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They came into the port city of Alexandria, tired, haggard, and dirty from the desert.

 

Nicolo was exhausted, more than he could say. Even more than he was at Jerusalem where he was always half-dead, always waiting for another arrow to the eye or a sword to the gut, courtesy of the man who’d become his curse, and then his travel companion. 

 

But despite his aching muscles, and his scratchy dry mouth he was joyed to see the city. Somewhere untouched by the war, at least mostly. And Yusuf was happy to see it. The jewel on the river delta. Yusuf’s face lit up at the crest of its skyline, the rancor of its inhabitants, the smell of salt and shit and people. The Mediterranean glimmering a midnight blue under the moon beyond the lighthouse guiding ships into the harbor. 

 

Nicolo, who over the course of their months-long accompaniment had come to place Yusuf’s happiness at the top of the list of things he needed, and so did not argue when Yusuf led him down into the nicer part of the city, claiming he knew of a good inn in which to rest their heads before they departed.

 

But Nicolo had many concerns he was ignoring. His tentative but growing protest over what daylight would bring. The parting that was so clearly promised. How early on after their departure from Jerusalem they’d agreed to part ways at the sea, where Nicolo could catch an easy boat home and Yusuf could go about with his life scarred by the holy war, but undisturbed further by Frankish nonsense.

 

(How funny it was that Nicolo had barely a thought for Genoa anymore. Home was Yusuf in the firelight, the crinkles at his eyes, how his teeth glinted sun-blindingly white when he recited poetry Nicolo didn’t even understand but loved anyway.)

 

Nicolo stayed quiet and followed Yusuf into a very nice looking building that they definitely did not have the money to spend a night. 

 

The innkeeper gave them an appropriately questionable side-eye. Nicolo knew how they looked. Dusty and dirty in their dented and ripped clothing, with nothing but their swords at their hips, and unwashed faces and hair.

 

He grumbled something at Yusuf in Arabic that Nicolo couldn’t quite grasp, but Yusuf wasn’t deterred; he marched right up to the counter with that charming smile of his and pulled off one of the two rings left on his fingers. 

 

It was a beautifully carved thing of silver interlaid with cream-colored stones, and Yusuf dropped it on the counter, clearly meant for payment.

 

Nicolo would wager it was a nice enough ring for one of their best rooms. And from the way the innkeeper snatched it up, its worth was better than Alexandrian coin.

 

“Yusuf,” Nicolo said, putting a tentative hand on Yusuf’s forearm to stall the payment. “Keep your ring. We need only a simple bed.” 

 

Yusuf smiled at him, the one that sparked up a thrumming warmth in Nicolo’s stomach and got Nicolo to cave into whatever it was Yusuf desired, and waved him off pushing the ring into the innkeeper’s greedy hands in exchange for a key.

 

“I know what we need Nicolo. But I would be remiss to pass up a feathered bed, a hot bath, and your comfort in sleep.”

 

Nicolo didn’t argue after that. Especially when he was shown to their room, complete with a draped canopy bed in red and purple cloth, a sitting area complete with what he thought was a tea set and some fruit, and a balcony facing the harbor drawing in a cool breeze to ruffle the curtains. 

 

He didn’t say another word to Yusuf until after his bath when a muscled serving-man carried up three buckets of hot water for them to share. 

 

Nicolo bathed first because Yusuf insisted, but he was quick about it, not wanting to hog the clean water for more time than he needed.

 

(And if he lingered buttoning his shirt for bed, watching the muscles in Yusuf’s back stretch while he scrubbed, well that was between him and the God he occasionally prayed to.)

 

But it seemed he had not been discrete enough. Yusuf emerged from the bath, a linen towel wrapped around his waist, and walked slow and sure to Nicolo who sat on the bed trying and failing not to gape at the heat in Yusuf’s eyes.

