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Anyone Who Wants to Try

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Yusuf can see Nicolo shivering. He's curled almost dangerously close to the remains of their fire, snubbed out to just embers, with his back turned towards Yusuf. Every so often a soft tremor shakes down his body, and after watching for a few minutes, Yusuf sighs. 

"Nicolo, do you want to sleep over here?" he asks, voice little more than a murmur. 

Nicolo hunches into a tighter ball and shakes his head. Yusuf sighs again, silently praying for sanity. 

"Nicolo. You're going to freeze to death again. Don't be stubborn."

Nicolo's shoulders shake again. "I'm not cold," he says, voice thick, and something twists in Yusuf's stomach at the sound. 

"Are you crying?"

"No," Nicolo says, but the crack in his voice betrays him. Yusuf's annoyance melts into sympathy. 

"It's okay," he says softly. "I won't judge."

"I'm not crying," Nicolo snaps, then sniffles. "I'm f-fine."

"Nicolo. Come here. If nothing else, I know you're cold. I'm warm."

Nicolo hesitates for a few moments more, then lets out a loud, put-upon sigh and scuttles closer, keeping his back to Yusuf as he tucks his tiny form against Yusuf's chest. 

"You feel like ice," Yusuf scolds, wrapping his arms around Nicolo. "Could you try not to die of sheer stubbornness?"

"I'm fine," Nicolo mumbles again, and Yusuf feels immediately guilty. Nicolo is young still. Yusuf remembers being his age. 

"It's okay," he says gently. "You're allowed to–"

"It's almost Christmas," Nicolo blurts out, and Yusuf blinks. 

"Christmas?"

"It's a holy day," Nicolo says. "You go to church and there's a story, about Jesus and angels and shepherds. That part's okay. But afterwards they have a dinner, and we all spend time together, and my mother doesn't even work. We get to eat with her." He's silent for a long moment, then whispers, "I miss her."

"She works?" Yusuf asks. "You mentioned younger siblings, no? Who watches them?"

"Me, when I was younger," Nicolo says. "My sister does now, ever since she was old enough to do it so I could find work. I'm the oldest," he adds, a touch of pride in his still-shaky voice. "I help out."

"And I'm sure you do a wonderful job," Yusuf says, smiling where Nicolo can't see him. "What fine work does your family do?"

Nicolo goes stiff in his arms. Yusuf isn't sure what he's said wrong, until Nicolo says, slowly, "My mother doesn't have any family. And she was... young. When I was born. I didn't, um. I don't know my father."

"Ah," Yusuf says, tucking him closer and grimacing at his misstep. "I'm sorry."

Nicolo shrugs. "He was a bastard, I'm sure. Any man that would leave her must be; she's the best woman alive. A saint."

"To raise a hellion like you, she must be," Yusuf says, then grunts when Nicolo reaches back to jab him in the side with one pointy elbow. Nicolo subsides a moment later, mulling over his words before he speaks again. 

"It's not proud work," he says hesitantly. "What my mother does. But she was alone when she had me, and my siblings, and so does what she has to, to keep us fed. We never go hungry. Especially not the little ones."

Judging by the way Nicolo can eat his body weight and still want more, Yusuf doubts he's never gone hungry. Judging by the way he's seen Nicolo give away his last scrap of food to strangers if they need it, Yusuf is sure his "little ones" truly are well fed. 

He doesn't ask what the work is that isn't proud. He doesn't need to know, even if he could guess. He also, despite the sudden tension in his own shoulders, does not ask if Nicolo was in the same line of business. 

"How many are there?" he asks instead. "Your siblings, I mean."

"Five of us," Nicolo says. "Two brothers and two sisters, after me." He swallows hard enough that Yusuf can hear it, and his shoulders shake on another sob. "My brother is eight today. We always celebrate together, because the days are so close."

Yusuf frowns into the dark. "How close? When do you turn... sixteen?"

"Seventeen," Nicolo corrects. "Tomorrow."

"Nicolo!" Yusuf says, jostling him a little. "You should have told me! I would have gotten you something."

Nicolo sniffs again and pushes back against Yusuf like he's trying to burrow into his chest. "It doesn't matter. It's not really going to be my birthday, anyway, is it? I'm not getting any older. And my family's not here, so it's not even worth celebrating by myself. It's no fun without them."

Yusuf doesn't let himself feel hurt by Nicolo claiming to be by himself. He's a young man, barely more than a boy, facing something that's left Yusuf himself trembling in desperate terror more than once. They don't know what this is, either of them, and they're half a world away from their families.  For Nicolo, sixteen for a few more hours, that distance must ache. 

