“I have seen you in my dreams,” he says.
“And you in mine,” Yusuf says.
They sit around a fire, somewhere outside of Antioch, weapons placed a neutral distance away from each other. It’s been six weeks since they met on the battlefield and were resurrected side by side.
“Why?” he says.
Yusuf shrugs. The man’s Arabic is atrocious, but at least he’s making the effort. “How should I know?” Yusuf responds, in Genoese.
The man, who Yusuf has come to know as Nicolo, makes a face, looks away. “Maybe…” he says, after a time. “We are meant to meet.”
Yusuf looks at him. “A Frank and a Seljuk, destined to become allies?” He switches to langue d’oil seamlessly.
“Perhaps,” Nicolo responds in kind. “Why else would we dream of one another and then meet on the battlefield?”
Yusuf supposes he is right. Why would God bring him back alongside his sworn enemy? There must be a reason beyond a prison of endless killing. It’s something Yusuf has pondered ever since he made the decision to lay down his blade in the middle of the battlefield a month ago.
The possibility that perpetual resurrection was a punishment from God has crossed his mind on occasion, but looking at Nicolo, Yusuf isn’t entirely sure anymore. God has granted him life time and time again and he can only do with it what he can to figure out why.
It’s only been a short time he’s spent with Nicolo of Genoa, but he’s becoming fond of him. They’ve saved each other’s lives a handful of times now (not nearly close to as many times as they’ve killed one another), shared food and drink together. Yusuf has picked up the habit of correcting Nicolo’s Arabic, just as Nicolo has begun to do the same for Yusuf’s Genoese.
Yusuf sketches Nicolo. He knows the urge to look at him stems from the need to draw, to put his image down on paper the way he did after he started to dream of Nicolo. He keeps his sketches hidden at first, only taking out a piece of charcoal and parchment when he knows Nicolo isn’t looking or is asleep. But soon he doesn’t hide it, he doesn’t have to.
Nicolo isn’t nosy, he doesn’t go looking for Yusuf’s drawings, but he does sit quietly as Yusuf sketches. He sits still when he knows Yusuf is drawing him, curious about what is so interesting about him that warrants being immortalized on paper.
They begin to speak to each other in a mix of langue d’oil and Arabic and Genoese. It’s unintelligible to most people they come across, but that’s the point, Yusuf thinks. Two people unlike anyone else on the planet should have their own way of communicating. Even if they don’t entirely trust each other yet.
“You draw only me,” Nicolo says, one morning. They are stopped near a river, letting their horses rest. The two men are seated on each end of a felled tree, Yusuf balancing his sketchbook on his knee as he draws.
“That’s not true,” Yusuf says.
Nicolo arches an eyebrow.
“Sometimes I sketch the horses... or the landscape,” he says. He doesn’t look up from his parchment.
Nicolo snorts. “Where did you learn to draw anyway?”
“University,” Yusuf says. “I practiced a lot between studies.”
“University?” Nicolo says, surprised and almost… jealous.
“In Baghdad. I studied literature.” He glances up at Nicolo briefly, wanting to get the wave of his hair right, before focusing back on the movement of his pencil across the parchment.
Nicolo makes an agreeable noise before turning away and staring out at the river before them. He stays still for the rest of the time Yusuf is drawing.
Yusuf wonders what Nicolo is thinking as he watches him. Nicolo looks at him softer than he used to; Yusuf remembers the hatred in his eyes when they first met on the battlefield. How his hatred melted to confusion as they were resurrected time and time again side by side. There’s still some resentment in his eyes, but Yusuf has to really look for it.
“Should we camp here tonight?” Nicolo’s voice, soft, breaks him out of his head.
“Why not,” Yusuf says. “It’s secluded, by water, and easily enough guarded.”
“I will make a fire.”
Yusuf’s continues drawing, filling his page with details of Nicolo building their fire — crouched over the kindling pile, strands of his dark hair falling out of his pony tail and into his face.
