Yusuf isn’t sure if it’s been days or weeks when he realizes he’s stopped praying for victory over his enemy and instead started praying that Allah will just let him die. He’s exhausted and he hurts everywhere and he’s thought himself dead dozens of times already, but he keeps waking up over and over again on this same acrid battlefield. Maybe he is dead and this is Jahannam, because the Frank is somehow also still with him. It doesn’t matter how many times he is impaled on Yusuf’s saif; just as Yusuf keeps returning to life, gasping, to find his wounds healed, so too the Frank’s body remains intact beneath his torn and bloodied tunic.
Each time, they each rise up and turn their weapons on each other anew. Jerusalem has fallen, its people massacred, the armies dispersed, the camp and the dead burned, but the two of them fight on. Yusuf can feel that he moves a little more slowly each time; his enemy, too, attacks with less fervor than before. They strike and parry, killing each other over and over with their weapons or, a few times, their bare hands. And yet even to kill his enemy permanently would no longer be any meaningful victory for Yusuf; he would then have the option of attempting to journey home alone, or find himself in the hands of the Franks occupying the city. He harbors no illusions about the fate that would await him on either path.
Finally, Yusuf gasps and opens his eyes, but cannot bring himself to reach for his weapon. He lies for a moment where he’d fallen, splayed awkwardly on his side, and feels his entrails slowly knit themselves back together, the skin of his stomach closing back over them. He breathes in and out until the pain has dulled, and remains only a phantom reminder of the violence wrought upon his body.
When at last he groans and pushes himself to a seated position, the Frank is already sitting up a few feet away. He is dirty and streaked with blood—his own and Yusuf’s—and his white tunic is nearly shredded. The deep slash that Yusuf had inflicted on his neck has healed back into smooth, unmarred skin. He has propped his sword across his lap but is not holding it, and he watches Yusuf closely but does not move.
Yusuf sighs. “Allah forgive me, but I do not want to kill you again,” he says to the Frank. “Please, no more death. It’s enough.” He slowly spreads his arms, palms up, hoping that his meaning will be clear.
The Frank just gazes at him for a moment, his unsettling blue eyes sharp but the rest of his face lined with fatigue. At last he nods, says something in his own language and, carefully telegraphing his movements, lifts his sword from his lap and sets it down in the sand beside him. He holds out his palms, mirroring Yusuf. Thus begins their tentative truce.
Later, both would be unable to explain why they stuck together. Maybe it was the shock, the exhaustion, the trauma of so much killing and so much dying, and the impossibility of explaining how they were still there. Home seems like another world, a dream too painful to contemplate. Whatever the reason, Yusuf does not fear anything this Frank might bring upon him now, not when they have already committed countless unspeakable atrocities upon the other. Alone or in the nominal company of the Frank; it no longer matters to him. He offers up a small, silent prayer as he picks through the remains of the camp, looking for anything useful that remains amid the corpses and the carnage, and then, when they leave the devastation and destruction of the battlefield, they go in the same direction.
At first they walk in a direction that Yusuf hopes will take them to the sea, the land presumably as unfamiliar to the Frank as it is to Yusuf. They don’t try to communicate, just wordlessly shadow each other, trudging over the treacherous terrain. When night falls on that first day, they stop in a small copse of trees. The Frank leans his back against a rough trunk and makes a show of placing his weapons on the ground but within easy grasp; Yusuf, sitting a few feet away, pushes down his distrust and does the same.
After a few moments of hesitation, Yusuf squints toward the sunset, then faces in a direction he hopes is more or less toward Mecca and spreads out a stolen cloak that is currently the least blood-spattered item in his possession on the ground in front of him. He hasn’t prayed in days, not since he died for the first time, but now he takes a deep breath, tries not to think about the Frank who may or may not be watching him, and settles into the familiar words and movements of the Maghrib.
When Yusuf finishes, the Frank has gathered some kindling and is deftly building a small fire, orange light flickering over his weary face. They have nothing to cook, nothing to eat, so Yusuf pulls his cloak closer to the fire and curls up as comfortably as he can. On the other side of the flames, the Frank sits motionless, eyes closed and hands folded in his lap. Yusuf watches him until his own eyes slide shut.
Yusuf sleeps in restless bursts that night, exhausted to the bone but hesitant to let unconsciousness claim him in the presence of the other, even if the Frank has not killed him for many hours despite ample opportunity. He finally rises before dawn for the Fajr.
After two days they reach the sea, and Yusuf luxuriates in the sharp, salty breeze and the bright blue water stretching toward the horizon. They discover a stretch of beach surrounded by rocky outcrops and thick shrubs, protected and defensible enough for Yusuf to let his guard down ever so slightly, and they camp for several days. Yusuf doesn’t care what the Frank might think of it, he cannot physically bring himself to journey onward when they appear to have found a place of relative, if temporary, safety.
Yusuf ventures into the woods to forage, and when he returns hours later, the Frank has two fish cooking on a stick over a small fire. He gestures to one of the fish and then to Yusuf, and Yusuf nearly smiles at his enemy. Instead, he opens the scarf in which he’s collected berries, nuts, and anything that was familiar enough for him to be relatively certain it wasn’t poisonous. Although, now that he reflects, it might not matter to either of them, since they’ve survived worse than poison. He sits across from the Frank and places the small pile of foraged foods between them, and in this way they share their first meal.
Slowly, they move up the coast, staying a few days at a time when they find sheltered places, moving under cover of darkness through more exposed territory. Yusuf hunts and forages, and the Frank proves skilled at fishing. After several tense days and nights of watching each other more than sleeping, one night Yusuf startles awake from a slumber so deep that he briefly has no idea where he is. The Frank is awake, but when Yusuf meets his eyes, he slowly lies down facing Yusuf, curling his knees up just a little. He looks straight at Yusuf, then deliberately closes his eyes and does not open them again. Yusuf watches him for long minutes until the Frank’s face relaxes and his breathing is slow and steady.
In sleep, the Frank looks vulnerable, and startlingly young. His beard is scruffy, his straight hair pushed back from his face, his paleness accentuated in the moonlight. One of his clavicles peeks out where his tunic has been twisted away, and his thin fingers are curled in front of his chest.
Yusuf feels—something. He can’t identify it. He is unaccustomed to thinking of the enemy Franks as individual men, but rather as a barbaric collective raining violence and death upon his own people and other innocents. But here, alone, with nothing except the gentle sound of waves upon the rocky shore, Yusuf looks upon his enemy and wonders how it is possible that such a man, perhaps not so different from himself and likely about the same age, travels to a foreign land to slaughter innocent people because—why? Because he believes that God has told him to? And now, somehow, they have ended up here, together, inexplicably alive despite both of their best efforts, and Yusuf doesn’t understand it.
Yusuf watches him until the sky lightens and, just before sunrise, the Frank stirs. He yawns, pushes himself upright, and rolls his shoulders a couple of times. As he looks around, Yusuf clears his throat softly.
“Yusuf,” he says, pointing to his own chest. His voice is scratchy after days of disuse, but he pronounces his name carefully and clearly.
The Frank’s mouth twitches, and he repeats. “Yusuf.” Then he points to himself and says slowly, “Nicolò.”
Yusuf says it clumsily, wrapping his tongue around the foreign syllables, and the Frank—Nicolò—nods.
There is something about having a name for this man that loosens something in Yusuf’s chest, makes it easier for Yusuf to start trusting him, little by little. That night is the first time they sleep with their backs to each other, the first time that the rest of the world seems like it might be more dangerous than the threats they pose to each other. It is the best sleep Yusuf has had in months.
A week later, Yusuf is finishing up the Fajr and the early morning sun is just filtering through the trees around him. He left Nicolò asleep in the small cave where they’ve been sheltering for a couple of days and crept out onto the beach, hoping that the sea breeze and gentle sound of waves would dislodge the restless discomfort that has begun to creep into his bones. They are wandering aimlessly, this much is clear. Neither of them has a plan, neither knows where to go or what to do with this inexplicable fifth (seventh? tenth?) life they’ve been given. They cannot live forever in the woods like this—although, Yusuf reflects, in the most literal terms, perhaps they actually could. Yusuf just needs to find a moment of clarity to make a plan.
Later, he will berate himself for becoming complacent, for thinking that their cove was sufficiently protected and isolated, for wandering too far down the beach, for thinking it was safe to go and pray unarmed. But as it is, he reacts too slowly to the quiet noises behind him. The men surround him before he can even rise to his feet.
“Who the fuck are you?” One of them spits. There are at least four men, and at least four blades pointing directly at Yusuf in very close proximity. He hasn’t died in weeks now, and he’s starting to wonder if he hallucinated his resurrections; he’d really prefer not to die again and find out.
“Nobody,” Yusuf says, trying to keep his voice steady. “I’m nobody. I’m just trying to get home.”
“No,” says the leader, “I don’t think so.” The men have clearly done this before, worked out a routine; they tie Yusuf’s wrists and ankles efficiently and effectively.
“You have any friends back there?” Another man asks. They’re marching him off into the woods with firm grips on his shoulders, walking just fast enough that it’s difficult and painful to shuffle along with his ankles bound.
“I am a deserter,” Yusuf says matter-of-factly, trying to think fast. Maybe there would be a window of opportunity if the men were distracted or trying to look for others, but even then his odds are not good, unarmed and outnumbered as he is. And whatever they have in store for him, he is sure that they would do far worse to Nicolò, and Yusuf cannot be responsible for that. At least not until he can understand the reason for their shared inexplicable invincibility. “I did not want to fight at Jerusalem,” he explains. “I am alone here.”
“Well, if that’s the case, we don’t need to hear you talk,” says the leader, and swings the hilt of his sword at Yusuf. The world goes dark.
Yusuf comes to slowly, lying slumped on his side, still tied up. There is a pounding at the back of his head that fades much more quickly than he thinks it should, but he hopes that no other injuries were inflicted upon him while he was knocked out. He suspects that having to explain his newfound miraculous healing powers to his captors would not end well, regardless of whether or not they believed him.
He’s facing a craggy expanse of rock, lit by flickering firelight and extending into darkness as far as he can see without moving his head. Behind him, there is a steady stream of voices conversing, but they are just far away far away enough that he cannot make out any words.
Without knowing where he is, where they’re taking him, or even how many men currently guard him, Yusuf forces himself to remain still and calm. He finds himself by turns hoping that Nicolò evaded capture, and wishing that Nicolò was in his place; certainly a Frankish soldier who invaded a holy city and massacred its inhabitants is more deserving of this fate than Yusuf, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got swept into the Fatimid army rather than stand idly by in the face of such horrifyingly unjust violence. He doesn’t understand the instinct that led him to protect Nicolò, and he’s not sure he expects him to try and find him either.
