They’ve been wandering for four days in the desert. Less than a tenth of the time Christ suffered here, and Nicolò tries to ground his mind in prayer and contemplation, imagining his footsteps echoing the Lord’s.
It would be easier if he wasn’t convinced they are lost and walking in circles.
It would be easier if he wasn’t traveling with this absolutely infuriating man—Christ was alone, he thinks. That’s probably why he made it through his time in the desert with grace. He is trying, truly, he is; he doesn’t want to hurt this man any more, and he should serve penance, he should suffer for what he saw the Christians do to Jerusalem, for the things he did to Jerusalem—but this man, this Yusuf, tries his patience as no one ever has before.
Five days ago, they both woke from vivid dreams of two women wandering through a market. The women were familiar—they had both been dreaming of them since they first died; the tall, pale one with green eyes and the shorter one with dark eyes and darker hair. The market was new, and Yusuf turned to him at once and said, “Baghdad”.
“What?” Nicolò replied, and Yusuf rolled his eyes, which was his most common response to anything that came out of Nicolò’s mouth.
“Too much to expect a filthy invader such as yourself would know anything of the wider world,” he muttered, and Nicolò wished, not for the first time, that they didn’t have a language in common. He could have gone without hearing every little opinion and cutting word that came out of Yusuf’s mouth.
“It’s a city east of here, across the desert,” he explained. “The largest in the world, only a Frank would not have heard of it. We should go, we should find them.”
Nicolò blinked at him. “Go?”
Yusuf sighed. “Do you have a better plan? Or are you content to hide in this foul cave until we discover if we can die of disease, starvation, or old age?” He gestured around at the tiny cave, the entrance concealed by gnarled olive trees and bushes. They’d holed up here, a few miles south of Jerusalem, to avoid the marauding parties of victorious Christians ranging out from the city and hadn’t left its shelter in nearly a week.
Nicolò did not have a better plan.
They discovered in the following days that they couldn’t die of starvation, at least not permanently—or of heat exhaustion, or of dehydration, or from foul water or snake bites. That knowledge didn’t improve the journey in the slightest—in fact, far be it for Nicolò to question the Lord’s will or His gift of life, but he would give almost anything to just lay down and die for good.
Yusuf stumbles in front of him as dusk gathers on the fourth day. He’s finally too tired to maintain the running acerbic commentary he’s kept up since they set out into the desert; assuring Nicolò of his extensive travels and knowledge and reminding him that even if he wasn’t well-traveled, he would still know this desert better than Nicolò, an invader who only came to burn and pillage and murder, so why doesn’t Nicolò just stop voicing his useless opinion on which route they take? Small blessings, Nicolò thinks, except for the yawning silence of cliffs and sand is almost worse.
Yusuf has wrapped a tattered scarf over his head in a complicated-looking drape to protect it from the sun, but his nose and the backs of his hands are blistered. His hair is caked with sweat and sand, boots soaked in blood from blisters and sores that form and pop just as quickly, lips permanently dried and cracked—they are both too dehydrated to heal, blood seeping from cracks that close and reform just as quickly. He stinks to high heaven, but Nicolò knows as terrible as Yusuf looks he is ten times worse. His skin is so dry and red and sore it makes every movement agony, his tongue feels too large for his mouth, and his hair and beard were long and filthy before they even started this trek. He can’t remember the last time he washed—before the siege, certainly. Weeks ago now. He would give anything for a river, a stream, a pond, a trickle—something to wet his lips, to cool his body, to rinse his hair and filthy clothing. He sighs, mind wandering, thinking of the cool streams that ran down the mountains outside of Genoa, the cascades he played in as a boy, never imagining a place as dry and scorching as this. He’s in such a fog he runs straight into Yusuf when the other man stops abruptly.
“Ugh,” he manages as Yusuf elbows him away. “What?”
Yusuf points ahead, hand trembling with exhaustion. “That.”
Nicolò squints. They have crested the top of the jagged hills and cliffs they’ve been climbing all day, and below them the setting sun reflects off an expanse of deep blue.
He jolts forward, stumbling in his haste to move, and Yusuf grabs his arm to hold him back. “What?” he spits back at him, his energy returning at the very sight of such a respite.