Dusk passes in an instant.
Yusuf says his salat maghrib and goes back to sketching, sitting close to the fire this time. Nicolo, across from him, is cleaning his longsword, concentrating rather intensely on the task.
Yusuf tucks his parchment away in his pack, prepared to take the first watch, but Nicolo’s hand on his arm stops him.
“My turn,” Nicolo says. “Get some rest.”
Yusuf sits back down, his back against the tree and Nicolo a pace away to his right. He lets out a sigh and closes his eyes, leaning his head back on the drying bark. He will sleep for a few hours before waking for salat isha , as he always does. For now, he has to trust Nicolo.
Yusuf isn’t woken by his body for prayer. Instead, the soft voice of Nicolo pulls him gently from sleep. By the speed at which he’s talking and the low volume, Yusuf guesses that he is praying.
He doesn’t want to eavesdrop, but Yusuf cannot stop himself from hovering in that state just between asleep and awake in order to listen to Nicolo. He can only make out a fraction of what he’s saying; something about wanting clarity (guide us to Thy will ... steadfast our mind towards ... our soul's need) . Yusuf listens harder — "spirit of love and gentleness, we most humbly implore Thy assistance" — and before he can hear anything else he opens his eyes and turns to Nicolo, clearing his throat softly.
“Night prayer?” Nicolo says, quietly. He looks at Yusuf with no indication if he knows Yusuf could hear him or not.
“Last night,” Yusuf says. They are riding side by side, through a wooded area, on a lightly trodden road.
Nicolo looks back at him, a half pace ahead.
“I heard you. Praying.”
“I was not spying,” Yusuf clarifies.
“I did not mean to wake you.”
Yusuf cannot read anything in Nicolo’s expression. He takes this as allowance for him to continue.
“You are conflicted, about me,” he says plainly.
“Of course I am conflicted.” Nicolo looks away from him, slows his horse so they are side by side. “You…. I raided your homeland, your city. We are supposed to be sworn enemies, yet we die and revive together. I can’t understand it.”
Nicolo speaks switching in and out of Genoese and langue d’oil . The more frustrated he becomes the more he slips into Genoese.
“Why has God put you in my path? I do not understand it,” he sighs. “Is this penance? I am supposed to repent my sins, unable to achieve eternal life with my Lord?”
“He has gifted you with a form of eternal life,” Yusuf says.
“But not in the Kingdom of Heaven,” Nicolo snaps back. “I…” He sighs and when he speaks again his voice is small. “I did what I thought was right and just.”
They ride in silence for a few more moments until Yusuf decides to speak up. Nicolo has not looked at him once since he snapped and Yusuf had half expected him to ride ahead, sensing his want to get away.
“I believe people can grow and change,” Yusuf says, simply.
“I was taught… to hate you. But everything that has happened, it…” Nicolo pauses, trying to find the words. “It has turned me upside down.”
Yusuf wants to reach out and touch Nicolo, in reassurance, but he does not.
“I fear I don’t know who I am or what I believe in any longer,” Nicolo says, his voice very soft. “You are a confusing man, Yusuf al-Kaysani.” When Nicolo looks at him, though his eyes are sad, he offers Yusuf a small smile.
They are outside Roma when they swap pieces of armor.
“Here,” Nicolo says, quietly. He crouches down and holds out his left vambrace. Yusuf takes it in his hands, looks at it, the dark leather well-worn and treated.
“What is this?”
“I trust you. I want you to have it,” Nicolo says. Arabic. Simple as that. He goes around to the other side of the fire and sits, begins cleaning his sword.
A few moments later— “Here,” Yusuf says in Genoese, taking him out of his thoughts. Nicolo looks up to see Yusuf holding out his own left vambrace. “So you’re not vulnerable.”
He takes the piece of armor wordlessly, almost surprised.
The ties and fastenings are more complicated than either man would like to admit and as he tries to put on his new piece of armor, Yusuf looks over to Nicolo for assistance only to find the other man doing the same.