Yusuf spends four days being marched across the desert, ankles tied just loose enough for him to shuffle along, mostly without tripping, and wrists connected by a length of rope to one of his captor’s horses. He is not alone: three other men trudge along beside him, and on the third day a fifth unhappy prisoner is added to their ranks. Yusuf keeps his head down, does not try to speak to them or draw attention to himself. He doesn’t die of heat stroke, dehydration or exhaustion, but it’s a close thing. One of the other men faints one afternoon, beneath the pounding and relentless sun, and he is beaten until he regains consciousness. Yusuf puts one foot in front of the other, kicking up clouds of sand, trying to ignore the gritty, raw pain in his ankles and wrists where the ropes are rubbing off layers of skin.
That night, he is propped against a tree, arms twisted painfully behind him, having been given just enough water to make him even more excruciatingly thirsty. His captives are gathered around a campfire, roasting something and passing around hunks of bread. The other prisoners are in his line of sight, and Yusuf examines them from through his eyelashes. They are all covered in brown dust, lips dry and cracked, clothing ragged; it’s difficult to say, but Yusuf suspects that the newest addition to the party is a Frank. He wonders if this man was also at Jerusalem, how he escaped, why he wandered off into the desert by himself, where he was hoping to end up.
Suddenly there is a commotion over by the fire—someone has spilled something, or they are arguing or—no. Two of the men have slumped over, dark pools of blood blooming across their tunics, and the others have jumped to their feet, drawn their blades and are battling an enemy who remains in the shadows, just beyond the light of the flames.
The fight shifts, the attacker steps forward and—Nicolò. Of course it is Nicolò, his sword blurring as he does battle with the four remaining men. Yusuf doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry; a noise escapes his throat despite his efforts, and it could be either a snort or a sob. It is quiet, but enough to draw attention, and the moment of distraction is enough for Nicolò to land enough blows on his opponents that his path is cleared. He skids to a halt over Yusuf and, none too gently, wrenches his arms upward to slice through the ropes at his wrists. He slices through some skin too, but Yusuf isn’t about to complain because his saif is dropped in his lap and he wastes no time in untying his ankles. Pushing himself to his numb feet, he staggers upright just in time to see the tip of a blade protrude from Nicolò’s chest.
Nicolò’s eyes roll back in his head and before he hits the ground, Yusuf has slit the throat of the man who had pushed the blade through Nicolò’s back. Another man is attempting to sit up, reaching for his weapon, but Yusuf kills him before he reaches it, and then the clearing is silent but for Yusuf’s own labored breathes. Nicolò is facedown in the dirt, motionless, any enemy sword still sticking out of his back.
Yusuf busies himself freeing the other captives, trying not to notice their curious looks, trying not to wonder whether Nicolò is really dead. As he cuts through the Frank’s restraints, there is a choking gasp behind him, and he turns around in time to see Nicolò push himself to his hands and knees. Yusuf’s heart pounds as their eyes meet, and then Nicolò’s face contorts and he sags over the blade.
There is no way for him to remove it himself: Nicolò’s body has brought him back from death, but he is still impaled and, as his gasps turn to gurgles, Yusuf is horrified to realize that he might die again. Before he can think twice, Yusuf is at Nicolò’s side, bracing a hand on his shoulder and unceremoniously yanking the sword. It does not come willingly, Nicolò’s body already mostly healed around it, and Nicolò moans then retches violently. After a moment, though, he wipes his mouth, looks at Yusuf, and gives him a barely perceptible nod.
For the first time, Yusuf allows himself to look at the other men, grimly unsurprised to find that they are all staring in shock as Nicolò scrubs a hand over his face and stands up. They are also staring at Yusuf, who realizes he is still clutching a blade that is smeared in Nicolò’s blood and—and he doesn’t even want to think about what else. Yusuf himself still barely believes what he’s just seen, even after seeing Nicolò resurrect countless times, even after experiencing it himself. He certainly doesn’t understand it, and he cannot expect their onlookers to comprehend.
One thing he does understand, however, is that reactions to seeing a man come back from the dead are generally not positive. Even in the midst of battlefield chaos, he’d had to quickly dispatch a number of soldiers, both Franks and Fatimids, who had had the misfortune of watching his all-but-severed head reattach itself or his entrails disappear back beneath his skin. He doesn’t want to kill these men, knowing all too well the hardships they’ve already endured these past days, but neither does he want them to turn on him—or worse, to capture him, or to escape to a town and come back with reinforcements.
“You should go now,” he tells them in Arabic, trying to make his voice firm and threatening. “Leave this place. Tell no one what you have seen and you will be safe.”
Two of the men do not require further encouragement; they have fled into the darkness almost before Yusuf has finished speaking. A third hesitates, eyes darting nervously between Yusuf and Nicolò, but Yusuf takes one step toward him, holding out the gore-covered sword in what he hopes is a menacing way, and the man follows the others into the woods.
When he turns around again, the last prisoner is speaking rapidly to Nicolò, confirming Yusuf’s suspicions that he is a Frank. His eyes are wide and wild, his hands moving in jerky gesticulations, alternating between Nicolò and Yusuf. Nicolò interrupts him once, twice, voice steady and slow, but this only seems to agitate him further until—so quickly Yusuf almost misses what happens—the man charges at Nicolò, and Nicolò runs him through.
Nicolò watches the Frank bleed out for a long moment, and Yusuf can plainly see the sadness and the weariness in his face. Then he blinks, squares his shoulders and meets Yusuf’s gaze. Together, they put out the smoldering fire and walk silently into the night.
It feels like hours before they finally stop, and it probably is. There is a gray light on the eastern horizon, and Yusuf’s adrenaline has long since burned off to leave only bone-deep exhaustion. His body may appear healed, but he feels as if he could sleep for days.
Nicolò has not looked at him again, and has shown no signs of wanting to stop, but rather has led the way at a steady pace. Yusuf doesn’t know where they’re going, and he isn’t sure if Nicolò does either. Finally, as the first rays of sun are hitting the pale blue sky, the cliff wall that they have been following gives way to a barely noticeable cave into which Nicolò ducks, Yusuf following.
The space is cramped, barely more than a crevasse, but it is well protected and Yusuf has to admit that Nicolò has chosen a good place to shelter out of of sight of anyone who might come seeking them.
Yusuf collapses gratefully against the rough wall, knees almost brushing Nicolò’s as he settles across from Yusuf, mirroring him. His eyelids are heavy, and he knows Nicolò won’t understand him, but he has to say it anyway.
“You came for me,” Yusuf says to him, voice scratchy. Nicolò looks up in surprise. This, Yusuf thinks, is maybe the third time he has spoken directly to Nicolò, unless you count the profanities screamed in the heat of battle. “I don’t know why you did it,” Yusuf continues. “I don’t—I don’t understand any of this,” he says, realizing that he’s now speaking more to himself than anything. “But you could have been rid of me, and instead, you found me, so—thank you. I think what I’m trying to say is thank you.”
Nicolò, who has been watching him carefully, shakes his head a minutely and gives a small shrug. He says something, maybe just a couple of words, lilting sounds to which Yusuf’s brain fruitlessly attempts to give meaning. He vaguely contemplates trying to communicate something else, but before the thought is even complete, his eyes have slid closed and he drifts into a deep, blank sleep.
He dreams of the women. It is not the first time, but it is clearer than the other dreams that have dogged his sleep since his first death. Before, he never had coherent or memorable dreams; he would wake, sometimes, with a fleeting impression of familiar faces in impossible or ridiculous scenarios, but they would fade quickly as he started to go about his day.
Now, though, he consistently sees the same two strangers whenever he sleeps long or deep enough to dream. They are fierce and beautiful, whether in battle or at rest, and he has found himself longing for such close camaraderie as is theirs. This latest dream, though, has made clear that their companionship runs deeper than he had previously seen or imagined. Like an invisible bystander, he watches them huddled close beside a fire, trading gentle touches and whispers he cannot quite hear, and then kisses that grow increasingly hot until Yusuf can hardly bear to intrude, however unwillingly, on such an intimate, private moment. Even in sleep, it makes him ache with loneliness.
When he wakes up, there is bright sunlight filtering into the cave, and Yusuf is alone. He briefly considers going back to sleep, back to the unknown women and wait to see if he has truly been abandoned when he wakes again, but the inside of his mouth feels like sand and he doesn’t feel like dying of dehydration. He pauses outside, letting his eyes adjust to the light, taking in the red cliffs rising in all directions, the evergreen shrubs—and the murmuring of running water, which he follows around a bend to find a small but steadily flowing stream.
He also finds Nicolò, thigh-deep in the water, completely naked. As Yusuf watches, he crouches down, splashing water over himself, running his hands through already-wet hair to push it out of his face. He’s slighter than he looked under layers of cloth and armor, all lithe, compact muscles, broad shoulders and unblemished pale skin—a body that, Yusuf reminds himself, should rightly be covered in scars, the history of many days of battle and a lifetime of other mishaps.
Before Nicolò can turn and find Yusuf watching him, he makes his presence known, crunching through the twigs on the banks of the stream as he approaches. Nicolò turns but gives only a small nod in Yusuf’s direction before resuming his bathing as if Yusuf was not there at all. Yusuf strips off his own grimy clothing and wades in a bit upstream, grateful for the cold current after so many days of sand. He rinses off, luxuriating as best he can in knee-deep water, and watches out of the corner of his eye as Nicolò unselfconsciously stretches out in the sun on a flat rock, next to his drying clothes.
Yusuf doesn’t particularly want to look at him, but—well. He’s only human, or something like that, at this point. Whatever he is now, he is somehow stuck with this similarly gifted Frank, with whom he cannot communicate, who invaded a land that was not his and slaughtered innocents, and who is now lying naked in a pool of sunlight, hair and skin shining golden. And Yusuf doesn’t want to look, but he also finds he cannot look away.
And then, out of nowhere, he finds himself thinking of Ahmed. Of the hot, sticky day when they’d stolen away to take refuge on an isolated stretch of beach and the relief of the sea breeze. They knew their mothers would chastise them later for skipping out on lessons, on duties, but they were young and giddy with each other and nothing else mattered. After swimming, they had sprawled together on the sand to dry, lying side by side with their arms just brushing, stealing glances at each other, until finally Ahmed had rolled up and onto his side. He’d looked down at Yusuf, eyes dark and warm and full of their recent fumbling explorations, and had kissed him lazily until Yusuf could hardly catch his breath.
His breath catches as the memory slams into him so vividly he can almost feel the heat of Ahmed’s mouth. Since his second death, he has hardly dared to think of family or home, unable to conceive of any future further off than the next death, the next meal, the next safe place to sleep restlessly, but now he remembers the uncertain loneliness of his fate. How can he face his mother when he is no longer the boy she birthed, raised, and sent out into the world, when he himself cannot explain the awful rift that has been cleaved by his repeated deaths and rebirths?
When his first death was imminent, when he had fallen to his knees, hands soaked in his own blood as it seeped from his belly, and understood that he was not going to live to go home, he had wept at the thought of never again bending over the stove with his mother, or going over the books with his father, or chasing his baby sister around their courtyard. But when he had gasped back into life, disoriented and terrified, only to face off again with the Frank who had killed him, Yusuf had pushed thoughts of home from his mind.