 

“Yusuf,” he breathed as the man stepped in between his legs, bringing a shaking, hesitant hand up the nape of Nicolo’s neck to cradle the back of his head.

 

“Tell me to stop and I will,” Yusuf whispered, rough and full of desire. Nicolo could barely see his outline in the darkness that blanketed the city. The few flickering candles at the bedside, on the dresser, cast Yusuf into shadow. Dark and lustful and tempting. 

 

Yusuf leaned in until they were a paper’s length apart at the lips. Nicolo heard the towel drop to the floor in a resounding thump. He thought of their descent into the city not only a few hours before. Bone-tired and weary of war, but jubilant at the brightness of civilization. He thought of how Yusuf must yearn for the freedom the city offered, after months in the desert with a man who’d wished him dead for so long. The city made him question all that they’d built together. 

 

It made him weak too.

 

“No,” Nicolo said with the barest brush of a kiss. “Please.”

 

Never stop. 

 

Yusuf reached for his shirt tugging it over his head and pushed him down to bed to take him apart, methodically, reverently, with expertise that spoke to someone with experience but with a gentleness that spoke to something fond. Nicolo would not dare name it love. 

 

“Yusuf,” Nicolo breathed, cradling the man’s head to his neck tugging at those long soft curls every time Yusuf crooked his fingers inside him just right. 

 

He was cloaked in sweat, his mouth tingling and plush. He could feel where he was dripping with the oil Yusuf prepared him with against the sheets. He was ruining them no doubt. He couldn't care less.

 

“What do you want?” Yusuf rasped, coming back up from his neck where he’d left a blooming red love mark, to sip from the plumpness of Nicolo’s lips. “Tell me, Nicolo, tell me.”

 

Nicolo could barely think to breathe , it was a monumental act of strength to answer such a question. He tore himself from Yusuf’s mouth and cupped his face in his hands, pushing him away to get a good look at him. Having him close was drugging. He thought he might burst into flame. One final damning death.

 

“I want you with me,” he said, willing his words not to waver. “I want you with me tonight as much as you are willing.” Nicolo took one of his hands off Yusuf’s cheek to twine their hands together instead, bringing it down to Yusuf’s cock, hard in a thatch of dark hair.

 

He rubbed his hand down the length, tangled with Yusuf’s fingers, and grinned at the moan that fell from Yusuf’s lips on the upstroke over the head where Yusuf was already wet.

 

Ya amar,” Yusuf said, already moving his fingers back down, slick, with a third, prepped to stretch Nicolo further. “I want everything with you.”

 

Nicolo kissed him hard, something fierce and roaring with a desire to bring Yusuf in close just as much as it was to shut him up to savor the moment. Nicolo didn’t want to think about tomorrow, and the question it heralded. That goodbye he was sure was coming. Was this their parting dance?

 

Yusuf slipped inside him and Nicolo gasped, his eyes wet, overwhelmed with pain and pleasure and a feeling of rightness. The things he would do to keep this man with him, inside him, were far worse than the things he’d done in Jerusalem in the name of God.

 

Yusuf was panting as he pressed a far too tender kiss to Nicolo’s cheek, running one of his hands softly up and down the skin of Nicolo’s side like he was soothing a horse, leaving gooseflesh in his wake. 

 

And when Yusuf thrusted in, just on the right side of rough like he couldn’t hold himself back, Nicolo moaned low from his gut, his mouth tilted upwards at the canopy of the bed. 

 

From there Nicolo clung with his nails into Yusuf’s shoulders, squeezing with every hard thrust. Yusuf was whispering things in his ear in Arabic, too fast for him to understand, but lavished in a tone of pleasure and satisfaction. Nicolo turned to nip at Yusuf’s chin, the closest thing he could reach, and was rewarded with a pointed thrust, that had him hissing and begging for more.

 

It was far too soon, but he was close. His cock was rubbing up against Yusuf’s stomach, and Yusuf’s cock filling him up, punching out breathy moans from his throat.

