It’s not until a decade or so into their uncertain immortality, when Andromache and Quynh finally find them in the Almoravid Maghreb, that Yusuf realizes that all his dreams have actually meant something.
He is stunned speechless (which is virtually impossible under normal circumstances) when he exits their little wood-and-adobe house in the qṣer to see the two women he’s been dreaming of for years now just standing there in the dust. He’d been smiling because it was an endearing gasp of surprise from Nicolò just out the door which drew him outside, but that grin fades immediately. The two women are side-by-side to his right, and Nicolò is on his left, looking cagey and suspicious. It is silent and tense. That is, until the paler woman steps forward with an amused smile and draws an axe out from behind herself.
Nicolò immediately seizes Yusuf’s wrist and all but throws him behind himself, backing them up to keep distance from her. Yusuf is still in stupid, bumbling shock, so he kind of just goes wherever Nicolò bullies him. The woman doesn’t appear to be at all intimidated, though Nicolò and Yusuf are both quite a bit larger than her. She swings her axe casually, as if testing the air with its blade. Nicolò grabs the nearest object which might feasibly serve as a manner of self-defense, which happens to be the trunk of a young almond tree they felled yesterday for firewood, just leaning against the side of their house. He wields it like his longsword; crouches low in front of Yusuf and grips it with both hands at an angle, ready to block her forthcoming strike. Yusuf would be charmed, but he’s a bit preoccupied. Their neighbors in the qṣer are probably noticing the commotion and the two outsiders by now; they’re gonna have to figure out how to explain this later.
“Fascinating.” the woman says in perfect Zeneize, still advancing. Her tone is teasing, perhaps even taunting. “He likes to be taken, and yet he is the one who protects.”
Yusuf’s eyes pop and his eyebrows plummet down to meet in the center of his forehead. He hears Nicolò make a strangled choking sound. He briefly wonders if perhaps he is dreaming; how she knows what his Nicolò enjoys in bed, he has no idea. He can’t see Nicolò’s face, but the tips of his ears are red. He must be deeply embarrassed.
Their stunned silence confirms her assessment, and the woman laughs. And then, with utter surety, she draws the axe up and slices her own throat with a grand spray of blood.
After the woman, Andromache, has recovered, they invite her and her companion, Quynh, inside for refreshments because, well, what else should they do? Nicolò makes everyone some tea and prepares a little dish of preserved olives.
“Mm, I’ve missed these in Asia.” Andromache says.
She tells them that while they’ve been dreaming of her, she’s been dreaming of them, too. The past decade has been quite… amorous for Yusuf and Nicolò, and as it turns out, Andromache and Quynh have been supernaturally privy to things that should really remain strictly between lovers. Nicolò is humiliated; Yusuf has never seen him so red-faced and apologetic. Yusuf thinks it is all quite funny. Andromache is so old that he’s sure there’s nothing two humans could do to each other that she hasn’t seen before, and anyways, he has a bit of an exhibitionist streak.
But, one thing she tells them gives him pause.
“The dreams stop when we come together. They happen in order to draw us to each other. We have no choice but to answer the call.”
And Yusuf suddenly remembers his first year with Nicolò.
They are heading for Alexandria, and are about halfway there. By Yusuf’s reckoning, they have reached the Sinai. The days are getting hotter as they move into the final gasps of summer, though they have both hardened to it somewhat. Nicolò is quite a bit darker than he was when they first met a month and a half ago. His hair has also lightened from dark brown to more of a gold-streaked medium, which baffles Yusuf and makes him wonder if it will be white by the time they get to the city. He’s not going to ask because, while he normally wouldn’t shy away from potentially offending someone, he has to be in Nicolò’s presence every hour of every day, and minimizing awkwardness ranks high on his list of priorities. He’s already failing quite spectacularly—Nicolò has struggled learning Arabic, and Yusuf must admit that he is not dextrous with his companion’s Italian dialect yet, either. Conversation is stilted and lacking, which is like a kick in the pants when all they do is walk side-by-side in a desolate landscape with not much of anything to look at. They are both too nervous to ask each other anything about their previous lives, and equally nervous to answer such questions with words only very recently learned for fear of ridicule. The long and short of it is, the boiling rage they felt for each other in their first lifetime has long gone—but it hasn’t quite been replaced by anything else yet. All Yusuf knows is that he is alone in immortality with this mysterious, reserved man, and that if he is to withstand eternity with all his marbles in place, he will have to forge some kind of relationship with him.
They stop for a night on a rocky inland plateau dotted with acacia trees. The earth of the plateau is moderately softer and sandier than the crumbling reddish wadis around them, so it is the obvious choice. As Yusuf begins setting down his pack, Nicolò moves towards one of the younger acacias for a closer look. The only thing Yusuf knows about his past is that he was a priest, and before that, an herbalist at a monastery. He has been endlessly fascinated by the plants they encounter as they travel; it must all be so exotic to him. Sometimes, though, ignorance is not bliss. When he reaches out to touch one of the thorns at the base of a leaf, Yusuf scrambles to his feet.
Nicolò jumps in shock; they rarely talk to each other, let alone yell. He watches, wide-eyed and spooked, as Yusuf comes over and pulls his hand away from the tree with a firm grip on his wrist.
“Look.” Yusuf says, and pokes the thorn hard once with his free hand before snatching it back. Immediately, ants swarm out of the hollow inside it and cover the thorn, squirming around, thirsting to destroy the interloper whose vibrations they detected. Nicolò gasps beside him, not in horror or disgust, but in amazement.
“The ants—they live in the tree?” he asks.
“Mm. They eat the sap. And in exchange, they protect the tree.”
Nicolò is totally dazzled. He looks like he wants to pick up one of the ants and inspect it, and, knowing him, he probably will. To rein him in, Yusuf points to them and mimics getting stung, shaking the pain out of his finger. Nicolò’s lips part a little in a little ‘ah’ of understanding. He contents himself with just observing from afar. They both stare at the fuming, swarming ants in silence for a while, and only then does Yusuf realize that he’s still holding on to Nicolò’s wrist.
“Ah.” he exclaims, embarrassed. He drops it immediately.
Nicolò makes a noise as if he has also just realized, and draws his arm to his chest to absentmindedly rub the wrist. His cheeks are a bit pink.
When they have finished eating that night, they lay out the bedroll, which is really just a threadbare blanket that they both pretend is thicker than it actually is in order to entertain their own delusions. There used to be two, but Bedouins stole the other one somewhere back in Gaza. So, now, they share. Out of respect for Nicolò’s aloofness, Yusuf gives him plenty of space. They settle now into their usual position: Nicolò on his left side, facing away from Yusuf, and Yusuf on his back at the opposite edge.
“This is the hottest night yet.” Nicolò says over his shoulder in his heavy accent.
“Mm.” Yusuf hums his agreement. He’s been sweating all day, and it’s no better now.
And then, to his surprise, Nicolò turns onto his back and begins unlacing his braies. Yusuf’s heart stops and he cannot tear his eyes away. He’s never seen Nicolò fully naked; he’s been too shy to bare himself. But here he is, feet braced so he can lift his hips up off the ground and see his hands better as they undo the ties. He is already topless, and Yusuf watches as more and more of his happy trail gets uncovered. The hair gets noticeably thicker as Nicolò unlaces the final eyelet, and Yusuf has to force himself to tear his gaze away and look up, unseeing, at the sky. Suddenly his heart is pounding. He realizes that he desperately wants to put his mouth all over Nicolò’s skin. He frowns to himself at the intrusive thought.
Nicolò sighs decadently when he strips the braies off and throws them to the side. Yusuf’s frown deepens when he gets the unbearable urge to make him sigh again. Perhaps moan. What is happening to him?
Some time passes, and at some point, Nicolò turns back onto his side. Yusuf has been examining the stars in extraordinary depth, and so he only hears it. There is the sound of the top blanket shifting, and he assumes that Nicolò has pulled it over at least his lower body. It is safe to look again. But, when he glances over, he sees the proof of his misjudgement. Nicolò has not pulled the blanket over himself; if it was ever covering him at all, he’s pushed it completely off. He’s naked, lying on his left side with his right leg bent, giving his companion a view of his backside that frankly makes Yusuf feel like he might have some kind of heart failure. He gapes like a fish for a very long time, not really believing his eyes.
He can’t be blamed for his ensuing actions. He is only human, and Nicolò may be a man of the cloth, but even he must know that he’s posing like an offering. In a trance, drawn to Nicolò like the base animal that he is, he slides up behind him and runs his fingertips from his ribs to his hip in glorious fascination. He sees Nicolò’s stomach tighten as he gasps softly. He does not immediately apply his sword to Yusuf’s throat, and that’s all the invitation a thoroughly aroused thirty-something male needs. Yusuf snuggles up closer and finds himself pressing his lips to the dip of Nicolò’s throat. At the same time, he slides his wandering hand around to his chest to caress his nipples. Nicolò whines, and then one of his hands is pressing Yusuf’s down harder, encouraging him to touch. He growls, acknowledging Nicolò’s reciprocal desire, and pinches. Now Nicolò moans, soft and breathy. He starts to squirm, thighs squeezing together and hips rolling on impulse. Yusuf is so inexplicably turned on that he’s dizzy. This is not how he imagined this day ending. And he can’t believe shy, reserved Nicolò instigated this in the first place.