Now, though, he lets himself have this moment as the icy water washes away weeks of pain and destruction and confusion. He lets himself remember the excitement of thinking to himself, I’m in love; he lets himself wish he’d said it to Ahmed when he had the chance. He thinks of Fatimata, of how angry he had been when their betrothal had been arranged, how he only stopped blaming her after they were married, how they had slowly gotten to know and care for and, eventually, love each other. He thinks of Mariam and Zainab and little Mohammed, who was only a few months old when Yusuf left them.
Finally, he thinks of Nicolò, who had killed him and then rescued him. Who had killed for him, he thinks. Serious and laconic though Nicolò might be, Yusuf is starting to suspect that he is no longer his enemy.
One day, after they have back been on their uncertain journey for long enough that Yusuf has lost track of the weeks, they crest a hill to see a sprawling city laid out before them. Yusuf can’t be certain, but he thinks it might be Bayrut. What he does know is that wherever they are, Nicolò’s fair complexion and blue eyes are likely to make him almost as conspicuous as his inability to speak Arabic.
Yusuf wonders how he can communicate his plan to Nicolò. He is by no means confident in his ability as a petty thief, but he has no coin, and they both are in desperate need of clean clothes and a meal more substantial than small game and foraged foods. He embarks on an elaborate pantomime, hoping to convey that Nicolò should stay here, waiting out of sight, while Yusuf goes into town and brings back whatever supplies he can manage. He narrates his gestures, for what it’s worth, and tries to make his tone calm but firm. It seems to work: Nicolò gives him a sharp nod, makes a show of sitting down on the ground, and then looks up at Yusuf expectantly. When Yusuf doesn’t move, Nicolò makes a shooing gesture and sits back. Yusuf goes.
His half-formed plan consisted primarily of attempting to slip into the city unseen, pilfer what he could from market stalls, and escape to the woods with as little human interaction as possible. That changes abruptly when he emerges from the trees next to the road and a man on a horse immediately appears from around a bend and stops to hail Yusuf.
“Assalaam alaikum, brother,” the man calls.
Yusuf has no choice but to reply, “Wa alaikum assalaam,” suddenly sharply aware of what he must look like. His garments are soiled and torn, but at least he had the foresight to conceal his saif within the folds of his robes.
The man’s eyes sweep over Yusuf, taking in his bedraggled appearance. He hesitates, as if unsure as to exactly which question to ask first. “Are you lost, my friend?” He says finally.
Yusuf tries to think, for one panicked moment, of a plausible story to tell, and settles on a selective version of the truth. “I was left for dead,” he confesses. “At Jerusalem. Badly injured, my brothers in arms did not find me lying among the fallen. They escaped, and when I woke I was alone in a field of corpses.” The man gives no sign of disbelief; on the contrary, his expression has gone from surprised to sympathetic. “I have walked for weeks,” Yusuf continues, “surviving on what I could find in the forest.”
The man shakes his head sadly. “We all heard of the slaughter. You must come with me, my brother. Let me thank you for the sacrifices you have made for our people.”
Yusuf hesitates only for a second before allowing the man to help him up onto the horse behind him.
Omar turns out to be a merchant, with a beautiful house arranged around a courtyard garden. Yusuf bathes gratefully, and emerges to find fresh clothing laid out and a feast of fruits and meats awaiting him. After sating his hunger, Ibrahim insists he rest, and so he stretches out upon the softest bed he’s ever known, and dozes off to the gentle chirps of birds outside the window.
When he awakes, night has fallen, and he is overtaken by guilt. Nicolò will think that Yusuf has betrayed him, and Yusuf’s chest clenches unexpectedly at this realization. To slip away from his generous host in the dead of night is an unthinkable insult, but to abandon Nicolò seems worse. Yusuf does not understand it, but he does not fight it.
With guilt forming a ball in the pit of his stomach, Yusuf gathers up Omar’s gifts of tunics and cloaks, as well as the food he can easily take from the kitchen. He offers up a prayer that Allah will forgive this theft, his ungracious repayment of such warm and unconditional hospitality.
As soon as he leaves the city walls, he realizes he is unsure of how to retrace his steps. He paid careful attention as he arrived with Omar, but the road feels different on foot than it had on horseback. He leaves the road at the bottom of the hill, carefully making his way uphill and towards the shore. The moon is full and the stars are bright, but when the terrain flattens out, he’s certain that he’s passed the place where they parted without finding Nicolò.
He comes to a standstill, gazing around him at the dark trees, wondering if they might find each other in the morning. If Nicolò still wants to find him.
A branch snaps behind him, and Yusuf whirls around, dropping his bundle to draw his saif, but before he can advance, a voice says softly, “Yusuf.”
Inexplicable relief washes over him as a familiar figure steps out from behind a tree. “Nicolò,” Yusuf gasps. “I never meant to stay so long, I was always going go come back—” The words spill out of his mouth unbidden, although he knows that Nicolò cannot understand them.
Nicolò shakes his head, speaking quietly but quickly, an undercurrent of anxiety to his words. But then he stops, gives Yusuf a small smile, and steps forward to clasps a hand over Yusuf’s shoulder. He lets go almost immediately, but his grip is warm and firm, and it strikes Yusuf that this is the first time they’ve touched since they stopped trying to kill each other. Something deep in his chest loosens at the contact, confirms his choice to flee the comforts of Omar's home and return to this unlikely companion.
Yusuf scoops up the bundled clothes and food, starts to hold them out to Nicolò, but the other man shakes his head again, with a series of gestures that Yusuf understands to mean, sleep first, show me tomorrow. Yusuf’s afternoon rest has done little to ease his constant exhaustion, and he doesn’t argue.
As has become their habit, they lie back to back, curled away from each other but close enough that Yusuf can feel the heat radiating from Nicolò. He falls asleep feeling that something has shifted, now that they have separated and come back together twice, both of them having sought out the other. There is a deliberateness that was not present at the start of their unspoken truce. Yusuf still doesn’t know what to do, or where to go, but it’s clear now that whatever and wherever it is, it will be with Nicolò.
In the morning, Yusuf spreads his spoils before Nicolò. They share fruit, and fresh foods that will neither keep nor travel well, and then Yusuf presses clean clothes into Nicolò’s hands. He takes them and disappears into the trees in the direction of the sea.
When he returns, he is a new man: the simple tunic fits him well, clinging slightly to his damp body at the shoulders and the swirling gently around his legs. Nothing remains to mark him as a foreign soldier, other than perhaps his complexion. His shaggy hair is still dripping, his cheeks are pink from the cold water, and Yusuf can’t help but think this is a great improvement over the dirty Frankish soldier. Yusuf smiles tentatively, and Nicolò smiles back.
Fed and bathed, they continue following the coastline. Yusuf had shown Nicolò how to wrap a scarf around his head to shield himself from both sun and dirt, and he is fairly satisfied that from a distance, the sight of them walking together would not arouse suspicion from passersby. But he is not inclined to stay in Bayrut, and Nicolò says nothing as the city disappears behind them.
Now when they come across towns, Yusuf barters his wild almonds and mulberries for bread and cured meat and dolma; sometimes Nicolò catches additional fish that they can trade. They often stay a few days on the outskirts of towns, but they always move on. The risks of recognition, of questions, of suffering additional futile deaths all keep them moving.
Yusuf takes to narrating his actions or merely thinking aloud, if only to reassure himself that he still possesses the power of speech. At first, Nicolò looks at him out of the corner of his eye, cautiously assessing this new behavior. They are slowly learning to trust each other, but their communication is still limited to only essential gestures; more often than not, the repetition of their days makes it easy to simply coexist.
After some days of rediscovering his rusty vocal cords, Yusuf is entertaining himself one afternoon by naming objects that they pass and making up small, silly poems that would probably amuse nobody but himself. He knows specific names for some plants and trees, but others he can only identify as “tree” or “bush” or “bird”. Nicolò, matching his pace several feet away, silently regards the landscape around them, seemingly lost in his own thoughts.
That evening, they build a small fire at the edge of a rocky alcove and, as has become habit, settle on opposite sides of the flickering light. They have some food left from the last town they passed, but tomorrow they will have to fish and forage once more.
Yusuf’s mind is wandering, as it does more and more often, to his family. He can’t bring himself to wonder if he will ever make his way home, or whether they have been informed of his death or still pray for his return, but if he thinks of them in the abstract, he finds comfort in picturing his mother’s face, or remembering the deep pitch of his father’s voice. He wonders if his sister is betrothed yet, and if his little brother has begun learning calligraphy. Thoughts of his own children, however, are more painful to hold in his mind.
Nicolò’s voice interrupts his ruminations. “Tree,” he says quietly, clumsily, phrasing it almost like a question as he points to a small tree just barely illuminated by the glow of the fire. He looks to Yusuf for confirmation, and Yusuf nods. He repeats back the word, enunciating carefully, and Nicolò tries again, figuring out the correct sounds. Then he says something else, looking at Yusuf expectantly, until Yusuf understands that this is Nicolò’s language. He repeats it back obediently, feeling the unfamiliar vowels roll off his tongue.
This is how they begin to learn each other’s languages.
It is slow going, but then, they have the time on their meandering journey to nowhere in particular. Yusuf is grateful to have something to occupy his mind, to engage in the rote memorization of words and sounds. They start with simple nouns, repeating the names of different objects like young children. Yusuf finds that the expressive Ligurian vowels and rolled r sounds come surprisingly naturally, but Nicolò has to work to train his mouth to find the more guttural consonants and subtle vowels of Yusuf’s Arabic.
By the time they reach a city that Yusuf learns is Antalya, Yusuf is growing tired, and he has enough Ligurian to understand that the feeling is shared by Nicolò. They cautiously venture into town together, observing the mix of people in the streets, separating slightly as they wander in and out of stalls and examine various goods. Yusuf attempts to instigate friendly, casual exchanges with some merchants, finding his Greek to be rustier than he would have liked but still serviceable. One conversation sparks an idea, and he slips back toward where he’d left Nicolò wondering how it will be received.
As he approaches, he hears Nicolò in animated exchange with a fruit vendor, gesturing emphatically with a peach and carefully clutching a bunch of grapes in his other hand. And Yusuf feels so foolish that this never occurred to him, that they have been learning Arabic and Ligurian word by painstaking word for weeks, and Yusuf never thought to ask if Nicolò spoke any other languages.
He steps up next to Nicolò and raises his eyebrows, watching as he finally agrees on a price and then offers Yusuf his pick from the bundle of fruit he’s purchased. Yusuf selects some grapes and thanks him, casually, in Greek, then grins when Nicolò stops dead in his tracks.
“You speak Greek?” Nicolò asks, staring at Yusuf.
“You speak Greek?” Yusuf flings back.
“Of course I do,” Nicolò says tersely. “They are Christians too. We were—” He pauses, swallows visibly, and looks uncertain. “I fought with them,” he finishes, somewhat less forcefully than he’d begun.
Yusuf understands, of course. Their assumed language barrier had, for better or worse, allowed them to avoid discussing the circumstances of their meeting. The invading army, the massacres, the Christian bloodlust.
