenever he needed. Of course, they would run out eventually, and he would need to return to the source to elicit more of those beautiful noises. He was fairly certain he could manage that. Any time Nicolò would have him, to be honest.

He moved his mouth off to lick at the underside of Nicolò’s cock, just to watch the other man squirm and feel his hands tighten in his hair. He could easily see himself getting lost between Nicolò’s strong thighs, spending his eternal life in this most intimate of places, learning every movement of his body, every curve of his form.

But Nicolò had other ideas. He released Yusuf’s hair to instead grasp at his shoulders and pull him up, covering Yusuf’s mouth in his own. He wrapped them both in his hand, his long fingers playing at sensitive spots, and he pressed their foreheads together and gasped open-mouthed and panting into their kiss when he finished. Yusuf was not far after him, especially not as Nicolò kept working his hand despite his own oversensitivity, whimpering softly against Yusuf’s mouth.

Nicolò was smiling when Yusuf opened his eyes. The bed had enough space to roll over and give each other room, but neither of them moved. Nicolò wrapped his arms around Yusuf’s shoulders, one hand playing with his hair, the other intertwined with Yusuf’s.

“I love you,” Nicolò murmured.

Yusuf didn’t want someone who loved him because he had rescued them, didn’t want to spend eternity with a partner who felt beholden to him. But the corners of Nicolò’s eyes crinkled as he smiled in contentment- so far from the horrible snarl that had been the only face of his anyone had seen for decades, and anyone who had ever seen Nicolò fight knew he was no swooning beauty in distress. He swallowed his objections and nestled his head closer against Nicolò’s chest, letting the other man’s gentle hands stroke over his back.

“I love you too,” he said.