Nicolo surveys the market stall before him. When he first set out on his own, some two years ago, portioning food for only one man was difficult. He was too used to sharing meals—and all things—with Yusuf, and then amongst their merry band of four. In the early days of traveling by himself, he saddled himself with too-large meals, pairing the bloated ache in his stomach with the empty ache in his heart.
By now, he has adjusted his habits some. Though an old shadow of himself still wishes to turn to Yusuf to offer a wry remark, he is more used to quiet.
Nevertheless, sometimes the silence presses too hard upon his ears, like the sound of the ocean to a drowning man. He is weak: on long roads with only he and his horse, he longs for Quynh’s high-spirited chatter, Andromache’s low chuckle, Yusuf’s poetry recitations—sometimes overblown in jest, sometimes serious enough to make a man’s hands shake.
Being in the city helps. The ever-present vibration of voices, caught in the eddies of everyday concerns, are calming. Nearing an unnaturally youthful fifty years of age, Nicolo feels more and more out of place amongst mortals—it has become difficult to speak about himself without needing to lie—but though he rarely joins others in conversation, he likes to hear the hum of it. He is still a thread within the tapestry of humanity, even if he is spun of a different fiber than the rest.
He buys a bag of dried dates from the stall. The inn where he is staying hardly has the facilities to make himself a dinner, and besides that, he rarely bothers with cooking anymore.
Nicolo drifts through the crowded market, letting the whims of the crowd carry him. His next job—guarding a merchant caravan—does not begin for a week, and he has nowhere to be and nobody to wait for him. For him, time is as malleable as clay. It can move faster than he could have imagined as a young man, but sometimes it slows—on good days, slow like honey pouring from a jar, on others, slow like blood seeping through clothing.
Today is no type of day at all. For most of the past two years, the days have been a solemn procession, bleached brown like desert sand. But that was the point of all of this.
Nicolo aimlessly turns a corner, and catches sight of Yusuf, perusing a stall of woven baskets.
He dismisses the whim. He sees Yusuf in all places: any man with an untamed beard, or warm, crinkling eyes, or merely a confident rhythm to his walk is Yusuf, returned to him.
Nicolo rubs at his eyes. How long before that hopeful, seizing impulse retreats? He thought a year would be enough, but he was wrong then, and now he is wrong at two.
He opens his eyes again to see Yusuf, now staring straight at him in shock, basket dangling precariously from one hand.
No other mirage has lasted so long. Nicolo knows Yusuf’s face as well as his own: his shock of tousled hair, the caring curve of his eyebrows, the well-worn laugh lines, the straight arrow of his nose. Through whatever circumstances of fate or coincidence, Yusuf is here, in Athens.
Panic digs sharp nails into his chest. Nicolo was not prepared for this, he is not ready, he is still bleeding and hardly scabbed over.
“Nico! Can that be you?” Yusuf calls out exuberantly, already abandoning the basket at the stall and striding through the crowd, nearly tripping in his haste.
Nicolo has the fleeting thought that if he holds still enough, he might be able to blend into the stone wall behind him, and sidestep this unexpected reunion completely.
“What are you doing here?” Yusuf exclaims, navigating around a rickety donkey cart. “We thought you would be near Constantinople!”
It seems as though Yusuf is not terribly concerned with explanations, for once he can finally shove through the crowded alley to stand before Nicolo, he crushes him in an embrace, nearly lifting him from the ground in delight.
Nicolo is a weak swimmer when faced with the tidal wave of Yusuf’s affection, and he is swept underwater immediately, wrapping his arms around Yusuf in return. Time flexes again, and it is as though no months have passed at all since he felt Yusuf’s arms around him. Even the tickle of Yusuf’s curls against his ears is familiar.
Yusuf pulls back and claps his hand to Nicolo’s shoulder. “How are you, my friend? You are a balm to the eyes after so long!”
“Well, I am well,” Nicolo assures him. “My last job took me here, and the next one will take me away: I am hardly here for a week.”
An outrageous coincidence. Nicolo wonders if whatever force that keeps them alive is also pushing them together by circumstance. Sure, the walls of Athens are only a mile in diameter—it is not so hard to come across a familiar face—but that they would cross paths in the course of the spare week that Nicolo is here? The height of unluckiness, at the very least.
Yusuf glances over his shoulder. “Andromache and Quynh were haggling over some lamb when I wandered away—they will be gladdened to see you! Could not escape us so easily, eh?”
Nicolo will be gladdened to see them as well; his feelings for their companions have not been tied into nearly as many knots as they have over Yusuf.
“I suppose not,” he replies, allowing a small smile. Yusuf’s enthusiasm is contagious. “What a funny turn of fate.”
Yusuf whistles in appreciation. “True enough.” He wraps a hand around Nicolo’s arm and tugs. “I hope you know that whatever plans you had for the rest of the day are stricken from the record- I cannot let you go, having found you.”
Nicolo nods. “I would expect nothing less.”