Nicolò is still looking at Yusuf hesitantly, and the middle of a crowded marketplace is not the place for this discussion, not least of all because Yusuf cannot be sure that he will not kill Nicolò again when they speak of these atrocities. Instead, he pushes it down for another day, and explains what he’s just learned.
There is a farmer on the outskirts of town, he tells Nicolò, an old man who is alone, who lets a small hut on the edge of his fields in exchange for labor. He cares only that the yields are good, but does not pry into the situations of his tenants. Yusuf and Nicolò could stay there and, in this city at the crossroads of so many civilizations, they might pass themselves off as cousins without too many raised eyebrows. And, after a time, they might find passage on one of the many ships continually passing in and out of the bustling port, and return to their homelands.
And so they stay. The hut is small, just one room with a thin bedroll in one corner and a rickety table and two rough-hewn chairs in another; outside, a clay stove in front of the house and a latrine behind are the only other amenities. It doesn’t matter: it’s the most luxury and privacy Yusuf has had in many months, since he boarded a ship bound for the Holy Land.
“Wait,” Nicolò says suddenly, as they look around their new quarters. “How do you know Greek?”
“I’m not a barbarian,” Yusuf says dryly. “I went to university. I worked with my father as a merchant, and I crossed the Mediterranean more than once. I have studied many languages, yours was just not one of them.”
Nicolò’s blush is more than enough to prove that Yusuf correctly guessed his assumptions, and he will not deny himself a moment of smug satisfaction over the embarrassment he has caused.
Their quiet routines take them through the evening and dinner, but when it is time to sleep, Yusuf hesitates. He has shared close sleeping quarters with brothers at arms, with family members, with dear friends, but Nicolò is none of these things, and it is a small bedroll to share between two grown men. If it is his choice, then it is he who should have the discomfort, so he begins to roll up blankets and prepares to sleep on the floor.
Nicolò says his name and looks at him quizzically, then shakes his head when Yusuf starts to explain. “No,” he says. “We’ll share tonight, and you can buy another tomorrow.”
So they sleep, both facing the door, carefully keeping the barest of distance between them, but even so Yusuf’s arms folded arms cannot help but brush lightly against Nicolò’s back as he shifts in his sleep. In the silence of the hut, he hears Nicolò’s soft breathing even out and finds himself matching it with his own breaths. In the morning, Yusuf goes to the market and bargains as hard as he can for a thin straw mattress.
The stability, the predictability of sleeping in the same place every night and filling their days with tending the small fields of wheat and vegetables, further solidifies their routines. They begin to move around each other with greater ease, automatically dividing the work between them. Although they now have Greek, and they continue to slowly learn each other’s languages—the house, the city and the work bring new words of vocabulary—for the most part they have no need to speak. Yusuf knows that the day is coming, that soon he will need to understand more about this confusing and strangely captivating man, but he cannot yet bring himself to be the one who shatters their fragile peace.
They often venture into town together, sometimes splitting up and going their separate ways to take care of their respective errands, and sometimes shopping together, arguing over purchases. Sometimes Yusuf steps in when Nicolò is doing a poor job of bargaining. Sometimes he slips a few things into his pockets while Nicolò is distracting the merchant, bickering over something small in broken Arabic or infuriatingly fluent Greek. One time, Yusuf gets caught.
They both take off down the narrow street, dodging men and stalls and carts, with cries of “Thief! Thief!” echoing behind them. They skid around a corner, and then another, down a narrower alley, to the right, and then—a dead end.
Nicolò mutters something vehement that Yusuf doesn’t understand, but that must be either a prayer or a curse.
Three large men spring around the corner and give a shout when they see Yusuf and Nicolò. “You! We will teach you to steal from us!”
“Stay back,” Yusuf mutters to Nicolò as he draws his saif out from the folds of his robes. Nicolò’s response is definitely a curse this time, and Yusuf feels more than sees him step up next to Yusuf, sword in hand.
They are both excellent fighters, and the three local thugs are no match. Two die quickly and quietly, almost before they realize that they have been struck. But the third is more stubborn, more agile, and as Yusuf lets one body drop, he sees out of the corner of his eye Nicolò being impaled. He whirls to drive his saif deep into the thug’s abdomen, but not fast enough; the feeling of his throat slicing open is not less painful for all that it is familiar, and he barely hits the ground before losing consciousness.
Yusuf comes to hazily. His neck is sore, his skin hot and itchy where it is knitting itself together again. He is staring into the unseeing eyes of the third thug, sprawled out dead beside him. But when he shifts to push himself upright, he finds Nicolò crouched beside him, face inscrutable.
“Santa Maria madre di Dio,” Nicolò mutters, hands outstretched like he’s thinking about touching Yusuf. He doesn’t. “Are you all right?” He asks tentatively, as Yusuf slowly sits up.
Yusuf scowls. “Son of a bitch,” he groans. “I’d forgotten how much that hurts.”
“Me too,” Nicolò agrees, grimacing. When Yusuf looks up at him, his eyes fix on Nicolò’s chest, and the thick spray of blood soaking through his tunic. Nicolò lifts an arm, starts to extend it toward Yusuf, as if to touch the healed skin of his throat, before suddenly dropping his arm back to his own bloody clothes.
“We need to go,” Nicolò says, and Yusuf doesn’t argue.
It’s a minor miracle that they make it all the way back to their hut without being stopped or questioned, especially given the quantity of blood that Yusuf has to scrub off himself afterwards. When he returns, Nicolò has already finished washing and is sitting outside, chopping vegetables. He looks up as Yusuf approaches.
“So we still don’t die,” he says conversationally.
“I’m sorry,” Yusuf replies.
Nicolò stares at him. “Why? Because we were killed again, or because we are still alive?”
“The first one, I think,” Yusuf says. “It was my fault.”
“All of the other times were also your fault,” Nicolò says drily. A smile plays around the edges of his mouth. “Are you also sorry for those?”
Yusuf thinks Nicolò is, maybe, teasing him, and it’s— it’s something new. Already this is one of the longest conversations they have had, one of the few times Yusuf has not used his Ligurian strictly for short questions and answers about supplies they need or work to be done. But this new tone, the light he sees in Nicolò’s eyes, it makes him realize that through their months together, Yusuf has still been effectively alone. They have been partners in survival, of necessity, and although they have built trust, they have not built companionship.
“Only the last time, with the bandits,” Yusuf says lightly. “The other times, you started it.”
“I—yes,” Nicolò says, his joking demeanor falling away in an instant. “You’re right. I did start it.” His eyes flick to Yusuf’s face, then back down.
It is Yusuf’s turn to stare, as Nicolò’s face shutters and his body tenses and suddenly Yusuf is back on the battlefield. He is watching the Christians approach, slowly but inevitably, setting up their camps and building their catapults, as soldiers and civilians alike wait inside the city, praying that the walls will hold. He is clad in borrowed armor and gripping his saif in sweaty palms and wishing he was home, walking the streets along the newly rebuilt port, and not caught in another of the Franks’ ruthless campaigns to take what is not theirs. He is pushing out through the gates, marching alongside Fatimids and Seljuks and civilians like himself who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying vainly to beat back the onslaught.
He looks at Nicolò and remembers when he thought his face would be the last thing he saw in this life, blood-spattered and eyes blazing. He remembers how angry he was, in that moment, of the injustice of it all, how determined that if it was his fate to die here, at the whims of these violent strangers and their violent God, that he was going to take at least one of them with him.
When Nicolò looks back up at Yusuf and flinches, Yusuf knows this is written plainly on his face.
“I—” Nicolò starts, then swallows heavily. “I owe you so much more than an apology,” he says. “I know that. I want to atone for my actions. I’m trying to atone. I think I might spend the rest of my life trying, however long that might be.” His voice cracks on the last part. “Ever since you—” He cuts himself off again and rubs a hand over his face.
Nicolò’s voice is quiet and firm when he speaks again, keeping his eyes fixed on Yusuf. “It’s not enough, but I hope you can believe that I mean this,” he says, then switches into clumsy but determined Arabic. “I am so sorry for everything I did at Jerusalem, and for the things I believed that led me there.”
Yusuf’s vision blurs into double vision, the Frankish soldier overlaid with Nicolò silently sharing his fish, Nicolò smiling at him in the forest outside of Bayrut, Nicolò dying for him and killing for him. Nicolò lying naked and golden in the sun. Nicolò now, eyes wide and sad and sincere, and intent on Yusuf. Yusuf blinks hard.
When he speaks, his voice is unexpectedly rough. “I can’t absolve you,” Yusuf says.“I am just a man,” he tells Nicolò, and he thinks it’s mostly true. “I was never a soldier. I stayed to defend Jerusalem because I thought it was the right thing to do. I fought for a city that was not my home because there was a time when it was my home that was besieged. Because your people have also attacked my city, and other ports where we trade, and I wanted, I prayed that I could stop it from happening again.”
Yusuf pauses, tries to collect his thoughts, feels Nicolò’s gaze on him but can’t bring himself to look at him.
“I know you are also just a man,” he continues, “and I want to believe that the true nature of that man is the one I have come to know these past months. Not the man who killed me at Jerusalem. I want to believe.”
Yusuf shakes his head a little. This is the most words they have ever spoken to each other, and he does not have any more with which to explain his struggle to reconcile such irreconcilable things. His head hurts. His heart is heavy.
“I also want to believe that,” Nicolò says hoarsely.
They sit in silence for a moment, until Yusuf can no longer bear the heartbroken expression on Nicolò’s face. As he pushes himself to his feet and goes back inside, he hears Nicolò resume chopping vegetables.
The next few days pass in tense silence as Yusuf slowly sorts through the storm of emotions that has descended upon him and makes up his mind. He goes to town alone while Nicolò is busy with farm work, and makes inquiries at the port when his errands are finished.
“I need to go back to my family,” he tells Nicolò that evening, “at least to say goodbye. There is a ship bound for Tripoli that will give me passage, and from there I can make my way.”
Yusuf is no longer sure how long it has been since he left. Maybe two years. Maybe longer. He has the sense that if he doesn’t go soon, it will be too late to ever return. Too much will have changed, and he will not have changed enough.
Nicolò is nodding. “Of course, you must go.”
“Will you—” Yusuf hesitates. “Will you stay here? Or seek out your own family?”
Nicolò looks away. “I don’t know,” he says, and does not elaborate.
When Yusuf departs two days later, Nicolò stands in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back, as Yusuf hefts his belongings—greatly multiplied since their arrival in Antalya.
“I am thinking of going to Malta,” he says suddenly, words rushed.
In his surprise, Yusuf nearly drops his bag.
“I have heard that it is nice,” Nicolò continues, in a tone that sounds almost rehearsed, “and I might stay there some time. If—” he falters, then squares his shoulders. “If you ever want to find me. If you need me. I think I will be in Malta.”
Yusuf stares at him for a moment, then he does drop his bag, steps forward, and grips Nicolò’s shoulder the way Nicolò had once done to him. He intends to release him, but somehow finds himself stuck, unable to step back or look away from Nicolò’s somber face. Without him meaning to do it, his hand slides just a little bit in, towards the junction of Nicolò’s shoulder and neck, until his thumb is just brushing Nicolò’s pulse point. The rapid jumping of Nicolò’s heart snaps Yusuf back into the moment, and he snatches back his hand.