Yusuf is in a state of drunkenness, and has no idea how they get to a point in which he is kneeling over Nicolò, holding his shapely thighs together as he thrusts between them. He does not know how or why it is slick. He doesn’t recall retrieving the olive oil from his pack. The only thing he thinks about is Nicolò, how surprisingly beautiful he is in the throes of lust, the red flush on his cheeks and chest. The way he strokes himself, delights in Yusuf’s movements. Yusuf cannot believe he never thought of him in this way before. He is breathtaking. They understand each other; there is no awkwardness now. They fit together like two pieces of a puzzle.
They come at almost the same time, painting Nicolò’s stomach white. Yusuf drops his legs immediately and spreads them so that he can mix their seed together on his skin and then lick it off his own finger. He has no idea what possesses him to do it, but Nicolò groans as he watches, and then seizes Yusuf’s biceps to drag him down into a sloppy kiss. In an instant, Yusuf knows with certainty that Nicolò has no experience whatsoever in the arena of love; his uncoordinated kisses are wonderfully endearing and arousing at the same time. And Yusuf is all the more thrilled and amazed by his easy, passionate acquiescence to an unexpected tumble in the blankets.
He is willing to let it be over then, to give his virginal partner a break, will be more than satisfied with this alone, but then—Nicolò reaches down and grabs him where he is still hard (how can he be anything but when Nicolò is showing him hidden depths, both literally and figuratively?).
“Inside…?” Nicolò asks.
Yusuf almost comes again at that alone. That he would even ask, would willingly request it, that he even knows that’s something two men can do—it makes Yusuf’s heart start pounding anew.
“You would permit me?” he pants, petting Nicolò’s hip.
“You may have anything you wish. I will give it to you.” Nicolò answers, tone turning to pleading.
That really is too much. Yusuf dives down to kiss him with teeth, hands gripping his hips now with considerable strength, grinding into him, biting at his throat and his earlobe. Nicolò gasps and opens his thighs farther, arms going around Yusuf’s shoulders to cling on tight.
“ Ah, Yusuf— ” he breathes, sounding like he’s been burning with desire for this a long, long time.
Yusuf doesn’t remember the oil this time either; the next thing he knows, he’s pushing inside a slick and warm Nicolò, who throws his head back and cries out, eyes squeezed shut and eyebrows drawn together. His fingers dig hard into Yusuf’s thighs, just above his braced knees, but he doesn’t tell him to stop. So, he doesn’t. He curls over Nicolò so he can bury his face in his shoulder and begins thrusting, gentle at first, but with greater intensity the louder Nicolò’s moans get. Nicolò is clearly in ecstasy, and that’s not Yusuf’s ego talking—his toes are curling and he is rock-hard and leaking, groaning in delight, louder than Yusuf has ever heard him be outside the battlefield. No one is being taken here—this is the convergence of two souls in perfect harmony. Yusuf feels their connection in his bones.
He wakes with an ungodly gasp just as he begins to finish inside Nicolò. He sits bolt upright, panting, hands clutching the top blanket. For a long moment, he cannot remember what is real and what is dream; he whirls around to look at Nicolò and expects him to be lying naked atop the covers. But, he is modestly asleep under the blanket, braies on and laced. Yusuf cannot see his face from this angle, but he notices that his back is rising and falling quite rapidly in labored breath, and his right fist is twisted in the blanket. Nicolò sometimes has nightmares; this must be one of those nights. How fortunate for Yusuf, that his companion was too distracted to be woken by his frantic outburst.
Yusuf is therefore free to sit like a statue for many long minutes, drinking in the emotions of the dream. His whole world has suddenly shifted on its axis. Dreams often do this to him; he recalls a passionate dream he had as a teen about a neighbor boy he’d never looked twice at before, and the way he couldn’t shake those feelings of attraction for a whole week afterwards. He suddenly feels so much towards Nicolò that it is suffocating. He stews in it for a while, before eventually lying back down. He takes a deep breath. Perhaps the feelings will vanish in the morning sun.
They don’t. It is nearly impossible to look Nicolò in the eye the next day. It is equally hard not to touch him; not to throw an arm around his shoulders or to brush knuckles over his cheek, like Yusuf would normally do with a lover. Yusuf’s dream was so vivid that he must keep reminding himself that no, they did not in fact sleep together the previous night, and no he must not now start taking more liberties with Nicolò’s personal space. Never mind how much he wants to.
Nicolò seems to be especially bashful for some indiscernible reason. He won’t meet Yusuf’s eyes, and his lips are sealed tighter than a drum. He drops numerous things while they’re packing up—the waterskin, the sachet full of almonds, his two corners of the blanket as they fold it up. Whenever he catches Yusuf looking at him, he blushes. Yusuf wonders if he’s been acting this way for the past two months and he just never noticed. Surely not—he’s a connoisseur of romance, and he knows very well when a beautiful man is attracted to him. But, is this proof of attraction, or is Nicolò just nervous by nature? Is Yusuf just seeing what he wants to see?
Already the chaos of desire is playing games with his mind.
They spend the day avoiding each other, at least as much as is possible when walking side-by-side for eight hours straight. Yusuf burns, wants nothing more than to reach out and pull Nicolò into his arms. He suddenly desires him so badly, cannot believe that only yesterday, he did not. He wonders if perhaps such feelings were present before, hidden so far inside his heart that he didn’t even realize they were there, suffocated as they were by preoccupations with inexplicable immortality. Regardless, whereas before he was hesitant to initiate conversation, he now has to restrain himself from doing so every other minute. He wants to know everything about Nicolò.
They eventually manage to get back to normal. In the late afternoon, after perhaps their longest mutual silence yet, Yusuf resumes the Arabic lessons and Nicolò the Zeneize. They do their best to learn, and they supplement with halting Greek when they cannot find words. They gather hawthorn berries to eat as they walk and talk, and Nicolò asks questions now and again about the other plants they see. Yusuf has lived only in his homeland and in Jerusalem, and the Sinai is very different to both of those places, so he doesn’t always have answers. He wishes he could appear clever; he is now very invested in the esteem Nicolò holds him in. He wishes he could better satisfy Nicolò’s voracious intellect.
He attempts to delight his heart instead. When they stop for a break in the shade of a rocky overhang, he notices a bush of magenta flowers and picks one without a second thought and offers it to Nicolò with a smile. He knows he is bold, but now that he’s decided that he wants Nicolò, he won’t give anything less than his best romantic effort. Nicolò blinks at him, and then the flower. Tilts his head, leans in to inspect it, frowning thoughtfully. Crouches down to get a look at the underside of the petals, leaning in close to see the pollen on the stamens. The longer he inspects, the more distressed Yusuf gets. Evidently Nicolò is pickier about the flowers he’s wooed with than Yusuf anticipated. He eventually shakes the flower in Nicolo’s face, urging him to just take it already instead of mooning over it. But then Nicolo glances to their left, and he sees the bundle that the bloom came from, growing right in the crevice between two rocks. His eyes widen when he sees the tall beaks of the flower bush, and he rushes over to look closer. Yusuf watches, a little wounded.
To his surprise, Nicolò shoves his hands into the bush and down to the base. As he feels around in the dirt, his eyes pop.
“Yusuf!” he exclaims involuntarily.
Obediently, and a little flabbergasted, Yusuf comes over to peer over his shoulder. Nicolo frantically tries to explain, and momentarily forgets all his Arabic in his excitement.
“It’s—είναι—there’s a tuber, like a… a…. Πατάτα.”
Yusuf stares at him like he’s grown two heads. He has no idea what Nicolò is going on about.
“It probably uses this underground reserve of energy to survive droughts. There isn’t much rain out here, so it safeguards its vitality like this. Amazing!” To demonstrate, he uproots one stem and tuber. Triumphantly, he holds it up to Yusuf and points. But Yusuf doesn’t even look at the root. He just smiles fondly at Nicolò, who would be gifted a flower and be filled only with curiosity as to how it survived in a desert, whose constant delight in the mundane beauty of the world is suddenly so painfully endearing.
By evening, Yusuf cannot contain his urge to ask questions any longer.
“You are a master of botany.” He says it abruptly when they are seated around a campfire eating almonds. “How did you learn it all?”
“I think ‘master’ is a bit too kind. I nearly put my hand into a nest of ants this morning.” Nicolò answers with a faint smile. Yusuf is charmed.
“True, but you also knew to look for the roots on the flowers when they piqued your curiosity.”
“Ah, well. There is a flower in my homeland which also uses its roots in such a way. It is called a peony. The blooms are nothing like the ones we saw today, though.”
“No?” Yusuf knows nothing of flowers, but he is thrilled to hear Nicolò talking.
“No. Peonies are huge, and… what is the word? They have many layers, many layers of—”
A brief silence falls.
“You didn’t answer my question, my friend.” Yusuf says, grinning. “How did you learn it all?”