Quynh and Andromache are burdened with a rack of lamb—no doubt acquired at a ludicrously low price—when they find them, and each greets him with a warm hug, exclaiming over the coincidence of it all. They are untouched by the years, of course. Not even enough time has passed to justify changing their wardrobe. For women as old as they, two years is a blink. For Nicolo and Yusuf, it still holds some weight.
Nevertheless, in their two years apart, his friends have gathered some stories. Time slips by again in the telling of them, and in what seems like a moment, it is late into the night, and the flames in the inn’s fireplace are burning low.
Quynh is still recovering from a laugh, sighing, “So they were happy to see us leave!”
Nicolo smiles bemusedly, lulled to relaxation by the warm stones of the fireplace. “That was not the plan I would have chosen, I suppose.”
“See this, we are lost without you!” Yusuf says plaintively. “Look what disasters we find ourselves in, just us three.”
Nicolo cannot allow himself to respond honestly, so instead he shrugs.
Andromache has the uncanny ability to pick up hidden currents in the room; perhaps a skill gained over millennia, perhaps a talent she was born with. She rarely bothers to use it, opting for bluntness, but on this night, she takes pity on Nicolo, invisibly squirming, and changes the subject. “It is late, we should go to bed.”
Quynh yawns. “This is true. We should- oh! Nicolo, you should stay with us! Our room is large enough for you; we will spare you the dark walk back to your inn.”
Yusuf nods, and muses, “We have already raised enough eyebrows, these two ladies and I to a room, why not baffle the innkeeper further?”
Their room at the inn is not so different from Nicolo’s, on the other side of the city, albeit larger. It is humble; a washbasin and chamberpot in the corner, a rough-hewn table, and two pallets laid out upon the floor. Their familiar traveling bags are lumped in a corner, leaning upon one another like old friends. Altogether, a perfectly fine place to spend the night.
Andromache and Quynh take the first bed, leaving Yusuf and Nicolo the second.
Nicolo has shared a bed with Yusuf more times than he could bother to count in the twenty years they have known each other. When they are not sharing the same blankets, they are almost always in the same room. Lying next to Yusuf is as mundane and unremarkable as drawing water from a well, or combing through his horse’s mane at the end of a day. He has no cause to worry, despite what his racing pulse may insist.
Yusuf collapses onto the pallet, kicking back the covers in a familiar uncoordinated scramble. “Come, Nico, my toes grow cold!”
“Please Nicolo, go to his rescue,” grumbles Andromache. “We have been subjected to the freezing things enough with you gone.”
Yusuf huffs in mock-outrage. “You laugh at my pain! Without our Nicolo, I am a kite without a string! A ship without an anchor! All I ask for to ease my suffering is a calf upon which I may warm my toes, and you spurn me.”
Nicolo plays along, raising an eyebrow dubiously. “You are not painting an appealing picture of sharing your bed.”
This is not precisely true, as the sight of Yusuf laying lazily against the pillows, head knocked back in repose, is appealing indeed. But Nicolo has foresworn such avenues of thought.
He lies down next to Yusuf, and the brush of their arms against each other lances through him like a brand. He has lost all tolerance: two years sober as a stone and now he is deep in his cups.
Yusuf, in turn, has always been an easy sleeper: he is snoring pleasantly within a few short minutes. Soothed by the sound, Nicolo surprises himself by following Yusuf into slumber not soon after.
The faintest threads of morning sun are sifting through the window when Nicolo wakes. He has captured Yusuf’s arm in his sleep, and is holding it to his chest with both hands. Yusuf, obligingly, has let him keep it, quietly puffing warm breaths against Nicolo’s shoulder.
Nicolo enjoys the cushion of Yusuf’s body against him too much, he knows. Yusuf’s affection is freely given to all, yet Nicolo cannot stop himself from searching for meaning behind it. He would pull away, but they have woken like this on enough occasions that it would be strange of him to retreat now, and what he wants above all is to be Yusuf’s steadfast friend—not some shifty stranger who jumps and drools every time Yusuf touches him.
Yusuf shifts and makes a sound through his nose that reminds Nicolo of a newborn puppy. Nicolo lets out a soft laugh in return, and Yusuf cracks open an eye.
“The morning never arrives as late as I would wish,” he mumbles softly.
Nicolo keeps his voice low. “Andromache and Quynh are still asleep; it is not yet morning if you do not wish it.”
“Nico, you indulge me too much.” Yusuf exhales heavily, breath rolling like a wave down Nicolo’s arm. “Besides, I am a fitful sleeper these days; once I am awake, I find I cannot fall back asleep.”
He heaves himself into a sitting position, arm slipping free of Nicolo’s grasp. Rubbing his eyes, he says, “Let’s get breakfast.”
So they do.
It is only just past sunrise, but Athens’ bakeries are awake. Yusuf has the nose of a bloodhound, and finds one almost by scent alone.
“Bougatsa?” Yusuf asks.
Nicolo nods, smothering a yawn.