“All right,” he says simply, a little breathlessly. There are other things he thinks of saying, other things he could try to express, but the thoughts are still half-formed and he is unsure of what it means, his strange connection to Nicolò. He can’t articulate it, but he is sure that sooner or later he will look for him, in Malta or the world over.
Yusuf spends the journey feeling mildly nauseated, and not because of the rough seas. He goes back and forth, debating himself on whether it is in fact wise to go home; he alternately convinces himself that, in the face of his unknown future, he should be with his family as long as he can, and that nothing good can come of them inevitably learning the unlikely truth of his most recent adventure.
He tries to envision the reunions, rehearses what he might say to explain himself, imagines Fatimata embracing him and the children jumping on him. He finds himself unable to picture anything further than that.
There is no way to send word ahead to his family, so Yusuf has no choice but to let himself into the compound one evening, just after Maghrib. He hesitates one last time outside, nearly turning away more than once, before finally pushing open the gate and walking straight into Fatimata, who shrieks and throws her arms around him, then promptly bursts into tears.
After the screaming and the crying and the disbelieving, clutching embraces, they sit down to eat: his parents, his brothers and youngest sister, Fatimata, the children. Yusuf attempts to answer their many questions. He recounts a selective, edited story, about finding himself trapped in Jerusalem, the battle that now seems so distant, being left for dead, finding himself alone with one other soldier, traveling until they could find a way home. He neglects to mention the nationality or the religion of his companion, neglects to mention exactly how many times he died before being abandoned by his army.
His children are older, bigger, and shy around him now, but Fatimata keeps pushing them forward, whispering into their ears, “go on, that’s your baba,” until by the end of the evening they are crawling all over him, hanging off his arms and legs, and he is too overwhelmed to either laugh or cry.
That night, when the children have been put to sleep and the compound is growing quiet, Fatimata sits next to him on their bed. When Yusuf wraps an arm around her shoulders, she fits herself to her chest, head nestled in the crook of his neck, as they have done so many times before. How easy it might be, Yusuf thinks, to pretend that the months and years since he left home were nothing but a surreal dream; how easy to fit himself back into the shape of his old life, at least for a little while.
After a moment, Fatimata straightens up, puts her hands gently on his cheeks and tilts his face toward her so she can look him in the eye.
“You look the same,” she says pensively, “but you’re not, are you?” She strokes across his cheek, his beard. “Will you tell me about it?”
Yusuf closes his eyes against the tears that threaten to spill over. He does not deserve Fatimata. He does not know how he will find the strength to leave her again.
He folds one of his hands over hers, still resting on his face. “I died,” he tells her, and sees her face flicker with surprise, then concern. She waits for him to go on; he knew she would. “I can’t explain it, but I know I should be dead. I was left for dead because I was dead. I don’t know why I’m not now. I kept waking up.”
He’s never spoken of it before; he and Nicolò had no need to. The memories are flooding back, the pain of the wounds, the fear and confusion upon waking, but now that he’s started, he can’t seem to hold back the words.
“So many times, I thought it was over,” he says. “I was pierced by arrows, and run through with swords, and I starved at least once, but I didn’t—I never—I do not even have the scars on my body.” Fatimata’s eyes are dark and sad, watching him carefully. “Please believe me. I am not crazy. Fatimata, you know I would not lie to you.”
He is crying now, a little bit, and she wipes his wet cheeks, then kisses each of them softly.
“Of course I believe you, my Yusuf,” she says. “I have always known you to be good and honest. I have held you in my heart since you left, since we heard about the attacks on the Holy Lands. We thought you were dead, yes, but I couldn’t bring myself to grieve you. I did not want to believe it.”
She smiles gently up at him. “But you came back, and you are alive, and I know that you will be all right. I know it.” Her hands flip over, and grasp his. “And now I get to tell you this, too: we are also all right. Me, the children, your family. We have missed you, every day, but we are okay.”
He laughs wetly, because she knows it is exactly what he needed to hear. He wants his family to be happy and healthy, always, even without him. But oh, how it hurts at the same time.
“Will you stay with us a little longer?” Fatimata asks then. Of course she understands this, too.
“As long as I can,” he answers honestly, and kisses her soft mouth.
“Tell me about your traveling companion,” Fatimata says one day, out of nowhere.
Yusuf has been home for weeks that turned into months, shocked each time he realizes how quickly he has melted back into his life. His days are spent with his father and brothers, checking accounts and negotiating with their traders, going together to the mosque five times a day. He drinks sweet mint tea, eats tajine and méchoui, reads to his children, and sleeps with Fatimata’s warmth curled next to him. It is strange and familiar at the same time, how easy it was to come home.
Sometimes, unbidden, he thinks of Nicolò; he finds himself wishing he could share things with him, wondering what he is doing with his time, ears perking up when he hears of ships bound for Valletta.
Fatimata’s question startles him, and he hesitates. The two of them have been honest with each other from the beginning, a trust and confidence built slowly over the first months of their reluctant marriage until it grew into love. Yusuf knows that Fatimata had not wanted to marry, had been afraid to have a controlling and unkind husband; Fatimata knows about Ahmed, how Yusuf had been heartbroken to leave him but unwilling to see a lover behind his new wife’s back.
But Nicolò—Yusuf does not know how to explain Nicolò. He is afraid that if he tries, Fatimata will understand everything that Yusuf cannot quite articulate.
She does understand. “You killed him?” She asks quietly. Yusuf nods. “And he killed you.”
“But then you saved each other’s lives afterwards? And you spent many months traveling together, peacefully.” She is looking at him curiously. “Was he kind to you?”
Yusuf thinks about Nicolò, the man who killed him, and Nicolò, the man he has known ever since they laid down their weapons—loyal and pensive and never far from Yusuf’s side.
He shakes his head helplessly. “He is quiet and serious, but—yes. I think he was kind, in his way.”
“Well,” Fatimata says after a moment. “I’m glad.” Her face is unreadable, and Yusuf could not say what his own is giving away.
That night, Yusuf dreams of the women for the first time in many weeks. The sit close beside each other, one of them lighting a small fire, the other tending to two horses, while the light fades behind craggy mountains. It feels like he watches them for hours, although nothing notable happens; they set up camp, eat, secure the horses, and bed down for the night wrapped around each other. The dreams are never the same, the women constantly in different dress, with different terrain in the background, but they are always together.
He awakes wishing that he could dream of Nicolò, too.
Years start to slip away. Yusuf, after protests from his mother, convinces his father to let him travel with their ships once more. He is never gone for long, never strays too far across the Mediterranean, acutely aware that his time with his family is growing shorter by the day.
The decision is finally made when his mother unwittingly forces the issue.
“Look at you,” she says to him fondly, while he is helping her chop vegetables, and they are thankfully alone. “All that time away from us, the terrible things you endured, and still such a youthful glow.” She strokes a hand across his cheek, then ruffles his hair. “You take after my side of the family, you know, because your father went completely bald when he was twenty-seven. I think it was the stress of my first pregnancy. You know how he worries about me.” Her expression is affectionate and teasing, but Yusuf has to struggle to return her smile.
It’s true, he realizes: he won’t be able to hide much longer. Little Zainab has become a small woman and his baby Mohammed has learned calligraphy. His parents are becoming old. Even Fatimata has slowly deepening creases at the corners of her eyes, and strands of silver multiplying in her hair, much to her vocal consternation. But Yusuf still has the unlined face of a thirty-year-old, although he is now closer to forty, and his hair is full and dark, his body strong and lean.
“I’m afraid I can’t stay with you much longer,” he tells Fatimata that night, voice hushed, watching the dim light of the oil lamp flicker over the wall behind her. “I am frozen in time. People will begin to notice.”
Fatimata’s eyes are bright as she wraps her arms around him. “I always knew this time was a gift,” she whispers into his chest. “You came back from the dead to be with us. I am glad that Mohammed knows his father. I am glad that I had these years beside my husband.”
Yusuf lowers his face into her hair, breathes in her familiar scent. “Don’t let the children forget how much I loved them.”
She shakes her head vigorously. “Never.”
“And never forget how much I love you,” he tells her, gently pulling away so that he can look into her eyes.
She gives him a watery smile. “Will you go look for your Frank?”
When Yusuf startles, her smile grows. “It’s not—he’s not—”
“Yusuf,” Fatimata says gently. “If you cannot be with us, then I am happy that you will not be alone. I hope he takes care of you, as I know you will take care of him.”
Yusuf cannot come up with a reply to that, no words to counter the suddenly vivid image of himself and Nicolò as the years stretch on, staying together and caring for each other. There is a feeling in the pit of his stomach that he thinks is only partly fear. All he can do is squeeze Fatimata, and hope that she can feel his gratitude.
Knowing that he must leave is entirely different to actually leaving. He should have thought, before, of an excuse. Afterwards, he can never recall exactly what he tells them. He promises to return soon, although he and Fatimata know that he never will. He trusts her to explain, when the time is right and the pain has dulled.
With a few coins, he persuades a merchant bound for Catania to make a small detour. The island is small, but Medina is a maze of cramped streets, and Yusuf’s heart sinks. How did he expect to find one man on an entire island? How will he know if that man even did come to Malta?
He takes a room at a small guesthouse, knowing he cannot afford to stay there long, and wanders the city. The landscape is stark, and the water is incomprehensibly blue. The small streets bustle with shops and inns, and people in dress he’s never seen before, speaking a language that is strange to his ears. He spends one week exploring, and then another venturing out of the city, as far as he can walk, either along the coastline or up the hills to the rocky plateau above. He thinks about Fatimata, about his family. He thinks about Nicolò, about his long and uncertain future. Both make his heart clench.
He enquires sometimes, if locals have seen a fair-haired man, speaking Ligurian or Greek. Some of them say yes, but none of them can tell Yusuf where to find him, or anything else about him. Still, knowing that Nicolò must be nearby strengthens Yusuf’s resolve to stay.
And then one day—it is Nicolò who finds Yusuf. Yusuf is returning to his guesthouse one evening, after sketching the coastline in the striking sunset light. As he approaches the door, a hooded figure steps out of the shadows, and Yusuf’s hand goes immediately to his weapon.
“So it is you,” says a familiar voice, in unfamiliarly fluid Arabic.
Yusuf drops his saif. “Nicolò,” he breathes.
Nicolò pushes back his hood and grins. “I heard someone was asking about me around town. Some oafish Zirid. You are not very discreet.”
“Oh,” says Yusuf, and can’t help but match his playful tone. “So a pale Frank has not attracted any attention loitering on this island?”
Nicolò glares, but his eyes are dancing in the low light. “I have not been loitering. Go gather your things and tell the innkeeper you no longer need the room.”
