art by Seul
Dhu'l-Hijja, 492 AH (late October, 1099 AD)
Yusuf watches as a group of workers unloads a long ship. It is a dull and backbreaking occupation, he knows, but he wishes he could join them all the same. He could use the coin and he could use the distraction, but the men seem almost done now.
He flexes both of his hands, aware of how much he misses the weight of the rings around his fingers. He used to wear four pieces, all made of silver, each one set with a different type of stone. His mother had taught him the importance of always having something of value, something small and easily concealed that he could take with him on the road.
Just in case of need, she used to say.
Yusuf had traded the last one just that morning. It was the ring with a large aquamarine stone and he had held on to it until today for reasons he was not ready to examine too closely yet.
Beyond the docks, the sun looks heavy on the horizon, blurry in hot colours, eager to kiss the sea. Yusuf knows he will need to get clean for his evening prayers soon, but he lets himself watch the comings and goings of men and cargo for a little while longer. He shivers as the autumn winds caresses the ship’s sails.
The air smells of seafood, sweat and salt, and Yusuf feels hungry, tired and wistful.
His family must have received the news of his passing by now. He had written the letter himself, careful to make his handwriting look as different as possible. It was no hard task, not for him anyway. Yusuf has always been good with his hands, his calligraphy highly praised by all of his teachers at their local Madrasa.
He misses having paper and ink available at all times, to let his mind and his hands wander free. The calluses on his fingers weren’t solely made by the hilt of a sword. He wishes he could spare some of the coin he has acquired earlier to buy pens and parchment, but there are more pressing matters to attend.
He almost feels as if he is in pain. Not the kind he used to endure after spending hour after hour hunched over a manuscript, translating Greek into Arabic, Persian into Greek and into Arabic again. Covering the margins with leaves, flowers and patterns in different colours. That pain was old and pure, free of the fear of the unknown. He misses making sense of a world that he could fit under his hands.
Out in the docks, Yusuf notices when a tall man looks up from the set of crates he just has finished stacking into a neat pile. The man waves in his direction and Yusuf frowns, looking over his shoulder, but there is no one else there with him. He had picked a spot up high, perched over the ruins of an old watchtower, where he could stare at the sea without being caught by surprise.
The man does not seem bothered by Yusuf’s lack of response and, after making a large gesture at one of his fellow workers, he starts to walk towards the old tower, keeping his hand up as in signal for Yusuf to wait. The man is wearing simple clothes stained in different colours from all the spices and dyes that spilled from the crates now pilled along the waterfront. He has a leather bag strapped across his chest.
Yusuf only recognises Nicolò when he gets close enough for the sun to catch the colour of his eyes. He has not seen the man for the past three days, and he is surprised to notice Nicolò has cut his hair shorter, to chin length and that he has shaved off his beard. He is smiling his half-smile, as he often does when he looks at Yusuf, unaware of what that simple gesture triggers in his belly. Yusuf is used to ignoring these sensations so he just smirks back, deceptively unfazed.
“Your beard,” Yusuf says in Sabir and then he repeats the same word in Arabic, as it was their agreement. Nicolò chuckles. He has to repeat the same word at least eight times before Yusuf deems it acceptable to his sensible ears.
Nicolò has been sleeping in one of the local churches so they could save coin, whereas Yusuf has found board in the Madrasa where he had offered to translate some documents in exchange for his stay. That gave him access to their library, but it was a small one, and it took him no time at all to go through all the books and documents he thought could help them in their search. Gaza was still mostly untouched by the war, but he had heard troubling news on the market that morning. It was a good thing they would be on their way soon.
“When does the ship leave?” Nicolò asks in a mix of Sabir and some of his Zeneize that Yusuf has been trying to pick up as well. He appreciates how the words roll over his tongue, his accent clinging to the vowels, heavy and quiet at the same time.
Nicolò puts his bag over the large rock Yusuf has been sitting on and steps back so he can take off his shirt to shake it clean from the colourful dust. The strong scent of sweat does not bother Yusuf, but the sight of Nicolò’s prominent ribs does.
Nicolò had been starving when he and his fellow Christians had stormed the walls of Jerusalem, and the back roads he and Yusuf had taken in the months following their first deaths had not provided much in the way of sustenance. Often, they had gone for days with no more than a loaf of bread between them.
Once or twice they had been very close to finding out if they could come back from death by starvation, and Nicolò had never complained. The memory of the first real meal they had shared in the village where Yusuf managed to trade the first of his four rings still made his mouth water. Even if he lives a thousand years, he somehow knows he will never eat better hummus.
Yusuf avoids looking in Nicolò’s direction as he puts his significantly less dirty shirt back on, and then goes over the same procedure with his slacks, determined to get rid of the worst of the dust.
“We leave in two days,” Yusuf replies, looking towards the docks, and Nicolò makes a deep sound on the back of his throat. Yusuf stares at him and suddenly, Nicolò looks weary and apologetic.
“What happened?” Yusuf asks when he does not elaborate.
“I cut myself,” Nicolò explains, lamely. He has put his pants back on and now he is the one avoiding Yusuf’s eyes. “I was shaving this morning and... it was just a small cut, but there was some blood.” He sighs heavily, clenching his jaw. Yusuf never noticed how strong it looked. Still, the lack of beard makes him seem somehow younger, and he wonders why Nicolò shaved it off at all. The winter is on its way, it did not make sense to lose that layer of protection on his face. “One of the novices saw as it happened and he was very confused when I did not have a wound to take care of. I believe I convinced him he was merely mistaken, but-”
Yusuf glances at Nicolò’s bag. He had both of their swords safely stored under his pallet at the Madrasa, so all of what remained of Nicolò’s belongings should be in that leather bag.
“You will not be returning to your church tonight, yes?”
Nicolò runs a hand over his face, and Yusuf notices for the first time the dark spot near his chin. He had mistaken it for a stain, but now he can tell it is a mole. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Yusuf wonders how it would feel under his fingertips, so he presses both hands hard against the stone he is sitting on. It stings, and he breathes in relief as his curiosity bleeds out.
“Best not,” Nicolò shrugs and points out to the ship he has helped unload. “I talked to the captain. He is a Pisan, but he says I can sleep on the deck. It does not look like it is going to rain, at least.”
Yusuf stares up to the horizon. The sky is indeed clear, and there is no smell of rain in the air, but they are still too close to the desert, and the nights have been growing colder with each passing day. He had used most of the coin he acquired with his last ring to secure them a place on a ship bound for Alexandria, but he probably still has enough for a room in a cheaper inn. They will not be left with much to see them through their voyage, though.
“I will be fine, Yusuf.” Nicolò rarely uses his name, probably because he had butchered it the first few attempts to say it, and Yusuf’s teasing probably had not helped. He notices Nicolò is looking down, fingers worrying the fabric of his shirt before he grabs his leather bag and examines its contents. “I think I got sufficient money for our dinner tonight, here.” He opens his palm to reveal a few coins, and Yusuf pauses, unsure about his meaning. “You have paid for enough meals.”
Yusuf thinks about explaining he could eat back at the Madrasa, so Nicolò could rent a place to sleep with an actual roof over his head. But the man is staring at him in earnest, and Yusuf realises he cannot just refuse him, so he finds himself nodding. Nicolò face lights up with a full-smile, and Yusuf feels his face warm despite the wind blowing from the port and he is thankful for his beard and complexion.
They part ways so Yusuf can walk to the Mosque to pray while Nicolò goes to the bathhouse to wash himself. They meet two hours later, and the inn is already packed. The coin the dockworkers had earned exchanges hands to buy drinks, food and companionship.
They manage to find a small table in the back. Yusuf watches as Nicolò struggles with his words as he orders, but he does not intervene and he gives him a reassuring nod once the server leaves. Yusuf bows his head and says a prayer in silence once the food arrives, and when he looks up, Nicolò is busy doing the same. They lock eyes for a moment before they begin eating. The lamb stew is simple but skilfully seasoned, and the flatbread is freshly baked and plentiful, so they have their fill.
“You saw them?” Nicolò asks as he cleans his plate with a piece of bread.
Yusuf nods. He had the dreams the night before, so he assumes of course Nicolò must have had them as well. They called it “the dreams” because it only happens when they are asleep, but the truth is it never felt like dreaming. Yusuf had the fever when he was a boy, and his mother thought he was going to die and sat by his bedside for days until it broke. Yusuf did not remember much from that time, except for feeling he was out of his body, but burning with the fever at the same time. The dreams... the dreams remind him of that time.
“It was so cold,” says Nicolò, his large shoulders shivering at the memory.
Yusuf nods. “I thought my nose was going to fall off,” he says with a chuckle, as he remembers a vast white field and the texture of fur under his fingertips. “What did you see?”
Nicolò proceeds to describe the shape of the mountains on the horizon and the weight of the axe one of the women had held in her hand. By now they have pieced together that her name is Andromache. The other one, with more delicate features and always with a bow strapped to her back, is called Quỳnh.
Sometimes, Yusuf is certain they are real and they are out there, somewhere in the world. Sometimes, he thinks he must be going insane. That in fact he had knocked his head when the northern wall fell and all this is some kind of delirious fever he has been trapped inside. But once he looks at Nicolò across the table, he knows this must is real. God would not have kept them from dying if He did not have a major purpose for them both.
Their conversation is interrupted by a loud cheer to their right, and Yusuf looks up to see a swarm of arms descend towards them. He stops right before he grabs his meat knife, once he notices it is just one man, who seems blissfully drunk, and is laughing and talking to Nicolò in their language, his words too fast and slurred for Yusuf to grasp the meaning.
As soon the man releases Nicolò from the hug he has pulled him into, he proceeds to gesture towards the bar, talking loudly, and a server makes a short gesture in return. Nicolò protests, but the man only laughs louder and shakes his head until Nicolò seems to relent. The strange also says something to Yusuf, who tries not to flinch to the stench of alcohol that emanates from him. Once the man goes back to his own table, Nicolò looks back to Yusuf. He seems sheepish.
“We unloaded a ship yesterday,” he says, and adds as an afterthought. “He fell overboard.”
Yusuf flinches openly and lets out a small prayer. It is not uncommon for dock workers to never have learned how to swim. “You jumped after him.”
Nicolò’s answer is interrupted by a server bringing a jug of house wine and two mugs.
“Yes,” he admits, his shoulders drooping, and Yusuf cannot find it in him to say anything untoward. He knows it would be dangerous had Nicolò drowned himself and came back to life in front of a crowd, but he knows he would not let a man die if he could help. “It was fine, I am a good swimmer.”
Yusuf nods as Nicolò fills his own mug with the wine he was gifted and then raises a glass to his fellow man at the other side of the room, who erupts with cheers. Yusuf raises his mug of tea as well and they drink and pick up their talk about the two women.
They agree they do not recognise the area or the language they are speaking, and Yusuf cannot help noticing that Nicolò does not mention the fact that both women had touched one another intimately, once they found shelter and could shed off their heavy coats. Yusuf does not speak about it either, unsure on how he feels about that knowledge.
By the time the wine jug is empty, it is late, and the dark lines under Nicolò’s pale eyes look sharper and deeper, and Yusuf realises he cannot simply let him go back to sleep out in the cold on a ship’s deck. After all that wine, chances are Nicolò would fall overboard himself.
He takes Nicolò back to his little room in the Madrasa. On their way, Yusuf instructs him to pretend to be ill in case someone sees them, and Nicolò plays his part to the best of his abilities. He lets his head fall over Yusuf’s shoulder and Yusuf curls one of his arms around his waist at the pretence of keeping him up. He cannot help feeling how Nicolò’s skin radiates warmth even beneath the fabric of his tunic.
art by Seul
No one bothers them on their way in, and Nicolò arranges his bedroll on the bare floor as Yusuf settles over his pallet. Nicolò falls asleep quickly enough, as he often did on the road. Yusuf lingers.
He has somehow managed to avoid staring too long at Nicolò’s clean face during their meal, but now that those unsettling eyes cannot judge him, Yusuf takes full advantage of the moonlight creeping through the curtains and he watches Nicolò sleep.
Somehow over the last months Yusuf has grown accustomed to the other man’s presence and he has come to reconcile the image of the barbarian who killed him over and over during the course of a day and a night with the person he warily watched as they bathed in a stream the next morning. And his strongest memory was of how Nicolò had hissed in pain as he had pulled off the dried bloody rags of his clothes that had adhered to his skin.
They had barely talked during the first days, but the image of Nicolò’s skin stretched over his ribs had made Yusuf share the bread he had looted from the bag of one of the fallen soldiers as they had fled the battlefield. It was ill manners to quarrel with a person you break bread with, so he accepted the unspoken truce. Still, Yusuf could not let himself fall asleep easily, expecting that man would try to kill him again, maybe to make sure it would stick this time. Nicolò never did, not once in all those months.
Now, Yusuf runs a hand over his face, the wariness of a long a day slowly creeping into his bones. He notices again how he misses the weight of his rings and he stretches his hand out in front of him, so Nicolò’s prone form is barely visible between his fingers.
He thinks about his last ring, the aquamarine one. It had been a gift from his uncle Fadi when Yusuf had finished his formal education and had been offered a place in Jerusalem as a translator. Uncle Fadi was one of the few who had supported Yusuf’s decision to leave Mahdia instead of marrying the girl his parents had chosen. His uncle had never married himself, but he was not the oldest son, so he had got away with it. Yusuf still feels like he is running from his parents and he hopes they can find peace in his death now.
