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breathe out the world

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Nicolò breathes out with a shiver, chest heavy against the rising dawn beyond his eyelids.

 

He can still feel the blood on his neck from where one of the bandits had gotten a lucky strike days prior. Two days, and he and his companion had yet to see any water other than the half-filled skins their ambushers had held. It would have been foolish to waste it on cleanliness as Yusuf has taken to doing. Part of him wishes he had spared a few drops for the comfort of it all the same.

 

Another breath, pulling tight against his ribs, fingers pressed to the earth and curling against the dirt to try and ignore the way his skin itches, the way each breath feels stolen from every person who has died by his sword.

 

The taste of iron never leaves his lips now, and he cannot tell if that is damnation apparent or the price of divinity. Nicolò had read the scriptures, gentled children through their teachings and murmured praises in the dark, sure of his conviction in a way that he had never been sure of anything in his life. There is no surety in him any longer, not when the night now holds the faces of children held in the arms of their mothers, wrapped in torn cloth, eyes blank in the wake of the Crusaders who were supposed to bring salvation to the Holy Land and instead brought only fire and wrath.

 

Perhaps he deserves the damnation for not seeing sooner the reality of the words of men wrapped in the face of his God.

 

The world feels heavy.

 

It's been his first thought upon waking since the morning he and Yusuf had left the fight, bone-weary of spilling blood and gasping back to wakefulness among the corpses of their fallen brothers. This morning it feels different. He blinks, squinting against the haze of the morning sky, the clouds that bloom pastel overhead in the morning chill. A breath, heaviness against his chest, and Nicolò looks down to find a familiar brown cloak layered over his own.

 

Huh.

 

Eyes still hooded, Nicolò lets his head fall to the side, searching across the rest of the small clearing they'd set up in the night prior to find Yusuf sitting upon his knees. His eyes are closed, palms upturned before him as he's silhouetted by the rising sun, lips giving form to soundless prayer. Bending forward, he presses his forehead to the dirt, and Nicolò curls his fingers into the edge of Yusuf's cloak as he sits up, unable to look away. For weeks, he has watched Yusuf go through the motions of his daily prayers. They're careful, practiced, light in a way that he can no longer seem to find in his own rote recitation of the Word of God. They're beautiful, and familiar enough that Nicolò knows that the sight of Yusuf sitting back up and quickly wiping displaced dirt from his head is wrong.

 

Yusuf usually prays atop his cloak.

 

His fingers stay curled tightly against the fabric as he watches Yusuf complete his prayer and stand, brushing dirt from his pants and hands and busying himself with tidying up what little he can of their makeshift camp. He doesn't seem to notice that Nicolò is awake until he stands and crosses toward him, hesitating for a moment before holding out his own grey cloak to Yusuf in silence.

 

Behind his teeth, he tastes the iron again, damnation, damnation on his tongue, but he knows that it's because he's bitten his own lip too hard. Yusuf stares, curious eyes darting between the two cloaks and then back to try to match steadily with his again, but Nicolò can only stare at the smudge of dirt between the other man's brows. Fingers brush over his and pull the grey cloak free. With his hand empty, Nicolò tugs the cuff of his tunic between his fingers and raises it briefly to wet the fabric against his tongue before reaching toward Yusuf's forehead to wipe the dirt from his skin. There's little doubt in Nicolò's mind that he'll never be able to read this man, that he will spend a hundred years, a thousand trying to learn the quirk of his lips and never know the true meaning of the soft grin he levels him with when he pulls his hand away. He'll probably spend longer than that trying to deserve the little kindnesses he's been offered when he does not deserve them: the last of the dried fruit, a relieved sigh when he wakes gasping from a wound to the chest, a second cloak on a cold morning. He will spend his life trying to be a worthy companion to the man who offered him his hand instead of his sword after so many days of righteous anger and he will never come close to being enough.

 

Nicolò breathes in with a shiver, chest heavy with the weight of Yusuf's gaze as he reaches out a hand to wipe at the long-dried blood that itches at the nape of Nicolò's neck. When he exhales, the world feels lighter than it has in days.