“Ah.” Nicolò smiles down at his lap. “In the monastery, every man has a job. We were not Cistercians, but we were not pampered book-copiers either. In my first years there, the abbot caught me daydreaming in the herb gardens at least once a week, when I was supposed to be studying; I suppose he thought I might as well be of use if I was so determined to be there. He ordered that I be taught by the man who was the herbalist then, may God rest his soul.”
Yusuf chuckles. “And what did you daydream of in the gardens?”
Nicolò tilts his head and looks off into the distance, contemplative. “Many things. Many boring things. But what I thought of most was that I felt… incomplete, somehow. Every day, I felt like I was waiting for something which never came. And every night, I went to sleep with a sense of disappointment.”
Yusuf raises an eyebrow, heart off-kilter. This is more than either of them have ever shared with each other. He wants to ask Nicolò if that feeling was what drove him to Jerusalem, but they haven’t spoken about that at all. Mention of their meeting in the blood-soaked holy city seems to be off-limits. He settles for something else instead.
“Have you found what you’re looking for yet?” He keeps his tone as casual as possible.
Nicolò glances down at the ground, shy, and then up at Yusuf. He studies him for a while, and then looks away again.
“I am not sure.”
He’s wandering in a place he’s never been before. There is no doubt about that—the architecture is absolutely nothing like anything he’s ever seen in his travels across Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. All around him are tall stucco buildings painted in different hues of salmon, yellow, and orange. Wooden shutters cover every window; how this land has the trees to spare for them all he knows not. He passes signs done in Roman script, which he cannot read because Nicolò has so far only taught him to speak and hear. It is strange but beautiful; creeping green vines climb up the sides of the buildings, and his artist’s eye appreciates the color contrast.
He begins to stroll downhill, down a curving cobbled alley which is completely shadowed by the buildings squeezing it on either side. It is a warm spring day, and everyone has their shutters open. He can hear people chattering between windows in Zeneize—ah, so he is in Genova. He still doesn’t know enough to understand all that they are saying, but he thinks he catches a woman telling her neighbor that her husband has somehow gotten lice in his pubic hair and transmitted them to her. Yusuf ceases listening then.
How he knows where to go in this city he’s never been to, he isn’t sure, but his feet carry him in a predestined direction. They move on their own; this is not the aimless bumbling of a foreigner in a foreign town. Eventually, he reaches the mouth of the alley, which opens onto a small plaza, also ensconced in buildings. On the north side, there is a quaint church—Yusuf identifies it by the large iron cross on the doors. One of the doors is closed, but the other is propped open with a large stone, and he is drawn to the shadowed entrance like a moth to a flame. He walks to it in a trance, even though he probably shouldn’t, considering this city has been fired up by holy war rhetoric as of late. But no one stops him, not with protests nor with crossbow shots to the back as the Italian mercenaries are known to favor. He enters the little church undisturbed.
Inside, past the narthex, it is dark and cool, and it smells pleasantly of incense and candles. The stained glasswork of the windows is not remotely the nicest Yusuf has ever seen, but it’s pretty enough. It’s so quiet that for a moment he thinks he is alone, but then he hears a faint clatter off to his right. He looks, and—
There is Nicolò at the altar. He’s dressed in a priest’s garb, fiddling with a large book that must be the Gospel. He glances up at about the same time as Yusuf looks over at him, and their eyes meet. Instantly, Yusuf knows that he recognizes him, even though he shouldn’t—if he is in Genova, they have not met yet. He is not surprised by Yusuf’s presence, though; it is as if he expected Yusuf to be here. If anything, he looks a little impatient, as if Yusuf was late. He comes around the altar and down the small set of low steps separating it from the rest of the space and approaches. Yusuf, hypnotized by the novelty of seeing Nicolò as he must have looked in his previous life, remains rooted to the spot in which he stands. He simply watches as Nicolò stops right in front of him and places both hands gently on his chest. He leans in even closer, eyes going half-lidded as he stares shamelessly at Yusuf’s lips. Oh, so it’s like that . This is not the Nicolò he knows—this is a minx.
“You have kept me waiting.” Nicolò says, voice low and sultry.
He has? He wasn’t informed of any appointment they had.
Nicolò isn’t perturbed by his confused silence; he starts pushing Yusuf backwards, back towards the doorway to the narthex. He supposes if this is about to go the way he thinks it’s going to go, Nicolò will prefer to be out of view of the sacred altar.
Once they’re in the narthex, Nicolò tackles him onto his back and straddles him. Yusuf is suddenly being kissed with blazing passion. Nicolò’s tongue is in his mouth one moment, and then the next, it’s being dragged up one side of his face and down the other. Nicolò has started to thrash around in his lap, grinding on him with a desperation that, evidently, was hidden just under the surface when he was being coy in the nave. Yusuf is immediately swept away by his lover’s passion—he seizes Nicolò’s hips to help drag his rear back and forth over his rapidly-swelling erection. He kisses Nicolò back when he can reach his lips, and sucks on his throat when Nicolò is occupied with licking his cheeks and beard. If the sole reason Nicolò summoned him here was for sexual intercourse, Yusuf is absolutely not going to complain. He is going to give beautiful Nicolò everything he desires.
It seems that what Nicolò desires most pressingly is to be naked. He rears back in Yusuf’s lap and begins tearing at his clothing. It is more intricate than it appeared at first glance—he throws off a top layer, which Yusuf thinks might be called a chasuble, to reveal a long tunic underneath, cinched with cords and overlaid with a stole. He begins scrabbling at the cinch, and Yusuf tries to be helpful by grabbing the hem of the tunic and dragging it up his legs. He gets it to Nicolò’s upper thighs, and then loses all focus. He starts groping those thighs like he’s bewitched, blown away by the sight of them spread over his own lap.
The cords skid across the marble floor when Nicolò throws them, followed by the stole. By then, he has run out of patience, and he turns his attention to Yusuf’s clothing instead of his own. Yusuf’s pants are unlaced and around his knees in the blink of an eye. His hard, leaking cock is now jutting up between those glorious thighs, bumping against Nicolò’s own, but everything is hidden under the bunched tunic. He can only feel. It is oddly thrilling. Nicolò must think so too, because he keeps it on. Or perhaps he’s just impatient.
Nicolò reaches under the fabric to position him, and then sinks down. As he penetrates himself, he cries out, free hand clenching in Yusuf’s shirt. He’s rushing it, taking it all in one fell swoop when he should be easing himself onto it slowly, but Yusuf can’t bring himself to stop him. Nicolò’s thighs meet Yusuf’s, and then he starts bouncing up and down like he’s riding a horse at a full gallop.
“ Fuck .” Yusuf swears, hands flying to Nicolò’s hips to steady himself.
Nicolò is merciless. He grabs the front of Yusuf’s shirt with both fists and uses his grip to drag Yusuf’s torso almost off the ground. He holds him there as he rides, so hard and fast that the flesh on his hips is jiggling. Yusuf is his toy. His eyes squeeze shut and his mouth falls open in pleasure, sweat beading at his temples. The Jerusalemites all used the term “barbarian” to refer to the Franks, and in this moment, Yusuf thinks it is rather fitting. Nicolò’s aggression is the single most arousing sight Yusuf has ever seen in his life, and this is going to be over very quickly if his naughty priest keeps this dominant charade up.
To try and save his dignity, Yusuf sits up and winds his arms around Nicolò’s waist, bringing his face close enough to his chest that he can bite at his nipples through the tunic and also take his eyes off Nicolò’s beauty. If his lover is going to act like a beast, he will too. Nicolò yelps, and then his hands are in Yusuf’s hair, holding his head there.
“ Ah, yes, yes !” Nicolò cries nonsensically. Yusuf can’t believe how loud his reserved companion is being. It’s so unbelievably arousing, the fact that it’s Yusuf’s cock that’s making him lose his composure. Yusuf presses his forehead to Nicolò’s collarbone and his hands find his rear under the fabric, grabbing and kneading as it moves back and forth. Pulling harder in, so that Nicolò’s cock rubs against his stomach. Nicolò makes a strangled sound and curls inward, face burying in Yusuf’s neck and arms around his shoulders, clinging on tight as his bouncing turns to grinding. He humps Yusuf like that, frantic, so desperate that he couldn’t even bother to take his tunic all the way off, gasping for breath in Yusuf’s ear. It finishes Yusuf—he groans into Nicolò’s hair as he comes inside him. Nicolò whimpers when he feels it, but doesn’t stop grinding until he comes too. His tunic catches it all.
When Yusuf knows Nicolò has been satisfied, he relaxes his abdominal muscles and lays back down on the marble floor. Nicolò stays in his lap, panting. Their eyes meet, and they spend a while staring at each other in exhausted wonder, until everything starts going fuzzy.