They meander down the street, pecking at their breakfasts and letting the dewy morning air do its work in waking them. The streets are as empty as they ever get, and so for this short time, Yusuf and Nicolo can be kings of Athens, striding across the cobblestones without having to struggle through any crowds.
However, kings have horses and palanquins to spare them from the dung on the street. Yusuf dodges one such obstacle at the last possible moment, curses, and performs a free-wheeling dance as he attempts to regain his balance.
“Oh, laugh,” he retorts. “See how merry you are when I actually step in one. You will be the poor soul being followed by someone who smells like shit.”
“I was only admiring your evasive maneuvers.” Nicolo hides his smile in his bougatsa. “You nearly managed a somersault. Has Quynh been tutoring you?”
Yusuf shakes his head. “And put my hands on this ground? I would rather fall straight on my ass, at least then I would have a layer of cloth as protection.”
“Ah, then I would have laughed at you,” Nicolo clarifies.
“Scoundrel,” Yusuf grumbles around a mouthful of his breakfast. “Do you think we shall live long enough to see city streets that are not caked with waste?”
This is a familiar game. “Hm, chamberpots ferried out of the city, perhaps? Left on doorsteps for the chamberpot man?”
Yusuf nods thoughtfully. “And someone to clean up after the horses and donkeys.”
“Or some type of...” Nicolo gestures fruitlessly. “Sack? For catching the shit before it falls to the ground?”
Yusuf snorts. “I would not envy the man who walks behind that.”
Nicolo rolls his eyes and thinks of the most far-fetched solution he can manage. “A series of chutes in every home, which are flooded with water, to carry the waste to some faraway place, where it can become soil.”
“And lanterns that light themselves, I suppose,” Yusuf adds.
Nicolo nods, very seriously. “And a fireplace that springs to life at only the touch of a lever.”
“I look forward to it,” Yusuf says, amused.
He scratches casually at his beard, and, at the movement, Nicolo realizes that Yusuf is wearing one of his shirts.
The shirt itself is nothing remarkable. He must have forgotten it when he left, and hardly noticed, it was so plain. It could be mistaken for any other white muslin shirt in the city, but for the wear at the cuff that Nicolo recognizes.
An invisible hand closes around his throat. They had once been like the closest of brothers, by each other’s sides always, pulling clothes freely from traveling packs that were becoming increasingly communal. Then, Nicolo never had to question his words or his movements around Yusuf—they were as natural together as two fish following a current. Nicolo could toss a knife into the open air and know that Yusuf would catch it, walk blindfolded to the edge of a cliff and know that Yusuf would loop an arm about his waist before he fell.
Does Yusuf realize the shirt is not his? Nicolo will never ask for it back. The sight of the worn seams hugging Yusuf’s shoulders feeds the greedy dragon in his belly—long starving.
“You never said,” Nicolo says quickly, distracting himself, “what brought you and the women to Athens.”
“Oh,” Yusuf finishes his bougatsa and licks the remaining flakes of pastry from his fingers. “We were in Macedonia, and there was some stupid dispute, you know-“
Nicolo nods. They have come to know well how quickly blood can boil, and how violently and drastically a conflict can escalate. Always, the people involved think that their struggles are unique, but the trouble can almost always be simplified to those people are not like me, or those people have something I want. Nicolo would mock them, but he has been tempted by both, and only by a miracle lived long enough to see the error of his ways.
Yusuf smiles knowingly. “They are all the same. But half of the village was burned down. It went up in flames like dry tinder; we hardly had a chance to slow it. Two families there had relatives in Athens, so we thought to escort them here. Actually,” he muses, “Andromache was not so enthusiastic about going so far out of our path, but you know what I told her? I said, ‘Nicolo would agree with me.’”
Nicolo chuckles. Yusuf was right. For the sake of it, he protests, “I do not always agree with you. If we try hard enough, we can find a quarrel.”
“True. But had you been there, you would have been the first among us to suggest accompanying the travelers.” Yusuf winks. “I was only standing in for you. And! I am glad that I did, or else we would not have found you here!”
Nicolo ducks his head. Few people can match Yusuf in his effusiveness. If he were to take Yusuf seriously, he would think himself the kindest, most handsome, generous, and good-humored man on God’s green earth.
Yusuf catches his arm. “You will be coming with us, won’t you? When we leave to go west?”
He had been expecting this question, but hoping to stall it.
Nicolo cannot manage to look Yusuf in the eye. “You know nothing would please me more, but I am already hired to guard a merchant caravan-“
“I remember, you told us about the caravan,” Yusuf cuts in, “but any man handy with a sword can guard merchants. And it has been so difficult to get even one letter to reach you, I fear it will be years before we find you again.”
“I told you when I left, if we should not see each other again, we would meet in Baghdad in five years time.“ If he is not clear-headed by then, he will leave for another five years, but he has not mentioned that part aloud.
“Five years, I know, I have been paying close attention to the time.” Yusuf sighs. “But now that we are reunited, what can three more years offer you? Does traveling the roads alone hold such appeal?”
Nicolo is terrible at lying to Yusuf. In the early days of their acquaintance, he could manage it with no issue, but since then, he has become a stammering, red-faced idiot.