 

Apparently, Yusuf could tell. He pulled out and before Nicolo could rightfully protest he pulled Nicolo up and into his lap, before slipping his cock back in. Only now Nicolo was on top, with his arms wrapped tight around Yusuf’s shoulders. They were eye to eye, and Yusuf’s hands rubbed soothing circles on his upper thighs.

 

“Go on,” Yusuf said, and God he was trembling. He pushed a bit at Nicolo’s hips with his hands. “Take what you need. I’m here.”

 

Nicolo laughed, and Yusuf didn’t chastise him for it, how the sound bordered on a watery sob. Nicolo bumped his forehead together with Yusuf’s and rolled his hips in a slow, testing motion.

 

When it punched a breathy grunt out of Yusuf he ground down harder but kept the same pace. Lazy, dragging things that allowed for messy dragging kisses in between their gasps. Nicolo wanted to chase the pleasure in his gut, curling up from his spine with every rolling thrust but he wanted Yusuf close to him more . He wanted the kisses, the giggling murmurs dropped between them in languages he was not yet fluent. He wanted time, and he had so much of it, but Nicolo wanted this to last forever.

 

Yusuf thrusted upwards best he could with Nicolo grinding down heavy. Every time he did, meeting Nicolo on a downstroke, it made Nicolo whine and grapple at of Yusuf’s back, desperate to hang on.

 

“God,” Nicolo breathed. He switched to Genoese, which Yusuf understood better than he did Arabic or anything else. “Please, Yusuf. You’re so good. Ah, fuck, you fill me so well.”

 

Yusuf groaned and bucked up. His hand slipped in between them to grab Nicolo’s cock, stroking firm and fast. 

 

“You are like heaven Nicolo,” he said, speeding up his thrusts and his hand. “You feel, fuck , yes, come on, come for me please.”

 

Yusuf thumbed at the sensitive head of Nicolo’s cock, pleading filth in his ear and Nicolo couldn’t hold it back anymore. Whining he braced himself on Yusuf’s shoulders, bouncing on his cock until he came all over Yusuf’s chest. 

 

Panting, Yusuf pushed him back down into the mattress and rutted in fast, while Nicolo gasped oversensitive, drawing Yusuf in close nonetheless. He clenched down on Yusuf’s cock as much as he dared and sighed when Yusuf came inside, thick, his fingers clenched tight on Nicolo’s hips no doubt leaving bruises.

 

They were both breathing hard as they came down. Yusuf had the foresight to reach over to the nightstand once he caught his breath for a convenient rag, wiping his stomach clean, then with a shy smile going down to wipe clean the mess he’d made of Nicolo.

 

Then he pulled Nicolo close so that he was curved in at Nicolo’s back, a heavy arm hung over Nicolo’s side already drowsy and warm with sex and sleep.

 

He placed a wet kiss at the top of Nicolo’s spine, just under the curtain of his hair. 

 

“We will talk tomorrow, yes?” he said.

 

Nicolo swallowed and forced himself not to tense with everything that implied. He pushed back into Yusuf’s chest in assurance, humming an affirmation, before drifting off into a night of tired, aching sleep. 

 

~

 

Nicolo slept soundly through noon, which he never did. 

 

He stretched in bed, full-bodied, feeling for every tingling ache last night had left him with until his fingertips brushed up against the headboard. He sighed, settling down into the sheets.

 

He laid in this pleasant lingering afterglow, well-fucked, very much in love, and blissfully ignorant with the haze of sleep before he realized that Yusuf was not in bed with him.

 

Nicolo bolted upwards with a cold jolt of terror. Yesterday’s fears realized, all too soon, before he could even think of saying anything to Yusuf. A parting word, a goodbye kiss, a proclamation of—

 

There was someone rustling with the lock. And before Nicolo’s panic spiraled out of control Yusuf stepped in through the door, a thickly wrapped parcel in hand. He broke out into a smile at the sight of Nicolo still in bed. 