Uncle Fadi had died a year after Yusuf had arrived in Jerusalem, and Yusuf knows he has avoided parting with that ring mostly because of his uncle, but as he watches his companion asleep beside him, his pale face buried between his arms, Yusuf cannot help but think about how that aquamarine stone had been of almost the same colour as Nicolò’s eyes.
And Yusuf does not know exactly when he had begun to trust the man asleep on the floor, but he knows now how much he would like to sketch that new, clean face in front of him. As he falls asleep at the sound of Nicolò’s gentle snores, he wishes again he could have bought some parchment and ink.
Dhu'l-Hijja, 492 AH - Muharram, 493 AH (November - December, 1099 AD)
The tavern is empty so they have a whole table to themselves, and yet Yusuf is sitting so close to Nicolò that their elbows brush every time he moves his arm. Nicolò’s fingers are hovering a couple of centimetres above the piece of parchment spread out over the tabletop, and Yusuf watches as his eyebrows knit together, his lips forming silent words.
“I am not sure if I understand,” he says after a few minutes, turning his head to look at Yusuf. His big, pale eyes reflect the single lamp attached to the stone wall, the very reason they choose that particular spot. “I recognised the name, yes, but why do you think this letter is so important?”
Yusuf understands Nicolò’s confusion. He has found that letter on the previous day, as he sorted through the Madrasa’s old archives. The parchment is well-preserved, but the old scholars obviously have had troubled labelling it, which had been what had caught Yusuf’s attention in the first place. It is old and written mostly in Greek, but it also has foreign symbols Yusuf thinks were similar to accountant records he has once seen about trades on the silk road.
“My beloved sisters,” Yusuf points to the top of the parchment as he begins to read it aloud. “I long for your sweet smiles. Yes, even yours, little dragon. I have travelled too far south, where the sand ends and life turns green and lush again. I do love how the stars align there, but it is not the same without my timeless companions, for that I have made my way back North. I have arrived in Syracuse two days ago-”
“Syracuse?” Nicolò interrupts with an apologetic tone. “In Sicily? It is-” he stops himself as if he was about to say something immoral, but Yusuf’s curious silence forces him to finish it. “It is not far from Messina.”
He notices Nicolò looking down at his hands, avoiding Yusuf’s eyes. Yusuf understands. He knows many of Nicolò’s fellow Christians have sailed to the Holy Land from a port in Messina and by the look on his face, Nicolò never meant to bring that up, so Yusuf takes pity on him and just nods, before he resumes reading.
“Last night, I walked around to watch the moon and in the waves at the harbour I heard your laugh, Andromache.” Yusuf speaks the name as he heard in his dreams and he is marvelled at how real it feels now, to have it written in his hands. “Do you remember Nicias? That great fool. He should have listened to you, but well, to him you were only a woman. There is a boat bound for Byzantium in a week and I plan to be on it. I hear they started to call it Constantinople these days, is that true? It is becoming hard to keep track of the times, and the years seem to grow heavier whenever I am parted from you two. I hope to find you at the market, is your favourite sweet stall still there? I hope-”
Yusuf cannot read the rest of the letter or identify its signature, but it did not matter. He knows he had found something huge. He stares back at Nicolò, who still seems rather confused by everything he has just heard. Yusuf smiles as he takes a sip of his tea.
“You know Constantinople was once called Byzantium?" He asks, and Nicolò gives him a small nod. “So the city was renamed almost 800 years ago, but this person mentioned in the letter, Nicias?”
Nicolò’s brows close further, as he tries to place the name. Yusuf could not blame him if he cannot, he has had to do some research to figure it out himself. Eventually, Nicolò seems to give up with a shake of his head. Yusuf takes a moment before he speaks again.
“I do believe he is an Athenian general, who fought during the Peloponnesian War.”
Nicolò’s eyes grow large as two silver coins. “But that was before the birth of Christ,” he whispers as if he is saying something almost profane, and Yusuf fights back a smile.
“Yes,” he nods. “It happened almost 1500 years ago.”
“So you are telling me-” Nicolò looks around, making sure there is no one close enough to overhear them. He lowers his voice and Yusuf has to lean closer to understand him. He feels Nicolò’s breath hot against his ear. “That this letter was written almost 800 years ago by a person who was at least...” Nicolò’s brow is furrowed deeper, and Yusuf realises he is doing the calculations on his head. The vision is oddly endearing. “Seven-hundred years old?”
Yusuf openly chuckles, not in the slightest surprised by Nicolò’s skills. This has been his idea from the very start.
After they had stopped killing each other, they spent three months on the road; trying to avoid the struggle between the Christian and the Fatimid armies, trying to figure out what was happening to them, trying to not starve or die of thirst, and during that time, as they finally started to share a couple of words in Sabir, Yusuf came to understand Nicolò used to be a priest.
He was openly impressed when Nicolò explained he used to copy books in a monastery before leaving to fight in the Holy Land, and he remembers how he felt a kinship for that man in a more mundane way, so different from the unnatural affliction they shared. To know Nicolò also had exchanged a pen for a sword felt like a weight had been lifted from Yusuf’s shoulders.
“Maybe the answer is in a book,” Nicolò had said one evening at the end of summer, after Yusuf was finished with his prayers. “About this.”
Yusuf mused about that notion. His own holy book mentioned the healing of fatal wounds and eternal life, but not in the terms they were experiencing. Neither of them had lived pious lives — at least, Yusuf was certain he had not. It had been one of the reasons he had travelled so far from home and found work and companionship wherever he could. Nicolò had been a priest, but he had forsaken his vows and killed innocent lives. It seemed unlikely that God would make a saint of any of them.
Still, Nicolò’s idea took root in Yusuf’s mind, and he was taken back to the long and lost afternoons he had spent talking philosophy, religion and politics with his fellow scholars. He thought about all the manuscripts he had helped to translate over the last decade and he knew the answer was obvious in a way he felt like a fool for not having seen it first. If anyone in the world had lived through the same as they, there had to be tales, records, fragments to hold in their hands, answers written down, hidden in a dusty shelf for them to find... and now they have it. It is not much, but it is something.
art by Seul
Nicolò is smiling that subtle, half-smile of his, and Yusuf feels like hugging the man, but they are close enough already. He thinks maybe he should make an exception that evening and drink a mug of wine in celebration and he is feeling a little too full of himself and maybe that is how he misses the first signs of rain. It is only when a loud thunder shakes the world outside that he realises a huge storm has arrived while he was busy trying to ignore Nicolò’s warm body close to his.
Yusuf hesitates. He needs to get back to the Madrasa before the last call, which should happen soon, but he cannot risk damaging the letter. He could leave it with Nicolò, but Nicolò has to work in the shipyard in the next day, and if that letter is somehow misplaced... the Madrasa’s librarian would have Yusuf’s beard. The confusion must have materialised on his face, because Nicolò takes one look at the letter, already stored back into a protection frame, and then back to the window being hit by the first drops of rain.
“My room is in the inn across the street,” he says in a small voice and the invitation is clear.
Yusuf considers it. He is not looking forward for a cold night on a hard floor, especially not when he has a perfectly comfortable cot in his room at the Madrasa, but he ends up nodding as he fails to come up with a better idea.
They run to the inn as raindrops rush down on them harder and heavier, and Yusuf’s tunic is soaked wet by the time they are climbing the stairs to the guest rooms. Nicolò’s looks smaller than the others, but Yusuf is impressed by how he organised his few belongings.
He has put a string between two walls to dry his clothes and there is a hook behind the door where Yusuf hangs both of their swords as Nicolò rushes to close the only window so the rain does not get in. They have left their shoes at the door, so Yusuf feels the floor cold under his bare feet, but he still walks around examining his surroundings and smiles as he recognises the bible in Arabic on a small bedside table.
Yusuf had found it in a market a week after they arrived in Alexandria and he had been taken by the beautiful craftsmanship of the bound leather. “For your lessons,” he had said and insisted when Nicolò tried to refuse it as something too precious for his hands.
“How is your reading going?” Yusuf asks after he hangs the letter’s protection frame on the hook along with their swords. He tries not to shiver when he removes his wet tunic, realising that some of the rain has soaked into his undershirt. Nicolò stops from removing his own clothes to look at the bible.
“I am still on Genesis, I know the story, of course, but your letters are still too strange to me,” he says, and Yusuf tries not to stare at the patch of pale skin visible between Nicolò’s neck and shoulders. “They are beautiful, though,” he tilts his head. “Like a drawing.”
Yusuf opens his mouth to reply when a sneeze runs through him, the cold sensation creeping into his bones. It fades almost immediately, like it was never there, but the damage is done. Nicolò looks at him with worry on his face.
“You should change, here-” Nicolò reaches for a long undershirt hanging on the string. “I wore it once already, but at least it is dry.”
Yusuf falters. They had shared clothes on the road, of course, but after a couple of days out in the desert, with water saved only for drinking and cooking, everyone started to smell more or less the same, so he had never put too much thought into it. This is different.
Alexandria was the first place they had managed to establish a routine that resembled something like a normal life: living in separate lodgings for extended periods of time, meeting just once every other week to talk about their dreams or for Yusuf to share any news about his searches in the Madrasa archives. It is been almost two months now and that time has been the closest to the life Yusuf used to live before the Christian army marched across Anatolia.
The truth is that Alexandria reminds Yusuf of uncomplicated times, of the sharp smell of ink and the myriad of spices in his favourite Jerusalem market. Of a time he would pick something to eat after a long day of work and maybe find someone to share his food and later, his bed. He remembers missing his family, his parents and his siblings and, of course, his uncle Fadi, but at the same time he was just grateful for his freedom.
Over the past weeks there had been some days Yusuf thought he could almost forget there was a war still raging beyond the Red Sea. He could forget he had died and come back to life as he strolled the Madrasa gardens and chatted with masters and scholars. He could forget he shared a strange fate with an invader as he bowed in prayer with his brothers in the nearest Mosque.
Yusuf missed having that, the familiarity of tea wherever he wanted, the sound of his own language spoken in different accents, the same roof over his head for more than a couple of days. His meetings with Nicolò were something he dreaded more than he craved. A bitter reminder of the nature of their purpose in the city.
Yusuf finally accepts the undershirt with a nod and puts it on, trying to ignore the distinguishing smell that clings to the fabric and now to his own skin. A mix of salt and wood, which does not surprise him. After all, while Yusuf spends his days in Alexandria with books and ink and tea, Nicolò helps to build and to repair ships, a winter occupation well-suited to someone who had grown up in one of the biggest port cities of the Mediterranean.
Sometimes Yusuf wonders if Nicolò wishes to go back home, but he is afraid if he asks it aloud Nicolò will find a reason to leave, and Yusuf does not know how to do this on his own. He misses being a simple scholar, yes, but he does not belong to that world anymore and he knows it.
Nicolò takes the covering from his bed and offers it to Yusuf, and that is when he realises it actually is Nicolò’s old bedroll, which means he does not have anything else to cover himself with. Yusuf almost refuses it then, but he knows how uncomfortable it will be on the floor with nothing but his rain sprinkled trousers and Nicolò’s undershirt.
“You-” Yusuf starts, unsure of what to say. He notices, for the first time, Nicolò’s room looks smaller because his bed is slightly larger than those usually found in single rooms. Maybe it was meant for a couple and, for the first time in months, he wonders if Nicolò ever invites women to warm his bed at night.
They never talked about it, and as far he knows some priests do not marry, but Nicolò is no longer a priest and he spent too many days all by himself in a strange land where he barely speaks the language. Yusuf could not fault him for seeking companionship. He feels something warm in his chest and he cannot tell if it is guilt or jealousy, so he ignores both.
“I will be fine,” Nicolò says as lies down on his bare bed. He arranges his body in a way there is a clear empty space on the straw mattress, big enough for another body to fit in. “And you?”
They have slept with their bedrolls side by side on the road many times, for the nights in the desert are long and cold. And Yusuf knows they could share that bed and have a comfortable night of sleep as the rain splatters against the window, but he soon realises he simply cannot. He stares at the bible on Nicolò’s bedside table and then at their swords hooked behind the door.
The last man Yusuf shared a bed with had died by a Frank’s crossbow bolt on the second week of the Siege. He had been called Ahmed, and Yusuf had never loved him, but he had enjoyed the warmth of his mouth and the pressure of his thighs. He had found himself weeping when he had offered to carry Ahmed’s body wrapped in white linen to be buried along with the others.
“I will be fine as well, Nicolò,” Yusuf says, a lump lodged in his throat as he lies down on the floor, clutching Nicolò’s bedroll in his hands. “Good night.”
“Sleep well, Yusuf.”
Yusuf sleeps badly, but he cannot blame the coldness of the air or even the hardness of the floor. He dreams of Ahmed and his uncle Fadi. He knows they are in Syracuse, a place Yusuf has never been to, and he sees them both sitting at the edge of a pier talking as if they have known each other for years.
The moon is high in the sky as Yusuf walks towards them, and once he gets close, he notices both have crossbow bolts stuck to side of their necks, which does not seem to bother them in the slightest. He calls out his uncle’s name, and Fadi gets up and opens his arms, greeting his nephew with a cheerful voice. He tells Yusuf how much he has missed him and that he has a gift, something for him to share with his friend Ahmed. Uncle Fadi opens his hand to reveal two rings, both made of silver with aquamarine stones.
The stones are both carved in an oval shape that reflects the moonlight beautifully and Yusuf almost forgets entirely about the bolt in his uncle’s neck. He accepts both rings and asks where his uncle found such precious gems. They look almost identical, they must have costed a fortune, surely?
