There is a shiver of sensation all up and down Yusuf’s arm where the Italian’s hand grips it, trying to keep Yusuf’s knife off his throat.
It is not the first time he’s felt it.
He felt it first when it was his own blood pooling thickly around the Italian’s fist, clasped tight around the hilt of the dagger he’d thrust into Yusuf’s belly. Skin had brushed skin and there had been one bright spark of feeling before everything had ceased, only to be reborn long minutes later.
“Why will you not die?” He asks, frustrated with this endless battle they have been playing out for weeks on each new battlefield. His arm is beginning to weaken.
“God wills it,” the Italian says in heavily accented Arabic.
Yusuf laughs. “Your God would not will me to life any more than mine would you.”
Surprise weakens the Italian so much that Yusuf gains the upper hand and slits his throat.
When next Yusuf dies, taken by surprise by an arrow to the chest when before, the Italian has always used a blade, he awakens in a trench on the European side of the battle. The Italian presses a finger to his lips to keep him silent and Yusuf obeys, shocked to the core by the feeling.
They sit in silence as the din of battle rages on, until the light grows too dim and the opposing sides retreat for the night.
“Nicolo,” the Italian says when the coast is clear.
“I do not speak Italian,” Yusuf tells him.
“Name,” the Italian says. “Nicolo.”
“Oh. I am Yusuf.”
The Italian – Nicolo – nods at him. “God does not want dead,” he says. His grammar is poor, but Yusuf understands his meaning on a level beneath his bones.
“At least not us,” he agrees.
“Peace?” Nicolo asks, gesturing between the two of them.
Yusuf holds out his hand to shake.
It is hard, Yusuf finds, to not kill the one European who won’t stay dead and then continue to slaughter the rest.
Around them, the city of Antioch crumbles under siege and Yusuf cannot bring himself to aid the city as he ought to. Not when he spots Nicolo by the sidelines of the battles, passing dried fruits and bread to children too hungry to hide from the slaughter. Not when he stands across from boys barely old enough to hold their swords upright, shaking in their armor.
The battlefield becomes an unpleasant duty, a place he appears in when he is called and avoids when he is not, a place where he uses his elbows and the hilt of his sword to deal in concussions and impairments rather than death.
He is helping a boy, no more than fourteen at best, red from heatstroke and barely standing upright, blonde and blue-eyed as a demon, drink water slowly at the sidelines, when he spots Nicolo next.
“This is God’s work,” Yusuf tells him in shaky Italian, pointing to the satchel of food Nicolo is carrying.
Nicolo smiles at him.
His smile pierces Yusuf’s breast more thoroughly than his sword ever did.
The sun is setting on the battlefield and Yusuf is searching for survivors. He is insane, he thinks. He has lost his mind. Fifteen years ago, barely more than a boy himself, he’d helped capture this city, and he cared then who lived or died? No, no he had not, he had cared for his own life, the glory of the Sultanate and the glory of Allah, in that order. Here he is, a man grown, and suddenly unsure if anything he had fought and bled for had ever been worth it.
Yusuf is not prepared for the clutch of his heart in his throat or the turn of his stomach when he sees Nicolo lying prone among the dead.
He falls to his knees beside Nicolo, fingers reaching out to push his hair from his brow before he can stop himself. “Nicolo,” he says. “Nicolo, come back.”
Nicolo comes back, skin flushing warm under Yusuf’s hands. “You speak Italian,” he mumbles in his native tongue.
“Long siege,” Yusuf says.
It has been five months.
Nicolo has made no move to rise from the ground where he lays, legs akimbo, feet pointed towards a man with his guts spilling out his belly, head level with a splintered thighbone.
“What does God want from us?” he asks.
Yusuf lays down beside him. They stare up at the clear night sky.
“I layed siege to Antioch, once,” Yusuf says, or at least thinks he does. “Now you do. The stars are the same. If God cared, he would change them.”
“You think God does not care what we do?”
“God created this world,” Yusuf says, gesturing up to the stars. “It is beautiful. I do not need more from him.”
Nicolo moves for the first time since his reawakening to look over at Yusuf. “The stars are enough for you?”
“The stars fill me with joy whenever I see them.”
“Ro-man-tic?” Yusuf looks over at him. “I do not know this word.”
“Mm,” Nicolo hums, thinking. He mimes embracing a lover, exuberant and ridiculous, making wet kissing noises against his own dirt- and blood-smudged elbow.
Yusuf laughs for the first time since the siege began.
Yusuf dies of starvation after nine months of siege. He has died by decapitation, by gut wound, by arrow, by sword. He has died in so many ways. He has shit himself, pissed himself, vomited all over himself in death. Never before has it been so lacking in dignity.
For the first time, he is sure he is in heaven when he awakens, because he is no longer hungry.
It turns out he is not. He is amid a pile of emaciated corpses, thrown off the city walls because their stench is making those who have not yet starved sick.
The bones broken in his fall right themselves slowly, and as the eardrum Yusuf hadn’t realized had burst heals, he becomes aware of a frantic, muttering prayer beside him.
“Yusuf, Yusuf,” Nicolo is saying, “please, Lord, don’t leave me alone in this, Yusuf, wake up.”
“Nicolo,” Yusuf says. His throat is no longer parched. His words come out smoother than they have in months. “Nicolo, I’m fine.”
Nicolo kisses the cross on its chain around his neck, eyes closed in relief.
“Nicolo, do not tell me you would miss me,” Yusuf says, bitterness weighing heavy on his tongue.