Yusuf manages to wrangle the noise he almost makes when he wakes up. He keeps his eyes closed and does his best to steady his breathing so as not to risk waking Nicolò, even though part of him wants to scream. But, it turns out, there’s no point—Yusuf listens as Nicolò wakes with a gasp, jerking the blankets harshly as he sits up. It must be another nightmare. Sympathy wells up in Yusuf for his companion’s sensitive heart, and though he wants to put an arm around him in comfort, he also does not wish to humiliate him. So, he lays there, feigning sleep, and listens as Nicolò’s heavy breathing gradually calms. Somehow, he can feel Nicolò’s eyes on him, probably checking to be certain he is asleep. He pretends well enough, and eventually, Nicolò lays back down beside him and returns to sleep.
Yusuf cannot. His mind is filled with the lingering sensation of Nicolò sitting in his lap. Being inside him. The fire he felt when they held each other’s gaze when it was all over. The sight of Nicolò, raw and unhinged, just letting his passions sweep him away. Yusuf is hungry to see it again. He wants Nicolò to show him everything that he keeps hidden.
Coincidentally, Yusuf is treated to the sight of Nicolò uninhibited again the very next day. It is a difficult day; the heat is unbearable, and they must traverse some very treacherous canyons. At one point, they clamber up through a narrow slope between two rock faces, so steep it is practically vertical. Numerous times, they narrowly catch each other by the tunics or by the arms before falling. Yusuf was born of the desert, sure, but he is sweating just as much as Nicolò, if not more. His curls are plastered to his forehead and neck, and he envies Nicolò’s little hair band that keeps the top half of his hair tied back and out of his face. They, of course, run out of water by midday. Conversation dries up too, tired and hot and cranky as they both are. But they are both too proud to ask the other to stop for the day. Yusuf’s concern for Nicolò’s wellbeing and his fair skin makes him want to give in and suggest it, but he also doesn’t want to insult Nicolò by insinuating that he is too weak to keep going.
It ends up being better that they forged ahead—the clouds over the Mediterranean gradually turn heavy and gray, and in the late afternoon, the sky rips open with a rumble of thunder and a torrential rain begins pouring down. One moment, everything is dry, and the next, they are soaked through. Beside him, Nicolò laughs loudly in delight. It stops Yusuf short—on reflection, he realizes that he’s never heard his companion actually laugh before. It gets even better when Nicolò begins dumping all the things he is carrying; he throws his pack down and then begins stripping off his shirt, which fills Yusuf with a heat that the rain can’t quench. The shirt joins the pack on the ground, and then Nicolò takes off running across the plateau they’re on. Yusuf watches him with an awestruck grin as he does a cartwheel and spins around with his arms extended to the sky. He’s happier than Yusuf has ever seen him.
He shouts something in Zeneize that Yusuf can’t quite make out, but he gets the idea. He dumps his things and his shirt too, and runs at him. Nicolò shrieks, grinning, and turns heel. Yusuf chases him, both of them laughing breathlessly, the sound mostly muffled by rain and thunder. They are just a couple of boys for a few minutes, playing as if they’re not thirty and thirty-three, as if they weren’t killing each other mere weeks ago. Nicolò eventually lets Yusuf catch him, tackle him to the already-muddy ground. They’re both laughing too much for their muscles to really be of any use, but they play at wrestling.
“How come you can run so fast, huh?” Yusuf asks, trying futilely to pin Nicolò’s wrists. “What cause does a priest have to run?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been walking beside you through this godforsaken desert for the past two months, building endurance! And in that vein, I should ask you—what cause does a pampered artist have to run?”
“Oh, I’m pampered, am I? You’re an herb gardener!”
“While you were sitting on embroidered cushions, I was slaving away in the sun! We’ll just see who’s stronger, Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Mohamed al-Kaysani !”
Hearing his full name in a perfect Arabic accent from Nicolò’s lips is enough to completely derail Yusuf’s coordination. Nicolò flips them easily with strong legs and straddles him, pressing Yusuf’s wrists to his own chest and using his shins to pin his legs. He laughs triumphantly, chest heaving. He’s so heart-stoppingly beautiful that Yusuf can’t do anything but submit. He already knows he’ll never recover from this vision of Nicolò grinning from ear to ear, breathless, all inhibitions gone, full of joy. He must get a reverent look on his face, because Nicolò’s grin tempers somewhat to a more muted smile and his grip on Yusuf’s arms lightens. For an impossibly long moment, they just stay like that, Nicolò sitting on him, staring down at him. Yusuf is getting rain in his eyes staring back like he is, but he’d rather gouge them out than look away. The connection between them burns.
He starts burning in another way when he fully realizes the position they’re in—it’s exactly the same as in his dream the previous night. And the way Nicolò is panting right now, hair wet and face flushed, is not helping in any way. Yusuf feels his pants start to tighten, and good god, he needs to get a handle on himself quick, because the way Nicolò is sitting, he’ll notice right away. Yusuf forces himself to look to the side at the ground, clearing his throat.
“Ah, sorry, sorry.” Nicolò says quietly, dismounting. Well fuck, now things might be awkward. He doesn’t want that.
“I suppose I underestimated you, gardener.” he says playfully as they both get to their feet. He pokes Nicolò in the side for good measure. Nicolò grins at him, and the tension dissipates immediately.
After they’ve filled up the waterskins, they find an overhang to shelter and dry off under. They eat wild figs they picked the previous day, still damp and shirtless. Nicolò’s hair curls in the humidity. Yusuf steals glances at him. With his chest bared, face in profile as he watches the rain outside, he is like a Greek statue. Yusuf wishes he could draw him and keep the moment forever.
Yusuf is home, after many, many years away. The burnt umber of the rammed earth and adobe houses satisfies a longing in his heart that he hadn’t been fully aware was present all this time. He is wading through the river, the Asif Ounila, on his way back to the qṣer after having spent the afternoon in the grove of trees on the opposite bank, and he admires the houses and the kasbah on the slope, and the agadir that he can see at the very top of the hill. His village is unpretentious; as much as he loved Jerusalem, the opulence that came as a result of centuries of Patriarchs emptying coffers upon it made it less than cozy. Unfamiliar even to one who’d lived there for a long time. Here, everyone knows him. His neighbors all watched him grow from an infant to a young man. He spent his childhood hearing the laughter and disagreements and general domestic cacophony coming from all the houses attached to his own. When his heart aches at the thought, he notes idly that he should have returned ages ago.
He enters through the main gate in the fortified walls. The short, sheltered arch of the tunnel is familiar like breathing to him; he and his childhood friends used to scratch their names onto the clay bricks with pebbles. The streets, too, he could traverse with his eyes closed. Winding and maze-like, he knows every turn and every dead end. His house is higher up the hill, and he follows the sharply inclining alleys. He recalls that his late grandmother had to move from his house to that of his uncle later in her life, when the walk up the hill became too difficult.
A turn down a dead-end alley near the mosque places him at the doorway of the family home. The building is two stories, and his family owns the top floor; he was once close friends with the son of the family living on the ground level. He enters, and is met with the smell of freshly-grilled merguez. The harissa and the lamb are unmistakable, but he cannot tell which floor it’s coming from. He can hear chattering in Tamazight and commotion all around, women laughing as they work. With a smile, he ascends the stairs.
When he enters his one-room home, it is exactly how he remembers. The colorful tapestry carpets are exactly as he left them, their red contrasting artfully with the half-blue walls. His father’s knickknacks still hang from the hooks near the ceiling, collecting dust. The right wall is lined with the beds—five mattresses all pushed together into a neat row on the floor, one for his mother, his father, himself, his grandmother even though she is gone, and his cousin who must still be living here. The low table in the center of the room still has the tea pot and cups which he left there on his final day in the village before setting out to make his fortune more than ten years ago. It is all very nostalgic and warm.
It is also very silent and empty. Ah, so his family must still be at the ovens. He removes his shoes and pads over the carpets towards the cushions surrounding the table. Within moments of sitting down, he hears chatter and a horde of feet tramping up the stairs. The door opens, and his mother walks in first, followed by his father, followed by his younger cousin Ibrahim, followed by Nicolò . Yusuf should be shocked and baffled, but somehow it seems perfectly normal. They all greet him pleasantly, and his mother sets the large tray of food she’s carrying down on the table. There is fresh bread and goat cheese and honey, and it appears they are also having merguez (though his mother would say that her’s is better than their neighbor’s). Nicolò sits beside him while they eat. Yusuf is very contented.
Nicolò takes the bed on the far right, his grandmother’s bed, that night. It is convenient because it is next to Yusuf’s. They are able to whisper to each other.
“You have such a beautiful home.” Nicolò says in Arabic, the first time Yusuf has heard it all day. “Your family is very kind.”
“I never knew my family. I envy you.”
Yusuf frowns. “No?”
“No. I was given to the monastery as a babe.”
“You have been devout from the very beginning, then.”
“Yes. Although I still, after thirty years, cannot help my longing for earthly joys sometimes. Like having a mother and father to love. A nice home someplace beautiful like this.” Nicolò heaves a sigh.
“I would like to come back here to settle down.” Yusuf agrees. “Though I think I may find my own lodgings rather than stay with my parents. Now that I have sampled the joys of privacy, I fear I will never be able to give it up.”
Nicolò chuckles. “You surrendered it easily enough to travel with me.”
