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Key of Reason

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Before his first death, Nicolò had once measured his time in months and weeks. Now, forty years after the Siege of Jerusalem and his first death at a stranger's hands, Nicolò finds he measures time in years and decades. It has been forty years since the first time a sword cut into his belly, spilling his guts to the sand as he thrust a spear through the neck of the man before him.

It has been forty years since he gasped awake, whole and unblemished as the stranger across from him and only two since the last. Nicolò's stomach turns at the thought of Yusuf's shocked expression and it has been a constant companion. His heart still pounds at the thought of light leaving Yusuf's eyes even as Nicolò fled. He had died alone, still thinking of Yusuf's open and blank eyes.

Two years were spent wandering the outskirts of cities. Nicolò wandered in and out of church after church, as if it would allow him insight into a new home. Surrounded by stained glass and the reverence that Nicolò had once lived his life with until the Siege, Nicolò had prayed. He had listened and listened and the entire time his mind kept going back to the sob of air that could have been from amusement or grief that Yusuf had let out. He doesn't even remember what happened that he had taken Yusuf's life then. Nicolò tries to find home in the nave of a church that seems like the one he had once lived for. Instead, Nicolò finds he wishes for something (someone) else.

Nicolò misses the sound of Yusuf's voice, curling over Nicolò's language. The sound of his laugh as he tried to instruct Nicolò. He misses the arguments they had, both good-natured and not. He wishes he could go back and show his younger self all the things he has learned in nearly half a century. Instead, he has to hope that Yusuf will, one day, accept his apology.

He's sitting at his weak campfire, outside of some city that he's already forgotten the name of when he hears the soft steps of someone nearby. Nicolò doesn't acknowledge the steps, gently wrapping his hand around the hilt of the knife that's tucked into his boot.

It's a simple movement, pulling it out as he stands and surprise shoots through him as he slashes quickly, seeing Yusuf and barely pulling the slash. It rips at the fabric of Yusuf's tunic. It's been two years and his heart lurches painfully before Yusuf bares his teeth and goes on the attack.

Their fight is quick, both Nicolò and Yusuf disarming the other before they grapple. Yusuf swings wildly and Nicolò ducks under, hammering a few quick hits to Yusuf's ribcage, hearing his breath driven out of him. Nicolò opens his mouth to speak just as Yusuf slams his forehead into Nicolò's.

Nicolò curses, stepping back as blood pours over his mouth and front as Yusuf pushes at him, shaking his head.

"First, your fire is terrible. I always told you, don't smother it," Yusuf says in Genoese, as if he were a native speaker. He swings his pack off of his body, sitting beside it and looking over the fire. He shakes his head as he peers over at Nicolò. Nicolò uses the hem of his shirt to wipe at his face as Yusuf frowns.

"Your hygiene is still terrible, I see."

"If it is that much of a problem, you could always leave," Nicolò says in Yusuf's language, for the pleasure of watching surprise flit across his face.

"You have done some learning since our last meeting!" Yusuf says, beaming. He does something to the fire, grimacing as he reaches in to adjust the branches there. Nicolò watches him redistribute the kindling, hissing as his hands burn and heal and burn again. Within moments the fire blazes warmly, lighting Yusuf's soft eyes and the cheekbones that, not for the first time, Nicolò thinks about pressing his fingers to.

"I figured I would need to apologize," Nicolò says, watching Yusuf's hands heal. Yusuf looks over to him, reaching into his pack and pulling out a covered container. Nicolò is aware that the silence is waiting on him and he clears his throat, looking over to Yusuf.

"I am sorry for our last meeting," Nicolò says softly, voice nearly hidden under the crackling of the fire. His grasp on the Arabic that flows so easily from Yusuf's lips is better than it was when Nicolò started to learn, but he winces internally at his mistakes. It feels important for him to use Yusuf's language to apologize though. "I was wrong to say those things, Yusuf. You did not deserve my anger at my life from before."