Yusuf doesn’t question him, just does as he is told. Anywhere Nicolò wants to take him, it will be better than one more night in his noisy, cramped room. When he reemerges, Nicolò is waiting with a horse. Yusuf secures his belongings in the saddlebags, then mounts behind Nicolò. He settles his arms tentatively around the other man’s waist, then holds tighter as they leave the town and gallop uphill and inland. The nights bring a chill that contrasts with the sun-soaked heat of day on Malta, and Yusuf finds himself leaning in to the warmth radiating off of Nicolò.
Before long, the moonlight illuminates a stone cottage, nestled in the midst of a rolling vineyard. Yusuf looks around him in wonder as they ride past the rows of vines and come to a halt in front of the cottage, which is larger than it initially appeared.
“So let me get this straight,” Yusuf says after he dismounts, “I just spent five weeks in an overcrowded and questionably clean room in town, and you’ve been staying here? What is this place?”
Nicolò has been watching Yusuf’s face closely, the edges of his mouth progressively curling upwards. “I just thought, after years sleeping on the floor in a one-room hovel, it was time for something a bit more comfortable.” There’s something almost mischievous in the grin that he shoots at Yusuf. “The family who own the vineyard live closer to town. When I arrived here, I, uh, started working for them. Eventually they agreed to let me stay here.”
“You must have been very persuasive,” Yusuf says.
“Oh, I was.” Nicolò turns away, leading the horse around the side of the house and—it’s hard to tell in the low light, but Yusuf could swear he winks at him. Yusuf feels a bit breathless, and without being able to blame it on either altitude or exertion, he’s not quite sure what to make of the feeling.
The inside of the cottage is cozy, and someone has clearly decorated it with care. Nicolò produces a handful of figs, a wedge of delightfully strong-smelling cheese, a pitcher and two glasses.
“This,” Nicolò says, holding up the pitcher, “is from those grapes right out there, and it is very nice.”
Their fingers brush as Nicolò hands him a glass, and the heat of the brief touch seems to radiate up Yusuf’s arm. They settle across from each other at the sturdy wooden dining table, eating in easy silence for a few minutes. It’s odd to contrast the restlessness that underlay Yusuf’s time with his family and the unexpected comfort of sharing a quiet moment with Nicolò, to realize that somehow during the time they spent apart, Yusuf has come to feel closer to this man.
Nicolò, like Yusuf, looks just as young as when they parted, but something in him has changed, too. He is bolder, brighter, seems less afraid of himself. He has smiled at Yusuf more since their reunion than he did in the long months they spent together before, and Yusuf doesn’t quite know what to make of it.
As if reading Yusuf’s mind, Nicolò looks up. “How was it? Your home, your family?”
The truth spills from Yusuf, almost before he can find the words. “It was—strange,” he confesses, “and partly strange how it was not strange. The same as I left it, really, even if they are all older now. My brothers are taking over my father’s business, and my children are turning into actual people, and my wife is—”
He cuts himself off, then shrugs a little. “She is wonderful. And she will be fine without me,” he says, a bit sadly. “They have continued living their lives. And except for Fatimata, they think that I am also still living that life but I—well.” To his horror, Yusuf can feel wetness beginning to build in his eyes. He blinks hard.
Nicolò gives him a small, comforting smile and, hesitantly, reaches out and places his hand over Yusuf’s where it lies on the table. Yusuf stares for a moment at their joined hands, feels the grounding weight of Nicolò’s palm, the roughness of his callouses, until Nicolò squeezes his hand once and then pulls away.
“You never said you were married,” Nicolò says. “I didn’t think—I didn’t know. I’m sorry. About your children. And your wife.” His voice is gentle but strained.
Yusuf shakes his head. “It was inevitable, wasn’t it?” He says softly, and it’s not really a question. “I’m not the same man anymore, and we couldn’t keep pretending.”
Everything had changed irrevocably, unfathomably, the first time he gasped awake, lying in a pool of his own blood but with his body perfectly unblemished. Or maybe it changed even before that; maybe the true turning point was when his blade first clashed against the sword of a man who had walked straight out of his dreams and onto the battlefield. Maybe it was the first time he felt his stomach sliced open. Maybe it was the first time he died, slipping slowly and painfully out of consciousness and feeling overcome with terror and regret and the deep certainty that there was no afterlife. (And oh, how wrong he was about that, but not in the way he imagined.)
Or, maybe, everything changed more gradually, little by little over the course of years spent learning to coexist with the man he had killed, who had returned the favor. Maybe it was not the horrors of war, or the incomprehensibility of his newfound invincibility, but the banalities of a daily life so unlike the one he had always known until then.
“Well,” says Nicolò. He clears his throat a bit, looking self-conscious. “Personally I prefer this new version of you who does not try to kill me anymore.”
“I can kill you anytime I want,” Yusuf mumbles, and their jokes are weak, but they manage to lift the mood.
“Of course you can,” Nicolò says mildly. “It’s why I still sleep with a knife under my pillow when you are around.”
There is only one bedroom, but the bed is large and the mattress soft, and Yusuf sinks onto it gratefully. Nicolò, stretching out beside him, yawns and extinguishes the lamp.
“Good night, Yusuf,” he says quietly. His profile is silhouetted by the low light, growing clearer as Yusuf’s eyes adjust.
“Good night, Nicolò,” Yusuf echoes, and watches as Nicolò’s eyes fall shut and his breathing slowly depends and evens out. Yusuf falls asleep watching him, thinking about how different it is to lie beside Nicolò than beside Fatimata, but that somehow this, too, feels like home.
The next day, Yusuf learns that Nicolò has been supplementing his small income from working at the vineyard with what Yusuf can only describe as vigilante justice. He learns this when, after a peaceful morning of harvesting grapes, Nicolò says over lunch, “I have to go kill someone. Are you coming?”
“Yes,” Yusuf says immediately. “Wait. What?”
This is also how he learns that the persuasive act that led to Nicolò living in this house was a very violent eviction of the previous tenant, a farm laborer who had raped the owner’s youngest daughter on more than one occasion. Nicolò relays all of this in an exceedingly, deliberately casual tone, as if waiting to gauge Yusuf’s reaction.
Yusuf automatically thinks of his sisters, his own daughter, and feels adrenaline start coursing through him. “I hope you cut off that shit-eating donkey’s dick,” he says through gritted teeth. “Whose turn is it today?”
So they go to rough up a gang of men who have made a habit out of taking what they want and refusing to pay at a dozen small shops around town, including one owned by an elderly couple who cannot afford to give away their goods and have grown increasingly desperate. For a while, it seems like they might not have to kill anyone after all; three of the men are sufficiently distraught by the combination of small nicks inflicted upon them by Yusuf and Nicolò and, inversely, by Yusuf and Nicolò’s absolute indifference to the wounds landed on their own bodies. But then a fourth asshole thinks it’s a good idea to try and sneak up behind Nicolò, so Yusuf runs him through, and then the whole thing descends into chaos.
Yusuf and Nicolò turn out to be much more successful at killing other people than they ever were at killing each other. They share a vaguely inappropriate smile over a pile of bodies, and then Yusuf grimaces as the skin on his arm knits back together over his exposed radius.
Nicolò, still breathing heavily, with a streak of blood across his forehead that either is not his or came from a long-healed wound, follows Yusuf’s gaze and reaches out, softly running his hand across Yusuf’s now unmarred forearm. Yusuf tries not to shudder at the touch.
“We are a good team,” Nicolò says.
“It’s much easier when your enemies stay dead,” Yusuf concedes.
Nicolò’s hand reaches Yusuf’s wrist, and he intertwines his fingers with Yusuf’s. “Come on, let’s go tell Maria and Domenico that they no longer need to worry. They also promised me some of their best olives. If you’re lucky, maybe I will l share.” His tone is light, and his grip is firm as he gently pulls Yusuf along with him.
Nicolò not only shares the olives, he carefully selects the plumpest and juiciest ones to present to Yusuf. It becomes a pattern: Yusuf gets the ripest apricots, the non-wobbly chair in the kitchen, the first bath. If there is as tricky chore to undertake, Nicolò volunteers; if Yusuf is craving a certain meal, Nicolò listens to him describe it and then returns from the market with the ingredients.
The casual touches continue too: a palm brushing over Yusuf’s shoulder in greeting, strong fingers curling around Yusuf’s wrist when Nicolò wants him to go somewhere, a playful hip check when Yusuf is in the way. They begin sparring, to keep themselves in shape. Yusuf learns how to carry out the same maneuvers by which he was once killed; he wields Nicolò’s longsword and teaches him how to best use the saif. They practice hand-to-hand combat, kicking and punching and wrestling each other to the ground, breathlessly explaining techniques all the while. They bruise and scrape and heal, and they do not kill each other.
All the while, Yusuf grows more and more entranced by Nicolò. He knew Nicolò was skilled at many things, saw in Antalya how carefully he worked the soil, the ease with which he conjured mouthwatering meals out of a handful of vegetables and spices. He knew, only too well, Nicolò’s abilities as a soldier, the strength with which he could strike or block a blow, the determination with which he fought and struggled until his last breath.
But now, Yusuf also learns to appreciate the the lines of muscle beneath Nicolò’s fair skin, the way salt water makes his hair dry in waves, the gleam of his ocean-blue eyes. Yusuf returns the casual touches by brushing past Nicolò closer than strictly necessary, by correcting his grip on the saif or carefully adjusting his fighting stances as Nicolò lets Yusuf gently move his body into the proper positions. Each time, Yusuf finds it harder to pull away; yet he cannot bring himself to stop. If they were cautiously orbiting each other in Antalya, now they are on an inexorable collision course.
It takes weeks for Yusuf to notice that Nicolò no longer prays as he once did. He no longer pauses throughout the day, kneeling or hands folded, nor does Yusuf see him quietly rolling his prayer beads between his fingers in moments of stillness. Instead, Yusuf leaves Nicolò asleep when he rises for Fajr, and finds him already dozing after Yusuf’s Isha.
Yusuf hesitates to bring it up with Nicolò, but finds himself unable to stop thinking about it. He wonders if this slow but steady shift in their interactions, the differences in Nicolò’s demeanor since Yusuf arrived in Malta, have anything to do with Nicolò’s—Yusuf is not even sure what to call it. Has Nicolò renounced his religion? Or has he simply adapted his ways of observing?
Yusuf never has to ask, because Nicolò himself raises the subject when Yusuf is slipping into bed next to him after Isha.
“You still believe in your God,” Nicolò’s voice says quietly in the darkness, startling Yusuf, who thought him to be sleeping.
“Yes,” Yusuf replies, because he does. He does not understand the last few years, but it seems clear that Allah has protected him, has kept him in this life when by all rights he should have passed to the next one. He got to say goodbye to his family, and he is learning to make his peace with that separation. And then there is Nicolò.
He does not understand, but the rituals of his faith make him feel connected when everything else has changed. He thinks of his family rising early, taking turns at ablutions, his father and brothers and, now, his sons lined up together at the mosque. He cannot be with them, but at least he knows that five times a day, they are together when they pray.
“I still believe,” Yusuf says, because Nicolò has said nothing further, “because I can see how Allah has been good to me. I think He has His reasons, even if I do not understand them now. I still have time to learn, right?”