His uncle laughs cheerfully, a full-body laugh, and Yusuf wants to hug and to thank him for the gift, but that is when he notices the lumpy shape by their feet. Yusuf knows it is a body wrapped in white linen, he knows how much it weights, and most importantly, he knows he was the one who put that body on the ground.
Yusuf falls to his knees, his hands shaking as he removes the piece of cloth covering the body’s head. He has seen Nicolò dead enough times to know this time it is for real, but that is not what disturbs him the most. Though Nicolò’s eyelids are closed, Yusuf can see they are sunken and hollow, like something is missing beneath the skin.
He feels something warm and wet on his hand, and when he opens it, he notices the rings his uncle had given him and he realises the aquamarine stones are weeping blood.
Yusuf wakes with a scream trapped in his throat and he tries to reach for his sword before he remembers it is not by his side but hooked behind the door. It is morning already, past the time for his Fajr prayer, and he groans loudly when his body protests after the night spent on the hard floor. The ache bleeds out far too quickly, and he soon realises Nicolò is nowhere in sight, so he gets up in order to change.
The room is badly lit, so he cracks the small window open, letting both the sun and the fresh air in. That is when he notices Nicolò has left a note on top of his bible. Yusuf’s Latin is passable at best, but Nicolò’s calligraphy is clear and competent, so he does not have much trouble reading it.
I thought you might wake up late, so I got you some fresh water.
I should spend the rest of the day at the shipyard, so if you are not required back this morning, feel free to use the bed and sleep some more.
With the dream still lingering in the corners of his mind, Yusuf wonders if he spoke during his sleep and maybe woke Nicolò up. He wonders if Nicolò has seen him thrashing on the floor and if he felt sorry for him. Feeling slightly guilty and maybe a little embarrassed, Yusuf sets the intention to clean himself and he makes use of the fresh water Nicolò must have gotten from the innkeeper.
He washes his hands, from the elbow to the tip of his fingers, then he gurgles some water in his mouth and cleans his nose. He washes his face, his hair, his ears and both of his feet before he bows to pray. Yusuf opens his heart, fills it with intent before he asks God why He put someone like Nicolò in his path.
Safar - Rabi I, 493 AH (January-February, 1100 AD)
Yusuf knows he is going to be late for his meeting with Nicolò, but he has not been able to move from his seat in the library, not since the witness has left with his guardian. A couple of hours have passed since then, and the ink on the parchment before him has already dried. He has no excuses left to linger, but yet, he cannot move.
They have arrived in Fustat about a month ago. They had never planned to come here, but they had to leave Alexandria in a hurry. Yusuf still blamed himself for it, though he knew there was nothing he could have done to prevent it.
The woman had been the same age as his younger sister, and Yusuf had known she worked in a tavern near the Madrasa; he had been served by her on several occasions. Maybe her name was Fatima, but he was not sure, and it did not matter. She was probably just on her way to run an errand for the tavern when a group of four drunk men surrounded her in an alley.
Yusuf did not have his sword with him that morning, but he had a dagger and he took two of them out before he realised the third man had one as well. It had been a while since his last death, and it hurt to choke on his own blood before his vision blacked out.
He came back quickly, after less than a minute, but it was long enough for the two men left alive to have pinned the woman to the ground. Yusuf grabbed his discarded dagger and slit the throat of the one who already had his trousers around his ankles and Yusuf watched as the other ran in fear, calling him a demon. The woman screamed as she looked up to Yusuf, and he thought he saw some recognition in her eyes.
They did not have enough coin for a ship willing to sail to Constantinople during the winter, where they expected to find more about Andromache and her companions, but Nicolò knew a man who had a shipment of spices bound for Fustat. They would be in Egypt still, but far enough from Alexandria, so they took it.
They camped outside the capital for a fortnight, and Nicolò made a couple of journeys to the market to inquire about work or any sights about a demon last seen in Alexandria. The news of Yusuf’s resurrection did not seem to have reached the city, so they decided it was safe to dismantle their camp and go find lodgings and work. They needed time to regroup and to gather enough coin for the next leg of their journey.
The Madrasa did not have room for Yusuf to board, but they found him work. First with translations, then, after learning about his experience as a merchant, with budget reports that needed to be copied, verified and archived.
Yusuf was busy with a boring report for renovation works in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As when the boy was brought to him and Yusuf tried not to flinch when the Master explained his task. He nodded, grabbed a new piece of parchment and refilled his inkbottle. He was pleased his hands did not shake as he wrote down Jamal ibn Tariq al-Taleb’s account on what happened to him and his family when Jerusalem fell.
The boy had survived by hiding under a pile of straw in his family’s stable, so he did not see everything, but he had overheard when his sisters and his mother were taken by Franks. He remembered the sound of their pleading and their screaming and then nothing, and Yusuf wrote it all down. Jamal remembered when a man with a cross sewed on his tunic grabbed a rock and bashed his brother’s head in with it, and he talked in a broken voice about how his brother’s legs had twitched before he had died, and Yusuf wrote it all down.
Young Jamal told him how his father was slain near the Eastern Wall days before the city fell and, Yusuf wondered if perhaps he had known the man. The boy had survived by waiting for the commotion to die down, so he had been alone for days, eating straw and drinking the same water left for the horses, which had been killed or stolen. The water had tasted bad and the corpses under the summer heat had drawn in the flies, so he told Yusuf how his belly hurt and about the fever that lasted for days, how he vomited and soiled himself, and Yusuf wrote it all down.
The boy had managed to flee the city after a traveller had taken pity and had allowed him in his caravan. He had found family back in Egypt and he said he needed to record everything so maybe God might allow him to forget about it. And Yusuf thought the boy was incredibly brave and, by contrast, he thought himself incredibly weak, for abandoning the holy city and its people to be slaughtered like dogs.
He thought himself a coward for running off with a Frank, an invader, of all people. Jamal was only thirteen years old and he had curls like Yusuf’s and he could have been his son had he stayed at home and married Najwa as his parents had wanted.
So Yusuf sat in the library after he had taken the boy’s account. He missed at least one call for prayer, his mind trapped back in Jerusalem, the sound of the wall falling down, and then Nicolò, always Nicolò. Nicolò, who killed him for the first time by piercing his chest with his longsword.
Nicolò, who had cleaned the blood off his face in Alexandria.
Yusuf had been too afraid of going back to the Madrasa drenched in blood, so he had hidden in an alley near the shipyard and had waited, grabbing Nicolò as he was walking back to the inn. Nicolò did not interrupt Yusuf as he told him in an urgent, hushed tone about the woman and the four men and the word demon being throw around. Nicolò had nodded and had taken his waterskin, wetting the sleeve of his tunic so he could clean the worst of the blood from Yusuf’s face and neck. Yusuf had shivered under his kind touch and had followed Nicolò as he had sneaked him into his room. Nicolò told him to wait as he went back to the docks to find them a way out of the city before nightfall.
And Yusuf had nodded and sat on Nicolò’s bed for hours without moving, as he sits now in the library, reliving young Jamal’s words over and over. Yusuf had already heard about what the Franks had done to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and he had heard about the blood running down Jerusalem’s streets. He had heard countless tales about foreign men soiling the place to where the Prophet made his Night Journey. The place where Yusuf made a home for the first time since he left Mahdia.
A voice asks Yusuf if he is done for the day, for the library needs to be closed, and he nods absentmindedly as he gets up, the blood flowing back into his legs like he is been pierced by a thousand needles.
He has the presence of mind to shelve the boy’s account in the correct place so the Master can look it up and archive it all in the morning, but still Yusuf does not go to Nicolò as they had previously agreed. He has not found new clues about their condition, no letters or records about people who had meet historical figures or mysteriously recovered from mortal wounds. The only evidences were about those who did not survive, those whose lives were cut short by war, by men killing and maiming for a dry piece of land they had never set foot on before...
Yusuf balls his hands into fists and shuts his eyes, tries to slow down his heartbeat. He should send a messenger to the church where Nicolò is working, helping to build a new chapel, explain he cannot meet him, not today. He feels his chest heavy in a way he had thought he would never feel again, like a wound that was scarring at last was suddenly, violently ripped open.
He relaxes his hands as he lets out a breath and reopens his eyes, watches as the half-moons made by his short fingernails disappear from his palms almost immediately. For a moment, he thinks he has drawn blood from his own skin, until he notices the stains are merely ink. Blood would have been better, he thinks bitterly. His own blood he could clean, while that ink has made permanent something he cannot ever make right. His affliction can change the future, maybe, but not the past.
Yusuf had prayed for answers on the road, after leaving Jerusalem. He never liked resorting to sand for his ablutions, but water was too precious for anything but drinking, so he purified himself to best of his abilities and he kneeled on the ground, and he bowed and he prayed, asking for wisdom to understand what was happening to him.
He cut his own hand several times during the first days and every time he would inspect the wound as it closed, only a little stain of blood left behind for his troubles. The Frank watched in silence as Yusuf did it day after day until one afternoon, as he placed the dagger against his skin once more, the man got up, took the blade from Yusuf’s hands and threw it out in the sand.
Yusuf felt his anger rise and he jumped the man, who did not try to fight him, so he soon found himself straddling the Frank on the ground, hands around his throat, and for the very first time he realised how pale his eyes were. Yusuf thought he could almost see himself reflected in them, and what he saw was ugly and desperate, so he let go like the man was a burning piece of iron, and he wondered if God had planned exactly that - for Yusuf to see in him a mirror for his errors.
Ramadan had begun one week after they had fled Jerusalem. Yusuf had kept track of the days by watching the moon and he had known he did not have to fast while traveling, but he needed to try. Maybe then God would deem him fit to been blessed with answers.
At first, the Frank did not seem to understand why Yusuf refused food and water while the sun was up, so he insisted, his voice becoming loud and desperate until the sunset. Yusuf could not comprehend his words, and he felt too weak to try to communicate.
On day three, the Frank sat down by his side and he stayed put until Yusuf realised he was not eating or drinking anything either. He stared back at the man and looked at him for a long time, measuring his tangled mane and his unkempt beard, which was a bit lighter than the hair on his head, almost a reddish colour. It looked like it was stained with blood when it was caught against the sunlight.
The man said something in his own language, and Yusuf shook his head, replying in Arabic that he could not understand him. The man then frowned and tried it again, this time speaking each word slowly, carefully. Yusuf still could not understand his meanings, but he recognised a least a couple of words. He had overheard them enough times in the port in Mahdia, spoken by sailors who had arrived from across the sea. It was worth a try.
“Where are you from?” He asked in Sabir and watched as the Frank’s face lit up for the first time, his eyes big and curious.
“Genoa,” the man replied, his accent strong, clinging to the vowels like honey. Yusuf felt pain and anger arise from within. He had been away from Mahdia when Genoa and Pisa had attacked, but he had lost friends and family to the campaign and his father had begun to insist for him to marry after it.
And Yusuf did not know how to say to the man before him that Jerusalem was the second home that his kin had took from him.
“I see you are fasting,” the man said when Yusuf failed to speak after several minutes. “We are in a desert, you need water at least.”
Yusuf shook his head. He thought about explaining his reasons, why that was so important. He thought about saying he could not die anyway, though he did not know if their affliction only went so far as what they could do to each other. Could they die by another person’s hands? Could they starve, or die of thirst?
The man did not insist this time, and he sat by Yusuf’s side until sunset. Then, Yusuf purified himself with sand and he bowed to pray and only after he then accepted the water and the stale bread the Frank offered him. They ate in silence, and Yusuf realised he could not hate the man who waited for him and he thought about asking his name and realised that should have been his first question. Then, he could not find the words.
They continued traveling and fasting together for the next week or so. They rested during the day in whatever stretch of shadow they could find and they travelled during the afternoons, once the sun was more forgiving. They went to sleep at the same time, their bedrolls close to the fire, trying to fight off the chill from the desert nights.
That lasted until the day they were attacked by a group of bandits.
They had just learned how to say each other’s names that evening, after sharing water and some bird the Frank had managed to shoot down. With his belly filled in a way he had not felt in months, Yusuf was mellowed. He offered the man his hand, not in a dissimilar way he had done in the battlefield.
“My name is Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn al-Kaysani,” he grinned as the Frank’s eyes grew in confusion. “Also called al-Tayyib.”
“I am Nicolò,” the man replied with a half-shrug. “Just Nicolò.”
“Nicolò of Genoa,” Yusuf smiled, and the man nodded. “We have met in strange times.”
Nicolò tried to pronounce Yusuf’s name several times as the evening went on, and every failed attempted made something warm and comfortable stir inside Yusuf’s chest. It reminded him of a young man he met during one of his travels. He had been called Pedro and he had had a beautiful laugh. Pedro had warmed Yusuf’s bed for a whole week before they had parted ways and not once had he managed to say Yusuf’s name correctly, insisting on calling him meu bem.
Yusuf expected Nicolò to learn his name eventually, since God seemed to have made plans for them. At that notion, Yusuf felt half a cry, half a laugh about to erupt from his chest, tumbling over his tongue, and he laughed for a full minute, feeling half-mad. Nicolò certainly looked at him as if he was, though his eyes were kind and his lips twisted in an attempt to smile.
Later that night, as they were brutally attacked, Nicolò screamed his name as Yusuf was stabbed in the neck, and Yusuf’s last thought before he died was how he needed to congratulate Nicolò for almost getting his name right this time. Nicolò somehow managed to kill most of their attackers while Yusuf was out, and Yusuf came back just in time to fail to stop the bleeding from Nicolò’s carved belly. He called Nicolò’s name over and over for what feel like an eternity until the man finally gasped back to life under Yusuf’s bloody hands. They stared at each other in a mix of relief and fear. So they really could not die, Yusuf had thought, then.
