“Fucking shit .”
Yusuf startles and glances at Nicolò, shocked by the uncharacteristic language. The sun is at its apex in the sky, and so they’ve stopped under a rocky desert overhang to escape the heat. Yusuf was doing just fine, the cold-blooded reptile, but poor Nicolò and the mules were beginning to pant. It’s suffocatingly hot, and Nicolò’s sweat is sweating. The slight breeze drifting off the Red Sea to their left isn’t helping either; it’s really just blowing more hot air over his flushed skin.
“Feeling warm?” Yusuf teases, elbowing him.
Nicolò weakly swats him away. “Tell me, why is it so fucking hot? It’s only Dhū al-Qaʿdah. And another thing—why must Hajj happen in summer this year? It was in autumn the last time we went.”
“Listen to you! Cussing and complaining!” Yusuf sounds delighted, though by all logic he should be annoyed. “Let it all out, let me see that which no one else does! Show me your most distasteful faces, fair angel!”
Nicolò certainly doesn’t feel (or smell) like a fair angel. His long hair, which he really should have chopped off before starting this journey, is plastered to his damp neck and forehead. There are dribbles of sweat trickling down his sides, and his cheeks must be ruddy-red in the most unflattering way. He’s had the misfortune to catch glimpses of himself in mirrors when he’s overheated—he looks rather more like fever victim than blushing cherub.
“You want distasteful?” he grumps. “Here, have distasteful.”
He grabs Yusuf’s hand and shoves it up under his tunic, presses it right into the wetness streaked down his ribs. Unfortunately, Yusuf just continues to be inordinately pleased by it all—he bursts into raucous laughter, and then he wrestles his hand back so that he can lick his palm. His gaze never leaves Nicolò’s as he does it, and he waggles his eyebrows and grins. Nicolò isn’t even disgusted, just hopelessly charmed.
Sawakin is a pleasant respite from the desert. It’s one of the smaller port cities they’ve traveled to, but it’s absolutely overflowing with people now, all waiting for the boats to ferry them across the sea to Mecca. Nicolò loves people, delights at the fact that men from all across Africa have gathered here in anticipation of religious experience. How beautiful, that a longing for God has brought them all together, here, now!
Of course, Yusuf doesn’t like people. As soon as he sees the crowds around the bay, his face sours. When they are forced to muscle past tightly-packed bodies to get to the isthmus connecting the greater bay area to the little island core, he grumbles under his breath. Nicolò worries that he might jump into the sea and never return when someone accidentally elbows him in the back.
“These are your fellow humans, you know.” Nicolò teases. “Your family, in a spiritual sense if not a blood one.”
“Oh, is that why they seem to have no qualms whatsoever about prodding me with their various body parts at every turn? About shouting loudly near my ear as if I’m not there at all?” Yusuf answers, snippy.
“Yes!” Nicolò shouts, deliberately near his ear. He pokes him in the side for good measure.
The buildings on the island in the center of the bay are all built of coral, taken directly from the surrounding reefs, and plastered in white. They are stunning against the deep blue of the sea, and it all reminds Nicolò somewhat of Greece. It’s marginally cooler here, though he can’t really say why. The salty breeze is fresher somehow. That is, in the rare instance it reaches him through the thronging crowds.
They eventually find a room to rent, which costs them an arm and a leg and also a foot. It’s a tiny little thing with four walls, a mattress dressed in goat-hair blankets on the floor, and not much else. It’ll do. Except—
“Oh, no, no, no.” Yusuf says immediately.
“No, that cannot stay there.” Nicolò agrees.
In silent accord, they grab either side of the mattress and drag it out of the corner it’s been shoved into. They move it so that the head is against the wall opposite the door, perfectly aligned in the center of the room. With a mutual sigh of interior design satiation, they head back out to find some supper.
