They are walking down to the docks together, breathing in the salty air. They have been traveling for some time along merchant roads and staying in small inns or even in fields and meadows if the weather allowed. Yusuf enjoys it, likes seeing the other travelers and hearing their languages and getting a feel for the land.
He knows, however, that Nicolo does not like it.
The other man rarely says it, but he misses the sea. Yusuf has only been to Genoa once, alone, in his desperation to find Nicolo and make the dreams stop. There was no Nicolo to be found, but being in the man’s home had given him better insight into him. He’d seen the little house now inhabited by some distant descendent, the one overlooking the water and with a clear path down to a dock where a shabby fishing boat was moored.
It had been a strange thing, to learn that the soldier, priest, and conqueror he’d met in battle was a fisherman’s boy, too.
Once he’d spent some time with Nicolo, once they’d agreed their interests were better served together than apart, Yusuf can’t deny that his visit to Genoa helped him. Nicolo is a quiet man and shares so little of himself; knowing that he grew up on the water helped Yusuf piece together Nicolo's foul moods when they stayed inland too long.
It also meant Yusuf had not known the true meaning of ‘seasick’ the first time he used the word. Confusing it with ‘homesick,’ he thought it meant a sad longing for the sea. Such a word must exist, because Nicolo clearly experienced the feeling regularly.
He remembers the bewildered and almost offended look on Nicolo’s face when he’d first suggested Nicolo gets seasick. Nicolo had tightly explained that no, the word does not mean that and no, he absolutely does not experience seasickness.
Yusuf nodded solemnly… but he still uses it that way, to tease Nicolo.
“Nicolo, why are you so moody today? Are you seasick? Shall we go to the sea?”
A decade later, it can still make the otherwise solemn man roll his eyes and a half smile will appear.
Nicolo has been ‘seasick’ for a month now. They will have to stay in this port city for a week or so for him to recover. Yusuf already sees an improvement in Nicolo’s disposition, a brightness to his eyes, and he knows it will be time well spent.
“What shall you do today, Nicolo?” he asks as he eyes the market. Nicolo will likely be on the docks all day, offering his services to fishers who need an extra set of hands. Yusuf does not mind the water, but he does not have a taste for it like Nicolo; he will stay on land and practice his Greek with the locals.
(“We are in Greece, yes? They speak Greek here?”
“Yes, Yusuf. Do you know Greek?”
“Not yet, but I will learn.”
“It’s taken you nearly a hundred years and you haven’t learned Italian yet. You think you will learn Greek in the time we are here?”
“Why do I travel with you when you are so mean to me? My Italian is better than your Arabic.”
“You wound me. And worse, you are wrong.”)
Nicolo does not answer. When Yusuf turns to him, ready to ask again, he sees that his friend is not listening. In fact, he is walking away and Yusuf stands there, jaw agape as Nicolo opens his arms and greets an older man in Latin.
They have been in town a grand total of two days. Two days, and Nicolo knows someone here? And not a passing acquaintance; Nicolo and this man are talking like old friends.
Nicolo is smiling. He rarely ever smiles.
There is a strange camaraderie there, an ease that even after years together sometimes eludes Yusuf and Nicolo’s interactions.
He stands there awkwardly, watching and feeling more and more out of place. There is a tightness in his chest and a knot in his stomach. He does not understand his discomfort, does not recognize the jealousy for what it is.
When Nicolo comes back, still smiling, he claps Yusuf cheerfully on the shoulder.
“What is wrong, my friend?” he asks. “You look so gloomy.”
His voice is so carefree, his mannerisms so changed, that it only makes Yusuf’s heart sink further. Why is he upset that Nicolo has made a friend? How can he begrudge him the happiness this stranger has brought him?
Yusuf forces a smile. “It is nothing. I am hungry, that is all.”
“Let’s get some bread, then. We will have fish for dinner, I promise.”
And it’s too much to see Nicolo’s open smile and good mood, Yusuf lets his own mood be buoyed by his.
He surprises them both by following Nicolo to the docks. Nicolo gives him a questioning look, but does not argue when Yusuf insists on working the fishing net with him. The fisher is happy to have their help, and Nicolo seems pleased to have Yusuf’s unexpected company; Yusuf does not enjoy it per se, but he cannot bear the idea of leaving Nicolo’s side.
He does not know why. They are often apart. To eat or work or explore, it is not as though they are joined at the hip. And yet all Yusuf can see in his mind’s eye is Nicolo talking with the older man in the market, sharing secrets and smiles with someone who isn’t him.
It is not until that evening, with the sun setting through their shared room at the inn, that he realizes he has done a terrible job of hiding his inner turmoil.
“What is wrong?” Nicolo asks. He is licking olive oil from his fingers, the movement of his plush lips momentarily capturing Yusuf’s whole attention. He almost misses what Nicolo says next. “You have been acting strangely all day.”
“I am fine—”
“You are not,” Nicolo scolds. “I know you too well for you to hide it.”
Yusuf’s cheeks heat up and he turns away, though whether from embarrassment at being called out so candidly or from pleasure that Nicolo would say such things, he cannot say.
He sits there, fuming at himself for having ruined their perfectly good dinner, well-earned after a hard day’s work. He is being childish, upset that his only friend has found another friend.
“Yusuf.” Nicolo puts a hand on his knee and patiently waits for him to meet his eye. “Please tell me. I wish to know what troubles you so that I can help.”
“There is no need—”
Nicolo tsks and shakes his head. “Of course there is no need, but what are friends for if not to help each other?”