“Well.” Yusuf murmurs. “That is another matter entirely.”
Nicolò raises an eyebrow.
“I would like nothing more than to do away with all pretenses of privacy with you.” Yusuf elaborates. He ought to shrink in horror at the thought of saying such things a meter away from his parents, but somehow he knows they are deep asleep and will not wake. Even if they did, they are not masters of Arabic, and probably wouldn’t understand him anyways. “I wish for there to be no more boundaries between us, physical or otherwise.”
Nicolò inhales shakily, eyes locked with Yusuf’s. They are on their sides facing each other, mere centimeters apart, both at the very edge of their mattresses. This close, Yusuf can smell Nicolò’s breath. He drinks it in like ambrosia.
“That is what I wish for, too.” Nicolò says quietly.
They kiss, of course. To not kiss would be absurd. It is only supposed to be a kiss, though—his family is still sleeping around them. But, of course, his willpower melts away in Nicolò’s hands. The taste of him is intoxicating, and Yusuf wonders if perhaps the saliva of Genovese men is a natural aphrodisiac. He is rolling atop him before he knows it. He is briefly ashamed; everyone has the fantasy of “we-must-keep-quiet,” but no sane person ever actually goes through with it. Certainly not in a qṣer , where not only your family but your neighbors as well can hear just about everything above a certain volume. But then, Nicolò breaks the kiss and twists around so that he is lying on his stomach beneath Yusuf. Offering. And Yusuf forgets all about shame.
Nicolò lets out a tiny whimper when Yusuf enters him. Even that is too loud, and someone on the other mattresses sniffs and shuffles around. Nicolò notices it, and Yusuf watches him bite his lower lip to keep the noises in. It makes him throb; that Nicolò wants this so badly he will take the risk and try and rein in his moans to get it.
Yusuf covers his back with his chest, presses them as close as possible to minimize noise and suspicion. It puts his mouth near Nicolò’s ear, and he whispers filthy endearments to him as he rocks his hips. Nicolò manages to reduce his own noises to strained breathing, but only just barely. Now and again, one of his exhales will begin with his vocal chords rather than his lungs, and he must snuff the sound out. Somewhere underneath the blankets, wet squelching is echoing, and Yusuf must go slow to manage it. Nicolò tries to help by clenching hard around him, which just has Yusuf’s forehead thunking against the back of his neck as he struggles not to moan. Nicolò is tighter than a clenched fist.
Yusuf manages to stifle his moan when he comes by biting down on Nicolò’s throat and grinding his teeth in like a wolf, and Nicolò’s tactic is to grip Yusuf’s forearms so hard that they will surely bruise as he bites the blanket. When they are finished, Yusuf grabs Nicolò’s jaw and turns his head for a fiery, grateful kiss. The last thing he feels is Nicolò’s teeth on his bottom lip.
That lip is still aching when he wakes, and for the rest of the following morning, he swears he can still feel Nicolò’s hands on his forearms. He feels them when he rolls up the blankets, and half-expects to see bruises when he pushes up his sleeves to wash his hands. He steals glances at Nicolò throughout, who, for some reason, keeps absentmindedly rubbing the side of his neck where dream-Yusuf bit him. In all likelihood, he probably just slept awkwardly, but the links between dream and reality are growing so fuzzy for Yusuf that it gives him pause all the same.
Later in the day, after they’ve left camp and are well into the wadis, Yusuf gets another reminder of the dream. They crest the dusty cliff they’ve been scrambling up and then they spot them—a herd of ibex, grazing on the zilla shrubs littering the plateau. Nicolò gasps, and Yusuf grins immediately at his excitement. Yusuf saw many of this particular species around Jerusalem, and so their novelty has grown dull, but Nicolò has likely never seen anything like them.
“What are they?” he asks in a whisper, pointing. They’ve stopped behind a boulder, heads peeking over, so that they do not disturb the animals.
“Uh.” Yusuf frowns as he struggles to think of a word Nicolò will comprehend. “Ya’el. A kind of goat.”
“Such big…” Nicolò gestures, shapes large horns in the air around his own head.
“The males.” Yusuf explains. Now that he thinks about it, the presence of the large, horned buck just to the side of the family of females and children is a bit strange; it isn’t breeding season yet. He evidently doesn’t play by the rules, because he keeps wandering closer to the females and sniffing at them. Yusuf and Nicolò watch, rapt, as one of the smaller females perks up and begins discreetly shuffling in his direction. She backs towards him, constantly peeking at her family to see if they’re noticing what she’s doing.
“Is she—?” Nicolò begins to ask, but at that moment, the buck stands up on his hind legs and mounts her. Nicolò gets very quiet, and an extremely awkward silence ensues in which they watch the goats mating and determinedly do not look at each other. Yusuf automatically remembers his dream from the previous night, when he covered Nicolò’s back the same way, and wonders if he has angered Allah somehow. It seems he has been cursed not only to dream of Nicolò every night, but also to be gifted with cruel reminders of those dreams in reality as well.
Partway through, Nicolò clears his throat and turns around, giving the goats some privacy. Yusuf, amused by his inclination towards politeness even with animals, follows suit. They sit side-by-side with their backs against the boulder and try (and fail) to tune out the sounds. When he hears a loud squelch, Yusuf can’t stop himself from laughing. He covers his mouth with his hand, but there’s no stopping it. The situation is just too absurd. He hears a snort to his right, and when he looks, Nicolò is giggling too. They set each other off, and soon they’re both laughing almost hysterically. They’re so loud that the goats stop copulating and they all disperse.
They stop to camp on a beautiful beach that night. After they eat, they sit half-submerged in the tepid sea and talk. Conversing is becoming easier and easier with each passing day, and not just because they’re growing more adept at each other’s languages. Nicolò is notably less reserved, and Yusuf wonders what has changed him.
“I wish I could show you. It was beautiful. It was three stories, and if you know the Old City, you know that three stories is nothing trifling. I had an enclosed courtyard with a garden—oh, you would have really enjoyed that part. I don’t remember what all was in it, but I’m sure you could have told me. You could have spent all day in there, I’m sure.” Yusuf runs his hand over the surface of the water as he describes his house in Jerusalem that he left behind. “And it was always full of people. Though now that I think about it, I don’t really miss that.”
“You dislike people?” Nicolò asks, amused.
“Most, yes.” Yusuf grumbles. “Always tormenting me with here are the sales we made in Antioch and should we try to get a piece of the market in oranges ?”
“Did you not leave your home in order to make your fortune? How quickly ambition runs dry.” Nicolò teases.
Yusuf laughs and is about to say something back when he realizes—he never told Nicolò that he was not a native of Jerusalem. Right? He frowns, and glances at him.
“Did I already tell you of the Maghreb?”
Nicolò blinks in confusion. He gets a wary look on his face.
“Uh. Yes. You must have, because I know of it.”
“Well. Then you know that when compared to my village, my house in Jerusalem was testament to the fact that I had already succeeded in making my fortune.”
“Free to laze about and paint. And write poetry.” Nicolò says, relaxing once more.
“You laugh, but if I were to perform some of my poetry for you, you would be naked before I could finish a single stanza.” Yusuf says it, and thinks to himself that he is a complete and utter dog. But, to his delight, Nicolò bites his lower lip and grins down at the water, blushing red.
“I am a barbarian, remember? Poetry goes in one ear and out the other.”
“Ah, right. Perhaps some sword fighting and shirt-ripping would be more appropriate. Would you like to watch me slaughter a pair of lions?”
“One might think you are actually trying to get me naked.”
Yusuf may be a dog, but he knows when to draw the line. He cannot think of anything to say in response to that except a fervent yes, so he just shakes his head with a grin and looks away. Another silence falls, and then he takes the conversation in a different direction.
“What you said the other day. About having a sense that something is missing. I felt that too—even when I had everything I ever dreamed of having in Jerusalem, I still felt unsatisfied and hollow. I had Samaritans bringing me bejeweled trays of sliced Jadu’i all the way from Jenin, and still I felt like I was incomplete!”
“You don’t feel that way anymore?” Nicolò asks.
Yusuf tilts his head and meditates on the question. He realizes that no, no he doesn’t. He shakes his head.
“I suppose Jadu’i wasn’t what my soul was craving.”
“It is easy to get confused. Sometimes I think that all my problems would be solved with a bit of baklava.” Nicolò comforts.
Yusuf chuckles and a pleasant silence follows. Then:
“Tell me of the Maghreb. Something I don’t already know about.” Nicolò requests.
Yusuf ponders. He still doesn’t remember telling Nicolò anything about his homeland except for in his previous dream, so he doesn’t know what he could say that isn’t already old news.
“What kind of a child were you?” Nicolò prompts, seeing his befuddlement.
“I often got into fights with the boys from the other side of the village. There were two gangs of us you see, one from the east side and one from the west. We despised each other for a few hundred meters difference in the location of our houses.” Yusuf shakes his head, smiling ruefully.
“Fascinating.” Nicolò sounds like he really means it.
“Ah yes, you never grew up in a village with other children, did you? I suppose you were spared the cruelty, then.”
