The first time Yusuf knows he will love Nicolò forever is when the other man trips over a rock and cracks his head wide open.
Oh, he knew he was in love with Nicolò long before that probably, in complete honesty around the time they left the Holy Land when they had found that killing each other wouldn’t take and that it was far more fruitful to talk to one another. That had taken a bit to accomplish, but Yusuf had travelled well so through a mixture of Genoese, hand gestures, and practice, they had come to understand each other.
Nico was a wonderful student and had insisted he wanted to learn Arabic that wasn’t a string of curse words or worse, pleas for mercy with a ready eagerness and patience that Yusuf’s scholarly mind treasured. So they had set off into the world, leaving behind the war for the Holy Land that left no winner, and instead of walking without a destination, trying to find a place where death was not so easy and regular.
Yusuf would watch as Nicolò, those beautiful sea-green eyes sharp and keen and missing nothing, spotted a man struggling to fix his cart further up the road and dash to help. Or when he would return from the market with a bunch of ragged children in tow, having promised them a hot meal if they stopped trying to pick his pocket. He would sit on the stoop of their home with Yusuf, and once each child had a bowl of something, he would tell fantastical tales with Yusuf interjecting his own colourful turn of phrase or translation as appropriate. Some of the older ones started coming after a few weeks, and they taught the two men how to pickpockets in return for a meal and a good word to a local trader for an apprenticeship. How he had, from the beginning, silently put his bedroll between Yusuf and the entrance to whatever dwelling they occupied and the only thing Yusuf had been able to think to do in return was to move so that was at Nicolò’s back, ready the minute trouble surfaced.
That was years ago now. Now they had found the warrior women in their dreams, and what a strange coincidence that had been, some further indication that Allah had clear plans for them, to find they were both dreaming the same thing.
Yusuf had other dreams, that possessed another, more blissful type of clarity, but he did not yet know if Nicolò shared those dreams. Those were never mentioned. He wanted to though, desperately. He did not know if Nicolò had noticed the way he would twist away from him, the arm that had fallen over Nicolò in the night to press the man close and jerk him out of danger would fall away. The way Yusuf would lie flat on his back and stare at the ceiling, pivoting his hips out of the way so Nicolò would not know how much he was wanted.
Andromache has told him to stop being such a chicken but he explained that he does not want to push Nico, especially if his love is not returned in the same way. Nicòlo loves him, he knows that. The man has died with him, for him, and has lived with him for longer but it may be simple brotherhood.
Quynh had laughed, not unkindly, and told him that Nicolò might be reserved but he wasn’t fucking shy. “His eye is always upon you” she had said, “With a hunger, I know well” and then Andromache had winked at her and the women had skipped dinner that night, while Yusuf had sat with Nicolò confused and hopeful, heart aching with a question he does not know whether he can ask. It is one thing for Quynh to give comfort, but another thing entirely to hear the vow returned.
Do you love me as I love you? Do you love me as Andromache and Quynh love?
Because he does not know what he will do if the answer is no. It is confusing because as ruthless and effective as the Italian is in battle, he is gentle otherwise. With everyone. The soft, guiding touches he gives Yusuf, on the arm or the small of his back are the same as the sweet hugs he will wrap around Andromache and Quynh. There is no indication of difference or preference as far as he can tell and it is driving him slowly insane.
But yes, Yusuf knows that this is no mere infatuation, that he is going to love and desire Nicolò for as long as this life lasts when a week later he sees Nicolò, sweet, observant Nicolò not look where he’s going and trip over a rock on the flat desert floor and crash to the ground.
It’s hopeless and adorable and so endearing, and that is when he knows. For a moment Yusuf laughs, a loud joyous sound that echoes off the cliffs and trees of the valley in which their tents are pitched as they travel across the land toward Sicily, as he waits for Nicòlo to sit up.
Except Nicolò doesn’t move. And when he trails a little closer so that his view is less obscured, Yusuf can see the wet shine of blood on the ground around Nicolò’s head.
“Nicolò!” he shrugs off the deer that had been slung around his bare shoulders and dashes across to where Nico lies, motionless. He drops to his knees and hauls Nicòlo in his lap, cradles his head. “Nicolò? Nicolò, wake up! Wake up!” he begs in their new common tongue. It can only have been a minute long Nicòlo has been dead at least, but the ghost of Lykon is at their shoulder, as a reminder that nothing lasts.
A sharp rock, jagged and unforgiving, lies where Nicòlo’s head had been. Yusuf grinds it into the dust, the only vengeance available.
Nicolò breathes in suddenly, those glassy eyes growing bright with life once more and Yusuf’s heart restarts in his chest and the agony is over before it has a chance to begin.
The past is gone…you have but the moment in which you exist
The line of poetry comes to him, a dandelion seed caught on the breeze, and Yusuf marvels at the calmness and resolves it creates in him.