Nicolò sighs quietly. “Your Allah seems much more benevolent than my God. Or maybe it is just then men who have interpreted for my God. I—I find I no longer know what I believe,” he confesses, barely audible.
Yusuf hesitates. He had struggled to reconcile Nicolò, the Christian invader, with Nicolò, the quiet traveling companion, but it had not occurred to him that Nicolò himself was so uneasy with this dichotomy. Maybe Yusuf had been too preoccupied with his own life; maybe he had not looked closely enough.
“Do you… want to talk about it?” Yusuf asks eventually, when the silence has become drawn out.
“It’s just that—I thought. I always thought of myself as a good person,” Nicolò says haltingly. “I thought I understood what God wanted of me, and I thought I knew how to obey Him.” Nicolò fumbles slightly in the dark, then finds and clasps Yusuf’s hand. “I really did believe that I was doing the right thing, when I joined the campaign to the Holy Land. I believed that the men who ordered it knew the will of God. I believed—” Nicolò cuts himself off and makes a sound that Yusuf could swear is a choked-off sob.
Nicolò’s voice is thick when he speaks again. “I believed many things, and I have seen how wrong I was. Yusuf, you have shown me that I was wrong. How can I pray to a God who would want me to—to destroy you and your people? I cannot. I will not.”
Yusuf is hardly breathing, not wanting to disturb the cocoon of comforting darkness where Nicolò is making such confessions. Nicolò may have been in the wrong, when they met, but Yusuf had never imagined the depths of his agony. Maybe Yusuf had not quite seen him as human before, either. Their hands are still joined, and Yusuf dares to squeeze Nicolò’s gently.
“How can you even bear to be around me?” Nicolò rasps. “After what I did, how can you still—”
“Okay, enough talking,” Yusuf says. “I’m honestly sorry I offered. Listen, Nicolò.” Yusuf inhales deeply through his nose. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this too, yes? And I will not just let you speak that way about someone who I have come to consider a—a friend. And—” He pauses for a moment, making sure that what he says rings true in his heart. “A friend and a good person,” he finishes, and he feels Nicolò’s hand jerk in surprise.
“You weren’t always,” Yusuf adds dryly. “But what I believe is that—you are different now, too. I can tell. And you have shown me nothing but kindness since—well, since the last time you killed me, which was now a very long time ago.”
Nicolò is making little snuffling sounds, and Yusuf bites his lip to keep from saying or doing anything that will be too much.
“I can’t tell you what to believe,” Yusuf says. “But I believe that people can change. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always possible.”
“I think you are the best person I have ever known,” Nicolò whispers. “There is nothing I would wish to change about you.”
And oh, if that doesn’t do something alarming to Yusuf’s heart.
“Go to sleep, Nicolò,” Yusuf whispers back. “Do not worry about God. He also sees the good in you, and He knows.”
One morning, Yusuf awakes feeling as though he is covered by a heavy, hot quilt; when he finally pries his eyes open, he discovers that Nicolò has thrown a leg over Yusuf’s hip in his sleep, and Yusuf has curled himself into the warmth of Nicolò’s broad chest. Something shifts inside Yusuf, seeing how his unconscious body has so readily given in to the deepening desires of his conscious mind. It feels so inevitable, and yet despite their increasingly easy closeness, Yusuf has no idea what to do with his urges. He cannot really even be sure if Nicolò would be receptive, or if his lingering smiles and soft touches reflect only the affectionate friendship they have built over the years.
Yusuf tries to remember his childhood friends, the boys with whom he grew up, those who were brothers in everything but blood until Yusuf left for the Holy Land. Their embraces never made his palms sweat, their playful grins never caused his heart to painfully skip a beat, and he was certainly never driven to distraction by the way their hair shone in the sunlight.
It was only ever Ahmed who made him feel this way, and Ahmed was so different—so lighthearted and confident, in himself and in Yusuf. With Ahmed, there was never any question; it was clear from the day they met what was between them.
Fatimata, too, was a different feeling: a deep, warm, affectionate glow that grew within him so slowly and steadily that he didn’t notice he loved her until he already had for some time.
But with Nicolò, it is flashes of heat and bursts of uncertain timidity, an unfamiliar feeling for Yusuf. Already, Nicolò has been more different things to Yusuf than anyone else in his life; and yet, he yearns for Nicolò to become the one thing he is not yet.
Yusuf’s thoughts are interrupted by Nicolò shifting, drifting into wakefulness, and his eyes flicker open mere inches from Yusuf’s face. He gives Yusuf a small, sleepy smile. “Good morning,” Nicolò mumbles.
They gaze at each other for a long moment, until Nicolò rolls onto his back, yawns widely, and pushes himself upright. “We should get up,” he says over his shoulder. “I promised Isabella that we would help press wine today.”
Yusuf watches Nicolò stretch, the way the muscles in his back bunch and release, and thinks about this other reason for his uncertainty: Isabella, the youngest daughter and beneficiary of Nicolò’s first act of extrajudicial justice. She’s an undeniably beautiful young woman, golden skin and green eyes and thick, shiny hair braided down her back; Yusuf can’t help but think that she and Nicolò would make a striking couple. He finds her feelings to be very obvious in the way she smiles shyly at Nicolò, the way she will request his help with all manner of tasks and insist on thanking him by coming to the cottage to offer warm, crusty bread or pitchers of fresh milk or baskets of perfectly ripe fruit. Nicolò, in turn, is gentle and attentive, and always invites her to stay and share these gifts; he tries to draw Yusuf into their conversations, and Isabella is polite but her attention never wanders from Nicolò.
Yusuf and Nicolò alternate turning the crank on the press and hauling away full barrels; Yusuf catches himself watching out of the corner of his eye as Nicolò’s biceps strain, and then he looks over at Isabella, sees that he’s not the only one sneaking glances, and feels a sudden rush of humiliation at finding himself in a strange one-sided competition with a girl hardly older than his Mariam. As he takes his turn lugging a barrel, he resolves that it’s enough: just because he and Nicolò have been flung together by an inexplicable onset of midlife immortality, it does not mean that they are bound together indefinitely. Maybe they will start aging again; who knows? Nicolò does not have to make the same lonely choice that Yusuf has made.
Returning to the press empty-handed, Yusuf rounds the corner and stops short. Isabella is standing very close to Nicolò, lips moving with words Yusuf cannot hear, and then she darts forward and up to press her mouth to his. The kiss is over so quickly Yusuf is almost unsure of what he actually saw; Nicolò has taken a step backwards and is speaking rapidly, then starts cranking the wine press so vigorously that Yusuf is almost afraid he’ll injure himself.
Nicolò doesn’t look up when Yusuf approaches, and the three of them spend the rest of the afternoon working in tense silence.
The silence follows them back to the house, with Nicolò uncharacteristically withdrawn, and Yusuf unsure what he can or should do to break him out of it. He suddenly can’t recall what they usually talk about, in their easy and effortless exchanges. The morning, and the feeling of waking up in Nicolò’s sleeping embrace, feels as distant as Fatimata and his life before he ever died.
Finally, finishing dinner with hardly more than a few words passing between them, Yusuf can take it no longer. If he says the wrong thing, at least he will have some reaction. Maybe he’ll just provoke Nicolò into killing him for old times’ sake.
“So,” Yusuf says, “Isabella is a nice girl, no?”
Nicolò’s eyes snap to his. “What,” he says flatly.
“And it seems like she, ah, likes you very much,” Yusuf continues, forging ahead.
“What the fuck,” Nicolò says, a little louder.
“If you also like her, maybe you should…” Yusuf trails off, because Nicolò is glaring at him more ferociously than he ever did when he was trying to kill him, but he has also started twirling his dinner knife ominously, so maybe the provocation is working.
“I saw you kiss,” Yusuf blurts. “And it’s very understandable—of course, it could become complicated eventually, but it might do you some good to—”
Nicolò throws the knife past Yusuf’s head—Yusuf knows he missed on purpose—and then he buries his face in his hands with a groan. “What have I done to deserve this,” he mutters in Ligurian, and Yusuf can just barely make out the words. Nicolò lifts his head, still glaring. “Maybe I should just go back. Forget this ever happened. Take the cloth, find a nice little parish with simple, God-fearing people. I could spend my time trying to do some small good and quietly repenting in a place that’s blessedly free of death-defying infidel assholes who seem determined to make my everlasting life a hell on earth.”
Now it’s Yusuf’s turn to stare. He has no idea what Nicolò is on about, but he’s beginning to think it would have been easier and faster to just die.
“Isabella,” Nicolò continues, “has been in love with my for four years. I know this. I know it because I have been here for four years because I have been waiting for you.” He throws his hands up in a universally recognizable gesture of despair. “Four years, Yusuf, crushing grapes and herding goats and living on this beautiful but godforsaken rock in the Mediterranean, on the off-chance that one day, God Almighty knew when, you might somehow feel compelled to seek me out.”
He pauses just long enough to suck in a deep breath. “Isabella knows that I know that she is in love with me, because I have rebuked her advances for four straight years. How is it possible that you cannot understand this?”
This is the longest speech that Yusuf has ever heard Nicolò deliver, to anyone, on any subject, in any language.
When Nicolò shoves himself to his feet and marches over to Yusuf, he’s pretty sure that it’s to strangle him with his bare hands. Instead, Nicolò grabs him by the shoulders and hauls him upright.
“Yusuf,” Nicolò says. His face is just inches away from Yusuf’s, eyes burning, and he continues in careful Arabic. “Please, please tell me you understand, because I do not know how to make myself any clearer.”
Nicolò’s hands are heavy on Yusuf’s shoulders, his expression pleading. Yusuf feels like he’s been punched in the gut as he does, finally, understand that his longing is not unreciprocated.
Slowly, Yusuf brings his hands cup to Nicolò’s cheeks, brushes his thumbs over Nicolò’s short beard, feels Nicolò exhale shakily. They lean forward together, until their noses bump gently and Yusuf has to close his eyes.
Their first kiss is hardly more than a hesitant brush of lips, and it sends sparks rushing down Yusuf’s spine. Nicolò’s fingers tighten, digging into Yusuf’s shoulders, and Yusuf’s hands push back into Nicolò’s hair. When they pull apart, only a moment later, it is just enough space for Yusuf meet Nicolò’s burning gaze.
“Yusuf,” Nicolò murmurs, voice lower and rougher than Yusuf has ever heard it. He shivers.
“Nicolò,” Yusuf whispers.
“I’d like to do that again,” Nicolò says, and Yusuf laughs helplessly as he pulls him back in.
Yusuf is smiling too hard to kiss properly, but then Nicolò’s body melts forward and—oh—Yusuf gasps into Nicolò’s mouth, heat rushing through him.