Nicolò frowns, mostly to himself.
“Did I tell you that?”
Oh no. He only told Yusuf that he was given to the monastery as a babe in a dream. But if a dream is only a machination of Yusuf’s mind, he must have known somehow, right?
“I think perhaps I assumed.” He quickly covers his tracks. “Don’t most monks in monasteries arrive as children?”
“Well, anyways.” Yusuf clears his throat. “My mother wasn’t pleased when I came home covered in cuts and bruises all the time.”
“You were her only child?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“You have that air about you.” Nicolò says cryptically with a teasing smile. “She must miss you so much.”
“I miss her.” Yusuf’s voice takes on a wistful tone. “And now I cannot see her ever again.”
“What would she think—what would my entire village think—if I were to return and never grow any older before their eyes?”
Nicolò makes a quiet ah sound, like he’d never thought of that problem before. He would have no need to—there doesn’t seem to be anyone waiting for him back home in Genova, longing to see him again. Yusuf wonders if he is ever lonely.
“If I could have just one day, I would be content.” Yusuf continues. “I would take some bread and honey, and my mother, and go across the river to the grove of trees so that we could sit in the shade and eat. When I was small, she used to tell me stories before bed—I would like to lay there and hear one of them again. And just tell her that I love her one last time.”
He hears Nicolò clear his throat beside him, and when he looks, his companion is blinking tears out of his eyes. He glances in the opposite direction of Yusuf to keep him from seeing, but it’s too late. Yusuf is touched by his empathy. A more lengthy and weighty silence follows.
“Excuse me for one moment.” Nicolò says suddenly.
Yusuf raises an eyebrow and watches him stand up out of the water. He wades the couple of meters back to shore and strides determinedly towards their packs. Yusuf is distracted by his dripping hair and back, but then Nicolò pulls out the white tunic he’s been burying at the bottom of his pack, the one he wore when they first met, with the large red cross emblazoned on it. Yusuf’s eyebrows raise higher. Nicolò never wears it; the few times he has since they started their excursion into the desert have been because his other tunic was filthy beyond all decency. And even then, he wore it inside-out. Yusuf watches in fascination as Nicolò throws it down flat on the ground, and then picks up his longsword.
He unsheathes it and drives the blade straight down into the center of the tunic.
“Whoa—” Yusuf exclaims, half kneeling out of the water in surprise.
Nicolò ignores him. He sets his focus on slashing and hacking the tunic to ribbons. He is vicious and single-minded. When the last hunk of fabric evades him, he picks it up with one hand, holding up the heavy longsword with the other, and forces the blade through it. The sun glints off the metal as it arcs in the air. Yusuf is flabbergasted and dazzled.
Satisfied, Nicolò re-sheathes the sword and throws it aside. He spits on the strips of mutilated tunic, and then gathers them up in his arms and begins marching back towards Yusuf. Yusuf’s eyes must be big as plates, but still, Nicolò pays him no mind. He wades past Yusuf, far enough out that he is submerged to his chest. Then he rears back and hurls all the fabric as far as he can out into the sea. He stands there for a long time, watching until the tide has carried all of it out of sight. And then, he returns to Yusuf’s side and gingerly re-takes his seat. He says nothing, just stares out at the water with his jaw firmly set. Yusuf feels like he should say something, but there is nothing to say, really; he understands. So:
“Look at this pebble. It has interesting shiny flecks in it.”
Nicolò’s face softens again and he leans in to inspect.
The dreams are not always sexual, but Yusuf almost wishes that they were, because the chaste ones are significantly more difficult to bear.
He dreams one night that they are back in Jerusalem on that day in July when the Franks launched their final offensive on the city, the second or third day after they first met. They’ve killed each other numerous times now, and should probably continue to do so today as well, but as Yusuf rushes through the narrow, stone-paved streets of the Old City towards the walls, he feels absolutely no desire to. He is not rushing to aid the failing guard towers, he is rushing towards something else entirely, something unnamed. When he reaches the Damascus Gate, he stops dead in the middle of the swarms of shouting, panicking people and just… waits.
And then, moments later, there he is. The man he killed. He is standing in the middle of the crowd too, looking confused and horrified by the violence around him, as if his own sword wasn’t stained with blood less than twenty-four hours ago. Like he has just woken up. He seems to be searching for something, large blue eyes scanning the thronging bodies which part around him like water, never touching him. Soon enough, he catches Yusuf’s gaze and time slows. In a trance, Yusuf drops his scimitar and wades forward, the commotion around him dulling to a near-silent roar. The other man mirrors him, letting his longsword clatter to the pavement. They meet in the middle, and fall into each other’s arms. The wave of relief that crashes into Yusuf nearly has his knees buckling. He squeezes the stranger so tight that he must be suffocating, but he only hugs Yusuf back equally as hard. The ferocious physical affection continues for a while as they drink each other in; the smell of each other, the mutually foreign texture of the other’s hair. The stranger has only a faint beard, and in fascination, he rubs his cheek against Yusuf’s, the way Yusuf has sometimes observed cats doing to each other.
Yusuf fists a hand in the stranger’s hair and pulls his head away from the crook of his shoulder and neck. He must kiss him. He does. The stranger whimpers into his mouth and twists his hands in the fabric of Yusuf’s tunic. Their armor has vanished inexplicably. They kiss passionately for an interminable length of time, deaf to the carnage around them. Yusuf could not be driven out of this man’s arms by anything; holding him feels like his divinely-appointed duty, like he is recovering a lost part of his soul.
When they finally separate, they don’t go far—they rest their foreheads together and breathe each other’s air. The stranger holds Yusuf’s face in his cool hands like it is the most delicate pottery. Reverently. Yusuf holds his wrists to keep them there. In that moment he is not a stranger anymore; he is Yusuf and Yusuf is him. He thinks that they should find a quiet spot in eternity to settle down together.
Waking up from that particular dream is more unpleasant than usual. Yusuf lays in the bedroll staring blankly up at the sky, trying to comprehend. His creativity is boundless, and his romantic tendencies tend to get inflated by that. He’ll weave the most elaborate narratives in the vein of Achilles and Patroclus for whoever he fancies. But this feels like more than that—this feels like destiny, real destiny, not the bastardizations of it he’s concocted before. In that single moment, he recognizes that he and Nicolò were crafted for each other, beyond any shadow of doubt. Why else would they be given the mutual gift of eternal life, driven to wander the desert together? They are alone in a mortal world, together. It must mean something.
He looks over at Nicolò sleeping peacefully beside him. His heart aches with the near-unbearable urge to pull him close. It doesn’t help that, in his sleep, Nicolò has turned to face Yusuf, one hand reaching out across the blanket towards him. A deranged idea enters Yusuf’s mind then, and his heart immediately starts pounding. Before he can stop himself, he reaches out too and very, very gently takes Nicolò’s hand in his own. He’s probably imagining the gentle squeeze he receives in return.
Yusuf is woken by distant Italian chatter. At first, of course, he thinks it is Nicolò. Who else would be speaking Italian? But the tone and cadence of the voice is wrong, and he doesn’t recognize many of the words. With a frown, he opens his eyes.
A few hundred meters away from their bedroll, on the seashore, is a galley, marked by a Venetian coat of arms. Yusuf recognizes it because any Jerusalem merchant worth his stuff knows the Venetians. His frown deepens; what purpose a Venetian trader would have in the Sinai, he knows not. He wonders if perhaps they were in Libya, and cabotaged onwards along North Africa towards what are now the Crusader States. Regardless, they now have a serious problem; he doesn’t know what they will think or do if they catch him and Nicolò together. He knows what it looks like—Nicolò is practically beardless. They are sharing a blanket. And there is a holy war going on.
“Nicolò.” he whispers, shaking his shoulder. “Nicolò, wake up.”
Nicolò grumbles and rolls onto his back, rubbing his eyes. “What?”
Yusuf points wordlessly. Nicolò squints, and then sits up on his elbows. His face shifts into something indescribable; his jaw tightens. He definitely recognizes the Venetian crest. Yusuf’s stomach twists up in knots at the sudden thought that Nicolò could very easily approach the ship and ask to be taken back to Italy. He has a ticket home if he desires it. And why wouldn’t he capitalize? The original reason they agreed to go to Alexandria was to find him passage back to Genova. They haven’t spoken about that since their first night in the desert together, and Yusuf hoped that he had changed his mind about parting ways by now, but what if he hasn’t? Yusuf might never see him again. A lump forms in his throat, and he swallows. Suddenly, everything hangs in the balance.
Without a word, Nicolò begins packing up their things. It seems he does want to go home. And why wouldn’t he? What can Yusuf offer him? A life of hardship and borderline malnutrition in the desert, and not much else. If going home is what his Nicolò really desires, he won’t stop him or blame him. So, he reluctantly helps him pack, biting his tongue hard enough that he tastes blood in order to stop himself from weeping.