“As I said when I left, I wanted time for quiet contemplation and reflection.” He’d also implied that this need might be related to his relationship with God, a contentious one that the others had difficulty grasping, and therefore could not argue with. An underhanded move, but it had convinced them to let him leave without terrible protest.
“I thought that was a strange excuse then, and it remains strange now.” Yusuf rubs at his beard in agitation. “Why do we keep secrets from one another? I thought we gave that up decades ago.”
True, their honesty with one another was a tent pole of their friendship. But in this case, the truth would send the tent tumbling to the ground completely, so Nicolo must make an exception.
“I am not lying to you,” he lies.
Yusuf makes a noise of frustration. “I know that you are. But fine, if you will not tell me why you left me, I will not scrabble at rock to find an answer. I will say only that I miss you.”
Yusuf has never been one to hide when he is hurt, but since they gave up on killing each other, Nicolo has rarely been the cause of it. He is in danger of folding.
“I miss you as well. You are my greatest friend, this will always be true,” Nicolo assures him.
Yusuf frees Nicolo from interrogation, sighing, and saying, “We must at least play a few rounds of qirkat before you leave.”
Nicolo smiles. “I agree to those terms.”
“That as well.”
“And share a couple of drinks. Not too many, only so much as to make you fall asleep, so that I may throw you over the back of my horse and steal you back.”
Nicolo rolls his eyes and thumps Yusuf’s shoulder. “I shall have to watch myself, then.”
Yusuf had not been kidding about the drinks, though they hardly drank enough for Nicolo to be in danger of being abducted. Still, a comfortable warm glow has settled in his stomach as they wander back to the inn.
Yusuf, too, is only mildly affected, which for him, means he swings an arm around Nicolo’s shoulder and cries, “Carry me, Nicolo! I am overcome with drink; I cannot walk.”
“Ah, you wish for me to break my back, and then it will be easier to throw me across your horse.”
Yusuf casts him a forlorn look. “It is a poor friend who will not carry me—perhaps I no longer want you.”
Unable to help himself, Nicolo loops an arm around Yusuf’s waist, taking on a nominal amount of his weight. “Is this a compromise you will allow?”
Taking advantage of his arm around Nicolo’s shoulder, Yusuf tugs at a strand of his hair. “I will allow it.”
Quynh and Andromache are gone from the room when they return, no doubt wreaking havoc on the city.
Yusuf settles heavily onto one of the pallets. “I think the inn has a qirkat board downstairs.” He waves a hand vaguely. “We should be able to borrow it.”
Nicolo sits at the end of the pallet, letting his legs splay across the floor. “I see that you are lying down. Is this a hint that I should go fetch it, or did you want to do something else instead?”
Yusuf lifts his head from the pillow and raises an eyebrow. “Oh. You want to?”
“Hm?” Nicolo has lost the strand of the conversation.
“To fuck? Or did I not catch your meaning correctly? Andromache and Quynh will not be back until late into the night, if I know them.” Yusuf raises an eyebrow conspiratorially. “It has been some time.”
This is the best idea they have ever had.
Nicolo shudders under Yusuf’s hand. Better still, the more they do this, the better they are at it.
He grabs at Yusuf, greedy, and Yusuf bites his neck in rebuke.
Nicolo gasps. “Do that again.”
Yusuf chuckles into Nicolo’s throat, scraping his teeth there. “Convenient that I cannot leave bruises.”
One of many reasons this arrangement is so well suited for them. In fact, it works out so finely that Nicolo is chastising himself for not having thought of it sooner.
Assignations with local women are complicated, and men more so—they often travel through towns too quickly to build a relationship that would allow for sex, but staying too long would only result in heartbreak and bastard children. Nicolo would bite his own toes off before suggesting such an arrangement with Andromache or Quynh—even if the two women did not have each other, Andromache has only recently judged him to be “not so much of a lout as regular men,” and he is not interested in endangering that—but he and Yusuf make for a very convenient pair.
Yusuf looks up at him with hot eyes that nearly match the blaze of the fire next to them.
For one, Yusuf is one of the most handsome men to walk the earth. Nicolo had not thought this when he first met him, but now, having known Yusuf for nearly twenty years, he marvels at how he could not have noticed at once. Yusuf would tease him if he knew, but Nicolo feels a small flutter of pride at having Yusuf in his bed. It is undeserved—he hardly seduced Yusuf, only made a practical suggestion, and were their circumstances different, Yusuf could find any number of willing beds—but he feels it all the same.
Nicolo rolls his hips, thrusting against the steady blanket of Yusuf’s body. Yusuf’s weight upon him is calming, even in this context, the both of them sweating and panting.
They rarely bother to take off their clothing completely, but tonight, the night air is warm and the fire warmer, so Yusuf has shed his tunic. Nicolo admires the play of the firelight over Yusuf’s muscles. It casts sharp shadows against places that Nicolo knows to be soft and forgiving to the touch.