Maybe God really meant for them to walk this earth together.
“There you are.”
The sound of Nicolò’s voice disturbs Yusuf’s from his reverie, and it takes him a moment to remember where he is and what he is doing.
Instead of writing Nicolò a note to cancel their meeting, Yusuf realises, he has walked from the library to the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, the first one build in Egypt. Maybe he has thought he should pray there, tell God about young Jamal and ask to be forgiven. Maybe he has wanted to thank God for allowing him to live long enough to help write the boy’s account and preserve that memory and, maybe, help preventing those horrors from ever happening again.
“I am sorry,” Yusuf says, grateful for the cold wind blowing from the Nile. “I lost track of time.”
“All is well,” Nicolò replies, and Yusuf notices he is carrying a bundle in his hands. Nicolò follows his eyes and smiles his half-smile. “It was my day to cook at the church today. I got us some bread and hummus.”
Yusuf feels a lump taking shape in his throat. He has not eaten since noon, and he should be hungry but all he can think about is young Jamal surviving on straw and dirty water.
So he shakes his head at Nicolò’s offer, thinking he should send the man away from this sacred place. As far Yusuf knows, this is the first time Nicolò has ever set a foot into a Mosque, at least since they have started travelling together. He notices Nicolò has not moved from his spot, though, has not even reacted to his headshake. Instead, he seems completely enthralled by a series of archways forming a long corridor that Yusuf knows leads to a garden. Yusuf is speaking before he can stop himself.
“Today I met a boy who escaped al-Quds,” he says, and Nicolò stares back at him this time. His clean face is solemn, his pale eyes almost sad, and Yusuf wishes he could see some anger in them. Anything but this. “They killed his whole family.”
“When you say them,” Nicolò blinks, and there is a twitch in his strong jaw. “You mean me. My people.”
Yusuf knows Nicolò regrets the part he has played in the war and he wishes he had the power to absolve him somehow, because it did not take Yusuf long to realise he never truly blamed Nicolò.
Because while they travelled, Nicolò did not try to kill him again, not even once. Nicolò broke bread with him, and he shared Yusuf’s thirst and hunger even when he did not have to. Above all else, Nicolò called his name as Yusuf died by the hands of another for the first time. And if God had been done with Yusuf then, the sound of Nicolò’s voice would have been the last thing he would have taken from this earth. Yusuf feels that is something meant to be treasured, but how can he?
“How do you not feel the hate?” He asks, and Nicolò frowns at his words, his head slightly tilted. Yusuf closes his eyes and gestures towards the archways, the corridor, the gardens, the whole Mosque, his faith. All things that are part of Yusuf. “When your people stormed the city, they killed every soul. They pillaged our holy places. How can you look at all of this and not feel the same hate?”
Nicolò flexes his jaw, the gesture so small Yusuf almost would have missed it if he had not been looking so intently at him. The sun is about to set and soon there will be a call for the Maghrib prayer, but for now, they watch together as the sun shines against the archways’ tiles, creating a vast corridor of orange light. Yusuf overhears when Nicolò sighs with his whole body and he notices how his pale eyes look soft around the edges, how his bow-shaped lips curls into an almost smile. It seems to take an eternity, but Nicolò finally blinks away from the light. He stares right back at Yusuf.
“It is hard to hate something beautiful,” Nicolò says.
Yusuf thinks he has heard a cry and he wonders if it is the sound of his soul breaking into two. It sounds contradictory, after all he never knew how to love by halves.
“Yusuf,” Nicolò takes a step in his direction, and Yusuf feels his throat dry, any words he may say stuck inside his ribcage. “Are you well?”
art by Seul
He hears the cry again and now he recognises it and thinks himself a fool. The call for the sunset prayer should feel like a balm but now it almost burns his overwhelmed senses. He knows he should go, get cleaned up. He could try to make sense of his feelings still. Nicolò is too close now, and Yusuf does not know what he would do if that man touched his shoulder in that concerning way he sometimes does or if his half-smile turns into a full one.
“Yes.” Yusuf struggles to get the word out. “I am. Can you wait here? I will not be long.”
Nicolò stares at him for a moment before he nods. He points at a bench on the other side of the patio. “Of course,” he says.
Yusuf manages to calm down his heart as he bows and rises and says the words he was taught his whole life. He finds comfort in the presence of his brothers, but his mind keeps drifting back to the man outside, waiting for him with food in his arms and a shared fate.
As he finds Nicolò after, Yusuf invites him back to the room he has rented for the month, and they share the hummus and the bread, and, as the night grows colder, Yusuf brews him tea.
It does not rain that night, so there is nothing stopping Nicolò to go back to the church where he has been sleeping for the past few weeks. Yet, Yusuf knows he does not want him to leave, so he finds himself asking about Nicolò’s work and telling him about his last week at the Madrasa. They do not talk about Jerusalem or their search, and they share a laugh when Nicolò tells him about a goat that had entered the church during mass and how the priest had fallen onto his bottom as he had tried to chase it away.
“I should go,” says Nicolò when it is late enough.
Yusuf hesitates, but only for a moment. Between the laughter and the tea, he has made up his mind. “Stay,” he half offers, half pleads.
Nicolò looks around. Yusuf knows his cot looks small and the floor does not look inviting. He also knows Nicolò has been sleeping on his bedroll on the church’s hard ground for the past month. “Take the bed,” he says as he picks the bedroll from his traveling bag. “You work hard.”
Nicolò looks at him from under hooded eyes. He looks tired and yet, he shakes his head. “I do help the builders carry heavy rocks and tools, yes,” he nods. “But words can be as heavy, and you carried so many of them today.”
Yusuf realises he wants to kiss this man and to make him forget how to breathe, and the feeling fills him with comfort rather than dread. He nods, unsure if he should say the words in his head, but willing to accept whatever outcome they may bring. He points to the cot and does not fight a smile this time.
“If you promise not to kick me in your sleep,” Yusuf says, trying to sound serious. “I believe there is enough for room for us to share it.”
Nicolò looks from the cot to Yusuf, then back to the door. It is cold and it is late, and Yusuf knows Nicolò has agreed to it even before he nods and begins to strip his outer tunic. Yusuf turns his back, giving him a privacy they never cared about on the road. Nicolò takes the side of the cot closer to the door, so close to the edge of the bed Yusuf is afraid he may fall if he as much breathes.
Yusuf does not judge him for it, and he blows out the lamp before he reaches the cot and slides by Nicolò’s side, keeping a respectful distance between them. He stares forward as he fights his weariness and thinks he can almost see the back of Nicolò’s head even in the darkness of the room. Yusuf wonders if the little hairs there are soft to his touch and he falls asleep with his arms wrapped around himself.
Rabi II - Jumada I, 493 AH (March - April, 1100 AD)
It is the third day of storm, and five since Yusuf had eaten. The issue is not the lack of food, but rather his inability to keep anything down for longer than ten minutes. The seasickness makes his head ache and his stomach churn; his throat is raw from the constant heaving, his healing abilities fighting to keep up, triggering his hunger and his exhaustion in a never ending circle. Yusuf is almost certain he would be dead twice by now if was not for Nicolò, who would leave his side only in search of fresh water and food.
“Here,” Nicolò says as he takes a waterskin to Yusuf’s chapped lips. He has been giving him only a couple of sips every hour or so for the past two days, making sure he has enough, but not too much to upset his stomach. Sometimes, he would even try to make Yusuf chew on a piece of bread, even if he could not swallow it. Then he sits on the floor beside Yusuf’s hammock and he talks about his time in the monastery or, after each trip for food and water, he shares news from above deck. “They say tomorrow will be better.”
Yusuf wants to laugh, but he does not have the strength, and besides, any movement would cause his stomach to remind him of its existence He wishes he could believe it would be better soon, though. There is a good reason so very few vessels attempt open water during the winter. He feels weak like a new-born, shivering without the warmth of his mother. He has dreamt about her as he drifts in and out of consciousness. She had wanted Yusuf to marry Najwa as much as his father did, but for different reasons.
His mama wanted him to be happy and to have a big family. His father wanted Najwa’s connections, for her father owned a fleet of merchant ships, and Yusuf’s father was his main client. Their marriage was in the plans pretty much since Najwa was born, six years after Yusuf. She was a beautiful and intelligent girl, and maybe they could have been happy together, if the thought of being unfaithful to his wife did not make Yusuf shudder.
Even if he never strayed far from their marriage bed, Yusuf knew he would never look at Najwa the way he looked at some of the young man he trained and studied with.
So he ran from Mahdia. He told his family he was just not ready to settle down. He wanted to study more, get better at his calligraphy, his painting, his poetry. Uncle Fadi backed him up, so it felt like an adventure for a time, but after everything that happened he cannot help thinking, maybe he should have stayed. Maybe that would have been the right thing.
Nicolò’s voice feels warm in the cold, wet darkness of the ship, and Yusuf only realises his own eyes are open when he is able to distinguish the lines of Nicolò’s face, his big nose and chiselled jaw. He wishes he had the strength to unfold his hand from his lap and touch him. Nicolò would not fault him for that, surely? Not in Yusuf’s current state.
“Merciful lord, I thought I had lost you.”
Yusuf blinks. He had not realised he had passed out again, but maybe it was a bad idea to wake up now. The storm feels like it has doubled in intensity, the wind and the waves deafening against the ship’s hull. He can barely hear the sounds of the men around them, travellers and sailors trying to sleep in their own hammocks or, most likely, praying for the storm to end so they can return to their families alive. There is a particularly hard shove to their side, salty water spilling into the hull.
“How do you feel?” Nicolò asks, the concern in his voice so palpable that Yusuf wants to hold him against his chest, even when he could barely hold his head up.
“I feel like I am Yūnus,” he replies and he cannot see the curiosity in Nicolò’s face, but it is clear when he repeats the name in a confused tone.
“I do not understand,” says Nicolò.
Yusuf laughs and feels grateful that whatever is in his stomach does not force its way out of his throat this time. Nicolò’s Arabic has improved during their time in Fustat. The priest spoke Latin, of course, but most of the workers did not, and building a new chapel required talking. Nicolò still sometimes struggles with basic words and it does not help that Yusuf is probably sounding a little delirious at the moment.
“Dhul-Nūn,” he repeats in what he hopes is a clearer voice. “The one with the fish?” he adds in Sabir.
“Oh, Jonah?” Nicolò sounds cheerful. He is usually excited whenever he finds similarities between their faiths, and Yusuf cannot say he does not feel the same. It is like looking at a reflection on surface of a stream. The picture is similar, but not identical and it muddles as you dip your toes into the water. “Do you feel like you are Jonah?”
“Yes,” Yusuf says. “If you could persuade the sailors to throw me overboard, maybe it would calm the storm down.” Yusuf chuckles at his own joke, and it takes him a moment to realise Nicolò is quiet. “I am sorry, my friend,” he says hastily.
“Do you think you are running, like Jonah did?” Nicolò asks in a rather serious tone, and Yusuf cannot help but feel bad of making light of the situation. Not that Nicolò does not have a point. “From what?”
Yusuf thinks about his family, first. He cannot say he went through much of a hardship during most of his life. He had a mother who loved him and sisters and brothers who looked up to him. He had a father who taught him about his craft and payed for the best education he could afford. Still, it had never been enough for Yusuf.
He had always thought he was different; he became sure of it when he was fourteen and shared a bed with a colleague from his calligraphy class. Samir came from a family of scribes, but he wanted to be a sailor. His letters were crooked and almost illegible, so Yusuf offered to help, and one night Samir thanked Yusuf by slipping a hand inside his slacks and stroking Yusuf’s cock to completion. When Yusuf realised right after how much he wanted to kiss Samir instead of punching him, he knew what he was, and he had never doubted himself ever since.
He thinks about Jerusalem, then. He never loved the war, but he did love the city. If he closes his eyes, he can still see it burning. He can even taste the iron of Nicolò’s sword. At the time he thought maybe God had given him the ability to heal so he would come back inside the walls and kill every Frank until the city was free again. But why would He give the same ability to a Frank, then? Unless they were meant to do something together?
“I am thinking about how life would have turned out differently,” Yusuf says wistfully. “Had I stayed home and been the man my father wanted me to be.”
Nicolò stays silent for a long time, and Yusuf does not press him to reply. He knows Nicolò is curious, but he is not sure if he wants him to inquire any further. That can only end in one way, and Yusuf does not know if he is ready for that conversation. Nicolò has told Yusuf about how he was the fourth son of a minor noble family, and how his father never faulted him for wanting to be a priest, in fact, he was pleased with his decision. Fewer sons to fight over land when he died, he had joked then.
Nicolò’s father had been less thrilled when his son had come back from the Monastery to tell his family he was joining the effort to the Holy Land. The man had known he would not be able to stop his son, so he had decided to send Nicolò in the best shape he could afford.
He bought Nicolò a suit of armour and a brand new sword. He hired a sword master, and Nicolò picked up his training from the time when he was just a boy. After a year, his father finally allowed him to go, and Nicolò was knighted on the morning his ship was due to leave port. Nicolò’s mother had wept tears of joy as she clutched at her crucifix.
Yusuf wonders if his mother prayed for him when the news of war reached Mahdia. He hopes she will forgive herself, for allowing him to slip away from her care, for not insisting on the marriage as she wanted, when she knew Yusuf would eventually relent if she had asked him. He always knew he would probably outlive her, but now, to be sure of it feels as if Yusuf has a stone beating inside his chest. It sits heavily there, poking against his ribs, a foreign, stiff weight.