They manage to get everything into the packs without being noticed. But then, as they stand up, Yusuf’s foot catches a loose rock and sends it crashing down the short bluff they’re on top of. In the dead of night, the sound is loud. It doesn’t help that it is a light night; their silhouettes are most certainly visible against the navy blue sky. Within moments, the lanterns on the galley are being turned in their direction, and men are shouting in Italian. Yusuf curses himself; why did they decide to move north? Why did they not just stick to the inland wadis?
He and Nicolò, caught out and flustered and unsure of what to do, are besieged by a gang of Venetians within moments. The picture that Yusuf’s Jerusalem associates painted of the Venetians was one of opulence and indulgence, but these men are hardened sailors. Their skin is dark and sunburnt, and their arms are huge. There are at least ten of them. And he and Nicolò are trapped between them and the rock wall at their backs.
“What is this?” one of them, a tall dark-haired fellow with a scar across his cheek, laughs accusingly.
“Leave us alone.” Nicolò says quite threateningly in Zeneize. It is close enough to Venetian that the men understand him. What’s more important, though, is that they understand that he is a fellow Italian. Their faces shift. They suddenly seem ready to protect him from Yusuf.
“What are you doing with him?” another one asks, jutting his chin towards Yusuf. He moves, perhaps subconsciously, to a position that implies he wants to step in between them.
“It is not your business.” Yusuf interjects, glaring. He hopes his Zeneize is passable enough. He wishes Nicolò had taught him some curse words.
“It is our business when we see a scheming infidel with a man of God!” a Venetian yells, immediately escalating the tension. “You have some nerve talking to us in such a tone! Are you aware that we recently drove your people out of the holy land? What makes you think we won’t handle you the same way?”
Yusuf, immediately incensed, goes to draw his scimitar, but to his surprise, Nicolò beats him to the punch. In a flash, Nicolò is between him and the Venetians, longsword raised, protecting him.
“You say ‘we’—you weren’t there.” Nicolò says, low and angry. “But I was. If you want to find out who is the better soldier, I am not afraid. Try and drive him away. I dare you.”
For the split second they have before all hell breaks loose, Yusuf is touched. Nicolò has chosen him over his own people. He could fly to the moon.
Obviously, one cannot say such things to a gang of pent-up sailors who are already itching for a fight. With a combined roar of outrage, they draw their own weapons. Nicolò was right—they are not soldiers, and only a few of them have actual swords. Some have daggers and knives of modest sizes, and some have only their fists. They charge, and Nicolò does not waver. He meets them head-on, and Yusuf can only draw his own blade and follow. A brief and bloody fight ensues; he and Nicolò weave around each other, covering each other’s backs whenever they can, keeping their sights on the men with swords. Still, though, they are outnumbered, and Yusuf loses concentration for a brief moment, long enough for an armed Venetian to stab him straight through the heart while he’s preoccupied with that tall sailor with the scar. The last thing he hears before he collapses is Nicolò’s distressed cry of no !
Some time later, Yusuf returns. He frowns in discomfort as his chest knits itself back together. The feeling will never become familiar to him, he is certain. He doesn’t open his eyes, because he is quite comfortable wherever it is he’s landed, and he is also terrified of finding himself alone. But then, he realizes he is not—there are gentle hands stroking his face. And there is the sound of wet sniffling just above his head.
Frowning, he opens his eyes. He realizes that his head is being cradled in Nicolò’s lap, and that Nicolò is weeping. His cheeks are streaked with wetness, and tears bead under his chin. His eyes are closed, so he has not seen Yusuf awaken. Concern sweeps over him.
“What’s wrong? What have they done? Did they take the other blanket?” Yusuf asks.
Nicolò jumps at the sound of his voice, and opens his watery eyes. His face un-pinches itself and he sighs in relief. To Yusuf’s surprise, he leans down and presses their foreheads together. A few tears drip down onto Yusuf’s cheek. Yusuf reaches up and cradles the back of his head, comforting.
“Nicolò.” he murmurs.
“I thought your immortality was finished.” Nicolò finally says.
“I am here.” Yusuf comforts, deeply moved.
“It took so long.”
“I was afraid to wake up and find myself alone.”
Nicolò finally leans back and frowns down at him. “Why would you be alone?”
“I thought you might ask the Venetians for passage back to Italy. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you did.”
Nicolò laughs, incredulous. “For what? To be alone again?”
“You would be with your people.” Yusuf answers, and it sounds silly out loud.
“You are my people.” Nicolò says, eyes welling up again. His hand strokes Yusuf’s cheek. “Even if I am surrounded by a thousand other Italians, I will be alone if I am not with you.”
Yusuf sits up right away and pulls Nicolò into a tight embrace. Nicolò’s arms encircle him in turn, and they hold each other in divine silence for a long time. It feels more right than anything else he’s ever felt in his entire life.
“You need never worry about that. I will be with you until the end.”
It’s only after a very long time that Yusuf finally notices the bodies of all the Venetians strewn around them, evidently slain at Nicolò’s hand after he collapsed. Nicolò’s vengeance is clear. Yusuf holds him tighter, and doesn’t doubt his loyalty for one second longer.
“Ah, Yusuf !”
Nicolò is more wordy than usual this time. He’s been alternating between panting and moaning Yusuf’s name, and showering him in praise throughout. Yusuf would crawl over hot coals to hear Nicolò praise him, and so he is preening. Nicolò’s hands in his hair and on his back make him feel like he can move mountains. He readjusts the legs around his hips and thrusts deeper. Nicolò’s hands find his face and cup it, hold it mere centimeters from his own.
“Mm, ah , Yusuf, why will you not just take me?” he whimpers, sad and dejected.
Yusuf slows down and frowns.
“I am taking you. Right now.”
Nicolò shakes his head. “In reality, I mean.”
Yusuf’s frown deepens. This is reality, isn’t it?
“I love you.” Nicolò whispers, eyes welling up with tears. The sight halts Yusuf altogether; it is like a knife to the heart to see Nicolò cry. “I will give you anything you ask for. My heart is already yours. Everything is. I will do anything… for even just a kiss. I know I am nothing much to look at, and not very interesting company either, but—”
Yusuf interrupts him with a furious kiss. He’s not sure what Nicolò is talking about, especially considering they have been kissing since they began, but he’s not going to let him even finish that self-deprecating thought.
“Nicolò, I love you. I would trade, I have traded, my former life of luxury to spend eternity in destitution in the desert, because I never wish to be apart from you ever again. You need not beg me for my love because you already have it. I am your dog, I will follow at your heels for as long as you let me. Did I not just tell you I will be with you until the end?”
With surprising force, Nicolò grabs Yusuf by the shoulders and pulls him into another kiss. The lovemaking resumes with renewed passion, and soon Nicolò is moaning again. Yusuf winds both his arms under his broad shoulders so that he can hug him tight; the memory of his tears is still immediate and he cannot help his urge to comfort. Nicolò holds him tight, too, and then Yusuf feels teeth on his earlobe. Like an ox responding to the crack of a whip, he picks up the pace, burying his face in Nicolò’s throat as he listens to the ensuing wet slap of their bodies joining over and over.
“Ah, yes, Yusuf, yes, please —”
The ringing cry of ‘please’ lingers with him as the vision fades into nothingness. He hears it as he drifts in dreamless sleep for a while. Then, he gasps a little as he is jolted back into reality (ah, so his Nicolò had been right, as usual—he was only dreaming). He spends a while on his back, abruptly incensed at himself. His masochistic depths are deeper than he realized; what a cruel mind it is which would create for him visions of Nicolò begging him in such a way. Nicolò freely offering him everything he wants so badly.
About then, he looks to the left, expecting to see Nicolò there. He is not. Yusuf’s heart stops and he thrashes upright, shoving the blankets off. Where is he? Is he in danger? Did he go back down the coast after the Venetians after all? Yusuf reaches for his scimitar, but then he hears a quiet, distant splash of water. His eyes are drawn to the seashore, some thirty or so meters away. On the rocks are a beige tunic and dark braies, and in the water—
Is Nicolò. Naked. Submerged to his waist, running his hands over his long, slick hair as water runs down his muscled back.
Because Yusuf is clearly incompetent when it comes to distinguishing dreams from reality, he pinches his own arm quite hard to be sure that he isn’t still asleep. He determines that he most definitely is awake, and now he is faced with the dilemma of what to do about this situation. What he should do is leave Nicolò to his impulsive midnight swimming and go back to sleep. What he wants to do….
And all he can hear is Nicolò begging him. Please.
Before he knows it, he’s on the shore, stripping off his clothing. Nicolò doesn’t turn around to look at him, but Yusuf knows he hears him. He wades in, wincing at the frigid water, entirely uncertain about everything he’s doing, running purely on the raw longing lingering from his dream. He’s going to do something, that’s for sure. He cannot take one more minute of this torture.
He wants to stop right beside Nicolò, but their height difference means that if he does that, the beginnings of his pubic hair will be visible above the water. That might be coming on a bit too strong, so he wades out just a bit farther. To gather his courage before turning to face his beloved, he looks up at the moon. It’s full, calm and soothing and wise up there in the sky, just like Nicolò.