The teahouse is stuffed like a roasted turkey. There are so many people packed inside it that in order to get anywhere, they must sidle sideways between bodies, sometimes even lifting their arms over their heads in order to reduce the breadth of their shoulders. By some miracle, they get ahold of a cupbearer and ask for whatever crumbs haven’t already been devoured by the masses. They are given a few cuts of marinated ostrich meat, which Nicolò hasn’t ever had before, and doesn’t particularly enjoy. Perhaps it’s the atmosphere—he and Yusuf are backed up against a wall, not even sitting down, and the men nearest them are shouting loudly about the things they’re planning to do to their wives when they return home.
It’s about then that the crowds shift and reveal a new array of faces previously obscured. Immediately, Nicolò’s attention is caught by one in particular. His eyes widen, and in his peripheral vision, he sees Yusuf’s jaw drop. The man is spectacularly handsome, so handsome it takes Nicolò’s breath away. He is dark, even darker than Yusuf, with almond-shaped eyes, full lips, and a small, finely-shaped nose. But above all else, it’s his hair —it is shoulder-length and coiled into a thousand flawless twists, each shimmering in the low lamplight. Shorter twists lay on his forehead, evocative of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Nicolò has never seen anything like him.
“My goodness. God took great care when crafting him.” Yusuf murmurs.
“That’s an understatement.” Nicolò agrees.
Their goggle-eyed staring catches the notice of a nearby cupbearer, who smirks. “He is of the Afar people. Many of them live around the port here. His hair is pretty, no?”
“Mm.” Yusuf and Nicolò hum their assent at the same time.
“Such a look is achieved by twisting the hair around a dowel stick and coating it in raw butter. If you have the proper hair texture for it, of course.” He glances at Yusuf. “You might be able to pull it off, but you—” He looks to Nicolò. “I can’t imagine it would turn out very well.”
Later, by coincidence, when Nicolò bravely forces his way through the crowd in order to return their dishes, he stumbles over a hidden dip in the floor and accidentally slams his shoulder directly into the handsome man they’d been admiring earlier.
“Oh, I am so sorry.” He apologizes immediately.
The man straightens up and grins at him. His teeth are snow-white against his black skin. “Do not worry, it’s alright. Please, tell me the proper form of greeting of your people so that we may make peace.”
So he is as devastatingly charming as he is good-looking. Instead of explaining, Nicolò extends his free hand. The man takes it, but instead of shaking it, he kisses Nicolò’s knuckles and presses them briefly to his forehead. It takes Nicolò by surprise, but he quickly imitates the gesture so as not to seem irreverent.
“My name is Yasin.” the man says.
“I am Nicolò of Genova.”
Yasin’s eyes widen. “Ah, Italy?”
Nicolò smiles and nods.
“I am very happy to meet someone from so far away.” says Yasin, genuine and humble. His Arabic really is excellent, though his accent betrays the fact that it isn’t his native tongue. In fascination, he reaches out and touches Nicolò’s hair, runs his fingers through it, marvelling at what must be a wildly foreign texture to him. Nicolò bites his lip and glances over his shoulder at Yusuf, who is still leaning against the wall, watching. They share a giddy look, as if this beautiful stranger, by touching Nicolò, touches Yusuf too.
A caress to his cheek startles him, and Nicolò turns back around. Yasin is now inspecting his skin, running his fingertips gently over Nicolò’s jaw, as if he could wipe away the color, or lack thereof.
“Why so… pale?” he asks, not unkindly.
Nicolò smiles and shrugs. “Only God knows.”
“Mm.” Yasin hums with a wise smile.
“Ah, my friend is waiting for me. I should go.” Nicolò says. “I am very pleased to have met you.”
“And I you.”
When they turn away from each other and Nicolò hurries to retreat back to Yusuf’s side, cheek and jaw tingling, he completely misses the change in the level of the floor again and trips. He falls flat on his face with a graceless crash, scattering the forgotten dishes somewhere into the tangle of people and legs around him. Instantly, he is red as a tomato, and the very indiscreet cacophony of laughter from Yusuf’s direction doesn’t make him feel any better. He quickly scrambles to his feet and hurries over.