The fire is almost too dim to properly see each other, but Yusuf can tell that Nicolo is smiling. There it is again, that ache in his chest. (He knows it is the same feeling he had when he used to see his wife smile or laugh, but he doesn’t admit it to himself. He cannot, it would feel disrespectful to her memory. That is what he tells himself anyway.)
It becomes part of their daily routine to help the other with their gifted vambraces. Nicolo’s practiced hands show Yusuf how to do the ties himself, but each day Nicolo still helps him without having to be asked. Yusuf likes the feeling of Nicolo’s warm hands on him; he likes returning the favor to Nicolo. The physical intimacy of it isn't something Yusuf ever thought he would experience with a man like Nicolo.
Putting on someone's armor for them, even just a piece of it, is significant; Yusuf knows that if he does one of the fastenings wrong, Nicolo could be injured and vice versa. Even in a nonviolent action such as this, they are protecting each other.
Nicolo dies for Yusuf for the first time in 1176 in Brest, in an incident with a Viking.
The city is too far to make it to before the sun sets, so the two men decide to stay the night at an inn they come across just outside the city limits. It’s a humble little undertaking, a large house really, but it has a stable for their horses to rest and eat, and provides food with their lodgings.
“This is not bad,” Yusuf says in French. He scoops another spoonful of beef stew into his mouth.
“Certainly better than what we’ve been making,” Nicolo jokes.
They sit in a corner of the room, next to the stairs that lead up to lodgings, and a handful of other people are scattered about the room. Most tables have a few people cluttered around them. Brest is a port city, even its outskirts see people travelling from all places.
Yusuf is laughing at a comment Nicolo made when they are approached by a Viking, covered in furs and leathers. He stands at Nicolo’s side, a hand on the back of his chair. Nicolo freezes, his whole body tensing.
“That’s a nice sword,” he says, his accent heavy. He gestures to Yusuf’s scimitar, resting behind him against the wall.
“I forged it myself.” The Viking is surprised at Yusuf’s response in Norse. He smiles, amused, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. Nicolo keeps his eyes on Yusuf, but his hand drifts to his knife at his belt slowly. The man grips the back of his chair tighter, he wants the sword or he wants a fight, Yusuf knows this.
“I would like it,” the man says.
“It’s not for sale.” Nicolo speaks up, eyes downcast. He’s ready to go, but Yusuf’s nigh imperceptible shake of his head keeps him sitting.
“I was not asking to buy it,” the man says, voice even. Yusuf sees that his other hand has drifted to the hilt of a mace, clasped to his belt.
No one says anything for a few long moments until Nicolo stands up, whip-fast. Pushing his chair out causes the Viking to stumble, the only way Nicolo could get an advantage in order to grab him by the beard and press the edge of his knife to the man’s neck. He’s much bigger than Nicolo, and even though Nicolo has the advantage for the moment, Yusuf still stands, pulls his sword out halfway from its scabbard.
“I think you should leave right now.” Nicolo’s Norse is shaky, but he gets his point across.
The other patrons are staring, even more turn their heads as the Viking begins laughing. Even with his hands up, on the defensive, he’s intimidating.
“Nicolo,” Yusuf says, voice low. “Let’s go. That’s enough .” He says that in Genoese, making a gamble that the man cannot understand the dialect.
Nicolo does not let go, his knuckles go white as he grips the man’s braided beard and Yusuf swears he’s never seen him look this angry. Not for nearly a hundred years.
The man is laughing as Nicolo lets go of him, knife drawing just the tiniest drop of blood from his neck.
“Stay away from him,” Nicolo hisses, taking one step back. He doesn’t sheath his knife, only backs away till he’s closer to Yusuf and their table than the man threatening them. The Viking says something unintelligible as he continues stepping away, not taking his eyes off Nicolo. His hand returns to the hilt of his mace and before Yusuf can react, he’s moving to strike.