When he does look at Nicolò, his skin looks as white as the moon does. He’s like an angel from another realm, glowing like snow with eyes like an ocean, hair black in the darkness and running over his shoulders like a pot of spilled ink. He’s hugging his arms over his chest bashfully, but it doesn’t hide its broadness, or his nipples. He’s looking curiously at Yusuf with those beautiful eyes, wondering what he’s up to, yet unafraid. Trusting. Yusuf decides then and there that he isn’t above begging. Or drowning himself until death sticks if this goes wrong.
Wordlessly, Yusuf retraces his steps back to Nicolò, approaching slowly, like one might do to avoid startling an animal. But Nicolò doesn’t shy away; in fact, as Yusuf gets closer, he unfolds his arms and lets them fall to his sides, hands dipping into the water. Unobstructed, Yusuf watches as his chest begins to rise and fall at a quicker canter.
He stops just short of pressing their stomachs together. It’s close enough that there can be no mistaking his intentions. And still, Nicolò does not push him away in disgust. Rather, his lips have parted to facilitate his labored breathing, and he is looking up at Yusuf pleadingly. The invisible thread pulling them to each other tightens, and Yusuf lifts his hands out of the water to place them gently on Nicolò’s ribs. Nicolò jumps a little at the feel of cold water running down his skin, and his hands come up to rest on Yusuf’s forearms. His eyes flick down to Yusuf’s lips.
Yusuf leans in to kiss him, thrills at the sight of Nicolò obediently shutting his eyes in anticipation, and then closes the gap. When their lips touch, Nicolò whimpers, which inflames him. Nicolò’s willingness makes him bold. He moves one of his hands from Nicolò’s waist to his jaw, cupping his face and tangling in his hair. He kisses Nicolò deeper, pushing his lips apart with his own so that he can feel the wetness of the inside of his mouth. Nicolò moans then, and clings to him tighter, arms going around his shoulders and fingertips digging into the flesh of his back.
When he eventually retreats, they are both lightheaded and breathless. In a trance, Nicolò touches his own lips with his left hand, feeling the moistness in fascination. Yusuf is charmed by his innocence, and then he notices.
“You are trembling.” he murmurs, enclosing Nicolò’s hand in one of his own to stop its shaking.
“I am overcome.” Nicolò pants.
Yusuf presses Nicolò’s hand against his chest, flattening his palm over his heart. Nicolò’s fingers clench instinctively in the dense, curly hair first, and then he feels the pounding heartbeat like Yusuf wanted him to. It is so powerful that his breastbone vibrates with it.
“As am I.” Yusuf breathes.
Nicolò exhales sharply and leans in again. Yusuf meets him halfway, and this kiss is far sloppier and far more passionate than the first. Mouths open right away and their tongues slide together. Nicolò closes the final centimeters between their bodies to re-sling his arms around Yusuf’s shoulders and squeeze tight. The feel of their bare stomachs touching sets Yusuf on fire, and then he realizes he can feel other things touching too.
“Make love with me.” Nicolò whispers against his lips.
He does. He manages to remember that this time, he is not dreaming, and he cannot just forget the oil. He wonders if it would even matter to Nicolò—he is in so much ecstasy that he would probably not even notice. Whenever Yusuf touches him, his eyes flutter closed and he curves his body to get closer. Gasps, moans, delights. When Yusuf enters him, he wraps his arms and legs around him and clings to him, kisses his lips and cheeks and neck. He is not bothered in the slightest by the stretch. The thrusting becomes secondary, anyways—the physical act is only one facet of their joining. Yusuf’s focus is mostly on where they’re pressing their foreheads together, breathing each other’s air, silently communicating their love to each other. No words are needed; Yusuf knows in his heart everything that Nicolò is telling him. He opens his own heart, and knows that he is heard. They’re not parting ways in Alexandria. They’ll be at each other’s sides until this immortality is finished with them. They’re soulmates. All the pieces click into place, and neither of them feel incomplete any longer.
Yusuf has no more dreams of Nicolò after that night. He doesn’t even notice their absence until they do eventually reach Alexandria a couple weeks later. It seems obvious to him—what need would he have to dream of loving Nicolò when he can do it in real life? At the end of the day, he’s too elated with the new delights of their relationship to spend much time thinking about it at all. His head is in the clouds and it stays there for a good long time.
“You told me once you dreamt of me before we became lovers. But what exactly did you dream of?” Yusuf asks, finger against his lips in thought.
Nicolò inhales deeply. “Well.”
They have the house to themselves again; Andromache and Quynh, after explaining their self-appointed duty as guards of humanity and inviting Yusuf and Nicolò to join them, graciously stepped out and gave them time to consider. They’re camping in the grove of trees across the river now. Yusuf and Nicolò are supposed to be talking about that, not past sexual fantasies they’ve had about each other, but Yusuf can’t get this nagging feeling out of his head that this thread should be followed.
“You know. The usual… fare.” Nicolò says, grinning.
Yusuf grins back and lightly punches his shoulder. “Come on. Details, priest.”
“Why are we discussing this, again?” Nicolò laughs.
“Humor me, beloved. Please.”
Nicolò sighs and stares off to the side at the wall, thinking. He squints and purses his lips when he’s trying to remember things; it’s very cute.
“I think the first dream I had of you was perhaps a month and a half after we left Jerusalem. We were lying in the bedroll—you remember that ragged reddish-brown blanket that was all torn at the edges?—and it was an unbearably hot night. I—what’s wrong?”
Yusuf’s jaw has fallen open, and Nicolò stops in concern.
“And you removed your pants. And laid on your side, naked.”
Nicolò’s eyes widen.
“You ran your fingers down my ribs.”
“I fucked your thighs.”
They stare at each other in amazed disbelief for a long while. Nicolò is connecting the dots in his head, Yusuf can see it. And then he gasps quietly.
“Like Andromache said—the dreams are intended to draw us together.” he murmurs, awestruck. “But we were already together. In close proximity, I mean.”
“I think perhaps we were supposed to be even closer.” Yusuf says with a saucy smile.
“It doesn’t get much closer than you inside my body.” Nicolò agrees solemnly. And then, his eyes widen. “Of course, you are right—I stopped dreaming of you after the night we came together in real life.”
“My dreams stopped, too.”
Nicolò runs a hand through his hair and stares out the far window, coming to terms with it all. Yusuf knows what he’s thinking, because he’s thinking the same thing—they’ve been quietly anxious all this time about what God thinks of them. The fact that they were, as far as they knew, alone in immortality—the fact that they were obviously crafted for each other—assuaged some of that fear, but not all of it. It seems that they were, in fact, divinely commanded to be lovers. Suddenly, what they have feels much more special. Even the younger Yusuf, with all his musings on Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander and Hephaestion, Nisus and Euryalus, could not have dreamed of a love so eternal, so worthy of legend.
Nicolò looks at him with wild, impassioned eyes, the kind of look he gets when he’s inspired by spiritual fire. And then, it suddenly falls.
“My dream about the church in Genova. Oh my goodness, you saw that.” He buries his face in his hands and groans. “You saw my basest desires.”
Yusuf blinks, and suddenly that dream makes a lot more sense. How he knew where to walk in a city he still hasn’t been to. Why he had no idea what was going on, but Nicolò clearly did. Nicolò’s brazen shamelessness. It was all Nicolò’s imagination.
He laughs and throws an arm around Nicolò’s shoulders. “Ah, I see ! My shy, devout companion, who gave me no impression he desired me in any way, wanted to climb me like a tree! He wanted to tackle me to the ground and tear my clothes off! I hardly recognized you in that church, how aggressively you set your sights on me! You licked my face !”
“Cease talking.” Nicolò moans.
“Don’t be embarrassed, my love. You have seen my desires, too.”
Nicolò looks up and frowns in confusion, and then realizes. “The dream in the qṣer . That was yours.”
“Yes. I apologize if I dishonored you by taking you in the presence of my family like that.” Yusuf clears his throat. “I have no excuses, really.”
“I am very angry and probably will never forgive you.” Nicolò says, stone faced.
Yusuf laughs heartily. He pulls Nicolò against his side tighter and rests his cheek on the top of his head. Nicolò lays an affectionate hand on his knee. Some time passes in contemplative silence. Yusuf feels the peace that comes with knowing that he’s been a good boy, doing everything he was supposed to be doing for the past decade. He looks around the home that they have built together. The half-blue walls. The orange-yellow tapestry carpets that Nicolò wove for the floors and walls after being taught by Yusuf’s mother, with the al-Kaysani family pattern down the center. The bound and illuminated copies of the Gospel and the Qur’an that they bought with the last of Yusuf’s Jerusalem money, resting upright on the highest shelf on the opposite wall. They have spent ten years here, luxuriating in their love.
Perhaps it is time to move on to even more noble pursuits.
“Your parents are growing old.” Nicolò says quietly. “And we are not.”
“Ibrahim already looks older than I do.” Yusuf agrees.
They’ve both known for a while now that it is time to go. Nicolò has patiently waited for Yusuf to be ready to say goodbye. And now their catalyst has arrived.
“Let’s go find some bread and honey.” Yusuf says, throat tight. “And my mother. Let’s sit with her on the side of the river one last time.”