Yusuf just keeps wheezing, eyes squeezed shut against the force of his grin. “Do you remember—do you remember when—”
Nicolò grimaces and stares off into the distance. He knows exactly what Yusuf is about to say. In the first few years they knew each other, there was a day when Nicolò was coming down the exterior stairs of their wood-and-adobe house in the village they lived in, carrying a large basket of meticulously-shelled almonds of course, and caught Yusuf in the process of stripping off his tunic in their courtyard. At that point, sexual desire was still brand-new to him, and he froze awkwardly on the steps, completely thunderstruck with feeling at the sight of Yusuf’s broad and muscular back. It didn’t matter that he’d dug his nails into that back, kissed it many times already; it still excited him enormously. When Yusuf turned and caught sight of him and smiled, Nicolò’s knees grew weak. Which was why, as he smiled back and attempted to continue descending the stairs, he lost his footing and fell down them instead, scattering his precious almonds everywhere and smashing his head on the ground. In the more than 150 years since, Yusuf has never let him forget it.
They get even a few minutes later, though. As they’re leaving the teahouse, they run into Yasin again. He greets Nicolò with another hand-kiss, and turns to Yusuf.
“I am Yasin. You are?” He smiles warmly, flashing those flawless teeth and just generally looking like something God created for another, more perfect world but accidentally deposited here.
Yusuf opens his mouth but nothing comes out except an uh . He blinks, and then turns to Nicolò and frowns.
“Nico, what is my name again?”
Nicolò covers his mouth as he snorts with uncontrollable laughter.
“Stop, stop, you’ll use it all.” Yusuf scolds, taking Nicolò’s wrist and halting him from pouring out any more water over his head.
“Shall I leave soap in my hair, then?” Nicolò hands back the cup anyways.
“I am larger than you. It’s only logical that I require more water with which to bathe.”
Nicolò huffs a short bark of laughter. Yusuf is taller by no more than half a finger-length. He is more densely-muscled in the upper body, but Nicolò has the thicker legs, so he cannot even claim to be heftier, not really. The truth of it is that he is simply a spoiled prince at heart—the predictable result of being an only child and absolutely beloved by his mother, however many (many) decades ago that was. Nicolò grew up among two dozen other novice monks, with whom he had to fight daily for bread and bath water and everything else. Yusuf knows this, and he probably remembers it at about the same time as Nicolò, because he sheepishly scoots closer and tips the rest of the cup over Nicolò’s head and smooths away the bubbles in his hair with a gentle hand. It makes Nicolò smile.
They portion out the rest of the tub of water evenly. Yusuf uses one cup, then Nicolò, then Yusuf, and so on. Because they are both feeling lazy, they remain seated side-by-side on the floor of the bath house instead of standing like civilized men. There is no one around to judge anyways—they are completely alone for some inexplicable reason. It seems that, of the thousands of other people in this town, exactly none are interested in bathing tonight.
“We should have invited Yasin to join us.” Nicolò jokes.
Yusuf laughs loudly. “What, out of the goodness of our hearts, or because you want to see him naked?”
Nicolò grins and elbows him. “You do too.”
“Mm. I won’t deny it.”
There’s a long beat of silence, and then suddenly there is a hand on Nicolò’s chin, turning his head. Yusuf abruptly looks very serious; all traces of laughter have left his lips.
“Nicolò, I hope you know that no one will ever compare to you. You have always been the most beautiful, in any age. I desire no one but you, cannot even think of anyone but you because the aroma of your divine jasmine perfumes every thought in my head. And I wouldn’t lay a hand on anyone else, not even if you begged me.”