“I think we rarely are the men our fathers want us to be,” Nicolò says eventually, and Yusuf feels hands on the back of his neck. It takes him a moment to understand Nicolò is just helping him sit up, so Yusuf can sip on the waterskin once more. He accepts it and barely chokes on the water this time. Nicolò’s fingers feel cool on his scalp.
“My father did not want much from me,” Yusuf sighs. “He just wanted me to marry this girl and to continue with the family business. It does not sound unreasonable, surely.”
Nicolò chuckles, and Yusuf overhears him moving about. Maybe sitting back into a more comfortable position. “What did you want to do?”
Yusuf thinks for a moment and cannot help an aborted laugh. “I wanted to travel, to see the world.”
“Ah, my mother would say to be careful about what you wish for,” Nicolò snorts, and Yusuf decides he loves that sound. “I never wanted to marry, either,” Nicolò adds as an afterthought, and Yusuf feels a shiver running down his spine.
“I never said I never wanted to marry,” Yusuf utters in a hurry, not even sure if he is trying to justify himself or not.
“What was wrong with this girl, then?” Nicolò asks, and it is probably only Yusuf’s seasickness speaking, but he thinks Nicolò sounds anxious. “Was she a bad cook?”
Yusuf chuckles, and he cannot help remembering how good a cook Nicolò is. Not that he can think about food at the moment. If he was feeling even a little better, Yusuf would try to get down from his hammock and put both of his feet on the wooden floor, but the ship keeps shaking around them.
“She was lovely,” he says, finally. Yusuf understands he does not want to hide this part of himself any longer. Nicolò is the closest thing of a friend he has had for the past year, and odds are, he will be by his side for many years to come. It is best to get this over with and to deal with his attraction for this man out in the open. Yusuf may have run from his family, but he never thought himself a coward when it came to his heart. He takes a deep breath. “But she was a woman.”
The silence that follows stretches too long for Yusuf’s liking, but he does not know how to fill it. He gathers he could laugh again, make everything into a joke, pretend he did not say what he just said.
He does not. He forces his head up so he can look in the general direction of where Nicolò is sitting. He can distinguish the lines of Nicolò’s body, crumpled against the ship’s hull. Nicolò does not move when he speaks, and Yusuf is caught by surprise by how soft his voice sounds.
“What do you think about the end of Jonah’s tale?” He asks, and Yusuf frowns, his nausea almost an afterthought now. “He repented. He did what God asked him to do.”
“Well, he was trapped inside a very big fish for three days. I bet it smelled awful there,” Yusuf jests, at first unsure about the point Nicolò is trying to make, but he sobers up quickly once he understands. “And I cannot go home anyway. I cannot repent.”
Nicolò makes a sound Yusuf thinks it is a failed attempt to laugh, but is sounds like something tired, like a muscle reflex. He wonders when was the last time Nicolò had slept more than a couple of hours. He has been by Yusuf’s side almost every minute since he has returned to consciousness, always ready to tend to him.
He must be exhausted, and Yusuf tells him exactly that.
“I am fine,” Nicolò assures him, and Yusuf thinks he can almost see the curl of a smile on his face. “I grew up with one foot on the land and the other in a boat.”
“And yet you wished to be a priest, locked away in some stone fortress, away from the sea.”
“Priest are allowed in boats, I will have you know,” Nicolò says, but he stays silent for a moment before he adds, in a shaky voice, “Some men go to great lengths when they do not want to marry a woman.”
Yusuf takes in Nicolò’s words for what they are and wishes they could be alone right now. He does the next best thing and changes de subject.
“Do you think maybe Yūnus was like us?” Yusuf muses, and Nicolò shifts around in the dark. Yusuf knows he is thinking about his question, for it takes him a whole minute before he answers.
“God did not allow him to die, yes, but Jonah had a purpose. He needed to go and warn the citizens of Nineveh,” Nicolò reasons, but he sounds doubtful. “What is our purpose?”
Yusuf thinks about the dream, the reason they had left Fustat in such a hurry. They have not talked about it since boarding the ship to Constantinople, caught up with a big storm a week after losing sight of the mainland. Maybe now it is time.
“Have you seen them again?” Yusuf asks, for he has had some fever dreams over the last days, and he cannot be certain if he saw the two women again or merely remembered them. Nicolò is quiet for a moment, and when he finally speaks, his voice is heavy with weariness.
“Yes, last night,” he says, and Yusuf wonders for how long Nicolò was planning to keep silent just to not worry him. “I closed my eyes for a moment when the storm had weakened. They are separate still, Andromache is kept in chains in a cell, but they have not touched her,” he adds matter-of-factly and Yusuf feels the implication sting against his ribs. “Quỳnh is alive and she is free. I saw her in a forest, there are flowers as big as her hand. She stopped at a stream to drink and wash her face, and I saw her reflection. She looks like she is ready to burn the world down.”
Yusuf nods as he is taken back to the memory of his dreams a fortnight ago. He had had a very long day at the Madrasa and made plans to meet Nicolò the next evening so he could share his new findings in the archives. After a light dinner, he had retired to his cot and woken up in the middle of the night with the memory of blood on the back of his throat, clawing at his skin for a fatal wound that was not there. The women had been attacked, and Quỳnh, was left for dead, her head almost entirely cut from her body.
Nicolò was frantically knocking on his door one hour later, his travel bag hoisted over his large shoulders. He had seen it all happen from Andromache’s point of view, who had screamed herself hoarse before she was put in chains with a hood over her head. “We need to help them,” he had said as Yusuf ushered him inside his room and convinced him to wait until morning to find passage.
“To where?” Nicolò had asked, affliction clear in his voice and his eyes.
“We go to Constantinople first,” Yusuf had said. He had agreed they could not stay put, but the truth was they had very little to go on. The winter was heavy upon them and finding a ship willing to take them that far would be hard enough already. Fortunately they both had gathered enough funds over the last months so they had to try.
Yusuf had brewed a pot of tea to calm down both of their nerves, and Nicolò accepted it with firm hands. The dark shadows under his eyes made him look paler, reflecting the light of Yusuf’s table lamp. Yusuf told him they should get some sleep as Nicolò drank the tea and nodded. This time, he had his own bedroll with him, so Yusuf had no good excuses to offer him his bed again, but he wanted to and he felt the words stick in his throat and not even the hot tea helped to ease them down.
“They will be fine, they have been around for a long time, while we-” Yusuf feels his throat dry and is coughing before he knows it. Nicolò hurries to give him one more sip from his waterskin, and this time Yusuf manages to drink a long gulp. He feels rather proud of himself. “We should arrive in Constantinople in a few weeks, and I am certain we will find something there.”
The storm forces them to stop in Lemesos, in the island of Cyprus. The boat’s hull has been damaged and it takes a couple of days to repair it. All the passengers and off-duty crew are allowed to leave the ship, and most of them are happy to. Yusuf feels the warmth of Nicolò’s body as he helps him down on land and inquires about an inn. Yusuf’s memories of how they get there are hazy at the best.
Though he feels immensely better just by being on dry land, the last week has taken a toll on his body, and Yusuf falls asleep as soon Nicolò drops him on a pallet covered in straw. He sleeps without dreams and when he finally wakes there is a gentle light peeking through the windows. He finds Nicolò on the ground next to him, one of their bedrolls underneath him and the other being used as a blanket over his shivering body. Yusuf’s breath turns misty when he opens his mouth, and he gets up from the pallet and he drinks the water from the pitcher until he has drained it.
Nicolò must have been exhausted, for he does not even stir when Yusuf drops his own blanket over his body and slips out of their room with a bundle of clothing in his arms. He finds the innkeeper and orders a meal to be brought up to their rooms later and asks him where he could bathe. The man points him in the direction of the Roman baths, and Yusuf thanks him before covering himself with his cloak and stepping outside.
The chilly afternoon air almost knocks the wind out of Yusuf, and he wishes nothing more than to run back to their room and lie down again and wrap himself in a blanket. But he can feel the week-old salty sweat clinging to his skin, and his breath tastes as if something has died inside his mouth. He needs to pray and to thank God for them making it out of the ship in one piece, and he thinks he needs to submerge himself in water in order to get clean enough for that.
The baths are almost empty, and by the time he makes his way back to the inn, after a short stop to pray, Yusuf feels almost human again.
Nicolò has already tied up both their bedrolls and stored them in a corner of the small room and is shaving the stubble that had grown on his face over the last weeks. Yusuf’s fingers itch to help, but he controls himself just in time. He thinks now that Nicolò probably would have wanted to go to the baths as well. Maybe he should have woken him.
“I went yesterday,” Nicolò says when Yusuf apologises as a way of greeting him. “You have been asleep for almost two days, my friend.”
Yusuf feels his face grow hot despite the cold, which reminds him that Nicolò has been sleeping on the floor during that whole time, while Yusuf has been passed out in the pallet. “You should have had the cot, then,” he grins. “The way you describe it, I certainly could not tell the difference between silky pillows and a bed of rocks.”
Nicolò chuckles, and in the process, nicks a patch of his skin. He lets out a small, soft hiss, and Yusuf steps into his personal space, placing a piece of cloth to Nicolò’s cut before either of them can react. It closes up so quickly that Yusuf knows he has just made a fool of himself, but he does not care in the slightest.
Up close, Yusuf can tell Nicolò’s cheeks are pink not only because he is freshly shaved, and he is assaulted by an urge to feel Nicolò’s mole under his fingertips or maybe to rub his beard against that sensitive skin. His mind is racing against all logic, his memories of their conversation on the ship blurring his thoughts and his words. Nicolò has not moved from his spot, his mouth slightly parted in a way that Yusuf can see a bit of white teeth behind his lips. Yusuf licks his own lips and watches as Nicolò’s eyes follow his tongue.
The knock on the door makes both of them jump, and Yusuf almost swears under his breath as he steps back and accepts the food from a young woman who must be the innkeeper’s daughter. She wishes them a good meal and vanishes before he can thank her.
Nicolò clears the small table where Yusuf sets down the steaming pot with rabbit stew, slow cooked with garlic and onions. He unveils the cloth of a covered basket, and the smell of freshly baked bread is enough to make his mouth water. They sit, and he breaks the bread and passes a portion to Nicolò, who accepts and bows his head slightly, closing his eyes to pray.
Yusuf keeps his eyes open as he says thanks for the meal and for the man before him. The stew is spiced and he can pick up the smell of orange zest, cumin, and cinnamon. With his first bite, Nicolò lets out a moan that Yusuf is going to store in his mind for later use. They have sweat tea and Yusuf feels like himself again in a way he has not felt in weeks. He almost dreads the idea of going back to the ship so soon, but as he looks at the man across the table, he knows it will be fine. Nicolò will look after him.
The temperature has fallen at least five degrees since the afternoon, and Yusuf is shivering by the time they start to get ready for sleep. He has just finished his prayers when he notices Nicolò has started to lay the bedrolls on the floor again. Yusuf makes the decision before he can think about it for too long and picks up both bedrolls, dropping them over the blanket on the pallet, adding two new layers of protection. Nicolò does not move, just looks between Yusuf and the pallet with curiosity in his eyes.
“Let us sleep,” Yusuf says, climbing under the covers and taking the side closest to the wall. He lies there on his side, chest facing the reasonable patch of space still available on the straw mattress. One of his hands keep the covers up so Nicolò can slide under them. “Nicolò?”
Nicolò blinks at the sound of his name and, after a moment, he nods. He blows out the lamp on the table and walks the short distance to the pallet as Yusuf feels his heartbeat getting louder. Surely, Nicolò would be able to hear or even to feel it, once he lays down by his side, but Yusuf is shaken out of his reverie once Nicolò’s back is pressed against his chest. Nicolò’s body is warm and solid and only when he looks back over his shoulder and says “Yusuf?” does he realise he is still holding the covers up.
He lowers his arm and almost jumps when he touches Nicolò’s shoulder. He knows he should just drop the covers and withdraw his hand back to his own side, but before he can move, he feels Nicolò’s hand pulling his arm further around his body.
“Are you comfortable?” Nicolò asks, his voice muffled against the pillow.
Yusuf moves but an inch and his nose brushes against the hairs at the back of Nicolò’s neck and yes, they are so soft indeed.
He can tell Nicolò is still waiting for an answer, but he does not trust himself to open his mouth so close to that warm, inciting skin, so he pulls Nicolò closer with his arm around him, adjusting the curves of their bodies like they are pieces in a mosaic, trying to fit together. Yusuf nods, aware of his beard rubbing against Nicolò’s neck and he can feel when the man shifts a little in his arms. He smiles and lets the sounds of Nicolò’s soft breathing lure him to sleep.
art by Seul
Jumada I - Rajab, 493 AH (April - May, 1100 AD)
They arrive in Constantinople the second week of Spring. The small room they find in the Latin Quarter has two cots, and yet, on their very first night in the city they barely exchange a look before dumping their bags on one of the cots and pouring themselves onto the other.
They sleep right above a shop that sells bread and pastries, and while Yusuf is constantly woken by a sweet smell of honey and toasted hazelnuts, it is actually the scent of Nicolò’s hair under his nose that makes his stomach stir each and every morning. He quickly learns how to carefully disentangle himself from the man under him so he can perform his prayers.
Although Nicolò never tries to hold back onto Yusuf, he knows Nicolò does not mind being held, for he always falls asleep soundly right after Yusuf presses his nose to the crook of his neck and wraps his arms around him.