Nicolo is able to redirect the mace, but he can’t dodge the fist that comes for his face half a second later. The blow knocks him down on his back and even though Yusuf is vaulting over the small table, sword drawn, prepared to intercept the mace’s blow, he’s not quick enough. The head of the mace crashes down on Nicolo’s face, reducing his head to bone fragments and a pool of blood. His body stills before the Viking even removes the weapon from his body.
Yusuf screams. Mace meets scimitar and Yusuf forces himself to fight smart. Fighting angry will do nothing but worsen the situation. He barely registers the other patrons running out of the room, all that exists is him and this man who has killed Nicolo.
He disarms the man — slices his wrist to make him drop the mace — and in a flourish is sinking his scimitar nearly to the hilt through a weak point in the man’s chest plate.
“Is it still a nice sword?” he says, staring into the man’s cold blue eyes, watching the light fade from them. His body falls with a loud THUMP.
Yusuf rushes over to Nicolo, adrenaline fading into panic as he sees that he is still broken and bloodied on the wood plank floor. Cold, Yusuf feels so cold; it seeps into his whole being from the center of his chest outward.
“Nicolo?” Yusuf reaches out and touches what used to be his cheek, a wave of nausea passing over him. “Destati. Nicolo, destati.”
Wake up, please. This cannot be the end of us.
Slowly, oh so slowly, do his bones start to rearrange themselves. Fragments turn to whole pieces, muscles weave over Nicolo’s bare skull, nerves and sinew and finally skin form. When his eyes open, his inhales sharply, hands reaching blindly. Yusuf clutches his hands, stops them from flailing.
“I’m here,” Yusuf says. Nicolo holds him in an iron grip. The panic in Nicolo’s eyes subsides as soon as he lays his gaze on Yusuf. His grip on Yusuf tightens and Yusuf cannot stop the laugh-sob of relief that rips itself from his throat. His chest feels tight, as if there is a vice on his heart. The cold has since faded away, melted to something comforting, but it’s still… ever-present.
“Yusuf,” Nicolo says, his voice raspy.
“That was reckless.” Yusuf helps him to his feet. He ignores the way he’s beginning to find comfort in this feeling in his chest. The way it acts up every time Nicolo touches him or looks at him or laughs with him.
“He insulted you. He threatened you. I cannot stand aside and let him do that to you,” Nicolo says, easily.
“You put yourself between him and me,” Yusuf says.
“Maybe that’s where I belong. Maybe that’s why.”
“Why we are destined to be together.”
Yusuf takes a moment to think on what Nicolo has just put forward. The implication that they crossed paths to protect each other, the implication that this is why they have been gifted immortality in the first place. Nicolo places a hand on his shoulder, steady and firm.
“Come on, we need to get some rest. I need to wash my brains out of my hair.” A smile.
They decide to go east, Yusuf wants to see Mongolia and Nicolo has never been further east than the Black Sea. They still have a long way to travel, coming from Wallachia, so before they set out, they decide to stay one more night in the village they’re in. The inn is too full, so in the interest of an early head start, Nicolo suggests simply setting up camp on the outskirts of the village.
Yusuf volunteers to take the first watch, he knows they don’t really need to go on watch in this village, but force of habit takes precedence. He half expects Nicolo to set up his bedroll on the other side of the fire, like he’s done in the past, but Nicolo stays right next to him. Both of them leaning back against a vast tree trunk. It’s long since become a habit, sleeping side by side; better for keeping watch and for keeping warm as the cold starts to seep into the night once more.
Tilting his head back against the tree, Yusuf looks to the sky. Through the branches far above, stars peak through the leaves. The moon is off somewhere hiding behind a cloud. Yusuf can almost make out the wolf constellation, if he’s remembering correctly where it is in the sky this time of year.
Nicolo slumps to the side, sleepily letting his head fall onto Yusuf’s shoulder, startling him out of his stargazing. Yusuf looks down at Nicolo, careful not to wake him. He sleeps peacefully, mouth slightly open, eyes fluttering under his eyelids, he is dreaming. Yusuf wonders what he’s dreaming of. Who does he dream of if their paths have long since collided?