“I wasn’t going to.” Nicolò whispers. He leans in to kiss Yusuf, because he’s never been a poet, but he wants him to know that, for all his playful joking this evening, he feels the same way. Yusuf will understand, like he always does. Nicolò is completely, entirely devoted to him, mind, body, and soul. It's the most noble and truthful of sentiments, and so the kiss remains a chaste close-mouthed one, though honeyed. Yusuf is gentle when he brushes his knuckles over Nicolò’s cheek, affectionately rough when he fists a hand in Nicolò’s hair.
“My sweet, my rose, my moon.” he murmurs against Nicolò’s lips.
“Mm.” Nicolò sighs lustily. Yusuf’s praise always makes his heart ache. “Oh Yusuf, you are my dearest friend—”
“ Friend?! ”
Instantly, the atmosphere is ruined and Nicolò breaks down in giggles at how utterly offended his lover sounds.
“Pardon me for assuming, but I thought I was a little more than a friend to you!” Yusuf continues, hand pressed to his chest in exaggerated indignation. “Do all of your friends know you biblically?”
Nicolò spends a very long time trying to restrain his own laughter long enough to explain. He doesn’t actually need to, though, not really—they both know it’s true, that they are lovers and the dearest of friends at the same time. In fact, it’s the friendship that supersedes everything—because sex is sex, but Yusuf knows him better than any human has ever known another, and to be with him is a safety and comfort that others can retreat to only in their own minds.
“Oosh.” Yusuf makes an indescribable, pleased sound when Nicolò lies down atop him and his tummy brushes the head of Yusuf’s cock. He grabs Nicolò’s ass with two assertive hands and squeezes.
“Ow.” Nicolò complains, yet with a smile.
They grind like that in the tangled mess of goat-hair blankets, Yusuf dragging their bodies together. Perhaps it’s an unfair judgement, but doing it like this has always seemed a bit juvenile to him—as if they have no more finesse or skill than two teenagers rubbing off against each other for the first time. But it’s nice for that very reason, too. Innocent, if such a thing can be said about a sexual act. The equal sharing of mutual pleasure.
“ Oh, Nicolò.” Yusuf sighs, letting his head fall back against the bedding.
Nicolò hums, a little strained, in reply. He reaches down between their bodies to rub with a fingertip the precome dribbling out of Yusuf in clear rivers. The touch makes Yusuf jolt. Mildly hypnotized, Nicolò smears the wetness over the head of his own cock, shares it with himself, and the thought of what he’s doing strikes him like a bolt of lightning, the fact that he’s so madly in love with this man that he’s joyfully slathering himself in his bodily fluids—
Nicolò promptly plants his knees on either side of Yusuf and humps him like his life depends on it, makes the mattress shake with his passion. Yusuf moans loudly, grabs him by the hips, spanks him, doesn’t mind one bit that Nicolò is moaning back directly into his ear.
Afterwards, and after some heated discourse regarding their sleeping position (Yusuf wants to snuggle up behind him with an arm around his waist, but Nicolò would prefer not to have a heat stroke while he sleeps), they settle down. After all, they must be up before dawn in order to get to the docks on time.
Which is why Nicolò is quite offended when he’s woken with vigorous shaking after what he knows is only a few hours, and by an arm that has most definitely sneaked its way around his waist at some point in the night no less.
“Mmph. What?” He rubs his eyes and attempts to rejoin the waking world he’s just been rudely restored to.
“You were talking in your sleep again. You were saying ‘cabbage’ over and over in Greek. It was unsettling me.” Yusuf whispers.
“I don’t even know the Greek word for cabbage.”
For the rest of the following day—when they board the treacherous-looking jalbah and are standing near the bow side-by-side, and Yusuf leans over to whisper in Nicolò’s ear.
When Yusuf sneaks a kiss to his cheek when no one is looking.
When, after midday, they are sitting against the railing staring up at the vast cloudless sky and eating figs, Yusuf murmurs it like an I love you .
Nicolò can only laugh.