It’s dark and cold, and Nicolo seriously considers ignoring Yusuf and pretending he’s already asleep. He’s tired and it’s been a long day. Every day is long, but today has been one of those days that just never seems to end. And it doesn’t help that their rations ran out yesterday morning and neither of them have eaten since. So they’re understandably a little bit on edge.
But Nicolo prides himself on his heart, and Yusuf sounds so distressed that he can’t bring himself to let the other man suffer alone.
“What do you mean?” he asks softly, rolling over so that he’s face to face with Yusuf.
Yusuf looks even more tired than Nicolo feels. His eyes are hooded and shot with blood. His skin is almost grey and he’s trembling from what Nicolo is sure is more than just the cold. He’s chewing on his thumbnail and looks more unsure than Nicolo has ever seen him. And worst of all, he won’t meet Nicolo’s eyes.
He’s never been afraid to look at Nicolo, even when they considered each other mortal enemies.
“I…” Yusuf hesitates. “Why us? I fought alongside more men than I knew the names of. Men who were braver than I ever was. Men who saved lives more than they took them. Men who died at my side. And yet…I was the only one to come back. Why? Why me? Why not one of them?”
They’ve talked about this before, more times than either of them can count - in the very early days, it was their go-to topic of conversation. But it was always general, always discussed like they were curious and wondering about the ways of the world. Yusuf has never sounded angry about it before. Or guilty.
Nicolo finds himself unconsciously mimicking Yusuf’s nervous gesture as he bites down on his thumb. He can’t stand seeing Yusuf like this, it makes him…sick for some reason he can’t quite figure out. The same reason he can’t help but smile when Yusuf does, and why he gets so angry he could destroy the world when someone dares try to hurt his companion.
He shouldn’t feel this way. And yet, he does.
“I…I do not know. I fought with men like that too. Saw men die saving their brothers. And they stayed dead when they deserved so many many more chances. It…is unfair, no?” he says with a sigh and can’t help but stare at the weapon he sleeps next to every night. The weapon that has taken hundreds of lives because he deemed himself better than his enemy, because he decided that he deserved to live more than them.
Yusuf scrubs at his eyes with trembling fingers. Nicolo sees a glimmer of wetness on his cheek for a second but it’s gone a second later. He reaches out and places a hand on Yusuf’s bicep, his fingers barely brushing the other man’s skin.
“It’s cruel,” Yusuf whispers.
“It is,” Nicolo agrees. “But you are wrong, you know. You think that you do not deserve to be like this but you are wrong. Think of how much compassion it takes to sleep next to an enemy. To save their lives. To offer them half your meal because you do not want them to starve. You saw a man who killed your brothers and you fought to avenge them. You tried over and over to kill him and when that didn’t work, you saw him as a man and you treated him as one. It takes…courage and kindness to do this, and you show every day that you deserve this life. And think, you have saved hundreds of lives by now. You have helped people. That is why you deserve this, so you can save even more.”
This time, Yusuf doesn’t wipe the wetness from his cheeks. He reaches out and places a hand on Nicolo’s cheek, and offers him a watery smile. “You are too kind. If you think that I am kind, then I must find a new word to describe you,” he whispers.
Nicolo snorts softly. “I do not understand why we were chosen to live this life. But for what it is worth, I am glad that you are the one I get to live it with,” he says. His stomach flutters and his chest aches, and he has the sudden urge to lean in and press his lips to Yusuf’s. But that is not something they do.
But, if Yusuf sleeps a little closer that night and Nicolo wakes up wrapped in his arms, neither of them will complain.