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...And Many Happy Returns

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You still ask me about the day of my birth

So write down what you don’t know

The day you declared your love

Is the day of my birth.

 

~ Nizar Qabbani, from the Book of Love - Untitled #2

 

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During their millennium or so of life (and deaths), Joe and Nicky had claimed an innumerable number of birthdates - on falsified passports, driver’s licenses, land titles, student IDs, and whatever other documentation they had needed at the time. It had usually been up to Booker to come up with the details, and depending on how many drinks he had in him at the time he would either pick random days and months or cheekily align the dates to whatever their mission du jour happened to be. (Sebastien had thought himself particularly clever in their Civil War enlistment records, giving Nicholas and Joseph the same birthdays as Lee and Grant.)

Nicky and Joe were never particularly concerned about what their forged papers said, beyond having to memorize the biographical details about whatever their current assumed identity was. For the vast majority of their lives they had never actually known their ‘real’ dates of birth anyway. 

 

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Yusuf had been born in the colder months, immediately after a new year. His mother had always said that he made the cold season feel warmer with his smile and good nature. 

It was only three or so years later, after midsummer, that a long, thin slash suddenly appeared across his chest, stretching diagonally from his rib cage to his hip. Its pale sea green at first seemed to be a shadow or stain beneath the thin white tunic he had been wearing, and his mother had been ready to scold him for dirtying a perfectly clean piece of clothing (a common refrain, for Yusuf had been a mischievous child). As she examined him more closely however and saw the soulmark, her words of rebuke quickly turned to exclamations of joy.

The family quickly threw together a celebratory feast that evening, toasting the entrance of Yusuf’s soulmate into the world (wherever they were). Curious ideas were bandied about as to what the odd shape meant - it was not anything immediately identifiable, like the marks of some others - but no conclusion could be reached. Yusuf himself had been too young to fully comprehend the momentous occasion, but as the years passed he looked forward to that one day every summer when the colour of the sea would splash across his body, before ebbing away the next day like the tide.

 

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Across the sea, one summer's day Nicolò entered the world after a difficult labour. Luckily for his mother he then turned out to be a calm and quiet child.

She almost did not notice, mere months later and shortly after the new year, when a curve of gold appeared on her child’s neck one day. Nicolò had been swaddled tightly, and only when pressed against her chest and he began to fuss that evening did his head turn to reveal the mark, the pale colour just barely visible against his fair skin. His mother smiled softly and traced that splash of sunshine with her fingers, wondering as to the clue it was meant to impart; it was not a distinguishable object like her other children had, but rather an abstract swath.

It was not until years later that it was explained to him. The initial childlike fascination with the mark slowly diminished over the years, replaced with existential worries about what it could mean for his place within his family and his faith. Nicolò grew into a serious man, who was not vain and had little use for mirrors and lustrous objects. However, the ringing in of every new year always served as a reminder of the passage of time, and despite attempts to avoid temptation, on that one day each year his eyes would inevitably find a reflective surface to see the warm colours stretch across his throat like the rays of the sun. 

 

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It was three decades later that the precise shape and placement of their marks would make sense, though that too took some time to become clear. In the heat of battle, already covered with blood and gore, Nicolò and Yusuf were too intent on trying to defeat the other to pay attention to exactly where their blades fatally struck the other. Both would blame the fact that their minds were overwhelmed with having been felled only to rise again, and again and again and again, to remember that Yusuf’s scimitar had cut Nicolò’s throat to bring on his first death, just as Nicolò’s longsword had raked across Yusuf’s torso.

It was Nicolò’s birthday that arrived first, weeks after the Siege of Jerusalem. The day found the tentative travel companions traipsing across the desert, unaware of the date or the soulmark making its brief appearance back on Yusuf’s body. There were no rivers or oases encountered that day to break and bathe in, and thus no need for Yusuf to shuck his armour. Had there been, there still would have been no guarantee that the two would put the pieces together; at that point Nicolò’s eyes, while drawn to Yusuf’s body, would flash quickly away whenever Yusuf would glance back. Considering how Yusuf’s own gaze was spending altogether too much time focused on Nicolò, this resulted in an awkward period where the pair could barely look at each other despite that being all they actually wanted to do. 

Months later, camped out under the stars, they had moved beyond that awkwardness. Hastily averted glances had blossomed to heated stares; accidental contact had grown to purposeful touches. Still an unspoken impediment stood in their way, one they were both hesitant to address - partly due to the difficulty in expressing such heady matters in their cobbled together common tongue, but mostly due to the fear within both of them that they might not have actually been meant for each other.