He decides to check again, regardless, running his hands over the landscape of Yusuf’s chest. He is not satisfied, so he tugs at Yusuf until the man moves so that Nicolo can lay his mouth over the place where Yusuf’s heart beats.
His hand catches in Yusuf’s armpit, and Yusuf yelps, smacking at Nicolo’s ribs. Nicolo had not intended to catch at a ticklish place, and Yusuf knows it, no doubt, but that does not stop him from sliding his hands under Nicolo’s shirt and targeting the spot just under Nicolo’s ribs where he knows Nicolo is vulnerable.
Nicolo squirms at the onslaught. “Cheat!” he hisses.
Yusuf grins at him, a wolf in the night. “Fair turnabout.”
But Yusuf has not strategized cleverly enough, for his position between Nicolo’s legs makes him vulnerable to a wrestling move they had both learned in Persia. Nicolo takes advantage, flipping them so that he is on top, and Yusuf’s curls are pressed into the wreckage of the blankets.
Yusuf licks his lips slowly—only because he knows Nicolo will watch him, the bastard. “You have me at your mercy. What torture do you have planned for me?”
Finally, Nicolo can lean down to press his face into Yusuf’s chest. “Such tortures,” he murmurs into the welcoming skin there. “Shall we see how loud I can make you yell?”
Yusuf smiles slowly, knowingly. “Please do.”
Nicolo drifts lower, following the gentle trail of hair along Yusuf’s belly. They had a series of hungry months last year, and it pleases Nicolo to find the hint of a cushion around Yusuf’s stomach restored. He buries his nose in it, catching the satisfying scent of sweat. He would feed Yusuf one thousand feasts if he could.
Yusuf’s hand catches in his hair, and Nicolo closes his eyes at the feel of it. How does his comb never manage to recreate this sensation?
He ventures further, and finds Yusuf waiting eagerly for him. Nicolo takes him in his mouth, relishing the sound he makes. Not quite a yell, as promised, but not so far off.
When they first started doing this, Nicolo had worried that it might feel unnatural. Yusuf was his oldest and dearest friend, but their intimacy only extended to arms around shoulders and the companionable nudity of a bathhouse. He need not have worried. Compared to the awkwardness of navigating the sheets with a stranger, sex with Yusuf is as simple as breathing, as the pad of feet against the ground.
Yusuf strokes though Nicolo’s hair again, then stops. Nicolo blindly reaches out to bring Yusuf’s hand back, and Yusuf obliges, chucking softly.
More laughter, too, than Nicolo is used to hearing during sex. But why shouldn’t there be? They are doing something joyous.
He changes his rhythm, and Yusuf’s laugh fades into a low groan. Nicolo’s toes curl at the sound of it. How long could they stay like this, before they die of thirst? Nicolo’s jaw aches, and his neck is not built for this angle, but he has no interest in finishing this business quickly. Though need is pulsing between his legs, he wants to make Yusuf scream: partially out of competitiveness, but mostly for the satisfaction of bringing Yusuf pleasure.
Who else is better suited to give this than Nicolo? He and Yusuf are mirrors of each other, partners on the battlefield and on the road, why not also in bed?
But Yusuf’s stamina is not as eternal as his life, and eventually Nicolo does make him scream, voice echoing against the distant desert mountains.
Nicolo leans his cheek against Yusuf’s thigh, grinning. He does not yet have the energy to move again, and, strange as it is, he enjoys the smell here. By all objective measures, it is not a good one, but knowing that he is the cause of it, and that he is a member of a privileged few who have experienced it, feeds some mysterious, hungry beast in Nicolo’s stomach.
Yusuf’s hand brushes against his face. “Your cheeks can turn so pink,” he observes. His voice is relaxed, like laundry well-scrubbed and wrung, left to dry.
Nicolo makes some incoherent noise of agreement.
Nicolo makes another sound of protest, though one of Yusuf’s leg hairs is beginning to tickle his nose.
Yusuf sits up with a groan. “Then I will come to you. Never claim that I am not accommodating.”
He joins Nicolo at the precarious edge of the blankets, and reaches for him.
Once, after a particularly rough battle, Yusuf had to carry Nicolo away from the field. Nicolo came back to life with his head on Yusuf’s shoulder and his arm nearly detached from his body. In his usual disorientation after being revived, he struggled and thrashed, until Yusuf, calm like granite, gently pressed Nicolo’s head back into his shoulder. Nicolo had blinked, then let Yusuf ferry him away, in arms like iron.
This is not like that at all, except in all of the ways that it is. Nicolo can trust himself to the movements of Yusuf’s sure hands. They hardly need to speak, and he knows Yusuf will know how to take him apart.
Nicolo closes his eyes and leans his forehead against Yusuf’s. Strange, he feels almost as though he could fall asleep. He smiles a little, thinking of Yusuf’s affronted reaction were he to voice that aloud. Only his muscles are dissolved into liquid, and his eyelids are so heavy, and he is like paper under water, left to Yusuf’s gentle mercy.