The light from the fire dances upon Nicolo’s face and makes him look younger, softens his features; staring at him, Yusuf decides he doesn’t care if Nicolo is able to reciprocate whatever feelings he has for him. Just being in his presence, being his ally, his friend, is enough. It has to be.
“I think,” Yusuf says, in very quiet Genoese, lips brushing Nicolo’s hair. “I think you are beautiful.” It’s impulsive and risky, he knows, but the words fall from his lips anyway.
Nothing happens for a moment and Yusuf relaxes, he’d hoped Nicolo would be already asleep as he confessed. No one heard him but God.
“You think I am beautiful?” Nicolo mumbles.
Yusuf tenses, not moving a muscle as Nicolo moves to look up at him, blinking awake. Nicolo stares up at him, and Yusuf stares down at him, not sure what the right answer is. He could lie, Nicolo would shrug it off and all would be normal. He could tell the truth and Nicolo would reject him —
“Yes, I do,” Yusuf says before he can stop himself.
In another instant, Nicolo is pressing his lips to Yusuf’s. It’s an awkward kiss — half eager, half desperate — and Yusuf is almost too shocked to respond in kind, but as he feels Nicolo start to pull back he threads his fingers in his hair and kisses him in earnest.
“I think you are beautiful, Yusuf,” Nicolo says, in Arabic. He presses their foreheads together. Yusuf keeps his eyes closed, half afraid that if he opens them this dream will disappear.
“I think you are the most beautiful man I have ever seen,” Nicolo whispers. He seems to sense Yusuf’s apprehension because a moment later he is cradling his face, callused thumbs brushing over his cheekbones ever so gently.
“Open your eyes,” he whispers. “Look at me.”
Heart pounding in his chest, Yusuf opens his eyes. Nicolo is looking at him, blue eyes golden in the firelight.
“I care for you, Yusuf. You have saved my life as many times as you have taken it. I don’t understand why I feel this way about you, but I wish to be by your side for as long as God will let us.”
It’s overwhelming, hearing Nicolo say everything Yusuf has thought and rehearsed in his head a hundred times before. He’s drowning in it all, Nicolo’s touch the only thing keeping him grounded.
“I am yours, if you will be mine,” Yusuf says.
“Kiss me until I cannot speak,” Nicolo whispers.
Yusuf can’t help but oblige, smiling into it. The ever-present feeling is back, this time blossoming out from under his ribs and flooding his whole being with relief. He kisses Nicolo, clings to his clothing trying to pull him closer. It’s messy and harsh, an uneven mix of tongue and teeth — neither man has much practice, Yusuf realizes — but they have time.
He can spend eternity learning Nicolo, how to kiss him and how to know him and how to… Yusuf won’t say it, won’t think it. Not yet.
Nicolo kisses the corner of his mouth, then his jaw just below his ear and his lips are so soft, his beard tickles Yusuf unexpectedly and when he laughs Nicolo pulls him into him, onto his lap, laughing with him. That feeling, that warmth, grows in again. It smolders under his chest, seeps through his ribs; it’s intoxicating.
If kissing Nicolo feels like this every time, Yusuf knows he will never tire of him.
“Kiss me again,” Nicolo whispers, smiling against Yusuf’s lips.
They don’t get to sleep very early that night. They kiss for hours, until the stars are at different spots in the sky. Yusuf memorizes the feeling, the taste of Nicolo’s lips on his own. The gentle scratch of their beards together, the way his hands cup his face and the back of his head and how his fingers run through his curls. He memorizes the feeling of Nicolo’s soft brown hair in his hands, the way his eyes crinkle when he laughs at how Yusuf kisses him below his ear.
Yusuf knows they have time together but in this instant, this night, he feels as though if he doesn’t memorize Nicolo he will disappear. Mongolia can wait, tonight they have each other.