“That's Al Bahr Al Mayit." He shakes his head. "Salt. Horrible place.”
He almost falls to his knees. The Dead Sea. The water undrinkable, so salty you float. He could weep, if he had any moisture in his body left for tears. This is an important place, a holy place. He should be praying, but all he can think of is his thirst. It looks so tantalizing, sparkling below them, just another cruel trick of the desert.
Yusuf keeps him on his feet with a firm grip on his arm. “That’s not what I was talking about. Look, there, under the cliffs, in the ravine.”
Nicolò follows his finger with his gaze and sees it—a brush of green against the dry gold of the cliffs, an alien patch of color in the brown, white, and red landscape. Green means plants. Plants mean water—fresh water. His knees feel weak again. “Oh.”
“An oasis,” Yusuf says. “A spring, I think. I know where we are, I’ve heard of this place before. Traders use it as a way point. We can stop there, for…” he trails off, no doubt thinking of how little time they have to rest if they want to find the women in their dreams before they move from the place Yusuf recognized. “Well, for the night at least.”
“Yes,” Nicolò says, hardly caring about the women at this point, about anything besides water, shade and rest. “Yes.”
The oasis is deserted, perhaps due to the fighting to the west, perhaps because they just get lucky. Nicolò drops to his knees as soon as they hit water—fresh water, cool water, a spring that bubbles and trickles down the ravine. He brings a handful to his lips and gasps at the cool of it as it slides down his dry, sore throat. Yusuf stumbles on ahead, running his fingers over palm fronds, winding deeper into the oasis. Nicolò ignores him, holds his hands in the shallow water to soothe the throbbing, sighs with relief, and closes his eyes. Just for a moment.
He wakes to jostling, to Yusuf’s voice in his ear. Wincing, he blinks his eyes open. Splitting headache. Hollow stomach. Blistered skin. He groans.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Yusuf sounds angry. “You are two steps from shade, from a pool of water, and you die here?”
“Die?” he croaks.
“Yes,” Yusuf says, and hauls him to his feet with a hand under his armpit. He sways and Yusuf steadies him, though he’s stumbling, too. “Come. Come on. A little farther.”
Yusuf shepherds him through the underbrush, winding through the ravine, blessedly cool where it’s been shaded from the sun for most of the day. The desert is quiet in a way that unsettles Nicolò, but here it is noisy—the call of evening birds, the croak of frogs, the constant bubble and lap of water, growing ever-louder and echoing against the stone walls. At last, Yusuf pulls him into a small stone grotto and his feet sink into water. In front of them, a thin waterfall drops from the upper cliff, lacy and beautiful, tendrils running down the cliff wall where moss and ferns and tiny flowers cling. The pool under the waterfall is wide and looks deep enough to submerge in. Nicolò falls to his knees again and Yusuf sinks down beside him, not bothering to remove clothing or boots.
“Try not to die again,” Yusuf says wearily before reaching to bring a handful of water to his lips. He closes his eyes as he sips at it, and Nicolò's gaze catches on a drop of water as it slips from his lips, drips through his beard, and runs a clean line through the grime on his skin. His throat bobs as he swallows and Nicolò’s mouth goes as dry as it was before he took a sip of water.
“Sorry,” he manages. “Thank you.”
Yusuf turns to him, staring, his hands still cupped to his lips. The rippled water reflects in his dark eyes.
“That’s the first time you’ve said sorry to me,” Yusuf says. “Or thank you.”
He can’t tear his gaze away. His head feels fuzzy. “Oh,” he says. “Sorry.”
Yusuf squints at him. “Drink more water.”
He obeys, falling forward onto his hands to dip his entire face in the pool and drink. When he sits back up, he feels marginally better, head no longer spinning. Beside him, Yusuf has discarded his head wrap and outer robe and tunic and waded deeper into the pool, dipping his head under and scrubbing at the dust and blood caked in his curls. The muscles of his back shift as he moves his arms, the water barely covering his hips. Nicolò swallows.
“I am sorry,” he says again, louder this time. Yusuf turns to look at him, hair dripping over his shoulders. Their gazes catch and hold, and it’s about more than dying stupidly, about being an ill-equipped burden during their trek through the desert, about his harsh words and biting critiques of Yusuf’s navigation. It’s about a lot more than that—about what they both dream about at night, about the screaming nightmares, about the bloodstains on his longsword. He can’t find more words than these right now, he can’t even begin to put into words what he knows he’ll need to. Yusuf just looks at him, and he feels seared down to the bone.