 

“I went to the market and got you fish for breakfast,” he said cheerfully, unaware of Nicolo’s panic and busying himself with the cups on the table by the sitting chairs. “I know you prefer more savory foods. And I spoke with the innkeeper as well. It took some haggling but we have the room until—”

 

“You did not leave me?” Nicolo said. 

 

“What?” Yusuf’s head snapped up, taking a good look at Nicolo for the first time this morning. Whatever he saw made him rush over. 

 

“Nicolo, what’s wrong?” he said. “You’re crying. Why would you think such a thing?”

 

“You said—” Nicolo started and every word was like gravel. He would suffer a thousand more deaths before he wished more of this pain upon himself. “You said we would part when we came to the sea.”

 

He waved a hand at the open balcony and the seagulls beyond, the glittering pearl that was the Mediterranean, how it would carry him to the festering forested heartbreak of Europe in a matter of a few short weeks. 

 

“There it is.” 

 

He didn’t dare take his gaze off from his fingers in his lap, fiddling with the plum-colored sheets. Last night he bared himself on them, and held Yusuf close, and gasped matrimony into his mouth. He wondered if he could sneak the sheets into his belongings when Yusuf sent him away. A comfort and a torture.

 

There was a hand on his chin, gentle, even now when Yusuf broke his heart he was gentle. Nicolo looked at him and was surprised to find pain in his love’s eyes as well. More so than he could ever have dreamed or wanted. 

 

“You still believe this? After all this time?” Yusuf asked, his voice rough from something Nicolo would hesitate to call pain. “What did last night mean to you?”

 

Nicolo shook his head, and Yusuf’s hand slid up to his cheek to hold him tenderly. Nicolo’s heart, a traitor, a bitter traitor until the end, thumped and fluttered. He leaned into Yusuf’s touch, weak.

 

“A goodbye,” he admitted. “It was what we agreed upon.”

 

Yusuf inhaled sharply.

 

“You foolish foolish man. Oh, Allah, help me, I love a fool.” And he kissed Nicolo, hard.

 

It was biting, and fierce, almost like a punishment. But Nicolo leaned into it, quick to succumb to whatever kind of anger this was.

 

“Do you know what I did this morning Nicolo? Besides, buy you fish?” Yusuf said once he’d pulled back. 

 

Nicolo, whose head was spinning, with the kiss, with the I love you that Yusuf dropped as easy as breathing, like that was something that he could easily say, shook his head in answer. 

 

“I sold the innkeeper my other ring, in exchange for a week more in the room. For us .

 

“What?” Nicolo said, overwhelmed. “Yusuf you didn’t have to, I don’t understand.”

 

“Oh hayati, ” Yusuf said, leaning in to kiss at the corner of Nicolo’s eyes where tears had welled up and sparkled in the morning’s light. “Don’t you see? I did have to. I could not count the things I would do for you.”

 

He gathered Nicolo’s hands up and brought them to his mouth to kiss, lingering over the knuckles.

 

“I love you more than I could ever say. I am a poet, but I feel I do you no justice, Nicolo. But I swear to try, tell you every day and more for as long as this long life lasts us.” He appeared suddenly nervous, looking up at Nicolo from under his lashes. “If you’ll have me?”

 

Nicolo choked out a sob, wiping the tears off his face with his arm. He pulled Yusuf in until he was kneeling over Nicolo on the bed, cupping Nicolo’s face in his hands with wide soulful eyes. The sun rose in those eyes.

 

“There is not a world in which I would not have you,” Nicolo said. “There is not a time now I would not love you. You are all I have, and all I care to need.”

 

Yusuf leaned in, laughing through his own tears to kiss him, but he missed and it was more of a thump to the nose. Together they fell back into the bed, giggling, running their hands over every bit of skin they could reach and remained as such long after the sun descended and fell, with time as a blessing before them.