Yusuf executes some clever little move with his wrist, and Nicolo is lost. His only solace is that he does not shout as loudly as Yusuf had, a win in the mildest of competitions.
Yusuf huffs, a gust of breath that settles over Nicolo’s lips. “Did you keep quiet to spite me?”
Nicolo grins, not bothering to open his eyes. “Do you accept my victory?” he goads.
“Only because it was a victory for me as well.”
Yusuf shivers ever so slightly—likely the sweat on his bare back beginning to cool—so Nicolo reaches behind him to pull a scattered blanket over Yusuf’s shoulders. He will have to move to the chill of his own bedroll in a moment, but for now, crushed together as they are, the blanket is enough for the both of them.
Then, Yusuf catches his mouth in a kiss. Nicolo had thought they were done, but it seems they are not, which is a pleasant turn of events. Yusuf’s calloused hand rests against Nicolo’s jaw, holding him in place. Nicolo’s mouth cannot taste pleasant in this moment, but Yusuf does not seem to care, winding a leg around his to bring them together more tightly.
Nicolo is distracted by the feel of their ribs knocking together as they breathe—how alive they are, in this moment. Sometimes, late in the night, Nicolo will watch Yusuf from across the fire, or across the room, and an insidious fear will grip him, insisting that whatever magic or blessing keeps them alive has been stolen away in the night, and Yusuf has fallen prey to a long overdue death. For the space of a moment, Nicolo will be certain of this, until he sees Yusuf’s chest rise again with breath.
He skates a hand over Yusuf’s ribs now. What glorious proof, under his hands.
Lying on their sides, as they are, Yusuf’s free hand is caught between their bodies, tucked against Yusuf’s sternum. Nicolo captures it, winding their fingers together for the pure satisfaction of seeing how well they fit.
Yusuf lets out a quiet sound against his lips, and Nicolo moves to catch it.
How odd to think that others must have experienced this, when it feels like an original invention, unique to the two of them. Nicolo remembers Yusuf’s dalliances with the weaver in Damascus, the dark-eyed woman in Alexandria, the odiously smirking man in Ghent. Had each of them felt like this, too? Drugged? Certainly none of Nicolo’s fleeting affairs had.
Well, Nicolo can hardly divine what those strangers had been thinking anyway: they made the foolish mistake of letting Yusuf go, therefore, they and Nicolo have little in common.
If Nicolo and Yusuf were mortal, meeting each other in the marketplace by chance one day, Nicolo would have known what to do with the boon that God handed him. He would have wooed Yusuf with hand-picked fruit, learned about poetry for him and recited it, lured him into his bed and persuaded him to never leave. That is what any wise person would have done.
Yusuf breaks away from him, retrieving his hand from Nicolo’s face to scrub it through his own hair. He needs to breathe. No matter, Nicolo has a lustful eye for the stretch of neck bordering upon Yusuf’s shoulder.
But when he leans in to press his mouth there, Yusuf moves again, sitting up and reaching for his tunic.
“I have gotten carried away,” he admits crisply, ruefully. “That was good, though. I do not feel tense anymore, do you?”
Nicolo is still laying on the blankets, feeling oddly like he has fallen off of a horse. “Yes...it was good.”
Yusuf claps a companionable hand on his shoulder and retreats to the other bedroll, the fire now a barrier between them.
Dazedly, Nicolo rearranges himself and the blankets into something resembling order. Though they are rarely formal about such things, technically, this is Yusuf’s bedroll. Yusuf had moved to Nicolo’s in his haste to get away.
Nicolo’s head whirls. Caught in the whirlpool of passion, he had forgotten himself completely. Who is he to lay claim upon Yusuf? To reach beyond the confines of their arrangement and try to lay grasping hands upon his heart? Yusuf has offered him a village, and suddenly Nicolo wants to conquer the whole kingdom.
Suddenly chilled, Nicolo draws the blankets up to his chin, despite the heat of the night. A futile battle that would be, as the kingdom has shown no interest in being conquered.
...“To fuck? Or did I not catch your meaning correctly? Andromache and Quynh will not be back until late into the night, if I know them.” Yusuf raises an eyebrow conspiratorially. “It has been some time.”
The dragon in Nicolo’s stomach roars, and he clenches his jaw for a moment before responding, “No, no, not tonight.”
Yusuf cocks his head, eyes narrowing. He has caught something in Nicolo’s face that he was not quick enough to hide. “Do I offend? I had not thought so much had changed since we saw each other last.”
Nicolo shakes his head. “Of course not. Only the mood does not strike me this evening.”
Yusuf sits up to look at him more closely. “You are lying again.” His tone is hurt, which is fair. Nicolo is stacking a wall of stones between them, which he has never done before.
Yusuf presses, “What troubles you?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Nico, if you do not want to have sex, I am not injured by it,” Yusuf presses, speaking faster and faster, “but I do wish to know why you have taken to treating me like spun glass!”
Nicolo wishes he had retreated to his room after they finished at the pub; he would have preferred to end the evening on a high note. Instead, he can only sputter like a boiling tea pot. “Truly, nothing is the matter!”