“I know,” Yusuf says eventually, and turns away again. “Wash,” he says. “You stink,” and the frequent accusation sounds almost fond.
He pulls himself deeper into the pool, unsticking his filthy, sweat-caked clothes from his skin and loosening the tangles of his hair. He peels off the clothes and leaves them to soak in the shallows, sinks deeper into the water and scrubs himself with handfuls of sand until he feels marginally clean again, the blood and dirt mostly washed away. In the respite of nightfall, shade, and water, his burnt, blistered skin finally heals and he remembers how it feels to move without pain. Glorious.
The moon rises, lighting the grotto in silver. At the other end of the pool, Yusuf stands directly under the waterfall and lets it pound down over his head, eyes closed and lips curved into a smile like it’s the best thing he’s ever felt. He catches Nicolò watching when he steps away and opens his eyes, sweeping his sodden hair out of his face, and Nicolò turns away before Yusuf’s eyes drown him again.
He determines quickly that his hair is hopelessly tangled and disgusting and cuts it off without much thought—the idea of a breeze against the back of his neck rather than the hot, heavy fall of hair is tantalizing. Yusuf snorts when he wades back to the edge of the pool and catches a glimpse of him.
“You look like some beast bit off your hair. Though I admit it’s still an improvement. Careful, you’ll cut yourself.”
He’s attempting to use the slightly dull edge of a knife to shave himself as best he can—again, he’s not thinking much about how it will look when he’s finished, just eager to be rid of the itchy tangles of his beard. “Does it matter?” he asks, and Yusuf rolls his eyes and snatches the knife away.
“Just—come here. I’d rather not watch you accidentally cut your own throat, and if I have to look at you for the next—well, if I have to look at you, I might as well even out the hair a bit, too.”
Nicolò recoils. “No!”
Yusuf tilts his head. “If you’re worried about me killing you, I would have thought it was obvious I was no longer interested in the prospect. As satisfying as it is, I don’t like wasting energy on an impossible goal.”
“No, it’s not—” It’s not that he thinks Yusuf will slit his throat. It’s that the thought of sitting still as Yusuf shaves him, and of looking at him as he does so, is too vulnerable to comprehend.
“Don’t be difficult,” Yusuf says, which is rich, coming from him. He opens his mouth to protest again, but then thinks better of it. After all, Yusuf has the knife, Nicolò isn’t going to fight him for it, and he does really want the beard gone. He sighs and scoots back to lean against the cliff wall, closing his eyes and tilting his chin back in invitation. “If you must.”
Yusuf draws a quick intake of breath and then he’s crouched down next to him, knee brushing his thigh under the water. He can feel his breath on his cheek, sense the warmth of him there next to him.
“Hold still,” Yusuf whispers, and sets the blade against his cheek.
He does nick him a few times, bright spots of pain that bloom and fade just as quickly. It’s nothing, nothing compared to the feeling of Yusuf’s warm fingers against his skin in contrast with the cool of the blade, nothing compared to the way Yusuf grasps his chin to tilt his head farther back or to the side, nothing compared to the brush of his breath or the shift of their legs against each other. It’s been a long time—an excruciatingly long time—since someone else touched him like this. Gentle. Slow. Intimate. How ironic it is the man who has killed him so many times who gives him this gift.
He opens his eyes. Yusuf is close, so close, inches away. They stare at each other until Nicolò shivers slightly, the cooling temperature sending a welcome chill through him. Yusuf turns away, sets the knife down, clears his throat.
“The knife is too dull to shave it close, sorry for the cuts—”
“It’s fine, Yusuf,” he says softly, running a hand over the stubble on his cheek. “Thank you.”
Yusuf shrugs and turns away fully, and Nicolò sees a smear of blood on the side of his neck that he missed in his washing. Without thinking, he reaches forward and brushes his wet thumb across it, to rub it away.