Yusuf is aware of the potential troubles of sleeping with a warm body that close to his, so he takes the time to take care of himself, usually when he goes to relieve his bladder before bedtime. It is a perfunctory task he tries to get over with as quickly as possible, so he takes little joy in it. Most importantly, he does his best to not think about Nicolò as he strokes his cock, conjuring memories from former lovers and from that one brothel he visited in Baghdad when he was twenty-five.
They had had a new dream about the women when they were still on the boat, one week after they had left Lemesos. Yusuf almost fell out of his hammock as he jolted awake then, but he was smiling when he stared back at Nicolò who was sitting in his own hammock rather gracefully. Together, they reconstructed how Quỳnh had found Andromache and, judging by the amount of blood both Yusuf and Nicolò had seen on the floor on the women’s way out of the fortress, she had not left a soul alive to tell tales. It was the feeling of euphoria, mixed with wonder for those two mighty warriors that made Yusuf ask aloud a question that had not occurred to him yet.
“Do you think they dream about us as well?” He asked. “That they can see what we do, what we talk about?”
Nicolò considered it for a long moment before he spoke. “Maybe.” He bit his lower lip as he offered Yusuf his waterskin. They were lucky enough to not encounter heavy storms on their way to Constantinople, but Yusuf still had some trouble keeping food and water down. He ate and drank only in small portions, and Nicolò was there to see that he did. “Maybe we are meant to find each other,” Nicolò added, giving Yusuf his half-smile.
“So, following that logic, if you and I have not met as... well, the way we met,” Yusuf said, taking a sip of water. “Do you think we would have dreamt of one another?”
Nicolò’s eyes sparkled with mirth. “So that means you do not dream about me now?” He asked, and Yusuf did a poor job of concealing the choking sounds when water went through his nose. He even considered punching Nicolò’s shoulders in retribution, but at that moment he was too occupied trying to draw air instead of water into his lungs. Nicolò did not tease him further.
Nicolò found work on their first week in Constantinople, this time in a government office in need of someone to copy old Roman Law documents that were fading or in danger to fall apart. His knowledge of Latin made him more than qualified — it had, after all, been the Empire’s official language for almost four hundred years. Yusuf found work at the Gran Bazaar, where he had to deal with Venetian, Genovese, and Pisan merchants on a daily basis.
Even though the language on the streets and in the palaces was Greek, Yusuf asked Nicolò for help to improve his Latin and his Zeneize. With his constant practice in the markets, he soon became very good at it, better than Nicolò was with Arabic. They began to speak Zeneize between themselves when they were alone, and Yusuf realised how talkative Nicolò was in his own language and how much he craved for the sound of his voice.
They have been in the city for exactly a month when Yusuf returns from the baths one night. He is busy towelling his hair dry when Nicolò arrives with something under his arms. Yusuf puts down the vial of argan oil he has just uncorked to help untangle his curls and watches as Nicolò drops his eyes like he has been caught doing something wrong.
“What do you have there?” Yusuf asks, trying to not hiss when his fingers catch a particularly difficult knot. He curses himself for letting his hair go a whole week without a proper washing. He has been so busy at the Bazaar that he kept postponing it. Serves him right.
“It is a gift,” Nicolò says as he steps into their room, barefoot. “For you.”
Yusuf blinks at the sight of the beautiful book in Nicolò’s hands. He aches to touch it, to runs his fingers over the golden leaf detail on the cover which resembles a flower. There is no title visible. He curses his oiled fingers and abandons his curls so he can wipe his hands on the dampened piece of cloth he used to dry his hair only a moment ago. “What is it about?” He asks as he reaches for the book.
“That is for you to decide,” Nicolò says with a smile as he puts the book in Yusuf’s hands and sits by his side on the cot.
Yusuf tries not to think about their thighs pressed together, instead frowning at Nicolò’s answer for a moment. As he opens the book, his breath catches in his throat, for the pages are cream coloured without a single word written on them. It is a sketchbook or a journal or both, yes, whatever Yusuf decides. He feels his chest warm and he looks over to Nicolò, debating if he should pull him into an embrace, but it seems Nicolò is not done with him yet.
“Here,” Nicolò says, this time placing a small package on top the open book. Yusuf opens it with care. As he pulls out a pen and a couple of pencils and charcoals from the package, he feels a knot, not unlike the ones his hair, form deep in his throat. “I saw you drawing enough times in the sand whenever we made camp. You are very talented, Yusuf.”
“Thank you,” Yusuf utters, not sure if he is able to form many words. He feels the craftsmanship of the pen, rolling it between his fingers. He has held beautiful pens in the line of his work since Gaza, Alexandria and Fustat, yes, but it is so different to have his own after so long. “Thank you,” he repeats, unable to pry his eyes away from all the beautiful things in his hands.
“This gift comes with a caveat,” says Nicolò, but there is laughter in his voice. Yusuf finally turns to look at him. “I had an idea. About the dreams.”
“I am listening,” Yusuf says and when Nicolò explains, he understands the merits of the plan, but he is not so sure if he would be able to do his part. He fancies himself an artist, but he has little practice with drawing people. “I do not know, Nicolò.”
“That is what the book is for, for practice,” Nicolò says with a warm look on his face, and Yusuf relents.
“I can draw you,” he admits, and it feels almost like a confession. He had wanted it for so long. “For practice, I mean.”
“Yes,” Nicolò tilts his head, and Yusuf can tell he still has something in his mind. “Do you think you can draw something described to you? As a face?”
Yusuf pauses. He had studied under a master who could draw from memory, but he usually applied his efforts for pieces of architecture, not people. Yet, Yusuf does not see why it could not be done.
“I could try,” he says, and Nicolò nods, satisfied with himself. He remains silent for a moment before he speaks again.
“Do you need help...” Nicolò sounds uncertain, and Yusuf blinks at him. “With your hair?”
Yusuf laughs and wonders how he must look with only a small section of his hair combed and the rest sticking out in multiple directions. He has been so enthralled by the gifts he forgot about everything else entirely. It has been years since he let anyone other than his mother care for his hair, but he picks up the comb and puts it in Nicolò’s hands without hesitation.
“It is not hard,” Yusuf explains, though Nicolò must have seen him doing it dozens of times. “You have to go slow, one strand at a time, here, let me--”
Yusuf slides from the cot to the floor, seating himself between Nicolò’s legs. His shoulders are almost at the same height as Nicolò’s knees, and Yusuf tries to ignore the picture in his mind, something involving Nicolò’s knees over his shoulders in a very different setting. He swallows drily as he waits. Finally Nicolò begins to move above him, and Yusuf shivers when he feels steady fingers touch his scalp, parting his hair in half.
Nicolò’s hands move carefully, combing Yusuf’s hair with gentle strokes. He expects a few tugs, but they never come. Instead, Nicolò takes his time, following Yusuf’s directives, applying oil over the worst knots before undoing them one by one, sometimes using the comb, sometimes only his fingers.
art by Seul
It takes more time than when Yusuf does it, but once he eyes the ball of hair that comes undone from the comb, he notices it is considerably smaller than the last times he has untangled his hair. He smiles at Nicolò as he runs his fingers through his oiled curls, and Yusuf feels like kissing him even more than he did when Nicolò gave him the book and the pen.
That night, as Yusuf embraces Nicolò as they lie on their cot, it is hard to not think about Nicolò’s dextrous fingers and imagine them touching other parts of his body, wrapping around warm, aching flesh, stroking gently, carefully. He imagines Nicolò touching his own cock under Yusuf’s watchful eyes and he has to excuse himself in the middle of the night, claiming he has drunk too much water.
As the days grow warmer, Yusuf expects Nicolò to claim the other cot, where they are currently storing their clean clothes and the bedrolls that they finally had a chance to wash thoroughly. Nicolò takes one sunny afternoon to mend the popped seams and ripped fabric, and Yusuf watches him work, his hair falling over his pale eyes, and Yusuf thinks how unfair it is that Nicolò’s hair does not require more than a simple wash, so he cannot offer help to untangle it and he aches to touch it.
Well, maybe he could not touch it, he thinks, but he could have it under his fingers in another manner.
Yusuf extracts his sketchbook from his bag, still untouched, and he begins to trace the lines of Nicolò’s strong nose and jaw on the paper. Then he draws the light strands of hair falling over his eyes, some of it tucked behind his ears. He takes special care in drawing the mark on his chin, and when Nicolò raises his head from the pile of clothes mended in his lap, Yusuf shows him the drawing with a bright smile. Nicolò blushes and lowers his eyes quickly, a small smile tugging his lips. Yusuf takes that as a compliment.
As the days grow longer, the sun stays high in the sky late into the evening. Although the chilly nights are behind, neither of them mentions the fact that they no longer need to sleep together for warmth. Yusuf is afraid Nicolò is just uncomfortable about taking the first step, so one afternoon he cleans the second cot while Nicolò is at work and waits to see his reaction. When Nicolò arrives that night, he takes one look at the empty cot and turns to stare at Yusuf with an eyebrow slightly raised.
“I am sorry,” Nicolò says in a small voice. “I did not mean to overstep.”
Yusuf knows Nicolò’s voice sounds wrong, but before he can say anything, Nicolò just strips his outer tunic and lies in the other cot with his back turned. With his words trapped in his throat, Yusuf watches as Nicolò wraps his arms around his own body. He eventually convinces himself that Nicolò has fallen asleep, for he does not stir when Yusuf blows out their lamp and retreats to his cot.
It is strange, he muses, to refer at it as his cot, after calling it theirs for weeks.
Yusuf sleeps badly. He does not feel cold, but it is something similar, a constant shiver running through his body, like ants crawling all over his skin. When he finally gets up to purify for his morning prayers, he notices Nicolò has already left for the day, and he spends the whole morning and the afternoon with a heaviness in his heart.
“I did not sleep well,” Yusuf admits aloud once Nicolò comes back that evening. The circles under his eyes look sharper, as if his healing abilities are trying to catch up with his weariness and are failing miserably. “You?”
Nicolò shallows drily, and Yusuf tries not to stare at the curve of his throat. “I am exhausted,” he says after a pause, his shoulders slacken. “I believed you wanted to have your own space again.”
“I thought it was getting too warm,” Yusuf sighs and looks up. “But it feels wrong.”
He notices Nicolò’s hair is damp, a sign that he went to the baths before coming home. Yusuf watches as he begins stripping his tunic, but he does not stop there and Yusuf feels enthralled as Nicolò quickly bares himself before him. He only keeps his undershirt on, for which Yusuf is slightly disappointed, even if so grateful. The fabric is flimsy and it does a poor job to conceal the swell of Nicolò’s bottom, but it is better than nothing.
“Your solution is for us to be half naked.” Yusuf attempts to laugh, trying not to think about pressing his body against Nicolò’s with barely any layers between them.
“You said it was too warm,” Nicolò replies matter-of-factly, and Yusuf nods, unable to trust his tongue to say anything else.
He waits until the last minute before their bedtime to relieve himself so he can take the edge off and survive the night ahead of him. The image of Nicolò’s bare legs with his undershirt barely covering his knees keeps popping up in the back of Yusuf’s mind, and he comes with Nicolò’s name on the back of his tongue.
That night, as Yusuf wraps his arms around Nicolò, he has to fight back a moan at the feeling of heat radiating off Nicolò’s skin like a furnace. Nicolò does not give him the same courtesy and the sound he lets out of his lips goes straight to Yusuf’s lower belly and he has never been more thankful for his sad orgasm from earlier.
They fall asleep, even if Yusuf’s heart threatens to jump out of his chest when Nicolò rubs his ass over Yusuf’s crotch as he presses himself back against his chest. It is not the first time that happened, but there were usually more layers between them, and now Yusuf can feel how perfectly his cock fits between Nicolò’s cheeks and he has to control his breathing in order to not press right back.
The following nights are not so bad, and they fall into an easy rhythm again. Nicolò always looks well-rested in the mornings, and although Yusuf cannot say he feels exactly the same, he is not about to propose new changes for fear that Nicolò’s next suggestion would be for them to sleep completely bare. A person can only handle so much friction before snapping.
One afternoon, Nicolò arrives grinning from ear to ear and he has a stash of papers with him. He quickly opens them over their table and explains that they are contracts for lands in the outskirts of Rome. The documents are signed Andromache, the land sold by someone named Lykon. There are other two similar contracts, both made almost three hundred years apart.
“So you think we should go to Rome?” Yusuf asks. He loves Constantinople, but they have been there for two months now. He knows that it is only a matter of time before someone sees them heal from a deep cut, or recover from a bad fall, and they will find themselves in the middle of a struggle that will get ugly too fast. Maybe it is time to consider a new place.
Nicolò tils his head. “I think it is worth a try.”
As they go out that night to celebrate their decision, Yusuf drinks wine for the first time in more than a year. He thinks he still can taste it as he wraps an arm around Nicolò’s waist and helps him climb the stairs to their room. He is tired and he barely has the presence of mind to remove his outer layers of clothing, before he falls into their cot, pulling Nicolò against his chest.
They fall asleep almost immediately after, and though it is a short sleep, Yusuf wakes in high alert. He knows something is wrong even before he has opened his eyes, for Nicolò’s shoulders had turned rigid in his embrace. The moon is full, so there is some light entering their room through the window they had left open. There are no sounds from the street, except maybe for a cat in the distance. Yusuf can tell Nicolò is awake by the vibration of his heartbeat and he is about to ask what is wrong when he realises the problem is himself.
Somehow during their sleep Yusuf’s undershirt has rolled up and is now currently tangled under his armpits, leaving his very naked and very hard cock pressed against the small of Nicolò’s back, nothing but the fragile layer of Nicolò’s own undershirt between them. Yusuf breathes out, unsure of how to act and at the same time, unable to ignore his painful erection.