They have wasted enough time. They may be young, mere children in comparison to Andromache and Quynh. But he resolves then and there as he rocks Nicolò back and forth, stroking the wet hair back from his face, that he will tell Nicolò the truth. He wants as much time with Nicolò as life will give them.
“I’m here” Nicolò just about manages to reassure Yusuf when he returns to life, desperate to erase the pain and worry in the other man’s voice as his eyes regain their sight and the lines of the world slot back into place, to reveal that Yusuf is cradling Nicolò against his chest.
His bare, perfect, muscular chest.
Nicolò can feel the lovely definition of Yusuf's abdominal muscles, against his cheek.
Holy Mary, mother of god. Christ give me strength because I'm not strong enough
“Sono qui” he says again and makes as if to sit up, but Yusuf does not let him go, thank the merciful saints, merely lets out a wet chuckle and presses a kiss to the top of his head. Because Yusuf was not only sculpted by the angels but is endlessly tactile, spinning Andromache and Quynh in big bear hugs, dancing them around the campfires.
“Are you alright, my friend?” Yusuf asks quietly, leaning round to peer at him. “You scared me Nicolò. Did you trip?” he smirks a little, the characteristic tug of the lips that lets you know he is laughing with you, never at you.
“I am well. I – yes,” Nicolò forces a laugh, sure he must be flushed to the roots of his hair at the memory of why he tripped. Yusuf had been singing as he came back from his hunt, that night’s dinner slung over his shoulders. His bare shoulders. In all the time that they have travelled together, Nicolò does not recall he has ever seen Yusuf so naked, not even fully naked at that. They always gave each other privacy upon changing, and, being as they are, there were never any wounds to tend to. So Nicolò had come away from the camp to greet him and had seen Yusuf, glowing like the sun in the late afternoon light.
Yusuf, who was endlessly charming and clever. Yusuf who could have anyone he wanted, who made friends everywhere they went, bartering the best cheese, bread, and wine from traders with a wink and a luminescent smile. Yusuf could translate any feeling into phrases you did not know you needed until he spoke them. Yusuf, who let the village children hold his scimitar and would swing them high in the air easily, with his, ah, muscular arms and debated philosophy with Andromache sometimes, well into the night, until Nicolò's head drooped and Yusuf would lead him by the hand to sleep, just sleep in torturous, beloved proximity.
Yusuf, who Nicolò ached and pined and dreamt of his world enshrined in this one-man when the other man was pressed tight against his back every night in a sleeping arrangement neither of them will break. And yet sometimes, Yusuf will roll away, and his arm will slither off Nicolò’s side and he will sigh heavily. And Nicolò will wonder why he does not disappear for an evening or more with the girl with the bright eyes who spouted poetry with Yusuf line for line, or the man with the warm laugh who couldn’t stop touching his arm.
“Yes, I uh, tripped” because it's true and he and Yusuf never lie to one another. “The erm…sun was in my eyes?” he offers, because that too is pretty much true, if one takes the metaphor. He had turned, scared Yusuf would see the lust in his scarlet cheeks, and caught his foot awkwardly, spilling his brains into the dirt.
He must ask the women if it is possible to die of embarrassment, because otherwise, Nicolò thinks, of all of them he’s probably come the closest.
“Please, try and be more careful eh?” Yusuf asks, pressing another kiss to his hair. “I am an old man, my heart cannot take such knocks” he teases.
It’s that that has Nicolò scoffing, hands pressed against Yusuf’s perfect pectorals to push the other man away and he’s not blushing, he’s not. As if Yusuf could ever be conceived of as old, frozen as he is, forever in his prime “You are only three years older than me. You are hardly too old for me”
Fuck. He hadn’t meant to say that last part.
“For you? Do you mean I interest you, Nicolò?” Yusuf’s voice is light and teasing when it comes and Nicolò burns at the teasing, staring resolutely at his feet. This means he misses the intensity of Yusuf’s stare, the burning hope in the other man’s eyes as he tries to keep his tone light, lest he spook this beautiful creature forever.
“I – that is, I –“ Nicolò stammers, desperate and hot at having been caught out.
But then Yusuf speaks again, voice impossibly soft and his hand comes up to Nicolò’s chin. A gentle pressure suggests movement upwards, so they can look at each other but it’s only a suggestion, not a command.
“Nicolò. Nicolò, look at me, please” Yusuf’s voice is hot and raw and hopeful.
Nicolò can never deny him anything, so it’s not as if he can start now. Yusuf’s dark eyes burn, and there is a quiet… happiness in the set of his plush mouth. And oh God -
“Do you – you look at my soul and strip it bare with one glance, did you know? I – tell me, do you love me as I love you?” he asks, voice barely above a whisper.
“How do you love me?” Nicolò shoots back without venom because he can’t go first, he can’t.