Nicolo kneels up beside Yusuf. “I do not want to be alone and alive,” he says. “Not like—not like this.”
“I would not have starved if you did not lay siege.”
“Your Italian has gotten better.”
“But you still say my name like an Arab.”
Yusuf is silent, staring up at his undying companion in all this.
“I like it,” Nicolo whispers, as if the dead surrounding them could hear him.
“Your eyes are like the stars,” Yusuf says, words tripping from his mouth unbidden and unwanted.
Nicolo cups his cheek in a warm hand.
If they do not kiss, it is only because they are surrounded by death.
“I do not want to watch you die again,” Yusuf says, his back to the city walls.
“I do not want to die again,” Nicolo groans, sitting up. “I should have joined the clergy like my mother wanted.”
Yusuf has seen the Christian monks, in their hoods and robes. He has heard stories of their chastity and their bloodthirstiness. “You should not,” he says hoarsely.
Nicolo smiles over at him. “Perhaps not. Perhaps I will find a patch of desert here and grow olive trees and live a quiet life.”
If God has given them a gift of immortality, Yusuf wonders if they should use it for something more than olives. “I would like to see you as a farmer,” he says aloud.
“I would be very poor at it,” Nicolo decides. “I would eat all my olives and never slaughter my sheep.”
“A soldier you must stay, then.”
“It is who I am,” Nicolo agrees.
“But not all of who you are.”
“No,” Nicolo says. He has come closer as they spoke, righting himself to lean against the wall next to Yusuf. His head is tilted towards Yusuf. A breath of air is all that could pass between their lips.
With Bohemond the Italian the first Prince of Antioch and the city decimated, the crusaders leave the spoils of their victory behind for the Holy Land.
Yusuf meets Nicolo in the shade of the trees beyond the gates, free to leave the city without the excuse of a battle for the first time in over a year.
“Were you waiting for me?” He asks.
“Are you not going to Jerusalem?”
Nicolo shakes his head.
Yusuf’s heart thrums in his chest.
“You are like the stars to me,” he says, first in Arabic and then in his stumbling Italian. “You are as you are and that is all I want of you.”
Nicolo’s hand tangles in his hair as he pulls Yusuf in to crash their mouths together.
It has been months since Yusuf faced the sharp end of Nicolo’s sword, but he feels flayed open nonetheless, skewered by the depth of his emotion. “Nicolo,” he gasps when they part for air.
“Yusuf,” Nicolo returns, a smile in his voice. “You will come away with me?” Nicolo’s Arabic is worse than Yusuf’s Italian and it is endearing to Yusuf in a way he cannot describe.
“I will come anywhere with you,” he says.
Yusuf is a soldier, but he is also a student. He learned Turkish as a child to understand the Sultanate better; he learned Italian on the battlefield to understand Nicolo better.
On their meandering way south and east from Antioch, he learns Nicolo. He learns that Nicolo will eat roots but prefers berries; he learns that Nicolo is a deft hand at starting a fire but no good at digging a trench.
He learns that Nicolo will sigh when Yusuf nips at his earlobes, that he will moan when Yusuf kisses his neck. He learns that Nicolo is unashamed in his pleasure but bashful after, that he will beg and plead for Yusuf to take him, to fuck him until he cries with it, and that he will blush red after.
He learns that Nicolo is a soldier, but he is kind.
Nicolo will give the last of their food to a passing beggar, saying that the worst that can happen is that they die without it. “You have never starved,” Yusuf grumbles, but he loves it secretly.
Nicolo will pause their trip for days and weeks at a time to help a farmer with lambing season; he will turn his wide eyes to Yusuf and Yusuf will be helpless to do anything else.
Nicolo will turn his gentle eyes and his gentle hands to Yusuf, sometimes, when they can be sure of seclusion and time, as if he knows that Yusuf still sometimes expects the shock of pain and death when they touch even though Nicolo himself is past such fears. As if he knows he must take his time with Yusuf.
He will stroke over Yusuf’s skin softly, like Yusuf is a scared animal, like he may yet bolt.
“I will not run,” Yusuf tells him, gasping into Nicolo’s mouth, aware of every piece of straw pricking into his back on their makeshift bed in some farmer’s barn. “You can be harder with me.”
“But you like it when I am soft with you,” Nicolo tells him, and Yusuf sobs helplessly with pleasure and desire overflowing in his chest.
Nicolo’s hands are broad but not firm, they open Yusuf with gentle strokes and cautious touches, he presses Yusuf no farther than Yusuf will go – but Yusuf will go everywhere, would do anything for more of Nicolo.
When Nicolo presses into him, Yusuf knows he has been taken by this man in every way he can be, taken from life, from death, from war, from his home and now by his body, into his arms, and he knows he never wants it to end. He arches up against Nicolo, moaning, and Nicolo rewards his patience with steady, measured thrusts, holding Yusuf to the ground when he would fly away.
“My love,” Yusuf gasps when he comes, the ecstasy of it too much to bear in silence. “My love.”
When Saladin makes peace with Richard the Lionheart in 1192, Yusuf and Nicolo toast each other’s success as the treaty is signed.
When the fourth crusade halts in its tracks to attack Constantinople instead of the Holy Land, they watch the stars together from the Piazza San Marco in Venice, unsure if this has been a victory.
When a hundred years pass and the Pope calls for no new war against the Holy Land, they turn to each other with as much love as they ever have, and slightly more hope.