"They must think I'm dead," Nicolo says softly. "Or that I ran away. No one would have found my body. I hope they think I only died. I don't want them to be ashamed of me."

"I don't think they would be, no matter what they were told," Yusuf says. "You're a good man. I'm sure you did them proud."

"My mother didn't want me to go." Nicolo's voice is so faint that, even as close as they are, Yusuf still has to strain to hear him. "But they pay you to join the army, and I thought maybe if I gave her the coin, and it was one less mouth to feed, maybe she wouldn't have to... work so hard."

"That was brave of you," Yusuf chokes out. He's ashamed of himself, suddenly, for his foolish assumptions. He'd thought that Nicolo had joined up with the army with a boyish idea of war as an exciting adventure, but Nicolo is wise beyond his years already—and Yusuf is beginning to catch a glimpse of why that is. He should have known better than to think Nicolo would have gone to war on little more than a whim. 

"Not really," Nicolo mutters, ducking his head. "I didn't tell her. We fought about it, and I said I wouldn't do it, but then I did anyways. I just left the money and a note and snuck off. I didn't..." His voice wavers. "I didn't say goodbye. Not to any of them. And now I don't get to."

They hadn't discussed it, the decision to stay away from their families. By tacit agreement, they had simply turned north and started walking. Yusuf wonders now if Nicolo had truly agreed with that choice, or if he had simply followed Yusuf so as not to be alone with this curse of eternity. It's only them and, if they're right, the women in their dreams, whoever and wherever they may be. 

"Do you..." He hesitates. "Do you want to go back to Genoa? To see them?"

Nicolo shrugs tightly. "Why? Let them think me dead. It's easier, isn't it? I wouldn't know how to explain this. They would be scared of it, I think. Of... maybe of me, too. Or the priests would think me some sort of demon, and probably the rest of my family. I don't know. I wouldn't want my mother to be blamed for the way I am. She gets enough trouble."

"Oh, Nicolo," Yusuf says softly, hugging him tighter. Nicolo sniffles again, then chokes back another sob. He's so young, Yusuf thinks again. Young, and almost entirely alone in the world. Yusuf is the only one who can come close to understanding him, and even he still understands so little of the contradictions and controversies inside Nicolo's heart. 

"You're a good man, you know that?" he asks, shifting slightly so he can hook his chin over the top of Nicolo's head, curling around him a little more to spread some of his own body heat. Nicolo is finally starting to feel a little less like a block of ice, thank god, and the shivers and sobs have slowed down. "What say tomorrow we go to the market? We'll get honey cakes for breakfast."

"That's too expensive," Nicolo protests. "There's no need. Bread is fine."

"It's a special occasion," Yusuf says firmly. "You're seventeen. Besides, you forget I know how to haggle. I'll get them for cheap."

Nicolo snorts. "Forget haggling, you know how to flirt. Bat your pretty eyes at the baker and he'll hand them over for free." Before Yusuf has a chance to respond—or even think of a response—Nicolo asks, suddenly shy, "Can we really?"

"Of course we can," Yusuf promises. "I only wish you'd told me sooner; I would have gotten you a proper gift."

"Honey cakes sound proper enough." He sounds drowsy now, sleep finally catching up with him. "Thank you. It's more than you have to."

"I want to," Yusuf assures him. "We'll eat our breakfast together before we head to our work. Are they treating you well at the shipyard?"

"Mhm," Nicolo hums. "Well enough. They still won't let me do any sort of real labor, but playing errand boy isn't so bad. Genoa's a port city, but I never got to spend any time by the..." He stops to yawn, then continues sleepily, "By the docks. The master's oldest daughter offered to teach me how to swim if we're still here when it gets warmer. She's my age, she's nice. I think I'll take her up on it. So I won't... so I..." He lets out another jaw-cracking yawn as he mumbles, "so I won't drown again. That was awful."

Yusuf grimaces at the memory of tugging Nicolo's body out of a river a few months earlier after an unexpected current had snatched him downstream, but he can't help but grin a moment later at the thought of Nicolo's young teacher. 

"I think she might have a different sort of lesson in mind," he teases. Nicolo snorts. 

"She's welcome to try," he mumbles, barely intelligible. 

Yusuf rolls that around in his mind for a moment, then shakes his head, still grinning. "Sleep well," he says. Nicky only hums in response, wiggles into a more comfortable position, and starts snoring almost immediately. 

Yusuf lets himself relax, matching his breaths to Nicolo's, and carefully does not think about Nicolo's disinterest in a young woman's advances or the fact that he apparently thinks Yusuf's eyes are pretty. 

Instead, he thinks about honey cakes, and whether he can stretch his funds enough to afford to buy Nicolo a new, warmer cloak for his birthday.