Nicoló stared into the flames, mind distant. He tried not to think about the blood on his shirt. His blood. It was still tacky against his skin; they’d run into the band of mercenaries after sunset and things dried much slower in the cold night air than they did under the sun. Every time the wind blew the fabric against his skin he shivered, his mind involuntarily reliving the feeling of steel slicing through his throat, of bleeding out and waking back up. He shivered and closed his eyes, waiting for the memory to pass.
Nicoló opened his eyes and looked at his companion. Yusuf. His enemy. The sentence was nonsense to Nicoló, but the small gesture towards the meat cooking over the flames got the message across well enough. He shook his head. “Not hungry.” He didn’t know why he bothered saying anything; it wasn’t like the other man could understand him.
He looked back at the fire. How had it even come to this? How had this happened? What sort of devilry kept them from dying? Well, he supposed that wasn’t quite accurate. They did die. Painfully. Horrifically. But they didn’t stay dead. No matter how terrible their wounds were, they simply woke up after, like their souls were somehow bound to this earth permanently, unable to leave. Or perhaps he had died and this was Hell. Eternal, unending death with no possiblity of release, his only companion a heretic and enemy. That sounded like Hell, and it certainly felt like it.
He took a deep breath, the memory of earlier playing yet again in his mind. There had still been blood in his throat when he’d awoken, nearly choking him. When he’d opened his eyes, the first thing he had seen was the look of horror on the face of the man who had killed him, like he was staring at a monster. Maybe he had been. He certainly couldn’t be called a man anymore, so what else was there to call him besides a monster? Had he truly sinned so greatly that he deserved this punishment? He had tried to serve God as righteously as he could his entire life. Had he failed so badly that he had been abandoned?
The flames blurred in front of him and he drew his knees up. The movement seemed to draw Yusuf’s attention. “Nicoló?” Nicoló could hear the distrust and slight confusion in his voice, Yusuf’s accent bending the sounds of his name oddly. “Hal inta tayyib?”
He closed his eyes again, trying to shove down the emotions that were building inside him. An eternity of this loomed heavily in his mind. An eternity of fear and horror written across the faces of every man he came across. Of gruesome deaths and painful awakenings and terrible, aching loneliness between them. He took a shuddering breath, desperately trying to keep the sob that was welling up in his chest from escaping.
“Nicoló?” He heard Yusuf move, and a moment later the sand beside him shifted. His voice was quieter now, twinged with concern rather than distrust. Nicoló tried to tell him he was fine but no words came out, just a small sob despite his best efforts to contain it. After a moment he felt a hand against his face, hesitant, tilting his chin up gently. “Nicoló, bitshuf ili.”
Nicoló opened his eyes, caught off guard by the contact. He began to pull away but stopped, surprised by Yusuf’s expression. There was concern in his expression, matching his voice, but there was something else too. A tightness around his mouth, in his eyes, that felt achingly familiar. Nicoló tried to blink back the tears in his eyes, but only succeeded in making them spill over and down his cheeks. “I am afraid, Yusuf.” The words were out of his mouth before he’d realized what he was saying, his voice quiet and trembling. He knew the other man couldn’t understand him and even if he could there was no reason for him to care, but the words came out nonetheless. “I do not understand what is happening o-or why it is happening, and I am frightened. I am so frightened, Yusuf, and I…I cannot face an eternity of this.”
Yusuf watched him for a moment before nodding slowly, seeming to understand . “Khaif. Inta khaif.” His expression softened, mirroring the pain and fear and confusion that was swirling in Nicoló’s chest, and he ran his thumb across Nicoló’s cheek, wiping the tears away carefully. “Ana khaif kaman.”
Nicoló stared at him. Yusuf’s words were foreign to his ears, but their meaning was easy to grasp. He was afraid too. He understood the terror and uncertainty. He thought back to the times he had seen Yusuf die in their short time together, sometimes by his hand, sometimes by the hands of others. He was Nicoló’s enemy. A heretic. A man he had been trained to kill, whom he had killed, time after time after time. And he understood. He was just as scared and frightened, and he understood. The realization broke down the last of his restraint and he leaned in, resting his head against Yusuf’s shoulder and gripping his shirt as tears continued to spill over. Yusuf wrapped his arms around him and Nicoló could feel him shaking slightly. He buried his face against Nicoló’s neck and before long Nicoló could feel the damp of his tears on his own skin.
Nicoló stayed there, leaning against Yusuf, even after his tears had stopped, and Yusuf seemed content to stay in that position as well. He stayed where he was even as the light of the fire slowly began to fade and the chill of night started to creep in. The fear of the lonely eternity ahead of him didn’t go away entirely but it was lessened by the warmth of Yusuf’s arms around him, and that wasn’t something he wanted to give up at the moment. Part of him feared that he would simply crumble without it.
“Rah nakun tayyib, Nicoló.” Yusuf’s voice was soft, muffled against Nicoló’s neck. “Ma barif kaif, bas rah nakun tayyib.”
Nicoló nodded, finding comfort in Yusuf’s words even though he couldn’t understand them. Maybe he was alone. But so was Yusuf, and there was some small comfort in knowing that perhaps, in the face of eternity, they could be alone together.