Yusuf stares at him, eyes intense as Nicolò pushes his hands through his hair. They regard each other as Yusuf slowly pulls himself up. Nicolò watches him walk to the other side of the fire until Yusuf can lower himself to sit beside Nicolò.

"You were. And I did not," Yusuf says peacefully. He opens the small woven container and Nicolò's mouth waters as the scent of dried dates washes over him. Yusuf holds the container out to Nicolò, a smile teasing over his face. Nicolò finds himself captivated at the way that Yusuf's eyes crinkle at the corners.

"I will not hold it against you, so long as you have learned differently," Yusuf says as Nicolò bites into the date. It is rich and reminds him of years earlier, traveling with Yusuf and sharing a meal of dates and dried meat. A meager meal made filling by the gentle companionship and Nicolò has thought of it often in the years since.

It had been like this, the sun setting as they shared food and sat in companionable silence. Nicolò isn't sure how long ago it was, maybe a lifetime, but he remembers the quiet prayer he had allowed himself that he wouldn't lose the man at his side.

"I have tried," Nicolò says. He takes another date when Yusuf offers, fingertips drifting against Yusuf's with a shock. Nicolò's heart stutters, like it did the first time Yusuf had laughed. His face heats and he looks down at the date in his hand, "Do you know, I went home? I went home, went back to a church that is no longer mine and all I could see were the ways I did not fit any longer."

"Perhaps you do not fit that particular church," Yusuf says, placing the dates between them as he leans over and drags his pack over. He props on it, reclining with the light of the fire limning him gold. Nicolò reaches for his own pack, sharing his own rations.

"I have visited many churches," Nicolò says, looking up at the sprawl of night sky above him. The moon is a thin sliver, the light not enough to reach him and he finds that it is difficult to speak. "My grief is no excuse for how I treated you. Perhaps that is why I have not felt at home in those places."

Yusuf sits up, leaning closer. Nicolò inhales sharply, sharing space with Yusuf suddenly feels more intense than before. Yusuf reaches for the skin of water nearby, Nicolò's heart pounding.

"Perhaps they are no longer your home, Nicolò," Yusuf says as Nicolò ducks his head. Nicolò feels the truth of no longer finding his home in the nave of a church or in the echo of the hymns. Home is, it seems, sharing a meal in the light of a fire with Yusuf, the night sky stretching above them. They share the rest of the dates and rations, gentle conversation drifting between them in a myriad of languages.

He goes to sleep with the gentle sound of Yusuf sketching by the fire, his soft humming lulling Nicolò to sleep.

---

Nicolò waits until the morning, when Yusuf has changed, walking off for solitude for his morning prayers. He can just see him in the distance and Nicolò pulls Yusuf's tunic to him. He mends the rip with careful stitches, weaving the needle through the thread to darn the cloth together.

It is soothing, working the thread just right so that it will sit on Yusuf's tunic and his body as an apology. He uses the time to pray for understanding. If he's meant to walk the Earth at Yusuf's side, then at Yusuf's side he will stay, he decides as he makes the last mending stitch.

Nicolò prays and asks for guidance as he registers footsteps. He looks up and sees Yusuf's kind eyes crinkling with a smile. It is a sight that steals Nicolò's breath, one he can't help but return.

"You fixed my tunic. Thank you," Yusuf says, smiling as he lowers himself to the ground at his pack. Nicolò huffs softly, folding the cloth tenderly and gently. He smooths his hands over the shoulders and imagines that one day, maybe he will be able to do the same to Yusuf.

"I am the one who ripped it. I figured I should make it right," Nicolò says sensibly as Yusuf watches his hands. They brush fingertips when Nicolò hands it over. Yusuf smiles at him slowly and Nicolò is not sure he has ever felt anything like this. He doesn't know if he ever will again.

He does know, however, that the smile on Yusuf's face is as welcome as the rising sun and, for a moment, Nicolò allows himself to hope.