“I am not some empty-headed squire you can dismiss, Nico!” Yusuf tugs at his hair helplessly. “Do you hold some anger against me?”
That guess is so far from the truth that Nicolo has to swallow a laugh. “Of course not-“
“Because if either of us has the right to be mad, it is me!” Yusuf explodes, startling Nicolo completely.
“You left! You left me!” Words usually flow through Yusuf as easily as a dance, but now, he twists his hands as though he might grab the sentences he cannot find from the air.
“You threw a pack over your shoulder and walked away with an explanation so formal and meaningless that you might as well have borrowed it from a politician!”
Yusuf squints his eyes shut. “Andromache and Quynh are beloved sisters to me, you know, but you left me alone. Twenty years of spending every day together, and you expect me to swallow it, act as though it did not matter to me? Shrug, say, ‘farewell, friend, perhaps we shall see one another again, if convenience allows’?”
Nicolo can see Yusuf’s hand shaking with suppressed emotion, and wants to vomit. Yusuf has been jovial and flippant throughout the course of this unexpected reunion, and Nicolo is realizing now that it had been a false front, assumed for his benefit.
“I cannot sleep, Nico,” Yusuf whispers, ire drained out of him.
When he left, Nicolo had not spared a terrible amount of thought to Yusuf’s feelings, reassuring himself that he had Andromache and Quynh for company. He liked to think of his departure as the removal of a tumor: the longer he stayed, the more likely that he might damage the body. Leaving would cause a wound, but one that would heal.
“I never wanted to cause you pain,” he says, voice hoarse. “I only did what I thought would be best for you.”
Yusuf laughs, raw and bleeding. “Best for me? Am I a babe in arms?”
Nicolo can only shake his head helplessly. He is hogtied by ropes of his own making.
Silence falls like a grave.
Nicolo rises. “I’ll return to my inn.” He wants to stay and soothe Yusuf, press their foreheads together until he is forgiven, but if he cannot offer an explanation for himself, he has no place hovering, looking for absolution he has not earned.
Yusuf rubs at the bridge of his nose, and Nicolo can finally see how tired he is. His body cannot hold the evidence, healing any dark circles that might appear under his eyes, but Nicolo can see his weariness in the curve of his shoulders and his eyebrows. Guilt punches him in the gut, for wearing down someone as vibrant as Yusuf.
“Fine.” Yusuf yanks at the laces at his neck. “Take your shirt with you.” He peels the offending item off of himself, passing it to Nicolo.
Nicolo looks at the bundle of cloth in his hands. It is still warm from Yusuf’s body, and his fingers cannot help but dig into the fabric, seeking it out. “You knew it was mine?”
“I did.” Yusuf’s face is unreadable.
Nicolo kneads at the rough fabric. “I would rather you keep it.”
Yusuf holds his hands out in surrender. “I thought I was meant to forget you. Now, you want me to carry this, as a reminder of you? I have done that already: it brought me no comfort.”
Shirtless, eyes the faintest red, Yusuf almost looks small. He looms so large in Nicolo’s heart that Nicolo sometimes forgets that Yusuf is a man with a height that any mortal could measure. It seems wrong for him to be bound by earthly constraints.
Nicolo had thought that keeping quiet would save their friendship, but it seems his silence has done worse damage than he could have guessed.
Well. He can throw himself on the sword of humiliation for the sake of this.
Nicolo inhales, teetering. “I will tell you why I left.”
Yusuf crosses his arms doubtfully.
“I-“ Nicolo’s throat catches. This story is well-worn in his mind, but aloud, he finds that the words are strangling him. “I could no longer bear to touch you but not...but not...” he sighs. “You would leave my arms when I wanted you to stay. I couldn’t restrain my affection—I thought we could share a bed out of convenience, and in doing so, learned that I was a fool in love who had devised the cruelest type of torture for himself.”
He can hardly stand to look at Yusuf, fearing whatever expressions he might find there. “I assure you, I did not enter our arrangement with hidden intentions. Only it sparked a fire in me that I think may have been smoldering as long as I have known you. I left so that I might extinguish it, and come back clearer-eyed.”
Yusuf’s voice is tight. “You did not think to ask me what I thought?”
“What would I ask of you?” A sound something like a laugh crawls out of Nicolo’s chest, spindly and wet. “If my aim were to make you feel guilty, or put-upon, I might have.”
“What if I felt the same?”
Nicolo is not interested in hypotheticals for the sake of argument. He grits his teeth and picks at a loose thread on the shirt. “I did not waste my time by wondering about that.”
Yusuf’s hand presses over his, stilling it, forcing Nicolo to look at him. “You should have,” he says.
He cannot recognize the look on Yusuf’s face. Like many colors of paint on a palette, his emotions are mixing together into a muddled shade, impossible to decipher.
“What- what would you have said?” he whispers.
“That you are God’s perfect fool,” replies Yusuf, eyes dark. “For only realizing then what I had known for years.”