“As everything. As my everything. Do you really not know?” he hand comes up to cup Nicolò’s cheek properly, expression in awe, “I thought I have not been subtle. Perdonami, amore mio. I thought you must know – but perhaps not? I hold you every night, moving only when I am scared you will feel my desire for you. Each day I find new ways to sing your praises and still it is never enough to tell you how I feel. Mortal words and conventions are not enough, but I love you, Nicolò di Genova, and if you permit it I will spend the rest of eternity trying to find ways to show you how”
Nicolò’s eyes are shining, like the ocean under a cloudless sky and Yusuf cannot help but lean closer, breathless and enraptured.
“Truly?” Nicolò breathes. “You, you feel all that for me?”
“All and more. My love. My love.”
“I am yours.” Nicolò returns, shining. “ I love you, Yusuf. My brave, beautiful Yusuf. I have been yours from my first moment and will be yours until my last”
Yusuf’s eyes spark and he pulls Nicolò into his lap properly, groaning when he finds it presses their erections together. “Now who is the poet?”
“Can I kiss you?” Nicolò asks, finally and Yusuf hums his agreement, tipping their mouths together and knowing he has finally tasted heaven after waiting so long, falling backward flat on his back with Nicolò’s hand cushioning his head as the Italian’s other hand roves over his skin greedily, hips moving in tandem.
“We’re back!” Andromache shouts into the clearing as they bring their steeds to a trot. No response. She casts an uneasy glance at Quynh. Nicolò at least should have answered, staying behind to tend the fire and their belongings. The two of them swing out of their saddles, hands readying their weapons, just in case.
“Nicolò? Yusuf? Oh!” she gasps, struck by the sight of Yusuf and Nicolò pressed together amorously. Then she smiles. “Well, thank fuck for that, eh?”
Quynh doesn’t even bat an eyelid at the young men, making out furiously in the dirt, groans loud enough to wake the dead. No, she just keeps readjusting her horse’s saddle. “I’ll take those 500 hundred marks now, my heart,” she tells Andromache, her hand held out expectantly.
Nicolò and Yusuf don’t hear her.
Nile claps her hands at the end of the retelling of how Joe and Nicky had finally gotten together. “Aw! It’s like a fairytale!”
Sitting across from her, Andy opens her mouth to tell the young woman that there was a lot more unresolved sexual tension than that but stops when Quynh shoots her a warning glance and squeezes Andy’s hand where the two are sitting entwined. Yusuf smiles widely and replicates the gesture, adding a kiss to the back of Nicky’s hand.
Booker rolls his eyes but sends a wink at Nile to show he doesn’t really mean it. He’s been getting better. They all have.
But Nicky shifts uncomfortably, and won’t meet Joe’s gaze.
“Hayati?” Joe asks, brow furrowing at Nicky’s uncharacteristic reluctance.
“I, Joe I must tell you something. It’s time, I think. I did not have” he heaves a sigh. “I did not have the words before but I do now. You know how foolishly I died, head bashed in on a rock, but you do not know why I met that particular fate”
“The sun, it was in your eyes?” Joe asked. They did not keep secrets from each other. Never.
“Ye-es” Nicky concedes, pale cheeks flushing. “But it was due to – what do the kids say now, Nile? Thirst?”
Nile gapes. Surely he doesn't mean–
“You were dehydrated?”
“No I – Joe, hayati, you are my sun. I saw you, shirtless and glorious for the first time and I- I was overcome. I could not see straight and ItrippedandIdied?”
Joe gapes at him. “Thirst?” he looks at Nile who nods distractedly, and then he understands Nicky’s meaning and his smile grows. How he ever thought Nicky, his Nicky was shy and retiring. “You mean you – you died of lust? For me?”
“Yes.” Nicky grins, pleased to be understood “I died of lust” the former priest declares proudly and Joe laughs as Booker groans quietly from lack of surprise from his own chair.
“Aww” Nile coos at the sight of Nicky and Joe leaning into each other to kiss. And kiss. And kiss. Their arms come around each other and Joe yanks Nicky into his lap so that he’s straddling him.
“Yup, okay” Andy and Quynh stand and turn to Nile, hooking an arm each under the youngest immortal’s armpits, pulling her from her seat.
“Time to go. We’ll eat out tonight”
“But I thought-“
“My treat” Andy insists, as Booker’s already by the door collecting jackets like this is another well-rehearsed escape drill.
“Their world shrinks to nothing else but the other in times like this” Quynh tells her with a smile, obviously pleased by a part of the world she still recognises. “They’re not going to stop until they are sated and none of us wish to be here for that. Hmm, Andy, I crave Italian for dinner this evening”
“Me too” Joe murmurs when he and Nicky break apart for a millisecond to breathe, with a wet pop
“Oh my God, Joe, ew!” Nile shrieks, young and scandalised, suddenly starting to lead the way out the door, which Booker bangs definitively behind them all.
Nicky and Joe don’t hear them.