“Nicolò,” he whispers as if someone else may be able to hear them. Maybe he is half expecting Nicolò to actually still be asleep so he can get out of this situation with some of his honour intact. “Nicolò, I did not mean to-”
Any words, any coherent thought left on Yusuf’s mind is shattered when Nicolò grabs his hand and presses it between his legs. It takes Yusuf one long second to register that he is now touching Nicolò’s cock, which is warm and unmistakably hard. He groans against Nicolò’s neck and abandons all pretence, opening his mouth over the warm skin, savouring it as if he is a hungry man.
Nicolò squirms under him and Yusuf is suddenly overwhelmed by all the things he wants to do. He wants to kiss every patch of skin available, wants to rub his cock against Nicolò’s ass and back until he spills all over the fabric of Nicolò’s undershirt. He wants to bite the back of his neck and lick it as the bruises fade away too fast for him to chase them. And Nicolò seems to be having similar thoughts, for he never lets go of Yusuf’s hand, keeping his open palm pressed against his erection.
“You can use my thighs,” Nicolò says, his voice hoarse and heavy. “If you want.”
Yusuf wants to ask him what gave him such an idea. He wonders if maybe Nicolò saw two soldiers helping each other in a cold desert night, or maybe if it was Nicolò himself who made that very same offer during the march. Yusuf feels delirious, so he takes a deep breath to calm his heart, because he knows he wants something above all else and he needs to ask for it before they let themselves go any further.
“Nicolò, come here,” Yusuf pleads. “Look at me.”
Nicolò turns on the cot so they are now facing each other. Yusuf still has both of his arms around Nicolò’s body, one trapped underneath his weight, the other propped over his side, a hand close to his face, fingers brushing his hair away from his eyes. Yusuf thinks they look pale in the semi-darkness, but he feels, more than he sees, that there is something warm being reflected on the surface, like the calm waters of a lake.
His hand hovers over Nicolò’s chin, following the lines he has traced on paper multiple times over the past days, before he touches the mole with reverence. Nicolò’s lips turn into a full smile.
“May I kiss you?” Yusuf asks and Nicolò hurriedly nods at the same time he leans forward. Before Yusuf can even wet his own lips, Nicolò’s warm mouth is already pressed against his.
The angle is crooked and when Nicolò pulls away so they can look at each other, Yusuf realises he looks anxious, maybe wondering if he did it wrong. Warmth spreads through Yusuf’s chest. He cups Nicolò’s face with his open palm, caressing his cheek with his thumb, and then he lifts his own body so he can slot their mouths together. There is a small brush of noses on the way, then Nicolò’s lips open at the gentle press of his tongue, and Yusuf drinks the small moan that escapes Nicolò’s throat when their tongues finally touch.
Yusuf takes his time. He tries to register every sound, every touch, and commits them to memory. Nicolò is not pliant underneath him. Yusuf shivers when he feels Nicolò’s hands wandering free, one of them grabbing his curls, deepening the kiss, the other gripping his waist so Nicolò can pull him closer and press their cocks together.
Yusuf groans and rolls them over so he can press Nicolò’s back against the cot. He allows them a moment to catch their breaths, before he is diving in again. He takes Nicolò’s lower lip between his teeth as he lifts the hem of Nicolò’s undershirt to reveal his cock, hard and leaking against his stomach. Yusuf cannot decide what he wants to do first, so he just kisses Nicolò once more, open mouthed. He rubs his beard against Nicolò’s face, the wet sounds of their tongues filling the silence of the room.
Yusuf moans when he feels Nicolò’s hand finally wrap around his cock. The angle is slightly awkward, but he is leaking in Nicolò’s hold, easing the way, and he begins to move his hips, fucking his cock into Nicolò’s fist. Nicolò presses his thumb against the sensitive head, and Yusuf groans against his neck. He bites and sucks at the skin in a way that would leave a set of purples flowers come morning on anyone but them.
Soon, he feels his orgasm too close, so close it makes Yusuf grit his teeth as he takes Nicolò’s cock in hand and start to stroke him with the same rhythm that he fucks Nicolò’s fist. He comes first, and his knees feel weak, so he breathes in relief when Nicolò cries soon after, his release warm and sticky on Yusuf’s fingers.
It takes Yusuf a moment to gather his wits and he rolls off Nicolò’s body, conscious of his heavy weight over him. He feels his undershirt sticking to the cooling sweat on his back, the fabric wet against his chest and groin. He laughs, which makes Nicolò turn his head and stare at him. His face looks relaxed and curious under the moonlight.
“There are good reasons people do this without clothes on,” Yusuf says, cleaning his fingers on his undershirt, wondering if he has enough strength to get up and find a washcloth.
“Well,” Nicolò says, turning his whole body so they are face to face, the tips of their noses almost brushing. “I thought about suggesting it when you mentioned it was too warm. No clothes, I mean.”
Yusuf tries to suppress a laugh, which comes out as a snort. “Why you did not?” he asks, just because he wants to keep listening to the sound of Nicolò’s voice.
“I thought it would be too forward.”
“Nicolò,” Yusuf leans in so he can press a small kiss onto Nicolò’s lips, “In the future, please let it be known that you are allowed to be as forward as you like with me.”
Nicolò’s face brightens as if he was the moon outside, and Yusuf tries to fight the urge to kiss him until the sun is up.
Rajab - Ramadan, 493 AH (June - July, 1100 AD)
Yusuf quiets the sounds of Nicolò’s moans with something that is not quite a kiss, their slacken mouths breathing into each other, trying to capture anything louder than a sigh and swallow it whole. Nicolò’s hands are gripping Yusuf’s hips painfully hard as Yusuf strokes him fast and ungracefully, his own cock spent and soft pressed between their bodies.
Nicolò had accosted him in the cargo deck after nightfall, dropping to his knees before Yusuf could even react. He came awfully fast inside Nicolò’s mouth and then chased the taste of himself on Nicolò’s tongue as he pressed him against a pile of crates filled with spices.
They have been at sea for about five weeks, with few stops on land to unload cargo and restock provisions. They have not encountered heavy storms on their way, the difference between traveling during late spring and braving the sea in the winter striking, and yet, Yusuf feels like they have been stuck on the boat for a small eternity.
The certainty that now Nicolò would welcome any of his touches has left Yusuf elated and lightheaded, but to be forbidden to do it except for quick stolen kisses and frantic hands makes him wish they had stayed in Constantinople for a little while longer.
The day after they had decided to go to Rome in search of Andromache and Quỳnh, Yusuf had gone to the port and found them a ship that would be leaving for Venice in a fortnight. Nicolò quit his job at the government’s office so they could make preparations for their journey.
Yusuf could tell Nicolò was anxious about the idea of traveling so close to his home — after all, he was supposed to have perished in the Holy Land. Yusuf wondered how he would be feeling in his place, had they been bound to Sousse or Tunis instead. Would Yusuf have been able to resist the impulse to see his family? Should he not be allowed to say goodbye to them if he had the chance?
They were forced to change their plans less than a week before their departure date. That night, Yusuf fucked Nicolò’s thighs for long, blessed minutes, biting his shoulders as he felt the tip of his cock nudge Nicolò’s balls from behind. He ran one of his hands all over Nicolò’s chest, noticing how Nicolò shivered as Yusuf brushed a nipple on his way down, before he wrapped his fingers around Nicolò’s aching cock. He began to stroke him deliberately, slowly as he sucked on his earlobe, and yet soon Nicolò came with a shout, slumping against Yusuf’s chest, who muffled a groan against Nicolò’s shoulder as he came in the heat between his strong thighs. They did not bother to clean before they fell asleep, which was unfortunate given that they were abruptly woken up by a vivid dream.
Nicolò almost fell off their cot in a hurry to light a lamp while Yusuf was still trying to make sense of what he had just seen. They had been doing that for some time then, registering every piece of information they could extract from in their dreams, anything that could lead them to the two women. Nicolò sat by Yusuf’s side with a washcloth, taking Yusuf’s hands between his and cleaning his dried come from Yusuf’s fingers, before doing the same with the cooled come between his own legs.
Yusuf tried to not be distracted by the vision of Nicolò’s naked form beside him, instead focusing in taking his sketchbook to draw from memory what he had just seen from the point of view of Andromache and Quỳnh. A sparkling blue sea, high cliffs and fishboats spread out around a large, natural harbour. Then the memory cut, and the women were hiking through a rough terrain and-
“Then there was a walled city, inland, high up on a plateau.”
Yusuf felt Nicolò’s warm breath against his skin, Nicolò’s chin tucked over Yusuf’s shoulder as he spoke softly. “I could see the water from the ramparts, just a thin line on the horizon. The air was warm, and the land was dry, but I saw terraced fields, and there was green on them. It was beautiful.”
“Mashallah,” Yusuf felt a pang in his chest as the drawing slowly took shape under his fingertips. “This is Mdina,” he said, voice filled with fear and wonder. “Nicolò, I know where they are.”
Deep inside his heart, he had always realised the dreams were real. Yusuf had always known that those two women were somewhere out in the world and that they were just like them. He knew, yes, but to be able to say I have been there before, to be able to recognise that shoreline, those stone walls, and to be absolutely certain he had walked those very same ramparts brought tears to his eyes.
“They are real,” Nicolò said with a full-smile, unable to hide the excitement in his voice. His eyes sparkled in the semi-darkness, and Yusuf thought he never looked more beautiful. “They are real, Yusuf.”
Yusuf ran to the port at first light, and he was back two hours later with good news and bad news. He had found a ship bound to Sicily that would make a stop in the island of Melita. The problem was it would be sailing on the very next day, so they had to hurry to finish up all their preparations in order to board it.
They did not have much to carry besides clothes and bedrolls, their swords, Nicolò’s bible and Yusuf’s sketchbook. Still, Yusuf disliked leaving a place in such a hurry. He had made plans for their final days in the city, but he knew they could not risk waiting for another ship. It was almost eight weeks between Constantinople and Melita, and they did not know how long the women would stay put.
So they boarded the Santa Maria, whose crew was mostly Sicilian, and Yusuf felt relieved when he found out he could understand them well enough. Nicolò quickly made friends among the sailors, and Yusuf watched fascinated as Nicolò walked around the deck on his bare feet, the salty wind blowing in his hair as he climbed on the rope ladder to watch the horizon. The lack of heavy storms meant Yusuf actually managed to spend most of his time above deck, trying not to get underfoot. Though the Captain seemed impressed by Nicolò’s knowledge of sailing, he was more curious about his relationship with Yusuf.
“You are an odd pair indeed, my friend,” the Captain, whose name was Antonio, said four weeks into their journey. The day before, Nicolò had offered to cook for the whole crew and had impressed everyone. Yusuf watched Nicolò sitting cross-legged over the deck then, as he taught two ship boys how to tie different types of knots. “I can tell Nicolò is very fond of you.”
Yusuf felt his throat dry, but he was prepared for that conversation. Though it was not unheard of a Muslim and a Christian to travel together, he knew their partnership always would turn a few heads. “The history of mankind surely has seen stranger pairings,” Yusuf laughed good-naturally.
“He told me you saved his life,” the Captain said, and Yusuf felt his heart skip a beat.
That was not the story he and Nicolò had agreed upon. They were meant to be just a merchant and a scribe who met in Constantinople. Yusuf looked over to the Captain as he waited for his reply. Yusuf would be having words with Nicolò later. “Did he?”
“Yes.” The Captain nodded as he took a swig of his waterskin filled with rum. “He said he was drowning and you offered him your hand.”
Yusuf felt a chill on his skin, which had nothing to do with the sea breeze. The metaphor was not misplaced; he could remember a field of death, a long night of dying and gasping back to life before realising this has to stop. Yusuf had never thought he saved Nicolò, because how can you save a man that cannot be killed?
“It is strange, though,” said the Captain almost as an afterthought. “Nicolò knows so much about sailing, so I was surprised he would have any trouble swimming.”
Yusuf and the Captain exchanged a long look, and the man flashed a yellow grin before he walked away. Yusuf thought that they understood each other, but he still felt he should have a conversation with Nicolò after nightfall, preferably alone.
Summer was upon them, which meant that soon it would be a years’ time since they had met on that bloody field. It felt longer, somehow. Yusuf was the only Muslim onboard the ship, which meant he had to find Qibla by himself every time he prayed, and when he prayed he found himself not asking questions any longer. He still had them, but he felt as if God had given him something more important than answers, or rather, someone.
“Two more weeks,” says Nicolò as they sit on the floor of the cargo deck. It is dark and they barely managed to tuck their trousers back in place before they collapsed against the crates. Yusuf fears he may fall asleep here, the air heavy with the smell of black pepper and cardamom and Nicolò’s head leaning against his shoulder. “Maybe less if we are blessed with good wind.”
“Insha'Allah,” says Yusuf, squirming an arm behind Nicolò so that he can hold his waist, pulling him closer and lifting his shirt just an inch, so he can touch the warm skin beneath.
Nicolò snorts under his breath and raises his head so Yusuf can press a closed-mouthed kiss on his lips. Neither of them break apart, though, and it quickly heats up as Nicolò opens his mouth under Yusuf’s and licks his lips, seeking entrance. Yusuf allows him.
“I need to be in a room with you and only with you,” Yusuf says when they finally part for air. He rubs his beard against the side of Nicolò’s neck, which never fails to make Nicolò breathe a little faster. “Someplace I can be certain that no one will walk in on us. I want to take my time with you.”