Neither man had been aware of the approaching new year, having lost track of dates weeks ago. It was only when, waking with the dawn one morning, that Yusuf noticed the colours on his companion’s neck. At first he thought it an errant sunbeam - but Nicolò shifted slightly and the colours moved with him, stretching as he did, and Yusuf sat up with a jolt and grabbed his scimitar. 

His movement, however quiet, prompted the other man to rouse. It was a testament to whatever had grown between the two of them that finding Yusuf suddenly straddling him, with his blade to his neck, did not shock Nicolò enough to immediately reach for his own sword. Perhaps it was the look of wonder, rather than rage, in Yusuf’s eyes as he gazed down upon him that only prompted him to ask, “Yusuf? What is it?”

Yusuf could only laugh in relief as he gently, oh so gently, pressed the curve of his scimitar against Nicolò’s throat - its edge an exact match to the golden slash painted there. “It is a perfect fit,” he murmured reverently. 

For his part, despite having just been awoken in a startling manner and despite the past few hard years not providing the opportunity for him to gaze upon his own mark for some time, Nicolò was fairly quick to catch on. Raising one hand to his own throat, he raised the other to Yusuf’s - tracing the shape of his own mark there from memory. “It is the day of your birth, then?” he asked, though it did not come across as a true question.

“So it would appear,” Yusuf grinned, leaning his head down closer. A twinkle came to his eyes. “Yours is in the summer, no? Shall this wait until then, if you would like to be certain?”

With the smallest quirk of his lips, Nicolò tilted his chin up. His Adam's apple bobbed, pressing up tighter against the blade still carefully held there. “I think we are both certain enough now.”

The blade was quickly discarded, along with everything else between them. They put off their planned travel for that day, Yusuf having decided it was much better spent committing the soulmark to his memory, through touch and taste and kisses and caresses. 

Months later, with summer upon them, Yusuf paid more attention to his body than usual. Finally, when the day came, he was thankful they were not in a village or amongst a caravan with others around them for he could barely contain himself as he ripped off his cloak and tunic.

“Nicolò!” he cried happily, throwing his arms out to the side and putting the sea green slash across his body on display. “It is the day of your birth - we must celebrate!”

Nicolò’s eyes - that very same shade of green - had widened in confusion when Yusuf had first begun to shed his clothing, but then quickly darkened. Drawing his sword, he took two long strides towards the other man and sandwiched the blade carefully between their bodies, aligning its edge in an exact match against the mark. 

“A perfect fit,” he whispered.

“As we knew it would be,” Yusuf breathed back.

 

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Keeping track of the exact date was never easy when they were constantly on the move, but they did their best - neither wanted to miss the day when what they knew to be true in their hearts came visible on the other’s body. It became easier when arguments over competing calendars stopped and modern date conventions took hold, and they were both finally able to pin down the one day per year their marks would appear.

That knowledge did not necessarily mean it was always easy to plan for their favourite day, of course. Some years found them in the midst of a war or an undercover mission or a particularly tricky job, and while in the grand scheme of things it was a minor inconvenience that they were not always able to lavish each other’s marks with the attention they deserved, it did rankle them sometimes.

“Happy birthday, amore mio,” Nicky hummed early one morning in the late 1990s. Not that he was able to tell what time it actually was, from where they were chained in an abandoned warehouse. They had rung in the new year by breaking up a drug smuggling ring, though apparently the whole crew had yet to be eliminated and the stragglers desired retribution. It was not an ideal way to observe his beloved’s birthday, but at least they were together - and from the way Joe’s eyes had begun to gleam the last time he had glanced over to him, Nicky knew the soulmark on his neck had just reappeared. 

“Thank you, habibi,” Joe grinned in return. 

“How would you like to mark the occasion?”

“Oh, I have a few ideas…”

Joe’s favourite way to spend his own birthday had always been to celebrate Nicky and his body - his soulmark in particular. So, when Andy and Booker later burst in for their extraction and their chains were broken, Joe decided that trying to recreate Nicky’s soulmark on the throats of their captors was a decent enough way to pay homage to his love (at least until they could be alone). 

 

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Some years would pass where both birthdays were celebrated thoroughly, others where both had to be missed despite their best efforts. They tried not to let it bother them too much when that was the case, but that did not stop Joe from pouting one summer day after Nicky’s mark had faded away once more. It would never take too long for Nicky’s calm caresses and quiet words to soothe him, however.

“Our birthdays are perhaps not the most important date to honour,” he would point out. “After all, it was the day we first met, and first killed each other, that we can say is the day we were both truly born.”

 

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