He thinks about the marketplace again and his stomach curdles. His appetite is gone, and he thinks that yes, that is how friends should be. They should help and not begrudge them other friendships, other secrets. So he will keep his mouth shut and not trouble Nicolo with his feelings on the matter, since they are unjust, selfish feelings.
“Yusuf. I can hear how loud you’re thinking, so you may as well share those thoughts.”
Apparently, this is all the incentive he needs to blurt out, “Who was that man in the market?”
Whatever Nicolo expected to hear, this is clearly not it. He looks at him in bewilderment. “What man? What do you mean? Do you think we have been followed? Is it the men from the temple—”
“No no, nothing like that. We are safe, no one is pursuing us here.” Now he is well and truly embarrassed, ashamed even, for alarming Nicolo. “The man you spoke with, who is he? I am curious, that is all.”
“Demetrios?” Nicolo frowns, his confusion growing with each word Yusuf says; perhaps this is a sign he should not have said a thing at all. If only he were more skilled at hiding his worries from Nicolo, he would not have. “He is a priest.”
“A priest?” Of course. The one thing Yusuf can never share with Nicolo is his faith. He tries to hide his disappointment. “You seemed to know him well. I thought it was more than that.”
“Yes, he is a priest. I go to him for confession.”
Yusuf sits up straight in surprise. “Confession? I did not know you still believed in such things. You said your faith had wavered…”
Faith in God and religion to men who cannot die is a complex thing. They have spoken of it a little, but it dredges up too much bad blood between them. Yusuf knows that Nicolo still prays, as he himself does, but he does not hold himself strictly to the Catholic ways of his upbringing anymore. Confession… Yusuf cannot understand why Nicolo would choose this of all things to continue.
Nicolo shrugs. “Confession is good for the soul, whatever God may or may not do with it. It feels like unburdening, to say it aloud. To have someone listen and say you are forgiven.”
What do you say to him that you cannot say to me? he thinks. Why can you not confess to me instead? Am I unworthy of some parts of you?
“Oh,” is what he says. He worries his bottom lip, wills the conversation to end there so that no more of himself might be exposed.
Confession is good for the soul. It feels like unburdening, to say it aloud.
And then his own confession bubbles up.
“I wish you would tell me what troubles your soul,” he whispers. “You need not expose yourself needlessly to a stranger. I can help. As you say, that is what friends are for.”
Nicolo stares at him; Yusuf stubbornly stares at the untouched meal in front of him. As the silence grows, Yusuf fears he has angered or insulted him. Eventually, he dares himself to steal a peek.
Nicolo is smiling, arms crossed over his chest as he looks at Yusuf with amusement.
“What?” Yusuf asks. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You are jealous,” Nicolo says simply.
“I am not jeal—” He stops short as he feels the truth of the words. “Oh.”
“You have nothing to be jealous of,” Nicolo tells him gently. He grabs the last piece of bread and rips it in half, offering some to Yusuf.
Yusuf takes it mechanically, dips it in the olive oil, but does not eat. “You confess to him, though. A stranger.”
“Yusuf…” Nicolo reaches across the table and puts his hand over Yusuf’s. The sudden warmth of it startles him, but he doesn’t dare pull away. “There is nothing to be jealous of, I assure you. Aside from some common ground in our faith, Demetrios and I have little else in common.”
“But nothing. I have no secrets from you.”
He squeezes Yusuf’s hand. Yusuf does the bravest thing he’s ever done: he turns his hand over so their palms are pressed together. It earns him a smile from Nicolo.
“Then what do you confess to him?” And then immediately he takes it back. “You do not have to tell me. I do not mean to pry. If it is between you and God—”
“Half of my confessions,” Nicolo says evenly, “are about you.”
Yusuf’s mind goes blank. “What?”
“There are of course all the lives we have taken, either in the defense of ourselves or of others. You are a prominent figure in those stories, as I’m sure you well know.”
He nods along; he would expect such things to weigh heavily on Nicolo, even now after fighting has become almost like breathing to them. It is enough that he can be satisfied that he is not missing any pieces of Nicolo, that nothing is being denied him.
But then Nicolo keeps speaking.
“Mostly, however, my heart is filled with you. It is a hard thing, you know, for a former priest to know he has someone in his heart that he holds higher than God. I don’t know that Demetrios appreciates hearing me go on about you, but he is a kind man and a dutiful priest. Today in the market I was merely thanking him for the kindness he has paid me.”
And suddenly, the dam he has been building to protect himself from loving Nicolo, it bursts. He feels in that instant everything he has held back out of misplaced fear.
“You are wrong, Nicolo,” he says stiffly. Nicolo looks hurt and attempts to pull his hand away. Yusuf holds it tight and brings it to his lips, kisses the knuckles. He can feel as much as see Nicolo’s sharp intake of breath, the goosebumps that rise along his arm. “I am very jealous of your priest. Why should he get to hear these sweet things from you before I do? That is very unfair of you.”
It startles a laugh from Nicolo.
They move at the same time, leaning across the table to share a chaste kiss. It thrills him, because already he can feel it is but the first of many such intimacies shared between them.
How could he have ever wanted to kill this man?
“Come.” He stands and pulls Nicolo with him. “We have wasted too much time already.”
“We have endless time,” Nicolo says with a laugh. “What would you have us do to make up for it, anyway?”
“Come to my bed and find out. We will create more reasons for you to confess to your priest…”