Yusuf feels Nicolò shiver by his side and he knows both are thinking about the same thing and the memory alone is enough to make Yusuf’s cock stir inside his slacks. He presses the heel of his hand against it.
It had been three days since they had shared their first kiss in Constantinople and as it had in all the days that followed, the evening found them in bed shortly after dinner, not a single piece of clothing on their backs as they explored each other’s bodies with hands and tongues.
Yusuf made Nicolò open his mouth so he could press two fingers inside, making them wet. He took them to Nicolò’s nipples and pinched one as he sucked on the other, holding the small nub between his teeth. He smirked as Nicolò thrashed beneath him, letting out a litany of curses that both shocked and impressed Yusuf. He took pity on Nicolò and began to lay open-mouthed kisses along his chest, down to his stomach until he reached his leaking cock.
They exchanged a look as Yusuf waited for Nicolò to protest, but he never did, and Yusuf took Nicolò’s cock in his hand and stroked him slowly, fascinated as the head appeared above the foreskin. Yusuf lapped at it with the tip of his tongue, savouring the salty taste, and he fought a grin as Nicolò’s breathing became instantly laboured and punctuated by small whimpers. He caressed Nicolò’s balls and wetted his fingers with his saliva before he pressed the tips against Nicolò’s entrance, barely breaching the tight ring of muscle.
“Yusuf-” Nicolò suddenly sounded anxious, and Yusuf pulled his fingers out immediately, releasing Nicolò’s cock from his mouth with a wet pop. He moved his body so he was covering Nicolò’s from head to toe and looked into Nicolò’s eyes, relieved when he did not find pain or fear on them, only curiosity. “It is just, I have never really--”
Yusuf kissed Nicolò soundly, the weight of his words quickly sinking into his senses, and he grabbed Nicolò’s wet cock and worked him with sure, gentle strokes until Nicolò was sobbing against his lips. Nicolò blinked with blurry eyes after he came and he tried to touch Yusuf in return, but Yusuf told him to wait as he stroked himself to completion, coming all over Nicolò’s stomach and adding to the mess already there.
Yusuf takes a deep breath as he shakes himself from the memory, inhaling the scent of spices, feeling the swing of the boat around them. He realises he needs to think about something else, otherwise he will be tempted to push Nicolò to the ground and fuck him until neither of them could think any longer. That is not how he wants it to happen, so he presses a kiss on the top of Nicolò’s head, noticing he has almost fallen asleep on his shoulder.
“Hey,” Yusuf says in a gentle tone. “I need to know if you are going to tell any more strangers that I rescued you from drowning.”
Nicolò stays quiet for a moment, and Yusuf almost thinks he has indeed fallen asleep. It is dark inside the deck, and he cannot see his face.
“I apologise, it is just...” Nicolò sighs eventually, shifts in Yusuf’s embrace until he no longer has his head over Yusuf’s shoulder. His voice sounds serious when he continues. “The Captain, Antonio? He reminds me of my father, and when he asked how we met, I just... I realised I could not lie to him. So I told him the closest thing to the truth I could think of.”
Yusuf feels his chest warm, his heart heavy, so he tries to jest. “You know I barely know how to swim, right?”
Nicolò snorts and rubs his face against Yusuf’s beard. “I can teach you. They surely must have a pond or something in Melita.” Yusuf laughs and nods, but he soon realises Nicolò is not done.
“You did it, though,” he says with a small voice. “Saved me, I mean.”
Yusuf thinks about their time in the desert, about Nicolò fasting with him. He remembers Nicolò offering to buy him dinner, instead of renting a room so he would not have to sleep in the open. He thinks about the sensation of Nicolò’s gentle hands as he cleaned the blood from his face after he was called a demon. Yusuf remembers Nicolò making sure he did not die as a storm raged around them. He thinks about Nicolò’s hands offering a book for him to make something of his own, then the same hands in his hair, carefully untangling knots, and then, not that long after, not allowing them to part from their first kiss.
“I did not save you,” says Yusuf instead of saying you saved me. “I just took the first step.”
“Sometimes that one is the hardest,” Nicolò whispers, and Yusuf realises he does not know what to say. He is grateful when Nicolò kisses him one more time before he gets up and pulls Yusuf back to his feet so they can go and find something to eat before retreating to their hammocks.
It is the fifth day of the Ramadan when their ship enters Melita’s bay, the cliffs enclosing the natural harbour like a mother’s embrace. Yusuf remembers the last and only time he was on this island was the very first trading voyage his father took him on. Uncle Fadi had come along. Yusuf had been just shy of sixteen, and he had spent the better part of the trip following his father and uncle around as they talked with very important men. He remembers, though, being allowed a couple of hours on his own before sunset and watching the sea over Mdina’s walls.
The sun is about to set when they finally dock, and they say their goodbyes to the crew. Nicolò embraces the Captain as if they have known each for years. It is too late to hike on foot or even on donkey’s back all the way to Mdina, which is on the hills in the Northern part of the island, so they rent a room in an inn. Despite the calm journey by sea this time, Yusuf is still glad to be on land. When he examines their lodgings his heart is light in a way he has not felt in a while.
At the sunset, Yusuf prays with a few of his brothers, overlooking the harbour, as Nicolò visits a local church. After spending the whole day fasting, they both meet to dine in a tavern across the inn.
They eat tagine with couscous and sweet tea, and Yusuf feels a heaviness in his heart as he thinks about his family just across the sea. This is the closest he has been to home in a decade, and the longing must be showing on his face somehow, because without uttering a word, Nicolò reaches across the table for his hand and laces their fingers together. Yusuf lifts Nicolò’s hand to his lips, brushing a kiss over his knuckles. They are the last patrons of the day, and the tavern servant is busy cleaning the empty tables. Nicolò smiles back at him.
They walk around the shoreline after they leave the tavern, glad it is empty so they can hold hands in silence. It is at least one hour past midnight when they return to the inn, but Yusuf pays enough coin for the innkeeper to arrange a hot bath to be brought up to their room. They use a washcloth on their bodies first, careful to remove the worst of the grime and salt from the sea, before they allow themselves to step into the lukewarm water together. In the summer heat, it hardly matters.
They barely fit in and Yusuf’s breath catches when he feels Nicolò’s fingers wrap around his cock under the water, but he lets Nicolò stroke him with lazy, gentle pulls until he feels he is getting too close. He allows Nicolò to wash his hair instead and he kisses him when he is done.
Yusuf steps out of the bath so he can start working on his curls and he towels his body dry as he watches Nicolò finishing cleaning himself, both of his hands underwater, and Yusuf cannot help picturing one of his fingers prodding gently between Nicolò’s legs, reaching behind his balls.
Yusuf sits on the bed to watch, and he has worked most of the tangles out of his curls when Nicolò finally steps out of the bath. Yusuf feels his throat go dry at the vision of his naked form, and any doubts he could have had about what Nicolò’s hands were doing underwater are dismissed by the vision of Nicolò’s erection hard and leaking against his stomach. Nicolò does not bother to dry himself as he kneels before Yusuf so he can close his flushed lips around Yusuf’s cock.
He immediately grabs Nicolò’s hair with his oiled fingers and closes his eyes as Nicolò takes him in deep and easily after so many weeks of practice. Yusuf breathes through his nose, trying to control the urge to snap his hips up and fuck the heat of Nicolò’s mouth. Instead, he caresses Nicolò’s scalp and drinks in the vision of that man on his knees as Nicolò laps at his cock, eyes bright as he looks up, green sea under the peak of the sun. Yusuf groans and pulls Nicolò up by his hair so they can kiss.
He thinks Nicolò tastes clean and perfect, and he wonders if he could keep doing just this for eternity, but all articulate thoughts vanish from Yusuf’s mind when Nicolò parts their kiss and straddles his lap in one single motion.
“Yusuf,” Nicolò breathes heavily as he kisses Yusuf’s neck, rubbing the side of his face against his beard. “Please.”
Yusuf does not trust his words, so he only nods, searching blindly for the vial of oil he had just used on his hair and pouring a generous amount on his fingers. He brings his hand between Nicolò’s cheeks, an oiled finger breaching him easily, but shakily. They both moan as Yusuf inserts another one and pulls his fingers in and out of Nicolò’s quivering heat. Nicolò keeps his eyes closed the entire time, and Yusuf is half grateful, half disappointed.
“Look at me,” he says a minute after, when his fingers begin to encounter less resistance. “Nicolò?”
Nicolò blinks, and Yusuf has to restrain himself to not just throw him onto his back, for Nicolò’s eyes are hazy and his lips slightly parted as if inviting Yusuf for a kiss, and Yusuf accepts, pulling his oiled fingers out of Nicolò so he can slick his cock in a couple of desperate and clumsy strokes.
“Come here,” he all but begs, and Nicolò lifts his body just enough, and presses his chest against Yusuf’s, Nicolò’s hole catching on the head of his cock a couple of times before he manages to sink all the way down.
Yusuf grabs Nicolò’s hips as he fully sits on his cock and he stops him from moving, even though they are both desperate to do exactly that. Yusuf waits a moment to take in the smooth heat of Nicolò’s body around him, the feeling of Nicolò’s hard cock pressed between their stomachs, his own heart beating fast, almost deafening inside his chest. Nicolò waits for just but a moment before he begins to squirm and moan against Yusuf’s neck, sucking a fast-fading bruise as if he cannot stop himself. Yusuf closes his eyes and nods. He whispers, “My heart,” and he means it.
They begin to move together, and Nicolò wraps his arms around Yusuf’s neck at the same time Yusuf takes hold of his hips, pulling Nicolò onto his cock over and over. Their skin is soon covered by a thin layer of sweat, and Yusuf feels his frustration growing, the angle not allowing him to snap his hips fast enough. He grabs Nicolò’s ass and flips them so they are laying on the bed, his hands on either side of Nicolò’s head, and Nicolò’s legs wrapped around Yusuf’s waist.
Nicolò looks up, lips slightly parted, and Yusuf kisses him one more time before he thrusts. He fucks him into a frantic, wrecked beat. His skin is warm all over, but it feels almost feverish when Yusuf touches where they are joined, and he fights to keep his eyes open as he watches Nicolò’s face, Nicolò’s mouth letting out a constant string of whimpers mixed by the sound of his name: Yusuf, Yusuf...
Yusuf feels his orgasm building and he forces a hand between their bodies so he can stroke Nicolò’s cock at the same rhythm of his thrusts. Nicolò mewls and comes without warning, muscles clenched around Yusuf’s cock, head thrown back and eyes wide, a lasting moan on his lips. Yusuf wants to lean forward and taste it, but all his senses are enclosed within the pooling heat in his stomach, the pressure building, building until he cannot go any longer. He thrusts one last time and he feels all the tension, all the pressure washing away from his body in harsh, wet waves.
He collapses on top of Nicolò, letting himself be caught and held in his arms. He buries his face in the crook of Nicolò’s neck and he breathes in his scent, salt, soap and clean sweat. Yusuf thinks he may have fallen asleep, but not for long, because when he comes back to his senses, his body is still covering Nicolò’s, the lower part of their bodies still joined, Nicolò’s legs like a vine around him. Yusuf presses his elbows against the mattress and lifts his upper body so they can look in each other’s eyes.
It must be very late or maybe too early, for Yusuf notices a gentle light starting to creep inside the room, piercing through the window they had left open for the sea breeze. It does not take him long to understand the summer sun will be rising soon. He feels bone tired and he knows they will probably have to postpone their hike to the North until the afternoon. He is not looking forward to make that walk while fasting, but they have done worse.
“It is been a year since we met,” Nicolò’s voice pierces through the haze of Yusuf’s musings. He pries his eyes open, surprised to have closed them in the first place. Nicolò sounds steady and strong, but Yusuf cannot help but notice his eyes are bright with unshed tears. He feels his heart begin to beat faster. “Today. I kept count.”
Yusuf does not know what to say. By Yusuf’s count a year had already passed, for they keep time differently, but before he can say it, Nicolò touches his face, sinking his fingers into his beard, and Yusuf blinks, looking down at him.
“At some point during that night, you had me just like this, your arms framing my head,” Nicolò breathes, never breaking eye contact. “I was angry and afraid when I died again. Then it was morning and I was still angry. I would have kept going.”
Yusuf remembers, yes, when he gasped awake one last time and stared up at the sky, wondering if God was punishing him. Then he had looked around, taking in the field of death and all the blood, and in the middle of the carnage, just one man, the same man again. It was sunrise then as well, and though Yusuf had still been able to hear the sound of fighting in the distance, enclosed within Jerusalem’s walls, out there in the field there had been silence. Yusuf had walked to the fallen man, who had looked as tired as Yusuf had felt.
“And you offered me your hand,” Nicolò says, sounding uncertain still. “You were supposed to hate me.”
There was warm light peeking through the window, the unmistakable dawn ready to bath their room in gentle, soft colours. Nicolò is looking up and Yusuf thinks his eyes never looked so much like gemstones as they do now. He flexes his hands, feeling the empty space left by his old rings as he cups Nicolò’s face with his open palms. He searches for those precious words he was gifted once, locked deep inside his chest. He has treasured them for so long. Maybe it is time to give them back.
“It is hard to hate something beautiful,” Yusuf says.
He watches as Nicolò blinks, his eyes wet. He looks as if he is trying to contain something between a laugh and a sob and Yusuf smiles, for he knows not all tears are from sadness. He can almost feel Nicolò’s fast pulse and Yusuf realises his own heart is calm as the sea in the harbour, the gentle waves caressing all those deceptively stiff stones. Yusuf knows the water will work its way eventually, slowly, surely.
It has eternity, after all.
art by Seul