Yusuf freezes at his touch, goes stone-still like he forgot how to even breathe. For a moment, Nicolò thinks he will turn on him and kill him. Serves him right for touching him while his back was turned. A tentative truce of a few weeks is not enough for that sort of trust.
But Yusuf doesn’t move. Doesn’t turn, doesn’t speak. A tremor runs through him, and Nicolò draws his hand back like he’s been burned.
“You have blood on your neck. I just wanted to wash it for you.”
Yusuf’s shoulders slump and he reaches up to rub at a spot a few inches to the right of the bloodstain. “Thank you.”
“You still didn’t—here, let me?” He shuffles forward, his movements obvious, so Yusuf knows to expect him when his hand lands again on the nape of his neck. He cups water in his palm and lets it sluice down his neck, rubbing at the spot with his thumb again. Yusuf’s hair, heavy and wet, falls over his neck and Nicolò gathers it to push to the side, revealing a larger patch of dirt and blood between Yusuf’s shoulder blades.
Nicolò stabbed him there the second time he killed him, outside the gates of Jerusalem.
He freezes for a moment, then gently, so gently, rests his palm over the spot.
Yusuf shudders, then slumps, almost boneless. Nicolò keeps one hand in his hair, holding it away, and uses the other to gently rub at the stain, cupping water over it again and again, watching it run, pink-tinted, down Yusuf’s back. With each pass of his fingers, Yusuf’s shoulders relax. Nicolò feels the tension leave him, his muscles relaxing, his head drooping. Long after the blood washes away, he keeps running his fingers over the spot, up and down the delicate curve of his spine, lost in the feeling of Yusuf’s skin against his own.
Yusuf’s shoulders shake. Once, twice. His breath hitches. And Nicolò realizes, suddenly, that he is weeping.
“Yusuf?” he asks, alarmed. “Am I hurting you?”
He shakes his head. “It’s good,” he murmurs, and to Nicolò’s surprise, leans into him. He brings up his other hand to grasp Yusuf’s shoulder and smooths it up to his neck, the way he might calm a frightened horse. “What is it?” he whispers.
Yusuf turns slightly, just his profile visible. The moonlight shines off the tear tracks on his cheek. “Everyone I love is gone,” he says quietly. “Do you know that? My father died when your people invaded my city years ago. My brothers all died in this war. My friends, my brothers-in-arms, my lovers—all of them are dead, and I watched it happen. I died with them, and then I lived again, though most of them would deserve eternal life far more than I do. My mother and sisters are alive, perhaps, but I can never go back to them, not like this. Not when they would grow old and whither away in front of me as I stay the same. Everyone is gone.”
Nicolò opens his mouth, but Yusuf turns away before he can speak. He’s not sure what he would have said, anyway. Everyone I loved is gone, too? But he chose this life, made the choice years ago when he entered the monastery. Yusuf did not.
Yusuf sighs and goes even more boneless with the exhale. “Everyone is gone,” he repeats, “and you are left. You, of all people. My enemy, spared alongside me.” It almost seems like he’s talking to himself, now, until he turns back to Nicolò and looks directly in his eyes. “You are the first person who has touched me like this in so long.”
Nicolò looks back at him, hands cupped around his neck and resting at the small of his back. He can feel the blood thrumming through Yusuf, his pounding heart. “And you I,” he whispers.
Yusuf turns away again, bowing his head as his shoulders continue to shake. Nicolò runs his hands up and down his back, slow and soothing, digging into the base of his neck the way he massages himself when he gets stiff and sore and tired. Yusuf sighs under his hands and slumps back, his lower back hitting Nicolò’s legs. Instead of jerking away, he lets himself rest there and Nicolò draws his legs up a bit to give him a better back rest. After a while, Yusuf’s shoulders stop shaking and he’s relaxed and boneless, leaning against Nicolò, their skin warm against one another as the air and water cool in the deepening night.
“It is cold,” Yusuf says quietly, after an indeterminable amount of time passes. “We should get dry, make a fire, rest.”
“Yes,” Nicolò says, and lets him go.
That night is the first night they sleep touching, back to back, their bodies a warm line against each other. That night is the first night Nicolò doesn’t hear Yusuf’s quiet gasps and whimpers as he shakes through nightmares, or wake paralyzed from his own. That night, clean and healed under the desert stars, they both sleep through to dawn.