Shyness gone, Nicolò kisses like he fights, determined and unrelenting and unexpectedly strong. In a familiar-feeling maneuver, Yusuf leverages his slight height advantage, only now, instead of using it to shove Nicolò onto his saif, he slides his hands up Nicolò’s sides and spins him so he is forced to sit heavily on the table. Yusuf steps between his legs and Nicolò stretches up to chase Yusuf’s mouth, gripping fistfuls of Yusuf’s tunic. Yusuf’s head is spinning with it, the taste of Nicolò, the feel of him beneath his hands; he wants to touch him everywhere, runs his hands up his chest and over his shoulders, then carefully cups his face, slides his fingers through Nicolò’s silky hair. When Yusuf’s thumb brushes over his racing pulse point, Nicolò moans and bites down on Yusuf’s bottom lip, and starbursts shoot across Yusuf’s closed eyelids.
Technically asphyxiation isn’t a huge problem for either of them, but it’s not pleasant either, and eventually they break apart, panting. Yusuf doesn’t want to let the moment break, afraid Nicolò might suddenly come to his senses, so he tilts his head forward to press his forehead to Nicolò’s, idly tracing the line of his jaw.
“Dio,” Nicolò breathes. “Yusuf.” He reaches up to press a close-mouthed kiss to Yusuf’s lips, then another to his cheek, and one just below his ear.
Yusuf would like to crack a joke about how he’s fairly certain that God has nothing to do with this, but he can’t seem to formulate words in any language. All he can hear is his heart pounding in his ears, and harsh breathing that could be either his or Nicolò’s.
Yusuf doesn’t know how long they stand there, clutching at each other, trading soft and heated kisses. Finally, Yusuf pulls back to look at Nicolò, to see the pink flush of his cheeks and his dilated pupils. He cards his fingers through the fine hair at the base of Nicolò’s neck, and watches the corners of Nicolò’s lips curl upward almost imperceptibly.
“Okay?” Yusuf asks hoarsely.
Nicolò smiles fully, then, and kisses Yusuf slowly, lazily, running his tongue over Yusuf’s lips and into his mouth like they have all the time in the world—which, Yusuf supposes, they might.
“I’ve waited so long for this,” Nicolò whispers when he pulls away.
Yusuf shakes his head minutely. “How long?”
Nicolò cradles Yusuf’s cheek, his gaze steady and clear. “Since Bayrut,” he says quietly. “Since you came back for me, when it would have been so much easier not to. I didn’t really expect to see you again,” he admits, and presses a gentle hand to Yusuf’s lips to silence his protests. “I would not have blamed you. You had no reason to stay with me. But then—”
Nicolò closes his eyes for a long moment, fingers still resting on Yusuf’s mouth. “When I saw you, barging through those woods with all the subtlety of a bear, I was sure that we were supposed to be together. Nothing else made sense then, and nothing else makes sense now.”
Yusuf folds his fingers over Nicolò’s, presses a kiss to them, and removes them from his mouth. “So you think destiny brought me to you?” He asks, quirking an eyebrow.
Nicolò sees straight through his joking levity, and doesn’t fall for it. “Yes,” he replies, soft and serious. “I think it must be destiny.”
If asked before, Yusuf would never have said that destiny was a thing in which he believed. The will of Allah, yes, in very abstract terms, as a way to cope with misfortune or humbly accept good luck. But to be destined to do something, or go somewhere, or meet someone—that seemed like either a grandiose audacity or an easy way to shrug off reality.
Now, though, looking into Nicolò’s earnest eyes, Yusuf isn’t so sure anymore. His entire world had already slipped off its axis the moment he awoke for the first time, coughing and gasping, pressing his palm to a fatal wound in his stomach that was shrinking down to nothing before his very eyes. Nothing that he’d thought he believed could have explained his body’s unwillingness to die, no matter the injuries inflicted upon it, any more than it could explain the Christian Frank with the same inconceivable power. There is no easy explanation for why, after failing to kill the Frank, Yusuf had indeed stayed with him, when it would have been so easy to abandon him and seek out the shelter of his own people. It seems to Yusuf, suddenly, that there is nothing less than destiny that could have led their paths to cross at the opposite end of each other’s weapons.
“Maybe,” Yusuf concedes, “you are right. But,” he continues, tracing lines across Nicolò’s palm, “even though I did not call it destiny, I knew before you did.”
“Bullshit,” Nicolò says fondly. “When?”
“The first time I watched you sleep.” Yusuf hears the words come out of his mouth and wants to take them back immediately, but it’s too late, and Nicolò’s expression has become decidedly amused and a bit smug.
“You were watching me sleep?”
“You were sleeping in front of me,” Yusuf tries to explain. “It was the first time you fell asleep in front of me. And I—”
“Just watched me,” Nicolò finishes.
Yusuf tries to glower at him, but thinks he is not very convincing because Nicolò just kisses him, lingering, tangling his fingers in Yusuf’s curls.
“You looked different, asleep,” Yusuf tells him when they break apart. “It was the first time you looked like—just a man. Like me. And I thought maybe there was a reason why Allah stuck me with you.”
“I think I will choose to take that as a compliment,” Nicolò says dubiously.
“It is,” Yusuf promises. He can still remember it, that stirring deep in his chest, that ache for something he didn’t yet understand.
They finally tumble into bed, curled toward each other in an approximation of how they’d woken up that morning—a morning that Yusuf can hardly believe was only a few hours previous. Yusuf reaches out and runs a deliberate hand down Nicolò’s side and over his hip, as Nicolò threads a leg between Yusuf’s, and they fall asleep tangled together.
Yusuf wakes up wrapped around Nicolò, face buried in the nape of his neck. The sunlight pouring through the window betrays the late hour, the morning already well advanced, and it takes a moment for Yusuf to realize that he’s been woken by a knocking at the door. When he starts to disentangle himself, only for Nicolò to grumble sleepily and tighten his grip on Yusuf’s forearm, Yusuf smiles to himself and gives in to the desire to card his fingers through Nicolò’s sleep-mussed hair.
“Go back to sleep,” he whispers. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
When he opens the door, Isabella is standing on the other side looking nervous but determined.
“Hello Giuseppe,” she says—because Malta is diverse, but he and Nicolò have enough to worry about without making it too obvious that they are a Christian and a Muslim sharing quarters. “Is Nicolò here?”
“Ah, he’s still sleeping,” Yusuf replies, trying to keep his face carefully blank. Nicolò is still sleeping, waiting for Yusuf to go back and take him in his arms.
Isabella nods tightly, then shoves a small basket towards Yusuf. “The nectarines are ripe,” she says, “and please tell him I wanted to apologize. I—”
“Isabella?” Nicolò emerges from the bedroom. His tunic is wrinkled and there is a pillow crease etched across his cheek and he is beautiful.
“She brought us nectarines,” Yusuf says, showing him the basket.
“Oh,” Nicolò says, and smiles warmly at Isabella. Yusuf thinks it’s no wonder that the poor girl fell in love with him, nor that she thought it might be requited, if he makes a habit of looking at her that way. “Thank you.”
She flushes and fixes her gaze resolutely at a point on the floor. “I’m sorry I pushed you,” she tells the tiles. “It was wrong of me. I just thought, maybe—” She cuts herself off, and her eyes flick up to Nicolò and away again. “Anyway. I hope you can forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” Nicolò says gently, ostensibly to Isabella, but he then he looks up at Yusuf with soft affection written plainly across his face. “We are all fallible. We are all learning. And truly,” he continues eyes sparkling at Yusuf, “there was no harm done yesterday.”
When Isabella has finished saying what she came for, has been adequately soothed, she all but trips over herself to escape. Alone, Yusuf grins at Nicolò and steps into his space.
“Good morning,” Yusuf murmurs, settling his hands on Nicolò’s hips.
Nicolò grins and kisses him, winding his arms around Yusuf’s neck. “Good morning,” he says as he pulls back.
“You are in an unusually good mood.”
Nicolò laughs at him. “It has been an unusual morning, no?” His expression turns more pensive. “It was true, you know,” he says. “What I told Isabella. If she had not pushed yesterday, you would not have pushed either, and I am afraid it would have taken me at least four more years to work up the courage to say anything to you.”
“Thank God for Isabella,” Yusuf says with feeling, kissing Nicolò again.
“Alhamdulillah,” Nicolò agrees. “Speaking of,” he adds a moment later, pulling away to look at Yusuf. “I think I will go pray.”
Yusuf freezes, hands gripping Nicolò’s back. “Oh?” He peers at Nicolò, trying to figure out if he’s missed or misinterpreted something. “Uh, that is, yes, of course—but do you, should I—”
Nicolò, thankfully, takes pity on him. “I think I finally understand some things,” he says, “and I think, for the first time in a very long time, that I am happy.” He offers Yusuf a small, almost shy, smile. “I would like to try expressing my gratitude for this gift.” He punctuates his sentence by pressing his mouth softly to Yusuf’s, lingering, as if to be sure that his meaning is clear.
That night, Yusuf presses Nicolò into their bed, fitting their bodies together like puzzle pieces as they gasp into each other’s mouths. Nicolò has been glowing all day, and Yusuf suspects that his own face has been overtaken by entirely ridiculous smiles. There are words to describe how he feels, both giddy and grounded, and he will not say them yet to Nicolò, but he knows them to be true. He will know when the moment is right; they have the time.
Nicolò’s mouth is exploring Yusuf’s neck when his teeth scrape over his ear lobe, and Yusuf gasps and jerks, rolling to his side and pulling Nicolò’s weight on top of him. Nicolò sucks in a shaky breath and buries his face in Yusuf’s shoulder, and Yusuf can feel how hard he is, how hard they both are. He rolls his hips experimentally, and Nicolò bites down at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and Yusuf is going to lose his mind.
“Nicolò,” he gasps, “can I—”
“Yes,” Nicolò hisses, “I swear on all that is holy to your God or mine, if you do not, I will drown you in rancid wine, so help me—”
Yusuf cuts him off with his mouth and slips a hand beneath Nicolò’s tunic. Nicolò moans into Yusuf’s mouth, gasps and clutches at him, thrusting against Yusuf as a litany of curses falls from his lips, invoking by turns either a dizzying array of Christian saints or Yusuf himself. Yusuf lets his breathless voice wash over him, lost in the feeling of Nicolò sliding against him and fully aware that this won’t last long.
Afterwards, cleaned up and lying in Nicolò’s arms, Yusuf feels like a dam has burst within him. He cannot fathom how he went so long without touching Nicolò like this, skin on skin, without kissing him, softly or violently, without understanding what they might be to each other. He hopes he never has to give this up.
When Yusuf wakes from another dream about the women, more vivid than ever, Nicolò is already awake and gazing at him.
“I think we should find them,” Nicolò says. “The women. I think they are like us.”
Yusuf knows he’s right, but—he nestles closer to Nicolò, fits his face into the space between his neck and his shoulder, presses a kiss to his collarbone. “What about Malta?” Yusuf asks, voice muffled.
He feels Nicolò’s hand come up to cradle the back of his head, fingers carding through his hair, and he knows even before Nicolò responds, that it doesn’t matter—wherever he is with Nicolò, it will always be Malta.
“We will come back,” Nicolò promises. “Maybe we will bring the women. Maybe we will keep it for ourselves.”
“As long as we are together,” Yusuf says. I love you, he adds silently. He will say it out loud soon, he is sure.
“Together,” Nicolò agrees. “We will have time.”