Nicolo is struck dumb. Whatever frantic thoughts had been buzzing in his head fall like dead flies. He is certain he misheard.
Yusuf nods. “For a long time.”
It is too much to comprehend. Nicolo scrabbles at the familiar. “I have done terrible things, I do not deserve-”
“-And spent the following years in penance, righting the scales,” Yusuf protests.
Nicolo shakes his head. “You must-“
Yusuf cuts him off. “I have kept my own list of reasons why you would not want me, either. It is long, and well-worn. And yet, we are both here.”
The frenzy of emotions on Yusuf’s face has settled into something that looks like hope. Nicolo feels an answering flicker in his stomach, like the ringing of a small, clear bell.
Hesitantly, he lifts a hand to Yusuf’s cheek, letting the old shirt fall to the floor. The ruffle of beard there is familiar, and Nicolo marvels at being welcome to touch it.
Yusuf lets out an unsteady breath, leaning into his hand. Nicolo realizes that if Yusuf has felt the same all this time, he must have missed Nicolo’s touch in the same way that Nicolo had missed Yusuf’s. Nicolo is determined to correct this, leaning in to press their mouths together. Though he had spent a good portion of the last two years trying to forget how this felt, it is familiar. He wonders how he managed without.
Yusuf slips his hands through Nicolo’s hair, clutching, tangling—Nicolo never wants him to stop.
They have done this before countless times, of course, but knowing that Yusuf feels the same, that his tight grip is fueled by the same loving desperation as Nicolo’s, sends sparks down his spine. To think that Yusuf had thought himself alone in this, all this time, is almost too much to bear. Nicolo is determined to make his affection known until Yusuf never doubts it, until he rolls his eyes and laughs at him.
He pulls back for a moment, just far enough to speak, no further. “I love you. I am not sure I said.”
Yusuf laughs breathlessly—a victory. “And I love you.”
Nicolo kisses the words from Yusuf’s lips. They taste sweet.
They are still sitting on the bed together, so Nicolo, expert strategist that he is, takes advantage of their surroundings to haul Yusuf into his lap. Yusuf is altogether too big for it, knees knocking around them and elbows in the way, but the position has its advantages, too, which Yusuf susses out quickly, rolling against him.
Nicolo’s breath hitches, and he wraps his arms around Yusuf’s back, letting his fingertips slot into the groove in the muscle along Yusuf’s spine.
“I didn’t,” he admits, “I haven’t touched anyone else since I left.” It feels very important that Yusuf knows.
Yusuf’s hands tighten around Nicolo’s waist. “Not a good strategy if you wished to forget about me.”
“I never really wanted to,” Nicolo confesses into the hollow of Yusuf’s neck. “I was waiting for the day when the urge would hit me, then, there you were in the marketplace instead.”
Yusuf cups the back of Nicolo’s head. “It is selfish of me, but I am glad to know this,” he murmurs. “I have not, either.”
Nicolo shudders, pressing an absent kiss to the nearest skin he can find. “We shall not last very long at all, then.”
“I doubt it,” Yusuf moves again, grinning fiendishly. “But we shall have time after that, and more after that.”
The traces of their drinks from earlier is have nearly dissolved, but Nicolo is drunk with Yusuf. “Thousands of years, if we want it,” he marvels.
Yusuf presses their foreheads together, a steady point against the rocking of their bodies. “I want it. I know we can hardly begin to imagine so long a time, but I think we were meant to spend it together.”
Nicolo nods, frantically, desperately. “As do I.”
Their prediction holds true, and it is not long at all before Yusuf gasps, and Nicolo throws his head back, and Yusuf scrapes his teeth across Nicolo's throat, and they are lost to the rest of the world completely.
They lie in a daze, blankets lost to the faraway plains of the floor.
Yusuf tugs at Nicolo’s shirt. “Why are you still wearing this? What hellish purpose could it serve?”
Nicolo hums in lazy agreement, pulling it from himself, hampered by his lack of interest in sitting up at all.
Yusuf smiles in satisfaction. “A sight worthy of a painting.”
Nicolo has a suspicion that Yusuf’s compliments are only going to grow more flowery.
Yusuf makes a questioning sound. He has a point; there is not a way to press closer without employing witchcraft.
Nicolo makes his meaning clearer by holding up the shirt, fabric arranged for easy donning.
Yusuf smiles ruefully and kicks lightly at Nicolo’s ankle. “You dare to make jest of me, in my vulnerable state.”
“You mistake me,” Nicolo slides the shirt over Yusuf’s head. “This is for my benefit. Do you know what the sight of you in my shirt did to my heart?”
Yusuf raises an eyebrow, but slips his arms through the sleeves. “I should have stolen it sooner, then.”
A terribly sentimental turn of phrase occurs to him. He suppresses it, then remembers the promise that he made to himself once, next to a fire. If given the opportunity, he was to woo Yusuf with poetry.
He clears his throat. “You have stolen both my shirt, and my heart, then.”
Yusuf does tease him for it, but Nicolo is proud.